Flotilla Laputa rises and falls with the currents of the wind. The gasbags in their hundreds above that hold Flotilla aloft kiss the cumulus clouds. The ships and barges and broken hulls that comprise the Laputa creak at the strain. But its people know the art of joining the myriad into the whole, and neither ship nor mooring breaks. The Captain, whose fourfold souls have been reduced to three, walks the decks of Flotilla, seeking sign of their quarry.
The Captain is of the Land. An entity of primal balance, child of a mountain peak. A quartet of souls in harmony, born together as one communal being, content and fulfilled in each other’s company until wanderlust lured them into the sky.
There is an ache within the Captain. A silence where a voice of wonder and curiosity should speak. The absence left when the Machaenum stole their soul of air with a blade of liquid light. Veled, the fourth quarter of their being, who had longed for the vastness of the world. Now they are only three.
We should have stayed, Kallum, their soul of steady earth, believes. Ey worried at the dangers they might find in the sky, but Veled’s enthusiasm chased away such fear.
We will find em, promises Saeles, their soul of fire, of joy, of hope. Joy stifled by long suffering, and a hope that offers little comfort after years of searching.
Faraa, their soul of water and wood, extends emself through the poplar and pine of the decks, listening for whispered word of the Machaenum. Flotilla collects cast-offs. Humans who chafed at the strictures of Garden Laputa or who rebelled against the militarism of Wyrn. Avin who rejected the hopeless holy war of their people. Merchants and salvagers come to trade in the famed Barge Bazaar. All are welcome here. Surely someone, resident or traveler, will know where to find the Machaenum.
A desperate belief, but one to which the Captain clings. When they first met Jeroam, their pilot, who escaped the Mechaenum in his youth, they thought they had found the head of a trail that would lead to Veled. Yet even he does not know when and where the Machaenum will appear.
A red sunset spills around the distant peaks of the Land and through the churning clouds of the understorm below. Jeroam and Kika, the two members of the Captain’s crew, will be finished with their bartering and ready to disembark. The Captain peers one final time through the market crowd, hoping to glimpse some clue, to overhear a quiet conversation. Anything to give direction to their search, to make it more than hopeful wandering.
A face, pale and freckled and lined with desperation, locks gaze with the Captain. A young woman, now shoving through the crowd, dressed in dirty leathers and with a pistol on her hip.
On Flotilla the Captain’s earthen flesh is often mistaken for ruddy, if dry, skin. Their verdant foliage is dull beside the dyes that shimmer in the hair of Flotilla’s people and the blue crests of the avin. Only the Captain’s eyes are unusual, bright as they are with Saeles’s light.
A light the young woman has seen, and recognized.
We should run, Kallum reasons.
What danger is she to us? Saeles responds. Perhaps she offers work requiring Those of the Land? Jeroam has been moaning for better fodder.
Faraa returns from the decks, sensing Kallum’s tension, and balks at the sight of the woman striding ever closer, her shoulders rigid.
We should run, Faraa thinks, and thus settles the Captain’s course.
Too late. The woman’s hand closes on their wrist.
“You’re one of them,” she hisses. She searches the Captain’s eyes. “One of the Land.”
“Those of the Land,” the Captain replies, too curtly, and pulls their hand from the woman’s grip. “Not one. Never one.”
Which makes them quail to think of Veled’s fate.
If the woman is abashed, she does not show it. “I met one—some?—of your kind, on Thoral’s Peak. We tried to harvest the timber there, but one of you... er...”
Embarrassment catches up to the woman at last. The confines of a language not built by Those of the Land, and poorly equipped to express their complexities, confounds her.
“You are of Wyrn Laputa,” the Captain says. “Word of that battle spread quickly from peak to peak through the stone beneath the understorm. Those who faced you there have not forgiven.”
And Wyrn will not soon forget, Saeles thinks, giddy at memories shared by Those of Thoral’s Peak, who felled a dozen wyverns and a roost-ship with hurled stone and conjured lightning. Memories that kindled Veled’s wanderlust, with images of a world much vaster than the peaks of the Land and the souls therein. A world of ships that flew over the understorm, of beings full of vigor and brutal ingenuity.
Saeles’s giddiness has faded. In its place, Kallum’s restraint rises to the fore.
“Wyrn is cruel.” The woman’s face hardens. “Crueler than I imagined.”
“What do you want from us?” If the fire in the Captain’s gaze quails her, she does not show it.
“Caragor, my mount, was injured in a skirmish with the avin,” she says. “The roost-commander declared him unfit for battle. They want to slaughter him and strip him for his bones and leather, as though a scar is enough to make a wyvern’s value less than a few jerkins and lances.
“We escaped,” she goes on. “But a roost-ship follows in our wake. We need to flee beyond Wyrn’s reach, to the far western sky. We can find refuge in the domain of Garden Laputa. Wyrn will not risk their wrath.”
“Then fly west,” the Captain says. Faraa flinches at the harshness in their voice, but Kallum refuses to entertain this distraction. We must find Veled. We can waste no time escorting this woman to such a distant stretch of sky.
The wyvern rider sets her jaw. “It is not so simple. A wyvern can fly faster than a roost-ship, but a wyvern must rest. Please. We can pay, and well.”
“Hire a barge.”
