Skylance Jarl Grefton hawked and spat a mouthful of dust onto the parched, bare stone beneath the feet of his ladder. There were a lot of people around, mostly milling about in the shade of their aircraft with nothing better to do than drink the airfield dry, share stories of their heroics and wait for the politicians to see fit to order them all home again. It was the same with every skirmish in this divided land; Jarl had seen it a dozen times in his twenty years as an airman. He’d been like them, once - young and naive and full of himself, ready to prove to the world how big his figurative nuts were by singlehandedly bringing down an entire wing of Tyrecan Scythers.
A few decent crashes, a year as a prisoner in a baking hovel somewhere in the desert, and the loss of his comrades one by one had tempered Jarl’s enthusiasm for aerial combat - but not his tenacity, nor his skill. A grizzled, prematurely-aged Caprin originally from a town on the outskirts of Villona, some thirteen hundred miles west, he’d enlisted as an airman in the very first year the Bastian Expeditionary Squad had fielded combat aircraft, and had risen steadily through the ranks to his current position of Skylance. Four white chevrons adorned the shoulder-straps of his uniform, and as far as he could see, he outranked every single one of the hooting, cajoling youngsters he could see around him. Most of them had never flown anything less advanced than the machinery arrayed before them now, but Jarl had started out flying what was little more than a wooden crate with wings, an engine and a gun.
Jarl’s horn-tipped fingers lost their grasp on the wrench he was swinging, and it clattered downward through the engine compartment of his Tempest fighter - and failed to hit the ground beneath.
Cursing the air blue, Jarl leapt down from the ladder to the dusty ground, and ducked beneath the propeller to reach into the cowling from below, fumbling for his wrench.
“Need a fresh pair of eyes, old-timer?” came a voice from far enough away to avoid a backhand.
“Maybe he just needs to scrap that rusty old crate, look at it! Damned thing leaks from every hole’s ever been shot in it...”
“Hey Grefton! If you need to fly you can borrow my Sparrow! It’s slow, just like you!”
In the aftermath of the Third Tyrecan War, discipline within the BES seemed to have decayed more than usual. It had been a brutal conflict, all told; two gruelling years of fighting in the air, at sea and on land, and all over scraps of desert on either side of the city of Venium. The goat-man growled a reply to his subordinates, found his wrench and re-ascended his ladder.
The BES flew Tempest fighters, these days. They were handsome machines, sleek and low-slung with blunt, muscular noses and elegantly curved flight surfaces. They were brutally fast, agile and well-armed, and the howl of their supercharged radial engines could be heard often before the aircraft were sighted, like the first roll of thunder before the rain begins to fall. Alongside the Tempests, scattered around the airfield, were heavier, four-engined Aegius bombers - many of which were being actively stripped to transport troops out of the Plateau and back home to Bastia, and the tiny, canvas-clad Sparrow biplanes, relics from previous wars now consigned to observation duties.
Jarl Grefton had no ambitions to return to Bastia. Either way, as a fighter pilot and a Skylance, he owned his Tempest outright and would be flying it home himself. But going home was out of the question. There was nothing for him there, not any more. He’d been away serving in the BES consistently for these twenty years past, in conflicts from Marqash to Ithenor. The idea of home was a foreign one, and the thought of giving up flying filled the old goat with dread - almost as much as the thought of becoming a commercial pilot. The only thing worse, in Jarl’s mind, would be retirement.
Jarl grunted at the effort of tightening the last bolt on the supercharger manifold of his Tempest, and closed the engine cover. The aluminium skin of his aircraft was pitted and chipped, the tan desert camouflage stripped from all the leading edges by sand and debris. The supercharger was equally full of grit, such that Jarl’s Tempest, above most others in service, was known for its difficult, smoky startup.
“Oilcan,” most of the younger pilots called it. Or “Crate.”
Striding purposefully into the officers’ mess, Jarl tossed the rag he’d been cleaning his hands with onto the end of the bar. Henrik Sutter, the squadron’s CO, looked up from his newspaper. Tendrils of tobacco smoke drifted around the lean, middle-aged Toros’ muzzle, and he locked eyes with Jarl as the Skylance approached.
“Sir, with respect, when are we getting out of this hotbox? The war is over, none of us have seen action or even so much as a Tyrecan militant in weeks,” Jarl asked, with clipped courtesy.
