Kara first saw the little girl on her third day aboard the airship.
Seeing another child her age startled her, as she hadn’t seen another one on the vessel so far. There were plenty of other children aboard—the captain of the Makhum had packed as many people onto his ship as possible before leaving port. But the older ones wanted nothing to do with her, spending their time whispering to their parents and looking back longingly at the homeland they had left behind. Other children Kara’s age spent their time peering around with teary-eyes in fear-filled faces as they stuck close to their mother’s skirts.
Kara didn’t have time for any of that—she was far too busy exploring the ship. Despite, or perhaps because of her young age, she had charmed most of the crew by the second day, and with her parents’ bemused permission, they adopted her as the ship’s unofficial mascot. She had already gotten to stand on the Makhum’s bridge, staring out at the endless Azure, her face split in a grin so wide one could be excused for wondering how her head didn’t split apart.
She had even gotten to see the ship’s hearth crystal—the incredible floating latticework of glittering gems that powered the Makhum. That sight was equally enthralling, but in a much different way. Kara had stared at the suspended crystal shards as they slowly turned, flashing and winking at her in blue-hued engine chamber, for what seemed like hours. Only when the engineer had gently touched her shoulder had she torn herself away from the amazing sight and allow herself to be led out into the hallway.
“That’s enough for today, little one,” the woman had told her through a tight grin. “Come back tomorrow for another look if you wish.”
Kara nodded solemnly, the accepted promise implicit in her eyes.
It was while she was heading back to her parents that she first encountered the girl. But first, she overheard a snatch of conversation between two crewmembers. Curious enough to listen, she slowed her walk and shrank into the shadows of the dim hallway.
“—lower your voice, damn you! The last thing we need is a panic among the passengers.” A man’s voice, warm-sounding, but with brittle, strained tone.
“The sun take yer eyes, don’ tell me what I already know!” the second speaker hissed. “I’m askin’ ya, doc—how do we know we aren’t carryin’ any witflamed right now! Cap’n Perth was in such a skyburned hurry to take their coin and stow ’em aboard, with us not knowin’ where they came from, or what they mighta brought with ’em—”
“As I’ve already told you, I personally inspected every single person that came aboard, looking for the signs we know about. I found none among any of them. The standard period for visible symptoms is forty-eight hours, and we’ve already gone well beyond that. Again, we are not in any appreciable danger—unless you keep spreading this foolish paranoia to the rest of the crew!”
A moment of silence passed between the two men, and then the second one spoke again. “All right, I have yer oath that these folks’re safe. I jus’ hope to the bright blue yer right. I saw what happened to the folks at Doloss—I can’t sleep two nights in a row without dreamin’ ’bout it—”
“And that’s all it is to us now—a bad dream,” the first one said. “We are the fortunate ones…we escaped before the witflame reached the coast. This sickness can do many things, but it cannot cross the skies without a host. We stayed ahead of it, and so long as this ship holds together, we’ll never see anything of its like again. But right now I need you to get ahold of yourself. We cannot have such rumors floating around, or the suspicion and fear will tear us all apart. We must be united on this journey, or no port will ever accept us if they even have a suspicion of where we came from.”
“They sound afraid,” a voice said from the shadows at Kara’s elbow, making her start and whirl around.
Standing next to her was a girl about her height, but that was about all they had in common. Kara was well-fed from her five years on their farm; the new girl’s form was slender, edging on gaunt. Kara’s red hair was thick and wavy; this girl’s was coal-black and hung lank around her face. Kara’s bright blue eyes stared at this new person with curiosity; the other girl’s eyes were a fathomless black that seemed to stare right through her.
“I know, but I don’t know why,” Kara replied. “I’m Kara, what’s your name?”
“I am Chvaroba,” the black-haired girl replied. “But you can call me Var.”
Kara’s grin grew even wider, and she almost clapped her hands with glee before remembering they were supposed to be quiet. “How come I haven’t seen you before?”
Var’s face dropped as she stared at the floor. “I don’t come out much.”
Kara cocked her head. “Why not?”
Var seemed to shrink inside herself. “Because when I do, nobody like me, or wants to play with me.”
