Glorious in the light of the morning sun, the fleet of sunken ships set sail on a circuit around the Skyland. Flanked on one side by azure seas and cerulean skies, and on the other by the dull gray Barrier Ring that formed a natural stone bulwark for the Skyland, the ships had steadily climbed higher and higher. Moana knew they were moments away from hitting the apex of their ascent, at which point they would turn in to sail over the skyland towards Dryn Dalon, the temple erected in reverence to their progenitors, the Dryn.
Throughout all of it, Moana stood back and watched Taleb alternate between pacing the deck and glaring at the Thelyon, which was nestled securely at the center of the fleet. Or perhaps from his position at the front of the ship Taleb could actually see Brekkus, and was glaring directly at him.
It wasn't that Taleb lacked a reason to be angry, she knew. Indeed, she believed he had good reason, based on how things had progressed since discovering the fleet earlier this morning. Taleb was brash and headstrong when he was thinking clearly, however, and she knew she had to be vigilant when his anger blinded him to good sense.
"First ship's going over," Kanin called out from behind, and she shifted her gaze beyond Taleb. There, the lead ship had crested the Barrier Ring and was beginning to bank inland.
A chill coursed through her as she watched the vessel glide forward. Where the rest of the ships had white canvas wings, with brightly polished hulls of some light wood, the lead craft had a dark and unpolished stain, with black canvas wings that were adorned with the image of pair of eyes in white.
Like a monstrous shadow it lead the fleet, a dark harbinger of catastrophe for the Dryn and those who stood beside them.
In its wake the other ships followed, each clearing the dull grey peaks of the Barrier Ring to reach out across the surface of Rut Nasaal. Located at the rear of the fleet, their ship Deleroc was the last to do so.
As it did, Moana considered the moment.
Above them, the sun blazed brilliantly in an azure sky dotted with wisps of clouds. Below them, ten tear-drop shaped shadows slithered across the jungle canopy. Behind them lay any chance of turning back, and before them was the hope of a better life.
Moana approached the front of the ship and took a stand beside Taleb. She could feel his gaze land on her briefly before he looked forward again without a word. In the distance, beyond the formation of ships, she could see familiar structures.
Dozens of wide, stone towers rose from the skyalnd's surface as if they had been grown from it. Bare and gray and lifeless, the towers were riddled with holes that allowed access to the interior and balconies that completely encircled it at different heights, allowing access to the holes. From above, she knew the collection of towers would appear as matrix of concentric circles.
In contrast to those towers, which housed the Dryn Mar population, was the temple Dryn Dalon. Five towering spires were connected to a massive central dome through a series of catwalks. Unadorned, the white stone of the center dome gleamed radiantly in the sun. Of the adjoining towers, one was just as white while the other four were each veined so heavily with a different color that from this distance, the white of them could not be seen. Instead, there was a tower of red, blue, green, yellow and white all connected to the central dome.
The collection of structures had no name.
It was not on any map.
But it was her home.
No, not her home, she decided. Surely home would be some place warm, and welcoming and free. This place had been a residence, and nothing more. Yet now, this place was no longer even that.
"They are spreading out," Taleb remarked beside her, and in truth she had forgotten he was there. As her attention returned to the present her focus shifted to the ships. The tight formation of the fleet had indeed lossened up, the ships drifting further apart as they neared the temple. Taleb turned away, and he heard him shouting behind her.
"Kanin! Prepare to ram Brekkus' ship!"
Moana's gaze landed on the Thelyon, now exposed by the spreading of the fleet. Like busy bees, Dryn Mar buzzed back and forth between it and the other ships. From the ominous ship leading the charge came a flurry of activity and shouts as Dryn Mar landed on the decks, clearing the skies except for the ships themselves.
The commotion rippled through the fleet like a wave, and as it reached her ears she saw the reason. She pointed beyond the fleet, towards the Temple and surrounding buildings.
"The loyalists have taken wing," she said.
Taleb grunted, and she turned to regard him. His focus was shifting between the clouds of Dryn Mar rising in the distance and the Thelyon. She felt as if she could see inside his mind, knew he was trying to calculate if he had time to engage Brekkus before the fight with the loyalists was engaged.
