Shadows of the Keepers: Chapter 38
War in the Air
The collision was audible, even from Eric’s position: a massive clap as the prow of the Rogue’s Galley pierced Victory of Caesar amidships, its stern rising up from forward momentum. All unsecured objects on both decks went sliding, a few Black Legionnaires tumbled from a railing and deployed what were revealed as crude parachutes. Perhaps a design from Norla, certainly Prex’s pirates did not have them. The men on deck—two dozen total, across both sides—regained their footing and their weapons. A man in bronze armor and a red cloak lay on the deck near a control wheel where the two forward pontoons met the rear hull, he staggered to his feet and drew a straight sword.
Sir Wotoc reached the deck, pointed to him, and called out:
“At last, a worthy foe!”
The Black Legionnaires, by now having some awareness of the electromagnetic stunners which Selva, Cobb, and Professor Temerin carried as they stood beside Sir Wotoc, were reluctant to approach. Eric swung into a circle, observing. Looking down, General Fuhran rubbed the scar on his jaw.
Wotoc shouted again, “Fight me! Flee not like a coward once more!” Running forward, he ascended the prow embedded in the hull and vaulted past the Black Legionnaires, throwing himself at General Fuhran. Their blades clashed, they locked arms, and Wotoc threw Fuhran against a solar-sail mast. A Black Legionnaire came rushing in to aid his master, Wotoc kicked him back. The man landed against a barrel, knocking a Greek-fire siphon atop it to the deck. Blazing with radiant heat, yellow flames began to rage, and Victory of Caesar’s fate was sealed.
“I suggest you surrender now, lads!” Temerin shouted to the Legionnaires standing at the railings with shields and swords. Some leapt off and bet on their parachutes, others threw down their arms with reluctance and scampered aboard Rogue’s Galley to escape the flames. Sky pirates went to work with axes in a frantic attempt to free the ships before fire consumed both.
With a screech, Ed turned from his circular pattern and faced out towards the harbor. Eric tried to pull him back on course, he refused. Then he saw them in the distance dead ahead: The Savage Hunters of the Outlands.
Rachel, Ezhiri, and Ralbor saw them too, as did the avens. Eric counted four in a standard V-shaped formation, wings beating as they approached. Lady Beren’s vacuum airship was still being chased around by the smaller Arztillan volor, they’d be of no help except perhaps as an airborne obstacle to put between them.
Leading the formation was the Red-Masked Man, with another Hunter in a bone-white outfit as his wingman. The second-element Hunters wore blue and green. Eric remembered what Ralbor had said: Gryphon combat was fast and deadly. One good grip with those talons would break bones on a fellow gryphon, he didn’t want to think about what it’d to a human. What now? He knew precious little about air battles.
Taking a deep breath, he relaxed his hold on the reins and caressed Ed’s neck. He’d trust his flying companion’s instincts.
Sunlight glinted off something which shot out from the Hunters—another killer exploding disk. The counter came from Zandra—the avens still had their Patrol sidearms, forearm-mounted projectile launchers, though with precious little ammo. A miniature rocket shot out from Zandra’s left arm and intercepted the disk in a smoky fireball.
The twin two-man elements of the Hunters’ formation veered apart. The blue and green Hunters went after the avens, while the Red-Masked Man and his partner headed for Eric, Rachel, and the Beastspeakers.
The first pass happened in seconds. Eric saw the Red-Masked Man going for it, his gryphon’s talons sweeping forward to grab Eric by his head, he threw himself forward and Ed dropped into a dive.
Altitude. That was one thing he knew, he needed altitude. Up higher he could trade the potential energy of elevation for kinetic energy in the form of speed, control his engagement with a foe below him. He pulled Ed into a frantic climb, knowing the Hunters were turning around behind him.
Felden and Zandra fared better, being more maneuverable than the far heavier gryphons—Eric saw Felden roll his belly to the sky and peel away from an approaching set of talons. Nor was the shock factor to be underestimated, no Savage Hunter had seen an aven up close before today. They regarded the winged posthumans with caution, unsure of their capabilities. Expending one of his few rockets, Felden punched a hole in the wing of the green Hunter’s mount currently menacing his sister. The gryphon screeched in pain and veered away from the battle. He followed up with three at the Red-Masked Man, who raised the infernal disk launcher and neutralized them with a single shot.
