It was late afternoon and the blizzard had, if anything, grown worse, but out on the rooftop parapet of the Ducal Keep, a group of 11 stood bundled tightly against the snowstorm. The group frowned at the back of the figure of King Haroldris (who had asked them to join him out in the blizzard) as he stood staring anxiously up into the gray sky as if expecting something to happen.
Aurei, standing behind the King and Queen, glanced over questioningly to Zeatt who had spent the afternoon with the Elven Queen and who, she hoped, would know why they were summoned to the top of the tower. Zeatt understood her glance and only shrugged. She turned her glance to Eleazar, but he stood stoically talking to Aeric, Alis, Siris and Lute and she wasn't sure how he felt toward her after their fight earlier in the day, so with a sigh she pulled the heavy cloak around her and followed the King's gaze up into the sky.
The minutes went by and everyone was beginning to wonder if the King had completely lost his mind. Aurei was trying to think of a tactful way to ask him what he was waiting on and why had he asked them to join him on top of the tower in the middle of a blizzard, when she heard a distant roaring sound. Alarmed, she looked around her to find that Eleazar, Aeric and Alis also heard it.
"What is that?" She asked aloud and Haroldris turned to them, smiling.
"Don't be alarmed, it is the reason you all have stood up here for half an hour as I stared off into the sky like a village idiot. It will be here in a few minutes, I imagine. I would say the heavy snowstorm greatly slowed it down."
"Slowed what down, your Highness?" Zeatt asked politely.
"You'll all see in a short time, bear with me."
From behind her, Aurei heard someone murmur the word 'airship' and she could not help but feel a bit of nervousness at the word.
Yet that was exactly what it was. The roaring sound, which sounded like a mighty wind blowing through a small open window, grew louder and louder until it was nearly directly overhead, but still concealed by the clouds. Suddenly the roaring stopped and moments later the somewhat oddly shaped hull of a fairly small airship could be seen descending very slowly until the ship came completely in view. It dropped until it was parallel with the tower's parapet and then hovered there. The ship was about the size of a typical galley that would sail out to sea. It didn't resemble either of the airships that Aurei had been aboard and it didn't have riggings for sails or a ring where an elemental would be trapped. Most of the deck was covered by a large cabin complete with windows of glass.
All of the group on the tower top crowded forward to see the marvel, and in the town below, people came running outside in the snow to see the craft hovering against the side of the ducal tower.
"I've seen one of these before!" Zeatt said excitedly, "Well, actually, one similar in most ways - the one I saw had a containment ring at the top for a Fire Elemental, but other than that it looks like one of the ships that the Archmages in Aeropolis would use. There were probably a dozen of them made, all extremely expensive, I am told. They call them Air Yachts, I believe, and I'm told that several of them were stolen by members of the Necromancer's Guild."
Haroldris turned to her, grinning, "Very good, Reverend Mother! You are not far off. But don't be afraid, for this craft actually belongs to me. If all of you would join me in its cabin, I'll explain."
A couple of men came out of the yacht's cabin, dressed in the colors of the King of Northmarch and they bowed to Haroldris, and then flipped over a metal gangplank (complete with hand rails) that was secured to the deck. The gangplank bridged the gap between the floating ship and the parapet and they all crossed over onto the airship, moving carefully to avoid slipping in the harsh weather.
"Oh, I don't like this at all!" Thorm grumbled as he slowly went across the gap.
"Don't worry, boss, if you fall off, the snow should be deep enough to break your fall." Siris teased from behind him.
"Funny, Orc. Ye had best grab me if I do slip or ye and your big brute of a husband will be out of a job! And with a baby on the way, too!"
"The other dwarves love us, we'd not be out of jobs if you fell, but as you are across now, you have nothing to worry about."
Thorm snorted, "Hah! I'm hovering in mid air in a snowstorm; there's plenty to worry about."
"Quit grumbling and let's see what His Majesty has to say." Lute commented as he had to bend nearly double to get through the doorway into the cabin.
