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Valkyria

Valkyria

All Rights Reserved

Copyright 2015© Gareth Torrance

Published by Ink Blood Publishing

All Rights Reserved. This Book May Not Be Reproduced, Transmitted, Or Stored In Whole Or Part Or In Part By Any Means, Including Graphic, Electronic, Or Mechanical Without The Express Written Consent Of The Publisher Except In The Case Of Brief Quotations Embodied In Critical Articles And Reviews.

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DEDICATION

To my darling daughter, whose smile gave me the drive and strength to finish this book. You are truly the greatest inspiration I could ever have asked for.

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Table of Contents

{1} {2} {3} {4} {5} {6} {7} {8} {9} {10}

{11} {12} {13} {14} {15} {16} {17} {18} {19} {20}

{21} {22} {23} {24} {25} {26} {27} {28} {29} {30}

{31} {32} {33} {34} {35} {36} {37} {38} {39} {40}

Epilogue

About the Author

Sneak Preview

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1

ALEXIA

“It is said that when you are born, you are touched by the Arcana and that it will guide you through life to your death.”

“Exactly, Alexia,” said Priestess Erey. “I am glad to see you have been studying. Such a better child than your brother.” Alexia glanced up at Ma’am Erey’s face, a blanket of white, wrinkled and weathered by an age alone on the secluded island that was Suhran.

“My brother is far too concerned with the local wildlife. Rather than educate himself so that he might go to Argent or Kihro to earn money for food, he would prefer to drag a lifeless carcass into this small village to show his prowess.”

Ma’am Erey stood from the table in a sudden and swift motion most unbefitting of one her age. A deep breath followed as she grasped the chair she had just left, her body swaying like a leaf in a breeze for a few seconds before she walked across the wooden hut toward a small stone stove.

“Well my dear, thank you for reminding me about my supper. I was cooking a lovely wolf rump stew if you and brother should be interested later in the day. For now though, we have studied enough. Perhaps you could leave an old lady to her meal and find young Einar. Please scold him for me.”

Alexia tilted her head in acknowledgement before rising from the table in a manner quite the opposite of Ma’am Erey. As she stood, her rags of cloth fell neatly into a purple dress whose color had dulled over the years. She adjusted the small piece of fabric she used as a hair tie so that the lilac material looked like a flower in her hair.

She moved to the door, itself having seen far better days, being older than Ma’am Erey, before grasping that oak handle and turning it. As the door creaked open her eyes were welcomed with a screen of white before finally adjusting to the natural light. Ma’am Erey never opened her windows, instead using candlelight for fear the sun would make her older still.

“What took you such a great length of time?”

The deep voice that filled her ears was more becoming of a bear or some giant of a man, but instead she simply saw her brother. His black rags were covered by his white hunting cloak, and the daggers he had found in their Uncle’s storage chest as a boy hung at his side.

“If you ever lifted your finger for anything except an animal you wouldn’t have to ask that, dear brother.” The deliberate tone of her voice made Einar shake his head.

“Right now, beloved sister,” he said, using the same tone. “We have far more important issues than some forgotten old crone babbling about hogwash like gods. We have no food left, and the gods aren’t helping with that, now are they?”

“Actually, brother, they are.” She smiled as her eyebrows lowered. “Ma’am Erey has made wolf rump stew and offered it to us today.” She expected a look of sheer delight to appear on her brother’s face but instead he just sighed.

“You do not understand. We will have no food for a week.”

“Then go and get some like you always do. What is the problem?”

“The problem,” said Einar, “is that I cannot move the meat cart by myself and Rin is in Saylae for five more days, or have you forgotten he is getting married?”

Alexia paused, her mouth open and awaiting a clever and sly response that simply never came. She had forgotten about Master Rin’s wedding. The old fool had found a young bride more beautiful than any girl Alexia had seen, but then she hadn’t seen that many. Of course, Einar was right. There was no way he could move the meat cart such a distance by himself, especially when it was full.

“So what will you do?”

“I think you mean to say ‘what will we do’.” The words ran like crude humour into Alexia’s ears. He couldn’t possibly be serious, could he? His face, however, was stern like the wolves he killed. He was.

“I do not,” she spurted out, lacking a more refined answer. “I have not hunted before, as you well now! It is dangerous!”

“Yet if you do not start now,” said Einar, “we will have no food for at least five days.”

The young girl glanced over at the oak wall that lined Caim Village. The wall itself rose up at least three times the height of her brother, but the gates were only twice the height. However, those gates had protected her since she was but a babe. Even now, she was only just sixteen and Ma’am Erey always said that beyond the gates were places only those who had reached adulthood should tread.

“Alexia, please,” Einar said, stealing her train of thought.

“I know the old bat keeps telling you it’s dangerous to go out in the woods but that’s just because she’s too scared to leave her own damned hut. Rin and I have been going out there every day for a year together, and before that he went out every day by himself for five years. Besides, it’s not as if you would be unarmed. You could take that stick the merchant’s boy gave you for your birthday.”

“Stick!?” Alexia’s face twisted and contorted into a face resembling the monstrosities in Ma’am Erey’s books.

“Fine,” interrupted Einar.

“The lovingly carved shaft of wood that was given to you by a boy who wanted nothing more than your maidenhood and whom you will never see again and who probably just found it laying around somewhere anyway.”

“Einar, how dare you talk of Jon that way? He was a kind and gentle fellow who really cared for me.”

“No, Alexia. He acted like he cared for you and then went back to his master’s tent to talk with him about your shape.”

“Enough!” It took all her strength not to raise an open hand to his face. He was wrong about Jon, he had to be. “If we need food I will help you with the cart, but you will not talk of Jon is such a manner. Do you understand?”

Einar simply rolled his eyes as Alexia swung herself away from him. Walking briskly along the stone dust that was supposed to be the main path through Caim Village, she remembered young Jon’s face. He had been a new adult when he and his master came into the village. His hair had flung in the wind and glistened like gold threads, and he wore such finery that she had not seen in her life.

He had given her flowers, and then they had watched the stars together as the moon rose into the sky. He had been such a caring and romantic young man. Her brother couldn’t possibly have been right about him.

Caim Village itself was small, more of hamlet than a village. Between the sides of the wooden wall that encircled the entire community was nothing more than a handful of wattle and daub huts. Along the wall were five guard posts but they were usually unoccupied. A shallow stream stretched through the western side of the village, coming down from the low lying mountains a few leagues north.

Ma’am Erey’s house, with its beautifully thatched roof and wooden walls, lay at the southern side with the cemetery next to it. Her house was the closest thing the village had to a temple. Einar would always say it was fitting for a crone to be next to her bed.

On the eastern side was Gafer’s Farm, although calling it a farm was more to be polite than say the honest truth. In reality it was just another hut, only a little larger than the others, with a vegetable patch outside. However, during the winter nothing had grown there except weeds, and now old Gafer was too ill to tend to it.

Beyond that, there was nothing of great importance in the little hamlet, but Alexia loved it. It may be old and somewhat forgotten by the rest of Suhran but it was home.

Alexia reached their hut, the door made out of an old sign post Einar had found and reassembled after the original door flew off in a storm. The hut itself was an oval-shaped hovel at best, but it was the only home she had known. Yet before their mother had passed, they used to live in a large wooden farm house many leagues south, or so Einar would tell her.

Still, her mother passed away from illness and they lost their farm, their home and their livelihood. If ıt weren’t for their Uncle Kahn in Caim, they would have had no place to stay. The day he fell to an infected wolf bite had devastated the young Alexia, and forced Einar to grow into a man too young.

The door creaked open, its hinges singing like a thousand dying mice. Inside the hut the sun shone in like a beam through the small window hole above a small stove older than Ma’am Erey and old Gafer combined, or so Alexia thought. On the right wall was a table Einar had built from tree trunks he found uprooted by the great storm four years before, and on the left were two sacks on the floor next to a pair of sheep skin pillows they had traded three wolf breasts for. To the immediate left of the door was the wardrobe old Gafer gave them after Uncle Kahn died. It had been a strange mourning gift, but a useful and welcome one.

Alexia took her staff from inside the wardrobe, which only truthfully held four sets of rags for herself and three for Einar, then she left the house and headed toward the south gate to meet her brother. He had already dragged the meat cart to the gate, and by the river that ran down his face she guessed he had done it alone.

As usual there was no guard at the south gate. Alexia could only remember ever seeing a guard there once in her life. Einar used his shoulders to lift up the locking bar on the gate before dragging it open across the dirt and rock. They wheeled the cart out together and the Einar pulled the gate shut once again.

They would have to pull the cart through the woods by hand because horses were far too expensive for anyone in Caim to even dream about. However, Einar had assured her that all she had to do was stay with the cart and nothing would attack her.

The oak trees of the forest rose up, as if they were trying to claw their way out of the ground and into the heavens. The forest itself was often dark, the sun half forbidden to enter it, and the ground was covered in nettles and dead bushes with the odd flower dotted around. It was horrifying, yet strangely beautiful in Alexia’s eyes.

“So how much do we need?”

“About four cubs should be enough until Rin comes back,” replied Einar. “They’ll be easier for us to move as well.”

Fours cubs would have been the same amount of meat as two adults. That much she knew about hunting from all of Einar’s tales. He was trying to make things easier on her, she was sure of that

The cart rolled along a winding path that seemed as if it had been made by some giant serpent. The path itself would eventually lead them to Caim Lake, the village’s namesake, where old Gafer used to go fishing in his youth, or so he would say. The silence of the forest filled her ears and made the hair on her arms stand tall.

“A merchant from Saylae was here a good few days ago,” she said, hoping to break the silence with conversation. “He was telling stories from the mainland. He said that they making some sort of new steam motor that uses water to move airships five times bigger than any made before. They found some new materials earlier in the spring off the coast. Don’t you think that’s exciting? Bigger ships filling the skies. Maybe they could even take us over to the mainland!”

“Five times bigger, you say? Well if they succeed you can guarantee they will come back to the Ringlands in force and take away our independence once again.”

“He didn’t say it was Alexandria,” she replied. “He said it was the Three Peaks region, so they wouldn’t come here anyway. But why do you hate the Alexandria Empire so? They had left the Ringlands before you were even born.”

“That doesn’t matter. We are Ringlanders. We had a culture and a language. They took our people as slaves, forbid the use of our own tongue and force fed us the Arcana, whether they be real or not. The erased us and made us into what they wanted us to be.”

“But Ma’am Erey tells the truth. The Arcana are real and they guide us. I learnt it today!”

“So she says, but the people of the Ringlands were just fine before they were told of the Arcana. They were happy and had enough food and fun. Yet look at us now. We are scavengers looking for scraps from the mainland that the merchants bring over. We eat food that isn’t seen as good enough for the Alexandria Empire, and even then we cannot eat enough of it because all our money goes to the Temple.”

Alexia held her tongue. Whenever they spoke of the Arcana and the Temple, it always lasted for hours on end with nothing good coming from it. Perhaps silence had been better after all.

Einar raised an open hand suddenly and the pair stopped the cart. He glared over to the right before putting one finger to his mouth then point into the forest. In the darkness Alexia could just make out seven sleeping cubs. They only needed four, but seven would be able to feed them for a full week.

“We don’t need to hunt today then,” whispered Einar. “What luck.”

Alexia was sure luck had nothing to do with it but now was not the time to say anything. Einar took his daggers from their sheaths and dropped silently to the floor. He slithered along the ground making less noise than the birds in the trees, and within a few short minutes he had slit the first cub’s neck whilst holding its mouth shut to silence it. He carefully went from one to the next, amazingly without waking them. Rin had taught him well, Alexia could see that much.

After all seven had been slit, he beckoned Alexia over to help carry the carcasses to the cart. One by one they hauled the cubs by the legs, but when they went back for the seventh, they were stopped by a rustling in the bushes behind Alexia. In a flash Einar launched himself onto her, bringing both of them to the ground as a much larger wolf leaped over them. The beast landed and spun to face them, its teeth clear as daylight and a torrent of saliva falling down.

“The mother!” The wolf hurtled toward them, but Einar simply smiled. “Dumb beast.” He jumped into the air directly at the wolf and landed on its back, driving the daggers into the animal’s hind legs, causing it to drop in pain. Einar hastily span around and slit its throat as well.

“Well that was exciting,” he said.

“Exciting!? Are you a fool!? I could have died.”

“I knew it was coming, didn’t I? You’re not hurt are you?”

As much as it angered her, Einar was right. He had seemed prepared for it, even knowing what to do when the wolf charged him. She hadn’t even got a slight scratch.

“Now then,” continued Einar, “we have seen cubs and an adult. I say we take three of the cubs and the adult to Saylae tomorrow before they get too old. We could get about twelve coins for the mother alone.”

“Twelve coins?” That much money was dreamed of by most of the people in Caim. “Are you sure? We could buy a chicken for twelve coins.”

“And bread with the money from the cubs. Fresh bread at that,” said Einar, his lips moving up high in the corner before his tongue rolled over them.

“Fresh bread and chicken, now that would be delightful,” replied Alexia.

*

2

SER LONTHAN

The streets of Alexandra City were filled as always, overflowing with merchants, peasants and nobles all mixed together. The blend of bright colours and torn rags was almost comical for Ser Lonthan as he marched through the market stalls. The Upper Plate market had become a far more fashionable after the Royal Guard stopped admitting the commoners for the Lower City into the area. Yet most people seemed to be shopping with their eyes rather than their coin purse.

A large brass automaton strolled passed him, the gears creaking as they turned and steam pouring out of two exhausts beside its head. Ser Lonthan had to retrace his steps back a handful of paces to avoid the mindless machine stepping on his feet.

On the left was a small alleyway that was blanketed in darkness and shadow from the tall buildings rising up on each side. The darkness was contrasted, however, by the Golden Steps in the distance that lead up to next Plate and the Royal Estate. The steps passed underneath the Hanging Barracks, which in turn were held up by magnificent chains with links the size of elephants and were connected by bridges suspended between themselves and the castle.

A group of stone dragons stood watch over the alleyway whilst a half dozen young women mingled with one another, their dress flaunting far too much skin for Ser Lonthan’s taste.

“One coin, one hour,” said one of the girls as he walked past. She couldn’t have been more than seventeen, not even in adulthood yet. Still, he knew everyone had to work, one way or another, so he simply smiled and shook his head before continuing along the alley.

Even someone in the upper levels of society such as Ser Lonthan knew what life was like in the city. Alexandra was the pinnacle of the Alexandria Empire, but also of division. The city was built on four levels; the Lower City, the Lower Plate, the Upper Plate and the Royal Estate.

To live on the Upper Plate was to live a life of luxury and splender at the expense of those who lived on the plates below you. Shop keepers, butlers and maids were typically from the Lower Plate, whilst servants and working ladies made their way up from the Lower City.

The Lower Plate was very much a “working man’s” place to live. The way of life was simple; work, earn and eat. Whilst not as splendid as the Upper Plate, the state of living was not all too bad.

That could not be said for those unfortunate enough to live in the Lower City.

The Lower City itself was not a plate, but rather the only part of Alexandra that was actually on the ground. Effectively a slum, the Lower City comprises a section of the Old World’s city of London, walled off from the outside to keep the Creatures out. The populace is made of those born in the Lower City, destined to forever be the lowest form of society, or those sent there as punishment.

Ser Lonthan had known a man one who had been sent to live there. He had been a fine knight, but had be found in bed with another man’s wife. Last time Ser Lonthan had visited him, he had been a shell of a man, his body brittle and broken. Lonthan would never allow such a fate to befall him.

He hurried along until he reached a door that sported two flags, one on each side. The left was blue with a silver trim and curled dragon upon it. The right was the same design but red with a gold trim and dragon. Each dragon held a single rose in its mouth; the sign of the Dragoons.

“So this is where you live, is it?” Ser Lonthan rapped twice on the door as the first drop of rain from the coming clouds fell on his head. Autumn was surely starting now, as it only rained in Alexandria during autumn.

The door opened slowly but silently, as if the hinges had been freely oiled. A stocky man with more wrinkles on his face than an a piece of old parchment peered out of the crack.

“Ah, Ser Lonthan, my dear fellow. What can I do for you milord?”

“Letting me enter would be a good start Wilfred.”

“Oh, of course, milord. What shall I say is the purpose of this visit?”

“Tell Ser Seran I have news for him from Her Majesty.” The old man shuffled to one side, resembling a penguin in his black and white clothing and awkward movements. As Ser Lonthan entered the house, he was greeted by a hall the size of a training room. A stairwell sat on the far side, splitting into two half way down. It’s marble was as white as a wedding dress. Contrasting it was the crimson carpet that stretched away from the door, under the stairwell and into the parlour.

To the right of the perfectly square room was a fireplace bigger than Ser Lonthan himself, roaring away like a lion protecting its family.

“Welcome, old friend,” said a voice from the top of the stairwell. There stood a man as tall as the door he had just come through, with a beard covering an otherwise clear and empty face. His hair parted in the middle and seemed to race against itself to reach as far down as possible.

“Milord Seran, it is good to see you again,” replied Ser Lonthan.

“Come now Lonthan, there is no need to call me that. Just because I was the better fighter and was given the better status doesn’t mean we must change the way we talk to one another.”

“In that case, Seran, it’s been a long time you weasel.”

Ser Seran let out a laugh that echoed through the hall. He marched down the right hand stairwell and straight toward Ser Lonthan, extending a hand which Ser Lonthan accepted.

“You really have moved up in the world,” said Ser Lonthan. “I can still remember that hovel we called home back on the Lower Plate, and now look at us. I’m Captain of the Guard and you’re a Dragoon.”

Ser Lonthan looked around the hall once again. The fire illuminated a painting of Her Majesty the hung above it, although like all paintings of the Queen, it did her no justice. ‘You can’t paint a beautiful picture of a donkey’ he used to say when he saw them.

“I have a message from the donkey,” he said whilst staring at Queen Mari’s picture. “Her Majesty has called for you at the Rose Throne. I am told it is urgent.”

“Urgent you say? I wonder what the old horse wants now.”

“You know,” said Ser Lonthan, “you standing there complaining about meeting with the Queen is rather amusing, since we were once commoners ourselves and were not permitted to speak her name.”

“Yes, and you complaining about the commoners in the Upper City market is equally as comical. Do not think I haven’t heard of your comments about them from the other guards.”

The two Lords laughed with one another once more before Ser Seran retreated into his bedroom on the upper floor to get dressed. Ser Lonthan took a seat and began to imagine what life would be like for him as a Dragoon.

He would have the finest house he could find in the city, and not one that was connected to a working alleyway. He would marry a young and nubile woman who would give him many sons, and they would have they own training room at home to practice, so that they might become Dragoons as well.

Ser Seran reappeared from the bedroom, his chainmail glistening in the firelight, with the black Dragoon cloak wrapped around his neck. His feet were donned with studded leather boots, as his hands were with leather gloves. Atop the chainmail he wore a loose tunic of a moss color.

“Seran, tell me, why did you choose a house that opened onto such an alleyway?” As soon as Ser Lonthan finished his sentence the answer was clear. A young girl, perhaps eighteen or nineteen hopped out of the bedroom wearing a most revealing corset and nothing else.

“Milord, have you seen my bottoms?”

“They’re hanging on the side of the bath, dear,” replied Ser Seran, glancing back at Ser Lonthan with a sly smile.

Ser Seran walked down the steps toward Ser Lonthan, his shoulders swaying far more than usual, and his smile far larger than a few minutes before.

“You, sir,” said Ser Lonthan, “are definitely making use of your new status. But I’m afraid you have to leave that young beauty for now.”

Ser Seran nodded in acknowledgement and followed his old friend to the door, up the alley and finally to the top of the Golden Steps, up to the highest plate of Alexandra City. Before them stood the great doors of the Royal Estate, made of the most solid oak Ser Lonthan had ever seen. He had to use both arms to push the magnificent gates open, which revealed a stone hall far larger than Ser Seran’s home in its entirety.

Archways lined each side of the hall, with balconies suspended above them. A large table filled the centre of the hall large enough to seat well over one hundred people. It was coated in silver platters and goblets each filled with various meats and fruits as if a feast was waiting to begin. Yet there were only five people in the hall, the Queen included, as she sat on her throne awaiting the two men. They continued through the hall until they kneeled before the aging woman.

“Ser Seran, your Majesty,” said Ser Lonthan as his face was turned to the floor.

“Thank you Ser Lonthan,” said the Queen, her voice colder than ice and yet softer than butter. “Ser Seran, it is time for you to begin your duties to this nation as a Dragoon.

You see, I feel it is time we take what was taken from us. The Ringlands have been without our leadership for far too long. Therefore, I am sending you to take them back.”

“As you wish, your Majesty,” replied Ser Seran. “And how many knights do you wish me to take?”

Queen Mari screeched a laugh and stared at the Dragoon with eyes like a cat after a mouse had just entered the room. Ser Lonthan knew that his friend had said something wrong, but could not speak of it in front of her Majesty.

“Why, my dear boy,” she said. “You will take none of our knights with you. Why should we risk our fine men to take back such a place when we must concentrate on the growing threat from the Three Peaks.

No, you will go alone and when you get there you will meet with Lord Eerhart who will provide you with all information and men he has available. For you see, the Ringlands are small and most of their people are but farmers. You will not need a great force to take them.”

“Forgive me, your Majesty, but if they are but farmers, how did they gain their independence in the first place?”

“That is simple,” she continued. “Our Inquisition betrayed the oaths they had sworn and turned upon our nation when we least expected it. However, that was many years ago and those men are either dead or as close to it as they could be.

Therefore it is my decision that you will go alone. Do you understand?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” said Ser Seran. Ser Lonthan watching from the corner of his eye as the Dragoon bowed his head in acceptance and stood. Ser Lonthan did the same.

“May I ask how I am to travel there, Your Majesty?”

“Why my dear boy, that is simple. You will take a horse-drawn coach to Karayol Port and then board a fishing boat we have arranged for you.”

“A fishing boat, Your Majesty? Why not take an Odin or Thor airship? They are small and nimble enough.”

“You will be going to the Ringlands under the guise of a Journeyman, most of whom have very little money and certainly could not pay the price of an air-taxi, let alone a private transport.”

“I understand, Your Majesty. I will do as you ask immediately.”

*

3

EINAR

The long road to Saylae was covered in horse tracks from the hundreds of merchants that travelled around the island of Suhran from the port city. Thousands of paths and roads entangled one another across the land, but in the end they all joined the Saylae road.

Einar had awoken Alexia at sunrise and they had set off with a few short minutes. Dragging the meat cart along the old road had proven difficult, but they had managed to cover half of it before the full face of the sun had risen.

After five hours of dirt, broken branches and the odd strange riding by on a horse the trees began to separate, the forest finally ending. It gave way to the Whitewash Plains as if a gate had opened for the young travellers. The plains themselves were as flat as a squirrel after a coach had run it down.

They spread far and wide, further than Einar’s eyes could see. Whiteseed plants spread over the land like a canvas as farmers harvested the petals for medicine whilst the rest would be used in the brewery in Saylae itself.

Ahead was the great stone wall of the Suhran capital, always guarded and always gleaming like garnet due to the dark marble that was added into the building stones.

“The Lord of Saylae,” said Einar trying to break the silence that has come over them, “is called Ser Handrid. A truly great man if ever there was one. He had been part of the Inquisition for Alexandria when they came here, but had fallen in love with our lands and lead the revolt of the Inquisition itself. He and his family, the Highwinds, lead the assault on Saylae when it was under Alexandrian control. That’s why they named him Lord of Saylae and then Lord of Suhran Island itself.”

He looked over at his sister, half expecting her to not listen, yet she was looking at him directly in the face with eyes open wide.

“The Highwinds did a very good job, in many ways. Yes we have a much harder life now than before but at the same time the city itself prospered and brought more merchants to us.

Originally it was just a small village like Caim, but the Highwinds grew it, and built a new port, increased the market area and built the Whitewash fields.”

“It really is beautiful,” said Alexia. “You never told me about it before.”

“I didn’t think you would be interested,” he replied. Einar had always assumed she was far too interested in things like the “higher powers” and other fairy-tales she was told by old Ma’am Erey. He had been to Saylae six times in the past year and each time the buildings astounded him. However, the people were entirely different.

“Alexia, be careful in there,” he said. “Some of the people will be able to tell you are from a village and may try to take advantage of what they think is your ignorance. So we’ll just go to the market and then leave for today.”

They reached the gateway of the great market city, which was always open during the sunlight of the day to allow the hundreds of merchants to freely come and go. On each side of the enormous arched gateway stood a stone gryphon clutching a great sword in its mouth; the emblem of the Highwind family.

“That sword was called Ruzgard,” said Einar when he noticed Alexia’s eyes were fixated upon the statues. “It means Wind Guardian in the old tongue. You see, the Highwind family admired our culture and language so much that they tried to honour its loss after Alexandria left.”

Einar had always admired the Highwind family, and the Inquisition themselves. They had brought back at least a small pinch of the freedom that the Ringlands had lost at the hands of the Alexandria Empire.

After passing through the gateway they walked into what could have been a completely different world. The streets were lined with cobblestone rather than the tracks of Caim Village. They were bustling and busy, with countless faces flowing in and out of every corner. Horses strode through the gaps between the sea of people as an endless song of a thousand voices filled the skies, with words like ‘apples’ and ‘meat’ echoing from the market stalls.

Houses stretched up three to four stories and were coloured white with brown oak borders. Thatched roofs extended all around the city whilst the market stalls form a wall on both sides of every road.

The echoing voices were drowned every few seconds as the roar of a steam-cart rolled passed. The long silver hoods of the carts stretched out as long as a man, with metal cabins to seat the passengers situated behind it. The drivers sat in small opening between the cabin and the engine, and all seemed to wear the same standard leather cap and protective goggles.

In the sky Einar could see at least one hundred small delivery air-taxis trundling around above the houses, leaving trails of white smoke as the steam engines dragged the propellers into motion. The small balloons that held up the air-taxis were at the top, sometimes three or four of them, sometimes only one depending on the size of the air-taxi.

From the balloons stretched thick rope which wrapped its way around wooden cabins that resembled a closed fishing boat of varying sizes.

They walked a short distance, trying to maneuver the meat cart around the bustling citizens until they reached a small stall with a wooden roof and a box that was covered in various choice cuts of meat.

“What have you go there, boy?” The stall owner was a wide built man at best, with a beard that had certainly seen better days. An odour of ale escaped from his mouth as he spoke.

“Three cubs and a mother,” said Einar. “We’re after fifteen coins for the mother and six each for the cubs.” He noticed the quizzical expression on his sister’s face and smiled at her before winking.

“That’s a very hefty sum you are asking, boy,” said the burly man. “I can give you ten for the mother and six in total for all the cubs, not just one of ‘em.”

Einar shook his head and lifted the cart, taking a single stride forward whilst looking at his sister with a hidden smile.

“Wait a second, boy,” said the man, “where are you going?”

“To find someone who can actually afford such good and fresh meat.”

“Alright boy, listen. Twelve for mother I can do, but I will only pay six in total for the cubs.”

Einar smiled, glancing at his sister who nodded at him with the same look on her face. She understood what just happened, that was sure. The stall owner reached into a metal box in front of him and pulled out a handful of copper coins. There must have been at least a thousand in the box, but he counted out eighteen from the pile in his hand before hastily replacing the rest.

Einar placed the bodies of the wolves behind the stall before taking the coins from the overweight man and return to the cart. However, as he went to lift the handle up once again, he noticed a familiar face, the red hair and orange dots on it standing out in the crowd of dark hair and pale faces.

“Rin! What are you doing here?”

Rin didn’t answer, the man’s eyes opening wide before he suddenly dashed off down an alley on the left. Einar’s face contorted and twisted to the side as he watched his friend disappear into the mass of people.

“What was that for,” asked Alexia. Einar could only shake his head in disbelief. Why would Rin flee the sight of him? It made no sense to the young man. He sighed before pointing to another market stall a few strides away that was decorated with chickens hanging from the ceiling.

