"Captain." he said nervously. Standing on the bow of the airship, feeling the cold breeze's embrace, Tela looked over her shoulder and smiled. Richter reached a decision. The night had nothing on Captain Tela Skyrunner.
"No need to call me captain, kid. We're all friends here." She turned around completely, her chestnut hair gliding behind her in the wind. "Shouldn't you be sleeping downstairs with the rest of the inquisitors?"
Richter stepped forward on wobbling legs. Unlike the captain he was not used to travelling by zeppelin, much less to walking on top of one miles above the ground. There was a railing to stop anyone from slipping off yet he couldn't help but feel afraid. "I-I'm no inquisitor, Captain. Just a rune master... well, an apprentice rune master, actually." As he spoke he lost balance and grabbed on to one of the railings. Tela laughed quietly.
"Are you regretting leaving land, kid?" She asked with a grin. Richter stood up straight, as straight as he could given the circumstances, and shook his head.
"No ma'am. It was always a dream o' mine to travel on one of these." In fact, it had been. Before joining the Royal Academy of Runology and Elemental Theory he had wanted to become a pilot but had failed the physical tests horribly. As his parents said, Richter was much better suited to the academic life.
"Same here." Tela nodded. She turned her back to Richter and stared out over the clouds, watching as they passed beneath her. She heard Richter approaching slowly, as quickly as he could, from behind. "Did you need something, apprentice?"
"Yes. I've revised all the machinery and runes and they're all working perfectly. No problems so far."
"Couldn't you have reported that to the Runegineer, kid?"
"Well, yes, but..." He paused and realised just how pathetic he seemed. Ever since first seeing Tela Skyrunner on a poster in the academy he had wanted to meet her. "I suppose I..."
"Wanted to see the sky?" She interrupted. "I know that feeling. I come up here every night. Can't sleep if I don't. Sort of a ritual, I suppose." Her voice was a cocktail of expressions that Richter couldn't decipher. It was stern but kind with a hint of sadness, or perhaps nostalgia. It was clear and firm like anyone's from the Holy Empire. Richter's Northland accent seemed almost primitive in comparison. "Come on. You came up here for a reason."
She moved to the side and beckoned Richter over, who nodded and continued to slowly advance. His stomach was beginning to churn but he refused to be sick in front of Captain Skyrunner. As he reached the bow he brushed past her, almost catching his hair in one of her jacket's buckles. She stepped around and stood behind him. He was just a boy, fresh out of the academy and everything was new to him. She remembered feeling the same awe that Richter felt then as the airship caressed the clouds below with a deep mechanical growl. It was a gentle monster held aloft by a wondruous combination of science and magic, runes and gears. Richter and Tela both knew it from top to bottom, one from books and the other who loved it as a home.
"I thought it moved a lot slower from the ground." Richter began to sweat. "I mean, the view's incredible but aren't we going a little too fast?"
"The speed's perfect. We couldn't hope for a better night. We'll be at Fulmoor by tomorrow." Richter suddenly felt her hand on his shoulder and blushed. He would have spoken if not lost for words. "Come on, kid. Get to bed. It's gonna be a long day tomorrow and I want my apprentice rune master ready."
Richter nodded and turned back. Already his legs were steadier and his confidence was at an all time high. He smiled.
"Thank you, Captain. It was worth coming up."
"It always is, kid."
Richter crossed the zeppelin halfway before stopping. He had one more question and had been worried about asking ever since he boarded the ship.
"Captain, this may sound silly, but... is it true that Fulmoor has dragons?" There was silence between them save for the rumbling motors below. "Captain?"
"For your and my sake, you better pray they don't." Her tone was more serious than usual and she hadn't turned to answer. Richter knew not to pursue the matter any further and made his way inside.
As he descended through the ship's structure he recalled the legends told of Captain Skyrunner. She descended from a long line of soldiers, one who had been one of the key figures in the Holy Empire' conquest of the Northlands, but that had been over a century ago and any animosity between the two factions had faded. The Northlands had never been too advanced and the Empire's had been more benefitial to the country than not. Ever since then every Skyrunner was a hero, though back then they weren't known as Skyrunners. Tela had earned that new family title by becoming the first and so far best airship pilot there was.