“Don’t you ever stop, Grefton?” Sutter responded, sucking on the stem of his pipe. “You’re right, the war is over, and that’s precisely why the drills have ended. We expect the highest levels of discipline from the pilots and ground crews at all times during training and active conflict... but Arahan’s balls, Grefton! Two damned years of near-daily battle, and less than a month after a victory you’re itching for your next assignment?”
Jarl snorted gruffly, and crossed his arms.
“If it’ll make you feel any better, I’ll authorise you to fly a patrol up to Venium and back. Clear your head. Observation only; you’re to report to me before taking any action whatsoever, but if it’ll get you out of here and calm you down...”
Sutter looked at his timepiece. “Takeoff in 30 minutes, 1430 hours, be back here no later than 1930 this evening. Clear? That’ll give you a range of... ahh...”
“One thousand, one hundred eighty miles,” Jarl responded, with barely a pause.
Sutter grunted. “Twenty years in a cockpit, Grefton. It’s turning you into a machine. Dismissed.”
Jarl didn’t reply, instead offering a stiff salute and turning to stride back out onto the airfield to ready his Tempest for flight.
“Fuel pumps primed... Oil good... all electrics operational... Rudders... Flaps... Elevators...”
The routine pre-flight checks were second nature for Jarl. His Tempest was almost an extension of himself, so in-tune with his machine was he. The mechanical hiss of the fuel pumps cut as the airman opened the starter choke and flicked the ignition switch, to be replaced by the harsh whirr of the electric starter. The five blades of the prop rotated with a jolt, just a few times, and with a sickly crackle, the engine fired, coughed, and died in a plume of oily smoke.
“Come on, come on...” Jarl muttered, his fingers making micrometrical adjustments to the choke and re-priming the pumps.
Hiss. Cut. Whirr. Pop, pop, crackle, cough.
On the third attempt, finally, the Tempest’s radial roared to life, the backdraft from the prop instantly clearing the cloud of smoke the aircraft sat in. Jarl couldn’t help but smile, patting the outside of the fuselage and signalling ‘chocks-away’ to the ground crew, before sliding the birdcage canopy shut over his head.
The Goza Plateau airfield was only a mile or so from the coast of the Mare Ossium, and sat atop the high, rocky promontory that defined the region. As Jarl advanced the throttle and taxied the aircraft onto the runway, far more slowly and deliberately than in a combat scramble, his altimeter already registered close to a thousand feet.
Takeoff was perhaps Jarl Grefton’s favourite aspect of flight. The Tempest’s throttle was down by his left knee, a small, knurled T-bar lever which he shoved wide open with relish. The engine sputtered and roared, and a second later the supercharger spooled, launching the Tempest like a scalded cat down the dusty runway, its tail wheel lifting almost instantly in the powerful backdraft.
Jarl was airborne barely a third of the way down the runway. Retracting the landing gear, he pulled sharply back and right on the controls, pitching the Tempest back on its tail and ruddering over to howl back over the airfield.
Flight was freedom.
That was, Jarl supposed, why he got so restless if he was grounded for more than a week or two at a time. Up here, cocooned within the chipped paint and oily heat of the cockpit, nothing about the world below mattered. There was only him, his senses, and half a ton of what Jarl considered to be the pinnacle of aeronautical engineering.
He didn’t climb much above five thousand feet. Doing so was pointless for a patrol flight. He needed to see the ground, and the Tempest with its banshee-howl was hardly stealthy - altitude would make little difference. As he flew east, the land gradually dropped away below him towards the city of Goza, a sprawling metropolis built on the fertile delta of the Akad River, a glittering ribbon of water flanked by green that ran for close to two thousand miles south into the darkest depths of Ambriel.
Patrol only, Sutter had impressed upon him. Venium was only a couple of hundred miles northeast of the airfield, though - Jarl could get there and back within a few hours, and Sutter had cleared him to fly for at least five. Jarl turned inland, flying south for a few miles to skirt the city of Goza. Eastwards, the land remained flat. Fertile crop land, dotted with palm trees and grazing livestock, gave way seemingly instantly to parched, ivory-white sand streaked with outcroppings of russet bedrock. The Great Desert of Ambriel stretched out ad infinitum before Jarl’s Tempest, a vast ocean of shifting sand the size of the entire landmass of Valasea. The desert fascinated Jarl. It seemed placid and static beneath him, requiring little concentration on his part to fly observation. Flying a serpentine path that would eventually see him cross the northern coast of Ambriel several hundred miles east of Venium, Jarl let his mind wander.
