For a moment, nothing happened. Then she felt Justin’s body begin to dissolve. One moment he was there, the faint beat of his heart through his ribcage, the rise and fall of his chest under her trembling hands. Then there was a feeling like waving your hand through a cloud of steam. Black smoke flowed out around her. The men on the boat were shouting. They looked nervous. The smoke grew, rolling outwards until it filled the whole of the rooftop. There was so much more of it than she had expected. It grew as it rose into the sky, a towering shape forming above them. It gathered like a storm cloud over her. The shape spread into two great swathes, like wings. Details began to form, each gleaming feather larger than a kite. The raven’s body was so vast that it could have been an aircraft. Its glistening black eyes were each the size of a beach ball. Talons, ugly yellow and large enough to lift a car, dug deep into the rooftop. Black wings shook out, the back draft rocking the tiny ship as it pulled away from the rooftop. For a moment the curve of the raven’s beak seemed like a cruel smile.
He took to the air. She felt a thunderclap split the sky and the tower shook beneath her feet. The tiny boat tried to flee away, but Justin took off after it, wings cutting the air in motions that seemed slow, almost gentle, until she realised just how fast he was moving.
She could hear the gunshots ring out like a drum roll, as the crew let loose everything they had at point blank range. Tufts of feathers burst loose, as blood blossomed from a dozen wounds, but they were so tiny against his vast body. Talons lashed out, raking huge gouges into the hull, until one drew a ragged line across the back end of the deck and pure white light burst out from inside.
The slender ship was bathed in a corona of blue-white light as bolts of lightning arced across the hull. The raven reeled back, wing feathers smoking. She saw the men on the deck collapse, writhing in agony. One fell over the side, a small dark shape plunging towards the city below. The ship fell after him, tumbling out of the sky.
Looking around, she saw that Justin was gone; that vast black form had disappeared into the darkness. She couldn’t even hear the sound of his wings now. The ship was falling towards the streets far below. The second of the small white boats was also gone. Perhaps, she decided, Justin was off chasing it. In the distance she saw the larger airship swinging around towards them again. The building trembled.
Hearing a sound, she turned and saw a man’s face, crowned with fair hair, emerge over the side of the rooftop. Rakesh straightened up, his long white coat blowing in the wind. A sword hung from his belt. Rachael got to her feet, standing to face the man as he advanced on her with a look of fury in his eyes.
“You know, I blame myself,” he said, his voice as cold as the wind. “I had a lot of good chances to kill that little monster of yours. So, really, that blood is on my hands. Those men, they’re on my conscience. But you… You ignorant little child. You haven’t the slightest idea what you have just unleashed.”
The sword gleamed as it slid from the scabbard. She heard a sound on the wind, like rustling leaves. Then Justin appeared, cresting the side of the roof, his slipstream blowing her hair wildly. For a moment he simply hung suspended in the air over the rooftop, before swooping down, long sharp claws raking at the ground. Rachael looked around in time to see Rakesh roll aside, the talons barely missing him. Peeling away, Justin quickly wheeled around, coming in for another run.
As the great bird wheeled around to swoop in again a bright flash filled the air and she breathed in a hard, metallic scent. There was a loud ‘crack’ as the lightning bolt missed Justin by inches. She turned to see the larger vessel flying straight towards them at full speed. Standing at the prow, feet firmly planted and a long barrelled weapon of some sort nestled firmly in the crook of his shoulder, a man in a tan coat sighted and snapped off another shot. Again, the burning smell, as the lightning bolt creased Justin’s flank, charred black feathers falling away as the raven peeled off, diving below the edge of the tower. She called his name, her voice ragged, the words coming out as a sound like metal scraping on metal.
Below the body of the ship she saw a rope ladder dangling. Her foot resting on the very last rung, a blonde haired woman in dark clothes was hanging by one hand, her black cloak rippling in the wind as they neared. Glass panes rattled and broken shards fell loose in a glittering rain as the ship roared overhead. At the last second the woman let go, plunging towards the rooftop. Her cloak billowed out like wings.
