Updated: Jun 4, 2018
“We fly because we must to survive and we must survive.” – Admiral Jeremiah Penn
Those were the words uttered to me when I came aboard the flotilla city of Yasena two years ago. At the time I hadn’t put much stock into the phrase and cared little for its meaning. After all, I was a know-nothing quartz miner that saw the damp, dark underground than the velvety blue sky. The words of poets and bards describing the splendor of the sun meaningless when I was using my pick.
Orphaned as an infant, I was raised by the Sepulcherist and tossed to the working world when I was only twelve. Strange considering they were a class of priests whose mission was to find the good in oneself. I can’t recall the efforts made to see that within me, but I do not believe they were wrong. I was truly unremarkable in every sense of the word.
Unremarkable described my existence until the day the Druni came. They came in droves. A torrid and menacing wave of terror that spread annihilation like dandelion seeds on a windy afternoon. Devouring all in their path, pushing aside all resistance until no one was left to stand against them. I had been fortunate. I had been underground when they rolled through my village.
The Druni were as unknown to me as the love of my parents.
I emerged facing the destruction bewildered by the nature behind it. I can remember wondering if a summer tempest came and went as strong as ever, but when I entered the streets and saw the carnage I knew no storm could do such damage. All I figured was I needed to leave and head away, far away from the town and the mines.
For the second time in my life I was all alone.
Each village and hamlet I passed in my travels suffered a similar or worse fate. The broken bodies, the burned homes and the slaughtered livestock. The horrible onslaught that besieged these innocents an unstoppable gargantuan of pain and suffering. There was evidence of an attempt to push back the unknown attackers, but there were none of their dead to be observed. Only, the lifeless eyes of the people of this town. I decided it was best to move on.
For some time beyond my measure I lived on the land and in the forests. The smell of gunpowder from my rifle the only reminder of civilization. The taste of venison and rabbit, once too gamey for my unusually discerning tastes, an ever-present fixture in my stomach. I went months without seeing another person. That of course came to an abrupt end one early summer night.
Limiting my exposure to the world around me was a matter of survival. Fires were rare in all but extreme circumstances in the dead of night. You didn’t need to be a soldier to know that the flames could be observed from miles away and the smell of a cooked meal dragged out the curiosity in all but the most skittish of creatures. So, when I saw the red, glowing flicker in the distance I naturally investigated, but what I came upon was not a lonely traveler in the woods.
I could describe what I saw. I didn’t know the things I do know. Laid out before my eyes was a city. Not just any city, but a city suspended above the soil. I watched the torchlights dance on the ground below in a frantic pace. The figures scrambled in the dark as if they were being pursued and that’s when I first gazed upon a Druni. The shadowy monstrosity plowed through the forest line causing the trees to fold like paper and the ground to shake violently. The nightmare moved effortlessly on all four paws each caped with a set of razor sharp talons. The glowing red eyes illuminated the path before it as it rushed the massive floating city. The sounds of gunfire erupted from the torchlight figures on the ground barely slowing the beast. One by one the torches were flung high into the air followed by a curdling symphony of death. To my surprise, I found myself edging closer and closer to the battle, the sounds of agony beckoning me to come closer. The sense of dread and horror replaced with a vengeful desire to charge in and help.
I came upon the scene and took a perch above the open plain to watch. The beast had finished with the people on the ground and had turned its attention to the city above. Why doesn’t it just fly away? I remember thinking and then I realized that it was tethered to the earth, unable to move.
Suddenly, I was rocked by the boom of a concerto of cannon fire. The night sky became day and I saw the horror with gruesome detail if even for only a moment. The drooling maw, the gap-toothed fangs, the mangled fur covering only a portion of its body. It was a beast straight from our nightmares. It painted an image I shall never forget. The cannon balls had done damage, but it kept coming and while the flotilla defenses reloaded it made its way towards the anchor ropes pulling with a fervor matched by no living being.
Again, I became overwhelmed with rage and rushed down into the valley below. The monster had slowly worked the city closer and closer to the ground. The monster’s immense size catching me off guard. The creature itself was the size of the biggest building in the city. It moved, driven by unholy rage, with ease and an eagerness matching its hideousness. Lusting after its bounty, I moved unseen and climbed aboard its ghastly back.
From my perch, I could see the grisly aftermath of its initial assault. With certainly, I believed that this creature had done the devastating things to my village and the surrounding countryside. I determined it must be destroyed and with haste as the city came closer and closer to crashing into the ground with each licentious pull of the anchor ropes. Until once again the cannons thundered. The creature lurched and cried out in pain before continuing its bloodlust. I clung on for dear life and ascended higher and higher until I stood atop its shoulder.
