Of gods and monsters

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Nearing the plateau atop the southern mesa, a sudden reverberation knocked Stryke from his feet and he collapsed to the ground, a wave of dust rippling past and into his eyes before he could shield them. A low, subterranean roar seemed to build and spread from directly beneath them, away from the city and into the distance, the low rumble continuing to make itself felt in his bones even once he could no longer hear it.

Wiping dust from his eyes with the back of his hand, he blinked repeatedly until he could see again, and was somewhat reassured to discover that he was not the only one to be lying in a heap on the ground. There was a time when he would have sprung back to his feet, alert and unshaken; instead, he had to fight against his aching bones, feeling every single one of the years weighing him down. That was something he and Fenris had always noted, as seemingly ever-younger recruits had joined the King's Eyes.

They were all gone now. He was still here. Gritting his teeth, he heaved himself upright, staying in a crouch, leaning on one knee. The city below was changed, he noticed, at first unable to identify what was different, then noticing dark tears emanating out from the mesas: they were gullies where the ground had collapsed, buildings falling into them and leaving odd, shadowed paths cutting across the streets. As he watched, the dark streaks of sunken ground continued to spread, like tendrils reaching out across the valley, the fissures splitting off into new directions, like a forked river. The dark web spiralled out from the capital, until he could no longer make it out in the day's haze. The tremors lessened but there remained an uneasy, low level vibration that he could feel when placing a palm to the ground.

"What just happened?" asked Michels. "There isn't enough explosive in the world to cause a simultaneous detonation like that."

Before Stryke could answer there was a flicker in the far distance, at the very edge of the valley where the mountains rose up out of the ground to meet the sky. There was a shimmer, then something began to rise into the air, all along the mountain ring, as if a tent's roof were being pulled into place on an enormous scale. It shifted colours, never quite settling, like an oily film on water. The translucent barrier continued to arc up and over, until it connected with itself directly above the mesas, sealing the sky away and casting an odd, muted light over the entire valley.

"I don't think we're dealing with explosive here," he said. "We need to get to the top. Hurry!"

Dragging themselves to their feet, Stryke and Michels led their team up the incline until the plateau atop the mesa came into view. The plateau was marked with cracks, some hairline thin and others wide enough to insert a hand. The Mountain Breaker hovered on the other mesa, across the bridge, lightly moored but ready to move at a moment's notice. She hung there, bold and beautiful, and Strkye felt a warmth towards the ship that he'd never felt for a vessel before. At that moment there was a series of wrenching crashes from somewhere across the mesa, Stryke thought perhaps from the direction of the prison, and then an eruption of glass and metal and wood into the air heralded the arrival of two human figures, spinning and tumbling their way into space, seemingly propelled by an invisible force.

People aren't supposed to fly, not without ships. But as Stryke watched, the two figures continued to ascend, their travel taking them across the bridge towards the palace. He squinted in the strange light, then pulled his scope from his belt.

"One of them is Tarn!" he shouted. "It's the boy. I don't recognise the other." As he looked through the glass, he felt a tightening in his stomach. He didn't recognise the other figure, armoured and clad in black, but it matched the description given by Holst and Baron Lief. "We need to get over there and help."

Michels gazed up at the pair, who were evidently engaged in combat even while they spun through the air. He held a hand to his brow. "I think that fight is a little beyond our skill set."

The man had a point. "The prison, then," Stryke said, pointing, "perhaps we can find out what is happening, and find the others."

As they made their way briskly across the mesa, past abandoned estates and government buildings, a new noise came to Stryke's ears: a whistling hum, as if something was approaching rapidly from behind them. Turning to the north, he saw the sky pocked with black circles, which rapidly resolved into the impossible flying discs of Aviar. They swooped overhead, some scattering to the city below, a handful redirecting towards the palace. Tarn and Kraisa had disappeared from view, though crackles of energy could be heard as if a storm had settled over the palace and nowhere else.

As he led his team towards the prison, its roof clearly shattered, some of the discs descended to hover just off the ground, their passengers disembarking gracefully, and Roldan Stryke realised that retirement had always been a hopeless dream; it was a notion for other people, who lived different sorts of lives - he would keep going until he could go no further, and then he would stop. That seemed acceptable.

Thanks for reading! By my count there's about half a dozen chapters left, if that, and then TMC is finished. If you've been reading from the start then THANK YOU - that's three years of dedication, I think, which is a remarkable thing that I absolutely do not take for granted.

Not long to go, now. Hang in there.

As always, please do vote, comment and share - with the book nearing completion this is a great time for new readers to discover it.

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