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Chapter 6: Flying Ships & Other Nonsense (Part 3/3)

It is a truly massive structure, and really far more than just an outpost. There is a small city cupped within its protective reach which it shelters from any potential onslaught. The sky-docks are bustling with ships coming in and out, most a lot larger than our little Zipper. Some are clearly built for fighting, protective plates covering most of their wood, no clear mast or cloth sails that would be vulnerable to fire, and with holes for projectiles to be fired out of. They look more like hole-riddled flying seeds than ships! Others, however, are a lot more shiplike. Luxury travel ships from what I can tell, the protective plates are still there, but they cover less, and there are windows set with glass in the hulls. Only a few of the Zippers occupy berths in the sky-dock, and they are all regulated to one section, to which Silv immediately starts steering us. 

A series of walls surround the outpost below the sky-docks. They look slightly strange to me from afar, and once we get close, I can see why. They are curved slightly inward, back over the town. A deliberate design, and one I’d guess to prevent dragonfire from scorching the first few houses. There are people manning the wall, constantly looking out and scanning the horizons for attacks. But the walls are layered as well, each one further in is slightly higher up, until a person reaches the one where the sky-docks are stationed and the Keeper resides. 

The Keeper, as Fin had explained while we were en-route, is the head of the Outpost. A position somewhat equivalent to a mayor of a town by the way he explains it. The Keeper makes sure all those employed by the Outpost are paid on time, deals with official notices from the Capital, and, most importantly, will have plenty of information and the Power to send us on to the Capital on one of those big ships. All of the Chronicler’s live in the Capital after all, and Faladel has multiple times expressed his desire to meet with these Chroniclers-types whose job it is to know everything. 

I know I would certainly have a few questions to ask them! How on earth did they manage to start a war with pancake loving dragons for goodness sake?! Smay was such a polite chap, and although I completely believe Silv, Fin, and Elen have all had terrible experiences with them, I can’t dismiss dragons as the mindless beasts that they seem to think they are. Smay was just so different, so intelligent and fun, but I daren’t bring him up at all when I’m with them. I have this hunch that they will have as hard a time believing that dragons can be polite and courteous as I do believing them to be savage animals. I’m afraid that they might doubt our sanity, or worse, think we have ties to their dragons. Especially if their dragons are indeed only mindless beasts. 

As we dock, I begin to count my other questions off on my fingers, so I don’t forget them. What are these humans? Where did all this water come from? And how come they knew about the humans, but didn’t know of us? Or did they know of us?

I stop in the middle of a walkway, staring up at the bright white sunlight reflecting off of all the strange armor that the ships wear and think about this for a bit. I find it difficult to imagine that they knew about one world outside of theirs, but didn’t even think to look for a second one. But if they did find us, and knew about us, why wouldn’t they have sent people to us? Surely we would have noticed if emissaries on flying ships had been weaving around our territories. And with the time compression? They would have probably had time to travel both territories, talk, eat, sleep the night, sign a few treaties in the morning, eat a big breakfast, travel again, and be back home in time for last night’s dinner! It just doesn’t make sense!

Silv comes back at this point and practically drags me forward, while Fin laughs. 

“You were out of it, man!” He says, clapping an arm on my shoulder and grinning at me, black wings folded tight to his back so as not to hit any of the people pushing past us. “We must have called your name, like, three times. What kept you so distracted?”

“So many, many questions.” I say, shaking my head and grinning back at him. “I was just trying and failing to remember all of mine!” I have decided I quite like this Fin fellow. “Where exactly are we heading?” I ask him, having completely forgotten.

It isn’t Fin who answers, but Elen. And she’s frowning, not at me, but at the situation I think. “The Keep. It’s in the center of the Outpost. You can’t miss it.”

“Why do you all call it ‘The Outpost’” I make the finger quotes. “I mean, surely if there’s a war going on, you have more than one.” 

“There are nine in total.” Silv says, turning around so her very short body is walking backwards into a decently crowded intersection with no railings and a very long drop to the city below. She doesn’t seem to notice the danger at all, and I have to admit, I’m impressed. “They were never named, just numbered. We’d hoped that things would die down quickly when they were built. But it didn’t, and nobody ever thought to give them names.” She shrugs, and deftly spins and steps around the knees of a passing Tadhiel before turning back to me. “Technically, this is Outpost Seven, but we all just call it the Outpost.”

