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Dawn came early in Sky Furnace. Floating above Kazora, the active volcano that powered the city’s zeppelins, the sun rose below the citizens’ feet. Denri woke as the room brightened, sunlight pushing through the closed curtains. She yawned and stretched, feeling rested. The swaying zeppelins felt like sleeping on a ship.
She threw open the curtains, flooding the room with red-tinted light from the rising sun and the roiling pool of lava below. Aki groaned and pulled the covers over her head, turning toward the wall. Shiri blinked at her feet.
“Come on, sleepy.”
Aki mumbled something unintelligible.
“You’re waking later every day. Now that you’ve got the body of a teenager you’re trying to sleep like one too?”
The mound of covers gave no response.
Denri rubbed her hands together and grinned. She put a finger over her lips, shushing Shiri. She tiptoed toward Aki, her fingers sparkling with energy. She pounced.
“Aki! They found us! Arghhh–.” Denri faked a pained cry as she landed on the bed, wrestling the bundle of blankets. Aki’s body stiffened as she came awake, scrambling to free herself from the blankets. Limbs flailed. “Erggg. They got me!”
“Denri!” The blankets deflated and an identical copy of Shiri squirmed free at the foot of the bed, hissing as it turned around the room.
Denri fell into the blankets laughing. “Look at you, hair on end! Going to fight them off as a house cat, are you?”
Cat Aki sat on her haunches, confusion turning to wounded pride. She leapt to the bed and her form grew as she traveled through the air. By the time she landed at Denri’s feet, she had reached the size of a leopard. She placed a large-clawed hand on Denri’s chest, staring intently.
No, I would fight them off like this. Aki sniffed. Then licked Denri’s face with a rough tongue.
“Bleh! Ow! Are you trying to sand my face off?”
Aki’s fur rippled as she shrank back to her human form. “That’s what you get for waking me up early.” She stuck out her tongue.
“That’s a new trick.” Denri squinted at the young girl, trying to decide if she looked older.
“You’re not the only one getting stronger!” Aki tossed her pillow at Denri and flashed a familiar grin. Denri had seen it in the mirror a thousand times. She knew Aki was going to tickle her before the young girl even twitched a finger. They rolled off the bed in a mess of limbs and blankets, both laughing uncontrollably.
A sharp knock at the door brought them to a halt. Eizo stepped in, already clean and dressed. His hands were clasped behind him and his back was alarmingly straight. “Good, you two are awake. Let’s go, shall we?”
“Just waiting on the lazy one.” Denri rubbed her fist on the top of Aki’s head, mussing her hair. At the edge of her vision, she saw the ghost of a smile on Eizo’s lips.
Denri scratched at the edge of her mask as they walked through the great dragon statue that held the entrance to the Dragon’s Den. The smell of sulfur filled her nose. On the platform in front of them, the Hub Spring shimmered beneath its dome of water.
Eizo consulted a crude map, drawn the Arbiter that gave them directions the day before. “Unfortunately, these shops are spread far across town. But there’s a few clustered together near the–,” he squinted at the cramped writing on the parchment, “–Anchor, I think? And a couple more along the way. Let’s head there first.”
Soon after they left, Denri understood the warnings about navigating the city. The rigid control of residents apparently did not extend to designs for the zeppelins. They crossed from platforms no larger than a cart, topped by precariously tall towers, to wide open boulevards with enough buildings to make a city block. They saw blacksmiths, carpenters, and crafts Denri couldn’t even imagine a name for. Even this early, most buildings hissed with steam.
They were climbing a ladder between two zeppelins docked at an angle when Aki stopped and looked at the platform below.
Denri put a hand on her butt and gave a shove. “Hey, quit gawking. This ladder might give at any second. I can shift back to the platform, but I don’t want to tell Shiri you fell into the volcano and burnt to a crisp, kid.”
“People are excited about something.”
Denri looked over her shoulder at the few residents moving across the platform. They were moving normally enough. “How can you tell? It looks like everybody’s ignoring each other. Same as yesterday.”
Aki shrugged. “I just can. They feel tense.”
“I guess that last shopkeeper was a bit antsy.”
They had stopped at a couple shops already, without success. The first sold devices for tracking monsters, but the designs were nothing like what Denri saw the Blades carrying.
The second was run by a woman still in the midst of opening her shop, a process which consisted of turning several cranks as the building opened like a mechanical flower. She sold intricate wilderness survival devices. But nothing to do with monsters or magic.
The woman’s voice had been matter-of-fact, but she was shifting foot to foot, an excited light in the eyes behind her mask.