Three years previously, the northeastern Valasean principality of Tyreca had amassed an invasion force, intending to take control of the city of Venium. Venium straddled the narrow straits between the Mare Ossium and the Mare Internum, and was one of the busiest shipping lanes in all of Asantrea. While the city had been independent for centuries, it was well known that whoever controlled Venium would have a monopoly on sea trade between almost every nation in the realm. Many had tried over the ages, from the Heladians in classical times to the Arahanic Knights in the fourth century. In the twelfth century, the Gozians had succeeded, briefly incorporating Venium, Vigo and Messa into a compact, and ultimately short-lived empire. The First Tyrecan War had put an end to that a hundred years later, liberating Venium in 1407, only for the city to be attacked half a century later by the very force that had lifted the yoke of Goza from its throat, and brought that territory under Tyrecan control - the Second Tyrecan War. But Tyreca was hundreds of miles north of Venium, with the states of Vigo & Messa and Hochenwold preventing any meaningful access overland. Tyreca’s control of the independent city-state had faltered within a decade, until finally, with threats closer to home taking precedence, Tyreca had ceded control of Venium.
But in 1736 they’d tried again, this time from both sides of the Strait. And this time, they’d brought an Air Force and subjugated Vigo & Messa first, ensuring supply lines could be maintained. A sparsely populated, mountainous region, the twin cities had fallen with relative ease, such that by 1737, Tyrecan banners once again flew over the ancient, crumbling walls of Venium.
Jarl had read the histories a dozen times. It fascinated him, although the airman disguised his passion for history behind a need to understand his enemy.
As he crossed the stark northern coast of Ambriel, Jarl throttled back and pushed forward on his column, descending and banking gently around to follow the coast northeast towards Venium. It was in this region that the Tyrecans had landed their secondary invasion force, setting up camps and airfields in the rocky moonscape of the Venium peninsula. Several of those airfields were still clearly visible, the blackened remnants of hastily erected hangars and tents alongside cratered runways which at best were little more than strips of desert with the larger rocks cleared away.
Jarl knew the locations of all of the Tyrecan airfields. Only six months previously, flying through this airspace alone would’ve been suicidal. No fewer than four squadrons of Scythers had been stationed between these airfields, alongside bomber crews. Scythers, while smaller and lighter than the Bastian Tempests, were easier to fly and cheaper to build. As a result, their advantage lay in numbers. While the squadrons of the BES could field at best a dozen aircraft, and flew generally in fours, a single flight of Tyrecan Scythers could number as many as twenty. Here and there as he flew, Jarl could see the wreckage of the distinctive box-tailed Scythers jutting like so many broken bones from the sand of the desert. The wind whipped through the shredded canvas of the downed fighters, and it seemed as if within only weeks, they’d become part of the harsh desert landscape, subsumed into the shifting sands.
Here and there lay the half-buried remains of a Tempest, too, and Jarl grimaced to recognise the tail-art on each and every one of them. Good pilots, taken down by sheer numbers more than the skill of the Tyrecans.
Jarl banked to the east, flying his Tempest between towering red-brown mesas that rose abruptly from the plains of the Venium peninsula, to emerge some minutes later over the coast of the Mare Internum. As he pulled up and ruddered over to follow the coast to the east towards Tahamasset, a mechanical buzzer sounded somewhere in the cockpit, and an orange light illuminated at the very centre of his instrument panel.
Jarl leveled out and reduced the throttle, and the light cut out. He frowned. The instruments in the Tempest, while advanced, only had one warning light, and it was then up to the pilot to determine what to do. Flying at a little over half throttle, just slow enough to be flying without boost from the supercharger, Jarl ran through checklists in his head. The Tempest presented no symptoms whatsoever, and after several minutes, the Caprin opened the throttle a little further. The familiar whine of the supercharger seemed normal, and the Tempest picked up airspeed, pushing him back in his seat. Pulling back on the yoke, Jarl aimed the nose upward to gain altitude. He could feel a slight hesitation above eighty percent throttle, and frowned in concern.
“What’s the matter with you?” He muttered to the aircraft. “Shit, where are we?”
Great undulating dunes of ivory sand rolled past below the Tempest, and Jarl was suddenly acutely aware that he’d lost his bearings. A few minutes’ flight time in the Tempest, even at low throttle, was more than enough to become lost in the vastness of the desert, and the Caprin pilot felt sweat prickling all over his body, his eyes scanning the horizon on all sides, and then checking his compass heading. Banking around and still climbing, Jarl backtracked, growling a curse at the Tempest as the orange warning light and buzzer sounded once more.
