By Garrett Calcaterra
This is an excerpt from the novel Souldrifter by Garrett Calcaterra, presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Garrett Calcaterra, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2015 by Garrett Calcaterra.
“Your Majesty, I think I’ve spotted them.”
Taera strode across the deck to the forecastle, her feet still unsure beneath her. She was no stranger to sailing, but this airship, Casstian’s Breath, was nothing like the seafaring ships she had been on before. Even Siegbjorn’s airship had been more stable than this. Unlike Siegbjorn’s vessel, Casstian’s Breath was sleek and long, which made it fast, but also prone to cross winds. Any sudden cross breeze would rock the gondola from side to side, and if the gust was strong enough, the ether-filled hull above them would shudder, sending its reverberations through the entire framework of the airship. Admiral Giorgi, the captain of the ship, had already nearly lost one sailor overboard, and that had been over land, before they had reached the turbulent winds of the Esterian Ocean.
“It’s definitely a fleet of ships,” Admiral Giorgi said, lowering the spyglass from his face.
“You sure it’s not just some fishing boats?” Taera asked.
Giorgi handed her his spyglass. “Look for yourself. Sails on the horizon to the south. I can only make out two for certain, but I’m sure there are more.”
Taera closed one eye and peered through the spyglass, finding her bearings with the Pyrthin shoreline to their starboard. From there, she scanned slowly to her left along the curving blue horizon of the sea. Sure enough, there they were, two white sails due south. Nervous energy filled her belly. She’d had no premonitory visions, but ever since rebuking the Old World emissaries, she’d had a growing sense that the Old World was on its way to attack. Maybe they’re just fishing boats, she tried convincing herself.
She rotated the eyepiece to better focus the spyglass and scanned farther to her left, toward the morning sun in the east. Nothing, not for a hundred leagues to the east. Maybe it really is just a couple of fishing boats. She swung the scope back to her right, finding the sails more easily this time and seeing it wasn’t two boats at all, but rather a galleon with two main sails. Already it was larger in the spyglass. She knew enough to know that a vessel that big was no fishing boat. She scanned farther to her right and glimpsed something new. A glimmer of white that was gone a moment later. She held the scope steady and waited.
There it was again, and then another sparkle of white. And another. Within moments, there were dozens of them — little white glimmers that sprouted into sails on the horizon.
“It’s them,” Taera said, handing the spyglass back to Admiral Giorgi. “The Old World is here.”
Giorgio stole one more quick glance through the spyglass himself and nodded grimly. “You best head belowdeck, Your Majesty,” he said, and then turned on his heel and began hollering at his crew as he made his way to the helm. “All hands on deck! Prepare to come about!”
Taera frowned at Giorgi’s presumptuousness. She was happy to move out of the way as the half-dozen crewmembers came bustling out from the small cabin beneath the sterncastle, but she had no intention of hiding belowdeck. This campaign was her doing, and while most of the crew members were veterans from the Pyrthin navy, the airship had also been her doing, and Dekle, the wild-eyed stormbringer who propelled the ship, was her recruit. On top of all that, she was queen, not Giorgi.
Relax, she reminded herself. They all know what they are doing. There’s no reason to step on their toes.
As she watched, the men indeed moved with well-practiced precision, which put her more at ease. In a matter of seconds they were all in position and “raised” the portside sail. With outriggers instead of a traditional mast, it wasn’t so much raising the sail as it was extending it, but the effect was the same.
“Wind!” Giorgi barked, and Dekle, the stormbringer closed his eyes and summoned a tail wind. With only the portside sail raised, the ship came about to its starboard with dizzying dexterity. Taera had to close her eyes as the Pyrthin mainland swept by in front of them a full one hundred and eighty degrees.
“Starboard sails!” Giorgi yelled.
Dekle killed the wind as the crew extended the starboard sail, and then Giorgi shouted “Wind!” again, and both sails filled with a snap as Dekle summoned a new gale. Casstian’s Breath lurched forward, and within seconds they were racing forward, due north now, away from the advancing armada and toward Taera’s own fleet anchored off of Spearpoint Rock.
