From the author: Evelyn has been accepted to a wizarding school, but now she has to figure out how to get there. Unfortunately, Evelyn decides to take an airship. What could possibly go wrong when she's flying in a rickety deathtrap over Give-Up-All-Hope Mountain?
Evelyn had always thought an airship would be grand and awe-inspiring. With a gleaming deck, masts reaching the clouds, and sails glimmering with magic. Instead it was a box.
No deck, no portholes, no rails, and not even a hint of a sail. Just a wooden bottom with four short walls.
Definitely a box.
Sure, the magic to make a ship fly could be used on any object. But airbox didn’t have the same ring as airship.
A stranger who seemed more beard than man walked over and smiled at the structure with a manic gleam in his brown eyes. “Stargazer’s a beauty, isn’t she?”
Evelyn glanced around to see if he was talking to her. Or maybe talking about a different secret ship hidden away. Though from the way he looked at the box this object had to have some redeeming quality. Perhaps she didn’t know enough about air travel and the square design made it extra safe.
He slapped the side of the box, making the structure shudder as if it was on the verge of collapse.
So, not safe then.
The man asked, “Are you interested in booking a ride?”
Evelyn glanced skeptically at what was probably a deathtrap, but it wasn’t like she had many options. It would take her a month to walk to school and it would cost too much to rent a stagecoach.
“How much does it cost to go to Aveility City?”
“Aveility, eh?” He stroked his beard and looked at her, taking in her youth, secondhand robe, and the fact that her visible luggage was ninety percent books and ten percent tea. “Isn’t that where the wizard schools are? You know we offer a discount for wizards if they don’t mind helping out a bit.”
Evelyn quickly decided he didn’t need to know this would be her first year at school and so she wasn’t actually a wizard yet.
“What’s the discount?” Evelyn asked, hoping she didn’t sound too interested.
“Half price if you just help power up the flight spell every now and then.”
“Good. Name’s Conor and I’ll be the one flying you and anyone else who wants to go. Now let’s figure out what route we should take.” Conor pulled a large map out of nowhere. Either he knew magic himself or the map had been hidden in his beard. “Company doesn’t send us enough wizards to fly everywhere we want, but Aveility is important enough that you have a few route options. Different stops along the way, but they all land at the city.”
“Is there a difference in price?”
“For you? No.” He stretched out the hand-drawn map and pointed to the different colored lines, clearly routes or someone was really bad at drawing country boundaries. “Let’s see, you could take the Red Route, takes you across the Boiling Lake and the Give-Up-All-Hope Mountain. That’s the quickest way and you’d reach Aveility in six hours.”
“Boiling Lake and Give-Up-All-Hope Mountain,” Evelyn repeated. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t think so.”
Evelyn eyed the skull and crossbones so cluttered on the map they left little room for landmarks. “What are the other options?”
“The Yellow Route takes you over Valley of the Tortured Souls and Forest of the Damned.”
“Though for the best view I’d recommend the Blue Route over Annihilation Peak, Eternal Rest Mountain, and the Cliff of Ruin. Basically over the entire Death Mountain Range.”
Who came up with these names?
“Couldn’t I go over the Kittens and Puppies Valley or something?” Evelyn asked.
“Oh, God, do you have a death wish?!? Though speaking of death wishes, the Green Route over Death Wish Valley would get you there in two days.”
“What’s the safest route?”
“Umm…” Conor avoided meeting her eyes. “They’re all safe.”
Evelyn glanced over at the airbox/airship. The less time she had to spend in it the better. “I guess the fastest route.”
Evelyn vowed never to take the fastest route again. And never ride an airship again.
The wind stung her eyes and it was so cold even layering on two of her winter coats didn’t help. The box was crowded with at least a dozen passengers sitting side-by-side on the airbox’s floor, most of whom looked either bored or terrified – which were the two feelings Evelyn herself fluctuated between.
And then there was the nausea.
None of her books mentioned feeling ill while flying. Then again all of the books claimed airships were valid transportation options so nothing the authors wrote could be trusted anymore. Conor claimed Evelyn was feeling seasick, but how could she feel something that happened on the ocean when they were flying through the air? Evelyn would have pointed out the logical problem, if she wasn’t afraid of what would happen if she opened her mouth.
At least the scenery was beautiful. Forests reduced to patchwork greens, snow-peaked mountains, and turquoise rivers cutting through it all. Give-Up-All-Hope Mountain really should be a vacation spot.
“Hey, wizard.” Conor’s voice cut through Evelyn’s thoughts. He sat upfront, which really was just the side of the box facing the direction they were headed, with his hands on a steering wheel, which was really just a stick. “Add some magic to the seal, would ya?”