“Let’s get the chicken and bread and go home,” he said. “I’m sure Rin will explain himself when he comes back from the wedding.”

They pulled the cart to the stall, bought themselves a whole chicken. After that they quickly went to the bakers for the bread before leaving the lively city to head back to the drudgery of Caim Village before the approaching storm clouds arrived in full.

*

4

RIN

Rin ran. He ran as fast as his tired legs could carry him, jumping from left to right in order to avoid the market carts and girls of the night who were just making their way to work. He ran in the hope that Einar wouldn’t follow. How could he have let the boy see him?

Alley after alley shot past in an instant, from brick stone to mortar which was finally followed by the snow white marble walls of the wedding hall where his beloved Ari awaited his return. She was waiting with that horrid man.

Rin barged through the door, the splinters tearing at his skin as the old wooden frame buckled. The lights were still out, the candles smoking just enough for white streams to float away from them. The hall was a large open room of emptiness except for the dining table and twenty chairs that surrounded it from head to toe. It had been far too many chairs, fifteen too many, but they were already there when Rin and Ari had arrived.

Everyone must have been in the waiting room where he had left them. The door to the room was covered by a lilac and sky blue cloth, Ari’s favourite colours, in preparation for the celebration. Rin opened it hastily, the handle cracking under the speed.

“There you are, dear boy,” said the raspy, empty voice that Rin had hoped was just a dream. Yet there stood the vile atrocity of a man. His night black cloak concealed his body entirely, but the weathered and eroded face was enough to freeze one’s very soul.

He called himself Aeon, Rim remembered. He had said he was doing this for the good of the Ringlands, ‘preparing for the coming storm’, although Rin had no idea what he meant. He had said that taking Ari and her family hostage he was protecting the freedom of the Ringlands. It was all a bull’s tripe as far as Rin was concerned.

“Have you any news of my quarry, dear boy,” continued the gargoyle of a human.

“Yes I do, so release my family and I shall tell you.”

Aeon’s neck cracked like an earthquake as he twisted his head to one side like a bird of prey examining its next meal. Approaching Rin, his cloak hid his feet and gave the impression that he was floating. Rin took a step back but leaped forward again when the rotten door to the hall behind him closed itself.

“You think me a fool, do you not?” Aeon continued his snail paced advance as he spoke, his eyes not moving a single inch away from Rin’s. “You think I am to give you what you desire and then you will flee from me?” A breeze filled the room, blowing the curtains of the open window like wings, yet Aeon’s cloak lay still like a statue. “There is no where you can run. So tell me of my quarry.”

“She is with her brother,” said Rin. “They are returning to Caim as we speak, and I believe that it will take them at best three hours to reach the tree you mentioned.”

“Very good, dear boy. You have done well. I take it they suspect nothing?”

Rin could feel his legs weakening quickly. Aeon had said that Alexia must not know she was being followed, yet Einar had seen him. He didn’t want to say anything, but from the closed eyes on Aeon’s face, he was sure the horrid man already knew.

“Einar saw me,” he said. “But I said nothing and fled before he could reach me. I do not think he suspects anything.”

Aeon moved not one inch, his bright green eyes piercing Rin’s heart like a thousand spears. His left hand appeared from his cloak, open, and rose toward Rin’s face.

“Fear not, dear boy,” said Aeon, “you have done well. You have helped the Ringlands far more than you could possibly understand. You have given me the knowledge I need to protect this wonderful land.”

He paused. His hand was still raised. The breeze grew in strength and the delightful wedding glasses and statue of a dove fell from their stands, splintering as the crashed to the floorboard below.

“Although it is such a shame you were seen,” continued Aeon. “What I can do now I do not know, but she’ll tell me. Of that I am sure.”

Rin tried to reach for the decorative sword that hung on the wall above his head, but found his arms and legs would not move. Ari was still seated behind Aeon, her golden hair flung by the wind and her wedding dress tearing in the breeze revealing far too much of her before her bedding night.

“He must understand the consequences of failure” said a voice far more beautiful than Rin had ever heard. Yet there was no one speaking.

“Who said that?” Rin’s head turned left to right in an attempt to see if there was someone in the room he had missed. There wasn’t.

“She did,” answered Aeon. “And my dear, I truly am sorry for this.” His fist clenched shut tight, and Rin felt like he had suddenly donned a hundred coats of chainmail. He saw Ari and her parents fall to the floor as he did the same.

Ari’s father tried to stand, managing to get to his hands and knees, but they were shaking like an old man, which he certainly was not. He pushed against the floor, but the hidden weight was too much and his arms and legs snapped, the sound echoing throughout the room before he left out a high pitched scream that was more like a lost bat than a strong man as he had been.

Aeon glided toward Ari, drawing a great sword with an emerald green blade. Rin tried to call out, to shout for Ari to run, but no sound came to his lips. In a flash of green and red his beautiful bride’s golden curls were stained crimson as the blade sliced through her soft waist like water. Her mother followed soon after.

The weathered man turned his attention back to Rin, raising the sword once again.

“Allow me to introduce you to Judgement,” he said. “It served me well against Alexandria, and even better after the revolution.” He closed in, the breeze growing even stronger, the paper on the walls beginning to tear as wooden supports groaned. The weight that held Rin to the floor grew heavier and he felt his arms and legs giving in, splitting into pieces within his skin.

“I truly am sorry for this, dear boy,” continued Aeon. “You did so well, but she has decided your fate.” The blade, Judgement, came down.

*

5

SERAN

The coach rattled and rolled along the cobbled roadways that lead south from Alexandria City. Mountains spanned every angle like a border. The Dragonteeth Mountains spread westward along the northern horizon before twisting and heading due north into the Three Peaks, and out of Alexandria Empire territory.

To the south lay the Karün Peaks which had once acted as a border wall preventing the tribes of Twin Rivers from entering Alexandria until the Alexandria Empire took control of the region. To the front of the coach lay the Highstones, the largest mountains in the Imperial territory, and the end of the mainland of Rhythlan. A few short leagues before the feet of the mountain range sat the town of Karayol, a fisherman’s paradise but far from the splendour of Alexandria City.

Seran sat within the red lined carriage of the coach, listening to the rhythm of the horses as they galloped along. The world passed at such speed that he could only make out the flashes of colours. Reds, blues and greens skimmed across his eye sight, as did the odd shade of brown which he assumed where horses heading the opposite direction.

The coach jolted into the air for a split second, and following a large crash Seran’s head was throbbing. He hated travelling in such a fashion. It was far more pleasing to simply climb atop a stallion and ride in the freedom of the open world. However, such an action was unbefitting one such as himself now that he was a Dragoon.

Dragoons were the finest knights of the Alexandria Empire, and had to act in such a manner or risk embarrassing the Queen and all that she ruled.

Life itself was better as a Dragoon. With the coin and respect he gained he could purchase any girl he pleased, eat whatever his belly fancied and swig as much ale and wine as he could find. However, the constant concern of appearance was almost overbearing to him.

Seran had been born a farmer’s boy living outside the gates of the Upper City, but found that he was far better with a sword than a hoe. Thus he had enrolled in the Lower City guard. After that, due to his ability with a blade, he rose in status and power swiftly, dragging Lonthan with him.

Now they were knights, and Seran himself was a Lord. Life had changed, but he was never sure how much better it was, or whether the trade he had made was truly worth it.

A crackle similar to that of a harpy dragged to young knight back to reality, although he was only young in terms of the other knights, being the rather late age of twenty nine.

“What say you to a bottle of ale whilst we go,” said one of the two horseman to the other, although Seran could not see which due to the box he was seated in.

“The Lord may not like such an idea,” said the other. Seran chuckled to himself, shaking his head before knocking on the carriage wall.

“Go ahead,” he responded, “as long as you share some with me.”

He could hear the pair of horse tamers whispering to one another, but couldn’t make out the words over the sound of the coach wheels riding over the stone.

“You are sure, my lord?” The voice of the horseman sounded broken and dry as he shouted. They must have been parched, Seran was sure of that.

“I am sure; just pass a bottle or two to me.”

“Thank you My Lord, my son will pass it to you immediately-”

Before the sentence finished a croaking sound filled the air instead and the horseman’s voice faded completely. The horses snorted and gave a high pitched squeal before the body of the horseman fell to the road beside the coach. An arrow had impaled itself in his neck.

A second later three arrows pierced the carriage wall but did not continue through it. However, Seran saw the younger horseman fall as well. Bandits were coming. That was obvious. The day was turning to dusk and he hadn’t heard a sign on another horse for at least an hour. He reached for his seat, lifting it and drawing the long sword from inside. The handle sported a rose engraved into the hilt, and the word ‘firethorn’ etched into the blade, which itself had a series of metal spikes surrounding it. Seran twisted a key on the thick box on the end of hilt, starting the small steam engine that powered the chain the spikes were connected to. They sped around the edge of the blade, showing why it was called a chainsword. Seran waited.

He could hear the footsteps of horses approaching, as well as the drops of rain that seemed to try and make them. They were closing on their prey, but they had chosen the wrong prey to hunt.

“Well now,” he heard someone say, they voice brittle and unpronounced. “Looks like we found ourselves a good one here, doesn’t it?”

“Two riders and four horses? I guess we got ourselves a Lord here,” said a second voice more brittle than the first. A chorus of laughter erupted as the footsteps of five men splashed in the new puddles that surrounded the coach.

“I bet the old fool is hiding inside, pissing his pants right now,” said the first voice again. They really had chosen the wrong prey. “Let’s take a look shall we?”

The curtain of the carriage slowly opened, a blade poking through first, but it was followed by a head of unkempt hair and an odor for more suited to pigs. Firethorn fell straight, as did the man’s crown, the saw-blade tearing through his neck like butter. The body, however, slipped back to the floor, causing a large gasp and then silence to emit from each of the bandits. Seran leaped out of the carriage, Firethorn at the ready.

“You bastard,” screamed the second voice, which belonged to a rather lanky young man who seemed to be more skeleton than living being. He swung at Seran with great speed though.

Seran blocked with Firethorn, but the bandit drew a second dagger from inside his jacket. Seran grasped the thief’s arm with his own off hand before leaping back to uncross swords.

A swing came from behind. He rolled to the ground, Firethorn grazing the lanky man’s left leg, before rising to his feet once again. This time the lanky man span round, his sword ready to return the favour. Seran jumped into the air, launching his foot into the man’s face knocking him to the floor.

He landed, driving the tip of Firethorn into the man’s heart before tearing it back out again. One down, only two were left. He started toward the larger bodied man, knowing he would be far slower than the other, who was average in build. He was right. The fool hadn’t even unsheathed his blade when Firethorn sprayed his blood.

The last one, however, was far luckier. As Seran span, the bandit’s dagger cut through his face deep enough to bleed but not enough to actually damage the Dragoon that much. Firethorn rose up and into the thief’s stomach before eating its way upward. Crimson sprayed all over the Lord Dragoon but he simply smiled. He hated fools who can only take what others earn.

“Great,” he said aloud as he looked at the horse riders. Climbing back into the carriage section of the coach, he collected his, coin purse and letter from Alexandria. From the chest underneath his seat, he took his black, wide trimmed hat and cloak that was as dark as night. Flinging both on, he stepped outside and untied the horses from the coach, climbed atop one with his belongings and slapped the other on the rear.

As the horse sped off into the approaching darkness of the storm, Seran gazed up to let the rain touch his face and wash the cut. He gave a slight kick to the side of the horse he had saddled and off he went toward Karayol Port.

*

6

EINAR

The rain had picked up, falling like a land slide. Each drop of water felt like a stone thrown to the face as Einar and Alexia dragged the old cart through the forest. It had gotten stuck in the gravel and sludge more than twice as the soil became ever more soaked. The slight breeze that had started as they left Saylae had twisted and transformed into a wild and ferocious stream of ice cold air that seemed to follow them every turn.

The sun had retreated behind the dull grey lining that had covered the sky, as if putting the day to bed. The forest seemed angered by the situation, shadows barely reaching out from their wooden masters but the seemed to be warning Einar of something.

Birds sang in the trees, but their song was melancholic and lonesome, as if a young girl singing her final words, unsure of what awaited her when she finished.

“What happened to that?”

Alexia’s voice ripped through the orchestra of blue tits and lightning like a sword. She was pointing at a trunk that had fallen across the road to Caim. The wood smoked and smouldered at one end but at the other it appeared newly grown. Einar stopped and put the cart down as he surveyed the area.

“Well we certainly are not getting home this way,” he said. He glanced around in every direction before spotting a small patch where the grass gave way to the soil. “Let’s try going up there and then coming back around again. The canopy is thicker over there as well, so the rain won’t be as strong.”

“Do you not see how dark it is there?”

Alexia had always been afraid of the dark. It was more than a little annoying for Einar to sleep with the lantern on every night, but if he put it out the arguments that followed were always worse.

“Of course I do,” he said, “but we have no other choice.”

“We could leave the cart here and come back for it later with some help to move the tree.”

Einar glared at his little sister, not sure if she really understood the consequence of the action she had suggested.

“There is not a single chance that it would still be here when we came back, and we definitely cannot afford another one. Just to pay for it we would need at least four adult wolves, but how would take them to the markets with no cart?”

Alexia had started shuffling from one foot to other whilst looking at the ground. Her eyes were avoiding Einar and her face had turned a tomato red. Einar waited for a response but was denied one, so he lifted the cart by himself and turned it toward the clearing in the grass.

“Very well, we’re going this way,” he said as he started to pull the cart up the small track. He knew Alexia would follow if he went by himself, and sure enough she did.

The track itself was little more than a swamp road. Water rushed across the dirt as if it were fleeing some great monstrosity. The bird song slowly faded as the final light of the sun seemed to retreat and distance itself from the world.

A crackling and groaning sound filled the atmosphere, sending a shot of ice down Einar’s back as it became increasingly more difficult to see. He glanced at Alexia, terrified that she would have vanished like the happiness of the forest, wondering if he were in some kind of nightmare and would wake up by the broken trunk again any minute.

The trees seemed to have moulded themselves into claws and talons ready to strike at anything that moved. The bushes rustled as the wind grew stronger still. He was sure something was moving around them, but it had become so dark he could hardly see his own feet.

“You are lost, dear friend,” said a deep voice with no body. Einar stopped, his skin cold and his hair standing on end. “Why have you come to this domain?”

His head turned in every possible direction trying to see anything in the darkness, but to no avail. Alexia was shaking, placing a hand on his and gripping tightly.

“Who goes there?” Einar’s voice echoed countless times, fading into the distance.

“Fear not, dear friend,” said a second voice, for more feminine than the previous one. “We are here to guide you. Follow our voices and you will be lost no more.”

Einar looked at his sister, not sure what to do. Her eyes were open wide and her body trembling, but she nodded so he lifted the cart once again and followed the voices as they repeated the words “this way” again and again.

The forest itself seemed to be darker than possible, and Alexia tripped over a root that had escaped the soil. She cut her arm on a rock but Einar helped her back up and they continued on. The rustling of the bushes grew closer by the second, and he was sure someone was watching them.

The cart rumbled and rocked over stone and soil as the rain seemed to break through as if the canopy had vanished. Einar had to constantly pull his feet out of the soil as they sank with each step.

As they followed the disembodied voices he noticed a slight glow of orange coming closer with every movement. The light danced about as if it were alive, and in the darkness that had taken the forest it was a sight for sore eyes.

That was, until they finally reached it. The light was a fire; a fire consuming a large farm house. Screams echoed from within the two storey wooden box. Einar instinctively dropped the cart and rushed to the front door, smashing it down with his shoulder before a wisp of flame shot toward his face.

It didn’t burn. He didn’t feel a thing. That was when he noticed there was no heat coming from the house. Confused, he entered and moved toward the screams, Alexia entering behind him. They made their way to the kitchen, when they found a large wooden table covered in freshly placed food and a large kitchen built on a single wall that was burning far faster than wood should do.

On the floor lay a young woman, her hair dark and her dress long and turquoise, yet slowly blackening in the fire. Einar couldn’t move, he just gazed at the woman with his eyes so far open they could have fallen out. Alexia tried to take the woman’s hand but as she reached forward a strong gust of wind filled the room and knocked both of them off their feet.

“Mother,” said Einar before the ceiling support beam finally gave in to the flames and dropped toward him and his sister. Everything went black.

When Einar finally opened his eyes again, he and his sister were back on the main road to Caim Village, the meat cart still with them and still holding their chicken and bread.

He stood up, looking around before helping Alexia to her feet. She was still trembling.

“What happened?” Einar couldn’t find an answer to give her. How could they have come back to the same place?

“My arm,” said Alexia. “My arm’s not cut anymore!” Einar looked at her arm and saw she was right. It was as if there had never been any injury whatsoever.

“What in the world is going on here?” He searched around in his brain for any possible explanation but found nothing. Instead his legs just complained. “I do not understand this. For now, let’s just get home. We’ll think about this after we rest.”

“That’s a good idea,” agreed Alexia. “My legs feel as though they will fall off.”

“Mine as well, and I don’t think we will be able to understand this by just standing here.”

They picked up the cart yet again and slowly continued onward toward the village gates that approached from the distance.

Yet there was something wrong, Einar was sure of it. He couldn’t shake that same feeling that someone was watching them.

*

7

NATE

The constant whine of the rotary blades was making the young engineer’s head pound like a tribal drum. Smoke filled the room and tar covered his originally pearly white overalls. The sounds of hammers beating metal rang in his ears as the other men rebuild parts of the old machine. Water continually leaked in through the pinprick holes in the wall, so Nate knew they were still at sea.

“Every day a new toy play with, isn’t that right Nate?” The engineer span around, his ash covered hair fluttering upward before returning to rest on his shoulders. He removed the dusty old goggles from his face and smiled.

“Charles! How have you been?”

Charles stood tall before Nate, his fur lined jacket reaching to the ground, swinging in the scorching wind that blasted its way through the workshop to reveal the leather pantaloons underneath, and the skinned hide shirt on his torso. He always seemed to dress in the most inappropriate clothes according to Nate, but nevertheless he was good man and a great friend.

“I have been in Arwindown, talking to the Peak Lords about this little project of ours.”

Nate felt his hair stand on end. He had been awaiting the news that would surely follow for almost three months now.

“I explained the idea of a small, high speed airship designed to retaliate against the battleships. They asked a lot of very strange questions about the shape of the body and how we would make the engine small enough.

When I told them we already had the engine at the right size, they were astonished at best. How is the baby running anyway?”

“Well… Slowly at the moment. The rotary blade doesn’t want to spin fast enough for the size because the rotary motor is designed for large systems. However, apart from that it runs fine. I’m just waiting for the men on deck to finish raising the iron giant from the water so that I may salvage the rotary parts from there.”

Charles tilted his head to one side before glancing around the workshop. He placed a hand on Nate’s shoulder with a smile on his face.

“We’re doing well. I saw them bring up the chains as I came on board. A wing had reached out of the water so it should not be much longer. For now, let us go and relax for a while.”

Nate rolled a spanner through his fingers and gazed at the motors that were sitting on shelves behind Charles.

“To be honest, Charles, I would like to make some more adjustments to the motor before relaxing. I have to make sure the new rotary parts can actually fit inside it when we get them.”

As the engineer finished speaking, a loud crash echoed through the room as the iron door crashed open. A small boy with very little hair and grimier clothes than Nate’s entered the room with speed, waving a crimson flag.

“The giant is here! The giant is on the deck!”

Nate flinched for a second by looking straight into Charles’ face. His eyes were wide open and his mouth wider than a duck’s beak.

“Hurry my boy,” said Charles, “let us go and see this giant for ourselves. I will help you remove the parts you need.”

The young engineer nodded swiftly, dropped his spanner on the ground and moved very hastily toward the open door that led to the iron steps.

The passageways of the boat were cold iron and grey as a winter’s morning. The metal froze to the skin if you touched it for long enough, except when you were near the engine room or the workshop as those rooms radiated so much heat it felt like it could melt a man in minutes. Bolts and bracers decorated the otherwise plain and dull walls as the two men darted up the winding stairs toward the deck.

They passed the mess hall, where men were sitting around a white table stained with ale and oil from food. Cards were in their hands and piles of tobacco on the table. Behind them Matilda the cook strolled around collecting the pots and pans after dinner.

After the mess hall came the deck door. It opened to a beautiful clear sky of blue and a bed of turquoise that rippled against the side of the massive tug boat.

The deck itself was almost empty except for six men and the crane that chugged away spilling steam from every side. The captain was inspecting the massive birdlike metal contraption. It had a dark green color and the cockpit was sealed with glass, although most of it was cracked or broken entirely. The propellers themselves were the size of Nate’s entire body, but there were also a few smaller versions on a single pilot ship inside the larger one.

“Well, it certainly looks like we struck big here, don’t you think Nate?”

Charles didn’t receive the answer he awaited. Instead, Nate leaped straight toward the machine’s engines and began to disassemble it immediately. Oil and metal sprung out in all directions as he torn the motors apart in such of the rotary mechanism. It took three hours to find the part he needed, and by then everyone else had gone to the sleeping quarters as the sky blackening and the moon rose in the sky.

“Well, I have it now so I should probably get some sleep myself. Tomorrow will be the day we fly.”

He walked down through the corridors again, passing the mess hall which had emptied completely, strolling through the light of candle lanterns that had been left aflame for the late workers so they might see where they walked as they made their way to bed.

The corridors filled with the sounds of the sleeping sailors, resembling a herd of bison rather than a group of men.

When he arrived at his room he noticed the door was ajar and a light ever so small peeked out from within. His hands shaking, he reached for the handle and slowly opened the large iron door. Behind it stood that woman.

In the candlelight her face resembled some kind of imp, the wart beneath the left eye giving the impression she had two heads. Her hair seemed to run away from her face, leaving an empty patch at the front of her head. Her hands lay on the table like bones next to the single candle that stood on a small carrying plate.

“So you have come,” said Nate, sweat sliding from his face and crashing to the metal floor.

“Indeed I have,” replied the crackling old voice. “We know you have nearly completely your engine. So next you must complete your agreement.”

“Agreement!? We never agreed anything! You telling me to give you my life’s work or you will kill me is not an agreement.”

The old and feeble looking woman crackled a she took to her feet. Her legs trembled as they tried to support her own weight. She looked so frail, yet her eyes said different.

“They will come for their trophy tomorrow. The Inquisition will always collect their trophies. A storm is coming, you see, and your little flying machine will help that storm to burn Alexandria.”

“I will not give this machine to southern dogs! I would not care if you came to me from the Inquisition, Alexandria or some unknown land further south. This airship belongs to the Three Peaks!”

“We will see if that is true tomorrow, dear and ignorant child.”

A gust of wind blew the door closed with an almighty crash and the flame of the candle fluttered into nothingness, cloaking the room in darkness. Nate reached into his pocket and pulled out a box of matches, striking one alight with just one hand.

The light enveloped the room once again as he lit the small candle. The wind had died, and he found he was alone.

*

8

AEON

The moon shone brightly through the rain clouds that floated across the sky like feathers in a breeze. The droplets sparkled like emeralds as they fell through the trees and to the earth below. The darkness of the night was slowly retreating as the first sign of the sun poked its head over the horizon, but shadow still shrouded the forest as the storm tried with all its might not to die.

Aeon strolled along the dirt paths that lead away from Saylae in the direction of his quarry.

The bird songs had taken life once again, giving a chorus of welcome to the coming morning. The wind that had blown so strongly through the midnight hours was falling to just a whisper.

He arrived at the fallen tree, still in the middle of the road. Yet there was no sign of the two youths. Turning, he followed the small track his men had created a handful of nights ago in the hope that the young girl would be laying somewhere nearby. She wasn’t.

“Well this surely is a sour turn of events,” he said to the air that flowed around him. “How do you think she was able to escape the darkness, my dear?”

“The answer is simply, dear Aeon,” answered the same disembodied voice that had spoken to him for as long as he could remember. “My brothers and sisters must finally have awoken to our plan.”

“But why would they interfere? We will cause no harm to them.”

“They interfere, my dear friend, because they know that we are far more powerful than they ever could be. It terrifies them.”

Aeon turned to follow the pathway back to the main road, if you could actually call it a road.

“So what must we do?”

“Well, if seems that my family will hinder the progress of your little games, so perhaps I should take matters into my own hands?”

“You speak as if my game has failed.”

“It has. There is no girl, there is no plan and there is no success. Therefore, it is a failure.”

Aeon reached the fallen tree once again, closed his eyes and threw his open palm forward until it connected to the tree trunk. The trunk itself flew away from him, spinning as it hit another tree that still stood in place before landing neatly at the side of the road allowing passage once again.

“This was merely act one, my old friend. They have passed it, and now they move to act two. Let us see how they will fare this time.”

“Very well, I will allow you to continue, but remember that the fate of the Ringlands rests on you finding the girl. So take this one, and she will lead you to other, that I promise.”

“The fate of the Ringlands relies on both my finding my precious girl and on you strengthening the Inquisition’s forces.”

He began down the road once again, the gates of Caim Village growing ever closer. The day was dawning, but it seemed to be slower than usual. Time was on his side.

The wooden gates were open, just as the farmer had promised they would be. It had taken a little persuasion and a lot of bruises, but the young man had agreed to keep the gate open when he left Saylae the night before. Inside the circular wall of poles stood a pathetic number of hovels and a single stream equally as unimpressive as the village itself, although it caused a strange feeling of belonging to well up inside Aeon. Everyone still slept, the daylight just creeping onto the floor of the village. He still had time.

He looked around for the sign that the young man agreed to leave for him. Next to a small and rotten little fleapit of a house was a burnt branch taken from the tree Aeon had brought down.

Smiling, he moved toward the hut silently, passing the miniscule log bridge that crossed the stream and through a number of small flower beds.

Inside the house it was dark and damp, with the stench of chicken meat and the odour of fresh bread. A young man lay still on the floor with Aeon’s quarry sleeping next to him. The daylight pierced the darkness with a single line that stretched west across the house. Aeon moved closer, the young girl finally in his reach.

“Now I have you, my dear Alexia.”

*

9

EINAR

The sunlight burnt the skin over Einar’s face, giving him a very rude awakening. Slowly stirring in his makeshift bed, he rolled over onto all fours and pushed himself up.

“Good morning Alexia.” There was no reply. He opened his eyes slowly, sitting back on his legs before glancing around the room. “Alexia?” The hut was empty. Her bed was a mess and the sunlight was entering through the front door which was wide open.

Einar leaped to his feet and hastily pulled his tunic and pantaloons on. Running out the house he cried out his sister’s name, much to the surprise of the villagers who were already working in their gardens. He ran along the stream, around the houses and through the fields of Gafer’s poor excuse of a farm.

“Alexia? Where are you?”

He got no answer, no matter how many times he called her name. He could feel sweat drip down his face and back as his hands trembled. He walked over to Ma’am Erey’s house, his fist almost breaking the old door as he struck it to get the old crone’s attention.

After a few short seconds he heard the rustling of feet slowly approaching the door before the lock clicked and it creaked open.

“What in the name of the Tower is wrong with you, boy?”

“Where is she,” cried Einar, his face contorted into a demon of anger.

“What are you talking about?”

“My sister! Where is she?”

Ma’am Erey’s neck stretched, as did the wrinkles on her face as her eyebrows moved down and her face dropped toward the ground.

“Alexia is missing?”

“Yes she’s missing, you old fool!”

Ma’am Erey was carrying an iron kettle, polished enough that Einar could see his reflection in it. He could also see Gafer’s son Bartholomew staring at him from behind. His fists clenched harder as he span and darted toward the young farmer. Grasping Bartholomew by the neck he pushed the farmer to the wall.

“Where is she!? What did you do with my sister, bastard?”

Bartholomew tried to lift his arm toward Einar’s face, but Einar instinctively drew one of his daggers and pushed it through the farmer’s sleeve and into the wooden wall.

“What did you do with her!? Tell me, or Fool help me, I will slice you open.”