“Are there stairs down into the Keep?” Faladel asks, hurrying to keep up and probably barely ignoring all the stares we are getting. Being big and having no wings seems to be quite the phenomena here. I certainly don’t see anyone else like us. 

“Oh, no! That would take far too long.” Fin laughs. “We’ll be taking the Tube.” He gestures to a strange contraption. It is long, and tubular. There are red plush seats in it with some sort of belt that goes across a person’s lap. As I watch, people pay a Kashan, get in the Tube, strap themselves in, and then a clear door closes, and off they go! Shooting along the clear, long tube and down into the city below. 

“We’re going to be taking that?!” Faladel asks, a slightly horrified expression on his face. I feel my face twitch and twist into a maniacal grin that I barely even try to stop. This Tube thing looks like a lot of fun! 

“What exactly propels it?” I ask, trying to look for runes on the Tube. But with all the crowds weaving in and out around the machine constantly, I can’t make anything out. And I’m too short to peer over all the Kashan and Tadhiel’s heads in the way. If only I could fly…

“Compressed air.” Silv says, nonchalantly. Faladel and I both stare at her, but he’s the first to ask.

“How do you even compress air?” 

“With great difficulty.” She says. “I don’t remember the process, although I learned it in school, I wasn’t really paying attention. They toss Zytherlings into so many unnecessary classes it’s ridiculous! I’m sure I didn’t learn half of what they were trying to teach me.”

“Fair enough.” I concur. “I didn’t pay attention in school either.” 

Faladel sighs, but seems to give up on that line of questioning about their society. I’m not sure if he understands her explanation, because he never went to school and wouldn’t realize just how boring certain classes can be when all you can think about is how to best hide a porcupine in a very deserving teacher’s seat while not being discovered. Then again, I consider as we approach the Tube, he probably would have been paying attention in classes anyway, not tormenting his teachers.

The Tube is exactly as cool as I was expecting it to be. There’s a sudden woosh! As we get started, and then it’s smooth sailing all the way to the inner heart of the Outpost. Not one jolt, not once did we slow down till the very end. If the ride had lasted longer than a minute, I’m sure people could fall asleep in these things. The city itself is modeled similar to many other cities I’ve been in. Tight buildings, broad markets, dark alleys. We don’t get to see much of it, just flashing past below us as we zip by in the Tube, but it’s enough to tell me all I need to know. It’s a normal city, inhabited by semi-normal people with not so normal people problems. Attacks from above have clearly been the basis for a lot of their buildings. Some of the bigger houses even have the armor from the ships built into their roofs. The Keep, when we arrive and disembark the Tube, is one of these larger fancier buildings. It is covered with the shiny material. When I hop out of the Tube and run over to rap on it, I discover that it is warm in the sunlight and rings with a metallic sound. I grin, and am pleased to see my reflection in the strange substance grinning back at me. Elen is the one who pulls me away this time. I had gotten busy making funny faces into the metal to test the accuracy of the reflection, and she literally has to drag me away so we can all enter the Keep together. 

Next we wait outside of a very large wrought Iron door for ages. And ages. And more ages. I can’t sit still for that long and start twitching in my plush red seat. Fin shoots me a sympathetic glance as I tap my feet and count the people passing by. I’m well over five hundred by the time he suggests splitting up the group. Faladel and Silv– who is basically the unofficial leader of their exploring group– will stay behind to talk to the important people. Meanwhile Elen and Fin and I can go and explore the city. I am vehemently supportive of this plan. Chairs are quite boring, and even planning so many interesting ways to steal the pistols from Fin’s and Silv’s belts gets tiring after a while. 

We head back out into the mid-afternoon brightness, and I have to blink my eyes a bit to adjust. The Keep itself had been lit with small lanterns, not windows, so the difference is more than notable. Elen is delighted to show me around, and Fin is her cheery partner as we explore. The marketplace has many strange and interesting devices for sale, and after I practice my begging skills a little, the duo pulls out their coin pouches and buys me a small clockwork doll from a bespeckled toymaker with particularly fluffy looking hair, who is kind enough to show me how it works. 

It is almost like enchanting. But instead of runes laboriously carved into an object and then imbued with magic, the toys have some function that allows them to understand basic written words. One must simply write down instructions, place them in a special hatch in the toy’s back, and it will try its best to carry them out. Opening up the hatch, the toymaker points out some instructions that are already in it. The doll will already respond to the commands, “Sing.” “Run.” and “Away.” 

