“Staring at the mess we’ve made…what was once has gone away…”
“Will you keep it down, Varsh?” Raya hissed as she pulled at her stiff leather breastplate, trying to let the sweat trapped between it and her sodden shirt find an escape route. “Got enough problems watching this place without your caterwauling.”
Varsh fell silent for a moment, then grinned as he scratched his blond head. “Come on, Raya, you know the Order just sent us out on a wild thrait chase tonight. Nine out of ten times their so-called ‘urgent tip’ in Gelspar is nothing more than a long night sitting on our arses waiting for something that never happens.” He hummed another snatch of the mournful ballad he’d been composing for the past couple hours. “Might as well work on my latest tune while we’re stuck here.”
“Well, I’d appreciate you making at least a cursory effort to keep watch here, all right?” she replied, her gaze never straying from the warehouse near the airship docks a few misshapen blocks between the Red Market and the Port of Dreams. “And for the record, I think tonight we will find something. There’s just something in the air tonight…”
“If you say so.” He shrugged. “For me, this is just another night on slum duty, courtesy of our superiors. You know the saying, ‘The Order’s Gelspar force is like mushrooms—’”
“‘—kept in the dark and fed lots of dung’—yeah, I know it.” She shook her head, blowing a damp tendril of black hair out of her eyes. “Doesn’t mean I believe it, though. Someone’s got to chase these rumours down.”
At least I hope the tip is right for once, she thought. Varsh’s comment wasn’t incorrect—the higher-ups often sent newer soldiers on “Gelspar Tours,” patrols into the slum to try to stem the tide of stolen and smuggled goods and other crimes that plagued the cobbled-together district. Too often, these expeditions were thrait-chases—leading to nothing of import.
“And since you’re doing such a bang-up job, Corporal, I’m going to continue working on my song,” Varsh said. “To the sky we must go…” he sang softly. “A new home, we will build our Adriel…”
Raya shook her head, unable to prevent a smile from appearing on her lips. She turned her head just enough to sneak a glimpse at him, lounging on an improvised seat he’d created from a scrap of airship sail and some loose timber he’d found.
She had known him from childhood, and they had both played with the other children on the narrow streets of their neighbourhood in Adriel’s western quadrant, home to a mix of merchants, artisans, and the occasional scholar. Varsh came from a family of the latter, and had always been curious about everything that made up the world around him. He was also one of the smartest people she had ever known.
Which was why it had been a sharp shock to see him in her training class for the Military Order of Adriel. Raya had her own reasons for joining, but when she asked him why he was there, Varsh had simply winked at her and said, once again, that he was “curious about it.”
Sometimes she still believed that answer. Sometimes she could swear that he’d joined the Order to keep an eye on her. That last part was a notion she had swiftly disabused him of, outshining him in the unarmed combat and weapons classes. He was more than competent, but this tour of duty was more of a scholarly exercise for him, whereas Raya felt that the Order was her true calling.
Regardless of our different outlooks, we do make a pretty good team, she thought. Calm, patient, reflective—everything Raya wasn’t—which was why they made such good partners out here, with his level-headed thinking offsetting her cunning, ability to see all sides of a scenario, and general eagerness to seize the initiative.
Initiative like what we’re doing tonight, she thought as she returned her attention to the dark, silent warehouse down the block. Despite what Varsh had said about their mission this evening, Raya knew better.
Amid the piles of rotting garbage, the scrap-built shelters, and the furtive, scurrying populace—at least half of which were either on their way to or returning from some sort of illicit activity—she sensed the feeling that always descended over Gelspar toward the end of Tradeharvest.
The end of the harvest and selling seasons meant that soon the dozens of airships that had crowded the docks over the past few weeks would shrink from a flood to a small, steady stream. And as they stopped coming, the vast tide of trade goods that kept the commercial arteries of Adriel flowing—and which enterprising gutterkin from Gelspar schemed to get their hands on—would slow down as well.
Those who had already made their scores this season had moved or fenced their hauls and retreated back to their boltholes in the slum, content to drink or dice or fritter away their money in any number of ways. Those who didn’t, however, knew that the clock was ticking for them to make their pile before the last flights lifted off. Out of desperation, those street rats often took risky jobs that were either too dangerous for them, or simply not worth the trouble.
All of which was why Raya and Varsh were sweating in this formerly abandoned lean-to. The cloying, sickly smell inside was worth the decent view of their target, a warehouse where an informant had claimed a smuggled food shipment was arriving tonight.
“Head’s up…we’ve got something.” Raya peered into the darkness as a bobbing light approached the main door of the warehouse. She counted two figures in the hooded lamplight.
