Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!
The Last Flight of the Intrepid
For all eighteen years of Thojhen’s life, everyone had thought he was useless—including himself. His ma said it every morning, and his pa often despaired that he’d ever accomplish anything. When he’d been drafted into the Autonomy’s Marines at seventeen, Thojhen was sure his parents were thrilled. “Finally rid of that useless ostrich-brain,” he’d imagined his pa saying, while his ma nodded on, a satisfied smile on her olive-brown face.
Today, he lounged on the supply dock at Aldeyn Watch, his feet dangling off the edge. Below, the Storm churned black and gray, boiling like a thick pot of stew. He fished, hidden behind a few supply crates, sweating in his woolen uniform. He lazily gripped his fishing pole in one hand while running his other hand through his short, blonde hair. Like most Vionese, he had tan-brown skin, blond hair, and deep-green eyes.
He glanced down at the coral-choked side of the skyland where his baited hook floated, buoyed by a fish’s gas-sac, near a school of blue-striped trout that flew in a lazy circle. Instead of fishing, Thojhen should have reported for duty to watch the gate. But after a week of rain, he wanted to enjoy the sunshine. Besides, watching the gate was dull and pointless. Who was going to attack the Watch? The farmers? Agerzak pirates? Aldeyn Watch lay on the eastern edge of the Vesche Skyland, and for miles, there was only ostrich ranches and citrus orchards. As for pirates, the skyland floated too far from the Agerzak Kingdoms for them to be a real threat.
Thojhen loved fishing. It was the perfect thing to do while daydreaming. Today, his thoughts were full of the slender and pretty Sharis, a sailor who served on the Intrepid with him. For months, he’d wavered on whether or not to ask her to join him at the village pub for a few drinks. A hundred times, he’d tried to work up the courage, but he always became a fish scurrying at shadows, too afraid to face her inevitable rejection.
The rod jerked in his hand, startling Trojhen out of his daydream. With a curse, he scrambled to get a firm grip on the pole and set his hook. A smile split his dark face as he fought with the flashing trout, flicking fins darting it to and fro in the air. He reeled, drawing the fish slowly higher and higher, not putting too much tension on the string that it snapped, letting the trout tire itself out.
“None of the cooks’ food tonight,” he muttered.
“By the Storm Below!” a voice boomed behind. “Attention, Private!”
Thojhen jumped to his feet, his fishing pool falling from his hands. It bounced once, then tumbled off the dock, lost forever to the rage of the Storm Below. He saluted, suddenly aware at the state of his uniform. His white, woolen shirt was only half-tucked into his blue britches while his red jacket, also wool, lay half-unbuttoned. Worse, his sword belt lay discarded upon the dock.
“What are you supposed to be doing right this instant, Private?” Sergeant Thuhly bellowed, his face weathered into deep-brown leather, and his blond hair almost bleached white.
“Gate duty,” Thojhen mumbled, fumbling at the bone buttons of his coat.
“Then what in—”
The watch horn sounded. Deep. Loud. Impossible to ignore. It roared out over the camp from the wooden tower where the scouts spent their days staring east at the Storm. It sounded a second time. A third time, blowing with an urgency Thojhen had never heard before.
The Sergeant spun, fixing his eyes to the east and gazing down at the Storm. One blast meant a known vessel approached while two meant an unknown vessel. The horn blaring over and over meant only one thing.
Thojhen’s blood ran cold as his thumb and forefinger touched, forming the sign of the sun to ward off evil. “Riasruo Above! It can’t be!”
Other horns sounded in the distances, warning the farmers and the village of Isfe that a Cyclone approached. The Stormriders ascended to sweep across Vesche.
In disbelief, Thojhen looked to the east at the churning Storm that stretched to the horizon and beyond, the eternal tempest that covered the skies. A pattern had emerged in the normally chaotic pattern of clouds that rotated widdershins. The swirling mass of clouds bulged upwards from the Storm, like a bubble broaching the surface of a dark pool.
Sergeant Thuhly’s jaw dropped. The veteran of the brutality of the Zzuk Aggression War went pale with fear, sweat beading his forehead. Then the Sergeant straightened, clenching his jaw. “Grab your gear, Private!”
Thojhen just gaped at the Sergeant. Fear had its icy hands about his feet, rooting them in place. I’m going to die. It’s a Cyclone. I’m going to die.