“I like you,” Kara said, as if the idea of her not liking someone else was simply baffling.
“You…do?” Var asked, slowly raising her head to peer at Kara. “You will not run away?”
Kara frowned. “Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know…I only know that everyone does, eventually.”
“But I won’t,” Kara said.
“You promise,” Var asked, staring at her with the oddest expression on her pinched face.
Kara nodded, her red hair bouncing up and down.
“Then I have something for you.” Var held out a small black rock. My gift to you.”
Kara slowly reached out and took the stone, which felt smooth and cool in her palm. “I will keep it forever.”
“And tell no one of it.” Var folded Kara’s fingers over the rock. Kara tried not to shiver at the other girl’s cold hand. “It it our secret.”
“I won’t—” she began when a voice from down the hallway interrupted her.
“You there, little girl—what are you doing down here?”
Kara whirled back around to see the ship’s doctor striding toward her. “Hello, sir.”
“Oh, it’s you, Kara.” The gray-haired man’s shoulders slumped in relief. “Why are you down here by yourself, young lady? You know the rules—you can only be here with one of the crew.”
“I know. But I’m not alone, I’m with—” Kara turned to her new friend, but there was no one standing beside her. She looked around, but only saw the doctor standing next to her in the shadowy corridor. “There was another girl right here—I was talking to her.”
The doctor nodded sagely. “A special friend, right?”
“I think so…I mean, I only just met her just now.”
The doctor smiled and rubbed his eyes, then held out his hand. “Come on, little one. Let’s get you back to your mother and father. I’m surprised they’re not turning the ship upside-down looking for you.”
Kara took his hand and they started walking toward the stairs that led to the upper decks. Before they started to climb, she took one last look over her shoulder at the hallway.
The little black-haired girl was nowhere to be seen.
* * *
On the fifth day of their trip, a commotion on deck brought people running from all parts of the ship. Kara’s parents, not being wealthy, had purchased space on the third deck, next to the livestock and poultry the Makhum was transporting. They were only allowed up on deck twice a day, but this event happened during their afternoon trip topside.
“Don’t you see? We are all one with the Azure! We no longer need these clumsy vessels to soar free!”
Kara’s parents slipped into the rapidly forming crowd, with Kara’s mother picking her up. She saw a young man in a sweat-stained brown shirt and bright, shining eyes. He was standing on the ship’s railing, holding a sail line, just a single misstep from an endless trip into the Void.
Crewmembers stood ready a few steps away on either side of him, watching him intently. Before him stood the ship’s doctor, and a woman Kara didn’t recognize, her cheeks gleaming with tears as she reached her arms out to him.
“Jabas, my son, please come down from the railing!”
“You’re not well, Jabas, but I can help you,” the doctor said. “I just need you to come back down to the deck.”
The young man shook his head, sweat-soaked blond hair flying into his eyes. “You just have to believe in yourself, and you will be able to fly without an airship! We can be truly free, all of us!”
“He’s going to die.”
The familiar voice made Kara look down to see Var standing at her mother’s side, staring through the crowd. Although several people blocked her line of sight to the young man, Var spoke as if she was watching him right now. It must have been the sunlight, but Var looked a bit better today, healthier somehow.
“Don’t say that, Var!” Kara hissed, then glanced back up at the ranting man and his pleading mother. “You can’t know what will happen to him!”
“Join me, mother! All of you, come join me in the freedom of the Azure!” Before anyone could stop him, he released his hold and stepped off the railing into the blue. Kara couldn’t tell if his fading scream was one of ecstasy or terror.
Jabas’s mother collapsed on the deck, sobbing. The doctor bent over to her, while a man Kara knew as the first mate and another crewman tried to disperse the crowd. “Everybody, please return to your cabins or belowdecks right now.”
But the crowd was in no mood to leave. Muttering could be heard from several of them, and Kara caught the word “witflame” more than once.
Evidentally the first mate had heard it too, for a dark look crossed his tanned face as he went to the doctor and whispered in his ear. The doctor quickly rose and approached the murmuring crowd.