Throttling back had cancelled the warning last time, and Jarl did the same again, with the same result.
It looked like it would be a slow trip back to the Goza Plateau, he thought. The airfield was now almost four hundred miles away, but at least he was - as far as he knew - heading in the right direction. Jarl forced himself to relax, feeling the vibration of the engine through the controls and the seat of his pants, and keeping his senses about him, ready to react to the slightest sign of trouble.
The Tempest was flying smoothly again, giving him no symptoms at all - until the engine suddenly hesitated roughly for a few seconds, coughed, spat a gout of flame from the back of the cowling and died.
The airman’s blood ran cold.
Knowing how hard the Tempest was to start on the ground, doing so while airborne was near impossible. The only other time he’d lost an engine in a Tempest, he’d been at 20,000 feet and still hasn’t managed to restart before hitting the ground. In that instance, the engine had utterly shredded itself internally - he’d had no hope of a restart.
Without engine power, the Tempest had no hydraulics. No landing gear. No flaps. Only basic flight surfaces made all the heavier by the sudden lack of assistance.
Jarl looked anxiously at his altimeter. 5,800. 5,700. 5,600. He was falling like a stone. And below him, those endless dunes. He couldn’t see the coast, and the russet mesas of the Venium Peninsula were over the horizon - or were they north? 5,500. 5,400.
Hiss. Cut. Whirr. Pop, pop, crackle, bang.
Hiss. Cut. Whirr. Pop, pop, bang.
Jarl scanned the desert. He was no longer seeking a landmark, but rather the most featureless, smooth patch of ground to crash into.
Hiss. Cut. Whirr. No ignition.
Jarl pumped the choke several times to clear the fuel from the pistons, and tried again.
Hiss. Cut. Whirr. Pop, pop, Roar!
Jarl let out a whoop of relief as the Tempest burst back to life, but quickly throttled it back to fifty percent - it seemed to him that the fault was in the supercharger, so he figured not using it would be the safest choice. But climbing without it was a slow process - at full power the Tempest was capable of standing on its tail and climbing ten thousand feet in only a couple of minutes, but without the supercharger it lacked torque, and Jarl was forced to climb in a stepped profile, gaining only five hundred feet at a time before levelling out to let the Tempest build airspeed.
He was at 5,400 when the engine blew.
And this time, he knew it was final. There was a loud knocking as a conrod shattered, and inky-black oil exploded from the back of the cowling to cover the cockpit canopy in thick, stinking foulness. Jarl could see shards of metal in it, and he knew it was hopeless. To make matters worse, he couldn’t see, and waited until the engine had vented all of its fluids before sliding the canopy back and reaching over to swipe away as much oil and muck as he could from the windshield with his gloved hand. The oil felt gritty, even through leather.
Knowing he was going down this time, Jarl focused his attention on preparing himself for a rough landing. He closed the canopy again and locked it tight, tightened his harness so much it caused his fingertips to tingle, strapped on his helmet as tight as he could get it, and clipped the hook on the back of his helmet into the recess in the headrest behind it.
Landing gear would be out of the question even if it worked, out here. Wheels into soft sand would be disastrous. In the final minutes of his westward flight, Jarl offered a prayer to Arahan, and as his altimeter dropped below 500 feet, the skilled pilot banked and applied opposite rudder, side-slipping the eerily silent Tempest closer to what he was certain would be its final resting place.
Even barely faster than stall speed, the sand seemed to be whipping past below him frighteningly fast. Jarl knew it was useless, but he pulled on the flap extension lever anyway. It didn’t work without engine power. The best he could do would be to use the rudder to shave off as much speed as possible, and then flare the Tempest, pulling the nose up to pancake it into the sand.
Jarl’s grip on the yoke was so tight that his fingers were numb, and his breath came in stressed gasps. One final, rough yank on the straps of his harness, and he pulled sharply back on the yoke. The Tempest’s wings wobbled as it stalled, and Jarl fought to keep it as level as he could. And then the tailwheel touched the ground, and the airman let out a yell as the belly of his fighter struck the desert with devastating force. Jarl’s helmet was ripped from his head, and both hands hit the instrument panel hard enough that his knuckles smashed the glass on several gauges. The Tempest slid on its smooth underbelly seemingly forever, an awful, rending screech of sand and rock on metal reverberating through the aircraft.
