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The Keystone Staff

Contents

Dedication

Map

Chapter One: Jorthen

Chapter Two: Kera

Chapter Three: Fitch

Chapter Four: Kera

Chapter Five: Fitch

Chapter Six: Kera

Chapter Seven: Fitch

Chapter Eight: Kera

Chapter Nine: Vessa

Chapter Ten: Kera

Chapter Eleven: Fitch

Chapter Twelve: Kera

Keep Reading

About the Author

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  To Christine Hoang.

Chapter One: Jorthen

[
**]

     The Aeonlith hovered in the great hall.

     Eight stories tall and blood-red, the stone resembled a blade balanced on its tip, defying the known laws of nature. Jorthen wondered where the stone came from as he felt its power flow through, giving him goose-flesh. His order believed it was given to them by the Gods to drive out the Necromages during the ancient times. Stories to frighten children, he thought. 

     He walked up the helix shaped stairway that spiralled around the Aeonlith in the Eastern Tower of the Citadel. The cream-colored stone interior of the great hall rose ten stories to a vaulted ceiling with a gallery overlooking the giant stone. The morning light poured in through the windows and refracted off the Aeonlith, bathing the hall in a blood-red glow. Jorthen’s jewel encrusted staff tapped against the steps as he continued to climb the stairs. 

     His golden hair had only begun to show streaks of white while his beard had become almost entirely gray. His skin was thick and lined from the sun and his red leather armor was worn and scuffed. He reached the gallery, looked down upon the Aeonlith and shivered. A sentinel walked up to him and guided him through the door to the waiting High Council.

     Inside the circular room, the twelve member council flanked a throne where the Preceptor should have been found. Instead, Preceptor Fanlorn stood in the center of the chamber with his staff in hand. He stood over six feet tall with a shock of white hair and dark eyes. His face wrinkled like old parchment but he stood as straight as an arrow.

     “Welcome,” he said.

     Jorthen walked towards him in the center of the chamber. The Preceptor swept his hands towards the elders of the council, motioning him to speak, and patrolled the auditorium’s circumference.

     “Fellow Wardens and members of the High Council,” Jorthen said above the murmur. “I come before you to ask permission to seek the Keystone Staff.”

     The council fell silent, leaving only the steady tap-tap-tap of the Preceptor’s staff as he circled the room. Jorthen looked toward him but the Preceptor continued to circle the room.

     “Are you informing us you know of the whereabouts of the Keystone Staff?” asked a council member.

     “My work with the bibliothecary, Luindre, has yielded the locations of many of the ancient and rare stones located around the world. We believe that we’ve identified the region where it might have been lost after the War of the Heavens.”

     Jorthen paused. Here we go.

     “It is in Qattan.”

     The room erupted into a roar as a debate between council members burst forth. A few called for a division of Wardens to invade while the others considered it far too risky to enter the Elderlands. The rest were suspicious the staff could be in Qattan at all. Preceptor Fanlorn thumped his staff on the chamber floor, causing one of many stones to brighten and then dim. The room silenced again.

     “We cannot invade the Elderlands without committing the Protectorates to all out war,” Fanlorn said still circling the room. “But, the Keystone Staff is one of our holiest relics and should be recovered. Do you have another way?”

     “I do. I’ve traveled the world over and have earned the trust of a few… colorful acquaintances. One of which is an airship captain whose ship is berthed in our city’s harbor as we speak. He can get me inside the walls of Qattan and from there I can search for the Keystone Staff.”

     “And you expect us to allow you to go alone?” asked a council member.

     “I know the captain of the airship well but persuading him to take me south of the Disc Sea will take much convincing. Try to persuade him to smuggle even a small team of Wardens?” Jorthen shook his head. “I can assure you, is folly.”

     “He sounds untrustworthy.”

     “Colorful. Unfortunately, I will need someone with far more knowledge of Qattan and the Keystone Staff itself to locate its precise position.” Jorthen looked around the room. “Thus, I would ask the council to allow the bibliothecary, Luindre, to accompany me on my journey.”

     “Luindre is too old to travel,” Fanlorn said.

     “His expertise is required to retrieve the staff. The records we are working from are damaged and incomplete and no one knows them better than he.”

     “I’m sorry, but what you ask is impossible. You will have to make do-”

     “What of his assistant?”

     The Preceptor stopped circling the room and stood between Jorthen and the throne. Fanlorn turned to face him. Jorthen could tell the Preceptor was appraising the situation before offering a response.

     “Her gift from the Aeon is weak, and she has never left the Citadel.”

     “But if she is to continue Luindre’s work once he’s passed, should she not see at least part of the world?”

     Fanlorn paused. She is young and inexperienced. Her first foray into the outside world should not be to a place where Wardens are executed on the spot, Jorthen thought. But that cannot be helped. Fanlorn walked to his throne and sat down.

     “Let the council choose,” the Preceptor said. “All in favor of Jorthen recovering the Keystone Staff, say aye.”

     The council was in unanimous agreement.

     “Those in favor of the acolyte, Kera, to accompany him, say aye.” Only seven members gave their support, but it was enough.

     “The council has spoken. Jorthen, you are charged with the retrieval of the Keystone Staff by the High Council of the Wardens of Aeon. Accompanying you will be the acolyte Kera whose knowledge may help you find the staff. Go.”

     “Thank you, High Council, for seeing me and allowing me to serve Aeon.”

     Jorthen turned and left the room. He walked to the edge of the gallery and looked down upon the Aeonlith, goose-flesh once again crawling along his arm. He stepped away from the overlook and made his way along the spiral staircase to the ground floor. 

     He smiled. I got everything I wanted. Jorthen went to gather his belongings.

Chapter Two: Kera

[
**]

     Kera swept her pole underneath the young man, knocking him to the floor. She pointed the rod at his head and he raised his hands in surrender.

     She helped him up as an older man with long jet black hair walked towards the two. Kera bowed to the man as he waved off her opponent, dismissing him.

     “You’ve improved,” he said.

     “Thank you, teacher Jin.”

     “I still don’t understand why a Warden of Aeon would want to learn the art of Kunsdt if she’s able to spew fire from her staff.”

     “Most Wardens rely far too much on Magick. I spend much of my day pouring through old documents so it’s nice to get a stretch.”

     It wasn’t exactly a lie. Like all Wardens, she has been properly trained to use Lenstones since she was a child. She could produce a flame with a Firegem but she would be lucky if it were any larger than a candle’s flame. She only carried a rarely used white Luminstone pendant she kept around her neck, hidden under her crimson shawl. 

     The truth was that she enjoyed the physical exertion. It also gave her a reason to walk through Valtan City’s streets and a reprieve from her work at the Citadel.

     Jin handed her a parchment. “A messenger came for you as you were sparring.”

     Kera unraveled the long red braid from the bun she had pinned to the back of her head. Her golden eyes scanned the message. The letter was from the High Council informing her of her new instructions.

     “I need to go,” she said, bowing to her instructor. He bowed in return as she handed him the training pole and hurried out the door.

***

[_     There must have been a mistake,_] Kera thought as she rushed into the athenaeum.

     Kera could remember the first time she arrived at the library to meet Luindre after her induction into the order of Wardens. He requested her after the induction ceremony showed her gift from the Aeon to be low. It was a relief at the time since she was certain she would have been turned out onto the streets of Valtan City. Like most Wardens of Aeon, she was inducted when she was just a baby and had no recollection of her parents or the home she was born in.

     The athenaeum was a musty old library in the northern tower of the Citadel that Luindre spent decades restoring. There were other bibliothecaries over the centuries, to be sure. But they were few and less concerned with preserving these tomes for the next generation. Luindre sat at his desk, as he did every day, this time reproducing an ancient tome on nightshades that had fallen apart.

     “Did you know?” she asked. “They’re sending me away.”

     Luindre put his quill back into the inkwell and stood up from his desk. His back hunched from years of toiling over scrolls and volumes of encyclopedia. His skin was thin with deep wrinkles that crisscrossed his gaunt face. Wisps of white hair hung from his scalp but his eyes were as black as the night sky. Kera offered him her arm. He was becoming more frail each passing day, though his mind remained sharp.

     “Do you know why I asked for you to be my assistant here?”

     “Because you need someone to continue your work when you pass,” she recited from memory.

     “And what work is that?”

     “To keep all our records intact.”

     “Why?”

     Kera hesitated, she was at a loss for words. This was a conversation the two of them had so many times it became a mantra. But never had he asked why. Luindre may be an old man but he was also a sly old fox. Kera wouldn’t put it past him to have written this exchange years ago expecting this day to come.

     “I spent many years traveling the world from the Freehold to the Dragonlands and learned much along the way,” Luindre said. “I added passages to many of the books in this library and corrected others. My work may be small compared to the entire library but even adding a fraction of knowledge is as important as retaining it. You can spend your whole life in here restoring and illuminating these works but it’s just as important to add to them.”

     Kera’s eyes narrowed. “You knew Jorthen would take me on his quest, didn’t you?”

     Luindre smiled again. Jorthen and her master had long worked together to uncover many lost relics and stones but the Warden had never paid much attention to her. The few times he had spoken to her he had been curt and dismissive. She often wondered if she had offended him in the past and was never forgiven for the slight.

     Now she would be stuck on airship thousands of feet in the air with him. She recalled the last time she tried to fly via a rare Aerostone. All her intense concentration got her, however, was two feet up into the air and a broken ankle seconds later. She concluded that man was not meant to fly. Or at least she wasn’t meant to.

     “Where does the Council want me to go? All I was told is that I am to board an airship on the morrow,” she asked.

     “Jorthen and I have tracked down the Keystone Staff and we think it may be in Qattan,” he answered. “The Council, in all their wisdom, decided I may be too frail to make the journey.”

     “Qattan? Wardens are forbidden in the Elderlands! They’ll execute us!”

     “Only if they catch you.” Luindre guided her towards the alcove where most of the information regarding the Keystone Staff was held. She had restored and reproduced much of the material on these shelves over the last few years and a good deal contradicted itself. Some of the works insisted that it was the shape of the staff itself which gave the Keystone its awesome power. Other volumes dismissed the staff as not being of any importance. The Keystone itself was either normal material crafted in a unique way or a jewel that fell from the heavens. Or even a piece broken off the Aeonlith itself. Whatever the truth, one thing that every book, scroll and scrap of parchment agreed upon was that it was powerful for a Warden to wield.

     “Take whatever books you may require for the journey,” Luindre said. “But remember you’ll be traveling by air. Airship captains are discerning about the weight you bring onto their vessels.”

     “Do you know anything about this captain?” Kera asked.

     “Only that his name is Captain Fitch and Jorthen has chartered him from time to time.”

