The sleek swordfish shaped skycraft the Jared Fallor fell burning out of the clouds in a slow spiral towards the city of Chassell Borg below. A score of crew members fell screaming to their deaths from the decks and rigging, while others burned alive or suffocated from smoke inhalation below decks. A series of internal explosions caused the ship to shake and roll over like a mortally wounded sea leviathan. The ship spilt more crew and debris over the city. The once proud battleship of the Onsoomer League Navy was now rapidly turning to ash and molten scrap metal as it fell. A deafening high-pitched scream signaled the battleship’s jinn flask had ruptured. There was nothing that could now save the ship from falling to a blazing death on the city below.
Junior Flight Leader Maya Sennay clung desperately to a smoldering deck line that hung from the ship’s shattered focsle. Confused, stunned and with her head ringing from explosions she stared wide-eyed around her, barely able to comprehend what had happened. Beneath her feet, Maya had an uninterrupted view of the city spinning several thousand spans below her. She gripped the rope and stared up at the upside-down deck she had only moments before been standing on. She looked at the devastation in horror. One moment she was standing with the Senior Navigator Flight Leader Groylles, being given a lecture on navigation, the next she was flying through the air filled with roaring flames, debris and screaming crew members. She didn’t remember grabbing the deck line, and now she dangled helplessly while the ship fell apart above her. A crewman fell through the shattered bow and plummeted past her, close enough that Maya felt the slipstream of his falling body. His face was twisted in mortal terror, arms windmilling. He fell to the city below without making a sound. The sight of this man’s death shocked Maya out of her paralyzed state. She began to feel pain in her hands and arms from hanging from the rope too long. She had to move quickly before she lost her grip.
I am going to die, Maya thought grimly, either by falling to my death or going down with the ship.
Frantically she looked around for anything that would save her.
Looking up at the ship’s focsle again made Maya dizzy and threatened to make her lose her grip on the rope. While she gazed at the shattered deck, an idea formed in her mind; if she could climb the rope to the starboard safety rails and work her way to the forward emergency parachute station, she might just get off this doomed ship alive. Maya knew the chances of her making it were near impossible. If she didn’t fall to her death or get burned alive by the encroaching fire, the chances of finding a parachute that was still in working order would be a miracle, considering how much damage the focsle had taken from the explosions. It was a mad, desperate plan; however, Maya had no other choice. She scissor-locked her feet around the rope and began to climb.
An explosion somewhere on the port side of the ship made it jerk violently to starboard sending Maya swinging wildly back and forth. Oily black smoke poured out of holes in the hull and swirled around the stricken ship. A shrill whistling sound, from somewhere amidships, indicated the pressurized lines to the gramarye fuel tanks had ruptured, and the remaining fuel was rapidly leaking out of the elevation and stabilizer vanes making the ship fall faster.
I’m running out of time, Maya thought as she held on with all her strength. She continued to climb as best as she could while swinging like a pendulum. It was fortunate for Maya that she had the strong petite body of a gymnast and, combined with her military training, had the fitness to do this difficult climb. Nonetheless, Maya became quickly exhausted and felt she was going to fall at any moment. Blood on her hands nearly made her lose her grip. Stinging sweat in her eyes made it difficult to focus on where she needed to go. She felt dizzy again, her eyesight blurred and, for a moment, she thought she saw large red colored whale-like shapes swimming under the clouds in the distance. I must have taken a blow to the head or suffered a concussion from the explosions, Maya thought. It had seemed like a lifetime before Maya was finally able to wrap her shaking arms around the starboard rail. It was fortunate that the skycraft rails were chest high, it enabled Maya to pull herself up and sit on the ‘underneath’ of the metal rail while hugging a stanchion. She had to take a short rest to catch her breath and regain the strength in her limbs. She looked towards the emergency parachute station hatch. It looked the world away.
“Move, move, move” she ordered herself and began to work her way along the rails as fast as she could. The smooth brassy metal tubes that made up the rails was treacherous to hold onto, and the shaking of the stricken ship threatened to throw her off. Luckily the rail stanchions were close enough to each other to provide handholds, making crawling along the rails possible.
Finally, she made it to the section of the rails that were closest to the hatch of the emergency parachute station. It was only then that Maya realized the hatch was too far out of her reach from where she sat hunched on the rails. The wind blew through her torn uniform making her shiver. Maya wiped the blood from her nose with her sleeve and looked at the hatch again. The only way she was going to get into the station would be to leap across and grab the wheel handle on the hatch door. She would then have to operate the handle while hanging off it. Once she managed to open the door, she would have to climb inside the station, put on a parachute, fall clear of the ship and hope that the chute would open in time to save her from being smashed like an egg on Chassell Borg below. Maya readied herself to jump.