The Red-Masked Man made another pass at Eric, again he was forced to descend and evade. He broke for the collided volors, hoping to at least get some distance.
Victory of Caesar’s left-forward pontoon was entirely ablaze; while the diamondoid hull did not burn, its numerous wooden components added after the Fall of the Keepers did. Solar collectors melted from heat, a gravity brake failed and winked out like a lightbulb, causing a list. Atop the rear deck, Sir Wotoc and Siege Master Fuhran battled. Both bled from wounds, but neither held a decisive advantage. Both were cut off from escape to the sky pirate ship. At the prow, a burly pirate brought his axe down and finally severed the two vessels, the noseless Rogue’s Galley leveling out as it drifted back. Eric saw air rushing out from its engines as it turned and began to circle around behind Victory of Caesar. He drew closer as the Red-Masked Man approached from behind, Selva helped with a beam from the heavy stunner, as did a few pirates with crossbows. Eric made a mental note to ask what kind of alcohol they liked.
Sir Wotoc had Fuhran in a handhold on Victory’s deck, wrapping a rope around his neck and lashing him to the steering wheel. Then he picked up a bow, found an arrow, and aimed at a large barrel-like container on the right-hand pontoon—the main vat of Greek fire. He loosed the arrow and breached it, liquid pouring forth to ignite and blaze, then ran to the stern as Rogue’s Galley approached and leapt to its deck. Eric remained close, the Red-Masked Man waiting at a distance. Perhaps he too was mesmerized by what now unfolded.
With its commanding officer lashed to the wheel, the Victory of Caesar tipped down as the last of its forward gravity brakes failed, and plummeted towards the Bellodrome below. Its twin pontoons struck amid the empty stands and it crumpled into a flaming wreck amid a thunderous crash and spray of bricks and stone. A thought flickered across Eric’s mind: Good riddance.
The Red-Masked Man fired another disk, not at Eric but at Prex’s ship, where it struck and destroyed a gravity brake, superconducting loops and other exotic components tumbling away. The volor listed, Selva saved a pirate from going overboard but lost the heavy stunner in the process.
Wheeling around, Eric stooped a near-forty-five-degree incline. The Hunter’s shot could’ve taken Eric, he realized with horror that the Red-Masked Man wished to relish his kill, deliver the final blow personally. His white-clad wingman veered off to make a pass at Felden, preventing him from rendering aid. Ezhiri and Ralbor were occupied by the blue and green Hunters who kept them away from the heart of the battle. With no other option, Eric dove again, towards the city’s harbor. The volor was now far above, hopelessly out of reach. Rachel made a daring pass at the Red-Masked Man, almost succeeding at seizing his mount by the wing. She pulled up and the Hunter fired an exploding disk at her which Zandra was forced to shoot down, at the cost of what Eric guessed was her last rocket.
Eric saw it now. The Red-Masked Man, veteran sky-hunter, would run him out of altitude and finish him off. He had nothing left to lose, and Ed seemed to agree—he threw himself into the Immelmann turn Eric made, curving up and twisting over to come back at the Hunter like a rollercoaster.
The gryphons collided with an impact that clapped Eric’s teeth together. A primal avian scream wailed, he felt and heard talons breaking bones. Ed wrenched them into a tumble, the disk launcher whirling off. The Hunter’s mount was farther forward than Eric’s, he looked up and saw the straps for his foe’s harness. Drawing his knife, he slashed one, then the other. In one brisk motion, aerodynamic forces peeled the Red-Masked Man away and sent him plummeting towards the harbor below
The gryphons continued fighting with beak and talon, the sky spun in Eric’s vision. He saw Zandra go into a vertical dive, wings drawn in, heading for the falling Savage Hunter with arm outstretched. In a final act of defiance, the Red-Masked Man drew a dagger and slashed at her hand.
Were it not for her aven reflexes, she’d have lost fingers. As it was, she took a brutal cut across her palm and opened her wings, pulling away. The Hunter hit the water with a smack. Dead.
The tumble stopped, the Red-Masked Man’s gryphon falling away. Eric heard Ed’s labored breathing, looked behind and saw the trails of blood flowing away like oil from an ancient fighter plane and knew what had just happened, what he had done.
Ed death-spiraled, wings rising as he grew weaker and weaker. The sea in the harbor rushed up, he leveled out and began to slow. About five meters up, he went limp.
Water splashed Eric’s face, and filled his nostrils.