The airships cast dark shadows over the landscape as they approached, their propellers stirring up dust like a desert sandstorm. At that moment, Thane felt a glimpse of the fear his enemies must have felt during the Battle of the Ironfords.
With just one of these vessels, Thane had turned the tide of the war. He'd staged a prison break, pushed back an army, and ended a siege.
Now, his enemies had five.
In mere minutes, those ships would rain fire on the city, turning his army to ash. Sure, Raidenwood had cannons and anti-air turrets, and those worked fine against dragons. But airships were different. Within those unbreakable shells of dragonbone, the Palavans were untouchable.
To his right, Captain Keevan cleared his throat. "Orders, Highlord?"
Five airships, but no army. A part of him had known this would happen though. The Palavans couldn't sneak past Thornhaven without being seen.
Thane forced away his fear. He needed a clear head for this. With no army, these soldiers on the wall were useless. Most likely, the Palavans meant to steal his plan from Vauldenport—sending a small team to rescue Varion and take the Codices.
Aegon, they should have killed him when they had the chance.
Thane turned to face the gray-haired captain. "Move the soldiers back to the palace—all but the anti-air gunners. Have them aim for the ships' propellers. That's their only weakness."
The officer jogged off and passed the order down the wall.
Thane turned to his two Onyx Guards—a man and a woman, both Valaysian. "You head back to the palace too," he told them. "I'll be right behind you."
"With all due respect Highlord," the woman began, "you understand the point of an honor guard, true?"
Fair point, that. Thane didn't press the matter as he turned to face the city. Crowds filled the streets, and dozens of lights still shone from within apartment windows as others refused to leave.
Thane understood their reasoning. Raidenwood had never fallen before. Not just in recent memory, but in all of recorded history. These people weren't about to sacrifice their homes and possessions for nothing.
They didn't realize how much the rules of war had changed.
Cannons erupted along the wall as the airships drew nearer. Thane turned back to the field, hoping to see a few shots find their marks.
Instead, massive spheres of bright blue light formed around the airships, shattering the cannonballs in midair.
He clenched his fist as his heart beat faster. He and Nahlia had discussed using Moonshard to protect the Raptor's Claw, but they'd never put the idea into practice. She'd claimed it would require sigilcrafting, which none of them had even practiced.
Apparently, the Palavans had.
The fleet split up before they reached the wall. One ship hovered over the gate to Thane's left, dropping a portion of their barrier and opening the back ramp.
He expected to see Ethermancers emerge. What he saw was far worse.
A metal barrel fell from the ship, plummeting toward the gate below.
"Get down!" Thane shouted to the others.
The barrel hit the southern gate, and the explosion was a hundred times louder than any gunshot. The ground shook beneath him, and a flash of fire shone through his closed eyelids.
Wind washed over his head as a second ship soared past. His ears rang, and the world spun as he climbed to his feet.
The second ship stopped in the courtyard behind him, directly above a cluster of retreating soldiers.
Thane leapt off the battlements, using a burst of kinetic energy to slow his fall. He sent another burst into the wall behind him before he landed, propelling himself toward the center of the courtyard.
He landed directly below the enemy ship as they lowered their back ramp, preparing to drop another bomb. The Moonshard barrier opened, and the world slowed around him as the barrel of black powder fell.
He'd seen these before, only much smaller. Back in Kyroth's estate, Lieutenant Gallow had lured Thane into a trap. Thane had ignited one of these with his fire, and he'd lost Kira to the explosion.
Back then, he'd failed to save even a single person. Now...
The bomb hit the ground in front of him, shattering the cobblestones and sinking several feet into the ground. The metal casing broke apart. Light flashed from within, and the flames engulfed him.
Relyn stood on the palace roof along with Ciena, Hankrim, and three more members of the Onyx Guard. Civilians and soldiers rushed in a stampede down Highbridge and flames climbed over the rooftops in the Western District.
Her husband was out there somewhere, but she knew he'd be fine. Fire couldn't hurt Thane Solidor.
Four airships emerged from the curtain of black smoke, and Relyn clutched her bow. She hadn't felt this kind of fear since Whitecliff. These past two months, they'd invaded cities, killed generals, and conquered armies. But that was different. Raidenwood had been safe for all those battles. Raidenwood had been a place for them to live their lives—free from war. A place where Trelidor couldn't touch them.
The airships split further apart as they reached the canyon's edge. Three moved to hover over the bridges on either side while another flew toward the northern mountains.
Toward Redcliff. They'd sent runners that way to warn the enclave, but would the masters listen? Were Elias, Nahlia, and Yimo still there, or were they making their way back to the city?
Relyn ducked behind the stone parapet as more bombs fell. She closed her eyes and cupped her hands over her ears. She didn’t need the explosions disorienting her. That would just make it harder to fight when the time came.
Even with her eyes closed, she felt the palace shake beneath her. She felt the other bridges breaking apart, as sure as if they were her own teeth.
When she looked forward again, the lead airship was hovering over Highbridge's thoroughfare. The back ramp fell open, and dozens of black-clad forms dropped out into the street.
Sile'zhar. More than she'd ever seen in one place. Was Rhia among them, or had her sister stayed behind?
Gunshots joined the cacophony as Raidenwood’s soldiers engaged the enemy along the wall. Beside Relyn, Ciena twisted Steelbreaker's hilt in her hand. Whether she was afraid or eager to fight, Relyn couldn't say. Probably a little of both.