Bartholomew’s eyes dart around in search of aid, but only Einar, Ma’am Erey and Gafer were there. Gafer ran over to his son and Einar, Bartholomew breathing a heavy sigh and relaxing his arms. Einar held tight.

“Tell him, boy,” said Gafer. Bartholomew’s eyes widened as he stared at his father who did nothing to aid his son out of such a predicament. Einar smiled. He moved closer to his captive and stared into his eyes, watery and open.

“I didn’t do anything,” said the young farmer, his lack of education in speech becoming apparent in an instance. “It was that man! He made me do it.”

“Do what,” said Einar, interrupting him.

“He told me he would kill me if I didn’t leave the eastern gate open and show him where you lived.”

“What have you done, boy,” shouted Gafer, slapping his son across the face. “Who was this man? Tell us now!”

Einar released his grip long enough to punch the young farmer in stomach. He breathed hard before throwing another one to Bartholomew’s face.

“Where did he take my sister? Who is he?”

“He said he was from the Inquisition. He was taking her for questioning! He said she was the key to keeping the Ringlands free!”

“And you believed him, just like that? I cannot believe I raised such a fool of a boy.”

“But father, he was going to kill me!”

“So what do you think he will do to Alexia? Your mother would have been ashamed! Tell me where he was going!”

Bartholomew paused, water filling his eyes and escaping down his face to the ground. Einar could feel him trembling fast and hard.

“He told me they were taking her to Esterland. That’s all I know! Really!”

Einar pulled the dagger from the wall and placed in back in its sheath before punching the young man’s face. Bartholomew fell to the ground, landing on his knees with a river of tears falling from him. Einar turned to Gafer.

“I’m going to Esterland.”

“I will come with you, my boy.”

“No,” said Einar, interrupting the farmer. “I have enough coin to take a ferryboat across to Argent, but only enough for one person. Besides, with this fool of a son of yours, we need someone here to keep everyone safe.”

Gafer shifted from one foot to the other and back again more than twice. His hands were wrestling with each other and he hadn’t taken his eyes of Bartholomew.

“You are right. If this idiot could leave the gates open all night, who knows what may come into Caim. Very well, I will wait here for news, but please allow me to give you some coin. You will need to eat whilst you travel and the Esterland is a place of high prices and extortion.”

Einar accepted. He couldn’t refuse the aid of Gafer twice in one conversation. Gafer walked over to his kneeling son and gave his a boot to the chest before turning and beckoning Einar to follow him.

They moved toward the farmer’s house, the inside of which was painted a dull red, which had turned almost pink over the years of rain. Einar watched as Gafer reached into a small wardrobe and pulled out a handful of coin.

“Here, take this. There is about fifty coin here. It should be enough to pay for food for the both of you as you go and return.”

“Thank you, Gafer. But can you really afford to give so much?”

“Come now, my boy. My senseless child has put your sister in danger. This is the least that I can do for you now.”

Gafer pushed the coin into Einar’s hand, and he put it straight into the coin pouch in his pocket.

“Now go and get ready. It’s a long way to Argent. Two days by boat from Saylae. Take the bread you bought yesterday with you as well.”

Einar nodded in agreement. He shook his friend’s hand and walked out of the house, passed Bartholomew who was still gasping for air on the floor, and back to his hut.

Inside he took his white hunting cloak and threw it over his shoulders before donning his studded leather hunting boots he had bought from a merchant a year before. Grasping a sack that was tied to a long stick, he shoved the bread into it and slung it onto the his right shoulder before leaving the house and slamming the door closed so hard it vibrated like an engine.

Outside Ma’am Erey and Gafer waited. The old lady walked over to Einar first.

“My dear, I know you and I do not see eye to eye often, if at all, but please be careful. And please bring your sister home safely.”

Ma’am Erey stretched out her arms to embrace Einar, something he had not experienced since he was a small lad. He could not help but return the gesture, albeit one handed due to the sack he was carrying.

“My boy, you be careful. And come back quick. What good is a village without its two best hunters?”

Einar shook the farmer’s hand once again before nodding, forcing a smile and walking toward the gate.

“Wait,” shouted Bartholomew, running over to him. “I’m coming with you. I have my own coin to pay the ferryman, and this is my fault. I want to fix it.”

“Yes, this is your fault! But I will not allow you to come with me. You have endangered my family already with you lack of ability to think. I will not have you do again.”

Einar pushed the young man’s hand away rather than shaking it and marched over to the gate and out of the village once again.

The road to Saylae was unusually quiet that day. There was eeriness about it that he just couldn’t pinpoint. The birds had stopped singing already, but the day was still young. The wind of the storm the night before was dead and silent and the road was void of travellers entirely. Even the sky was empty. No birds or airships flew overheard.

By the time he arrived at Saylae once again, he found it almost as dead as the forest. The energy of the day before seemed to have been sucked out of the city. The merchants still told their produce but with voices empty and hollow. Only a handful of air-taxis moved about the city walls and the people walked with their heads to the floor. Einar noticed one boy sitting on the road by himself and approached.

“What happened here, boy? Why is everyone so quiet?”

The boy looked up slowly, his face bleach white and his eyes looking as if he were staring into the afterlife.

“There was a murder, sir. A group of five in the wedding hall.”

A chill shot down Einar’s back. He remembered how strangely Rin had acted when they met eyes. It surely was not to do with this though, right?

“Tell me of it, and pray be quick for I knew a man and his bride who were to get married there this week.”

“I am sorry, sir. I do not know many details. But I heard the wedding hall is open and the bodies are still there. Should you wish to, you could see for yourself.”

“I will do that then,” said Einar standing straight once again. “How do I get there?”

“Take the left by the meat stall and go straight. You cannot get lost, sir. I pray for you that they are not your friends.”

Einar was doing the same. He had never been a man of faith, that was sure, but after the events of the past few hours he found himself praying to the Arcana silently.

He took the left and followed the street, itself empty apart from three guardsmen and two working ladies who were wailing and screaming within each other’s arms. The wedding hall was beautiful, with statues beside the main door and a fountain in the courtyard. However, the beauty did little to hide the broken windows and the front door hanging loosely from its hinges.

Inside there were no guardsmen to speak of. Everything seemed in place. The chairs sat neatly around the large dining table and the aging pictures on the walls hung straight and true. It was as if nothing had been touched to learn of the murdered. Einar noticed the door to the waiting room was ajar and proceeded.

His mouth dropped, and his knees gave in as he fell to the floor. Blood covered the walls, glasses lay around the room, and Rin’s face stared straight into his eyes, although the gaze was empty.

Einar reached out with his hand, moving it toward his closest friend, before suddenly and swiftly retracting it in fear.

“Rin,” he said, his voice wobbling as tears streamed from his eyes. “Ari, what happened to you both? What is happening to this world!?”

He wiped the tears from his face with his left hand before looking around once again. Why were there no guardsmen examining the scene? Why was the building open at all? As he searched with his eyes, he found the answer.

On the wall a symbol was painted, that of the Inquisition.

*

10

NATE

The night passed far too slowly. Nate dreamed of the decaying woman and of flying his new machine. The dreams were dark and bleak, yet strangely exhilarating and entertaining.

When he finally roused from his slumber it was not by choice but rather but the continuing clamour of Charles thumping the bedroom door. Nate slipped from his bed, his eyes heavy and blurred as he tried to stand. It felt as if he had not slept a wink the last night.

Crossing to the small box chest on the floor, he opened it with a creak before reaching in to take his working tunic from it. All the while, the banging and screaming from outside the room continued. He threw on the tunic and moved slowly toward the door, half stumbling as he went. The door opened with a sound so clear and strong that it was far too obvious that it needed more oil on the hinges.

“Why it is every door on this damn boat squeaks?”

“And good morning too you,” replied Charles. “My lord you get up late, do you not?”

“Why? What time is it?”

“Does it matter?” Charles seemed to be jumping off his feet every other second. The stench of his clothes was so strong that Nate had to hold his breath for a second just to try and get used to it. He was also wearing the same fur lined clothes he had been wearing the day before.

“Did you actually take a shower?”

“No,” said Charles. “I could not sleep well either. We have to try and fly that thing as soon as possible.”

Nate shook his head before nodding. He could not lie to himself; he was rather excited about it too. He picked up the parts, closed his bedroom door and turned the valve to lock it before following Charles once again to the workshop hall.

Everyone else was just starting to stir whilst Nate worked on the motor. The sound of clanging metal echoed throughout the ship, almost an alarm system. The sailors and engineers soon came flooding into the hall with a nearly even mixture of emotions. Some were shouting at them for making too much noise whilst the others shouted because they wanted to see the machine fly.

Spanners turned and hand drills duck into metal for over an hour. Oil spilled on the floor and dust flung itself about the room, but eventually the rotary machine was complete.

“So tell me,” said the captain of the salvage boat, a tall man of brooding visage, “how will this little airship of your stay in the air without you feeding it wood or coal constantly?”

“Simple, sir. We simply start the rotary system with the handle here,” Nate said as he pointed to the L-shaped piece of metal sticking out from the front of the oblong airship.

“The handle causes the rotary system to spin creating electricity that causes a piece of metal underneath the water tank to heat up. This then boils the water which creates the steam, the pressure of which causes the rotary system to continue spin on its own accord.”

“So once you start it, it does not stop unless there is no more water,” continued Charles. “As for the water supply, when the steam hits the outer shell of the water tank it cools down again due to the outside temperature, becoming water once again so you can, in theory, fly indefinitely.”

The look of emptiness on the Captain’s face was priceless, a picture Nate would love to remember for his entire life. He moved over to a small workbench to the left of the airship, grabbing a pair of goggles.

“Don’t forget the paint, boy,” said Charles, “a ship with no name sinks in the rain, remember.”

He was right. It had always been the same; whenever a ship of any sort sailed without being christened it was lost.

“What should we call it?”

“How about ‘Enterprise’? It is, after all, our enterprising creation,” said Charles.

“No, I do not like that. It’s too common of a word, do you not think?”

Charles put his open palm to his chin and his eyes rolled toward the sky and stayed there. Nate twiddled his fingers and breathed heavily whilst trying to come up with something.

“Well,” said the Captain, “if you want something different how about ‘Seadawn’. It was made at sea and finished at the dawn of the day.”

Nate’s head flicked up, as did Charles’, and they stared at one another in silence for a second. Nate felt himself smile. The name had strange warmth to it.

“I like it,” he said.

“Then it’s decided,” continued Charles. “We will call it Seadawn.”

Nate nodded and picked up the paint, walking back over to the airship and painting its new name carefully on both sides of the front motor compartment. He put the paint box on the floor before hoping into the pilot seat, the front of two seats. Charles manned the wind up level for a good thirty seconds before the steam engine started to whir into life. Nate watched as his friend hastily jumped into the seat behind him.

“Alright, Captain, open the hangar doors-”

Before he could finish the last syllable the ship rocked aggressively, the Captain and his crew almost falling onto their rears. The sound of gunfire filled the atmosphere and crashes and thuds echoed through the ship.

“What is going on?” The Captain was shouting through the communication pipe to the bridge.

“We’re under attack,” the reply said. “There’s a battleship in the sky shooting at us. It’s flying the Alexandria Empire flags!”

“The Alexandria Empire? That’s impossible,” exclaimed the Captain. “There’s no chance they could know what we are doing here.”

Another shell connected with the boat, shaking it once again. This time the Captain did fall to the floor. As his stood himself upright again, brushing off his clothes, he clenched his fist and half closed his eyes.

“Men! Prepare for battle!” He looked over and Nate and Charles with a determined fire in his eyes. “If the Seadawn is going to be tested, I think it should have a full combat test. We are certainly going to need it.”

“But I’m no combat pilot,” shouted Nate.

“You’re going to have to be,” replied the Captain as he signalled his men to open the hangar doors. “Just remember not to let them hit you. They only have the battleship, something the Seadawn is designed to destroy, am I right?”

Nate could feel his throat closing tight, refusing to answer that question, but he knew it was correct. Their airship had been designed for exactly this sort of situation. It would be a great test flight, albeit a dangerous one. He nodded, and glanced back at Charles.

“Can you man the weapons? I’m going to have enough trouble flying this thing.”

Charles gave the okay signal and smiled. If only Nate could have appeared so calm perhaps he would have believed it himself. The hangar door finally opened the sound of the rolling sea deafened by the sound of battle.

“Get going,” said the Captain, “and good luck!”

The Seadawn rolled forward as Nate pushed the break lock level to his side as far down as it could go. The propellers, although small, were making quite the din. It rolled faster and faster, heading for the bright blue ocean, yet it didn’t seem to be going fast enough.

“We need more speed,” exclaimed Charles. Nate knew that much but there was little he could about it. They had only created a system to start and stop the engine, not control the speed. The end of the boat approached quickly. Nate pulled the steering stick backward toward himself as hard as he could. He didn’t dare look back but he was sure Charles had either closed his eyes or made a mess of his pantaloons.

The sea arrived far too soon for Nate’s liking, but he felt his stomach being pulled down by an invisible force as the Seadawn slowly managed to climb into the air.

“It’s flying,” he shouted as they moved away from the boat and into the sky He looked back in the hopes that someone on the boat may be cheering. Instead he caught a glimpse of a bombardment shell striking the bridge and a spray of different colours, although most red, shoot from the impact area. The dust settled quickly only to reveal that the shell had ripped through the whole ship. It was sinking.

A second shell shot passed them, close enough for Nate to touch.

“Watch where you’re flying boy,” said Charles. Nate grasped the steering stick once again, returning his gaze to the front of the Seadawn. More and more shells flew past them as Nate moved the airship up and down and up again.

“What do we do?”

“Getting in closer,” said Charles. “I’ll try to shoot back.”

As the boat Nate had lived on for the past five years was consumed by the wild water, he moved the Seadawn in close on the port side of the battleship that cut through the clouds. Charles opened fire with the Gatling gun, spinning the handle as fast as he possible could. It worked, to some extent.

Small pin prick holes filled the side of the battleship, but no serious damage was shown. More and more shells came toward them, as if aimed for them.

“They knew,” shouted Charles. “They’re after us! They’re after Seadawn!”

Yet another shell flew past, the breeze that followed it pulling at Nate’s hair. The clouds broke behind the battleship, and a block of black and white appeared.

“What is that!?”

“No idea, boy. But it’s coming this way.”

The new airship moved ever closer to the Alexandria Empire battleship before opening fire. Holes tore themselves into the side of the battleship, but the battleship shot at Nate again. This time they hit their target, breaking off the rear end of the Seadawn. It began to spin.

The black and white airship fired again, its size was double that of the Alexandria Empire’s battleship with a strong frame on the outside giving extra protection. Steam fled through chimneys on the top deck whilst cannons came out of at least twenty different places. They all fired, and they all hit.

Holes burst out all over the battleship as the Seadawn continued to spin and fall. Nate could feel his stomach being wrenched from his body as the world seemed to become a mixture of coloured lines.

“Nate, can you hear me? Try to get enough control so we can land in their hangar bay!”

Nate didn’t like the idea of landing their new prized possession on an unknown ship, but he hated the idea of dying far more. He twisted and pulled the steering stick until finally he could fly the Seadawn relatively straight although most certainly not in a direct line.

The black and white ship had a large opening on the starboard side which Nate aimed for. The airship fired yet again, this time hitting the centre of the battleship and tearing it in half. The front side fell first, the lack of propellers making it far less flight friendly than the rear half. That fell as well.

The Seadawn slammed into the metal floor of the hangar bay, scrapping itself way along until it finally came to a halt surrounded by sparks. Over the sound of metal tearing metal Nate could only just head the Alexandria Empire’s battleship crash into the water below. The battleship was sunk, but so were Nate’s home and all his friends except Charles.

Nevertheless they stood up and clambered out of the Seadawn, only to be greeted by an amassing crowd of armed men wearing black and white long cloaks from their neck down. Their uniform was black with white pinstripes along the edges and the insignia of a woman in blue and white armour on their breast pocket.

The group made way as a young woman in cream clothing with silvery hair and a man with a single leg, a black uniform with buttoned shirt and equally silver hair approached the two friends. They could have been twins from the similarity in their facial shape. The woman glared at Nate like a dog looking at its food, but the man stretched out an arm.

“My name is Irving and this is my sister, Anastasia. Welcome aboard the Valkyria, young man.”

*

11

SERAN

The sun rose over grey clouds above Karayol. Seran’s horse had slowed to a trundle, its legs shaking slightly with every step. The brown mane of the majestic animal was full of dirt and the eyes were glazed at best.

Karayol came into view far too late for the Dragoon. It had been a most boring ride as he travelled across the Alexandria Empire as it was farmland and flatlands. The southern regions were by far the most desolate and void regions, with the farms stretching far and wide but not a mountain to speak of.

When he finally did catch glimpse of the fishing town he could not believe his eyes. It was dilapidated and rotten with no outer wall for protection and barely a single house without a hole in the roof.

The houses themselves reminded him of what he had seen in the history books about the Ringlands when he was a child. His father had paid good money for those books so that his son would be able to read. Yet it was the pictures that had stayed with Seran. It was the pictures that Karayol reminded him of.

“This cannot be real,” he said to no one. “How could such a horrifyingly disgusting place exist in the Alexandria Empire?”

As he entered what he assumed was the city boundaries, marked by sticks placed deep in the ground like the sides of the gate, yet missing the most important aspect; the actual gate. Pigs ran amuck through the wet soil and mud, splashing the brown liquid onto the face of young children who followed them as if playing some sort of archaic game of ‘chase and catch’.

How could anyone who lived like such animals be a part of the Empire? He continued through the marsh-like village, passing one rotting and broken hut after another. The dirty children moved out his way with great energy, Seran trying not to get hit by the flying water. If this were a battlefield or some such environment then such dirt would be normal for him, but since it was a village filled with pigs and dogs and who knows what else, there could have been anything in the mud that was being flung at him.

Finally he arrived at the pier, a long wooden structure that stretched out of the mud and into the sea. It was surprisingly clean considering the state of affairs in the village. The sun beamed down onto polished oak and glistening blue and white blankets of waves.

Three fishing boats of miniscule size floated in the water, tied at the bow to large logs the stuck out higher than the rest of the pier. At the end, however, was a slightly larger one big enough for ten people and with its own engine. It was a double floor vessel with the engine room below and the cabin on the deck.

The engine was already roaring by the time Seran walked over to it. It could not have been hard to guess who he was compared to the people of village.

Steam and smoke poured out of two exhaust holes in the side of the boat whilst an ungodly roar of an aging engine made Seran’s heart beat far too fast for his own good. There was an elderly man with a rather large grey beard and brown tunic and pantaloons combination awaiting him.

“My lord,” said the sailor, “we are ready to leave immediately.”

“Very well,” replied Seran, boarding the old ship.

*

12

AEON

“Let me out! I tell you, let me out!”

The screaming and shouting hadn’t stopped since the young girl had woken up. It was not as if she had a bad place to stay. It was warm with a large bed and a desk to right at. The window would allow her fresh air and a view of the sky.

Aeon doubted she had even been on an airship before so why make such a fuss about staying in a room for a few hours? He placed one hand on the door, feeling a warmth coming from the room that had never existed before she was there. He shook her head, brushing off the idea and returning to the real world.

“I have already explained to you, dear Alexia; that we cannot allow you to roam freely aboard this vessel.”

“I do not want to ‘roam freely’. I want to go home!”

Aeon sighed heavily. He looked at the ground with open eyes before returning his gaze to the door. Opening the sliding panel that stood at eye level, he saw the young girl sitting on her bed with her head in her hands. She had changed into the white sleeping garments they had provided, with the pleated ends and designs around the neck and breast. Alexia looked beautiful, fit for a night with a king.

“I am sorry my dear,” he said through the hole. “But you know that we cannot allow that. The fate of the Ringlands depends on you being here.”

“But I do not understand that! Why does it depend on me!?”

“Because, young Alexia, you are the one who will bring her to us.”

“Bring who-”

Before she could finish her sentence Aeon closed the slat shut and began to walk away. He had said too much to the young girl. If she could somehow get a message to the wrong people they may understand what it is that the Inquisitors seek.

He walked along the red carpet that lined the floor, through a hallway decorated with wooden panelling and archways to hide the dull metal of the airship’s body. The Titan I was the most luxurious airship known to the Ringlands, and yet she was still complaining about it. The sound of flute and violin bounced through the hallways from the mess hall whilst men and women strolled through the corridors going about their business.

The airship itself had six floors, making it one of the largest airships ever created. The lowest floor contained the armoury and maintenance sections where the engineers slept and worked. The next floor up was the engine room and above that was the mess hall and sleeping quarters. The following floor was the hangar bay, used for personnel transports and other such smaller craft, including Aeon’s personal shuttle.

Finally the top two decks consisted of the cockpit on the lower deck, the open deck on the above and cannons on both.

Aeon made his way through the luxurious décor and toward the mess hall, which had been designed to resemble the dining halls of the noble families in the Alexandria Empire. After all, the Tıtan I had been Queen Elisa’s personal transport ship during the initial Ringlands war until the Inquisition took control of it from within and turned it against the Alexandria Empire that built it.

Instead of the standard four person iron or steel table and bench sets that filled most airships, the Titan I had three long wooden dining tables fit for fifty people each. The chairs were of dark wood with red velvet cushions and ornate carvings of a winged horse in the back. However, those had been covered since with more cushion as it was the insignia of the Alexandria Empire.

More wooden panelling lined the walls and even the large open floor and ceiling given the impression as a manor house or some other similar estate.

Aeon took his place at the head of the table as everyone in the room stood and waited for him to sit down. In unison they followed his lead and took their places once again. It was crowded in the room, with more and more men and women entering all the time, all of whom saluted Aeon as his wrinkled and burnt fingers clutched a fork that rattled the food toward his equally damaged mouth.

“My Lord,” said a young woman with golden locks and one blue eye. The other was green. She wore the night blue pantaloons and shirt of the Inquisitors except herself was far tighter than others’. “We will arrive in Argent within two hours.”

“Very good,” replied Aeon, gazing up a the woman. “Thank you Selina.”

“You are welcome, my Lord. Is there anything else you need of me? Anything I could do after the food has finished?”

Her tone of voice grew deeper and seductive as her eyes gazed into his. She put a hand on his and wrapped her fingers around it. Aeon twisted his head to the left, his eyes rolling up and down his assistant.

“Come at the same time as always,” he said, smiling as he watched her nod in agreement and walk away. She shook her hips far more than normal as she walked back to her seat to finish eating.

Aeon continued to stare at Selina as he finished his meal of roasted lamb and boiled vegetables. The voices of his advisors and subordinates passed straight through his head until they mentioned the young Alexia back in her room.

Selina had come over to the same table to join the discussion as Aeon’s assistant and she glanced at him when he flinched and turned his eyes away from her at the mention of Alexia’s name. He looked back at his assistant just in time to see her red lips mouth the words ‘bring her as well’.

He shook his head and continued the meeting.

“My Lord, what will we do with her?”

“Alexia will be of no trouble, I am sure,” he replied to the dark haired man on his left. “We will continue to have her in that room with the door locked until we have returned to Norian.”

“But my Lord, what if she proves dangerous? She has already tried to escape once when we brought her food.”

“She will remain in the room and you will continue to make sure she is comfortable, do you understand?”

He stood from the table swiftly, shaking it ever so slightly. The knives and forks clattered a bit and Selina jumped up, putting an arm around him.

“Let me help you,” she said as she carried him out of the mess hall. Looking back at the others they spoke with, she continued. “You should know not to make him stressed!”

Selina helped him walk back to his sleeping chambers. He was clutching his heart as he walked, hunched forward as if he had been grown in a box that was too small for him. He had to keep one arm on the wall and the other wrapped around Selina just to stop himself from collapsing.

It always made him feel so weak when this happened. How was he supposed to continue leading the Inquisition for her if he couldn’t even carry himself from the mess hall to his room.

Together they reached Aeon’s room, the door laced with night blue and purple velvet. Inside were candles in every orifice of the room. A large bed fit for a king or queen sat in the middle with a midnight indigo quilt and a set of poles rising up to support the suspended ceiling of the bed as well. The symbol of the Arcana, an A surrounded by images of each of them, hung on the wall to the left of the door.

Selina carried him to his bed as he slowly turned around and sat down on the mattress. Breathing heavily, he watched as the young and nubile woman slipped off his shoes before helping him slide up the bed to the pillow.

He found he could not take his eyes off her, like always, as she began to twist and turn her body in a most sensual manner, unfastening her shirt and letting it fall to the floor. Her pantaloons were next, and Aeon could not help but smile at the fact that she wore no underwear.

In her soft and clear birthday suit she crawled onto the bed and lay down next to him.

“I think we need to calm you down a little my Lord,” she said as her hands began to explore.

*

13

EINAR

The streets of Saylae were silent still. The sun had woken entirely and burnt high in the sky, scorching Einar’s eyes as he walked along the roadways, water still pouring from his eyes and down his face.

Yet even in the bright sunshine the town felt as if it were covered by a pitch black cloud. The citizens had their heads down as they walked with their hands in their pockets or behind their backs. The usual sound of clattering horse shoes had disappeared, and the market was all but abandoned. It was almost too much for just one murder, or so thought Einar. Yet he knew it wasn’t just the idea of a murder that caused such a darkness to come. It was the way it happened.

To have slain a family in such a brutal matter at a wedding and covered the wedding hall with their blood was beyond redemption. Such an act was beyond imagination for most people, and yet it happened.

“What kind of man could have done this?”

“How could someone even think of such an act?”

Men and women whispered and gossiped but it was obvious to Einar that no one had actually seen the murder scene. They were all questioning who had done and how rather than asking why the Inquisition felt it necessary to kill Rin and Ari.

They weren’t rebels or spies for the Alexandria Empire. They were just a pair of villagers who were getting married and planning to become farmers. So why would the Inquisition need to take their lives? It made no sense to him.

For now he had to concentrate on Alexia. After she was safe he would investigate Rin’s murder.

Approaching the docks of the city, he was greeted with the sight of six different ships. Four of them were small fishing boats with oars, almost laughable next to the two ferries that were docked as well.

Einar walked over to the sailors who stood near the boats smoking pipes of tobacco. One wore the sign of Argent, the White Wolf, on his shoulder. The other wore the Dragon Skull of Kihro. He approached the White Wolf directly, walking past the Dragon Skull without a second glance.

“I am looking for a ferry,” he said directly, glaring at the sailor through his tears.

“We’re only going to Argent and back. If you want to go some other place, find another ferry.”

“I am going to Argent. How much is a single journey?”

“You not coming back any time soon? Is that not a bit curious? There’s just been a murder here, you know?”

Einar’s eyes opened wide and filed with fire as he glared at the man through the top of his eyes.

“I know that very well,” he said with a voice more suited to a drill sergeant. “Rin was my friend and now he is dead, killed by the Inquisition as far as I can tell by their symbol being painted on the wall. My sister is missing as well, kidnapped and taken to Argent. So you will forgive me if I do not accept and join in with your little games right now and rather just ask once again for the price of a single journey.”

Both sailors stood silent and motionless for a few seconds before the man from Argent scratched his head. He stepped back to open the path to the boat and stretched out an arm as if to say ‘continue’.

“The price?”

“This is a gift,” said the sailor, looking at Einar with eyes distant and half empty, yet strangely caring. “I apologize for my joke, I did not know your situation. What has happened to your sister? How long has she been missing? Perhaps we may have seen her.”

“She and I were at home last night. We went to bed at the same time because we share a bedroom, but when I woke up she was gone.

Our neighbour’s son confessed to helping a man come into our village and take her. He said the man was going to Argent. His father is dealing with him now and I will travel to there to search for her.”

“What did she look like?”

“She had long brown hair and always wore a purple piece of fabric in it. She would have been dressed in a brown tunic with a second piece of purple fabric wrapped around her shoulders.

She is about the same height as my shoulders and rather thin compared to the woman of Saylae.”

The sailor paused, his hand open on his chin as his eyes looked to the sky. He breathed heavily as Einar waited for a reply. The sailor’s face returned to his level with an empty expression.

