Prentyze Brassard’s day had started badly but, before it ended, he would be forced to fight a dragon.
He stared, morosely, unseeing, through the passenger cabin’s porthole wishing he could get back to his books.
Like everything in his stupid life, his fate was determined by his parents. Until he reached his majority in three years, he had no say in his stupid future. Even once an adult, he would not be fully free until his parents returned to dust. By then it would be too late and he would be designing stupid weapons for House Brassard for the rest of his stupid life.
Rigid duty, determined by older generations, was inescapable for nobles of the Houses of Waldemar. It was the depressing underside of privilege.
Today, duty woke him at dawn to observe a bloody battle. A combined force of Militias sprung a trap of his father’s devising to engage a huge, mature dragon and its flight of smaller dracs. The carnage and losses on both sides turned Prentyze’s stomach, but stupid duty prevented the display of any emotion. Now the same stupid duty placed him in a cramped metal cabin, giving chase to the injured and fleeing dragon, all the way up to its eyrie. Accompanying him were three others, and everyone present were nobles of varying rank. Stupid duty drove them all. They represented two Houses, one great, one small, and a Temple in this mad-cap enterprise. Duty garbed them all in the same, stupid, theatrical-looking armour.
To kill a dragon in its lair was unprecedented. No one had previously survived such an attempt. Despite his father’s confidence in his personal design of weapons and armour, Prentyze wondered if this group might not suffer the same fate.
The beating, off-pitch screams of the Temple airship’s lift crystals, a damaged and now mismatched pair, made his teeth vibrate. The din was worse than any squealing chalk slate because it didn’t stop. It drilled through his skull, making it hard to think. And to heap upon his iniquities, the gangly teen sweated in his uncomfortable, oversized plate armour. Moisture gathered in his dark eyebrows – already starting to get bushy, dammit – and dribbled down his brown, pimpled cheeks.
He had to take his mind off the discomfort, or go insane!
The latest lab sample of fine-grained elemental dust was both smaller and more expensive than before. There was never enough for proper experimentation! A shame, given its highly reactive energy potential. Rumour held that the original sample had been brought back by heretical relic hunters – a whole barrelful too. Fanciful nonsense! That amount implied a … a natural cause, and no such … no such … what?
Faced with such an intolerable environment, he could not hold the thought.
Try something different. What had he been reading last night?
Ah yes. The recent rise in drac attacks on the mainland was curious. What was causing it? A population increase along the Rim? Better … better reporting? Human incursion into ... into …?
He gave up.
It would be so much easier if he had some reading material – just a few of his precious books and scrolls. Was that too much to ask? Admittedly, it was a squeeze for four armoured nobles in stupid, oversized armour plus crates in a small, bare-metal passenger cabin, so … maybe just two books? But no; Father forbade it. Yet the old bastard, sitting knee-to-knee with him on the opposite wooden bench, was annotating and signing design papers.
It wasn't fair!
No matter how safe Father claimed this ‘adventure’ would be, what use was a scholar wallowing in stupid, bulky armour? Why couldn’t he stay home, studying? Oh yes, duty. Stupid duty. Well, skewer duty! His personal library was the very model of quietude where he could spend much of his free time devouring the latest discoveries and conducting his own limited experiments.
It was his refuge. His solace.
Until he reached his majority.
Duty did not approve of his interests. His father had made this clear five years ago when Prentyze was twelve.
“I will allow all this extra reading in natural philosophy but only as a hobby, what? By day, your duty is to assist me in the design rooms and to complete the mandatory studies provided by your tutors. What you additionally study in your private chambers by evening is of no interest, neither to me nor to House Brassard. But understand this. This free time pursuit will end when you become an adult. From that moment, you will devote all of your time to understudying my role as House Brassaard’s chief weapons designer – a role you will then inherit when I return to dust. That is your duty, boy, what?”
