Leaving the hectic docks behind, Deegan climbed into the sky above Artaxis until the city lay beneath him. Spreading away from the docks and the sprawling lower city, Artaxis rose up on a series of terraces carved in to the northern face of the island’s central mountain. Seventy-five thousand people crowded its streets while above them the skies were filled with ships from every nation bringing in produce and commodities from across the world.
Having lived in the city for five years now, Deegan knew its streets well, his skyboard giving him a view of the city that few of its inhabitants could enjoy. At the same time, the skyboard had turned more than a few heads. As far as he could tell, his board was one of a kind; he’d never seen anything like it. Deegan assumed that was because no one other than him was crazy enough to build and operate such a device. His father, proud of his son’s accomplishment, had said as much on more than one occasion.
After taking a second to enjoy the view, he swooped down towards the second terrace, looking for Black Street. The second terrace was home to a number of merchant districts mixed in with middle class residential streets. It was a much nicer and cleaner place than down in the lower city where Deegan and his family lived.
It didn’t take him long to find it and he set down in a small square a short distance from his destination; his sudden appearance drawing more than a few startled and curious looks which the young boy ignored. Jogging the last dozen or so yards, Deegan couldn’t help but smile. From the Docks to the Second Terrace in under five minutes without using the board’s booster, that had to be a personal best. Handing over the package didn’t take much longer; “Port Authority Messenger service sir, got a package for you … sign here … here’s your package sir, have a nice day.” With the package delivered, Deegan made his way back to the docks to wait for his next job.
His skyboard strapped to the back of his shirt underneath his backpack, Deegan walked through the marketplace, his mind on food. It had been a long day for him, seeing him run ragged scooting back and forth across the city on over a dozen deliveries. He was exhausted and the heat of the summer day had left him parched, his skin red from the harsh sun. In hindsight, skipping breakfast this morning to get to work early had probably been a mistake; he was starving.
He stopped at one of the stalls, attracted by the smell of fresh fruit. “Hey there Little Thief,” the stall owner said as he saw Deegan approach, “anything catch your eye?” Deegan blushed; he hated that nickname even if there was no malice behind its use. He wasn’t a thief; it had all been just a misunderstanding.
Not long after moving to Artaxis, his father had taken him to the market. Deegan, nine-years-old and wide-eyed with amazement at being in such a big city for the first time, had wandered away from his father. He had stopped in front of a fruit-seller’s stand and studied the fruit on offer. There were so many colours, textures and scents; so many varieties of fruit that he had never seen before. Picking up one that had looked particularly tasty; he had glanced around looking for his father. Seeing him just a couple of stalls down, Deegan had started to run over to ask him for the money to buy it. Before he could get more than a couple of steps, his arm was grabbed and he was nearly lifted clear of the floor by the irate trader. “Not so fast you little thief,” the trader growled down at him, “I’ve had enough of you thieving little punks.” Deegan looked down in horror at his hand still holding the fruit and realised what this must look like. He knew what happened to thieves, if they thought he was trying to steal the fruit he’d be thrown in jail if not hanged. Tears streaming down his face, he had loudly protested his innocence. Luckily, his father had heard the commotion and strode over, demanding to know what the man was doing to his son. The trader had eventually been convinced by the boy’s terrified tears and his father’s calm words but ever since that day, the trader had taken to calling him by that nickname.
“Hey Jayden, you still got any kumo fruit in?” Deegan asked scanning the stalls wares.
The trader smiled and reached under the stall. “I always keep one back for you.” He held the succulent fruit just out of Deegan’s reach. “You got money?”
Deegan rolled his eyes and fished out a couple of coins, dropping them into the trader’s hand. “Thanks Jayden,” he said as the trader handed him the kumo and he took a deep bite, savouring the taste of the juices. “See you tomorrow.”
He continued on his way, chewing on the fruit, lost in thought. It wasn’t far to the pub where his father would be waiting for him. It had been a hot day and he was looking forward to the promised drink; he certainly felt that he deserved it. Tomorrow was one of the days that he was at school and if tomorrow was as hot as today, then sitting in that stuffy classroom was going to be torture. At least he wouldn’t be there all day and he’d be free in the afternoon to hang out with his friends or just mess around on his skyboard.
Not paying attention to where he was going, he almost walked into someone standing in his way. “Excuse me,” he started to say but stopped when he looked up and saw the Imperial uniform hidden underneath the man’s cloak. The man looked down at him, one hand on the sword on his belt. He wasn’t alone either; two other similarly attired men were with him. Before Deegan knew what to do, the two other men had positioned themselves behind him. He swallowed nervously and held his hands up. “Umm, guys, if this is about the flag, you can have it back. It was just a stupid prank. No need to get nasty about it, right?”
The Imperial soldiers looked at each other in confusion for a second. “This is that kid from last night?” One of the soldiers said.
“Talk about coincidence” another said.
“Wait up,” Deegan thought to himself, “if they’re not here for … and if I’ve just said … awww crud.”
“Quiet!” The soldier in front of Deegan barked. “Arashi, Vigilant Fletcher would like a word with you.”
He barely contained a sigh of relief. “Sorry guys, I think you got the wrong guy, my name’s …”
“Vigilant Fletcher was specific.” The soldier said firmly, “He said ‘Bring me the boy with unkempt wine-coloured hair under a blue bandana, a red armband on his arm with the number 46 written on it and a strange plank-like object strapped to his back.’” That certainly described him. “He was most insistent.”