Richter was also a first. The first Northlander to graduate from the academy and become an apprentince. It was an honour from his family and he loved his work but his desire to soar had never fully vanished. A week prior the Inquisition began recruiting for a secret mission. It was Richter's luck that a friend from the academy, Finley, had gone on to become an Inquisitor and put in a good word. Before he knew it he was signed up to the mission and flying over the Empire in a zeppelin. Meeting Captain Skyrunner was a bonus and under normal circumstances he would have been extatic, but it had finally sunk in that he was travelling with fifteen Inquisitors and a Supreme Inquisitor, which meant that whatever was happening was serious. Moreover, he hadn't been told anything about their objective, only to keep the machines running and to make sure the artillery was always ready for action. Something within was telling him that he should have stayed at the academy and found a safer job.
The structure was complex but he found his way to the gondola below without trouble. Despite being a military grade zeppelin the living area's interior was quite luxurious. Most were practical and dull, but the Imperial Aegis was built for royalty, or in this case, Supreme Inquisitors. The wood was of the finest oak and the walls were littered with the most expensive of paintings. It's hull was reinforced with Zaron metal and laced with runic protections, and the cannons were the latest result of elemental theory applied to artillery. Barbarians and primitives were no match against a regular airship, let alone the Aegis, but Fulmoor was not a primitive nation.
Fulmoor had only been annexed by the Holy Empire three years ago, and therefore was still experiencing social instability. For matters of revolution the Divine Emperor would usually send the Imperial Sacred Army but they were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the Inquisition had been conceded the responsibility, and Inquisitors only involved themselves in runic matters. Richter had tried to squeeze some information out of his fellow travellers but without luck. Even Finley had refused to speak about the mission.
For Richter, this was frustrating, for he was one of those specific individuals that hated not knowing. That said, he would never risk his own life trying to find out Imperial secrets. This would be considered treason, and the Inquisition did not take too kindly to treason.
Richter arrived at his cabin and opened the door as silently as he could. Everyone except for the Supreme Inquisitor and Tela were allocated into rooms by pairs. Richter was sharing with the ship's cook. A man by the name of Alon. He was a good hearted man but snored louder than the engines roared. He was fast asleep in his bed and, as Richter had found out, he was a heavy sleeper, so the apprentice abandoned the necessity for quiet and made his way over to the desk next to his bed. It had been specifically aquired for him and his research and was covered in papers and shabby books. Despite being on a mission, Richter despised the idea of abandoning his investigations and would spend most nights researching the potential dangers of Jasmine Landcrosser Instantaneous Transportation Gate Runes improperly inscribed.
Though tonight, there were other affairs on his mind. Dragons. The predominant theory stated that the creatures were created by Natural Chaotic Rune Application; that some time in the past an ancestor species learnt how to use a rune by random means and was transmutated over time into something entirely different yet able to reproduce with the original species. The offspring then continued the rune usage and was subjected to the same process and so forth. Though Richter accepted the theory, it was his belief that another with a higher emphasis on facts and not speculation would substitute it.
Feeling he had not brough enough information on the creatures he reached into his satchel and searched for more. It was a clever combination between two runes: the previously mentioned Gate Rune and an Alexander Pagewatcher Expanded Space Rune. This meant that he could store a library of books and materials at home and through the satchel gain instant access to them. A travelling entertainer had purchased the patent from Richter for a fair price and, as far as Richter knew, was now using it to perform tricks such as the incredible Rabbit in a Hat Illusion.
"Here we are." Richter said to himself. "A Compilation of Draconic Knowledge by Ailir Scorch." An author burnt alive by dragon breath and honoured post-death with a book publication and a title. Although not the greatest explorer he was considered the highest authority on the winged creatures.
The apprentice read for most of the night before fatigue took over. His eyes sank shut and he fell asleep face first into page fifty-seven.
Richter was not awoken by his Lorence Eyeopener Chronoassignation Audio Production Rune. The zeppelin trembled and shouts could be heard from the hall.
It took Richter a moment to realise what was happening. He had been asleep midbattle. Even Alon was up and about. Still dressed from the previous night he darted to the door to find Finley in a worried state.
"Richter..." He said, gasping for breath.
"What is it? What do you need?"
"Captain's asking for you... get to the bridge."
Richter nodded and ran past Finley, weaving in and out between Inquisitors an crew members. He reached the bridge in a matter of minutes to find Teal howling orders over the megaphone system with the Supreme Inquisitor cross armed at behind her.
The bridge was surrounded on all sides except one, connected to the rest of the ship by glass, offering the pilot and crew a radial view of the battlefield. They were far below the clouds and before them lay Fulmoor, a sprawling indistrial city.
Richter breathed a sigh of relief. Not a dragon in sight.
"You sure took your time, kid," Tela bellowed over the sounds of war. "Come on up here. Tell me what we're up against!"
