“Have you ever raided a ship by sky board? Dipped into the slipstream around a frigate? Leaned into a storm front? Breathed out so deeply you felt as if your lungs would collapse, only to have them fill the instant you part your lips? The drop, the slope, and angle of descent, each in harmony with your trajectory. Savaging the air with your board. And having done the impossible just to reach an airship mid-flight, taking it, by force if needed. Did you know wine tastes best after a raid? Ah, well, it’s true.”
“Booshee sees them. Far below the float, just above the cumulus layer.” Booshee muttered as he collapsed his spyglass. He walked the deck of the sky platform, or “float” as they are more colloquially called. Crossing to the three of us, he rubbed his hands together in anticipation. His part of the job was almost complete. He took the long, tapered end of his black and white air sailor’s sock cap and mopped the beads of sweat off his face in apparent relief.
Booshee, a tiltik goblin and our float pilot, completed our briefing by handing us each a potion vial to drink and wishing us luck. The cuthari ship we had been hired to raid was filled with a cartel’s supply of shark juice. A supply they stole from the tiltik goblins, our employers.
Chrishno and Marchi both claimed the haul from this raid was “a lifetime supply” when inviting me to join them. They were right, of course. No one would live long enough to drink it all. The juice was so tempting and potent that it would kill anyone who consumed it on a regular basis, long before they exhausted the supply. The three of us had worked well together in the past, and the idea of a hefty payout while wreaking havoc and death on the cuthari was too good to pass up.
We raised our potion vials in a silent toast and drank. The fluid tasted like thin air and had the texture of syrup. The potion worked just like the slimy goblin said it would; my partners disappeared from view and I could see right through myself. We’d even been given sky boards with clear sails, fashioned from sky jelly flesh to assist in avoiding detection.
I reached to my neck and lightly touched the sky ring that hung there. The ring was my insurance plan, and we each wore one. No matter how bad a jump went, slipping the ring onto your finger ensured you’d stick the landing. I’d even had mine sized so I could slip it on quickly without needing to remove it from the chain.
It was a few hours after noon and we were approaching the cuthari from the direction of the sun. I could easily make out the target, the Craving Hunger. It was flying between two layers of clouds, one above and another below. I felt my heart race with excitement; the moment was here.
I readied my board and jumped off the float. The anticipation of free fall: my favorite moment. I felt gravity’s grip turning from a deadly hazard into a clear sense of propulsion as the wind embraced me, smoothing the currents beneath my board.
I heard my leather armor creak as I shifted the orientation of the board, setting up for a dive run once I entered the shade of the cloud. I made a wide turn, chose my slope and angle, and aimed for my prey.
The ship was definitely in range. It was holding steady in speed, direction, and elevation five hundred feet below me moving from my right to my left. I leaned in again and circled up behind her, overtaking the illuse class frigate with the momentum of my diving turns.
Below me there were three figures on the deck in a tight circle. I guided myself down above the protective shell near the aft of the ship, which housed the door to go below. Once in position I let go of my sky board, diving for the ship just below me. It felt a bit like losing a part of myself as the sky board tumbled away, but losing it was part of the plan. The goblin said he had some way of recovering them.
I landed with the grace and skill expected of a sky dancer. I clutched the large ridged plates which comprised the rear shell, all the while making less sound than the rushing wind all around me. I had a sneaking suspicion my companions would do nothing of the sort, and the image that formed in my mind of Chrishno’s burly, ursine frame as he executed his board dismount was amusing.
My mirth was short-lived; I heard Chrishno yell, “Marchi, Vera, clear the deck; I am casting fireball!”
Caught off guard, the cuthari looked up at an empty sky, confused.
Hearing no arguments, Chrishno shouted, “VULIGNIAST!”
A small streak of fire erupted from the sky and Chrishno appeared holding a burned and weathered staff, no longer obfuscated by the invisibility potion. His embroidered purple, black, and gold cowl fluttered behind him as he called upon the arcane and soared off the port side of the ship.
I slid down from my perch and took cover behind the gorget opposite the impending fireball. The air ahead became considerably brighter, almost blinding me. I could feel the heat, like a sudden gust of midday summer desert wind. The sharp sound of licking flames was followed by the scent of sulfur, burning wood, and seared flesh.
The cuthari screams pitched high, before they turned to ash. I pulled myself up to see if any were still standing. One of the cuthari, the only survivor, was ablaze and shrieking as he ran toward the door directly below me. I pointed my grapple gun at him from above, but before I could pull the trigger, two daggers sank blade-deep into the cuthari’s tentacled face.
With a deft leap, Marchi, our elven spelldriver, landed in a three-point stance, her fist crushing the chest of the smoldering cuthari. In one deft motion she palmed the protruding daggers with her other hand, wiping them clean on the deceased thing’s dark cloak before sliding them home into her bandoleer.