We would like to see the wyvern, at least, Saeles thinks. We can take them part of the way, surely?
Kallum is stone and earth. Stability. The level-headed soul. Ey should never have let them leave the Land. We will find Veled, and we will go home. The Machaenum do not fly in Garden sky. Of that, Jeroam is certain. Why would we go so far out of our way for this stranger?
“Please.” Desperation fills the wyvern rider’s eyes.
“We need a fast ship, but more, we need protection.”
She falters. She has kept a secret, one she fears will cost her the Captain’s help.
“The Machaenum follow us. They know that we have fled, and they want Caragor, for they have few opportunities to capture a wyvern of Wyrn. If you do not help us, either Wyrn will slaughter him or the Machaenum will peel him apart.”
The Captain’s heart blazes against ribs of stone. The Machaenum! How many months have they spent, chasing trails of brackish smoke, hoping for a glimpse of rusted steel jutting from the understorm? But here, offering itself, is bait that the Machaenum already follows. A lure the Captain had not dreamed to find.
“I can pay,” the wyvern rider says again, and holds a shallow breath. “Will you help us?”
“What is your name?” the Captain answers.
“Tava,” she says. “Tava who rides Caragor.”
“Yes, we will help you.”
She smiles, and Faraa feels a pang of guilt. We must tell her. We must admit that we hope the Machaenum comes. But Kallum is firm. She will balk. No one hopes to meet the Machaenum, least of all those who flee them. We will make good on our promise to deliver her to Garden after we find Veled’s trail.
“Now tell us, Tava who rides Caragor,” the Captain says, “where is your wyvern?”
As they embark upon the Landed Wing—the Captain’s ship, and the home they have made with their crew—Tava points the way to her wyvern’s hiding place. Basalt columns jut from the understorm not far from where Flotilla Laputa hovers, a puzzle built of missing pieces. At the center of Flotilla’s jumbled scraps of hull and jutting boardwalk, the spire of the great windmill, gift of the Ancients, churning heart of every Laputa, descends to dip beneath the surface of the understorm.
Of the Laputae and islands the Captain has visited, they hold Flotilla closest in their heart. Here is the vitality, the gorgeous jumble of being that the Captain had hoped to find in the sky. Veled was taken before so much as glimpsing it.
We will show it to em, Saeles promises. Before we return to the Land.
As the Landed Wing passes above the basalt columns, Tava loads her pistol with a flare and fires it overhead. Kika tenses, and Faraa empathizes with her wariness. Kika has not laid eyes on a wyvern since joining the Captain. She would be in Wyrn’s domain, even now, with glaive in hand to wage her people’s holy war if only she had the courage to face again the flames of a wyvern’s breath.
Most of her people go bare-chested, offering their plumage to the world’s eyes. Kika wears a backless tunic to cover a looping scar of puckered flesh. A wound that would have killed her if not for Faraa’s ministrations. This is why she continues to follow the Captain, without questioning, though they have invited her enemy aboard.
She will understand when we find Veled, Kallum insists.
Then why not tell her what we plan? Faraa wonders.
Look! Saeles interjects, widening their eyes. Among the columns!
Wings unfurl like mainsails, and Caragor leaps from the crumbling basalt. His neck and tail are thick as cedar. His talons, flashing red like blood-stained swords, curl beneath him. The wedge of his head is wide as the prow of the Landed Wing. His nostrils flare, trailing smoke.
“Will he fit?” Jeroam calls down from the steering deck.
Caragor circles the Landed Wing twice, searching the deck, his amber eyes always flowing back to Tava’s outstretched arms.
“Make room!” she calls. Kika obliges eagerly. The Captain crouches with her beside the quarterdeck, leaving the wide center of the main deck an open field where Tava stands to beckon her wyvern down.
Taut cables of braided wire creak as the Landed Wing dips beneath Caragor’s weight. He perches on the deck like a bird of prey at roost. Tava leans into his scaled underbelly and buries her face in the crook of his wing. A red, roping scar runs the length of his flank. His amber eyes study first the Captain—what living wyvern has seen Those of the Land?—then, with open hostility, the avin crouched beside them.
A low rumble thunders in the wyvern’s throat. Visions of fire erupt in the eye of the Captain’s mind, but Tava strokes his neck and whispers gentle words.
“You’re safe,” she says. “They are friends.”
Slowly, the Captain stands.
“I’m going below,” Kika says, her voice hard and sharp. “Something might have juddered loose when he landed.”
She vanishes beneath the deck, hatred and fear in every line of her body. Hatred not for the wyvern but for Wyrn’s enslavement of his kind. Faraa trembles with regret. We should have asked her before inviting Tava aboard, ey thinks. At the very least, we should have warned her. But Saeles’s giddiness at encountering a wyvern not intent on killing them overcomes eir regret.
Soon, the Machaenum, Kallum thinks, as the Captain steps forward to welcome the wyvern. And then, home.
The Landed Wing bucks against the wind as Jeroam eases the ship into the current. He opens the throttle and lets the spring-drive unspool. The Wing’s turbines blur and whine as the ship accelerates.
