Wind, Glass, and the Edge

"I knew this would be the perfect morning to test my wings! Finally!"

Anya Jakovka whooped as she threw open her family tree's front door and rushed down the quartz steps, arms wide, morning wind ruffling her dark red hair. She couldn't help a giggle; the World Storm was in a giving mood today, apparently.

No one else was up. Anya had the plane of glass all to herself as she built up her momentum, her knee-length skirt billowing as she ran, her leather boots loud on the orange-gray glass ground. Around her, she saw the leaves of everyone's family trees rustling as though waving at her, or wishing her good luck. She'd need it.

Mom, I'm sorry I'll miss breakfast, Anya thought as she pressed the release button on her backpack. With a click and whir of gears and tiny pistons, the flaps on either side opened and two long, bat-like wings deployed, authentic dragon skin on reinforced wooden frames. Anya's heart raced as she kept running, eyes fixed on the pillar of lightning-tickled gray clouds in the far distance. Even from miles away, separate from the floating glass plane that made up Anya's home, she was awed by the World Storm's sheer size.

Had it always been like that?

"Okay. I'm ready." Anya sucked in a deep breath, strapped on her plastic visor, bit her lower lip (a tic for good luck) and hung onto the handholds of her wings.

Her feet dangled as she lifted off the ground-

"No!" Anya crumpled and rolled in an awkward bundle as she came back down to glass earth, and she finally came to a stop about thirty feet later. The wind kept blowing around her, like the World Storm was checking if she was OK... or mocking her!

"Well, phooey." Anya lifted her visor and dusted off the fine glass grains that clung to her. "Sky dirt", as some called it. She groaned and sat, her bum a bit sore on the hard, flat glass ground, arms wrapped around her legs. She suddenly felt rather small. I thought I'd go higher than that!

Was it the lack of breakfast? Maybe mom's morning chunk stew would get her off the ground this time.

"Anya! Seriously?"

Anya yelped and scrambled to her feet, turning as Bargo (he hated that name) came dashing up to her, arms pumping, red in the face as he panted for breath.

"Up already?" Anya tried to act nonchalant, a hand on her hip.

Bargo kept panting as he pointed at her. "You're not supposed to fly during the hour of morning prayers, Anya," he said sternly. "The World Storm will smite you." He glared at her, then broke out laughing with Anya.

"Face it, you're hardly a cleric of the Storm," Anya said, rolling her eyes as she toyed with a backpack strap. "Just because your uncle made it into the High Clergy..."

Bargo's face darkened. "Hey, I can be whatever I want."

"When you're out of school."

"Same goes for you, y'know. Your class is right down the hall from mine!"

"Got me there." At 18, Anya and Bargo were nearly ready to graduate and enter the glass world's mercantile cast... but not until May. At least there was no school today, with it being Monday and all.

Bargo hardly even looked Anya's age. His lean body, freckles, and constant worried expression knocked years off his appearance, except that one time he flew on new wings between the Storm Palace's fourth spire and the mayor's daughter's treehouse. At that moment, Anya had known Bargo was a real flier.

Bargo glanced over his shoulder. "Shouldn't we get back to town? I'd rather not get caught out here."

"Me, neither. Dad didn't like my last excursion, either," Anya admitted. She checked the town as though to see Haddo marching toward her, his smithing apron stretched over his ample belly.

"Then why go out here again?" Bargo asked.

"Because..." Anya raised her arms, then lowered them. "I finally finished tanning this dragon skin. Wouldn't you want to test it out, too?"

Bargo blinked. "Yeah, sure, but that's not your real reason, is it?"

"No." Anya sighed. She pointed behind her. "I still haven't seen the edge. I thought that maybe, this once, I could -"

"Anya!" Bargo stepped forward and held her shoulders. "You're not a cleric. Don't tempt the World Storm like that! D'you want our town to fall?"

"Well, no, but -"

"Anya, I've always liked this adventurous streak in you. But why not check out the crooked plains out west, or the crystal caves north of -"

"It's not the same." Anya blushed. "I'm..."

"Bored of school?"

"Among other things."

"Darn it, Anya." Bargo shook his head with a grin. "Your mind's cloudier than a Tuesday afternoon. And that's saying something."

"Why? Worried about me?" Anya said with an embarrassed smile.

Bargo forced a determined look on his face as he blushed, too. "Well... kind of, okay? My uncle knows what's best for everyone. Let him and the clergy appease the World Storm and keep us floating. Like I told you last week. And the week before that. And, um... the week before that, too."

