The airship rocked back and forth as they soared through the storm. Rain pattered against the hull, and the thunder roared like an enemy dragon trying to claw its way inside.
Thane kept both hands on the railing as he led his team down into the ship’s lower level. Karlo and Dario were already down here working to unlock the back ramp. This ramp was normally used for loading cargo, but it worked just as well for unloading a team of Ethermancers over a city.
A bamboo raft filled the room, big enough to hold all eight of them. Originally a river vessel, they’d modified it with two rows of seats, and two sets of handrails along the middle. They’d also strapped several layers of padding on the bottom to absorb the impact of their fall.
Thane grabbed the edge of the raft and heaved himself up. He turned around to face the others as they filtered out from the stairwell. “Everyone ready?”
They all stepped forward. Thane offered Relyn his hand, and she pulled herself up behind him. As usual, she wore her nightsilk armor beneath a layer of dark leather. Her hair was pulled behind her head in a tight black braid, and her bow and quiver were slung over her shoulder.
Elias and Nahlia climbed up next, taking their seats beside Relyn in the front. Elias wore a katana on his belt, along with his new Etherite blade. He planned to create a sword as long as Steelbreaker, but a ten-inch dagger was the most he could manage right now. According to Lucan, that was still remarkable progress for only two months of training.
Nahlia didn’t carry any weapons, but like Thane, she didn’t need them.
Dejan and Jasna mounted the raft and remained standing opposite Thane. These two were Sanctifiers from Villa Solizhan who had traveled back with Fang during his last supply run.
Finally, the new recruits climbed up and took their seats in the back row. Trinadara and Seleon had both been apprentices in Wolfe Clan, but they’d been too young to fight in the Battle of Whitecliff. Even now, Trin couldn’t have been older than fifteen. Thane never would have brought her along if she wasn’t Elias’s most promising student. In fact, they suspected she’d been learning Ethermancy in secret long before their arrival.
Thane’s own apprentice, Seleon, was closer to eighteen, but he still looked too young for war with his hairless face and lanky build. Thane had to remind himself that these were trained soldiers. Not to mention the fact that Relyn and Nahlia were practically the same age when he’d first met them.
Thane examined the seating arrangement one last time. They had to divide their weight evenly, otherwise, the raft could flip in midair. Satisfied, he lowered his goggles and clipped the rope to his belt. “Good. Everyone hang on tight.”
As if they would need any encouragement once the ramp fell. Fortunately, this wasn’t their first air drop. They’d already taken Thornhaven this way, along with Greenfort and Balway.
Lyraina’s plan had worked. After they killed the Palavan officers, the rest of the army had either retreated or surrendered. Now, Trelidor’s remaining general—a man called Palatos— had hunkered down here in Vauldenport.
If Thane’s team could defeat him in battle, that would put an end to their enemy’s campaign in Central Revera. At that point, Trelidor would either need to enter the fight himself—leaving Sunfall vulnerable to Nahlia’s father—or wait in his shielded palace. Regardless, he couldn’t continue to call himself Emperor of Revera. Not while Thane’s army held over three quarters of the land.
Thane double-checked that his companions were all strapped in, then he nodded to Karlo. The technician pulled a lever on the wall, and the ramp fell open. The icy wind burst inside the hold, ruffling his cloak, sending a shiver down his spine.
Dario gave them a hard shove, but gravity did most of the work. The raft groaned against the metal floor as they fell. Slowly at first, then their speed increased.
Finally, they dropped off the edge and fell into the night sky.
The raft spun and shook beneath his boots. The rain swirled around him, and the droplets clouded his goggles, so thick that it felt like drowning.
Thane released a burst of kinetic energy below them to slow their fall. The other two Sanctifiers did likewise, matching him with equal force.
Vauldenport appeared below them as a cluster of lights in the darkness. Thane gritted his teeth as he struggled to reconcile this chaos with the map in his head. The wind blew from the southeast, and The Raptor’s Claw had already overshot the city by several hundred paces to the north.
Aegon. They would never reach the palace from here. In fact, they’d be lucky just to land within the city walls.
Thane redirected his energy behind them while Dejan and Jasna kept the raft level. At the same time, Nahlia raised a tall barrier of Moonshard, catching the wind like a sail.
Several seconds passed as they flew over two sets of walls. The palace appeared as a collection of sandstone towers and bronze domes to the southwest. Lightning struck, and Thane used the flash of light to steer them toward a large market square.