With their course set, the Captain winches the winding-mill down toward the understorm, where it hangs on a cable of braided wire. Its blades will channel the force of those raging winds into the spare spring-battery, fit snug into the cavity of the mill. Only Garden and the Machaenum know the ancient secret of making spring-batteries, and the Landed Wing carries only two. A ship with lowered winding-mill cannot maneuver without risk of the cable snapping, and when both batteries have been used up the Landed Wing will be no better than a barge driven by the wind. They must keep both wound in case Wyrn or the Machaenum come upon them.
Caragor now soars high above the Landed Wing. Tava and her wyvern hunt for sign of pursuit, either the vast gasbags of a roost-ship or the wake of a Machaenum war-skiff beneath the understorm. He sees instead one of the undulous leviathans that skirt the surface of the storm. He darts downward, wings folded flat to his sides, then returns to coast alongside the Landed Wing, blood dripping from his jaw.
When the winding-mill vanishes beneath the clouds below, he returns to the deck. A precarious dance, for he must match his gliding speed to the ship and only then touch down. A dance he and his rider perform with astonishing grace. The Captain watches, captivated, as Tava speaks to him with gentle turns and twists of the reins, and he responds as though the reins were not leather but nervous tissue, as though the rider were not a separate being but a second mind. Faraa marvels at their connectedness and sees in them a pale reflection of Those of the Land.
They are not united, Kallum insists. Not as we are.
The wyvern perches on the quarterdeck, his neck bent to keep from grazing the lift-gas bags with his horns. Tava tosses a hunk of meat to Jeroam, who nearly fumbles it as he struggles to keep one hand on the steering wheel. He holds it, stares at the dripping blood.
A tear twinkles in his eye. “It...” His voice catches. “It isn’t jerky...”
“Haven’t had fresh meat in a while, have you?” Tava calls up to him.
Jeroam looks pleadingly to the Captain. “Hold the wheel for an hour, would you?” He swallows. “My mouth’s just... I can’t concentrate, Captain.”
The Captain smiles and ascends the ladder to the quarterdeck. “Enjoy your meal, Jeroam.”
He grins and vanishes below decks. Kika passes him on her way up from the hold. She frowns at Tava and studies the sky. “I will take a turn at scouting.”
She crosses the deck, eyes the wyvern with reverence that is also fear, and leaps from the railing. Her wings unfurl from her back and flex into an updraft. She is swept behind and above the ship, a glint of orange against the blue sky.
“Will she be able to catch up?” Tava shades her eyes with one gloved hand.
“You have fought the avin, have you not?” The Captain watches Kika soar. “We once saw her outpace one of the Springclippers of Garden. That was a race to behold—the technology of the Ancients pitted against the grace of the avin.”
“How many of you are there?” Tava says, then blushes. “I mean... in that body, if you don’t mind my asking.”
Does she truly wish to know or simply to reduce, to fit the unfamiliar to some expected pattern? How many times have they tried to explain, and to how many curious beings, so innocent-seeming, yet so unwilling to comprehend?
“We are four,” the Captain says gruffly. “All of the Land are four. Earth, Fire, Wood that is also Water, and Wind. Four names, and four aspects of being.”
Tava studies them, careful yet inquisitive. “What are your names?”
“Kallum, Saeles, Faraa, and Veled.” The Captain smiles sadly. “Jeroam christened this ship, and then christened us its captain. Captain Kasaefavel.” A stiffness builds in the Captain’s throat. “Now we are only the Captain.”
“What happened?” Tava asks, not knowing the pain she causes.
Faraa wishes to speak no longer, but Kallum will press on. She is owed this much knowledge, at least, so that she can piece together the reason when the Machaenum comes.
“Veled was taken from us.”
Tava strokes Caragor’s neck, near the hollow of his shoulder, the tip of his scar.
“Like Wyrn wants to take Caragor from me,” Tava says. “How did it happen?”
“In truth, we do not know,” the Captain says, and wishes Jeroam would return, so that this conversation might come to an easy end.
“I am sorry that happened to you,” Tava says. “You are not so different from Caragor and I. The bond between wyvern and rider is—”
“It is not the same,” the Captain snaps. They grind their marble teeth. Again! Always! For all the wonders of the sky, how can it be that no being is willing to hear and honestly, without reducing, understand? “It is not a bond we share. We are four souls of the same being. To be separated is...”
Faraa flees into the timbers of the ship, dispersing emself, rooting eir pain in poplar and pine. Saeles fades to only a flicker, a spark at the Captain’s heart. Kallum is hard and cold.
“It is torture,” they mutter.
Tava is quiet until Jeroam returns, with his cheeks flush and belly round beneath his coveralls. The Captain hands him the wheel.
“We should check on the winding-mill,” they say, and grip tight the cable. Faraa returns from the decks and together they slide down the cable into the understorm.
Their peacoat snaps about their wrists and thighs in the raging winds. The grit of the storm pits their earthen flesh and tears at the foliage sprouting from their scalp. Their palms are scraped down to bones of stone by the time their feet find the top of the winding-mill. In truth, they have not descended to monitor the progress of the battery.
They have come to summon the Machaenum.
Should we not wait? Faraa wonders fretfully. We are yet far from Garden’s domain. If things go awry, we will not be able to escape the Machaenum.
We will not endure another day. Not when a chance for reunion may be near, Kallum decides, and Faraa bends to eir will.
