Copyright © DW Brownlaw 2020-2022. All rights reserved.
The beating, out-of-tune screams of the airship’s lift crystals set Prentyse Brassard’s teeth on edge, worse than any chalk slate.
They made it hard to let his mind drift out of the porthole, away from this cramped passenger cabin, to dwell on his latest studies. Inspired by this trip, he had been analysing the latest statistics on dragon attacks in the southern colonies, trying to discern a reason for the rise. But that was just his latest interest; so many others vied for his attention. Tomes, tracts and treatises littered his private chamber – fruits of renowned scholars’ recent studies of a wide variety of issues and phenomena.
How he longed to become a scholar himself, to get involved in such studies!
But best not to dwell on such matters this close to Father. While Prentyse did not believe that telepathy existed, his parents sometimes displayed an uncanny knack of knowing what was on his mind.
His armour was another distraction. Though a masterpiece of modern design, wearing it was a miserable nightmare. Its alien fairings and flanges made it impossible to sit with any comfort on such a hard bench seat. His thin, teenage body inside was overheating – his sweat soaked into thick, fireproof padding.
Thank the Dual Discordant Deities he did not have to wear the padded helm just yet!
This discomfort, distraction, and misery, it was all Father’s fault. Such an idiot. He insisted his bookworm son accompany him on this stupid, dangerous dragon hunt. Prentyse was only a boy and more comfortable with pens than lances.
What was he supposed to do? Scribble the dragon to death?
Edrei Brassard, the target of this simmering teenage hatred, sat opposite, facing him. ‘Like father, like son.’ The truth in that saying was annoying: his father presented a visual prediction of his son’s future. Gilt-framed pictures down one side of the Family Portrait Gallery, depicted tall, muscular and handsome male relatives, past and present. But those hung on Mother’s wall. The males on Father’s wall were short, pear-shaped, sported bushy eyebrows, hairy ears and noses, and sagging jowls. If only he had inherited his looks from Mother’s side, but he had discarded that hope during puberty. It was not fair to miss out on her family’s genes, but at least Prentyse Talyb Brassard would never appear on canvas wearing a stupid moustache like his father’s.
He would rather fall down dead.
Next to Father, on Prentyse’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, also on Prentyse’s right, was the ravishing Flammia Anluan, a little taller than him and curvaceous even in armour. With mahogany coloured-hair, eyes of polished bronze and skin a delicious, darker shade of brown than most, she was the most beautiful warrior maiden he had ever seen. He wanted to talk to her but, as usual, she ignored his presence. It was like he did not exist or existed too far beneath her notice – all his attempts to talk to her fell flat. He wanted to get to know her, to understand her. And … What?
What else did he want?
Feeling more colour seeping into his cheeks than the overheating armour warranted, Prentyse looked away, out of the craft’s left porthole.
The airship climbed at a steep angle. The ground had disappeared some time ago – it was too far below and behind. This was his first flight, and he preferred not to remember the statistics of crystal failure. They were too high to contemplate that, not that he could estimate their altitude. 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.
Thanks to the noise and his fear of flying, he had the beginnings of a headache. How could he fight a dragon with a headache?
Father had instructed them to drink a potion during the ascent to thicken their blood and protect them from the predicted plummeting of air pressure. The silver hip flask in Prentyse’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 the cycle of seasons and divine discord.
He brought it to his lips – and stopped. A flicker in the bright reflections from its polished side caught his attention.
What the … ?
Nothing flitted around inside the cabin. 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.
He wiped his sweaty brow with the back of a hand. Perhaps the heat was tricking his senses.
Perhaps the flicker was just his imagination. He’d better get this muck down before the airship reached …
Again he caught the flicker, bigger and blacker this time.
Where did it originate?
Oh, of course! It wasn’t only outside, it was behind – or rather below. He twisted on the bench seat to look over his shoulder, back along the craft’s ascending flight-path, down towards the Plane below.