“That tip was solid, huh?” Varsh breathed beside her, watching as the newcomers checked the street for watchers, then wrestled the door open and slipped inside, sliding it closed behind them.
“This warehouse has no scheduled arrivals for the rest of the week. Too bad I won’t get to hear how your song ends—but we’ve got smugglers to arrest.” Raya checked her sword and throwing blades, then slipped on her leather helmet and fastened the chin strap before turning to him. “Ready?”
Varsh nodded, his handsome face all efficient business now, any trace of the easygoing balladeer gone. Easing aside the weathered metal sheet that had served as their door/lookout port, the two officers slipped through the shadows toward the warehouse, their heavy boots scraping across wooden boards with one step, then drumming on a heavy metal plate with the next.
Reaching the building’s wall, they also checked for any sign of guards or anyone else taking notice of them, but the deserted side street was quiet at this hour. Varsh cautiously tried the door, but it only moved an inch or two before stopping. “Something’s holding it closed.”
“Hold on.” Placing her ear to the door, Raya listened, hearing low voices from deeper within. She tugged at the door, then peered through the gap left by their attempts. Drawing a thin-bladed throwing knife, she slipped it into the crack and began sawing. Moments later, the rope holding the door shut parted, and Varsh slowly rolled it open, supporting it so it wouldn’t scrape or rumble across the ground.
Her blade still in hand, Raya darted inside. The cavernous building was large, and could easily hold a half-dozen airships in the row of open, bottomless stalls that would allow the vessels to dock from below. Tonight, only one slip, the second one down, was occupied. The perfect place to load and unload cargo that people don’t want the Council—or perhaps even the Merchant Clans—to know about, she thought.
Wooden scaffolding and blocks and tackle ringed each stall, which was surrounded by walkways allowing people to come and go from the airship itself. At the front of each slip was a space where the cargo could be offloaded… which was exactly what three crewmembers were doing. On the staging platform, the two men from outside had joined a third, apparently reviewing a manifest of their illicit cargo. The one holding the paperwork was cloaked and hooded, and Raya couldn’t get a good look at their features.
Raya and Varsh snuck through the jumbled piles of boxes on the first dock slip to get closer to the smugglers. They took cover behind a pungent stack of Kardelan bark-spice crates and observed their quarry for a few moments.
“They look like they’ll be here for a while,” Varsh whispered. “Should we get back-up?”
Raya shook her head. “The three on the platform are the ones we need to be concerned with. Those crewmen won’t have the stomach for any kind of fight.”
“I don’t know—that third one’s kind of big,” Varsh muttered.
“You’ve taken on guardsmen twice his size in training,” she hissed back.
“Yeah—in training. This isn’t training,” he said.
“Speed and surprise will win the day. Come on.” With that, she stepped out from behind the stacked crates and called to the busy men. “Citizens of Gelspar! This is the Military Order of Adriel! You are under arrest for the illegal transport of trade goods into the city! Lay down all weapons and illegal cargo and place your hands above your head!”
For a moment, every head around the ship turned in shock or surprise at the new voice. But their next reaction was an explosion of movement.
“Get them!” a man on the platform shouted as the person with the manifest took off deeper into the warehouse. The airship crew dropped their crates and charged up the walkway toward the two city guards.
“Get them, I’ll keep the crew off your back!” Varsh shouted.
“Halt!” Raya shouted as she drew her sword and charged forward at the two men on the platform. One tried to spin away, but the other drew a belaying pin and tried to meet her charge. Raya had built up a full head of speed and swept his club aside with her blade right before slamming into him. The attack drove the air out of his lungs, and he fell to the ground, the belaying pin flying from his fingers. Raya reversed her sword and drove the pommel into the man’s forehead, knocking him unconscious.
Her takedown of the smuggler gave his partner enough time to close the gap, a dagger held overhead. Raya shifted aside, then helped the man continue his reckless charge with a hard shove—straight toward the docked airship.
Unable to stop in time, he hit the railing and crashed right through it, falling into the space between the ship and the dock. His long, despairing scream soon faded out of earshot.
Raya turned to see Varsh fending off two of the crewmen; the larger third one was nowhere in sight. Even against two, he held his own with relative ease. Varsh’s fighting style relied more on dexterity and timing, while Raya preferred overwhelming her opponent with a full-on assault.
Aiming carefully, she threw a blade into the back of one of the men. The strike distracted him enough that Varsh was able to get the upper hand and knock him on his arse. The other one raised his hands in surrender, then collapsed to the deck as Varsh knocked him out with the hilt of his sword.
“I had them, you know!” he called as he ran toward her.
“Come on, they’re getting away!” Raya said as she took off into the warehouse, Varsh pounding at her heels.