Skewer the family arms business! Skewer his inheritance and duty! It wasn’t fair! What was wrong with being a self-taught scholar, engaging in fascinating studies and experiments full-time? Would that be so bad?
But it was best not to dwell on rebellious thoughts so close to Father. While telepathy wasn't proven to exist, his parents sometimes displayed an uncanny knack of knowing what was on his mind.
His mind could only dwell on how miserable his environment made him.
The armour that all four nobles wore, though a masterpiece of modern design, was a miserable nightmare to wear. Its alien fairings and flanges made it impossible to sit with any comfort on such a hard bench seat. His scrawny body inside was overheating – his sweat soaked into multiple layers of thick padding.
Thank the Dual Discordant Deities he didn’t have to wear the padded helm just yet!
Discomfort, distraction, misery … It was all Father’s fault. Stupid idiot. In the name of all that was holy, what was the point of including a studious boy on a speculative and risky raid, especially one who was more comfortable with a pen than a lance?
What was he supposed to do? Scribble the dragon to death? Rub it out with an eraser?
Edrei Brassard, oblivious of simmering teenage resentment, sat opposite, facing him. ‘Like father, like son.’ The truth in that saying was so annoying! The old man was a living prediction of his son’s future appearance: a short, pear-shaped body, bushy eyebrows, hairy ears and nostrils, and sagging jowls. But at least Prentyze Talyb Brassard would never allow himself to wear such a stupid moustache as his father’s.
He would rather drop dead.
Next to Father, on Prentyze’s right, sat The Most Reverend Vice Commander of Barys’ Faithful in Waldemar, Cinon Zubin the Second. He was a tall, stooped man, bald, and spidery-thin even in his bulky suit. Acting the congenial host last night, he had declined the use of his many titles, insisting everyone refer to him as “just Zubin.” But the adults – even while doing so – remained wary and respectful, and Zubin appeared to expect this.
Facing Zubin, seated on Prentyze’s right, was the ravishing Flammia Anluan, a little taller than him and curvaceous even in theatrical armour. With mahogany coloured-hair, eyes of polished bronze and skin a delicious, darker shade of brown than most people, she was the most beautiful warrior maiden he had ever seen.
The previous evening, Father had been in a rare good mood and sent his son to the shore to welcome her off her ship. Prentyze didn’t have long to wait on the beach. Like a decorated champion, she stood at the boat’s prow as it approached the shore. She wore engraved and polished battle armour reflecting the setting sun, and her lustrous mahogany hair and burgundy cloak stirred free as a banner in the light breeze.
She stepped off the boat, onto sand, and approached Prentyze. Closer, he saw she had bronze-gold coloured eyes.
His heart almost stopped at her beauty.
Feeling flustered, he started the bow of welcome. Though they were both members of the ruling families of Houses, he was technically her senior. House Brassard was an ancient Founder House and far more powerful than the more recently inaugurated House Anluan, but in his awe and turmoil, he bowed deeper than was necessary.
Blushing hotly, he straightened and gave the formal greeting.
“I g-give you greetings. My name is P-Prentyze Talyb Brassard, of –ah– House Brassard.” Why was he blushing and stammering? “My duty and p-pleasure is to escort you to the p-pavilion p-prepared for you.”
Had he risked too much by adding the word ‘pleasure’ to the formalities?
Or would it flatter her?
She sighed irritably. Instead of replying with a deep bow of acceptance, she barely nodded in his general direction while looking through him to the wooden palisades and the encircled tents beyond.
“I accept your greetings, I suppose. My name is Flammia Anluan, of House Anluan. It gives me no pleasure to be escorted by a stuttering child.”
She brushed past him, ignoring his burning cheeks and gaping mouth. She strode off in the direction of the encampment, forcing him to follow as quickly as decorum allowed.
Later that night, in the priest’s pavilion for dinner, she wore a burgundy gown that touched neither her neck, shoulders nor most of her back. What kept it up was a mystery. Prentyze couldn’t guess. Magic? Dark hair draped around her shoulders to curl down her back; it seemed only to accentuate her contours and bare skin, which he imagined must be creamy-smooth.
