Well after its conclusion, war lingered on as a scab on the edges of society. If somebody pulled back the old wounds far enough, they could see an infection that ran deep.
Skyships that once dominated the skies of Blackwood had all but vanished by the end of the Dragon War. The precious mineral known as skyrock that gave them their flight proved too rare to continue mining, as combating a living god required more and more resources. Retrieving such minerals gradually proved even more futile as the few geniuses capable of constructing the mechanical wonders had human lifespans. They died out before the war’s first century had drawn to a close, and many of their secrets died with them. Thus the creations that had once served as the crowning glory of Blackwood’s military machine turned into antiques or debris by the end of the Dragon War. Or perhaps they simply became broken husks, such as the large wooden structure that served as a shell for Falden’s Fishery.
The skyship that now formed the walls of the building must have once been an impressive structure. Turned on its side, what had been its deck stretched almost 100 feet from stem to stern, and almost half as wide. Even though the polished wood that used to serve as its hull had rotted away around the edges, the ship’s frame remained strong and mostly intact decades after it had crash-landed. The skyship had shown the consideration to smash into a rocky beach not far from the eastern walls of the city of Lorinth. Moving it away would have taken too much effort, so an enterprising man such as Falden took advantage of the situation and turned it into a base of operations.
Enterprising. Garyl turned the word over in his mind. Yes, that was certainly one word to describe Falden…an overly charitable one, but accurate nonetheless.
“A universal salve,” said Falden, holding a square gray tin toward his dark-skinned customer. “Exactly what the discerning traveler needs. Nutritious, if you find yourself out of hardtack while on the road, but its true value is as a healing balm. Just apply a little bit to a well-cleaned wound, and it will heal without infection or further discomfort.”
Garyl took the tin and opened it slightly. He wrinkled his nose at the strong smell of fish that came within, but his sickened expression served as a simple distraction. While he closed the tin and pushed it back into Falden’s wrinkled hands, his eyes surveyed the ship’s interior. Gaedren had hollowed out most of the interior long ago to make way for work benches and tools. Rough wooden planks formed makeshift walls that divided the overturned vessel into workrooms. Half a dozen equally rough-looking mercenaries watched the conversation casually. Most of them rested a hand on a cudgel looped into their belts. Garyl’s experience told him that the guards were only nominally there for security—their real purpose lay in making sure that the people behind the makeshift rooms stayed out of sight around customers.
“The odor is a little pungent,” said Falden when Garyl didn’t offer any price for the salve, “but I assure you it is made of the finest ingredients.”
“Mm-hm.” Garyl broke away from the conversation and strode toward a wide doorway that Falden’s workers had cut in the hull of the old ship. This led to a simple dock and salty beach from which Falden’s “finest ingredients” came in with the tide. Two of the guards moved to intercept Garyl before he reached the dock, but they didn’t move fast enough to stop him from looking outside and stealing a glance at some of the merchant’s real laborers. None of them looked to be more than thirteen years old…which meant that they were born after Derrezen’s ashes rained down from the sky.
Falden placed a wrinkled but strong hand on Garyl’s shoulder. Ignoring the silver shield strapped beneath his customer’s travelling cloak and the sword at his side, he turned Garyl around and locked eyes with him.
“Sir, if you want to do business, you speak to me,” the man hissed angrily. “I don’t offer free tours of my storehouse.”
“But it really wouldn’t matter if you did, would it?” retorted Garyl. “You’ve got a relatively nice little shack here. The frame’s Blackwood airship, built strong enough that even a few decades of seafoam hasn’t worn it down. You’re technically within Blackwood’s borders, but close to Lorinth, which is an independent city. The Blackwood military assumes that Lorinth’s watch patrols for illegal activity around here, and Lorinth assumes that Blackwood has it covered. Even if I did try to muscle my way through to see the chum pools you undoubtedly have hidden around here, even if I did see the waifs you kidnap off the streets and force into servitude to make your fake miracle cures, there’s nothing I can do about it, is there?”
Falden’s wrinkled face folded up into a smile he had undoubtedly practiced long and hard, designed to make him seem like a harmless old man. “Well, I certainly can’t control where and when something of this size falls out of the sky, can I?”
“Of course not,” responded Garyl. “You only take advantage of the circumstances that come your way.”
Falden stepped back and made a point of scanning Garyl from head to toe. “It seems odd that a person of your…heritage would even bring these matters up,” he said. “What is it they call you people, the ones with smoky skin? Night folk, isn’t it? And there are more terrible stories about your kind than rocks on the beach out there. People say you come from the depths of the earth, or are created by the shadows themselves. They say you steal children away and suck the breath out of their lungs.”
“Oh yes, they say many things,” retorted Garyl. “But we both know that only one of us here steals children away.”
Falden’s face flushed so deeply that Garyl could see crimson skin beneath the gray roots of his hair. “I suggest you leave now,” he said. “My guards look impatient.”
Garyl didn’t move for the exit. He knew the sword at his side served as a good diversion in situations like these. Anybody expecting him to start a fight watched the sword or the shield. As long as his hands didn’t go toward them, they didn’t notice the rest until it was too late.
His fingers twitched and he felt energy from the ether flow into him. He had spent many years learning to call to the elements that bound the world of Niiran, and sometimes those elements would answer his call.