My presence finally was revealed like a tick on the back of dog. It reached for me and swung wildly missing only by the slimmest of margins. I ducked around the base of the ear before taking refuge within the canal itself. The foul stench forced my lunch to my throat before I formulated my first real plan of attack. I took aim with my rifle and fired as fast as I could pull the gear back. One by one the rounds crashed through the eardrum. My efforts when unnoticed until the final one struck what I assumed to be its brain. It reeled and roared and as it did, another volley from the floating city’s howitzer careened into the gaping maw.
The titan swayed and stumbled, struggling to stay upright. I gripped its fur with all my might and as he took its final steps the lifeless giant toppled to the earth. Closing my eyes, I blacked out upon impact.
I awoke to the gentle warmth of sun on my face and the sounds people coming and going. I hadn’t heard the voice of another human in over a year aside from the terrible shrieks of the dying from the night before or what I thought was the night before.
“He’s awake.” A woman said before I felt a cool, water-soaked cloth dab my forehead. A woman’s face came into focusing blocking out the sun.
“We didn’t think you’d make it. You’ve been out for a few days now. Lucky the boys found you otherwise you’d still be laying in that Druni’s ear.”
She smiled at me before wiping my head again. “Don’t suppose you know what I’m talking about. Well, the captain can fill you in. When you’re well enough he’s going to want to speak with. You’re something of a hero in the flotilla.”
“Where am I?” I asked struggling to speak.
“You need your rest. I’ll summon the captain. He’ll answer all of your questions. Then we’ll get you something to eat.”
Waking I up, I realized I was in a hospital of sorts. The room was empty save for a few plants and a portrait of a man whose name he couldn’t place. His clothing suggested he was of a higher class. His slate blue uniform was dotted with nearly two dozen medals and the grim look of determination echoed what I presumed to be a distinguished military career.
The day pressed on until finally a group of soldiers entered. The female captain pushed through the posse. She was an imposing figure in spite of her shorter statue when compared to her subordinates. She had a scar beside her right eye hidden by a few strands of strawberry blonde hair. The soldiers were followed by a tray of food. Potatoes, leeks, a slice of rye bread and eggs. None of which I’ve had for months, unless you count songbird eggs.
“Please feel free to eat. You’ll need your strength. I am Captain Aurora Jessup of the flotilla city of Yasena and it is my understanding we owe you a bit of gratitude.”
“What for?” I croaked.
“The monumental effort of helping bring down that bastard Druni.” One of the men behind Captain Jessup said. “Didn’t think we’d make it. Devil had us by the anchor ropes. That’s the danger with stops like we had.”
I recalled the attack and the insanity of my actions. I should have been committed, not commended yet there was something about the Druni that pushed me to the edge. Rational fears pushed aside by an internal primal force. I may have thought I was crazy, but the looks of the soldiers in the room were an affirmation to their undying thanks.
My stomach growled. The embarrassment of which dissipated when I took notice of the food. Without prompting I began to engorge myself not taking my sight off the plate until it was cleaned. Only then I looked up and saw only the captain standing there. A grin on her face.
“Hungry? You scared the men more than that Druni when you swarmed that meal.” She joked. “Once you are able I’ll give you a tour of the city. You’re welcome to stay as long as you’d like and considering what stalks below, I imagine you’ll be happy to become a citizen.”
I could picture the beast and its fiery eyes. The blood-lust that drove it in its pursuit of his quarry. No one had given me an explanation. I only saw it for what I knew it to be, a monster.
“What does stalk us?”
Captain Jessup nodded. “Get dressed. Let’s walk if you are able.”
The city was unlike anything I had ever laid eyes upon before in my life. The bustling cobblestone streets and the sounds of church bells filled the air. We passed through a market where all manner of goods were bought and sold. Many of which were strange to me. An orphan could never have imagined such a place. Especially, since it was floating through eh sky.
“Yasena is one of seven great flotillas. A creation based on the foresight of a Specular Church monk named Edwin Pulis. A millennia ago he stumbled upon the myth of the Druni and under the guise of a mining operation built the platforms that would allow the city to take flight when the Druni crawled up from what he described as hell.” The captain began.
“The city is flying? How does such a thing stay aloft? The power needed would rival that of a hundred cities!”
“Thousands of blades spinning at high speeds give us the lift we need. Just high enough to go over mountains. The problem of course is we need to resupply and refuel. Food can be grown here, but there are things we do not have that we must harvest from the earth. The fuel is a mixture of powdered quartz, saltpeter and magnesium.”
“That’s why you were tethered? To get supplies?”
“That and we try not flight blind at night. The scouts were bringing in the last of the gathered supplies when that Druni attacked. The bastard had been following us for days, but our agents on the ground said we’d lost it. Apparently, they were quite wrong.”
