“Are you scared?” Mellow whispered into Dawn’s ear. She tried to speak but her voice wouldn’t work. Instead she shook her head and tried to give the man a defiant glare.
“So much pride. What is it worth though? How far can that pride be pulled before you shatter and become a snivelling beast?” as he spoke, Mellow ran a hand through her fire red hair. She tried but could not contain a sudden shiver. He smelled of death, not putrid like the Forukks but dry and old like an ancient tomb where hundreds had been buried.
“Get away from me!” she tried to yell but her voice was little more than a squeak. She pushed him away drawing only an amused laugh from the man. Dawn turned to run only to be whipped back when Mellow grabbed at her hair and yanked her to his side.
“I have an idea,” Mellow began. His voice took on an oily tone, slick and smooth but somehow greasy and vile. “I have two of your friends in a pit of corpses whose lives they have won but not their freedom. Just behind us is another friend who has been badly beaten and will continue to be beaten until he dies a slow painful death and somewhere on this ship is a fourth who has caused us damage. He will be caught and the penalty for damaging a sand fortress is to be boiled alive. My offer to you is simple. You can leave your friends here to their fate and have your life and freedom, or, you can sacrifice yourself for their freedom. What will it be?”
Dawn struggled to break free despite knowing it was a futile gesture. Mellow started to hum to the tune of an old children’s rhyme that she could no longer remember the words to. The crowd had grown quiet, eager to hear every word and whimper.
This was her chance to flee, to see the world without chains. Where would she go though? The Heptalli would never take her back after what she had done and even if they were to then it would be to a life of stricter rules than ever before. Pastrino was destroyed, Onlasar was under siege and all the while the shadow of Lanstiro loomed over all. Between Forukks, bandits and barbarians, what chance did she have in the wild?
She felt a sudden sickening lurch in her stomach. All she had thought of was herself, never considering Trey, Billy, Zak and Liam. She had been about to abandon her friends to torment and death without a single thought. Self loathing flooded through her.
Trey, Billy and Zak had been so kind to her. They had pulled her out from her cage, made her laugh and feel like a girl instead of a future queen. They had a noble purpose, what did she have? Her own selfish desires.
Mellow looked down at her, still humming the tune. Dawn vaguely remembered her mother singing the rhyme at night to help her to sleep as a young child.
“I have decided,” she stated with queenly dignity. She looked Mellow straight in his cold blue eyes. “Release them.”
“Are you sure?” Mellow asked, his eyebrow raised. “Death is not a pleasant experience.”
“Yes. I owe them so much. They deserve to live, or at the least to die doing what they believe in. What is my life compared to the dreams of saving those that they love?” Dawn spoke softly, her eyes closed.
Mellow took her hand and moved her the few steps to the dead centre of the Bloodground. “How touching. Is it pride that stops you from running?” he asked as they walked.
Dawn shook her head slowly. Unbidden, she found that a faint smile graced her lips. “Pride is just another emotion. It can be destructive, but it can also keep you on the right path when an easier path seems preferable. If pride ensures that I do what is required of me, then I will die a proud woman.”
“Such a noble decision. You are a true ruler of the sands. Kneel,” ordered Mellow. His voice was not hard though. It was almost soothing. Dawn obeyed, lowering herself onto her knees with all the dignity that her years as a royal princess had taught her. She
straightened her robes out calmly, more to steady her hands than through any real need for tidiness.
Mellow took Dawn’s scimitar from one of the warriors beside him. Holding the sword in his left hand, Mellow grasped the sharpened steel with his right and cut a deep furrow into his palm. Dark blood dripped down the blade.
“Thus my blood is spilt to seal my end of the deal,” intoned Mellow without the slightest wince. “Your blood is a given. Are you ready?”
Dawn felt cold steel against her throat. She could feel her blood pumping, the veins of her neck pulsing beneath the blade. She released her breath and braced herself for what was to come.
The sand fortress seemed to jump into the air, in an instant throwing everything into chaos. The ship swayed, swerved and shuddered until no one was left standing except for Mellow. He had a sour look upon what scraps of his face could be seen. Dawn was sprawled out before him, blood pouring from a gash in her throat.
