Cover art by Jeanette Eileen Widjaja
(Note: The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting. As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)
KOTA LET OUT A SNORT of laughter at the miserable little groan coming from the window seat in her small cabin. She looked over to see a pair of glowing blue eyes glaring at her, which only made her laugh that much harder. Pyter let out an indignant noise and blew a puff of smoke in her direction.
“I told you that you’d get seasick if you sat there,” she said as she tucked the marker ribbon into her book. She closed it and reached up, tucking it into the pack that hung off a hook on the bulkhead. She fished around in the pack until she found her food wallet and pulled it out, setting it beside her in the hammock.
“Come here,” she said.
“No,” Pyter said. “You’re mean.”
Kota had to fight to keep from laughing again and did her best to sound contrite. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I have something that will make your tummy feel better.”
Pyter glared at her, but Kota just sat and waited as the Beloniform continued to rock back and forth. Once, twice, three times. As the ship started to shift a fourth time, Pyter leapt into the air, giving a single small flap of his wings before he dropped heavily onto her stomach.
“Oof!” she said, exaggerating a little. Only a little though. Nine pounds of Feradrake to the stomach hurt, and Pyter knew better, but then, he also knew she was going to let him get away with it. She let him get away with anything. She reached up and rubbed his head just behind the eye ridges, and he pressed his head into her hand.
“Tummy hurts,” he said.
“I know, sweetie.” She reached down, slipped her hand into her food wallet, and pulled out a wrapped bundle of ship’s biscuits. She opened the bundle, took one out, and used just a touch of magic to split the rock-hard biscuit into four pieces. “Here. Eat this.”
Pyter moaned and turned his head, refusing the offering.
“I know, baby. I know. But this will settle your stomach. I promise.”
Pyter looked at her, a dubious expression on his face, but he reached out and took the biscuit. She watched as he chewed it, getting surprisingly few crumbs on her, then swallowed it. When it was done, he laid his head between her breasts and closed his eyes. She could still feel the misery coming off him, but the only thing for it now was time. She wrapped the biscuits back up and tucked them in her food wallet, leaving the three remaining pieces of the one she’d cut up laying on her chest where Pyter could get at them. She pulled the end of her blanket over his body, and then slowly started rubbing her knuckles over his head as she sang a soft lullaby, weaving the lightest touch of healing magic into the notes of the song.
“Sweet little dragon, sleeps on a golden bed,
Sweet little dragon, rests his weary head,
Bright little dragon, has a mighty roar,
Bright little dragon, has a quiet night in store.
“Fierce little dragon, I love him the most,
Fierce little dragon, I’ll hold him close,
Tired little dragon, close your eyes and sleep,
Tired little dragon, a treasure I will keep.”
The gentle touch and the soft sound probably did more to soothe him at first than the ship’s biscuit or the magic, but after a bit, she could feel his discomfort start to ease. When he reached out and gobbled up another one of the pieces of biscuit, a smile spread across her face. The last two pieces followed quickly, and by the time he was done, she could feel the contentment rolling off him even without the loud purring.
“Lemon,” he said.
“No. You’ll just get another tummy ache.”
“You will,” she said. “You can have lemon after dinner.”
“After dinner,” she said.
He laid his head back down and she gave it a small rub before resting her hand on his back and closing her eyes, letting Pyter’s purring, the gentle rocking of the ship, and the soft blue glow of the ship’s Crystal Sphere lull her to sleep. She was almost there when she heard the ringing of the alarm bell.
She winced as she felt Pyter’s claws dig into her stomach, but they let go almost as soon as she felt them. She threw the blanket aside, and the moment it was gone, Pyter spread his wings and flapped them, lifting into the air and sailing over the side of the hammock. Kota swung her legs over the side of the hammock and stood up. She shoved her food wallet into her pack, then grabbed the yellow trimmed blue vest that indicated that she worked for the Grimmani Detective Agency. She pulled the vest on, fastened the frog closures, and then grabbed her sword belt. Pyter hopped up on her shoulder and once he was settled in place, she headed out the door, then up the ladder to the weather deck.