“Okay … creepy … but I’ve had a long day at work so I’ll think I’ll give talking to a crazy sorcerer a pass.” Deegan tried move away, but he was surrounded, and from the way they were standing, they weren’t about to let him just walk away. This was bad, really bad. He stuffed the rest of the kumo into his mouth.
“You ‘aint going nowhere ‘cept with us kid.” One of the soldiers behind him said.
“And if I say no?” Deegan said, chewing on the remains on the fruit as fast as he could, the juices dribbling out of the corner of his mouth.
“Then,” the soldier said sneering and unsheathing his sword an inch, “we’ll make you and I can’t guarantee that you won’t get hurt in the process. In fact, I can guarantee that you will.”
Deegan nodded. “Uh huh, are you allergic to kumo fruit?” Confused by the sudden non-sequitur, the soldier could only stammer that he wasn’t. “Good.” Before the soldier could respond, Deegan spat the pulped fruit into the man’s face. He screamed as the kumo’s juices blinded him; the men behind Deegan were too stunned to react as he pushed past their blinded captain and took off running down the narrow street. They recovered quickly and soon began chasing the fleeing boy.
Weaving through the crowded streets whilst being chased by three Imperial soldiers was not how he wanted to spend his evening. Especially since he didn’t have the energy for it. He had no idea who this “Arashi” person was, but the Vigilant had described him with near perfection and he had no intention of finding out what the man wanted with him.
“Stop thief!” The lead soldier yelled as he pushed his way down the street.
“Great,” Deegan muttered through gritted teeth, “a smart soldier, just what I need.” Yelling that while chasing a kid down the street increased the chance that someone might help them catch him. Luckily, most of the merchants knew the local street rats and pickpockets by sight and Deegan wasn’t one of them. However, all it would take is one meddling do-gooder and those soldiers would get him; he also needed to avoid any city guardsmen.
A hand reached out and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt as he ran past an alleyway, pulling him inside. His own momentum took his feet out from under him and he would have fallen to the floor if not for the tight grip on his shirt. “Lemme go!” He yelled, trying to twist out of the grip holding him.
“Quiet!” A voice hissed as he was span round, pressed against a wall and a hand clamped across his mouth. Deegan looked up with wide, panicked eyes, at the person restraining him. It was a boy a couple of years older looking down at him with harsh grey eyes. “If you know what’s good for you you’ll keep still and shut up.” The boy pressed himself against Deegan and glanced towards the street. Shadows seemed to flow like water from where they were situated as Deegan watched, pooling around them both. A tingle ran down his spine, his hairs stood on end; this was magic.
“I think he ducked into this alley,” a voice yelled from the street. The three soldiers charged into the alley heading straight for where Deegan was being held against the wall. Deegan suddenly started struggling with the boy holding him, convinced he was working with the soldiers.
The boy glanced back at him with a pleading look in his eyes. “Do you want to get us both caught?” It took a second for Deegan to realise that the words had been spoken without the boy moving his lips. Somehow, the boy had projected the words directly telepathically into Deegan’s head.
Deegan watched with a growing sense of panic as the soldiers neared them. However, instead of trying to grab them, they ran straight past as if they didn’t see the two boys at all, disappearing around the corner. The boy stepped back, releasing Deegan and letting out a sigh of relief. “That was close.” He said aloud. As he spoke, the shadows receded from around them, returning to their place. “You’re welcome by the way.” Deegan stood against the wall, staring at the boy in front of him, his so-called saviour. The boy’s eyes looked out from under a fringe of black hair, and despite the cocky smirk on his face, they were harsh and cold. There was something about him, something familiar almost as if Deegan knew him somehow even though he knew that they’d never met. It must be magic he thought, something to “help” him trust the strange boy. However, after the run in with the soldier’s he wasn’t about to take anything or anyone on faith right now, especially a strange magic-user who coincidentally shows up to save him from being dragged to an Imperial Vigilant. “You’re younger than I thought you’d be Arashi, and shorter. Come on, we better get going.”
If the boy had wanted to convince Deegan to trust him, then using the name “Arashi” was bad mistake. Deegan took a step toward the boy until they were almost chest-to-chest. “I’m not going anywhere with you or anyone else.” The boy opened his mouth to say something but he was cut off as Deegan glared at him. “And my name is Deegan.” He reached forward and grabbed the boy’s arms, moving too fast for the startled boy to respond. Deegan’s knee shot up and crashed into the boy’s groin causing him to double over and groan in pain.
“Stupid brat,” the boy hissed as he rolled around on the floor, “I’m trying to help you.” However, Deegan had already gone.
Robert leaned back on his chair, sipping at his pint. The cold ale was a welcome relief from the heat. He didn’t envy his son working today, he had the benefit of the tug’s cab for shade, but Deegan would have had no protection from the burning sun. He looked forward to sharing a drink with his son, a drink Deegan would surely need. Robert smiled sadly; perhaps things could have been different if his own father had tried a little father-son bonding, but such basic human interaction was probably beyond that man’s understanding.
His train of thought was interrupted as Deegan burst into the tavern, looking around frantically. Deegan’s face was flushed and dripping with sweat; he’d obviously been running. “Deegan, over here,” Robert called out over the din of the pub, waving him over. At the sound of his voice, Deegan’s head whipped around to face him and for the first time he saw the panicked look in his son’s eyes; something was wrong.
“DadsomeguysareaftermeimperialsoldiersIthinksomeVigilantsentthemexcepttheykeepcallingme…” he said without stopping to breathe before his father cut him off.
“Hey, calm down and take a deep breath,” Robert said, standing up and grabbing Deegan by the shoulders; the boy looked about ready to collapse. “Start from the beginning, what’s wrong?”
