Chapter 2: Sands of Carthia
The airship’s rumble resonated deep within Sylph’s stomach. She had never fallen airsick, but today she felt queasy as she watched the clouds rush past the ship. The thoughts from earlier hadn’t disappeared. They stuck to her mind like dried blood on the ridges between her scales after a harsh duel. Unlike blood, a bath would not wash away these thoughts.
Stray pieces of rock drifted into view as the ship neared the coast. The field of rocks became denser, the segments more varied, some small as an apple, others large as a manor. Behind the debris field, the first and farthest stretches of farmland came into view. Carthia used every inch of fertile land, even if it meant planting crops on the edge. Humans and Tira didn’t dare to work here, and neither did Sylph.
She’d never step close or even peer into that endless abyss. Nobody knew what lay below the clouds. Up above were the stars, the moon, the sun, and absolute freedom. But the clouds below were always impenetrable by one’s sight. Even she knew the winds down there could seize a dragon and drag them below. There was no way back, no one ever returned. Stories told of great wyvern prowling that abyss, feasting on the dead thrown over the edge into their last freedom.
Despite that, some dragons preferred to settle all the way out here, on the largest rocks, with no simple access to running water or markets. She spotted them occasionally and wondered what insanity drove them to give up the comfort modern life offered.
The ship passed over a handful of humans and dragons working in the extensive fields of spring-green grain. Others checked on the wyvern pastures, gathering eggs or filling their troughs. The fields always bustled with activity in the afternoon.
A few minutes later, the airship slowed and gained height. Sylph pressed the side of her face against the window to get a better view. All she saw was the expected pristine white stone.
It was too big to be called a city-wall. It was Carthia’s attempt to stop even the clouds from entering without permission. Legends said that the six built the wall. But gods didn’t require a wall. It was the work of stubborn people trying to prove a point.
The airship stopped gaining height at the top and hovered in place for several long minutes. Sylph caught herself tapping the floor with one of her claws. Somebody landed on deck. Their footsteps were sharp, determined and tinkling with the chain-mail they wore. She focused harder, trying to determine the species of the skywatch member that had landed, but failed to discern anything. Her ears were extraordinary, but there were limits, especially with the rumbling engines and other passengers talking.
The skywatch dragon took their time to check the ship’s paperwork. They worked diligently to uphold the law in the air. She’d seen some poor dragon accidentally cross the invisible border to the inner circle and within moments, they swarmed him like a cloud of bees. The watch was also responsible for all air traffic and the light globes that meant a lot of things for those able to fly that Sylph never bothered to learn.
She put her right pfod on the pouch around her chest, feeling the contents within. The small can of paint to cover her scar, the few silver beads to pay, and finally, her digits closed around the second can of special paint. A lot of hard work had gone into her and Brandon’s recent idea.
Sylph smiled to herself, but none of the happiness arrived in her head. She had been in a great mood until that storyteller nonsense. Now questions clung to her thoughts like a sticky piece of constant dread, and she could not shake them today.
She shook her head in another feeble try. Their new idea mattered today, not the questions about who made such a mess of her life. She moved and noticed a cold, damp patch where she sat. It had spread through the wooden floorboards and clung to the softer scales of her underside. It had to be the engines leaking water. Smelling like engine grease and not being able to tell was exactly what had to happen on a day like this. She moved a step aside and settled back down.
The sound of footsteps and bureaucracy quieted. She edged back closer to the window to spot the skywatch dragon leaving, but had no success. With a jolt, the airship moved forwards, and the wall gave way to the city.
Even the oldest dragons were merely colorful dots in a sea of white buildings and gray cobbles. The airship descended and passed the towers of the pathwalker’s guild, following a set path all the way to the harbor near the city’s industry district.
The engines spun down and the sizzling of flames and clanging of metal replaced their noise. Sylph waited until the first overeager passengers had squeezed themselves out of the ship’s belly before she even stood up.
She had to squint as she stepped down the dark wooden ramp and onto the bright cobbles. Sylph turned to head up to the second ring of the city as usual, looking for the largest blacksmith with the unmissable advertisement to orient herself and take the right road.
She was sure that the metal sign depicted a Sol with a hammer and another holding up a red-hot metal tube, but to her, the perspective made it look as though the hammer was about to hit something comically large and sensitive instead.
But today, she could barely see the sign. A group of humans clad in thick wyvern leather stood right in front. They huddled around some kind of device with a complex network of pipes and a pure black Sol slightly larger than her. He had his head so far between the pipes that her first thought was that he might be stuck, but he merely did his job.
A small, straight blue flame shooting from his mouth said otherwise. He heated a part of the pipes to a bright orange. One of the surrounding humans grabbed it with a pair of tongs and bent it into a new shape while someone yelled instructions she didn’t understand.
Sols were made to work with fire or food. Rumor was that they could smell the quality of molten metal. If you were a black Sol, you would be destined to be a welder. Every house and ship needed pipes, and the job paid very well.
Many Aer joined the skywatch. She’d wanted to since she was a hatchling, but as with most jobs for Aer, wings were a strict requirement. She’d never get a specialist job, at least not one that would interest her. Instrument makers looked for capable ears, as did orchestras, but she’d never taken a liking to either and her voice wasn’t fit for any kind of singing.
Maybe she’d end up helping Oasis in her shop for the rest of her life without ever understanding what made spices and wine so interesting.