     Kera scanned the books and scrolls on the shelves and decided on four she should take with her, placing them on a cart. They rolled it back to Luindre’s desk where he handed her a fifth book titled Gornen’s Account of the Final Stand in the War of the Heavens.

     “Can we trust him?” she asked. “The captain, I mean. What if he betrays us to the Elderlands?”

     “What is the first lesson I ever taught you?”

     “Question everything. Assume nothing.”

     “Trust is earned, it cannot be given. I’ve tried my best to teach you of the wonder and horror beyond our city walls but nothing will teach you quite like experience. So question everything when you travel.”

     “But I can trust Jorthen?”

     “Oh no, you should question him the most.”

     Luindre sat at his desk, dipped his quill in ink and continued his work. That would be all she was to get out of him. Kera resigned to continue her work on a manuscript that told of the myth of the Necromages during the ancient times. She had only begun last week but it gave her something to look forward to when she got back to the Citadel. The farthest she had ever ventured was the city walls. By tomorrow she would travel south across the Disc Sea and to a land unified by one thing: their hatred for the Wardens of Aeon.

Chapter Three: Fitch

[
**]

     The trade winds were blowing towards the south and Fitch had just about had it with his Warden associate. Two days he waited aboard his ship in Valtan Harbor and he would be damned if he stayed a third.

     Jorthen had been a useful ally to have on occasion, getting the Silent Star through certain ports in the Protectorate states without inspection. In return, Fitch had been willing to give the Warden free passage whenever they were going in the same direction. Never had he expected they would go to Qattan. The unified Elderlands had expelled the Wardens of Aeon two decades ago from their lands. It was the head of anyone who smuggled them into their territory.

     He stroked his unkept black beard. I need a drink, he thought. 

     Valtan Harbor was a center of trade and commerce in the Protectorates but it was impossible to find a good and affordable stein of mead. While not illegal within the walls of the city, the Wardens abstained from drinking alcohol. They preferred to be clear-headed and the people of the city weren’t officially allowed to import it. That always left a little leeway for enterprising young captains to sell grog to the citizens of Valtan for “private use” at extravagant prices. He hated the stuff. Fitch had his own supply of wine, which he drank in his cabin. But what was the point of traveling across the world just to lock yourself in your own room drinking your own wine? I need to get some air.

     He threw on his heavy green coat and headed out of his room. The Silent Star’s hallways were made of balsa wood, much like the rest of the ship. He walked down the central corridor of the ship’s upper-decks and approached one of the hoists. He stepped into the wooden carriage and pressed the lever on his right and descended through the bowels of the ship.

     Most of the Silent Star was an open cavity filled with gasbags that kept the ship afloat and separated the upper-decks from the lower. Underneath the gasbags were the cargo holds whose giant doors opened downwards like a ramp. The carriage lowered itself between two of these bags and came to a stop once he reached the lower levels.

     He stepped out of the carriage and down the incline of the open freight hatch towards Valtan City’s harbor. The Silent Star stretched over 300 feet in each direction behind him, shaped like a giant white cigar with sails protruding from the hull. At the edge of the cargo ramp, sitting atop a crate, was a short young woman with pale skin and black shoulder length locks. The fringe of her hair framed her pale blue eyes. Her young round face had yet to shed its cherubic features.

     “What’s the word, Captain?” she asked.

     “I hate this place, Vessa,” Fitch said. “Make sure the crew is ready to fly at a moment’s notice.”

     “We leaving today?”

     Before Fitch could respond, there he was: Warden Jorthen making his way down the dock. Jorthen usually packed light but today he had a young redheaded companion in a maroon robe carrying a second bag for him. She looks terrified, Fitch thought before he realized the woman wasn’t carrying a second bag for Jorthen at all. She was carrying her own belongings. Fitch rushed down the rest of the cargo ramp and down the dock to meet the pair.

     “Oh no,” he said. “No no no no! No, you are not taking her with you! One of you is bad enough!”

     “I need her with me,” Jorthen replied as he continued to walk up to Fitch.

     “Like hell you do! You need a ship more than you need her and I need the both of you like a sword through my neck!”

     Jorthen brushed past him with his companion girl trailing behind like a puppy on a leash tethered to her master. He followed the two Wardens as they approached the cargo ramp. Vessa pounced from her crate, ready to lunge on the two Wardens but Fitch waved her away.

     “What? Are you going to board my ship and fly it yourself? She’s running pretty low on funny air so I’d be surprised if you made it across the Disc Sea. And how do you think the Freehold would take to a Warden of Aeon commandeering an airship? Or are your people just trying to piss off every nation on the planet?”

     Jorthen stopped at the top of the cargo ramp. “How would the Freehold take it if they found out that a captain of an airship was smuggling weapons aboard? I take it my usual cabin is available in the lower decks. Please find a private cabin for my companion.” He walked off towards the aft of the hold.

     The young Warden turned to Vessa. “Hello, can you please carry this to my room?”

     “I’m the Quartermaster, not the bloody cabin boy!”

     “Follow Jorthen to his cabin for now,” said Fitch. “I’ll send someone momentarily to find you suitable accommodations.”

     Only once the young redhead walked away and disappeared into the ship did he turn to Vessa. “I want to get underway as soon as possible. Tell the men to raise the sails and empty the ballonets,” he said. “Get Rogo to make a cabin ready for Jorthen’s companion in the upper-decks. Make sure it’s as far away from Jorthen’s quarters and as close to yours as possible. Then come see me.”

     Vessa nodded and headed off to prepare the ship while Fitch took the hoist back to the upper-decks. He poured himself a cup of wine once he entered his cabin, closed the door and sat down on his bunk. He could hear the bellows stir and suck the air out of the ballonets. The familiar creaking of the sails being unfurled meant they would be up in the air soon. Fitch finished his cup of wine and as he got up to pour another glass, Vessa walked in. He offered her a cup. She declined.

     “We have a problem,” he said as he took a sip of wine. “Jorthen is up to something. And it’s not his usual scheming.”

     “Agreed. He wouldn’t have threatened us like he did unless something was up.”

     “It’s more than that. He knew that I wouldn’t smuggle him into Qattan without risking at least a few weapons on board in case events spiral out of control. He counted on me breaking the Ahrsai treaty to get that girl on this damned expedition.”

     “So you want me to spy on her.”

     Fitch raised his glass to Vessa. She was catching on more quickly these days.

     “They’re after something in Qattan but it doesn’t seem to be the usual magick rock. This girl has to fit into that somehow so I want to know who she is and what they want. For now, they need us so let’s use that to our advantage.”

     He downed the rest of his wine and Vessa got up to leave. As she was about to open the door, she turned back to face Fitch. “Do you think they know?” she asked.

     “No,” he said. “Things would have gone differently on the docks if they did.”

     “What if they double cross us?”

     “Then you’ll have to make sure our little secret will be the last thing they learn,” Fitch promised. 

     The Silent Star rose into the sky and began its journey south.

Chapter Four: Kera

[
**]

     Kera’s eyes burned from poring through the documents she had brought from the athenaeum. The Silent Star had no portholes and she never ventured to the open decks so her only light had been the lantern she read by. Her world was her cabin’s walls that surrounded her.

     They had been in the air for a week now. She spent her days and nights secluded trying to find any clue as to where the Keystone Staff could be located, occasionally stopping for food from the mess deck. During those excursions, she often crossed paths with the ship’s quartermaster, who was far friendlier now that they were in the air.

     She had been re-reading passages from a guide to old Qattan which had notes about the city’s geography in Luindre’s hand. He must have travelled there in the past, she thought. 

     Qattan was an old city at the edge of the Mortira Desert, a desert so vast no one had ever crossed it end-to-end. It survived the horrors of the Necromage War of the ancient times. It survived the final battle in the War of the Heavens. But, in the end, it was a natural disaster that toppled the city. Half of it was swallowed up by a giant sink hole that opened to an underground lake. When neighboring cities tried to pillage what was left, the surviving residents protected themselves in an old necropolis on the edge of the crater. Eventually, they built a wall around the crater and carved a new city into the walls of the cavern, abandoning the surface.

     Kera’s back began to hurt as she tried to work through the burning sensation in her eyes. Hunger also took hold of her which was a welcomed feeling after spending the first few days getting her sky legs. She decided it was time to grab something to eat.

     Kera walked out into the narrow corridor and up a flight of stairs until she found the mess hall, which was fortunately empty of crew. The food aboard the ship was almost unbearable and consisted mostly of salted meats, dried hard bread, and cheese. She gathered up some indiscernible meat, dried peas, and a bit of cheese into a bowl. She turned as Vessa entered the room and sauntered up to her.

     “Hi there,” she smiled.

     “I’m sorry, I’m just grabbing a snack,” Kera murmured, backing away. “I’ll get out of your way.”

     “Stop.”

     Kera froze, unsure of how to respond. Vessa had been the only crew member to utter a word to her these past few days but Kera had tried to keep their conversation to a minimum. The first night aboard the Silent Star, Jorthen instructed her to steer clear of the crew and not to interfere with them. 

     “I’m sorry I snapped at you when we began our journey,” Vessa said. “But you’re the only other woman onboard. I rarely get a chance to just talk with another woman.”

     “I’m just very busy at the moment,” Kera responded.

     Vessa’s eyes narrowed as she made her way to the exit. “Well, I’m sorry to disturb you and your fine meal.” 

     The Quartermaster was about to leave the mess deck when Kera, in spite of her self, spoke. “Vessa?”

     Vessa stopped at the threshold and looked back.

     “I’m sorry. Have a seat with me?” Kera said. “Please?”

     She picked a small table in the corner next to a tapped barrel and sat down as Vessa eyed her from the open hatch. Kera was unsure whether the young Quartermaster would sit down or walk out the door.

     “You should drink the grog,” Vessa said finally and sat down across the table. 

     “I don’t drink.”

     “It’s not to get drunk. The lime in it will stave off scurvy. It’s pretty weak.”

     Kera hesitated. She had never had an alcoholic drink as per her order’s traditions. She had read about the disease and how fresh fruit prevented it but there was no fresh fruit aboard. It made sense they would preserve the lime with alcohol. She poured a modest portion of the drink into a wooden cup from the nearby barrel and sat back down.

     Vessa’s pale blue eyes studied her. “It won’t hurt you. And one cup won’t make you drunk,” she said.

     Kera put the cup to her lips, took a small sip and gagged. Vessa threw her head back and laughed.

     “You said it wasn’t strong! It tastes like dirt and rotten fruit!” said Kera.

     Vessa continued to laugh, “I meant the amount of alcohol in it! I should have given you a better warning.”

     “It’s vile!” 

     Vessa rested her elbow on the table. “It’s better than your teeth falling out while your gums bleed.”

     “How do you drink this?”

     “You get used to it.”

     “You mean you actually like it?”