By the time she got there, the spell which made the equatorial band of the Crystal Sphere glow blue had been turned off, leaving only the Crystal Sphere itself, and infinite black of the Aether. It was a little unnerving. She knew the Crystal Sphere was still there, because unlike most of the people on the ship, she could see it, but without the glow, she could also see the void, which left her feeling strangely naked to the universe.
In the absence of the usual glow from the Crystal Sphere, the deck was lit with Glow Stones, and crewmen were working to close the protective covers over the Breathing Stones. Kota did her best not to get in the way of any crewman rushing to do their job as she looked around for Captain Teaclock. It only took a moment to spot the Halfling up on her pedestal on the Beloniform’s quarterdeck. Kota climbed up to the quarterdeck and rushed over to the captain’s pedestal.
“Captain,” Kota said.
“Detective,” Teaclock said.
“What’s going on?” Kota asked.
“There’s something in the Aether headed towards us,” Teaclock said. She pointed off to the starboard side. Kota looked over the side of the ship, out into the Aether, but she couldn’t make out anything beyond the Crystal Sphere that surrounded the ship and held back the Quintessence. She raised her hands and brought them together, forming a circle and pouring a bit of magic into it, then spread her hands apart. The magic she had poured into the circle stretched and bent, forming a massive lens. She still didn’t see anything, so she started moving the lens, trying to find whatever was out there.
“It’s just off the third yardarm of the starboard wing sail,” Teaclock said.
Kota stepped forward a bit so Teaclock would be able to see the lens as well, then turned and lined it up with the third yardarm from the top of the massive sail that hung off the starboard side of the ship. She spotted what she was looking for right away. Another Aethership. Only this one was a warship and Kota was pretty sure she had seen action recently. There was an unpatched hole in its belly sail. Kota wasn’t a sailor herself, but she’d spent enough time on Aetherships to know that running with a punctured belly sail or topsail wasn’t something someone did if they could help it. Even pirates would usually put into port for a patch.
“Could they be looking for help?” Kota asked.
“No,” Teaclock said. “If they needed help, they’d be flying a mercy banner.”
Kota didn’t say anything, but she looked up at the top mast of the other ship. There wasn’t a single flag or banner flying.
“Pirates?” Kota asked.
“Pirates,” Teaclock confirmed in a tone far more serious than Kota had ever heard from the normally joyful little woman. “Bring in the wing sails, and rig for battle!”
Kota watched as the massive, fin like sails on either side of the ship folded in on themselves, and then folded back into recesses in the sides of the ship. Heavy, steel-clad doors slid shut over the folded sails to protect them. Crewmen came up on deck carrying arm loads of cutlasses and started passing them out as others began uncovering the ballistae and swinging them to starboard.
“How long do we have?” Kota asked.
“Half an hour, maybe,” Teaclock said. “We have the wind at our backs. Even with our wing sails in, we’re fast. They’ve got more sail area, but they’ve also got more tonnage, and they’re having to work across the wind. Plus, with that hole in their belly sail, they don’t dare run as fast as they could.”
“Could we outrun them?”
“For a while,” Teaclock said. “But not all the way to Proximus. Better to fight them now while we’re fresh than three days from now when we’re exhausted from a hard chase.”
Kota nodded. She could see the logic in it. She reached down and checked her cutlass, reassuring herself that it was ready for the fight to come.
Nadani knelt in the captain’s cabin of the Bloody Aether, her arms shackled to the floor. It was the third time her new master, Alborin, had restrained her this way. Each time before, the ship had attacked some other vessel out in the Aether, and Nadani had no reason to believe this time would be any different. She wondered if she would die this time. She knew nothing of Aetherships, or void sailing, but she had heard Alborin talking to his first officer about how close they had come to losing the ship in the last battle. Something about damage to the belly sail. It made her wonder if this time, Alborin’s enemies might have more luck than the last two times.
