Thane crept through the dark jungle, each step growing easier as his vision adapted to the night. Still, his boots couldn’t help but find the occasional tree root here and there. Not to mention those low-hanging branches that loved to smack him on the back of the head.
Relyn moved far more confidently ahead of him. She ducked and wove her way through the branches, leaving little sound or trail in her wake.
They each wore a mask like the ones they’d worn on the Black Steppes. The goggles made it even harder to see, but they couldn’t risk someone seeing their faces.
Not yet, anyway.
He’d left their dragon hidden in a cave half-a-mile back. Thane didn’t expect many lookouts here considering they were over twenty miles from the nearest town. Still, it never hurt to prepare. This hangar may have sat untouched for years, but that was before Etherite rained from the sky.
Not long ago, the priceless mineral had been far too valuable to gather on a single airship. Even if Thane’s family had enough to get airborne—which they never had—it wasn’t wise to put all your eggs in one nest.
How things have changed.
Fang’s men had harvested several pounds of Etherite from the meteorites, and they were bringing it here with them. The wealth of empires in the hands of a mercenary company.
Thane followed Relyn for another half-mile. The air grew cold and misty as they walked, and the roar of rushing water drowned out the jungle’s other sounds.
“There.” Relyn stopped and pointed to a rocky ridge where Fang and Ilsa stood.
Xiao Fang gave them a nod as they reached the top. His black hair was slicked back behind his head, but his beard was more unkempt than usual. Several days in the jungle would do that to you.
His second-in-command, Ilsa Nirvada, stood beside him with a brass spyglass trained on the waterfall. She was younger than Fang, but lines of silver streaked her light brown hair.
The waterfall beyond was as tall as a ten-story building and twice as wide as Dragonshard’s central thoroughfare. According to the schematics, the main entrance was a man-made cavern that sat directly behind the falls. There was another door on the cliffside which functioned as an escape route.
“Are your men in position?” Thane asked.
Fang grunted. “They have orders to shoot on sight. Injure anyone who tries to leave—kill anyone who succeeds.”
Thane nodded. Apparently, flying an airship was ten times more complicated than flying a dragon. You needed a trained crew, just as if you were sailing a ship on the water. The airship’s crew answered to the king of Dragonshard, so they should help him without complaint. In theory, at least.
Realistically, this was a remote outpost, and it was impossible to guess how informed they were. If there were Aeons stationed here, they likely knew all about the situation with Trelidor. Perhaps their new emperor had even been in contact with them already.
Or ... they might know nothing at all about the battle.
Thane and the others strategized for several more minutes, then he led the way down the hill toward the left side of the waterfall. Relyn and Fang followed close behind, and two of Fang’s men circled around the other side. Ilsa stayed farther back until after they’d secured the hangar.
The mist thickened as they reached the base of the falls. Thane couldn’t see more than an arm’s length in front of him as he shuffled across the slick walkway. Water drenched his hair and clothing as they passed behind the stream.
Fang’s footsteps were barely audible behind him, drowned out by the rush of water. Relyn was quieter still.
Thane placed a hand on the stone wall to steady himself. A few more paces, and the rough rock wall turned to brown metal. Brass? Or maybe Copper?
He continued walking until two dark forms appeared in the mist ahead.
“Who are you?” One of the men raised his sword, shouting over the roar of the waterfall.
“It’s alright.” Thane stepped forward, raising his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “We’re from Dragonshard.”
“Sure looks that way,” the second man cut in. Was he referring to Thane’s mask or the fact that Fang was a foreigner? Maybe both.
“We haven’t heard from the capital in two days,” the first man said, just as wary.
“Then you know things are complicated.” Thane raised a hand to his face. “Hence the mask. My companion is a mercenary in Dragonshard’s employment. His men have the hangar surrounded, but we aren’t here to fight.”
The second guard put a hand on his sword hilt, and Fang raised his pistol.
“We’re friends,” Thane reminded him again. “Stand down, and you won’t be—”
The first man lunged forward. For a split-second, Thane worried that he was a Justicar who could dodge or parry the bullet.
Thane conjured a flame in his palm, but Fang was quicker. Fire and smoke chased away the darkness as he pulled the trigger. The bullet caught the man’s leg, and he stumbled forward on the slick stone.
The second guard ran for a smaller door beside the massive metal one. Thane gave chase as the man yanked open the handle and disappeared into the darkness.
Thane followed him down a narrow stone corridor. After a few seconds, he passed into a larger chamber lit by orange glowcrystals.
His target skidded to a halt when he reached a small crowd in the middle of the chamber.
Thane stopped running as well and let his eyes adjust to the light. The rest of the ship’s crew stood unarmed, held at gunpoint by six other members of the Onyx Company. They must have taken the initiative and broken in once they heard Fang’s gunshot.