     “No, I mean you get used to it. Captain’s got some of the better drink in his cabin, though.”

     Kera took a bite of her dried meat, which may or may not have been beef. At least the drink makes the food taste better in comparison, she thought.

     “How long have you known him?” Kera asked.

     “Who? The captain? Near most my life, it seems. Brought me on board to see the world but you’ve probably seen more going on missions.”

     “I’ve never left Valtan until now.”

     Vessa’s eyes went wide. She stood and leaned forward over the table. “You mean you’ve never left home? Never been airborne? Have you even left your cabin?”

     Kera shook her head, a piece of dried beef hanging from her lips. Vessa pulled Kera by the arm from the table, through the mess deck hatch and up a flight of stairs leading to the top deck. For a small lady Vessa is incredibly strong, Kera thought.

     As they approached the exit from the stairwell, panic kicked in and Kera struggled against Vessa. Too late. Both of them stood exposed to the sky. The sun was setting, and bands of orange, red, and violet stretched across the sky. The Silent Star sailed a thousand feet above the Disc Sea.

     Kera had lived her life surrounded by the walls of Valtan City and was now terrified and exhilarated by the endless sky and sea of the world around her. She walked up to the rail on the port side of the ship and looked off towards the horizon.

     “Jorthen is up here every morning practicing with that staff of his. Conjuring up fire and water and whatever else,” Vessa said.

     “He’s practicing, it’s normal.”

     “I mean, why aren’t you doing the same thing? I’d have thought you would have been practicing as well. All you’ve done is just linger in your dingy cabin.”

[_     Because the crew would laugh at me?_] “I’m a bibliothecary’s apprentice. I only carry a Luminstone pendant with me.”

     “What for?”

     “To read by if I can’t find a lantern, mostly.”

     “Can I see it?” 

     Kera took the pendant out from under her maroon robes. She almost forgot it was there and was about to undo the clasp behind her neck when Vessa spoke. “No, I want you to show me how you use it.”

     She concentrated on the stone to produce a low light. Suddenly, the stone shone as bright as the midday sun. Both she and Vessa turned away from it as Kera quickly disengaged the stone.

     “The hell was that for?” Vessa exclaimed.

     The spots in Kera’s eyes dissipated as her mind raced. That shouldn’t have happened. That’s never happened. Something’s wrong. “I’m sorry,” was all she said before a bell from the crow’s nest rang out. 

     Vessa cupped her hands and yelled towards the crew member at the top of the mast. “What is it?”

     “Incoming off the port side,” the crew member responded as he climbed down the rigging to the top deck.

     “What do you mean ‘incoming?’ We’re in the air!”

     Vessa looked out towards the mountains in the east. Kera did the same. They both scanned the horizon when Kera saw them: twelve large birds headed straight for the Silent Star.

     “Sound the alarm!” Vessa commanded.

     Kera had never seen such birds before. Their wings looked strangely rigid as they flapped. “What types of birds are those?” she asked.

     “They’re not birds, they’re Aramkeen ornithopters!”

     The ornithopters were made of wood and canvas and shaped like bat wings. Kera had read about the Aramkeen and while little is known about them, one thing is certain. “Assassins,” Kera whispered as a glider landed before them.

Chapter Five: Fitch

[
**]

     Fitch was looking out towards the horizon from the upper bridge. To the west, the sun was setting where sea met sky and all signs pointed to a quiet, smooth flight through the night. He liked taking the helm alone before dusk just to see the world one last time as they glided above in silence. He felt free.

     This evening, however, Fitch’s silent contemplation was disturbed by a commotion on deck. Fitch couldn’t make out what was being yelled from the crow’s nest. He locked down the helm but before he could reach the bridge door, a large burly man whose nose and mouth was covered by a bushy moustache came rushing in.

     “What’s happening, Rogo?” Fitch asked.

     “Aramkeen gliders, cap’n!” Rogo responded.

     “Get the men armed!”

     Fitch pulled a plank from the wall and hidden behind it were two rapiers and two long swords. As they burst through the door, he gave the long swords to Rogo and took a rapier in each hand. Fitch gathered that they must have flown in from the Einorn mountains. 

     As Rogo went below deck, Fitch saw a glider land amidships near three crew members on the top deck. No, not three crew members, he thought in alarm. That’s Vessa and Jon with the young Warden Kera. He rushed over towards them. Before he could reach the trio, a small crossbow bolt struck the deck as a second glider almost landed on top of him. The pilot, clad in a black hood and face mask, released the buckles attaching him to the glider. He unsheathed his sword in midair, striking from above as he landed.

     Fitch crossed his swords and blocked. He glanced over to the trio as an unarmed Jon tackled the other Aramkeen to the ground. A third glider landed on the bow of the ship. The assassin Fitch faced swung his sword again and again. Fitch blocked with one rapier and then the other before the assassin swept his feet from under him. 

     Fitch fell onto his back as the assassin’s sword swung down. He rolled over as the sword hit the deck and stuck. Thrusting up with both swords, he penetrated deep into his opponent’s side. With a sickening scream, the assassin buckled and collapsed. Fitch leapt up off the deck and hurried towards Jon, Vessa and Kera. A quick motion from the Aramkeen’s sword hand and Jon’s head had been severed from his neck. The two assassins now turned their attention to the women.

     Without warning, a brilliant light emanated from Kera and shot towards one of the two incoming assassins. He arched back in pain and clutched at his eyes as his skin began to turn a bright reddish-pink. After a few moments, the Luminstone suddenly shattered in Kera’s hand. The searing pain traveled up her arm.

[_     She blinded one of them with a Luminstone,] Fitch thought. _I didn’t know the Wardens could do that. He turned his attention to the arrival of another glider depositing a tall and slender figure. The new assassin was clad in white, with pale skin and piercing red eyes.

     “Witchwarrior!” he cried out.

     In her left hand, the Witchwarrior uncorked a vial from where a green mist rose. With a quick motion of her right hand, the green cloud shot towards Kera, whose Luminstone now grew dark. The Aramkeen assassin lunged towards the pair of women. “Now Vessa!” yelled Fitch as he ran towards the witch.

     Vessa stepped between Kera and the incoming Aramkeen. She extended her right arm and a flame burst forth from her palm. The assassin, engulfed in flame, was knocked over the side and to a certain death in the turbulent sea below. The Witchwarrior waved her hand over the green vial but Fitch intercepted her, putting both his swords to her neck.

     “Yield!” he said.

     The witch glared. He pushed his scissored swords into her neck and drew blood. Fitch wouldn’t hesitate to cut her head clean off at the slightest movement.

     “I am yours,” she spat and looked down.

     Crossbow bolts began to rain down from the remaining Aramkeen gliders as Rogo, Jorthen, and a few more shipmates poured out onto the deck. His men were armed with bows and swords.

     “Take them out of my sky!” said Fitch.

     As the crewmen fired, Jorthen looked over at Kera before pointing his staff towards the remaining gliders. A blue gem glowed on the stave as an icicle formed at its tip, firing into the closest ornithopter. Most of the assassins were killed in the air as their gliders crashed onto the deck. The few who survived to the deck were butchered with swords.

     “Rogo, you’re late,” Fitch said.

     “Aye, but you’ve seem to have done well without me.”

     Fitch pointed to the Witchwarrior. “Remove her vials and get her into the stockade. She shouldn’t be a problem for the time being.”

     As Rogo escorted the witch below deck, Jorthen was already walking towards Kera demanding to know what happened. Fitch’s heart sank and his mind raced as he tried in vain to come up with a reasonable explanation for what Kera witnessed.

     “We were attacked from the sky. Aramkeen flying gliders,” Kera said, clutching her bleeding hand.

     “And you fought back?” asked Jorthen.

     “No. That one,” Kera nodded towards the decapitated Jon, “defended us and attacked the first to land before…” Kera closed her eyes momentarily and took a deep breath before continuing. “Captain Fitch dispatched a second. Vessa knocked another overboard as the Captain held the Witchwarrior at sword point. The witch has temporarily taken away my gift. Then you and the rest of the crew appeared on deck.”

     “And that’s all that happened?” he said, looking at her bleeding hand.

     “Yes master.”

     Jorthen studied the young Warden but his stern look softened.

     “Your gift should be back in a few hours, the Witchwarrior’s alchemy will wear off by then. Please see the ship’s medic and remain below deck. Luindre would not be happy if I returned without you.”

     Fitch watched as Jorthen walked away. He now had far more questions than answers and it was high time he got some. Once Jorthen was out of earshot and below deck did he turn to Kera.

     “May I please see you in my cabin? You too, Vessa.”

***

     Fitch’s cabin was only slightly bigger than any of the other cabins on the Silent Star. There wasn’t any standing space for the three of them which made any discussion awkward. Vessa wrapped Kera’s hand in gauze as he sat down at his desk. Fitch stroked his beard, trying to find a delicate way to approach this situation. He looked into Kera’s golden eyes.

     “You lied to him.” Well, that was delicate, he thought.

     “I did not. Vessa knocked an Aramkeen off the deck,” Kera responded. “I just left out a few details,” she sheepishly added.

     “You could have told him,” said Vessa as she tied off the gauze.

     “Told him what? That you can manipulate fire without a Lenstone? A natural-born like you hasn’t been seen in two centuries. I didn’t even believe they existed at all until now.”

     “No one knows about it other than the three of us in this room,” said Fitch. “I would prefer it if it stayed that way.”

     “Captain, I’ve lived my entire life in the confines of Valtan City so I may be naïve, but I’m not stupid. There are things Jorthen isn’t telling you or me and obviously there are things you haven’t told us. What I know is that Vessa saved my life by revealing something you were hoping to keep hidden. All I want is to do my job and go home. I’m not here to recruit.”

     “And your job is?”

     “That,” she said, “you’ll have to ask Jorthen. May I please be excused?”

     Fitch nodded and Kera took her cue to walk out of the cabin. Vessa sat on the edge of his desk and crossed her arms, looking down on Fitch.

     “You’re quiet,” he said.

     “She’s still hiding something from us.”

     “She’s hiding something from us, he’s hiding something from her, we’re hiding something from him. I’m liking this flight less and less.” Fitch ran his fingers through his black hair and then stroked his beard.

     “She could still tell Jorthen about me.”

     “They still need us to smuggle them into Qattan. We’re hired to get them into the city but a whisper in the right ear and they may never leave.”

[_     Or she could stumble off the flight deck and a thousand feet to the ground,_] he thought. Fitch wasn’t sure he would be able to convince Jorthen of that accident happening and he hoped that Kera would keep her word. He would rather not murder someone if he could avoid it.

     “Vessa, one other thing,” he said. “We’ve both seen Jorthen in action, did he seem slow to show up to the fight?”

     “His cabin is in the lower decks so he did have a way to travel.”

