Chapter 19: Blood in the Sand
Cut ‘em loose!” commanded one of the tribal warriors who had hundreds of teeth strung around his body on chains, bracelets and necklaces. Men with hatchets scurried to the copse of poles and hacked the ropes apart. Before any of the teens could take a step, each was held firmly by two guards.
Trey made a show of looking defeated. His shoulders sagged and his head hung, his downcast eyes watching the shuffle of his dragging feet. The act was not too difficult. He could still see no way out of their situation and his body stung everywhere from the carrier’s destruction. His armour had taken the brunt of the damage but now that too pained him, its weight pulling him down and the shining metal roasted him in the unforgiving glare of the sun.
They were moved across the deck through a tangle of crates, cages and rope coils. Stairs leading both higher up and below deck were scattered seemingly randomly. Flesh Eroders were everywhere but there were plenty of places to hide.
“Now!” Trey bellowed.
Zak heaved his shoulders and thrust his head back, breaking his guard’s nose. With a fluid movement he swung around, kneed the bald man in his gut then threw him at the next closest warrior. Every free man rushed at him. Zak raised his arms and crossed his palms above his head. A blinding light flashed out from his hands, enveloping everything in searing white.
The light faded away. The closest Flesh Eroder smashed a club into Zak’s head. Zak broke his arm in return. Then the rest of the warriors piled onto him, beating the teen down and wrapping him in heavy chains.
A flabby man wearing lots of gaudy jewellery prodded Zak’s chest. “You fool. Did you really think you could run? Ha! Idiot.” A few of the other tribesmen snorted laughter directed at the teen.
“Says the guys who are a prisoner down,” Zak pointed out.
The men whipped around. Liam was gone, his guard dead on the ground with several tiny punctures in his throat. The flabby man roared in anger. “Search the ship! Find him!” Both men and women scurried off to obey the command. “Get these meat-sacks to the Bloodgrounds. Mellow wants a show so we won’t disappoint. The quicker they die, the quicker we can eat.”
Billy groaned. “I hope you know what you’re doing Trey.”
“So do I,” Trey muttered quietly.
Light flared and Liam felt the arms that held him suddenly tense then fall away. He could not see a thing but he had committed the ship’s deck to memory. Five steps forward, three to the left to avoid a pile of crates, duck under some hanging ropes then a clean sprint to the door that led downstairs into the bowels of the vessel. Fumbling blindly, he found the handle and swung the door open, slamming it shut just as the light began to die away.
The steps were a shabby collection of wooden planks that ranged in height from baby strides to sudden drops. If it was not for Liam’s attunement to the gloom then he would have stumbled more than once. Scant lanterns provided a dirty light which struggled to pierce through the soot stained glass that surrounded the flames.
Liam felt something scurry up his leg then Pux appeared upon his shoulder. “You have any idea on the layout of a giant land ship?” Liam shook his head. “As a tree dweller the size of an acorn, neither do I. I do however know that to take down something bigger than you, you need to take out its feet. In this case, we should destroy some of the wheels.”
“What about the controls?” offered Liam. “That was what lost us the carrier after all.”
Pux nodded slowly. “Yes. That would work. We would need to find them though. I didn’t see any external controls when I flew over the ship. They must be in one of the rooms above.” He made a series of clicking sounds with his tongue. A moment later more clicks responded from all around them. “This place is swarming with rats. Luckily for us they know this ship well. They tell me that we can get to several of the engine rooms from here but they are all guarded.”
“We need to avoid them where possible. I doubt that we will avoid them all though. I’ll need a weapon,” Liam said. He continued down the passageway cautiously, pausing with every crack and groan that came from the vessel.
Under the rats’ squeaked directions, Pux led them through the garbled maze of shanty corridors and cluttered storerooms. Three times Liam had to hastily hide when Flesh Eroders swept through in search of him. More times than he could count he had had to avoid rooms entirely or sneak like a shadow past muttering men and women.
“The rats are saying that the room up ahead to the right is filled with metal death. That means weapons of some kind,” explained Pux.
“What do they say?” Liam asked out of the blue. “Rats, creatures hated by man yet never far apart. Hated because they survive. We call them vermin when really they only mirror us.”