Anya gently lowered Bargo's hands. "It's sweet that you care so much."

"Yeah, well, everyone likes to say I'm a worry-wart -"

"Don't you wanna see what the edge looks like? C'mon." Anya took Bargo's hand and led him back on her original route. "It's not like we're gonna fly off the edge and violate the boundaries! I just wanna... I dunno, sit on it? Just sit. Is that OK with you?"

Bargo grunted. "It's not about what I approve of, it's what my uncle says is OK."

"But he doesn't know about this. Right?" Anya gave Bargo a demanding look over her shoulder.

Bargo sighed. "Just... this once, okay? And only for a minute! You really wanna test the patience of the World Storm? It'll get angry if it sees us toying with the boundaries."

Anya glanced up at the vast pillar of churning clouds ahead, the ethereal column that attached itself to the sky ceiling and extended downward as far as any person could see.

Surely, it would let just a little visit slide...

"Wings out! C'mon!" Anya let go of Bargo's hand and redeployed her new dragon-skin wings, the wooden frame creaking. She heard Bargo extend his older-model, drake-skin wings, and on the count of three, the both of them took off, and this time, Anya stayed aloft, Bargo flying right below her.

"This is much better!" Anya hollered over the life-giving winds.

"I hope this doesn't take long, Anya!" Bargo cried. "We'll miss the morning prayers!"

"Not if you can keep up with me, silly!" Anya set her face, then pulled the secondary cord. Her wings tilted just right, and her speed doubled, the frames creaking and groaning like an old tree. Or an old screen door opening and shutting. Whatever.

Anya scoped out the other clouds this morning; they were the usual orange-blue-gray tint, though their positioning was a bit off, some of them higher than normal. And the lightning that sparked on their bellies seemed... more vicious?

And the World Storm, of course, kept up its stationary dance, lightning flashing up and down its length like it always had.

Ten minutes later, Anya finally sat at the great edge of the glass world, legs dangling down to infinity, her wings tucked up in her pack. Bargo sat cross-legged next to her, clearly sweating.

"Hey, I don't think the World Storm minds if we just poke our legs over," Anya told him, wiggling her feet in midair. "See?"

Bargo hesitated, then imitated her. "Okay... I guess it's not so bad," he admitted. He made a nervous chuckle. "Thanks for taking me out here, Anya. This really is... kinda cool."

Anya scooted closer, her usual crafty grin on her face. "See? Nothing to be scared of." She bumped her shoulder on his. "Y'know, you're kinda cute when you're brave like this."

Bargo flinched. "Hey, don't tease."

"I mean it, though!" Anya said indignantly. "Bargo, I... I'm glad you came here with me. I needed a break from the tedious crap back home."

"It's not crap, Anya. The mayor provides everything we -"

"Sorry." Anya winced. Easy to forget how integrated into the system Bargo is, when they were alone out here. "Seriously, though... I like this side of you. How come I can't see this more often?" She clapped a hand on Bargo's thigh.

Bargo went red. "I-it's just for this once. Hard to say no to you."

"Then you'll say yes the next time, too?" Anya widened her grin into a smile as she leaned closer to Bargo's face, her eyes sharp.

"I..." Bargo swallowed. "Guess so!"

"You'll do whatever I say?"

"That's not what I agreed to."

"Will you at least fly with me? Pray on the winds with me?"

Bargo smiled back. "That, I'll do. In that case, uncle might not punish me after all."

"Good to know." Anya flicked her gaze at the stoic World Storm, then gently ran her fingers down Bargo's jaw and tapped his chin. "I can count on your wings to fly with mine, is that right?"

"Obviously! Duh!" Bargo jolted at his sudden rudeness. "Sorry."

Anya burst out laughing. "Even when you're tough, you're a scaredy-drake!"

"Oh, spare me."

Anya settled down. She wrapped her arm around Bargo's back. "Can we stay like this for a while?" She felt her heart race as she talked, her face warm from holding Bargo close.

Bargo shifted, leaning closer to his friend. "Yeah, why not."

The World Storm kept rumbling and purring its thunder as the World Sun rose higher. By now, the morning prayers were half-over.

Then Anya heard sharp cracks of glass, and she bolted to her feet. "You hear that?"

Bargo was already on his feet, wings deployed. "I don't like the sound of that. Could be anything. We've gotta get out of here!"

Anya toyed with her backpack's deployment strap. "Hang on, it might not be anything horrible -"

She heard more cracking sounds; no, the sound of something sharp and hard burrowing into the glass ground, then the dry rasp of metal. From over the edge of the world glass emerged six gray figures who glinted like metal in the sunlight.

