Words for the Wind:
The floating stadium soared into view, clouds bursting like dandelion clocks as the ferry sailed across the sky. The four lookouts gaped as thousands of fans bustled at its base, the call of trumpets swelling in their hearts.
“Drake really thinks it’ll be safe in there?” Beard asked the group at large, peering up at the almost endless structure.
“That’s what he said,” Aya agreed. “Stay put at the tournament, wait for him to signal, run like hell.”
Beard sighed. “Fantastic.”
“Oh, come off it, Beardy!” Valeo said, grinning. “It’s safer with us than anywhere under the moon.” He patted his vest pocket, the unfamiliar weight hard against his hand.
Valeo peered down as he straddled the ferry’s bowsprit, the thin pole the only thing keeping him from plunging to his death. Watching the endless skies whip by underneath the hull, he tugged absently at the sleeve of his new shirt. It was cut close and functional on his thin frame, a deep meadow green that complimented his red hair. Breeze and Beard—ever the opposites as she was small and black-haired and he was large and blonde—wore outfits of a similar sort. Truth be told, they all appeared rather respectable, as long as no one looked too closely. Aya alone wore her new tunic as if it were more regal than the stars, and was somehow lovelier for it.
As the ferry pulled up to dock, a deafening roar rang out from inside the stadium’s massive walls. Breeze slapped Valeo’s leg. He glanced down at her and they shared a smile.
“Low or high?” she asked, not speaking aloud but forming the words with her hands, as was her usual.
“As high as our feet will take us,” he chanted and winked.
Unable to wait a moment longer, Valeo leapt free of the ship before it had even come to a halt in the air, landing in a tight roll on the cobblestones. Beard yelped in fear, but Valeo was already back on his feet, preening his shoulders and looking around impressively. His companions rushed down the gangway to meet him.
Naturally, Breeze got there first. She pulled Valeo into a tight headlock, boxing him around the ears.
“Geroff!” he cried, scrabbling at her vice-grip in vain. Small as she was, no one was stronger than Breeze.
“You . . . are a complete fool,” Aya chastised. She crossed her arms and tried to frown, but her eyes betrayed her mirth.
“Why do you always jump off everything?” Beard complained.
“Why?” Valeo asked, finally wiggling free of Breeze. “Why would jumping ever need a reason?”
Breeze rolled her eyes and the four of them joined the queue into the stadium gates, easily a quarter mile long, jittery with excitement.
Face ever at odds with his name, Beard’s round, smooth cheeks flushed red. He towered over everyone, but was forever nervous in crowds. He was taking a brave stab at enjoying himself anyway . . . for the sake of the others. Breeze felt similar pangs of apprehension, but a Sky Shot match was something she had always wanted to witness. Aya, much like Valeo, was at her ease. She fed off people’s energy, and right now the source was infinite.
As they continued forward, wading through the bodies, Valeo and Beard got separated from the others.
“We’ll meet you inside!” Aya shouted back before being swept from sight, Breeze in her wake.
With little choice in the matter, Valeo and Beard sidled their way slowly up the procession, showed their tickets at the gates, and moved into a narrow corridor. The ring of cheering and the endless thrum of voices was all they could hear now. They walked up a final set of stairs and Valeo’s breath caught, the stadium opening up before their eyes.
It had looked huge from the outside, but the sheer enormity before them now was almost too much to comprehend. A giant hollow ring, the stadium was open to sky both above and below, and in the ring’s center floated a massive diamond-like structure. Well over a hundred meters across, the diamond revolved slowly on the spot, its top point clawing at the heavens and its bottom aimed at Darksky. Like a roiling human ocean: tens of thousands ebbed and flowed in the stands along the tremendous curved walls. Inside the diamond, forms darted, twirled, and—the thought hit Valeo like a cannonball—flew.
“This is Sky Shot?” he exclaimed. “How the Fayt has this escaped me for so long?”
Beard chuckled. “You’ve been begging to see a game for ages, and you never even knew what it was?” They walked to the railing, peering closer at the enormous pitch.
Valeo nodded. “More or less.” He ruffled the hair of a man sitting below the rails. “This is brilliant!” The man looked back, sputtering objections Valeo didn’t even register.
The diamond flickered, a swirling wind picking up inside it like the eye of the world sparking to life. A few seconds later, to raucous gasps and cheers, a player was rammed through one of the walls as if it were nothing more than a thin veil, plunging to the net below. The breach rippled and reformed until not a trace of damage could be seen.
“Whoa,” Valeo murmured, running his fingers through his hair.
Beard and Valeo stared in stunned silence for several long minutes, watching the game. Two different teams were warming up, moving around on currents of air, passing and kicking a ball like a knobbly jackfruit toward goals on opposite ends. They moved easily in any direction they chose, aided by thin wingsuits along their bodies.
“Too late to sign up, you figure?” Valeo wondered aloud, leaning forward over the rails and drumming his fingers.
Beard smiled, feeling none of his friend’s elation but appreciating it nonetheless. “Probably. And besides, would you be a team of one?”
Valeo didn’t miss a beat. “‘Course not. Breeze would join. Some of the others, too, most like, and we could just lay you down in front of the goal.” He reached up to slap Beard on the shoulder. “Your girth alone would block all the shots. We’d be unstoppable.”
Beard smiled. “Don’t you want to know the rules first?”
Valeo watched a woman, garbed in red and black, kick the ball high into the air, her body flipping in place . . . weightless. He shook his head.
“Not important.” Valeo bit his lip, a yearning he could hardly describe pulling him forward. “Gonna make it in there,” he promised the skies. “Someday soon.”
“I hope you do,” Beard whispered, not loud enough that Valeo could hear him.
Eventually, they found Aya and Breeze again. The lot of them watched the warm-ups a while longer. Valeo and Breeze were entranced by the players’ movement, Aya by the teams, and Beard by the sounds of the stadium: the cheers like cymbals, the whistles a shrill harmony, fanfare from goals, and above it all, the ceaseless bass drum roar of thousands.
“Tiff noisy, huh?” Valeo shouted after a particularly ear-splitting goal.
“It’s not so bad,” Beard replied, picking apart melodies and beats that made sense only to his fingertips.
“Huh?” Valeo asked, tucking his hair behind his ear and leaning up toward Beard.
“I said, it isn’t so bad!” Beard bellowed, the cheering subsiding before the last words had left his mouth. Several people looked around as his voice boomed over the crowd. Beard blushed.
Aya pointed to a mobile cart selling different colored banners and flags. “Should we show some support?”
Beard shook his head. “I don’t know any teams.”
“Will take one like that,” Valeo said pointing at a small, golden banner a handspan across, accented in silver, with a winged woman in the center.
“You support the Harpies?” Aya cried.
“Nope,” Valeo retorted, eating a candied peach he’d found somewhere and licking sugar from his fingers, “Just like yellow.”
“Well you’re all boring,” Aya complained, crossing her arms and looking annoyed. “I know!” her face brightening as quickly as it had fallen, “I’ll get each of you a different team to support, and you’ll start today!” She scampered off toward the stand without a further word.
“That girl’s far too excitable,” Breeze complained, again not speaking aloud but using her hands, only Valeo understanding.
“Oh don’t know . . .” Valeo countered, drifting off as he watched Aya, her red-gold hair dancing like candlelight. He couldn’t help but smile.
Aya came back with four different rosettes, gold, green, silver, and orange, and handed them out at random, except for Valeo’s golden request.
“Did you pay for those?” Beard asked, eyes narrowing. She had only been gone a moment.
“Paid for one of them,” Aya replied, unabashed. She scooped up Beard’s silver rosette before he had a chance to even look at it. “The Falcons are clever and loving. They’re all Heartsung, just like you!” She pinned it to his broad chest and pinched his cheek. “And the silver compliments your eyes,” she said, smiling and looking at his warm brown orbs. Beard’s flush matched his crimson shirt.
“And Breeze’s?” Valeo asked, trying to keep a straight face.
Aya looked thoughtfully at Breeze, who had pinned her badge to her sleeve. “The Wilds,” she explained. “All of them are Fleetfoot, like Valeo, so that makes them unpredictable and luckier than anyone has the right to be.”
“Us Fleetfoot got plenty of luck to spare, true,” Valeo jested, ruffling Breeze’s hair. “So maybe some will rub off on you?” She ducked and pulled away, her stare an obsidian blade.
“Funny you should say that,” Aya said grimly, holding her elbow as she stroked her chin. “Because you’ll find a lot in common with your new team, the Harpies. Incredibly fast, limitless heart . . .” she leaped forward, slapping him on the chest, “. . . but never know what to fight for, so they miss their chance. Every. Single. Time.” She shook her head in mock-sadness, poking him on each word.
Breeze and Beard’s laughter bounced around the stone pillars like raucous butterflies.
As they wandered through the stadium, the four met with endless exotic sights. People from all over the world had poured into these walls, bringing with them towering twelve-foot mascots bursting with colors, explosive stalls selling everything from parrots to flaming lip pipes, and a seemingly endless supply of treasures more wondrous than the next. After nearly an hour of roaming, the group found their seats, tiny brass plaques fastened along the edge displaying their ticket numbers. The seats were a bit of a surprise, truth be told—considering Aya had stolen them, too. Prime place, only a few rows from the front. Flopping down on the hard stone bench, and feeling more like freshly-pressed apples than human beings, they heaved a collective sigh of relief.