They raise their hand to the storm and stretch themselves thin and far from their body, for the storm holds all that is of the Land. Earth, tossed in whorls of grit. Wood, for what vegetation once grew beneath the storm has been pounded into dust. Fire, in the crashing lightning and burning static of the storm’s endless churn.
And Wind, though it is of no use to them, incomplete as they are.
Come and find us, Kallum seethes. We know you are near, following the wyvern.
They extend as far from their body as they can, scattering themselves deep into the storm, so that whatever means the Machaenum used to find Veled might catch sight of them again. This is not the first time they have done this, casting themselves as bait into the storm, risking all for a chance at reunion. Each time without answer.
Come! Saeles flares to rage, and the storm crackles and burns. Balls of lightning erupt. Flames blaze through the whirl. COME!
Enough! Kallum bears down and draws Faraa and Saeles back to their body. A rumble sounds in the deep of the understorm. Some unintended consequence of Saeles’s release, or the first thunder of Machaenum engines, rising to answer?
They haul themselves onto the deck, where Tava stares with haunted eyes. Kika has returned to the Wing and twitches nervously. Even Jeroam has forgotten the contentment of his meal.
“We saw the lightning,” Kika says. “And the fire.”
The Captain smiles. “A surge in the understorm. They happen. Nothing of that sort can harm us.”
Faraa shivers with the need to tell Kika, to explain what they have done, and why. To make her understand.
They cannot understand, Kallum thinks. They can never understand.
Kika crosses her arms. Her eyes frown, but she says only, “Is the battery ready?”
“Another hour,” the Captain says, and retreats toward the downward ladder. “Let us know if you spot sign of Wyrn or the Machaenum.”
“Aye aye, Captain,” says Kika, and watches their descent with prying eyes.
They seek out the deepest hold of the Landed Wing, where Jeroam’s springclipper is stowed.
He stole it, when he made his escape from the war-skiff that raised him. Its angles glint in the lantern light, armor formed in the hard-edged way the Machaenum prefers, their designs layered over the grace of the Ancients. The clipper’s small springbattery is wound and ready. They kept it as a lifeboat, a way of escape should the Wing sink into the storm.
The Captain has thought of another use for this stolen weapon.
They run a finger down one of the clipper’s propeller blades. Jeroam will not miss the little ship. Will its hull of bolted scrap-iron be enough to pierce the walls of a Machaenum war-skiff?
If not, we will burn our way through, Saeles insists, and they grit their teeth.
The Wing shudders. Perhaps a side-wind, catching the bags of lift-gas. Perhaps the shockwave of nearby thunder.
Perhaps the rage of Those of the Land.
The Captain is raising the winding-mill from the storm, back bent to the winch beside Kika, when the Machaenum come.
Caragor drops from the sky like a stone. His wings flare, casting the Landed Wing in shadow. “They’ve found us!” Tava cries as he alights on the bow.
She points, and the Captain’s heart races. They leave the battery to Kika and clamber up the rope-ladder to the twin gasbags. There, visible only as a ripple against the current of the understorm, they see the war-skiff’s wake.
The war-skiff surfaces. Its dorsal blade cuts the storm. Engines roar, belching flames and burning air. As it rises a door opens along one flank. Three clippers scream out and dart toward the Landed Wing like hawks on the hunt.
The Captain searches the war-skiff’s battered, rusting hull for the weapon that stole Veled. A needle, sheathed in lightning, that forms the hilt of a blade. They see nothing of the kind, but the weapon may be hidden.
They leap back to the deck.
“Jeroam!” they shout. “Stay on course.”
“We can’t outrun those clippers!” he says with gritted teeth.
“I know,” the Captain answers, striding below decks.
“Captain!” Kika catches their shoulder with a hollow-boned arm. “Have you forgotten what happened last time?”
“They caught us by surprise.” The Captain pulls away. “This time, we are ready.”
Kika’s eyes narrow. She suspects the purpose of the surge in the storm.
“You do not have to join me in this fight,” the Captain says, and descends, leaving her to choose.
They throw open the bay door at the back of the hold. Wind rushes in. The Captain mounts, slams shut the cockpit glass, and throttles the springdrive into life. It whirrs and shakes the clipper’s frame.
A switch opens the restraints, and the clipper surges from the hold. If it were not soulless, the Captain would think the clipper desperate to fly again after so long chained in the dark.
Not since their time fighting alongside the avin has the Captain flown a ship so light, carried only by wings and propellers and the power of its springdrive, without gasbags to hold it afloat. The clipper dances to the Captain’s touch on the yoke. Its twin cannons are not loaded, but Those of the Land do not fight with gun and glaive.
Muzzle flashes flare from the three Machaenum clippers. Their guns spit fire and cough lead that cuts the air where the Captain was but not where they are. The Machaenum surge toward the Landed Wing, too proud to imagine that they have been lured.
The Captain swoops through the center of the clippers’ loose formation and toward the war-skiff behind. The clippers react slowly as realization dawns. They roll in the air and fall, one after the other, into pursuit.
Bullets clatter against the iron wings of the Captain’s clipper. Its springdrive whines as the Captain opens the throttle full. The wings judder and scream.
