Today I sent the final draft of Fortune’s Eve to the copy editor. This is the prequel short story to the new Hellion House steampunk fantasy series. Because I’m so excited, I’m posting an appetizer here!
“If we don’t find the wreck soon, we’ll be obliged to turn back,” Norton Fletcher said.
Gideon glanced at the sky, calculating the remaining daylight. His father was right. No one risked traveling outside the city after dark. “That’s death for the crew of the wreck.”
“But not for us.” Fletcher’s face was rigid. “Don’t get caught up in the emotion of these missions. It’s a quick way to die.”
Gideon gave a low laugh to hide his resentment. His father never let go of the impulse to instruct his grown son. “I have compassion.”
“A waste of energy. Everything breaks and everything mends,” Fletcher said. “Live long enough, and you’ll understand.”
“Do you truly believe that?” Gideon asked, heat creeping into his words.
“Yes,” his father replied, “and no. It’s what old men tell themselves to stop the ache of fear in their bellies.”
The words were terse, a bitter blend of the flippant and the true. Questions crowded Gideon’s mind, but Fletcher’s expression closed like a door banging shut, the Dragonfly’s captain replacing the father. Not that the difference was pronounced on most days.
Gideon studied his father, who stood at the pilot’s station with feet planted wide and back ramrod straight. Fletcher wasn’t a large man, but his stocky figure and lined features, weathered by decades of sun and wind, made Gideon think of petrified oak. Fletcher eased a lever forward and the Dragonfly dipped closer to the river, twin propellers thwop-thwopping through the mist. Autumn fogs trailed ghostly fingers around the dirigible as if they meant to snatch it from the sky.
A flare had gone up two hours ago, according to the report of the watchmen who scanned the forest from the great towers that flanked the city gates. Fletcher Industries—one of the premier airship firms in the city—kept half a dozen rescue craft on standby, but the last week had been busy. When word arrived, only the Dragonfly was still at the airfield and the crews were shorthanded. Norton Fletcher—owner, designer, and still one of the best pilots in the sky—had taken the job himself. Of course, Gideon went with him. He was heir to the Fletcher empire and familiar with the day-to-day operations, but he still took pleasure in watching his father work. Or he had. As the afternoon wore on, that first thrill darkened to anxiety. They weren’t finding any trace of the wreck.
Gideon peered over the edge of the gondola, estimating the distance to the dense treetops. Ash, birch, oak, chestnut, and the occasional conifer grew in a lush tangle. They called this area between settlements the Outlands. After the population had fled the countryside, Nature had thrown a party. The result was the beautiful but deadly forest that grew up, covering every trace of civilization. Gideon leaned out another inch, one hand on a sturdy cable. There was still plenty of clearance before they risked scraping the branches, but distance made it hard to see the river. Unfortunately, closing the gap would be unwise. That was the gamble with rescue missions—risk all to save the innocent, and risk becoming a victim oneself.
A trio of dragons soared above the branches as the ship passed overhead. Their population had grown with the forest, but the city dwellers paid them no heed. Few of the creatures grew larger than a goat, and humanity had far more to worry about than an invasive species of lizard.
For the hundredth time that afternoon, the broad silver swath of the river emerged from the encroaching trees. The Dragonfly had followed a zigzagging path, searching both sides of the water. They had seen a fleet of River Rats—clans of wandering thieves and magicians who lived aboard their crafts—and once a smuggler’s ship with gun ports open. Both had probably been bound for the walled farms to the east. There was gold in river business, for those brave enough to risk it. Gideon would take the sky any day.
The foliage slipped from view, and the water gleamed directly below. His heart skipped as he saw what the Dragonfly had come for—the wreckage of a mid-sized sailing craft.
“There!” Gideon cried, pointing over the side with one hand while he fumbled for his spyglass with the other. “Bring the ship around again.”
The crew—four hands besides the Fletchers—jumped to obey, hauling on the lines that adjusted the auxiliary sails. Boilers hissed, feeding the engine that drove the propellers. Slowly, the Dragonfly, with its twin gray and white silk balloons, pivoted in the sky.