“That is three wheels now that your friend has taken down. Any more damage and I fear that this vessel will not make it to Onlasar.” He pulled Dawn back onto her knees. Blood was spreading along her robe now, darkening the already crimson fabric. “Sorry about that. It won’t pain you for long.”
“That’s what you think!” came a roar from behind them. Zak was back on his feet, sprinting toward them with his axe back in hand. He shouted words without meaning and the wind became a raging torrent. Pointing at Dawn, the wind span around her, ripping her and the scimitar away from Mellow and tossing her over to the grate that contained Billy and Trey.
“Get them out!” he shouted just before his axe struck Mellow’s arm. Again nothing happened. That didn’t deter Zak in the slightest though. He jumped and spun, kicking the chief in the head before slamming the axe vertically down upon his skull. Neither attack seemed to hurt the man.
Zak danced back frowning. “What gives? You cut yourself so I know you can bleed. That sword is just a regular blade too so I should be able to hurt you.”
Mellow rolled his shoulders idly. “Since you got back up I’ll let you in on a secret. I can control the minerals within my blood. I can create sections of iron and other hard composites to shield myself or strengthen my attacks.”
Zak heard the metal of the grate clang and smiled. “Interesting. So what you are saying is that relentless attacks from multiple directions is all that it takes to kill you?”
“Don’t think that your friends are in any condition to help you,” Mellow snorted.
Zak barked laughter. “I have no intention of letting them in on the fun. Mass devastation is my strong point.”
The teen launched himself at Mellow. At the last moment he threw the axe and drew his katana. Lightning crackled across the twin blades that shot out, overtaking the axe in a heartbeat. Sand rushed up around Mellow, turning to glass where the lightning struck. The axe shattered the wall just as Zak flew past it with both blades flashing. Mellow swayed away only to have his kneecap kicked by an armour plated foot. He staggered, blocked a stroke with one arm then doubled over as Zak’s knee pounded into his gut.
Mellow punched at Zak, knuckles smashing into a quickly recovered axe head. Flames snaked around him and lashed out at the younger man who summoned his own to combat the threat. The man’s smile revealed white teeth. He was genuinely happy with the challenge of the fight. Zak too seemed ecstatic at the fight between life and death on the edge of a razor.
A sword was knocked clean out of Zak’s hand when Mellow grabbed his arm in an attempt to break it. Zak managed to pull his arm free but was knocked to the ground by a sweeping kick from Mellow. Zak tried to flip back to his feet only to be punched in the stomach in midair. He skidded through the sand, coming to a sudden stop when Mellow landed on his chest after a running jump. Blood spewed from the teen’s mouth.
Mellow took a few steps away, picking up Zak’s fallen axe with barely any sign of effort. He examined it as though inspecting a cheap trinket. “Nothing that you could ever achieve would come close to my strength. The power of my blood is locked into place while yours will drain away.”
“What d-do you m-mean?” choked Zak.
The axe began to spin through Mellow’s fingers with an ease that even Zak would struggle with. “Life is an energy. As we produce life it creates new energy but it is also used. Your power is weaker than mine because the power in you has become diluted but your ancestors would also be weaker than me because for power to grow within a life it needs to be placed there first like a seed. Each child than a human produces weakens them slightly. I have discovered how to cap that. None of my descendants are born with power so I will never face a decline. Very prudent, wouldn’t you agree?”
Without warning he spluttered suddenly. The axe fell from his fingers. With a startled slowness, Mellow looked down to see the tip of a blade protruding from his chest. Blood flowed freely, already pooling around his feet. He jerked, staggering away to turn to his attacker.
Dawn stood there, her neck still drenched in blood. “Don’t you understand. Strength isn’t about what blood you have. Does it take special blood to face your fears? To keep standing back up as long as you still live? To fight and grow stronger for a cause? No.”
“You would know,” smirked Mellow as he fell face first into the sand.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Dawn shouted. She took a step toward him but he made no sign of moving. Instead she went to Zak’s side and helped him to his feet.