"Not meant for half-Ogres." He commented to Siris who sympathetically squeezed his hand.
They were led into a large room that was lavishly furnished with all the comforts of a living room or private chamber. A stairway led down into the lower decks and several doorways lined the walls of the room. At the front of the vessel, three men stood in front of what looked to Aurei to be some sort of ship's wheel like those on water-bound boats. The men turned and bowed respectfully to the King and Queen.
"Your Majesty, I apologize for our delay. The blizzard is very fierce and we had to fly above it, but the air is cold and delayed our movement."
"Quite understandable Tarron." The King turned to those in his party, "Friends, allow me to introduce Tarron Rick; he is the captain of this ship, the 'Autumn Maid'."
Tarron bowed to everyone on board, "I hope our appearance did not alarm the townspeople too much."
"They are becoming more and more used to the unusual." Aurei answered.
Haroldris introduced those with him and after the greetings had concluded, he explained to them why he had brought the airship here.
"The Autumn Maid was an airship of the Necromancer's Guild - as Matron Zeatt suspected. It was captured while spying on some of Queen Eioldth's people to the north and was presented to me - in somewhat damaged form- as a gift by her father. For several years I have had some of my best wizards and craftsmen working on it in secret, at my own expense. It is -by airship standards- a small craft; one used by the leaders of the Guild as more of a personal vessel. It will only comfortably host 15 to 20 people and a crew of ten. This main deck houses the grand chamber, which we are in now, as well as several guest rooms off the side. Below this deck are crew quarters and the hold."
Zeatt raised her hand, clearing her throat.
"Excuse me, Your Majesty, for interrupting, but how is this airship powered? The vessels like it that I have seen, have great rings where the Elemental is imprisoned. As I didn't see this, nor riggings for sails, I am confused on how it is propelled."
"Ah! That is something very interesting." Haroldris turned and motioned to one of the three crewmen, "Ask Devin to join us."
The man bowed and hurried downstairs to the lower deck. A minute later he brought up a middle-aged Halfling wearing a rare pair of reading glasses that many of the studious mages wore due to many hours squinting in candle light. Devin seemed to be slightly annoyed at being disturbed, but when the King asked him to explain to his guests how the ship's propulsion system worked, his eyes sparkled with excited pride.
"I am most excited about The Autumn Maid's propulsion system! It encompasses several scientific findings by several of my colleagues combined with some new and innovative applications of practical magic."
Devin paused, as if waiting for his words to impress them, but he was met with only blank stares. The Halfling sighed at their unscientific minds and explained.
"Most Airships use captured Elementals - Fire or sometimes Air- to power their crafts. These creatures no longer reside on Elemental planes of existence as they are said to have done before the Great Gathering. As a result, they grow rarer and rarer each year. You see, when an Elemental is dispelled by magic, it is destroyed completely, so there are fewer and fewer elementals that a wizard can summon. As a result, only the most important airships are powered by Elementals; the remainder must settle for masts and sails like a water vessel."
Devin began to nervously pace around the room as he continued with his lecture.
"The airship that His Majesty was given lacked any propulsion system, as the Elves had destroyed the controlling ring of the ship where the Fire Elemental powering it had been kept. In fact, it was an extraordinary task moving the disabled craft from place to place, for as you can see, it lacks any mast so no sail could be used. Yet the levitation enchantment cast in a permanency configuration on the hull kept it afloat 50 feet off the ground. His Majesty asked me to try to think of a new form of propulsion that was not elemental based, nor required the use of sails, and I put this task to my entire staff. We looked at several ideas, but each was lacking in some area or else impossible to engineer for various reasons."
"Finally the idea came to me while I was investigating ways to keep the cabin of an airship comfortable while high in the sky. You see, at greater altitudes, the air is thin and passengers find breathing difficult unless they are in some sort of cabin that remains sealed against the thin air of the great height. But if a cabin door is open and that seal is broken, it creates a great torrent of air. Have any of you ever seen this occurrence?"