“You are not going to make it”, said a deep male voice behind her. Maya jerked in shock and nearly fell off the rails. She snapped her head around to see a giant black bird crouching on the rail ten spans behind her. Not a bird, a winged man. His jet black wings spread wide for balance, feathers rippling in the wind. Maya recognized the red markings on his black segmented armor as the sigils of the Nihonjin mercenaries. The Nihonjin were currently contracted to the Onsoomer League Navy to provide reconnaissance and light aerial infantry support.
This mercenary must be a part of their detachment that was escorting the Jared Fallor on its current goodwill and friendship tour of Astrul, Maya thought. She knew most of the Nihonjin detachment from when she carried out ship’s liaison duties to their command cadre. However, she could not tell who this one was because his stylized demon helmet hid his features.
He’s on our side, he can save me, Maya thought, hope flaring in her heart. “Please help me”, Maya said, her voice breaking.
“No”, said the winged man.
“No? What do you mean no, I am going to die if you don’t help me!’ Maya yelled.
“Saving you is not part of my mission”, the mercenary replied in a conversational tone.
“Then make it part of your mission” Maya screamed.
“I am here to save Sorcerer Captain, Dannion, I can’t carry two people”, said the mercenary.
Of course, saving golden boy Dannion would be on the top of everyone’s priority list, Maya thought angrily, never mind saving the life of a nobody like me. “Why are you talking to me and not looking for him?” snapped Maya.
“I saw your officer’s uniform and had to make sure you were not him,” said the mercenary.
I cannot believe I am having this conversation with only minutes left before this ship crashes, Maya thought.
Maya held on tightly to the stanchion and used her head to gesture towards the mangled wreckage that used to be the ship’s stern. “He was on the bridge when the ship blew up. As you can see, he and the rest of the bridge crew are currently raining down on Chassell Borg in confetti-sized pieces”, Maya said bitterly, angered by the mercenary’s indifference to her plight. “You don’t have to carry me off; just get me a parachute from that station”.
The mercenary shrugged then dropped away from the rails disappearing from Maya’s view, leaving her alone on the burning ship. Maya screamed in frustration and cursed the winged man. She hugged the stanchion tightly, closed her eyes and pressed her forehead against the cold metal then sobbed in terror. The roaring wind and the flat bangs of small arms munitions cooking off in the ship filled her ears.
“Get a hold of yourself, you little coward.’ She told herself “you have to jump for that handle now; it’s the only chance you have got’. It had seemed like an eternity before Maya was able to open her eyes and look towards the emergency station. To her amazement; she saw the mercenary clinging to the hatch struggling with the wheel handle. His wings flapped furiously to keep him in place.
“I cannot open it” he shouted, turning towards Maya, “I think the bulkhead has buckled and jammed the hatch shut.”
Maya felt herself becoming light headed and sick. She laughed hysterically. “Well, that’s that. Unless you have changed your mind about carrying me off, I am going down with my ship”.
The mercenary twisted deftly in mid-air and jumped lightly back onto the rails, with perfect balance, to land beside Maya, he had to crouch to fit between the rails and the deck. “I cannot save you”, he said.
“Why not, you can’t complete your mission, Dannion is dead. What’s stopping you from helping me?’ said Maya. She looked down at the city rushing towards her. Her time was nearly up.
“The kotodama spells that are etched into my body will not allow me to directly save a non-Nihonjin life without an explicit order from a Kyunin ranked officer or by receiving a suitable payment for our services”, the mercenary replied. Maya detected a note of sadness in his voice.
“I come from a family of rich merchants, they will gladly pay you my weight in gold to save my life, I promise,” said Maya, her voice cracking.
“In your position, anyone would make such a promise, you will need to prove it,” said the mercenary.
“I can’t prove it, all I have is what I am wearing and my service pistol” snapped Maya.
“Then I am sorry I cannot help you,” the mercenary said regretfully and made ready to fly off.
Maya reached out and grabbed the winged man’s arm. “Please, you can’t do this, you must help me” she pleaded. It was then that she felt a familiar weight roll against her chest. “Wait, wait damn you, I can pay you” she cried.
“What could you possibly give me?”
Maya reached into the collar of her navy blouse and pulled out her pendant “You can have this. It is solid gold inlaid with diamonds and sapphires; it is easily worth two thousand ells.”
The mercenary came closer to hold the pendant up for inspection. He reached around Maya’s neck and released the pendant and tucked it into a pouch on his belt.
“What is your name?” asked the mercenary.
“I am Junior Flight Leader Maya Sennay ”.
“I am called Sarok,” said the mercenary. “Junior Flight Leader Maya Sennay, you have just paid for me to save your life.”