The Sergeant grabbed Thojhen’s sword belt and shoved it roughly into his arms. “Get your Theisseg-spawned rear to the Intrepid, Private, or I’ll throw you off the dock!”
The thought of falling through the Storm to the mythical ground sent a shudder through Thojhen. With a panicked yelp, he wrenched his feet free of fear’s icy clutch. He donned his ostrich-leather sword belt and adjusted the wooden sheath that held his bone sabre to sit on his left hip. He glanced back at the Cyclone, and wished he hadn’t. It had risen to the height of the skyland, a wall of black and gray looming larger and larger as it howled towards them.
Riasruo Above, preserve us, he prayed to the Sun Goddess. Defend us from your sister Theisseg’s terrible wrath.
Thojhen pounded down the dock, his body tingling with static electricity. The sailors and his fellow marines were racing to the Intrepid moored at the next dock over. The Intrepid waited proud, ready to defend the skyland. She was a two-masted corvette with three decks: a foredeck, the mid deck, and the taller stern deck. The mid deck was a well, lower than the fore and stern decks. The fortified gunwale, the ship’s railing, encircled all three. The scouts climbed the rigging to take their place in the crow’s nest, pressure rifles slung on their backs. Sailors in white linen britches and shirts unfurled the ship’s canvas sails, while others unlimbered the Intrepid’s three ballistae, two on the foredeck and one on the stern deck.
A low howl slowly grew, deeper than any predator’s growl. The Cyclone roared closer, a dark wall of raging black that covered half the eastern horizon. Lightning flashed yellow and blue in the maelstrom’s angry clouds, and thunder snarled through the air.
Thojhen reached the gangplank right behind the Sergeant, the wood bending and warping as he ran up it. The Master at Arms, a skinny man in a blue coat named Lieutenant Tharxu, and a few sailors were handing out the ship’s weapons: crossbows to the sailors, thunderbusses to the marines.
Sharis, a slim sailor, her face full of fear, thrust a thunderbuss at him. “Good luck, Thojhen.”
“You t-too,” he stammered. He always became tongue-tied around the pretty sailor. Why didn’t I ever ask her out? He opened his mouth, started to say: “Sha—”
“Thojhen, take your position!” roared the Sergeant and shoved him from behind.
Thojhen stumbled forward and struggled to remember where his position should be. His feet, however, seemed to know because Thojhen found himself racing to the mid deck’s port gunwale before he realized it. Hawk was on his left; his eyes fixed at the Cyclone as he aimed his thunderbuss.
Sailors cast off the hawsers, and a gentle breeze whipped down the length of the ship, summoned by one of the Windwardens. The sails billowed. The Intrepid slid away from the dock and sailed out into the Arshu Strait. It was one small ship against the horizon-wide wall of the Cyclone.
“Aim your thunderbuss, Thojhen,” a quiet voice said from behind, a hand clapping his shoulder.
Thojhen sighed. “I’ll just mess it up, Cap’n.”
“Why?” Captain Gronest asked.
He shrugged. “Because I’m useless, sir.”
“You are a Stormwall, son.” The Captain squeezed his shoulder, his voice calm.
How can he be so calm? My knees feel like they’re made of black pudding.
“I need everyone to break this storm. We cannot fail. Fifty thousand souls live upon Vesche. They can’t afford for you to be useless.”
“Words don’t change facts, sir.” Thojhen was surprised by the bitterness in his words.
“We’ve had this talk before,” the Captain said. “Remember. What did I tell you?”
* * *
Thojhen trembled before the Captain, trying not to shake too hard. Three days at Aldeyn Watch, and he had been caught sneaking off to fish. “Sorry, Cap’n. I’m just useless.”
“I don’t know. Just am. My ma always said I’d never ‘mount to nothing. Just plain useless.”
“You’re from the skyland of Vilthon, right?”
Thojhen nodded. “Yeah. From Myatle, a farming village.”
“Like Isfe?” The Captain pointed with the stump of his left arm, his dark-blue sleeve folded back and pinned to his shoulder.
Thojhen looked back at the skyland of Vesche. The orchards and fields were verdant with spring growth, and beyond them lay the dark smudge that was the village of Isfe along the Bluesnake. It looked a lot like Vilthon had when he’d sailed away to start his marine training—a speck of life floating green and brown above the Storm in the vast, empty sky.
