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The Steam Raven

      Chapter One - Lymon

“Welcome to Martslock. The city of aether and gold.”

Airships pulled in and out the harbor like bees from a hive. Lymon had been staring at the capital of Yu’air for the last twenty minutes and still couldn’t believe such a vast landmass could exist. Even the stormcloud breaking over the bright city island couldn’t dilute his awe.

He adjusted the strap of his travel bag digging into his shoulder as the ship docked. The ship’s winding pipes whistled as the bristling breeze buffeted away steam. Sailors deflated the balloon, scrambled up the rigging, and jumped to the dock to secure the ship.

“The current time is 4:05,” the conductor continued. “Be reminded the Daily Winds reach Martslock at 4:13. Have shelter arrangements by that time.”

Lymon had eight minutes to make it to the inn.

The dock was wet from earlier rain. Passengers jostled Lymon, grumbling at the late arrival in stark juxtaposition to his growing excitement.

The harbor extended off the island's rocky edge. Eaves and balconies protruded along the sheltering cliff looming above the dock. Lymon passed a long queue of people waiting for a gold lift to carry them up to the city. He had never been on a lift before, but after seeing how the crowd crammed inside, he took the stairs.

The air tasted of rain and had the sharp smell that comes after lightning. Tonight's moon was the color of butterscotch, peeking over Norburry, the High-Island floating above the capital. Carter said a full Warm Moon was a sign of ill-fortune, but Lymon had stopped believing in such folklore long ago.

Posters had been plastered on the walls next to the front page of the Martslock Daily flapping in the breeze. Cloud Line Expedition: Is there anything down there? Lymon’s heart jogged. The expedition to the bottom of the world. If everything worked out, Lymon would be on that ship, traveling to the Cloud Line, beneath the four atmospheres of the world.  

The stairs flattened into a cobbled road lined with shops. Bells and gongs of Martslock’s Clock Towers rang at various pitches. Muddled and messy, like the crowded streets.

Five minutes.

He paused to check the map he carried atop the letter stamped with Imperial Alchemist Javen’s seal. The Firebird Inn wasn’t far. He could make it.

Carts selling fresh breads, produce, and trinkets were pulled into sheds. People filtered into shops. The market, which had been packed a minute ago, was half empty.

Cawing cut through the dwindling city chatter. Lymon gripped his bag as a flock of crows swooped over the buildings, drowning him in shadow. The birds dissolved into the city as fast as they had appeared. He shivered and quickened his pace.

Three minutes.

A man swept past on a pennyfarthing and missed Lymon by an inch. Lymon stumbled back, slipped on a slick cobblestone and landed bottom-first into a puddle.

“My apologies, lad!” the man on the bicycle called, waving a top hat in his right hand and narrowly avoiding a low rise fence.

Lymon stood up, grabbing his dripping pocket watch. The cold water plastered his trousers to his legs and his shirt had been splattered with mud. Half-heartedly brushing himself off, he noticed his map laying on the road—along with his letter. His letter!

As if summoned by his panic, the wind picked up. The paper tumbled across the road.

Lymon lunged forward to grab it, but a gust thrust it out of his reach. His heart jumped to his throat as the letter flew toward the island’s ledge. He needed that letter to call upon the Alchemist—the entire reason he traveled to the city.

For one horrible moment he thought he’d lose everything, but just then a stray foxla pounced the letter, preventing it from fluttering over the edge into the skies below. Lymon halted as the creature whipped its tawny head toward him.

Lymon shoved the map into his damp pocket. Lifting his hands, he willed the foxla not to run off.

“Good foxla….” Lymon took a step forward. If only he were good with animals like his brother. Carter was a natural.

The small creature cocked its head. Lymon took another step, aware of the silence that had fallen over the city. The foxla’s ears perked up before it scurried away, leaving the letter pushed into the grass. Lymon ran and snatched it up.

He straightened and looked around. The streets were empty. There was no question in his mind. He wouldn’t make it to the Inn. He sprinted toward the shops and grabbed the first doorknob he came to.