They moved twice as fast as any seafaring ship could hope to, and at the helm Giorgi manned the steering levers that controlled the rudders on the air-filled hull above them, two horizontal rudders to either side of the hull and a vertical one at the crest of the hull. Steadily north and downward he steered them, with Dekle providing a steady source of wind. Before long, Spearpoint rock and the Pyrthin navy came into view.
“Prepare the flags,” Giorgi shouted, and when they drew within a hundred yards he yelled for Dekle to stop the wind. The airship lurched to a halt, then buffeted sideways as the natural westerly wind caught the sails.
“Drop sails and send the signal: all ships, full sail, south.”
A sailor holding a bundle of colored flags ran to the bow and communicated the signal. First, two red flags, one straight up in the air and one extended horizontally. All ships. Then the two yellow flags, both straight up in the air. Full sail. And last, two green flags held out to either side. South.
Taera had been briefed about the mode of communication, but it was one thing to hear about it in a war meeting, and quite another to see it in action. Within moments of the last flag signal, the entire fleet came to life: fifty seafaring vessels, and two additional airships, which cut loose their tie-lines and rose into the air from where they’d been tethered to the two largest sea ships.
With all the vessels ready, Giorgi gave the next command. “Half sail now so we don’t outrun them, and bring the wind!” Dekle closed his eyes and the wind was upon them. The stormbringers on the other two airships did the same, along with the three stormbringers crewing the sea ships below.
The sails of fifty-three vessels filled with a boom and lurched forward, due south.
Taera couldn’t help but smile. They had done it. They had put together a fleet of traditional ships integrated with airships and sorcerers, all in the matter of days. Master Elias had tried talking her out of using sorcerers, as had Admiral Giorgi and most of her other advisors, and yet here they were — seven stormbringers — propelling an entire fleet of ships. Now it was just a matter of whether it was enough of a spectacle to avert battle, and failing that, enough to win the battle.
Admiral Giorgi kept Casstian’s Breath low to the water so that Dekle’s wind combined with that of the other stormbringers, and at the speed they were traveling, the Old World armada came into view within minutes. It was still bearing straight for them. Taera took a deep breath, remembering what Makarria had told her and hoping she had been right.
If we show our strength, show our unity, they will back down, Makarria had said.
So far, though, the Old World armada was not backing down.
“Arm the ballistas!” Giorgi commanded from the helm. “Ready the naphtha charges!”
The crew sprang into action around Taera, taking up their battle stations and readying their weapons. Below and all around Casstian’s Breath, the other ship crews were doing the same, just as they had practiced. The plan Giorgi and Taera had devised was to split the fleet into three wedges, one in the air and two in the sea. The airships would fly up high enough to stay out of striking distance of any weapons and firewielders the Old World ships had onboard. Casstian’s Breath and her two sister vessels would pass over first, dropping their naphtha charges and firing their ballistas into the enemy vessels below. With the aid of gravity, their striking range was nearly limitless. Or at least as limitless as the crews’ aim. With any luck, they’d connect with half their targets, blowing holes in the decks of the enemy ships with the iron ballista bolts, soaking them in naphtha, and sending the enemy crews into disarray.
Meanwhile, the Pyrthin sea ships would split into two groups, one breaking off to beat windward and the other charging full sail ahead with the aid of their stormbringers. The first wave of seafaring ships would cut through the Old World fleet, striking with their own unique weapons: twin ballistas with chain-linked bolts to sweep across the enemy decks and cause mass casualties, and then the Pyrthin firewielders to ignite the naphtha the airships had dropped. By the time that first wave of sea ships passed through, the second wave would be charging with the natural wind at their back, twenty ships with reinforced prows to plow broadside through the crippled Old World fleet and send them to the bottom of the Esterian Ocean. And then, with the sea ships clear, Casstian’s Breath and the other airships would pass by again to pick off any surviving vessels from the safety of the air.
That was the plan, at least. Taera hoped it wouldn’t come to that, and even if it did, Giorgi had been forthright in admitting that naval battles never went to plan. That was doubly true with the Old World — they were bound to have their own tricks. Explosive weapons. Firewielders. Beastcharmers with whales or giant squids at their command. Stormbringers who could very well negate the Pyrthin stormbringers’ efforts and snuff out the wind altogether, leaving both fleets still in the water. If that happened, it would turn to hand-to-hand combat. The grappling hooks would come out and then the cutlasses. Any way it happened, both sides were sure to suffer heavy casualties if it came to a battle.
