A machine gun erupted behind her, and she pressed flat against the Leviathan, closing her eyes and whispering, "Don't worry, beastie. I'll get these bum-rags sorted for you."
Searchlights flashed across her closed eyelids, and the machine roared away, leaving the foul smell of its engine fumes mixed with leaking hydrogen.
Deryn let herself drop the last few feet, her boots barely catching the lip of the cove. She clung to the rope and swung inside, skidding onto her knees.
The cove was empty. Not a single bat remained to take the air.
"Barking spiders," Deryn swore softly.
The floor shifted beneath her, and she turned and looked back out. The horizon tilted. Then the mountains disappeared, replaced by the cold and starry sky... . The Leviathan was climbing again!
She pulled herself out of the cove. The slope she'd descended was almost level now that the ship was climbing again. Rigby and Newkirk were out in the open, their harnesses joined by a long rope.
"No luck, sir," she cried up. "I think they're all gone!"
"Come on, then, lads." Mr. Rigby turned and started back up toward the spine. "Let's get off the bow before she dives again."
The three of them spread out to the full length of their safety lines, rousting the last few bats on the way up. Deryn climbed as fast as she could. With the airship twisting and turning like this, being topside didn't seem quite so brilliant anymore.
The last two aeroplanes still skulked in the distance, and Deryn wondered what they were waiting for. A few strafing hawks were in the air, but their nets looked tattered. Only one searchlight was lit - the crew trying to gather the fl��chette bats into a single flock.
Up on the spine things had got worse. The forward air gun was being pulled apart by a repair team. Wounded men were everywhere, and the sniffers were in a frenzy from so much spilled hydrogen. The whale's huge harness was frayed with bullet holes.
Deryn knelt beside an injured man, whose hand clutched the leash of a hydrogen sniffer. The beastie whined at her, looking up from its master's pale face. She looked closer. The man was dead.
"CARNAGE ON THE SPINE."
Deryn felt herself start to shake, unsure whether it was the cold or the shock of battle. She'd been aboard only a month, but this was like watching her family dying, her home burning down in front of her.
Then the inevitable roar of Clanker engines built again, and all eyes turned toward the dark sky. The last two aeroplanes were coming in together, hurling themselves against the airship one more time.
Deryn wondered what the crews in those machines were thinking. They'd seen their fellow airmen fall from the sky. Surely they knew they were about to die. What madness made killing the Leviathan so important to them?
The lone searchlight swept across their path, and one of the aeroplanes shuddered in the air. The small black shapes of bats tore through its wings and the plane banked hard. An impassive part of Deryn's brain saw how the airflow around the wings had changed, how the plane would soon crumple and fall ...
She turned away as it burst into flame.
But the noise of the other growling engine still drew closer.
"Blast! She means to ram us!" Mr. Rigby cried, running ahead for a clearer view.
Someone at the front air gun swore. Its compressors had failed again, but other guns fired from farther aft. Suddenly all the searchlights flared back to life and lanced into the darkness, until the approaching plane glowed like a fireball in the sky.
Tiny black wings fluttered along the searchlight beams, and the aeroplane shuddered and shook as it plowed through the bats. But somehow it kept coming.
A hundred feet away the machine finally twisted in the air. The wings folded, and pieces fluttered in all directions. The gunner's cockpit broke off, his weapon still blazing. The propeller somehow wrenched itself from the engine, spiraling away like a mad insect.
Deryn felt a trembling under her feet, and she pulled off a glove, kneeling to place her palm on the freezing dorsal scales. A low moan shook the airbeast. Bits of the disintegrating plane were tearing into the Leviathan, rupturing the membrane. Deryn closed her eyes.
One stray spark would turn them all into a ball of fire.
She heard a cry. Mr. Rigby was staggering away down the slope of the airship's flank, clutching his stomach.
"He's hit!" Newkirk shouted.