Zak groaned at first although within seconds he was walking unaided to retrieve his axe. He wiped it clean, doing the same after recovering his remaining weapons. The crowd had broken from their stupor and were beginning to rush down the tiers. Zak ignored them,
instead limping over to where Billy and Trey were laid near to the hole they had been kept in. Neither looked up as he approached.
“I don’t want to rush you guys but in about fifteen seconds we’re gonna be ripped to shreds.”
Dawn joined them, placing a comforting hand upon each of them. “Come on. You have to snap out of this. I won’t leave you here to die so help me!”
Trey turned blank eyes to her. She grabbed his hand in hers and gave him the most intense look that she could manage. “You still have promises to keep. Don’t lose your remaining honour by ignoring them.”
His eyes drifted from her amber orbs to the hand that held his. He blinked a few times and took several deep breaths. “Promises? Yes. We have to keep going, no matter what it takes. That is the path of humanity.” He had snapped into motion but his eyes and tone were still distant and cold.
Tears pricked in Dawn’s eyes. “Trey…”
“Let’s move,” he ordered, now all too aware of the charging horde of tribesmen. He grabbed Billy’s arm and pulled his friend up. Zak handed them both their weapons back with a faint, sympathetic smile.
“For Pastrino,” Trey said softly.
“For Pastrino,” Billy answered, seeming to draw strength from the words.
“This way!” Zak called, running down the closest passageway out of the Bloodgrounds. The other’s followed on his tail.
Dawn took one last look back as she ran and nearly stumbled. Mellow’s body was gone. None of the Flesh Eroders had had time to even touch the body yet. He was a strange man indeed, she grudgingly admitted before shifting all focus to their current predicament.
“Where is Liam and Pux?” asked Trey over the sound of their pounding footfalls. “I think there were three explosions below, though things were a bit fuzzy back there.”
“Finding him by chance would be a miracle,” grunted Billy. “That aside we’ve still got to stop this ship. I say move higher up while the Eroders are down below searching out Liam. If we can take the control room then this behemoth belongs to us.”
“Sounds like a plan,” nodded Trey. “Any idea how to get up there?” This met with frowns and angry looks.
“Easy,” stated Zak. “We need to go up so we just blast our way there.”
“And how would you plan to do that?” asked Billy bluntly.
“Simple,” he grinned. He pointed up at the roof directly above them. Green flames that took the form of a dragon shot from his hand and tore through the wood above like paper. Splinters and ash rained down on the teens. Level after level was punctured then searing light flooded down the hole as the magical flame arced high into the sky and soared away.
Billy gawped. “Holy Sprites above.”
Dawn remained composed, instead eying the hole skeptically. “And how do we get up there? We can’t climb it.”
Zak winked at her, lowering his arm to point at the ground.
“Dear Sprite no!” Dawn screamed. It was too late. Energy flooded out of Zak, ripping out the section of ground where the group stood and forcing it to rise as harsh light drove into the ship below them.
What started as a slow rise became a stomach curling freefall upwards. The circular section of floor rocketed skyward so fast that their surroundings were nothing more than a blur.
“Our stop,” said Zak suddenly. He hopped off the side of the platform and reached out, grabbing its edge before it shot past him. It stopped while the momentum meant that Trey, Billy and Dawn did not. It was another second before they landed in a heap. Zak heaved the platform away from the hole, his muscles straining and his face red.
Trey staggered onto solid ground. It took several seconds for the world to stop spinning. When it did he wished that it had not. They were in a room full of levers, pipes and wheels but it also contained twenty startled looking Flesh Eroders.
The man directly in front of Trey dropped dead with an arrow in his chest. Beside him Billy nocked another arrow. He looked around and saw Zak panting, hands onto his knees. The tribesmen were recovering from shock now and had drawn their weapons. Trey moved to defend Zak but Dawn beat him to it.
Billy downed men as fast as he could pull back his bowstring. Trey positioned himself close to his friend, cutting down any men who threatened to reach Billy. Men fell but soon the combat was too close pressed for the bow. Dropping it, Billy let fly a handful of small throwing knives then turned to his rapier.
