I paced the lower deck of the airship cabin nervously, trying my best to appear calm and collected before the crew and my friends. I was very clearly failing. From the information gathered, the dreadnought was far bigger than originally anticipated, equipped with an artillery that would shoot down our airships. In order for an airstrike to work, we sent our best ships in to disable the cannons. That was Oliadner's charge, alongside some of my friends' clones.
"Coming into sight!" The pilot called out.
I turned toward the ship's windows, taking in the massive vessel that cruised the waters imposingly. Then I froze, my body forgetting to breathe entirely as I gaped at the ship in full view.
"What in the hells...." I muttered under my breath.
It was...a ship of sorts, a dreadnought as they claimed. But it was also something else. Its sides were wreathed with the bodies and bones of its victims. Severed limbs dangling from the railings, rotting pieces adorning nearly every inch above the water. The ship was the color of pale flesh to match. I leaned against the wall and steadied myself, barely holding onto the contents of my stomach.
"I guess you can say...it's a dead-nought. Eh?" I heard Cosmo chortle nearby. The slap of Maziel's hand followed right after.
My eyes scanned the port side of the dreadnought, and I spotted the almost small in comparison Illium vessels sailing beside it. Their hooks had clamped onto the enemy ship, and both parties bordered the other. They were locked in battle, Wroth shooting down at our ships while Illium soldiers swarmed the dreadnought deck. I could see a familiar group surging toward one of the artillery guns at the dreadnought’s rear, battling their way through a group of enemies.
Just one cannon, then we can land.
"INCOMING!" A crewman shouted as something slammed into the windshield. A blur of dark feathers shattered the glass as it slid across the floor. More figures darted inside, screeching as their talons swiped at targets.
“Defend the pilots!” I called out, drawing my scimitar and swiping at one of the winged demons. I wish Feeps was here. I thought miserably as I engaged my foe. Bringing him wasn’t a chance I wanted to take--leaving Illium without a capable leader. I had practically begged him to stay, but in the end he obliged.
Arrows whizzed by my ear, sinking into the demon that lunged at my side. I sliced up my own opponent, spilling black blood before rushing toward a cornered crewman. The cabin was crowded with crew and demons, one group fighting to crash the airship, the other to keep it afloat.
“HELP!” Cosmo screamed, as large demon with the head of a vulture dragged the kender out the window. Despite Cosmo’s attempts to sever its talons, the vulture-demon flung the kender out the window and took off before a volley of arrows pierced its chest.
“Taelim!” Maziel called, but I was already on it.
I jumped out after the kender, taking the form of a giant eagle. I caught Cosmo before he hit the thrashing sea below, and we returned atop the airship deck where a horde of flying demons were trying to stall the engines. There the vulture-demon watched us with glassy eyes, daring us to engage.
Cosmo shot a bolt into its wings, eager to reap his revenge.
With a primal bellow, Dagon had clambered his way on top of the deck, followed by his Dagon clone. Both raging dwarves were frothing at the mouth and swinging their maul wildly, knocking demons off the ship with brutal efficiency. Maziel followed, sending arrow after arrow into the horde, thinning their numbers.
As we fought for control of the airship, an explosion rocked the air. A plume of fire and shrapnel billowed at the dreadnought’s rear, and I watched as the artillery gun shattered. Its base, and part of the deck, collapsed in on itself and exposed a massive hold into the ship’s interior.
The demons took off at once, scattering to the wind, most returning to the dreadnought as reinforcements. Only a few survived the flight back, shot down one after another by the crew and party.
I changed back into my half-elf form and grinned. Time to land.
We met up with the other group, just as they emerged from the smoldering remains of the dreadnoughts interior, battered and bloody. The bodies of Wroth littered the deck, and even the brine air couldn’t mask the smell of smoldering corpses.
Oliander stomped forward to greet us. “Princess,” his voice was curt, eyes continually scanning our surroundings. Not far off we could hear our soldiers fighting their way across the ship. “We defeated the Rudder Master, and--”
“It was glorious!” Yaup, the cleric of Kord, boomed. “The dead sphinx was no match for our--”
“It’s officially dead now.” Oliander growled, glaring at the half-orc still bristling with battle pride. “They follow some sort of leader far below deck...”
“Thanks, General.” I said, already putting space between us. “We’ll take care of it. Can your squad handle the other artillery gun?”
“We’ll render the ship defenseless, Princess. Have no fear.”
“Good, because I want it at the bottom of the ocean when all of this is done.”
Working our way down the dreadnought felt like being inside a living breathing creature. Granted, it was more along the lines of necromancy, but we still couldn’t shake the feeling of crawling through our enemy’s insides. Occasionally, we felt the vibrations of cannon fire hitting the ship, rocking our footing. More than once a group of Wroth tried and failed to stop our progression. At some point, it all grew eerily still, even enemies stopped harassing us. That’s when we knew we were close.
