The night passed by without a moment’s sleep for Trey. The image of the strange smiley reaper was embedded into his brain, dominating his thoughts. Zak and Billy found no sleep either.
To keep his sanity, Trey had decided to busy himself rather than lie in a nightmarish daydream. He had headed down to the under level to check on Dawn first. It appeared that the sleep she had gotten was deeply troubled. Her cover was a twisted mess by her side and dry tears stained her face.
As quietly as he could, Trey approached the sleeping girl and placed the cover gently over her then left, not wanting to disturb her.
After that he had taken turns at driving the sandspeeder with Zak and Billy after a brief lesson from Liam. Time passed slowly and uneventfully. The seemingly endless view of sand was beginning to grate the nerves of the boys, and lack of entertainment did nothing to improve their moods. Liam rose with the sun and took over the speeder, taking away the one thing the others had to focus on. They were reduced to sitting and cleaning their weapons.
The sun’s rays dispelled any fear that remained in the boys from the night and normal banter was battered backwards and forwards between them. Dawn emerged from the stairs and stepped onto the main deck, trying not to attract any attention. It failed. The talking stopped as she came into the sunlight.
“Morning,” she said in a weak voice. She tried to cover up the weakness by clearing her throat but it fooled no one. She walked over to the back of the speeder and gazed off into the distance towards her home.
Trey cautiously approached her and placed a tentative hand on her shoulder. It was hard for him to see her like this. Dawn had always been strong and in control yet now she could barely contain her tears.
“S-she’s dead, isn’t she?” whimpered the girl.
“We don’t know that. She was the leader of the Heptalli, she wouldn’t go down without a fight,” Trey reassured her.
“You saw the explosion.”
Trey didn’t say anything. What was there to say? Instead he just moved his fingers gently on her shoulder. It was a small gesture, but one his mother had always used whenever she wanted to reassure him.
Taking Trey off guard, Dawn threw her arms around him and wept into his chest. He had absolutely no idea what he should do. Unsure whether he was doing the right thing he wrapped his hands around her and returned the embrace. When she gave no reaction of hurting him or pulling away he tried to comfort her by rubbing her back gently.
This situation was a totally new experience for Trey. The warmth of Dawn’s body against his made his head feel light. He could actually feel the emotions Dawn was experiencing, the sorrow and anger mixed with the sense of safety of the embrace. They flowed from her like a powerful aura.
Seeing Dawn’s distress, Zak and Billy decided to confront Liam again. He was standing at the speeder’s helm, seemingly oblivious to everything.
“Are you going to apologise to Dawn?” said Billy in a restrained voice.
“What for?” asked Liam blankly.
“For blowing her mum up!” shouted Zak a bit too loud causing Dawn to shiver in Trey’s arms. Billy smacked him across the head. As Liam made no attempt to apologise to the distressed girl, the two boys continued their crusade.
“Apologise now or you’ll be in a world of pain,” threatened Zak as Billy cracked his knuckles.
“Pain is good,” answered Liam soberly.
“How is pain good?” asked Billy, taken aback at the statement.
“Pain lets you know you’re still alive.”
Zak swung his fist at Liam’s face. The blow never landed though. Dawn grasped Zak’s arm with both her hands, halting the attack. Zak lowered his arm with a confused look then backed away slightly.
“It’s all right. Leave Liam alone. He did what he thought was necessary at the time and we still have a dangerous task before us. Fighting will get us nowhere.” The boys stood in amazement at Dawn’s new found resolve. She had a determination in her eyes that had not been there before.
Once the fuss had been sorted the group returned to doing mundane tasks. Trey finally revealed the stones he had been gathering in Onlasar. They each looked perfectly normal as he laid them out on the table. He examined several before choosing one. Pressing his thumb onto the stone while whispering a word caused the stone to glow blue.
Sound started to come from the stone, causing everyone aboard to jump, other than Liam who merely turned his head in a curious manner. The sound became more defined and within seconds a distinctive drum beat and the strumming of a lutar became clear. Vocals kicked in and it was like a real performance coming from a stone with only slight distortion. The distinct sound of Avocado Dusk filled the ears of all present, drowning out the churning of the speeder.
“How in Abyss did you get music into a stone?” asked a stunned Billy.