Deegan reached across the table, picked up his father’s nearly full pint mug and gulped down the drink thirstily. “These guys, Imperial soldiers, just tried to grab me off the street.”
“They said a Vigilant sent them,” Deegan said, still out of breath. “A Vigilant Fletcher.”
Robert’s grip on his son’s shoulders tightened to an almost painful degree. “What was that name you just said?” He demanded sharply. Deegan repeated the name and Robert closed his eyes, grimacing.
“Dad,” Deegan said, confused by his father’s sudden reaction, “what’s wrong?”
Forcing a smile, Robert relaxed his grip and began propelling Deegan towards the back door. “Nothing, let’s get you home.” Refusing to answer any more questions, Robert hurried through the streets, half dragging Deegan behind him.
Sarah Tanner looked up as the front door opened and her son walked in. “There you are Deegan, dinners almost ready.”
“Yeah, sorry I’m late mum,” the boy said, closing the front door, “lost track of time. Is dad home yet?”
“He’ll be back in a minute,” she said turning back to the stove, “so go get washed up and then come down and set the table.”
The house where he and his parents lived was small and in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of the city. It wasn’t much but it was cosy and after moving around so much when he was younger, it was nice to have a place that was starting to feel like home. Deegan picked up his skyboard and started climbing the ladder into the attic. When they had first moved in, his parents had told him that he was too old to share a room with them anymore. At first, he hadn’t understood where he was supposed to sleep. Apart from the cellar and the attic, there was only the main room, a single bedroom and the pantry, all on the ground floor. Deegan was told that from now on he would be sleeping in the attic. That would be his room, his own personal space.
It had taken a bit of work, but between him and his father, they had managed to make it liveable if not comfortable. A small bed was pushed up against one side underneath the skylight. When he had first seen the window in the roof, his doubts about the attic were banished. The window let in a great deal of light and gave him a great view of the sky. Sleeping under the clouds and the stars, even if it was through a pane of glass, was oddly comforting to him. In the centre of the attic was a worktable covered in junk and tools. He cleared some space on the table and put his skyboard down; after using the boost earlier, he’d need to recharge its power crystals. From the ceiling hung a model of a dragon with a working, articulated skeleton. When the window was open and the breeze blew in, the wings gently flapped as if it was flying. Ever since he was young, Deegan had been fascinated by dragons and together, he and his father had built the model when he was eight. He reached under the worktable and pulled out a small chest. Inside, hidden underneath his clothes, were several tightly folded flags, all of them slightly ripped along one side where they had been torn from their masts. There were flags representing the Succession States, the city-state of Galatea, the Arcadian Commonwealth, the Sundered Kingdoms, even the Sky Marshalls. All of them stolen from a ship. Now he could add an Imperial flag to his collection. He took the stolen flag out from underneath his shirt where he had stowed it and hid it with the rest; he couldn’t wait to show it to the guys tomorrow.
Deegan closed the chest and pushed it back under the worktable. Remembering his mother’s words, he quickly washed his hands and face in the washbowl before heading back downstairs. By now, his father was home, sitting at the table and taking off his boots and the smell of the cooking was filling the room.
Robert Tanner worked at the city’s docks, operating a pilot skiff and helping larger ships into port. Deegan himself also worked at the docks three days a week when he wasn’t at school as a message courier. His father wasn’t happy with him working at the docks; Robert didn’t think it was safe for a boy his age even if they did need the extra money. “Watch out for pressgangs,” he had warned his son on more than one occasion, “Some ships don’t ask before recruiting new crewmembers.” Deegan wasn’t worried though, he had been thinking about joining the crew of a merchant ship for a while now; they were always on the lookout for new cabin boys and rope monkeys. Of course, there was no way his overprotective father would ever let him crew a ship. If he found the recruitment pamphlet for the Sky Marshals he had hidden under his bed, he’d probably throw a fit.
“How was work today? Anything interesting happen?” Robert asked while Deegan began laying out the cutlery and placemats.
“Same as usual dad,” Deegan replied, “ferrying messages and packages across town for sleaze ball captains too lazy or too smart to do it themselves”
“You remember what I told you?” His father asked him as Deegan sat down at the table.
“Never look inside a package or at the contents of a letter,” Deegan said, reciting his father’s words from memory, “in case the guards stop and search you.”
“And why is that?”
“Because if you don’t know you’re carrying something illegal then…” said Deegan.
“…you’re just an innocent delivery boy,” he and his father said together.
“That’s my boy.” Robert said, reaching across the table to ruffle his son’s hair in approval. Sarah walked over carrying the food and setting the stew pot down with some force, she didn’t exactly approve of the lesson her husband was teaching to their son. The conversation moved on to safer topics as dinner progressed.
“Oh hey,” Deegan said at one point, “I saw an Imperial ship coming into port on the way home.”
“Are you sure?” Robert asked. “Artaxis is pretty far from Eldala.”
“Pretty sure,” Deegan said smiling inwardly as he thought about the flag hidden upstairs, “big one too; Dragoon-class I think given the number of crystals, the lack of sails and the size of its big guns.” He decided not to mention that he had got close enough to see that there had been a Vigilant on board; that was an argument he could do without.
“I wish you would put as much effort into your schoolwork as you do watching ships and messing around with that board of yours.” His mother said as she refilled his bowl.
The rest of the evening went quietly. After tweaking the levitation crystals on his board, Deegan decided to have an early night; he had work tomorrow morning. That night, like almost every night before, he again dreamt of flying, of soaring through the clouds.