She wasn’t sure if such a thought worried her or comforted her. She’d been Alborin’s property for two months now, and she knew that she much preferred her previous master. Belonging to Bodeya hadn’t exactly been pleasant, but Bodeya had at least seemed to value her as something other than a piece of merchandise to be sold at the first opportunity. Alborin told her he already had a buyer for her. That wouldn’t bother her so much if she couldn’t see the fear in his eyes when he boasted about it, but the boasts were nothing more than an attempt to convince himself he wasn’t terrified of his patron.
Nadani knew terror when she saw it because she saw it often. When guests at Bodeya’s manor had looked at her horns and hooves and claws, at her snow-white skin and inky black eyes, they always felt a touch of terror. They feared her because she had the blood of a demon in her. Bodeya was one of the few people who hadn’t looked at her with terror, but even she had feared her. That’s why Bodeya had never taken off the slave collar or the manacles. Fear. Even with the slave brand that magically bound her from hurting her owner, or in any way disobeying her, Bodeya had never stopped fearing her.
Alborin feared her too. She could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice, smell and taste it in the air when he was in the room with her. But however much he feared her, it didn’t approach the level of fear he felt for whoever he meant to sell her to. Which left her wondering if it might not be better if whoever they were going to fight did get lucky, and send them spiraling off into the Aether, out of control, and with no way to find a safe port before their food ran out, or their Crystal Sphere collapsed and the Quintessence swallowed them.
Nadani had no wish to die, but she had seen the way other slaves were treated. Even those in Bodeya’s house. She had no desire for such a life. Better a quick death in the void and a return to the primordial Quintessence than to live out the rest of her days treated like an animal. If the magic of the brand and the collar didn’t prevent it, she thought she might have snuck out some night, and committed some mischief to see to it. Perhaps deface the ward stone that maintained the Crystal Sphere and kept the Quintessence at bay, or pour barrels of vinegar over the breathing stones, and let them all suffocate. It hardly mattered to her how the others died, as long as she didn’t have to face the future that she saw ahead of her.
She lifted her head as she heard the turning of gears. She knew that sound. It was the sound of the wing sails being brought it. The sound that meant battle was close at hand, and that the dying was about to begin. She wished Alborin’s foes success. Perhaps they would be kind to her. A swift death alongside her captors rather than lingering in torment was probably the best she could hope for, but given the future that she was sure lay ahead, she would take it.
“I hate this part,” Kota said.
“I thought this was your job,” Teaclock said.
“My job it to keep it from getting to this point. If there’s a fight, I’ve messed up.”
“I don’t think you can take the blame for this one.”
“No. I think this one is all on our friends over there.”
“You can actually fight, though?” Teaclock asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Kota said. “I can fight.”
“Good, because things are about to get violent.”
Kota looked up at Teaclock. The Halfling took a deep breath and let out a bellow.
The archers fired at the same time as the ballistae. The arrows and the ballista bolts passed through a spell wall the war mages were holding up, wrapping each one in a crystal envelope that protected it as it sailed across the void to the other ship. As soon as the arrows were clear, a pair of war mages cast a shield spell to protect the Beloniform from incoming fire.
The sailors on the other ship replied to the Beloniform’s volley in kind, loosing their own hail of arrows and ballista bolts. The two volleys passed each other in the void, but not without incident. When arrows or bolts came too close, the spell envelopes would touch and rupture, and the arrows or bolts would vanish as their substance boiled away into the Quintessence that surrounded them.
Of the six bolts the ballistae on the Beloniform fired, four of them made it through the Crystal Sphere of the approaching ship, only to bounce off the other ship’s shield spell, along with all the arrows that had been fired. Kota watched as the arrows and the bolts fell, passing through the bottom of the other ship’s Crystal Sphere and boiling away even as the other ship’s bolts and arrows bounced off the Beloniform’s shield spell.
“Stow bows,” Teaclock ordered. Kota wasn’t surprised. There was no way either side was going to get through the other’s shield until they were already close enough to board each other. Cabin boys and cabin girls on both sides started running down the weather deck, collecting bows and quivers, while the ballistae were lowered below deck and covered with large hatches, making more room to fight.
