Trapped in his chrysalis of waterproof fabric, Frater Yory could do little except read the slim pamphlet he had brought over and over, until every word, every syllable, had been stamped into his consciousness. The mournful poetry of the exiled Rhumgadian poet, Versifer, captured his own melancholy perfectly. Here he was, clinging to a dragon’s tail ten thousand leagues from the golden halls of the Panatheneum, risking his life for another book and the knowledge it contained.
In between readings, he fell into the habit of staring at his wrist attracton, a wondrous gizmo, about twice the size of a Nosteran ducat, that told not the time but the location of its wearer in the huge void between worlds known as the Crevast. Yory had begun to despair that it had malfunctioned when the shrill ring of its alarm filled the tent. Turning it off, he strapped on the slim backpack holding his folded glider and the belt containing the tools of his trade. He threw a cloak over his matte black armor and slipped on his mask. He tucked the poetry book into a bag on his belt. It didn’t feel right to abandon a book, no matter how common and well read.
The wind ripped away the tent as soon as Yory cut through it. He watched it dance and writhe on the breeze until it shrank into the inky distance, then turned his attention to the black, hulking edifice standing before him. Its tens of slits flickered invitingly, but it was no inn. It was the sterncastle of a saddledeck and the scaly hillock on which it stood was the back portion of a dragon, the Baleful Shade. Yory stepped toward it, careful to hook his boots into the creature’s scales to avoid following his tent into the void. Beyond the dragon, villages lit up the curtain of cliffs at the brink of the continental shard of Magmel. Ahead lay the fabled city of Shamta, gleaming like a cluster of blue-white crystals. Yory had to recover the book and escape before the dragon reached it.
Reaching the sterncastle, he gently lifted one of its gunport flaps and peered inside. Two of the crew lay facedown on the deck. Another was draped over a cannon. Surely they couldn’t have passed out from drink. They emitted not the slightest hint of a snore, which was unusual and slightly alarming.
The port was too small for him to enter, so he used the gunports to climb up to the top deck of the structure. More unconscious crew littered saddledeck. Loose and torn sails billowed in the breeze and whipped about unsecured ropes. If pyrates had attacked the dragon, Yory surely would have noticed.
He crouched beside the nearest insensate man and turned him over. The draker was cold to the touch, but showed no sign of injury.
Whatever had happened, it made Yory’s recovery of the book even more urgent. He located the open hatch to the hold and descended the ladder.
He found the door of the chamber where the book was stored ajar. A metal pick protruded from the chest’s lock.
A thud behind Yory made him turn around. The bald, thin man standing before him was accoutered in similar fashion to Yory, except the stranger hadn’t bothered to wear a mask. He must have supposed he didn’t need one, having murdered any witnesses.
“It’s rather dangerous to leave the chest’s lock in that state,” Yory said, trying to sound casual. “The lock is booby-trapped. What department are you?”
The man’s sneer deepened. “Pyratical Studies.”
“I’m Pre-Cataclysm,” Yory said, doing his best to wring the tremble from his voice. “The book falls under my department’s remit.”
“Nonsense,” the stranger said. Metal quills protruded between his fingers like claws, each sharpened nib containing whatever toxin he had used to massacre the crew. “The tome is a copy of a Pre-Cataclysm original. It was part of the Emperor of the Void’s library and, as such, is the rightful property of my department.”
“I can’t believe any member of the Panatheneum would massacre the crew of a dragon for a book, no matter how precious.” Yory knew even as he spoke, it was a mistake, but anger had gotten the better of him.
“I’m Pater Viliber. You may have heard of me.”
Yory had. Pater Viliber was famed across the Panatheneum for his exploits. He had retrieved many rare tomes, often in the most challenging circumstances.
“You have, I see,” Viliber said. “Well, I spilled much blood to earn that reputation. I have killed hundreds, thousands, in the service of the Panatheneum. Your squeamishness is why you’re doomed to fail. You don’t want it enough. You must be a silly little frater on his first mission. Why do you think your mentors trained you to kill? We’re fighting a war to preserve knowledge and wars have casualties. The lives on board this dragon are inconsequential compared to the survival of this book. Besides, I only killed the crew of the saddledeck, not the cinchdeck or the headstall. I’m getting out of here before the dragon perches. I suggest you do the same.”
It was the dismissive way he turned his back that spurred Yory to draw his knife and lunge at him. “That book is my department’s, you thief!”
An array of glinting nibs jabbed at his face, forcing him to jerk his head back. A kick to the stomach sent Yory sprawling backward against the chest. As he tried to rise, Viliber pounced on him, his quills aimed at Yory’s eyes.
“I tried being collegial and letting you live, and this is how you repay my generosity,” Viliber said.