Pux laughed lowly, almost bitterly. “A human who can think past himself? Your race is always so full of surprises. I was brought up to view humans as egotistical tyrants willing to destroy anything for their own gain. While I’ve seen too many examples of this to dismiss it, you, Trey and the others really are on a whole different level.”
“The rats do not care about how they are viewed. As you stated, they survive . That is what matters to them. However much they are hunted, the more humans grow, the more they will,” Pux finished. “This door here,” he added.
Liam eased the door open and Pux darted in to check for life. It was clear so Liam entered. There was no light inside but with the door open he could just make out a row of chests against the back wall and an array of various crude looking cudgels and mallets hanging from the walls.
Pux climbed up to the lock on the first chest and set to work unlocking it with his sword. Liam inspected the weapons around him and could not help but to shudder. These weapons were designed to break bones. No armour offered protection from blunt force trauma. A blow to the head would not just leave a man dead but reduce his face to an unrecognisable pulp. Liam was a strong believer in dignity in death and these weapons offered none.
A lock clicked, snapping Liam away from his dark thoughts. He heaved the chest open to reveal a pile of hundreds of knives and daggers thrown together without a care. Their varied sizes and designs suggested that they were taken from cultures all across the world. That was unusual for a remote desert tribe.
Liam started to search through the knives for something he felt comfortable with while Pux made a start on the next chest when there was a sharp hiss behind them. Liam whipped around just in time to avoid a thrown dagger aimed at his head. It thunked into a wooden beam behind him. Opposite him was a wild haired woman wrapped in loose furs.
The woman readied a hatchet. As she advanced she began to scream at the top of her lungs in an ululating siren. She was going to bring the entire tribe down upon them. Still screeching, the woman charged at Liam. He grabbed her wrists and held her in place. He had no weapon but needed to silence her. Unthinkingly he tossed the hatchet to the side and grabbed her head. He twisted. There was a sharp snap, then silence.
Liam watched the woman slide to the floor as though she had no bones. Her fierce blue eyes stared up at him unblinkingly. Only now did he see that she was a scant few years older than himself. Sun darkened skin was soft and smooth, her hazel brown hair would be straight after a few minutes work with a comb. By most standards she would have been attractive but Liam could not force his eyes away from those glassy orbs that stared into his soul.
What was death? What defined that fleeting moment between a living, moving, thinking being and a corpse? What gave him the power to decide who should cease to exist? One person had to die but why should it have been her? He had killed her with his bare hands, looked into her eyes as he removed her from the world.
It was only when Liam felt a slight pressure on his leg that he realised that he was shaking. He looked down to see Pux placing a reassuring hand on his ankle. “You did what you had to.” He chortled to himself. “You said that nothing affects you. Things feel so different when you cannot escape it, don’t they. Holding a body in your arms shows things as they are, not like seeing death at a distance.”
“Would you have been so impassive had you been forced to do this?” Pux asked, indicating the body.
Liam reached out an unsteady hand and gently closed the girl’s eyes. Without a word he stood and grabbed a cudgel from the wall.
“If my life cost that girl hers, then it would be an insult to get myself killed now. I wonder how far through life a person can go, stacking up the deaths they have created in return for their own survival?”
“Ask any soldier. Any man with a soul who kills has to come to terms with it. Come, we still have a job to do.”
Liam took one last look at the dead girl then followed Pux out of the room. The corridors beyond were clustered with Flesh Eroder warriors who had been drawn to the scream. They were searching every room one by one. It was only when Pux snuck into a different room and started to knock items over that Liam was able to slip past into the next level down.
The noise here was much louder than above. Liam did not need Pux’s directions to find his way to the closest engine room. A warrior stood guard but after turning to stare at Pux, Liam smacked him in the head. Liam hoped that he had managed to keep him alive but he had little time to make sure. He dragged the man inside and shut the door behind him.
Two more men were inside the room but neither had anything more than a knife. Liam and Pux took care of them in short order and heaped their bodies in one corner.
In the centre of the room was the top quarter of a giant wheel that was turning at a constant steady rate. Steam filled the room and a large furnace burned. A wide pile of coal sat beside the furnace while huge barrels of saltwater lined the walls. Rusted pipes connected everything together creating a bramble like thicket of metal.
