Chapter 13- Air Superiority
Okay, the shield is holding, the shield is holding. I repeated the mantra to myself, wanting it to be true and knowing it wasn’t. The cracks were healing too slowly and my mind felt like it was about to snap in two as I gave my all to repair the damage. Another plane dived from the sky above, battering us with bullets and reset my hard work, lengthening the breaks in the shield.
“Listen, everyone head to the forest and spread out!” Blaze said, ordering pairs of soldiers in different directions. “On my word, run as fast as you can and meet back at the vehicles!” Then she leaned in to my ear. “How long can you keep this up?”
Judging from the shield’s thin, almost transparent width, I shook my head. “Not much longer.” Sweat dripped down my eyelids, watering my view of the shield and the planes raging above. The flashes of crimson from the biplanes speeding by and the booming shots from the flagships, filtered through the mint green shield, created a sickening watercolor. “Another attack. Maybe.” Blaze’s face grew more grim and she bit her lip in thought, working out several alternatives behind her eyes. “I’ll keep it held. Trust me. Be ready to move.”
“We will.” She squeezed my shoulder gently. “Hang in there.”
Expecting another attack any moment, I worked rapidly to fix the shield and hold it for another pass. My fingers ached and cramped up, and my mind seemed to slide out of my head, as if defeated and finally deflating from the stress. Bit by bit, inch by inch, the shield thickened and the cracks disappeared from the bubble. Almost there, I lied to myself. Almost there.
“Behind us!” a soldier shouted and I heard a plane approaching fast from our rear. I couldn’t spare a glance or break my concentration. Especially because another plane heading for our front already had me on edge. A two-pronged attack, coming right for us. That we would not survive.
Out of my peripheral vision, I caught Blaze’s eyes. She conjured up a fireball in each hand, prepared to start throwing the heated missiles. “Get rid of the shield,” she said, the flames growing larger in her hands. I stared at her in disbelief and she stepped back, her eyes darting back and forth between the planes. “Do it on three, then run.”
It was risky. Very risky. It was also our best chance to cause some confusion between Nega’s forces and give us a few precious moments. I nodded and we bobbed our heads in unison. Once, twice, three times, and then the shield vanished.
Everything happened in an instant. Blaze hurled a fireball at full speed at one plane, then the other at the second plane. The flaming missiles collided with the noses, burning through the engines, and making them explode. The fire continued through the metal, melting the pilots at the yoke. Smoke enveloped the biplanes and they crashed on either side of our group in fiery masses, throwing up dirt and debris. I conjured two quick teal walls, blocking the bits of metal from pelting our group.
“Move it!” Blaze ordered at the top of her lungs. We sprinted for the jungle, the soldiers disappearing between the thick trunks first. Blaze and I were further from the tree line and pounded our legs hard, using every ounce of breath we had.
Any minute, I expected another plane to swoop in and cut us to ribbons. Instead, another explosive boom resounded behind us, the shockwave propelling us forward. I chanced a look behind me, fearing the flagships had locked in on us.
Up above, the troop transport was sinking toward the jungle, clouds of smoke bellowing from its drooping front end. The robot guards inside poured out through the open doors, crashing onto the ground. Any left behind were rammed out of the ship by the captured soldiers.
Below the transport, several biplanes were flying slow and hovering in place, allowing the prisoners to hop aboard them. In the gunner’s seat of one of the planes, I spied a familiar koala’s ears and beady eyes poking up above the sights of the machine gun attached to the back of the plane.
“Gardon!” I said, pointing him out to Blaze and the soldiers. The rest of the planes beneath the transport were also piloted and manned by Gardon’s group. I didn’t know how or when he procured them and I didn’t care.
Nega’s attention shifted to Gardon and he bellowed at his forces. “Get them!” The planes turned away from us and zoomed towards Gardon with Nega at the rear. By then, the prisoners had been unloaded and they were beating a hasty retreat in our direction.