Yory forced himself to look from the nibs and stare into Viliber’s cruel eyes. “You said I needed to toughen up. You were right. I never imagined I could ever kill people in cold blood like you. Teach me. I’m a librarian already. Accept me into your department and I will do my best to be worthy of your trust.”
The nibs wavered as Viliber cogitated, no doubt calculating if Yory was worth the effort. “I’m sorry, Frat. I work alone.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Yory said, yanking the pick from the chest lock. The booby-trap exploded, punching a hole in Viliber’s side. Yory crawled from under the groaning man, thankful his foe’s deadly quills lay scattered on the surrounding floor. Flinging open what remained of the chest’s lid, he grabbed the book wrapped in cerulean silk from its resting place and raced out the door.
Viliber loped after him, listing to one side as he pressed a bloody cloth to his wound. “I’ve changed my mind. Your gumption has impressed me. Give me back that book and I’ll arrange your transfer to Pyratical Studies as a pater.”
Several loud thumps came from the deck above, followed by the thud and scuff of boots against the boards. Yory paused at the bottom of the ladder to the saddledeck, glimpsed the distant belly of a dragon through the open hatch. The Baleful Shade’s headstall must have signaled Shamta that its saddledeck was under attack, spurring the city to dispatch a boarding party to investigate.
As Yory dithered over what he should do, a humming ball of metal rolled between his feet. Viliber’s distant horselaugh mocked him as he raced away from the bomb. It exploded with a blinding flash, its loud boom knocking Yory to the floor. As the rain of wood fragments subsided, Yory glanced behind him. The ladder was gone and in its place, an enormous hole had been gouged in the decks. From somewhere above came panicked and angry shouts.
“You could have damaged the book,” Yory whispered to Viliber who stood on the opposite side of the hole.
“Take it as a sign of my confidence in your abilities, little Frater. It’s a pity your glider is busted.”
One of the folded wings hung limply from its backpack, broken and tattered. In disgust, Yory hit the release catch where the straps crisscrossed his heart and let it drop to the floor.
“Have no fear,” Viliber said, gesturing with his hand. “Your efforts are not in vain. My glider is in working order. Just give me the book and I will safely take it away from here.”
A rope dropped from above. At any moment, the boarding party would ascend.
“No time to wait,” Viliber insisted. “Give me the book.”
Yory leaped at the rope, grabbed it, drawing gasps and astonished cries from the soldiers above. As it swung near the far side, he let go, depending on his momentum would carry him across the gap. He rolled across the floor, slammed into Viliber and punched the clasp on his foe’s glider pack. Yory reached for the falling pack but abandoned it to block Viliber’s dagger as it swept toward him. While the two rivals grappled, more ropes descended. Soldiers armed with springbows slid down them. As they took aim, Yory seized Viliber and spun him into the path of their weapons. Several bolts dinged against Viliber’s armor, but one struck the back of his head, leaving a look of utter shock on his face and a triangular point peeping out of his slack jaw.
Yory used the dead man as a shield against a second volley while he slipped on the glider pack and grabbed a bomb in Viliber’s belt. As the soldiers struggled to prime their weapons for a third time, he dashed into the nearest compartment, and, yanking the pin from the bomb, tossed it against the wall with too much force. As it rolled back in his direction, he threw himself clear of its path. It passed through the doorway, eliciting cries from pursuing soldiers, only to reverse course with a whack back into the room.
As it rolled over to the outer wall, Yory covered his head with arms. The pulverizing force of the explosion reverberated through him. The air was thick with dust and splinters. Something heavy fell on top of him. Raindrops dampening his face helped him shake off his daze, and he crawled from under the fragment of wall or roof—he couldn’t tell which. The outer wall had been ripped away and nothing lay beyond except black, rainy void. Still clinging to the book, he released the unfolding mechanism of his glider and its wings spread out behind him. It didn’t look damaged, but could he be certain he could rely on it?
Yory didn’t wait to find out who had shouted or what they were aiming at him. He leaped into the slobbery darkness. A great wing rose in front of him like a tsunami of leather, forcing him to bank hard to the right. He squeezed through the narrow gap between the saddle and the wing until the latter fell away. As he glided away from the Baleful Shade, he glimpsed the holes punched in its saddle by Viliber’s bombs. The lights of its headstall and saddledeck blinked urgently at each other, while the headstall of the second dragon flying by its side no doubt observed the conversation. At any moment, one or both of the dragons might pursue him.
Yory steered for Magmel—it didn’t matter where. He hadn’t enough lift to reach the top of the cliffs, so he picked a broad ledge to land on. As he drew closer, he realized it was wider than he had imagined. There were several irrigated fields where he could safely land. As soon as he touched down, he unwrapped the book’s blood-spattered silk cocoon with trembling hands and sighed with relief. The ancient cookbook was undamaged.
© Noel Coughlan