"Bargo!" Anya backed up, right into her friend, who stumbled back.

"I don't know them!" Bargo blurted out.

The World Sun dimmed as a towering figure in gray metal armor towered over Anya, his or her face hidden behind a helmet, one with two round panes of glass for eyes, and tubes sprouting from the mouth like dead worms. Green light glowed from between the cracks of the armor.

"Who are you?" Anya cried, hands balled into fists. If I'm quick, I can wing my way out of here before they draw any weapons. They must've used grappling hooks and cables to get up here... what else have they got?

A shorter figure spoke up, a man's voice. "We're your liberators." He took a heavy step forward, his gray leather boots heavy on the glass ground. "From all the lies that you live."

Anya froze. "What... what lies?" she breathed. "Are you from the World Storm?"

"What? Of course not. Why would you think that?" the man said. He reached up and gripped his helmet. "I am human, like you. Should I prove it?"

"Uh..." Anya wanted to say no. But she had to see... She nodded.

With an odd hiss of air, the man lifted his helmet. His skin was a sickly, milky white, his blue veins clear on his skin. His brown hair was neatly cropped short, his eyes glinting a hard light from the morning sun.

Bargo stumbled back. "You're a monster!" he blurted.

Anya snapped out of her daze. "Bargo, shut up!" she hissed. "You'll upset them!"

The man let out a bark of laughter. "No offense taken, kid. Down there, we don't expose ourselves to the elements more than we have to. Pretty faces like the both of yours are a rare sight." Around him, the other five armored people chuckled.

"Okay, um..." Anya swallowed. Her mind was dizzy with questions. "Do you... wanna come back to the village? I mean, you're not gonna hurt us, are you?"

"Hurt you? No. We didn't even bring weapons." The man set his helmet back into place, twisting it a bit to get a good seal. Air hissed again. "I apologize if we startled you. Didn't think anyone would be by the edge. My name is Genzen-104, by the way."

Anya blinked. "What?"

"It's the phonetic version of my personal code: GNZN-104," the man explained.

Anya shook her head. "I'm just Anya. Anya Jakovka. Would you like an escort back to town? I don't mind walking."

"Huh? Wait just a minute -" Bargo blurted, until Anya silenced him with a look.

"We don't have to take the long way," Genzen-104 said, waving a hand. "Our cables will get us there faster. We us them all the time back down on the ground. Watch us."

Anya stepped back just in time. She squealed in shock when the six armored strangers issued those grappling hooks of theirs from their wrists in a loud blast of pressurized air, the metal cables squeaking in the morning air. The sharp hooks dug into the ground some thirty feet away, and the strangers drew the cables back in, shooting across the ground with alarming speed. The six of them repeated the process, covering thirty more feet in an instant.

Anya glanced at Bargo. "Well, uh... looks like we've got company for breakfast," she said, scratching the back of her head. "I hope your mom cooked extra chunk stew!"

"This isn't funny," Bargo retorted. "How... how could you just let them..." He motioned toward the distant strangers.

Anya tossed her red hair. "Look, they'd reach our homes even if we tried to stop 'em by force. I don't want anyone to get hurt. And who are we to refuse hospitality? Genzen and the others might have some great stories for us." She forced a smile.

By the World Storm, this had better not be a big mistake.

Bargo silently nodded, deployed his drake-skin wings, and took a running start, Anya right behind him. Neither said a word as they soared over the glass world until they reached the town square, where at least half the town had gathered to meet Genzen and the other armored folk. Anya and Bargo landed right by High Cleric Endel, Bargo's uncle, and Bargo looked his uncle in the eye.

"They're visitors. From beyond the world edge," he said meekly. "We let them come."

Endel breathed deep through his nose and nodded. "I do not blame either of you for this. It is the will of the World Storm. I shall speak for us." He smoothed his orange robes and stepped forth on sandaled feet. "Greetings, O visitors from beyond. Our humble town welcomes -"

Genzen held up a gloved hand. "That's enough. We've got something important to tell you all. Very important."

Indignant babbling broke out, and Anya felt herself break into a sweat. They interrupted High Cleric Endel! How dare they! The edge strangers could get mobbed for that!

Endel held out a hand to stay the angered mob. "I take no offense," he told the town. "Let them explain themselves."

"Appreciated, old man." Genzen once again removed his helmet, and the crowd gasped, some muttering prayers to the World Storm. "Call me Genzen. Yes, my fellows and I are from beyond the edge of the glass ceiling. I'll cut right to the chase: we come from the ground. No, the real ground. Dirt, trees, goddamn rivers. The real place. And we're ready to invite you back."