Devin looked at his audience and they all shook their heads in
"Well, it is a fact, believe me. It seems as if the air is heavier at lower altitudes and lighter at higher altitudes. Apparently the air has weight and so presses down when there is a greater volume above you. When different pressures are suddenly placed into a location where the pressure is heavier or lighter, the conflict in pressures can cause either a violent release of air or a pulling of air toward the lighter pressure. Through much experimentation, we found that we could magically change the pressure of air in a sealed container, and when the container was unsealed, the outside air would be drawn into the container if the pressure in the container was lighter. If the container contained heavier air, it would shoot out with great force when the seal was broken."
Devin again paused, hoping everyone would immediately understand the implications of these findings, but again only blank faces stared back at him. With a frustrated sigh, he continued.
"I theorized that the force of air leaving the container could be used as a propulsion device, and we built a small scale model of an airship and tested this idea. It worked exceptionally! You may have noticed, underneath this airship, a series of long cylinders that have valves at their rear sections. These tubes are the propulsion system for this ship. It works very simply. Air flows into the cylinders at the front section. Each cylinder has a specialized spell cast upon it along with a permanency spell. This spell magically increases the pressure of the air in the cylinders until they cause stoppers to plug up the air intake at the front of the cylinder. The pressure continues to build until it reaches a specific weight and that causes the valve - one of my own inventions- at the rear of the craft to open up, releasing the heavier air through a narrow opening with incredible force. This creates a pushing effect, propelling the craft forward. There are six of these cylinders under the airship and each operates at a slightly different pressure than the others, providing the craft with astonishing power."
Zeatt raised her hand, "How do you steer the airship, or stop it?"
Devin smiled, thrilled that at least one was listening, "A very good question, Reverend Mother! We have rudders attached to the end of each cylinder that regulates the direction, much like a ship moving through water. It can turn completely around in flight, but it is a slow, wide turn. I'm working on finding a way to make it
turn sharper. As for stopping, we have a 'Neutralize Magic' lever that drops into each cylinder a rod that will neutralize the enchantment in each cylinder until it is pulled back upwards into its lead casing, at which point the enchantment of the pressure chamber resumes."
"Wow that's complicated." Aurei commented, though she was certainly impressed with what she could understand of the practical magic device.
"Duchess, it is my proudest accomplishment, and as we just learned today in our journey to your duchy, it works amazingly well. The longer the cylinders are left in action, the faster the airship travels. I am confident that this device will accelerate the Autumn Maid to speeds unmatched by elemental-powered airships."
"So how fast will it go?" Lute asked.
The Halfling stuck his chest out proudly, "Under good weather conditions, it will go from King's Reach to here in about five hours."
"Five hours!" Many of those listening said at once.
"That is 200 miles away!" Eleazar exclaimed, remembering his latest horseback ride.
"It's 214, to be precise." Devin corrected.
"Amazing!" Aurei commented to the King.
"Isn't it, though? I am greatly pleased with Devin's ingenious design. Today was the first long-distance test of the craft. I greatly desire to build at least a handful of crafts like this as part of my strategy to counter the Necromancer's Guild."
Eleazar looked concerned, "Pardon me, your Majesty, but even if you had 10 ships like this, they would not be enough to counter the Necromancer's Guild. Fully manned, 10 ships would only carry 350 men."
"That is true, Sir Eleazar, but I don't plan on using these ships in a direct attack on enemy ships. I have different plans. If everyone would be seated, I would like to explain these plans to you."
Haroldris gestured toward the various chairs and sofas found in the cabin and waited for everyone to take a seat. He told one servant to bring refreshments and the man hurried below in compliance. Leaning against the edge of a long table, the King outlined his plans.
"I have long been fascinated by the Necromancer's Guild. Oh, I don't mean in a respecting sort of way, I mean that I have long been interested in how the shadowy guild creates such fear and dread. Most of us have experienced some of their undead handiwork and certainly they are a force of evil that must be taken very seriously, yet much of the fear that they generate seems to be due to rumor and reputation."