One thing Trey had learned since all of this chaos started was never to look at the faces that came and went during battle. Watch the blade, the feet and eyes but never put them together to form a man. With that in mind, the death seemed strangely tolerable. The last man fell with Dawn’s scimitar lodged into his heart. Zak was now on the floor, clutching his ribs.
“Zak, what’s wrong?”
The boy did not answer straight away. Slowly he relaxed his muscles and sat cross legged. “It’s just the side effects of the Nimula. My quick recovery must be caused by Nimula or I wouldn’t be this drained. I should be fine now.”
A door slammed open. Billy aimed his bow in a heartbeat. Liam raised his arms, slowing his jog to a walk.
“The party over?” he asked, his tone completely deadpan. “I’d have been here sooner but I made a detour to recover these,” he added, holding out his halberd and ‘The Arts of Nimula’. Several rucksacks hung from his back too. Pux stood upon his shoulder and offered the group a casual salute of greeting.
“Not yet,” replied Trey. “We’ve still got to take down these ships.”
Liam took a look around, tweaking controls and checking on the gauges. “Well we are here in the control room. It looks to be just a bigger, more complex version of the carrier’s controls.” He looked through the grimy window to the sand fortress to their right. “Mass destruction in an over dramatic style. I like it.”
Zak grinned at him, his eyes glinting mischievously. “You’ll fit in yet, Liam. The controls are yours.”
It only took Liam a moment to get to grips with the controls. A few flicks of his wrist set everything to max power. Being three wheels down meant that stability and speed was compromised but it still moved well enough for what they wanted. Everything shuddered, threatening to fall apart at any moment. The ship looked ready to shake itself to pieces.
Liam spun the helm causing the sand fortress to swerve sharply to the right. By the time the second ship tried to veer away there was no time to manoeuvre.
“Shouldn’t we try and run?” pointed out Billy as the sand fortress filled their view.
“Probably,” nodded Zak. He made no move to go though.
Trey approached Liam. “Liam, Pux, either of you know the way to the main deck?”
“Yeah. I can get us out there,” answered Pux. “Not in time to avoid that though.”
Zak raised an arm. Light flared in the room, filling the air with a tangled mix of thunder and wood chips. The wall to their left exploded. Everyone else ducked, covering their faces with arms.
“There’s a door,” Zak told them innocently.
Trey and Billy stood by the ragged hole and stared out at the rolling expanse of desert. Below them was a substantial drop to the dunes. The fall would easily be fatal.
“And how do you propose we get down there, idiot,” Billy snapped.
“We jump, obviously. It’ll be fun.”
Billy looked ready to throw Zak over himself. “That is insanity. Pure suicide!”
“Yeah. The best kind of fun,” Zak beamed. “Trust me.”
Trey took a deep breath and pushed himself clean off the edge. He turned to see Dawn falling beside him. Liam was right behind them. Billy shook his head with a sigh then took the dive as well. Zak hopped off the edge laughing and wooting excitedly.
The wind rushed around them, snagging at hair and clothes and stealing air from lungs that battled vainly to breathe. The ground was rushing toward them far too fast. Then the wind felt more like a hurricane from underneath, trying to force Trey back skywards. When he hit the sand it felt more like he had jumped a few feet than the bone-breaking distance of reality.
The others thudded to the ground around him. Zak was visibly shaky due to using Nimula to slow their fall but everyone else seemed fine.
“We should run,” said Billy with a hasty backwards glance at the two ships. “They’ll hit any second.”
“No,” Zak said sternly. “Real men never run in this situation. We walk away all suave and sophisticated. Everything blows up behind us and we just keep our eyes forward. It will look badass.”
A unanimous shrug led to the five teens walking with purpose away from the two sand fortresses as they collided with each other at high speed. Wood and metal howled and thunder shook the earth. Smoke, screams and splinters enveloped the area but the teens just kept walking.
“Badass,” Zak repeated, satisfaction coating the word.