Valeo snorted. “So while Drake is out on the docks, perusing which ship to steal, we’re meant to safeguard a pocket watch and keep a lookout for anything suspicious here?” He looked around in disbelief. “Already seen,” he began counting things off on his fingers, “two dozen albatross costumes, a bonafide seven hundred pound tiger, a juggler who was juggling other tiny jugglers,” he gestured wildly with his hands, “and lest we forget the woman selling meta-mushrooms.” He shook his head, his eyes wide. “Now, surely we’d enjoy spending a few hours as a magical moon manatee as much as the next pair of boots, but the truth still stands,” he leaned back on the empty tier behind him, “been here an hour and we could’ve rang Drake’s little magic bell enough to break it nine times.”
Breeze snorted and shook her head. “You say everything but see nothing.” She gestured around the stadium. “This job’s more or less a joke. We don’t know enough to be helpful, not really, so we were sent here for a treat, idiot.”
Valeo squawked like a wounded chicken. “No we weren’t!”
“What?” Beard and Aya said together.
Valeo turned to them, searching for allies. “Breeze figures we got sent here as a treat, because we,” he gestured to Aya and Beard, “are about as useful as forks in a soup bowl.”
They nodded in unison.
“What good would lookouts be here?” Beard asked, raising an eyebrow. “What could we possibly watch for?” He gestured to the endless sea of people around him.
“Couldn’t spot a drop of water even if it rained,” Aya agreed.
Valeo sprang up. “That’s . . . this . . .” he was having trouble finding the right words to describe the injustice, “. . . is the worst-best gift ever.” He slumped back down and covered his eyes.
Breeze, busy pulling her long black hair into a ponytail, patted his leg, trying not to laugh.
“Oh come on, it’s not that bad,” Aya chided.
“Forks,” Valeo mumbled, arms still draped over his face. “We’re forks.”
Aya tugged on his wrist. “Come on, cheer up! The first game’s starting soon!”
That thought did put a bit of wind back in his sails. He sat up and looked at the massive diamond, bluish-white air still swirling around inside it. They were exactly halfway between the two goals, and at just the right height to see everything.
“The Sparrows,” Aya said immediately, her back rigid and her ochre eyes sparkling as she watched. “They’re my favorite.” Her smile was so sweet it nearly had a calorie count.
Valeo’s heart leapt. He was saved doing anything embarrassing by a sudden twinge along his spine. Everything else was thrown from his mind as goosebumps shot over his arms like a cascade of cracking ice.
Something was being hidden, something colossal. And it was close.
He didn’t know how he knew it, or how it could even be possible. But the how didn’t matter one wit, a bigger secret he had never known in his life. The very press of it took his breath away.
“What’s wrong?” Beard asked, tugging at his own ear as he noticed Valeo’s rigid stance.
Valeo rubbed his face, looking around as if a horde of riches would be on the bench beside him. “Nothing,” he said, trying to make sense of the feeling.
There was a sudden fanfare and any more words or thoughts of secrets were washed from them as the roar erupted around them.
The 237th Sky Shot Tournament had begun.
High above the crowds, both teams entered onto opposite platforms like immense diving boards. They could be clearly seen by everyone, hopping around in excitement, the thin membranes of their wingsuits flapping in the morning wind. The day had grown so cloudless and blue it could break your heart. The sun had just breached the lip of the stadium, scattered rays spilling around the edges ready to pour down over them all.
The teams, silver and green, nodded to one another from across the expanse and, as one, leapt into open air. Several onlookers screamed in terror, but it was for naught. The players, sixteen in all, threw their arms wide and caught the wind with their suits. Gliding gracefully to the diamond, its faces like a giant eight-sided die, the teams broke through the curious amorphous walls easy as breathing.
“Whoa,” Beard murmured, leaning forward in his seat.
“Whoa indeed,” Valeo agreed.
The teams did a few aerial tricks, spinning or racing around as the crowd bellowed and cheered. After a few moments, the players formed up in front of their respective goals, each one rising and falling several feet, opening and closing their wings as they attempted to remain level.
An expectant hush fell over the crowd and everything grew still, the athletes tense and ready. A sudden whistle sounded and the jackfruit ball dropped from a slot at the very top of the structure.
The teams exploded into action, bursting into the air like bolts of lightning as the game began. The players shot across the pitch, riding the currents with the help of their wing suits. They threw and kicked the ball back and forth between them so fast that Valeo’s eyes could hardly keep up. The carrier halted, flinging her shoulders back, and lobbed the ball into the air. She flipped heels over head like an acrobat, and as it came back down her foot connected with the ball with a sound like a gunshot. It hurtled toward the goal and slammed into the net, the keeper two minutes too late. The crowd was part-cheer, part-groan and all deafening hurricane.
“Seriously,” Valeo roared, jumping up and down wildly and clutching Breeze in his excitement. “How has it taken us this long to see this?”
And the games only got better. After a couple hours, the Harpies and the Wilds flew into competition, giving Valeo and Breeze another reason to compete.
“Winner carries the watch?” Breeze signed, cocky and assured. She held out her hand to shake.
“Drake gave it to me to guard,” Valeo retorted, patting his pocket.
Aya snorted. “He gave it to all of us to guard, actually. Your hand just happened to get there first. As usual.”
Valeo smirked and shrugged. “True. So why risk what’s already mine?”
“Because life gets fun with a little risk,” Breeze replied, her fingers quick. She held out her hand. “You in? Or should I find someone with bigger britches?”
Valeo smirked, and pulled on a fob chain trailing into his vest. The pocket watch was solid silver, an ornate hummingbird on one side, and a frigate in high storm on the other.
Flawless and beautiful.
The match was an infuriating thing to watch, over before it even began really. Through the whole affair, the Harpies never once lost their composure or their sense of fun. They lost spectacularly, seventeen-three, but they somehow seemed far happier as they left the play area.
Valeo sputtered in indignation. “Why are they smiling?” he groused as his adopted team dropped to the net arm in arm, faces bright. “They just got slaughtered.”
Aya smiled and shook her head as if Valeo wasn’t getting something very apparent. “They aren’t here to win,” she explained simply, “they’re here to play.”
Valeo snorted. “Why do something if you aren’t going to try and be the best?”
“No matter what you do, there’s always going to be someone better than you,” Beard said sagely, his fingers tugging at the rosette on his chest.
Aya beamed at the Heartsung. “Well said. They’re here to enjoy the event, that’s it. They’re all Evenglass, and that’s how they are. ‘Butterflies and sunshine’ and all that. Well, most of them, anyway.” She shot a half glance at Breeze, who suddenly felt awkward.
Valeo scoffed. “Doubt there’s anyone in the world who could catch me at full tilt.”
Breeze cuffed him on the back of the head.
“Ow!” he cried, laughter in his eyes. “Besides you, of course, Breezey-bear.” He tried to pinch her cheek and got his hand slapped. “While you may catch me on occasion, we both know who always catches you.”
If smugness was a cat, he’d have tripped over it.
Beard nodded sadly, still pulling at the ribbon. “The day’s going to come when you’re wrong.”
“Oh?” Valeo said, grin faltering.
“Yes,” Beard agreed. “Better try and accept it now, so when that day comes you won’t be left with second place and a dumbstruck face.”
Valeo looked surprised. “When did you get so wise?” He peered at the big man, grabbing his cheeks and looking his face over. “Feeling sick? Breakfast not sitting right?”
“Ha, ha,” Beard said, rolling his eyes and pushing Valeo’s hands away. “Believe what you want.”
Valeo threw an arm around his shoulders. “Just teasin’, Beardy,” he said, shaking him playfully. “It’s good advice.” His tone was kind enough to crack through Beard’s frown.
Breeze held out her hand.
Valeo rolled his eyes. “Fine, you filthy thief.” He pulled out the watch and passed it over. “Just don’t lose it. Not that it really matters. Stupid thing doesn’t even open.”
“It’s pretty,” Beard argued.
“Two kinds of pretty actually,” Valeo retorted. “Pretty looking and pretty worthless.”
Aya grinned, snapping up the watch before Breeze could take it and sending it spinning on its chain. “All we know is we have it, and half the world wants it. There’s something quite delicious about that.”
A fanfare of trumpets sounded across the stadium.
“Halftime,” Aya explained as Breeze and Beard looked around in confusion. “The games’ll resume in an hour.” She glanced up at the sun, passing Breeze the pocket watch.
“Think something went wrong?” Valeo asked.
Aya shrugged. “I just didn’t think it would take this long.”
“Ah, don’t worry,” Valeo said, patting her on the shoulder. “Sure Drake’s just trying to find the boat with the best bed.”
Aya favored him with a weak grin.
“Well, then. In the meantime—” Valeo hopped up and tugged at Beard’s arm. “Shall we go after some of those kebabs floating around earlier? Maybe a drink or two?”
Breeze raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure it’s wise to split up?”
“Oh come now,” Valeo argued, brushing her words away. “We’ll be gone . . . five minutes.”
She fed him a withering glare.
“OK, ten minutes,” he made a placating gesture. “Twenty . . . thirty minutes, tops.” He grabbed Beard by the elbow and ran before she could argue.
They jogged through the crowd, Valeo excited, and Beard happy to stretch his legs and eat. They ducked into the corridor underneath the stands where hundreds of food vendors and booths circled around the stadium. They followed their noses and burned through what little money they had—3 golden frets and a handful of pennies—for a couple of fat pork kebabs, dripping yogurt and dill, and a hunk of pineapple apiece. Rather than head back, they continued wandering around the ring, lively as a mini city.
