by: Derek Schneider ((Header art by Chris Smith.))
An adventure story, where loyalties are tested amid a journey that leads to uncharted sectors of the world…
There’s no sound but the engine’s hum.
I turn to scan the sky behind me and find it void of pursuing ships. Below, the Varion Sea’s waves are choppy as the wind picks up from the storm that has moved in behind us. Across the deck and down in the cargo hold, Rosemary is still where I’d left her, bundled up and shivering in a pile of canvas sails. I touch a hand to her head and jerk it back at the blazing fever that burns there. Digging through my pack, I find the pills Balis gave me, pull the cork out of the bottle, and force one down her throat. Her fever breaks within minutes.
I allow myself to relax a little. The first part of my plan is over. Next came the hard part. Back on the deck, I sit with my back against the main mast of the ship and close my eyes. The cool breeze is a welcome friend. I’d sailed the skies before, but never like this. Never this far from home. Never on the run from the kingdom I’d served.
I sat in the courtyard spinning the chamber on my gun, a nervous habit of mine, a way to keep from appearing fidgety and awkward to those around me. The gun itself was a modified gun mage revolver. Heavier than the average gun that knights were known to use, I’d customized it myself to fire .44 caliber lead bullets instead of magic spells.
I was seventeen, fresh out of the academy. Having graduated at the top of my class, King Gidion himself had requested me for the knights and I was nervously awaiting my assignment. It wasn’t unheard of for someone so young to join the knights without field work as a deputy or tracker first, but it was rare. In those instances, the recruit received additional training from one of the veterans. I had no doubt extra training was in store for me.
The first knight entered the courtyard and approached me with a stern look on his face. “You are Dersher Von?”
I stood and holstered my gun. “Yes, sir.”
“I’m Kaivin Ray, First Knight for the Kingdom of Kolhm. Follow me.” Kaivin turned and walked quickly back toward the arched walkway he’d emerged from and I jogged after him to catch up. The archway led to a wide staircase that then split off in three directions, left, right, and straight ahead. The first knight took the stairs to the right and we came to a hall lined with exquisitely designed pedestals that each held a vase filled with purple orchids. We walked to the door at the very end of the hall and Kaivin knocked three times.
The woman that answered was clearly a servant, as she curtsied to the knight and then beckoned us to follow her inside. I stopped in my tracks when I first laid eyes on the woman being dressed before me in a light gown as her long, blonde hair was brushed out and then braided into a bun by more servants. Her emerald eyes met mine and I knew I’d never want to look into another’s as long as I lived.
“Dersher Von,” Kaivin said. “Meet Princess Rosemary. You are now her personal escort and protector. Welcome to The Kolhm Knights.”
The ship rocks violently and I’m brought out of my reverie. Turbulence. At least, I hope it’s turbulence. Once again, I scan the skies around us, and once again find we are the lone ship among the clouds. The air is growing thin and the wind harsh. I move to the controls of the ship to level us off, then decide to drop about a hundred feet. It would be foolheaded to die from a lack of oxygen after all I’d gone through to make this trip. All I’d lost.
Perhaps Kaivin was right. Perhaps this was a fool’s errand, but it was far too late to turn back now. I had taken on this mission alone, for better or worse. If we run into a horde of sky gremlins, the mission would come to an abrupt end. To a full crew the gremlins were no more than a common nuisance, easily dispatched, but alone they would overpower me. Alone, however, is where I’ve been with this idea from the start.
The arrow landed dead center of the target for yet another bullseye, joining its brethren that had landed there before. Though I was impressed as always with Rosemary’s archery skills, she seemed dismissive and bored with it all.
“Day in and day out it’s the same old thing,” Rosemary moaned. “Can’t you get me out of this daily routine? Take me out to the forest to hunt some grell? Or take me to frolic in a field of wheat? Anything at all to get out of this blasted castle and live a little? I’m eighteen, I should be starting my own life somewhere, not stuck under my father’s thumb as if I’m still a child.”