The hum of the engines made the floors vibrate, by now we were deep in the ship’s bowels. As we went down a winding staircase, huge double doors awaited at the end of a long passage. The smell of rotting flesh was so strong, every footfall deceived us into believing we were walking on sinew.
As we approached the doors I glanced over my shoulder at my friends, fully acknowledging I wouldn’t have the courage to face this alone. Whenever I bounded headlong into danger, it was only because I knew they’d follow.
“You ready, Taelim?” Maziel asked me quietly.
I think she was really asking: Are you ready to face what lies beyond? Good or bad? Survivors weren’t guaranteed. We had our shoulders against the door, ready to push inward. I pressed my lips into a thin line and nodded once, trying to ignore the pools of blood at our feet.
The circular room was far bigger than the passage led me to believe. The ceiling rose at least sixty feet high, bodies chained to the walls in various states of decay. A wide walkway alongside the room looked over the pit of blood and bone, rusted cages were empty down below. Whatever housed them were hung on the wall or eaten by the creature at the far end of the room.
Gruesome didn’t really describe it. Though it had humanoid features, its huge blubbery limbs were strewn across its dais where it presumably watched us behind its golden mask. Its pale skin was wreathed with golden bangles and rings, contrasting against its ashen body. It held a squirming goblin in its ringed fingers, waving it just above its belly where a gaping hole with sharp teeth hungrily snapped at Snee.
He’s still alive? I thought initially. My eyes scanned the wall just beyond the blubbering mass. I could see Illium sailors shackled to the wall, alive but barely holding on. There, in my disbelief, I spotted Killian, chained with the rest.
“SAVE ME!” Snee screamed. As he was lowered toward the belly-mouth.
Klotonk unleashed a barrage of magic missiles that took the gluttonous Wroth by surprise.
It cocked its golden mask, as if nothing had ever dared to challenge it in its domain. The blubbering Wroth threw Snee back against the wall, laughing darkly. A giddy, unnerving titter. It pointed a fat finger in our direction, and I knew we had just earned first place on its menu.
What we had mistaken for more corpses littered across the room, were actually Wroth. Undead, half-devoured, Wroth. The tortured demons shambled toward us, doing their master’s bidding.
We did what came natural, and fought back. We split into two groups and worked our way around the pit. Two Dagons led the charge in a furious rage, maul slamming into whatever decomposing creature challenged him first. Arrows and crossbow bolts finished whatever wandered close.
Even as we neared, the glutinous Wroth continued to laugh, belly bouncing while it directed more Wroth our way. We brought them down, one by one, fatigued but determined. Just before we reached the dais, Klotonk sent off a fireball that exploded directly onto the blubbering mass.
As it howled in pain, I extended my hands and heated the metal on its ashen body. The howl became a high-pitched shriek as it clawed at its burning jewels.
My friends followed up like one our circus routines. Cosmo’s bolts buried themselves in its jugular, and Dagon was practically red with fury as he hammered away at the limbs. The rest of us cleaned house as we overwhelmed it entirely.
The glutinous Wroth swayed on its seat. It shivered violently as it fell backward, its skin melting away into pools of dark blood. The liquid bubbled at our feet, then splashed out in a boiling surge, producing curses from our lips. Other than the burns, a deep necromantic energy crept inside us, but we were far too busy ensuring the battle was over to care.
The ship rocked violently to one side, causing us to loose our footing. We felt the intermittent booms, and knew we only had minutes before we joined it at the bottom of the ocean.
“Let’s get the survives down!” I called out. “I’ll heal and put them on their feet.”
“Then we run.” Maziel added.
“Then we run.” I confirmed, already looking to the exit.
I leaned against the open doorway of our airship, watching the rest of the Illium fleet barrage the Wroth dreadnought. The vessel was sinking slowly in a fiery defeat, and I couldn't mask my contempt as it disappeared below the waves.
I headed to the back of the cabin where Killian sat on a makeshift bunk, still covered in bruises around his wrist and neck. At least he was mostly in one piece. He glanced at me sheepishly as I squeezed in beside him, not saying a word.
Killian was quick to fill the silence. “I know what you’re going to say,” he started, somewhat defensive.
“Do you now?”
His frown deepened. “Aye, that I was foolish to take them on. I was arrogant, you were right, I’m not allowed out again....All that and more, eh?”
Leaning back against the wall, I chuckled softly and closed my eyes. “I’ve got no right to talk about arrogance.” I paused for a moment, before finally admitting. “I guess I’m just glad you’re okay.”
“What’s the count? Twice now I’ve had my hide saved by you.”
I grinned widely. “And don’t you forget it.”