“People, please, there is nothing to fear here. This patient was suffering from a typical fever that spiked too high, and unfortunately, while walking on the deck for air, he…” the doctor glanced over his shoulder at the weeping mother, “…suffered an incident that made him temporarily take leave of his senses. It was absolutely nothing contagious, I assure you.”
“I told you…every time I come out, people leave.” Var said as she turned her black-eyed gaze on Kara. “He was only the first.”
“Stop saying that!” Kara said, making her mother glance at her.
“Kara, who are you talking to?”
“My…friend, Var—” Kara looked down to see the dark-haired girl had vanished yet again.
* * *
On the ninth day of the trip, plague fear had taken hold of everyone.
Despite the protestations of the increasingly tired-looking doctor, several more “fever” cases had broken out aboard the Makhum. Each fever was accompanied by flushed skin, dehydration, and severe hallucinations—all symptoms of witflame.
The afflicted were put into a separate section of the ship, but this did little to assuage the rest of the passengers. The crew also grew more and more worried, muttering among themselves about what to do now that the plague was aboard.
Kara’s parents were also fearful, and had restricted her access to the rest of the ship. “We cannot risk you getting hurt, darling,” her mother had said over Kara’s protests that she felt fine.
Stuck in their cramped section with the rest of the lower-class passengers, Kara overheard snatches of several increasingly frightened conversations:
“—we’ve been turned away from the last two ports we came to, and water’s getting low. If we don’t find a place to replenish stores soon, we’re going to starve!”
“—the captain’s got to see reason sooner than later. Why should all of us die because some are ill?”
“—I agree. I think we ought to toss the rest of ’em who’re afflicted overboard, to save those who ain’t!”
“—I’m sure that Azure-damned doctor’s part of this whole thing. By the Void, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was the one who brought the damned witflame aboard!” When she heard that, Kara realized she hadn’t seen the gray-haired doctor in the past few days.
The passengers and crew had also chosen sides, mostly against each other. Even Kara noticed the once polite interactions had grown cold and suspicious. A small scuffle had even broken out when two crewmembers had accused an upper-class passenger of hoarding water. It had been quickly broken up, but done nothing to lessen the tension everyone felt.
When the tenth victim had been diagnosed and moved from the hold to the quarantine section, Kara had snuck after them while her parents slept, wanting to see what was going on in there. She had only gotten as far as the corridor outside the room when she was stopped in her tracks by the frenzied babble of a chorus of voices, all shouting, howling, screeching, laughing, or crying. The stench of sweat and other bodily odours filled the hallway, strong enough to make her gag.
The cacophony was so loud Kara clapped her hands over her ears and backed away from the room. As she retreated, she bumped into someone, and turned around to see Var standing there, a sad look on her round face. Even in the wan light of the corridor, she looked more hale than Kara remembered, her once-scrawny body now filling out, as if she had been eating well recently.
Var shook her head. “You shouldn’t be here.”
Kara’s mouth opened and closed in horror before she was able to gasp out. “I just…I wanted to see…I need to get away…need to get out!”
Var grabbed her hand and pulled her down the corridor and up the stairs until they were both standing in the open air. Other than the two of them and a few scattered crewmen, the entire deck was deserted.
Kara ran to the railing and stood on her tiptoes to lean over it, her stomach churning. She took deep breaths of the clean air until the feeling subsided. She swallowed one last time, then turned to Var. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” the black-haired girl, her pale skin glowing in the sunlight, smiled. “I can’t have my very first friend get sick, now, can I?”
“Why aren’t you affected by the witflame?” Kara asked.
Var shrugged. “Why aren’t you?”
“I don’t know,” Kara replied. “Do you think it will get me in time?”
Var smiled. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”
Before Kara could ask what she meant by that, a passing crewmember noticed her. “Hey, Kara, you need to go below right now. No one’s supposed to be up here.”
“Okay, Ralt, let me get Var—” Kara looked around, and this time she saw her friend standing behind the crewman. Before Kara could do anything, Var reached out and gently touched Ralt, who didn’t seem to notice anything unusual.
She silently followed Ralt as he wiped his sweating brow with his sleeve, then escorted Kara back to her parents.
* * *
On the night of the twelfth day, something Kara’s father called a “mutiny” occurred.