“Such is the life of a princess,” I said with a shrug. “Your father wishes for you to remain within the castle walls, where it’s safe, and that’s where I aim to keep you.”
She shook her head. “Same old Dersher, always by the book, never willing to take any risks.”
“Same old Rosemary, always trying to goad me into trouble, even though you know I’ll never take the bait.”
The princess smiled at this. The beautiful smile that had come to fill my every waking thought over the last year since I’d been assigned to her. As her protector, I was never far away, even sleeping in an adjacent room, yet I never seemed to grow tired of her. I never seemed to get enough of her, in fact.
After a moment, I realized I was smiling back at her and our eyes had locked in a way that seemed to suggest we were something more than princess and protector. I broke the stare immediately and looked away. Though my feelings for her could not be denied, I knew I’d never be able to succumb to them. One day she would be married off to royalty, perhaps taken to rule as queen in some distant country, and I’d be shuffled around into service elsewhere.
“Taking risks,” I said then, “is what earns some a short drop and a sudden stop. I’ve no desire to cross your father and end up at the gallows. Besides, you do have a trip coming up. Sailing the skies on an airship will be a nice break from the norm.”
Rosemary let out a sigh. “I suppose you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right. I’m always right.”
She laughed at this and I felt a slight flutter in my stomach, as I did every other time I’d made her laugh.
“You will be going on this trip with me, right?” she asked.
“Of course. I can’t let you out of my sight.”
“Good. I would prefer to have someone I know among my traveling companions. You know how I loathe getting to know new people.”
“Yes, though your charm hides it well.”
“Well, I’ve had years of instruction on etiquette, but the fact that I can bluff my way through it doesn’t make me any less anti-social.”
“I’m just glad you took a liking to me,” I said sincerely.
She reached out and rubbed my cheek with the palm of her hand. “What’s not to like?”
My face grew warm and though I knew I should have pushed her hand away, I couldn’t help but let it linger there. Finally, I stepped back and held my arm out for her to take. “Evening draws near, my lady, may I escort you to dinner?”
That wonderful smile came again and she placed her hand in the crook of my elbow. “I’d be honored.”
The grand dining hall impressed me every time I laid eyes upon it, with its high arching ceiling and exquisite chandeliers that hung over the long, finely crafted dining table. I showed Rosemary to her seat, pulled the chair out for her, then made my way to the kitchen where I always dined with the servants and other knights. Kaivin was there as usual and placed a friendly hand on my shoulder. He had taken me on for my additional training when I’d arrived at the castle, and through it, we had become close friends.
“How goes the archery lessons,” he asked.
“The princess should be the one giving lessons,” I answered honestly. “I’m nothing more than a spectator these days. She’s a natural.”
The first knight sat his plate down at the table in the seat next to me and eyed me closely. “Are you ready for this trip with our young princess? It will be the first time you escort her outside the castle walls.”
“I’m ready for anything.”
“Cocky as always, but I like that about you.”
I laughed at this, but our light supper was interrupted by a commotion in the main dining hall. I rushed to the room with Kaivin behind me only to find Princess Rosemary on the floor coughing. A rib rattling, hacking cough that arose from her stirred a grave concern in me. What was even more concerning was the puddle of blood she coughed up on the floor in front of her.
Above the hum of the engines and the creak of the mast, there came another sound, something foul and unholy, a screech I’d heard a few times before: Sky gremlins. I ready my gun, hide behind the main mast, and wait for the first of the monsters to land on the deck. The gremlins attack ships to feed on sailors and tear the vessels to pieces. There are some that believe they take the materials to build their own ships, amassing an army for an eventual full-on attack. Others theorize that it’s just their nature to be mischievous and destructive. Whatever their motivation, they were not creatures to be taken lightly.
I hear a thump on the deck and peer around the corner of the mast to spy a gremlin. His skin is a light green sheen, his muscles pulled taught over a small agile frame.