“Get to the vehicles!” Blaze ordered. She ran backwards, hurling fireballs left and right into the squad of planes trailing behind Gardon’s group. The enemies plummeted to the ground in fiery explosions or burst apart, shooting hunks of metal everywhere. I provided shields to the both of us as we covered our group’s retreat. I managed to grab some planes out of the air, messing with their controls and bringing them to spectacular crashes that flattened their noses and sheered their wings off.
As the other planes on our side continued on ahead to the vehicles, Gardon banked around with a pair of friendly planes, aiming across the pack of robots for Nega. He gunned through the swarm, ripping holes through several planes and clipping Nega’s outer wings.
Nega fired back with a volley of missiles aimed directly at Gardon. Blaze’s fireballs detonated several in midair. The rest, I snatched with my telekinesis and flung them in any opposite direction. A few hit the temple, destroying what support was left on the sides as it collapsed in on itself. The rest hit the wall of planes that protected Nega, sheering more of his protective layer of robots away and exposing him.
Seeing that he was outgunned at the moment, Nega cursed and turned his ship around, heading for his flagships. Gardon’s two partner planes started after him, but he called them back. “Hurry! We have to get out of here while we can!”
He was right. The flagship’s cannons were already targeting us now that Nega was almost clear of the danger zone. The ground soldiers were far ahead, probably at the vehicles by now, but Blaze and I were stumbling through the vegetation and uneven terrain. We wouldn’t make it unless we flew.
“Here,” I said, running beside her and offering my hand. “We have to fly.”
She stared at me, panting and I thought I might have to convince her again like on the bridge. Thankfully, she slapped her palm in mine, squeezing tight. “I won’t go too high,” I said, assuring her and I scooped her up, flying above the canopy. She looked down into my chest, never glancing at the scenery, even though I stayed true to my word, ensuring my toes draped the tops of the tall trees. It was almost like gliding across mounds upon mounds of snow, the way the white leaves curved and rose here and there.
By the time we reached the vehicles, we already heard the cannons in the background. Gardon and his team flew on ahead, leaving us to the vehicles. We scurried inside and started up the vehicles. Behind us, the booming rumble of the flagship’s shots sounded closer. Thankfully, the trees hid us well and we made a mad dash for the edge of jungle.
The radio crackled to life. “This thing on?” Gardon asked. “Your Highness? Silver?”
I picked up the radio as Blaze drove. “Yeah, we’re here. Where are you?”
“Circling outside the jungle. Can you see me yet?”
As we crossed the jungle’s threshold, I gazed into the sky and spotted a flock of red planes flying lazily around a central point. “Yeah, we see you. Where on earth did you get those from?”
“Came across them on our way to the other side of the forest,” Gardon said. “They had landed there, I guess hiding in wait to ambush us. I figured it would help to have some air power. Lucky for us, the robots weren’t aware until it was too late. So these things still have their weapons: guns, missiles, you name it.”
Finally, some good news. “That’s great. And everyone’s safe?”
“We’re all good down here.”
“And the emerald?” he asked.
I looked to Blaze and she pulled it out of her pocket. “Still safe with us,” she said.
“That’s good to hear,” a voice broke in on the radio. Although full of static and hard to discern, we knew who it was. “I would hate to hear that something happened to my emerald, especially when I’m so close to getting another one.”
“You won’t lay your hands on another one, Nega,” Blaze said to the radio. “We won’t let you.”
“We’ll have to see, now won’t we? I look forward to meeting you again in the marshes.” Then the static died.
“Gardon,” Blaze said, “did you get that?”
“Yes, I did,” he said grimly. “We can’t see him from here, but we’ll scout on ahead and wait for you.”
“Good. See you then,” she said. I hung up the radio and sat back in my seat.
“These wouldn’t happen to be the Misty Marshes, would they?” I asked.
“The very same,” she said. “However, the name is a lie. Only the end of the marshes by the sea is ever misty and foggy. The rest of the marshes are actually pretty clear, but the name stuck.”
“And how much do you want to wager the misty part if where the next emerald will be?” I asked with a wry grin.
“Why don’t you,” she covered her mouth, yet couldn’t hide the mighty yawn behind her fingers, “check the book on it?”
“Why don’t you get some rest?” I suggested. “You’ve been up all day.”