Rachael watched the woman fall. She was astonished that anyone would even try to drop from that height. A flash of blonde hair showed amidst the tangle of dark clothes as the woman rolled and came to her feet, breathing hard, eyes alert.
Then, out of nowhere, Rakesh was on her, snatching hold of Rachael’s arm with a grip like iron. As she was hauled to her feet, she saw the second of the small white ships had returned. She could hear the buzz of the propellers as it drew close to the tower. Looking up, Rakesh gestured at the ship to come closer. As it neared the rooftop he moved towards the edge, dragging her with him.
“Hands off the girl,” Rachael heard the strange woman say, in a voice like a whip-crack. Rakesh turned to glance across his shoulder and his expression turned to one of faint amusement.
“Ilona? Fates, I’d heard the rumours, but… You know I just couldn’t believe it really. That the little Karvonen girl was shacking up with a crew of explorers. With Chandra, of all people. Amazing.”
“Tell me, Rakesh, did your father teach you to be an obnoxious little shit, or is it just breeding?” the woman growled.
Sneering, he turned to face her.
“You know, I think I still don’t believe it. I don’t think you ever had it in you to run away. I think your parents finally kicked you out. It wasn’t like they ever had a hope of finding a respectable man to take you. A little too much wear on the goods, don’t you think?”
Eyes flashing with rage, Ilona took a step forward. Then they all heard the rippling in the air, the sound coming from somewhere below the edge rooftop. Rachael looked down, and saw the dark shape skimming the surface of the tower, rushing up towards them, and the approaching ship.
Justin struck the small white boat at its centre, the spine of ship breaking across his shoulder as splinter of the shattered wooden hull rained around him. The ship fell, two broken halves continuing to disintegrate as they spiralled down towards the city below.
Barely slowed by the impact, Justin rolled into a dive, plunging towards the rooftop. Talons flashed out as she dropped to the ground and Rakesh threw himself clear. Ilona rolled aside, bringing up one hand in a clenched fist. The woman’s sleeve had fallen back to reveal a fine tracery of silver wrapped around her hand and arm, surmounted by a blue crystal. Sparks crackled around the silver filigree and a bolt of lightning arced out, striking Justin as he passed. His cry of pain was deafening, but Rachael felt a strange surge of joy as she saw one wing-tip catch the woman in the side, hurling her backwards. Ilona tumbled head over heels, nearly tipping over the edge of the rooftop as her limp form skidded to a halt. For a moment it seemed as if the blow had knocked her out clean, but to Rachael’s astonishment the woman’s eyes fluttered open again. With gritted teeth Ilona pulled herself to her feet.
Dipping a wing, Justin wheeled across the sky, coming around for another pass. Then she heard the sound of propellers growing louder, and through the downpour she made out the shape of the larger ship approaching, the last one still left flying. Rakesh was on his feet again and making his way towards her, the sword held loosely at his side. Then she heard another sound, and turned see Ilona charging headlong at them from across the rooftop. Rakesh turned and levelled his blade, but Ilona wasn’t coming for him. The impact made Rachael’s head spin, as one arm caught around her midriff. She felt the rushing wind and a sickening lurch in her stomach as Ilona carried her clear off the edge of the roof. For a moment they plunged through open air, nothing below them but the city streets. A dark shape tore across the sky, just above them, a blue light moving in the darkness. She caught a glimpse of the trailing rope ladder, as Ilona reached out a hand.
The woman’s fingers closed around the ladder, and her other arm tightened suddenly around Rachael’s waist, crushing the wind out of her. Her vision swam as the city seemed to pin-wheel beneath them. Ilona’s face was creased with pain, eyes squeezed shut.
“I strongly suggest you grab ahold,” the woman grunted, eyes closed and teeth still gritted against the pain. “It’s a very long fall.”
Rachael grabbed onto the nearest rung and held on tight. She felt a momentary urge to try to kick the woman off, but even the thought of it seemed like suicide.
Her hands shook, her fingers numbed by the cold.
