The Æther soared across the sky, seeming to cross an invisible line between night and day as it moved on into morning. Nerissa stood at the bow of the ship, watching the sunrise. She had never tired of watching the land below her gilded with the first morning sunlight, though it’d been years since her first journey. The sound of the wind elemental behind her and a friendly breeze curling around her wrist were indications that all was right in her world. The small gust that had come to say hello to her curled up her arm and puffed through her hair before resuming its journey through the skies. She brushed the dark brown hair out of her view and grinned after the breeze.
She had no intention of giving up what she had, but neither did she mean to squander it. After all, hadn’t she saved the world, when there had been significant advantages to letting it burn? Hadn’t she stuck by her friends in all that long journey, to a place none of them knew? She might not like the law, even defied it at times, but that wasn’t to say she didn’t like the quality of the civilization all around her.
A ring of elemental spirit circled the ship a little more than halfway back, the only force keeping it in the air. Her ship differed from sea-faring vessels in several ways, the most obvious being the elaborate metal plating hammered to the sides and bottom of the Æther. It was even shaped differently than normal ships, with a heavier bow and smaller stern, to compensate for the elemental force driving it onward.
She left the bow and strolled down the length of the ship, speaking in the soft, whispery language of the air. “And isn’t the day a grand one for going hunting?”
“You know me,” A voice answered her in the same language, coming from the constantly circling ring of elemental energy. “As long as I have something to munch on I’m happy.” Nessa snorted in amusement and ran a hand along the smooth railing. The astral matter that lured the elemental into staying with them was extremely rare anywhere on Ankaria, and he knew very well that the merchant ship currently sailing a couple hours flight ahead of them was carrying a full load of the stuff. Each small cube was enough to power an elemental for five years, roughly, and was worth a startling seventy-five thousand gold coins. And that was just one cube.
As the first rays of dawn hit the hull of the ship, Nessa was joined by her lover and first mate, Korryrra. A cat-faced Wilder, Korry (as she was called by her less articulate human friends) was as much in love with the Æther as Nessa was. Wilder, or Catfolk as some called them, were uncommon on the mainland where they sailed now. Most of their kind could only be found in jungles on a large island off the coast of the desert to the east. Though the shorter fur that covered her body was as black as midnight, Korry also sported a head of flaming red hair, which announced her control over fire almost as much as it did her short temper.
When they had met almost ten years ago they had made a pact that as long as they stuck together, Nessa would be captain, and Korry second-in-command. That year had been the beginning of a lot of things for Nessa, including her ability to control the wind. While she had gotten the power of the air, her friend had chosen that of fire and flame. Now Korryrra held the power of a thousand fires at her fingertips, and was not afraid to use it.
“Up so early again?” Korry asked, stretching lazily and leaning against the main mast. “You do know we won’t be in range of the ship for another four or five hours, yes?”
“Of course I do,” Nessa replied, “I’m the one running the ship, remember?”
“Don’t forget me,” The elemental put in cheerfully, making Nessa roll her eyes.
“I’m just teasing you,” Korry said easily, grinning wide enough to show her sharp white teeth.
“And don’t I know it,” Nessa replied, her smile drawn out by Korry’s.
he ship required very little work, as the elemental controlled most of the power. There were some secondary sails, but those were mostly for a boost of speed when they were closing in on a target. Their skeleton crew filed out a few minutes later, a few sailors she had known from her own time in midships and others she’d picked up in various ports. More than a few Wilder had joined several years ago, and their dexterity came in handy in boarding parties.
The day continued to move on, and soon the other ship came into view, a different class entirely from the Æther. These were not the best ships to be found, at least as far as maneuverability went, but they were the fastest. The glitter of the solar cells built into the largest surface area on the ship (the sails) was visible even from several miles away, the ship motoring along a good deal faster than their own vessel could do at cruising speed. However, they weren’t at cruising speed right now; they hadn’t been since late last night. Their prey didn’t even realize what was happening until they were almost within jumping distance, piling on more sail at the last minute to try and pull away. “Idiots,” Korryrra said cheerfully, passing a length of rope to her. “You’d think they’d figure out we’re pirates when we come anywhere near boarding distance.”
“Ah well, all the better for us,” Nessa replied, readying herself. “Just tail the ship until I get back,” she added to the elemental, not even waiting for an agreement before she launched herself over the side, a heavy hawser uncoiling in her hands. The winds came at her call and swept her up over the side of the other ship, over the heads of the merchant’s crew; and allowed her to spin around the main mast with the rope still in her hands. “Cut that.” She dared the astonished sailors, and grinned. Her own crew swung across on the rope she’d secured, and Nessa herself drew her dagger and rapier before swinging down from the mast and onto the deck. The dagger, NightShine, glittered with small arcs of lightning, and the blade was made of solid diamond. It wasn’t exactly a magical weapon, but it was powerful beyond belief. It was also hers.
For now she concentrated on just winning the battle between the merchants and her people. Most of the sailors here were just that: sailors, not trained to fight. A couple of switchblades were nothing to her practiced hold of NightShine and rapier. It also helped that the instant someone was about to hit her, she turned herself to moving wind. The pirates were outnumbered from beginning to end, but they were also a lot more experienced.