“Let me ask you something,” Valeo mused as they walked, his thoughts filled with beauty and candlelight, “what do you think of Aya?”
“A poet’s skin and a tender heart,” Beard answered before he could stop himself. “As beautiful and bright as a penny that spends twice.”
Valeo nearly dropped his kebab from laughing. “You’re so . . . weird,” he said when he could catch his breath, “but you hit the mark every time.”
Beard shrugged. “I say what’s seen and can’t be sung.”
Valeo’s lip quivered. “Agreed. About Aya, that is. She’s lovely as . . .” He struggled to find the words, his feet always more eloquent than his mouth. “. . . a penny that spends twice,” he repeated, chuckling. “When she’s not trying to steal your pennies, that is.”
“So do something about it,” Beard said simply.
Valeo choked, nearly upending a juice trolley. Beard thumped him on the back until he caught his breath. “That’s your advice? Just like that? ‘Do something’ about it?”
Beard nodded, ducking under a low hanging sign and squeezing between two women draped in full-length saris.
“Easier spoken than trod,” Valeo lamented, following behind him. “Especially since Aya could easily beat me to the stars and back again.”
Beard remembered his mother dancing by the lake, taking his father by the hand and spinning together in the moonlight.
“If she truly knows the way to the stars, she’s worth twice the beating.”
Valeo sighed and grabbed Beard by the wrist, turning him. “There you go again, with your . . . words.”
Beard’s blush was so fierce it was hard to tell where his shirt ended and his neck began. He stumbled around for something to say.
“What about Breeze?”
Valeo looked confused. “What about her?”
“Aren’t you two . . .” Beard trailed off, suddenly awkward.
Comprehension dawned on Valeo’s face and he let out a peal of bubbly laughter.
“Fayts no,” he said, chuckling. “Known that girl since before she had shoes. A poke, a prod, and a royal pain, but she’s everything to me, truth be told. Just not . . . that kind of everything.” He leaned in, looking around. “Don’t tell her though. Could you imagine her smugness?” He shuddered.
Beard was saved the trouble of a response as Valeo went rigid, curling over once again as an invisible weight pressed against his spine.
“Something,” Valeo pointed, looking around over the crowd, a scarlet balloon flickering past his unfocused gaze. “Something’s here. Something incredible,” He turned to a stone bin and threw the rest of his kebab away. “Not letting it get away this time.”
He darted into the crowd without another word. Completely baffled, Beard pelted off after him.
Breeze leaned back against the vacated seat behind her, stretching her legs out, and closed her eyes. She listened to the crowd’s dull roar as they milled around her, sounding for all the world like an approaching thunderstorm. It was soothing, and if she squeezed her eyes tight enough she could almost forget she was surrounded by thousands of people.
“So what do you think?” Aya said softly from somewhere to her right.
Breeze cracked open an eye. Aya was looking at her brightly, a delightful expectation flooding her face. Breeze raised a finger and swirled it around. This?
Aya shook her head. “No, not the tournament. About us . . . life as a corsair.” She was so earnest that Breeze bit back her sarcastic retort in lieu of honesty.
Breeze cleared her throat. “Not sure,” she said, awkwardly speaking aloud. She still didn’t quite know how to carry a verbal conversation with anything approaching grace. “Everyone’s nice. Seems fun.”
“Is that why you’re here?” Aya said, clearly excited she was getting Breeze to speak at all. “For the thrill? Nothing else?” She didn’t seem accusatory, just curious.
“You and Valeo have been with us for six months now,” Aya said, still trying to pry anything from her quiet companion, “But I still don’t know much about you. Valeo never stops talking, but for all that he doesn’t really say much.” She grinned, melting the edge off her words. “What were you two doing before that?”
Breeze cleared her throat.
We ran. Endless roofs and eternal streets, we made them ours. We were ragged children, barefoot and lonely, but fire held our hearts. The moons waned and the years passed, but nothing could catch us . . . not even time.
She wanted to speak them, to fill the expectant silence, but she couldn’t. Words always hung heavy in her chest, lead shackles ready to drag her below the depths of what they could mean.
“Well, for what it’s worth,” Aya said quietly, looking up at the glowing sky, “this is the right place for you. I can just . . . feel it.” She looked Breeze full in the face and smiled. “You know?”
Breeze nodded, still unable to give meaning to voice. She had been feeling something similar for days. The changes seeping into her like honey . . . or hypothermia. She hadn’t decided which.
“Corsairs are just polished pirates, sure, but we still try and make the world a better place. In our way.” Aya asked, humor glittering in her eyes. “Kinda noble, yeah?”
Breeze frowned. “Don’t care.” She stood up and walked to the railing, looking around. Not ten feet away, a woman was passed out drunk and another reached forward to steal her coin purse. She gestured to the thief. “Not much to save.”
It was Aya’s turn for a disapproving stare. “Scratches on a sculpture don’t lessen its beauty.” Aya’s face looked hurt as Breeze remembered too late her friend’s penchant for thievery.
She opened her mouth to apologize, to criticize, to snap, to atone, when an ice-iron claw seized her shoulder. She flinched in surprise, grabbing the hand and flinging it hard.
Aya jumped to her feet, shouting something Breeze couldn’t hear. Breeze turned. The sight awaiting her flipped her inside out, until she seemed to have no insides at all.
Horror of dreams forgotten but never lost, white jacket billowing behind it like some great ghastly specter, its bloody metal teeth glinting in the sunlight . . .
She’d like to have said she stood her ground, that she fought back, that she did anything brave at all, but she couldn’t. Reaching out to take Aya’s hand as horror clenched her throat shut, Breeze ran for her life.
Valeo weaved through the crowd with something approaching grace, his thoughts alive with only one thing. Beard wasn’t so lucky. Nearly a foot taller than Valeo and easily seventy pounds heavier, the Heartsung was doing less graceful weaving and more snow-plowing in his attempt to keep up.
His protests and calls to slow fell on deaf ears as the Fleetfoot blazed around half the stadium, chasing . . . something. The only person who seemed to know even less about what they were looking for than Beard was Valeo himself. They broke into storage rooms, filled with nothing but dank buckets and the smell of mildew, were chased out of a noodle restaurant when Valeo got caught sifting through dry rice grains, and ran down dozens of endless corridors to the point where they were good and truly lost. Now they were circling down a spiral stair, and had been for a solid ten minutes, seeming no closer to whatever they were after than when they’d started.
When they finally reached the bottom, Valeo stopped, looking back and forth, trying to make up his mind. The walls here were lit by the soft glow of lamplight, and the stone was ominous, looming, and old. Very old.
Beard, his hands on his knees, gasped for air and a question, “wh-what, what are we doing here?” They were completely alone now.
Valeo’s eyes crawled over the walls, intent. “You ever have an itch in the center of your back?” His eyes looked far away as his hands glided across the smooth surface of the stone. “In that one damnable spot you just . . .” he strained to reach over his shoulder, spinning in place, “ . . . can’t reach?” He turned to look at Beard.
Beard shrugged, not sure what to make of the question. “Sure, sometimes.”
“Well,” Valeo continued, almost as if he didn’t even hear, “Got one now. A twinge,” he pointed over his shoulder, “right there in middle. There’s a secret about, something hidden. It’s driving me,” he turned and rubbed his spine on the wall furiously, “absolutely mad.”
“Wait, what?” Beard exclaimed. “You feel secrets . . . in your back?”
Valeo shrugged. “Meant it more as a metaphor, but yeah, sure. Never really happened before. Not like this.”
“Is this a Fleetfoot thing?” Beard asked, slowly shaking his head. “I thought you all were just extraordinarily lucky. There’s more to it?”
Valeo winked “Greatest of all humankind! Luck in our veins and secrets in our spines! Anyways,” he started down the corridor, “think there’s only one way to get at the itch.” He grinned mischievously and straightened up.
“And that is?” Beard asked, taking his cue.
“Find what it’s pointin’ to, o’course,” Valeo said, rolling his eyes.
“What is it, then?” Beard asked, completely bemused. He wasn’t sure he believed the Fleetfoot, but he was going along with it.
“No idea,” Valeo muttered. “But we’re close.”
“I don’t even think we should be here . . .” Beard trailed off, looking around.
“Oh, we most certainly shouldn’t,” Valeo replied immediately. “The door back there was locked.”
“And you, what, decided we should break in?” Beard said, aghast.
Valeo looked surprised. “Well, yeah.” He shook his head. “There’s something amazing down here, Beardy.” He said it as if that settled any and all matters which, to him, it very much did. “Trust me. Or well . . . trust my back.”
He inched down the corridor, following his new instinct. They were far below the stadium now, the weight pressing down on them like two million tons of hidden whispers. He could almost hear their voices in the flickering light.
“Yes, very close, indeed,” Valeo murmured, creeping along the wall, Beard right behind.
They rounded a curve in the rock and nearly toppled over a guard holding an iron-cast cudgel.
“Whoa!” Valeo cried just as the man leapt into action, bringing the club to bear.
“Hark! Who goes there?” the man growled, with every ounce of menace he could muster.
Valeo burst out laughing. Beard raised his hands in immediate surrender.
“Did you honestly just ‘hark’ us?” Valeo asked around gasps of mirth. Beard tugged at his arm, trying to get him to shut up, but it was no use. Out of bounds or not, Valeo didn’t seem to care.