Liam eased his way through the pipes to stand beside the mammoth wheel. The furnace heated the water to steam that created pressure that turned the wheel. Liam had to admit that it was a clever setup. After a quick scan, he selected the joint where the wheel was connected to a large box that the pipes fed into. From under his shirt he unfastened a flat, flask like metal shape. To any inspection for weapons it would have felt like nothing more than a drinking flask or at the most an armoured plate. The soft rattling of powder within told a different story though. It contained far less powder than a usual boomball and its design made it less effective as a weapon. He placed the explosive container into a nook and lit the fuse with a small steel and flint device.
He made a hasty retreat and was halfway down the hall before a peal of thunder rang out and the sand fortress lurched and shuddered. The colossal ship continued to move though, albeit at a reduced pace.
“They’ll be on to us now,” said Pux, once again taking to Liam’s shoulder. “The engine rooms will be under heavy guard in a few minutes.”
Liam shrugged. “Well then we will just have to move fast.” He broke into a run. “If we take down two more of the wheels then move to the control room that should be enough to bring this ship down.”
“Shame about the other two giant ships really,” muttered Pux. He sighed. “I only hope that we’re quick enough to save the others.”
Trey stared wide eyed at the chamber that they had been corralled into after Liam’s escape. It was at the very heart of the sand fortress and was easily big enough to contain every Flesh Eroder on the ship. Just like the stadium in Onlasar it was a huge ring of tiered watch stands leading to a central ground that could be seen by all. Every inch of it was made of wood while crude lanterns offered a weak light that set the room into constant gloom. Sand coated the central area, dark stains in the golden grains hinting at the arena’s main purpose.
Hundreds of men and women stood along the tiers, baying for blood. The stands were nowhere near to capacity so Trey guessed that many tribesmen were required for the running of the sand fortress and the search for Liam.
Trey and the others were being held in prison like cells that were connected to the main stage of the Bloodground. Several warriors flanked the group but Trey’s sole attention was on Mellow who stood before them, separating the teens from the blood soaked sand.
The man leant casually against the bars that contained them but his eyes sparkled with malice and a faint, taunting grin never left his lips. “Death offers very little for all parties involved,” the man had begun. “I could slit your throats and watch you bleed out, but that does not improve me, and nor does it improve you. Life is the battle with death. If there is no battle, what merit has the death and in turn the life? No. Instead I will break you, reduce you to your core to see what it is made of, to watch if you will shatter or rebuild. Shall I tell you the best part? I will enjoy every second of it.”
“And I’ll enjoy punching you so hard that you cough out your own intestines,” commented Zak dryly. Mellow ignored him.
The Flesh Eroder’s leader began to walk around them, assessing them like cattle. “What do we have though? Two boys with strong morals who believe that there is always a better path. A young man who strives to be the best and can accept nothing less and a proud princess who wants nothing more than to run from her problems. I think that I have just the solutions.”
Mellow leaned toward one of the warriors and spoke something in his ear that was too quiet for Trey to hear. The warrior nodded and left them at a jog. Mellow now stood between Trey and Billy, placing a ribbon shrouded hand upon both boys’ shoulders.
“You two men of honour shall be first to break.” As he spoke, their bonds were cut and the iron bars lowered to allow access to the Bloodground. Mellow walked them forward to the roar of the crowd. Once they stood in the centre of the sand, two more Flesh Eroders appeared at their side, the teens’ weapons held in their hands.
“Take your weapons,” ordered Mellow. Slowly Trey and Billy complied, taking their blades from the men. Mellow continued as the men turned to leave the arena. “The rules are simple. Kill those that seek to kill you or die. Ten opponents, ten deaths in return for the two of your lives.”
Trey clutched his sword nervously. Mellow left them without another word. The crowd still howled and jeered, drowning out all other sound, the enclosed area amplifying the noise to near unbearable levels. Billy had an arrow nocked in his bow and was swinging it between the different entrances to the combat zone.
“Ten men. Five each. We might just manage this if they fight fair,” Billy said as calmly as he could.
Trey frowned. “Why did he put such an emphasis on breaking us. In a fight we either live or die. Unless he means to cripple us it makes no sense.”
“It’s all mind games,” grunted Billy. “We just need to focus and stay calm.”