“That’s what we’re here to protect. One day, those farmers will need us to act. When that day comes, not a single man or woman serving on this ship can be useless. We are their Stormwall, Private.”
Thojhen swallowed, his shoulders slumping beneath the weight of that responsibility. “I don’t think I’m a Stormwall, Cap’n. I’m just too useless. The Navy shoulda torn up my draft card.”
The Captain stared into Thojhen’s eyes, the marine swallowing beneath the older man’s hard stare. “Do you think the Intrepid is useless?”
“No, Cap’n,” Thojhen muttered.
The Captain rested a weathered hand on the white-yellow gunwale. The entire ship was made of the pale wood. “This ship has a proud service. Almost a hundred years ago, they laid her keel and carved her amethyst engine in the secret docks of Les. This ship helped to win our people’s freedom from the Empire.”
Thojhen swallowed, staring in awe at the ship. “It looks newly commissioned.”
“She has been lovingly cared for.” There was a smile on the Captain’s lips. “She survived the disastrous Battle of the Neta Sky, defeated the Pirate Kingdoms of Thusseldem and Mecheissen, and defended the Autonomy against the Zzuk. But despite such an impressive service, the Admiralty was going to decommission her.”
“Better ships have been built, with better engineering.” He gave a snort of laughter. “Progress happened. Everyone said an old corvette like the Intrepid was useless. She’d been outclassed in almost every way. But there’s still some fight left in her. She’s quick, sturdy. The perfect ship to guard a distant skyland like Vesche from Agerzak pirates and Cyclones.”
The Captain looked him straight in the eye. “So is she useless, Thojhen, just because some admirals said so?”
“I suppose not, sir.”
“So why do you think you’re useless? Just because some people said so?”
He looked at the Captain, not knowing what to say. Can I really be useful?
“You’re the only person who can determine whether you’re useless or not, son.” He gripped Thojhen’s shoulder. “It’s a choice. Just like I chose not to let fear consume me when I faced the Zzuk warrior that took my arm. I know you’ll pick the right one, son, when that day comes.”
* * *
Thojhen swallowed, his head turning to stare back at Vesche and its green bluffs. A lone, half-ruined tower rose on one of the hills, an old watchtower built centuries ago. A small boy stood on it, cheering on the Intrepid as she sailed against the roaring Cyclone.
A boy who needed Thojhen to make the right choice.
“I need to choose to be a Stormwall, Cap’n,” Thojhen answered.
“Exactly.” One more squeeze, then the captain moved on to Hawk.
The Oath of Enlistment echoed in his mind: I, Thojhen Rlyene, affirm that I am the Stormwall of the Autonomy of Les-Vion. I shall defend my fellow citizens from all enemies Above or Below the Storm with courage and fidelity.
Sharis stepped to the rail beside him, aimed her crossbow, and flashed a scared smile at him. He straightened up. It is my choice. Some of the Captain’s implacable certainty had rubbed off on Thojhen, like brushing up against a freshly whitewashed wall, staining him with confidence. Some of the fear retreated. Not all. But enough.
He set the wooden stock of his thunderbuss against his shoulder. His left hand grasped the square, ceramic barrel, aiming his weapon at the Storm. The static electricity tingled through his body and gathered in his left hand, ready to be discharged into the weapon. During his seventeenth year, like everyone in the skies, Thojhen had received Riasruo’s Blessing. Of the four, She’d gifted him two: Minor Mist and Moderate Lightning.
Each blessing had three strengths. Most were gifted a Moderate and a Minor Blessing. Some few were gifted a Major Blessing, like a Windwarden, and others only a single Minor Blessing. With Minor Mist, Thojhen could see through smoke and clouds and, thanks to Lightning, his body gathered a static charge that he could discharge with a single touch. Or he could fire it through a thunderbuss, the marines’ weapon.
He glanced at Sharis, finding the profile of her face beautiful despite the danger. I should tell her how I feel. I’m only useless if I choose to be. He opened his mouth.
“There!” Hawk shouted, pointing at the Cyclone. “I can see them.”
Hawk had the best vision of the Intrepid’s ten marines. Like Thojhen, he possessed Moderate Lightning and Minor Mist. Thojhen swallowed his confession and squinted at the tempest’s edge dominating the eastern sky. He peered through the raging clouds like they did not exist, their dense mist unable to hide anything from his gaze. Inside, things reflected the flashing lightning. The Stormriders galloped towards Vesche.
