“In the beginning, Illum was nothing more than a novelty. In the end, people regarded it as a force of nature.”
The burning ship disappears between the treetops, cutting a line of destruction through the forest. Fae gasps when the noise of a hard crash reaches us. I return my attention to the other ship. They stopped firing at Zane's ship. Now they are testing Illum's defences, probably to retaliate for the loss of their comrades.
It's not like they can punch through Illum's barriers. Though, that doesn't keep them from trying. Our barrier flares as projectiles, fireballs, and other spells test its strength. The Alliance seems to follow a doctrine of using as many different attack spells as possible, hoping that their enemy might have a weakness against a particular spell. They are wasting their time. The island's power output is far higher than that of a single airship. Which doesn't mean that airships don't pose a threat. They could carry weapons which are able to punch through Illum's barriers. If there are enough of them, they could bring us down with brute force.
My first experiment already dealt with the first airship. While successful, I am not too impressed with the result. It took over fifteen seconds of continuous fire to take down a single ship. To top it off, the ship was already damaged. Their airships may be made out of wood, but the barriers are top notch. The little ship took a lot of damage before it went down.
Assuming that I encounter a fleet of fifty ships, it would take over ten minutes to take them down with the force cannons, assuming that they simply stand there and allow themselves to get shot at. That's more than enough time for them to do a lot of nasty things. If Illum encounters a fleet of that size, it might be us who have to pay in blood.
I call up the control menu and select another experimental weapon. The force cannons are intended against large amounts of small crafts. Their main purpose is to take down incoming spells. To accomplish that, every projectile carries a small charge of energy to disrupt magic. Without that, my cannons would have chewed for minutes on the damaged ship.
Pointing at the second ship, I select it as a target and press the launch button. Three cylindrical objects shoot out of Illum's bow. They fan out, forming small arcs.
Our enemies react quickly and change their focus to the torpedoes. They aren't really torpedoes, but I like to call them that. I didn't have time to come up with fancy technology, so I had to improvise.
The metal cylinders are nothing more than solid tanks which are filled with water. The spell on them turns water into steam, creating extreme pressures, and expels it out of the rear. A little force magic keeps them on course while a seeking spell provides a rudimentary targeting system. It's very crude and doesn't provide any friend or foe recognition, so I have to be very careful with those.
One of my torpedoes is hit by a spell and evaporates into a cloud of steam. Shortly afterward, a second torpedo follows and then, the third is also shot down.
Annoyed, I fire two more waves. I designed them to interact in groups of three, so I have to stack the two salvoes. They fan out and seek to attack the target from three different angles. The fact that I need four or more torpedoes for a single airship means that I'll have to create a massive supply of them.
The spectacle repeats itself, but this time there are too many targets for the airship. The fifth torpedo reaches their barrier and explodes as the remaining water is partially turned to energy and steam. A flash of light erupts from the point of impact and envelops the airship. The resulting shock wave flattens a few trees in the forest below, creating a perfect circle beneath the point of impact.
When my vision clears, the enemy is still there. Their ship looks as if an angry giant smacked them with his fist, but they are still floating. Though, I can't see anyone who is still standing. The people on deck are all on the ground. Maybe some of the shock wave got through? The torpedo doesn't release enough radiation to kill someone. It's a very clean weapon. I am again amazed at the amount of punishment which Alliance airships can take.
“At least I am learning a lot from this encounter,” I mumble. Illum doesn’t have to fear much from two measly ships, so I am glad to get this opportunity. Learning of my equipment’s shortcomings, while being in battle with an entire fleet would’ve hurt. I don’t want to lose Illum because of a stupid mistake.
The sixth torpedo goes through unhindered. Without the barrier, the airship is shattered into a million shards. The explosion is impressive, but the fact that I had to use a full wave of six torpedoes is troubling.
If they come close enough, I can always use Illum's force fields to crush them, but my options regarding long range weaponry are limited.
“That was impressive!” Tristen comments. He shakes my shoulder. “Do you realize what you just did!?”