“Nimula and a little know how,” smiled Trey. “Do you like it? I call it rock music.”
“You realise that strictly speaking it’s technically a stone not a rock. There’s a big difference,” pointed out Zak.
“I know,” replied Trey. “Stone music just didn’t seem to have the same ring to it.”
“It’s just so cool!” exclaimed Billy.
“My axe is still better,” pouted Zak defensively.
“I don’t know. Mine can lock any sound into them, pass the time well, keep you entertained and if need be they’re still stones so I can throw them at people,” stated Trey.
“You want a fight? Your stones verses my axe?” questioned Zak as he tightened his grip on the weapon.
The day passed by in the enthrals of the music Trey had gotten at the concert. The sun arced across the sky until it was low on the western horizon and the moon was preparing to ascend into the skies when a distant rumbling sound began to float through the oven-like air. The teens gathered on the deck in silence, ears perked as the sound grew louder.
“What is it?” Billy queried. “It sounds familiar.”
“Sprites protect us,” breathed Dawn, her face draining what little colour it had recovered. “That sound belongs to a sand fortress.”
Trey frowned. “Sand fortress? You mean one of those giant ships?”
“Yes,” she confirmed. “The only tribes with the power and resources to construct them are the Heptalli and the Flesh Eroders. Neither one would be good news for us.”
“Should I change our course?” asked Liam calmly.
“Too late!” shouted Billy. A flag was rising over a dune near the horizon. From this distance the image couldn’t be seen, but as a hulking mass of wood reared into sight, the teens were left in no doubt who the sand fortress belonged to.
“Not these guys again,” Billy growled. “We need to get out of here now.”
“They’ll have already seen us. Liam, stay on course but crank us up to maximum speed,” Dawn ordered. Her face became calm and her every action was suddenly very precise. “We have minimal weaponry. Zak, get on the starboard cannon. Billy, climb up the rigging and spot for him. Pux, I need you to take Bo-Bo and fly over to them and do some reconnaissance. Trey, grab all of our supplies and get them ready for a quick departure.”
“On it!” chorused the boys as they leapt to obey.
The Heptalli speeder lurched with a sudden burst of speed. The sails extended and the innards growled angrily when Liam shovelled coal into a metal tube beside the controls that led to a furnace. Zak stood beside the small cannon where he eyed the apple sized ball of stone then compared it to the giant ship that was his target. He shook his head and loaded it into the cannon as though the sphere weighed nothing.
“What range does the cannon have?” Billy shouted to Dawn.
The girl stopped and thought. “I don’t know. I have little to do with battles.”
“There’s only one way to find out!” giggled Zak, lighting the fuse and swinging the cannon to its maximum arc. Thunder crashed. The ball smashed into the ground about a thousand yards away, missing the Eroder ship by a wide margin. Zak was already loading another round into the chamber.
Billy made some quick calculations but with two moving targets, any workings out were rough at best. “If only I knew what range their guns are capable of, then I could find us an optimum firing position. For now we just have to hope that they don’t get close enough to shoot at us.”
Booms filled the air and several lumps of stone hurtled toward them. Sand exploded all around the carrier. The impacts rocked the vessel and threatened to throw it off course.
Billy steadied himself with a curse. “If they have this kind of range, we need to put more distance between us and them. We keep going straight and we’ll be killed. South is our only option.”
The ship swerved sharply to the left under Liam’s control, angling it to the south. More cannon fire obliterated the ground where they had been only seconds before.
“Holy Sprites!” Billy roared. From his raised position he watched as another two sand fortresses emerged from the dunes to flank the first Flesh Eroder ship. They too opened fire to litter the sand with craters. To add to matters, tribal speeders were pouring from the ships like angry hornets, rushing toward the teens with a chorus of guttural battle cries. “Guys, we’re in big trouble.”
Dawn joined Billy to survey the situation. “Zak, keep the speeders away from us. If they slow us down for even a second then we are cannon fodder.”
Zak obeyed, firing the cannon again. He watched with glee as the stone sphere hurtled into the lead speeder and reduced it to scrap in an instant. Billy shouted out adjustments and a second speeder cart wheeled into oblivion. It did little to dent their numbers.