Movement in the shadows alerted her to a possible ambush, and Raya dropped to her knees as something blurred at her. The projectile flew overhead to impact something behind her with a meaty thud, and she turned to see Varsh look at the quarrel sticking out of his breastplate.
“I’m all right—keep going!” he shouted.
Raya got up and kept running. Spotting the cloaked figure ahead, she drew another throwing blade and aimed, but even as she did, the smuggler suddenly rose into the air as if by magic.
Spotting the rope of the block and tackle, along with the net of crates counterweighting it to lift the cloaked figure, Raya put her throwing blade between her teeth, lunged forward, and grabbed the end before it could rise out of reach. She soared into the air after the fleeing smuggler, who reached the block and tackle first, attached to a heavy roof beam. A blade flashed in their hand as they sawed at the heavy rope holding the apparatus to the beam.
Still several yards away, Raya looked around and kicked with her feet, trying to push herself over toward a nearby walkway. She swayed once as the block dropped a few inches, then kicked with all her might and swung herself toward the railing just as it fell from the beam. Grabbing it with one hand, she scrambled up as the smuggler slipped across the roof beam to a skylight.
Hauling herself over the railing, Raya grabbed the blade from her teeth and hurled it at the smuggler. It seemed to pierce the cloak they were wearing, but didn’t slow her opponent down at all. Raya ran to a ladder on the wall that would take her to another skylight nearby, climbing as fast as she could. She heard footsteps below her, and knew Varsh was close behind.
She shoved the wooden and glass covering open, then heaved herself through, rolling across the sloping slate roof in case the smuggler had set up a second ambush. No blade greeted her, however, and Raya came to her feet with her own sword in hand, searching for her prey.
She spotted the smuggler climbing out of the next skylight a few yards away. “Stop right there!” she shouted. In answer, the smuggler brought up a crossbow and fired it again at her. This time Raya batted the missile out of the air as she sprinted forward. “You’re under arrest!”
The criminal’s only reply was to run toward the far edge of the roof, but Raya knew there was no escape there, as the other end of the warehouse fronted the edge of the slum, and the vast emptiness of the Azure beyond.
“There’s nowhere left to run,” Raya said between pants for breath. “Drop your weapons.”
The figure turned, and Raya was taken aback as their face was revealed in the moonlight. Cold blue eyes glared at her from a white skull face. It took Raya a few startled moments to realize that her opponent had painted her face the colour of bare bone.
The person made no move to drop any weapons. “I thought your voice sounded familiar. It’s been a long time, Raya.”
“What…? Who…who are you?” Raya asked, even as she stared closer at the person.
They pointed at their face. “Even under this, you know who I am, don’t you? After all, we used to run the streets of Thracen together.”
“…Carsyn?” The name was almost a blow from Raya’s past. Carsyn had been a friend of hers growing up, living in the same middle-class neighbourhood as she and Varsh had…until one day when she and her entire family had disappeared. Raya had cried and cried, and never found out what had happened to her…until now.
“What happened to you?” she asked. “Why are you here? Why are you doing this?”
“It’s what I had to do to stay alive,” Carsyn snarled. “When my father wouldn’t pay off a Merchant Clan for preferential treatment, they blacklisted him, drove him out of business. He ended up taking a walk in the Azure. My mother never recovered. We lost everything…our house… our standing… and ended up down here, in Gelspar.
“But enough about me—look at you here.” The skull-faced smuggler nodded at her. “All grown up and joined the oppressors. The uniform fits you well… but then again, you always were a good little follower.”
“The Order is not the oppressors of the—” Raya began.
“—City? Is that what you were going to say?” Carsyn shook her head. “You can’t possibly tell me that you believe they don’t oppress Gelspar, with their sweeps and their roundups. That the Order isn’t under the thumb of the Council, just eager armed lapdogs that carry out their noble masters’ bidding—and crush anyone who might get in their way.” Carsyn spat on the roof. “Even you can’t be that blind. That food down there would feed starving families in Gelspar, not go to waste stuffing already fat merchants and barons up in Adriel!”
“But smuggling isn’t the way to fix that,” Raya said. “There are other ways to help the people down here—”
“—How would you know? You only come down here long enough to bust some heads and arrest people just trying to make a living, then you scurry back to your safe Order barracks behind high walls!” Carsyn replied. “You know nothing of what really happens down here!”
Raya was taken aback by her words—not by what she said, but the vehemence with which she said it. Trying to catch her former friend off-guard, she asked, “What’s with the face paint? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Terrifying, isn’t it?” The blue eyes widened, making the skull look even more menacing. “You’d best get used to it, Raya. There’s a new gang in Gelspar, and we’re gonna make everyone else look like children splashing in the mud by the time we’re through. Me and my friends are playing a new game down here, and if you don’t learn the rules quick, you’ll end up just like your friend there.”