“Sir, we dare not go lower,” said Higgins, the grizzled senior airman.
“Then get your gear on,” said Norton Fletcher, guiding the ship into position above the wreck. “We’ll go down for a look, although it’s not promising.”
Hopeful or not, it was still their duty to search for survivors. Gideon grabbed his own equipment, wondering what they’d find. Fools had a way of getting what they deserved.
The river—cold, fast, and often foggy—was riddled with ruined weirs and the stumps of old bridges. Wise travelers took a River Rat who knew the water’s tricks. According to the harbormaster’s records—all crafts were required to declare their routes before they cast off—Mr. Joseph Ellery, esquire, had not. On some level, Gideon wasn’t surprised. He’d met the weedy banker at parties and the theater and had been consistently underwhelmed.
By the time the Dragonfly was hovering in place, Gideon, Higgins, and Crewman Yale were ready to descend. Flight crews typically wore supple leather suits as protection from wind and weather, along with high boots and close-fitting helmets. Gideon added a weapons belt and a rifle in a sling across his back, as well as long knives strapped to his thighs.
“You’ve got an hour of good daylight,” said Fletcher. “Don’t waste it.”
Gideon tried to catch his father’s eye, but the goggles that protected his eyes against the burn of the wind made it impossible. He wasn’t sure why he bothered to grasp that last moment of connection—he should need no reassurance, and emotional displays were not the family way. Still, the unknown that lurked below left a hollow in his gut. When Higgins offered him a flask of smuggled French brandy, he accepted it gratefully and took a swig for luck.
A square metal plate, about five feet across, formed part of the Dragonfly’s main deck. Once unlocked from thick steel hasps, the platform could be raised and lowered with steam-powered efficiency. Cables spooled onto four large wheels that moved on a single automated crank calibrated to keep the plate perfectly level—a key feature of Norton Fletcher’s design. The rescue crew mounted the platform, crouching low and grasping the lines for balance while Fletcher himself released the brake. With a whir of well-oiled gears, they gently floated the forty feet to the river’s shallows.
A breeze caught the platform, swaying it slightly. Gideon didn’t mind. The scent of greenery and rich mud was a novelty, and he inhaled with gratitude. His home stank of smoke and too many bodies crowded close for protection. The Outlands might be deadly, but at least they were clean.
The men jumped the last few feet, boots splashing in shallow water. The wreck was in the middle of the river, but there wasn’t enough of the ship left for survivors to take shelter. The crew would have struck out for dry ground or been carried off by the current. As this was the closer bank, it made sense to begin the search here.
“By our calculations, that’s where the flare was fired,” said Higgins, pointing a dozen yards ahead. “Anyone hoping for rescue wouldn’t go far.”
Gideon nodded agreement and scrambled up the bank, not wasting time. He pushed up his goggles, needing his peripheral vision now. As the September shadows lengthened, the fog was already misting above the water. It would be dusk here long before the sun actually set.
Unholstering his rifle, he strode onward, using his nose as well as his eyes and ears. Death had a smell, as did blood, but the wind was off the river and gave him no clues. A rustle in the trees caught his attention.
Gideon raised the rifle and turned slowly, realizing there had been birdsong a moment ago, and now there wasn’t. Somewhere in the treetops, a dragon squawked and flapped in seeming fury. He began to sweat, soaking the shirt beneath his jacket. He was still on the bank, the bush and trees a dozen yards distant and hiding who knew what. Countless ruins lay buried along the riverside, evidence of a world before walls and the terror of the Unseen.
Gideon swept his rifle in a slow arc, his nerves alive with dread. “Ellery?”
The woods to his left exploded with movement and sound. He swiveled toward it, but was a beat too late. He had a swift impression of rags and bony limbs, but his senses failed. A long shriek of rage split the air as the thing hurtled through the air, arms extended. Gideon had no chance to aim.