I slap his hand away. “I defended Illum. Don't celebrate too early. There are still three more ships and they have seen our weaponry.” I'll have to come up with something more efficient, but there is simply no time to build something like cruise missiles and nukes.
A layman may think that a nuke sounds ideal to deal with a large number of opponents at once, but the sad truth is that it's a very inefficient weapon. It's a good choice to take out a city or a base, but many military organizations had to learn the hard way that using a nuke to destroy a fleet of warships is far from feasible. The explosion may take out a few targets in the centre, but the shock wave of the explosion quickly loses energy as it spreads.
I remember the experiments of a certain nation, which captured a fleet of enemy warships once the war was over. They decided to test their nukes and ended up using three of them without sinking the whole fleet. It just showed that they were too stupid to listen to their scientists, who told them that the effective radius of a nuke is very small. The tests radiated a whole island chain for generations to come.
That's something I won't do if I can avoid it. Magic provides a lot of different ways for causing mass destruction.
Fae pokes me and points at the crash site where the Dawn went down. The area is burning and a pillar of smoke is rising high towards the sky.
I return my attention to the three new ships. They are out of effective range and too far away for communication. A pity. “It seems like they have no intention of coming closer, so I guess that we can lend some aid. Are the healers and the guards ready?” I turn around to look down into the garden area. Brian made it a standard protocol to gather a capable group of fighters on Illum’s surface if there is any sign of trouble. Civilians have to retreat to the living areas.
Brian is down there, waiting with at least fifty people. He gives me his thumbs up when he notices my attention.
Not waiting any longer, I instruct Illum to place all of us at the crash-site.
“We were lucky that the power stone didn't blow up!” Dad complains while I pull him away from the burning wreck. He broke his leg when we came down.
“The power stone is well protected. The risk was minimal. Definitely less dangerous than staying in the air without functioning shields. Legit had us in his sights for just a few seconds and he torched the whole left side of our ship.” Not to mention that the Dawn was already a wreck when they blew up her nose. That took out all of our frontal spell projectors.
The ship is a goner. There is no other way to say it.
“What about the battle?” Oswin asks.
I shake my head. “There were a few loud explosions, but I couldn't see anything because of the trees.” I gesture towards one of the other thirteen survivors of the crash, a midshipman who joined Dawn's crew just a week ago. “Climb a tree and tell us what's going on.”
Then I turn to the others. “Gather the wounded around us. The ones who can, scout the area.” I turn back to my father and take a look at his leg. The flesh is swollen, but the bone didn't break the skin. Dad also bumped his head, but that seems to be just a minor wound. “I always told you that the healer's quarters have to be next to the power stone.” Along with the ship's nose, our healer was among the first casualties when his office blew up.
All in all, we lost seventeen people. I know that it could have been a lot worse, but many of them were my friends.
“It seems like the Illum is still in the air and I can't see the other ships. They must've taken them out,” the midshipman reports from his tree. “Oh, guys! Incoming! At least fifty people departed from Illum. They are heading for us.”
“Stand down!” I order. It's not like fighting them would do us any good, even if Joyce is responsible for the situation.
It doesn't take long until a group of men and women descent through the treetops. Among them is Joyce. Like always, she is doing a good imitation of the evil mage who knows that she is the most bad-ass thing in the vicinity. Someone gave her black and white robes which are a perfect match for her pale skin and her hair. Is she doing that on purpose, or does she have a stylist who went off the deep end?
She touches the ground and raises her eyebrows when she spots me. “You survived!”
The fact that she sounds so surprised doesn’t fill me with confidence. What does that woman think of me?
“No thanks to you!” Father complains.
I sigh in relief when I realize that Joyce brought healers. And it seems like she doesn't intend to charge us for medical aid. I step out of the way when one of them takes care of Oswin. “Thanks for your assistance. The Alliance will surely reimburse you for your troubles.”
She huffs and crosses her arms in front of her chest. “I don't think so. I have no idea of what is going on, but I have a feeling that your friends will do their best to paint us as the offenders. So, would you explain why it seems to be common practice for Alliance ships to attack each other?”