The sun stood high, and the shadows were small as she made her way up to the second circle of the city. Veria would soon finish training recruits and be on her break.
Sylph’s wings quivered in anticipation. She wasn’t made for jobs that should interest her, but dueling was something she could do. As long as they happened on the ground, you didn’t need wings and the standard rule set evened the field for all. Unless you dueled a Tira. They grew fast. One in her size group would be half her age and far too inexperienced as an opponent, which made the fights rather boring.
Today would be anything but boring. She would face Veria. Metia weren’t the easiest opponents, with their scales as tough as metal and the aggressive fighting style to match their toughness. Not that her mother could be categorized as a normal Metia. Veria sat at the top of many leaderboards.
Sylph would never match her skill and experience, few ever would. The thought extinguished the excited embers inside of her chest. Dueling was her strongest skill and if she could never become proficient at what she did best, what was she supposed to do? She’d really end up stocking shelves for the rest of her life.
No one wants to be Sylph. The words echoed through her mind, carrying more truth the more they repeated.
She continued through the city and entered the great marketplace, dodging and weaving through the masses as she passed the statue of Void’s defeat with a scoff. The eyesore stood out like a festering growth on the perfect skin of the city. Ember’s depiction of the story was the only one she was glad to not be included in. His view of events was unique. Not even the books hidden far beneath her nest could match the vivid imagery.
A few minutes later, past more shops and stalls, the first sounds of falling recruits and novice war cries mixed with the city noise. The traces of sand between the cobbles heralded the upcoming side street that lead to the training field. The two human guards straightened to attention as she approached and mustered her. They nodded as soon as they recognized her.
The training field stretched over multiple plots like a small desert in the middle of Carthia. Wooden fencing divided the area into subsections, with a huge open field in the middle. Rows of benches and the massive training armory enclosed all of it.
Sylph headed down the left side, into the last remaining shadow. Grass grew wild all around the edges of the fence and had reclaimed some of the sand for itself. She laid down on an uncomfortable dry patch a few steps away from the lush green. While tempting to the uninitiated, the lush green grass was associated with the lack of washrooms around the field. It was a mistake you made once.
She turned her gaze to a group of five humans in an attempt at a formation. They faced off against the impenetrable silver wall of scales and muscles named Veria. They pointed their training spears straight at her, some tips visibly shaking.
Their focus was on her tail, that she held on her left side. Veria’s tail had grown far longer than normal for a Metia and the unnatural clump of wildly growing scales at the tip had been sharpened into a smooth and deadly blade. Her tail, her silver spear, it defined her. All of Sawaila knew Veria.
But their focus on exactly that was their first mistake. You had to focus on the feet, not the pfods in front, but the paws at the back. They told the most about your opponent. Veria was ready to pounce.
A second of indecision in the recruits later, Veria jumped and her tail shot forward like a spear, passing her body as she turned in midair. It did not reach the group, but they fell out of formation in a panic. They held up their wooden shields and their spears swayed all over the place. Every recruit tried to put as much space between her and themselves, preferably with another recruit in between.
Veria danced around the group with short hops and jumps, followed by sweeps and stabs, herding them towards a corner like a flock of sheep. It was fun to watch the new recruits. Sylph knew how it felt to get yelled at to dodge and not knowing how to process anything you saw happening in front of you.
This looked like one of the group’s first lessons. Veria’s mere existence controlled their every move. She was not a kind teacher and while she’d never injure you, she would punish mistakes with rather painful slaps by the side of her tail.
The recruits had their backs to the wall and the burly man at the front had enough of being herded. He screamed to charge and whirled his spear to the front, smacking the recruit behind him in the face and knocking his helmet off.
He dug his feet into the ground and stumbled forward. The rest hesitated for a few seconds and followed in hasty and uncoordinated steps. No tactic or idea, just a wild charge after being pushed into a corner.
Veria opened her wings and jumped forward with a deep roar that made even Sylph flinch all the way on the side.
She flew over the spears at the front and crashed into the back with claws outstretched and teeth bared. Two recruits utterly froze in place under her gaze. They need a fresh pair of pants. Sylph chuckled and watched the chaos unfold as the rest realized that Veria now stood right in their midst.
Veria knocked down the two recruits with one leg each and pinned them to the ground. A single sweep of her tail and then the rest found themselves with their face in the sand.
She relaxed her muscles and shook her head as she watched the recruits crawl back to their feet. “You are all dead. Never let your opponent control you through fear. YOU have to make the decision to move, not them. We will try again. This time you will hold the formation we talked about.” Veria gestured with her wing, and the recruits returned into position.
“And you.” She nodded to the recruit that took the butt of the spear to his face. Blood dripped from his nose in a constant stream. “To the infirmary with you.”
Sylph’s gaze wandered away to a few soldiers training with bows. Their human instructor yelled loud enough to be heard in the outer circle of the city, and she couldn’t help but admired his colorful vocabulary.
Three Sols practiced air maneuvers, with their instructor flying overhead. Her wings twitched as she watched them turn in formation and drift in the wind. Of course they have to train right now.
Ignoring them today was hard. She would gladly trade one of her legs for her wings. She had four, although losing the ability to grab things with her front, or losing her hind legs to control her movement more precisely, would be just as terrible. But she didn’t get to choose, she never got to choose. Sylph sighed and rested her head on the rigid grass below her. The familiar yelling and sounds of training lulled her into a light sleep.