I can still help the people in the courtyard, Elias thought. He leaned down on the stone rampart and picked up his fallen katana. From there, he made his way toward the staircase.
A hand grabbed his wrist from behind.
He whipped around to face Ciena. She was still breathless from her near-fall, and blood covered her face and hair.
“We can hold them off,” Elias said.
“No. We can’t. If those things blow up in your face, you’re dead.”
“If we can survive dragonfire—”
“Black powder isn’t dragonfire. It’s quicker—more unpredictable. You might be a Justicar now, but you’re not invincible.”
Elias twisted his arm free. “Better me than hundreds of our soldiers.” What was the point of having this power if he couldn’t defend people? Shouldn’t the strongest soldier be on the front lines?
“Don’t be stupid,” Ciena shouted behind him. “The soldiers are doing their job so we can do ours. Our job is to kill Trelidor. We can’t do that if we die here.”
Elias paused as he reached the top of the staircase.
“I know you’re waiting for Nahlia to show up and fix everything,” she continued. “But you need to face the facts. If she doesn’t come back, then this is all on us.”
He gritted his teeth and clutched his weapon’s hilt. Aegon, but she was right. Less than a fortnight ago, he’d told her she needed to be more than just a soldier. Now he was ignoring his own advice.
Elias set his jaw and took another glance at the surrounding chaos. The other officers were dead, and the riflemen seemed ready to order their own retreat.
“Alright,” he finally said. “I’ll get this lot back in line. You put out those fires.”
Thane clutched the wooden rail as The Raptor’s Claw soared forward. They crested the peak of the Graycliff Mountains, and Raidenwood came into view below. Flames danced on the western wall, and dark plumes of smoke laced the air.
The reports were right, then. The Palavans must have known Thane was coming, and they sought to take the city first. Aegon. That was the problem with having the world’s only airship. As fast as they flew, words traveled faster.
The airship continued down the mountain, passing smaller villages along the way. They passed the eastern wall, and gunshots echoed across the skyline.
“Two dragons ahead,” First Mate Vinko called out.
“Prepare harpoons,” Fang said as they flew over Highbridge.
“Preparing harpoons,” Dario echoed from the weapon’s seat. “Almost in range.”
“Hold fire,” Fang ordered. “This one’s being careless.”
He was right. When Thane glanced ahead, he spotted one dragon hovering above an artillery weapon. The creature kept its back to the airship as it rained fire on the soldiers below.
Fang flew low between two tenement buildings. The propellers disrupted the street below, and brick walls roared by on either side.
The rider turned to face them, but he was too late. Fang ran the creature through with the ship’s bow. The rider came free from the saddle and rolled over the bridge’s glass dome. The dragon didn’t look much better as Fang rounded the corner and shook off its body like a dead fly.
A second dragon swooped in from the left, a dark shadow against the setting sun.
Dario fired his harpoon, but he missed by several yards. Instead of spearing the dragon, the bolt crashed through a nearby window.
Thane cursed under his breath. Then again, that building was already burning. Hopefully the residents had left before now.
The dragon swooped in behind them, carrying a piece of stone rubble between its talons. That alone was an impressive sight. Thane’s own dragon—Icaro—had always been too stubborn to do any heavy lifting.
“Keep him off from the propellers,” Fang shouted.
“Trying,” Karlo said from the other harpoon. “Can’t see the bastard from here.”
“Sir,” Vinko spoke up in his deep voice, “Might I suggest a boomerang maneuver?”
What the hell is a boomerang maneuver? Thane wanted to ask, but he knew better than to add his own voice to the chaos. Either way, he’d missed a lot during that last air skirmish in Tongshan.
The airship shook as the enemy dragon landed on the hull behind them.
“Let’s do it,” Fang said. “And don’t mess this up, Technician.”
“Aye, captain,” Karlo said.
Fang aimed the ship toward the western field and shot forward at full speed, breaking the curtain of dark smoke. Thane hit the back of his cushion and Relyn clutched his arm like a lifeline. She still wasn’t fond of high speeds, especially when she was on the bridge.
“Hang on!” Fang pulled the steering wheel around, and the ship did a full half-circle, spinning the smoke like a whirlpool.
Relyn’s head slammed into Thane’s shoulder. Thane would have flown off the bench if he hadn’t been holding the rail.
The dragon had tried to pursue them. Even from this distance, Thane could practically see the shock in the rider’s eyes.
“Fire!” Fang ordered.
The second harpoon shot straight ahead, spearing the creature through the skull. The dragon and rider flew sideways, crashing into another building. Broken glass and wooden splinters tumbled toward the courtyard below.
“Good shooting,” Vinko said.
Karlo and Dario were strangely silent. They both sat at the ship’s front which meant they had the best view of the battle below.
“What is it?” Thane asked.
“It’s the gate,” Dario said. “It’s gone.”
The airship hovered forward, parting the dark curtains once again. Thane rose from his seat and moved forward to get a better look. Hordes of undead charged ahead of the main Palavan army.
Fallen soldiers from the cities they’ve conquered. These things had nearly killed Nahlia two years ago, and she was an Ethermancer. Ordinary soldiers didn’t stand a chance.
“We need to clear out that field,” Thane said. “Now.”
“The bottom cannon is ready,” Karlo said.
Thane nodded as he turned to Fang. “Take us across the field. I’ll be ready in twenty seconds.”
Relyn was already rising from her seat and moving toward the front. She would need to be his eyes while he was below.
Thane took the stairs two at a time as he descended both levels into the cargo hold. His route took him past food stores and the various compartments beneath the cabins. Finally, he reached the hatch at the ship’s bow. The floor was twice-tough glass, similar to the dome that covered the bridge.