I gesture for her to follow me to a spot farther away from the others. There is no need to spread this knowledge further than necessary. When we are out of earshot, I explain, “We told you that your little game would cause us harm, and it did. The Atrachs discredited our family, accusing us of conspiring against the king.
“You must admit that you helped the situation along when you forced us to act all buddy-buddy with you. Apparently, the king believed the Atrachs enough to take away two of our airships. He wanted to make sure that our battlegroup isn’t under our sole control, so he exchanged most of our crews and gave the command to two captains who aren’t from our family. They turned out to be Atrach loyalists.
“Being given such a perfect chance, the Atrachs couldn't resist trying to take out my family. They organized an attack on my estate and tried to take the Dawn. We already expected that, but your early departure prevented us from executing all our plans.”
“Atrach? Wasn't this Pavel an Atrach? The one at the party? I think that he was also at the Alliance meeting.” She tilts her head, trying to remember.
“Don't worry about him. He met an early demise. The rest of his family is the real problem,” I inform her.
She raises both eyebrows and purses her beautiful lips. “That's a problem. I don't intend to involve myself in Alliance politics.”
I clench my fists. “So you cause all this and don't even intend to clean up behind yourself?”
My irritation must have shown because her expression hardens. “We aren't playing the same game. I am willing to help you if you are on my side. There will be no involving myself in court politics!”
I loosen my fists and try to keep a cool head. The situation is already out of control, so I may as well roll the dice. “Okay, but you have to take all of us.”
She blinks twice before she realizes what I am offering. “Take you? Explain that.”
I gesture at Dawn's wreck. “You said that you are playing a different game than us. As you can see, we are currently in checkmate. If you are offering us something better, then I am willing to overthrow the board and join you. The current king certainly did nothing to earn my loyalty.” One might say that he even betrayed it by abandoning us.
She seems uncertain. “How many people are we talking about?”
I cross my arms in front of my chest. “My family, which includes Dad, Mom, and my little sister. The household servants and maybe some of the close relatives, if they are willing to try their luck with you. Not more than fifty people, but all of them well educated and with military training.”
After inspecting me for several moments, she looks up at the treetops, musing. “It's very likely that I'll just add a lot of spies to my ranks, but the potential benefits seem to outweigh the risks. At the very least, I'll gain a lot of people who have a good understanding of Alliance politics.”
She turns around and gestures with her finger for me to follow her.
I follow right behind her. “What about the other ships?”
“We took care of the two that attacked you, but the other three are staying out of range. They saw what Illum can do. If they weren't so fast, I would try to take them down. Fewer witnesses. But as it stands, they are surely already spinning a wild tale of what to tell the Alliance. I am considering to blow up the other two power stones.”
A shudder runs down my spine. All my life, I was taught that power stones are an important resource. “Why would we do that!? They are almost irreplaceable!”
She shakes her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Look at Illum. Power stones 'were' an irreplaceable resource. Past tense. I have no need for the stones, but if I take them, the three observers will tell the Alliance that I took them, which will cause retaliation from the Alliance.”
“Why? Can't we take the stones and return them to the Alliance?” I try to negotiate.
“I want them to know that messing with Illum doesn't come without cost. Three power stones will hurt them. It’s well within my rights to destroy equipment which was used against me. And if what you are saying is true, then the loss of the stones will cause them to take a very close look at what happened. Maybe they will even find out that the Atrachs have their fingers in this affair.”
She stops and I almost run into her. “If we leave the power stones with the wrecks, then your enemies can take them and pin their loss on us, ending up with two working power stones.”
“Two?” I ask. “Don't we have three wrecks?”
“I kind of overdid it with the last ship. I doubt that there are more than a few little shards left.” She dismisses her words with a gesture. “Anyway-”
“If we blow up the power stones and create a few nice craters, then we can provide the Alliance with the coordinates of the craters. It'll have to suffice as proof that we didn't take them,” I finish.
Her logic doesn't sit well with me, but in this situation, it's the only solution which doesn't ensure problems with the Alliance. Oh, it’s very likely that they will be angry, but at the same time, they won’t act without careful consideration. Between us and the Atrachs, that's certainly the best option.