Footsteps pounded on the roof behind her, and Raya looked out of the corner of her eye to see Varsh breathing hard as he came up behind her. Puzzled, since he looked fine, she turned back to her former childhood friend. “You’re still breaking the law, Carsyn. I don’t have a choice.”
“Oh, but you do,” the smuggler said, even as Varsh groaned. Raya turned to see her partner fall to his knees, his face ashen as he clutched his chest.
“Varsh, what’s wrong?” she said, almost stepping toward him before turning back to Carsyn and pointing her sword at the other woman. “Don’t you move!”
“If you arrest me, the poison will finish its work,” Carsyn said. “That is your choice, Raya: arrest me, or save him.” She reached beneath her cloak and withdrew a small vial. “The cure. One last favour, just because we grew up together.”
She tossed it in a high arc toward Raya, who involuntarily followed the rise of the small glass vial with her gaze before dropping her gaze back to her former childhood friend. But even as she did, Carsyn stepped backward off the roof and fell out of sight.
“Get…her…” Varsh said through gritted teeth, even as a new spasm of pain convulsed his body.
Raya ran to the edge to see Carsyn running off into the night, coiling a rope as she ran. She turned back to see Varsh keel over and began sliding toward the edge of the roof.
“VARSH!!” Raya screamed. She threw herself at him, hitting the slate tiles and sliding forward, arm outstretched, groping for his boot as he skidded toward empty air.
She was an arms-length too far away. Soundlessly, Varsh slid off to plummet to the street below. His body landed with a sickening crash on the boards of Gelspar.
Raya lay there, sobbing for long minutes. When she finally raised her head, Carsyn was gone, and she was alone on the warehouse roof.
* * *
Raya stood at numb attention as the black-swathed form was carried to the edge of the Military Order of Adriel’s headquarter grounds and placed on a white stone dais. She listened as their commander gave the eulogy for Varsh, citing his noble service and promising swift retribution on those who had carried out this foul deed.
The gleaming metal stripes on the shoulder of her dress uniform, signifying her promotion to Corporal First Class, weighed heavily on her, since she alone knew what had happened for her to earn them. She forced herself to keep her head up, looking out into the bright Azure that stretched to the horizon and beyond.
The Order had turned the operation into a qualified success—breaking up a smuggling ring, with the unfortunate loss of one of their finest. And they weren’t technically wrong, either—Carsyn and her associates had been breaking the law, and what had happened to Varsh was in the line of duty.
But still… Raya kept replaying their conversation over and over in her head, going over the clear threats to both Gelspar and Adriel. What was this new gang that was forming? And why the painted skull-faces? Were these people for the people, which was why they were feeding them, or just getting the populace on their side for some other more dangerous purpose?
Whatever they were planning, she knew that she would be there to stop them, especially if they intended to do harm either to Adriel…or Gelspar. I will find out what they intend, and I will stop them, she thought, no matter what it takes.
But as she stood there with the rest of her fellow officers, Raya realized that another task lay before her. Her former childhood friend’s words about the organization she was dedicating her life to had stung her deeply. Raya knew she could not let the Merchant Clans nor the Council of Nobles sway the Order to their own ends. If Adriel—and Gelspar—are to survive, I will also make sure that the Order does not become what Carsyn accused it of being.
“And now, Corporal First Class Raya has requested one last salute to Office Varsh before we commend his body to the Azure,” the commander said. “If you will all rise and lend your voices.”
The assembled body of Order officers rose as one and readied their sheets of paper. A quartet of mulflutes and half-veolats began a mournful sounding dirge, and at the signal from their commander, the men and women of the Order broke into solemn song.
“The fire on the ocean,
The floating of the poison on the way.
A dream of a cityscape,
From fear and hope Adriel was made…”
As they sang, Raya’s hand clutched tight around another scrap of paper. It contained missing verses that she had removed from the sheet of parchment she had taken off of Varsh’s body before the reinforcements had arrived. She knew the Order would never agree to voice these words, not even for one of their own who had fallen. There could be no doubt about their goals, their mission…no doubt whatsoever.
And now, standing and watching as the Order’s honour guard picked up Varsh’s body and readied it to be cast out into the Azure, she sang those missing verses under her breath.
“Staring at the mess we’ve made,
What was once has gone away.
Living in the end of days,
Of us, the dark will be afraid.
Nothing could ever be the same
What was once has gone away.
Living in the end of days,
Of us, the dark will be afraid.”
* * *
Give Varsh’s song, the unofficial song of the Military Order of Adriel, a listen below or visit our store to download it for free.
* * *
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™. Varsh’s Song was composed, written, and performed by Ryan Morris.