Crossroads in life are a pivot point for the world.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
The Sky Hawk popped out of system speed with Gaia hanging huge and beautiful right in front of her. Mira spotted the Vis almost instantly. It was 2000 cubits ahead of them, visibly drifting sideways toward the looming planet. She frowned uncertainly, unable to understand the enemy ship’s erratic behavior since leaving Harpel.
“What are they up to?” Aaren asked, echoing her feelings. “It’s almost as if they don’t care that we’re catching up.” Although the Vis was drifting, the Sky Hawk, under full sail, was bearing down on them at full speed.
“They’re going to start caring,” Horace promised them. “In a few moments we’ll be in perfect firing position.” The Vis continued to swell larger and larger before them as the Sky Hawk bore down on it. A savage grin crossed Horace’s face. “Now!”
Aaren nodded at Mira and she spun the wheel, turning the Sky Hawk.
“All weapons, fire! Fire at will!” Horace yelled, disdaining the speaking tubes.
A quadruple thump followed his words as two heavy boulders arced away from the ship, led by twin ballista bolts. It was a near-perfect broadside. The ballista bolts tore through the aileron facing them, reducing it to junk and destroying any remaining maneuverability the Vis had. The two boulders crashed down on the top deck of the Vis, shaking the entire ship.
As soon as they fired, Mira spun the wheel back in the opposite direction to line them up for a ramming attack.
Blanrus was nearly finished with his diagram when the ship pitched violently, nearly throwing him off his feet. The motion hurled him against the altar, breaking one of his ribs. He hissed in pain. Ordinarily, a broken rib would have been a minor inconvenience but he’d taken a fierce pounding during the last few hours and the strain, even after taking healing potions, was starting to tell. The world swam dizzily for a second and he fought to stay conscious. He finally shook it off but the effort left him pale and shaking. He paused to catch his breath and the ship rocked and boomed under another impact followed by yet another. He cursed the damnable Knights for their unending interference and went back to his sketching, racing against time, bracing himself as the bombardment continued.
Elric flinched as the enemy managed to fire their only remaining ballista then relaxed when it became clear that it was going to miss. He decided to trust that Horace knew what he was doing and focused his efforts on learning the lightning bolt spell from Blanrus’ captured spellbook. It was a foregone conclusion the Knights were going to have to board the Vis to rescue Illene. After the experience in the tunnel, a small wooden ship was the last place he wanted to be casting fireballs. He hunched over the spellbook, trying to block out the ongoing thumps of the ballistae and catapults.
Jon climbed up to join Horace on the forecastle. Katrina grinned at him as he came up. “Ready for the boarding party?”
He smiled back, feeling some excitement himself despite his oft-professed aversion to the chaos of battle. “Ready as you are,” he quipped, twirling his daggers.
Mira heard their remarks and felt that same excitement herself. After all they had been through, they were finally within minutes of completing their quest and the sensation was heady. The forward ballista fired again. She followed the bolts path and saw it hit one of the eye-like windows near the bow of the ship. A strange, multi-colored light began flickering fitfully inside the ship and she wondered what the bolt might have hit to cause such a reaction.
She put it aside as Garrick reported to Aaren, “We’re in position, Captain. You can give the order any time.”
“Thank you, bosun,” he replied. He took a deep breath. “Ramming speed!”
The Knights and the crew braced themselves, remembering the mess they’d made of their last attempt at ramming. Now was the test to see if they’d learned anything from that mistake.
The Sky Hawk hit the Vis cleanly amidships in a perfect attack. The heavy steel ram stove in the timbers of the Vis, wedging itself deep into the heart of the smaller ship. The local gravity field of the much larger Sky Hawk overwhelmed the one on the Vis, causing it to realign itself with the gravity on the bigger ship.
Blanrus was hurled against the wall then abruptly dumped on his head as the ceiling and floor traded places, then switched back again. Timbers flew and the air was filled with splinters as the bow of the Sky Hawk stove in the side of the Vis.
Horace whipped out his sword with a whoop of joy. He briefly heard Jon ordering the crew to lash the two ships together as he leaped over the railing and was the first to board the Vis. He began laying about him with powerful strokes. Katrina and Elric followed him an instant later. An invisible battle cry alerted them to Jon’s arrival then Aaren joined them as well. Swinging his glowing hammer he waded into the fight with Mira at his side.