“I have not seen anyone like that going to Argent. Which means whoever took her must have had enough coin to use an airship as it is the only other way across the seas.

Get on board and we will take you there as fast as possible. We leave within the hour. Just waiting for the captain to return.”

Einar smiled to say thank you before walking along the wooden pier toward the ferry. The boat itself had three floors. The top deck, exposed to the elements, contained the crew’s cabin and the helm, as well as a deck area for passengers to sit on. The deck area was made of whitewashed wood flooring with wooden chairs resembling beds more than anything else.

The middle floor held the passenger’s rooms. Each room contained a wooden fold away bed and a bedside table with candles for light at night. They were plain room at best, but on a ferry you did not need luxury as the journey would only take a few hours. There was cafeteria of sorts on the same floor but it was very small in size.

On the bottom floor was the engine room, filled with smoke and steam. Men worked constantly to funnel fuel materials into the burning stove. The engine was far out-dated, with little in the way of electric heating rods. Instead it used the now archaic wooden burning method to heat the water.

Einar made his way to the top deck, climbing the stairs and passing passengers of all origins.

There were men and women of class, strutting around in leather and velvet, as well as children running around in little more than rags. On the stairs he had to dodge to the right to avoid a young woman moving far too fast without looking.

She was calling out a name which Einar assumed was her child’s. On the deck he found even more people. Some were drinking fine wine whilst others were gulping down water as if they had never tasted it. It truly was a perfect example of life in the Ringlands since the Alexandria Empire came so many years before. It was, however, getting better under the control of the Inquisition.

The Inquisition were the heroes of the Ringlands. They had brought peace and prosperity back, although it was taking a while to filter to all the citizens. They were heroes, so why did they murder Rin? Why would one of them take Alexia? Einar could not understand it.

He gazed out to the sea and the boat finally began to move. The captain had arrived and made his way to the crew’s cabin. The roar of the engine increased fourfold and the water seemed reluctant to give way to the heavy ferry.

“Alexia,” started Einar, talking to the ocean. “Where are you? What is going on? Please tell me something. I need you. You are all the family I have left.

I will find you. I will find you and I will learn from this man what is going on. How could the Inquisition do this Alexia? Tell me something. Where are you?”

The boat tore through the ocean at ever quickening speed. He would be in Argent in just a few short hours. He would be there for the first time in his life.

*

14

NATE

“The Valkyria? As if this could get any worse,” said Charles.

Nate looked at his friend, not really sure what he meant by that. The engineers and soldiers that surrounded them moved closer. The man who called himself Irving stood and faced them, learning on his walking stick.

“I see our reputation precedes us,” said the one legged man. He hobbled toward Charles as Nate watched, confused by the turn of events as well as how Charles knew these people.

“What reputation?” Nate’s voice almost cracked as he spoke, the words quietly forcing their way from his throat. “I have never heard of you.”

“Never heard of them?” Charles’ voice erupted and filled the entire hangar bay with a gruff surprise. “How can you not have heard of them, boy? They fly across the skies blasting at Alexandria Empire, Inquisition and Peaks soldiers alike. They kill anyone and anything and for what? Money? Fun? Why do you do it?”

He had turned toward Irving again half way through his little speech, raising a finger as he prosecuted the man in his own hangar bay.

Irving simply stood still with a large smile on his face and eyes as open as his ears as he listened to the screaming man.

“We do not kill for fun, good sir,” he started. “And we certainly do not kill for money. We are not Sellswords or mercenaries. We kill those who attempt to control the lands for themselves. We are the Valkyries, and this is Valkyria. We will protect the freedom of all but removing those who attempt to take it.

Yet I see by the look on your faces that this is far too difficult an idea to comprehend after what you have just experienced. Please, follow me and we will have lunch together. The cooks have prepared an exquisite beef dish today, or so they tell me.”

Nate watched as Irving hobbled away from them. He could help but wonder how a man the age Irving appeared to be could have lost his leg. Perhaps it was in some great battle or some engineering accident. He noticed then that Anastasia was eyeing him close.

“If you have something to say about my brother,” she started, “then say it.”

“Oh no,” he replied. His voice seemed to break and tremble as he spoke. “I was just wondering how he lost his leg.”

Nate cowered back a little when the young woman approached his face. Her eyes were different from any he had ever seen. The left was green whilst the right was blue. Those eyes pierced him and he could feel his breath fade as they stared at him.

“He cut it off himself,” she said, her face appearing to crack as she tried to smile. “Now follow me. Irving wants you both to be comfortable, although I do not see why. It is not as if you could be any use to us.”

“What do you mean?” As he asked the question, Nate began to follow the brother and sister out of the hangar bay and down a tunnel-like corridor, Charles walking very slowly behind him.

The corridor was, however, divine at the worst. Although rusty iron pipes made their way overhead with the odd puff of steam escaping, the walls were covered with mahogany panelling on the lower half and almost a burgundy coloured paint on the top half. The ceiling had been painted clear beige with a delightfully carved trim at the sides. It was as if they had stepped into an entirely different world when compared to the cold and unforgiving iron box that was the hangar bay.

The rumbling of the massive engines that strutted out on girders above the decks almost added to the relaxing feeling. Candlelight lamps stretched all the way through the airship, each one attached to the connection bolts that held the passageways together.

“How do you like the Valkyria’s design so far?”

Irving’s sudden question made the young man jump back to reality from the daydream the décor had put him in.

“It is amazing,” he replied, noting the sly and semi-hidden smile on Irving face which had turned ever so slightly toward him. They turned a corner to the right and were presented with a very peculiar sight.

“This stairs will take us to the dining hall,” said Anastasia. The stairs themselves spiraled around in a semi-circle and were carved from mahogany as well. The ends of the rails were carved to resemble the warrior woman that Nate had seen on the uniforms of the soldiers in the hangar bay. The steps themselves had been covered by a maroon carpet that stretched upward to reveal a dining hall big enough for a feast.

Six tables stretched out for what seemed like infinity. One smaller table, suitable for four people sat at the front end. On the walls the same decoration as the corridors continued except that this time the walls were periodically interrupted by plain glass windows with crimson surrounds on the port side. The windows opened out to the sky, revealing the clouds floating by. Nate even saw a small white bird land on the outer windowsill for a few short seconds before leaving once again.

He could see one of the engines attached to a triangular girder that reached out from the airship into the open sky. Judging by the size of in and the volume of the engine sound, he took a guess.

“Mr Irving, I was just wondering. This airship of yours, the Valkyria, has six engines, correct?”

Irving took a seat at the smaller table, the wooden chairs lined with cream cushions so soft to touch that they felt like thrones rather than dining chairs. He gestured for Nate and Charles to take a seat as well.

“You are correct,” he answered as they all sat down. “Might I ask how you came to such a decision?”

“Perhaps you were able to get a detailed look at our ship before you crashed into it,” said Anastasia. The tone of her voice would have been more befitting some horse-faced lady of the night resentful for the lack of business. It certainly did not suit such a refined and beautiful young woman as she was.

“Not all, madam,” he said in his most polite voice in the hope of embarrassing the lady before him. “Rather I saw the size of your propeller system through those windows. It has a medium sized battleship propeller which makes a rumble of fifteen percent. Therefore, considering the amount of engine noise never decreased even though we walked rather a long way and were one deck below here, which appears to be three decks below the engine itself, you must have six. It is basic engineering logic, Miss Anastasia.”

Irving chuckled loudly as his sister gave a snort of dissatisfaction and took a sip from the wine that had been poured before they arrived.

‘It seems you are well versed in the art of engines, my boy,” said Irving. “Am I to assume the reason your little airship in our hangar bay is there because you are the creator and not the pilot?”

“Yes, sir. I and Charles here are the designers and builders of the Seadawn.”

“The Seadawn? So you have already named it. Perhaps that is why it is still in a fixable condition. Maybe if you had not named it, might you both have been gone from this world?”

“Mr Irving,” said Nate, interrupting the man. “I must ask this. Why exactly were the you and the Alexandria Empire here? Not that I do not accept the aid you provided us by firing upon them. I am just confused.

For you see, we lost a lot of friends when our boat went under and I would like to know why they died.”

A rather tall gentleman in black and white dress resembling a penguin brought a covered platter to their table and placed it in the middle. Behind him stood three more men dressed the same, only they were younger. One at a time he turned to them, took the platter from their hands and placed it on the table.

Finally, after placing a platter of vegetables, one of bread and butter, and one of fruits, the butler opened the sealed platter to reveal a meat roll of beef that looked tender and smelled like a dream to Nate. After all, he had only eaten rice and sunflower seeds for the past few weeks.

“Let us begin,” said Irving before continuing. “As far your rather forward and yet appropriate question, perhaps you could first tell me your name. You have named you friend here, Mr Charles, but have not yet introduced yourself.”

He was right. Nate hadn’t even said his own name yet and was asking such private questions. How could he have been rude?

“I apologize, Mr Irving. My name is Nate. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“And yours, Mr Nate. Now then, we caught wind of communications between the Trident; the Alexandria Empire ship you just witnessed the demise of, and a number of scout vessels that were sailing the seas. They said they had found ‘the ship with the miniature airship’ and were relaying its position.”

Irving took a slice of beef and placed it carefully on his plate with his knife and fork like a true man of stature.

“It appeared they had been watching your progress for quite some time and had decided to take their chances. They planned to either steal your prototype or destroy it so that it could not be used against the Alexandria Empire.

For you see, in recent weeks the Alexandria Empire has been amassing its forces and tightening its borders even more than usual. I fear something is coming that many hoped would never come again.”

“What do you mean?”

Mr Irving cut a chunk of red meat and put it slowly into his mouth, wiping his lips with a napkin before swallowing and looking straight at Nate’s eyes.

“Well, my dear boy. If they were using one of your shipmates; a man named Lyle, to gather information then they are using their underhanded tactics and hidden spies again.

The Alexandria Empire only ever does this when preparing for one thing. War.”

*

15

SERAN

The journey to the Ringlands passed far too slowly. The boat was filth ridden and chugged along as if it were a dog trying to tear its chain from the ground to run free in the sun.

It had rocked and rolled along the waves, throwing Seran about in his little cabin. The cabin consisted of nothing more than a metal fold away bed and an iron shelf on the walls. The walls themselves were equally as dull with nothing but the bare steel to look upon.

When he finally arrived in the small port town of Neal he was beyond glad to set foot on dry land.

The town was larger than Karayol, yet was still little more than a town. Houses were laid out in a semi-circle around a fountain designed to resemble a gryphon. Flowers surrounded the base of the fountain whilst tiled pavements of arrows lined the floor.

“Lord Eerhart’s men should be here by tomorrow morning,” said the captain as Seran disembarked. “I suggest you take a long around and entertain yourself for a while milord.”

Seran titled his head before walking away from the small vessel. In the centre of the city it was lively to say the least. Children played with rags that had been filled with sawdust or other materials to create balls. Some of them played hopscotch in the streets, whilst in the windows of the larger, more elegant windows Seran could see yet more children playing with real toys such as rocking horses.

Men and women moved around the town with steamcarts, trundling along side by side in the cabin whilst the poorer people simply watched in envy. Nothing is really that different from Alexandria anyway. What good did their independence give them? He made his way across the central area to the small chapel on the right of the semi-circle settlement. A pair of small freighter airships flew across the sky as he walked, and the sound of hammer on metal caught his attention as a young engineer was moulding the different parts of a new creation.

Inside the chapel were long wooden benches half filled with men and women praying to the Arcana. A priest stood before them with a large brass organ behind him. The chapel was, however, rather on the small side. Nevertheless, Seran took a seat in the sermon as it had been days since he last prayed. The priest began the rehearsed speech they all used to start a sermon.

“Today we gather to pay respects to the Arcana, the engineers of life and of the world. We give respect and love to the engineers who keep the motor of our world turning so that we may live.

We pay homage to the Arcana who guide us through the trials of our lives and lead us to peace within their halls.

We give tribute to the Arcana who take the hated and the vile into the furnace of the world so that they may redeem themselves by maintaining the world’s engine. “

Seran listened with only one ear as the priest droned on. He closed his eyes and cupped his hands on his knees. Arcana, I beg of you that you allow my task to be successful. Again and again he asked and prayed as hard as he could. In all honest it was not the task he had been set that worried him, but rather the stories he had heard about the Inquisition.

In the bars people had told stories of how normal men could not even approach an Inquisitor if he did not want them to. Instead they were flung backward through the sky. They were said to be untouchable and yet here he was, in their lands.

He breathed deeply and rose from the bench as the priest finished his speech. Outside the same scene took place, as if it were a picture rather than real life. The only difference was that now a group of soldiers walked past him and into the tavern. Well I guess I will not be having a drink for a while.

Rather than risk going to the tavern, he decided to investigate the young engineer. Gathering information was a necessity and engineers were prized men and women. Surely this young man can tell me something.

He was working on connecting a strut of metal to his new contraption now, which seemed more like a miniature train than anything else.

“Good sir,” said Seran, “what, may I ask, are you working on here?”

“Well now, you certainly speak in a funny way, ‘good sir’. Why do you want to know? You think I will just tell a stranger about my work?”

Seran coughed a little before changing his tone of voice. I am supposed to be a Traveller, not a Lord. He shuffled a little before giving a slight smile.

“Well my name is Seran,” he said. “I have just got to the Ringlands and will stop here for a short time before continuing on my way west.”

“West? Why in the world would you go west? There is nothing out there but sea.”

The young engineer was right. Nothing had ever come of anyone heading west. Sailors or pilots would either return with stories of endless sea or not return at all.

“Just because no one else has found anything does not mean I will not. You are looking at one of the greatest Travelers in the known history.”

What am I saying? If he asks any questions about travelling I will have no answers. Seran could feel the sweat beginning to slide down his face. I hope I have not ruined my cover already. The engineer stared at him with eyes half closed and one eyebrow raised for at least ten seconds.

“Well, if you really want to then why should I care? As for this little wonder; it is a new type of catapult, designed to fling bombs at super-intense heat and great speed.”

“Why would you need something like that here in the Ringlands?”

“Simple. I need it to remove Eerhart from his little throne up on the mountain over there. Word has it that he is an Alexandria Empire supporter so we need to remove him.”

Well Lord Eerhart, it seems you are not so well versed in the methods of keeping a secret. Seran moved closer to the engineer.

“This Eerhart man, how would I meet him?”

“Why would you want to?”

“Well, I would like to see what kind of man would support the Alexandria Empire after everything they have done,” replied Seran. If this fool can get me there earlier that will be far better than waiting.

*

16

EINAR

The storm had cleared completely, and it seems as though it had never touched Argent. The city was so much more than beautiful to Einar as he stepped off the boat.

The buildings stretched into the sky as if they wanted to fly, reaching at least ten floors. Between them flew air-taxis like most cities, but also other airships. Cargo ships! I cannot believe I actually get to see cargo ships! Through the windows of the higher level apartments he could see red walls and stunningly carved furniture, but in the lower windows the apartments resembled his own hut.

The screams and wails of children running through the street kicking a pig’s stomach echoed in his ears. Men in fine shirts with bow ties conversed with women in exquisite dressed of blues, reds or purples.

Steamcarts rolled around the cobblestone roads alongside horse-drawn carts. The steamcarts were uniform black in colour but stretched out at the front to hold the engine as steam poured out of them. On the side of the road stood an aging man playing the violin as people dropped coins in front of him.

The city was alive with energy, and Einar could not help but succumb to the magnificence of it all. As he stared around the area he noticed a group of young girls pointed and laughing at the group of boys kicking the pig’s stomach. The girls were dressed in long gowns with their hair resembling a finely carved statue. The boys, however, were wearing rags and tunics much like Einar and Alexia wore. Alexia. I have to find her.

Einar started forward, wondering where to begin when he noticed a great airship coming into the port five floors above him. It was a delicately designed machine yet it was obviously strong in build. The young boy continued on his way, every now and then gazing in awe at the airship once again. After a good ten minutes he arrived at a small tavern, the smell of ale in the air giving away its position.

Inside, the sound of a harp and horn filled the atmosphere as smoke filled Einar’s lungs. A youthful woman was spinning and dancing on a large platform in the middle of the tavern, her surprisingly short skirt fluttering around a she moved. The men were gawking at her with their mouths wide.

Einar made his way to the bar and placed four coins on the counter. A rather elderly man hobbled over to him, his hair seeming to run away from his face leaving a very pale area of skin behind.

“What can I do you for, boy?”

“I want some information. My sister is missing and I need to find where she is.”

Einar stared at the bartender who gave him a most strange look. The man turned and poured some ale into a glass and passed it to Einar before continuing.

“What do you mean by missing, lad?”

“Well,” started Einar, “she was home with me a day ago when we went to bed, but when I awoke she was gone. I have reason to believe she has been kidnapped.”

“You sure she did not just run away?” Einar shook his head and gave a very forced smile.

“She took no food or possessions with her, so she must have been taken. Have you seen any young girls around here that seemed as though they were not sure where they are?”

The bartender stroked his chin, which was covered in a slightly red beard.

“Well, there was this strange little girl trying to get in through the north gate last night. She did not seem to understand why we would not open the gate.”

“What happened next? Where did she go?”

Einar lent forward on his elbows as the bartender poured himself a drink. The smell of ale was almost getting too much for the young man now.

“Well,” answered the bartender, “she was not allowed to enter the city so she walked back up the mountain path. That only leads to one place, Lucia Village.”

“Lucia Village? Alright, thank you for the help.”

The bartender nodded as Einar stood from the bar and manoeuvred his way around the ever growing number of men that started open mouthed at the dancing girl.

Outside of the bar he glanced around to find directions until he noticed a map of the city. From his current position the North Gate was just twelve streets away. Alexia, I am coming. He turned around the first corner and began to work toward the large stone wall that surrounded Argent.

*

17

NATE

As Nate entered the cockpit of the Valkyria, following Irving as he hobbled along, his eyes opened far wider than they were supposed to.

Glass surrounded him. They were standing on a balcony suspended inside a glass sphere that allowed those inside to see almost every direction, except behind them. Brass and steel lined the glass sections, holding them in place, whilst navigators and officers sat in small bays of brass that connected to the balcony with small bridges. Each bay was held up by small steel rods that stretched to the brass above.

The room glowed silver and gold as the sun reflected off the metals. The balcony was made of fine, polished oak and lined with yet more of the golden coloured metal.

Clouds soared by as the propellers that Nate could see on both sides span furiously. Below them stretched a vast sheet of blue.

“I am sorry, Sir Irving, but I must ask something,” said Nate as he tried to ignore the beauty around him. “Where are you taking us?”

“Well, that depends entirely on you,” the man replied as he span around on his cane to face the young engineer. “It depends on the strength of your loyalty to the Three Peaks.

For you see, the airship you and Master Charles built was to be used to take control of the Alexandria Alexandria Empire after they had taken back the Ringlands.

The Peak Lords have always wanted power. Your little invention was to be their way of securing it.”

Nate took a step back, his head shaking. That cannot be true. They wanted to protect themselves.

“They said they accepted the project to help in the defence of the country’s borders!”

“The best defence is a good offence. You would do well to remember that, as it is the general mentality possessed by those who hold the most power.

How do you feel knowing the reality of the situation? Would you still allow them to use your invention in such a manner?”

Nate’s lungs were grasping at any air they could fill themselves with. The man before him stood calm and relaxed, his eyes fiercely staring into Nate’s. Could he be right? It would explain the sudden interest they showed but why would they do such a thing? No, I will not let Seadawn be used like it. It was made to bring peace, not war! Nate breathed in deep and looked up at the captain of the Valkyria once again.

“Whilst I do not speak for Charles, I will not have my creation used for warmongering. It was designed to bring an end to the violence, not create more.”

He noticed Irving’s mouth curving upward slightly as he spoke. The captain reached out a hand and nodded.

“If that is truly your hearts answer, then I offer you my hand. For you see, we are determined to aid in the resolution of war. We wish to remove the need for violence from Rhythlan. Yet we know the only way to do so is to use that violence to destroy itself.

If this pleases you, then please take my hand and join our cause. We need as many people as we can have.”

Nate glanced around the cockpit, its beauty still forcing its way into his heart. Anastasia had arrived on the bridge and was giving a surprisingly hopeful expression. The clouds were still flying pass and no land had come into sight whatsoever. Nate stretched out his own hand.

“I accept your invitation. If the Peak Lords are the same as the Alexandria Empire then I want nothing to do with them.”

He and Irving released their hands before Irving put his on Nate’s shoulder.

“Welcome to the Valkyries, Ensign. Now that you have joined us, I wish to tell you of what I was thinking the past few hours.

Even though you are an engineer and not a pilot, you were able to make a relatively safe and controlled landing in a broken airship. That is most impressive.

So my second offer is that after the Seadawn has been repaired, perhaps Anastasia here could give you some flying lessons.”

He glimpsed at the young woman whose eyes were now giving off a sense of happiness and hatred.

“An engineer should never fly,” she spurted out. “They are meant to stay in the machine room and fix things. Even the great engineers, the Arcana, do not interfere with things that are not within their ability.”

“And yet,” started Irving, “he was able to fly a broken machine single-handedly as an engineer. Perhaps it is just natural talent? Would you not want to see for yourself, dear sister?”

The beauty simply turned and walked away. Her legs carried her softly far the opposite of her personality thus far.

“Never mind her,” continued the captain, “she is always cold around new faces. She will warm up to you in time.”

I certainly hope so. How could Nate say that he found the captain’s younger sister so attractive? Instead he tried to hide his eyes as he watched her walk away.

“Perhaps you could talk to Master Charles,” said Irving, drawing Nate’s attention away from Anastasia. “He seems to be rather uncomfortable talking to me.”

Nate nodded. He does not trust you. Irving gave him a salute, his hand open and flat as it touched the man’s forehead. Nate copied the gesture and walked away.

*

18

EINAR

The sun was starting to set, slowly falling behind the hills and small mountains as Einar made his way up the long dirt path. The trees seemed to grow taller and more vicious as he rose up from the valley that held Argent.

“Come on, Einar. Get a hold of yourself,” he said aloud as he forced his legs to keep going. The young farmer boy had always been in good shape, but the travel and the worry that weighed on his heart seemed to sap all energy from his body. Each step felt as if he were pulling a boulder with a piece of string. But he had to continue; he had to find Alexia.

The path wound to the left, then jumped back to the right, repeating this dance every few steps. The ground was uneven, with stones sharp enough to tear the flesh from your feet. Einar felt as though he was walking over broken glass.

“Let go of me!”

The sudden cry of a girl’s voice spread across the area, originating further up the hill.

“Come now, my pretty. You’re coming with us,” said another voice; a man’s voice, this one crackling and croaking.

“Help!”

The second the girl’s voice said that word, Einar was sprinting. He had no idea what he would be able to do, but he had to help.

As he round the third corner along the path, he drew his dagger. There were two Inquisition soldiers and a young girl. The soldiers were stumbling, their words slured and their mouths agape. But it was the look in their eyes that was the worst.

The girl was strewn across the ground, her simple dress tattered and her face bruised.

“My Lord requires your presence, little one,” said one of the soldiers as he leered over the girl. “But he did say we can do whatever we want with you, as long as you’re still alive.”

The soldier cackled, sounding more like a witch than a man of the military. As Einar rushed forward, he could almost feel the bile in his mouth the sight of that man caused.

He pounced, both hands gripped around the dagger. Normally, he knew, he would stand no chance against a trained soldier, but this man was drunk, and his skill was severely limited. So much so that he did not notice the dagger flying towards him until it was too late. The blade pierced his shoulder and he let out a shrill cry.

Einar pulled the dagger out again, positioning himself between the soldiers and the girl. He glanced down at her quickly. Her hair was red, disheveled from the violence of the soldiers. She was terrified, but more importantly, she was not Alexia.

He turned back to the soldiers. The one he had stabbed was holding his shoulder and crying in pain, whilst the other was fumbling for his gun. As he finally managed to pull it from its holster, Einar kicked it from the drunkard’s hand and down the hillside.

“Get out of here,” he shouted as he readied himself, dagger in front of him. “Leave now!”

The soldier looked down at where his pistol had fallen, barely able to stand because of the alcohol. He then glanced at his partner, who was still bleeding and clutching his shoulder.

“You shall regret this, peasant!”

The soldier grabbed his partner and fled down the hillside into the growing darkness of night.

Einar waited for the sound of their footsteps to fade before relaxing his stance and putting the dagger away. He turned around to face the girl, who was staring back at him, her eyes watering.

“Can you stand?”

He spoke whilst stretching out a hand to the girl. Slowly she placed her hand in his; it was soft, the skin felt gentle and warm. Einar helped her to her feet and saw her eyes in the fading light, the emerald color dazzling.

“Are you alright?”

She was breathing very heavily, her eyes still darting toward the darkness every now and then.

“Yes, I believe so,” she said after a few seconds before tears burst forth from her eyes and she flung her arms around him, sobbing into his chest.

Einar could feel she was getting heavier, her knees weakening, so he slowly knelt down, allowing her to rest whilst she sobbed.

They seemed to sit there for an eternity as light faded and night took hold. In the moonlight, her red hair looked like strands of fine silk. Finally, her tears seemed to stop.

“ Thank you,” she said as she looked up from Einar’s chest. “I- I am sorry for acting like that.”

Einar, with his arms around the girl, helped her back to her feet.

“My name is Haze,” she said as she wiped the last few tears from her face.

“Call me Einar,” he replied with a smile. “And you certainly don’t need to say thank you!”

“But I do,” said Haze, her voice sheepish and weak. “I do not know what would have become of me, and although I have some idea, I dare not think on it.”

She was shaking, the fear of her attack obviously still holding its grip on her. Einar brushed her hair back from her face and smiled.

“It’s over now, ok?”

As he spoke, he felt his exhaustion take over again, and could not stop himself from yawning.

“You are tired,” she said with far more energy than Einar had expected. “You absolutely must come to Mama’s house. We have a spare bedroom!”

She grasped his arm and headed up the hillside, dragging Einar behind her. He felt awkward going to her house, but the sound of a bed was far too tempting.

Once they reached the top of the hill, Einar’s eyes grew wide. There was a small dip at the top of the enormous hill, with a village situated within it. As with all towns and villages, a large wall surrounded it, but this was made of stone and not wood like Caim.

The village itself had twelve houses, all made of stone with thatched rooves. They were built in a circle around a central tree. On each house was a gas lantern, giving off a warm and inviting glow.

“Come,” said Haze as she made her way down a short flight of steps to the gate of the village. Einar followed, in awe that such a village lay at the top of the hill, secluded from everything.

The pair made their way past the houses, moving across to the opposite side of the village from the entrance. Haze stopped at the doorway of a white stone house. The windows were circular, and there was smoke escaping from the chimney. She turned around and smiled at him before opening the door and heading inside.

“Mother, I am home!”

Haze’s voice echoed through the spacious living room, itself larger than Einar’s entire house. The walls were decorated with large wagon wheels, a bow and arrow set, and various framed flowers.

A large open fire burnt on one side of the room, sending dancing shadows across the other side. In the corner was a piano; something Einar had only read about and never thought he would see.

There was a slight creak as the left of three wooden doors on the far side swung open. Behind it stood a frail looking lady wearing a fine dress covered in embroidery.

“My lord, Haze! What happened to you!? And who is that man!?”

Haze’s mother rushed into the room to take a closer look at her daughter, and upon seeing the state of her dress and the bruises on her face, turned toward Einar with a fire in her eyes.

“What is the meaning of this!? I demand to know what happened to my daughter!”

“Mother! Please! This man saved my life!”

The lady’s lungs appeared to empty in a second as she started gasping for air. The fire in her eyes quickly dissipated, replaced by fear and concern as she looked toward Haze.

“What do you mean, my dear? What happened?”

Haze explained the events of the attack to her mother, with every word seeming to cut both of them like razors. Her mother had taken a seat on the cushioned seater, whilst Haze had taken the armchair. Einar continued to stand whilst they spoke, remaining silent until her mother turned her attention back to him.

