Kalden clutched his seat as they soared over the courtyard. Hundreds of Missiles erupted from below, streaking the sky like a reverse meteor shower.
Elend's shield repelled them all. Their helicopter dove toward the grass, weaving between the larger Missiles. Akari kept up a constant barrage from her machine gun, sending the ground troops scrambling for cover.
Talek. There were hundreds of them down there. And they all believed they fought for a noble cause. It almost made Kalden doubt himself—how could so many people be so wrong?
The helicopter picked up speed, and Kalden relaxed his muscles as they put the bulk of the enemy behind them. At first, he'd imagined this playing out like an action-adventure film with Elend fumbling his way through the controls, escaping on sheer luck. But he was clearly a competent pilot—thank the Angels.
Another minute passed, then they reached the safety of the forest. By now, the sounds of battle had faded a distant echo. Elend flew them low above the trees—probably to avoid being spotted from across the island.
Speaking of which...
"Can you make us invisible?" Kalden asked over the headset. Normally, that would be impossible, even for a Shadow Artist. But he had just made two helicopters from scratch...
"Any other day." Elend waved his right hand, gesturing to the black cuff on his wrist.
Kalden closed his mouth. Apparently, it took more mana to hide an existing object than to make a new one? That seemed counterintuitive at first, but it made some sense in hindsight. Constructs used more mana than Missiles, and you'd probably need a massive one to hide something this large.
Elend lowered his hand, then clutched at his chest. His breaths came out ragged, and his lips pulled back in a grimace.
He's not invincible, Kalden realized. He'd pushed through the pain so far, but he couldn't keep that up forever.
"Now talk to me," Elend said. "What's our heading?"
"West." Kalden sat up in his seat, surveying the landscape below. Mt. Khasa was a cluster of lights to the north. He couldn't make out the highway beyond the trees, but he knew it passed directly through the city.
"There's a stretch of road at two o'clock," he continued. "That will take us straight to Keylas."
The Grandmaster nodded, then turned their nose several degrees in the opposite direction. "They'll be watching that road. Also a good place for more traps."
True. Despite his power, Elend had shown far more restraint than Relia. Too bad he wasn't a better influence on her. Then again, that trap in the prison wasn't completely Relia's fault. She'd admitted to being a bad tactician. She'd been relying on the others, but they hadn't spoken up either. Frostblade had lured them all into a false sense of security, and they'd all paid the price.
"You mentioned a boat," Elend said. "Where's that?"
Kalden reached into his bag to find the map. "Our friends have a campsite south of the city..."
Elend hummed in consideration. "We should assume they've been compromised."
Kalden was about to retort, but he held his tongue. The Water Artists had taken the boat a week ago to avoid suspicion, but someone still would have noticed it on the road. The Martials might not have acted right away, but that proved nothing. They could have been waiting for the right moment.
Unfortunately, the right moment was about an hour ago.
"We can cross the sea without Water Artists," Elend said, "but we need that boat. Even if I could fly through the storms, these fuel tanks weren't built for long-range."
They rode in silence for the rest of the journey, following the forests north of the Contested Area. If they'd taken a car like they're planned, this trip would have taken the better part of two hours. Probably even longer if the Martials put up a fight.
This way, it barely took half an hour to reach Arkala's western coast.
"That's the lake," Kalden said as he compared their current coordinates to his map. It was bigger than he'd expected—well over eight hundred acres, with a cluster of islands around the southern quarter.
Sirens flashed on the northern side, and more than a dozen Martial vans sat clustered around the shore.
Kalden swallowed as the helicopter sank toward the water's surface. Elend had been right—their friends were either captured or dead. Probably the latter, considering how much they knew about Relia.
But where was their boat? He strained his eyes, but he couldn't make out anything in the haze of blue and red. Presumedly , the Water Artists had hidden it somewhere, but—
"There!" Elend pointed to a pair of islands.
Kalden shifted his eyes to the water below. At first, he saw nothing but dark ripples reflecting the moons. But then Elend activated their floodlights, revealing a white motorboat nestled between them. It was barely thirty feet long—hardly his idea of a seaworthy vessel.
Then again, maybe size didn't matter when the tides rivaled skyscrapers.
They had a bigger problem, though. How would they get this boat to the sea? They'd need the trailer to transport it. And if the Martials were smart, they'd already taken that trailer far from here.
"Bringing us down," Elend said as he hovered over the boat. "There's a gravity Construct in the back. Should be some cables, too. I'll need you and Akari to hook things up."
"Wait..." It took Kalden a moment to process the Grandmaster's words. "You want to carry the boat to Keylas? That must weigh at least five tons."
"I'd guess four and a half," he replied. "Reduce the gravity by three quarters, and that puts us just over eleven hundred pounds. Be quick about it, too. Won't take the Martials long to investigate."
Kalden climbed into the back cabin. Relia was still strapped to the bench opposite the cockpit, and her chest rose and fell with steady breaths. He relaxed his vision to see her through core through his SIlver Sight. It was a faint flicker of light, and she wasn't cycling her mana at all.
That didn't seem good. Still, Elend seemed convinced that she'd recover with time. He hadn't let them down so far.
Akari uncoiled herself from the gunner's seat, holding onto the nearby handrail for support. She'd been wearing a hoodie and jeans when they first took off. Now, she wore a form-fitting black bodysuit.
Kalden raised an eyebrow. "Is that Shadow Artist's armor?"
"Found it back in the prison," she said as they gathered the cables to secure the boat. He also noticed a ten-inch blade strapped to her right leg, and a Martial handgun in the small of her back.