“Remember your training!” the Captain’s voice roared over the howl of the storm. “Remember your oaths! We are the Autonomy’s Stormwall! The Cyclone shall break upon the prow of the Intrepid! Vesche shall not be dragged down into the Storm Below like the Dawn Empire!”
A cheer went up from the crew. Thojhen was surprised to hear his voice amongst them.
“We shall not fail!” Captain Gronest bellowed. “We are the Stormwall!”
“The Stormwall!” the crew roared.
I’m not useless. I am a Stormwall!
The Intrepid sailed straight for the Cyclone. Lightning’s flashes illuminated figures riding in the maelstrom. Thojhen’d grown up his entire life with the stories of the Stormriders, the twisted men who lived beneath the Storm, cut off from the Sun Above. They were full of hatred and jealousy for those lifted into the skies by Riasruo, so they prayed to their dark goddess Theisseg.
And she’d answered their prayers with the Cyclones.
The Cyclone was a thousand or so ropes out when Thojhen started to pick out details of the Stormriders. They were men, armored in the near legendary metal. He’d never seen metal, though he’d heard the stories about it: shiny as the surface of a pond and stronger than any stone. They rode on beasts made of storm clouds, four legs running across the sky as if it was solid, sparks flaring every time their hooves touched sky. They resembled pegasi, but were wingless, with manes of crackling lightning and eyes that glowed white-blue.
The forward ballistae released their first volley. Two ceramic shots soared out into the sky then erupted into fire and smoke amid the Stormriders. Gravel shrapnel burst from each detonation, ripping the Riders apart. The ballistae fired again and again. Stormriders died, but more kept charging from the Cyclone’s depths.
Darkness engulfed the Intrepid as the corvette penetrated the Cyclone. Then the Stormriders were all about them, galloping upon their terrible beasts. They were clad head to foot in metal armor, black hair streaming behind their helmets. Through gaps in their helms, Thojhen could see pale faces twisted in rage. Arrows, fired from short bows, thudded into the ship from all directions. The Stormriders circled the Intrepid like a school of sharks, looking for weakness, ready to swarm and tear apart the Intrepid’s flesh.
The Intrepid sailed on for the Cyclone’s Eye.
Despite the ferocity of the Cyclone, its winds failed to touch the Intrepid. The Windwardens, possessors of Major Wind, held the maelstrom at bay. Without them, the ship would be at the mercy of the tempest, tossed about until the Intrepid was torn to pieces. One Windwarden huddled in the foredeck, and the other at the stern.
The sailors fired their crossbows while Thojhen and his fellow marines discharged their lightning. A bolt of white-yellow leapt from the barrel of his thunderbuss, sizzling through the air. A Stormrider fell from his mount, smoke curling from a blackened patch on his breastplate, and he was tossed about like a jellyfish in a strong wind.
A wild scream escaped Thojhen’s lips. “I killed one!” We can do this!
“These bastards ain’t tough!” Hawk yelled, discharging a brilliant bolt from his thunderbuss. It arced to the left, striking a Stormrider in the shoulder.
Thojhen fired again and again. Every time, his lightning bolts struck true. It was like the Stormriders attracted the bolts, each snaking towards the nearest Rider as if it were guided by Riasruo’s loving hand.
A crossbow twanged next to him, the bolt flying true, unaffected by the howling tempest. Sharis grinned excitedly, cranking her crossbow’s windlass back. Her blonde hair didn’t whip about her face despite the wind driving the Intrepid forward. She had the most common Blessing—Wind. Thojhen couldn’t help grinning back. She’s as beautiful as the dawn.
“Cover!” Sergeant Thuhly roared.
A flight of arrows rose up before the Intrepid, tips glinting. Thojhen and Sharis ducked behind the gunwale as the arrows thudded into the ship, into flesh. Hawk took an arrow to the shoulder and pitched forward over the gunwale, his screams of pain and fear lost to the tempest’s rage.
Thojhen’s stomach twisted, staring where his fellow marine once stood. Gone, snatched away by the metal-clad demons assaulting his ship.
“Up and fire!” the Sergeant roared.