     “Maybe. But the Aramkeen rarely enlist the Witchwarriors unless they know they’ll be encountering a Warden. Usually one witch per Warden.”

     “So what are you saying?”

     “I’m saying that someone knew we had a Warden of Aeon aboard this ship,” said Fitch. “Someone knew Jorthen was here.”

Chapter Six: Kera

[
**]

     The mess deck’s benches were partly full with rowdy skymen as Kera walked in. With one of her books tucked under her arm, she poured herself a cup of grog and scanned the room for a seat. 

     In Valtan, whenever she walked through the streets, she was treated with a fair amount of courtesy. Even in Jin’s martial arts training center, the other pupils distanced themselves from her. 

     But the crew of the Silent Star treated her no differently than they did each other after the Aramkeen attack. They seemed to have accepted her as an equal after suffering a ‘war wound,’ as slight as it was. 

     She could have asked Jorthen to heal it for her with a Medijewel but she was hesitant to bring up any mention of a Lenstone. It may lead to questions of her now shattered Luminstone. Luindre’s warning to not trust Jorthen also rang through her mind. 

     The power she was able to channel through it was immense and unlike anything she had experienced before. It was said some of the most powerful Wardens in the Citadel’s history had been able to focus so much energy into a stone in extreme situations that it would crack but she’d never heard of one shattering into a thousand pieces.

     Her mind raced with possibilities but without access to the athenaeum she couldn’t look into it further. Instead, she had spent the last few days aboard trying to understand the airship and her crew. The ship itself was a technological wonder from the far west Freehold continent. Its hull was constructed from balsa, formerly indigenous to the Freehold rain forests. A hundred years ago, an enterprising merchant prince shipped a few of the trees east, past the Disc Sea, and broke the monopoly on building airship frames. The only place outside of the Freehold that balsa thrives is in the rainforests of the Aess continent, west of the Dragonlands. While the Dragon Lords rarely attack far away from their volcanic empire, the balsa forest had grown deeper inland over the years and the attacks became more frequent. The Silent Star was an older vessel from the Freehold. It was built to endure.

     The gas bags are made of goldbeater skin from the mammoths that the Freehold hunted to extinction on their continent. The Empire of Shintah to the far east had bred the animals for centuries and the grasslands are now swarming with the large beasts. There is even a myth that the Oracle herself walked the entire Crimson Road to protect the mammoths from being hunted there too.

     But the Freehold is still the only supplier of the spirit of flight, an invisible gas that provides lift. The only place outside of the Freehold that are supplied with reserve spirit is the neutral Gateway Cities of Arynhaar on the far side of the Disc Sea. Kera learned that crew members of the Silent Star referred to it as ‘funny-air’ because of its peculiar ability to change the pitch of one’s voice.

     “Lass,” said Rogo. “Come sit over here!”

     Rogo was the first crew member she spoke to when she boarded the airship. Whatever hair he lacked on his head, he made up for with his black burly moustache. The whiskers grew away from his face, past his ears, which he molded into points. It covered both his nostrils and upper lip. Kera wondered if he had issues breathing. Despite towering over the entire crew and having a body shaped like a wine barrel, Rogo spoke with a soft voice. Kera sat down next to him and three other crew members.

     “And what are we studying tonight, Lass?” he asked.

     “Same as always, Rogo,” she said. “Books about the place we’re heading towards.”

     “Aye. I saw it from the lower bridge this morning. We’ll be there soon. I’ll miss ya when you’re gone.”

     “Rogo, that’s sweet. But there’s still the trip back home so you won’t be rid of me yet.”

     “Aye, so I won’t!”

     Kera raised her cup. “To a good crew and the only home away from home I’ve ever known,” she said. Rogo and the other three crewmen followed suit. Vessa was right, Kera thought. You get used to it.

     As she put her drink down, Jorthen walked in, making his way to their table. Rogo stiffened his back when the Warden reached the table. “You’re drinking?” he frowned.

     “It’s, uh, only to stave off the scurvy, Master.”

     “Hmm. Gather your belongings and meet me down in the cargo hold. We need to prepare for descent.”

     Without another word, he walked off. Kera glanced at Rogo, who shrugged and raised his cup to her as she got up from the table.

***

     Jorthen stood in the cargo hold speaking with Captain Fitch and Vessa as Kera approached. Most of the crew were now working the bellows, filling the ballonets with air to bring the ship down.

     Fitch and Vessa pulled on a few planks of wood from the wall revealing a tight space between the inner and outer hull. There was no room for their legs to bend so they would have to stand. Being this near the bottom of the ship, however, put the wall at a 45 degree slant so it would be nearer to lying down than to standing. This was the part of the plan Kera was dreading.

     “This may be uncomfortable but it’s the only way we can get you into Qattan,” Fitch said. “My crew has been in and out of the city several times and are vouched for with travel stones. The only way for non-Elderlandians to enter is to be given one half of a stone that has been broken in two. The two halves must match perfectly and they keep a portrait of the holder on file. When we land, it will be a slow process to match all the stones and portraits so be as quiet as possible.”

     Jorthen and Fitch clasped arms and the Warden slid into the crawl space. Kera placed her bag inside and crawled in after him, feeling like she was about to be entombed. Vessa nodded to her and she returned a small smile. The planks were placed over them, locking them away in darkness. 

     A few moments passed before Jorthen spoke. “Have you narrowed our search for the staff yet?” he asked.

     “There are two books I’ve been poring through again and again: Gornen’s account of the final stand in the War of the Heavens and a guide to Old Qattan,” she said. “If Luindre’s notes are correct, then the last mention of the staff was in Leonii’s care just before the final assault on the airship armada. Qattan was the staging area for the Wardens in that battle, most of whom possessed an Aerostone to fly.”

     “Which is why Aerostones are so rare, most of them were lost in the battle,” Jorthen interjected impatiently. “I know all this from the historical accounts.”

     “I’m far more interested in what is missing from the texts. The account of the battle makes no mention of Leonii.”

     “So Leonii may not have been part of it at all?”

     “That’s what Luindre’s notes in Gornen’s account seem to imply. Leonii never left Qattan. In the guide to Qattan, Luindre noted a necropolis existed before the sinkhole swallowed part of the city on the surface. I believe that if Leonii lived out his days in the city then-”

     “Then the Keystone Staff would be buried with him! The question now is whether the necropolis fell into the sinkhole or not.”

     “It didn’t. When the city fell, neighboring nations attacked. The remaining citizens ended up in the only defendable site they could find, the necropolis. This became the first tower in the protective walls that surround the current city.” 

     “Then we must somehow steal inside the wall and locate the proper tomb,” Jorthen said.

[_     Getting in and out will be difficult but I know exactly where he Keystone Staff is,] Kera thought. [_And once we reach Leonii’s tomb, this farce will be over. _]The _Silent Star began its decent into Qattan.

Chapter Seven: Fitch

[
**]

     Fitch stood at the brig door with a rapier at the ready and peered inside through the wicket. The Witchwarrior sat crosslegged on the floor with her long black hair framing her pale face. Her red eyes shot up to meet Fitch’s.

     The captain had her locked up in the Silent Star’s brig since the attack by the Aramkeen, trying to avoid this conversation. The Witchwarriors of Nor are from the northern lands along the Crimson Road. Traders who travel from the Empire of Shintah to the Protectorates have spoken of them stealing men from the caravans as breeding stock. Once they outlived their usefulness… well, meat was scarce up north.

     “What’s your name, witch?” Fitch asked.

     “Yominai,” she responded.

     The witches seem to give birth to women but some tales say that on rare occasion they do give birth to boys. Those are considered a delicacy. Fitch didn’t know the truth of those stories. What he knew is that anyone captured by a witch would be given the choice of becoming property or death. He hoped this applied to the Witchwarriors themselves.

     “Yominai, there’s no easy way to say this,” Fitch said. “I have to know if I open this cage whether you’ll murder me.”

     The witch uncrossed her legs and stood up in one fluid motion. She walked towards the brig door window and smiled -- it was a garish grin of sharp teeth, filed into points. "If I wanted you dead, you wouldn't be standing here now."

     Jorthen believed her, she became docile as soon as she surrendered. “I have a problem, the Qattanians loathe magick users and will put you to the sword as soon as they find you. Then they’ll put me to the sword. So the simplest solution is to just slit your throat and toss you overboard.”

     Yominai bowed her head. “I understand.”

     Fitch paused. “Or I’ve heard that the Witchwarriors can make themselves invisible, is that true?”

     She raised her head to meet Fitch’s dark brown eyes and nodded.

     “Well, which is it? Should I slit your throat or get your potions?”

     “You do not seem to understand,” she said. “I am your property until you decide you no longer want me. I will do whatever you say, when you want me to do it.”

     “What happens if I decide to set you free?”

     “Then,” she said, “I will murder you.”

     Fitch stared into her blood red eyes for a moment. “Fair enough,” he replied and slid the key into the lock. His left hand on his sword, ready to strike.

     “One other thing,” Fitch said. “Murder none of my crew or passengers or try to take them as property. Treat them as your allies.”

     “Clever boy. As you wish.”

     Fitch turned the key, unlocking the brig door, and Yominai glided out. She was tall -- a full head taller than Fitch -- and extremely slender. He led her into the hoist where they ascended to the upper-decks. The few crew members they encountered seemed to find alternate routes to wherever they were going. The pair approached the captain's cabin.

     Once inside the cramped room, he pointed to his desk were the witch’s potions lay. She rifled through a dozen small vials before settling on a black liquid and something that resembled a sugar cube she produced from a small pouch.

     “This will render me invisible for the better part of a day. Shall I begin?” she asked.

     Fitch nodded as the witch prepared her potion. “Why did the Aramkeen hire you? Or were you their property as well?”

     “I was hired. Our mission was to subdue and retrieve a female Warden of Aeon.”

     Fitch’s jaw slackened. “You came to kidnap Kera? Why her?”

     She shrugged. “I wasn’t told why they wanted her. All I know is that she was to be unharmed.”

     Yomanai chanted under her breath and poured the black liquid onto the white cube. The entire volume of liquid from the flask seeped into the tiny cube. She placed it under her tongue and closed her eyes. Fitch didn’t see her fade away, but rather lost track of where she was in the room.

     “Did it work?” he asked.

     Fitch felt her breath on the back of his neck. “Can you see me?” she responded.

     A shiver ran down his spine as he turned around but still saw no trace of her. “No,” he said.

     “Well then,” was all she answered.

***

     Fitch walked into the lower bridge and looked over Qattan. The city looked as if the gods gouged a chunk out of the world -- a massive crater with sheer vertical walls that descended into the semi arid rock. Homes and shops were built into the walls along the spiral roads that wound from the top of the sinkhole to the bottom. It was along these roads where the affluent lived while the poor lived and worked farther inside the rock through a series of passages.