"But there is a reality there too, Your Majesty." Zeatt countered.
"Indeed, Reverend Zeatt, I am certainly not denying that. But throughout the world everyone is fearful of the Necromancer's Guild. Why is that? I suggest to you that much of the fear they generate is done through a rather limited number of undead. For example; I have heard an account of your terrible fight with undead from the Guild in Thurgood. How many would you estimate that you battled?"
Aurei and the others who had been in the battle briefly conferred amongst themselves.
"We'd say probably close 400." The Duchess answered.
"That is a very large force from them. I have done some research of accounts of battle and the usual number that has been encountered has been 100 to 200."
"Your Majesty, I hate to disagree with you, but Sir Aeric and I have encountered numbers perhaps ten times that number in the southlands." Eleazar stated.
"Well, that is another thing I learned - the Guild uses a great number of Illusionists, though they keep this fact a secret. These Illusionists are high level masters of the craft and I have been told that they are employed by the guild to create illusions of vastly greater numbers of undead in a battle."
Both Aeric and Eleazar looked very skeptical, but did not dispute the King's tale.
"I see your skepticism and I understand that, but you must understand that I personally interrogated several wizards of the Guild that were caught on our southern borders and we used spells on them to force them to tell the truth and they all confirmed this. They said that they use very advanced illusion spells that are next to impossible to detect. I'm not claiming that there are not a number of undead being used, but even creating a zombie is time-consuming and to be very effective, they must be controlled. This would take a low-level Necromancer. I believe that there is not as abundant of a supply of corpses to reanimate, and that they use illusions and rumor to create fear as these things greatly strengthen the perception that they have a vast army just waiting in the wings to attack."
"So you don't believe that they do?" Aurei asked.
"I believe they do have thousands of undead, but I don't think they have a vast undead army hidden somewhere. Think of how many years we've heard this rumor. Surely they would have enough by now to mount their attack. Yet when they attacked Aeropolis, the undead were only several thousand in number, and they let the Guild's reputation spawn fear, as well as using Blood Knights' type of armor and badges to cause mass confusion."
"Well, either way, it worked, your Majesty." Zeatt commented with a bit of frustration evident.
"Indeed, Reverend Zeatt. It works time and time again, and they tried smaller scale assaults on my own Kingdom, and were it not for the Bitter Dregs, they would have succeeded here as well. I believe all their attacks were to cause instability as well as to either capture the Emperor and me, or else stir up dissention so we would be overthrown. They succeeded in capturing the Emperor. Now they will change him and attempt to control the Empire through him. The zombies and undead are mostly mindless pawns that they willingly sacrifice to gain bigger prizes, such as the Emperor or Sir Alvis."
At mention of the Knight Commander, a somber mood fell over the cabin.
"I don't mean to bring up painful reminders of what has happened, but I do want to make my point. That point is this; I believe the method that the Guild uses best is infiltration. They put out spies that do nothing else but gather information about an area they are interested in, and they report this information back to their masters. Then they infiltrate in a different way by using airships to drop off numbers of undead along with their controllers, Sorcerers and some living warriors as well. They drop these forces deep inside places they want to control, such as what happened here recently in Thurgood. Then the airship gets out of range and waits to see if their ground forces meet with success."
"If they fail, the airship sails off and relatively few are lost. If they have limited success, they can rendezvous with their remnant and extract them by airship. But if they succeed, they plant more undead and handlers, set up secret bases, then seem to 'disappear' and all seems to go back - more or less- to normal. But this is a false normality, for the Guild has their forces - in small number, but quite safe- in place for further disruptions later, at the Guild's convenience."
"Do you think that was what they were doing here in Westmark? Could they have a hidden base here?" Aurei asked in concern.
