The Last Flight of the Intrepid
Editor: Poppy Reid
Author Note: This short story is set in the same universe as my upcoming novel ‘Above the Storm’ and tells the story of the Cyclone of 391 VF told from the crew of the Intrepid. This same event is witnessed by Ary, the main character of ‘Above the Storm’ in Chapter One. I hope you enjoy this taste of my writing style and the world above the Storm.
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 had been drafted into the Autonomy’s Marines at seventeen, Thojhen was sure his parents were thrilled. “Finally rid of that useless ostrich-brain,” he imagined his pa saying, while his ma nodded on, a satisfied smile on her olive-brown face.
He sat on the edge of 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, running his hands through his short, blonde hair. Like most Vionese, he had olive skin, almost brown, with light hair, and deep-green eyes.
He glanced down at the rocky side of the skyland where his baited hook floated near a school of blue-striped trout that flew in a lazy circle. His hook floated, buoyed by a fish’s gas-sac.
Thojhen was supposed to be on duty, watching 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 the pirates, the skyland floated too far from the Agerzak Kingdoms for them to be a real threat these days.
He loved fishing. It was the perfect thing to do while daydreaming. Today, his thoughts were full of the beautiful Sharis, a sailor that served on the Intrepid with him. For months he had waffled on whether to ask her to join him at the pub for a few drinks. A hundred times he had 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 him out of his daydream, and he scrambled to clutch his pole and set his hook. A smile split his dark face as he fought with the flashing trout. He reeled, drawing the fish slowly higher and higher. “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; his red jacket, also wool, lay half-unbuttoned, and his swordbelt lay discarded upon the dock.
“What are you supposed to be doing right this instant, Private?” Sergeant Thuhly bellowed, his face weathered into tan leather, and his blonde 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 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, gazing down at the Storm. One blast meant a known vessel, while two meant an unknown vessel. The horn blaring over and over meant only one thing.
Thojhen’s blood ran cold. “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 were ascending on Vesche.
In disbelief, Thojhen looked to the east at the churning Storm. A pattern had emerged in the normally chaotic pattern of clouds, rotating 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 War went pale with fear, sweat beading his forehead. Then the Sergeant straightened, clenching his jaw. “Grab your gear, Private!”
He 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 swordbelt, and shoved it roughly into his arms. “Get your Theisseg-spawned ass 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, and he wrenched his feet free of fear’s icy clutch. He donned his ostrich-leather swordbelt, adjusting the wooden sheath that held his bone sabre. 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 growing 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.
He 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 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 scouts climbed the rigging to take their place in the crows nest, pressure guns 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 was only miles away, 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 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,” she whispered.
“You t-too,” he stammered. He always became tongue-tied around the pretty sailor. Why didn’t I ever ask her out? “Sha…” he started to say.
“Thojhen, take your position!” roared the Sergeant.
He blinked, not remembering where his position should be. His feet seemed to know, however, because Thojhen found himself racing to the mid deck’s port gunwale before he realized it. Hawk was on his left; the other Marine’s eyes fixed at the Cyclone, aiming 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, and the Intrepid slid away from the dock, sailing out into the Arthu Strait. It was one small ship against the miles-wide 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. His grip tightened, turning Thojhen about to face him. The Captain’s red-green eyes bored into him with an intensity that made Thojhen squirm like a fish set on a hook.
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. Thirty thousand souls live on 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. It had been amputated at the elbow.
He looked back at the skyland of Vesche, floating green and brown above the Storm. 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 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, Marine.”
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 his keel and carved his amethyst 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.”
“He has been lovingly cared for.” There was a smile on the Captain’s lips. “He survived the disastrous Battle of the Neta Sky, defeated the Pirate Kingdoms of Methuselah and Mecheissen, and defended the Autonomy against the Zzuk. But despite such an impressive service, the Admiralty was going to decommission him.”
“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. He had been outclassed in almost every way. But there’s still some fight left in him. He’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 he 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, watching the Intrepid sail against the roaring Cyclone.
A boy that 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. It seemed like some of the Captain’s implacable certainty had rubbed off on him, 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 Skylands, Thojhen had received Riasruo’s Blessing. Of the four, She had gifted him two: a Minor Mist and a 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 Marine’s 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 words, and squinted at the storm’s edge dominating the eastern sky. He peered through the raging clouds, and something reflected the flashing lightning.
“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. When the lightning flashed, Thojhen could make out figures riding in the maelstrom. He had grown up his entire life with the stories of the Stormriders—the twisted men that 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 only a half-mile out, and Thojhen was starting to pick out details of the Stormriders. They were men, armored in the near legendary metal. He had never seen metal, though he had 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, light 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, erupting with fire and smoke amid the Stormriders. Each shot was filled with gravel, the shrapnel ripping a few Riders apart. The ballistae fired again and again. Stormriders died, but more kept riding from the Cyclone’s depths.
At a hundred yards out, the sailors fired their crossbows, and 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 wind. Sharis grinned excitedly, cranking her crossbow’s windlass back, her blonde hair was completely still 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. He and Sharis ducked behind the gunwale as the arrows thudded into the ship, into flesh. Someone screamed.