The man’s face pinched up like a withered crabapple and he brandished the club again. “You ent supposed to be here.” His hair, the tangle hanging lank past the edge of his helmet, was a mix of browns, golds, and blacks. Riverworn. Unlike Fleetfoot with luck, and Heartsung with love, Riverworn had nothing at all they could wield.
Valeo looked around, his eyes locking on the door behind the guard, a mammoth twelve-foot thing with iron plating and steel studs. It was a door for protecting secrets. His heart warmed at the thought.
“Afraid we got turned around looking for the lavatories, my fine, young yeoman,” Valeo said in what he thought was a garrulous and charming air. Beard thought it sounded cocky and brash, about as real as a sympathy croon from a hungry fox.
“Well they ent none of them here,” the man growled, bouncing up and down with irritation. “You need to turn around and go.” His visor, far too large, kept sliding down into his eyes.
Valeo looked him over, the glee back on him as his eyes flashed bright. The guard was stout, uneducated by the sounds of him, with armor sized for his pompous pride instead of his miniscule body.
“Wit be quick. It’s like walking into one of Drassiter’s stories,” Valeo gasped, his hands on his knees. “You’re every bit the bumbling guardsman, aren’t you?”
Beard grabbed him by the elbow and jerked him back as the guard, his face reddening, thrust the cudgel at Valeo’s nose, missing him by inches.
“I wen’t be talked ta like that!” he shouted, showing yellowed teeth. Valeo bit his knuckles to stifle his giggles. Beard shoved him backwards, turning to face the guard.
“I’m sorry about my friend,” he said genially. “He loves his fables and sometimes has a hard time telling the difference between them and real life.” Valeo nodded his accord from over Beard’s shoulder, tears in his eyes.
The guard was unmoved. “I ought to beat the pair o’ya bloody, you ent suppose to be here.”
Beard balked. “I know, I know. We’ll leave now, I promise.” He backed away, still straining for a smile.
Valeo shot up, smile falling. He poked Beard and shook his head quickly, pointing at the door.
“Broken strings on bent frets,” Beard cursed under his breath. He sighed and stopped backing away.
“On second thought,” he said, tugging at the hair just above his ears. “Since we’re here, would you mind terribly if we just saw what was through there?” He pointed timidly at the great door.
The man looked confused, as if he’d never considered such a question. Finally, rubbing the last two sparks remaining to him, he made up his tiny mind. “’Course you can’t, you idgit.”
Beard had finally had enough. He cocked his head to the side, looking into the guard’s eyes. He didn’t drop his gaze as he was so often prone to do, but locked in tight like the two of them were matching puzzle pieces. He was a Heartsung, and Fleetfoot weren’t the only ones with a few trick hands to play.
“Are you sure we can’t poke in for a moment?”
The man began shaking his head but stopped as Beard’s stare caught him fully. His face glazed over and the cudgel dropped a fraction of an inch.
“We will surely be careful,” Beard said, sickle-sweet, hesitating only an instant before letting the brightest smile fill his face. “Soil and sky, I swear it.” He loosed all of his persuasion in that moment, letting the feeling flow down into his hands as he reached forward to grasp the man’s shoulder.
The guard’s club fell, clattering to the floor, and to Valeo’s absolute astonishment, he smiled crookedly up at Beard, clapping him around the neck.
“Ah, ’course you can, lad. Anythin’, anythin’ at all.” He swept into a low bow. “Erwin Lace forever at the service of you and yours.” He turned and strolled to the door. He reached into his vest pocket and produced a ring of keys, each roughly the size of a boot, and fitted one into the lock. The sound of enormous tumblers disengaging echoed down the hall.
Beard beamed at the guard, but his eyes were terrified. The man pushed at the door with a grunt, muscles straining for a moment before it shifted forward on well-oiled hinges. There was a great onrush of air as it swung to, and Valeo could smell fresh air and dirt.
“Thank you so very much, Erwin,” Beard said, putting on a jovial if shaky air. He pointed down to the forgotten cudgel. “Do you mind if we keep that?” he asked, his voice wavering.
Erwin stumbled in his haste to obey. He handed the weapon to Beard as if it were a crown to his king. Beard looked every bit as awkward as the situation merited.
“The keys also,” Beard crooned, “and don’t worry about us, just forget we ever came along, won’t you?”
Erwin nodded fervently, handing Beard the huge ring of keys. Valeo could only watch through it all, his mouth wide as a window frame. They were led over the threshold and Erwin bowed them out, the spitting image of an innkeeper, pulling the great door closed between them.
“What the Fayt was that about?” Valeo asked, pointing back and forth between Beard and the closed door.
Beard shook his head. “I’ll explain later,” he said hurriedly, locking the door behind them.
“Feeding me guilt about Fleetfoot tricks and you had that up your sleeve?” Valeo said, sounding more impressed than anything else.
Beard turned and strode through the cavern. It was more natural stone, stalactites clawing down at them and a near constant breeze playing on their cheeks.
“We haven’t got long.” He gestured over his shoulder. “In about two minutes, Erwin’s going to be mad as a cat in a bathtub. That’s why I figured we’d better take his club.” He looked down at the cudgel and shuddered. “Best put as much distance between us and him as we can.”
Valeo’s eyes narrowed. “That’s it? That’s all you’re going to leave me with? How did you do that? One minute he’s fixing to bash our heads in and the next he was ready to name everyone—down to his great grand guards—after you!” He ran his fingers through his hair, still more in awe than annoyed.
“This is about you and your ‘secret chasing,’ remember?” Beard said evasively. He pointed forward down the dark passageway. “It’s probably best we don’t linger.”
Valeo had been so focused on Beard’s behavior he hadn’t even registered his surroundings. Looking around for the first time, he nearly staggered with the thrum of energy. It was almost too much to bear.
“Okay,” he murmured, putting a hand out on the cool stone to steady himself, “It’s this way.” He pulled a lamp from a nearby sconce, the last for a while if the inky darkness ahead was any indication, and set off down the tunnel.
At that point, it was like following a siren blaring in his head. Valeo led them sure-footed down twists and turns in the rough stone as if they were his own hallways, the gloom multiplying as they went. Suddenly, the tunnel yawned open onto a wide ledge, the ground giving way to open air.
They were now on the underside of the stadium’s floating island. Everything around them was cast into deep shadow as bright sunbeams rained down the outer edges of the landmass like waterfalls of light. Below them, there was nothing but deep, dark sky. A single, steel piece of scaffolding, only wide enough for a single person, led over the drop and into the gloom. Valeo didn’t slow but made for the bridge, Beard hard on his heels.
The bridge was longer than they thought, and soon the ledge behind them was lost from sight, and all they could see in either direction were cold steel rails. As quickly as he had begun this charade, Valeo stopped, his body shuddering and growing rigid. Beard nearly stumbled over him, imagining the sound of hobnail boots coming down the passage at their backs.
“Why’d you stop?” Beard whimpered, wringing his hands and glancing around.
“We’re here,” replied Valeo, his words oddly smooth, like polished glass. “It’s right here.” His voice quavered, Beard couldn’t tell if it was from triumph . . . or terror.
“Where?” Beard whispered, looking around again, not able to make out much in the semi-darkness. In the distance, the light at the edge of the world flickered and danced.
Valeo walked to the rail and leaned over, pointing down with a shaking hand. Beard stepped level with him and peered over, a sense of foreboding crystallizing his heart like old snow. He gasped.
Below them, like a slumbering dragon in the shadows . . . was a ship.
Breeze and Aya tore through the milling crowd, Breeze grace and grit, Aya the flowing feather in a dancer’s cap. To say most pursuers wouldn’t stand a chance was an overstatement so severe it was laughable. But laugh they did not. Behind them, the Shadowlocke closed the distance, its movement stuttering, unnatural as blood poured down its chin and it flexed its long scythe-like claws.
They were supposed to be storybook, nightmares told to scare foolish children, but fairytale or no, it mattered little with what was behind them now. Its body was thin and it moved on two legs, but the resemblance to a person ended there. Its eyes were a shining silver, skin hard and black, and its mouth . . . lipless and jagged as broken glass. Breeze had no idea where it had come from, or how it was possible no one had noticed its coming, but with their feet in the fire, it didn’t much matter who had lit the match. She had to find Valeo; they had to get out of here. She shoved past a portly man, upending his popcorn and sausages. The wafting scent of seared meat and the man’s curses hardly registered as she loped onward.
They needed to get somewhere less crowded. Now. She remembered a small door as they’d walked in, some sort of player corridor, deserted and wide. Inside her pocket, she felt Drake’s signal bell vibrate.
It looked like they weren’t the only ones in trouble. Toward the player’s entrance, with all the haste they possessed, Breeze and Aya ran.
The ship was unlike any Beard had ever seen. It was gigantic, at least three times larger than any ship he’d ever been on. Despite clear signs of restoration—scaffolding, barrels of varnish, fresh wood and tools—it was clear the ship was older than song. The deck, wide in the rear and tapering to a sharp point at the bow, was made of a dark, lustrous timber. Its grains swirled, seeming to drink in lamps still lit along three great masts, and glowed with an inner light all its own. Whatever tree it had come from, they had never seen or even heard its like. The masts, wide and strong as goldwoods, thrust up like spikes along a dragon’s spine.