His stomach knotted. Why were the doors locked? He raced to the next shop. Also locked.

He swore he heard a faint howl in the distance. A familiar sound, or perhaps it wasn’t a noise as much as a feeling. Whatever it was, it woke a cold dread inside him. He swallowed hard, scanning the street for shelter.

He was exposed.

The shop door clicked open. Lymon pushed his way inside without thinking. Just in time. The door slammed with a bang. The windows rattled against the screaming Winds. Wet drops streaked the glass like stretching fingers trying to find a way in. He drew in a long breath, willing his pounding heart to calm. He wouldn’t be thrown off the island, thrust into walls, or pummeled with stones.

“Cutting it a little close, aren’t we, dear?” said a saleswoman half hidden beneath a huge feathered hat.

“Sorry,” Lymon said as patrons craned their necks to see who had caused the commotion. He could read their expressions; only a reckless teenager wouldn’t prepare for the Daily Winds.

When he noticed the saleswoman examining his clothes, Lymon was intensely reminded of the puddle water that left his trousers damp and muddy.

“Are you an Outlander?” The saleswoman sounded friendly enough, but Lymon felt suddenly defensive.

“No. I’m from Yucot,” he responded. Yucot might be on the edge of the Yu’air Empire, but it was still on the map. He couldn’t have looked that out of place, could he?

“Better an Outlander than a Low-Islander. Those bird-eating barbarians,” said an old man with a crooked nose. He glanced up from the watch he dangled close to his spectacles. “Low-Islanders will destroy this country, mark my words.”

The saleswoman shook her head. “Don’t be like that. I know many upstanding Low-Island citizens. Besides,” she gestured at Lymon’s olive skin, “he’s obviously not a Low-Islander.”

Lymon wasn’t as dark as most people in Martslock, but he’d never been confused for a Low-Islander. They resided in the atmosphere beneath the High-Islands. Lymon knew almost nothing of them, but he couldn’t imagine the old man was right about Low-Islanders eating birds.

“Are you in the market for a pocket watch?” the saleswoman asked.

The shop was crammed with timepieces. Gold, silver, and platinum watches embedded with gems hung from chains and were cradled on satin pillows under glass displays. Lymon clutched at his own shabby pocket watch which marked him an adult of Yu’air.

“I’m low on coin at the moment,” he said. He’d spent his life savings traveling to the city.

When the woman moved on to more lucrative prospects, Lymon glanced through the window to the blur outside. As sure as the sun rising, the Daily Winds tore through the lands like clockwork. And he was almost stuck in that storm. Lymon took another long breath to release the anxiety lining his lungs. He wanted to see the bottom of the world, but not because he was flung off the island by the gale-like winds. He unwrinkled the letter clutched in his fist. Well, he’d always wanted an adventure, and this trip had started with plenty.

        Chapter Two - Anya

Anya squinted down at the open air stadium. Her toes hung over the platform and the morning breeze pulled at her clothes. Strands of brunette hair that had escaped her braid tickled her cheek. Taking a breath, Anya fell forward, freefalling into the sky.

The red aether ring speeding around the stadium lined up perfectly with the blue. She intercepted the ring’s path, her fingers curling around cold metal. Without slowing, Anya thrust an arm through the blue ring as she soared past.

Two rings in one fall. Impressive. How many points would that earn her during an actual match? She activated her steampack and flipped out of the dive with the ease that only came after years of practice. Flying was as natural as walking. Hot steam prickled her skin as she was enveloped in a cloud of white mist.

She opened her wing-like gliders and soared around the arena — searching. A gleam of sunlight reflected off metal, cutting into her vision.  

With a press of a button, the steampack shot her toward the rock where the ring hung motionless. She snatched it out of the air and latched onto the rocky islet, a mere speck in the air arena. Jays took flight as she landed.

A blur of green shot beneath her. The last aether ring. And the fastest moving ring. She pushed off the rock. Her next burst of speed let her close the distance.

She almost had it.