They had been awakened by shouts and the sounds of running feet. Kara and her parents huddled in the hold as the clash of metal against metal occurred above them.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
“Some of the crew are fighting to take control of the ship from the captain,” her mother replied.
“Do we want them to win?”
Her mother exchanged a worried look with her father. “I don’t know, Kara.”
“I hope Ralt is on our side,” Kara said. Only then did she realize that she hadn’t seen him since he’d taken her back to her parents a few days ago.
The fighting continued for a few minutes, then a crewmember Kara didn’t know all that well came down into the hold, a lantern held high. “It’s all right…it’s over…Captain’s Perth is still in command of the Makhun. We’ve captured the mutineers and are holding them in the forward bow room until we can put into port and offload them.”
Kara’s mother and father both breathed sighs of relief.
“It won’t make any difference, you know,” Var said from beside Kara. “They’re all going to leave you.”
This time, she didn’t reply to her friend.
* * *
The next morning, Kara woke up to see her mother turned away from her, her entire body trembling. Kara’s father was bent over her, trying to get her to drink what little water they still had.
Before Kara could speak, her mother sat straight up in her sweat-soaked blankets and screamed a wordless cry of pure terror. Shoving aside her husband’s hand, she crawled over to the wall of the ship and began scrabbling at it in a frenzy, as if trying to climb it. Only then did she speak, her words tumbling out in a rapid stream of fright.
“We’re going to fall the hull is gone we’ll fall into the Void we can’t stay up we’regoingto fallWE’REGOINGTOFALL!!!!”
Kara’s father rushed to her side and tried to pull her away from the wall, but she beat at him in a sudden rage. He attempted to wrap his arms around her, but she flailed wildly at him, shrieking incoherently about falling into the Void the while time, until one of her fists caught him in the cheek and sent him staggering back. He slipped on the blankets and fell heavily, his head smacking into the hull floor.
“DA!” Kara ran to him and pulled his head into her lap, but he didn’t move. “HELP! “SOMEBODY HELP US!” she screamed over her mother’s insane cries.
“They’re going to die, too,” Var whispered into her ear. “Everybody dies sooner or lat—”
“SHUT UP, CHVAROBA!” Kara screamed. “SHUT UP AND GO AWAY FOREVER!”
For a moment, there was absolute, chilling silence. Kara couldn’t even hear the sobs of her sick mother any more. “I thought you were my first true friend. You told me so,” Var said. “But you’re just like the rest of them. Fine, you wish to stay here with the dead, so be it.”
“Var—VAR, WAIT!” Kara screamed through her tears, cradling her father’s bleeding head as her mother clawed at the wall. “COME BACK! I’M SORRY!”
* * *
Kara no longer knows what day it is anymore.
She stays in the hold, where it is cool and dim, a lot now. She used to hear noises both above and below her—the thump of booted feet, the gibbering, laughter, and screams of the remaining passengers and crew—but as more days passed, those sounds grew less and less, until now, it is just her.
Kara’s father never woke up from the blow to his head. She tried to care for him as best as she could, but one day she woke up, and he was stiff and unmoving. Kara cried for hours, until she curled up next to him and fell into an exhausted sleep. Kara’s mother left the hold at some point in the past several days, and Kara doesn’t know where she went, or even if she’s still alive.
The smell below decks is indescribable. Kara has existed on the meager stores her parents managed to hide away, and when those ran out, she crept out of their corner to search for things to eat. She’s dimly aware that the ship is still moving, still sailing forward, but she doesn’t know where it’s going, or how long it’s been going.
Occasionally she sees things as she creeps around. Bodies of men and women who have succumbed to the witflame, or others who either hurt those still living, or themselves. Whenever she comes across one of them, Kara doesn’t look, but gingerly steps around their swollen, misshapen bodies and keeps going.
She has managed to find enough food and water to survive, but each time she comes back with less. Once, she went all the way up to the captain’s quarters, hoping to find something there, but his room was ransacked, with only broken furniture and pulled out drawers left behind. Of Captain Perth, there was no sign, save for a large, dried red-brown stain in the middle of the floor.