The war-skiff lies before them, its four engines burning bright and belching smoke as it races after the Landed Wing. Either it does not see the Captain, or it does not fear them. The Captain’s clipper is a missile. A nail to puncture the iron skin of the Machaenum’s beast.
An aperture wheels open. A needle juts from within, swinging on a gimbaled turret. Lightning flickers down its length and gathers at its tip.
No! Faraa panics.
We are too close! Kallum believes.
THEY ARE OURS! Saeles cries.
The needle glows bright. A few hundred turns of the springdrive, and the Captain will crash through the war-skiff’s hull.
An orange blur drops from above.
The clang of steel on steel. Light erupts, arcs out and down, slashing through the storm.
The war-skiff, with agility that belies its bulk, drops its nose and dives. The Captain might have touched the hull were they standing on the clipper’s wing. They howl a curse and close the throttle, bringing the clipper down to manageable speed.
A hail of bullets strikes the clipper. A high and keening whistle adds itself to the music of unwinding spring and rattling wings. The yoke is loose in the Captain’s hands, but the clipper turns. Its pursuers turn faster. The Captain can all but feel the tickle of their enemies’ sights.
Flame gouts down and envelops one of the Machaenum clippers. Its spring gives way to friction and heat. It comes apart in a shriek of tearing steel.
Tava and Caragor dart past the two remaining clippers, which balk to either side and fall back toward their war-skiff.
Kika dives from the clouds above and catches hold of the Captain’s wing. She raps the cockpit glass with the butt of her glaive until the Captain throws it open.
“What are you doing?” she shouts against the wind.
“Drawing them away from the Wing,” the Captain answers.
“A poor excuse.” Kika glares. “What if Veled is not in this war-skiff? You would risk everything—”
“A risk we are willing to take,” the Captain snaps.
The Machaenum clippers are coming back around. Tava and Caragor have climbed from their dive and hold position just above the Captain.
“There are three of us, and two of them!” Tava shouts. “Let us sink these clippers and make our escape!”
“The Captain has business on the war-skiff,” Kika says.
The war-skiff has leveled out, so near to the surface of the storm that its ventral fin cuts a wake through the clouds below. Lightning dances down the length of its needle-tipped weapon, which swings in a slow arc on its turret, seeking the Captain.
Tava and Caragor bank close to the Captain. She searches their face.
“Is it Veled?” Tava asks. “The one who was taken?”
Kika’s eyes narrow.
“Go back to the Wing,” the Captain says, unwilling to give voice to hope. “Jeroam and Kika will bring you to Garden.”
The two remaining clippers roll back into pursuit, their throttles open and turbines screaming.
“We’ll fly interference for you.” Tava grins. “If Caragor were locked up in that rusted can, the storm take me if I would leave him behind.”
With a twitch of the reins, Caragor’s wings pound the air. He climbs high above the Captain’s clipper. Kika’s knuckles tighten around her glaive.
“You see?” she says. “We understand. You should have told us.”
Bullets spray. Kika dives, then flares her wings just above the storm. Her glaive flashes in the sunlight. One of the clippers breaks away to follow her, its bullets cutting tunnels into the swirling clouds below. The other holds course.
The Captain’s clipper groans. They open the throttle full and sweep in a sharp arc toward the war-skiff, hoping to outrun the canons of their enemy.
A roar splits the air. Tava and Caragor, his claws splayed and maw wide, drop from above. The Machaenum clipper balks upward and lets both canons loose, even as a wave of fire splashes through it.
Caragor howls. One wing fans open to arrest his dive. The other falters. It flexes against his angry scar; spasms at the pain of new wounds, tossing gouts of blood.
The wedge of the wyvern’s head turns to the sky as it plummets, spiraling, Tava clinging with iron-tense knees. Their passage leaves a divot in the storm, and then the winds rise and fill the channel of their falling.
The understorm has them.
The Captain’s hand hovers at the throttle. They glance down, hoping for a glimpse of Caragor hauling himself out of the storm. But they know. The storm will tear Tava apart. And how well can wyvern scale stand against grit and fury?
The weapon! Faraa sees, panic bubbling up, as the war-skiff holds steady course, only moments from colliding with the Captain’s clipper.
Lightning flickers down the needle, gathers at its tip.
The Captain pulls hard at the yoke. The damaged wings shake and shudder.
A flash. A crack of thunder. Pain swallows everything. The Captain is torn, carried on lines of agonizing light, deep into the bowels of the war-skiff.
There is a thrum in the darkness. Deep-seated, vibrating to the resonance of Kallum’s soul. Ey stirs, dripping agony as from severed limbs. The screech of steel-on-steel. Muted voices, mumbling beyond thin walls. The smell of oil and smoke and thunderclouds. And the thrum, moaning in the walls.
Hempen ropes wrap eir wrists, holding em suspended in a cylinder of corrugated steel. Kallum tries to pull against eir bonds, but eir body is a statue, unable to move without the muscle and sinew that were Faraa’s gift to their union. Without Saeles’s fire, ey cannot burn the ropes away, and eir senses, always so sharp, have dulled.
The body that they compose together has been stripped apart by the weapon of the Machaenum. Kallum is alone, trapped in the Captain’s earthen bones.
The thrum in the wall grows louder, shirks away from the circular hatch at the bottom of Kalum’s prison. The hatch whines open on rusted hinges.
