Fang tried the door, but the handle didn't budge. The mercenary muttered a Valaysian curse and reached into his pocket.
"Don't bother with the hairpins." Thane straightened his back and planted his feet into a wide stance. "I've got this one."
Fang and Ilsa moved behind him, and he drew power from his left toe ring, pulling a third of its total reserves. He didn't like wasting energy, but he also couldn't risk too small of an explosion. Better to get it on the first try.
Fire and kinetic force shot out from his palms, knocking him back several paces. The wooden door blew off its hinges and smashed into the opposite wall.
Fang seized the advantage and burst out through the doorway. Thane followed him into the cloud of smoke. To his right, the mercenary threw several quick punches into the guard's chin.
The other guard regained his wits and pointed his crossbow at Fang. Thane lunged toward him. With one arm, he redirected the weapon into the stone wall. He used his free hand to seize the guard's dagger and open his windpipe.
No sooner had the bodies dropped than Fang and Ilsa each had a new crossbow. That was the danger of guards carrying these weapons—only a skilled archer could use a bow, but any loose prisoner could pull a trigger.
Thane led them down the corridor toward the main hangar. Smoke choked the air of the three-story chamber, and several dead Palavans sprouted arrows from their chests.
He'd already chosen to believe Relyn, but it was another thing to see the evidence for himself.
Now ... where are you?
Crossbowmen rained bolts of steel from the catwalks above. Fang and Ilsa took cover behind a stack of crates, and Thane followed.
"We can't take them all," Fang shouted.
Thane shook his head in agreement. "Get the crew and tell them to take off. The airship's our best way out of—"
Their cover shook under the impact of another explosion. Several crates fell from the top of the pile, trailing smoke and shards of wood.
"Go!" Thane told them.
Fang was already on his feet again. "Just keep those Ethermancers busy." With that, he and Ilsa ran along the back wall behind the ship.
Thane darted the opposite way to draw the enemy's attacks. He threw up a heatward as he ran, keeping his opponent's flames at bay.
Half-a-dozen soldiers tried to flank him as he ducked behind another pile of crates. Thane pulled more energy from his ring and lashed out with flaming projectiles. One by one, the fire hit his enemies, disrupting their aim, searing through armor and flesh.
By now, the enemy Sanctifier had set half the hangar on fire as well. Searching for Relyn, no doubt.
Well, no sense in saving energy then—not if it was all around him
Thane released another burst of power against the catwalk's supports, and the wooden beams snapped against the impact. The platform hit the ground a second later, taking a handful of crossbowmen along for the ride.
Now, to find that Sanctifier.
Behind him, Fang and Ilsa emerged from the other room with the airship's crew in tow. Thane hadn't meant to set a trap, but the bait was there nonetheless.
Thane rushed across the hangar to join them. At the same time, The Palavan officer emerged from his cover and released a blast of fire at the airmen.
Thane ran faster and put himself between the Sanctifier and his targets. He redirected the flames to either side, and the crew escaped untouched. By now, most of the other Palavans were dead. If Thane and the others hadn't finished them, the flames surely had.
Thane drew more energy from the surrounding chaos and struck back at his opponent. Fire crashed against fire, and their minds met in a battle of will. Thane closed his eyes in concentration, doubling his efforts. They had to finish this now before the chamber came crashing down around them.
The exchange only lasted for several heartbeats, then his opponent's heatward broke under Thane's might.
Thane opened his eyes again, expecting to see blood and burning flesh.
Instead, he saw a bright wall of crystal light.
Thane staggered forward, nearly losing his balance. What courage he had bled away. If Alexel Trelidor was here, it was all over. Not just for Thane, but for Relyn and Ashara. The Solizhans, the Onyx Company, and the rest of his nation. The tyrant would kill them all.
His eyelids grow heavy under the smoke's sting, and he forced the darkness away with bursts of kinetic waves. Sweat soaked through his clothing and his head felt far too light.
The Sanctifier stepped forward, parting the wall of smoke between them. Red blisters covered the man's head, but new skin grew in their place.
Another Palavan stepped up beside him. This man wore a midnight robe rather than a military uniform. His skin was darker than ebony, contrasted by his pale white hair and beard.
Not Trelidor then. Just another Redeemer.
Thane's lips curled up in a grin. He'd already gone up against the most powerful Ethermancer in the world. This was nothing compared to that.
The pair charged Thane, but he held his ground.
A blade of white Moonshard spun out from the Redeemer's fingers, slicing through pillars and crates.
Thane hit the floor with a compacted blast, lurching himself several paces to the right.
The Sanctifier struck next, flames curling around another stone pillar. Thane shot a larger blast into the stone floor, vaulting himself over both men and raining fire from above.
At the same time, Relyn emerged from a corridor and loosed an arrow from her bow.