“You have done us a great justice, Master Einar. I cannot begin to thank you for helping my dear Haze.”

“That’s fine, ma’am. I’m just glad I got there in time.”

The lady paused for a second and studied him. Einar could feel her eyes piercing him.

“You have a most peculiar accent, my boy. Where exactly are you from?”

“Caim, ma’am. I came across from the Westerland Island in search of my sister.”

“In search of your sister?” The lady raised an eyebrow and titled her head as she spoke. “What has happened to your sister?”

“I don’t know,” said Einar, feeling deflated. “She went missing from our home and was apparently brought to here to the Esterlands.”

“She has been kidnapped, you believe?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said. “By a man claiming to be from the Inquisition…”

His voice faded as he tilted his head forward. The lady let out a sigh and began patting the cushion of the seater.

“Come and have a seat, dear boy. You must be exhausted. Dinner is almost ready and we have a spare bedroom. You will stay here for the night and regain your strength. That way, you will be able to continue to look for your sister in the morning.”

The meal was delicious. They had sat down at the oak dining table and feasted upon roasted pig with tomatoes and lettuce. It had been a meal for Lords and Ladies as far as Einar was concerned.

The bed was equally delightful, with the mattress feeling as though it took the exact shape of his body. And yet, he was unable to sleep; thoughts of Alexia continued to run through his head. As he gazed out of the window in the bedroom, he noticed a strange flickering light coming closer. A torch.

It hit the ground just beyond his window before another and another flew over the outer wall of the village. They were under attack. A torch landed on the thatched roof of the house next to theirs, which immediately caught fire.

Einar flung himself out of bed and threw on his clothes before barging out of the bedroom.

“Haze!”

Einar banged on the door to Haze and her mother’s room, which subsequently opened. They were already up and had just finished getting dressed.

“We have to get out of the house,” he shouted as they all moved across the living room towards the front door.

Outside was chaotic. The villagers were running around trying to douse the fires, but they just kept growing. Then the gate fell.

Inquisition soldiers flooded through the gate and into the village, their pistols firing and more torches being thrown. The fire was consuming everything.

“This way,” screamed Einar as her pulled Haze and her mother around the side of the house. “We need to go around the back of the houses so we don’t get seen.”

They moved to the back of the next house, and then the next. However, as they went to move to the next one, Haze’s mother let out a scream.

Her hand slipped from Haze’s and she felt to the ground, crying in pain as she held her leg. Einar and Haze turned back for her just in time to see the life escape from her eyes as she was shot in the head.

“Mother!”

Haze’s scream rang in Einar’s ears, tearing at his soul. Her mother’s body fell limp, crashing to the ground as tears streamed down Haze’s face. Einar grabbed her arm and pulled her along with him.

“We have to go,” he shouted as they ran around the side of the next house, toward the gate. Turning around the final corner, Einar felt as though he had run into a horse, his eyes going red. He had been hit in the fact with the butt of a rifle.

As he fell to the floor, he could just make out the soldiers hitting Haze with the end of a rifle as well.

“We have them! Take them and let us get away from here!” Einar tried to turn to Haze, but everything went black.

*

19

NATE

“He’s playing you for a fool, boy,” said Charles.

Nate sat on his bed, tucked away in an alcove in the wall of the room. A curtain hang from the top of the oval entrance to the alcove, and a second sleeping capsule was positioned above his.

Charles sat on a wooden chair, his left arm leant on an oak desk covered with the blueprints of the Seadawn. He had not looked up from them for hours, even whilst Nate told him what the captain had explained.

“Three Peaks would never work with the Empire, and to think so is folly,” he continued. “That man is trying to fool you so that he can have the Seadawn for himself.”

Nate glanced around the room, following the pipes across the ceiling to the outer wall of the airship. A small circular window allowed a tiny amount of daylight into the room. Clouds were drifting passed outside, whilst the constant whirring of the Valkyria’s engines rumbled through the airship.

“Charles,” said Nate after a long pause, “you were the one who said the Peak Lords were asking a lot of very strange questions, right?”

Charles let out a sound more suitable for a pig as he shuffled in his chair, leaning closer to the blueprints.

“Do you not think they were trying to get information to pass to the Empire?”

“Of course not,” said Charlies. He pushed the chair backwards so fast that it tumbled over, crashing onto the metal floor. “They were trying to decide whether the Seadawn was a viable project! That was the entire reason I went there to speak with them!”

“Do you not think they would be able to make that decision based on those blueprints alone? They have always made decisions like that before.”

Charles turned toward Nate, storming over to him. His footsteps seemed to shake the room as he moved, and Nate was sure he could see a vein throbbing on Charles’ forehead.

“That bastard of a Captain has been filling your head with far too much tripe, boy! And you just accept it!”

“But-”

“But nothing,” said Charles, interrupting Nate. “We are citizens of the Three Peaks! We took an oath to use our creations to better the lives of those who live there!

The Peak Lords took an oath as well, lest you forget. They swore to always do the best for their nation, and that means they would never deal with the Empire!”

Nate sighed, shaking his head as he got up from the bed, being careful not to hit his head on the ceiling of the capsule.

“Oaths can be broken, Charles. You and I know that all too well.”

“That has nothing to do with this!”

“Actually,” said Nate, “it has everything to do with this.

Nate felt disgusted bringing up the betrayal of Eran, their previous partner, but Charles had to understand the truth.

Three years earlier the three of them had been working on an anti-airship motorized cannon, but Eran had stolen the blueprints and sold them to an Inquisition agent for a pretty penny. After that, he ran away and all the progress on the cannon’s design had been lost. He had taken the same oath that Charles and Nate had sworn to, but greed had gotten the better of him.

“The sight of coin and power can change people,” said Nate. “You know that.”

“That was different! Eran was a fool!”

“And what’s to say that the Peak Lords are not equally foolish?”

“How dare you,” said Charles, his face turning a shade of red similar to the sun before it sleeps for the night. “You would dare speak ill of the Peak Lords in such a manner? What has that Captain done to you, to turn you against your own brethren?”

“He opened my eyes Charles! As I am trying to do for you!”

Charles snorted, and opened his mouth as if to respond before a knock on the door interrupted him. The valve handle on the door squeaked loudly as it turned, the hinges groaning as the door slid open. Captain Irving stepped in, dressed in the finest waistcoat, a golden chain dipping into his breast pocket and a pair of ornate mechanical goggles sitting atop his forehead.

“Good evening, sirs,” he said as he moved to the middle of the room. “I could not help but overhear your little dispute from the corridor, and felt I might be able to shed some light on the truth of the matter.”

In his hand, Irving held a piece of parchment of high quality with fine handwritten words on it, which he proceeded to hold out in front of him.

“This is a letter from the Peak Lords that we were able to, shall we say, intercept?”

He handed the parchment to Nate.

“I am sure you will find the truth in that letter. Now, if you would be so kind, do try to keep the noise down. There are men trying to get some sleep between their shifts.”

Irving gave a slight bow before turning around and walking back toward the door, his head up high as usual. Nate held the parchment up and began to read it aloud.

“Preparations are nearly complete. The project is on schedule, and delivery will take place as requested.”

He looked over to Charles, who was staring at the now closed door, his hand clenched into a fist. Nate held the parchment toward him.

“Look at the seals, Charles.”

Charles glanced down at the parchment, his eyes widening and his fist opening as he stared at the letter.

“Look at the seals,” said Nate. “They are the official seals of the Peak Lords.”

Even Charles knew that you cannot copy the seal of a Peak Lord without having access to the original, which would mean you would need the ring that a Peak Lord wears at all times.

Charles tore the parchment from Nate’s hands, his eyes running over it again and again.

“Charles, you have to understand,” said Nate. “They were going to give the Seadawn to the Empire.”

He placed a hand on Charles’ shoulder, but Charles shrugged it off, picked up the chair from the floor, and took a seat in front of the desk once again.

“Charles?”

“Please Nate, just leaving me alone.”

Nate stepped forward, once again placing a hand on Charles’ shoulder.

“I said leave me alone! Get out of here!”

*

20

SERAN

The Lord Eerhart’s personal estate was positioned at the top of a large hill, with only a single winding road leading to it. The road itself was covered in rocks and dust that sprayed up behind the engineer’s velocycle.

Seran sat on the passenger seat of the velocycle, being thrown left and right as the vehicle rolled over the stones and sped around the corners. The engineer had given him a pair of goggles made of solid brass, but the glass lenses had become covered in dirt. Even the rumbling of the steam engine was drowned out by the constant racket of the stones being flung around.

However, Seran had noticed that apart from them, nothing else seemed to make a sound. Even the trees seemed to be still, the wind appearing to pass straight through them. He instinctively placed his hand on the hilt of Firethorn as the velocycle swerved around the final turn.

The side of the hill rolled away to reveal a large, ornate building with four outhouses and a stable in the courtyard. The main building appeared to have five wings, each with three floors.

The window frames were carved from oak, with patterns of gargoyles all around them. A stone archway with a single gargoyle on the top stood over the main entrance, itself a pair of oak doors. The brown wood of the doors was finely polished, but there were stains of red across them, and they were wide open.

The engineer slowed the velocycle to a halt, and both he and Seran stepped off the vehicle. Seran kept one hand on the hilt of Firethorn, ready to draw it at any second.

“Something’s not right,” said the engineer.

“That would be an understatement,” replied Seran as he pointed to the right. “By the looks of her condition, something is certainly wrong here.”

A few steps away from the main entrance a woman lay face down on the ground. She wore a fine velvet dress, although it had been torn apart. Cuts and wounds covered her body, bite marks resembling a wild animal were all over her arms. Something had been at her.

The engineer vomited. It was obvious to Seran that he had never seen an attack like this. Seran walked closer to the body.

Using a foot, he rolled the body over so that he could see the wounds clearer. Her face, or what was left of it, had frozen in an expression of pure dread and agony. Her death had not been quick.

Parts of her arms, legs and abdomen were missing, the wounds showing that they had been removed by teeth, rather than a tool of some kind.

“Well, it is pretty obvious what did this,” said Seran. The engineer stepped closer.

“The bite marks are a big clue, but the sheer amount of her that is missing is a bigger clue.”

“What do you mean,” asked the engineer.

“Well, what would say happened to this young lady?”

“It looks like a wolf attack,” said the engineer.

“From a distance, it does. However, an animal attacking a human would not likely leave this much meat behind. No, this was not an animal attack.”

“Then what happened to her,” asked the engineer.

“It would appear she was fleeing from something, but was unable to make it very far. We should keep our voices down. We do not want to attract their attention.”

“Whose attention,” asked the engineer. “Tell me already.”

“The Creatures.”

The engineer’s eyes opened wide and he took a step back, faltering as he stepped on a rock. He fell backward, crashing into the ground.

“Cr-Creatures? You think there were Creatures here?”

“I am sure of it,” said Seran as he stepped toward the mansion. “Lord Eerhart is likely to be somewhere inside, if there is anything left of him. We should look for survivors.”

He turned around to the engineer, just in time to see the cowardly man launch himself onto the velocycle, turn it around and speed away.

“Well, I suppose I should not have expected any better from a country-bred engineer…”

Seran drew Firethorn from its sheath and breathed deeply. He clicked his neck, rolled his shoulders, and walked up the steps to the front doors, entering the manor.

*

21

NATE

Nate breathed in deep, the sweet smell of oil and grease filling his nostrils. Men and women in overalls smeared with dirt scurried about the hangar, fiddling with bolts and valves and pipework. Steam spewed out of the motors that were powering cranes, holding engineers high up in the air as they worked tirelessly to keep the Valkyria’s intricate systems in check. A brass and copper automaton, resembling a metal man, carried sheets of metal across the hangar bay toward Nate, followed by a burly looking man whom Nate had come to know as Serge.

“You’re delivery, Master Nate,” said Serge in his usual sarcastic manner.

Serge had been born and raised in the Ringlands, on the Esterland Island. He cared very little for the status and titles that men of stature placed so much value upon. As such, whenever he said the words “sir” or “master”, there was always a very obvious hint of sarcasm in his voice.

“Thank you, Serge,” said Nate as he turned to the automaton. “Put them down over there.”

The humanoid’s body hissed as it bent over, carefully placing the metal sheets on the floor next to the Seadawn.

“Nate,” said Serge, “the Seadawn looks to be fit for flight now. What on earth are these sheets for?”

“I rebuilt the motor using some of the spare parts that were lying around here, so she should be able to carry a bit more weight now. So I thought it would be a good idea to give her a bit more plating to keep her from getting too damaged.”

“Don’t you think these sheets are too thin?”

“Absolutely not,” Nate replied. “The Seadawn is designed to be fast. In truth, she should not need any plating at all; she should be fast enough that the enemy’s battleships cannot hit her.”

“What about their fighters?”

Nate could not help but let out a laugh at the idea that of referring to them as “fighters”.

“All fighter-class airships currently in service around Rhythlan are just refitted air-taxis. Their flight capabilities are laughable at best. That was the whole reason Charles and I built the Seadawn in the first place.”

Serge shook his head, one eyebrow raised. Nate smiled at him and continued.

“Any currently used fighter can pull a 180 degree turn in 4 seconds. The Seadawn can do it in 2 seconds. She’s the fastest combat airship ever built. I can guarantee you that much.”

“So then,” said Serge. “You pilot it and Charles mans the gun, correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“Then you might want to go and speak to him. He hasn’t left your room in two days.”

Nate dropped his head, staring at the steel floor. He knew Charles had been staying in their room, but had not been able to get the courage to confront him about it. Learning the truth about the Peak Lords and their deal with the Alexandrian Empire had broken the old man.

He sighed and turned back to the Seadawn, grabbing a welding iron from the tool bench next to him. If he could not talk to Charles, he could at least get the Seadawn’s modifications finished.

“Do you need a hand with that?”

“Probably,” said Nate, knowing that it were be nearly impossible to hold the sheets in place and weld them at the same time.

Thankfully, the crew of the Valkyria had been more than welcoming to him. He had been told that it was a pleasant surprise to have another engineer onboard.

“By the way,” said Serge. “I saw the way you were looking at Anastasia in the mess hall yesterday.”

Nate felt his body twitch, and a flush of guilt flew through him.

“I was not looking at her!”

“Come on, I know a look of pining when I see it.”

“I do not know what you are talking about,” said Nate, his voice shaking as he spoke.

“Look kid,” Serge replied. “She’s the most cold hearted lady I have ever met. But don’t just sit there and stare. Either you’ll look like some sort of creep, or you’ll just end up regretting it when someone else finally comes along and warms her icy heart.”

“It’s not that simple! She’s the Captain’s sister!”

“And she’s also a human! All humans need some kind of bond, even one like her.”

“And how exactly is one supposed to warm her heart? Answer me that,” said Nate.

“That’s just something you have to figure out on your own, kid. Just don’t let the chance slip by because you’re just sitting there watching.”

“Well, thank you for that sound and useful advice,” said Nate as he looked over at the automaton. “Can you get that thing to hold one of the sheets right here so I can get started on these modifications? I want to get them finished before Charles sees the Seadawn.”

Serge nodded and gave the signal to the automaton. Nate slid a pair of engineer’s goggles over his eyes and lit up the welding iron, but even as he began to working on the Seadawn again, he could not get the image of Anastasia out of his head.

*

22

SERAN

The manor was silent. All of the oil lanterns were out, the only light coming through the windows. Seran stood in the main hallway; a large square room with a staircase in the middle. The staircase split into two separate staircases halfway up, each one going in opposite directions, connecting to a balcony landing that went all the way around the outside of the room.

The floor was marble, with a straight red velvet carpet leading from the entrance to the stairs, and all the way up to the landing. Ornately carved stone gargoyles were littered around the room, some on their sides and others in pieces on the floor. Scratch marks and blood stains were everywhere.

On the ground floor, there were seven doors leading out from the main hall. One was open; the basement door. Seran let out a quiet chuckle at the irony and proceed through the door and down the stone steps.

In the basement there was even less light. The room itself was the same size as the main hallway above, but there were only five windows, and they were more of slits in the wall than full size windows. The basement was filled to the brim with bits and pieces of steam-cars, statues, paintings and various other items.

Two bodies were strewn across the junk, long dead and long since feasted upon. In the darkness, Seran could not determine who they were, but he knew they were not Lord Eerhart. The mechanic had told him that Eerhart had been pompous and plump. These two bodies were very thin, so it was likely that they were his servants. Seran reached down to the remains of one of the bodies and, in its pocket, for a ring of keys. As quietly as he could, he took the keys and placed them in his own pocket before turning around and walking back up to the main hall.

When he returned to the hall, he noticed something he had not seen before; a trail of blood drops led up the stairs. He followed it, carefully stepping on each of the stairs, trying to keep the creaking to a minimum. Half way up, the blood trail turned right and continued up to the landing.

Seran looked up to see another body dangling over the banister. Not him. He shook his head and continued to follow the blood trail. He had to unlock one of the wooden doors, slowly turning the key so that the click did not echo through the house. The last thing he wanted to do was alert any Creatures that might still be in the house that he was there.

The corridor behind the door, as with the main hallway, was lavishly decorated with marble flooring, velvet carpeting and wooden paneling on the walls. Paintings of landscapes were dotted around.

The blood drop trail led further into the corridor and turned left into one of the rooms. The handle was stained red. He placed his hand on it; the blood was still wet and warm. Seran opened the door, finding himself in a study. The walls were filled with books, the room illuminated by a large window on the far side. A desk and chair had been placed in front of it, whilst other chairs lay around the floor.

The blood drips led to the right hand corner, where a man who had obviously been well fed lay face down. He was not breathing, but he was Lord Eerhart. In his hand was a pen, and a piece of paper lay beside him. Seran knelt down and picked up the note.

Whoever finds this, please tell my Queen that I did not fail in my task. I have found their secret. They are building something on the Midland Island.

Seran nodded his head and rolled the piece of paper up before placing it in his pocket.

“Lord Eerhart, I am afraid I cannot tell our Queen yet, but I can tell you I shall look into this secret.”

He turned around and walked toward the door, but as he moved his arm caught the chair by the desk. It fell over, smashing into the wooden floor. The noise echoed through the manor.

“Shit,” said Seran as he instantly stood still. The silence of the manor was broken, and now a clicking sound filled the corridors. It was the hunting sound of the Creatures; the noise they made when they had not found their prey yet. As long as the clicking continued, and did not turn into howling or screaming, Seran was safe.

However, he could not tell which direction the clicking originated from. It was as if it was coming out of the walls, and sooner or late it was going to be coming through the door to the study. Seran knew that much.

He ran over to the door, and closed it as fast as he could, and then moved the desk across the room to the door. The barricade would not hold for long against a pack of Creatures, but it would give him a few seconds to formulate a plan.

Seran ran over to the window and saw a bunch of bushes below. They were thick, and appeared strong enough to support his landing. However, they were in the central garden, and he would still have to get through the manor to the main hall in order to escape. He needed a distraction of some kind.

Across the garden, through the windows of another wing of the manor, he saw movement. There were Creatures moving through the corridors; dozens of them.

Their once human flesh was peeling as they searched the manor, their rotting, mutated bodies moving faster than any human should be able to. He could even see the burns on their skin from the Fire that burnt the Old World.

The Creatures were all that were left of the people who had not taken shelter during the Fire, or those that had encountered the Creatures and lived. There was a saying that everyone was taught in school when learning of these monstrosities; they kill you or they take you.

Seran had always felt a sort of pitty for the Creatures. They were mutated by the actions of others in the Old World, and were now destined to live their extended lives hunting down flesh in packs.

But they were not going to feast on Seran’s flesh. Above him, hanging on the wall, was a lantern. It was still full of fuel. He threw it on the floor, the oil spilling across the wooden floor. There were six other lanterns in the room, so he did the same with them. The floor, now soaked in oil, was ready. He drew a dagger in one hand, and held Firethorn in the other. The spark needs to be small. I do not want it to burn before I get out of here.

He struck the two blades together, creating a spark that hit the oil on the floor, setting it alight. The flames spread through the oil, growing quickly. Seran then ran over to the shelves of books, using all of his strength to push them over. The flames were quick to swallow the books, the paper burning in seconds. The fire then spread across the shelves, reaching the wooden walls and the rugs on the floor, before finally reaching the desk.

As the desk ignited, so did the door behind it, the flames spreading to the velvet carpet outside. Soon enough it would spread throughout the manor. The clicking stopped, seconds later being replaced with wailing and howling. Seran knew that meant the fire had spread well; the Creatures were agitated and spooked. They wanted their food.

He span around and ran over to the window, smash it with the blade of Firethorn. He sheathed his dagger once again and launched himself through the window, falling down into the bushes. The branches cut through his hands and face, but other than that the landing was soft. From the bushes he could see the fire making its way around the different wings of the manor. It was working. The Creatures were running around in a frenzy.

Seran rose to his feet, Firethorn in his hand. He started the motor so that the teeth around the blade began to spin. The noise of the chain-sword was loud, but that would not matter now. The Creatures were everywhere. He could see that from the windows.

He dived through the window behind him and found himself in the dining hall. As he rose to his feet, he heard a scream from the left and saw a Creature charge toward him. Its speed was immense, flakes of its skin falling off as it ran toward him. Seran moved to the side at the last minute and span around, driving Firethorn through the Creature’s neck. Its body fell to the floor, whilst its head continued forward for a couple seconds first.

Behind him, one of the two doors of the massive room burst open, and four more Creatures entered. One of them looked as though they had been an attractive young woman when they were changes into a monster. It was a pitty.

Seran ran across the room toward the other door, the Creatures hurtling toward him. He knew he would not have time to try and unlock the door, and bashing into it might end up with him on the floor in front of them. Instead, he raised Firethorn above his head and drove it into the door, the teeth sawing through the wood until it fell apart, giving Seran an exit. However, he heard one of the Creature launch itself from the ground. He ducked and span around to face the monster, lifting Firethorn above his head once again.

The Creature flew face first into the chain-sword’s blade and teeth, knocking Seran backwards with its weight. He rolled further backwards so that he found his feet again, and tore Firethorn from the monster’s head. As he rose and readied himself from the next pounce, he saw the support beams of the dining hall’s ceiling burn away.

He dived through the doorway as the ceiling collapse, crushing the two Creatures that were running toward him. Shaking his head to get his bearings, he realized he was back in the main hall. He leapt to his feet and ran as fast as he could to the front door, howling echoing through the burning manor and right into his ears.

Outside, the courtyard was clear. The Creatures had obviously been sleeping within the manor. Smoke rose from every wing of the house, filling the sky with a dark cloud. Seran looked around the courtyard and saw a steam-car.

He ran over to it and started cranking the handle of the engine. The howling was getting closer, the fire doing little to stop the sheer hunger that drove the Creatures. Finally the steam-car’s engine sputtered into life. Seran jumped into the cabin and pushed down the accelerator. At that same moment, almost a hundred Creatures launched themselves through the windows and main entrance of the manor.

The steam-car shot forward, Seran quickly turning the steering wheel and driving the car out of the courtyard. He wrenched the wheel to the right, turning off the dirt track and into the woods, heading south toward the city of Argent; the only port on the Esterland island.

In the mirror he could see the Creatures pilling over each other as they ran after him like a tsunami. But he was making distance between himself and the monsters. He was going to get away safely.

*

23

HAZE

The sound of dripping water had been all Haze could hear for hours. Einar was still unconscious on the cold stone floor, is head resting on the steel bars of the prison cell.

The smell of rotten food and rotten bodies filled the air, the small barred window offering now release from the odor.

“Mother…”

The image of her mother screaming had been repeating in her head since she had woken up. She was not crying anymore, but that was likely due to having no tears left to cry. Instead, she felt as if there was an emptiness in her chest that was slowly being filled with hatred for the Inquisition.

“What do they want with me? Why would they kill everyone just to get to me?”

There were a thousand questions spiraling around her as she stared at the dank stone walls of the cell.

Einar stirred, his foot sliding closer to his body as he bent his knee. He moved a hand to his head, shaking it as he opened his eyes.

“Einar! You’re awake!”

Haze leapt up and rushed over to him; the man who had saved her life twice, the only person in the world that she had left. She threw her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek.

“I thought I might lose you too. I could not bear to lose someone else today.”

He was blinking fast, as if trying to get an idea of where he was. He glanced up at Haze and she could feel a weight lifted as he stared at her. But she could also see the pain in his eyes.

“Haze. I’m so sorry.”

She felt his arms wrap around her as he pulled her close.

“I am so sorry, Haze.”

She had been wrong; she still had tears to cry, and they began to pour out. They sat there, on the cold floor, crying into each other’s shoulders for what seemed like an eternity; a welcome one as far as Haze was concerned.

Unfortunately, the moment was shattered when the sound of footsteps began to approach. Haze lifted herself up from Einar, who turned toward the gate of the cell. An Inquisition prison guard, his black and purple uniform neatly pressed, walked up to the cell.

“Good, you are awake,” he said as he began to unlock the gate. “We have been waiting for you to open your pitiful eyes.”

The guard stepped in, grabbing Einar by the collar and forcing him to his feet.

“Leave him alone,” shouted Haze, but the prisoner just pushed her to the ground. She watched as Einar was dragged out of the cell, and the gate was locked again.

“Where are you taking him?”

“We just have some questions for him, that’s all.”

The guard laughed, sounding like a hyena, before dragging Einar down the corridor. Haze could just hear the squeaking of an old door opening and closing before the corridor fell silent again, and she was alone in the cell.

The silence cut through her, forcing open her loneliness, allowing her pain to consume her. But the silence did not last, although Haze soon wished it did.

Screams began to echo through the corridor and prison cells; screams of agony. They were from Einar, and she instantly knew what they were doing to him. The hatred for the Inquisition began to build up inside of her again, but concern for Einar overshadowed it.

*

24

NATE

Three days had passed since Irving had shown the letter from the Peak Lords to Charles and Nate, and Charles still had not left their room. The Seadawn’s modifications were nearly complete, so Nate decided it was time to confront Charles.

He walked down the corridors from the Valkyria’s hangar bay, dodging past the crew. Every now and then steam would escape from the pipes that ran along the walls near the ceiling, helping to keep the Valkyria warm inside. He still had not worked out whether the escaping steam was deliberate or not.

As he walked along, he noticed there a quiet barking that echoed through the corridor. Someone has a dog onboard? The idea of having live animals on an airship seemed so out of place. Surely the dog just gets in the way.

He reached the room that he and Charles had been given, and turned the valve handle to open the door. Inside was as messy at it had been during their argument, blueprints scattered around the room and various different items of clothing strewn across the floor. However, Charles was not there.

“Now where in Rhythlan did you go?”

Nate scratched his head before turning around, very nearly bumping straight into Anastasia, who was standing in the doorway. At her feet was a small white dog, its fur thick but well groomed, and its collar holding a piece of paper.

“What are you doing,” asked Nate. “I nearly walked right into you!”

Anastasia simply glared at him, her eyes appearing not to blink. She knelt down, pulling her white skirt over her legs as she took the piece of paper from the dog’s collar. Nate watched, unable to take his eyes away from her, her leather corset and white shirt enticing his gaze.

“Ruby brought this from Irving. It says that I am to tell you to meet with both him and Charles on the bridge.”

She handed him the paper, and turned to leave the room. After taking two steps forward, and the dog following her, she stopped and turned her head back towards Nate.

“Are you coming?”

Nate was about to reply, but his words seemed to disappear by they reached his mouth. Instead, he stumbled forward and followed her out of the room.

Ruby constantly yapped, the sound grating on Nate’s ears as he walked a few steps behind Anastasia. Every crew member they passed stepped aside and gave her a salute. Nate had never seen such respect given to anyone but the Peak Lords before.

“So why do you have a dog onboard?”

Anastasia looked at him out of the corner of her eye, almost squinting.

“Is it a problem for you?”

“No, of course not,” he said, trying to hide how annoying the dog’s constant barking was becoming. “I was just wondering why? Doesn’t she get in the way?”

“Ruby is a valuable member of this crew, unlike some other people on this ship!”