I hope you were right, Makarria, Taera thought as the enemy fleet loomed closer. The Old World armada was massive, easily outnumbering the Pyrthin fleet two vessels to one. And they weren’t backing down.
“Full sails!” Giorgi commanded the crew, and he pulled the control lever back to start gaining elevation. To either flank, the two sister airships did the same.
Taera held her breath. Within moments, it would be too late to turn back. They would be fully engaged and thousands would die. “Please,” Taera whispered, imploring the spirit of her father and Pyrthin himself for something to avert this battle, and as if in response, the Old World fleet veered away sharply, turning due east into the wind.
“Yes!” she hooted, but at the helm above her, Admiral Giorgi’s voice drowned hers out.
“Come about to the portside!” he shouted.
“What? No. Stand down,” Taera yelled, but her voice was lost on the wind as the ship careened to its portside.
“More wind!” Giorgi commanded Dekle.
Taera cursed and grabbed onto the rungs of the ladder leading to the top of the aftcastle to haul herself up to the helm. Halfway up, she nearly lost her footing, but she held tight with her hands and heaved herself onto the aftcastle.
“Admiral!” she screamed as she pushed herself to her feet. “Stop.”
“Get belowdeck, Your Majesty,” he yelled, waving her aside. “This is no place for a woman.”
Cold fury filled Taera, and she came within half a breath of striking the admiral, but she stayed herself at the last moment and turned to her stormbringer instead. “Dekle,” she yelled, “make the wind stop.”
Dekle did exactly as she told him and Casstian’s Breath stalled in the sky, nearly knocking her and everyone else over.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Giorgi demanded, regaining his balance and shooting her a look of utter contempt. “How dare you contradict me in front of my men.”
Taera heard every word coming out of his mouth, but her attention was focused on the Old World armada before them. Even with Dekle pushing Casstian’s Breath at top speed, the Old World armada had outdistanced them after turning to the east. Taera couldn’t begin to imagine how many stormwielders they must have had at their disposal. She glanced back toward the stern and saw that in Giorgi’s haste, he had also managed to separate Casstian’s Breath from their own fleet, just as Taera had feared.
“Damn it all,” Giorgi cursed, following her gaze. “They’ve strung us out.”
“No, you’ve strung us out,” Taera replied. “And now the Old World is about to attack.”
She spun around to look over the bow as the entire Old World armada came about to the north and looped back toward them.
If they charge now with their sorcerers and the natural wind to their backs, we’re done for.
But nothing happened. It looked as if the enemy ships were furling their sails, in fact.
Giorgi raised his spyglass to look closer and lowered it a moment later with a perplexed expression on his face. “They’re dropping sails and dropping anchor. But why?”
“Because the dreamwielder was right,” Taera said. “They were only testing our resolve. We’ve shown ourselves to be more than eager, thanks to you, and now they’re content to wait.”
“Wait for what?”
Taera had heard enough from the fool.
“That’s no longer your concern, Admiral. You are hereby dismissed from command.”
Admiral Giorgi scoffed, as if he were regarding a child. “What? You can’t do that.”
“Don’t make me repeat myself again, Admiral. You are dismissed from command for disobeying my direct order. Keep talking and I will have you thrown into the dungeons.”
“You ungrateful little bitch,” Giorgi said, shaking his head in anger. “I was captaining ships for your father before you were even born. You know nothing.”
Taera laughed, short and humorlessly. She didn’t even feel sorry for the fool. “Dekle,” she said, “show our former admiral how to fly.”
“What?” Admiral Giorgi asked, turning to Dekle. “No, I’m in charge here. Don’t listen to her.”
Dekle didn’t even hesitate to obey Taera’s orders. He closed his eyes and a second later his blast of wind hurled Giorgi over the stern rail to plummet to his watery death below.
Book Two of The Dreamwielder Chronicles
will be published September 29, 2015 by
Available now at Amazon.com and other fine outlets
Read more here.
His short fiction and non-fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies, speculative-fiction magazines, and literary journals, including Confrontation, Writers’ Journal, Wet Ink, Pirates & Swashbucklers 1 & 2, Membrane SF, Arkham Tales, and here at Black Gate.