     At the bottom of the sinkhole was a giant freshwater lake that was worth more to the people of Qattan than the gold and iron they mined. The city’s circumference was surrounded by a wall with eight watchtowers at ground level. Two of the towers that stood opposite each other were connected via the Wharf Bridge, spanning the diameter of the city where airships could moor.

     Rogo was at the helm and docked the Silent Star into a spot on the Wharf Bridge. As the ship made its descent, Fitch felt uneasy. There were no other airships berthed in Qattan and as they got closer to the bridge, he noticed a company of soldiers standing at the dock.

     “I’m going down to the cargo hold, something’s wrong,” Fitch said.

     He ran down to the cargo hold where Vessa was waiting to greet the customs officer as she lined up the crew for processing. When he saw her, he grabbed her by the elbow and dragged her to the false wall where he hid Jorthen and Kera.

     “Something is going on, Jorthen. Qattan is brimming with soldiers and there are no airships docked in the city,” said Fitch, leaning close to the wall. “It looks like the place is in lockdown. We might need to fight our way out. I’ll let you know more when I know what’s happened.”

     Vessa and Fitch walked away from the false wall to the lowering cargo hold ramp. Waiting on the other side were soldiers led by a customs officer, who briskly walked aboard the Silent Star. He was a short man with large sideburns and a crooked nose.

     “Who are you and what is your business in the city of Qattan?” he asked.

     “I’m Captain Fitch of the Silent Star and this is my first mate Vessa,” Fitch said. “We’re just traders coming in from the Empire of Shintah with silks and spices.”

     “Ah. Unfortunately, the timing to peddle your wares couldn’t be any worse. The Elderlands have placed Qattan under a strict travel policy. Your ship will have to stay moored until further notice and your crew confined to the ship. Do you have anyone onboard who has never been to Qattan?”

     “Maybe the mice?” Vessa said.

     The customs officer ignored her, “We’ll go through all the normal procedures to verify your crew. But anyone who takes a step off the ship will be executed on site. Clear?”

     “Perfectly. How long will we be confined to Qattan?” Fitch asked.

     “Until we let you leave.”

     The customs officer walked off and started his inspection of the ship. The soldiers asked for papers and travel stones as Fitch relaxed.

     “Looks like whatever they’re on standby for, it’s not us,” Vessa said.

     “It’s the only bit of luck we’ve had on this expedition,” Fitch murmured.

     Before Fitch could breathe a sigh of relief, his heart sank. Jorthen emerged between several crates with his staff at the ready. Kera followed him to the customs officer with terror in her eyes. The Qattanian soldiers hollered and drew their swords as the short customs officer turned around to face the Warden.

     “I am Jorthen of the Wardens of Aeon, along with my companion Kera,” he said. “I request to speak with the Prefect of Qattan. I believe we’re expected.”

     The customs officer looked towards Fitch. “You have no one onboard who has never been to Qattan, hmm?”

     A guard grabbed Fitch and placed his hands behind his back. Another did the same to Vessa, who reluctantly stopped struggling when Fitch shot her a sharp look.

     “Jorthen of the Wardens of Aeon,” the customs officer said. “I would be delighted to introduce you to our Prefect if you would but hand over your staff.”

     Fitch watched in horror as the Warden handed over his staff to the customs officer. Qattan, like all the Elderland city-states, has a kill-on-sight policy regarding the Wardens. Rather than taking Jorthen’s head off right there, however, he told his soldier to round up the crew of the Silent Star and place them in the ship’s brig.

     “Bring the captain with us,” the customs officer said. “Jorthen, we’ve been expecting you.”

     Jorthen, Kera and Fitch were escorted into Qattan City.

Chapter Eight: Kera

[
**]

     The spiral road was far more narrow than Kera imagined. Looking over the side of the road gave her a sharp sense of vertigo.

     Shops and homes had been carved intricately into rock and, at one time, Kera could imagine that the entire city looked like an explosion of color. But the paint on the exterior had peeled and cracked off the rose-red stone. There were few citizens milling about but she couldn’t tell if the city had been evacuated or whether its people were hiding.

     Their party came upon a massive façade of four pillars holding up a roof -- at least that was what the carved stone was meant to look like. The guards escorted them past the wooden doors and into the entrance hall. In contrast to the city outside, the interior of the building was bustling with Elderland soldiers. The inside was cut entirely from the rock but the paint seemed to fare better when not exposed to the elements.

     The three were ushered through several hallways and brought before another heavy wooden entrance. One of the guards knocked on the door, which was quickly opened. The party walked into a large chamber peppered with pillars and guards. At the other end of the room, a man emerged from behind a large desk. The Prefect, Kera guessed.

     He was a slender man of average height with brown skin and white, tightly curled hair. He wore a simple blue mantle tied off at the waist with a golden cord. The guards did nothing to stop Jorthen from walking towards the center of the room where the Prefect met him. The two men clasped hands as friends.

     “Prefect Galeck,” Jorthen said, “may I present my associates Captain Fitch and Warden Kera.”

     “Well met,” Galeck said. He turned back to Jorthen. “We expected you to arrive with the others.”

     “I was forced to change plans. Things did not go my way.”

     “Ah. So what shall we do with your… associates?”

     “The girl remains with me but the crew of the Silent Star can face whatever justice you believe is necessary.”

     Fitch shook with rage. “We wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t blackmailed me and dragged my crew here!”

     “Silence! Or I’ll have your tongue,” Galeck hissed. He turned back to Jorthen. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

     “One other thing, I need access to the old necropolis. I’m looking for the tomb of a man named Leonii who passed away sometime after the War of the Heavens.”

     “The necropolis has a single corridor that spirals down by date, beginning with the founding of Qattan and its first death. There are thousands upon thousands of the dead entombed in those crypts. It would take months to find the resting place of a single man without knowing the date of his death.”

     “I know the date,” Kera interjected.

     Jorthen and Galeck paused and looked towards Kera. [I don’t know what you’re up to Jorthen, or what game you’re trying to play or even who’s side you’re on, _]she thought. _What I do know is that you want the staff as soon as possible. And I know where to find Leonii’s corpse.

     “When did he die?” Jorthen asked.

     “First,” said Kera, “I want the crew of the Silent Star pardoned for any of their crimes.”

     “Not possible,” Galeck replied. “They broke the laws of my city. Justice must be served.”

     “Then good luck finding the tomb.”

     “I will guarantee their safety and grant them free passage once the current crisis has passed,” Jorthen said.

     “You cannot do that,” said Galeck.

     “You know where my authority comes from. It supersedes Qattan’s justice. Time is short, and the crew is inconsequential.”

     The Prefect crossed his arms. How does a Warden of Aeon outrank a Prefect of the United Elderlands? “Second,” she said, “I want to leave with them.”

     “No,” Jorthen replied. 

     Kera clenched her trembling fists. “Then there’s no bargain.”

     “And Prefect Galeck will have Captain Fitch’s head, execute the entire crew of the Silent Star and burn the airship to ash. There are some things I will not negotiate. You’ve already secured their safety and freedom. I promise you that you will not be harmed but I need that date.”

     “How do I know I can trust your word?”

     “You don’t. But I give you a chance while the Prefect gives you none.”

     She nodded her head in agreement. “I’ll guide you there myself,” she said. Kera hoped he would keep his word, whatever the outcome.

     “Good. Prefect Galeck, I expect the Night’s Keep to arrive within hours.”

     “We’ve already spotted her on the horizon,” Galeck said.

     “When it arrives, moor the Silent Star to her and load the troops. Now, may I have my staff back?”

     Galeck nodded to a guard. Back in his possession, the stones in the staff faintly glowed before dimming again. “I’ll take Kera and Captain Fitch with me,” he said. “One more thing, there is a Witchwarrior aboard the airship. Tell your men to be wary.”

     Prefect Galeck shook Jorthen’s hand once more and wished him luck before showing him the door. Soon the trio was escorted back on the rose colored spiral road and towards the necropolis.

***

     The necropolis was repurposed as the fifth tower of Qattan’s wall. Why it was called the fifth tower but the first completed before the city’s walls went up, Kera hadn’t any idea. There was no gate or portcullis to raise when they arrived but the archway was guarded. As they entered the base of the tower through an open doorway, their escort turned around and went back the way they came.

     Kera looked up and saw tombs go up the spiral staircase and vanish around the bend. These were the oldest tombs in the necropolis and rose until it met the newer section of the tower built for defense. They needed to go into the crypts. Kera grabbed the nearest torch and made her way down. Jorthen illuminated the luminstone on his staff and motioned for Fitch to walk in front of him.

     The trio started their long descent into the crypts. Qattan was founded in the First Epoch and the War of the Heavens marked the beginning of the Third Epoch so Leonii’s tomb was deep beneath the surface. As they made their way down, the spiral staircase took longer concentric circles until it became a ramp with a slight incline. The tombs were narrow and lined either side of the walls but appeared more intricate as the years rolled on. The newer the tomb, the more likely it was to have an image or representation of the deceased on it.

     Fitch finally broke the silence. “Were you really going to let them execute me? I thought we were friends.”

     Kera couldn’t tell if Fitch was being sarcastic or genuine. She suspected that even Fitch was unsure whether he was being honest or not about their friendship.

     “We were never friends, we were useful to each other for a time,” Jorthen answered. “That time is passed.”

     “And now you have your own airship, what was it, the Night’s Keep? You don’t need me anymore. Even though the Ahrsai Treaty prohibits any airship to be owned or operated on behalf of any nation or for warfare.”

     “Warfare?” Kera echoed.

     “Yes, warfare,” Fitch said. “Where have you been this whole time? Our friend here is loading an army onto an airship. You only do that if you’re planning to battle someone. If it can moor the Silent Star, it must be massive, far bigger than anything I’ve ever heard of. I’d love to know how it was built without the Freehold learning about it. And with all that, why are we looking for a dead man?”

     “The Night’s Keep isn’t an airship,” Jorthen said. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to tell you why we’re in these crypts. Care to inform the good captain, Kera?”

     “We’re looking for the Keystone Staff,” Kera explained. “It’s a staff adorned with a single unique stone. Every gemstone a Warden uses has a specific purpose: a Luminstone creates light, an Aerostone levitates, a Firegem creates flame. But the Keystone was cut a certain way from a rare, or even one of a kind, stone that allows its user to conjure anything they can imagine with ease. And in a purer, more powerful form. A Warden could fly faster, illuminate brighter, and create fires that burn hotter.”

     “And you want Jorthen here to have that kind of power?”

     “As I told you on the Silent Star, I’m here to do a job and go home.”

     Fitch grabbed her by the right shoulder and spun her to face him. “I think that when all this is over, you won’t have a home to go to. Who do you think Jorthen plans to attack?”