“Tanner,” the man behind the desk called out over the noise of the room, “you’re up.”
Deegan looked up from the card game. “Coming boss.” He turned back to the table, gulped down the last of his drink, and picked up his winnings. “Gotta go guys,” he said to the four other boys around the table, all of them message runners like him, “catch you later.” Deegan grabbed his board and backpack and trotted over to the desk. “What’s the job boss?”
“Merchant ship out of the Sundered Kingdoms, up by mooring post three,” his boss said shoving a piece of paper into his hand. “Basic courier run, you know the drill Tanner.”
“Gotcha boss, mooring post three.” He pulled on his goggles and headed out the door, making sure that his red armbands were showing. The left one had “Artaxis Port Authority” written on it in black paint, the right had “#46” written on the other. Together, they marked him as a message runner working for the city.
The weather was exceptionally fine with clear visibility and Deegan could see for miles as he stepped on to the balcony of the Port Authority building. In the distance, he could see a number floating platforms that had several ships moored to them. The mooring posts were made of the same rock as the island and drifted in the sky relative to it. Ships that didn’t want to dock with island directly could moor up at the platform; it wasn’t as convenient as docking with the island but it was considerably cheaper. Tying his bandana over his face and making sure that his backpack was securely fastened, he jumped off the balcony and took to the air.
Deegan carefully weaved his way through the crowded airspace above the port, heading for the mooring posts a few miles out. There were ships of almost every design and nationality in the skies around the port. Artaxis was a major trading hub as its neutrality made it a natural junction of several major trading routes. As he flew, he heard a familiar voice call out his name and he slowed down, turning to face the direction the voice had come from. It was his father, standing at the controls of a pilot skiff guiding a large water tanker in to dock. “Keeping you busy are they son?”
“You know it pops,” Deegan said pulling up alongside the skiff.
“Well, work hard and stay safe and maybe we’ll grab a drink in the pub after work,” Robert said leaning on the wheel. “Just don’t tell your mother,” he added, winking conspiratorially.
Deegan waved and continued on his way. As he approached mooring post three, he saw the ship that had signalled for a courier. The ship may have been flying the flag of the Sundered kingdoms, but Deegan doubted that it was nothing but a flag of convenience. Its hull was marred by repair patches and battle damage but at the same time its levitation crystals were in good repair and were ridiculously overpowered for a ship of its size. When he got close, the demeanour and general appearance of the ship’s crew screamed “pirate” to Deegan. With a sinking feeling, he realised that this job was probably going to involve him carrying something illegal. “Looks like it’s time to play the dumb kid again,” Deegan thought to himself as he approached the ship, stopping short of actually landing on the ship’s deck.
“Clear off kid,” one of the heavily armed crewmen yelled at him, “if you know what’s good for you.”
Deegan pushed up his goggles and pulled down his bandana. “Port Authority sent me,” he said to the crewman, “you called for a message runner?”
The crewman grunted. “Hmph, you’ll want to see the captain then.” He motioned for Deegan to land and the boy hopped off his skyboard next to the crewman. “Follow me,” the man said to him, “but don’t touch nothing.”
Deegan was led below deck towards the captain’s cabin at the rear of the ship. As they walked, they passed several crewmembers. They gave the boy glaring glances and suspicious looks, reminding Deegan of his father’s warning regarding certain recruiting practices. “Just try it,” he muttered under his breath, checking that he had his knife tucked into the back of his pants and hidden under his shirt, “I aint gonna get grabbed so easily.”
“Cap,” the crewman said as they entered the rear cabin, “runner’s here for the package.”
Deegan glanced around the cabin before finally looking at the man in front of him. The cabin was rather plainly attired, especially for what he assumed was a ship full of sky pirates. For a start, there were no chests overflowing with gold and jewels, no fine silks and fabrics. The captain himself was wearing rough and hardwearing clothes like the rest of his crew, although his were considerably cleaner.
“You’re the message courier?” The captain asked, his tone making it quite clear that he wasn’t exactly impressed by the boy standing before him. “You’re younger than I expected.”
“Are you sure we should be trusting the package to a kid?” The crewman asked. As he did so, something inside Deegan snapped and he forgot about pretending to be w more than a naive dumb kid.
“Aren’t you a little young,” Deegan said, his voice adopting a fake whining tone, “a little small? How can we trust a kid, how can a mere boy protect our oh so valuable package.” He crossed his arms and raised a defiant eyebrow. “Can it, I’ve heard it all before. Now, you got a package or a message for me to deliver or are we gonna just stand around here and comment on my age and height.”
The captain smiled. “No one said anything about your height. Looks like you have a real complex there, … shorty.” Deegan just grunted and gritted his teeth. “Very well then, let’s get down to business.” He walked over to his desk, unlocked one of the drawers and pulled out something wrapped in cloth and tied with twine. “Okay … erm … “
“Okay Deegan,” the captain said, handing the package and a piece of paper over to the boy, “this needs to be handed over to man waiting at that address. Now, I’m sure that a scrappy young man like you will be able to get it there quickly. But, can we trust you to protect it if you run in to any trouble?”
Deegan took the package and carefully placed it at the bottom of his backpack. “Since it’s illegal to hire a port authority message runner to carry any form of contraband,” he said smiling slyly, “or anything with a value greater than 50 gold pieces, what sort of trouble are we talking about?”
The captain chuckled. “Well, nothing you can’t handle I’m sure. So what do I owe you.”