Rigby stumbled a few steps, then fell to his knees, bouncing a little on the membrane. Newkirk was running after him, but some squick of instinct held Deryn in place.
The whole ship was tilting forward now, heading back into a steep dive. The smell of hydrogen washed over her.
Mr. Rigby was sliding down the flank - gravity had caught him. His skid turned into a roll.
Deryn took a step forward, then looked down at the rope connecting her to the others. "Barking spiders!"
If the bosun went over the side, he'd drag Newkirk with him. Then Deryn would be snatched away like a fly on the end of a frog's tongue. She looked around for something to clip herself to, but the ratlines at her feet were frayed and stretched.
"Newkirk, get back here!"
The boy paused a moment, watching Mr. Rigby slide away. Then he turned back, comprehension dawning on his face. But it was too late - the rope connecting him to Rigby was straightening fast.
Newkirk looked up at her hopelessly, his hand moving to the rigging knife at his belt.
"No!" Deryn cried.
Then she realized what she had to do.
She turned and ran the other way, hurtling down the opposite flank of the airship. Dodging crewmen and sniffers as the membrane fell away, Deryn jumped as hard as she could into the night sky... .
The snap of the rope hit her like a punch in the stomach, the safety harness cutting into her shoulders. She rolled into a ball as her body hit the flank membrane, knocking her breath away.
Deryn bounced to a halt, then found herself skidding back up the flank of the airbeast. Rigby had to have yanked Newkirk off behind him - their combined weight was dragging her back up to the spine!
She grabbed at passing ropes, finally snaring one and bringing herself to a halt. But her safety line pulled harder, the harness squeezing the breath from her lungs.
Then the rope went slack, and Deryn looked up in horror. Had it broken? Had Newkirk cut himself loose?
On the spine a squad of riggers held her line, in a tug of war with something on the other side of the ship. They were pulling Newkirk and the injured bosun back up.
Deryn breathed a sigh of relief, her eyes closing. She held tight to the ratlines, trusting nothing but her own two hands to keep her from tumbling into the dark sky. But as the ship tipped beneath her again, she looked down and realized that two hands wouldn't be enough.
They were all falling.
The Alps rose toward the ship, the tallest peaks only a few hundred feet below. A blanket of snow covered all but a few dark outcrops of stone, like jagged black teeth waiting patiently for prey.
The wounded Leviathan was crashing slowly back to earth.
The old castle stood on a rugged slope, moonlit snow-drifts piled against its half-ruined walls, the windows dark and gaping. Its battlements glistened with ice in the crystal-cold air, their ragged outlines blending into the rocks behind.
Alek leaned back from the viewport. "What is this place?"
"Do you remember your father's trip to Italy?" Count Volger asked. "To look for a new hunting lodge?"
"Of course I remember," Alek said. "You went with him, and I had four glorious weeks of no fencing lessons."
"A necessary sacrifice. Our real purpose was to buy this pile of old stones."
Aleksandar gazed at the castle with a critical eye - a pile of old stones was right. It looked more like a landslide than a fortress.
"But that was two summers ago, Volger. When did you start planning my escape?"
"The day your father married a commoner."
Alek ignored the slight to his mother; the details of his birthright were meaningless now. "And no one knows about this place?"
"Look around." Count Volger pulled his fur collar tighter. "This castle was abandoned back in the Great Famine."
"Six hundred years ago," Alek said softly, his breath coiling in the moonlight.
"The Alps were warmer then. There was once a thriving town out there." Count Volger pointed at the mountain pass ahead of them, its vast expanse glowing white beneath the almost full moon. "But that glacier swallowed the entire valley centuries ago. It's a wasteland now."
"I'll take a wasteland over another night in this machine," Klopp said, shivering in his furs. "I love my walkers, but I never fancied living in one."
Volger smiled. "This castle contains unexpected comforts, you'll find."
"Anywhere with a fireplace that works," Alek said, placing his cold and tired hands on the controls.