Combat trained and devoted to the Dryn, the loyalist soldiers had taken up formations, formations she recognized, and were bravely flying out to meet the advancing fleet.
Abruptly, she laughed.
"What's so funny?" Taleb snapped.
"All of this," she exclaimed. "It's their worst nightmare. They must believe a fleet of Lon ships has just arrived, and is bearing down on them. Are they not courageous, though? They come to meet us, ready for the fight."
"And a fight they will get. But first, I must get Bryne back."
"Is that why you're so eager to engage Brekku's ship?"
Another commotion rippled through the fleet, but Moana could see the formations of Dryn Mar now, and knew the reason behind it before it reached their ears.
The loyalists had stopped their advance.
"Perhaps you spoke too soon, sister?"
From beyond the fleet, a curious sound began, like rushing water growing close. As the ships advanced. the noise became more clear.
Taleb must have realized what the sound was as well, for he looked at her just as she looked at him.
"That's what it sounds like, but why?"
She could tell by his expression that he didn't understand what was happening either. The fleet continued to sail forward, and the lead ship was beginning to bank once again, to set itself on the course that would lead it away from the skyland. The original plan assumed the loyalist soldiers would continue to pull forward, to engage the fleet, and be drawn away from the Temple.
However, it was clear that the loyalists had no intention of doing anything other than cheering the arrival of the fleet.
Moana laughed hysterically.
"What is wrong with you?" Taleb snapped.
She did not answer him, because he was already on edge, and telling him that she found how ridiculously awry their plan had gone to be hilarious was unwise.
From the Temple, there was a bright flash, and their attention was pulled towards the structure. A unified cry of terror came out from the Dryn Mar just as the thunderous boom of the explosion reached their ears. Yellow chunks of stone were raining down from the shattered crown of the yellow spire, and smoke was billowing from it amidst orange and red flames.
All eyes were turned towards the temple, a stunned silence permeating the Dryn loyalist and rebels alike.
Then more screams began, and initially Moana thought they were coming from the Temple. It wasn't until Dryn bodies began falling out of the sky among the clouds of loyalist soldiers that she realized she was happening. Freedom Force rebels, positioned among the ranks of the unsuspecting loyalists, had taken advantage of the moment.
Up ahead was a clear path to the Thelyon, and the banking of the ships would bring the Deleroc right in line with it if Kanin guided them correctly.
Moana looked at Taleb, unsurprised to see a hungry glint in his eyes and a grin spread across his face.
The fight to kill the Dryn and claim Rut Nasaal for the Dryn Mar had officially begun.
Brekkus listened to the cheers of the loyalist soldiers and let out a heavy sigh.
"Big damn heroes, Pineda. That's what they think we are. Returned from the World Below and battle with the Lon, victoriously sailing their ships home to celebrate. Can you believe it?"
"Certainly," Pineda replied, having come to join him at the front of the ship as the cheering began. The fleet had spread out, and they had a clear view of the loyalist soldiers, flocks of yellow, red, blue, white and green that were not so far away now.
"Bah, but so can I, and it leaves a sour taste in my mouth. The need it. They deserve the feeling of victory against the Lon."
"You're still not convinced we're doing the right thing."
Brekkus noticed it wasn't a question.
They were both looking in the direction of the Temple when the top of the yellow tower exploded with a brilliant flash, sending chunks of yellow-veined stone in every direction. Gasps and cries echoed from every direction as the sound of the blast reached their ears and a thick plume of smoke rose into the sky.
"No!" Brekkus heard himself scream, and he felt Pineda's hand on his shoulder.
Anguished screams reached his ears, and at first he did not differentiate them to from the grieving cries of his friends and family aboard the ships. It soon became clear that the cries were more distant, and more pained, and as he gazed out across the gathered loyalist soldiers, he saw why.
Chaos had taken over them, with Dryn Mar battling Dryn Mar, and many falling lifeless from the sky.
"Freedom Force has struck. I'm actually rooting for the loyalists," Tanith chirped, and Brekkus had been so stunned by the events that he hadn't even realized Tanith had joined them.