Though they sat on the same side of the table, she did not deign to speak to him once, brushing off all his tongue-tied attempts at conversation.
But that did not dampen his hot and vivid dreams during the night in which he pictured what she looked like without armour, nor any …
Today, Flammia wore the same stupid, bulky prototype armour as everyone else, barely hinting at the curves beneath.
Prentyze wanted to find some way to talk with her but, as usual, she ignored his presence. It was like he didn’t exist, or that he existed too far beneath her notice – all his attempts to open a conversation fell flat. He wanted to get to know her, to understand her. And …
What else did he want?
Feeling more colour seeping into his cheeks than the overheating armour warranted, Prentyze continued to stare through the craft’s left porthole.
The gimballed lift crystals must have been pointing almost directly behind them, allowing the airship to tilt upwards and climb at a steep angle. The ground had disappeared some time ago – it was too far below and behind. This was his first flight so high.
Airship travel is not without risk. The creation of lift crystals, though divinely guided in Temple workshops, is an inexact art. It yields crystals with flaws which, without regular maintenance, can lead to catastrophic failure in only a few hundred hours of operation; sooner if damaged.
And this pair had been damaged in the morning’s battle.
Not only that, but there had been no time for maintenance before they set off in pursuit.
So how long would they last?
Oh why had he read about lift crystal failure rates last night? Stupid, stupid, stupid.
They were too high to think about this now, not that he could estimate their altitude. From where he sat, the Plane of Sheol had dropped out of sight. There was nothing outside but sky; nothing to distract him from discomfort, screaming lift-crystals, his father’s permanent disapproval and Flammia’s disturbing presence.
All this, together, was starting to make his head throb, and how could he possibly fight a dragon with cranial neuralgia?
“I thought I told you to drink your potion immediately on boarding, what?” Father was glaring at him from the other side of the compartment. “Need I remind my daydreaming son about the anticipated reduction of air pressure? The potion will thicken your blood and make the air breathable. Honestly, boy, you can be so clueless. Drink it. Now!”
The silver hip flask in Prentyze’s hand was still full and heavy. The others had already quaffed theirs and stowed the empties, grimacing at the taste as he expected. Father had specified its contents so, of course, it would offend any fine palate. This was as inevitable as divine discord and the cycle of seasons.
He lifted it for a cautious sip – and stopped. The polished silver flask reflected a dark flicker.
What the … ?
It hadn’t come from him – his polished steel chest plate, with its ridiculous fins, was as brightly reflective as the flask.
Outside, there was nothing but sky.
Had anyone else seen it?
Work consumed the two older men. Zubin contemplated a chapter of the Holy Barysian Scroll, perhaps for a sermon. Father shuffled through parchment documents, his work as House Brassard’s Design Master having followed him even on a dragon hunt. Flammia ‘the fair’ continued to ignore him, giving all her attention to sharpening an already-sharp sword.
Another bead of sweat trickled down his cheek. Perhaps the heat building inside his armour was tricking his senses?
He raised his free hand to wipe the sweat off his brow.
He had forgotten he was wearing armoured gauntlets and had stabbed his forehead with the stupid fins on the back.
He dropped his gaze to the flask in embarrassment, avoiding seeing any disapproving glances from the others.
Perhaps the flicker on the flask’s mirror-like surface was only his imagination? He’d better get this muck down before the airship reached –
Again he caught the flicker as he lifted the flask, bigger and blacker this time.
Where did it originate? Not the cabin.
Oh, of course! It wasn’t only outside, it was behind – or rather below. He twisted on the bench seat to look over his left shoulder, back along the craft’s ascending flight-path, down towards the Plane of Sheol below.
To his left, the stony flanks of the steepening Southern Rimtop Mountains, which the craft was ascending, marched away in a straight line for hundreds of kilometres. They disappeared into haze long before meeting the unseen Eastern Rim Mountains. Outlined against that haze, three dracs raced up underneath the airship to intercept it. They were close.