Dreadlocked hair spills from his head over a face that was born of nightmares, where bulging eyes and large pointed ears crest a pulled back mouth affixed in a perpetual grin revealing hundreds of needle-like teeth.
My best chance is to kill this creature before his friends land and then hit them as they touch the deck. I emerge from behind the mast and take aim, dropping the gremlin with a slug to the head. Two more gremlins land behind me and I turn to face them. Two more pulls of the trigger drop them where they stand. More are advancing, gliding down on the flaps of skin that stretch from their wrists and connect to the bottom of their shoulder blades. I take out three more before they hit the deck and quickly reload my gun.
Still more come. I do a quick count and come up with ten. Before I fire again, five more join the fray. Vastly outnumbered, I pull the long blade from my belt and go to work. A bullet for the gremlin on my right, the blade across the throat of the one on my left. My gun quickly drops three more while my blade cuts down two. Still they come, seemingly raining from the clouds. I fall back, narrowly avoiding a swiping claw. I’m on the ground with gremlins over me. I fire my chamber empty, ready to give in, when the arrows start, arrows shot from a bow Rosemary must have found in the ship’s armory. She drops the five nearest to me with ease and I take the time to reload. We clear the deck of them and I look to Rosemary in time to see her collapse. Rushing to her side, I take her in my arms. The medicine seems to have brought her fever down, but now she shivers violently. I pick her up, set on finding her a real bed.
The captain’s quarters is on the deck just below the bridge. I knew the door was locked when we came aboard and I hadn’t time to try and get in with the quick escape we’d had to make. I know I have to get in and take to kicking in the door. I need to make Rosemary as comfortable as possible and the only decent bed is likely the one brought on board for the captain. On the third kick, the door frame splinters and the door swings in. The room inside is lavishly decorated, with booklined shelves and detailed charter maps of all known lands in Terra Ferna rolled up in glass tubes. The bed is queen sized and covered with heavy quilts. I lie Rosemary down and cover her up in hopes of calming her shivering body.
“It’s alright, your highness,” I whisper to her. “We’re through the worst of it.”
I only wish I felt as sure as I sound.
“I feel she’s past whatever caused it,” Balis assured King Gidion outside of Rosemary’s door. “We’ll monitor her closely, but there seems to be nothing to worry about.”
I stood aside taking in the news with great relief.
“Should her trip be cancelled?” King Gidion asked. “It’s important for maintaining peace among the kingdoms, though not at the expense of my daughter’s health.”
Balis waved a hand. “I think she’ll be fine, but I shall accompany her as a precaution.”
“What caused this?” I asked.
“Most likely stress. Or possibly something she ate. Hard to say really.”
I knew first hand Rosemary wasn’t one to get stressed. She had little to stress about. And to my knowledge, she’d eaten nothing different than everyone else in the castle. There was something more going on. Something Balis either hadn’t considered, or didn’t want to consider.
The day of departure came around and I helped Rosemary aboard the Airship Golith with her luggage. Golith wasn’t the swiftest of ships, but it was heavily armed and could defend against any attack. Rosemary looked better, her color healthy, her stride strong. She was exuberant at the chance to finally see the world beyond her own kingdom. In fact, I thought she looked more beautiful than ever.
I was given a unit of men to take along on the trip, the king’s best soldiers to ensure Rosemary’s safety. And true to his word, Balis came along as well, with all of the medical equipment he could carry stuffed in a black case he kept at his side at all times.
I escorted Rosemary to her room and, as the ship lifted from the dock and into the cloudless sky, she bid me stay and keep her company. I stood near her chair as she spoke excitedly of the coming trip. “I cannot wait to sail over the Sea of Want. I hear it’s a wondrous sight. Have you seen it?”
The Sea of Want stretched between Kolhm and the Kingdom of Shail and had earned its name from an old legend about a broken-hearted siren that sang sad songs about her lost love. “I have not. I’m only familiar with the lands to the south of Kolhm.”