The Knights were so involved in the battle that none of them noticed how close Gaia’s outer atmosphere was getting. The instant they touched the atmosphere, Gaia’s gravity would take over, the same way the Sky Hawk’s had taken over on the Vis. The Sky Hawk’s ramming attack had pushed the ships even closer to the planet below and now inertia was completing the task.
They drifted closer to the Gaia’s atmosphere.
Half the enemy warriors were already dead. Horace pressed the attack, pursuing them as they sought refuge in the narrow confines of the ship’s companionways. The Knights split up, trying to outflank the enemy and find Blanrus at the same time.
Their drift continued unchecked and unnoticed.
Elric rose from the body of his latest foe. The man had grabbed his collar with his dying breath and pulled them both down to the lower deck. He made sure the man was dead and stood up. He looked around. Through a door at the end of a short passageway he saw Blanrus, Illene tied to an altar behind him. The evil mage saw him first and threw out his hand to cast Art.
Before he could finish, the ships hit Gaia’s atmosphere.
Gravity changed with stunning abruptness and suddenly they were falling toward the ground far below, the two ships tumbling end over end as they fell. Hoarse cries of alarm echoed throughout the two ships and fear gripped Elric’s heart. He tried to ignore the falling sensation and pretend he was flying. He pulled himself along the passageway toward Blanrus.
Blanrus saw the young mage advancing on him and screamed in rage. How could he continue the fight when the ship was plunging to its death? He hurled magic but it went astray, doubling up the young mage in pain without killing him.
He turned and threw himself across the spinning room, heading for the hatch that led to the bridge. If he could make it to the wheel and the controls he might be able to pull the Vis out of its suicidal dive and save himself. All thought of the ceremony was gone. There was no more time for that, only for survival.
Aaren flailed wildly and grabbed onto the Sky Hawk’s rail. He pulled himself forward and kicked off toward the aft deck, like Blanrus, heading for the controls. He ignored the cries for help from the crew. If he didn’t make it to the ship’s wheel they were all dead. He could see men and equipment falling through the sky all around the two ships. The Sky Hawk’s lazy turn in the air put the ground directly under him and his heart jumped into his throat.
Elric forced himself to move in spite of his pain. He pushed his way through the door and saw Blanrus struggling through a hatch in the ceiling. Illene was spinning limply in midair, turning with the motion of the ship as it fell. Ignoring her for the moment he pulled himself after Blanrus.
He emerged on a tiny bridge. Charts lined the walls and the ship’s wheel and star engine controls dominated the center of the semicircular room. A ballista bolt had shattered one of the two windows in the room and slammed into the controls for the star engine. The bolt was buried in the control box, a network of cracks extending out from the point of impact. It was pulsating with an odd glow that bespoke of wild fluctuations in the magic between the star engine and the control panel. The sight filled him with a deep dread.
Blanrus pulled himself to the wheel and slapped the pink sapphire in the middle to activate the lacewing power of the skengine and the Vis wrenched free of the Sky Hawk as it slowed and stopped. Through the window, he could see the Sky Hawk still falling end over end toward the ground.
Elric staggered and fell at the violent maneuver.
The skengine was separate from the life chest and star engine but all three of them were magically linked and the use of one of them affected the others. The wild fluctuations grew larger and faster.
Blanrus’ face was black with anger as he produced a wand. “This is for your damnable interference,” he hissed, preparing to unleash the wand’s unknown magic, but Elric, fueled by fear and desperation cast his lightning bolt first.
The bolt hit with devastating force in the tiny room, frying the evil wizard, the power surging through his body into the wheel and controls. The wand, triggered at nearly the same instant the lightning struck, exploded with a roar. Elric was half in and half out of the hatch leading to the room below and the concussion knocked him back down into the other room.
Aaren saw the Vis jerk away and despaired. Then out of nowhere, Horace was beside him. The fighter’s strength all but hurled him through the air to the ship’s wheel. Aaren grabbed the spokes and slapped the pink sapphire to activate the skengine while his feet were still floating in the air. The Sky Hawk slowed and stopped. He crashed to the deck.
“Unh!” He pulled himself up then stiffened in fear. “The Vis is falling again!” he exclaimed. “Their whole bow section is alive with magic! Somethings wrong with their skengine!”
“Elric and Mira are still on board!” Horace told him. “They didn’t get off before it broke free!”
Aaren yelled down to the main deck. “Garrick!”
The bosun waved. “I’m here.”