Close enough to see their rapid, double wing beats reflecting in a flask.
Prentyze forced his voice against the dual-toned din. “Father? Sorry to interrupt your work. Does the pilot know about –”
“Eh?” Edrei Brassard shouted back with a sneer, his voice dripping with his customary irritation whenever he spoke to his son. “Stop mumbling, what? Speak up, boy!”
Was Father getting deaf? He tried again, louder. “I can see dracs outside, coming up under us. I think they are –”
“They’ll be juveniles, boy, like you – just as idle and curious, what? We passed their comfortable flight ceiling minutes ago. Chasing this airship is just a game to them. They’ll tire and then –”
“It wasn’t a game to them when our troops ambushed their sire.” said Flammia Anluan. Prentyze jumped. Flammia had let drop her redundant task – her sword – onto her lap, to join the shouted conversation. “They fought hard.” She twisted to her right to look behind the craft, through her porthole on the right. “I see two more, my side. They’re not idling either – they’re closing fast.”
Flammia, whose armoured hips grated with his on the bench seat, was the youngest child of House Anluan. She was near her coming-of-age, only a few years older than Prentyze. She was also the very model of a battle-ready warrior with her glorious hair cinched tight in a warrior’s knot – ready for action.
“Are you telling me I don’t know my draconians, young lady?” Father’s face adopted that combined expression of affront and lecturing which Prentyze recognised from far-too-frequent lectures. “Trust a Younger House to question the experience of a Founder House, what? No wonder–”
The priest leaned towards Edrei to avoid having to yell. “I really think you should take a look, Design Master. I see the same two dracs from where I sit, and it is my assessment that they are not merely curious.”
Zubin’s face blanched as he looked outside again; it was the palest brown Prentyze had ever seen.
Flammia snorted. “Typical useless priest of Barys. Stop wasting time repeating what I said. Warn your pilot that–”
A loud bang from the curved metal ceiling interrupted the girl’s incivility. The hull, already quite battered from the day’s battles, now had a new dent in it, bulging down above Edrei Brassard’s head.
A female chorus of “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!” came from the pilot and copilot on the flight deck through the open hatch, positioned between the older men’s heads.
“We’re being attacked by dracs, Your Worship!” The pilot bawled over the din. “Five, or six. Hold on, this’ll get bloody rough!”
Grunts and squeaks issued from the hatch as the crew wrenched the lift crystals around in their gimbals. The craft swayed and lurched, making Prentyze’s stomach drop and spasm, banishing all thought of drinking his potion.
There was another loud bang from Flammia’s side. Her porthole now had a deep scratch across it. But the thick glass held.
A deafening crunch from Prentyze’s side rocked the craft. The bench dropped out from under him but the ceiling smacked him back down onto it. Another crash from the left threw Flammia onto him, crushing the air from his lungs. Father and Zubin formed a second tangled heap, with Father underneath.
The copilot’s voice shrieked through the hatch. “Bloody, stoning hell, Ma’am! We got one clinging on the port side! Barys save us!”
“Get yerself rooted, girl. Let’s shake the bastard off!” came the pilot’s reply. “Hold on tight, Yer Eminences!”
Flammia elbowed herself off Prentyze, disentangling their armour and adding to his bruises. She unclipped her lap restraint and, bracing herself, shouted, “Zubin! Where are the weapons controls?”
The compartment swayed, throwing them around again. Prentyze swallowed hard. It wouldn’t be pretty if his lunch came up to join the party.
“They’re down in Rimtown, with the crew and weapons, being serviced.” The priest at last succeeded in unlinking his armour from Father’s and shot him a hard look. “Brassard here didn’t think we’d need–”
“Dracs don’t fly at this altitude, what? Once we climb high enough–”.