A chill coursed through Valeo, the pulse of the ship wanting to wake. He could imagine it thundering through the air, parting the clouds like strands of silk, could almost feel the wind playing across his face, smell fresh sunshine. A yearning welled up inside him: poignant, powerful, and not altogether sane. He turned to Beard, gave him a small smile, and vaulted over the rail.
Snapping his legs together, arms outstretched as he fell, Valeo grabbed hold one of the sail’s stay cables and rocketed to the foremast like a bullet. His inertia was too great and he bounced hard off the wood, nearly plunging to his death. Teetering on the brink, he found his footing on the royal yard, a beam wider than most ships. He leapt, sliding down a clew line to the shroud below, the net oiled and new under his fingers as he worked his way toward the deck. He was still eighty feet up and it sent swoops of vertigo through his gut. From high above, Beard’s blond head poked over the rails.
“You still don’t have a damn reason,” he stage-whispered.
Valeo ignored the jibe, scurrying down hand over hand in a rush of expectation, leaping the last ten feet.
When he hit those planks . . . how could he explain it? If he were running the perfect line, had twelve dozen steaming apple tartes, was putting on fresh leather boots, and had an unlimited supply of pitons . . . it would have been close to how Valeo felt as his feet touched that ship for the first time. He walked aimlessly around the foredeck, running his fingers around the strange, dark wood of the gunwale, warm as a baby’s grin. He leaned down and sniffed it. The scent was faint but full, like cinnamon mixed with lemon and rainfall.
The distance between the bow and stern had to be over a hundred meters in length and was divided into four tiers: the fore, main, quarter, and aft. It was an old style, more suited to a gallery than the great blue. The rails were curled and braided so gracefully they seemed to become two snakes chasing each other’s tails round and round, never ending. Valeo jogged about, taking it all in. The cannons, and Valeo counted thirty topside alone, shone bright as new pennies. The rigging and sails were new, too, a deep crimson the color of warm wine. Everything else, however, had that ancient, unchanging air about it. Valeo couldn’t say how he knew exactly. Not a thing showed a hint of age, the planks, the masts, even the polished grates above the hold gleaming bright, but like a cathedral it all had gravitas. This ship’s story was so thick, if he tried to swallow it, he would surely drown before the end of the first page.
“Beard!” Valeo shouted into the gloom above. “Get down here!”
There was no reply. Valeo squinted up at the bridge, trying to see any sign of the big Heartsung. Nothing. Valeo snorted and kept exploring. Beard had probably run all the way back to the surface, squalling. Typical. Valeo was just thinking of a kinder word for coward, skipping his way up to the quarterdeck and whistling, when he gagged on his tongue, nearly crashing to the planks.
It was a wide, ornate cog with twelve points, but unlike the rest of the ship, which resonated with that strange, flowing wood without name, the helm was stark white, the color of polished stone. What was more, at every joint, jewels the size of fists glowed and flickered, beckoning Valeo forward. Without pausing, he reached out and took hold of the helm. He gave it an experimental twirl, getting a feel for it. It was immensely heavy, but responded easily to his movements. He looked down at the cog, rubbing his hands absently over an immense sapphire.
It’s not stone, he realized with a sudden lurch in his stomach, it’s bone.
Valeo let out a low whistle. The entire helm had been carved from bone so white it looked marble, the surface laced with veins of blue. He heard a thump to his right and nearly jumped out of his boots as Beard came lumbering into view over a gangway. He was staring at the ship in wonder, too, but unlike Valeo, there was a dawning sense of comprehension on his face.
“Do you know this ship?” Valeo asked, sliding down the companionway rails to the main deck where Beard stood, mouth hanging somewhere near his breast pocket.
Beard nodded slowly. “So do you,” he whispered.
“Aye?” Valeo rubbed a thumb at his chin.
“With sails of blood, helm of bone,” Beard recited, recalling the verse as easy as breathing. He nodded to the crimson sails and the quarterdeck, “A ship more precious than silver or gold . . .” His words seem to shiver in the silence, stretching between each syllable far longer than they should.
Valeo yelped as he recognized the lines. Spinning around, he sprinted toward the stern as fast as his legs would take him.
“None more loved, more sought, more bold, than Drassiter’s own, her ship, her hold.” Beard continued, his hands shaking with excitement and awe as he watched Valeo vault past the quarterdeck, making toward the rear of the ship, his arms pumping furiously. “From fire wrought, and to fire returns . . . ”
Valeo leapt up the stairs to the very rear of the ship, taking them four at a time. He rammed hard into the stern rail, craning his neck as far as he could, peering down, trying to make out the name on the back of the ship.
Beard recited the last line from Threepwin’s Treasure and Tales, the words seeming to charge through the air like electricity. Valeo tried to cry out, but the sound couldn’t get past the lump in his throat, peering down at the name, clear as sunlight on a summer’s day.
“. . . a light in the darkness, the Phoenix burns.”
Valeo ran back to the helm, staring around the ship with renewed wonder as he reached out for the great wheel. “But, the Phoenix was lost in the Rine, at the battle of All-Fallows,” he countered, tracing his finger along the polished stone. “Over a hundred ships were sent to take on Drassiter and her five lieutenants.” He nodded as if seeing the battle from the helm. “For every one of Drassiter’s five, twenty ships were sent burning to Darksky,” Valeo said, quoting the golden lettering of the heavy, leather-bound memories of his childhood. “But in the end, only the Phoenix remained. Drassiter and her crew destroying all but two: Wind Raker and Forgotten Melody.” Valeo had heard the story so many times he could weave it word for word, if he had two drops of patience for storytelling. Still, he remembered well the Phoenix’s bloody ending, or thought he had.
“Looks like the stories were wrong,” Beard replied, voicing Valeo’s own thoughts, his legs barely able to hold him up. “It must have survived.”
“But why’s it here?” Valeo beckoned to the shadows.
“The Timeless must have found it,” Beard guessed, tracing his finger along a cleat on the main mast. “They live forever, right? And they’ve had just as long to look.” As soon as he said it, Valeo knew he must be right.
There was a lever next to the helm, and as he was so often want to do when it came to buttons and levers, Valeo reached for it, his thoughts a thousand years away.
His fingers halfway there, a great rumble sounded from beneath his feet, whirring engines breathing new life into ancient bones. Valeo snatched his hand back as if he’d been burned.
“What d’you touch?” cried Beard.
“Me?” shouted Valeo indignantly, “Didn’t touch anything!” For the first time in his life, he was telling the truth.
The ship groaned and began to rise. There was a splintering crack as the gangway broke away and fell into the abyss.
“Oh, Fayt,” Beard said, rushing up to Valeo beside the helm. “How’s this happening?”
“Haven’t a clue,” replied Valeo, his voice rising over the rudderwings as they gained speed. His eyes were transfixed on something in the distance. What he saw, real or imagined, only the stones knew.
“What should we do?” Beard begged, grabbing Valeo by the shoulder and shaking him roughly.
“. . . Roll with it,” Valeo whispered. The gleam in his eye brooked no argument. A wild grin filled his sharp features like the rising sun, and he squeezed the helm to his chest.
He didn’t consider consequences, didn’t pause to think on his actions. It didn’t matter one wit. They were standing on a fable, Herwick Drassiter’s very own ship of legend. Valeo reached out and pushed the throttle forward.
For the first time in three thousand years, the Fallen Phoenix was rising from the ashes.
Breeze and Aya thundered down the corridor, pausing only long enough to overturn a bin or upend a bench into the path behind them. They hadn’t seen the Shadowlocke for ages, but with all the assurance of death, they could still feel it coming. Breeze had been lost a half-dozen turns ago, but she kept driving forward, hoping to see something she recognized.
Drake said they might have company, that someone might come after them for what they had and what they knew . . . but they had never expected this.
They rounded a corridor and saw movement. For one terrifying instant, Breeze thought it was the Shadowlocke, trapping them in. With a flood of relief, she realized it wasn’t a single person, but a team. They were dirty, bruised, and sweat lined their wingsuits, but it would take more than dirt for Aya to not recognize every Sky Shot player by name.
“Kai!” Aya gasped, her hands on her knees, gesturing to a man in the middle, an enormous wedge of golden hair atop his head. “We need . . .” But she trailed off, having no idea what she was about to say.
“Oh,” Kai started, confusion crawling up his face, “who are you?” If he was surprised, he hid it well, or perhaps his molasses features couldn’t muster anything so quick as a change in expression. He turned and looked at Aya, her own hair also matted and sweaty. “Seems you’re in an awful rush,” he said genially, taking all the time in the world.
Breeze held up her hand, cutting him off. They were running out of time in so many ways, and she still had no idea where Valeo had gone. She needed a way to contact him, something he could see from anywhere. But how? What?
Then the idea came to Breeze in a sudden stroke of inspiration.
“Launch platform. Where?” she blurted. Even in her terror, the voiced words would hardly come.
The Sky Shot player stared at her, tired and confused. “What?”
“Someone’s after us,” Aya said, her bright eyes wide and darting.
“No time,” Breeze panted, looking over her shoulder and expecting to see billowing white at any moment. “Please,” she cried, her face wild and earnest.
He must have seen her terror thrashing just below the surface, because his face tightened and he nodded. He turned to his teammates, all of them staring at the newcomers in their own brand of confusion.
“Just down the hall,” Kai said, even now calm and slow. He gestured toward a wide door.