She studied me with a sly smile. “Ah yes, a simple country boy.”
“I’m not that simple. And I’m not that country.”
“I was only joking. I think I know you well enough by now to understand how you work.”
“Do you?” I said playfully.
Rosemary raised from her chair, looked around the room as if to be sure we were alone, then she stood on her tiptoes and kissed me lightly on the lips. She pulled away and in a whisper said. “I really do.”
With that, she walked out of the room, leaving me red faced and shivering from the suddenness of her lips pressed to mine.
The rest of the trip was uneventful and I stayed by Rosemary’s side as she took in the sites that the flight had to offer: The seemingly endless sprawl of the Sea of Want below, the passing ships and graceful flying humanoids known as Plothians. We arrived in the Kingdom of Shail, with its spiraling towers and crowded streets, and my eyes were peeled as I escorted Rosemary down the ship’s ramp. I was on guard for an attack or any sign of danger. I was not prepared for what came next.
“Dirsher!” Balis calls from behind us. I turned to see Rosemary collapse, blood spilling from her lips. Balis dropped beside her and quickly opened his bag. The coughing fit that followed sprayed blood all over the ramp.
“Do something,” I shout at Balis.
The doctor looked at a loss. “There’s nothing I can do.”
I realized then that he knew. Balis knew exactly what was wrong with her, but was afraid to admit it. Didn’t want to tell King Gidion that his daughter was dying.
I took a firm grip on his arm. “Balis, what is this?”
The doctor swallowed and forced himself to say the words. “The Red Disease.”
The engines sputter just as I throw the last of the dead gremlins overboard. Soon, the fuel will be gone and we’d be at gravity’s mercy. I rush to the front of the ship and look over the bow. Below, the ocean spread out in an endless canvas of blue. I knew we had to be close. We were nearly on top of the coordinates Balis had given me. Then I see it, just below.
Kaivin had laughed at my suggestion before the words had fully left my mouth.
“Dersher, my friend, your intentions are noble, but the Edge of the World is a myth.
Some scientist in Faun are saying the world may even be round now.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said dismissively. “The Edge does exist. I’m sure of it. The Falls are said to have healing powers.”
“Even if it were real, there’s not a ship that’s been built that could make such a journey.”
“The Cumulus could,” I insisted.
Kaivin laughed again. “You’re welcome to take your idea in front of his majesty’s court, but I’m afraid you’ll get the same reaction from them you just got from me.” The first knight suddenly grew serious and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Your intentions are admirable, but you must face reality. She’s slipping away and nothing, in all of Terra Ferna, can save her. No one has ever survived The Red.”
Kaivin left me with my churning thoughts. I knew he was right about King Gidion. He would never agree to the search for the Edge of the World. It was a legend. And even if we could get Rosemary there, we wouldn’t be able to make it back and The King would lose not only a daughter, but a knight, one of his finest ships, and a full crew. Nonetheless, I was determined to investigate the matter further. I went to Balis to find out what he knew of the mythos that was The Healing Falls.
“Well, it has been a constant source of debate amongst all men of medical science,” Balis said. His office was lined with bookshelves and on his desk, several candles were lit to shed light on the notes he was making in a medical journal. “There are some that believe Edge of the World is a misleading name for the location of The Healing Falls. If the world is indeed round, it has been theorized that the place we seek may be more of a portal into another realm. One possibly opened by one of the Ancient Ones as a paradise for those of us in their favor.”
“Surely there must be a way to enter this supposed paradise,” I said, hopeful.
Balis stood, his old knees cracked as he rounded his desk, and went to a large drum that held several rolled up nautical maps. He perused through them as he spoke. “A scientist in Glarn has taken all the stories from sailors and legends of old and combined them all to determine a location.” Balis found the map he was looking for and spread it out over his desk. “This is what he came up with. I had the chance to meet him a couple of years ago and we discussed the location in great detail. He then marked the exact spot on this map.”