Eizo’s head appeared over the edge of the platform above, bringing Denri back to the present. “Whatever it is, it’s not what we’re here for. Stay focused.” But he placed a hand on his sword and scanned the people around them.
The sun was high in the hazy sky by the time they reached Anchor. They had to double back once when they realized a zeppelins on their path had left the evening before, and they had to wait half an hour for a shop to open so they could climb to its roof and take a ladder to the building above as the city became increasingly three dimensional.
From the few locals who agreed to offer directions, they gathered that Anchor was the stable core of Sky Furnace. Most of the zeppelins in this area hadn’t undocked in decades, with many platforms growing semi-permanent attachments to one another. Any shop that wanted to avoid frequent shuffling of locations docked here. As a result, Anchor was a claustrophobic, chaotic jumble of zeppelins sprawling above and below.
Above Anchor, floating detached from the rest of the buildings was a cluster of zeppelins spanned by a single massive platform. It held a sprawling castle complex. A thick metal cable stretched from the castle to the summit of Kazora.
Denri and Aki both walked with their jaws hanging open, staring at the buildings above. The zeppelins were so thick in some places that they couldn’t even see the sky. Eizo guided them by the elbow toward the next shop on their list.
It was a squat building on Anchor’s ground level. The interior was cramped and littered with half finished projects. The only thing keeping the area from feeling like a cave was a large skylight filling the room with light and giving a view of Anchor above. They were alone when they entered.
A loud clatter sounded through a door at the back. It sounded like a thousand metal bits falling from a height. “Idiot! They’re everywhere!”
There was a heavily muffled reply.
“I can’t understand a word you’re saying. Take that wrench out of your mouth. How many times have I told you to set things down. Stop trying to carry a hundred things at once!”
A pause, followed by a deliberate, feminine voice. “This shop is half mine, no matter how much mother favored you. I will carry my tools how I see fit.”
“Well, your ball bearings are everywhere now, and I don’t have time to clean them up. You saw the news this morning, the Arbiters will be wanting as many of these as they can buy.”
Eizo rang a bell sitting near the entrance and the voice in the other room cut off. There was a scurrying of feet and the far door opened. A lanky man backed through the opening, securing a mask to his face.
“May I help you?” His deadpan welcome, the same as every other resident they had spoken to in Sky Furnace, could not have been further from the querulous tone a moment earlier. Denri thought the sharp distinction between public and private life in Sky Furnace would drive her crazy.
The man held a half finished device in his hands that looked vaguely like a compass.
“I hope so. We’ve walked quite a distance looking for someone who sells tracking equipment for resonant bonds.”
As the man approached their group, the needle on his device jumped. He frowned and hit the device with the butt of his hand, but the needle stayed in place. He muttered something to himself before he responded. “You may be in the right place, then. I make sensors for the five elemental resonances. I’m in the process of recalibrating most of my stock, though, so my selection is small. And you may have to wait for me to finish fixing some of the errors.” He gestured at the device in his hands.
“Ah, unfortunately we are looking for something slightly different. We won’t trouble you any further.” Eizo and Denri turned to leave, but Aki was standing further in the shop, staring through the skylight. She wasn’t paying attention to their conversation.
“What’s that building up there?”
The shopkeeper followed her gaze. “Is this your first time to Sky Furnace? That’s Castle Six, where the Twins live.”
The man shrugged. “Officially it’s called Embermount, but it’s burned down so many times everybody just refers to it by the number of rebuilds. Even the Twins call it Castle Six.”
“It’s burned down six times?”
“Well, five times. This is the sixth castle. But more or less. The Twins are always experimenting with dangerous things.” There was a hint of pride in his voice. “There hasn’t been an accident since they got the Dragon’s Roar working properly, though.” He pointed to the heavy metal cable dropping from Castle Six to the volcano below. “They rebuilt the whole thing out of metal after that one. Makes sense when you’ve got a dragon breathing fire directly into the building.”
Aki looked down at the man. “Why does Tetsujin breathe fire into the cable?”
“His fire provides most of the energy for the Twins’ experiments.”
“They use him like a forge?”
Denri knew what the hard eyes behind Aki’s mask meant all too well. “Very interesting! Well, like my friend said, we’ll leave you to your work now.” She hurried toward Aki, placing a hand on the girl’s waist and wheeling her toward the door before she could continue.
As Denri passed in front of the man, the device in his hand gave a shrill series of clicks and the needle on its face shot all the way to the right. Denri ducked as a gear shot out the back of the device.