“They did build these things to last, didn’t they?” Garyl raised his hands and pointed each palm toward the ceiling. “Not against dragon’s fire, of course, but almost any other element. Right above us, there used to be an engine room. And from the looks of it, most of the engine is still intact. I bet there’s even a skyrock core in there—after all, even a man with your salvage skills wouldn’t know how to identify it unless you studied up on your engineering. And here’s the thing about skyrock—”
“You, there! Stop!” The call came not from Falden or the handful of guards who were closing in on Garyl, but rather from somebody in another room. For a brief moment, everybody turned their gaze toward the far corner of the fishery, where a young teenage girl rushed around one of the makeshift walls and toward the front door. A small but lithe guard chased after her, his club brandished and ready to strike.
Garyl rushed forward to help the child, but one of Falden’s thugs had gotten closer than he expected. The assailant grabbed Garyl from behind, hooking a strong arm around his windpipe and grabbing his scabbard so he couldn’t draw his sword.
The guard dove on the girl, catching her by the legs just before she reached the door. The tackle sent them both sprawling to the ground, but the pursuer didn’t let go of his club. The girl, on the other hand, lost a long knife that she had held clutched to her chest. The weapon—and her only hope of outmuscling somebody older and stronger than her—skittered across the dirt floor of the shop and out of her reach.
Unable to move forward thanks to the pull of his assailant, Garyl went the other way and threw himself backward. The unexpected change in momentum caught his attacker off-guard, and they both tumbled to the ground. As soon as the man released his grip, Garyl somersaulted away, pulling his shield off his back and readying it as he rose to his feet. This proved to be a fortuitous turn of events—as another of the thugs tried to smash open Garyl’s skull, he snapped his shield up just in time to ward off a potentially devastating blow.
The child showed some fight as well. Although her assailant had a slight advantage of size and a significant one of strength, she delivered a flurry of punches and kicks to the man who had her pinned. Garyl took his eyes off of her for less than a second to deflect another incoming blow. From his peripheral vision, he saw a sudden burst of light. When he looked back, the attacker was on his back and the child had risen to her feet, a blaze of fury showing on her face.
Spinning away from his assailants, Garyl rushed to the child’s side and positioned himself between her and the rest of the people in the room. “Your employees don’t seem to be very happy, Falden.”
The old man looked down his hooked nose at Garyl and the girl, then smoothed out his jacket and shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know who the child is,” he said. “As far as I know, she’s simply a trespasser. Probably a thief as well.”
“He’s cutting his losses,” whispered Garyl to the girl behind him. His eyes remained focused on Falden’s thugs, who formed a wall of hostility between Garyl and Falden, making sure that the former didn’t pose any threat to the latter. “The door’s to our back, and all hostile forces are in front of us. That means you’re free to go. Just run, and I’ll make sure that anybody else hidden back there follows shortly. You see—”
A burst of color filled Garyl’s vision, and he pitched forward into the dirt of the makeshift fishery. Garyl heard the rest of Falden’s thugs sneer at the sudden shift in fortune. It took him much longer than he liked to believe to understand that the girl he had just tried to protect had punched him in the back of the skull.
“I don’t need your help,” said the child. She walked in front of Garyl, toward the people she had previously tried to run away from.
Garyl instinctively raised his shield, half-expecting a follow-up attack. The blow had been stronger than a teenage girl should be able to deliver, and he swore he could still feel his teeth rattling in his skull.
“Listen to me,” said Garyl as he rose back to his feet. “I was trying to—”
The words caught in his throat as he locked eyes with the girl for the first time. Framed by dark tan skin and black hair, she had crimson-colored eyes that burned with something else when Garyl looked into them. He felt a sudden surge of panic rush through him, and it took all of his will to stay put instead of fleeing through the front door. The fear lasted for only a single second before he purged it from his mind, but Garyl recognized it as supernatural immediately. He had lived most of a long life very afraid, and he knew the difference between a natural fear and a magical compulsion.
“What are you?” he murmured, more to himself than to anybody in the room.
The girl didn’t answer him. Instead, she spat at Garyl. Her spittle landed on his dark tunic, and then she turned and marched toward the back of the fishery—right back to the very area from which she had just fled.
“Unfortunately, sir, I don’t believe we’ll be able to do business,” said Falden smugly from behind his wall of bodyguards. “But if you wish to stay around, I would be very interested to know if the rumors about the night folk’s tolerance to pain are true.”
Garyl returned his shield to its mount on his back and patted the hilt of his sword to make sure it hadn’t come loose during the scuffle. “You don’t know the answer either, do you?”
Falden tilted his head questioningly. “The answer to what?”
“To what you have back there,” responded Garyl. “You probably don’t want to know. She’s a good worker, isn’t she? Does all the dirty work you ask, steals from all the right people. All you have to do is deal with these occasional outbursts and attempts to run away. It’s just like this little shanty you have set up here. You didn’t ask questions about what brought this down or whether it could ever fly again. You just saw something you could use, and you took advantage of it.”
“I’ve always been lucky,” retorted Falden. “It’s a gift of mine.”
“Everybody is always lucky, until they’re not,” said Garyl. “Keep your fingers crossed. Hope your luck doesn’t run out anytime soon.”
He turned and walked toward the door, forcing himself to keep a measured pace despite the fear that Falden’s thugs would attack him from behind. They didn’t, but the pounding of Garyl’s heart in his chest didn’t subside until he was well away from the derelict skyship.
That was fine, though. He could deal with natural fear. The young thief who remained in Falden’s sway, however, was another matter entirely.