“Climb,” Ilona roared, and she did so without thinking. Above them the engines screamed as the ship gained altitude, going flat out. On either side of the hull two massive blue crystals crackled with electricity. Her hands were numb with the cold, and as she caught each rung she felt sure it would slip free of her hands again at any moment. As the ladder twisted to and fro, she caught sight of a dark shape beneath them. Justin was closing on them, his wings cutting the air in long, sweeping arcs.
She reached the top and a pair of strong hands caught her by the shoulders and lifted her aboard. A tall man with a sharp jaw, and long brown hair tied back in a pony-tail. His duster coat rippled around them both as she collapsed onto the deck. The man smiled, as if he had done her some kind of favour. Rachael felt her stomach twist.
Arsha could feel the relief washing over her, as Micah pulled Rachael and Ilona up onto the deck. Already they were flying away from the glass spire at full speed. She could hear the wretched sound of the engines as the vast black shape of the raven came after them.
“Everyone hold onto something,” her father bellowed.
Arsha grabbed ahold of the railing and saw Ilona do the same. Micah threw an arm around Rachael, who seemed too stunned to even struggle as he grabbed at the opposite railing. Then her father threw a lever, and the crackling of the lightning in the floatstones ceased.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then her stomach felt as if it was going to lift up into her throat, as the Zephyr went into free-fall. Suddenly the sprawl of endless grey was rushing up to meet them.
“Micah, get this thing off my tail,” her father roared.
“I can’t get a clear shot from here,” Micah called back. Halfway down the deck he was holding tight to the railing. Rachael, was now holding on as well, seeming more worried about not falling off the ship than anything else.
They were still pitching forward, nose down, heading for the buildings below and the dark shape of the river beyond. Micah began to climb the railing, hand over hand, like a ladder. Arsha looked around herself and caught sight of two coils of rope, stashed at the back of the deck. Grabbing the nearest one, she tied off one end to the railing and threw the other end to Micah.
He grabbed the rope in both hands and nodded to her as he got to his feet. Using the rope to brace, he walked up the sloping deck. When he got to the back railing, he pulled the rope around himself in a loop and slung the other end across the hand rail, wrapping it around a few times before handing it to Arsha.
“Hold tight,” he said, and then leaned back into the sling he’d made. He levelled the lightning ballista and fired shot after shot. The bird ducked and weaved, but several shots came close, and after a bolt carved a scorched black line across the feathers of one wing it seemed to lose some distance on them.
Then she felt the crackle in the air as her father slammed another lever home, re-engaging the lightning cages and bringing the floatstones to life. The propellers screamed as they skimmed the tops of the nearest buildings, plunging towards the river. Her father spun the wheel and brought the Zephyr around in a tight arc. She felt the spray as one propeller skimmed the water. They levelled out, flying just a few feet above the river, weaving between the strange looking ships that dotted the surface. Up ahead Arsha saw a bridge looming over the water, two towers facing each other across the span, their tops connected by some kind of walkway that hung over the bridge itself.
When she realised what her dad was about to do, Arsha’s heart caught in her throat. He brought the Zephyr even lower, almost touching the water as they closed on the bridge. The raven still chasing them, vast wings tearing the air apart with every stroke. A spray of water surrounded them as the bottom of the hull rode the water, and then the bridge flashed overhead, barely missing the tops of the propellers. Immediately her father hauled the wheel back, bringing their nose up in a fast climb. Behind them Arsha saw the raven sweeping over the bridge, but not quite ducking the walkway. The bird caught the thin span with one wing, and it tore apart around that vast black body, a rain of debris scattering across the water.
Rachael screamed in terror as Tower Bridge whipped over their heads. She glanced back just in time to see Justin plough through the top of the bridge, pieces raining down in a cascade around him. The impact whipped his body around, sending him spiralling away. She let out a gasp as he levelled off, but their ship had already gained plenty of distance. They continued to climb higher as Justin gave chase.
Above them the clouds loomed, reaching down to envelope them. The air grew colder, and she shivered furiously, barely able to hold her grip on the railing. Heavy grey mist filled the air around them, until she couldn’t even see the deck in front of her. Then the clouds vanished and she was staring at a sky turned from black to silver by the light of a full moon.