Footsteps echoed from down the corridor behind him. Probably Fang, Relyn, and the others making their way inside. He looked over his shoulder to see the guard with the wounded leg leaning against one of Fang’s men for support.
Thane turned back to the airship’s crew. “You have a medic?”
A man stepped forward, no older than Thane. “That’s me.”
Thane nodded. “See to your wounded.”
“And who the hell are you?” A gray-haired man demanded. He wore a captain’s uniform, and he had the bright green eyes of an Aeon.
Thane hesitated for a moment, then he turned to Vaccam, the Onyx Company officer who’d been in charge of the second entrance. “This is everyone?”
“We searched every room.” Vaccam made a broad, sweeping gesture with his left hand. “Including the ship.”
For the first time, Thane glanced up and took in the sight of the three-story vessel. He’d always imagined the airship like a flying boat, complete with masts and sails. That was how the old paintings in Aeonica had always depicted them. Either that or they looked like massive balloons with suspended cabins.
In hindsight, however, both designs would have been too vulnerable against dragonfire. Instead, the gray hull was long and narrow, pointed at the front, and wider at the back. There was a rounded glass window at the top which he assumed was the bridge. Three cylinders stuck out from either side with propellers on top.
Ashara claimed the hull was made of reforged dragonbone. One-tenth the weight of steel, but several times stronger. No doubt the hull and windows were strengthened further by Justicar sigilcrafters. With armor like that, they could take on an entire squad of enemy dragonriders and come out victorious.
This ship wouldn’t be enough to win the war against Trelidor, but it was a turning point. A step in the right direction.
Thane released a long breath. He’d hoped he wouldn’t have to show his face so soon. But now, with one man wounded, it seemed there was no way around it. He removed his helmet and pulled off his mask and goggles, casting both on the stone floor.
“I’m Thane Solidor,” he told the crew, “king of Dragonshard.”
The captain raised a silver eyebrow, unimpressed. “You look more like a pirate than a king.”
“I’m both things tonight,” Thane said. “You’ve heard the news from the capital?”
“Yeah,” the captain said. “Heard the prince sold us out—bent the knee to a foreigner.”
“That was a farce,” Thane said, “Alexel Trelidor murdered my father, along with half the realm’s other leaders. Surrendering was our only chance of fighting back.” He turned to address each of the men in turn. “I’m sorry for the mask, but I couldn’t show my face until I knew who was here. My plan is to take this airship and use it against Trelidor. But I can’t do it without a crew.”
The captain glanced at the wounded guard who was sitting on a bench while the medic tended his leg. “And what’d you do with my other guards?”
Thane hesitated. “Other guards?”
“I had a whole score of men stationed outside.”
Thane turned to Fang, and the mercenary leader shook his head.
“There was no one else out there,” Thane said.
But now that he thought about it, it had been strange to find this place so lightly guarded.
Thane’s breath caught in his throat as he turned around. Ilsa should have been down here by now. For that matter, where was Relyn? He’d been so distracted when they entered the hangar, he hadn’t seen her come in. Had she even passed under the waterfall with them?
Before anyone else could speak, several dark-clad figures emerged from the shadows. Fang’s men turned their weapons on the intruders, but a storm of crossbow bolts shot out from the darkness.
One bolt took Vaccam in the eye. Another pierced a man’s windpipe. Fang jumped to the side as a bolt soared passed his face, cutting a line of red across his temple
“Don’t move, Solidor!” an accented voice ordered. He had the rough features of a Palavan, and he wore a midnight blue officer’s uniform. An orange flame burned in his open palm.
Trelidor’s people. Aegon, they’d been waiting for them this whole time.
More crossbowmen emerged from the back door, surrounding Thane and the crew.
“Drop your weapons,” the officer told them. “And get on your knees.”
Fang didn’t move.
Thane ran the possibilities through his mind. If Nahlia were here, she could have made a barrier between the two groups and gave them time to find cover. But Thane’s only weapon was fire, and fire wouldn’t keep them alive.
He could launch himself into the air and land on one of the catwalks. From there, he had enough Etherite to rain his attacks down on the crossbowmen. If Fang shot the enemy Sanctifier, they would be defenseless against him.
But could Thane do it faster than those men pulled their triggers? Unlikely. He would end up with a chest full of metal. Thane wouldn’t survive those wounds without Nahlia here. Neither would Fang or the airship’s crew.
“Drop your weapons!” the officer shouted again.
“Do it,” Thane told Fang as he lowered himself to his knees, lacing his fingers behind his head.
Metal rattled against the stone floor as he dropped his pistols.
“Good.” The Palavan officer turned to one of the crossbowmen. “Bind their hands, and contact the emperor.”
Just then, Ilsa and Relyn stepped through the side door. Ilsa’s hands were bound behind her back, and Relyn held a knife to her throat.
“Here.” Relyn shoved Ilsa into the room and turned to the squad of Palavan soldiers. “We missed one.”