There was a sharp sound from behind them causing both boys to whip around. One set of iron bars dropped and figures loomed in the darkness beyond. Billy was about to loose an arrow when the figures rushed into the light with near feral battle-cries. Long hair swayed with every movement, slender bodies in too few clothes shot forward and small hands held wicked daggers or short swords.
Billy’s bow fell to the floor. “Women,” he breathed, almost blankly. He made no move to draw any other weapon.
Trey was equally stunned but managed to keep a loose grip on his broad sword. The crowd was louder than ever now but the noise seemed to fall flat in his ears. This was what Mellow had meant. Trey cursed and looked for a way out but could see nothing.
The first woman, a twenty something year old with blonde hair, pounced at Billy who was still in a daze. Trey shoved him out of the way and deflected the sword thrust with his own blade. The other women circled around them, covering each flank like wolves stalking bear cubs.
Billy staggered back to his feet, drawing his rapier as he did. The women chose that moment to strike, flashing steel darting in every direction at once. Both teens blocked what they could but without aiming to injure they achieved little. Cuts began to crisscross their skin as blood splashed onto the sand again and again like the start of a spring rain.
“We can’t keep this up forever!” Trey managed to shout between hisses of pain. His sword was not designed to defend against several faster weapons. Its purpose was heavy killing strokes.
“I won’t kill them!” Billy growled under his breath. He was having a better time of defending himself but he was tiring faster than the relentless attacks of the female Flesh Eroders. “I won’t,” he kept repeating lowly.
Never pick on the girls, Billy, came his mother’s voice. You’re bigger than them for a reason. It’s your job to look after them, protect them. You’re a good boy and you’ll grow to be a good man. Look after us girls and you’ll be glad afterwards, mark my words.
A knife slid between the joints in Trey’s armour, piercing his skin and muscle. He screamed out in pain. Blood flowed freely from the wound. Another used his distraction and sliced across his face. He could feel himself weakening with every second. He heard a harsh thud beside him and turned to see Billy clutching his ribs and a woman with a hammer readying a second swing. Trey knocked the hammer women away with the flat of his blade and received a slash across the back of his calf for his efforts.
“I don’t want to die,” Billy wheezed through pained breaths. “Not now. Not like this.”
Distant memories began to race through Trey’s head, the images of his past somehow forming a barrier between him and the pain. A tiredness that carried with it a comforting warmth washed over his body. Consciousness began to fade. His mother’s face rose from the darkness, smiling and loving, only to be replaced by the struggling, defeated Sarah as she was dragged away from him by the Forukks.
Trey took a staggered step forward, his shoulders slumped and his head hung. “If I give up then that means I have given up on her, on everyone. I…Will…Save her!”
He swung his sword with the strength that he had feared he had lost. The steel tore into flesh and sprayed blood across the sand in a wide arc. The woman he had hit crumpled to the floor and shook violently for several seconds before becoming still forever. Billy stared at him in a lost bewilderment and the remaining women took a few steps back, now eying Trey cautiously.
“B-but we are the good guys. Killing women is never the answer. There has to be another way.”
“There is no other way,” Trey began coldly. “If you want to save your family you have to kill them. If not, your family dies with you. I will make any sacrifice to protect Mum. Never forget that!” he ended, sprinting at the Flesh Eroders. They too burst into action.
Red eyed, Trey cut into whoever came within his sight. One jumped at Billy with a mallet. He closed his eyes and threw a knife, the woman’s body crashing down at his feet. His rapier flashed brutally, glassy eyes watching in deadened horror at his actions.
Then as fast as it had started, bodies stopped jumping at their blades. Nine of the ten women lay dead in the sand while the final one writhed, clutching at her gut. Trey’s blood soaked blade was the only thing keeping him standing. He dropped to his knees, throwing up until nothing else remained in his stomach. Billy threw his weapons to the ground, disgusted by the sight of them. Silent tears streamed down his face.
Mellow appeared through one of the gateways, surveying the carnage with a smile. “You have done well. Your task is not finished yet though.”
“We won!” Trey screamed. He doubled over again and started to dry retch. Billy did not move. He stared into the distance as though in a dream.
“My deal was ten lives in exchange for your existence. Only nine have been taken,” Mellow explained, pointing at the injured woman.