"Back? We never went anywhere!" The baker, a short, wide man, pointed an accusing finger. "This is a trick!"

"It's not a trick," Genzen said with what sounded like forced patience. "This... glass plane, it's a gift of the World Storm. But it's not your real home; home is below you. It's been two hundred years. Guess you folks forgot about it."

Anya felt herself stepping forward before she realized it, and she swallowed hard, ignoring the cries of shock and protest among the crowd. "Why today?" she said, her voice carrying over the eternal winds. "What is the meanin' of this? What d'you folks want with us?"

"Like I said: homecoming," Genzen said, and as he spoke, his five fellows removed their helmets as though on cue, their faces pale like Genzen's. "It's been generations; no one alive up here remembers the refugees coming up here to escape the ruins. of the war."

"W... war?" Anya croaked.

Genzen nodded. He spread his arms wide. "Civil war, that's what it was, like our records say. Over how to integrate the World Storm into our lives, and what it all really means. It's all crap. Stupid war fought for stupid reasons, lives lost for goddamn nothing. Couldn't grow a weed in a farmer's field for years after the flames died down. Only the crows and roaches were happy."

"But..." Anya stamped a foot. "The World Storm... it provides for us! It's the face of divinity, like the clerics say! It would never cause so much death."

"It wasn't no god that did this!" Genzen said, his voice suddenly pained. "Human arrogance, human lust for blood... but all that's over. We've rebuilt. It's been two centuries to the day since the lucky ones were chosen by the World Storm to escape up here. It's time for you to come home. It's ready for you."

"He's lying!" someone shouted, and the crowd roared in fury until High Cleric Endel held out an arm to calm the people again. Bargo clung to his uncle's other arm, terror etched on his face. It was clear he just wanted Genzen and the others to leave, like a bad dream chased off by daylight.

Endel took a step forward. "How did you reach us?"

"Took a floater ship up most of the way. Used our grappling hooks the rest of the way," Genzen said off-handedly. "The ship can take about twenty people at a time. Divide yourselves up into groups, and we'll get the evacuation underway."

More concerned muttering broke out. Anya felt weak in the legs, and she tried not to fall to her knees. Her eyes watered. How did this morning... this normal morning, with her new wings and fresh adventure, end up like this? Genzen and his gray armor and talk of a horrible war two centuries ago... people were not native to the glass plane?

Anya blinked away the tears she felt in her eyes. "Why? Why take us away, from the World Storm's haven for us? We just wanted... a normal life. You're standing there, telling us we've gotta leave? I can't see my house again?"

Genzen's hard face softened for an instant. "It's not a forced evacuation," he said. "If you all really don't want to return with us... well, we have forsworn all violence. We will not drag you there. But be aware that this place, this glass plane, is just a lifeboat. You're not supposed to be here forever."

Anya patted her backpack. She felt her wings' wooden frames creaking. "We've learned to live up here. We fly. The World Storm kisses us when we fly, y'know, every time we explore its skies."

The crowd babbled again, this time in assent. Anya heard snatched of prayers, sutras that her mom had forced her to sit down and memorize.

"The World Storm compels us to remain here, our place of worship," Endel finally said. "I am sorry, Genzen, but we cannot leave. We would be struck down by the World Storm's anger. Our faith will not permit this."

As he spoke, the crowd chanted its assent.

Genzen sighed. He fitted his helmet back into place and turned around. "I see. Your... faith to the World Storm is noted. Well, best of luck to you all. Good luck with your praying." He spat the last word like a curse as the other five edge strangers secured their helmets.

Anya covered her ears as the six visitors' grappling hook mechanism blasted compressed air. Genzen and the others shot away, thirty feet at a time, until they were tiny dots on the glass horizon. Then they were gone.

The crowd slowly dispersed, and Anya was silent, even when Bargo joined her and clasped his hand around hers. "We really couldn't do it, you know," he told her gently. "What that armored fellow said, it's crazy talk. We live in the sanctuary of the World Storm! What else do we need?"

Clearly, that was also Bargo's uncle talking, but Anya didn't bother to respond. She just squeezed Bargo's hand and felt the weight of her wing backpack on her body. Today, she certainly got an adventure, like she wanted. Visitors... from beyond the glass edge, hailing from different winds, speaking in strange words!

Maybe tomorrow, she would soar over the Crooked Plains, or the crystal caves, or do loops around the Forbidding Peak to the east. Anything. Whatever she wanted.