Bursts of black powder erupted from the palace, and a cannonball missed them by only a few paces.
And this is why we didn’t bring the airship lower.
A second projectile hit the raft’s starboard pontoon. Thane shielded his face as wooden splinters erupted around him. The impact sent them into another spin. Nahlia dropped her sail, and everyone lurched toward the port side where Thane stood.
Trin flew several feet into the air, and her boot nearly hit Jasna in the face. Fortunately, the young Justicar never lost her grip on the rail, and she yanked herself back down.
Thane clutched the rail as he stepped toward the stern. From there, he released a blast of energy to cancel out the spin. The raft lurched again. Nahlia raised another sail, and Jasna released blasts from the bow. They were back on course.
A few more cannons fired, missing them by more than a dozen paces this time.
Nahlia was still holding her makeshift sail, but she glanced at Thane every other second, waiting for the signal.
Thane wiped the rain from his goggles. Three seconds from the ground. He gave Nahlia a swift nod, and she rotated her Moonshard barrier so it hung below the raft. This wouldn’t slow their fall, but it would help keep them in one piece.
The three Sanctifiers released a final burst below them. The raft lurched upward before crashing into the city square.
Nahlia let out a breath of relief as they hit the ground. Her knuckles were white from clutching the rail, and her arms felt like wrung out rags. Thank Aegon she didn’t need her arms to fight the way Elias did. She’d probably be useless right now.
Torchlight painted the mists from the north. Nahlia squinted to see several squads of crossbowmen approaching.
Well, that was quick.
She unhooked her belt and slid down the edge of the raft. The enemy soldiers took cover behind the walls and released a volley of metal bolts. Nahlia raised her shaking hand, and the bolts broke against a wall of crystal light.
By now, the others had dismounted. Nahlia rotated her shield to cover their flank, and the Sanctifiers bathed the street in red flame.
As always, the screams followed.
Relyn released several arrows in rapid succession. They all found their marks on the tops of nearby roofs. Nahlia hadn’t even seen those men until now.
The fighting died down a second later as the last few enemies collapsed in the street. When they did, a few brave residents peaked out the doors of their stone tenement buildings.
Nahlia glanced around at her companions, but no one seemed to need healing. She took a few steps toward the townsfolk instead, treading carefully on the slick cobblestones.
“It’s alright,” she shouted to be heard over the rain. “We’re here to help.”
“Nahlia!” Thane’s voice echoed over the city square. She stepped back to where the others had gathered into two separate groups.
“We didn’t land in the palace,” Thane said, “so it’s time for the backup plan.” He gestured to the street behind him. “My group will strike from the front. Dejan, Jasna—you’ll lead the apprentices around the eastern side. Divert their attention if you can, then regroup with us once the gate is open.”
Nahlia took her place beside Relyn and Elias. Their group was stronger by far, but they also expected more resistance.
“Any questions?” Thane asked.
They all shook their heads, and Nahlia felt her heart racing with anticipation.
“Good. Then let’s move out.”
They assembled into a quick formation. Nahlia and Elias took the front, while Thane and Relyn held up the back. Without another word, the four of them broke into a jog down the street.
Some cities were laid out in orderly grids, but Vauldenport was more like a maze. It may be a single city today, but evidence suggested it had once been a dozen smaller towns that melted together over the centuries. No street continued on for more than a few blocks before it branched into a different direction. They obviously weren’t fond of alleyways either because each structure was built right up against the other.
Of course, that wouldn’t stop the Palavans from launching surprise attacks.
They were halfway to the palace before their enemies struck from all sides. Crossbowmen stuck out their heads from civilian homes. A shield wall blocked the street ahead, at least four lines deep. Black-clad forms sprang from the shadows like cats attacking their prey.
Nahlia didn’t slow. Instead, she stretched out her arms, releasing a barrier of Moonshard on either side. The force sent their enemies staggering back against the stone walls. Her companions struck back, finishing them with a storm of blades, arrows, and fire.
Still running forward, Nahlia thrust her two barriers against the middle of the enemy line. They raised their shields to absorb the blow, and it slammed down like an Archaeon’s fist. They staggered back, but the line didn’t break.
Nahlia threw another barrier toward their exposed feet in a wide disc. The shield wall finally broke, and the men fell back like dominos. Thane finished them with a pillar of flame.