“Standard rate is 2 coppers per mile. Black Street is on the other side of town, about four miles, so call it eight coppers.” The truth was that Black Street was only three miles away. Deegan, like all the other runners, routinely added a mile to the distance if they thought they could get away with it. Runners only earned a single copper per run, by adding an extra mile and pocketing the extra money, they tripled the money they took home.
The captain reached into his pocket and started counting out the coins. “Here you go; eight copper pieces.” He said handing Deegan the coins. “And here’s two extra for your trouble; I remember how lousy the wages were when I was your age.”
“Gee thanks,” Deegan said, reaching out to take the extra coppers. Before he could take them though, the captain’s hand closed tightly around his when he tried to pick up the coins.
“One thing,” the captain said, “you won’t be sneaking a peek at the package now will you?”
Deegan smirked. “Like I get paid enough to be curious.”
The captain released Deegan’s hand, allowing him to take and pocket the coins. “Good, now scat. I’ve got work to do.” Dismissed, Deegan was led up on to deck, took one last look around the ship and took off on his skyboard.
On the dockside, the Vigilant watched Deegan set off towards the city. “So this is where you’ve been hiding Arashi,” he muttered, “this time you won’t escape.”
A lone boy sat on a rocky ledge looking out at the sky. His feet dangled over the edge with the ground, a mile below, hidden by the dense cloud cover. The sun was approaching the horizon and the waning light of the day painted the clouds black and orange, in the setting sun they looked like rolling flames and smoke.
Leaning back and letting out a deep contented sigh, the boy closed his green eyes and let the warm breeze blow through his dark-red hair, which stuck out haphazardly from underneath his bandana. From here, a couple of hundred feet below the top of the floating island, he couldn’t hear the sounds of the bustling port city up above. Here, it was quiet and peaceful and for a short time, he could forget about the stresses of school and family.
A shadow passed over him as a skyship approached the docks and the boy opened his eyes to watch it. It was 75 feet from bow to stern, single-sailed with dual-levitation crystals, probably a courier or trader from the Succession States or Galatea. The ship wasn’t alone, there were at least half a dozen other skyships in the skies around the island, either arriving or departing. In the distance, he could just make out the silhouette of two more islands drifting serenely amongst the clouds.
Propped up against the cliff wall next to him was his skyboard. A smooth wooden board five feet long and one wide; its surface was painted a dark blue, almost black. Leather straps on the top were used to secure the riders feet to the board and along the sides were a series of levitation crystals mounted in metal brackets embedded into the wood of the board, three on each side. The board had a homemade look about it, its edges were rough and the paintwork chipped in places.
He spent several more minutes watching the sunset and enjoying the feel of the breeze before deciding it was time. Getting to his feet, the boy put on a pair of goggles, tightening the leather strip around the back of his head and positioning the thick glass lenses over his eyes. He untied the bandana and retied it over his face across his nose and mouth; wouldn’t want to swallow a bug now. The boy picked up his skyboard and placed it against his back as if sheathing a sword in a back-scabbard. The leather foot straps undid themselves without his help and fastened around loops on the back of his shirt, securing the board to his back like a rucksack. The boy took one last look around and launched himself into the sky.
The wind whipped at his hair and tore at his clothing as he fell, plummeting towards the clouds below. Behind the bandana, he was grinning. He felt alive, truly alive and free. Out here there was no one telling him what to do, what to say, what to think. There were no teachers trying to cram useless information into his head and no parents reminding him to do his chores. It was only him, the sky, and the rapidly approaching ground.
The boy reached behind him and pulled his skyboard loose, bringing it to his feet. The magic in the straps caused them to loop around his boots, pulling them down on to the board and securing them in place. As soon as the soles of his open-toed boots touched the skyboard, its levitation crystals flared into life. Brilliant blue energy lit up the crystals from within, creating a blue contrail of light as the skyboard accelerated in its dive.
Below him, the boy saw a large skyship rising up from the cloud layer. It was a massive ship, metal hulled with four huge levitation crystals. From up here, he could make out the cannon ports lining its side and the armoured men walking its decks. The ship was a warship from the Eldalan Empire far to the south and as he realised this, his grin changed to a mischievous smirk. The Imperial Navy was touchy about civilians getting close to their ships, especially foreigners. They had a nasty habit of firing on ships that got too close. Still, he thought, they wouldn’t shoot at a fourteen-year-old boy, would they?
Leaning forward, he swooped down towards the warship, flying along its portside. He left behind a glowing corkscrew-shaped contrail from stern to bow as he spiralled along the length of the ship. Men looked up from their work as the boy streaked past. A number of the soldiers pointed weapons at him threateningly, yelling at him to stay clear. Of course, he didn’t listen, assuming that the threats were idle. There was still one thing he wanted to do.
Looping back around, he flew straight for the rear of the ship, weaving between the massive forward guns. At the last second, he darted upwards and over the bridge, reaching out the grab the Imperial Flag flying proudly over the ship. The fabric easily tore in his grip and he whooped in triumph as he escaped with the flag. His whoop quickly became a yelp as a sickly-green bolt of magic ripped through the air just inches from his head. So much for not shooting at a kid! Glancing behind him, the boy saw a man standing on the deck pointing at him with an outstretched hand. Although he was dressed in average-looking tunic and pants, even from this distance the boy could make out the arcane runes tattooed onto his skin poking out from under the man’s clothing; runes that had started to glow again as the man gathered mana for another shot. The man was a Vigilant; Vigilants were bad news. They acted as if they were above the law, and although that was only true inside Eldala, it didn’t stop them from running roughshod over local laws in pursuit of their duties; protecting the Empire of Eldala from enemies both foreign and domestic using any methods they deemed necessary.