Together he rose up with Sharis, and they fired their weapons. Lightning and crossbow bolts streaked through the sky. His blood howled through his veins, and he roared curses at the Stormriders as the wall of the Cyclone filled the entirety of the sky before them. Sharis screamed defiance beside him. Thojhen felt invincible; the Stormriders couldn’t stand against them. They were the Stormwall.
Thojhen kept discharging his lightning. It was easy. There was so much static in the air, his reserves weren’t even dwindling. He normally had ten good blasts stored inside him, and it usually would take about a quarter hour to recharge. Not today. He could discharge as much as he wanted thanks to the electricity in the air.
At some signal, half the Stormriders discarded their bows, and drew gleaming swords. They charged the Intrepid. Thojhen’s next lightning bolt caught the lead Rider in the chest. Armor smoked as the warrior was thrown from its storm mount.
More raced in.
“Keep them from the ship!” roared the Captain.
Three more charged the mid deck, spurring their storm-cloud mounts.
“Take that, Storm’s spawn!” shouted Sharis, her crossbow bolt punching through the metal breastplate. The Rider clutched at the bolt, blood staining silver. His mount dissolved into clouds and the demon dropped through it, plummeting into the Cyclone’s howling winds.
“Great shot!” Thojhen grinned, his discharge felling the second.
The third leaped off his mount, sword in hand, and sailed over the ship’s gunwale. Silver flashed; Sharis’s head bounced across the deck. Her body remained upright for a heartbeat, for an eternity, then toppled over the gunwale, lost to the Cyclone.
“No!” Thojhen stared in horror at her head as it rolled to a rest, a smile locked on her lips.
Never in his life had he hated so deeply before. “Theisseg’s spawn!” he roared at the hulking Stormrider.
The Rider whirled around, sword dripping red, and swung it at him. Thojhen raised the thunderbuss, blocking the swing. The ceramic barrel shattered, the force driving him against the gunwale. For a moment, Thojhen teetered over the edge, his stomach lurching as his hands scrabbled desperately to find purchase.
He caught himself and stared into the pale, cold eyes of the Stormrider. The Rider lifted his sword. I’m going to die. I was useless after all.
The ship lurched. The Rider stumbled. The Cyclone’s winds ripped at Thojhen. A Windwarden had died or lay dying, no longer shielding the Intrepid. The Stormrider recovered and moved to attack. I can stand here and let the Rider kill me, useless as always. His gaze fell on Sharis’s head. Or I can be useful.
“It’s my choice!” he roared. He whipped his bone sabre from its wooden sheathe, and swung it at the Stormrider.
Nothing was rarer in the skies than metal. The Stormrider was armored in more wealth than Thojhen would ever possess in his lifetime. Thojhen’s sabre, carved from the bone of a bristleback, could cut through the flesh of a man with ease. But it shattered on the Rider’s armor. Cursing, he ducked the Stormrider’s blow and dropped onto the deck. The Rider stumbled, knocked off-balance by his miss.
“You killed her!” he roared at the Theisseg-damned Stormrider.
Thojhen reached out, static crackling across his hand. The silver blade slashed down at him. His hands touched the cold, smooth metal of the Rider’s greaves. He discharged. Sparks sizzled where his hand touched the armor. Smoke issued from the joints. The Stormrider screamed; it sounded so human. The Rider’s sword arm jerked and his blade sliced down Thojhen’s thigh before the enemy crashed dead to the deck.
Chaos reigned on the Intrepid. More Stormriders had boarded. Sailors lay cut down everywhere Thojhen looked. Lieutenant Selech, the fore Windwarden, lay sprawled in a pool of his own blood as Sergeant Thuhly wrestled with his killer. Lightning discharged, and the Sergeant felled the Rider.
“Clear the deck!” someone shouted. “Protect Lieutenant Fame!” She was their last Windwarden and only hope of reaching the Eye, let alone surviving the Cyclone.
The ship shuddered and groaned. The foremast flexed. A splintering snap resounded. The foremast’s base cracked. For a single moment, it stayed upright. But with the inevitability of a tree felled by a woodsmen, it toppled over and crashed down onto the deck. Thojhen watched in horror as it crushed the starboard ballista. Then the mast, sails, and rigging were swept off the side, carrying dozens of sailors and Stormriders off the ship.