Someone's been busy. He understood the weapons, but why bother with the armor? The protection wasn't any better than her hoodie, and only a Shadow Artist could activate the light-bending Constructs. Jared and Viv had confirmed that.
He'd have to ask her about it later. Assuming they all survived the next hour.
They lowered Relia into the boat, then ran the cables from the hull to the helicopter's base Elend explained the rest of his plan as they worked. It was completely insane—far more so than anything else they'd done tonight.
"Why go through Keylas at all?" Akari asked. "Can't we just fly over the mana wall?"
"I wouldn't count on it," Elend said. "There's more than one Construct surrounding this island. Trust me—Keylas is the only way in or out."
Well, that was ominous. Still, it fit with Relia's earlier description of the outside.
With everything else secure, Kalden lowered the Construct generator into the boat. This was a clunky metal device, about as big as an air conditioner. He adjusted the dial, then tied it down between two passenger seats.
"Hang on down there!" Elend shouted, projecting his voice over the wind and the rotors. "Things are gonna get rough."
Bursts of night air struck his face as they flew over the water's surface, and he ducked behind the boat's windshield.
"Don't look down," Kalden muttered to himself. "Don't look down."
The view had seemed like an abstract curiosity from inside the helicopter—no different from looking out a tall building. Here, he was just inches from falling over the edge. His knuckles went white as he gripped the handlebars. Every muscle in his body felt dizzy with vertigo.
Elend flew them through a corridor of thick trees, then over a series of grassy foothills. From there, it didn't take long for them to spot the northern mana wall. Its pale blue light illuminated the landscape for miles in each direction.
The wall seemed to grow taller as they approached, and Keylas appeared as a haze of light at its base. The city was far larger than he'd expected—more of a military operation than a simple outpost. Chain-link fences surrounded the base on three sides with twisted razor wire along the tops. Two-dozen brick buildings filled the interior, along with landing pads, garages, and control towers.
They inched closer with every passing second, and Kalden's body tensed with anticipation.
And here comes the crazy part.
They jerked toward the sky, then Elend slid down the middle cable, leaving the helicopter empty.
"Down!" he shouted.
Kalden and Akari ducked their heads, and the Grandmaster spread out his arm, severing the cables with blades of pure mana. The helicopter continued its upward path, and the boat flew straight ahead.
Somehow, Elend kept his balance as he formed a full sphere of mana around them. Hundreds of attacks broke against the shield as they fell. The explosions were brighter than the sun, and louder than any storm.
Talek. As if things couldn't get any crazier tonight ... they were sitting in a flying motorboat, encased within a sphere of pure mana. He could imagine how they must have looked—like a glowing comet soaring through the night sky.
Kalden's hand found the dial on the generator, waiting for his next orders.
"Keep us at twenty-five," Elend said through gritted teeth. His eyes must have seen through the chaos because he kept them on course with thrusts of his Missiles.
Kalden glanced ahead, but he saw nothing but mana and explosions—the shield, the outer wall, and the Martial's attacks. It came in every color imaginable, from orange fire to pale blue ice. He knew he'd hurt his eyes if he looked, but a part of him couldn't resist. Ordinary mana was mesmerizing enough, and this was like nothing he'd ever seen before.
"Alright, lad. Seventy-five!"
Kalden adjusted the dial, and the boat plummeted to the ground. Elend layered more shields around them like a giant onion. The outer layers became blades, attacking their surroundings as they flew. Kalden couldn't say what they hit. He could barely tell up from down at this point.
The outer blades spun on their own, and Elend gathered two massive Missiles in his palms.
Kalden craned his neck to look ahead. Barely ten seconds had passed, but they'd already reached the outer wall.
Elend thrust both arms forward, releasing his Missiles. The gate shattered, and a pair of steel pillars collapsed in their path. Elend's sphere knocked them aside like a drake charging through a forest.
Everything went dark as they passed beyond the wall. The Martials ceased their attacks, and Elend dropped the sphere, collapsing to his knees on the boat's wooden deck. He righted himself just before they hit the ground. Another burst of mana sent them over a ridge, and Kalden saw the sea ahead.
"Back up to twenty-five," Elend said to Kalden. His voice sounded breathless, and he clutched at his chest.
Kalden let go of the handrail and reached for the generator's dial.
Mana flashed at the edge of his vision, and something sharp struck his shoulder. His body went limp and frozen. At the same time, the boat crashed into another ridge.
Elend launched a Missile into the ground, tilting the boat on its side. Kalden reached for the handrail with his good arm—too late. The impact threw him over the edge, and his vision spun in a blur of trees and sky.
He hit the ground on his stomach. More mana crashed around him, breaking bark from the larger trees, tearing the undergrowth to shreds.
Kalden took several deep breaths, surveying the damage to his body. His shoulder strung from where the Missile had punctured his armor, and his blood stained the leaves a dark shade of red. His ears rang, and his chest hurt when he tried to breathe—probably a few broken ribs.
Shouts echoed in the distance as the Martials closed in.
Move, Kalden told himself. Before it's too late.
He forced himself to his feet, staggering over the ridge. From there, he had a full view of the Inner Sea. The boat landed with a splash, some twenty yards from shore.
Kalden staggered down the hill, but another Missile struck his right leg. His knees buckled, and he hit the ground again.
The boat's motor spun in the water, sending up clouds of white foam. Kalden's heart thundered in his ears, and he dared to hope they'd turn around.
Instead, they vanished into the darkness, leaving him behind.