Not yet, she thought. When the enemy finally breached the gates—which they surely would—it fell on them to guard Varion and the Codex.
Enemy Sanctifiers propelled themselves over the walls while Justicars climbed with grappling hooks. Flames and blades flashed in the night, killing the guards with frightening ease.
Relyn loosed an arrow as they got closer, but a Sanctifier burned it from the air.
She fired two more. A Justicar caught the first one, and the second didn't penetrate her target's nightsilk armor.
Shiban. She'd grown stronger these past few months, but she wasn't ready for this. She wasn’t ready to face other Ethermancers. True, she still had her Etherite arrow, but that was just as likely to put a weapon in her enemy's hands.
Relyn covered her eyes as another bomb fell over Freebridge.
When she glanced to the north, she saw massive chunks of stone crushing the bridges below. Even without looking at Ciena, Relyn could practically feel her boiling blood. This city had stood for over a thousand years. Now it might crumble to dust in a single night.
She and Thane had worked as fast as they could, but it wasn't enough. Every word of Rhia's letter had been true, but a few hours wasn't enough to evacuate a city like Raidenwood.
The Sile'zhar moved closer with every passing second. Relyn fired two more arrows, but they dodged them both. Shiban. They were going to break through—all of them. And if they released Varion...
Relyn paused as she nocked another arrow. She couldn't save the city now. She couldn't even thin the Sile'zhar's ranks, but there was one way to turn the tide. The others had all voted to keep Varion alive, thinking of the big picture.
Well, that picture didn't matter if he escaped.
She lowered her bow and moved to shout in Ciena's ear. "We need to kill Varion before they reach him."
Ciena, pragmatic as ever, didn't argue. She only met Relyn's eyes and nodded. "I'll do it. You just keep the Codex safe."
And with that, Ciena charged back into the palace. Relyn made herself invisible and followed.
Thane’s heatwards blocked the growing flames. He shielded his face with his forearms as shards of metal glanced off his dragonscale armor.
Still, the explosion spread, threatening to destroy the soldiers and surrounding buildings. Even if he survived, hundreds more would die in the next second.
Thane reached out and pulled the energy into his soul. More heat than he'd ever held before. The power threatened to explode back out of him, just like when he attempted Ethersmithing.
Fortunately, Thane knew a good place to redirect it.
He stretched his arms skyward and sent the flames toward the hovering airship. Several wide shields of Moonshard appeared beneath the airship's hull, protecting them from the attack.
Thane fell to his knees as he released the last of the power. Less than two seconds had passed since the bomb hit, but it felt like hours. The edges of his vision grew red. He felt as if he'd drank a barrel of acid, and it was burning away his insides.
Up above, the enemy opened a small gap in their shield. Even amid the smoke, he caught a glimpse of their cargo hold as they prepared a second bomb.
Aegon. If he tried the same trick twice, he would fail. The enemy was counting on that.
The cannons continued their bombardment, but their projectiles shattered against the unbreakable shields. Thane squinted, blinking away sweat and ash, watching them push out the bomb. The opening was only a few feet wide, but if a cannonball got through...
No, not a cannonball. He had something better.
With the last of his strength, Thane raised his right arm. He pulled a burst of power from his rings and sent a single bolt of lightning toward the bomb.
Another explosion followed, more deafening than all the others. This one pounded inside his head and shook his bones. The shields faded, and the sky became a ceiling of unbroken flame.
Gloved hands seized Thane's arms as his guards lifted him to his feet. The three of them fell through the doors of the nearest tenement building. Chunks of metal, glass, and dragonbone crashed into the empty street.
The woman let out a deep breath, followed by a torrent of Relyn's favorite Valaysian curse words.
"That was something," the man agreed with a nervous laugh. "That’s an act that earns you a title. Maybe Thane Bombeater?
"Thane Skyburner," the woman suggested.
Thane managed a faint grin as he struggled to his feet. The victory was short-lived, however, when he remembered there were four more ships headed toward the palace,
"Come on," he told them, "let's find the others."
The dungeon was dark when Ciena reached the bottom of the stone staircase. She raised Steelbreaker in its sword-form, letting the red glow guide her path.
Still, the shadows seemed to move, and footsteps echoed from farther down the hall.
“Guards?” she called out. There were supposed to be a dozen soldiers outside Varion’s cell at all times.
No one answered.
Bloody hell. The Sile'zhar shouldn't be here yet. But then ... what if Rhia already had more spies within the city? What if they’d just been waiting for this moment?
She took a few steps down the hallway, and her fear clung to her like a cloak. She hadn't faced real enemies in years. The others had in Vauldenport, but she'd stayed behind. She'd honed her skills, but she hadn't truly tested them. Not since she lost her sword hand.
Iron doors creaked as she walked, and shadows danced across the walls. The only other sounds were her pounding heart and the echo of her boots on the cobblestone floor.
She shone Steelbreaker toward the open cells but they were all empty. Nothing but stone floors and empty beds and chamber pots. A few more steps brought her to the crossroads in the middle of the dungeon, halfway to Varion's secluded cell.
Ciena paused as another cold silence swept over her. For a brief second, it was as if the palace itself were holding its breath.
Then a dozen Sile'zhar struck at once.