Haroldris paused a moment before answering, "I don't think so, Aurei. Not yet, at least. I suspect their purpose was to destabilize the Kingdom so we'd focus on Westmark and that would make a southern invasion more likely. I now feel that they are not planning a massive army to invade, but will instead try aerial assaults to keep the Kingdom uneasy and unstable. Then they will try a coup as they did in Aeropolis. So how do we counter this? I believe we need to create a force that can quickly move to a site that is being targeted and combat them using more than just swords and arrows. We need a mobile force that includes magic-users, clerics, rangers as well as warriors. We need innovative strategies - create and use new types of practical magic to even up the odds and beat them at their own game."
"So what do we do, Your Majesty?" Aurei posed the question everyone had on their mind.
The King's eyes sparkled, "I am thrilled to say I have a plan. As I mentioned earlier, I am very determined to build a small fleet of airships like this one. Each ship I intend to place in a specific region of my Kingdom and they will operate out of that base. They will regularly patrol their assigned region and will respond quickly and
fiercely to any threat and will do so with great power and force. The crew of each ship will be armed with the best weaponry I can buy for them and will be greatly trained." "I envision a crew of between 35 to 50 on each airship, made up of knights and warriors, wizards, clerics and rangers that compliment each other with their skills. I would like to utilize Westmark as a training facility for these crews, when the project gets underway."
Eleazar sat tapping his chin with his finger, considering Haroldris' ideas, "That sounds wonderful, Your Majesty, but the first and most serious problem is the creation of more airships. I am told they are a laborious task to build and enchant, and it is expensive even by kingly standards."
"That is true, Sir Eleazar, and that is my main problem. But it is one that could be partially solved by salvaging the hulls of damaged airships. The airship that Aurei partially destroyed with the Light of Yesh has drifted into the southern part of Northmarch. It hovers several hundred feet above the ground, but as best we can tell, the hull remains sound and perhaps even some of the lower decks. The levitation spell upon the hull still works, so it could be reconstructed, utilizing Devin's propulsion system."
"What about the Emperor's Air Yacht?" Zeatt asked, "It was hovering near King's Reach when we escaped it."
"My scouts report that it is still there, but that some sort of arcane battle occurred on the craft and it is seriously damaged and hovering high above the ground. However, as with the other craft, it has a sound hull and seems to not be as damaged as the other vessel. If we could salvage these two crafts, we could reconstruct them - with modifications- and then we'd have the beginnings of the fleet of airships."
"But wouldn't the Emperor - or the Necromancer's Guild- want to retrieve them?" Aurei asked.
"I'd suspect they will try to do so, but the winter weather or perhaps the availability of another airship to tow the damaged ship back to a Necromancer's Guild base has kept them from retrieving them. Yet I imagine that will soon change, so I would like to salvage the hulls as soon as I can and get them back to the hidden location where this one was created."
Aurei looked around the room, "Your Majesty, you have this ship and I think all of us here now would be glad to volunteer to help you retrieve them. Why couldn't we leave tonight? Before the Guild has their chance?"
Haroldris smiled slightly, "That is most brave of you, Aurei, but I feel that this would be too dangerous to attempt. There is a blizzard raging and flying at night - even at great altitudes- is something very few airships attempt."
"But surely there would be nothing we could crash into between here and King's Reach, as long as we keep the ship high enough over the treetops. There are no mountains between Westmark and King' Reach."
"Aurei, I agree with His Majesty; it's too dangerous in this snowstorm." Eleazar countered.
"We can't let the Necromancer's Guild retrieve those airships!"
"It's too dangerous!"
"I thought Paladins were immune to fear." Aurei said with a frown as her eyes moved from Eleazar to Haroldris.
"Bravery is not foolhardiness," The King rebuked with a smile, "If we are grounded due to the snow, the Guild is as well. Be patient and you just may have your chance in a day or two."
"If it's not too late." The Duchess mumbled, leaning back into her chair with a resigned sigh.
"Trust in Yesh, child." Zeatt whispered to her from nearby and Aurei nodded.