He would have kept staring in horror except a metallic sword slid across the pitching deck to rest at Thojhen’s foot. The sight shook him out of his fugue. He snatched it up. The blade was heavier than a bone sword. Its edge gleamed deadly except where Sharis’s blood stained it.
Beautiful smile, golden braid. Grief threatened to overwhelm him. Why didn’t I ever tell her? Oh Riasruo, why?
No! No! Now’s not the time to be useless!
A Stormrider had Captain Gronest pressed against the stern deck. The Rider swung his weapon. The Captain parried, somehow turning the metal sword with a bone sabre. Thojhen charged, ignoring the pain flaring in his leg from the long, shallow cut, and slammed his captured sword into the Rider’s back. The enemy pitched forward, a crease denting his backplate. Thojhen swung again, putting all his grief and regret into the blow.
“You killed her!” he screamed.
He would never see her smiling face, or hear her snorting laughter again. The Stormriders had stolen her life. It didn’t matter that the Rider who killed her was dead. They were all guilty. If they just stayed on the Theisseg-damned ground where they belong, she’d still be alive! He hammered his sword over and over and over into the ruin of the Rider’s body.
“He’s dead, son.” The Captain’s voice was calm, an unbending rock amid the storm.
Tears and snot stained his face, his emotion pouting out of him as the Captain grabbed him with his one hand, turning him away. Thojhen wiped at his cheek. Red stained his fingers. More red dripped from his coat. He didn’t understand where the blood had come from.
The Captain said something. Thojhen stared at his bloody fingers.
Captain Gronest gripped his shoulder. “It’s your choice, son.”
He looked up at the Captain.
“What are you, son?”
Thojhen choose to put away his grief. “A Stormwall, sir.”
The Captain nodded.
More Stormriders vaulted onto the deck. Thojhen threw himself into the fray alongside the Captain. The fight was a brutal, chaotic mess. Half the marines were already dead, as were many of the sailors. The ship pitched, dropped, and rolled, the combatants stumbling to and fro. With his right hand, Thojhen battered his captured sword into Stormriders, and with his left hand, he discharged lightning into their bodies.
Quick Rlest fell, a sword stabbed through his stomach, spilling out his ropy innards. Sergeant Thuhly grappled with a Stormrider, discharging his lightning, only to have his back sliced open like a gutted fish by another.
“Hold the stern!” shouted the Captain. “We need to hold until we reach the Eye!”
The Stormriders were implacable. Their metal armor made them seem larger and more fearsome. More kept coming, leaping onto the ship from the backs of their storm mounts. Thojhen and the others were driven back, leaving behind their dead and dying, and forced up the narrow stairs of the stern deck.
Lieutenant Fame, the ship’s last Windwarden, knelt before the ship’s wheel. Concentration contorted her face as she fought the winds of the Cyclone and struggled to keep the Intrepid moving towards the Eye. Two sailors manned the only operational ballista, firing at the Stormriders who still circled the ship and loosed their arrows.
“Can you see the Eye?” the Windwarden shouted.
It took Thojhen a moment to realize to whom she was speaking. Of the seven crew left alive, Thojhen was the only one who possessed Mist. Seven out of sixty-three. The number staggered him. Riasruo Above . . .
“Do you see the Eye, Private?” Lieutenant Fame snapped, her voice shrill with concentration.
Choose to be useful.
Thojhen peered into the Cyclone, seeing through the dark storm clouds. When he used his Blessing, it was like fog melting away before Riasruo’s sun, becoming less and less hazy. Black rage gave way to a golden light. A miniature sun burned in the Cyclone’s center, powering the maelstrom.
“A thousand ropes out! Three points to port!”
“We’re gonna make it!” yelled Lieutenant Fame. “Just hold a little longer!”
The Stormriders rushed the stairs up to the stern deck. Now Thojhen could only worry about holding the port stairs while the Captain held the starboard. He swung, stabbed, parried, and discharged. “I am a Stormwall!” he bellowed at the Riders as they broke before him. “Stormwall!”
The clouds ahead brightened, golden light filtering through the thick, raging tempest, painting the ship and gleaming off the Riders’ armors. The Eye neared. They just had to hold on. He had to hold on. It was his choice.