Kota took one last look up at Teaclock, who stood on her pedestal holding a cutlass that was doing a good impression of a great sword when compared to her height. She glanced around at the Orc and Hobgoblin bodyguards, making sure they were ready to protect their captain before she headed down to the weather deck.
“Stay inside the sphere,” she said.
“I ‘member,” Pyter said.
She used her thumb to loosen her cutlass in its scabbard and took up a spot in the second rank of crewmen, behind the ones holding the grappling lines, and waited. This was Kota’s first battle on an Aethership, and it was different than an ocean crossing. If they were at sea, both sides would be trying to bring down the other’s spell shields. Here, spells couldn’t pass beyond the Crystal Sphere that surrounded the ship.
She watched as the other ship’s sphere contacted the Beloniform’s and the two began to merge. At first, the two spheres overlapped, but then, with a great popping sound, suddenly there was a single, large sphere surrounding both ships. The spell shields dropped, and grappling hooks flew in both directions. Spells started to fly across the gap as both crews began to haul the ships together, pulling on the ropes connected to the grappling hooks until the sides of the ships met with a deep thump. Elves, Halflings, and Gnomes on both sides were up on the lines as soon as the ships touched, while humans, Orcs, Hobgoblins, and heavier races waited until boarding planks were laid.
“Go,” Kota said, and Pyter jumped into the air. She raised her hand, and pushed a bit of her magic into it, and Pyter, normally about the size of a cat, grew to the size of a cart horse before he landed on the weather deck of the other ship. Several members of the other crew screamed at the sudden appearance of a dragon in their midst, even a small one, and Pyter proved their fear well founded as he opened his mouth and breathed out a stream of lightning.
Kota jumped, using her magic to push her up and across the gap. She drew her cutlass while she was in the air and brought it down on some poor Dwarf who just happened to be in the wrong place. She threw out her hand, sending a wave of blistering cold across the deck. Four of the other ship’s crew fell dead, their bodies frozen solid as she ripped her cutlass free of the Dwarf’s body. She turned, sensing a threat focused on Pyter and poured a bit of magic into her blade, swinging it at a Hobgoblin that was approaching Pyter with a huge maul. She let the magic go as she swung, and it split the Hobgoblin open.
She felt attention focus in on her and turned towards the source. A war mage was moving her hands, gathering magic to build an invocation. Kota made a small gesture with her free hand, flinging a mote of her own magic into the mage’s spell form, shattering it. The magic the mage had been collecting was released with no direction and no control and blew the mage and four others off the deck of the ship, sending them into the void. It also knocked half a dozen others down, leaving them with magic burns all over their bodies.
She heard a roar and turned towards the sound as a huge bear charged towards Pyter. She reached out and untwisted the spell wrapped around the bear just as it came within reach of him, and Pyter’s claws found a very surprised and unprepared Elf. Kota might have felt sorry for her if she hadn’t been a pirate. As it was, she mostly regretted the time she was going to have to spend cleaning Pyter’s feet.
She turned back to the enemies in front of her and spotted an Orc wearing a steel breastplate. She threw out her hand, sending a bolt of lightning his way. She drove her cutlass into a Kobold while the Orc was still screaming, then conjured a spray of razor-sharp icicles in a Dwarf’s face when he tried to take a swing at her with his axe, before turning to the next opponent.
Nadani listened carefully to what was going on outside. The sounds of swords clashing and people screaming and dying. She was surprised as the sounds grew closer and closer. She wondered if, perhaps, her wishes for success for the Bloody Aether’s adversaries had fallen on the ears of some friendly god out there. It hardly seemed likely that a god would listen to the prayers of a slave, especially one with the blood of a demon in her veins, but it did not sound like the battle went well for the Bloody Aether and her crew.
Maybe some devil had heard her prayers instead, and she was soon to find herself in even worse circumstances than she was presently. Maybe all of this was a punishment for ingratitude. Maybe she should have been grateful to have a master like Bodeya who did not mistreat her. She supposed it hardly mattered now. She was a slave. She had no control over her fate, and she never would. She could only accept whatever destiny awaited her.