Thane landed, rolled, and whipped around to face them. The Redeemer pulled the arrow from his right temple. A river of crimson flowed from the wound—a wound that would have killed most men.
The pair turned their attention on Relyn, and Thane rushed to put himself between them. Fire and Moonshard surrounded them in a blur of blinding light. The attacks continued until they were backed into a corner of the hangar.
No way out.
Thane had to think fast, and he hoped to Aegon that Relyn could keep up. He put his back to his opponents, erecting a heatward to stop the flames. He caught Relyn's eye, cupping his hands as if he were boosting her over a wall. She complied at once, jumping into his hands with a running start.
Thane shot a boost of energy as he threw her, and she soared several feet above their foes. In the same motion, he doubled his attacks, keeping both men on the defensive.
Relyn twisted her body through the air, nocking an arrow and catching the Sanctifier in the head. She landed atop a large wooden crate, drawing the Redeemer's attention with a second arrow.
Thane launched himself toward the half-dead Sanctifier. Flames leapt from his fingertips, engulfing the man's entire body.
He glanced up in time to see Relyn jump off a collapsing crate. The Redeemer threw a blade of Moonshard in her direction, more than ten paces wide. Relyn kicked forward, sliding on her knees, bending backward to avoid the blade of crystal light.
Thane hit the man with another burst of flame as Relyn pressed his opposite flank. The enemy countered with a wide, omni-directional shield that knocked them both backward. Thane crashed into a pile of crates, and the Redeemer pressed his advantage, looming over Thane and forcing Moonfire into his veins.
Thane's chest tightened, and waves of pain shot through his limbs. A week ago, this attack would have broken him immediately. Nahlia had killed two of Thane's cousins this way, not to mention that Sile'zhar on the Black Steppes.
But Thane had gone up against Alexel Trelidor. Even if he'd lost, he'd survived. And after facing the most powerful Aeon in the realm, he could ride the line between life and death.
Just long enough to keep his enemy busy.
Sweat coated his forehead, running down into his eyes. His chest grew tighter until breathing felt as hard as lifting a boulder. Every bone in his body threatened to snap.
Thane fought back, but only enough to keep his body unharmed. If he overpowered the Redeemer, the man would be on guard, and the fight would continue.
Just a little longer.
Finally, a dagger cut though the smoke in a blur of steel. Relyn stood behind the Redeemer, and she drove the blade into his left eye. The man sank to his knees, mouth wide in a silent scream. Relyn pulled out her dagger and stabbed him several more times for good measure.
The Palavan's body dropped between them, and Relyn's blade dropped with it. The roar of the airship's fans drowned out the rest of the world. Flames danced and grew in a rush of scorching air.
Relyn went limp against him, and her eyelids grew heavy. She'd been the only non-Ethermancer in this fight. For all her skill and training, she couldn't push away smoke like the rest of them. It was a miracle she'd even lasted this long.
Thane knelt down in front of the dead Sanctifier and retrieved his rings from the man's pocket. Etherite wasn't as valuable as it had been, but they each bore his clan's sigil—evidence that he was here tonight.
With that done, Thane threw Relyn over his shoulder and forced himself to his feet. The smoke still threatened to close in, but he pushed it back with more kinetic bursts.
The ramp was only a few paces away, but each step felt like a mile. His vision darkened as the smoke closed in. This time, he had no strength left to force it back.
"Solidor!" Fang's voice.
Someone lifted Relyn off his shoulder, and two more hands seized Thane, dragging him up the ramp.
They stumbled inside, and Fang set him down at the top of the ramp. An airman pulled a lever, and the ramp pivoted into the ship, becoming a part of the curved wall.
Thane blinked up at the wooden ceiling, coughing, gasping for breath. Someone handed him a canteen, and he drained half of it in a single gulp.
"Relyn," Thane muttered. "She needs—"
"The medic is already with her," came Ilsa's soft voice from beside him "We should get you to him too."
Thane shook his head. "I'm fine." The reply left his lips without thought, but he found that it was true. He hadn't suffered any serious burns, nor had he inhaled much smoke. Simple exhaustion had caused his collapse.
He grabbed the nearby railing and heaved himself to his feet. The floor shook beneath him and the vessel rocked back and forth as it lifted off the ground. Still grasping the railing with one hand, Thane stumbled down the curved hallway.
He'd half expected the ship's interior to be made of metal and dragonbone like the outside. Instead, the inner-chambers were all lacquered wood with colored crystals shining from thin recesses in the walls.
Footsteps clattered through the ceiling above. Probably another level above this one. The bridge?
Thane followed the curved corridor, climbing a narrow staircase toward the back. If this was the ship's first flight in twenty years, he wouldn't spend it laying in a bed.