“Although,” He adds as an afterthought, “You should make sure to teach it where ‘Away’ is exactly before trying to use that command. Otherwise, it will just try to return to this shop.”

I grin at him, pocketing the doll and already plotting how best to impress Faladel with this find. “Don’t worry Sir, I’m sure my friends will help me work it out. Thank you for your advice though.”

The man smiles at me genially and his eyes twinkle behind his spectacles. A soft breeze brushes through the bells in his open-air shop with an eerie tinkling sound.  “Where did you say you were from, young man? I must admit, I have not seen your ilk around these parts before. Is there some reason your wings were removed?”

Fin exchanges a look with Elen. “We should really be going…” He hedges. 

I grin back at the toymaker as they drag me back into the crowds. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you!” I call back to him.

“Well that was unnecessary.” Elen says once we’re lost amongst the crowd again. “Now he’ll be asking questions. We don’t know if we should be encouraging that just yet.”

“Perhaps,” I admit, “but most things are unnecessary. And life with only the necessary stuff wouldn’t be fun!”

“It would also be a lot safer.” She says, raising her eyebrows at me. “There isn’t any need to stir up trouble.”

I roll my eyes but admit, “You’re probably right on that front.” I want to add that I would rather have fun than be safe, that stirring up trouble is often better than suffering through boredom, but I make sure my mouth stays shut. When I say that sort of thing aloud, I normally end up with a lot of strange looks and people hurrying their children away from me. So I’ve learned to keep those sorts of thoughts to myself. 

Just as we are exiting the marketplace and going back to the Tube to start exploring the other parts of the Sky-dock, horns start blaring all around us. Elen and Fin freeze in their tracks, and I glance around trying to see what’s wrong. The Tube is now flashing a dangerous red and passengers are pouring out of all the exits. Nobody even tries to enter, those who were waiting in line scatter. Some back towards the marketplace, others out into the wider city. Some start running towards the Keep. I manage to tear my gaze away from the flashing red Tube and glance at my companions, but Fin and Elen are staring at the evening sky. 

“Dragon attack.” Elen breathes. I follow their gazes, but certainly don’t see any dragons. 

“To the Zipper?” Fin asks.

“That’s where Silv will be heading.” Elen confirms, “Although, I don’t know what she’ll think we can possibly do to help.” 

I feel kinda left out. “Wait, why are we going to the Zipper?”

“Silv needs us there to help her pilot it.” At my continued blank face, Fin elaborates, “She’ll want to fight against the dragons, to help protect the Outpost.” I blink, hesitant to say anything. Faladel and I still haven’t mentioned Smay to them yet, or that, in our limited experience dragons are quite polite creatures. 

“I know what you’re thinking–” Fin sighs and I cut in, incredulous.

“Wait, you do?!” 

“We can’t really be of much help against them.” He continues as if I hadn’t said anything. “After all, they’re absolutely huge and can freaking breath fire, but Silv will insist…”

“Not exactly right,” I say, “But good points nonetheless.” I pause, dragging my brain away from ways of getting around his stated problems and on to our more immediate difficulties.

“How do you plan on getting to the Sky-docks though? The Tubes are shut down.”

“Stairs.” Fin sighs. “Lots and lots of the Fire escape stairs.” Then he turns and starts jogging back towards the Keep. 

The traffic is horrendous. People are shouting, children are wailing, and flying around, looking for their parents in a frenzy. People are panicking, although none of the dragons have yet crossed into view above the walls. The crowds only get more dense as we approach the keep, and Fin and Elen actually take to the air, Fin dragging me upwards with him. 

“Dang you’re heavy.” He gasps out. “What did you eat this morning?”

“Excuse me?” I’ve never been called heavy in my life. Quite the opposite in fact when I was a dwarf. 

“You wouldn’t expect someone who doesn’t have wings go grow hollow bones naturally do you?” Elen calls back to him as she speeds ahead. “He probably weighs less than one of you Kashans do, so just stop complaining and hurry up!” 

We have to duck low to make it through the Keep doors and then pull up sharply so that we don’t crash into all the people coming up and down the stairs. I don’t even question why the stairs are inside, I just race up them as fast as I can to keep up with Fin and Elen, who push and press against the masses of people in a terrible hurry as the alarms blare around us. By the time we reach the Sky-docks, the Dragons have more than entered into sight. They’re attacking the city below. 