Sarok wrapped his arms around Maya's waist and hugged her close. His segmented armor made Maya feel like a rabbit trapped in the wheel trains of a town clock. Then suddenly they were flying. Maya gasped at the speed, and power Sarok produced as he twisted through the air then looped around the doomed ship to open skies above. Maya looked down and tracked the Jared Fallor all the way down until it crashed on Chassell Borg. She shivered in horror; she had been so close to dying. The skycraft crashed into an area of housing that was densely packed with tall yellow sandstone brick tenements. The ship fell directly on one of them, completely flattening it. The resulting explosion from ship’s fuel and weapons magazines caused a spreading circular shock wave that brought down several other buildings and created a churning tsunami of fire, smoke and pulverized masonry that quickly spread from the epicenter of the crash site to the rest of the densely packed district of housing destroying everything in its path. Feeling suddenly sickened; Maya tried to swallow a lump in her throat and found she couldn’t. Mercifully, Sarok banked sharply to starboard, and she lost sight of the tragedy unfolding in the city.
Sometime later, they landed on a large flat grassy ledge on a steep wooded hill that overlooked Chassell Borg. Sarok put Maya down lightly and stepped away. They both looked down at the crash site and the burning buildings. The mercenary gave his wings a full stretch then pulled them back hard making a loud clapping sound.
“Sorcerer Captain Alonsa Dannion and six hundred and nineteen officers and crew of the Jared Fallor are dead. There are probably ten times that number of civilians either dead or wounded, and, if they don’t get those fires under control soon, the whole city could be burning by sunset”, Sarok said in a matter of fact manner a storeman might use when calling out his stock checks. He then turned to Maya. “I am sorry you lost your ship and comrades”, he said in a more sympathetic tone.
“I didn’t really know any of them, even Dannion I only knew through the stories in the papers and fame of his family. He never spoke to me on the Jared Fallor. I was too far down the pecking order for him to notice. I just graduated from Naval Flight Academy two weeks ago, and this was my first posting, I joined the Fallor at the start of this voyage”, Maya said numbly. She felt a mixture of emotions; guilt that she had only felt relief at getting away alive from the ship and shame she could not feel any grief for her dead comrades.
“Do you know what caused the explosions?” Maya asked.
“A squadron of Kartorian marauders ambushed your ship from under the clouds” replied, Sarok, with evident distaste.
Maya vaguely remembered seeing red whale-like shapes moving under the cloud base while she was dangling from the deck line, she had dismissed them at the time because she thought she had been hallucinating and then she had been too preoccupied with staying alive to think about them until now. Their color and distinctive orca-like silhouettes made Maya realized she had been looking at Kartorian marauders.
“Will they come looking for us”, Maya asked nervously.
“No, they left the area as soon as they had destroyed your ship”, replied Sarok.
“Why would they do this, the Jared Fallor was not a merchant ship, I never heard of the Kartorian attacking a military vessel?” Maya asked.
“You are right; the Kartorian are cowardly thieving scum, who would normally attack only defenseless merchant ships or their small escorts that they easily outnumber, rarely would they go after something as powerful as an Onsoomer League battleship. Either this was a case of mistaken identity in the clouds, or they were offered a contract to destroy the Jared Fallor, possibly to have Dannion assassinated, and the payment was high enough to warrant the risk” said Sarok.
“Who would pay to have this done, for what gain?” Maya asked
Sarok shrugged. “The Onsoomer League has more enemies than a pine tree has needles, your guess would be better than mine”. He removed his helmet and mopped his brow with a cloth he had taken from a pouch on his belt. He clipped his helmet to the back of his belt. Maya had been expecting to see a hard scar-faced tattooed killer, like most of the Nihonjin troops. Instead, she was surprised to see he was a strikingly attractive young man, probably nineteen years, the same age as her, certainly not much older. He had jet black hair tied up in a top knot that was a symbol of rank denoting he was from one of the Nihonjin elite Taka guards’ regiments. His lightly tanned flawless skin had the slight golden glow that was typical of the gramarye enhanced people. He stood easily six spans tall and moved with the smooth grace of a cat. He carried the two traditional Nihonjin curved swords on his left hip, one was incredibly long with a two-handed grip the other short and one-handed. On his right hip, he had a large calibre boarding pistol.
“I have visited the Nihonjin detachment a few times. Why have I not seen you before?” Maya asked.
“I only joined the detachment yesterday, I was a replacement for one of the pathfinders, who was summoned home” Sarok replied.
“Isn’t skycraft escort duty a little beneath a member of the Taka guards?” Maya asked.