She countered a strike from one of the sailors and struck him with NightShine’s hilt and watched him fall to the deck, unconscious. Summoning the winds once more, she jumped straight to the aft deck and faced off with the helmsman, who might or might not have been the captain. “Give it up.” She said, not even out of breath. “Call it surrender, and we don’t have to kill anyone.”
“I won’t surrender my ship to a bunch of filthy pirates.” He snarled, and came after her with a longsword. Unlike the other members of the crew, he actually knew what he was doing. Still, it was hard to beat a girl who had an element on her side, especially once one of her crew mates, Densharr, came up to help her. The captain looked slightly crazed, nearly landing several blows and actually making her think about her own attacks.
Densharr was a Wilder with dark grey fur who’d made himself a reputation on the Æther as a quick and efficient worker. Now he came up behind the captain and dug sharp claws into the man’s wrist. The human was forced to drop his sword, and Nessa smiled smugly. “Surrender yet?” she asked cheerfully, putting the tip of her rapier under the captain’s chin as Densharr forced him to his knees. She then dodged out of the way when their captive spit at her, but the elation of winning was too high right now for her to care. Looking around, she saw most of the merchant’s crew had been bound or knocked unconscious, rather than killed. Humming, she sauntered over to the hatch in the middle of the deck and descended, intending to inspect the cargo.
In the hold below the crew’s quarters, several large boxes had been stacked on top of one another. She didn’t need to open them to know they contained astral matter. The entire hold was nearly vibrating with the power of the stuff. When she got back up onto the main deck, Korryrra had come over from the Æther. With the enemy crew secured and the captain awaiting their pleasure in the brig, there was no need to leave a rear guard on their own ship.
“Next time, I get to lead the charge.” Korry said watching as a couple of their crew carefully unwound the hawser that bound their ship to the merchant’s. “And you can guard the ship.”
“It was my turn and you know it.” Nessa said distractedly, still on her exploration. She had spent her first year abroad on a ship much like this one, though maybe not quite as large. She opened the door to the captain’s cabin and stepped inside, noting the large stern windows letting in light. That glass must have cost a fortune, she thought, but a fluttering of paper in one corner drew her attention. One of her breezes had entered the cabin with her, and now circled the writing desk with a strange urgency. Nessa wandered over and picked up the letter left uppermost on the desk.
And I will tolerate no further delays. Find yourselves in port by tomorrow, with the cargo, or consider our bargain null and void.
That was not too uncommon, if the captain was taking on freelancer work instead of ferrying goods for a single company. She lifted the letter aside and looked at another in the same handwriting. The breeze had refused to wander off, as they normally did after a moment’s interest, but continued to circle restlessly.
…To set off from the Morristown port and make for Shanai without the appearance of delay. There will be an additional three thousand gold for each of the group members you find, but watch especially for the sky pirates Nerissa Caldwell and Korryrra Silver-tail. These will bring you another five thousand gold each. I desire their presence. Do not fail me again, captain.
Nessa stared at the last paragraph of the next letter for a long, incredulous moment. There was no signature on either of the letters, she noticed. For several more seconds she remained frozen, her mind still processing what on Earth was going on. Then, all in a rush, her senses returned to her, and panic set in. Turning to wind in an instant, the letter floated to the floor behind her as she raced towards the open doorway at a sudden, furious pace. She went from stock still to flat out running in less than a second, but it didn’t help her. Slamming up against the barrier, her wind form spread out over the edges, seeking the tiniest gap to set her free. There was none.
In a panic, she raced around the entire length of the room several times, noting only now that the cabin was a well-sealed as a sea-faring vessel would have been. Even the windows were airtight. Nessa resumed her human form and drew NightShine, bashing at the glass with the hilt of her dagger. It didn’t even crack.
Now anger was rising to her throat, as virulent as the panic, but not much more useful. “Well, well, well.” The captain’s voice drifted to her from beyond the doorway. She whirled and glared daggers at him, only wishing she had Korry’s power over fire so that she could burn him to a crisp.
“And here I thought you were supposed to be clever.”
“Let me out and I’ll show you just how clever I am with my knife,” She snarled, advancing on the door-that-wasn’t.
“I think I like you right where you are,” Her captor said with satisfaction. For a moment she wondered how they had caught Korry. If she had had time, her Wilder friend certainly would have burned down the ship around them rather than be captured. Right now, she felt the same way.
“What do you want with us?” She demanded with narrowed eyes.
“Well, besides the normal bounty for two such infamous pirates…” The captain began with a grin. “Your company is expected in Shanai,” He turned away from her, whistling cheerfully. Why in the name of Pelor was he taking them to Shanai? The Jeweled City was familiar to her only because one of her friends Denna, a notorious thief, currently held residence there. She didn’t even know who the rulers were.
Nessa slammed her fist against the solid boundary between her and freedom, fear and anger rising up to choke her, until her vision of the deck beyond her blurred.