As they passed the rest of the team, Breeze paused. “Don’t stay here,” she said grimly, the words every bit the command only cold, stark fear can bring forth.
They burst into the room Kai had indicated, brightly lit with banners streaming down between cases filled with trophies. On the other side of the room were benches and a broad ladder made of thick oak, wide enough for several people. That had to be it.
Aya and Breeze began climbing the ladder side by side. The walls soon closed around them, only a far-off burst of sun lighting their way.
“What are we doing exactly?” Aya panted as they scaled the ladder.
“Message,” Breeze said, her speech clipped. “To Valeo. Need to find him. Now.”
“And how you going to do that?” Aya asked. The words didn’t feel like an accusation, more curious, a child questing after a magic trick.
“Mirrors,” Breeze said simply, her hands a blur on the rungs. She didn’t elaborate and if Aya was further confused, she had the good sense not to press it.
The wind began to swirl down the opening, the dull thrum of the crowd getting louder as they reached the crest. They pulled themselves onto the narrow platform, high above the stadium. Breeze’s stomach gave an uncomfortable jerk as she squinted down at the writhing mass hundreds of feet below. Heights were all well and good, but this was something entirely different. A light wind buffeted her, tugging at her clothes.
“Phew!” Aya said, wiping her sweaty face with the back of her hand.
“Watch the ladder,” Breeze beckoned. Aya hastened to comply.
Breeze walked carefully to the edge, hands gripping the guardrails so hard her knuckles grew white. She fumbled in her pocket, feeling the hard square mirror and pulling it free. She pushed the hair back from her face and looked up at the sun, high in the summer sky. Catching the light with the glass, she began flickering a signal across the stadium at random.
Since they were five, Breeze and Valeo had spent every day together, running, getting into trouble, and fleeing as far as they could from a world that never wanted them. Ever since she could remember, they had used hand mirrors to signal each other across the city. Just signal, and the other would come running, no matter what. She hoped to the Fayts above and below that it worked now.
Come on, Come on! Breeze thought frantically, her hands slick with sweat. She caught a glint of light and cried out in excitement, but it was just her own light reflecting off the side of a popcorn cart.
“Any luck?” Aya called from the end of the platform, her eyes fixed down the chute.
“Hold on!” Breeze snapped, her eyes blurring with terrified fury, emotions bouncing back and forth within her. She heard a soft rumble, but dismissed it, a new match the least of her concerns.
Where was he? Why had he gone to get Fayting food? She cursed and slammed her fist on the rail, the thick metal squealing and warping out of shape. The roar grew louder and still she paid it no mind.
“Breeze!” Aya wailed. Breeze didn’t need to hear her next words to know what came next. “It’s coming!”
Breeze’s insides were cold-fire, drenched embers of shaking rage. She squeezed the mirror tight in her hands, hearing the glass crack and leaned back to lob it into oblivion when a shadow fell across her eyes. She blinked in surprise, her arm falling slack as she looked up at the darkening heavens.
A ship the size of the moon, with enormous crimson sails and a ram like a dragon’s horn, crested the edge of the stadium. Breeze’s breath caught in her throat. Her eyes were the best she’d ever known, sharp as an arrowhead with every single detail, so even at this distance, she recognized the red hair of the ship’s pilot.
Valeo was at the helm.
“What’re you on about?” Beard shouted, his eyes round with terror. He stood on the larboard side of the Phoenix, head hanging over the rail as the hull clipped the stadium’s roof, knocking several chunks of stone and mortar loose in their wake.
“Not exactly a science!” Valeo snapped, pulling levers at random and spinning the helm. “No idea what to do here!”
The ship teetered and yawed, tipping down into the arena, the great mast creaking as they were pulled this way and that. The crowds screamed in a wildfire panic as the ship plunged down on top of them.
“Do you have a destination in mind?” Beard shouted, his eyes wide and frightened as bangs whipped across his forehead. “Or are you just going to crash a storybook into splinters?”
Valeo bit his lip, brow furrowing in concentration and wishing Beard would just shut up. He threw back the pitch and the ship churned slowly upward, no longer on a collision course with eighth row center. His face grew hot.
He’d been trying to go the other direction but was beginning to find steering a ship was less swashbuckle romance and more driving a whale with wings. The keel clipped the edge of the scoreboard with a dull boom, a shudder coursing through the hull like a tiny earthquake.
He sighed. So much for being low-key. He gritted his teeth, preparing himself for the worst, when a bright flash cut across his eyes.
Flicker flicker. Flicker flicker.
He looked around confused, his eyes trying to find the source of the light. Far across the stadium on the Sky Shot launch platform, was a figure waving its arms frantically in their direction. Long black hair and that annoyed stance . . . only one person it could be.
“Beardy!” Valeo shouted, pointing toward the platform.
“I see them!” Beard replied, his eyes on the flickering lights.
“We’re going after them! Trim the sails, douse all but mains!” Valeo shouted, not without a certain dose of swagger. This was his moment to shine after all.
Beard stared at him blankly. “What does that even mean?” he shouted.
“No clue!” Valeo crowed back over the wind.
“Thought so,” Beard mumbled to himself, grabbing hold of the rail, not sure how much it was going to help. “We’re gonna die.”
Valeo reached beyond his chest and his luck began to burn, honey-gold filling him up with infinite possibility.
Breeze turned once the ship lurched in their direction, running back to Aya.
“Not good,” Aya whispered, her eyes trained on the chute below.
Breeze looked down and, even though she had braced for it, the sight of the Shadowlocke scurrying up the ladder like some hideous insect made bile rise in her throat. She crouched down, reaching as low as she could and grabbed hold of one of the rungs. With an almighty wrenching sound, she tore it free, dragging her hand up the wall and snapping off the remaining holds above. She shoved an armful of wooden shards to Aya and lobbed the rest as hard as she could down the hole. Aya did the same.
Still several feet down, the creature growled, feral and deep, the wood raking across its face and arms. A bright line of blood trickled from below its eye, and it smiled up at them, promising such horrors that Breeze could almost feel hands upon her skull.
“Come on!” Breeze said, scooping up Aya’s wrist and dragging her to the end of the diving board. Breeze’s vision spun as she looked down over the crowd, nothing but a faceless horde shouting and frantic, pointing up at the fast approaching ship.
“Have to jump,” she said.
Aya nodded and glanced at the ladder, dancing back and forth on her feet. “Hurry up, Valeo!” she shouted, cupping her hands around her mouth.
The ship lumbered closer, jerking back and forth like a giant, drunken albatross. It was definitely Valeo piloting. They heard a scrabbling from the hole behind them. Breeze stamped her foot.
“Let’s go!” she roared.
The ship closed the gap as ashen fingers, nails long and black as razor blades, appeared on the lip of the ladder. Aya reached down and grabbed Breeze’s hand as the ship’s bowsprit flew past them. Breeze chanced a glance over her shoulder and saw the Shadowlocke clamber up behind them, its terrible smile glinting in the sunlight. Its wicked sword slithered from its sheath.
“Ready?” Aya shouted, her body tensing.
It’ll just follow us, and there’ll be no escape, Breeze realized with grim certainty.
Hardly pausing to think, she tore her hand free and grabbed the smaller woman by the waist, flinging her into open space. Aya screamed, her legs flailing, but Beard was there to break her fall.
Sensing more than seeing it, Breeze ducked, feeling the tug of wind and steel across the tips of her hair. She spun, kicking out, but the Shadowlocke leapt backwards, its grin growing wider and more grotesque, its sword held high. Breeze stood up. Her heart a hummingbird trapped in her ribcage. There was no fury, no anger, just calm, cold certainty. She heard Valeo shout out, telling her to turn and jump, but she couldn’t. She would never condemn her friends to this . . . monster. Her eyes drifted closed, looking to all the world as if she had fallen asleep.
The Shadowlocke hesitated only a second longer, lunging forward with an overhand slash. Waiting until the last possible instant, the blade only inches from cleaving her in two, Breeze pivoted forward. Grabbing the things putrid wrist, she halted the sword as if her palm were solid granite. Her other hand shot out and she lifted the Shadowlocke high overhead. With every ounce of strength she possessed, Breeze flung it off the platform.
Its howls of rage, primal and inhuman, fell on deaf ears as she turned and leapt.
Fallen Phoenix blazed across the stadium. Banners the size of barns flapped and spun in the wake of the tremendous hull as it flew by. Trumpets echoed from every direction, a sweeping introduction to myth made matter before their very eyes. Even the players within the diamond gazed up in wonder, the match forgotten. Every face, tens of thousands, locked onto the crimson sails in a moment none would ever forget. Valeo, ever the exhibitionist, spun the helm hard and threw the pitch lever as far back as it would go, causing the ship to tilt and rocket into the sky.
Breeze, halfway across the main deck, straightened up and looked around. Aya was hanging over the rails, looking around like an excited child. If there was any sign of the creature, she didn’t show it. Beard could just be seen disappearing below deck, presumably to see what was in the hull. Valeo paid them all no mind, his body loose as he directed the craft higher.
Breeze brushed her hair back, noticing a sizeable chunk missing but shrugging it off. At least it wasn’t an ear. She groped for the bell, ringing it three times. There was a brief pause and the bell rang in her palm of its own accord. She pocketed it once more and ran to Valeo.
“We need to leave,” she signed. “Much as I appreciate the rescue, it was about as subtle as declaring war.” She poked him in the chest.