With a squeal of metal, Prentyze’s glass porthole went dark and the toughened glass crazed-over in a coarse spider’s web of cracks. He peered out between them. What was that, squirming in the darkness, fractured into hundreds of images by the crazed glass?
It was. He was staring down a drac’s gullet at a long, pointed, squirming tongue.
By the Gods! It was trying to tear off the porthole’s frame with its teeth!
The splintered view through the glass now made more sense. There were teeth. Lots of teeth. So many long, pointed teeth and a thin worm of a tongue. Also there, down, deep down, illuminating the darkest depths, was something no one could ever see and stay calm.
A ball of fire.
Prentyze heard a high-pitched scream.
By the Gods! It was his own voice.
Father and son stared at the porthole, frozen in shock. Zubin shouted to the pilot, but his words made no sense to Prentyze. The expanding brightness, fragmented by glass shards into hundreds of flames, commanded all his attention.
Flammia crashed into him from behind, knocking him down onto the bench seat. Sword in one hand, she snatched the metal flask from his uncertain grasp and swung it hard at the spidered glass. The crazed window became separate shards, yielded with a low “wumph!” and vanished into the darkness beyond.
His ears popped, pain lanced through his head, and his scream shut off. Everything sounded heavily muffled.
There was no sky out there; the beast was still chewing unaffected at the porthole’s rim which, lacking the thick glass supporting it, was buckling.
Worse, his unimpeded view down the gullet was now illuminated in bright shades of white, pale rose and pale violet as the fireball continued brightening and swelling.
Hot bile stung Prentyze’s throat, threatening severe heartburn. He grabbed at the potion flask beside him but his hand, now slick with sweat, fumbled and dropped it to the deck.
Why had she smashed the glass? “Why’i’ou …?” He stopped. His voice was a strident humming noise that vibrated inside his head, devoid of diction, garbled and indecipherable.
The porthole brightened, and he swallowed bile in shock. His ears popped again and sound assaulted him: turbulent air roared in through the porthole, buffeting him, and the crystal screams resumed once more, irritating and loud. The beast had gone and the blessed sky was once more visible through the ruined frame.
Flammia grinned. “Figured a bit of glass down its gullet might change its mind,” she shouted to no one in particular. She stooped to retrieve his flask. “Here. Drink it soon. Air pressure’s falling.” She stood, poised for action, like a tightly coiled spring.
Prentyze took the proffered flask like it was a lover’s gift. This was the first thing she had said to him since he met her off her ship the previous day, her first favour to him.
“You foolish girl!” Prentyze’s father leaned forward, fury in his eyes matching the volume of his voice. “Typical impetuous Anluan behaviour – irresponsible even by the standards of an inexperienced Younger House. Why do you think we begged to use the Temple’s expensive courier airship, what? Because it’s sealed! How will we keep drac fire out of the cabin now?”
“Old Houses ponder, Young Houses act.” Despite the background noise, the scorn in her voice was clear. “Stand aside, old man, and let a –”
A hideous screech drowned her out, and the shattered porthole darkened.
Another drac! If it fired through the hole, they would all be toast. Charred toast. He heard himself screaming again.
But Flammia was already in motion.
In the briefest fraction of a second, the time taken to blink, she shifted her entire body weight towards the porthole and, with a mighty twist of her torso, her spring released and drove her sword through the hole. Her entire armoured mass followed the sword, focussed on its point – a classic fencing lunge but with a heavy sword. The violent transition ended with an abrupt and sickening crunch of parting tissue and bone.
For an instant, Prentyze enjoyed still clarity. What would happen now?
There was an ear-splitting, high-pitched shriek of pain and the sword wrenched itself out of Flammia’s hand, throwing her backwards, across Zubin. With squeals and banging, the sword hilt now swung between the generations of Brassards, missing Flammia’s head by scant centimetres, battering man and boy in their chests, smashing both against their backrests.
And just as abrupt and shocking, it was over.
Daylight once more shone through the crumpled porthole, glinting on glass splinters. The slipstream again pummelled and massaged Prentyze’s cheeks.