Pain seared his right arm. His sword fell from his suddenly numb hand, clattering down the stairs. An arrow clipped his shoulder, leaving a ragged cut exposing bone. The Rider he’d been holding at bay lunged up the stairs. Thojhen stumbled back, flinching from the point of the Rider’s thrusting sword. He tripped on something soft that shifted beneath him, a fallen sailor’s body.
The Stormrider scrabbled up the stairs, metal armor rattling together almost like a wind chime. Thojhen lunged with his left hand, slamming into the Rider’s breastplate. The demon’s helm had fallen off, revealing pale-white, delicate, feminine features twisted in rage; a high-pitched scream issued from the Rider’s lips.
Thojhen discharged his lightning. The female Stormrider’s face contorted as every muscle clenched. She tottered back and crashed hard upon another enemy, pinning the second Rider beneath the weight of her armor and body.
His wounded arm throbbed in time to the frantic beat of his heart, blood trickling past the black shaft. It wasn’t made of wood, but somehow shaped from stone. Instead of feathers for the fletching, it had pale leather.
The roaring of the maelstrom dwindled. Golden light bathed the Intrepid. The ship’s flight became smooth. They had punched through the black clouds, and entered the calm around the Eye. The Eye shone bright, hanging in a column of empty sky. The Cyclone raged around them. Lightning arced from the Eye in regular, thudding pulses. Below them, he could see the skyland of Vesche. Thojhen hadn’t realized that the Intrepid had been blown back over the skyland.
The Cyclone had devastated the farms around Aldeyn Watch. Lemon and orange orchards were littered with broken and twisted trees, while barns and farmhouse had collapsed before the might of the Cyclone’s winds. If it wasn’t stopped, the maelstrom would sweep across the entirety of Vesche. And beyond Vesche lay the skylands of Oname, Elemy, more.
“We did it!” Lieutenant Fame exclaimed, sounding surprised as she peered up from her cover to look at the Eye. “Man the ballista, Thojhen.”
He stumbled across the stern deck. I can do this! He stepped over the Captain’s body, impaled by a metal sword. A Stormrider twitched next to the Captain, the Captain’s sabre thrust through the Rider’s throat. Thojhen reached the ballista. He shoved the corpse of a sailor slumped over it to the decking, two arrows sprouting like weeds from her chest.
The ballista resembled a giant crossbow mounted on a swivel. He struggled to work the ceramic handle with only his left hand. The mechanism ratcheted, drawing back the sling. An arrow whizzed at his face and scraped down his cheek. He wanted to duck down and shelter from the Stormrider’s attacks.
No! I will not cower uselessly! I am the Stormwall!
The Intrepid neared the Eye. He had to hurry, to be ready to shoot as the ship passed. With the crew butchered, no one steered the ship. He kept cranking and cranking until the sling drew back enough. Lieutenant Fame dropped a ceramic shot into the cradle, a smile on her face.
“We’re only going to get one—” The Stormrider’s arrow made a ruin of her face.
The wind pushing the Intrepid died as the last Windwarden toppled to the deck. Momentum carried the corvette forward past the Eye and towards the far side of the calm where the raging edge of the Cyclone waited.
“You’re only getting one shot, Thojhen,” he whispered. “Make it count.”
He swiveled and worked the cranks to swivel the ballista, a job for two men, but desperation gave Thojhen a burst of strength. An arrow thudded into the frame by his hand as he worked. He ignored the Stormriders’ volleys. Nothing mattered except taking the shot. He aimed at the Cyclone’s Eye.
“I am the Stormwall!” He squeezed the release.
Taut cable snapped; wooden limbs creaked. The shot launched forward.
The prow hit the Cyclone’s wall. The ship wrenched violently to port, wood creaking in protest. Thojhen’s feet left the deck. The stern gunwale slammed into his left leg. He spun, hands reaching. Fingers brushed the smooth wood of the ship, then he fell past the Intrepid.
The shot struck the Eye.
The Cyclone died.
The black clouds broke apart and dispersed like a greasy smoke in a strong wind. Riasruo’s sun bathed him in warmth as he fell. Thojhen smiled. I did something useful. If only my ma could have seen it. First his ma’s face, then Sharis’s, flashed through his mind as Vesche rushed up at him.
He closed his eyes. Sharis smiled at him. Maybe I can tell her how I feel up on Riasruo’s—
He landed amid the ruins of an orange grove. The Intrepid crashed not far away.
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