He couldn’t see the Plane of Sheol below, but he could see three draclings underneath the airship, racing to intercept it. They were close.
Close enough to see their rapid wing beats reflected in a flask.
Prentyse 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? “I can see draclings outside, coming towards us. I think they are –”
“They’re juveniles, like you, boy – 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 –”
Frowning, lips pursed, Flammia Anluan let drop her redundant task – her sword – onto her lap, to join the shouted conversation. “It wasn’t a game to them when we ambushed their sire. They fought hard.” She twisted to look behind the craft, through her porthole. “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 Prentyse. She was also the very model of a battle-ready warrior with cinched hair in a tight warrior’s knot – ready for action. At dinner last night, it had been wavy, long and lustrous, cascading in curls around the distracting, bare skin of her shoulders and down her backless gown. Today, she was all warrior yet still as distracting.
“Are you telling me I don’t know my dragons, young lady?” Father’s face adopted that combined expression of affront and lecturing which Prentyse recognised from far-too-frequent experience. “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 think you should look, Design Master, I see two draclings from where I sit, and it is my assessment that they are not merely being curious.”
Zubin’s face blanched as he looked outside again; it was pale, almost white. Had he always been so pale? In the dim lighting of the priest’s pavilion last night, and wearing his Commander’s Cowl, it hadn’t been noticeable, but perhaps closer observation might have revealed it. The common saying was that you could recognise scholars by their pale skins – not enough sunlight. Did that apply to High Clergy too?
Flammia snorted. “Typical useless priest of Barys. Stop wasting time repeating what I said. Warn your pilot that–”
There was a loud bang from the curved metal ceiling. The hull, already quite battered, now had a new dent in it, a bigger one, 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.
“We’re being attacked by draclings, Your Worship!” The pilot bawled over the din. “Five, or six. Hold on, this’ll get bloody rough!”
The craft swayed and lurched, making Prentyse’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 Prentyse’s side rocked the craft. The bench dropped out from under him. The ceiling smacked him back down onto the bench. Flammia, thrown over to his side, landed on him, crushing the air from his lungs. Father and Zubin also formed a tangled heap, with Father underneath.
The copilot shrieked through the hatch. “Bloody, stoning hell! We got one clinging on the port side, Ma’am! Barys save us!”
“Get yerself rooted, girl. Let’s shake the bastard off!” came the pilot’s reply.
Flammia elbowed herself off Prentyse, disentangling their armours and adding to his bruises. “Zubin! Where are the weapons controls?”
The compartment swayed, throwing them around again. Prentyse swallowed. It wouldn’t be pretty if his lunch shot out to join the party.
“They’re down in Rimtown, with the crew and weapons, being serviced.” The priest succeeded in unlinking his armour from Father’s, at last, and shot him a hard look. “Brassard here didn’t think we’d need–”
“Draclings don’t fly this high, what? Once we climb high enough–”.
With a squeal of metal, Prentyse’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?
It was. He was staring down a dracling’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 fractured 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.
Prentyse heard a high-pitched scream.
By the Gods! It was his own voice.
Father stared at the porthole, frozen in shock. Zubin shouted to the pilot, but his words made no sense to Prentyse. The expanding brightness, fragmented by crazed glass 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 porthole’s 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 Prentyse’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.
Prentyse 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!” Prentyse’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 dracling 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 dracling! 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, Prentyse 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 the older men. 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 Prentyse’s cheeks.
The dracling had gone.
So had the sword.
Edrei Brassard leaned back gasping, hands on his chest, winded like Prentyse, 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 lifted his hand, palm upwards. He kept repeating the sequence of gestures.
What was he telling the priest?
The compartment shifted around them again, this time throwing Prentyse onto Flammia and Father onto Zubin. The priest 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 Prentyse off her as easily as sweeping off a cape. Ignoring his grunt on landing, she reached for something under her seat.
Prentyse 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.
Zubin was on the same trajectory. “Do you have another weapon, young lady?”