The drac had gone.
So had the sword.
Edrei Brassard leaned back gasping, hands on his chest, winded like Prentyze, for once unable to say anything scathing. Wheezing noisily, he grabbed Zubin’s arm with one hand, and made frantic gestures with the other – he pointed at Zubin’s mouth, at the hatch, then upwards. He kept repeating the sequence of gestures.
What was he telling the priest?
The compartment shifted around them again, this time throwing Prentyze onto Flammia and Father onto Zubin. The priest nodded his understanding and screamed through the hatch to the flight-deck. “Never mind the aerobatics, woman – climb! Climb! For the love of Barys, get us above them!”
With pings of releasing metal flanges, Flammia shrugged Prentyze off her as easily as sweeping off a cape. Ignoring his grunt on landing, she reached for something under her seat.
Prentyze struggled upright, trying to breathe. Another flicker of movement appeared beyond the broken porthole. “Flammia!” His voice could only wheeze. “There’s another!” It was an effort to be audible over the combined cacophony of crystals, wind and beasts screeching outside.
Did she have a second sword? He bet she did. Maybe even a spear – that would be most useful right now.
“Do you have another weapon, young lady?” Zubin was on the same trajectory.
“No, we’re down to this.” She hefted a round, wooden shield sporting the brightly colourful Anluan family emblem.
With another bone-chilling squeal, the porthole went dark again. Flammia dived forward, brushing Prentyze aside like he was no more than a long tuft of grass. She slammed the wooden shield against the open porthole with a loud crash and held it in place with both forearms and her head. Just in time.
The porthole’s rim was buckled, so it wasn’t a perfect seal. Brilliant white blades of flame flashed out sideways from the shield, searing the inside of the passenger compartment. The heat was unbearable.
One dazzling jet flicked past Prentyze’s left shoulder, scorching his ear. He flinched. That was too close. Where were the helms? Oh, right. Sealed in a case under one of the bench seats. With that thought, a chill ran through his body. His armour was designed to be fireproof, but his face wasn’t.
Flammia pulled her shield back to glance outside. The shield’s emblem had gone – the outer surface was charred black. She paid it no regard but poised, wound-up like a bear trap, waiting to spring again, her attention focussed on the buckled porthole.
Again, the hole darkened. Again, she barged forward, brushing Prentyze aside, this time pinning him under a knee as she slammed the charcoal shield in place. He ducked his head down, away from possible flames. Father had the same idea, but enjoyed more success having more freedom to move – Flammia’s knee crushed and held Prentyze immobilised.
Again, searing white flames flashed out around the edge – bigger and more of them. The girl pulled back as daylight returned and her expression fell as she examined her shield. It was a charred mess – no longer resembling a shield so much as a circular arrangement of sooty embers.
The next attack would be its last.
And likely theirs.
Zubin turned to the hatch and bellowed. “For the Love of Barys, give it all you got, woman! Get above them. We can’t last much longer!” He paused for a reply made inaudible to Prentyze by the combined noise of slipstream, crystals and the pounding of his blood. “Then burn them! Stone it, woman, crystals can be healed – incinerated corpses can not!”
On a sudden resumption of darkness, Flammia once more shot forward to slam the shield's remains in place, sending out a shower of charcoal and glowing embers over both Brassards. Searing white flames spurted again. More. Longer. Thicker. They scorched the benches, ignited Prentyze’s backrest and sprayed hot embers and ash into the compartment.
Not all the flames radiated sideways.
In the last instant of the fire blast, the shield failed and a few searing blades passed through it.
Flammia screamed and fell backwards to the floor.
Daylight returned at the porthole.
Thank the Dual Discordant Deities! The drac had exhausted its fire. If its blast had lasted just a second longer, it would have finished them all.
Prentyze did a quick count of attacks.
Oh Gods! There could be one more out there with unused fire in its crop.
With Flammia down, they were defenceless.