In the center of this room, a cast iron pipe protruded from the floor, stretching out several yards beneath them. Unlike the other cannons, this weapon took no ammunition. Instead, the shipwrights had designed it specifically for Sanctifiers.
Behind him sat the ship’s power source—a vast collection of Etherite locked in a steel vault. The power recharged everyday, so there was no need to open it.
Despite the locked door, Thane had no trouble feeling the power within. He drew it onto his soul, preparing to unleash it on the field below.
At the same time, he reached out to Relyn, forming a connection through their soulbond. A few seconds of silence followed as he moved his hand over the cannon
’Now,’ she said.
Gusts of wind blew past Elias as the airship flew over the wall. Great flowers of heat and color bloomed downward from the ship’s dark prow. Corpses burned and exploded into clouds of black smoke. The sound was near deafening, despite his earplugs.
Still, the corpses kept running. And why wouldn’t they? They were expendable with no fear of their own.
The riflemen continued firing with new-found determination. Even the companies from the courtyard had lined up outside, forming ranks around the broken gate.
The airship swung around as it reached the field’s southern edge. Another blast of flame rained down on the approaching horde, turning the corpses to ash and dust. Even here—hundreds of yards away—Elias felt the heat on his face. It was as if someone had opened a massive oven door.
The soldiers cheered as the ship cleansed the land. Did they know they cheered for an Aeon king?
Of course they know. Thane Solidor was raining fire from the sky—the very image of mythical Aeon power.
Zidane had used this notoriety when he burned the city of Stormharbor, igniting the spark of the Templar Revolution. Now, Thane did it from a nearly indestructible airship, but he did it to protect these people.
In doing so, he began a new rebellion in earnest.
’That’s it,’ Relyn said through their soulbond. ‘The field is clear.’
Thane leaned over the glass floor, watching the fires burn below. Sweat ran down his forehead and soaked through his dark tunic. As usual, he kept a heatward around himself whenever he dealt with fire. But no ward was perfect. Even if five-percent of the heat broke through, it was like standing in a furnace.
’And the Palavan army?’ Thane asked. ‘Are they retreating?’
A short pause. ‘No. They’ve taken a few shots with their cannons, but they keep missing us.’
Cannons? Two years ago, Trelidor had spoken against black powder during the Clansmeet. He’d called it unnatural, and he’d used it to argue for an Aeon alliance against the humans.
Then again, Thane and Relyn and sworn allegiance to him in that same week.
I guess we’re all liars and hypocrites.
The view turned to rock and trees as the airship passed over the southern hills. Now that the immediate threat was gone, the crew was likely waiting for Thane’s orders.
Even if they won this battle, Raidenwood’s western gate was gone. That made the city vulnerable until they repaired it.
The Raptor’s Claw may have been an impressive sight, but they were still playing the defensive. They were fighting for survival rather than victory. Survival wasn’t enough. They needed to end this siege today—to push back the enemy away from the city. Only a show of strength would do that.
’Fang says the cannons can’t hit us if we attack from the side,’ Relyn said.
So ... the others were considering the same thing. But only Thane could give the order, not to mention light the fires. If they wanted to win this war, the best move was to kill as many enemy soldiers as possible.
But these weren’t just enemy soldiers from Palavar. More likely, Trelidor’s generals had filled the army with people from Vauldenport, Sunfall, and Dragonshard—men and women whose only crime was following orders. If Thane did this, he’d be killing his own kin and countrymen. Not to mention the noncombatants down there.
No. That was Trelidor’s way. The Cultivator’s had claimed Thane’s family was no better than the enemy he faced. Maybe they were right. How could he claim to be better if he used the same brutal tactics?
And yet ... if Thane did nothing, the battle would continue. Soldiers would die on both sides, and they would lose the city. Idealism loses wars, his father had always said. He wasn’t wrong.
The airship slowed to a crawl. After a few seconds, they were hovering in place above the southern hills.
’Orders?’ Relyn asked.
’Tell Fang to fly over the Palavan army,’ he said. ‘And take it slow this time. I only want to hit their siege weapons.’
A compromise, he told himself. This way, he could still attack the enemy without putting thousands of deaths on his conscience.
The ship picked up speed as Relyn passed the order to Fang.
Several long seconds passed, then the enemy ranks came into view. They’d begun turning their cannons toward the south, but they were too slow.
Thane released another bombardment, hitting their wagons and cannons. Some of his flames broke apart as enemy Sanctifiers defended their numbers. Barriers of Moonshard sprouted like glowing mushrooms as the Redeemers showed their strength.
Aegon. There must be dozens of Ethermancers down there. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise. According to Ciena, he’d spent years building his secret enclave here in Revera.
The ship banked around when it reached the northern hills. Thane let out another burst of flame. More explosions followed, and enemy soldiers broke rank, scrambling clear of the blast radius.
Only a few minutes had passed since he’d destroyed those corpses, but this was different from his fight with Rhia Vassaj. A Fight between two Ethermancers had a dance-like rhythm. This was more like a sprint, pushing his body and soul to their limits. Even the airship’s machinery didn’t drain energy at this rate.
His vision swam, and his muscles shook with sudden fatigue. He would probably pass out if he kept this up for much longer.
’They’re retreating,” Relyn said. Her words were like a glass of cool water.
Thane collapsed on the glass floor. Relyn must have ordered Fang back as well, because the ship was already turning toward Raidenwood.
Aegon. This crew needed another Sanctifier—someone to share the burden. He thought of Ashara then, living as Trelidor’s hostage in Sunfall. She should have been here with them.
That’s why you’re fighting, he reminded himself. That was why he’d pushed himself so hard. They needed every advantage if they were going to win.
For now, he’d done all he could. Raidenwood was safe. Unfortunately, the true battle had only begun.