When the Tempest finally came to a halt, teetering on the bulge of its underbelly before settling gently onto its right wing, all that was left was silence.
Awful, penetrating silence, the soft ticking of rapidly cooling metal and a quiet groan as the aircraft settled. Jarl’s breath left him in a sob, so much like a death-rattle did that groan sound. How ignoble a death this was for such a venerable machine. No fewer than seventy broken Tyrecan stars were painted along its fuselage in two rows, one for Scythers and one for Tyrecan bombers sent spiralling to the ground. But instead of going down in the glory of battle, here she lay, broken and bleeding into the sand in the middle of nowhere.
Jarl didn’t know how long he sat in the cockpit. But as dusk gathered, and the large dual discs of Asantrea’s suns sank below the horizon one after the other, the gravity of his situation started to weigh on the airman. Only now would Henrik Sutter be beginning to watch the sky to the northeast, muttering that Jarl was running late. It would be at least twelve hours until someone came looking for him, and it could be days before he was found - if ever. He had no water beyond a couple of small canteens, one of which was already empty, no food, and no clear idea of exactly where he was.
Should he leave the crash site and walk, hoping to find water? Or stay with the downed Tempest in hopes he’d be found by an observation flight before he died of thirst?
Jarl’s heart sank as he realised that even should he be found, rescue was probably out of the question. None of the BES’ aircraft would be able to land on soft, shifting sand. Thoughts of torching the Tempest to send a column of smoke skyward as a signal crossed his mind, as did walking to find harder ground more suitable for a rescue landing. The more he thought about it, though, the more desperate Jarl found his situation to be. No one knew where he was. Radio was a brand new invention, and none of the BES’ aircraft were equipped with it yet.
As the darkness of the desert night gathered, Jarl climbed onto the upward-tilted left wing of his Tempest. There were no fixed points of reference in the Asantrean night sky, not here at least, bereft of instruments to measure the heavens as he was, so keeping his bearings while walking at night would be impossible.
In the eastern sky, as the last purple hues of dusk faded to blackness, the glittering silver ribbon of the Galaxy rose to prominence in brilliance Jarl had never seen before. There were no artificial lights out here for hundreds of miles in any direction, and the desert air was crisp, dry and clean. The ribbon of stars stretched from horizon to horizon, and out here, Jarl could clearly make out nebulae and other features he’d read about but never seen, not to mention the meteors! The airman lay along the wing of his plane, his head pillowed on his rolled-up flight jacket, and felt a wholly unexpected sense of calm and relaxation come over him as he watched rock after fiery rock streak across the sky. If he was going to die, he may as well do so in a place as ruggedly beautiful as this.
An hour or so later, the first of Asantrea’s three moons rose; a large, blue-green bauble streaked with white cloud and edged with the fuzzy azure blur of an atmosphere, just like the planet it orbited. Seilyr teemed with life. No one knew how complex it was; there were no artificial lights visible beyond the reach of the Asantrea’s two suns, but the intense green of its land masses, the glittering blue of its oceans, told a story of a whole second world that was strikingly similar to Asantrea. Every child dreamed of going there some day, of being the first Asantrean on the surface of Seilyr. Jarl certainly had, and from here in the middle of the desert, he could see surface features on Seilyr that he’d only dreamed of. It seemed so close he could reach out and touch it, even as he could obscure its entirety with the palm of his hand.
Beyond it, behind it, the second moon was rising. Saliel was Seilyr’s companion moon, since they always appeared together, Saliel behind Seilyr. They were named for the gods of light and darkness, day and night. Opposites they were in every way; where Seilyr all but groaned with the weight of the life it carried, Saliel was a dark grey, pockmarked lump of basalt lurking behind the Eden of Seilyr like a jealous sibling.
Asantrea’s third moon, Hadriel, would not be visible on that night. That seemed fitting, to Jarl. If Seilyr was the light, and Saliel the darkness, then Hadriel was the Void - the source of Mana, the ethereal, spiritual magic the ancients believed imbued all living things, and the place between. Neither of this world or an afterlife, but a placeless, timeless, endless nowhere. The thought of such a place, through which souls must pass to be reborn, made even the endless dunes of the Great Desert seem alive and welcoming.