“My apologies.” The man’s face reddened around the eyes of his mask as he rushed to pick up the flying part, but he kept his voice calm and dispassionate. “This machine requires further recalibration. I should return to my work now before I injure a customer.” He paused, looking from the device, its dial still maxed out, back to Denri. “I am sorry that I could not be more help. I hope you have not been searching for too long. How long did you say you had been in Sky Furnace?”
“Just a while.” Eizo placed a hand on the girls’ shoulders and shooed them through the door quickly. “Sorry again to be a bother.” As the door closed, Denri saw the man walking back to his workshop, muttering as he shook the device.
Once the shop was out of sight, Denri turned to Eizo. “That was weird. Why did he ask how long we had been here? Could he be working for Sadashi?”
Eizo shook his head. “I do not think so. I didn’t see any technology used by the Blades in that shop. More likely, he was confused when you maxed out the power sensor on that tracker in his hands. Hopefully he will think it was simply a malfunction. Still, we should be careful. Another incident like that could draw unwanted attention.”
There was a pause as Denri processed his words. “You’re saying I maxed out his power sensors?” A smile spread across her face.
“Yes, but that’s hardly–.”
“You hear that Aki? Maxed out.”
Aki made a show of ooh’s and ahh’s as Eizo shook his head and they started to climb to the next shop.
They entered the Scale and Talon through a hatch in the floor. Sweat beaded Denri’s lower back as she stepped off the ladder that climbed through the heated innards of the zeppelin. She looked around as the other two pulled themselves up. A double door at the far side of the room opened onto a wide, cobbled street lined with shops and a good number of Arbiters on patrol.
While the other shops they visited had been workshops and scrapyards as much as stores, the Scale and Talon was immaculate. Golden dragon filigrees swirled around the ceiling. Mechanical devices stood atop ornate columns, resting on delicate silk pillows of various colors. A short, portly man wearing lavish white robes slashed with gold was moving between the handful of customers.
The three of them separated to explore.
Denri spent several minutes wandering between the columns. She saw swords, arrows, and a length chain with intricate links and angry barbs. She also saw talons, scales, and vials of blood. There were also more complex devices whose purpose she didn’t understand. Except for one.
Sitting atop a deep green cushion was a metal dial with a small length of chain hanging from it’s center. A wristband, the same emerald color as the cushion, gleamed in the light. It looked a twin to the device Denri had seen on the wrist of the Blade she fought.
Heart suddenly thumping, Denri walked to the pedestal, peering closely to confirm her suspicion. As casually as she could, she waved for Aki’s attention and motioned her over.
“What? Did you find something?”
Denri lifted the device from its cushion, watching the chain at its center.
Aki looked at the monster parts and vials of blood uneasily as she approached. She lowered her voice so only Denri could hear. “I don’t like this place. I want to leave.” The chain remained pointing resolutely downward. Now that the device was in her hands, Denri realized it hung with more than just the weight of gravity. The chain pulled actively toward the floor.
“Excuse me, please be careful with that.” The well-dressed man was approaching quickly from the other side of the room. His voice remained quiet, but the tension in his shoulders suggested it was a struggle. “That is very expensive and difficult to have repaired.”
“Thank you.” He snatched the device from Denri’s hand, only slightly faster than what was polite. “Now, may I help you?”
Denri was glad the mask hid her face as her nose wrinkled at the man’s heavy perfume. “What’s so special about that thing?”
The man held the device proudly in his hands. “You have a good eye, young lady, even if you don’t realize it. This is a wayfinder.”
“Like a compass? Or a tracker?”
“This is no ordinary tracker. It can point to your quarry up to 50 miles away. But it has more than an extended range.” He flipped the wayfinder on its side to display a small gear embedded there. His hands moved with the practiced grace of a showman. “Sometimes pointing to the horizon is not so useful. Turning this dial increases the sensitivity so that the wayfinder can detect even traces of your target. Allowing you to follow the exact trail it took.”
“Can it track anything you want?”
The man nodded. “Yes, if you have a sample and the coin to pay for the recasting. If you have enough gold, you can even have it adjusted to track a specific creature.”
There was no doubt, this was what the Blades were using to track Aki. “What’s this one pointing to?”
The man chuckled humorlessly, as though Denri had told a bad joke. After a pause he realized her question was serious. “Why, dragons of course.” He gestured around the room as though in explanation.
“How hard is it for you to recast it?”
“Forgive me, I believe there’s been a misunderstanding. I did not make this device. I commissioned it’s production from a man named Shinmon. My shop specializes in hunting dragons and the creation of technologies from their byproducts.”
It was all Denri could do not to grind her teeth. Still more searching. “Where does Shin–?”
“Everything here is for killing dragons?” Aki’s voice was tight as she looked around the room.