The bridge was covered in curved, twice-tough glass on three sides. The captain stood at the helm with both hands on a wooden wheel. Dancing flames and black smoke obstructed the view outside. True to its reputation, the airship withstood the destruction. The hangar doors were open, and the waterfall parted like smooth gray curtains as they passed through.
The captain continued bellowing orders, and the airmen pulled various levers which probably controlled those massive fans on the outside. Thane lowered himself on a plush leather bench in the back, keeping away from the bustling crew. Ilsa and Fang took seats beside him a second later.
"Hang on to something!" the captain ordered. "We're going up!"
Thane grabbed the rail in front of him, and his knuckles whitened as the floor shifted to a steep incline. The force of it pushed him back against the plush cushion.
The crew cheered once they were airborne. Even the captain had a broad smile on his weathered face.
The ship continued climbing toward the clouds until the dark jungle was out of sight. Their ascent only lasted for several minutes until the deck leveled out again.
The captain passed the wheel to another officer, turning to face Thane. He stood straighter than before and pressed his fists together. "Orders, sir?"
Thane rose on unsteady feet. "Trelidor will be searching for this ship," he said, "but I have an island where you'll be safe. First, I need you to fly over Dragonshard and drop us off."
After a short pause, Thane turned to the former-mercenary beside him. "From there, General Fang will take command in my place."
Fang saluted as well, and the captain turned back to address his crew.
"You heard the king. Set a course for Dragonshard!"
Thane walked the halls of the airship, searching for Relyn. The ship's common area easily had enough seats for a dozen people, and the bunks he passed could accommodate more than three times that number.
This will change everything.
People had ridden dragons for as long as there had been Ethermancers, but dragons had their drawbacks. Most breeds couldn't handle harsh climates, nor could they carry large amounts of weight—either people, or supplies. What's more, a dragon needed rest every fifty or so miles. They also needed to eat and drink, which made flying over oceans next to impossible
But this ... this ship could fly as far as Eastern Valaysia in a matter of weeks. This ship could help evacuate entire families, and bring supplies to a city under siege.
Thane finally found Relyn when he reached the women's bunks toward the bow of the ship. She was laying in a bed near the open window, and the medic sat in a chair beside her.
"Sir," the young medic said as he stood.
"At ease," Thane said. "How is she?"
"Lady Vassaj will be fine. She inhaled some smoke, but her lungs are strong. Now that she has oxygen again, she should be—"
Relyn cleared her throat from the bed. "It's Lady Solidor now. Not Vassaj."
The medic's eyes widened in confusion, and he glanced back and forth between them.
"She's right." Thane smiled and made a broad gesture toward the bed. "Meet my wife, the new queen of Dragonshard."
"Oh." The boy went as pale as limestone. An impressive feat, considering his dark complexion. "Apologies, Lady Solidor. If we'd known, we would have brought you to the king's cabin."
"Don't worry." Relyn waved a dismissive hand. "Our honeymoon's almost over, anyway."
"We'll try the king's cabin another time," Thane agreed, then he turned back to the medic. "If there's nothing else?"
The boy recognized the dismissal and saluted. "Nothing else, sir."
He slid the bamboo door shut behind him, and Relyn's smile faded. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
"Sorry?" Thane said. " You killed half those Palavans on your own, including an Ethermancer. We never would have gotten free without you."
"I made you doubt me," she continued. "And don't deny it. I saw it in your eyes."
"I doubted you," Thane admitted as he lowered himself in the chair. "But that wasn't your fault. You've been honest with me these past few days. Besides, we're still new at this whole infiltration thing. We'll figure something out—hand signals or something."
Her lips curled up in another grin. "Two blinks for a false betrayal. Three for a real betrayal?"
Thane returned her smile and squeezed her hand. "I'm glad you came with me. And I do trust you now—with my life, and with the kingdom." The words that left his mouth weren't as elegant as the vows he'd spoken that day in the chapel—not even close. But these words were his own, and he found that he meant them.
It only took them an hour to travel from Farseer Falls to Dragonshard. The captain turned off all the lights and kept them several thousand feet in the air. The night was cloudy with a light rainfall, and they should have been invisible.
An airman opened the ramp, and a burst of night air greeted Thane as he stepped outside. Relyn clung to his left arm with both hands, understandably wary. The city stretched out below them as a sea of glittering lights, and the airship slowed to a crawl as it passed over the palace.
Thane stood at the edge of the ramp, feeling light-headed for the second time that night. For some reason, he'd never grown comfortable with heights, despite the fact that he'd jumped from a dragon several times. He'd even landed on top of the palace, back when it still had a roof.
"Ready?" he asked Relyn.
She nodded, still clinging to his arm as the gusts of wind threatened to carry them away. Thane wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled them both over the edge.
Night air stung his cheeks as they fell toward the palace, shrouded under the cover of darkness. The rogue king and the turncloak. Two pirates descending from the sky.