A moment later the clouds beneath them burst apart, as Justin tore through into the open air. Rachael stared in awe. Caught in the silver moonlight, he was beautiful. His feathers shone, and the light gleamed from his beak and talons. She saw clearly the smouldering lines scored across his plumage by the lightning bolts.
“Faster,” the young man roared from the back railing.
“We can’t go any faster, Micah. The engines are about to explode,” the older man at the wheel shouted back.
The younger man shook his head and hefted the long silver rifle that he carried. Seeing him move to take up a firing position again, Rachael didn’t even think before throwing herself across the deck at him. She slammed into his back, and the impact knocked him off balance, the weapon nearly slipping from his grasp. He fell against the railing, tipping halfway over. Then a hand grabbed her by the shoulder and hauled her back. Ilona threw her across the deck and she slammed into the railing. She lay there, gasping for breath, with the icy air burning her lungs.
She rolled over and crawled to the nose of the ship, using the railing to stand. She looked back, and saw Justin closing even faster. The man raised his weapon and turned to fire, but already Justin was almost upon them.
She heard a crack of thunder that seemed to split the sky open. An arc of lightning as thick as a tree trunk seared the air above their heads, missing Justin by a little more than a few feet. It took her a moment to realise that the lightning had come from above the storm clouds. Then a shadow fell over them, as another ship soared overhead. It was the size of a battleship, shaped like a Roman trireme, with a nose that sloped back as it rose up to the deck. From the rear of the ship curved wings extended outwards on either side, forming a cross with the fins that protruded both above and below. At the back of the deck a tower rose up two full stories, topped by a massive window that wrapped around the sides of the structure. At the front of the deck a turret like protrusion wheeled about, angling a massive brass spike that appeared to be some kind of weapon, taking aim for a second shot. Lightning jumped from the tip of the spike again, ripping across the sky as Justin peeled away. Spiralling down, trailing smoke from his scorched wing feathers, he vanished into the clouds.
As Justin disappeared, the younger man raised the rifle to fire off a few parting shots. Screaming with rage, Rachael threw herself across the deck at him, lashing out wildly. He turned, startled, holding the rifle across his chest as a shield even as the other girl tried to step between them. Then Ilona grabbed at her, but this time she spun and kicked at the woman’s shins. Ilona dodged back and the kick caught in her coat tails, throwing Rachael’s balance off. As she recovered, the woman slapped the silver-gauntlet against her chest. There was a tiny blue flash, and every muscle in her body seemed to light on fire. She convulsed, twisted, and collapsed. She never even felt herself hit the deck.
The Zephyr levelled out and Rishi eased off the throttle, slowing to docking speed. He pulled the tiny ship around so that they were flying level with the Triskelion, and set them gently down on the deck.
Pulling herself up from the floor at the back of the boat, Arsha walked across to the where the girl lay collapsed on the ground.
Breathing a heavy sigh, her father ran a hand through his hair.
“Ilona…” he said, disapprovingly.
“Don’t even start.” Ilona scowled at him, still clutching at her bruised side and gasping for breath.
“You should get Milima to see to that,” he said at last, turning away. With a strained expression, Ilona turned and began to climb down the ladder. Micah and her father set about lowering the unconscious girl down to the deck below, and then Micah carried her inside. Arsha watched it all in a kind of daze. As the adrenaline faded, she found her head swimming as she struggled to take in everything that had just happened. Then her father turned towards her. It was just the two of them left out on the deck, moonlight casting everything with an unearthly glow.
His hands were strong as he pulled her close.
“Thank you, Arsha. Thank you. I’m so proud of you.”
She felt the warmth of him, as she let her face fall against his chest. His arms enclosing her, his long coat shielding her from the wind. She knew she should feel safe, protected, in her daddy’s arms, but she couldn’t seem to block out the way his voice trembled, the way his body seemed so frail, so small. She knew she should feel safe, but she couldn’t remember a time she had ever heard her father sound quite so afraid.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.