     Kera shrugged him off and continued down the path. Does that man ever stop talking? It already occurred to her that Jorthen was planning on sending troops into Valtan City. Whatever plans he had in the works, it may be too late to stop them. The best she could hope for was a warning to the Citadel before the attack came.

     She looked at the dates on the tombs and realized they were close. She put her torch over a tombstone and found what she was looking for.

     Kera’s heart began racing. “This is it,” she said and stepped back.

     Jorthen guided Captain Fitch towards the tomb, keeping an eye on him. He brightened his luminstone, revealing the name Leonii on the slab. The tomb was made of a blue-gray stone and on the lid was an engraved image of a man holding a staff with a single circle at its head.

     He touched his staff against the lid and the black Aerostone shimmered to life. The lid lifted into the air and he moved it out of the way to peer inside the tomb. There was Leonii’s decomposed skeleton, dressed in the ceremonial robes of a Warden. The staff laid to the right of the corpse. But where the Keystone should be, there was nothing.

     “I don’t understand,” Jorthen began. “Where’s the Keystone?”

     Before he knew what was happening, Kera swept her foot underneath him, knocking him to the floor as the staff fell away. She grabbed it and pointed the rod at his chest. The stones lit up. 

     Remembering her years of training, she activated the Firegem with little effort and the head of the stave erupted into flames. Jorthen backed away. 

     Previous attempts at igniting a Firegem used most of her concentration to create fire. Now most of her mental effort was used to keep the entire tunnel from being engulfed in flames.

     “Fitch!” she shouted. “Hold on to me!” Fitch stepped around Jorthen and the fiery staff and wrapped his arms around Kera. Kera felt all the stones in the staff in a way she had never before. Her heart raced. What used to require effort and concentration was now so familiar that the stones felt like an extension of her body. Now she concentrated on not using too much power through a stone, lest she shatter it as she did her Luminstone.

     The Firegem dimmed, died out, and the black Aerostone shimmered to life. Fitch held on to Kera as their feet left the ground. They both felt lighter than a feather. Kera pointed the head of the staff back up through the crypts and accelerated the way they came. Her crimson shawl and gown danced with Fitch’s long green coat. 

     The two gained momentum until Kera heard a creak and looked down at the Aerostone. She was using too much power and the stone threatened to snap off the staff. She eased the amount of energy she put into the Lenstone as they flew out of the necropolis gate and into the sky. 

     Higher and higher they rose until they cleared Qattan’s wall. At first, Kera didn’t understand what she was seeing. Where there was once only a flat, semi-arid desert; there was now a fort with the Silent Star anchored to it.

     After a moment, she understood where the fort came from. The fort wasn’t touching the earth, it floated above it. And it was moving. Kera landed them on the top deck of the Silent Star.

     “We need to free my crew,” Fitch said.

     Before they could make their way to the brig, someone else landed on the top deck. It was a young woman with green eyes and wild shoulder-length black hair, holding a Warden’s staff. Kera didn’t recognize her and pointed her staff at the intruder. “Who are you?” Kera asked.

     “Ah, I suppose Jorthen hasn’t explained that part yet,” the green eyed woman said. “Where is he?”

     Kera swung her staff and ignited the blue Snowstone, firing shards of ice. The green-eyed woman raised her arms and the icicles crashed against a green barrier of energy. She lowered her arms and activated the Luminstone. The light was so intense that it burned into Kera’s eyes.

     “I don’t know what’s going on but I don’t have time for this,” said the green-eyed woman.

     A thunder crack rang out. Kera felt intense pain. And the spots of light that blinded her eyes were now replaced with blackness as she lost consciousness.

Chapter Nine: Vessa

[
**]

     The brig was crowded with the Silent Star’s skymen. Vessa wondered how long the Qattanians would keep them locked away on their own airship, and what they had done with the captain.

[_     I should just try to set fire to the door and break out,_] she thought. Fitch had always warned her about using her powers in front of anyone and only to use them if her life was in imminent danger. The crew had been completely unaware and she would like to keep it that way. Besides, she only knew how to manipulate fire and that may not be the best weapon of choice on a ship made of wood.

     Captain Fitch had been gone for hours. Almost an hour ago, she felt tow-cables latch onto the hull to raise the ship. The Qattanians emptied the ballonets slightly to help raise the Silent Star but now the starboard bow of the airship listed on an angle. Amateurs, Vessa thought. She did not understand, however, what the Silent Star was anchored to as there was nothing above Qattan but sky.

     “Rogo,” she said. “We need to get out of here.”

     “Aye, and how would you want us do that?” he asked.

     “Could we batter down the door? There’s a hidden cache of weapons just around the bend.”

     “Hmm. There’s enough manpower in this cell for that, I would say. The noise would draw the attention of the guards who could start firing crossbow bolts through the wicket. Even if they don’t, once the door is down the doorway would be a bottleneck. It would be a bloodbath.”

     Vessa tried to figure another way out of the brig but she knew it was one of the few reinforced portions of the ship. The room was surrounded by iron bars in the ship’s crawl spaces. Even if they could pry the wooden planks apart, they would need to cut through the bars. There was still no way out except through the narrow door. If we make it out alive, I’ll have to install a secret escape hatch, she thought.

     Before she could devise a plan, something thumped against the outside of the door and slid down. After a moment, whatever fell against the door was dragged away. Then the wicket slid open but no one was there. Vessa chanced a quick look out the window and saw the three guards dead on the floor, blood gushing out of their necks.

     “Who’s there?” Vessa asked.

     “Yominai,” a voice answered.

     The door was unlocked and opened. Vessa stepped out and peered from side to side but still saw no one. The Witchwarrior.

     “If you just came to free us so you can take us as property I’ll cut your head off and mount it to the ship’s bow.”

     “No need. The soldiers are looking for me and once my invisibility potion wears off, they’ll do the work for you. I need your help… and you could use mine.”

     “Fine. Rogo, let’s remove our uninvited guests from our home.”

     The group made their way around the corner to a series of planks that were easily pried from the wall. Vessa took out a pair of crossbows and handed them to crew members with the truest aim. Rogo and their best swordsmen received whatever bladed weapons were in this cache. There weren’t enough weapons stored here to equip everyone and the rest remained unarmed. They made their way down the corridor, meeting little resistance. A Qattan soldier here and there was quickly dispatched by bolt or by sword.

     “Witch, how many men are aboard the ship?” Vessa asked.

     “Only a small skeleton crew. But Captain Fitch and Kera have been taken prisoner,” the answer came from nowhere. “I saw them on the top deck but couldn’t get to them in time. There’s another Warden who attacked them.”

     “Are they alive?”

     “I believe so.”

     Just ahead a Qattanian soldier drew his sword but a bolt from a crossbow struck the man in the left eye. Rogo removed a few wooden panels from the wall where a second cache of weapons had been hidden. Now that their entire party was armed, she ordered Rogo to take half their group and clear out the lower decks. Her party would take the hoist up to deal with whoever was on the upper-decks, where both of them would meet.

     Rogo took his men down a corridor as Vessa ascended the hoist with her group. The upper decks were almost entirely deserted. Her group made their way through the empty mess and up the flight of stairs. The remaining Qattanian soldiers were spread thin over the top deck and easily overwhelmed. Vessa could finally peer over the side of the airship and see what they were anchored to but her mind didn’t believe what she saw. A hundred feet below was small wooden fort built on top of a giant slab of rock, as if carved from the side of a mountain, floating above Old Qattan.

[_     A flying fortress?] Vessa’s thoughts ran wild. The _Silent Star is judicious about the weight it carries so it could fly. [_How could the Elderlands produce a small mountain with a fort atop that is lighter than air? _]Under the fort, Vessa noticed that troops were gathering, ready to be winched up.

     “That,” Yominai’s disembodied voice said, “is where Captain Fitch and Kera have been taken.”

     Rogo appeared from belowdecks and informed Vessa that the ship was theirs. She showed him their next obstacle a hundred feet beneath them. “By Delora’s teets!” was all he said.

     “The captain is down there,” said Vessa. “We need to get him out before more soldiers are brought aboard.”

     “We could land the ship.”

     “They’ll see us coming. As soon as we land, the Qattanians will try to secure the Star. We need surprise on our side to rescue the captain and get him out as quickly as possible.”

     “Aye, and how do you plan to do that? Jump down?”

     Vessa’s eyes went wide. “I need you to command the ship while I take a small force into that fort. With any luck, we’ll have freed the captain by the time you land.”

     “You wouldn’t survive a fall like that, lass!”

     Vessa smiled. "Fall, no. Glide -- yes. Yominai, how hard is it to pilot one of those Aramkeen ornithopters?"

     “Fairly simple to learn but extremely hard to master,” the witch said.

     “That will have to do. We have twelve of them in the cargo hold and not much time to be brought up to speed.”

     Vessa hand-picked ten of their best warriors and rounded up as many arms as they could carry. Just as they were about to head down into the cargo hold, Rogo walked up to her.

     “What about the Wardens?” he asked.

     “This whole wreck of an expedition is their fault,” said Vessa. “We leave them to their fate.”

     Vessa, Yominai and their group of warriors disappeared below deck.

Chapter Ten: Kera

[
**]

     Kera had no idea where she was. She opened her eyes and found herself surrounded by pillows on an immense mattress. The four-poster bed was covered in the finest Shintah silks she had ever seen.

     Her head throbbed. Suddenly, she realized that she had been recaptured and knocked out by a Warden of Aeon. She suspected the green-eyed woman was working with Jorthen. Looking out between the bed’s posts she saw him, sitting at a large table eating his supper, his staff leaning against the chair.

     “You’re awake,” he said. “Please, have a seat and eat something.”

     The room, made of dark wood, looked rather like a log cabin filled with fine tapestries, sculptures and other opulent possessions. A towering bookcase adorned the far wall. Leather-bound tomes filled its shelves as a golden-handled sword in an ivory sheath perched on top of the shelving unit. The head of a stag mounted over a window with eyes that looked as lost as she felt. Kera slid out of the bed and walked over to the table but remained standing.

     “Where is Captain Fitch?” she asked.

     “Locked away in a cell. Don’t worry, I have not forgotten our deal. He will not be harmed. I’ve known him longer than you have and I’m quite fond of him and his crew.”

     Kera crossed her arms. “You were willing to let him and his crew be executed.”

     “Which you were able negotiate them from.” Jorthen cut into his steak and smiled. For as long as she had ever known him, she couldn’t recall any time he had smiled in her presence. “Are you sure you won’t sit?” he asked.

     “No. What I want is to leave this place.”

     “That was not part of our deal. The captain and his crew will be free to set sail once I’ve completed my mission.”

     “And what mission is that? The one the Warden High Council entrusted you with? Or whatever betrayal the Elderlands asked of you?”