“Pull in all the sails! The Vis is going to fall past us in a moment and I want to be able to keep up with her!”
It was a tribute to the crew’s growing loyalty and confidence in the Knights that no one argued or even questioned his orders. He pushed the wheel forward as the crew struggled with the sails. The Sky Hawk angled down and Aaren accelerated. “As soon as the Vis catches up with us I’m going to cut the power so we’ll fall with her. Get out there and find Mira and Elric fast. We haven’t got long before they crash! Hurry!”
Horace nodded and began yelling instructions. The crew started frantically lashing themselves to whatever they could. Aaren held his hand over the skengine button, watching the Vis as it tumbled through the sky. It caught up with them and he cut the power.
The Sky Hawk dropped like a rock.
He glanced forward and saw the ground rushing toward them at eye-blurring speed. He shuddered and looked back at the Vis.
Katrina’s excited shout attracted his attention and he followed her pointing finger to see Mira and Elric emerging with a limp figure held between them. They saw the Sky Hawk and waved frantically. He yelled for them to jump but they couldn’t hear him.
Jon materialized at Aaren’s side. “Fire a ballista bolt with a rope on it!” he shouted over the wind. “They can pull themselves in!”
His eyes lit up. “Do it!” he bellowed.
Jon nodded and hurled himself to the bow of the ship where he began tying a rope to a ballista bolt with feverish haste as Horace loaded it into the huge weapon. Jon made a final tie then flung his arms wide with a nod at Horace. The fighter swung the heavy weapon around, sighting it more by intuition than anything else, and fired.
The bolt hit the deck less than a span from Elric.
They all yelled in celebration. Aaren glanced down at the ground. It was getting closer with every heartbeat. A huge lake nearly as big as the Tagil Sea was below them. To the south, he saw what looked like an endless swamp. Recognition dawned; Namak Lake and the Bitstsah Swamp. Well, we wanted to visit them on our way around the world, he thought disjointedly.
Elric pulled the rope toward him, cutting it loose as he did. He wrapped great loops around Illene’s unconscious figure, then around himself and Mira. He waved at Horace and gave him the thumbs up.
“Hold on!” he shouted to Mira. “It’s gonna hurt like crazy when Aaren pulls up!”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than Aaren slapped the button to restart the skengine and the Sky Hawk pulled out of her dive, yanking them clear of the dying Vis with a punishing jerk. They dangled at the end of the rope, swinging back and forth through the sky beneath the Sky Hawk as she slowed and finally stopped. As a result, the two of them had a perfect view of the Vis’ final moments.
The crippled ship plunged toward the ground like a mortally wounded bird, trailing broken timbers and tattered sailcloth. The bow continued to radiate sickening pulses of power, sparking and flickering. Then Vis hit the ground with an explosion like nothing they’d ever seen or heard. Blinding light dueled with the sun for supremacy. A giant shock wave slammed into them with bruising force, hurling the Sky Hawk across the sky. A vast, evil-looking cloud, shot through with unhealthy reds and oranges hung in the sky, slowly expanding.
Mira blinked her eyes. Her ears were ringing painfully and searing afterimages floated before her. She looked at Elric and saw from the expression on his face he felt the same as she did. She drew in a shuddering breath at the nearness of their escape.
“Wow,” she muttered weakly. Elric nodded. There wasn’t much else to say so she said it again.
Aaren held the Sky Hawk steady as the crew pulled his friends to safety. Just as they were pulled on board, he saw two pegasi approaching, each bearing a rider. The man looked like a northern barbarian, with a sword strapped on either hip. The woman looked like a Biqah archer, right down to the bow across her back.
The man waved and shouted. “Are you alright?”
The rest of the Knights saw them and exclaimed over the pegasi the two were riding.
“Yeah,” Aaren called across the sky to them. “We just finished a bit of a rescue mission. Sorry if it got a little messy.”
The woman laughed and the man said, “Been there, done that.” He looked at the Sky Hawk. “Interesting ship you’ve got there. I’ve heard about them. Where’d you get it?”
“I was about to ask you the same question about the pegasi,” Katrina interrupted. “They’re beautiful!”
The woman smiled at her. “They’re fun to ride too.”
Aaren had a good feeling about them. “We’re the Knights of Gaia, out of Thorginbelt in Fleyniria.”
The man nodded. “A pleasure. We’re recently out of Zered. If you ever make it there, look up our friends in the Army of Light. Tell them Storm and Lorelei sent you.”