A metal leviathan requiring more resources to assemble than most people produce in a lifetime materializes into open air above Xie's grand valley. I watch a shockwave rip clouds asunder like a bomb would cotton, and a tidal wave of bowing bamboo forest rolls towards me, halfway and gaining.
I call, "Ji, get down, now!" and leap from a boulder I'd been watching flocking birds from moments prior.
Ji looks at me like I'm stupid for a moment, but his eyes wander and bolt open. He sprints headlong for me, smacking away a few bamboo stalks and leaping across some choking bushes and rocks. He lands on his stomach just as I hear distant leaves crackling like a huge wood fire. A cacophony of snapping twigs.
This shockwave hits as thunder. I brace myself against my boulder's rigid stone as a sound like a thousand cannons firing dents in my eardrums. Every bone in my body shivers. Straight-line winds howl, leaves and debris sting my eyes, a pungent earthy scent forces itself through my nostrils, and it's over. I hear distant, roaring, air behind us. Ambient rumbling. Hissing leaves. We're alive.
Ji peeks up first, combing a hand through his hair and freeing its curls from an intruding twig and some leaf litter. "It's an ironclad."
"No way," I say.
I look up. It is.
An apex predator stalks our crisp blue skies. It is brutal ironwork, artillery bristling like harpoons sticking from a whale, gigantic, bulbous, rearward aether engines which blaze in violet and topaz to keep this monster afloat. For now, unmoving. It's a warship alright. A huge, black, willow tree crest is burned into its frame. Sigil of the Blache Empire. Gradually, I see its shadow wafting across distant savannah and mushrooming tree tops. It's a great void, stalking hungrily towards far away buildings. Temples, palaces, homes, all belonging to my home town Xie. It would devour them too.
"We need to get back," says Ji.
I watch the ship's colossal frame begin hovering over snaking roads and gliding across mountaintops which cushioned the town from its arrival. A deliberate choice, lest every window in Xie shatter at best.
Picking myself up, I say, "Yeah."
Ji and I keep still for a moment. Watching. Somewhere, a crow caws.
Getting to where Ji and I did in the forest isn't easy. The Grand Frontier stretches endlessly until it meets the ocean, and in between there is only bamboo, woods, mountains, and rivers. Rolling mists which shroud your hands completely.
Ji and I weave our way through thin trails, between choking ferns and clawing shrubbery, stacked stones serving as waypoints for another stroll beside a thundering river or a hop across a thin gorge. There's a lot, but it usually blends when you've got someone you're comfortable enough with to tell about those times you may have smuggled stolen valuables in from the Capital using a horse, a shovel, and its rear end. Or about times you tried eating sponges thinking they were cakes. Or fights. Fights for stupid reasons.
Now, though, crushing silence. Just boots crunching against dead wood, plants clawing at our clothes, croaking birds, and as peaks from our village's tallest buildings begin growing from little sticks into looming boughs on the horizon we hear a pulsing, waterfall, thrum from our visitor's aether turbines.
Ji looks at me and says, "There's only one reason they're wasting Skyship fuel on our village." He can't keep eye contact.
"That's not it, shut it."
"I think it is, Zeph."
"So what," I catch up with him, drive an elbow into his side, "Boarder's got us, he owes us one."
"And what will he do against that?" Ji stops, looking up through a portal in the forest's bamboo canopy occupied entirely by plate metal, guns, and engines. Death. Domination.
I don't have an answer. I swallow hard, saliva a lead glob as it grinds down my throat. My fist clenches. I'm wondering how it'd feel slamming against Imperial plate carriers meant to withstand gunfire. How bone would meet with metal.
Ji and I don't speak again until bamboo and trees give way to logging camps and charcoal burners. No usual greetings from woodworkers this time back. No workers at all for that matter. Only an earthy scent from fresh-cut trees. Sooty smoke from cooling kilns. There's a rustle in the treeline, too heavy to be an animal but too light for anyone trying to hide.
A rasping, echoing, voice, "Whik."
Something dashes past us in a pitch-black streak, air screaming like it'd been wounded, threatening to rip us off our feet. Ji and I brace, arms over our eyes to stop gnashing wood chips and gravel from lodging in them. I see again seconds later, body reeling back and fists wadding before my mind can keep up.
It's some geezer in a big white officer's coat. Earthy skin, a dead eye like a big milky marble, and a thin grin leering beneath a well-groomed mustache. A crutch? Yeah, wedged under his right arm.
He says, "Greetings, boys. Isn't this place nicer without all those nasty, noisy, machines?" A smoker's voice. Grinding out in a labored drawl.
My heart's in my ears and it's trying to beat its way out.
"Gimme' a name, why don't you," I say. My hands are ready. Knuckles bulging, feet light. Ji reaches into his cloak, fumbling with one of his concealed throwing knives and hiding the quaking in his opposite hand in another pocket. His eyes are bulging, mouth agape like it's been pried open by a tool.
Ji says in a quivering voice, "Zeph, please be quiet."
The old man's grin becomes a gnarly smile. Several teeth are missing.