Nate jumped a little as Anastasia raised her voice. Idiot! You are supposed to be warming her heart, not making her angry. He bowed his head and gave an apologetic smile.

“I apologize for my words. They were misplaced. It is just that I have not seen an animal onboard an airship before.”

“Well, now you have,” she said as they turned and walked up the red carpeted staircase to the bridge. “In there.”

She opened the door and turned around, heading back down the stairs again.

“Anastasia, wait. I did not mean anything bad, please forgive me.”

She rolled her eyes and continued down the stairs, turning around the corner and was gone. Well done you idiot. You have made it even worse now.

Nate shook his head and stepped onto the bridge, being greeted by Irving and Charles. As he looked to Charles, his jaw dropped.

“There you are, my boy,” said Charles. “Does this uniform suit me?”

He stood in front of Irving, wearing the same uniform as the Valkyria’s crew. A smile stretched across his face as he gave Nate a salute.

“I gave it a lot of thought after seeing that letter, and I decided that joining the Valkyria is the best way to protect the Three Peaks.

This way, we can use the Seadawn to protect our home against both the Empire and Inquisition.”

*

25

SERAN

A loud rumbling filled Seran’s ears as the western gate to Argent rolled open. Steam poured out of the machine’s exhausts as it pulled the two massive metal plates apart.

He drove the steam-car through the gate and into the city, dodging pedestrians who seemed oblivious to the idea of vehicles driving on a road. The streets were littered with men in fine suits and women either wearing embroidery and dresses or short skirts and open vests.

Steam-cars and velocycles trundled along the cobblestone streets as dogs and cats ran through the alleyways. Armed men wearing black uniforms and caps strolled around the city, their heads held high. Seran knew he had truly entered the realm of the Inquisition now and needed to keep a low profile.

He slowed the velocycle to a normal speed, matching that of the other vehicles, and rode through the streets getting a feel for the city. Market places were busy with peddlers calling out their wares, whilst the outer walls were manned by more armed guards.

It was definitely a secure city. It would have to be in order to hold as many citizens as it did. Apartment buildings rose into the sky, which would act as a beacon to both the Inquisition’s enemies and the Creatures. The sheer fact that a city such as that still stood was testament to how well protected it was.

Eventually he found his way to the port, where he saw boats and airships docked. Above him was a large, ornately decorated black airship that he recognized instantly. The Tempest. It was the flagship of the Inquisition’s fleet. Well is that not just brilliant luck? There was an inn nearby, aptly named The Docks. Seran parked the velocycle outside of the white stone building and entered.

Inside, the ceiling was low with oak beams stretching across. Small tables and chairs filled the main room, with a fireplace one the eastern wall. Men and woman of class sat at the tables drinking wine and whiskey. The walls were decorated with hanging flower pots and fine art.

Seran made his way over to the counter and ring the brass bell. A young woman came out through a curtain with a smile on her face.

“Welcome to the Docks. How many I help you today?”

“I would like a room, if you have any available, ma’am,” said Seran.

“Of course, we have three available. Would you prefer a single or double room, sir?”

“A single would do just fine,” said Seran. “Do you have one with a view of the docks themselves?”

“We do. It’s our finest single room. It costs thirty coins per night. How long would you like to stay?”

“One night will be enough,” Seran said as he placed thirty coins on the counter. The lady gave him the key to the room and led him up the stairs on the left to his quarters for the night.

The room was small. It had its own fireplace, smaller than the one in the main room, and a single bed with a white frame. A chair was placed near the window, and there was a door leading to a bathroom next to the bed.

The bathroom itself held a toilet and wash basin, but nothing else. However, the room was enough for Seran, as he did not plan on staying for the entire night.

After the moon has fully risen into the sky, and the docks had almost completely emptied, Seran took up his seat next to the window. In the light of the moon he scanned the docks for a vessel. He knew he would not be able to commandeer an airship or an air-taxi without bringing unwanted attention to himself. He needed something smaller.

He was in luck. A fisherman had left his rowboat tied to the docks. It was swaying back and forth in the weak waves.

“That will do just fine,” he said to himself and he rose from his seat. He collected his belongings and walked out of the room, locking the door behind him. If he left it unlocked it would be far too obvious that he had gone out that night and not returned.

“It should not take too long to row to Midland,” he said to himself as he walked out of the inn and toward the rowboat. “Soon enough we will see what your little secret is, we will not?”

*

26

EINAR

Darkness had infiltrated the prison cell, a single beam of moonlight reaching through the window like a silver arrow. Einar lay on a rusted steel shelf that was supposedly a bed, whilst Haze leaned over him, her eyes still watery as they constantly scanned his body.

“Really, I’m ok,” he said as their eyes met once again. It had been almost half a day since the torture session had ended, and the bleeding from the whips had finally stopped.

“How can you be?”

Haze’s voice faltered as she spoke, her eyes once again surveying the damage that had been done to Einar’s body.

“It wasn’t that bad,” he said, although he knew it was a lie. He had to look strong for her; she needed support more than he did.

Einar lifted his body, turning so that he was seated on the bed, and wiped a lone tear from her eye. He smiled at her as he put his hand on her chin, lifting her face so that their eyes met yet again.

“Trust me. I’m really okay.”

He wiped a piece of cloth from his shirt over his face to clean away the sweat and blood. The whips has felt like chains when they had hit his face, cutting like rose thorns. Haze had told him that his back was worse, and had used other pieces of cloth damped from the dripping walls to clean the wounds.

“What did they want to know?”

“About me,” Einar replied. “They asked me where I was from and why I was here in Esterland. When I told them I had come to find my sister, they asked me about her.

Then they asked me about Rin’s murder. They wanted to know what I knew about my sister’s location and what happened to Rin. I told them I don’t know anything, but they didn’t believe me.

They just kept asking, whipping me each time I told them I didn’t know.”

Haze wiped his arms with one of the clothes, cleaning the blood stains from his skin.

“What are we going to do? You will not survive another beating like that.”

Einar sighed and looked at the stone ceiling. Shaking his head, he rose to his feet and moved toward the square hole in the wall that was supposed to count as a window. Through the bars he could see only darkness. He looked left and right, checking to make sure he was not imagining anything.

“It’s silent,” he said.

“What do you mean? What is silent?”

“The entire facility,” said Einar as he turned from the window. “There are no lights anywhere, and no one seems to be making a sound.”

Haze opened her mouth to speak, but Einar gently placed a finger on her lips to stop her. He listened carefully, waiting to see if he would hear that noise again. He did.

There was a faint clicking noise coming from outside. It was coming from beyond the prison’s walls, out in the wild.

“I have an idea,” he said after hearing the clicking once more to make sure he was correct.

“Do you hear that?”

He could see Haze straining to hear anything out of the ordinary, until her eyes widened at the sound of the clicking.

“Is that what I think it is?”

Einar nodded. It was a sound every living person knew, and one many dead people knew every better. It was the sound of the Creatures communicating to one another.

“I’m going to shout for help,” said Einar.

Haze’s eyes widened further until it seemed they could very well fall out of their sockets.

“But that would draw them. They are attracted to sound!”

“Exactly,” he replied. “Why do think the prison is so quiet? My guess is they built this place next to the Creatures’ pack house, and that’s why they don’t want any lights or noise at night.”

“So you want to bring those things right to us?”

He nodded, knowing entirely crazy the idea must have sounded.

“They will keep the guards busy whilst we escape. What do you think?”

“Honestly? I think it is a terrible plan. However, I do not see any alternative means of escape.”

“Alright then! Well, this is going to be tough, that is for sure. We will have to be careful on the way out.”

Haze nodded and smiled, but Einar could see she was trembling. Everyone was scared of the Creatures. They were intelligent pack hunters that wanted nothing more than to feast on your flesh, and Einar was about to bring their pack down upon the prison.

He breathed deeply before yelling out as loud as he could. The clicking stopped, replaced with the Creatures’ hunting scream, the sound of which better fit the banshees of the Old World’s legends.

The sound of the Creatures grew louder with each heartbeat, Einar’s heart sinking lower with every second. They were coming, and they were coming fast.

“I really, really hope this works…”

*

27

SERAN

It took most of the night for Seran to row across the open waters to Midland, but luck had been on his side; the sea had been calm. Moonlight and stars glittered in the water’s reflection throughout his journey, but now they had been replaced with a fiery red blanket as the sun began to rise.

Mildand, the smallest of the three isles of the Ringlands, was blanketed by a dense forest, and remained the only one of the islands that had not seen construction of towns and cities. As such, there was no dock for Seran to sail toward. Instead, he rowed up to the beach and pulled the row boat through the sand, hiding it between two piles of rocks that had washed ashore.

Once he was sure that the row boat was safe and secure, he made his way into the sea of trees. The forest itself was dense, the early morning light barely breaking through the canopy. Branches whipped his arms and legs as he pushed through bushes and thickets. Birds of all kinds began to sing, their waking songs bringing a strange sense of peace to Seran’s mind, but even that was not enough to calm the thoughts in his head.

Images of the Creatures and the carnage they had left at Lord Eerhart’s estate ran through his mind over and over, like a broken record. With every few steps he remembered Eerhart’s final words.

“What sort of secret do the Inquisition fools have?”

Whatever their secret was, he knew it would, in some way, spell danger to the citizens of the Alexandria Empire. The Inquisition had destroyed many towns and small cities of the Empire during their revolt, taking much of the Empire’s fleet with them when they relocated to the Ringlands.

It had taken years for the Empire to rebuild the military might that was lost, and even longer for their engineers to design and build an airship that could equal the Tempest, now the Inquisition’s flagship.

The loss of the Tempest had been a major blow to the Empire, as it had been their pride and joy during the past wars with Three Peaks and the other nations. However, the Inquisition’s thirst for revenge against the Empire had not be sated with the theft of the Tempest. They had slaughtered the engineers who had built it so that they could not build another quickly.

Thus, Seran could not help but feel a strong concern about the Inquisition’s new “secret”. They had one of the most powerful and devastating airships in the known lands; what else did they need?

As he continued through the forest, he realized that he had neither means of navigation, nor any idea what his heading should be. Through the trees, he saw a large mountain; the Midland volcano. It was the only landmark visible from any location of the small circular island. As such, he took it as his heading and began northwest, hoping that he would find some sort of sign.

Thankfully, his hopes were answered by the sound of a steamcar trundling along, west of his location. The rumbling of the engine was unmistakable.

He picked up his pace, sprinting through the trees. The branches continued to slash at him, now hitting his face as he ran forward, his arms no longer shielding his head. The Midland was supposed to be unoccupied land, and yet there was a steamcar there.

“Someone else is definitely on this island,” he said as he ran. “It would seem, milord Eerhart, that you were correct.”

He ran for what seemed like hours, although he knew that the island itself was only a few miles in diameter. Eventually, much to his surprise, the trees opened up and gave way to a huge clearing.

Tree stumps, the remains of a once beautiful forest, were scattered around. A chain link fence with barbed wire stretched along a few feet from the start of the clearing, with a single dirt track leading to a large steel gate in the fence. Armed soldiers with pistols, muskets and rifles patrolled the fence, protecting a large red brick building in the middle of the compound.

The building was covered in windows, and a large stone chimney rose from the far side of it.

“A factory, I assume.”

Behind it stood the remains of a castle that appeared to be a remnant of the Old World. The external walls of the structure had been reinforced with metal braces, and glass had been used to fill the windows of the castle.

Seran made his way through the trees, staying in the shadows as he followed the chain link fence around the compound, getting closer to the castle. From his vantage point, he could see steamcars in abundance, as well as seven large cannons stationed around the compound, all pointed at the sky.

“They have anti-air cannons? What in the world are they protecting down there?”

Piping and tubes stretched from the cannons to a single building in the middle of the compound. Steam constantly poured from the building, the sound of machinery whirling away coming from within.

“A power station,” he said to himself.

Continuing around the facility, Seran found himself close to the castle. There were even more Inquisition soldiers than at the factory.

He knelt down on the ground and watched the guards, trying to determine their patrol locations. However, as he watched he heard the same of another steamcar coming closer. Dust and sand flew up behind the vehicle as it drove through the compound and stopped at the entrance to the castle.

The vehicle’s doors opened, and a cloaked man with a walking stick stepped out, followed by a young girl. The girl wore a brown tunic more befitting a farmer than a member of the Inquisition, with a purple shawl wrapped around her shoulders. She seemed to sway from left to right, as if her body was there but her mind was shut to the world. The guards stopped their patrols and each gave a salute to the cloaked man.

The man signaled to the girl to go to the castle, before turning around and walking back toward the factory. Seran followed him, moving through the trees’ shadows again.

He moved as close to the chain link fence as possible as an engineer stepped out of the factory to meet the cloaked man. As the two men began to speak, Seran was able to make out a few words, although due to the distance, he was unable to hear the entire conversation.

“.. Almost ready,” said the engineer.

“… Empire will not be able to withstand,” replied the cloaked man.

Seran moved to the left, trying his best to get closer so that he could hear the conversation better.

“No matter what they do,” said the cloaked man, “they will not be able to hold out against our latest weapon. With this, the Inquisition will finally hold the greatest power in the known lands.”

“The fools of the Empire will not know how to react,” said the engineer. “We will be ready for testing within three days.”

“I am glad to hear it. All of my pawns are slowly moving into place. Soon, our plans will come to fruition. Do not fail me.”

With that, the cloaked man turned away and headed back toward the castle whilst the engineer returned to the factory. Seran stepped backward into the trees once again.

“This is bigger than I had thought,” he said to himself and he walked further into the forest. “Preparations must be made…”

*

28

EINAR

The sound of a hundred pistols rang out through the compound, echoing in the prison cell as Einar watched the chaos through the window. The Creatures, contorted and rotten, were flooding over the outer walls of the prison cell, filling the courtyard in a matter of seconds. Their speed was incredible, running faster than anyone Einar had ever seen.

The Inquisition guards had set up a defensive wall, rifles and pistols firing over and over to try and take out the threat. However, there were just too many of them.

It only took a few minutes for the courtyard to be completely overrun, the Creatures tearing through and feasting on the guards. The silence of the night had been replaced with a constant screaming from both the guards and the Creatures.

The screaming from the guards was horrifying, the wailing sound of death pouring out from their mouths. Yet the screaming from the Creatures was far worse; the ear-piercing cries of the hunt, the soul shattering sound that the Creatures made whenever they saw their prey. That was the sound of death approaching, and Einar had brought it straight to them.

“I really hope this works,” he whispered to himself as he stepped away from the window.

Haze was covering her ears, knelt down against the wall. Part of Einar wanted to join her, but there was no time to allow fear to take control; they had their chance so now they had to find a way out of the compound.

A scream rang out from the corridor. They got inside already? The Creatures were overwhelming the guards far quicker than Einar had expected. He watched as the guard outside of the cell leapt from his chair and drew his pistol, firing wildly down the corridor.

The constant scream was getting closer, and Einar could see Haze’s eye widen as the Creature came into view. It charged the guard, who managed to dive to the ground fast enough that the Creature pounced straight over the top of him. However, he lost his grip on the pistol, which flew away from his reach just as quickly as his chance of living.

The guard rolled over, drawing a short sword from its sheath as the Creature launched itself at him again. Haze turned away as its claws drove their way into the guard’s chest, the guard letting out the same dying shriek that had taken over the compound. However, the Creature’s scream slowly faded.

The guard had managed to raise the short sword just enough that it pierced the burnt, decrepit body of the Creature. Its eyes, normally filled with rage, looked hollow as its rotting arms slumped to its side.

Now’s our chance. Einar slowly slid across the floor to the bars at the front of the cell. The keys were sitting on the floor, connected to the guard by a flimsy carabiner that was just in reach.

Einar pushed his hand through the bars, reaching toward the keys. As he managed to get a finger on them, the Creature stirred, making him jump backwards. It had just been a dying reflex, however, as it remained still after the twitch.

He reached again, shaking his head as he managed to get a grip on the carabiner. Come on Einar, you can do this. He had never touched a dead body until now. He had not even seen a dead body until he had seen Rin. Come on, you have to do this. His hand was shaking as he opened the carabiner and pulled the keys into the cell. Rising to his feet, Einar unlocked the cell and opened the gate of bars before turning to Haze.

“Come on Haze. We have to get out of here.”

She did not move, instead staring at the dead guard and the rotten corpse that covered him.

“Haze!”

She jumped, looking Einar in the eyes. She was crying, tears streaming down her face. She’s seen too much death recently. He knew that, but Einar also knew they would see a lot more before the night was over.

“Come on, I’ll protect you,” he said as he extended a hand to her. She sat still for a couple of seconds, gazing at his hand, before finally grasping it and letting him pull her to her feet.

Outside the cell, the corridor’s marble floor and stone walls were stained red and the gas lanterns flickered in the cold night breeze. Einar and Haze carefully stepped over the bodies in front of the cell and started walking toward the open door at the end of the corridor. However, just a few steps later, another Creature appeared at the door, its eerie smile almost peeling the skin from its face.

It bent forward, drool pouring from its mouth as it prepared to rush Einar. He readied himself to push Haze into another open cell. Well, I guess this wasn’t the best idea after all… He could feel his heart racing, and his stomach sinking further into his body. This can’t be happening! I don’t want to die like this! I don’t want to die!

He tried to raise his arms, to push Haze to safety, but realized he had frozen, staring into the cold, empty eyes of the Creature. What do I do? His eyes scanned the area as fast as they could, finally fixating on the guard’s pistol that lay just a few steps away. I can do it! With that, I can do it. He dived forward, sliding toward the pistol, wrapping his hands around it. The Creature put its weight on the back of its feet, ready to pounce. It pushed forward, toward Einar.

A splash of blood shot from the Creature’s head, covering the door to the corridor. It had not finished launching itself before a shot had come from the left, outside the door. The Creature crashed to the floor, bouncing as it slid across the marble.

Behind it appeared a guard, rifle in hand. The guard turned and looked straight at Haze before raising his gun. Einar fired. Shot after shot rang out as he squeezed the trigger of the pistol, each one hitting the guard in a different part of the body until he collapsed.

What have I done? Einar dropped the pistol to the ground, his hands trembling. I killed someone. What have I done?

“He was going to kill us,” said Haze, placing a hand on Einar’s shoulder. He felt her grip tighten as she pulled him around to face her, before putting her arms around him. “He was going to kill us, so you had no choice. You had no choice, Einar.”

She was right. He knew she was right, but he could not stop the feeling of his gut twisting in disgust.

“We have to go,” she continued. “You said you would protect me, and you did. But now, we have to go.”

She gave him a kiss on the cheek, and nodded to him. He breathed in deep, trying to swallow the bile in his mouth, and nodded back.

From the prison corridor, there was only one other corridor they had to pass through before they reached the courtyard. The sound of battle rang out throughout the compound, gun shots, screams and the shouting of commands. The Creatures had overrun the entire complex.

In the courtyard, some of the Creatures were still feasting on the bodies of the Inquisition soldiers and guards. Fires burnt their way through the steam-cars and velocycles lay in wreckage.

Einar and Haze ran forward, toward the center of the courtyard; it was the fastest way to the breaches in the outer wall. As they ran, the Creatures looked up from their meals and began to encircle them.

Einar stopped running, Haze crashing into his back. He looked around the courtyard for a way out, but they were completely surrounded. He sighed deeply and turned to Haze.

“I’m sorry, Haze. I really am.”

He pulled her close and held her tightly. What a stupid idea this was. I got us both killed.

Bullets started raining down upon the courtyard from above. The Creatures were being torn apart by the gunfire. Search lights, appearing out of nowhere, illuminated the ground, moving in every direction.

Einar gazed upwards to see a huge airship flying above them, the search lights blinding him from being able to see it clearly.

“Stay there,” shouted a voice, crackling as if coming through a speaker. “We will pick you up in a minute!”

*

29

NATE

“Just one more good turn,” said Nate, his arms aching as he twisted the final bolt into place, finally attaching the new main cannon to the Seadawn.

He and Charles had not left the airship for hours, both of them dripping in sweat and panting like a dog. The metal sheets had been welded on to the body of the airship, and the old rifle had been replaced with a cannon that could fire at twice the rate.

“She is certainly beautiful,” said Charles as he stepped back, admiring the finished product of their labor. “And she will definitely be able to defend herself now!”

“I have to say it,” said Nate. “I think we have really out-done ourselves this time.”

He turned to Charles and smiled, whilst Charles nodded, a grin stretching across his wrinkled face.

“I need some air,” said Charles as he turned away from the airship. “Shall we go and take a look out the observation deck? I hear the view is great.”

He let out a bellowing laugh, his stomach shaking. Nate nodded and followed him to the hangar bay doors, back into the main corridor of the Valkyria.

As they walked along, he could still hear the yapping of Ruby, the sound scratching at his bones as he thought about how angry Anastasia had been. How could I have been so stupid?

“Are you thinking about the Captain’s sister again? What was her name?”

“Anastasia,” said Nate, a bit more forceful than he had meant to.

“Ah yes, that was it. You know, you should just go and apologize to her. Clear the air, so to speak.”

Nate shook his head, tired of hearing advice about how to deal with Anastasia.

“I can handle it,” he said.

“Oh of course, you handled it perfectly well last time, did you not?”

Never before had Nate wanted to punch Charles in the back of the head quite as much. What do you know? You have been alone your entire life.

“I know what you are thinking,” said Charles. “I can see it from the look on your face. You think that because I never married I know nothing of the intricacies of youthful relationships, correct?”

How do you do that? How do you always know what I am thinking?

“You have known me for a very long time, my boy,” Charles continued. “But you have not known me for my entire life. I was your age once, and there was a girl in my life that I longed for just the same as you do now.

For years I tried in vain to have her notice me. I would try to force conversation, ask to borrow things just so that I could be near her. It was rather pathetic really…”

They reached the top of the central staircase and Charles opened the steel door, revealing a huge empty room with windows all around. The sky was empty, the darkness of night pierced only by the light of the moon and stars.

“One day, I decided that enough was enough. I went to her home with a freshly cooked rabbit stew, and we sat and talked for hours. For months I would go to her house and we would just talk, until one day things became serious between us, and I never looked back.”

Nate titled his head to one side, taken aback by the story.

“So, what happened to her?”

Charles dropped his head, looking at the ground. He raised his arm and wiped his sleeve across his face.

“My darling Delilah took ill about two years before I met you. She was carrying our child at the time, but the illness took them both.”

Nate reached an arm forward, but found that he could not place it onto Charles’ shoulder. Instead, he pulled it back and sighed deeply.

“I am so sorry Charles. I never knew.”

“That would be because I never told you, my boy,” he replied, wiping his face again before breathing heavily and standing upright once more. “The point is, no matter how it ended, I would not give up a second of my life with her. Do not let foolish pride or cowardice stop you from talking to Anastasia.”

Charles strolled over to a window on the right of the observation deck, with Nate following close behind.

“Take every chance you get in life, and hold on to it for all it is worth, boy. Otherwise, you will live in regret until your dying breath.”

Nate looked out into the night sky, trying to find some articulate words to say to his friend, to try and heal the pain in Charles’ eyes. As he gazed outside, he noticed a bright orange light on the ground.

“What is that?”

He turned to Charles, only to see that he had already ran to one of the binocular stands and was staring down at the light as well.

“A fire,” said Charles. “There is a compound of some sort. It looks as though it is under attack.”

“We should tell Irving!”

“I agree,” said Charles, and they ran from the observation deck, down the stairwell again. What kind of compound is it? Who is attacking it?

“I thought we were flying over the Ringlands,” said Nate. “Who would attack a compound here? This is Inquisition territory!”

“Whoever it is, they must have a death wish!”

Nate crashed through the door onto the bridge, the crew turning around sharply, glaring at him.

“Captain! Someone is under attack!”

“We already know,” said Irving. “They are warming up the search lights as we speak.”

“Who would be so foolish as to attack a compound here?”

“They are not being attack by a person,” said Irving as the spotlights outside the cabin light up. “Take a look for yourself.”

Irving passed a telescope to Nate, who placed it to his eye and stared out of the window. Through the flames, he could see five buildings arranged in a square. The central courtyard was filled with bodies, some dead and some racing around, the skin peeling off them as they ran.

“Creatures!”

“That is correct,” said Irving.

Nate looked through the telescope again, moving his vision around the compound. Vehicles were toppled over, burning wildly. As he watched, he saw two people run out of a building on the left and move across the courtyard until the Creatures turned and surrounded them. Nate looked up from the telescope, and turned to Irving.

“We have to help them!”

“Agreed,” said Irving. “They are most certainly civilians. Shine the search lights around the courtyard! Move them around so that the Creatures get confused!”

“Yes, sir” said one of the crew members, who then proceeded to turn and adjust various dials on his control panel. The lights began to move erratically, going left then moving right again.

“Nate. Charles. Is the Seadawn able to fly?”

“Yes, sir” said Charles.

“Good. She is probably the only ship onboard that can get down there in time. Nate, take her down there and get those two out of there!”

“What about other survivors?”

“If the Creatures are surrounding them, then they are almost certainly the only living people left. Now hurry down there, before it is too late!”

“Yes, sir,” said Nate as he span on his ankles and ran toward the door.

“Wait,” said Charles. “I will come too. You will need a gunner to keep those things at bay.”

Nate nodded. His heart was racing so fast it felt as though it was going to tear his chest apart. Creatures? Why did it have to be Creatures?

He and Charles ran from the bridge as Irving picked up a microphone.

“Stay there,” he said, his voice booming and echoing outside of the Valkyria. “We will pick you up in a minute.”

*

30

NATE

The Seadawn’s engines rumbled as the propeller blades begin to spin, the cockpit vibrating violent. Nate gripped the handle of the navigation control, whilst Charles checked over the ammunition feed for the cannon. They both pulled their goggles over their faces and Nate signaled to the launch bay crew to remove the shackles holding the Seadawn in place.

The airship rolled forward. Nate moved the handle to the left so that the Seadawn turned toward the hangar bay doors. Giant cogs on each side of the huge metal doors creaked as they started to turn, opening the hangar bay to the night sky.

“Seadawn, your flight path is clear,” said the flight crew. Nate gave a salute and pushed the handle forward. The Seadawn’s engines roared as it began to move forward, gaining speed with every second. The hangar bay doors shot pass the cockpit’s windows, being replaced with darkness, stars and the open sky.

As the Seadawn turned, Nate saw the fires below them, and the search lights dancing around the courtyard.

“They are distracting the Creatures,” said Charles. “Hurry up and get us down there!”

Nate pushed the nose the Seadawn downward, taking the airship into a near vertical dive. The ground seemed to rush closer toward them, as if ready to punch them with all its might. At the last minute, Nate pulled back on the handle, the Seadawn groaning as it forced itself horizontal again, inches from the ground.

“Haha! What did I tell you, boy? This girl’s the best airship in Rhythlan!”

Nate laughed, relieved that the maneuver had worked so well. The trees sped past them as he darted the Seadawn along the dirt track toward the compound.

“We are almost there,” he said. “Get ready with the cannon!”

“Aye aye! Those damnable Creatures won’t know what hit them!”

The Seadawn burst through the remains of the compound’s front gate, the noise drawing the attention of the Creatures. Nate span the airship around and brought it to a stop, landing in the middle of the courtyard, a few steps away from the civilians.

“Fire!”

“No need to tell me twice,” said Charles as he squeezed the cannon’s trigger. The barrel began to spin round, the ammunition feed replacing the bullets fired almost instantly.

Charles span the cannon around from left to right, clearing out as many creatures as he could. Nate opened the loading hatch for the bomb bay.

“Come on,” he said to the civilians. “Get in before more come!”

He watched as the man pulled the woman along, running toward the Seadawn, but the Creatures were gathering behind them, coming out of the buildings. More and more spilled out, flooding the courtyard in seconds.

“Hurry it up,” shouted Charles as he continued to fire the cannon. “There are a lot of them back here!”

The two civilians were getting closer, but the Creatures were gaining on them.

“Nate! You are going to have to take off as soon as they are on board! Do not wait!”