Marchi drew her sword and focused her attention on the door the cuthari had been running toward. Her pale blond hair was the only thing that moved; the rest of her was bent forward slightly, ready to spring.
Chrishno flew down and hovered just above the railing. He pointed his ancient staff at the door and readied a spell. I could tell it was some sort of fire spell by the creamy blue fire dancing harmlessly against the fur of his free hand.
“Vera?” Chrishno rumbled.
“Here,” I said and Chrishno smiled as he heard my voice. I was the only one who remained invisible. All of us stared, collectively holding our breath, waiting for the door to open. Waiting for the cuthari.
The only sounds were the rush of the wind as the Craving Hunger continued moving through the afternoon sky as the deck burned. The flames gave Marchi a particularly hellish cast; the autumn tones of her armor and sword bright in the glow of the firelight.
A moment later Chrishno’s spell winked out. Still none of us spoke. He reached into his pouch and pulled out a pinch of yellow sulfur dust.
In that same moment, the door flew off its hinges. There was no explosion, no sound. There was only speed and action.
The door streaked forward, two cuthari astride it as if it were a sky board. The pilot stood tall on the board for control while brandishing a twisted zap pistol in each hand. Except they weren’t any zap pistols I had ever seen. Each looked like the spinal column of an eel, lit here and there with a bioluminescent glow. The pilot surged forward and fired both right at Marchi.
The second cuthari knelt next to the pilot, holding a hand cannon that resembled the carcass of a dried-out cephalopod. He held his fire as they flew forward.
Marchi dropped to the ground, flattening herself against the deck, narrowly avoiding being run over roughshod by the door and its riders.
The fires crackled and loomed in front of the cuthari; the pilot banked sharply to port and headed straight toward Chrishno.
I heard more cuthari below me, approaching the open doorway but still out of sight. One of them gurgled something that sounded like “ottowok,” and a burst of white light centered on Chrishno shattered.
The wizard’s eyes widened in surprise as he found himself unable to react or slow his fall into the railing twelve feet below, the spells he had been preparing extinguished. There was a sudden loud, distinctive crack as his leg bent in the middle of the upper thigh upon impact, his body twisting away from the railing. Chrishno bellowed a scream of pain, and his shrieks continued as he fell further, past the hull toward the layer of clouds below.
The kneeling cuthari fired the cephalopod hand cannon, and a blur of green bubbles burst forth and Chrishno’s screams ceased.
Marchi was struggling to get to her feet. She held her sword weakly in her right hand; her left hand was pressed hard against one of the two holes in her chest. The door’s pilot had connected with both of his shots.
Below me, I heard a second voice say in Elvish, “Winter smile on you, sister; your journey ends here.” A blizzard expanded from the doorway so thick that it looked as if a shipload of downy feathers had been dumped upon the deck.
The white, soft shapes morphed and changed, hardening and cracking as if hundreds of people were simultaneously snapping twigs, and the fires extinguished. Then there was silence. Only frost remained, covering everything in front of the doorway for sixty feet.
Marchi was on her knees in the middle of the deck; even the bright red blood from her wounds had turned to frost. Her wounds were a harsh contrast to the thin layer of white frost enveloping the rest of her and the deck all around her. Her mouth opened wide in a war cry, blade pointed at the doorway in her final act of defiance. It looked like she could leap up at any moment. But she was gone; the spell had frozen the life out of her.
An elf with pale blue hair, wearing a white, sleek dress stepped into view, her staff still pointing at Marchi’s unblinking body. She walked forward to assess the damage she had wrought on my friend.
I pulled the trigger on the grapple gun, causing it to plunge into her just under the rib cage. She did a double take which was the entirely wrong reaction. I let go of the gorget and dove off the side of the frigate, leaving the Craving Hunger far behind and above me.
As I plummeted, I anticipated the momentary jolt as I heard a satisfying, metallic high note as the grapple gun’s chain seized and became taut. Straightaway the chain lurched and she hurtled after me.
She tumbled over the rail and off the ship moments after I did. I wasn’t much larger than she was; I saw Marchi’s death cry in my mind and summoned her strength.
I tugged the elf down toward me. Twisting, I looped the chain around her neck twice as she fell past me while still rolling. She hadn’t stopped screaming yet either. Novice.
I rolled behind her, placing my feet on her back, and with a flick of my wrist I wrapped the chain around her arms.
I flipped her back upright, racing her like a board through the sky with a leash attached to its leading edge.
I wrapped the chain around my hand and yanked the chain tight.
There was a faint pop over the rushing wind and a softness in the chain. The screaming stopped and her legs began to spasm, but I held on to control of the body board and centered myself for a moment.