Richter approached the ship¡s wheel, momentarily making eye contact with the silent Supreme Inquisitor, and looked down on Fulmoor. He could now see the full extent of their defenses. Multiple streaks of red and orange were being hurtled from the city, looking shooting stars being launched straight at the Aegis. The ship's protections were holding but even a civilian could see they would soon give way. Richter ran to the front of the bridge and pulled from his inner pocket a telescopic glass refractor improved with a Desmond Eagleeye Visual Enhancement Rune to get a closer look at their weapons.
They were simple but practical. Train tracks aproximately 30 metres in length, angled upwards at the halfway point and set upon salvaged park roundabouts to be swivelled from side to side. On the tracks were mine carts loaded with rocks and rubble. Upon closer inspection, Richter spied the runes inscribed on the tracks themselves. "Maureen Racer Velocity Accelerator Runes," he murmured to himself. They were firing mine carts along the tracks at incredible speeds, but only the cart's content was being catapulted towards the ship. "Terrance Wallwalker Absolute Adherence Runes..." Richter continued. "That's how they're doing it."
"Mind explaining some of that to us, kid?"
Richter swivelled around and lowered the telescope. "Basically, they're throwing rocks at us, Captain. Really fast rocks."
"And what can we do against really fast rocks, apprentice. The rune shields aren't going to hold much longer."
Richter was quiet for a moment. He shrugged, to the disliking of the Inquisitor, but then spoke.
"Their weapons are powerful, but they're clunky. They can only spin and move side to side. They're built to stop airships from getting in, but once we're over the city I don't think they'll be able to aim at us."
"You don't think?"
"Well, they might have more advanced weaponry we don't know about. Obviously someone down there knows his runes. If they do I'll come up with another plan, but until then keeping our distance is suicide. Besides, they are literally throwing rocks. If we're above the city and they miss it'll come crashing back down on them."
Tela didn't say anything but looked to the Inquisitor. The Inquisitor glared through contemplative eyes at Richter before leaning towards the captain and whispering.
"We're going ahead with the apprentice's plan!" she called out. "Divert all power from our weapons to the rune shields and engines. We're plowing through!"
The crew began to push and pull levers as Tela guided the Aegis straight towards the city. Richter, personally doubting whether the shield would hold, grabbed onto whatever he could and began to pray.
Artillery battered the zeppelin mercilessly, and all the while Richter kept his eyes shut. Watching wouldn't do any good and there was nothing left for him to contribute. Perhaps if he slept he would have been able to prepare them better for the battle.
"We've lost engine four!" Screamed a female crew member over the communication system. The sudden reduction in speed lurched Richter forwards and he felt the zeppelin begin to descend.
"Keep on going!" Tela ordered. "We've passed the initial volley but there's still artillery inside the city. Reroute engine four's power to the guns and hit back as hard as you can!"
She was confident, and if she was afraid she didn't show it. Richter opened his eyes to see her looking ahead without a trace of doubt. Perhaps she was a pilot, but she represented the ideal Imperial soldier. Her faith in the mission was absolute, and where Richter had previously seen just beauty he now saw strength. Inspired, he ran for the door back of the bridge.
"Where do you think you are going?" The Inquisitor said. His voice was deep, quiet but intimidating, like the inevitable approach of a natural disaster. Richter looked him in the eyes with renewed belief.
"I'm going to man the guns, Supreme Inquisitor. I've just had an idea."
Both were silent as the sound of metal being breached and wood splintering in the distance filled the bridge.
"Very good, apprentice. Get us through this."
Without a second thought Richter charged onwards. It soon became obvious that the bridge was more protected than the rest of the Aegis. The hallway corridors were broken and aflame and full of obstacles and cries. It took all Richter had to navigate the structure and reach the gunroom. By the time he did he had obtained a number of cuts and bruises.
The gunroom was in shambles. Most of the power routings had been blown apart rendering the cannons ineffective. Richter had anticipated this and kneeled down next to the first one he saw and drew his greatest weapon. His chalk. His first action was to inscribe a rune of dragon fire on the cannon's side and leave it incomplete. On top of it he placed another, a variation on the Chronoassignation rune that would activate the rune below upon reaching a certain point in time. Then, a smaller one. An instantaneous transportation rune on one of the stones that had penetrated the ship. He was almost ready.
"Inquisitor Corin." Richter said. "When I say so I need you to throw this rock as far away from the ship as you can, above the city. Understood?"