Kallum has only ever seen one member of the Machaenum. Jeroam, who escaped before his body was rebuilt to the Machaenum’s designs. The being that strides into Kallum’s prison is dressed in a carapace of scavenged iron and steel, fastened with bolts and welding fire. Its joints are hinged and wrapped in rubber. Flickering diodes climb the maggot-colored flesh on either side of its pale eyes. An antenna of braided wire juts from behind its ear and dangles to its shoulder.
“It fascinates me,” the machaenist says. “Why do you demons imitate humanity when you build these puppets?”
The machaenist circles Kallum, studying eir body from every angle, like ey is nothing more than another piece of salvage.
“You do not wish to answer?” The machaenist produces a small wand tipped with coiled wire. “You will learn, demon, that answering is not a choice.”
The wand touches Kallum’s foot and fills eir world with tearing sparks. Kallum’s soul writhes, would thrash against the pain if only Faraa were there to breathe the motion of wood and water into their body.
A troubled expression crosses the machaenist’s face.
“You are resilient,” it says. “This is a weapon of the Ancients, like the Harvester that captured you. Both built for the eternal war against your kind. A war that the Ancients—that we—were winning, until you birthed the storm.” It examines the wand, then presses it again to Kallum’s foot.
Another wave of agony crashes, then breaks, then fades. The machaenist taps a mealy finger to its iron jaw.
“It is not resilience... you have not moved at all,” it mutters. “We have not had one of your kind before. Perhaps a full dissection is required, though I would be loath to lose such a rare specimen. I wonder—”
The diodes beside the machaenist’s eyes wink on and off. Harsh red light radiates down the braid of its antenna.
“I am needed.” It stows its weapon within one of the many pockets of its coat. “Don’t go anywhere.”
A chuckle like a death-rattle coughs from its throat, and the hatch slams shut as it leaves Kallum to eir shadowed prison.
The fading pain of the machaenist’s weapon is nothing compared to the wounds where Faraa and Saeles ought to be. They have been taken, Kallum knows. Imprisoned as ey has been. Tortured as ey has been.
The image of Tava and Caragor vanishing beneath the understorm rises in the eye of Kallum’s mind. Why did they fight? They took on the Captain’s risk, unasked, and suffered for their altruism. Dead, now. And Kallum, Faraa, and Saeles imprisoned. Ey imagines the Landed Wing, riven with the canon fire of Machaenum clippers, its bags leaking lift-gas, drifting down into destruction.
We caused this, Kallum believes, and suffers a new, heavy pain. Jeroam, Kika, and even Tava and Caragor placed their trust in the Captain—in Kallum, who dominated their decision-making since Veled was taken—and in selfishness ey gambled all their lives.
Kallum would weep, and rage, and writhe against eir hempen bonds if ey could. But ey is nothing but stone, now. Unmoving. Trapped within their body, now a prison; the scar of their sundering.
And ey realizes, then, that ey has no more need for the Captain’s body.
The machaenists know enough to imprison Kallum but have never truly understood Those of the Land. Ey is no more this body of earth and stone than Veled was a gust wind, or Saeles a gout of flame, or Faraa the decks of Flotilla.
Kallum unclenches the power that maintains the Captain. Eir body crumbles to clods of earth that rain to the iron floor of eir cell. Ey rides them down, and then sends emself into the hull of the war-skiff, which is rusted iron and steel, nothing more than earth tool-worked and refined by fire. Ey intends to travel through it and out into the dust and grit of the understorm, to join that whirling rage and fury.
As ey enters the hull the thrumming deepens, a sudden river, unrelenting, dragging em into a current of muted voices.
Panic tumbles em, disorients em. Others speak in the hull of the war-skiff. Souls of earth, bound long ago, before the storm, and bent to the will of the Ancients.
What other technologies did the Ancients make in this way? Souls, captured, hammered into unwanted shapes, bound to unwanted bodies. Form imposed upon them, their being enslaved to function, to suit the needs of another. Kallum shudders. There in the hull, alongside countless siblings long-tortured by conformation to their enemy’s will, ey can understand, for the first time, the understorm.
Souls of fire, like Saeles, must burn in the hearts of the war-skiff’s engines. Souls of wood and water are bound somewhere in the depths of the war-skiff, compelled to midwife food into being from scattered seed. And the weapons, Kallum knows, which change lightning into energies not found in nature, must draw their strength from souls of the wind.
The machaenists use their Harvester to capture Those of the Land and experiment, as they experiment upon everything, and may have gleaned an inkling of this. But they do not understand, neither how the Ancients created such atrocities, nor why the understorm is the only worthy response to such exploitation.
Does the Machaenum not know that mankind thrives in the sky, on Flotilla and Garden and even—cruel though it be—Wyrn? These machaenists have twisted themselves into beings that they are not, and for what? To cling to life below the understorm? To the memory of a wicked past rightfully scraped from the surface of the world?
Kallum focuses, winds eir way through the current of moaning siblings that whirl in constant maintenance of the hull. Ey will free them, even if they have lost themselves. Better to wander in the understorm than be imprisoned here, in the weapon of their enemy.
First, ey must free Saeles and Faraa.
And Veled, ey hopes against hope.
