Two boats met a quarter-mile out from the Juriss harbour. On the deck of the Swift Rider, four Exalts watched as the Realmâ€™s warship came closer, propelled by two dozen oars through the choppy water.
As the boat drew nearer, Lodaris raised his voice, which echoed across the straight. â€œWhat is your business in Juriss?â€
There was a pause, and a bustle of activity aboard the ship, and then a Dragon-Blood pushed his way to the bow of the ship. His black jade armour glittered in the sunlight, and he cracked his knuckles for emphasis as he spoke. â€œWe have come for you, Cathak Lodaris! We know that you are teaching the Glorious Dragon Paths to Outcastes and Anathema! You will return with us for judgment, and turn over the Anathema, or we will raze this island to the sea.â€
â€œThat is not acceptable.â€ Ghostly flames flickered around Lodaris, lending passion to his voice. â€œWe have no quarrel with the Realm, and do not seek a conflict with you. I am gathering any allies I can to do battle with the Lintha, and have no wish to battle the righteous soldiers of the Dynasty. But if you continue hostile behaviourâ€¦â€
â€œPah! You fear us, you mean.â€ The Dynast laughed shortly, drawing looks from the soldiers gathering near him. â€œI will not ask again. Surrender and prepare to be boarded.â€ Behind him, six more Dragon-Blooded came from their positions across the ship, gathering behind the leader. Weapons were drawn, an arrow was notched, and the ship began to close the distance between them.
â€œNo.â€ Lodaris turned to the others, lowering his voice. â€œThis may be a difficult battle. I would prefer not to injure anyone that we can avoid, but successfully stopping this attack without that will be a serious challenge.â€
â€œNot exactly.â€ Steel shrugged, gauging distances between the two boats. â€œThe real challenge is going to be identifying their bodies.â€
â€œSteel, I donâ€™t want to killâ€¦â€ Alinaâ€™s voice was drowned out as the essence cannon sitting on the port fired.
The roar echoed across the waves, as the impact from the blast sent the device rocketing backwards along the carefully-made steel rails lining the stone pier on which it had been placed. The crackling ball of Essence, close to ten feet across, rocketed across the waves, raising a devastating wake in its passing, and caught the Realm warship directly across the stern.
Timber exploded as it struck, sending showers of razor-sharp wood arcing across the waves, splashing into the sea. A few stuck into the deck of the Rider, causing sailors to dive for cover and cover their heads. The Dragon-Blooded, caught entirely by surprise, didnâ€™t even have time to raise his voice before the blast sent him slamming end-over-end into the suddenly roiling sea below, a broken frame held together only by his jade armour. Crewmen less heavily armoured were reduced to pulp by the raw intensity of the blast, and the entire ship pitched forwards as its bow was reduced to splinters in a moment.
Lodaris rounded on Steel. â€œWhat did you do?!â€
â€œI won us the fight.â€ Steel gestured casually at the sinking ship. â€œPoor bastards never thought that big olâ€™ cannon might be functional. I told Jasmine to fire it as soon as they closed to within ten yards of us.â€ He shrugged. â€œProblem solved. If youâ€™re really worried, though, we can swing over and check for survivors. Donâ€™t imagine theyâ€™ll give us much trouble.â€
â€œThey did not deserve to die.â€ There was a dangerous calm in Citriosâ€™s voice. Steel raised an eyebrow, and glanced around to find that all three of his companions were serving him equally venomous expressions. He ground his teeth and shook his head, gesturing to the bosun. The Rider began closing the distance to the ruined Realm ship, and Steel spun to look out over the water.
â€œYou people.â€ There was sadness in his voice, underneath the bitterness, and he gave a sidelong glance to Alina and Citrios before turning his expression on Lodaris. â€œWhy didnâ€™t they deserve to die? Because they thought they were the good guys?â€ He snorted. â€œBit of news for you â€“ so does everyone. The Lintha think that the Yozi are the good guys, that the world will be better with Kimbery in charge. Are you going to avoid killing them? The Deathlords think that theyâ€™re the good guys. That Oblivion is honestly better than life. You going to live and let live?â€ He spun around, slamming his fists against the railing. â€œYouâ€™re willing to put our lives and the lives of everyone in Juriss at risk for that? If you talked them down, theyâ€™d just go kill some other unsuspecting Solar.â€
Shaking his head, he stalked across the deck, spinning to look at the other three as he opened the door to his cabin. â€œYou may live in some fantasy world where you decided whether people live or die based on how nice you think they are. I live in a world where I do it based on if theyâ€™re trying to kill me. Deal with it.â€ The cabin door slammed shut behind him.
Lodaris sighed heavily, turning to look out at the wreckage. Citrios stepped over to him, quietly. â€œDo you think he was right?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ Sighing again, Lodaris looked out over the wreckage. â€œI just donâ€™t know.â€