"No, he's right. It's only proper that we begin our relationship respectfully."
"Relationship?" I blurt out. My eyes catch a big black willow tree on his coat's shoulder blade. "I'm not about dealing with Imps like you. Sorry."
His left arm extends, glinting gold buttons and an ironed sleeve collar. "Carlo Don' Laquaira, Regiment Nine Captain."
I stare it down, but Ji creeps up and shakes it firmly.
"Careful, my man," I say, not looking away from 'Carlo' for a second. "You might get a disease off this old rat."
Ji says, "I apologize for my idiot compatriot," and bows long and deep. "He has been drinking."
Carlo stares at him. An amused huff.
"Heavily drinking," Ji adds.
Carlo's eyes lock on mine, dark and knowing. He hobbles a step back, producing a bloated cigar from his coat pocket and snapping his fingers at its end. A cherry fire blossoms into ash and spiced smoke.
"No. You are sober," Carlo says. "If I were to guess, looking in your eyes, you are more sober than you have been in a long, long, time." He blows a sooty gout at a sideways angle. "Zephyrin Vaz, I wish you a happy birthday. Eighteen, is it? It's been the word on everyone's lips recently, you and your father."
"I don't care, what are you here for?"
Carlo grunts, face wilting a little. "You're a smart kid. You already know."
"Harvest isn't for another four years. It's not legal."
Snapping his fingers, a scroll materializes in the Captain's hand—embers scorching at empty air, manifesting it with aging papyrus and inky, formal, words etching into neat rows. A wax seal hangs off the bottom: a willow tree and initials.
"For you, Zephyrin, it is legal. It became legal the second you turned eighteen by direct order of our esteemed Emperor Dravis Blache. Emergency measures of grave concern to the state."
"How'd you find me?"
Carlo laughs, gutturally and chidingly.
Rage is thick steam, it's trying to blow out my veins but can't escape. It's cooking me, the world's red. "How?!"
"I could have spoken with your village alderman, and invoked his sacred duty to our Emperor, but aiming a weapon at the correct person and asking questions is so much easier. Faster. Were you in my position, you would understand."
I'm not thinking, I'm just moving. A punch reels back and my body's in motion, hind leg launching me at this guy. Something blunt slams hard into my side, and I'm writhing on the ground trying to find footing. Ji's on me, trying and failing to pin me down. "Get the hell off me!"
Ji's frosty eyes find mine. "THINK. He's a Captain, you're going to get yourself, your mom, into trouble you can't afford!"
I rip him off and spring back to my feet. Carlo hasn't moved an inch, and neither has his disgusting smile.
He says, "Such delightful drama. This is why I prefer coming alone to such things." But his smile fades, a boot grinding gravelly soil as Carlo whirls around, long fabrics whipping and a hasty pivot on his crutch. A gleaming knife embeds itself in a loose log just ahead of him. There's movement in some bushes which border the logging camp, a shadowy figure lunging out between some oversized ferns, and before I can so much as pick out a single detail they've materialized from thin air behind the knife and log. A tall, slender, woman in a snug black bodysuit, puffy jacket, and a scarf shrouding her mouth. I recall her steely eyes and jet, porcupine, hair. Chen—one of Boarder's enforcers.
She says, "He wants a word." It's aimed at Ji and I. Her eyes freeze me solid. "Go. Don't waste time with questions."
My arm's seized by Ji, he's tugging me away.
"It's Chen," Ji says.
I still want to stay and beat Carlo's face in, but my adrenaline's starting to level out and I'm thinking straight. Just what an Imperial Captain could do I hadn't the faintest idea, but I knew what Chen could do. I'd seen her work.
One situation comes to mind however briefly. I'd been caught breaking into some sucker's estate near the capital and this family's private security is bolting after me. I'm ducking through halls on the top floor and they're aiming guns my way but not shooting since I think they're stressing about legality, or hitting their own. There are four guys. Two lagging, two are in a headlong sprint as I'm nearing a flight of stairs. One's diving for me, then window glass shatters. There's this meaty thunk, like if you smacked a metal bat into wet soil, and my pursuer just folds. More fracturing glass and the next guy goes down. I stop dead in my tracks, hands overflowing with jewelry, necklaces weighing my neck like a yoke. By now the other two stop chasing and aim muskets my way again, thinking I killed these guys, and crash! Thunk, thunk.
Throwing knives, but no blood. At some point, I look out the window and Chen's perched on a tall wooden wire pole outside like a bird, past a garden, and opposite a street. She'd driven blunt handles of throwing knives into my pursuer's skulls from what must've been a hundred laid-out guards away. My first big job for Boarder. He'd sent her to shadow me.
I take off towards a cobblestone road past some log piles, trenches, and machinery, head over my shoulder. Carlo jolts a moment like he got lit up by a hot cable wire. His eyes root on me but immediately refocus on Chen. After her knife act, he's not risking his back. Ji realizes this and joins me close behind, clearing some piled wood in a single bound.
"There must be more Imps in town, let's take a scenic route," he says.