Hanging on to the stolen flag, the boy gritted his teeth and sent a mental command to his board. The levitation crystals flared brightly as magical energy began to surge them at a vastly increased rate and the board rocketed upwards, the sudden increase in speed accompanied by a sonic boom. Within seconds, he was hidden in the clouds. The Vigilant watched him escape through narrowed eyes before turning to the other men on deck and shouting orders.
The boy suddenly realised what he had just done and couldn’t help but laugh nervously. He had buzzed an imperial skyship, stolen their flag and angered a very powerful and very dangerous man. Although he had gotten away, he could have been killed. If that had happened, his father would’ve been angry, so angry in fact the old man would probably have killed himself just to give his son a good hiding in the afterlife.
Still grinning and clutching his prize, he swung the board around he began to head back to the island. It was getting late and dinner would be ready soon.
Genre: Cinematic (Anime-style) Fantasy
Long ago, when the world was still whole, the land and the heavens were wracked by a titanic conflict called the Godswar. A war between the Gods and Titans. In the final stages of the war, as they neared defeat, the Titan’s took revenge on the world they believed had betrayed them. They directed all of their power at the world, all of the hatred and anger, and the world itself was shattered by the force of the magic unleashed. The world broke into a thousand pieces, each drifting through the skies. Scattered across them were the survivors of the Godswar. Slowly, the mortal races began to rebuild under the guidance of the Gods. Two thousand years have passed since then and war once again threatens the world. A prophecy has arisen; five young individuals will join forces to reunite the shattered pieces of the world. But there are those willing to go to war to prevent any change to the status quo.
This is an action adventure style fantasy game, with just a hint of animé or Japanese-style fantasy CRPGs. There’s a mixture of technology and magic present. Alchemical steam turbines, early firearms, clockworks and rifles, cannons, crystal power sources, and intelligent constructs. In some cases, magic will be used to duplicate modern day technology.
All the characters (who are between 14 and 16) have grown up together on a small sky island, having lived on the island for most (if not all) of their lives. The island itself is small and peaceful, far away from the bustling heart of civilisation. There is only a small village on one end of the island and a small cluster of farmhouses (where the character’s live with their families) on the other.
The characters are:
- Kael – a 16 year old Skyboarder
- Daedalus – a 14 year old rookie mage and tinkerer
- Maddie – A 15 year old blacksmith’s daughter
- Kenichi – a 15 year old trainee ranger only a few months away from taking the guild exam
- and Victoria – a 15 year old “bad influence”
Character creation took two weeks due to player absences. This worked to the game’s advantage since we only had one copy of SWEX (and a copy of the old hardback). It meant that we could take time to create the characters and be sure they all fit into the game.
A couple of changes were made to character creation. Because character’s in anime tend to be more powerful than they ought to be, I allowed players to ignore any rank requirement other than Legendary for their free Human edge (its a humans only fantasy setting). All other requirements still stood. We also decided that the Boating skill referred to any skyship or flying vehicle that used wind as a means of lift or propulsion. Piloting referred to powered flight that used mechanics, alchemical steam turbines or straight up magic. Character creation went well. Two of the character’s started off with an Arcane background. Kael’s Skyboard was determined to be a product of “Weird Science” and Daedalus took Sorcery.
One thing was kept from the players and that was that each of the character’s would begin play with a custom Arcane Background called “Exemplar” on top of anything they bought at character creation. The Exemplar edge gave them 2 powers selected by me and 10 power points (which stacked with Daedalus’s sorcery but not with Kael’s Weird Science). Each Exemplar edge was themed towards one of the five elements of the setting.
- Kael – Metal (Wall Walking, Intangibility)
- Daedalus – Water (Analyse Foe, Healing)
- Maddie – Metal (Armour, Warrior’s Gift when using bladed weapons)
- Kenichi – Wood (Entangle, Shapechange)
- Victoria – Fire (Leaping, Quickness)
Any Exemplar power that had a range of touch was changed to Self (with the exception of Healing)
The week between the end of the chargen and the 1st session, I printed of DnD4E style powercards using the Magic Set Editor program (PDF of cards found at http://www.box.net/shared/ra4n6y2i8r). I did a card for each power, each Arcane Background, and a couple of the custom items that player’s requested at chargen (a sunstone and spellstone for Daedalus, and a Krull-style glaive for Kenichi)
Once all that was done, all that was left was to actually run the game. 🙂
Game started off early on a weekend morning and the character’s got to describe their morning routine. Maddie went down in to the village to open her father’s smithy, Kenichi went hunting down in the small woods that ran along the side of the island. Daedalus (who is Kenichi’s cousin) got breakfast. Vicky went off in pursuit of Maddie and Kael went for a morning “run” on his board.
About 11 o’clock they all met up at the smithy for one reason or another. Daedalus looking for some scrap to tinker with, Kael was after a new bracket for one of his board’s lifter crystals, Vicky and Kenichi just to hang. Maddie’s father came down and took over the shop (throwing Vicky out at the same time). They decide to go down to the wooded plateau where Kenichi goes hunting in order to explore some of the old crystal mines. At this point, Daedalus casually mentions that Jenny heard that Kenichi likes Vicky. As in “likes likes.” Oh the teen drama.
At this point, I was asking them to make periodic notice checks whenever they got near the edge of the island. A small craft was “orbiting” the island from within a cloud bank. However, no one seemed able to roll above a three (except of couse for Kenichi’s pet hawk which unfortunately couldn’t speak to tell anyone).