“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.
Darkness engulfed the Intrepid as the corvette penetrated the Cyclone. Then the Stormriders were all about them, riding on their terrible beasts. They were clad head to foot in metal armor, black hair streaming behind their helmets. Through gaps in their helms, he 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 the Intrepid’s flesh. Hawk took an arrow to the shoulder, and pitched forward over the gunwale, his screams of pain and fear lost to the storm’s rage.
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 storm, tossed about until the Intrepid was torn to pieces. One huddled in the foredeck, and the other at the stern by the tiller.
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.
At some signal, half the Stormriders discarded their bows, and drew gleaming swords. They charged the Intrepid. His 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 Rider fell.
“Great shot!” Thojhen grinned, his discharge felling the second.
The third leapt 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 storm.
“No!” He 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, and 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 back. The Cyclone’s winds ripped at Thojhen. A Windwarden was dead or dying, no longer shielding the Intrepid. The Stormrider recovered, moving to attack. I can stand here and let the Rider kill me, useless as always. His gaze fell on her head. Or I can be useful. For Sharis.
“It’s my choice,” he roared, whipping 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 likely ever possess in his lifetime. Thojhen’s sabre was carved from the bone of a bristleback, and could cut through the flesh of a man with ease—but it shattered on the Rider’s armor. He ducked the Stormrider’s blow, falling onto the deck. The Rider stumbled, off-balanced 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 at him. His hands touched the cold, smooth metal of the Rider’s armor. 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 swinging arm jerked and his blade sliced down Thojhen’s thigh, then Rider crashed dead to the deck.
It was chaos on the Intrepid’s deck. More Stormriders had boarded. Sailors lay cut down everywhere Thojhen looked. Lieutenant Selech, the foredeck Windwarden, lay 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—their only hope of reaching the Eye, let alone surviving the Cyclone.
The ship shuddered and groaned. The foremast flexed; a splintering crack resounded. The foremast’s base cracked. For a single moment it stayed up right, then it toppled over, slamming 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.
A metallic sword slid across the pitching deck to rest at Thojhen’s foot. He grabbed it. The blade was heavier than a bone sword; its edge gleamed deadly, except where Sharis’s blood stained the blade.
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 Rider pitched forward, a crease denting his backplate. He 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. 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 so calm, an unbending rock amid the storm.
A tear trickled down his cheek 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 landed on 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 about. With his right hand he 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.
“Hold the stern!” shouted the Captain. “We need to hold until we reach the Eye!”
The Stormriders were implacable, and 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.
Kneeling at the tiller was Lieutenant Fame, the ship’s last Windwarden. Her face was contorted in concentration 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 whom she was speaking to. Of the seven crew left alive, Thojhen was the only one who possessed Mist. The number staggered him. Seven out of sixty-three. “Riasruo Above,” he prayed.
“Do you see the Eye, Private?” Lieutenant Fame snapped, her voice shrill with concentration.
Choose to be useful.
He 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 mile out! Three points to port!”
“We’re gonna make it!” yelled Lieutenant Fame. “Just hold a little longer!”
The Stormriders rushed; 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.
The clouds ahead brightened, golden light filtering through the thick, raging clouds, painting the ship and gleaming off the Rider’s armors. The Eye neared. They just had to hold on. He had to hold on. It was his choice.
Pain seared his right arm; the sword fell from his suddenly numb hand, clattering down the stairs. An arrow jutted from his shoulder. The Rider that had been held at bay lunged up the stairs. Thojhen stumbled back, flinching from the sword’s point. 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 Rider’s helm had fallen off, revealing pale, delicate features twisted in rage, a high-pitched scream issued from the Rider’s lips.
A woman. He discharged his lightning. The female Stormrider’s skin blackened; 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. And the fletching was different, not feathers, but a pale leather.
As pale as a Stormrider’s skin.
The roaring of the maelstrom grew silent, and golden light bathed the ship. The ship’s flight became smooth. They had punched through the black clouds, and entered the calm around the Eye.
The Eye was a golden ball that hung in a column of empty sky three hundred yards wide, the Cyclone raging around them. Lightning arced from the Eye in regular, thudding pulses. Below them, he could see the skyland of Vesche. He 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, and 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, and had to move the corpse of a sailor slumped over it, two arrows sprouting like weeds from her chest.
He reached the ballista. It 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 past his face, scraping 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 flew past the eye; he had to hurry. 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, towards the far side of the calm and the raging edge of the Cyclone.
“You’re only getting one shot, Thojhen,” he whispered. “Make it count.”
He swiveled the ballista. An arrow thudded into the frame by his hand. 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 snapped forward.
The prow reentered the Cyclone. The ship spun violently to port, wood creaking in protest. Thojhen’s feet left the deck, the stern gunwale catching his left leg. He spun, hands reaching; fingers brushed the smooth wood, then he fell past the ship.
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 mother’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 in…
He landed amid the ruins of an orange grove. The Intrepid crashed not far away.