     He slammed his cutlery on the table. “It is the Wardens that betrayed us! What you believe is a lie, Kera. They aren’t here to help the world, they’re only concerned with more power and control.” 

     Jorthen stood, grabbed his staff and walked towards a window on the far side of the room. He gazed out the window. “There are things you haven’t been told. About the Wardens. About me.” He turned to face Kera. “Years ago, I was inducted into a secret Order of the Divine Trial. Its goal was to breed more powerful Wardens until they could produce one that resonated perfectly with the Aeonlith. The High Council brought women I’ve never seen before into my bed chambers. They were eerily silent and their eyes… by the stones, there was no life behind their eyes.”

     “And yet you continued to…?”

     “It was my duty. This continued for several months until the High Council informed me I had completed my service. I tried to forget about it but their eyes haunted me. Eventually I looked into the practice, and bibliothecary Luindre gained my trust, helping me research the Order. After five years of research, we were able to find enough fragments of information about a secret chamber hidden below the Citadel in Valtan City. That’s where we found them. Women and babes being held in cells.”

     Jorthen walked back to the table. “Have you ever wondered why members of the High Council go on missions to find new acolytes? They never leave the Citadel. The promising children they find are the babies sitting in those cells. After a year of being breast-fed they’re brought to the Citadel. Like all acolytes, once they reach adolescence their gift blossoms and the Council can gauge the power of their gift. If a boy’s gift from the Aeon at his Induction Ceremony is shown to be unusually powerful, he would be inducted into the Order of the Divine Trials as an adult. The girls would face a more horrible fate as they would be brought down into the secret chamber where their minds were destroyed by a Psychestone. They became soulless creatures used only for procreation. Mindless, without the ability to learn and all but basic motor functions stripped away. They give birth, nurse the newborns and the cycle repeats.”

     “That means you were created from this process. But why would they allow the children into the Citadel in the first place? Why not keep their breeding experiment locked beneath the Citadel?”

     “Because the more people who know a secret, the more likely it is to get out. Only the High Council knows about it and so they pass off the children as new initiates. Just because you breed two high level Wardens, it doesn’t mean their child will be even more powerful than its parents. The only exception Luindre and I discovered was a boy named Corren, locked away under the Citadel. Born with his gift active, he was able to manipulate his gift without a gemstone. But he drew his power from any Warden around him and not the Aeonlith directly. The council wondered if his ability to draw from the Aeonlith would be unlocked when he reached puberty. Luindre and I agreed that we needed to end the practice and covertly set the boy, babies, and all the women who had not yet undergone the Psychestone free. I destroyed the stone myself and smuggled the children to the Elderlands as Luindre suggested. We believe the council has never learned of our involvement.”

     “The boy, he was your son, wasn’t he?”

     “No, he was too old to be my child. After we set them free I asked Luindre to investigate whether I had any children. Years later, he discovered just one living in the Citadel: you.”

[_     Me?] Kera thought. _No, that’s not possible. Jorthen took a step forward as Kera backed away from the large table. She circled to the other side of the table looking for anything to keep distance between the two of them.

     “But you’ve always been inhospitable! You’ve never cared for me at all!”

     “As far as we know the council hasn’t connected our involvement. After the escape, they became paranoid. I had to treat you no differently than anyone else because the High Council knew you were my daughter. To protect you, Luindre sabotaged your Induction Ceremony to make the council believe you were of low power. I don’t know how he did it, but he somehow suppressed your power while you were in Valtan. He warned me that the process only extended to the ends of the city. Out here, whatever he had done should not affect you.”

     This went far to explain why she needed little concentration to activate the stones in the battle against the Aramkeen on the Silent Star or Jorthen’s staff. Before, I could barely make light as bright as a candle, she thought. And now it is powerful enough to be used as a weapon. But what does any of this have to do with the Elderlands?

     “What happened to Corren?” she asked.

     “The council began a systematic hunt through the Elderlands for the runaways. I was chosen to be a part of the hunt and I assume the other members of the Order of the Divine Trials were chosen as well. We burned whole villages to the ground searching for them and the city-states united in outlawing Wardens. I secretly brokered amnesty for Corren and the escapees with the newly created Empire of the Elderlands. In return for their protection, they would help destroy the Wardens. That’s why I needed to get you out of Valtan and to safety. The Aramkeen were supposed to get you off of the Silent Star and I would chase after them. Afterwards I could tell you the truth about your lineage and the Wardens. Fitch and his crew would never even reach the city while the Aramkeen would deliver us to Qattan. I had hoped to recover the Keystone Staff when we arrived to meet with the Night’s Keep but it seems that is not to be.”

     “And you told the council it was here.”

     “Luindre taught me to plant a small truth in a larger lie.”

     “So allowing that woman to knock me out is your idea of keeping me safe?”

     “Rhea was protecting herself. I brought you aboard the Night’s Keep to tell you the truth.”

     “Then tell me, how is this place even possible?”

     “During the War of the Heavens, the Citadel sent an entire legion of Wardens armed with Aerostones. The battle was won somewhere over the Mortira desert but at the cost of most of those warriors. We lost almost all the Aerostones, making them one of the most precious Lenstones. The only known place with a significant amount of the ore is in the Dragonlands so it remained rare. But the Elderlands had long ago unearthed the site of the final battle and hoarded the stones. Corren saw an opportunity when he discovered the cache of gems and had this place built. All of those Aerostones have been embedded into the rock and operated by Rhea’s sister Ehra. The entire surface of the Night’s Keep works like a staff made entirely of Aerostones.”

     “Even with this place, you don’t have the manpower to take on the Citadel. Your small group of Wardens, no matter how powerful they are, will not be enough for an all out offensive. The troops in Qattan won’t be enough either.”

     “Who said anything about an all out offensive? We’ll drop the Night’s Keep on top of the Citadel.”

     Kera backed away from the table. "You're mad! There are children there -- Luindre is still there!"

     “There are always casualties in every war. Don’t you see? If they ever found out about your power they would tie you to a bed and have you raped without a second thought! It’s the High Council that is insane and corrupt, not I! We need to start over with a more just Order,” Jorthen implored as he circled around the table.

     She wanted it to be untrue, she wanted him to be lying about it all. Even Luindre warned her not to trust him. Could this all be a trick to get her to reveal the true location of the Keystone Staff? But that wouldn’t explain the floating fortress or the hate he directed towards the Wardens.

[_     What if everything he says is true?_] she wondered. Her father wouldn’t be some unknown person located halfway across the world. It would be someone who had watched out for her, even if it was in his own twisted way. All she wanted was to go home but if Jorthen was being honest, even that seemed impossible. Only Luindre knew the truth.

[_     Clang! Clang!_]

     Bells rang through the Night’s Keep and Jorthen turned to the door and looked alert. A Qattanian soldier burst through his chamber door.

     “We’re under attack!” he said.

     “We are in the sky, who could be attacking?” Jorthen asked.

     “Aramkeen gliders, sir! They appeared out of the sun and have already taken out one of the guard towers!”

     “I want a guard placed at my door,” Jorthen said before turning to Kera. “Please, stay here. You’ll be safe.”

     With that, Jorthen walked out into the courtyard and locked the door to the chambers behind him. Fortunately, this was not a prison cell and a locked wooden door can easily be broken. Kera retrieved the ornamental sword from the top of the bookcase and strapped the ivory scabbard to her hip. She unsheathed the long, curved blade and took a deep breath. With sword in hand, she kicked down the door. The guard on the other side never saw her coming.

Chapter Eleven: Fitch

[
**]

     Fitch had been awake for a few moments before the bells rang, stuck inside of an iron cage with a single guard nearby keeping watch. The room outside of the cage was wood with a stone floor. It didn’t remind him of Qattan. Either he was unconscious for a long time, or else he was on the Night’s Keep. He sat against the bars with his back to his young and solemn captor.

     “So, we’re under attack?” Fitch asked.

     The guard remained motionless and stern.

     “Don’t say much do you, huh? Makes me wonder if you’re dead. Me, I can talk for hours. Or until someone comes bursting through that door to stab me, assuming that’s what those bells are for.” Fitch looked over his shoulder to look at the guard. “Fortunately, you’re here and you get to be the first target. Gives me some time before they try to kill me. Looks like you drew the short end of the stick, dying alone with only me for company.” 

     Fitch rose to his feet. “Or you can just let me out of here and we can defend this place together.”

     Now the guard looked at him with skepticism.

     “Worth a shot,” Fitch shrugged. “At least I know you’re not dead. Not yet, anyway.”

     The door to the room opened and in walked Jorthen with his staff at the ready. With a wave, he dismissed the guard. Fitch stood up, looking at his former ally, and walked towards the front of his cell where Jorthen was standing.

     “Your crew is on their way to rescue you, it seems,” Jorthen said.

     “Nice to know I still have friends,” said Fitch. “So why are you here instead of killing them?”

     “Why go looking if I know where they need to end up? This isn’t what I wanted, you know. You were never supposed to reach Qattan or get involved with any of this. I can’t let you leave, but if you call off your men and they return to their cells, all of you will be free in a fortnight.”

     Fitch tightly gripped the bars to his cell, wishing it was Jorthen’s neck.

     “What is wrong with you?” said Fitch as a movement behind Jorthen caught his eye. “We’re standing in a fortress that is floating in the sky and I doubt you plan to use it to bring the children of the world any treats. This breaks the Ahrsai treaty, not to mention several natural laws. The Freehold will be up in arms. You’ve switched allegiances and the Elderlands are hellbent on an invasion. Who knows how the Empire of Shintah will react to all this and you plan to set the world on fire. What part of that will be good for me and my crew when we get out?”

     “The world will be a better place.”

     “Oh, if I had a guilden for every time I’ve heard someone say that,” Fitch declared. “Look, we haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. But what I’ve enjoyed most about this discussion is that it distracted you from noticing the green mist.”

     Jorthen jumped back and tried to wave the mist away with his staff. There was a click at the cell door and a key hanging from the lock. Fitch sprung from his cell, throwing a punch across Jorthen’s jaw in one fluid motion. The staff went flying and fell to the floor as the Warden staggered back.

     Jorthen lunged forward, tackling Fitch to the ground, and swung a left hook. Fitch blocked, grabbed his arm and kicked him off. He staggered to his feet and punched Jorthen several times in the face until his body went limp.

     “You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to do that to you,” Fitch spat as he picked up Jorthen’s staff. “Witch, how do we get out of here?”

     “Why ask my name and then not use it?”

     “Just tell me the way!” he said as he raced into the hallway.