They get to a likely looking cave and light their various light sources and enter. As they explore, they find lots of little crystals left embedded in the walls and ceiling, the mines haven’t totally played out but are still disused. Vicky notices that the wooden supports don’t seem exactly strong just as Daedalus sees a really cool looking crystal in the ceiling. Before he can be stopped he reaches up and yanks on it. The roof rumbles, the supports groan and the cave begins to collapse. AGILITY rolls are made to see who gets out. Everyone but Kael and Daedalus makes it. Maddie gets a raise so I rule that she was able to grab D and pull him out of the way in time. It takes several seconds for anyone to realise that their group of 5 has become 4. Just as K walks THROUGH the collapsed mine entrance coughing and spluttering. Kael had just manifested his first elemental power, Intangibility.
At this point, it should be mentioned that although the PLAYERS knew about their elemental powers, the character’s didn’t. At the start of the session I told them that after two weeks of trying to come up with a way for them to manifest their powers spontaneously, I had given up. It was up to them to figure it out.
After some humourous stone throwing, and skydiving into the ground, he rematerialised. K couldn’t wait to show this new power off at the next Stormjumping competition (an extreme sports version of skyboarding). Realising they were all covered in dirt and dust, they retired to a nearby pool for a bit of swimming. Cue some spirit rolls from the three teenage boys as their female friends got wet and splashed each other in a perfect fanservice moment (Kenichi failed and promptly got a nosebleed).
It was at that someone noticed (finally!) the ship circling the island. It was a few miles off and was generating great gouts of steam. This must mean that it was a Commonwealth ship (Common Knowledge rolls for the win) as they were the only country that uses Alchemical Turbines as a power source. Curious as to what a Commonwealth ship was doing so far from its home territory (and so close to their mortal enemy, the Empire) they decided to try and find out what type of ship it was. Daedalus remembered that there was a ship recognition guide in the school library and so the plan was made, for the first time in history a bunch of teens would break into school on a weekend to do some studying.
This was Vicky’s time to shine, easily picking the lock on the door to the small village school. The book was found easily and they identified the ship as a Kestral Class – Command and Control ship used by the Commonwealth to rely instructions to other ships engaged in fleet actions. An impressive feat of mental arithmetic from Deadalus showed that that the ship was circling the island once per hour and if his calculations were correct, they should be able to see it from the school by now. Grabbing the school’s one and only telescope they climbed up onto the rough and located the ship. It seemed to be signalling something using semaphore and flashing lights. None of the group can understand the signals so they decided to find someone who can. Naturally, this means breaking into the harbourmaster’s house to steal his book on semaphore signals which he obviously has.
As they cross the village, a small tyke runs up to Daedalus and tells him that their mum’s want them all home. Ignoring this they continue to the harbourmaster’s house. While Kael provides a distraction by showing off his Skyboarding in the market square, they break in. A quick search found the book but clumsly Daedalus struck again, knocking over a vase and smashing it in an almighty crash. The group fled the house.
Meanwhile, Daedalus was in the square showing off. On one of his more aerobatic manoeuvres, he spotted several shadowy shapes hidden in the clouds just below the island. Curious, he dived into the cloud narrowly missing crashing into the armoured hull of a skyship. As he frantically dodged out of the way, he peered through an open gun port and saw ranks of men readying their weapons and armour. There were at least 6 Commonwealth warships hidden in the clouds, each with over 50 armoured soldiers preparing for battle. In panic, he rocketed up out of the cloud and streaked through the market square screaming “The Commonwealth is coming!” Behind him, as one, the ships rose up out of the cloud and opened fire on the village.
Seeing the normally over confident Daedalus running away, and with cannon fire exploding around them, the rest of the group decided to “screw this for a game of soldiers” and ran too, jumping onto a horse and cart and fleeing. Sadly, no one had either the Drive or Ride skill so it was a short journey. After narrowly missing plowing through panicked villagers, the cart struck a low wall and flipped over several times, sending the group flying. They each took damage (a single wound), except for Maddie. As she flew through the air, liquid metal engulfed her body creating a protective layer (manifesting the Armour power). D’s leg was broken (although only taking one wound, a severe injury was good flavour for what happened next) with the bone sticking out the side. Clutching the wound, his hands glowed and he manifested the Healing power, completely healing the broken bone. He was able to repeat this feat on the gash to the head that Kenichi had suffered. However, despite repeated attempts he was unable to heal Vicky’s fractured rib. Behind them, one of the ships had landed at the docks and was unloading troops.
Kael, having calmed down, came back at this point and the reunited group heading down onto the wooded plateau where they hoped the tree’s would provide some cover. They plan was to follow the plateau along the side of the island, climbing up at the other end next to the farm compound where they all lived. Unfourtunatly, the cliff path down into the plateau was in full view of one of the attacking ships which opened fire. The cannon balls struck all around them, showering them with rock chips but causing no injuries. However, one of the cannonballs struck the cliff just below the path and just below Kenichi. The explosion threw Kenichi off the path and off the side of the island, he plunged into the clouds. Kael dived off the path after him but lost him in the clouds. Fearing that they had just lost their friend, they were surprised when a hawk flew out of the cloud, landed on the path and turned into Kenichi. He had just manifested the Shapechange power.
They hurried down the path, across the plataeu and climbed back up to the farm compound.