Chen's sliding deftly away from something, and a gunshot rattles my ribcage in its thunder. I grind to a halt, watching her leap skywards as three blades held snugly between her knuckles whistle towards Carlo one by one mid-jump. I hear Ji saying she'll be fine before he actually does, picking my pace back up. They can't take me. It's not an option.
Everything's darker than usual in my hometown of Xie. The Empire's unsightly war machine growling overhead, motionless, is a constant, deathly, reminder. Tricorns, muskets, and dark coats poke out from between food stalls, alleys, thatched buildings, and streets. We're taking refuge in drain canals, which are mercifully dry from a recent drought. Only our heads poke out when we so choose to get a better look into town, dense grasses and yellowing weeds strangling visibility. A four-foot depth helps our clandestine travels further.
We're at Boarder's in minutes, hopping out of the divot and stealing our way under strung lanterns, an old wooden archway decked out in dead neon lights, and a cloth tent serving as our guy's entryway. It's home. We kick our footwear off till we're left standing in just moist socks and shove through a wall of strung beads dangling from a bamboo ceiling. Familiar displays—skateboards on rotating carousels, wheels lining a wall like glittering jewels, fog lights, loose-fitting clothes, and a scent like sawdust and tobacco mixed with rainwater peeling apart my nostrils.
A lethargic, mumbling, voice drones above all. "Yeah. Yeah, it's gonna have to get taken care of. He's had enough, pull her out." Boarder's sunken, baggy, eyes glide their way over to us. They're shady enough to be bruised. "Catch you later." A gaunt, skeletal, hand maneuvers a boxy Vocator from his ear, another slams its antenna down and shoves it into a hollowed space in the wall.
"Sup?" I say.
Two smoky pupils, tamed by sunk brows, gaze from behind a veil of quilled raven hair. Like Chen's, but tapering into murky, pewter, highlights. To anyone else, he'd seem at ease, but Boarder never meets your eyes.
"Zepyhrin," Boarder says, scratching his scalp through a lopsided black beanie. "You picked a seriously crummy time to wander off, man."
Ji said, "It'd been my idea," stepping in front of me and straightening from his usual little hunch, "talk to me about it."
"Nah, don't think I will." Boarder's hand, already buried in his hoodie's pocket, produces a hammerlock pistol.
Staring down this particular gun's bore isn't how I imagined. It's so small, but so endlessly dark. A miniscule, twinkling, white glow deep in the barrel. Maybe a glimpse towards what'd await should it fire. That little gaunt light enshrouding all things forever and always. My body won't operate.
"Why send Chen if you're gonna' waste me?" I manage.
"Bro, you're worried about that right now?"
Ji shuffles until his body completely blocks mine, throwing out his arms. He's shivering. His legs are gelatin.
Boarder grins, "I'll put a lemon-size hole through both your empty melons with this thing, I don't think you understand how the physics work."
Ji says, "Yeah?"
I begin saying, "Get away from m—" and a colossal sound rattles my chest like a twenty pound hammer. My ears are screeching, there's something wet building in them, and I watch Ji crumple to a knee. There's some gold, fractal, aura ablaze around him. Like how a huge bubble might wobble and bulge but it's following Ji's spastic movements, however minor. There's these cracks in it, too. Like cracking ice in a big spider web formation from where he must've been hit. I hear Ji cough. Barely. The bubble flickers and vanishes.
Boarder steps out from behind his counter, ejecting his weapon's old cartridge, now cloaked by a frosty blue steam, and replacing it with a fresh white capsule. Buzzing. Radiant. He says something but all I hear is a drone. Words begin to seep in after a while.
"—and you've held onto your secret this long? I'll be honest, I didn't have the faintest idea." He aims for Ji's head. "Ah well."
I dive for Boarder, my fist ready.
Somehow I phase through him. I just pass through Boarder's body like he's a ghost. He's now across the room, opposite from his prior position and loading his gun again. His old shell noiselessly clatters onto glossy hardwood, bloody snakes slithering from Ji's skull as his unblinking eyes stare endlessly at me. Wondering why I didn't act. Didn't save him.
Boarder's eyes are on me. Melancholy, but enshrouded by a thick miasma. A crushing darkness. His pupils singe, glowing like hot embers past it all. Looking at them feels like drowning in an ocean of ghostly blood.
His voice calls to me in a phantasmal echo through shrieking eardrums. "Sorry, man. Gotta do it."
I scream something and charge him dead on, his weapon begins raising in slow motion and tears are hot in my eyes.
He says, "You'll thank me later."
His eye contact breaks and his staunch brows crumble, for but a second, and there's a bright flash. An endless light devouring all things. Something hot, aching, and wet in synchronization with my heartbeat. Blood? It has to be. I'm dead. I just died.
Ji is dead because of me. I'm dead because I wasn't fast enough. Because I was afraid. Because I did nothing. I see my dad, and he's disappointed. I see my mom, and she's dead. I scream and hear nothing, I can only feel it belting through my throat, burning it, and the feeling never ceasing. It's all going numb. What's worse is that I feel pain, clear as day. Hellfire burning me away into ashes.
It's no dream.