Skybound - A Verian Modern Fantasy Novel

Chapter One
Caladhneòil

Utter silence carpeted the Everwood as thickly as any moss or lichen, an eerie blanket of unnatural tranquility stretching from the uppermost boughs of the trees above to the dense undergrowth of the forest floor. Silent it may have been, but still it was not, for this was the Sior-Choille, an endless expanse of twisted life where even the trees were not content to remain where they were. For in the realm known as the ‘boundless dark’, there lurk things far worse than trees.

There were no stars above the Sior-Choille. That thought had remained with Sèran since the outset of the expedition. It was more than the simple shroud of leaf and branch that obscured the sky, more than even the supernatural shadow cast by the writhing wood, for in the boundless dark, there simply was no sky. By airship, one could fly over the wood, even land at one of the rare patches of order that were the settlements and outposts in the greater realm, but as soon as one ventured into the wood itself the simple laws of reality became supplanted by a force far greater. It wasn’t malicious, for that logic implied the Sior-Choille to be an entity capable of malice, but simply and fundamentally contradictory to logic and order. This much Sèran could attest to; anyone would if they’d spent the past two weeks in the Everwood. At least, she amended in her head, they would be able to if they were still alive. And sane.

She paused, raising one hand to halt the small band of rangers in her wake. Something was wrong, some subtle difference in the background cadence of the eternal forest, but for the life of her she couldn’t tell what. Furrowing her brow, she cocked her head to one side, trying to hear what had so unsettled her through the faint noise of swaying leaves and birdsong. Realization dawned not a moment too soon–there were no birds in the writhing wood.

“Lanterns!” she cried, hastily fumbling for her own as the chittering grew closer. Sparkflames leapt into life behind her as the rangers activated their lanterns, the magically fueled fire burning where any conventional flame would have withered in moments, their electric blue light setting the treeline into sudden and brilliant contrast. She lit her own with a touch to the activation sigil, and hooked it to the bayonet lug of her runegun with a quick, practiced motion. The chittering reached a crescendo, and something burst from the undergrowth with an ear-grating shriek and a flash of reaching claws. Sèran fired, reflexively shouldering the recoil as her weapon discharged an arc of scarlet lightning, the runes along its length glowing a faint red as they powered the mage-rifle. Her attacker fell with a second, gurgling shriek that died in its throat as her boot crushed the thing’s skull.

“A bramble-soul.” she said with a shudder, managing to keep her voice steady despite the adrenaline racing through her veins, “One of the Anam-Dris. We must be close–I’m sure you’re all aware why these things are never found far from settlements.”

Her rangers didn’t need the reminder, for one did not reach their station without knowing the horrible truth of the Anam-Dris. The ‘thing’ in question had been human once, driven mad by the meaningless secrets of the forest realm, and corrupted in both mind and body until it had been reduced to a slavering husk of flesh and wood. All things considered, they were one of the lesser dangers of the Everwood, but the nature of their origin rendered them a horror few could bear.

“Keep your lanterns bared and your rifles armed.” advised Conall, a tall, white-haired ranger with more experience than any man Sèran had ever met. His eyes, perpetually sunken and hooded, darted from side to side as he raised his own weapon, an archaic multi-chambered pistol that fired solid shot rather than harnessed magic. He was the expedition’s navigator, and the etheric compass he wore on his left arm like a wristwatch was the only reliable way to tell direction this deep in the Sior-Choille. He shot her a glance, nodding towards the direction the bramble-soul had come from.

“The captain is correct. We’re not far from the cloud-port now. If the Wayfinder is with us, we should be there before true dark.

Sèran let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding, and gestured for her company to reassume formation and continue past the corpse of the bramble-soul. There was little difference between night and day in the Everwood, but the true dark was not something she’d like to be caught out in. It was a monthly occurrence, a phenomenon prompted by the absence of the moon, when not even the faintest glimmer of light shone in through the leaves. It was not only the myriad thirsting horrors of the woods that were a danger on such nights, but the masters they answered to as well. Not even their sparkflame lanterns would avail the rangers then.

The next few hours were tense, even as their path took them out of the deep wood and into a more lightly forested border region. Despite appearances, even the edges of the Sior-Choille could be deadly, and the ranger party proceeded with all due caution, enchanted lanterns blazing a path through the unnatural shadows clinging to every branch and trunk. After what seemed to Sèran like at least three or four hours of trudging through undergrowth and ducking under low-lying branches, they came across a stream. It was no more than five feet across, but the water was clear, and it ran out of the deepest part of the woods towards the direction they had been heading. She looked at Conall, raising an eyebrow to voice her unspoken question. He checked the glowing face of his compass and nodded, turning back to her with a grim smile on his lips.

“This stream flows towards Caladhneòil, likely converging with the river Eirgenn before it reaches the settlement. We can follow it directly to the port, assuming this is not some deception of the wooded realm made to divert us from the true course.” he said, the smile dropping from his face as quickly as it had arrived.