“Funny thing is,” Valeo laughed, his hands still on the helm, “was trying to go the other way.”
“So, your lucky incompetence finally worked in my favor.” Breeze cuffed him on the shoulder, leaning forward to examine all the jewels around the helm.
Valeo nodded, adjusting the pitch. “Yup.”
“Where’d you get the ship?” Breeze signed, looking around, clearly impressed.
“Long story,” Valeo responded. “The short version is that it was just sitting there,” his eyes glittered mischievously, “figured it needed some sunshine.”
“Valeo!” Aya shouted from behind, and by the tone in her voice, Valeo knew something was wrong. Well, more than “stealing a three thousand year old ship and crashing it into a stadium full of people” sort of wrong.
“Yeah?” he shouted over the whipping winds.
“Valeo, ships are coming!” Aya cried, pointing toward the mainland, where indeed several ships were scrambling and rising into the air. Patrols. She beckoned toward the front of the pack. A three-masted frigate rose up, several hundred feet in front of the others, and broke away, rocketing in their direction.
“Fayt, sure hope that’s the captain,” Valeo said. He smiled at Breeze and nodded, and she gave him a brief smile in return, surprising him.
“Low or high?” he called.
“As high as our feet will take us.”
Valeo drank in her spoken words, cherishing them. He opened his mouth to say something more but was drowned out by a shriek.
“Left! Look left!” Beard shouted, sprinting up the steps to the quarterdeck, arms full of swords and bows from Fayts knew where, golden hair in complete disarray.
It was too late. A ship shrouded in darkness rammed into the Phoenix with an almighty roar of warping iron and timber.
Breeze was the first back to her feet. The black ship lurched, scraping down the side of the Phoenix in great stuttering shrieks of wood. Breeze’s mouth fell slack, nearly losing her balance as she tried to comprehend what she was seeing.
Shadowlocke crawled along every inch of the vessel, nightmares no more.
We’re all dead.
Leaping over Aya, still struggling to rise, Breeze jerked the helm right, trying to free them, but their tangled rigging locked the two ships together.
“Where did they come from? Why didn’t we see?” Aya cried.
“Later,” Breeze said, helping her to her feet. “Let’s go.”
But as she looked up, Breeze realized there was no place to go. The patrols would be here in minutes. They were locked between fire and flame. Breeze felt despair creep up her neck, but rage pushed it back down. It wasn’t fair, and rather than rail against fate, she turned, scooped up one of Beard’s scattered bows, and searched for something to shoot.
“What do we do?” Aya shouted frantically.
“You end,” something whispered.
Even as her body jerked, the blade slicing across her back, Aya was elegance. She spun in a beautiful arc, collapsing to the deck in a fountain of blood. Standing over her was the Shadowlocke from the stadium, its bloody teeth gnashing in ecstasy, crimson-tinged steel in hand. Eyes finding Valeo, its sneer grew even wider.
“Give it now, or all die,” it said to Valeo, each syllable laced with poison.
The dark vessel raised altitude. Dozens of Shadowlocke swarmed onto the Fallen Phoenix, just as hideous as the one already on deck, silver eyes flashing in the pale holes of their faces. Beard crawled toward Aya, his big clumsy hands cradling her gently. He looked hopeless and lost, grief pounding him into the wood even as he struggled to rise.
With a bellow like a wild animal, Breeze sprinted back up the steps, her face a carnal mask of fury. The horde rushed up behind her, dragging her to the ground and fanning out to surround the rest of the meager crew.
There was no time left.
“Come now,” Its coat the only white among the press of filthy bodies, the lone Shadowlocke stepped forth. It pointed a long, clawed finger at Valeo. “Or all will cry sweet agony before the last.”
Valeo desperately searched for a way out, a way to turn things back in their favor . . . but there were none. In a blink, everything had changed: from brimming victory to crushing defeat.
His whole body began to shake. As if every contracting muscle, every heartbeat, were the length of a life, he took one final look at those around him. Aya, pretty as the stars and brighter still, her life hanging by Fayts knew how much thread. Beard, bumbling and incompetent, but knowing and true. And Breeze . . . the rain, the wind, the hand in his.
She was sprawled on the ground several feet away, but Valeo could see her slowly rousing.
“Stupid boy,” the Shadowlocke in white whispered, voice roaches on a gravestone. It took a step closer. “You thought we wouldn’t know? You, that carry more than time in your pocket, thought we wouldn’t see right where you were? Fool.”
Breeze sprang to her feet, fury and fire. Two Shadowlocke leapt forward to restrain her, but she threw them off as she would mice, their writhing bodies smashing into the wooden deck and rolling away. Several more piled on top of her, forcing her down. Valeo jumped to help, but a sword was there, pressing against his throat and forcing him to his knees.
Every law of physics shrieked its protest as Breeze rose up again, barely a hundred and thirty pounds on her birthday, lifting six fully-grown figures into the air. Their bodies buckled and flew as she lashed out, almost breaking free. Ten more dove in, finally dragging her to the ground. The Shadowlocke forced her arms behind her back, Breeze growling and spitting.
“What are you?” Valeo blurted, eyes on the Shadowlocke in billowing white, revulsion and hatred fighting in equal measure, fueling him to stand.
It brought a clawed hand to its chest in mock pain. “You don’t recognize us?” The Shadowlocke gurgled, the sound someone makes as they drown in their own blood. “‘Every dream and ever fear, close your eyes and find us here.’” It leered, gnashing its teeth so hard it actually tore through part of its chin.
It was more of Threepwin’s Treasure and Tales, storybook fables that were far from childish anymore. Valeo couldn’t begin to comprehend what they had gotten themselves into, and all for a watch, worth the world but wouldn’t even open.
Still, they had to protect it. No matter the cost. Valeo knew that in his bones.
Beard shivered, scared near out of his wits, eyes fixed on Valeo and Breeze. Aya’s breaths were quick and shallow, and he was doing everything he could to staunch the blood. He had no idea what could be done, or what he could do to bring about its doing.
Never had he felt more hopeless.
But a feeling swelled in Beard. Faster than he could talk himself out of it, something possessed him, burning in his chest and giving his frozen heart warmth. His friends were in trouble and he was done standing still. His bowels writhing, his legs sponge cake, he tensed as rage rose up in his brain and, like flash-fire, consumed.
Meanwhile, Valeo’s hands found the cold steel even as he reached for his luck, burning every ounce he had as he launched himself at this thing’s hideous face. The Shadowlocke was faster still, bringing its weapon to bear and thrusting at Valeo’s chest.
But Valeo was Fleetfoot, fortune forever his. The honey-heat bloomed through every ounce of him and he somehow ducked under the deadly blow. With every drop of grit he had, Valeo drove the stubby sword through the beast’s putrid heart.
“Should say sorry, but . . . not going to.” Valeo jeered, releasing the blade and taking a step back.
The Shadowlocke looked down at its chest in surprise. It seemed confused, unable to comprehend. Reaching down, it groped at the pommel. It looked up at Valeo and flashed its jagged metal teeth. Slowly, it pulled the steel out of it chest, inch by inch, and threw it to the ground.
“Foolish boy. Stupid boy. Can’t kill what can’t die.”
The Shadowlocke flung Valeo to the ground and grinned, red spittle pooling at the corners of its mouth. As its wicked blade dug into his exposed throat, Valeo flinched, his bones going cold.
Beard suddenly appeared, barreling into the creature and sending them both to the planks in a mess of limbs, the Heartsung on top, struggling to keep the sword at bay.
Breeze’s defiant roar vibrated out across the deck and with an almighty heave, she flung a dozen Shadowlocke of her own into the air. Valeo scrambled to his feet, rushing to support Beard, any advantage awarded by the element of surprise quickly evaporating. He flung the Heartsung to the floor just as the sword sliced across, a cut that would have disemboweled him.
“Get up,” Valeo whispered to Beard from the corner of his mouth, his sword held protectively between himself and the crowd of horrors. Breeze was there, rushing to his side, a stolen spear in hand.
“Took you long enough,” Valeo chided. “Lounging around all day, one would think you didn’t care to be rescued.”
She tucked the spear under her arm and snorted. “Is that what this is?” She had several cuts and nicks across her face and arms and a nasty bruise playing across her cheek. “A rescue operation?”
“Clearly,” said Valeo. “But if you’d like us to leave you to it, that can be arranged.”
“Rather we left.”
Valeo peered at Beard who was shaking like a sail on his other side. “What exactly was your plan after tackling a fairytale?”
“Hadn’t thought it through, just sort of making it up as I go,” Beard answered, voice quavering as much as his hands.
“Hero after my own heart,” beamed Valeo.
Beard rummaged around, finding a sizeable club. Heroes were fools. Bravery was nothing but stupidity lined with ribbons. He was surely about to be sick.
Still near the helm, The Shadowlocke leader had regained its footing. Behind, the others waited and watched.
Valeo sighed. “How to kill something that can’t die?”
It acted first, lunging at Breeze. She deflected the blow, fanning out left to flank. Valeo chopped down at the things head, but it was impossibly fast, cold steel meeting notched, sending shockwaves of pain through Valeo’s wrist.
Beard got his club hewn in half.
The three remaining lookouts were hard-pressed no matter where they turned. Breeze stabbed in from the left, hitting her opponent’s blocking blade with so much force it stumbled and nearly fell. The crowd of macabre figures were growing restless, circling and closing in.