It was deserted, there was no sign of their parents, the horses were gone. A note tacked to the back of the front door told Daedalus to gather his friends and head to the old barn. Look under the straw. Kael found a small leather pouch containing a crystal with a hexagonal cross section and strange runes etched on it. A note said that he might need this and “not to wait for us if we’re not back in time.” They headed to the old barn and looked under the strawpile. They found a trapdoor that led to a curving stone staircase. The staircase opened up into a large chamber beneath the barn, the roof of which was made up of the wooden floorboards of the barn above.
Inside the chamber they found a small skyship, no sails, no steam vents, no gas bag, only a pair of slender crystal turbines on outriders. An imperial design. The nameplate along the side read “HMS Hurricane” and Kael remembered that a ship called the Hurricane had been stolen from the Imperial Fleetyards 14 years ago and never recovered. If he remembered correctly, it was a prototype for a fast courier ship. The front and back loading ramps were down and by the rear one were several bags waiting to be loaded the contained clothing and a few possession. On the ship itself was a few crates of food. Apart from that this ship was empty and unfurnished. There was no sign of their parents. Looking around the chamber they say that machinery was connected to the roof and it looked like it opened or retracted. Along one wall was a heavy metal door. On the bridge of the ship was a hexagonal slot just next to the controls. The crystal that Kael had found looked like a key.
They heard voices above, and the sounds of people moving around. Keeping quiet, they realised that it was Commonwealth soldiers and they were looking for THEM. Kael put the crystal in the slot and the ship started to power up. Displays lit up and one of them reported that an unknown ship was blocking the drydock exit. It asked him if he wanted to use the “Emergency Egress System”. Without hesitation he clicked on yes. The metal door groaned open revealing a darkened tunnel going down at a 45 degree angle. The cradle the ship was resting on started to tilt upwards, lining the ship up with the tunnel. As the crystal turbines reached full power, the clamps were released and the ship began to accelerate down the pitch black tunnel.
Late Evening, Wilday the 13th of Vanger, 658 AG (After Godswar)
A small village on the western coast of the Kingdom of Arcadia
Toshiko Ren had just sat down in front of a roaring fire and was savouring the aroma of a freshly brewed cup of tea when someone knocked on the door. Grumbling, he picked a lantern and walked over to the door. When he peered through the peephole, he smiled and quickly slid the bolts and opened the door. A young man in his early twenties stood before him wearing leather riding armour and a plain green, mud splattered tunic and pants and armed with a bow and sword. His clothing was drenched from the torrential rainstorm raging outside and he was gently cradling a tightly wrapped bundle. “Jiro, m’boy, get inside. What brings you all the way out here in this ungodly weather?”
Jiro stepped inside the farmhouse, shaking off the excess rainwater as Ren closed the door behind him and handed him a towel. As if on cue, the bundled emitted a small gurgle and Jiro loosened some of the wrappings to reveal a small baby just waking up. “Actually, I’m here because of him,” Jiro began as he looked over to the cup by the fire, “also, you wouldn’t happen to have some more of that tea would you?”
Ten minutes later Yamasaka Jiro was sitting by the fire wearing dry clothes and nursing a cup of tea while Ren held the baby. “So lad, what possessed you to travel with a baby in this storm?”
Jiro smiled, “I’ll be twenty six in spring, I’m not a boy any more Ren.”
“Ahh Jiro, you’ll always be the freckle faced youth who could barely lift a sword that I met at the training grounds.” The two men shared a laugh. “However I hear that they finally accepted you into the ranks of the Royal Guard, all that hard work paid off.”
“You taught me well.” Jiro answered as he sipped his hot tea.
“So, what’s the little tyke’s name and who was the lucky girl.”
The young man spluttered into his tea nearly dropping the cup. “I’m not his father, and as far as I am aware, the boy has not yet been named.” Jiro finished his tea, reached into his satchel, and pulled a beaten leather document wallet. “What I am about to ask of you is no small matter, but there is no one whom I trust more.”
“Sounds serious,” Ren responded sitting up straight.
“This letter,” Jiro continued as he produced an envelope from the wallet and handed it to Ren, “explains everything. In short, the boy is in need of a father.” Jiro opened the letter dubiously and began reading. As he did so, his eyes widened in disbelief. “The law of the land is quite clear on this matter,” Jiro explained, “in situations such as this there should only be one course of action. However the boy is an innocent and deserves the chance at a normal life regardless of the circumstances of his birth.”
Ren folded the letter and looked down at the boy. The child gurgled contentedly and yawned, oblivious to conversation going on around him. “What of the mother?” he asked.
“Sadly, we were too late to save her.” Jiro reached into his pocket, pulled out a handkerchief, and passed it to Ren. “Before she passed on, she made me promise to make sure the boy was given this.” Ren opened the handkerchief and from within, the blue crystal pendant sparked in the light from the fire.
“I’ll do it on one condition.”
“That you don’t wait too long until your next visit,” Ren stood up and clasped Jiro’s hand, “it’s been too long old friend.”
Jiro smiled, “I’ll try to visit whenever I can, my new duties keep me busy.” He reached into the wallet and pulled out a second envelope. “This is for the boy, when he is old enough this should explain everything.” Ren nodded and took the envelope as Jiro got up and gathered his gear. “Sorry to drop this on you and leave so suddenly but I have to get back to the capital before I am missed.”
Ren gently placed the now sleeping child down on a blanket on the floor in front of the fire and walked Jiro to the door. “I understand, but don’t be a stranger for too long.” The two men embraced and then Jiro was gone, out into the storm. Ren closed the door went back to the fire crouching down next to the blanket he watched the tiny form sleep peacefully. “Well little cub, it seems you are in need of a name.”