When I ditched the body I used my feet to spin her away from me, unwrapping the loops of chain, and flicking my wrist so the grapple would release.
I reeled in the grapple and immediately holstered it.
I angled through the thick layer of clouds and then re-oriented myself. I could see other patchy layers further below me. And was that? A speck! There was a familiar speck tumbling below me. I dove without thinking, adjusting my trajectory to his distance and velocity.
My sky ring pressed into the hollow of my neck as I plunged through the air, reminding me of its presence.
The speck grew larger as I got closer and I was elated to see Chrishno! His left leg was flapping unnaturally like a rag doll's as he continued to corkscrew downward, but his chest was moving up and down in heavy breaths. He was alive.
It dawned on me: the hand cannon the cuthari smuggler had been wielding was a sleep cannon. The reason Chrishno had stopped screaming in pain wasn’t because he was dead, it was because he was sleeping! And that’s when I heard it; as usual it surpassed even the roar of the wind: Chrishno was snoring.
The laugh of relief strangled in my throat when I saw something gigantic rush up from underneath him.
With a wet, crushing thud, Chrishno impacted hard earth.
My mind struggled to-
I reached to my neck, jamming the sky ring onto my finger. I felt a pleasant easing in my stomach as gravity shifted around me.
The inertia all but dissipated as I drifted down and stepped onto the scrub-covered surface.
I looked around. By some stroke of luck, bad for Chrishno but good for me, we’d made landfall on a rogue earthberg drifting a thousand feet above the surface of the ocean. Earthbergs were neat to look at from afar but they were a constant nagging fear at the back of every sky sailor's mind. The terrifying possibility of getting skyscraped always set one's hair on end when sailing through clouds.
I looked up to see if anyone was pursuing me. The sky was clear; I was safe, for the moment.
Chrishno lay broken on a patch of grass twenty yards away. The impact had been devastating. The only small mercy was that he died in his sleep.
I said a small prayer over Chrishno and came to a decision. Removing his dagger from its sheath I cut everything I could possibly use from his corpse and set everything other than his staff aside.
Resolutely, I gripped the staff and, using it like a lever, rolled him the remaining distance to the edge. I knelt next to him and pushed.
I watched as he fell, and only stopped looking after he dropped into the ocean below. A dot of white on the water signifying he had reached his final resting place. Burial at sea.
I returned to the point of impact and began to inspect the gear and clothing I had stripped from Chrishno. His spell book, spell components and a money pouch were still in the large pockets of his overcoat.
He had owned a sky ring, and like mine it had been tied around his neck. It was huge! His ring had been fitted for a melaleu and was comically large next to mine; almost the size of my wrist.
He hadn’t brought a backpack, nor had I. We hadn’t been exploring, we had been raiding and had packed light. I had a full wineskin I’d planned to drink on our way back to port, after we killed the cuthari curs.
I had to think. Solutions?
I could see the mainland in the distance, perhaps a mile or two of open ocean between it and me. I had a grapple gun, but that did not have nearly enough gnomish chain for me to reach the surface. Too far and hazardous a swim based on the size of the swells. That left me stranded up here, dying of exposure.
I could tell this earthberg was headed east, further out to sea. Damn the winds; I was not going to catch a break. I took a quick survey of the island and thirty minutes later had determined I was on an earthberg roughly three hundred yards long by seventy yards wide. A giant chunk of floating rock with some wild scrub grasses and a pair of blue willow trees. I was screwed, drifting along on my personal floating prison.
No way off, almost no resources, and no one other than Booshee knew we were going to do this job. Raids are secret for a reason.
I gathered rocks and went about weighing down and rearranging the salvaged clothing and supplies into an “X,” more out of something to do rather than thinking anyone would actually see it and come to my rescue. I plodded over to the nearest of the two willow trees and rested at its base; it had been a long day.
A few hours later I stood to stretch my legs and saw it. A float far off in the distance, with two balloons attached. Could it be? Booshee?
I ran out from the cover the willow provided and jumped up and down screaming myself hoarse before I saw it abruptly turn. I dropped to my knees and watched as the little float abandoned the ocean in favor of the last splinter of shore on the horizon. Any hope I had for survival vanished with it.
I returned to the blue willow. I used Chrishno’s dagger to cut some of the branches to make a lean-to, but it bent poorly and looked and felt more like a stiff and awkward quilt than a shelter. I gave in, allowing it to be what it insisted on being, and pulled the wooden blanket over myself. I fell asleep just as a group of star squids flew far above into the clear night sky.
Early the next morning, I awoke to something that sounded akin to a bellowing moose coming from above. I lay very still for a moment, then drew my weapons and rolled over in one fluid motion.
Between the shadows of the willow branches I could see an airship. Its appearance was so unexpected that it felt practically miraculous. I recognized the hundred-footer as a rassen assault frigate. “Shining Sister” was written on its bow. It looked like it had been heavily modified to maximize the number of view ports at the cost of her shipborne weapons.