The image of the beast tearing the scouts to shred flashed through my memory. If I had acted sooner perhaps I could have saved them.
Or perhaps I would have died instead. I tried not to dwell on what I had and had not done. I would have probably met a similar fate had I tried to intervene. I was not a remarkable man. Just a lucky one in this case.
“What are the Druni? Where did they come from?” I questioned hoping to gain a better understanding of what it was we faced.
“The priests can help you. I suggest you take a moment and pay the cathedral a visit. Archpriest Geisler can fill you in. Then I have a favor to ask once you return to the barracks.”
The cathedral was immense. Nothing at all like the one I grew up in, but the memories of my youth kept me from welcoming the idea of going inside. The priests had been cruel and difficult. All in the name of education and discipline. A callous, perhaps dangerous, understanding of how a child should be raised in a brutal world. I had hoped to avoid confronting a priest of the Sepulcher Church, but if I was going to learn anything about what happened I was going to have to bend the knee.
The captain led me inside and signaled me to go a robed man who knelt at the base of the holy altar. I took a deep breath. It was as if I was facing the fears of my youth.
“Welcome to the holy cathedral of Ihan my son. I have heard of your heroics from the other night. Unfortunate, that the city lost good, righteous men and women in the process. I know it was not your fault, but Admiral Penn frequently rebuffs the church’s advice. I had warned that tethering would expose us to the Druni.”
The priest poured a glass of wine and a glass of water into a golden chalice before taking a sip and passing the cup to me. I abandoned the teachings of Ihan the moment I left the orphanage, but I indulged him. Besides, it had been months since the pleasant burn of spirit had touched my lips.
“I find that peculiar considering it was our monks that discovered the presence of the ancient technology that allowed us to escape. Countless others, people who did not follow the teachings of the Sepulcher fell to the Druni and will burn for eternity. Thankfully for us, holy Ihan brought Edwin Pulis to the world to save those who are worthy. Are you worthy to be warmed by the glow of our dearest Ihan?”
Part of me, a nagging and insufferable part of me, wanted to debate him about the merits of the church and force the priest to provide insight into the pains of my youth. The reasons for the unreasonable beatings, the marches through the rain and days of starvation cleverly masked as “fasting.” Days of no food followed by putrid food. I had just spent the past four months eating whatever I could find. It was a delight by comparison.
“What if I suppose I am worthy? I walk this earth I am not the judge of my worthiness when it is all said and done, however.”
The priest grinned and walked over to a mosaic of Ihan. Naturally, no one knew what he looked like or even if Ihan was a man, but the consensus settled on one look throughout the millennia. A man with pale skin, blue eyes, jet black hair and beard to match. Considering the average man in Yasena had pale skin, blue eyes and black or brown hair the church was more than happy to accept.
“No you are not, but we are not here to determine your belief in Ihan I suppose. Captain Jessup tells me that you want to know what the Druni are and how this great city floats.”
He was only partly right. I wanted to know if I truly believed in Ihan and the answers would be found here. Just not at this moment and not in the presence of this particular archbishop. I was taught to believe in Ihan and all other thoughts distancing yourself were not only meaningless, but dangerous.
“The Druni are the harbingers of our long overdue doom. The doom of this world rides upon their titanic backs and we can only delay the inevitable destruction of humanity in the eyes of Ihan. By some miracle you are eyed as a chosen one. A mortal who walks among us to redeem the world of its transgressions with the faintest of hopes that the Druni will retreat before you and peace will wash over the survivors.”
Well, I hadn’t expected to hear that. Before I could respond, the captain emerged from the street. The clop of her officer’s boots echoed off the cobblestone floor of the church as she strode towards us. I was glad to see her. Hearing I was some sort of messiah had already messed with my head. I grew up in a rundown church for fuck’s sake.
“I trust you and the archpriest had a wonderful discussion of the great Ihan and the blasphemy that is Yasena, but I fear I need our great savior. He’s due.”
The archpriest nodded. “Of course captain. I hope to see you at service after the next tethering.”
The archpriest gestured his goodbyes and I turned my attention to the captain who had already started to make her way to the door.
“Wait captain, what is it I’m exactly do for?” I stood confused.
“Why your training. If you are going to stay aboard Yasena, then you’ve got to do your part. Even if the men believe you are our savior, you must learn how to be a solider first.”
Great. I thought. I never wanted to be a solider or someone’s savior, but I guess I didn’t have a choice now. I could probably go to ground, but what would that get me? I avoided the Druni for months merely by chance, but getting a first-hand view of the monsters changed my heart. I might survive on my own, but odds were against it. No, I’d put on the Yasena blue and red and do my part.
Whatever that was.