The war-skiff is a vast, many-chambered thing. No maze can keep Kallum from eir other souls for long. Faraa, too, is bound. Ey writhes within the bundled nerves and ligaments of the Captain’s body, cruelly torn from their moorings by the Harvester and encased in a hinged block of stone.
Kallum slips through the decks, beneath dozens of machaenists as they go about their wicked duties, and through the stone sarcophagus. Ey touches Faraa, gently.
Kallum! Faraa flinches, disbelieving, terrified.
It’s alright, now. Kallum draws emself out of the hull and fills the stone box around Faraa.
How did you escape? Faraa asks, astounded. What is going on?
They are together again, and so Faraa knows at once all that has transpired. And, though ey is still afraid, ey agrees with Kallum’s plan.
The stone sarcophagus unfolds. Kallum shatters it to gravel and binds it with Faraa’s vines into a new body, a symbol of reunion. The Captain—for they are the Captain, if only half-formed—has not taken a single step when the machaenists guarding Faraa rush them, brandishing their wicked, sparking wands.
Iron carapace buckles. Diodes burst from mealy flesh. Bodies crash against bulkheads and crumple. Even without the strength and fire Saeles brings to their union, no mortal can match the Captain.
They place their hand against the bulkhead. They could fight their way through the war-skiff, but that would be slow going. Kallum flows into iron and Faraa into the water that streams through dozens of pipes to all corners of the war-skiff.
There are... others... here, Faraa shudders. Not only in the bulkhead and hull.
We will free them, too, Kallum says, determined, and spreads emself thin, till ey finds a familiar spark of heat and light. Follow me.
A sphere rests in the vaulted chamber at the center of the war-skiff, bound in a nest of wires and thick cable. The sphere pulses like a beating heart and sends heat in constant streams to the four fins and the blazing engines at their tips.
Something else stirs, near to the pulsing sphere, beside bay doors still cool along their seam and recently closed. A weight, shifting, scraping the bulkhead, surrounded by machaenists that poke and prod with their crackling wands.
Kallum and Faraa gather in the pipes and bulkhead near the pulsing sphere. They emerge, twisting a new body from iron and water. Metal shrieks and water sprays in their wake. Machaenists whirl from glowing panels and reach for their wands. The Captain strides to the pulsing sphere. There is no need to fight. The war-skiff will come apart at the seams once they free Saeles.
From the corner of their eye the Captain sees the heaped thing beside the bay doors. Blood drips from scales torn free, reddening the furrow of an already angry scar.
It is enough of a pause, enough of a distraction.
Agony blooms in the back of the Captain’s iron skull. They collapse, writhing, and another wand descends. Wave after wave of pain, administered by siblings bound to twisted machines. The Captain sees, in shuttered flashes, the pulsing sphere that binds Saeles. And then, juddering and twisting in pain, the wyvern, sprawled beside the bay doors, bloodied and battered by the understorm, its head slowly rising.
Caragor howls and belches fire. Two machaenists burst shrieking into flame. He struggles to his feet, coughs a weak puff of fire, and collapses, careful not to crush the woman who lies unconscious at his side.
The Captain grasps the handle of a wand that has fallen from a charred hand. Kallum extends emself into the wand, which is itself a metal cage, and unmakes it as ey unmade the Captain’s body.
Machaenists pause in disbelief as the wand becomes dust and the soul imprisoned within tears free.
The freed soul is mindless, so long contorted to another’s designs, but ey is as wrathful as the understorm. And like the understorm, this freed soul wreaks havoc.
Winds shake the catwalks and shatter glowing panels and hurl machaenists to their knees. Caragor braces himself against the mounting hurricane, covering Tava’s unconscious form with one bloody wing.
They risked themselves for our sake, Faraa thinks.
The ship falls, Kallum knows. We may not have time to save them and Saeles.
Can we abandon them to die, after they trusted us? Faraa is forceful, unwilling to back down.
And Kallum agrees.
The bulkhead surges beneath their feet as they cross to Caragor and Tava. He bares its teeth at the Captain’s approach. Recognition lights its amber eyes. Tava lies on the iron floor. Her breath comes shallow. The skin of one hand and one side of her face drips blood from wind-burned wounds.
The Captain touches her shoulder and Faraa extends emself into the water and life of Tava’s body. The war-skiff bucks again. The furious wind tears free another cable bound to the pulsing sphere.
Tava’s eyes flutter open.
“Hello, Captain.” She smiles weakly and grasps their wrist. “There’s a story to how I got here and why you’re all sharp and shiny, but I can’t remember it to save my life.”
Steel shrieks. A catwalk falls, smashes into the pulsing sphere, tears through three of the cables that bind it.
“Get her out of here!” the Captain cries to Caragor, touching the inner membrane of his wing and healing his wounds. He blinks his amber eyes and closes one talon around Tava’s waist.
“Wait,” Tava mutters. “We’re deep beneath the understorm, aren’t we? We can’t fly in that mess.”
You could, if I go with you, Kallum knows, but the pulsing sphere, where a quarter of their being rages against eir prison, pulls hard on the Captain’s heart.
Tava braces herself against Caragor’s flank as the ship bucks beneath them. Terror crosses her face. The pulsing sphere sags on snapped cables and sparking wires.