Nate’s hands were dripping with sweat, his grip tight around the handle of the airship. The civilians were close.

“Get off of me!”

Nate turned his head around to see a Creature had smashed through the glass of the cockpit and was trying to reach Charles. Nate reached for his pistol, but it was too late. The Creature bit deep into Charles’ arm as Charles shot it point blank in the face with his own pistol.

“Damn you,” Charles screamed as he span the cannon around and continued to mow down the other Creatures. In the middle of the Seadawn, between Charles and Nate, the two civilians jumped on board.

“Now,” screamed Charles, and Nate pulled back hard on the handle. The Seadawn rose, Charles continuing to fire the cannon as they rose into the air. Nate turned the airship toward the Valkyria, landing it as fast as he could, the Seadawn scrapping across the hangar bay’s floor until it finally stopped.

Crew men and armed guards quickly surrounded the airship as Nate opened the bomb bay. He leapt from his seat and ran past the two civilians to Charles’ side. He was bleeding profusely, covering the gaping wound in his arm.

“Charles!”

“Well that certainly was not what I had planned,” said Charles, a hollow laugh escaping him. Charles looked over at the civilians, as did Nate.

They were looking around in every direction until the guards came and told them to get out of the airship.

“At least we got them out of that hell hole,” said Charles.

Nate turned back to his friend and saw a tear fall from his eye. He had never seen Charles cry before; not truly. Charles placed a hand on his shoulder.

“You did well, my boy. That was great flying.”

His voice was empty, but sincere. More tears began to escape him as he pulled Nate close and put an arm around him.

“You have been my greatest friend, boy. But you know what happens if a Creature does not kill you.”

If they do not kill you, they take you. Everyone knew the way the Creatures were. If they hurt you but you managed to get away, in the end you become one of them.

“I do not want to be one of those things,” said Charles. “Living in a pack, running around and eating people? That is not the way I want to live.”

Charles let go of Nate and reached down to the side of his seat, picking up his pistol. He never took his eyes away from Nate’s.

“The Seadawn,” he said, “is yours now. Keep her safe, and do not let anyone take you for a fool.”

Nate could feel the warmth of his own tears streaming down his face as his body began to shake. Charles lifted the pistol toward his head, but his arm dropped to his lap before he could take aim. His head slumped forward, sweat dripping from his face.

“It would seem I do not have the strength left in me,” he said, as he turned to look at Nate. “I am sorry my boy, but you are going to have to do it.”

Nate shook his head, unable to find any words to speak. His hands were trembling. Charles gave a weak smile.

“I know you do not want to, but please do this Nate. You will be saving me. You know that.”

Nate did know that, but it did not make the act any easier. After a few moments, he grasped the pistol and lifted it to Charles’ head.

“Good boy. You truly are my best friend.”

“As are you Charles,” said Nate. “And you always will be.”

Nate squeezed the trigger, the blast echoing throughout the hangar bay. Charles slumped forward, Nate catching him in his arms.

“You always will be,” he said.

*

31

SERAN

It seemed to have taken less time to row back to Esterland, Seran tying the row boat to the docks behind a large cargo ship so that he would not be seen. The town had come to life once again, bustling with the consistent sound of a crowd, like bees buzzing around their hive.

He made his way through the town, avoiding the inn he had previously stayed in, instead strolling through the tall stone buildings into the center of the town. However, there seemed to be a higher number of Inquisition soldiers patrolling the streets than before. Seran located his steamcar and climbed inside, relaxing in the driver’s seat as he examined the town.

The liveliness of Argent seemed to have been sucked dry, replaced by an overbearing sense of dread. The men and women of the town seemed to hurry from place to place, avoiding eye contact with the Inquisition’s guards. Even the horses that pulled some of the hansom cabs seemed to look at the floor rather than where they were headed. Rain clouds filled the sky, covering the town in a shade of grey, only adding to the somber mood that seemed to envelope the citizens.

“They say the entire compound was overrun,” said a young man to his friend as they passed by the car.

“I heard,” replied his friend. “Apparently there were no survivors…”

“Mary’s brother was stationed there,” said the first man, “was he not?”

“I believe so. We should see how she is coping.”

Seran listened carefully, trying to piece together what had happened to fill the town with such a sense of sadness. Another group of people walked past the steamcar, an older lady speaking with a very agitated voice.

“If they cannot even protect their own men, what would happen if those things ever came here?”

“Honestly,” said a man in a suit, “I do not think the Creatures will ever be able to break through Argent’s walls, mother.”

Seran shivered, his legs suddenly feeling weak. In his head, images of Eerhart’s manor began to repeat once again. Very few people had come face to face with Creatures and lived to tell the tale, and after the events of the manor, he never wanted to see those faces again.

No matter how much training he had been given as a Dragoon, the sight of those monsters was far worse that he had ever imagined.

As he continued to watch the citizens of Argent gossip and mope, he noticed a group of Inquisition soldiers walk down the street. They seemed to march in formation, with two people in the middle of the group; the cloaked man and the young lady that had been with them.

Seran sat up in the driver’s seat and watched carefully as the two were lead to a steamcar. It was a long model of steamcar, with a golden trim. A driver sat in the car, awaiting his passengers.

They climbed in and the cloaked man spoke to the driver before the steamcar drove away toward the eastern gate of the town. Seran waited for the Inquisition soldiers to disperse before starting the engine of his own steamcar, turning down the same road.

“Where are you two going now?”

They were a few streets ahead of him, and reached the gate quickly. The large sheets of metal parted to allow their car to exit, and Seran followed them out of the town.

“Let us see what else I can learn from you…”

*

32

EINAR

Einar rubbed the dust and dirt from his face as he watched Haze sleeping on a bed that folded out of the wall. Tears slowly fell from his eyes. I just wanted to find Alexia, and now I’ve gotten both Haze and myself stuck in this mess.

After they had landed on the airship, and one of their saviors had shot the other, they had been trundled into yet another cell by the armed guards. It was a nicer cell than the Inquisition had provided, but they were still prisoners. So much for my idea of getting us to freedom.

The cell itself was cold; the walls were plain steel, although the floor was laminated. There were two beds, but the mattresses were almost as thin as paper. The only light in the room came from a single light bulb in the center of the ceiling; there were no windows. Einar felt like an animal, being transported to some unknown place where he would be paraded for the joy of others, moved from cage to cage every few days.

They had been told they were being held there as a safety precaution, as the crew did not know who they were. However, Einar had tried to explain their situation over and over since then, to anyone who would listen. The trouble was, not many of the crew seemed interested in listening.

He looked up from the floor to see Haze staring at him, a smile on her face. How can she be smiling?

“Einar,” she said, her voice quiet and soft. “I wanted to thank you.”

“Thank me? For what? All I have done is ruin your life,” he said as he looked at the ground again.

“That’s not true,” she continued. “If it weren’t for you, those two soldiers would have killed me, or worse.

Then, after that, you tried to save both myself and my mother, and through all of that you saved me again. And then you saved my life yet again in that compound!

If it weren’t for you, I would not even be here. So I want to thank you.”

Haze swung her legs around and rose from the bed before walking over to Einar. She placed a hand on his face and wiped away the tears, lifting his face so that he was looking straight into her eyes.

“You have done more for me than I could have ever asked of anyone,” said Haze. “So from now on, I will do anything I can to help you.”

She leant towards his, her lips pressing against his. Einar could not help but open his eyes wide, his heart racing as he felt himself sweating. Without a thought, he wrapped his arms around Haze and pulled her closer. She was warm, and her skin was as soft as feathers.

He let his eyes close, the warmth of Haze’s body smothering him. He lifted one of his hands and brushed a strand of her hair behind her ears.

There was a knock on the cell door, and Einar felt Haze jump, and the moment was over. There was a loud creak as the handle on the door span around before the door itself swung open. The pilot that had saved them stepped in as Haze stepped away from Einar, smiling at him as she moved backwards.

“You two,” said the pilot as he moved in. “You are to come with me. The Captain wishes to see you.

He has heard your tale, and has a few questions for you.”

The pilot stepped to one side, leaving the door open, before extending one arm to signal Einar and Haze to step out of the cell.

“I will go first,” said Einar. He wiped his eyes again, before whispering to Haze. “I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise you that.”

*

33

SERAN

Seran drove the steamcar slowly, trying to stay a safe distance behind his target. The cloaked man’s car had driven east from Argent before turning southward through a forest track. Since that turn, Seran had not seen another vehicle, and thus knew he should keep his distance so that he did not draw attention to himself.

After almost an hour of tailing their steamcar, he saw smoke rising in the distance and slowed his own car before turning off the road and into the trees. One good thing about the Ringlands; there are so many trees to hide behind.

He stopped the car, turned off the steam engine and climbed out, taking Firethorn and his other belongings as well. From the trees he followed the road toward the smoke. It was coming from a compound.

The front gate had been torn apart, and the main courtyard was a sea of bodies and debris. Bullet holes covered the walls of all the buildings, and the burnt husks of vehicles decorated the grounds. This cannot have been done by Creatures alone. He moved closer, standing to the right of the main gate, on the outside of the compound. In the center of the courtyard stood the cloaked man and the young woman. The driver was still seated in the steamcar.

Seran watched carefully from his hiding spot behind the external wall as the pair examined the dead bodies. The young woman seemed to stare into space as the cloaked man knelt down by each body that was still intact and checked their pulse before moving on the next. After the tenth body, he knelt down to a man near the external wall, close enough for Seran to make out his face.

The man’s skin was cracked and twisted, his eyes a dark green and bloodshot. His face was pale, as if it had never seen the light of day.

He checked the man’s pulse before tilting his head and placing a hand on his forehead and breathing deeply. He closed his eyes, his eyelids looking as though they would snap if they were moved too much.

“Give this man strength enough to speak,” said the cloaked man. A strong breeze flew across Seran and into the compound, making the strange man’s cloak dance. The injured man at his feet coughed and opened his eyes. Seran shuddered. Something is not right here! How did he do that? That man was clearly dead!

“You there,” said the cloaked man. “Tell me. What happened to the prisoners I had brought here?”

“The boy and girl,” said the injured man, “were taken during the attack. There was nothing I could do, milord.”

“Taken by who?”

The cloaked man’s voice rose in volume, his skin tightening and his fists clenching.

“It looked like the Valkyria, milord. But the ship that picked them up was like nothing I had ever seen.”

“The Valkyria, you say,” replied the cloaked man as he wiped a hand across his face and smiled. “Good. Then everything is going according to her wishes.”

“Milord?”

“Do not fret,” said the cloaked man. “Your actions have helped her plan come to life. Everything seems to be falling into place, albeit faster than she or I had anticipated.”

The injured man turned his head and gazed at the young lady who hovered behind the cloaked man in a daze.

“Tell me,” said the injured man to the young lady. “What is this plan of yours?”

“Her?” The cloaked man laughed. “I do not refer to this young lady. She is but one of the keys to unlocking our dreams.

And you, my friend, have played your part well. But I am afraid your fate is not mine to decided.”

The cloaked man rose to his feet and gazed into the sky.

“Tell me, old friend,” he said to the sky. “What is your decision for this man?”

Another breeze flew over the compound, the cloaked man closing his eyes and nodding. As the breeze faded, he looked down to the injured soldier and smiled.

“She has decided to spare you the heartache of this life.”

The cloaked man drew an emerald green great sword from underneath his cloak and drove it into the heart of the injured man, killing him almost instantly. Pulling the sword from the man’s body, the cloaked man turned to the woman and smiled.

“Our business here is done. If the Valkyria have them, then it is only a matter of time. For now, let us return.”

He moved toward the steamcar, seeming to float rather than walk. The young woman followed silently, both climbing into the car.

Seran moved swiftly away from the external wall and back into the trees as the steamcar drove out of the compound and back up the road toward Argent. For a moment he sat still, unable to comprehend how someone could slaughter their own soldier in cold blood and who the cloaked man had been talking too.

After a few minutes, he rose to his feet and walked back to his own steamcar, trying to formulate his next move.

“If the Valkyria is in the vicinity, perhaps they would be willing to assist me…”

The road back to Argent had been silent, the somber air now reaching out from the city and seeming to infect the rest of Esterland. Only two other vehicles had passed Seran by, both of which carried passengers dressed in black and had black ribbons extending from the front of the engine housing to the top of the cabin.

Clouds were beginning to fill the sky, their shadows covering the ground below. Seran’s steamcar trundled along the road, bouncing as it rolled over the uneven ground.

“Why is the Valkyria in the Ringlands?”

It made very little sense to Seran. There was no logical reason for a self-proclaimed neutral airship to be flying within Inquisition airspace.

“Unless,” he said to himself. “Are they planning on flying south?”

None but the crew of the Valkyria knew where the airship made port. It never docked at ports controlled by others, and vocally proclaimed itself an enemy of all who seek to control. The Valkyria was, in essence, the largest sky pirate ship in existence.

Despite that, Seran knew that they were the best chance he had to destroy the Inquisition’s secret. Even though they would not want to help a man of the Empire, he was sure they could not allow the Inquisition to create anything that would give them supreme power.

After all, the Valkyria publicly stood for, in Seran’s mind, a childish sense of justice. They would attack any military force that grew “too powerful” in their eyes. They acted as a referee in the game of life and war. He had to find them.

He pulled up outside an air-taxi rental store and walked inside. It was common place in the Ringlands for those who wanted to travel long distances to rent a small airship like an air-taxi for a few days, and such traditions would surely benefit Seran now.

“Welcome good sir,” said a rather plump man with slicked back hair and a suit that seemed as if it would fit one of the upper class members of the Grand City of Alexandra, rather than an air-taxi rental store owner.

“I need something small but fast,” said Seran.

“Ah, we have exactly what you need, sir,” said the shop owner as he extended an arm toward the backdoor of the store. “If you would come this way, I can show you all kinds of small airship. I am sure one will be to your liking.”

Seran followed the man through the door and into a large open space with several different models of small airship, although in truth they were just different body styles of air-taxis. The man continually turned and looked back at Seran, repeating the action every couple of steps. Something is wrong here. He could not put his finger on it, but he was sure of it none the less.

“So, why do you need a fast airship?

“My business is my own,” said Seran as he followed the man around a corner, only to find himself in a dead end alley.

“Are you sure it is not to escape from Argent?”

Footsteps closed in behind Seran. He turned to see five large men with bats standing behind him, blocking his exit.

“You see,” said the store owner, “milord of the Inquisition came to see me. He told me of a man who had been following him, and said that he would come to see me very soon looking to escape Argent. And milord is never wrong.

I still do not understand how he knows what will happen, but he is never wrong. And once again, he was right; here you are.”

Seran breathed in deeply, tensing his arms as the men behind him stepped closer.

“He put a pretty price on your head. Just your head mind you. The rest of you; well it does not matter.”

Seran moved his hand to Firethorn’s hilt, spreading his legs and twisting his body in preparation.

“Well, boys,” said the store owner. “It seems we have a brave one here. Teach him a lesson will you? And make it quick. I would like my coin today.”

The five men shot forward, but Seran was ready. He span around, unsheathing Firetorn and driving the blade into the neck of one of the men. He proceeded to start the chain-sword’s motor, the teeth spinning and cutting the man’s neck further.

Splatters of red sprayed across Seran’s face as the other four attackers stood in shock. He pulled Firethorn from the man’s lifeless body and swung it toward a second man, severing his arm in an instant.

Spinning once again, he swiftly removed the head of the third attacker before standing still, his legs spread and Firethorn ready to strike again.

“A chain-sword?” The store owner’s voice shook as he spoke. “Then… You must be a Dragoon?”

“So, you know something of the Empire,” said Seran. “It is a pity you did not realize sooner. Although it would not have helped you. Either way, I cannot suffer you to live now that you know who I am.”

He dived forward and ran the fourth man through before driving Firethorn into the fifth attacker’s chest. Seran turned toward the store owner and smiled.

“Allow me to thank you for the airship. I have a good number to choose from now.”

He shot forward and pushed Firethorn through the store owner’s abdomen. The man did not last long.

Seran returned to the store’s front office and entered the room marked as the toilet. After washing his face and Firethorn’s blade, he walked back outside and climbed into an air-taxi, starting the engine.

“Now then,” he said. “Let us find the Valkyria.”

*

34

NATE

“So,” said the Captain, “you are now outlaws within the Ringlands.”

The boy, who called himself Einar, had told Irving and Nate that his sister was kidnapped, and that the Inquisition had attacked the home of the girl, Haze, and taken them prisoner. It was a wild story, but for some reason Nate believed him.

So did the Captain, it seemed, as he stood with a smile, rather than a frown. He had even told the guards to remove the restraints on their arms.

“Do you know why they captured you, rather than killing you?”

“No,” replied Einar. “They asked me various questions about my sister and Rin, but that was all.”

“And you attracted the Creatures to the compound?”

“Yes, sir. It was the only idea I could think of that would allow us to escape.”

“You realize that those Creatures took the life of one of my crew, and the close friend of the man standing beside you.”

Nate clenched his fist. He could not believe that people were talking about Charles in the past tense. Nor could he believe that he had died saving these two civilians, who offered no obvious use to anyone.

“I do, and I am terribly sorry for that.”

“Be that as it may,” said the Captain, “we are still short a vital crew member. What do you suppose we do about that?”

Nate looked up at the Captain, wondering what he was planning.

“I do not know, sir,” said Einar.

“Well, I have an idea.”

The Captain stepped forward toward the pair of civilians and smiled. His eyes moved over them like an eagle examining its prey.

“As Charles died saving you, and he was Nate’s gunner,” said the Captain, “I think you owe it to both of them to take his place.”

Nate shuddered.

“Captain! You cannot be serious,” said Nate.

“But I am.”

“But Captain! Look at him! He is a worthless child! He could never replace Charles!”

“And he will not,” said the Captain. “However, you are in need of a gunner, are you not?”

“Yes, but-”

“And you,” said Irving as he turned back to Einar. “You have nowhere in the Ringlands that you can be safe now. I am offering you a place on my crew. Do you accept?”

Nate could feel his blood boiling. How could anyone think of giving Charles’ position to this man who caused his death?

“We do,” said Einar after a brief pause.

“Good,” said Irving. “Now, as for you Haze, we are in need of another cook in the mess hall. It is the safest place for you on this vessel.”

“Captain!”

One of the scouts ran over to Irving, handing him a pair of binoculars.

“An air-taxi is approaching! It is requesting permission to land!”

*

35

SERAN

Seran circled the massive airship. It was far larger than he expected, being only the third airship he had ever seen with more than floors. Girders and struts extended from the front and back of the ship, with tubing passing through them. Mid-air refueling stations. Impressive. Although they should put extra protection on those girders.

“Attention,” said a booming voice emanating from the Valkyria. “Your request to dock has been granted. Please proceed to the starboard hangar.”

Seran titled to the small air-taxi and flew around the Valkyria once again, spotting a large part of the wall sliding open. On his previous circle of the airship he had not even seen that there had been a door there, let alone a hangar bay.

“They certainly hide their weak spots well, except for the refueling pipes.”

He slowed the engine as he lined up the air-taxi with the hangar bay and flew through the open door. The hangar itself was huge, as was everything about the Valkyria. There was enough room to hold a small fleet of air-taxis, even though there were only seven apart from his.

As the engine of his air-taxi slowed to a halt, he climbed out of the machine and stepped onto the metal flooring of the hangar bay.

A large group of armed men and women entered the hangar through a thick metal door. Within seconds they had surrounded Seran, their pistols and rifles pointed directly at him. He put his hands on the back of his head and smiled. For pirates, they seem incredibly organized.

Groaning filled the hangar as the large metal exterior wall slid back into place, closing with a loud bang and a long hiss from the motor. Steam spurted from the motor and expanded to fill the hangar before dissipating a few seconds later.

“I request an audience with your captain,” said Seran, yet none of the Valkyria’s crew seemed to move. Their weapons remained trained on him from all directions.

“It is a matter of urgency,” he continued, but again none of the crew seemed to move. They did not seem to even blink.

“The Inquisition are preparing for war! I must speak with your captain!”

“You are from the Empire,” said a soft yet forceful voice. “Is that not correct?”

Seran turned around to see a young lady walking toward him, a long barrel rifle in her hands.

“How did you guess?”

“Your sword. Only a Dragoon pig of the Empire would carry a chainsword.”

“Well then, should I be saying ‘oink’ instead of speaking like a man?”

“No,” said the young lady. “You should simply not be here. You come here claiming the Inquisition is preparing for war, but the Empire is doing the same.”

Seran nodded. It was true that the Empire had been increasing its military might recently. Production of airships and tanks had doubled at least, but Seran was certain it was because of the intel from spies such as Lord Eerhart and the actions of the Inquisition that those spies had reported on.

“We only seek to defend ourselves,” he said.

“Do you truly believe that?”

“Of course I do,” he replied. “The Empire only seeks to protect its citizens!”

The entire crew within the hangar burst into laughter, filling Seran with a sense of anger.

“How dare you laugh!?”

“And how dare you shout at us?”

The young lady stepped closer to him, the end of her rifle pushing against his chest.

“Now, tell me what you want,” she said. “And make it quick.”

“I know the location of a secret project the Inquisition is working on and I must speak to your captain.”

The young lady stared at him in the eyes, hers appearing to burst into flames as she looked at him. He could feel the disgust and contempt she felt for him. However, after a few long seconds, her rifle fell from his chest.

“Very well. Let us go to the bridge and see what you have to say. But know that I am right behind you.”

*

36

EINAR

“And then they left the compound to return to the fortress,” said the man from the air-taxi. He had said his name was Seran, a Dragoon from the Alexandria Empire.

“What about the girl?” Einar had to ask. “Did you hear her name?”

“I did not,” replied Seran.

“But you are sure of the clothes she was wearing?”

“Yes, why?”

Einar turned to Irving, his eyes burning.

“That is Alexia. I am sure of it! Those are the clothes she always wears!”

“Very well,” said Irving. “So it appears as though we have two issues here; an Inquisition super weapon, and your sister accompanying this man.”

“She would never work with them,” said Einar.

“Of that I am sure. From what Seran has told us, it sounds as though her mind is not her own at the moment, although I do not understand how the Inquisition would have done that.”

“I need your help,” said Seran. “I need to destroy their super weapon.”

“And why,” said Nate, “should we help scum from the Empire?”

“Because you strive for equal ground in war,” said Seran.

“Not true,” said Irving. “We strive for peace. However, I do agree that we need to find a way to destroy this super weapon.

We cannot allow any one side to have a weapon that will give them superiority in war. That would only lead to more death and more violence. It would create an arms race between the nations that would surely spiral out of control.”

“Exactly,” said Seran.

“Well then,” continued Irving. “Here are our terms. We will assist with the assault on the Inquisition’s facility, but we must bring back Einar’s sister. I will not allow her to come to harm, do you understand?”

“I do,” said Seran.

“Good. Then there is just one more issue for us to iron out. How large would you say their ground defenses are?”

“From what I could see, there were at least a hundred foot soldiers within the compound. However, they are not the biggest threat. The Tempest is.”

Einar jolted.

“The Tempest?”

“Yes,” said Seran. “It is stationed above the compound, fully armed as far as I could tell.”

“That certainly changes the situation,” said Irving. “Nate, please take Einar to the mess hall. Seran and I will discuss this further and hold a briefing before we arrive at Midland.”

Nate gave a salute, which Einar copied. He did not want to leave the room. He needed more assurance that Alexia was safe, but he was part of the Valkyria’s crew now. He knew he had no choice but to follow orders. After all, he owed the airship and her crew his life, Haze’s life, and the life of the man who had died rescuing them. He turned and followed Nate out of the bridge and down the stairs into the bowels of the Valkyria.

“This is crazy,” said Nate. “First we lose Charles, and now we are going to face the Tempest?”

“Why are you scared of the Tempest? This is the Valkyria,” said Einar.

“Yes, and I have only been on this ship for a few days. I know nothing of its actual combat ability. But I do know the Tempest and the devastation it wrought on Three Peaks during the First War.”

“Three Peaks? Is that where you come from?”

“Yes, and I wish we had stayed there. Then maybe Charles would still be alive.”

Nate’s voice almost sounded like he was hissing as he spoke, and Einar knew that it was time to stop asking questions. They walked through the corridors to the mess hall in silence.

Inside the hall he saw Haze, dressed in a white kitchen uniform, and could not help but laugh a little. He strolled over to her and smiled.

“How is the new job?”

“I think it is going well, although it is a bit boring. We only have gruel and mead at the moment, so there is no real cooking involved. I am just serving up slop to the crew when they come in.”

“It may be dull,” said Einar, “but at least it is safe. I promised I would keep you safe and I will.”

“I know you will,” said Haze with a smile. “What happened with that air-taxi?”

“The man was from the Empire, and he has found my sister!”

“Really?”

“Yes,” said Einar, his head tilting toward the floor. “She is with a leader of the Inquisition. Irving said that her head seems like it is not her own, whatever that means…”

“I see,” she replied, her voice quiet and apprehensive. “But at least we know that she is alive, and where she is.”

“She is in an Inquisition fortress,” said Einar. “One that the Valkyria is going to attack.”

“We are going to battle?”

“Yes. Captain Irving is talking to the Dragoon now, trying to formulate the best plan for the assault.”

“So that means you are going to be out there in the battle?”

“Well I am a gunner now.”

“I see,” she said as she leant forward. She gave him a kiss and smile meekly. “Please be careful out there.”

*

37

NATE

The Valkyria’s propellers were spinning at full speed, shaking the airship as it tore through the skies toward the Midland Island. The crew had gathered in the mess hall that now performed the role of the briefing room.

The tables had been folded away leaving only chairs and benches to fill the room, themselves lined up so that everyone sat facing Captain Irving. Nate had taken a seat in the middle, but had been told to move to the front row and now sat next to Einar. Anastasia sat with her co-pilot Sherry, a few seats to the left of Nate, whilst Seran had been given a chair next to Irving himself.

“We will arrive at Midland soon,” said Irving, his voice booming throughout the mess hall. “We expect a near immediate response to our presence, and therefore you are to being assault as soon as you have cleared the hangar bay. Do not hesitate.

Your main focus will be to take down the enemy’s aerial forces. However, be warned that the Tempest is currently in the vicinity.

The Valkyria will concentrate her fire on the Tempest, but will offer suppressive fire on the enemy’s smaller vessels when possible. Then, once the ground team has disabled the fortress’s main defensive cannons, you will move in and assault the factory. Any questions?”

Nate glanced around, trying to be conspicuous whilst looking for anyone who raised their arm. No one did, so he knew he would have to ask his question. After all, he had to know who would take out the anti-airship cannons. He could not let the Inquisition use something that he and Charles had invented.

“What are we going to do about the anti-airship cannons? I am probably the best suited to disarm them, sir” said Nate.

Irving looked at him with a smile, but it seemed to be a smile of pity rather than anything else.

“I am sorry Nate, but we need you to pilot the Seadawn. It is our best weapon against the Inquisition’s forces. Seran is going to infiltrate the compound from the ground, using a drop pod so that he does not draw attention to himself.

From there, he will detonate a bomb that will knock out their power generators, disabling the cannons.

“But sir,” said Nate.

“I know what you are going to say,” replied Iriving, interrupting Nate. “And once the power supply is broken, you may destroy them from above when you get the chance. However, we need you in the air, not on the ground. Do you understand?”

“Sir,” said Einar. “I have a question.”

“Go ahead.”

“How will Seran deal with the soldiers on the ground after the bomb has detonated?”

“Well,” said Seran. “The Captain and I have spoken a great deal about that, and we feel the best way to deal with them is to take a page from your book, so to speak.”

“I do not understand,” said Einar.

“We will draw the Creatures of the Midland to the compound, and allow them to distract the soldiers. Hopefully there will be enough gunfire, explosions and bodies to keep them occupied so that I may escape undetected.”

“You jest, surely,” said Nate. “Those things will tear the place apart!”

“And the people,” said Einar. “What about my sister?”