I studied the marked location and my heart sank. “It seems impossibly far.”
“Indeed. Any attempted trip would be one way to be sure.”
I knew he was subtly suggesting I take the chance and try to find it. But, it would be treason. It would be kidnaping. It would be going against the very kingdom I’d sworn an oath to. But I also swore an oath to protect Rosemary, to ensure that she’s safe from absolutely any threat. And what’s more, I loved her dearly. My choice was made. “Doctor, may I take this map?”
“Take it with my blessing, sir. And take these pills as well for Rosemary’s fever.” He pushed the pills into my hand. “And may the ancient ones be at your sails.”
I waited till nightfall to make my move. My plan was thrown together in haste, but I could wait no longer. If I wanted to save Rosemary, I had to move fast.
By the time I made my way to Rosemary’s room, I had already been aboard The Cumulous and prepared it for departure in secret. The nurse that came from the princess’s room carried a basket full of blood stained rags and was crying as she moved down the hall. I entered to find Rosemary barely conscious and still being serviced by two more nurses. “Leave us,” I said. The nurse’s expressions were questioning. “I need a word with the princess. Please, the two of you must need a break. I’ll care for her in your absence.”
The women thanked me and exited the room. I sat at Rosemary’s bedside.
“I’m going to die,” Rosemary said, her voice weak.
“No. I have a plan.”
“The Healing Falls.”
“They’re a myth.”
“Nevertheless, I intend to hunt for them and I’m taking you with me.”
“My father would never approve of that.”
“Which is exactly why we’re leaving now, before anyone notices.”
“Rosemary, I love you. I can’t lose you. We must take this chance.”
She nodded. “I love you too.”
Rosemary’s cases were still packed from our trip and she had me grab the larger of the three with all her clothes. With the case in hand and my arm around her to help her walk, we left the room and took the back passages through the castle to avoid being seen. We’d just made it out when the alarm sounded. The bells rang throughout the kingdom. “Hurry,” I said. “Before they close the gates.”
We made it out just as the south gate came slamming down to a close. Sticking to the alleys and to the dark of the shadows I was able to get her to the docks, but heard the clatter of horses as the other knights made their way through the streets to find us. Up the ramp of The Cumulous, I led Rosemary below deck and helped her lie down on a pile of canvas sails. “Well, you said I should take more risks,” I joked. She gave a weak laugh but no response. “I just need to untie us and we’ll be on our way. Rest easy.”
Rosemary nodded, and I made my way back to the deck and down the ramp only to be met by Kaiven. “I knew I’d find you here.”
I turned to face him square, my fingers falling to the butt of my gun. “Yet, you came alone.”
“Yes, I thought I may talk some sense into you.”
“My mind is made up.”
“You took an oath to this kingdom,” the first knight said, enraged.
“I took an oath to her,” I returned. “I swore I’d let no harm come to her and I intend to see that through.”
Kaiven sighed and tried to reason with me. “Dersher, old friend, don’t so this. We can find another way. You will bring the entirety of King Gidion’s might down upon you.”
“There is no other way, Kaiven. And she won’t last through research for a cure. You know that. I must save her.”
“And I must stop you.” His hand hovered over his revolver.
“Don’t. You know I’m faster.”
“I know nothing of the sort.”
I kept my eyes on his. Sensing his next move. “Kaiven, please.”
The first knight said nothing in return. The other nights were getting closer, their torchlight could be seen moving through the streets. Was he stalling until they could overpower me? I wouldn’t take that chance. The moment seemed to stretch on and on. He went for his gun first and I went for mine.
Only one shot was fired.
The hole that appeared in Kaiven’s head was clean, unlike the exit wound on the other side. He fell dead with an expression of shock on his face. I untied the ship and hurried up the ramp to the controls. Soon, we were rising into the sky, leaving the knights to scramble for crewmen to pursue in the remaining ships. I turned the wheel and guided the ship away from the docks with a relieved mind and a broken heart.