Jarl stared into the inky, glittering depths of the firmament laid out above him. He’d read the old scripture as a child, as everyone was expected to, although until now he’d struggled to visualise the wonder its writers had imbued into Yggdrasil’s creation. Reality, politics, ceremony could wait - nothing was so serious that watching a planet drift across a galaxy in a cloud of meteors wasn’t more important.
Jarl Grefton awoke with a start. He was no longer peacefully laying on the wing of his downed Tempest. Instead he swayed softly side to side, carried along somehow in a sling made from his own parachute. He hadn’t been aware that he’d drifted to sleep, but he’d obviously been out for a number of hours - Seilyr and Saliel hung low in the sky.
Very gently, so as not to draw attention, Jarl raised his head over the edge of the chute. He could hear the sea crashing against rocks, distantly. Had he really been that close to the coast when he’d gone down? The guttural vocalisations of camels and the quiet susurration of conversation in a language he didn’t recognise filtered into Jarl’s consciousness. His hands were not bound, and a quick check of his person confirmed to the airman that he was not a prisoner - certainly not of the Tyrecans, anyway. It was still too dark to make out much detail of his situation or his captors - or were they his saviours? A clear observation was made in that unfamiliar, lilting language, followed by soft, shared laughter. Moments later, a linen-swaddled head appeared in Jarl’s field of vision, and the Caprin grunted in shock. He couldn’t make out much detail behind the headscarf, but the eyes that peered in at him were distinctly alien, almond-shaped and seemingly too large for the head they inhabited. Smooth skin surrounded them, rather than fur, which glinted slightly, even in the dim light of the setting Seilyr.
Although they now knew him to be awake, the conversation between Jarl’s captors continued as before, and their calm voices and shared laughter sounded not in the least malicious. Moments later, the same face returned, and this time appeared to speak an incantation of sorts, whilst holding a glowing stone which briefly illuminated... No, it couldn’t be! Jarl’s breath caught in his throat. He’d always been taught as a kid that Dragonkin were long-gone, consigned to the annals of history centuries before. Their numbers had dwindled as the source of their spiritual magic had done the same, until none remained - so Jarl had been told. But there was the face of just such a creature, far more delicate and... softer, somehow, than the illustrations he’d seen in books as a child. The incantation spoken by the Dragonkin was quiet, slow and spidery. The glowing stone in their hand cast an eerie green light that seemed to fall like snow towards him, and Jarl knew no more as a heavy, magical sleep took him.
Henrik Sutter paced up and down in his office. He’d gone to his bunk the previous night with all the windows and doors wide open, and had barely slept a wink while he strained to hear the sound of Jarl’s Tempest approaching the airfield. Regardless of their often strained relationship, Grefton and Sutter had known each other their whole lives, had enlisted together, flown together and fought together in all but one of the seemingly endless skirmishes and wars that plagued the Mare Internum. Deep in his heart, Sutter knew that the only thing that would prevent Jarl Grefton from returning to base when commanded was catastrophe of some kind.
Striding to the door of his office, Sutter flung it open.
“Dalton! Hamell! Suit up and be in my office in ten minutes,” the CO snapped, pointing an accusatory finger at the first two airmen he saw.
“Looks like we’re going after the old goat,” Roan Hamell sneered, the lanky Equus tipping back his drink and rising to his hooves with a stretch.
Hew Dalton sighed, and followed his compatriot. The two Equid flyers were from the same town in Sabarin on Valasea’s western coast, and like Henrik Sutter and Jarl Grefton had enlisted together. Ten minutes later, both of them stood stiffly at attention before Henrik Sutter, who paced restlessly before them, his hands clasped behind his back.
“You both know why you’re here,” Sutter ventured.
“Sir, Skylance Grefton failed to return. We are to conduct a search and rescue?” Dalton replied.
“Precisely. You’re going to fly separately. Take the Sparrows, and use the Venium East airfield as your base. I’ve radioed ahead to inform the CO of your mission. One of you will fly directly to the north coast and follow it, the other will fly inland. If Ja... Skylance Grefton is alive, and hears your engines, he will give a signal. You are not to land in the desert. Signal to him that you’ve marked his position, and return immediately to base; we’ll send out a search party by ground. Dismissed!”
Both airman saluted, and strode out onto the airfield, where two Sparrows stood, being prepared for flight.