If the ring changed direction or jumped higher, she would lose it. The ring kept it’s steady path before plummeting straight down. She dove. The green ring disappeared through a cloud. Anya followed, momentarily blinded. The ring reappeared on the other side inches from her grasp. She bit her lip and stretched a little further.

Got it.

Anya spread her gliders and pulled out of the fall, activating the steampack for balance. This had to be her record time. She laughed. With this performance, she could easily compete with the professionals in the Yu’air games. She sailed around the arena to release the energy pulsing through her chest.

The stadium formed a half circle, bleachers towering. Box seats were staggered at different heights, but even at their highest, spectators used binoculars to properly view air sports. Besides the occasional couple walking arm in arm along the main floor, the stadium was empty.

Anya wondered if the few people around had seen her performance. Why couldn’t she get a time like this when she was competing? After one last sweep around the arena, she pushed on the steam for landing and slowed to a hover before dropping lightly to the ground. She clicked off the steampack, and unhooked her gliders.

A man stepped out from beneath the shade of the bleachers. It took her a moment, but she recognized him.

“Isaac?” Anya called in disbelief, pulling off her goggles. She jogged up to him, adrenaline still rushing through her veins.

“Good morning, Anya.” Isaac’s black hair was longer, almost falling into his russet-flecked eyes. His posture, as impeccable as ever, added to his already tall and thin figure. He had enviable features and dark skin that matched her own.

A moment of awkwardness passed as they looked at each other, unsure if they ought to shake hands or hug. Anya opted for a short laugh.

Isaac cleared his throat and clasped his hands behind his back. It was hard for Anya to ignore how disheveled she knew she appeared next to Isaac in his formal black coat with silver buttons, which she had to admit, looked quite fetching. She shook the braid free from her hair since half of it hung loose already.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, shrugging out of her steampack. The comfortable weight dropped from her shoulders.

“I wish to speak with you.” Isaac paused. “Your flying was… impressive.”

She couldn’t hold back a smile. “Yes, well... thank you.” She might’ve jested how her flying was always impressive, but she hadn’t seen him for almost a year and the mood didn’t quite fit.

“Will you be competing this year?”

“Perhaps. If I score in the top three I won’t need to work for quite a while.” She laughed again. Ugh, why did she keep laughing? Isaac kept a closed-lipped smile, but it seemed genuine.

“Speaking of work, I have a proposition for you. A job.”

“A job?”

“Yes, the Steam Raven needs another reliable scout.”

“The Steam Raven?” Anya crossed her arms. “You still work for Captain Criswell?” Her smile disappeared.

“I do, but I thought you might like the offer. Have you heard about the Cloud Line Expedition? A journey to the bottom of the world.”

“I haven’t.” She gave him a quizzical look. “To the bottom of the world?”

“Correct. I know you usually do jobs for the YIS Frontier, but they have no upcoming missions for the season.”

Anya narrowed her eyes. “You’ve checked my work history?”

Isaac’s face froze. “I meant no offense.” He bowed his head. “I’m only searching for the best person to fill the position.”

“Are you sure Captain Criswell,” Anya scowled, “thinks I’m the best scout for the job?”

“I’m in charge of recruitment for the expedition, and you were one of the best scouts we’ve employed. Even the captain couldn’t deny that.”

She didn’t believe that for a second. “Does she know you’re offering me the position?” Anya placed her hands on her hips. Isaac might be the ship’s quartermaster, but Captain Criswell ruled her ship with an iron fist.

Isaac remained composed. “She knows you’re a scout I’m considering.”

Anya wasn’t convinced, but she wasn’t about to say ‘no’ to such an interesting proposition either. “When do you leave?” she asked, giving herself a moment to think.

“Next week.”

“That’s not much notice.”

“One of our current scouts was regrettably displaced,” he said. “If it’s too short of notice, however, I’m certain I could fill the position...should you not want to take it.”

Anya thought about it. He was right. She’d never been below the Storm Zone. And to explore the bottom of the world? Ships never traveled that far. Plus she would get to work with Isaac again.

“I’ll do it,” she said.

Isaac curved into smiled. Anya hadn’t realized how much she missed that.

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