“I’ll be fine,” she said, although her bloodshot eyes and drooping lids said otherwise.
“Just for a few hours,” I said. “I can drive. I got some sleep earlier.”
“No, no. I’ll be fine,” she said.
Up ahead, a deer jumped into our path. “Watch it!” I shouted. She veered to the right, narrowly missing a tree, then another tree, then we were back on the dirt road. Blaze stopped the car, her eyes wide now and trembling fingers clenching the wheel. She looked around, checking on everyone. “Is everyone all right?”
The soldiers were gripping their seats and seemed just as caught in the headlights as the deer, but settled down soon. Blaze heaved a sigh and nodded. “Okay, you can drive.” We switched seats and I shifted the vehicle into gear, starting down the solitary road, the only thing visible in the vehicle’s headlights.
“Close one,” I said after a while, when the soldiers had dozed off one by one.
“Yeah,” she said. “Then again, so was the exchange.” She gave me an annoyed look. “I thought I told you and Gardon you both should rescue the prisoners.”
“We thought one of us could handle it.”
“And if not? If you had ended up risking their lives?”
“We would never do that,” I said sincerely. “If the group rescuing them had needed help, then the other would have helped. Honest.” She looked me in the eyes, searching for any lie, but I was completely serious.
“Very well,” she said. “Still, we can’t expect to beat Nega if you disobey orders.”
“If you had gotten captured yourself, what then?” I asked.
“First, Nega would have a tough fight on his hands taking me,” she said. “Best case scenario: if the hostages were rescued, I would have no excuse to hold back and we may have had a chance, albeit slim chance, to capture Nega. Second, if he did take me, he would keep me aboard his flagship. With both emeralds.”
“Which would mean nothing if you couldn’t escape.”
“I’ve been in tougher spots,” she said. “And we may have learned more about how to beat him.”
“I won’t risk your life.”
She turned in her seat, lowering her voice for the sake of the sleeping soldiers behind us. “We’re risking our lives nonstop with Nega.”
I shook my head. “Not deliberately,” then amended my words before she could counter. “I mean, we’re not reckless about it. I won’t follow an order that puts yours, or someone else’s, life at risk if I can help it.”
“We followed yours in Blue Mirage,” she said. “You risked yourself with those serpents.” She winced at the memory. “They could’ve killed you.”
“You didn’t have to,” I said. “You could’ve refused.”
“I trusted you,” she said, then stopped, as if she had spilled some secret. Her gaze dropped to her hands and she squeezed them tight, nodding and reaffirming what she said. “I trust you. I trusted that you would come back t-to us.” She stuttered and I wasn’t sure why. She hid her face, studying the stars for a few moments. “I want you to trust me too.”
“I will. I do,” I said. “And I’ll continue to if you promise to be less reckless.”
“Only if you promise the same. I would hate for you to not make it through this.”
“I want you to make it through too.” I sighed and smiled at her. “Deal. No more reckless behavior.”
She smiled and lay back in her seat. “Good night, Silver.”
“Good night, Blaze,” I said quietly, out of range of the soldiers’ hearing. As her eyes closed, I stole a peek at the snoring soldiers. Maybe it was the adrenaline still coursing through my veins or the thought of not making it out of this alive giving way to a devil may care attitude, that this was a perfect opportunity that wouldn’t present itself often, if ever again at all. Whatever the case, I leaned over and planted a quick peck on Blaze’s cheek.
Her eyes snapped open and she gawped at me, her scarlet cheeks highlighted in the moonlight. I pulled back with a nervous chuckle, simultaneously proud and embarrassed of my bold move. Blaze’s face was frozen solid, unsure how to take the gesture. And I feared I had overstepped a boundary.
Thankfully, her mouth broke into a tiny smile and her eyes closed once more. “Good night,” she said again.
I turned back to the road, my chest puffed out a little, and replayed the moment over and over in my mind. It was small comfort, but I would take the bit of sorely needed levity to ease my tension as we headed toward the dark horizon, where the Misty Marshes and the next Sol Emerald waited. And, most troubling, toward another clash with Nega.
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