Kota could feel the moment when the crew of the other ship realized they’d lost. There was a shift in their mood, and almost as one their confidence turned to defeat. She wasn’t sure what it was that broke them. Whether it was the last of their war mages going down, or when Teaclock beheaded the last of their borders, but they started to surrender.
Kota started to relax, just a little. The exhaustion from using so much of her magic in the battle started to set in. She glanced over to make sure Pyter was okay and smiled when she saw he didn’t have a scratch on him. It was better than they usually made out in a battle. She was about to signal him to go back to the Beloniform when she felt something out of place. Rage, desperation, indignation, and determination.
She turned, looking for the source, and spotted it almost instantly. A man dressed much more smartly than the others, with a tricorn hat and an expensive coat, running for the doors below the quarterdeck.
“Pyter!” Kota called. “Go!” Pyter lifted into the air and sailed for the doors, and Kota twisted the magic just a bit, making Pyter shrink from the size of a cart horse to the size of a large wolf. Small enough to fit through the doors and corridors. She moved to follow, cursing the fact that her normal tricks for moving around a battlefield didn’t work out in the Aether. She didn’t have time to work her way across the deck the hard way though. There were too many ways someone could still do unimaginable damage to the Beloniform as long as they didn’t mind taking their own ship down too. So, she reached out and used her magic to force people aside, creating a corridor she could run through as she followed Pyter and what she could only assume was the captain of the pirate ship.
The sounds of fighting had mostly stopped, and Nadani wondered if that meant the Bloody Aether’s enemies had won and what it meant for her if they had. Probably a trip to the auction block at the local slaver’s guild, followed by a new master. She didn’t know how she would be treated by someone who bought her at auction. Bodeya had told her that her kind was often bought up by temples so that the priests could put them down. Nadani had no idea of that was true or simply a story Bodeya had told to make her feel grateful for Bodeya’s “protection.”
Nadani glanced up at the sounds of approaching footsteps. Someone was running towards the door. She watched with curiosity until it swung open, then had to swallow her disappointment when Alborin stepped through.
“They think they can take my ship,” Alborin muttered as he walked over and grabbed the key to her chains. “I’ll show them. I’ll give them all to the abyss.”
He turned and started towards her, and she realized what he was planning. He meant to take off her chains and order her to fight off the borders. The thought only made her hate him more than she already did. The brand would give her no choice but to obey, and she would end up slaughtering who knew how many people. She had never killed anyone before, and the prospect of killing to protect someone she despised made her ill.
She lifted her head, and looked Alborin in the eyes, a small act of rebellion that the brand allowed because it had never been specifically forbidden, but it was enough to stop Alborin in his tracks. His fear of her was momentarily greater than his rage and anger. She knew that wouldn’t last, that his pride would take over before too long, but then, like some kind of miracle, something came through the door and slammed into his back, driving him to the floor.
It took her a moment to realize what she was seeing. A dragon the size of a wolf, with bright bronze scales that turned just a touch green at the edges. The dragon had a foot on Alborin’s head, with a claw pressing into his throat, and the room filled with a deep, bass growl that shook the timbers. Nadani was so stunned by the dragon that she almost missed the woman who stepped through the door.
Nadani turned and looked at her and was taken aback by how small she was. Five foot two or five foot three at the most, dressed in well-made clothes that were spattered with blood. She had warm, rich brown skin like burnished leather and black hair that seemed to shimmer with a metallic blue sheen as the candles in the room flickered, but it was the eyes that held Nadani transfixed. The eyes that matched the dragon exactly. Pupils that were a vertical slit instead of the black circle that was normal for a human, and icy blue irises that flickered and moved like a flame, giving off a faint glow in the dim room.
Nadani had no idea who or what she was. She’s never seen her, or anyone like her before, but the moment their eyes met, something inside Nadani leapt with excitement, and she felt as if her heart was trying to beat its way out of her chest to reach this strange woman who lowered the cutlass she was holding as she stepped into the room.
“Hello,” the woman said, and Nadani couldn’t stop herself from smiling