“That’s one way to kill the mood, bodach.” muttered Myrna, slipping into the language of Cladachòrail as she shot the old ranger a disdainful glare. She was a scarred, sharp-faced woman from the great city, and wielded her long rifle’s axe bayonet with a little too much enthusiasm. “Can’t you just say something positive and leave it at that? Two weeks of grinding my teeth to your ever-present fatalist streak has done me more harm than the damn forest.”

Sèran laughed, drawing an expression of confusion from Conall and an irritated frown from Myrna. “Always at each other’s throats, the two of you never change. Cheer up, the both of you, we’re almost out of the woods, regardless of where the stream flows. Just follow my lead and try not to aim for each other if it comes to it.”

“Right, I’ll be too busy shooting at you.” Myrna grumbled, shouldering her rifle and raising her lantern with her free hand. Blue light glinted from the iron tip of the spear leveled at her chest. Figures rose from the underbrush, or emerged from behind the trees. Clad in drab browns and greens, they carried spears and crossbows, most metals carefully dulled with what looked like soot from fire. Sèran’s eyes drifted down to the razor edge of the longsword aligned with her neck, leveled across her right shoulder from an unseen figure standing behind her. All around the river clearing, the tableau repeated itself with Conall and the rest of the rangers, the light sounds of conversation and banter replaced with thin breaths and boots crunching over dead leaves. They were surrounded.

Thousands of bells rang out from the spires of Cladachòrail, a melodic cacophony of tolling and ringing ranging from the deep resonance of bronze giants in the largest temples to the shrill chiming of even the smallest street bells. Throughout the city, the pattern—the signal—was the same, and it did not herald something as mundane as a change in hour, but a change in direction. Sails billowed under new angles, great masts rotated and locked into place, and Cladachòrail flew north.

Most famously known by its moniker as the ‘City of a Thousand Names’, Cladachòrail was the greatest of the fortress-cities, a flying bastion powered and defended by the most powerful spellcraft in the realms, and an independent city-state in its own right, not bound to a terrestrial nation like most of the lesser sky cities. Towering fortress walls formed rings in the upper city, the greater sprawl spilling out and under the central superstructure like the petals of a flower around its heart. Docks jutted from every aspect of the city, meeting airships of a vast range of shapes and sizes, the gaudy colors of their envelopes spotting the city in hundreds of brilliant hues. Above them all loomed the majestic bulk of the Cathair nan Diathan, the Seat of the Gods. A thousand feet of stone and brick reaching for the sky with all the severity of a spear at dawn, the Cathair was a temple complex of unrivaled scale, a place of veneration dedicated to the ancestor-gods, major and minor pantheons alike.

Ludan draoidh Eitearrach stood motionless amid the crowd of pilgrims and worshippers, bathed in fractals of multicolored light as he stared up at the intricate stained glass window dominating one wall of the temple complex’s uppermost structure. This section of the building was the single highest point in the entire flying city, and fittingly enough, it was devoted to the grandest pantheon of the ancestor gods: the Eternal Court. Iomaidhr the Wayfinder, Caraìth Smith-Lord, and Ludan’s own goddess, Turasùr the Mage-Queen. Her image stood twenty feet tall, wrought in lead and glass, loose mage’s robes hanging over a gleaming set of lamellar plate armor, each scale picked out in individual detail. She carried a holy object in each hand, a blazing lantern in her left and a sword in her right, for Turasùr was not simply the goddess of knowledge, but the patron of all who sought it regardless of their means or motivation.

As the bells overhead made their last solemn remark, he turned away from the window, opening a path through the crowd of temple-goers through the judicious application of his elbow. Though he wore the same elaborately worked mage’s robes as Turasùr in her glass depiction, he did not cut a figure quite so impressive. His bedraggled brown hair was swept to one side over a face that looked like it hadn’t received any sleep—or a shave—for far too long. Intricately weaving patterns tattooed in blue burst from his left brow and down that side of his face in a cascade of runic symbols, thrown into sharp contrast by the complete absence of any tattoos on the other half of his face. He walked supported by a staff—more of a theatrical affectation than a practical choice. After all, he practiced his craft through the hand that held his staff, not the glorified walking stick itself.

His hand, along with the rest of his right arm, was an elegant construct of rune-engraved bronze and steel, given life and purpose through the practiced expertise of the city’s most experienced artisans and artificers. Ludan had made a number of improvements himself in the five years since he’d lost his arm, weaving his own enchantments alongside more conventional mechanical alterations, such as the concentric chambers that comprised the bulk of his forearm, each one crafted to house a spell or rune. It was a useful tool to have at his side, and one that had saved his skin more than once in his past journeys beyond the walls of Cladachòrail.

As he reached one of the great staircases sweeping down from the upper levels of the Cathair, he fell into step alongside a second man clad in the blue and gold of Turasùr’s chosen. They descended the stairs in silence for a moment, his companion clearly deep in thought. After a minute, he glanced up at Ludan with an expression of concern on his face.