     Around the corner a stationed guard drew his sword but before it left the scabbard, Fitch brought the staff crashing upon his head. He picked up the sword and sent Yominai to scout ahead. She reported no more soldiers. They ran down the corridor and out into a courtyard which was littered with four Aramkeen ornithopter. Fitch caught a motion in his peripheral vision. He turned to see Kera fending off a soldier with a golden-handled sword that was longer than her arm. Fitch could see her tiring from parrying the heavy sword. At this rate she wouldn’t last long against her opponent.

     Before he could act, a sharp pain moved though his left shoulder. He screamed in agony and looked down to see an arrow lodged just below his collarbone as a second arrow struck the staff. Kera parried a strike from her attacker, pushing him back and ran over to Fitch. She must have seen the staff, he thought as Kera dropped her ornamental sword and took up the Warden’s weapon. Its stones glimmered to life.

     An aqua blue stone lit up as Kera raised her hands in a V and enveloped both herself and Fitch in a green hemisphere. A third arrow flew towards them but was deflected by the protective hemisphere. The aqua blue stone went dark as a sapphire brightened and a flame erupted from the head of the staff towards the archer, engulfing him in a bright ball of fire. Kera’s earlier opponent rushed up swinging his sword. Fitch raised his own blade, blocking the blow.

     The vibration from the parry reverberated through his body and pain shot into his shoulder. More archers appeared on the walls as arrows rained down on them. Kera once again lifted her arms and the aqua stone brought the protective green sphere to life, trapping the swordsman inside.

     “Yominai!” said Fitch.

     There was no answer as he parried a second attack from the swordsman. She has fled or she was struck dead, Fitch thought. Either way she is no help to me now. Fitch swung his sword, but his adversary blocked the attack and ripped the arrow out of Fitch’s shoulder with his free hand. In agony, Fitch dropped his sword and fell to his knees.

     He looked up as his adversary brought his sword down. Fitch spun on his knee, grabbing the ornamental sword Kera had discarded. His opponent buried his weapon into the ground where Fitch had been just a moment before. In one motion he jumped up and stabbed the sword into the man’s back.

     The swordsman let out a grisly scream before collapsed onto the ground. Fitch fell with his now dead rival. He rolled off the corpse and looked up. Through the green bubble he could see the Silent Star descending as arrows flew from the top deck of his ship and down on the archers along the wall. They were going home.

Chapter Twelve: Kera

[
**]

     An explosion erupted to Kera’s right and she saw Vessa carrying a now visible but scorched Witchwarrior, followed by ten of the crew. They were running away from the green-eyed woman Kera recognized from the attack on the Silent Star’s top-deck. Rhea.

     Kera dropped her arms and the aqua blue stone stopped glowing. The green dome surrounding her and Fitch dissipated. A smaller, tear shaped violet stone lit up on Kera’s stave as Rhea raised her pole and pointed it at Vessa. A lightning bolt shot from the green-eyed woman’s staff but a wall of red energy appeared between the blast and Vessa. Rhea looked to Kera.

     “Why do you help them?” she sneered. “You’re one of us!”

     “No, Rhea,” said Kera. “You want war and to replace one monstrous order with another! All I’ve seen here are lies and death so don’t tell me it will be a more just and humane rule.”

     Rhea raised her staff. Bolts of electricity burst forth but Kera once again raised the green protective dome around them. Rhea didn’t relent as the bolts of electricity became more intense and new arcs emerged, firing in every direction around her. The power behind the lightning was enormous and Kera was concentrating, intent on not shattering the aqua blue Armorstone.

     The bolts increased in strength and the green energy dome was beginning to fail. She was protecting too large of an area. Her options were to either put more energy into the Armorstone with a chance it may shatter, or shrink the size of the dome leaving Fitch outside the protective barrier.

     She would not have to make that choice as the lightning arc broke off. A piercing scream and suddenly Rhea was on fire. Kera looked to Vessa who turned away from the burning woman and ran towards them. The lightning was far too bright for anyone to have seen what she did, Kera noted as she disengaged the aqua blue stone.

     The Silent Star landed in the courtyard and the cargo ramps opened. Vessa and another crew member brought the unconscious Yominai to Fitch.

     “She found you,” Vessa said. “And she saved our lives back there.”

     Fitch looked over to Kera. “So did she,” he said as Kera blushed. “Get Yominai on board,” he continued, clutching his left arm to slow the bleeding. “We need to leave this place now.”

[_     Even if we all escaped now_], Kera thought, there’s no way to stop this fortress. She didn’t know if the Silent Star could outrun the Night’s Keep and there was no way of contacting the High Council. She would need to bring the entire place down and there was only one way she could think to do it.

     “Get on board, there’s something I need to do.”

     “We’re not leaving without you!”

     “The Night’s Keep needs to be destroyed. Go, I’ll be right behind you. Trust me. Please.”

     Fitch nodded and ran towards the Silent Star. “Empty the ballonets!” he said once he reached the cargo ramp. “Cut the mooring lines! Raise the sails!”

     Kera laid the staff on the ground, kneeled, and dug her fingers into the dirt. Jorthen said the entire fortress worked like a staff and was operated by Rhea’s sister Ehra. During the escape in the crypts, Kera had almost sent her staff’s Aerostone flying from the pole by infusing too much power into it. Let’s see if I could do the same, writ large.

     She concentrated her energy into the stones holding the Night’s Keep aloft. There was a slight tremor in the earth. Then another. The third was a violent shake as she sensed Ehra’s gift powering the Aerostones as well.

     Kera’s stomach knotted. She breathed in, tensed her body, and drew in as much power as she could. In her mind’s eye, she was suddenly standing before the Aeonlith whose red glow intensified. The eight storey stone turned black as night and she felt a cold chill inside her chest. Kera exhaled with a wail as if screaming all her energy into the Aerostones. A black glittering stone erupted from beneath the ground and into the sky. Then another and another.

     The Night’s Keep fired black stones in every direction and listed towards the earth. Kera staggered to her feet, knees shaking, and used the staff to keep herself upright. What little energy she had left she imbued into the stolen stave’s Aerostone. 

     Members of Fitch’s crew were still cutting the lines that anchored the Silent Star to the flying fortress. Just as the last cord was cut, the giant floating mass dropped away into the ground below and flattened what was left of Old Qattan. A giant wave of dirt and rock spread out in every direction, followed by a deep boom.

     Kera floated to the Silent Star, clutching the staff, and landed next to Fitch, who caught her as she staggered. He held her as she slipped into unconsciousness.

***

     Kera awoke in her cot on the Silent Star. Her desk was again piled with the books she had taken with her into the crawlspace before they had landed in Qattan. Beside that was Jorthen’s staff. It feels like that was someone else’s life, she thought.

     She got out of the cot and made her way down the corridor and up to the mess deck. Rogo was sitting at a table drinking and laughing with a few crew members, sipping on their grog. He spotted her and brought her a mug of the vile drink.

     “Here, you deserve this,” he said.

     “What terrible thing have I done now?” said Kera.

     Rogo laughed and said, “Captain’s waiting for you on the top deck.”

     Kera took the drink and climbed up the flight of stairs above decks. Evening had fallen and the sky took on a deep blue hue with the last of the pale gold light in the west. Captain Fitch stood with his arm in a sling, looking out towards the horizon.

     “Rogo said you wanted to see me.”

     “I wanted to thank you,” he said. “For saving me.”

     “You saved me too, you know.”

     “Well, I guess we make a good team.”

     She smiled and looked off towards the dying light. In the distance, tips of a few mountains were faintly visible and the ground had taken on a ghostly blue color. She took a sip of her grog, tasting the familiar bitter liquid.

     “Do you know what happened back there?” Fitch asked.

     “The entire fort was held afloat by Aerostones, the place acted like a Warden’s staff. I used all my strength and overcharged them until they ripped out of the ground.”

     “No, I mean everything.”

     And so she told him: the High Council’s breeding program and how Luindre shielded her from it. Corren and the refugees, the upcoming war, even how Jorthen was her father, everything. The more she told him the quicker she spoke and the more her body trembled. Tears welled up in her eyes as Fitch wrapped an arm around her shoulders, holding her close.

     "I'm sorry," she said. "It's just, where do I belong? Everything I've known is a lie and all I want to do is go home -- I don't even know where that is anymore."

     “Home isn’t a static place that exists forever. It moves with you from one place to the next. You could stay with us, for a while.” Fitch smiled. “We could always use a super-powered Warden on our side. Plus, I have a job for you.”

     “Oh?” Kera said as she wiped her tears with her sleeve.

     “Vessa needs a teacher. So far she’s been haphazardly learning to use her powers and has almost set fire to my ship five times.”

     “I can do that, but in exchange I need you to help me warn the Citadel.”

     Fitch recoiled and withdrew his arm from her shoulders.

     “We can’t let the world plunge into war,” she continued. “We have no better options and the Wardens are the only ones who could stop the Elderlands.”

     “These are the people who might try to force you into their breeding program if they found out about your power, right? Why would you want to help them?”

     “Because the alternative is the deaths of hundreds of thousands across two continents.”

     Fitch stroked his beard and looked off into the distance once more. “We need to make our way to the Gateway City of Arynhaar. We’re running low on funny-air. The city is neutral territory, we’ll try to send a message from there to the Citadel.”

     Kera nodded. She wished she could see Luindre once more and have him confirm whether everything Jorthen said was true. But Valtan City would be a dangerous place for her.

     “There’s one thing I don’t understand,” Fitch said. “When you attacked Jorthen in the crypts, did you know that the Keystone wouldn’t be in the tomb?”

     “I guessed that it wouldn’t be there.”

     “So where is it?”

     “At the Citadel. Luindre’s notes guided me to Leonii’s tomb. He knew Leonii had not left the city for the final battle in the War of the Heavens, he knew his corpse was in the necropolis, and even the date of his death. He knew all this because he had already been there. Luindre has the Keystone and that’s how he suppressed my power for all those years.”

[_     Luindre was always a sly old fox,] Kera thought. _He almost certainly suppressed his own true power using the Keystone when he first showed up to the Citadel. And if the High Council ever went after him, they would pay for it in spades. Kera watched the last of the sunlight disappear over the horizon and thought of home as she sipped on her grog. You really do get used to it.

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About the Author

     

     Danny F. Santos is a writer, author, and content creator for traditional and new media. He is also a multidisciplinary artist known for visual arts, acting, directing and music. He currently lives in Toronto, Canada.

     

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The Keystone Staff

The Aeonlith powered the magick abilities of the Wardens for centuries. Kera is just a young Warden working in the Citadel’s library when the High Council orders her to accompany Jorthen deep into rival territory to find a powerful holy relic. Tensions run high but when they charter a merchant airship to smuggle them across the Disc Sea, she’ll begin to unravel secrets as their covert trip threatens to cause an all out war.

  • Author: Danny F. Santos
  • Published: 2016-03-01 06:05:09
  • Words: 19039
The Keystone Staff The Keystone Staff