“No, we’re down to this.” She hefted a worn, round shield sporting the faded Family emblem of House Anluan. “May Grandfather forgive me.”
With another bone-chilling squeal, the porthole went dark again. Flammia dived forward, brushing Prentyse 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.
With the porthole’s rim being buckled, it wasn’t a perfect seal. Brilliant white blades of heat flashed out from the shield, searing the inside of the metal hull. The heat was unbearable.
One dazzling, narrow jet flicked past Prentyse’s left shoulder, scorching his ear. He flinched. That was too close. Where were the helms? Oh. Sealed in a case under the bench seats. With that thought, a chill ran through his body. His armour was fireproof, allegedly, but his face wasn’t.
Flammia pulled her shield back to glance outside. The shield’s Family 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 was focussed on the buckled porthole.
Again, the hole darkened. Again, she barged forward, brushing Prentyse 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 Prentyse immobilised.
Again, 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 loose jumble 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 Prentyse 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 black shards and glowing embers over both Brassards. Searing white flames spurted again. More. Longer. Thicker. They scorched the benches, ignited Prentyse’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 dracling had exhausted its fire. If the fire blast had lasted any longer, it would have finished them.
Prentyse 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 defenseless.
She lay on the narrow wooden floor between the benches, crying in agony. Ash coated her hair, face and upper torso. She clamped her hands to her blackened face, and the whole of her upper body writhed from side to side.
Nothing remained of the shield except a smouldering arm loop around the black-streaked metal armour encasing her forearm.
Prentyse tried to drop to his knees beside her, wanting to help. She would not make room. She ignored him as she continued rocking and sobbing, her hands covering her face.
Zubin turned on Prentyse’s father who was gawping in shock. “Design Master Brassard! Hang it, man, snap out of it! If ever we needed your brain, it is now. Think or die! How do we block further fire?”
Flammia, through her sobs, called out, “Do something useful yerself for once, yer useless, clodding priest. Block the fucking hole with yer skinny arse and see if yer foul excuse of a false god likes yer well enough to protect yer!”
Prentyse gasped. Father and Zubin goggled at her for a long moment as the crystals screamed, now with a broken, rasping whine, and the slipstream roared. Abusing someone for their faith was not the done thing in high society, in fact it was taboo, and religion was forbidden as a subject in polite conversation.
Pain was no excuse; her insult was an unforgivable transgression of civility.
Oblivious to everything, Flammia continued to twist and sob in pain. Whatever was wrong, it was bad – Prentyse could hear her torment over the sound of the slipstream and lift crystals.
He glared at his father, still staring slack-jawed at Flammia. They were all going to die long before attempting the bastard’s grand experiment. Ironically, it wouldn’t even be a dragon that killed them: all it took was a clutch of its tiny offspring. What had the bastard called their flames today, in the ambush? Insignificant? If that word didn’t come back to haunt him, Prentyse bloody would!
He looked away from the older men, keeping his attention fixed on the wind-buffeted porthole. Somebody had to.
What could he do about dracling fire? Could he douse it with his potion?
When would the next attack come? To wait in fear was torture.
Why weren’t they attacking?
For that matter, why couldn’t he hear the beasts outside? Their screeches were absent.
The pilot called back, “Your Worship! Barys be praised, the buggers have fallen back – they’re dropping like rocks. I believe we have exceeded their maximum altitude.”
The cabin stank of smoke and ash, the teeth-clenching, broken whine of the crystals continued, and the wind rushed past the open portal, though weaker and quieter than before.
The two older men pointedly ignored each other and Flammia.
Prentyse pounded his backrest to extinguish the small fire there, making a spray of embers and wood ash swirl around the cabin, then sat and regarded the young woman on the floor. She was still oblivious of the men’s presence, still covering her face. Or was it her eyes? But her breathing now was deeper, and she made only an occasional whimper, barely heard above the background din.
No one spoke.
With their silence, they abused each other.
Copyright © DW Brownlaw 2020-2022. All rights reserved.