A spear flashed to her left. Nahlia raised a hand to form a barrier, but Elias was quicker. He raised his Etherite dagger, sliced off the spearhead, then cut a red line through the man’s face.
Four more crossbowmen appeared at the end of the street, weapons raised to fire.
Two arrows zipped past Nahlia’s left ear, taking the crossbowmen between the eyes. At the same time, a burst of fire arced above her head and knocked down the other two.
Even as they fought, they kept moving forward. Without looking, Nahlia could feel her companions’ wounds. Elias’s right hand was bleeding from where he’d grazed a spear, and an enemy Sanctifier had singed Thane’s right ear.
Nahlia released a burst of Moonfire and healed their wounds.
In addition to practicing her Ethermancy these past few months, Nahlia had made soulbonding with her friends a priority. Now, she also had bonds with Thane, Elias, Relyn, and Yimo. And just as her mother had said, these bonds helped fill the cracks in her soul, restoring the power she’d lost.
More enemies hurled themselves from the shadows, but Nahlia’s team moved like dancers in a play. Whenever one of them stumbled, someone else stepped up to fill the gap. Soulbonds were more than just the potential to communicate. It meant their minds were of one language, and there was no need for words in the heat of battle.
Finally, just one courtyard stood behind them and the palace gates. Unlike before, these soldiers made no move to attack. Instead, they waited behind several dozen hostages.
“That’s far enough!” a Palavan officer spoke in a heavy accent.
Nahlia’s eyes darted around the courtyard as she scanned the crowd. A cluster of small children to the right. Three in the center, and four to the left. The Palavans stood with crossbows to the peoples’ heads.
“Alright.” Thane raised his hands in a placating gesture, but Nahlia felt the energy gathering in his soul. She took a deep breath and did the same.
“Take it easy. We surrender.”
“Drop your weapons!” the officer shouted.
Thane cleared his throat. “Nahlia, if you’d be so kind?”
Having already identified the hostages, Nahlia stepped forward and conjured a dome of Moonshard around each group. The barriers knocked back their attackers, sending them into the cobblestones.
In the same moment, Thane released a storm of blinding white fire.
Nahlia staggered back, feeling the heat of a furnace against her face. Still, she held her barriers, preserving the people inside.
A few Sanctifiers fought back against Thane’s assault, but Elias worked to oppose their heatwards while Relyn finished them with arrows.
A few heartbeats passed, and Thane’s fire faded like a dragon’s last breath. Bodies fell to the ground in heaps of ash and charred flesh. Nahlia averted her eyes and focused on the unharmed civilians. She and Thane had already done this tactic once in Thornhaven, so they knew it would work. Still, she shuddered to imagine making a mistake and having even more deaths on her conscience.
As if she didn’t have enough of those already.
No sooner had she dropped her shields than a squad of crossbowmen appeared on the wall above.
“Take cover!” Elias shouted at the freed hostages.
They all ran inside the nearest abandoned manor. Thane collapsed in the corner, wiping a layer of sweat from his forehead. Nahlia didn’t feel much better after holding four barriers at once.
“You should get back to safety,” Thane told the civilians. “As far from the palace as you can.”
“We can help,” one of the young men said. He and his friends were already clutching crossbows. Those must have come from inside the building because the weapons outside would have been too hot to touch.
Another man nodded eagerly. “You’re Thane Solidor, right? You’re here to kill General Palatos?”
No wonder they were expecting us, Nahlia thought. Even the regular townsfolk know about us.
Thane considered that for a moment. “It will be dangerous.”
“They were just captured,” Nahlia pointed out. “I think they realize the danger.”
“Alright.” Thane rose to his feet “Once we’re inside the palace, they’ll send reinforcements from the outer walls. If you want to slow them down, I won’t stop you.”
The sounds of battle echoed from outside once again. Nahlia crept toward the window to see flashes of fire on the walls.
“Looks like Dejan and Jasna beat us here,” she said.
“Guess we’re up again.” Thane nodded toward Relyn and made his way back outside.
“We’ll have the gate open soon.” Relyn waved at the others as she followed Thane.
Nahlia stepped into the doorway, preparing to give cover if they needed it. Fortunately, the guards on the wall were all too busy fighting for their lives.
Once they reached the edge of the moat, Relyn stood behind Thane and wrapped her arms around his shoulders.
Thane hit the ground with a burst of power, launching himself into the palace’s inner courtyard.