“A man keeps his word,” his adoptive father told Nick, before swearing him to fulfill a promise he could not keep, then passed away. He was fifteen at the time, and from then on, his childhood ended. Play gave way to work. The few friends he had gave way to illicit dealers and business partners. Loitering gave way to reading so that he could work some more. All to fulfill the obligation that would rule the next five years of his life.
To some, it would be deemed cruel to ask such things of a child. Still, those were the parting words of the man he called father for the first decade and a half of his life, and he did his best to live up to it.
Now, five years later, he peered at the moon’s light filtering through the deck of his airship to the passing clouds below and onto the glittering waters of the sea.
Air-ship may have been too strong a word. If anything, it was somewhere between air-ship and air-raft. Maybe an air-boat?
The rickety vessel he stood upon looked as if someone tried to take a raft and latch bits and pieces of a ship onto it. Which was exactly the case.
At the rear end of the flat deck was a square cabin fashioned with planks from a greenwood tree. The cabin was tiny, but kept him warm. The effort was worth it, since he was tired of freezing half to death on every trip.
In fact, the entire structure was made out of greenwood trees, right down to the sap which sutured the planks together and the pegs that finished the job. Not too shabby, given his inexperience, and considering he was following vague tips from a book by Imperial pioneers.
This boat was his creation, and was the means by which he kept that obligation held.
An aurora soared from behind, enclosing through the deck in ever-shifting colors of pure aetherial energy. It was an opportunity that Nick was waiting for. Auroras were common this far north in the hemisphere. The pure aethereal energy within were harmless, but could be harnessed with the right tools.
At the bow, Nick had fashioned spell-weave cloth into a large sail. The energy of the aurora swirled through the white cloth, causing it to brim in a rainbow of colors. Four conducting ropes tied to the bottom of the sails suctioned the energy to four air engines floating on the corners of the deck. The emeralds at the core of each engine, glowed green and recharged. Nick sighed, relaxing. He had four spare charged emeralds in the upper corner of his cabin, but they were a pain to change out, and the effort was dangerous mid-flight. With the energy from the aurora, he’d be able to rendezvous and make it home without a hot-swap.
As the aurora passed and the cloth resumed its natural white color, he walked over and hoisted them down. Spell-weave cloth was expensive to replace, and in the quantity he had, was outright contraband that would get him arrested if he was caught.
As Nick tied down the sails, he saw a dark mass of land surrounded by the glittering waters below. That must be the rendezvous point, the new one Eric mapped out for their next exchange. Nick got an odd feeling. It was too quiet down there. Any other island would be full of seagulls. Especially this far from the fishing fleets that stole their usual prey.
He ignored the thought to focus on toeing over the conducting ropes, careful not to accidentally shock himself or worse, spark a fire. Once he made it to the steering board at the center of the deck, he pushed the board down, causing the boat to lurch down to the cloudbanks below.
Vapor drenched his clothes as he entered the clouds. He had wool clothing on but the cold water cut through his body like a knife, shearing away warmth. His hands froze and shook as he struggled to keep the ship moving in the right direction.
When he thought he was deep enough, he brought the board back up and kicked a lever that would activate the brakes. The ship lurched to a halt, floating in a wet, cold, gray world. Nick stood on the deck, joined by the soft humming of the engines and the occasional gust of wind.
Time eased to a standstill. It always did out here, where the only things were clouds and the endless sea. Nick’s shivering hands pulled out another piece of contraband, a pocket-watch. Its twin hands clinked in routine fashion from a topaz battery hidden deep in the mechanism. It was thirty minutes since the agreed upon time.
It was making him antsy. He was far from the land border so the risk of being caught by a Nephilim pegasus patrol or an Imperial corvette were slim to none. That didn’t mean it was safe either though. These were dangerous times. Privateers, using the chaos of the civil war raging to the south, looking for easy-pickings. There were aerial predators, such as wyverns or harpy swarms, that had snuck through border patrols.
In recent news, another threat had joined the fray. Northlanders from the old continent, raiding the Imperial coastlines, abusing the lax security from the civil war. Their attacks creeping closer to Vislanda with each month. Nick had no intention of falling prey to any of them, and kept one hand tightly gripped over the bandaged pommel of the sword on his belt.
The fact that today would be his last run only drove up his anxiety. It made him question whether he really needed the extra money. Maybe it would be best if he just turned back.
Then Nick heard a faint whirring sound, separate from the sound of own vessel’s engines. With each passing tick of the watch the noise got louder. He wasn’t alarmed, and was in fact relieved. This particular noise was familiar. His rendezvous had finally arrived.
A dark shape broke through the fog, approaching Nick. This was an actual airship, stretching nearly five times as long, and as three times as wide as Nick’s own boat. However, its belly was quite narrow for one of its caliber. An Adrestan clipper built in the southern republic, and adhering to the mercantile aspects of the country, designed for speed and the ability to outrun near everything else.
Nick certainly could believe that. Although the outline was hazy through the fog, he could make out the four emerald engines attached to the ship’s hull, each nearly twice the size of his own. However, these were merely for maneuvering. The one’s on the ship’s stern were thrice as large.
He wasted no time, and went back inside his cabin, grabbing two charged rubies from a sack hanging in a corner. He stepped back out, and swiped the rubies against each other, sending off a spark of fire to signal the other ship.
A few seconds passed and a stream of fire whirled up from the deck of the clipper, vanishing into smoke. Nick shook his head. Eric loved his occasional acts of theater.
The clipper dipped veering towards Nick. He could make out shapes through the fog. Some looked like people moving atop the deck, and he could make out swearing and cursing from the whirring noise of the ship’s crystals. As the looming vessel approached, Nick clenched his fists. It was always dangerous to try and rendezvous in the middle of a cloud. The gain in obscurity and secrecy from any airspace patrols was offset by the risk of collision, which for Nick’s small ship, could be fatal. Even two years of success, couldn’t do away with the feeling of unease.
Nick’s heart eased as the deck of the clipper came in line with his own. A wooden plank slapped down connecting the decks of the two vessels, followed by a figure stepping across it.
His boots caused the wood to creak with each step, and the figure appeared as a man sporting blue overalls, a thick coat, and a bulging belly. He had a brown patch strung over a missing left eye, and his scalp was covered in scarred skin that allowed only a few strands of frizzy hair. A slow-burning cigar whisked out the corner of his mouth, and his one good eye zeroed in on Nick as he stepped off the plank.
“Nick.” Eric’s right hand grabbed the cigar as he blew out a plume of smoke. “As punctual as ever I see.”
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