Valeo darted in at an exposed hip. Instead of blocking the blow, the Shadowlocke just lowered its sword, letting Valeo cut a deep gash across its thigh. Beard swung wide with his shattered club, missing the Shadowlocke’s head by inches. Its foot found his chest, sending him reeling. They were simply outmatched, this thing’s skills far greater than anything they possessed. They were being toyed with. All three of them could see it.
The monster fought Breeze almost lazily, cutting a long line across her shoulder as she tried to dodge. If she noticed the pain she didn’t show it, only howled with anger, cutting a swathe so fast that sheer ferocity was the only thing keeping her from being torn apart. She was so close to losing it, Valeo knew he must get her back. He needed her. Preferably alive.
Valeo grabbed Breeze around the waist, ducking the expected elbow to his chin, and dragged her back. The Shadowlocke watched them go, sword still at the ready, its ghastly wounds nothing more than wind.
Valeo sighed hopelessly. The mizzen mast was at his back, looming up like a clock tower of wood. It reminded him of home, when death wasn’t prowling at every turn, of running with Breeze along rooftops . . .
His thoughts trailed off, something playing at the back of his brain, something shouting to be heard.
“Breeze!” Valeo hissed as a sudden, wonderful idea struck him. “Split the river!”
Breeze seemed confused for a moment, then her eyes widened in understanding. “It’s the river?” She replied, pointing at the white-clad nightmare.
“Exactly!” Valeo said nodding and turning to go. “Can’t stop all three of us. Nothing’s that quick. Soon as we smash it, scarper up the mizzen like the hounds of hell are upon us, which,” he looked around at the terrible faces staring feral and possessed, “they pretty much are. Got it?”
“I don’t got it!” sputtered Beard.
“You don’t need the details, it’ll just make it worse,” said Valeo quickly, his fingers running along his thumbs. “Just . . . Beard your way straight at him, and we’ll take care of the rest.”
“What does that even mean?” cried Beard. The crowd loomed ever closer, some only a few feet away.
“No time!” snapped Valeo. “Be brave, Beardy. Hit him right now. Fast as you can. Go!”
“Trust us,” Breeze added, the strange, warm note in her voice a ray of light on a river of panic.
With that, Valeo shoved Beard forward, who looked petrified. Valeo jogged left, and Breeze right. The Shadowlocke stood ready as Beard approached, his feeble hunk of wood feeling even less so in this creature’s monstrous shadow. Valeo and Breeze fanned out wide, staying just out of reach of the horde. Beard locked eyes with his opponent, his stomach turning to centipedes. Its gaze didn’t promise death, but already raced toward it. Beard felt outside his own body, as if watching someone else ascend the gallows.
“Now, Beard!” Valeo shouted, picking up speed.
On faith, friendship, and Fayt knows what else, Beard charged. Valeo and Breeze mirrored each other, sprinting in a wide arc. Beard stormed ahead, raising his arms high into the air—and tripped, the forgotten half of his broken club tangling his feet. He barreled ahead, struggling to keep his footing. The Shadowlocke must have seen Breeze and Valeo coming, but the sight of Beard’s exposed neck was too much to pass by. It hesitated for a fraction of a second, but it was all the time they needed. Breeze and Valeo leapt in unison, feet smashing into either side of the Shadowlocke with bone-shattering force. With multiple muffled snaps, it crumpled, sword falling to the ground.
“Let’s go!” shouted Breeze, flinging her spear down.
She tugged Beard back to his feet. The mob advanced, howling as their leader stirred feebly, trying to rise. Beard scooped up Aya, her face ashen and her eyes closed, and draped her over his shoulder. Breeze and Valeo latched onto the rigging, pulling themselves onto the mast and working their way up the precarious holds. Skill alone saved them. They scurried up the timber quick as walking, prodding Beard along as fast as he could go with Aya in tow, often lifting his weight more than he did. Below them, swords clanged and slashed, dirty claws scrabbling to get at them. They made the shroud along the mizzen-top, the wide square netting a welcome change of pace.
“V, you go last,” ordered Breeze, panting as she pulled herself up, Beard nearly on her ankles.
“Why me?” blurted Valeo, affronted.
“They think you have the watch,” she retorted. “So if they catch you, they won’t care about us.”
“Oh that’s a comfort,” he snorted, going hand over hand up the netting.
“I can’t climb anymore,” Beard gasped, breath coming in ragged bursts as he adjusted Aya’s weight on his shoulder.
“Sure you can,” said Valeo, slapping Beard’s broad backside. “Easy as leaping in to save a friend. Except this time, don’t fall . . . because we’ll die.”
Beard’s intended reply was lost in the strangled gasps keeping his lungs pumping. Below them, Shadowlocke swarmed up the rigging, a black tide of death.
“What comes next?” Valeo panted.
“Small goals,” Breeze signed, elbow wrapped around the rigging so she could form the words. “First, focus on getting to the top.”
A few frantic minutes later, they made it to the mizzen sail, pulling themselves atop the yard. Breeze scampered across the nearest stay, eighty feet above deck, toward the main mast, but Beard halted, petrified. The stay was a two inch-wide cable suspended over a lethal plunge—looking very much like a two inch-wide cable suspended over a lethal plunge.
“In this situation,” Valeo said quickly, eyes darting back and forth, “people usually say something helpful like, ‘don’t look down.’ But right now, it’s gonna be a great source of motivation.” At his words, Beard peered at the countless monsters scattered only a few feet below.
. . . He nearly beat Breeze across the gap.
“That’s the ticket,” Valeo muttered, following him across.
Climbing yet higher still, the masts grew narrower, their grip growing trickier by the second. They often had to cling wildly by their fingertips as heavy gusts whipped past their ears, the ship rumbling and shaking beneath them.
At long last, they pulled themselves atop the main skysail yard along the very top of the ship. All three were exhausted past wit’s end, desiring nothing more than the sweet oblivion of sleep. Their pursuers scurried ever closer, the end nearing. There were only precious seconds.
No room left to run.
“Well . . . damn,” Valeo gasped, pulling himself up.
“We tried,” Beard mumbled sadly, one hand securing Aya and the other glued to the safety line as the fierce wind begged him off his narrow footing.
Breeze shook her head, denial tight and unyielding. She bolted away along the yard, looking for an escape, defiant to the end. Valeo knew it was futile. The path had run its pavestones. His shoulders slumped, hopelessness coursing through him like bile. All the luck in the world, and it hadn’t saved them one drop.
“Never wanted this . . . you know,” Valeo whispered, his eyes strangely out of focus, the darkest shade of plum Beard had ever seen. “For you to die, for anyone to.” He glanced at Aya, cradled in Beard’s big arms, at Breeze fighting to her last . . . because of him. “All of this,” he gestured to the ship, “is on me . . . for taking this ship.”
Beard shook his head, a strange mixture of pity and determination sparking against his ribs. “You couldn’t have known.” He wobbled closer to Valeo, nudging his shoulder. “The poor soul allowing death through the door isn’t the hand that swings the sword. You cannot be blamed for this.”
Valeo looked down again, some horrible, twisted faces almost close enough to touch, and waited for it to end.
A sudden rumble grew . . . the sound of engines.
Valeo’s head snapped up, hoping against all wisdom. Its entire right side pocked and blackened by gunfire, a frigate roared into view, the deck pulling level alongside them in a blaze of wind. Drake! Beard hoisted Aya up, nearly falling to his death for the umpteenth time, so great was his joy.
“Let’s go!” Valeo shouted, scrambling across the yard as Beard leapt to the far deck, the very image of dashing.
Just as Valeo poised himself to spring, a sudden scream, a voice he would know for a thousand miles, spun him around, his body snapping tight with dread.
Impossibly, the white Shadowlocke stood at the far end of the sail, its body a contorted jumbled mess, hand around Breeze’s throat as she dangled over empty space. Valeo locked eyes with her and felt his heart shatter. Scrawled across her face was something that, for fifteen years, he had never believed possible . . .
If anything under the moon could truly unravel him, it was that. With sorrow more profound than memory, Breeze smiled, saying goodbye. She opened her fingers, in her palm . . . the watch. It was the whole reason they were in this mess, a trinket somehow so important they had to move the stars to keep it safe. She launched it into the air toward him and her empty hands formed three final words.
“Low or high?”
The Shadowlocke’s breath came in terrible rasping gasps, “no more games, only death.”
Before Valeo could roar his defiance, tear his lungs from his own beating chest, it flung Breeze from the ship. Valeo watched as if time meant nothing, as if seconds were years and generations fell at the drop of a knife as his dearest companion plummeted down. There was a flash of silver as the pocket watch flickered across the clouds . . .
Duty in one hand, his death as well as hers in the other . . . the answer was obvious. The choice she wanted for him, what every instinct screamed, pounded like the sharp shards of marionette bones against the inside of his skull. He knew it all to be best, and wise, and true.
Valeo’s thoughts found bumbling Beard, beautiful Aya. He had never quite understood until this moment how much he needed them.
So he made his choice.
He, too . . . said goodbye.
As the pocket watch arced by, twirling and forgotten, its clasp broke open at long last.
Valeo never saw it. Flying to the end of the yard, he shoved past the Shadowlocke as if it were nothing more than vapor. He didn’t look, didn’t care what was below, or if there was even anything at all. Ready to risk hell, death, and even greater unknown, he’d finally found a reason that mattered.
Valeo scoffed and leapt into the sky.
As high as our feet will take us.