Without orders or any personal ideas regarding what to do, the Inquisitor obliged and took the stone. Richter then drew a transportation rune on the floor, and another on his own chest before completing the dragon fire rune on the cannon.
"I hope this works..." he said to himself as he started the final rune. He wasn't even sure it existed but he was hopeful. He had to be. The velocity acceleration rune was a simple design, and when it came to simple runes the opposite effect could often be achieved by inscribing the rune in reverse. Theoretically, the rune would decelerate instead of accelerating.
The Inquisitor, with impressive arm strength, launched the stone as far away as he could, beyond the distance Richter had expected. With a sigh and a quick prayer Richter put one arm around the cannon and with a touch activated the transportation rune on his chest.
In the blink of an eye Richter found himself over the city of Fulmoor, freefalling towards the ground with the cannon pressed against the deceleration rune, affecting them both. He shouted in relief as his descent was reduced to a moderate speed. He wouldn't die just yet.
With plenty of time to reach the ground, Richter looked for the nearest defense weapon. There was one nearby, not directly beneath him but close enough. With one arm occupied he used the other to inscribe a miniature dragon fire rune on the side of the cannon and with a press activated it, effectively propulsing him to the side.
From the bridge the crew and Tela saw a sudden jet of fire across the sky. Tela, squinting enough to see the young apprentice slowly gliding past the ship, could only gasp.
"What the hell is that maniac doing?" She said to herself, attracting a stern glare from the Inquisitor. "I'll mind my language." She added.
Meanwhile, Richter, was almost above one of the rubble launchers. By twisting and turning and propulsing himself across the sky he had reached a point where he considered his improvised weapon would be effecive. Careful not to seperate the deceleration rune from the cannon he maneuvered himself around to the timed dragon fire rune and completed it. Normally it would have bellowed forth flames immediately but the chronoassignation rune was holding back it's fury.
"I better get a bloody title for this."
Richter pushed himself away from the cannon and it immediately began to descend faster. No sooner had he done so, he activated the transportation rune on his chest and was warped back to the gunroom, to the rune on the floor. From the falling his legs were like jelly and he collapsed to the ground, perhaps being the only one on the ship not to see the dragon flame inferno that engulfed the rubble launcher seconds later.
Richter was sick.
"Good job, Ric!" called out Inquisitor Corin. "That's one down. Only three left now!"
"The idea works!" Richter responded. "I know that now. You lot can take down the rest."
The battle did not last long after that. Though unusual, Richter's dive bomber tactic made short work of the remaining defenses. Not an hour later the Imperial Aegis was stationed above Fulmoor and out of harm's way. The Supreme Inquisitor congratulated Richter on his bravery and Tela give him the most sincere, most impressed smile he had ever received. It was something he would treasure for the rest of his life.
The Inquisitors were then assembled on the bridge for the mission briefing. Richter was about to leave when the Supreme Inquisitor asked him to stay. Their objective, given the time Richter had been waiting to hear it, was disappointing. There were rune users in the city that needed to be taken back to the Empire for education or emprisoned. He had expected more but was tired enough of excitement for the time being. Not needed for Inquisitorial duties, he would stay begind on the Aegis until the soldiers returned.
"That wasn't half bad, Richter." Tela said as the Inquisitors desembarked. "I didn't think you had something like that in you."
"Neither did I, honestly." Richter remarked nervously as he scratched the back of his head. "At least I get to rest now... I was up all night."
"Nobody rests, kid. There are repairs that need to be done, and don't think there won't be any rebels still skulking around the city. They might attack the Inquisitors, they might attack us. We've got to be ready for that."
Richter sighed, grateful that they were no longer in the air. If he was going to be put to work he would rather have his feet on solid ground.
"And what if they do attack us? With the Inquisitors gone?"
"Don't worry, you'll have me and the Supreme Inquisitor to protect you. We've seen our fair share of battles."
Tela's words sunk in. This had been a battle, albeit a short one, and although he hadn't thought about it it was as clear as day now.
Richter had killed people. He didn't know whether they were good or bad people but they were people. In the heat of the moment they weren't people with families, however, they were enemies. Attackers that needed to be dealt with, and the crew and the Inquisitors and beautiful Tela Skyrunner were congratulating him.
He would have felt terrible.
He would have been sick.
He would have wondered just why the captain was such an inspiration to him.
But he did't have time to feel or wonder anything. His thoughts were interrupted by a magnificent roar that broke apart the clouds and made the very earth tremble in fear. Richter looked to the sky and saw a great shadow glide past, like the Aegis but much, much larger and infinitely more menacing.