The only other thing she keeps with her is the smooth, cool black stone. When not looking for food, she rubs it for hours while searching below deck endlessly, calling out to her only friend Var.
She never receives an answer.
* * *
“Still say you’re mad, Quint, but it’s yer funeral.”
Paulun Fark, the junk master of Soothill, shugged a flabby shoulder and stepped aside from the gangplank that had been laid to the battered deck of the Makhum.
The ship looked like it had been through a half-dozen miasma storms, and maybe a war or two before ending up here. The mainmast was gone, and the remaining sails on the mizzen were nothing but tattered remnants. The bridge was stove in, and the ship’s deck blackened from lightning strikes. At some point someone had painted the figurehead—the head of a Terrorbeak Roc—with blood-red paint on its beak. Below it, someone had managed to dangle off the bow to cross off the ship’s name and scrawl “PLAGUE SHIP” in erratic, crimson letters.
“It’s not even good fer scrap—we havta scuttle it,” Fark continued. “And it’s blocking the port. Why don’t you just let me and my men do our jobs and put the torch to it?”
Quintus Grant regarded the portly junkman with a grey-eyed stare of disdain. “Not until I’ve done my inspection.”
Without waiting for an answer, he stepped onto the gangplank and headed aboard. He was alone, as none of his men wished to go aboard a possible plague ship. Truth be told, Quintus didn’t really want to either, but as the harbourmaster, it was his responsibility to do so, and the moment he’d seen the Makhum being towed in, he knew he had to go aboard.
The topside had been scoured clean by the Azure, but below decks was a very different story. Bloated bodies lay sprawled in the corridors and rooms. Some bore evidence of terrible violence inflicted on them. Others still clutched bloodstained weapons in their hands. Quintus had seen his share of awful things in his lifetime, from accidents at the harbour to his term in the Summit Navy ten years earlier, but the conditions below were enough to turn even his strong stomach.
“Hello? Anyone alive in here?” His words fell like lead in the stifling silence of the putrid-smelling room. Normally, Quintus would have tried to locate the engine room to see if the crystal could be salvaged, but the law on Summit was clear—nothing was ever salvaged from a plague ship.
Pulling his shirt up over his mouth and nose in a vain attempt to block the smell, he called out again. “Hello? Is anyone in here?” He cast his lantern light around once more, and was about to head back topside when he heard a noise—a muffled whimper from the aft section.
“Hello? Can you hear me?” He stepped forward, his boots slipping in a layer of greasy muck he did not want to examine more closely. “Where are you?”
The whimpering continued, and Quintus traced it until he found the source—a skinny girl of no more than five years old, curled up next to a blanket-covered form that he wasn’t about to touch.
He squatted next to the little girl. “Hey, hey, it’s all right now, you’re safe now.” He carefully reached out for her. “Why don’t you—”
“DA!!!” she screamed and fell into his arms, sobbing. “MA!!!! VAR!!! VAR!!!”
* * *
Harbourmaster’s Daily Report:
Processed abandoned ship Makhum, out of the port of Orun, today. Vessel was heavily damaged and showed signs of the passengers and crew carrying the Witflame Plague. Ship’s medical logs and captain’s logs confirm condition of vessel. The Makhum was put to the torch, and its remains were cast into the Void.
Upon my inspection, I discovered a lone survivor aboard, a little girl about five years old who is listed in the passenger manifest only as Kara. She was hungry and weak from her time on the derelict, and became hysterical when first approached. (And who wouldn’t be, after being trapped in a plague ship for what looked to be several weeks at least?) She otherwise appears to be relatively healthy. Per regular procedure, I have placed her in the 30-day quarantine required for all suspected contaminated vessels. I plan to keep an eye on her progress as she recovers.
One minor mystery that still lingers—the druids caring for Kara have told me that she often cries out in her sleep—sometimes for her parents, and sometimes calling for someone named “Var.” A review of the passenger manifest reveals no such person listed on board the Makhum. Possibly her nightmares refer to a friend from back home. When she is feeling better, I will ask her about this mysterious friend—perhaps there is information to be gained about what happened in Orun, and on the Makhun itself.
Dated and signed,
This week’s Archive story was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.