“Are you aware you’re being followed, Ludan?”

Ludan shrugged, resisting the urge to turn and look back up the stairs. “I‘m sure it’s nothing, Camìr.”

Despite his assurance, Camìr did not appear to be convinced. “I needn’t remind you of the trouble they’d cause if one of the rival orders got wind of our little expedition. Fellow mages aside, Tanhàghan’s Witchseekers would see both of us run out of the city.”

“Witchseekers?” Ludan snorted, clapping a hand on his companion’s back to guide him down another flight of stairs. “I worry that fancy clouds your vision. Come, I’m sure you’ll feel more assured once we’ve boarded.”

Nodding reluctantly, Camìr followed the other mage out of the Cathair’s open front gates and onto the Bellway, one of Cladachòrail’s great upper roads. As the two of them pushed through crowds of pilgrims and devotees on their way to worship, Ludan couldn’t help but feel as if Camìr’s concerns had some merit. He very much doubted the followers of another ancestor-god would challenge Turasùr’s folk, but they were being followed, that he could sense. There was a third presence, the hint of arcane will focused on his mind. He glanced behind himself, swore, and pulled Camìr into an alleyway between a goldsmith’s and a clothier’s. Frightened and confused, his friend clutched at Ludan’s arm, eyes darting from him to the mouth of the alley. Camìr was a more than competent mage, but he did not have Ludan’s experience in the field, and the threat of conflict was clearly getting to his head.

“What did you see?” he gasped, shaking Ludan’s arm imploringly, “By all the gods, is it the Witchseekers?”

“I’d know better than to run from them.” Ludan retorted, carefully but firmly extricating his arm from Camìr’s grasp, “I’m afraid it’s as you initially suspected. I saw violet robes behind us, and that means we must be off as soon as possible.”

Camìr nodded his understanding, nervously fiddling with the cuff of one of his rune-marked gloves. Their pursuers were indeed not of another god, but of Turasùr herself. While the Eitearrach—Ludan’s order of mages—wore robes of blue and gold, their brother orders each bore their own arcane heraldry, and purples robes meant they faced the Geasadh, enchanters of the inner city that had long been rivals to the Eitearrach. The fact that they were following Ludan was almost a comfort. It meant they only suspected him, and had not yet discovered the truth of the expedition. If they already knew where he and Camìr were headed, the legitimacy of his order would no doubt have been challenged long before now.

“We’d best be off then.” said Camìr, nerves settling. They turned to head down the alleyway and out onto the street beyond, but Camìr paused, stripping off one of his gloves and handing it to Ludan. When subjected to a questioning look and a raised eyebrow, he flapped a hand at Ludan as if to suggest his friend assumed too little of him.

“I keep myself warded against spells of divination and sight—if they’re tailing us by your arcane presence, this should confuse them long enough for us to get to the air docks.”

Ludan moved to slip the glove onto his left hand as they ran out of the alley’s mouth, realized Camìr had given him the wrong one, and awkwardly forced it over the metal digits of his right as they turned onto the Calrathad, a wide stone avenue running along the city’s uppermost docks. Their ship, an elegant three-masted frigate with two hull-mounted airbags, was docked at the next junction, and they hurried to it as fast as they were able to run, Camìr nearly tripping as he glanced behind them every other step.

They reached the dock panting for breath, Ludan gesturing furiously at the closest deckhand to get the ship ready to slip its moorings. As he and Camìr hastened up the ramp, they found themselves confronted by the ship’s captain, standing with his arms crossed at the top of the ramp. Deorsa Eacharn was a tall, mustachioed man in his middle age with more scars than one could count. Ludan had always suspected the captain was a reformed corsair, but now, as always, he dared not voice that suspicion.

“Camran told me you lads were in a hurry. We’re to be off then?” he asked, not stepping out of their path.

“Aye, and as swiftly as you can manage.” Ludan said, handing Camìr’s glove back as he spoke, “I don’t believe the expedition is in jeopardy, but we nearly had a run-in with the Geasadh. You of all people know what their interest could spell for our order, and your career by extent.”

The captain pursed his lips and nodded, stepping away from the ramp head. Ludan and Camìr gratefully stumbled onto the airship, glancing about themselves as Eacharn barked orders and set his crew to readying the vessel. Steadying his ragged breathing, Ludan leaned on his staff, surveying the docks nearby. No spells weighed upon his mind, nor did any purple-robes figures push their way through the bustling road to apprehend them. He breathed a sigh of relief, and turned to Camìr with a half-smile that slid off his face as soon as he saw his companion’s expression. The other mage had gone a pale shade of slate, staring wordlessly over Ludan’s shoulder with a palpable mixture of dread and apprehension. Slowly, uneasily, Ludan turned to see what had left Camìr so distressed. A trio of figures approached the airship’s berth, lamellar plate gleaming silver under the midday sun, green tartan cloaks billowing in the high altitude wind. They were not of the Geasadh. They were Witchseekers.