Improvising at the end of the world

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She recognised the inky black armour, light sliding off it, its sharpness defined against the shimmering membrane that had enveloped the valley. The armour sent a shudder down her back, as the faces of the crew of the Black Scree turned towards her, one-by-one, each of them accusing her of the shame of still being alive.

"Bring us about," she shouted, striding across the control deck of the Mountain Breaker. The new ship was strong and proud and huge but she was under no illusions: if Kraisa wanted to she would be able to cut through it like butter, just as she had done before. The Black Scree had been taken out of the air only a short distance from where they were, and Praetus Holst had no intentions of suffering a similar fate.

"Are we engaging the two combatants?" asked her lieutenant.

"Not yet," she said, "that's a fight we can't win. Take us in closer to the prison. We have people down there and I want to know what's happened to them."

The floor shifted beneath her as the ship moved, rotating on its axis, keeping its cannons between them and the palace, while drifting towards the southern mesa. The chasm between the mesas yawned below, producing an odd sense of vertigo in Holst that she'd never experienced before. Shaking her head to clear it, she looked through the glass of the command deck towards the ruined roof of the prison.

"We have multiple incoming from the north," shouted one of the lookouts from their nest high above.

"Identify," she ordered.

There was a brief pause. "It's the Avian fleet," came the response, the lookout's eye pressed to his scope.

"Avii fleet," Holst corrected. She didn't entirely trust the Avii, even after they had saved Bruckin from total destruction and defeat. It had been convenient; a guaranteed way to secure a favourable foothold in the valley. The saviours of Bruckin! If an army wanted to stage a stealth takeover of territory, they were going about it expertly. Then again, Tranton Seldon vouched for them and Roldan Stryke vouched for him. Stryke, at the very least, was someone she could trust amid the storm of confusion that had engulfed the valley. She flicked open her own scope and looked through at the swarm of black dots approaching rapidly, seemingly on an intercept course. A not insignificant part of her wanted to bring the ship's guns to bear, to be ready for the inevitable betrayal and double-cross; they had probably already killed the Liefs and taken Bruckin. All of this was likely a scheme hatched by Kirya Tellador to usurp her parents as ruler of the valley.

"Orders?" asked her lieutenant.

"Continue," she said, "bring us down on the plaza in front of the prison." They had arrived too late at the battle of Bruckin to see the Avii warriors in combat but she'd heard enough stories to know that even the Mountain Breaker wouldn't last long against a full airborne assault.

The angry black bees grew to discernible disc shapes, slowly at first, then suddenly they were upon them, buzzing about the plateau, some peeling off towards the palace to join the fray while others took up defensive positions around the mesas. Two of the discs slowed and descended towards the prison, their movement uncanny and violating everything Holst knew about air travel.

"We're at ground level, Captain."

She nodded. "Lower the ramp, I'm going down." She slid down the ladder from the command room and emerged through the door onto the main deck, where soldiers stood at readiness, some manning the cannons and others ready to either disembark or repel potential boarders. The ramp had been extended and she made her way down, taking in their surroundings, adjusting her perceptions to ground scale instead of the heightened overview she so preferred. She was accompanied by two crew members, who stayed back but kept their hands on their weapons.

One of the Avii approached, his arms low and palms open in a gesture which would ordinarily be welcoming but in the case of a trained Avii could mean something very different. Holst took a breath, made sure her mask was in place, and strode forward.

"Captain Holst, I presume?" the man said. "My name is Eris. We were summoned." He gazed up towards the palace, where flickers of light and bursts of dust and debris could be seen, the sounds of combat distant and dim. "Aera required assistance."

Holst raised an eyebrow. "Aera?"

"Commonly known as Tarn. He is her new host."

"Right," Holst said, smiling thinly. She could remember the time when the world had been made of laws and rules and physics; it had only been a few short months prior, after all. "I'm glad you're here. Come with me."

She led her two crew, Eris and some of the other Avii towards the prison gates, which were open. Bruckin soldiers stood outside and greeted their arrival, their eyes gazing upon the Mountain Breaker where it rested, the curved underside of its hull gently touching the ground.

"What's the situation, soldier?" Holst asked the nearest one.

Standing to attention, the soldier approached. "The two of them crashed out of the prison a few minutes ago, Captain," she said. "It was the leader of the Avii and someone else we didn't recognise. Possibly the warlord we were sent to capture."

"And the others?"

The soldier indicated for them to follow and led them inside the prison. The gaping maw of the pit startled Holst upon first sighting it: the hole was enormous, its diameter more than the length of the Mountain Breaker from stern to prow. As they got closer she became increasingly aware of the precipitous drop, its depth greater than she had imagined - at every step she expected the floor to be revealed, only for it to drop away yet further. In its centre was a buckled and ruined tangle of metal, what had perhaps once been an elevator shaft of some kind. It lay twisted across the base of the pit, only half-illuminated, like a ruined nest of some gargantuan create that had once called this hole its home.

"They had all gone down, right down to the bottom," the soldier explained. "There was another car that took them even lower. We'd stayed up here to keep watch. The next thing we knew, those two came blasting up, destroying everything in their path." He pointed up at the shattered roof. "They went out that way. It's been making all kinds of creaking noises."

Holst pulled out her scope and examined the floor of the pit. It was mostly in shadow but was still evidently a mess; nobody was going in or out of the pit anytime soon. Seldon, the princess and the others might already be dead.

"Is there any other way out of the prison?" she asked, observing the clawing hands pushing through the bars of the jail cells, level after level, all the way down.

The soldier shook his head. "Seems like they designed it so there isn't."

Eris stepped forward, examining the pit and the roof of the prison, looking as if he were making calculations in his head. "We might be able to help with this," he said, turning to Holst, "but first we'll need your assistance."

"What do you have in mind?"

"Your Mountain Breaker. It has very large guns, yes?"


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