“Well no, not everything. Some of my clients pay for their equipment by sharing some of the spoils, which I sell to those interested in researching and harnessing their properties. I even have a few samples from Tetsujin himself, though those are quite expensive.”
“What is that made out of?” Aki pointed to the band on the wayfinder with narrowed eyes. Her finger trembled.
Aki was going to make a scene. Denri looked around for Eizo. He was across the room, searching through the goods there. He hadn’t noticed Denri and Aki’s conversation with the shopkeeper yet.
“Ah, again the two of you show a fine eye for quality. This is some of the finest emerald dragon hide money can buy. Taken from the belly for extra pliability. I assume that you wish to purchase? It’s an expensive piece, but there is always the possibility of a discount if there’s more you wish to purchase alongside it.”
Even Denri was angered by the man’s callous indifference to the creatures killed for his products. She realized her hands had balled themselves into fists. Why was she this mad?
She turned to Aki, sensing the girl’s intent. Denri didn’t try to stop her as Aki’s hand whipped forward, grabbing the wayfinder. She held the device over her head, raising on her tiptoes. Then she smashed it against the ground.
A shocked silence filled the room as the pieces of the wayfinder scattered to a halt across the floor. Every head turned toward them, including Eizo’s. A hand went to the hilt of his blade reflexively as he hurried toward them.
“WHAT HAVE YOU–.” The man quieted himself with visible effort, knuckling a fist against the forehead of his mask. “Why did you do this?” His voice was ragged and pinched and a flush showed around his eyes.
“It’s awful. People would have used it to kill. This whole shop is awful.”
“They are only dragons, girl.” The man paused and took a deep breath as his eyes darted to the open double doors. “If you do not like my wares, you did not have to enter my shop. Now, that device was incredibly expensive, you will pay for it.”
The situation was going to get worse when the shopkeeper realized they had no money. Denri’s eyes darted back to Eizo as he wove through the labyrinth of columns.
She was gauging the distance, wondering how long she had to stall before they could all run, when Eizo pulled up short. He frowned, then pretended to bury his attention in a dagger resting on a column beside him. Many of the other customers did the same.
A steady chorus of marching armor drew Denri’s attention toward the double doors at the front of the Scale and Talon. Three gold armored Arbiters ducked through the entryway, making directly for Aki and the shopkeeper.
A square-jawed woman with a broad nose and a scar under her left eye looked out from a dragon helm. “We heard a disturbance from the street. What’s going on here?”
The shopkeeper’s anger melted away as he nodded deferentially to the Arbiters. “I am confused as well, Protector. These two just destroyed a valuable piece of equipment, seemingly unprovoked.”
“People were going to use it to hurt dragons!”
The Arbiter turned toward Aki with a look of quiet surprise. It was unclear if the surprise was due to someone yelling in her presence, or because Aki spoke like hurting monsters was taboo.
“If you do not deny this man’s claim, then you will pay for the damages. And I will remind you that public disruptions are illegal. This is not the day to test the patience of the Arbiters.”
The shopkeeper cut in, voice tight. “Protector, I do not mean to question your judgment, but this girl has deliberately destroyed my property. Certainly the consequences should be larger than simply paying the cost of the item?”
“Certainly? Do not presume to pass the judgment of the Arbiters.” The shopkeeper shrank back under the woman’s glare. “We have more important matters to attend than a surly–.”
“He should be in trouble! Tetsujin helps the town. You all should be grateful to him, not selling things to kill his family!”
The shopkeeper’s eyes widened and several customers darted nervous glances toward Aki. Even the Arbiter looked completely taken aback, though she recovered quickly. “I would have let this slide, even if your actions would earn a sterner punishment on any other day. We have been ordered to secure the city, and I do not want to waste our time punishing a surly child. But to show insolence to an Arbiter is a step too far. Even for today.”
Denri took a protective step in front of Aki, holding her hands up in a placating gesture. “Please, we didn’t mean to insult. We’re new to Sky Furnace and still getting used to the rules. My friend admires Tetsujin and the Twins, that’s all.”
“Hold your tongue or you will share your friend’s punishment.” The woman turned to Denri as she spoke, then paused as she processed the pair for the first time. “You say you are new to Sky Furnace?”
Denri looked to the ground, trying to seem as contrite as possible. “Yes ma’am. We entered the town yesterday and it seems we still have much to learn.” She let her shoulders hunch, hoping the woman would see her as a child.
When the woman replied, her voice was probing. “Every Arbiter in Sky Furnace was put on alert this morning. An urgent message came from Terminus. An unranked Hero has earned a starting bounty of 60,000 gold pieces.” Denri’s palms began to sweat as she listened. Many of the customers were staring openly at their group, now. A few nodded, as though they had heard the news before.