Four more speeders met their demise but dozens of others closed the gap at an alarming rate. Billy had drawn his bow and, after a moment’s hesitation, began targeting the drivers themselves with precision aimed arrows. The sand fortresses had ceased their bombardment but continued to follow the faster speeders as they closed in on their prey.
Zak grabbed his axe and jumped onto the cannon. “Trey, take over for me. I’m going in,” he laughed. Before Trey could argue, Zak leapt from the cannon and landed on the front speeder. He offered the pilot a smile before throwing him out of the vehicle.
Trey aimed the cannon under Billy’s direction and braced himself as the gun bucked with another shot. The ball clipped the rear speeder’s wheel, sending the vehicle spinning out of control. Zak sprang from speeder to speeder, creating havoc with every movement. Despite this, the remaining speeders just veered around the chaos and continued to flank the Heptalli ship.
The carrier shook. The Flesh Eroders were smashing their speeders into the hull of the ship and the pilots were clambering up to reach the deck. They crawled onto the deck with weapons held in their mouths. The second they could stand they were instantly on the attack.
Trey abandoned the cannon and drew his sword. Billy and Dawn joined him, blocking off Liam from the attackers. The Flesh Eroders ran at them screaming. Billy hurled a knife at the closest man then brought up his short sword just in time to parry a slash from a curved blade. Dawn swung her scimitar around and sliced at Billy’s attacker. Blood sprayed her face and she gagged but had no time to throw up before she had to sidestep a swing from a mace.
More men boarded the carrier. Trey dropped a scrawny man with a slash to his chest then had to punch another with a gauntleted fist until he could bring his blade back into a defensive position. An axe bit into his pauldron with a force that numbed his shoulder. He stabbed at the weapon’s owner.
“I can’t drive and fight!” called Liam. Warriors were streaming past the teens to climb the stairs up to the helm. The black clad youth held a halberd at his side but couldn’t use it effectively with one hand. His head jerked between the approaching enemies and the wheel.
Billy managed to reach the railing. “Zak! Get up here. We need backup!”
Liam ditched the controls and thrust his halberd at the first man to peak the steps. The warrior stepped back to avoid the attack but Liam turned the lunge into an upward. The man staggered back with a scream but two more men took his place.
A black blur shot into the sky at the rear of the ship and landed between Liam and the tribesmen. It was Zak. He took in the situation at a glance and lashed out with his axe, striking both men in a single arc. Seeing Zak in his black armour, several warriors turned and ran.
Through the throng of Flesh Eroders emerged a stocky, barrel-chested man with a warhammer held firmly in bearlike hands. He charged straight at Zak with his hammer ready to smash into the teen. Zak leapt to the side but the man continued his sprint, completely ignoring Zak and hurling himself at Liam. Liam dived away and the hammer smashed into the helm, reducing the finely crafted wood into matchsticks.
The carrier lurched and swayed, swinging right sharply. Zak’s axe halted the warrior’s rampage but nothing could be done for the controls. Liam tried in vain to regain control of the carrier but he couldn’t get it to veer back away from the Flesh Eroder ships that were now far too close for comfort. The tribal warriors began to turn away from combat and jump back over the edge into the sand below.
“They’re running!” panted Billy. “We won.” He looked to the others, then to the shattered controls and the looming sand fortresses. “We’re doomed, aren’t we?”
The air exploded with sound that alone seemed to unbalance the world. Cannonballs hurtled toward them as though they moved through jelly. Every heartbeat took an age but Trey could only look on in horror. His body would not move.
Wood split and became an armoury of deadly stakes that crisscrossed in every direction. Sawdust and sand stormed through the wind in a torrent of devastation. Sections of the carrier broke away and flew wildly to smash themselves to tinder as they flipped across the ground. There was so much noise that sound lost all meaning.
Trey felt pain, then seemed to become weightless until more pain greeted a feeling of being crushed. Sights and colours were nothing but a blur that induced sickness. One second was darkness followed instantly by intense light in constant repetition. Then all was still and the veil of darkness settled across his eyes.
Consciousness flickered like the flame of a candle. Time passed on its own accord, a second becoming an hour while a day could have passed by between hazy blinks. Figures moved disjointedly in his peripheral vision like waking spectres. Hands tugged at him, lifted him, pulling and pushing as he lolled with all the power of a rag-doll.