I freeze, watching them tear into the homes and shops that I had passed by just an hour ago. They’re unimaginably violent. I watch, horrified, as an orange one rips the roof off a house, and breathes flames into the interior, completely ignoring the screams and begging of the children inside one of the upper rooms. A huge green one screams into the sky– not an intelligent sound, an animal sound– as it charges at one of the ships that tried to intercept it. It rams the ship with a horn on it’s nose tearing a hole into its side. The ship doesn’t even falter, bullets and cannons spitting their defenses, trying to take it down. The dragon suffers, but doesn’t pay it’s wounds and the rips in it’s wings any notice. Instead, it snatches the ship up in it’s foreclaws and rips the tiny thing in half. 

That ship was about twice as large as our own Zipper. I belatedly realize as Fin yanks me into the sky again to avoid the people streaming towards the ship. 

The battle isn’t going well. There are just too many of these strange feral dragons. They pay no heed for their own lives, just trying to kill and cause as much havoc as possible. Even worse though, is the fact that a lot of the defense– all the bullets and cannonballs– fall down into the city when they miss the dragons. Clearly, any potential battles weren’t supposed to take place here. But here it is, and people are suffering for it. A purple dragon takes advantage of people fleeing towards the keep to spray fire down a busy alley, but I don’t even have time to register the screams and deaths that follow. I’m too busy rolling to break my fall into our Zipper. Silv is already starting it up, The sail has been furled back, the mast taken down. But still, the little ship is straining, heaving, ready to escape it’s moring and join the fight. I can feel her excitement. 

“You’re late!” Silv snaps at Elen and Fin. “We need to get out there, drive the dragons out over the sea! We have to get them out of the city!”

“We’ll do our best.” Fin promises grimly as he snaps out a knife and cuts the ropes binding us to the Sky-docks. We leap away from then, just in time for a dragon as blue as the sky to strafe the area in hot blue flames.  

“It won’t do much though…” Elen mutters, watching the creature barrel off back towards the thick of the fighting, and join another of it’s fellows taking on a warship.. “We’d be better off helping with the evacuations.” However, she doesn’t hesitate to take over the wheel when Silv offers it to her and start navigating us down towards the thick of the fighting.

I glare at the creatures below us, watching as they tear at the ships and homes. One actually pauses to start eating a people it’s snagged off the streets below. I gulp down my disgust and horror at the blood that squishes from their popped tiny boddies and dribbles between it’s lips. There’s no hope in communicating with these dragons. They don’t even seem to be communicating with each other! I just hope Smay can forgive me if word ever gets back to him about this. Because I’m going to protect my new friends from these animals, even if it means killing a few dragons. 

I draw my sword from it’s scabbard, and hesitate. Both Fin and Silv are taking shots at these dragons from afar, using their pistols. My sword doesn’t have that kind of range. And from past experience, they won’t lend me one of their weapons. And I doubt my bow would have the strength to penetrate scales. No… I need some way to get close to them, and, I consider, staring at Elen, taking over the ship and putting my new friends in danger really wouldn’t be a good idea at this point.

So instead I compose my face into an expression that’s half grimmance at the terrible idea I just had, and half grin of wild excitement. I select a target, run, and then jump. 

Right off the side of the Zipper.

I’m not sure who’s more surprised. Me, that I pulled it off without breaking a bone, or the dragon who’s neck I just stabbed. It shrieks and screams, twisting and thrashing, its barbed tail coming dangerously close to my head multiple times. I duck down, gritting my teeth and plunging my sword in deeper into the wound I’ve made. Blood spurts out all over my face, tunic, and the scales beneath my feet. The slick, wet, redness makes me nearly loose my grip on the sword. And of course the dragon chooses that time to start looping to try and throw me off. I cling to my sword for dear life as below me the walls flash by and I spot an endless blue. But I’m not sure if that’s sky or sea and all I know is that the world keeps spinning and spinning. When it finally stops though, I’ve managed to keep my grip on the sword and thud down gratefully onto it’s hilt, chest first. 

I hear a scrape, and the sword digs itself deeper. Something cracks, the dragon screams and it’s whole body shudders once more, A terrible shaking tremor that goes all the way through it’s tail before it goes completely limp. 

It doesn’t stop screaming though. 

And suddenly, we’re falling instead of flying.

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