They were strange looking aircraft by modern standards; square, boxy biplanes with short, forward-mounted cockpit nacelles. Their rear-mounted rotary engines, while awkward and difficult, made them exceptional observation aircraft even today, although many newer airmen were terrified of flying them, so delicate did they look. The rear flight controls were mounted on a complex A-frame of tubes and cables, such that they seemed only vestigially connected to the cockpit. Fortuitously, these two Sparrows had been fitted with extra fuel tanks beneath the upper wings, giving them a range similar to that of the Tempests, although it did make them slightly top heavy to fly.
Hamell and Dalton clambered up into their cockpits, and within moments both Sparrows were at the end of the runway, bouncing and jostling down the dusty strip side by side, before climbing into the glare of the morning light.
Blue light glimmered around the edges of Jarl's consciousness. Indistinct and muted at first, it slowly spread and intensified, until the airman jolted awake with a start. His panicked grunt echoed from the walls of a vast cavern, illuminated by a crescent of sky at its farthest end, above a rippling pool of water. That was the source of the blue light, then.
But where was he?
Jarl found himself laying on the folded, bundled remains of his parachute atop a flat shelf of rock a few feet above the cavern floor, naked as a newborn. Every sound he made echoed from the cavern's walls, every breath, even the softest of movements of a hoof against the ground.
Eventually, he noticed that his wakefulness had attracted some attention.
At the far end of the cavern, silhouetted against the daylight glimmering from the water's surface, stood a lone dragonkin. Dressed in a flowing gown of white fabric, she turned to face him, and padded softly forward to greet him. Jarl stood, covering his manhood with one hand.
"Where am I?" He asked, his voice dry and cracked.
"Welcome, Skylance Jarl Grafton," the dragonkin replied, her voice lilting and soft as silk.
"Have no fear, you are safe among us. It is lucky for you that our caravan saw your sky machine, else you would surely be dead by now."
"I... th-thankyou. My engine failed, and I lost my bearings."
"So you did, Jarl Grefton. But I forget myself - I am Taroh, priestess of House Khonakt. You are in Tahamasset, and you are safe."
"Taha... forgive me. This cannot be real. Tahamasset is a story, a fable. Surely I must be dreaming. Where are my clothes?"
The priestess' lips quirked upward in a smile, and she stepped forward to place a delicate hand on Jarl's chest. She was small, maybe four feet if she was lucky, and her russet hair was gathered in an elaborate nest of braids atop her head. A fine gold chain hung between each of her gossamer ear fins and her nostrils, and a ruby amulet hung by a similar chain around her neck.
"A story no longer, Jarl Grefton. Can you not feel my touch? Tell me I am a dream. Tahamasset is as real as Seilyr, though almost as hard for most to reach. We dragonkin are as old as the seas, our isolation is our safety," Taroh said, tilting her head to one side and seeming to examine Jarl's fur, as if it were exotic to her - which, Jarl supposed, it must be.
"My...my clothes?" The airman prodded, clearing his throat.
"Ah. We... your clothes contained iron, Jarl Grefton, a forbidden metal. They could not come into Tahamasset with you, they would cause our priesthood and Mana-weavers... trouble. They are left to the sands. I am sorry if they were important to you."
Jarl blinked slowly, several times, and his mouth opened and shut.
"I... may I have something to cover myself with, then?"
The priestess seemed reluctant, and Jarl caught her eyes lingering on him, studying him. He found himself profoundly uncomfortable with her attention - he was scrawny and his fur stuck out in awkward tufts all over him, even more so after his misadventure in the desert.
"Please," he added. "I am uncomfortable with nudity, especially among strangers."
That, she seemed to understand. Peering around him, Taroh waved a hand. To Jarl's horror, two similarly attired acolytes whose presence he'd entirely missed approached, and handed him what seemed to be a formless piece of linen.
Jarl thanked them with a bemused stutter, and opened the cloth. It was the size of a bedsheet, though half the width. What was it? A loincloth? A tablecloth? A curtain? He fumbled with it, eventually wrapping it around his waist several times over to at least regain his modesty.
Taroh laughed musically at his confusion, and after watching him struggle, she called the acolytes back in to assist him.
"Do not be so ashamed, Jarl Grefton. It is rare indeed for any not of our kin to be amongst us, so there is nothing against which I can compare your physicality. Thus I am without judgement," Taroh laughed, her eyes falling directly onto his manhood as the acolytes unwrapped him, and began an elaborate series of folds which eventually saw the length of linen securely wrapped around his waist and over both his shoulders, secured at the waist by a knot at his hip.
"It was not a bad view, Jarl," she murmured.