The Arbiter pushed on, her voice dangerous. The two Arbiters behind her held their sword hilts, tensed to draw at a moment’s notice. “The Hero is a flit woman. It seems she defeated five Blades singlehandedly. Soon after, she challenged Kiyoshi of the Whispers, and won.” There was an audible gasp from one of the customers. “The woman was last seen leaving by boat from Kiyoshi’s domain six days ago. Just in time to arrive in Sky Furnace… yesterday, did you say?”
“I– that is quite the development.” Denri’s throat was dry, her heart beating in her ears. She forced herself not to swallow, to keep her hands steady. Aki took a step closer, startled out of her anger. “I can see why you would be suspicious of our arrival. But I promise it’s nothing more than a coincidence.”
“And not an hour before, we receive word from our fellow Arbiters. A shopkeep in Lower Anchor reports that a flit woman maxed out his resonant scale. Traveling with another young woman and an older man. Where is your other companion?”
A man at the back of the shop screamed as a loud crash shook the floor and glass shattered. The source of the scream sprawled over a toppled pillar. Ahead of him, a rack of vials had fallen to the floor and shattered, throwing dragon’s blood across the floor. There was a hiss as the blood steamed, then ignited.
Eizo was moving along the wall. He strode purposefully toward the exit.
Denri didn’t hesitate. She sprang forward, placed a palm against the Arbiter’s chest, and sent a stunning shock through the armor. The woman’s body froze, her head half turned toward the new disturbance. Her jaw clamped shut as her muscles spasmed.
Denri didn’t wait to see how the others reacted. She turned and wrapped her arms around Aki. Then she pulled lightning into her legs and ran.
Denri ducked into an alley with Aki, her chest heaving as alarm bells rang behind them. She nearly knocked Eizo unconscious as he came running around the corner.
“Don’t do that!” Denri shook her hand, dissipating the energy she had called into her arm.
“We don’t have much time. We need to make it to the Tether and get out of Sky Furnace.” Eizo continued past, forcing them to follow as he wove deeper into the mire of shops and buildings.
“But we haven’t learned anything about Aki’s powers yet. I got a lead talking to that shopkeeper before everything went crazy. Someone named Shinmon.”
“It’s too late for that now. We’ll have to find another way to find out what’s going on. It’s not worth the risk of staying here. Not with the city on alert like this.”
Denri opened her mouth to protest, but closed it rapidly as Eizo pressed them all against a wall. A group of Arbiters ran past on the street ahead.
Aki spoke in a whisper as they waited. “What about Shiri and Onara? They’re back at the inn with our things.”
“Can you call them?”
Aki shook her head. “Not unless we get closer. And the door is closed, I don’t think they could get out.”
“We can’t go back to the inn. Who knows what Anko has told the Arbiters.”
Denri grabbed Eizo’s forearm. “We are not leaving them Eizo. We’re going back.”
Eizo hesitated and Denri tightened her grip, her knuckles going white. He nodded and they started forward again. They kept to the shadows, darting across streets only when they had to.
“I don’t understand. Kiyoshi said she was going to wait as long she could to report Denri’s challenge. Was she lying to us?” Aki gasped. “Do you think Hattori is OK?”
Eizo replied in barely a whisper as they crouched behind a low wall, waiting for a group of residents to finish crossing the bridge to the next platform. “I do not think she has betrayed us. You have not sensed trouble through your bond with Hattori.”
Denri nodded. “There was that business with the Blades, too. Kiyoshi didn’t know about that.”
“My guess is that Sadashi reported you, at which point Kiyoshi was forced to report her challenge as well.”
“But why? It wasn’t even true!”
They were silent as they lept from their hiding place, running along the bridge in a low crouch. Eizo didn’t reply until they slid down a ladder and were weaving through a series of back alleys.
“He lied to get your starting bounty higher. He’s trying to isolate us.”
“I thought we wanted high bounties, though.”
“Not that high!” Eizo nearly hissed. “Shifting crown, Denri! 60,000 gold pieces! You’re bounty is closer to the Sanyaku than a warrior sleeps to their sword. We needed time to forge alliances before the leaders saw you as a threat, to learn about Aki so we knew who to position ourselves against. But no one can ignore you now. No one will want to come near us.
“You heard how much the Arbiters know about you. That report will be sent to every domain in Yosai. You’ll be recognized everywhere, now.”
Denri had never heard Eizo lose his composure like this. He sounded desperate, out of ideas.
They ran through the city in silence. Hunted once again.
You can read the next story in this series here.
The End. Now that you're done reading...
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