"Such a mistake I've made," Brekkus said, more to himself than either of his companions.
Pineda turned him to face her, a hand now on both his shoulders. "You knew that Freedom Force was going to attack."
"Yes, of course I did. But could we not have done this without them? Could we not have just sailed away? Moments ago, they were cheering for us. Cheering! So full of life!" His shoulders slumped and he released another heavy sigh as he softly continued, "Before they even realized we were not what they suspected, we could have been well on our way. They could not have caught us. No deaths."
"You could not have known that," Pineda said firmly. "You had every reason to believe they would engage us, and that you needed something else to occupy them. In that, the plan has succeeded. The loyalists are engaged, and the fleet is already banking to begin the journey away, unhindered. We stick to the plan, a successful plan. Your plan."
Brekkus broke free of her hands and slammed his fist down on the ship's railing.
She was right, of course, but it still felt wrong.
He turned his attention behind them, towards the Deleroc, expecting to see it turned in towards the fighting. Instead, it was still with the fleet, and angled in such a way that would bring it very close to the Thelyon.
Brekkus considered that for a moment, then remembered that one of the Freedom Force fighters was on board, down below, having suffered a nasty head wound.
Taleb would come for the fallen soldier, then, and maybe more.
"Back to your ships, both of you. There will be people there looking for your support in the face of this dramatic turn of events."
Pineda grabbed his hand and gave it a firm squeeze, and he patted her hand softly. Topaz wings unfurled, and she launched herself into the air, towards her ship.
"It's a painful burden," Tanith said, and Brekkus turned to face his pupil. "But you taught me that when the choices are painful, we know our hearts are fully in them, and such choices are what define us."
Brekkus chuckled. "And so they do."
"Then worry not. You have decided to lead us to freedom, and will succeed."
Brekkus smiled and gave a nod, and then Tanith too was airborne, heading to his ship.
Once more he looked back, towards the Deleroc, and saw that it was still with the fleet, and closer now as well, though none seemed to have noticed amidst the commotion at the Temple.
"Alright Taleb, let's get this over with," he muttered.
For the next few moments he quickly went around the ship, making up reasons to send the handful of remaining Dryn Mar away to the other vessels. As the last one took wing and flew off, Brekkus made his way towards a simple door near the rear of the ship. Even after ages buried in the depths of the skyland, the hinges effortlessly swung open, smooth and silent. A narrow staircase descended into a long corridor. Sunlight passed from adjacent rooms through open doors, riddling the corridor in an alternating pattern of light and shadow.
Brekkus approached the first room, which had evidently been a sleeping quarters. The walls were lined with beds stacked two high, and sunlight poured in from a trio of high, round windows on the far wall. Nothing about the room resembled the level of elegance the stateroom at the end did. There was no ornamentation in the woodwork of the beds, no gilding or decoration in the room at all.
In one of the beds lay a Dryn Mar with fiery red scales, still very much unconscious from the looks of it.
From outside, the thunderous boom of a second blast reached his ears. He rushed to the wall and climbed up the beds, hoping the ship had banked far enough that he could see Dryn Dalon out of the high, round windows. After a moment to orient himself, he spotted it.
The yellow tower was gone, replaced with a pile of smoking rubble. The catwalks that extended to the central dome had collapsed as well, and a cloud of white dust accompanied the billowing black smoke.
"Rasmusen, what have you done?" he asked in horror.
Taleb watched the tower crumble, in complete awe of the explosion that had brought it down.
"What has Rasmusen done? And, how?" Taleb asked, more to himself than anyone else.
"I can't even imagine, but I'm go-" Moana started.
Taleb cut her off with, "What's he doing?"
She scowled at him, and he pointed to the Thelyon, which had retracted its wings and was falling back, towards the Deleroc.
"Everyone, be alert," Taleb shouted over his shoulder, unable to take his eyes off the approaching ship.
He hefted the massive Lon blades in his hands, and imagined them slicing into Brekkus. Envisioned the leader of Better Tomorrow on his knees, pleading for mercy.
Mercy Taleb had no intention of giving.