"You'd be the first to say so."
"You ungulates are so self-demeaning! You are attractive, Jarl. Maybe not to most of my people; but to me you are! And you are mine. I wish only to know you."
"This is Tahamasset, Jarl. A mythical city of mythical creatures, as you say, guarded from all outside by woven Mana and the power of rumour. Surely you do not expect ever to leave?"
Jarl felt the blood drain from his face, and his heart froze in his chest.
So he was a prisoner. A captive. Maybe even a slave. Why hadn't he fought to escape the dragonkin caravan on the surface? He could've overpowered them, he was sure. Anger swelled to replace his shock, and his hand automatically fell to his left hip, to where, of course, his sidearm had been removed along with the rest of his clothing.
“I must leave!” He said, firmly. “I will not live out my days as a... a slave!”
“Slave?” Taroh repeated, taking a backward step. “You are not a slave, Jarl. Dragonkin do not keep slaves, such a practice is kalath! ...Forbidden!”
“Then what am I? You said I am yours. If not a slave, what does that make me? A pet? A curiosity?”
Taroh’s ears drooped, and she lowered her gaze to the cavern floor. “You cannot leave. It is kalath for an outsider who finds Tahamasset to return to the world they knew. You will be clothed and fed and sheltered, and allowed to live in peace. Learn our ways, our language, our customs, take a lover if you wish,” her eyes flicked upward; “but a slave you are not.”
“A prisoner, then,” Jarl conceded, with a sneer. “You’re a fool if you believe I’ll stay here peacefully against my will. I’ve got a life out there.”
“A life of war,” Taroh said, quietly. “Of death and destruction. Where is your family, Jarl Grefton? Your children, your hometown? Do you have such things?”
Jarl bit back an angry retort.
“We have watched you, Jarl. Our Mana-weavers are powerful, and we knew when your sky machine crashed to the sand that we could leave you to die, or we could leave you water and nourishment while you slept, or we could bring you here. Walk with me, Jarl. Do not run, please - that would bring you suffering, though not from my hand. Come.”
Taroh slid past him - there was no better way to describe the way she moved - towards the darkness at the end of the cavern furthest from the sky. Left alone for a moment, Jarl contemplated running for the light and taking his chances. But he hadn’t seen or heard any signs that this was a prison he’d recognise - there were no iron bars, no guards, no stench of excrement and misery. So, at length, he followed the priestess.
The darkness was near-total, and after thirty paces Jarl teetered in place, holding out his arms in front of him to try and find something he could follow.
“Taroh?” He called.
“Come,” she replied, from somewhere in front of him.
“I can’t see.”
Jarl sucked in a sharp breath as the alien word from Taroh’s lips caused a bauble of greenish light to erupt in her outstretched palm, illuminating her with an eerie phosphorescence. The cavern had narrowed into little more than a meandering passageway, and Jarl saw that his horns had been mere inches from scraping the rough ceiling. The passage sloped upward and curved around itself, rough steps hewn into the bedrock leading ever upward.
“Come,” Taroh repeated. “It is a long way to climb.”
Jarl followed. Often he couldn’t see Taroh at all, as the passage twisted and spiraled around itself ever upward. All he could do was follow the glow of her light ever upward.
It seemed that they climbed for hours. Jarl was panting and sweating by the time he began to hear sounds from above, and see a light that wasn’t the priestess’ magic. And then, abruptly, he emerged into bright sunlight, fresh sea air and the hubbub of the oldest city on the face of Asantrea. A narrow, steep-sided fjord sliced inland from the Mare Internum - one of many - and into its cliffs was carved the city of Tahamasset. An impossible jumble of russet stone, reed and linen awnings, rope bridges, steep stairs, ladders and switchback streets seemed to grow on the face of the cliffs, bridging the fjord in innumerable places and levels. Countless boats bobbed in the azure water three hundred feet below the tiny platform on which he and Taroh stood, and the entire place teemed with life. Dragonkin, mostly, but here and there Jarl spotted a more familiar creature; the odd Caprin and Equid worked alongside the Dragonkin, and though alien to this place, seemed more or less at home. Children, Dragonkin all, leapt and cavorted between the adults, and Jarl’s eye picked out more than one priest or priestess. All wore the same flowing robes as Taroh, and the sunlight glinted from gold and stones that described their position within this ancient society.
“Welcome,” Taroh said, turning to Jarl with a smile. “Welcome to Tahamasset.”