“It will take time for the Creatures to get into the compound,” said Irving. “Seran will take out the power and then search for Alexia. Once he has located her, he will take her to the clearing between the factory and the fortress where Anastasia and Sherry will extract them both.”

Nate’s muscles tightened at the thought of going anywhere near the Creatures again. He did not want to see any person meet the same fate as Charles; especially not a member of the Valkyria’s crew.

Before he could raise his concern once more, the door to the mess hall burst open and one of the lookouts ran into the room.

“Captain! We have arrived!”

“Very well,” said Irving. “Everyone! Get to your vessels and prepare for battle! And prepare to come back alive!”

The crew stood from their chairs and benches and filled out of the mess hall, running down the corridor to the hangar bays. Nate jumped into the cockpit of the Seadawn as Einar clambered into the gunner’s turret.

“I sincerely hope you are not a waste of space,” said Nate. “Charles was an amazing gunner. You need to be the same.”

“I will do my best,” said Einar.

“We will see how good your best is. You had better be worth losing Charles for,” he said as the hangar bay doors began to open.

Nate moved the Seadawn into take off position and increased the power to the propeller. Thrust the flight stick forward, the Seadawn was thrust into motion, shooting out of the hangar bay and into the open the sky. Behind him, the rest of the Valkyria’s fighter air-taxis left the hangar bay like a swarm of bees, and he saw a drop pod fall out of the bottom of the Valkyria. It begins, then.

*

38

NATE

The squadron flew toward the compound, the trees below speeding past. The skies were clear, except for a large silhouette hovering about the fortress. The Tempest was waiting for them.

“They are launching,” said Nate as he saw dozens of smaller silhouettes flying out from the Tempest, itself now turning and moving toward them. As it sailed out of the light of the sun, Nate’s eyes opened wide as he stared at the monstrosity of an airship.

Whilst not as large as the Valkyria, it was still large enough to deserve the title of “terror of the skies” that it had been given during the Revolt War. Its three decks were covered in guns, and Nate could see the musketeer decks on the sides of the Tempest as well. He also noticed that the air-taxis were not coming from hangar bays, but rather from runways on the top of the airship.

The squadron closed in on the Inquisition’s air-taxis, all of them painted solid black. Nate glanced to the left to see one of his wingmen, Louis, veer off to the north to find the nearest pack of Creatures.

“I hope you are ready for this,” he said to Einar as he pulled the lever that increased the power to the propeller. The Seadawn sped up, with the rest of the squadron moving into attack formation behind them and began to open fire at the Inquisition’s ships.

The first of the enemy air-taxi squadrons flew straight toward Nate and his team, forcing them to break formation and split apart. One of the Inquisition’s ships took up position behind the Seadawn and began to open fire. Nate twisted the controls from left to right, rocking the Seadawn so that the majority of the shells flew past them. The rest connected with the Seadawn, but the armor plating deflected them.

“Now is the time to show us what you can do, kid” said Nate.

“Yes, sir,” replied Einar.

He squeezed the triggers on the cannon and shells tore out of the barrel, through the air and straight into the body of the Inquisition’s ship. The vessel span out after the shells ripped its wings apart, falling to ground and exploding into pieces.

“Well,” said Nate. “That was a good shot. Keep it up and this may actually work!”

“Will do, sir!”

The Seadawn flicked around to the left, pulling in behind another enemy air-taxi. Nate squeezed the trigger on his level, starting the auto-cannon on the front of the Seadawn, each shell hitting its target and taking out yet another vessel.

“Incoming,” shouted Einar, and Nate glanced behind him, seeing the Tempest entering the fray. A large cannonball was flying directly toward them.

Nate wrenched the flight controls backwards, bring the Seadawn’s nose up sharply, the ship rising higher just in time for the cannonball to fly past them. However, it shot right into one of the Valkyria’s other ships, disintegrating it in seconds.

“Dammit,” said Nate. “Those cannonballs are going to destroy us!”

“Maybe not,” said Einar. “The Valkyria’s here.”

Nate looked out of the window, and saw the Valkyria closing in. It began to open fire on the Tempest, drawing the attention of their cannons.

“Right then,” said Nate. “Then we need to concentrate on the fighters.”

The Seadawn made a long turn to face the other direction, allowing Nate to see the full scale of the battle. There seemed to be hundreds of small air-taxis flying around, bullets streaming across the sky. Every few seconds, one of the ships would either shatter into pieces or fall toward the scream and explode.

Below them Anastasia and Sherry managed to shoot down one of the Inquisition’s ships, but had four on their tail. Their ship ducked left and right, but it was no use. The other air-taxis were following them perfectly.

“We have to help Anastasia,” shouted Nate as he put the Seadawn into a dive. “I will try and take out a couple, and you take out the others after we got past!”

“Understood,” replied Einar.

Nate could hear the wind rushing passed as the Seadawn dived. He fired the front cannons on a constant stream. Within seconds bullet holed riddled the two ships closest to Anastasia, and the Seadawn raced passed the other two. Einar opened fire and shredded them before the Seadawn pulled up suddenly. Nate’s stomach felt like it fell out of his body as the Seadawn leveled out.

He glanced upward to see Anastasia give him a salute before pointing to the ground. Below them, the trees swayed and parted, birds fleeing the forest. From between the trees came a sea of Creatures, following Louis’ air-taxi.

They scaled the fences in such numbers that the fences collapsed. Hundreds of Creatures poured into the compound, the guards opening fire in panic.

“I truly hope that Dragoon knows what he is doing,” said Nate.

“He has too,” replied Einar. “My sister is down there somewhere! I should be down there with him!”

“We need a gunner, Einar! If we lose the battle up here, there will be no one to rescue your sister!”

Nate pulled the Seadawn around and back into the battle. The Valkyria and the Tempest were exchanging cannon fire whilst the air-taxis were buzzing around them. However, the Tempest had also began firing its smaller rotary guns at the Valkyria’s fighters.

“We will not win this unless the Tempest falls,” said Nate.

“But the Valkyria is hardly damaging it,” replied Einar.

“Then we need to do something,” said Nate.

He flew the Seadawn close to the Inquisition’s flagship, dancing left and right to avoid the shells from the rotary guns. As the Seadawn shot along the side, he noticed that the vessel’s exhausts extended from the side, rather than the back. They were protected by armor plating from the front, but an attack from the correct angle and the side could ignite them.

“I have an idea,” he said to Einar as he turned away from the Tempest and flew directly toward the bridge of the Valkyria. “Get the communication light ready!”

Einar turned around in his part of the cabin and picked up the large light, aiming it toward the bridge of the Valkyria.

“Now, pass me the cable with the switch. I need to make sure the message is shown correctly!”

Einar threw the cable down the cabin to Nate, who picked it up and began switching the light on and off, whilst saying his message aloud to himself so that he sent it correctly.

“Go to the side of the enemy. Fire cannons at second floor. Aim for exhaust shielding.”

From the bridge, a light began to flicker on and off as well, confirming the message had been received. The Valkyria’s engines picked up speed and the vessel began to move again.

The Seadawn turned around again, and pulled up beside the Valkyria, following it as it moved to the site of the Tempest and opened fire. Sheets of metal and Inquisition soldiers were blown out of the vessel, falling to the ground below. Nate flew the Seadawn below the Valkyria and away from the two ships so that he would have a long enough run toward the Tempest.

The Valkyria continued to fire, launching its cannonballs directly into the shielding for the exhaust. Burst after burst of cannon fire hit the metal plates, each one denting them more until finally they gave way, snapping off the Tempest and tumbling through the air.

“The plates are down,” shouted Einar and Nate yanked the handle to turn the Seadawn around as quickly as possible. He aimed his approach so that he was directly facing the ends of the exhaust and began firing the front cannons.

In a matter of seconds the exhausts burst into flames, the fire travelling up the tubes and into the Tempest. The Valkyria must have seen what happened as well as it veered away from the massive airship sharply whilst continuing to fire upon it.

Explosions began to erupt within the Tempest, smoke billowing out of the windows. As the Valkyria moved away from the Tempest, flying behind it, it fired one more barrage from its cannons, splintering the Tempest’s engines.

At that moment, there was another explosion, but this one came from below them. Nate looked down to see the power supply building in flames.

“Good lord,” he said. “The Dragoon actually did it!”

He span the Seadawn towards the compound and dove down low.

“Einar! Get ready! We are going in!”

*

39

SERAN

Seran barged out of the remains of the power supply building, Firethorn’s motor churning and its teeth spinning. A Creature ran straight for him, so his rolled forward and brought Firethorn’s blade through the Creatures torso. All around him Inquisition soldiers screamed in fear and in agony as Creatures swarmed the compound.

Above him, he could see the smoke funneling out from the Tempest. He smiled. Finally, that damnable war machine will never be used again. He ran across the open yard toward the fortress at the back of the compound, darting between vehicles and storage containers so that neither the Creatures not the soldiers would be drawn to him.

Blood now covered the dirt and grass in the yard, and had sprayed onto the walls of the buildings and containers. It was a horrifying sight, and one that Seran hoped he would never have to see again.

“When all of this is done, I am seriously going to request a holiday,” he said as he ran through the shadows toward the fortress. “That girl had better be here,” he continued.

He climbed up a pile of containers to get a view point of the yard. The Creatures were winning, as expected. Seran had not heard of anyone surviving a surprise attack by those monsters. However, the soldiers were still fighting back, and we starting to rally themselves. A line of soldiers with automatic rifles had formed between the Creatures and the fortress. Yet Seran knew it would not be enough to hold them at bay. There were simply too many. He had to find the girl fast. The line of soldiers was moving toward the Creatures, leaving space behind them for him to run through. So he did, and he reached the main entrance to the fortress.

Carefully, he opened the door, trying not to bring attention to himself. Behind him, the Creatures launched themselves at the line of soldiers, consuming them all.

He stepped inside and closed the door behind him. The building was old, with images he had seen in books of the old world. He remembered the carved stone archways and large ornate organs from the books. In the old world, the fortress would have been called a cathedral.

Seran moved to the left hand side of the giant hall, hiding behind the pillars as he moved further into the building. It was silent inside, except for the constant screams from the battle outside.

He reached a set of stone stairs the wound upward in a circle. Taking one last glance at the large hall, he reassured himself that no one was there, and moved up the stairs. She had better be here. At the top of the stairs he found himself on a long balcony with two doors. The stone pillars continued upward along the side of the balcony, so he quickly moved to them and made his way forward between them.

As he continued, he heard a deep yet crackling voice from the second room and noticed that the door was ajar. He moved in closer and hid himself just behind the large oak door.

Inside stood the cloaked man. He was standing over Alexia, who was hunched over a chair.

“Well, my dearest Alexia,” he said. “It seems as though she has decided your part in this play has come to an end. You have played it well, but I am afraid we no longer need you.”

The cloaked man stepped away from Alexia, turning toward the nearby window.

“I shall not kill you. Do not worry about that. She has decided that your death would better aid our cause if it came from the Creatures down there. As such, it is time for you to sleep.”

He waved his hand over her head. At that same moment Seran felt that the air seemed to freeze. Alexia keeled over and flopped to the floor whilst Aeon nodded.

“Now then, it is time for me to exit the stage. Preparations for the next act of this play must be made.”

He turned and began to walk toward the door. Seran leapt backwards and moved behind one of the pillars, enveloping himself in shadow. He watched as the cloaked man exited the room and launched himself from the balcony before landing softly on the ground floor below. He walked over to the main entrance and flung open the doors.

Creatures poured into the fortress, but they all parted and seemed to stay clear of the cloaked man as he strolled out into the battlefield.

“How the hell?”

Seran spoke quietly, but could not comprehend what he had just seen. How does someone survive a jump like that? And why did the Creatures ignore him?

The questions repeated in his mind over and over, but he did not have time to dwell on them. The monsters would find both Alexia and himself soon enough. He had to get them both out of the building.

Seran stood up from the shadows and ran into the room, closing the door behind him. The room itself was largely empty, with only a small desk and two chairs.

“Dammit,” he cursed. “Nothing to barricade the door with?”

He frantically looked around and saw another door on the opposite wall. Seran picked up Alexia and put her on his shoulder before opening the second door and finding himself on a veranda outside. There was no way for them to get down, and he could see more Creatures running into the fortress.

Above him he could see Anastasia’s air-taxi circling, waiting for his signal from the clearing. Making a split second decision, he lay Alexia down on the veranda and pulled out Firethorn, starting the motor. He knew the noise would give away his position, but could see no other way to gain Anastasia’s attention.

As the chain-sword roared into life, he slammed it into the stone wall that surrounded the veranda sending sparks into the air. He continued to drive Firethorn down into the stone until he saw Anastasia’s air-taxi turn and begin its descent toward him.

“Good, she saw it!”

As the air-taxi came closer, he could hear a myriad of footsteps closing in on the other door. He picked up Alexia again, holding her like a child in his arms as Anastasia pulled the air-taxi up to the veranda and Shelly opened the side hatch.

“Here,” Seran shouted as he passed Alexia to her. The door behind him burst open, and the Creatures filed into the room. “Get her in quickly!”

Sherry pulled Alexia into the air-taxi and strapped her into one of the passenger seats. As she span around back toward Seran, he felt a sudden pain in his arm. One of the Creatures had reached him.

He looked up at Sherry, who now had tears streaming down her face. He grabbed the Creature’s head and smashed it into the stone wall before turning to face the others, bring Firethorn up from the wall.

“Get that door closed! I will hold them here!”

“But,” said Sherry.

“Get going,” said Seran, not letting the young woman finish. He began hacking through the Creatures as Sherry closed the side hatch. Anastasia pulled the air-taxi away from the verdana.

Seran continued to hack and slash away at the Creatures, but there were far too many. He knew that. He turned to look at the Sherry and Anastasia. They were moving away from the fortress. He smiled.

“At least I die a hero,” he said as the rest of the Creatures swarmed over him. Seran had never know such pain, but after a few seconds the bites and the clawing seemed to fade away as everything went dark. At least I die a hero.

*

40

EINAR

The Tempest drifted further toward the ground, flames consuming the airship like a wolf eating its first meal in weeks. Einar span the Seadawn’s cannon to the right, the bullets flying through the sky straight into the engine of another of the Inquisition’s air-taxis.

“The Seadawn really is fast,” Einar said as he continued to fire, taking out two more enemy fighters.

“That was the idea behind its design,” said Nate. “Charles and I wanted to make the fastest fighter in the known world.”

“You certainly managed that,” replied Einar. “Head’s up! Six more coming around.”

“Understood,” said Nate as he wrenching the Seadawn’s navigation lever. The fighter dropped in altitude almost instantaneously, flying underneath the Valkyria.

One of the air-taxi fighters chasing them was caught in the Valkyria’s fire, the shells tearing the small airship to pieces in a split second. The Seadawn tilted into a near vertical rise after passing the last of the Valkyria’s girders.

“Hold on tight,” said Nate.

Einar gripped the cannon hard with his hands and pressed his feet against the sides of the cockpit. Nate pulled hard on the Seadawn’s lever and the airship’s nose tilted further upward until finally they were upside down and flying over the top of the Valkyria. From above the massive airship they could see the battle from a distance. The Inquisition’s air-taxis were falling like flies under the constant fire from the Valkyria and her own air-taxi squadron. Anastasia’s ship was flying toward the Valkyria at great speed, dodging past falling debris.

The Tempest finally crashed into the ground, exploding into pieces of metal that flew up in every direction. Debris cut through air-taxis, both from the Inquisition and the Valkyria.

The Seadawn continued forward, Einar feeling the blood rushing to his head as Nate increased the power to the engine, increasing the airship’s speed. As they passed over the Valkyria, he put the Seadawn into a nose dive before leveling out underneath the Valkyria once again.

Einar watched as the air-taxis that had been following them attempted to pull up as well, opening fire on them as they tried to level out. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, each one falling apart as the bullets ate through their hulls.

“That was the last of them,” shouted Nate.

Einar looked around at the battlefield, seeing the remaining Inquisition air-taxis crumbling in the air.

“Good,” he said. “We are almost out of bullets!”

“Roger that,” Nate replied. “And Einar… You did well!”

The Seadawn turned around, pulling up next to Anastasia’s air-taxi. The two airships flew toward the Valkyria’s port hangar bay as the hangar door slid open. Behind them, the remaining air-taxis from the squadron fell into place, ready to land.

Nate brought the Seadawn down at the far end of the hangar in order to leave room for the other airships, the Seadawn bouncing slightly as it hit the floor. One by one the rest of the squadron flew into the hangar bay and landed, filling the hangar in minutes.

Einar finally let go of the cannon’s controls, his arms flopping to his side. It was hard to catch his breath, the adrenaline still pouring through his viens. He watched the rest of the squadron landing until he felt a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he saw Nate smiling at him.

“I cannot believe I am going to say this,” Nate said, “but you can be my gunner any time.”

Einar smiled and stood from his chair, extending a hand to Nate.

“I would be happy to.”

They shook hands before looking out of the cabin’s windows. Anastasia’s air-taxi had landed, but a group of guards had surrounded it.

“What are you waiting for,” asked Nate. “Get out there and see your sister!”

Einar and Nate climbed out of the Seadawn onto the floor of the hangar bay and saw Anastasia walking toward them.

“You two,” she said, “are by far the craziest people I have ever seen!”

Einar felt his heart sink, and he could see the embarrassment and disappointment on Nate’s face.

“And yet,” she continued, “I would not change that for the world!”

Einar’s eyes opened wide as he watched Anastasia lean toward Nate. Her lips pressed gently against Nate’s cheek before she pulled away and smiled. She turned to Einar and wrapped her arms around him, holding him tight. She let go of him and stepped back, her head facing the ground.

“Seran,” she said. “He did not make it.”

Einar felt a sudden wave of guilt run through his very soul. He had not even noticed that Seran was not in the hangar.

“The Creatures got him,” she continued. “He… He died saving your sister. I never thought a man from the Empire could care for others…”

“We should hold a funeral,” said Nate. “No matter where he was from, he died a hero. He deserves a hero’s send off.”

“I agree,” said Einar. “If it were not for him, who knows what the Inquisition would have done to the world. And I would probably never see my sister again.”

“I will speak to Irving,” said Anastasia. “But for now Einar, go and see her. Just be prepared.”

“What do you mean?”

“Whatever it is that the Inquisition did to her, it may take time to wear off. So be gentle with her, alright?”

He nodded and stepped past Anastasia, heading toward the growing crowd of guards near her air-taxi. As he approached, they all moved aside to let him through. Tears began to pour down his face, his mouth forming a smile so large that it hurt his cheeks.

Alexia sat on the floor, her legs bent at the knees and her arms holding her weight. He knelt down in front of her and placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Alexia,” he said. “Finally I have found you.”

She looked up at him, her eyes seemingly empty.

“Who are you?”

*

EPILOGUE

AEON

The ground seemed to crack as Aeon walked across the debris. Bricks, bodies and machinery lay strew across the ground, his fortress in ruin. He stepped into the throne hall and gazed upon the burnt husk that had once been Selina.

“Farewell, my dear Selina,” he said as she passed over her body and moved to the throne, which appeared unscathed. His skeletal hand brushed over the gold and brass of the chair, finding the release button in the arm rest. He pushed it.

The sound of churning motors erupted from beneath the chair, and Aeon smiled.

“So, the elevator is still functional,” he said as the chair rolled itself backwards, revealing a square hold beneath it. A steel and iron platform rose up, with railings around three sides of it. Aeon stepped onto it, and pulled the lever on the side of the railings. The platform jolted briefly before descending.

Beneath the fortress the air was still, unaffected by the events that had befallen the world above.

For minutes he descended, past rock and earth, until finally the small elevator shaft opened up to reveal the main hangar bay for the factory.

It had been built in a large cave they had discovered when the Inquisition first took control of the Ringlands, and was large enough to fit three Tempest class battleships, or just one of his new flagship; the Dreadnaught.

As the elevator reached the end of its journey, Aeon gazed upon his masterpiece. Three times the size of a battleship, able to carry over one hundred fighter-class airships, and carrying the artifact he needed to make his dreams come true. He flicked his cloak behind his legs and stepped forward, head up high.

“Everything is going just as she predicted,” he said as he stepped aboard the Dreadnaught.

A member of the Dreadnaught’s crew approached him and saluted. Aeon waved a hand and the crew member relaxed his stance before speaking.

“Lord Aeon, the Dragoon’s remains have been secured and are awaiting you in the laboratory as instructed.

“I am glad to hear that. She will be pleased. You may return to your duties, soldier.”

The soldier gave another salute before turning around and marching down the corridor. Aeon nodded to himself and smiled.

“Soon, my dear Haze. Soon.”

*

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gareth was born in Luton, a small multi-cultural city in the middle of England, but was raised in a small village an hour away from Cambridge. As an adult, he moved around Europe, living in Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Ireland and Turkey, before settling back in England with his wife, within the historic market town of Bourne.

Gareth has always been fascinated with science fiction and fantasy, reading the greats such as Lord of the Rings and Neuromancer as a child. In his teen years, he became infatuated with cyberpunk and steampunk, in part because of Ghost on the Shell and Last Exile. From that point, his imagination expanded constantly, and he researched various books, television shows and movies on the subjects.

On top of that, he has a long lasting love of the post-apocalyptic genre and the survivalist mentality shown within that genre.

As well as writing, Gareth Torrance is also an avid gamer with a passion for roleplaying games (both western and Japanese style), action and horror games.

*

SNEAK PREVIEW

Read the first chapter of the second book in the War of the Valkyries series, which continues the story of the Valkyria and her crew as they attempt to track down the mysterious Aeon.

However, a declaration of war between the Inquisition and the Alexandria Empire sends the world into turmoil. Now, as the world descends into Chaos, Aeon puts his master plan into action, with Haze as the center piece to it all.

*

1

NATE

“Come on!”

Nate gripped the line of rope as hard as he could in the torrential rain. Water dripped down his face and into his eyes, but he refused to blink. Crewman Kyle was hanging from the side of the Valkyria, dangling in the open air and holding the rope for his life.

The foolish young man was the latest recruit on the airship, and had been assigned to Nate as an engineering student, but had wanted to prove he did not need a teacher. The task for the day was a simple one, compared to the other duties about the ship; meld a new sheet of steel over a rusted section of an external girder. However, it was a task for two people, as any fully fledged engineer on the Valkyria knew. Yet Kyle had insisted on doing it himself, and climbed out onto the girder when Nate’s attention had been drawn away. Admittedly, he should not have let himself be distracted, but Anastasia had walked by and smiled at him and that was enough to catch his full attention.

Now the foolish crewman hung in the air, with only a piece of rope and Nate’s grip keeping him from falling to the ground below. The rain made the rope slippery and Nate could not keep a strong grip, so he wrapped the rope around his arms.

“Somebody help,” he shouted back through the hatch, into the corridor of the Valkyria. Footsteps came pounding toward him as he pulled on the rope with all his strength. He glanced behind him to see Einar bracing himself against the rain and stepping out on to the external balcony. The wind was battering them both, and Kyle began to sway from left to right with increased speed. Einar grasped the piece of rope behind Nate and began to pull, both of them taking slow steps backward toward the hatch, being careful not to slip on the wet floor.

Nate’s foot lost its grip and his legs slipped out from under him. He hit the floor hard, his head crashing into the metal and sending sharp pains throughout his body.

“Hey,” shouted Einar, back into the Valkyria. “We need some more people out here! We have a Green overboard!”

More footsteps thundered toward the hatch, with various crewmen all grasping hold of the rope. Slowly but surely Nate managed to work his way back to his feet, despite the chill wind tearing at his face.

“Heave,” said one of the crewmen, and everyone pulled at the same time. “Heave,” he continued. Over and over the group yanked on the rope, pulling Kyle up inch by inch. The next few seconds seemed like a lifetime as they continued to wrench the rope backwards until Kyle finally managed to place his hands on the girder once again.

“Secure that line,” shouted Nate to the crewmen behind him. They tied it around on the steam pipes in the corridor, making sure there was no slack between the pipe and Kyle. Nate knelt down and grabbed the young man, hoisting his back onto the airship.

“Now, kid,” he said. “Do you see why you need to listen to what I am saying?”

Kyle nodded, although Nate could see the anguish in his face. The crewman was only just seventeen, and as such, he obviously wanted to prove his worth as a man. Nate placed a hand on Kyle’s shoulder.

“Hey kid,” he said, “relax. We all do foolish stuff sometimes. Learn from those mistakes and I am sure you will make a great crewman. Especially the bravery you showed when you climbed out there by yourself!”

“Or was it stupidity,” said Einar, chuckling as he stepped over to Kyle. “Come on, crewman. Let’s get you inside. I will help Nate with this one. You need to rest.”

Kyle agreed and walked back through the hatch, into the safety of the Valkyria’s innards, accompanied by a myriad of other crew members.

“That kid is going to be difficult,” Einar said to Nate.

“He seems very high strung.”

“He is,” replied Nate. “But then, so were you and I.”

“Good point.” Einar tied the robe around his waist before passing it to Nate. “Shall we get this over with?”

Nate laughed. Einar was wincing at the girder. He had yet to truly become accustomed to the life of an airship crewman, although he always tried to hide it. His fear of tumbling from the ship had been the reason he was assigned to interior engineering only.

“How is Alexia doing?”

“Well,” said Einar. “She is a lot calmer these days. She has not tried to attack anyone for at least a month now, so I guess that is progress.”

“What about her memories?”

“She still does not remember me,” said Einar, his voice so quiet it was almost lost to the wind. “She remembers some things of her life, but only in fragments.”

“What about that man? Did she remember anything about him yet?”

Roughly four months ago Alexia had recalled parts of her time with the Inquisition. She had been in the company of a wrinkled man in a cloak who was apparently a lord within the Inquisition. But she had been unable to remember any other details.

“Nothing new,” said Einar. “She keeps having nightmares about him though.”

Nate tied his end of the rope around himself and began to move toward the girder.

“Well,” he said, “the crew in the infirmary said to give it time. Hopefully she will remember more soon.”

“I hope so,” said Einar. “But how can someone just destroy your mind like that?”

Nate shuddered at the thought of someone cleansing him memories. The idea of forgetting people like Charles and the effect those people had on one’s life was terrifying. He could not even begin to imaging how Alexia would be feeling.

For the first few months she had not even been able to remember her own name. To this day she could not remember her parents, her home town or her brother, even when he stood in front of her. The idea of looking at someone that was telling you they are your brother, and not recognizing their face was an idea of pure horror.

“I do not know,” said Nate. “For now, all we can do is be there for her as much as possible.”

Einar nodded and picked up the welder, its gas hose extending into a cavity in the exterior wall that acted as the tools housing. He wound the hose out from the wall and passed the welder and the sheet of metal to Nate before gripping onto the support handles next to the hatch.

As Einar held their weight onto the Valkyria, Nate slowly stepped out onto the girder and back into the icy wind. The storm had become so strong that the rain drops felt like daggers as he moved along the metal beams. The further he moved away from the ship, the stronger the wind became, so he carefully got down onto his hands and knees, crawling along the girder slowly.

“Well,” he said. “What a great way to spend a Saturday evening…”


Valkyria

Centuries have passed since the Old World burnt, and humankind still survive. Through the churning of gears and the billowing of steam engines, new nations arose to replace the world that was lost to the Fire. Yet the thirst for war never truly fades from the hearts of men. In a world gripped by a cold war where mutated hoards roam the land, the lives of three men from different nations are about to intertwine, starting a chain reaction that could very well ignite the embers of war. But little do they know, a man hides in the shadows pulling the strings of their fates. Join Einar as his life is turned upside down following the disappearance of his sister and the murder of his best friend. Follow the engineer Nate as he is forced to leave behind his home and choose a side as war threatens to flood the lands of Rhythlan. And finally, hear the tale of Lord Seran of the Alexandria Empire as he is sent behind enemy lines and finds out how much of a threat the Empire’s enemies truly are.

  • Author: Ink Blood
  • Published: 2015-12-01 17:40:35
  • Words: 50567
Valkyria Valkyria