I steer The Cumulous toward the odd reflection on the water. Exhilaration, or perhaps madness, engulfs me as we rush toward the ocean. I adjust the speed to slow the ship, but the engines stop. The fuel is gone and there is no slowing. I leave the bridge and rush for the captain’s quarters. Inside, I get into bed with Rosemary and hold her unconscious body close to mine. With the engines dead, the only sound is the rush of wind whipping at the sails. I have little hope that the sails will slow our decent. All I can do is wait and brace for impact.
What comes is not the sound of splashing water, but shattering glass as we hit the reflection on the ocean. Then, we crash. The impact throws us from the bed, but I keep my hold on Rosemary beside me as we tumble to the floor and trough the main cabin. Books fall all around us, glass breaks, charter maps unfurl and spread around the room as the ship hits solid ground and, somehow, is now slowing as it plows through the foreign terrain outside. Finally, we come to a stop.
I’m sore, but not seriously injured. I look over Rosemary for injuries and find she’s avoided any as well, but she is barely breathing. Taking her up in my arms, I climb from the cabin and out onto the deck to take in my surroundings. The shattered gate we came though is a hole in a deep blue sky that drips ocean water into the strange new world. Looking overboard, I find we’ve come to a stop on a hillside covered in strange, multi-colored plant life.
I drop the ramp and make my way down to the ground with Rosemary still in my arms. Down the hill I see it: A waterfall spilling over a rocky protrusion into a pool. The pool then spills out into nothingness. A black canvas painted with stars. The Edge of the World, even if it wasn’t the world we had known all our lives.
I rush down the hill, careful not to lose my footing, then we hit the pool and wade in. I dunk Rosemary in. I take the water in my cupped hand and sprinkle it on her forehead. “Please. Please come back to me.” I take her in my arms and hold her tight to me, tears now spilling down my cheeks. “Rosemary. My Rosemary. Please.”
She doesn’t move. I cup my hand again and drip the water into her mouth. Still, she lies in my arms lifeless. I drop my head on her chest and weep. My thoughts turn to what I’ve done. All that I’ve thrown away. All who I’ve betrayed. All for nothing. Now, trapped here, in this foreign world with the dead body of the woman I cherished. The woman I’d loved for so long but had not the nerve to express my feelings to. How could I live without her?
The answer was simple. I couldn’t.
I wade with her in my arms to the edge of the pool. To the point where the water falls over into space. Here, we would both end. Together in death as we would never be in life.
Then, movement. Rosemary breathes and life fills her motionless body. I back away from the edge as she awakens and warmth fills me. She stands and I kiss her, unable to suppress the jubilation in my heart.
“You did it,” she says.
And I had.
I had taken a chance. I had always thought that when I died it would be in battle. Fighting for the country I loved and served. Instead, I betrayed that country to save the woman I loved.
Rosemary stood and looked around at The Edge of the World. Plump fruit hung in the trees and the sun shone through the hole in the sky. “Well, my love, what now?”
“Now we enjoy paradise,” I say with a shrug. “Where we have no need for worry, weapons, or clothes.”
Rosemary laughs and we kiss and as I hold the woman I love in my arms, I wonder how we will be remembered? What tales will be spun about the knight who gave up everything to save the princess he was in love with? Will we become legend like the siren in the Sea of Want, or will we be forgotten? Just two more lives claimed by the skies or by the Sea. We may never know.
D.A. Schneider is an indie author of multiple genres who makes his home in Indianapolis, Indiana. After trying for some time to break into the comic book industry with his artwork, D.A. decided to instead focus fully on writing. D.A.’s most recent works include the steampunk/horror adventure novel Ghost Hunter Z and the fantasy short The Naglis Uprising, included in the fantasy anthology UNBOUND: The Clarion Call Book 3.