The vessel was very close now, and Taleb could not wait any longer. He called a dozen of the Dryn Mar to go with him, and ordered the rest to form a barrier around the ships to keep out anyone that tried to get in, except Tanith.
If Tanith came, then he was more than welcome to die beside his mentor.
Taleb led the squad over to the deck of the Thelyon, where they found Brekkus standing with the body of Bryne at his feet.
"Taleb," Brekkus said by way of greeting.
Taleb merely grunted as he motioned for those that had joined him to search the vessel.
If Brekkus cared, he didn't show it. His eyes stayed on Taleb as he said, "I wanted to return your solider to you. Also, I said we would give you two ships."
Taleb began to pace the deck, walking in a wide circle around Brekkus.
"And I told you, you had made a terrible mistake."
"I did, indeed," Brekkus replied, and the admission brought Taleb to a slow halt. "I enlisted the assistance of the Freedom Force. Easily, it was the worst decision I have ever made."
Taleb growled and charged forward, slashing with one of the ancient blades.
"You will pay for your arrogance," he shouted as Brekkus leapt back. Taleb pressed on, alternating slashes with each hand.
"If I do, then I will, and I would rather that than be as you are, and have many others suffering for my arrogance instead."
Taleb roared in rage, thrusting and slashing at Brekkus with reckless abandon. Brekkus continued to work quickly, staying just out of reach of the blades, and never seeking to return the attack. Taleb knew that Brekkus would find it nearly impossible to do so at any rate. Long as they were, the reach the blades afforded him was quite large, and if Brekkus got caught inside of it, it would be the end of him.
"Give up this foolishness, Taleb," Brekkus shouted as he sidestepped an overhand strike from Taleb. "It's the Dryn you want to kill, is it not?"
Taleb did pause then, to catch his breath and take a measure of Brekkus' condition. Although Taleb was breathing heavily, it seemed to him that Brekkus was breathing much harder. His eyes were also darting frequently to the blades, and Taleb realized that Brekkus was concerned they might actually make contact with him.
He chuckled, savoring Brekkus fear of the weapons in his hands.
The other Freedom Force fighters that had boarded the ship were coming back from below the deck now, having either found nothing or become aware of the commotion. Their cheers encouraged him, and he prepared to launch another attack.
"Do not worry, Brekkus. These blades will not stop with you!"
"Nor start with me," Brekkus said, and with a quick thrust of his wings he launched himself backward, over the railing and into a dive.
"Brekkus, you coward," Taleb shouted as he rushed forward.
Another flash of light from the temple caught his attention, and was much different than the other two. Instead of fiery and loud like the two that brought down the yellow tower, this flash was silent and prismatic. It seemed to come from entire surface of the dome as if emitted from it, instead of exploding from inside of it.
An uneasy stillness filled the air, accompanied by the silence of uncertainty.
It was a scream born of pain and terror, and Taleb spun to see her on her knees. The sight of her in such suffering erased all thoughts of chasing Brekkus from his mind.
Her wings bubbled, and liquefied drops of them fell to the deck as she continued to scream.
More screams joined her in the chorus of agony that was spreading throughout the Dryn Mar.
Searing pain hit him as well, coursing through his body and seeking to send him to his knees beside Moana.
Stubbornly he resisted, as if by standing he could prevent whatever was coming. He heard the tearing, and managed to look over his shoulder. Like dry earth, his wings had started to crack and split. Parts of them had already turned to dust, carried away on the wind.
Too intense to resist any longer, the pain succeeded in bringing him to his knees. The Lon blades clattered and spun across the deck as the scream he had kept inside finally found escape. Beside him, one of the red scaled Dryn Mar he had set as an airborne sentry landed on the deck with a loud thud. Its wings had turned to embers and ash, burning away as it writhed in agony.
Beyond the ship's railing, he could make out scores of other Dryn Mar falling from the sky like a rain of many colors.
It was the last thing he saw before the pain stole his consciousness.
V 1.0 Uploaded 8/1/17 - Wow! Almost a year, that's how long it took me to get these five chapters done. Thanks to all those who have read it and provided feedback and encouragement.