Sarok raised an eyebrow. “I am surprised you are able to tell the differences between Nihonjin troops. For your information; I am in training to gain my first Kyunin rank. I have to gain experience and develop leadership skills in all areas of warfare in which Nihonjin troops are deployed, including scouting and escorting skycrafts.”
“So, we are both junior officers learning our profession. Well, this is one lesson I never want to repeat” Maya said shaking her head.
Sarok looked away a little embarrassed. “One of the training tasks I had to complete was the aerial rescue of personnel from a skycraft; this is usually done during hostage rescue training exercises. Saving you for real has enabled me to complete this ahead of schedule.”
“I am so glad the Onsoomer League Navy and I were able to donate the necessary time and resources to help you with that” Maya said sarcastically.
Sarok moved close to Maya and put his hand gently on her shoulder. “Everything happens for a reason, Maya Sennay, no matter what hardships may come your way or how many times you are hurt or threatened with death; you must never surrender. You must persevere and seek to overcome anything that life throws at you, always try to turn any adversity into an advantage, by doing so, you will live a true life, and when you die, you will be able to join your ancestors’ spirits in the garden of the gods with honor. Remember while your heart beats you have an opportunity to change the world”.
Having Sarok stand so close, touch her and look into her eyes with such intensity was unexpected and surprisingly thrilling. This was completely different to how Maya felt when they flew together moments before. Maya stared back into Sarok’s beautiful brown eyes and felt a surge of emotion run through her. She suddenly felt embarrassed and pulled away. There was an awkward silence between them for a few moments that was broken by Sarok.
“I do not think it would be a good idea for you to enter Chassell Borg.”
“Why would you think that the Astrulians are our allies?” Maya asked.
“A little while ago an Onsoomer League Navy battleship dropped out of the sky onto their city causing death and destruction on a massive scale. The Astrulians are in a state of shock right now. You walking through their gates in an Onsoomer navy uniform now may give them the wrong idea on who to blame for this tragedy, and you could end up on the receiving end of mob justice. For your own safety, it would be best if I take you to the Kruger fortress.”
“That is nearly a hundred leagues away, can you manage to carry me that far?” Maya asked
“I could carry you to the coast if we had the time” replied Sarok.
“This is more help than I expected, why you would do this when you should be making best speed back to your command to report this?” asked Maya.
“That pendant you gave me is very valuable; not only was it more than enough to pay for saving your life, but it is also enough to pay for transporting you back to the Onsoomer territory as well. By accepting the pendant; I am obligated to render you all the services I can to return a fair value for your payment. How did a junior officer afford such an expensive trinket? Sarok said.
“I told you my family were rich, that pendant was a graduation present from my parents,” Maya said sadly. “When I get back home; I would like to buy it back from you?” she asked.
“I am sure we can come to some sort of arrangement,” Sarok said reassuringly. “However, I have to offer your pendant to my Kyunin first and get his agreement to accept a cash exchange for it.”
“I don’t understand how you can put a price on saving my life like you were trading cattle at market,” said Maya.
“We, Nihonjin are mercenaries; putting a monetary value on life and death is how we conduct business” Sarok replied candidly.
“How much is my life worth to you?” Maya asked.
“Junior OLN officers’ lives have a starting value of one thousand ells and increase as you go up the ranks to half a million ells for a sky admiral. I could have got five million or more for Dannion” said Sarok, sighing regretfully.
“I never knew I was so cheap,” Maya said
Sarok smiled. “It is nothing personal, just business.”
“Where is the rest of your detachment?” asked Maya.
“When the Jared Fallor reached the outskirts of Chassell Borg; your captain dismissed us and requested we rejoin the ship at Bellgaddan falls for the return journey. I guess having a company of mercenaries around the ship would not have been good for public relations with the Astrulian public” Sarok replied. “My Kyunin, Takehiko, ordered me to covertly follow the Jared Fallor and if anything happens that endangered the ship my mission was to ensure the survival of Sorcerer Captain Dannion above all other considerations. Dannion was, by far, the most valuable asset on that ship for us in more ways than just money.”
Maya tutted under her breath at that last remark.
“I cannot see how you could have possibly followed the Jared Fallor covertly, you do stick out,” said Maya.
“Actually, I stowed away on board your ship by hiding in one of the upper deck air vents and came out when the attack began” replied Sarok looking a little chagrined.
A cacophony of screams, shouts and the peal of bells from several temples drifted towards them from the city when the wind changed. The breeze also carried the acrid smell of smoke from burning materials and several kinds of meat.
Sarok looked back at Chassell Borg. “We had better get going, the Astrulians may be in disarray now. However it won’t take them long to start putting up aerial patrols over the city, and I do not wish to fight my way out of this country”.