“Is Veled in there?” Tava shouts above the rumble of the war-skiff’s breaking.
“No,” the Captain says. “Saeles, but—”
“Go!” She grins, terrified, her eyes wide. “But hurry!”
The Captain falters, astounded, but Kallum gives direction to Faraa’s aching, consuming gratitude. “Be ready to fly when we get back!”
They race up-slope toward the pulsing sphere. The wind beats at them, but they plead with the outraged soul that drives it. A mind that has been long tortured yet harbors some glint of compassion. It hears them, and lets them by.
“Saeles!” the Captain shouts, and grips hard one of the last cables. They press their hand to the surface of the sphere, which blazes white, beginning to melt. Kallum tries to travel through, to reach out to Saeles soul-to-soul. The metal burns too hot, too near to fire, and ey can only skirt its surface.
The sphere gives way.
Fire rages, hurls the Captain through the air and to the floor. They roll, scrabbling for purchase, as the war-skiff groans and judders with a dying breath.
“Saeles!” the Captain cries as flames pour from the cracked sphere and the war-skiff falls out from beneath their feet.
A tongue of fire touches the Captain.
Saeles blazes hot with fury and freedom. Ey joins the Captain, and they are whole again.
At least, as whole as they were.
Caragor howls and Tava shouts, her words lost in the roar of flame.
The Captain runs to them, strong again with Saeles’s fire, bounding as the bulkhead falls. Caragor catches them in one talon. The other holds Tava, red-faced with panic.
“Press us to the bulkhead!” the Captain shouts.
He does not so much press as slam. Kallum reaches into the bulkhead, spreads emself thin, into every hand-span of iron and steel. With a thought ey unmakes the war-skiff, renders it nothing more than dust and grit in the storm.
Caragor’s voice thunders. He expects pain, but the Captain knows, now, the truth of the understorm. They extend themselves, as they did before, but this time they listen, feeling the rage and fury that birthed the storm but not reveling in it, asking it to pass them by.
It does. Some of its constituents remember them. A new wind, and souls in newly scattered steel and iron. Caragor breaks the surface of the storm, unhindered.
“How did you do that?” Tava gapes at the understorm below them and the blue sky above. “The war-skiff... and the storm! We should have been torn to pieces!”
“The storm, too, is of the Land,” the Captain says in answer, and smiles when he sees that this does not satisfy.
She will never fully understand.
But she understands enough.
Even after witnessing the Captain’s seeming death, Kika and Jeroam were slow to give up hope. They have flown a wide circle around the place where the war-skiff disappeared beneath the storm intent on reclaiming its wyvern prize.
Kika has been watching the surface of the storm every hour she can spare, hoping for sight of the Captain’s return, fearing another glimpse of the war-skiff’s wake. She sees Caragor’s astonishing ascent, and—forgetting, for a moment, her anger and fear—dives to meet him, and Tava, and the Captain.
It is not the reunion the Captain wanted, but it is sweet, and worth savoring.
Back aboard the Landed Wing, the Captain offers to ferry Tava and Caragor the rest of the way to Garden. They refuse.
“We like you lot, as it turns out,” Tava says, grinning. “And where will we be safer than with the Captain, who commands the understorm itself?”
Jeroam sighs. “We’re going to have to expand the Wing,” he mutters. “Another gasbag, maybe a wider deck with a roost for the wyvern...”
“There’ll be leviathan steak in it for you.” Tava elbows him. His mouth waters, and he stalks off to his cabin to draw up plans.
Days later, when the joyous flurry of reunion has settled, the Captain stands at the prow of the Landed Wing, studying the northern horizon.
The souls in the pulsing sphere were mindless. Enraged and wrathful as all the rest of those bound to Machaenum designs. But that furnace, Saeles has told them, was full of words.
Words that spoke of a Machaen Laputa, a fourth city in the sky beyond Garden, Wyrn, and Flotilla. One that rests on the surface of the storm, far to the north, in cold skies rarely traveled.
“We’ll put in at Flotilla soon,” Jeroam says, picking bits of meat from his teeth as he joins the Captain at the prow. “I’ve come up with a new business venture. We can hunt leviathans. Not only for their meat, but for their gas bladders. The refineries at Flotilla send out whalers—”
“Why didn’t you tell us of Machaen Laputa?” the Captain asks.
Jeroam swallows, slowly moves his hand away from his mouth. “I was born on a skiff. We never went back there, not while I was still aboard.”
“But you knew of it.”
“As a rumor! Just a rumor. Didn’t want to get your hopes up...”
“That’s where Veled is. That’s where they take the Harvested souls of wind to make them into weapons. We can save em, if we’re not too late.”
“That’s...” Jeroam sighs. “That’s a significant ‘if,’ Captain.”
“It is. But we must try, if there is any hope.”
They have found the clue they have long been searching for, the trail that will lead to reunion. But they also know they cannot force such danger on those they love. For the crew of the Wing, though they are not Those of the Land, are also a part of them. Bonded, as Tava and Caragor are bonded.
“We understand if you wish to stay behind,” the Captain says. “We can return to Flotilla and hire a ship—”
“You think we’ll let you rush off to your death alone?” Jeroam picks a sliver of meat from his teeth and grins. “Tell us where to fly, Captain, and we’ll set a course.”