Trey followed his finger and shook his head. “No. Sprites be damned. I won’t do it. Never again.”
The woman reached out her hand toward Trey. It was glossy with her own blood. She coughed then began to spasm. The next second, she too had joined the dead.
Mellow shrugged. “Oh well. That is ten lives. You two can live.” He whistled and men emerged onto the sand to collect the bodies. A grate in the floor was opened and the women’s corpses were unceremoniously dumped within it.
“I hope you boys don’t mind being locked away until the other challenges are complete,” Mellow said almost pleasantly. He motioned to his men who grabbed Trey and Billy. They too were carried over to the grate and were dropped into the hole. The bars slammed shut above them. “I want you to truly soak in your sin,” Mellow laughed on his way back to Zak and Dawn.
“You are sick!” Dawn almost sobbed. “Does life mean nothing to you?”
“Not really. Life is easy enough to replicate,” the chief said with a mocking grin.
Zak snorted. “You better have something better than a few women to throw at me.”
“Of course.” Mellow’s grin widened and his eyes glistened. “You get to fight me.”
Zak’s eyes lit up. He willingly walked to the centre of the Bloodground and almost whooped when he was handed his axe and katana back. Mellow stood opposite him completely unarmed. If the assemblage of Flesh Eroders had been wild before, now they were in a frenzy. They screamed and yelled at the top of their voices, feet stomping and arms a blur of movement.
There was a crash and the ship lurched. The ground shook for a few seconds then returned to its former equilibrium. The tribesmen had stopped cheering but when Mellow showed no reaction they resumed with refreshed vigour.
“It seems that your friend is causing us some trouble,” stated the chief blandly.
“It’s what we do best,” Zak boasted. “Now you better grab a weapon. I won’t falter just because you’re unarmed,” Zak said angrily. Despite this, his eyes searched every inch of the man, taking in every strength and weakness that he might possess.
Mellow laughed in his face. “Don’t worry. I don’t need any.”
Zak snapped. He leapt at Mellow and released a flurry of axe blows that would have matched the speed of any fencer. Every swing failed to hit its target though. Mellow swayed and ducked almost lazily, flowing around the attacks like they were coming at him in slow motion. The axe flashed down in a vertical cut and Mellow grabbed the blade with his hand. With a quick movement of his wrist he pushed at the blade and made the tip of the handle smash into Zak’s face.
Mellow released the axe but there was no trace of blood on his skin. Zak swung the axe again but Mellow did not even attempt to dodge this time. He blocked it with his arm and the blade struck and slid off as though it had hit metal. Mellow stepped closer and kneed Zak in the gut before punching him across the arena.
“Damn!” Zak managed to spit. He forced himself into a kneeling position but could not get his legs to support the rest of his body. “Think damn it! How can he be this strong?”
Mellow came into his view, followed shortly by a kick to the ribs so powerful that Zak smashed into the wall of the tiered stands. His axe lay in the sand where he had been kicked. With a grunt he struggled up, using the wall for support, then drew his twin katana. Previous pain forgotten, he dashed at the man, his blades like lightning strikes in his hands. Mellow blocked each with a deft movement of his hand.
“My turn,” the chief said. In an instant he switch to the offensive.
Like a pro boxer, Mellow pummelled Zak with precision punches that shook the teen to his core with every impact. For every attack that Zak managed to defend against, another two passed through.
A hand grabbed at Zak’s throat with a vice like grip and lifted him from the ground. With his free hand, Mellow laid into Zak as though he was a punching bag. Another explosion shook the sand fortress but Mellow did not miss a single beat even as half of the crowd toppled. When Zak stopped struggling, Mellow threw him at the ground with enough force to make him bounce a foot back into the air.
“Do you now realise just how weak you are? Thrown around like a rag-doll by an unarmed man. You are pathetic.”
Zak twitched but could manage nothing more. Mellow gave him a sharp parting kick to the ribs then turned his back on the boy. He clicked his fingers and Dawn was led out to him. She was giving her best attempt at stately serenity but that calm did not reflect within her eyes. They darted between Zak’s unmoving body and the grate where Billy and Trey were being kept.
“Are you scared?” he whispered into her ear. She tried to speak but her voice would not 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, 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 did not 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 suppose 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 blue 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 wheel 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 foot 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.