From the inside, the little castle didn't seem so bad.
The roofs under their blanket of snow had been recently repaired. The outer walls were half fallen, but the courtyard stones were solid, holding up under the Stormwalker's weight as it shuffled through the gate. Stacks of firewood lined the interior walls, and the castle's stables were full of provisions: smoked meats, barrels of grain, and neat stacks of military rations.
Alek stared at the endless ranks of cans.
"How long are we staying here?"
"Until this madness ends," Volger said.
"This madness," of course, meant the war. And wars could last for years ... even decades. Tendrils of snow coiled through the open stable doors and across the floor - and this was the beginning of August.
What would the dead of winter be like?
"Your father and I were very thorough," Volger said, obviously pleased with himself. "We have medicines, furs, a roomful of weapons, and an excellent wine cellar. We'll lack for nothing."
"A bathtub might have been nice," Alek said.
"I believe we have one."
Alek blinked. "Well, that's good news. Perhaps a few servants to heat the water?"
Volger gestured at Bauer, who was already chopping wood. "But you have us, Your Serene Highness."
"You're more like family than servants." Alek shrugged. "All the family I've got, in fact."
"You're still a Hapsburg. Don't forget that."
Alek looked out at the Stormwalker crouched in the courtyard. On its breastplate was his family crest: the double-headed eagle devised of mechanikal parts. As he was growing up, the symbol had always surrounded Alek - on flags, furniture, even the pockets of his nightgown - assuring him of who he was. But now it only filled him with despair.
"Yes, a fine family," he said bitterly. "They disowned me from the start. And five weeks ago my granduncle had my parents killed."
"We can't be certain the emperor was behind that. And as for you ..." The wildcount paused.
"What is it, Volger?" Alek found himself in no mood for mysteries. "You promised to tell me all your secrets once we got to Switzerland."
"Yes, but I didn't think we'd make it," Volger said quietly. "Still, I suppose it's time you knew the truth. Come with me."
Alek glanced at the other men, who were hard at work unloading the walker in the dark. Apparently this secret wasn't meant for everyone.
He followed Volger up the stone stairway set against the inner wall, which led to the castle's only tower. It was an unimpressive round parapet jutting out over the cliff, lower than the stable rooftops, but with a commanding view of the valley.
Alek could see why Volger and his father had picked this place. Five men and a Stormwalker could defend it against a small army, if anyone ever found them there. Already the icy wind was blowing loose snow across the walker's giant footprints, gradually erasing the signs that anything had come this way.
Volger looked out across the glacier, his hands deep in his pockets. "May I be frank?"
Alek laughed. "Feel free to put aside your usual tact."
"I shall," Volger said. "When your father decided to marry Sophie, I was one of those who tried to talk him out of it."
"So I have your dismal powers of persuasion to thank for my existence."
"You're very welcome." Volger made a formal bow. "But you have to understand, Alek, we were only trying to prevent the break between your father and his uncle. The heir to an empire can't simply marry anyone he wants. Obviously, your father didn't listen, and the best we could do was a compromise: a left-handed marriage."
"A polite way to put it." The official term was a morganatic marriage, which had always sounded like a disease to Alek.
"But there are ways to adjust such contracts," Volger said.
Alek nodded slowly, remembering his parent's promises. "Father always said that Franz Joseph would give in eventually. He didn't understand how much the emperor hated my mother."
"No, he didn't. But your father understood something more important, that a mere emperor isn't the last word in these matters."
Alek looked at Volger. "What do you mean?"
"On that trip two summers ago we didn't just tour old castles. We went to Rome."
"Are you being obscure on purpose, Count?"
"Are you forgetting your family history, Alek? Before Austria-Hungary existed, who were the Hapsburgs?"
"Rulers of the Holy Roman Empire," Alek dutifully recited. "From 1452 until 1806. But what does that have to do with my parents?"
"Who crowned the Holy Roman Emperors? Whose word invested them with royalty?"