I quickly weighed my options. I was pretty sure I could get to the ship with my grapple gun, but they didn’t know that.
Before I could consider any other options, a pair of green hands threw a backpack overboard. It slammed into the earthberg thirty feet away from me.
I heard a voice with a thick goblin dialect call out, “You have permission to come aboard once you read and sign it.”
“How did you find me?” I asked. “Was that Booshee who spotted me? Do you know Booshee? He hired us… well, hired me.” I walked to the backpack.
“We were close once,” the airship captain replied. “He told me you were here for a finder’s fee. There’s a contract for you to sign in the backpack.”
“What’s your name?”
“So you are here to rescue me,” I said, relieved.
“We can call it that, just sign the contract,” came the reply. “In triplicate, please.”
I opened the backpack and pulled out an inkstone and a sheaf of papers threaded by small metal cords on the left hand side.
“Is this so I won’t sue you if I fall?”
“Sure.” Scrupe said in a non-committal tone.
I read the cover. “Hold on,” I said, “this says it's a ‘Contract of Employment.’”
“If you choose to enact that clause,” Scrupe said.
I began to thumb through the pages quickly; it appeared expertly prepared.
“What clause? This is actually a Contract of Employment. Damn the winds! It looks more like indentured servitude. For who? For how long?”
“For me, Scrupe Pince,” he yelled down. “For five years.”
“What enacts the employment clause?”
“Setting foot aboard my ship after signing the contract in triplicate,” he replied calmly.
“I might kill you once I’m on board,” I bluffed.
“Well, that’s part of the contract too. It forbids you from doing that.”
“How? How are you going to stop me from killing you?” I challenged the green hands in the airship.
“I dunno exactly, tiefling death curse or some such thing attached to the contract. I’m not even sure if there is any real magic involved, but I’d never want to cross a tiefling lawyer, would you?” Scrupe stated matter-of-factly.
“No,” I agreed. “Seriously though, you don't even know how it works?”
“No, I don’t understand how it works. It just does,” he seemed to be getting impatient. “Do you ask why the wind blows, or the sun shines, or gravity…falls? No. So why are you so worried all of a sudden about tiefling death curses?”
“’Cause I’m about to sign one.” I continued reading.
I paged through the document for a bit longer before asking, “And what about this? The portion about my split of the profits?” I called out, while pointing at page seventy-nine as if he could see the text from the ship.
“That’s not my fault,” said Scrupe. “That unscrupulous tiefling made me put it in there. I'd have been here an hour earlier to rescue you if he hadn’t forced me to agree to that part. It would have been less if I’d had my way.”
“It says ‘a minimum of fifteen percent.’” I grumbled in a low tone.
“Skyway robbery, I tell you!” he huffed. “I warned him no more than seven percent, but he said paying anyone only seven percent was against even his ethics.”
“It also says that you are responsible for my room, board, and twelve books each year.”
The green hands reached into the air with an exasperated motion as he said, “I know, I was confused by that too. He said that humans really like books.”
I reached for the inkstone and said, “Fine. I’ll sign.”
“You will? Really? Just like that? What did it? Was it the fifteen percent or the books?”
“Neither,” I said, “I just don’t want to die on this floating rock.”
He shouted in outrage, “See! I was right! I could have saved eight percent! Stupid tiefling. I shoulda written the contract myself.”
I cocked an eyebrow as I looked up at the ship and said, “But on the bright side, you’ll probably survive all five years if I get fifteen percent. You might not even hate me by the end of the contract for, say… twenty-five percent and a job title.”
“FINE. Just sign. You are already becoming tiresome.” he growled.
“I think we’re going to get along after all.” I called back.
I fired my grapple gun up to the ship, hooking the aft railing on the starboard side. I pulled myself quickly up and did a flip, landing on the deck a few feet in front of him.
His mouth hung open, stunned, realizing I had the capability to do that the entire time.
I dropped the backpack on the deck at his feet, and removed the contract. I took the inkstone and with a flourish, I wrote my name followed by “Head of Security” on the cover. I paged to the end and replaced the fifteen percent with twenty-five while he stood by and scowled.
Finally, I signed…in triplicate. And handed it to him.
“So where to?” I asked.
He read the cover and said “Vera Kath, Head of Security.” He pointed off into the distance and said, “I heard about this other earthberg, see? Bigger. Some people say stars live there. You want to see the sky move?”
“Sure, boss,” I said.
“Captain.” I repeated.
He grunted and made way to set sail, gesturing for me to sit down. I slumped down to my knees in the middle of the deck. I took this as a win and opened my wineskin. Any dance with gravity you can walk away from was a victory.
The wine tasted excellent.