Evelyn placed her hand on the magical seal that kept them all airborne. The spell looked like a small hand. Each time she refilled the magic it felt like that hand reached out and punched her in the gut. That probably didn’t help with the nausea.
“How do you fly this thing without a wizard onboard?” Evelyn asked, looking at the other passengers and wondering just how long they’d had to wait before a flight.
“We don’t. But at least once a week some wizard wants a ride, or we temporarily hire one, then we fly. Worse comes to worse, we get one drunk enough to pass out and then wake them up about halfway in. At that point they have to power up the spell.”
Kidnapping confession aside, Evelyn wondered if she could have gotten a better deal than half off. And the fact that not a single passenger seemed surprised by the unorthodox methods simply confirmed that anyone willing to fly was either foolish or fearless.
“You know,” Conor continued, “If schooling doesn’t work out we could always use wizards around here. Travel, adventure, and maybe a little windburn, all yours for the taking.”
Evelyn vowed she’d never leave school.
“By the way, what happens if there’s a storm or a dragon finds us?”
“Dragons usually don’t bother ships, something about us being beneath their dignity or whatnot. And our airships are made to handle even the toughest storms. But neither of those are usually the issue. What’s the problem is pirates.”
“Pirates?” Evelyn repeated with an added amount of skepticism. “But we’re in the sky, how could pirates reach us?”
Now if pirates were to suddenly appear right after Evelyn asked the question, she would know never to tempt fate again. But naturally that didn’t happen. Events don’t occur just because someone spoke out loud. No, the pirates came ten minutes later.
“Incoming off the starboard side!” Conor yelled out, pointing to the right.
Two small figures were speeding towards the airbox. Squinting, Evelyn could make out two people balancing on what looked like flying boards. Literal boards. A plank of wood that they balanced on without even a railing.
Did no one understand the concept of the “ship” in airship?
The two pirates zoomed closer and a voice that was so loud it had to have been enchanted by magic called out, “Stop flying and surrender!”
“Never!” Conor yelled out with such passion that Evelyn didn’t have the heart to tell him there was no way the pirates would be able to hear him at such a distance without magic.
But given that the airbox wasn’t slowing down, the pirates appeared to have figured out they weren’t giving up. And with that, the pirates started throwing spears and the passengers started to scream.
This wasn’t good.
“Quick,” Conor yelled to Evelyn as a spear with a rope tied around it just missed the airbox’s side. “Power up that seal! We’ve had a lot of missing ships from this route so the pirates probably don’t leave survivors. Our only hope is to outrun them!”
Evelyn slapped her hand against the magic seal and added power to it, realizing it didn’t make her feel nearly as sick as the fear did.
“Do you know any attack or defense spells?” Conor asked as he made them soar even higher.
“No! I haven’t even taken a single class!”
“Should have guessed you were new when you settled for working for just half off rather than money and a free ride.”
Evelyn quickly noted never to make that mistake again. Well, if she lived through this and could make more mistakes.
Another spear flew above them, barely missing Conor’s head.
“We outnumber them,” Evelyn shouted to Conor and the cowering passengers. “Maybe we could beat them in a fight.”
“They have magic and weapons, what do we have?”
One of the passengers stood up and threw off his cloak. He was armed with more weapons than a standard army and it looked like even his muscles had muscles.
“Don’t worry,” he declared as the wind tussled his hair. “I will protect you!”
A spear hit him in the head.
The would-be hero collapsed into a heap. As the other passengers screamed and cried - which seemed like a smart action given the circumstances - Evelyn crawled over and checked out the body.
The man groaned and clutched the spear attached to his head. Literally attached. It was a rounded spearhead with no point, but it must have had some magical spell to make it stick to whatever it hit. Plus there was a rope tied to the spear. But why?
As if to answer the question, the rope went taut. The man slid towards the side of the airbox, as if someone was trying to reel him in.
Evelyn looked out at the pirates and saw they were moving hand-over-hand on the rope to close the distance between them and the airbox. Attached by rope, now even the best ship maneuvers wouldn’t be able to lose them now. The pirates would be on them in a matter of seconds if this continued.
Evelyn grabbed a knife from the unconscious man’s belt and sawed off the rope. Maybe that would make the pirates fall. Evelyn gazed out, hoping to see nothing but sky. Instead, the pirates were getting closer.
She really should have insisted on traveling the route across the Kittens and Puppies Valley.
“What’s happening back there?” Conor called out.
“Are you sure you don’t know any spells?”
“I only know small spells, like warming up tea, finding lost sheep, and making my voice louder,” Evelyn trailed off and then looked back at the pirates. “Actually, should we try negotiating?”
“Didn’t you hear me?” Conor asked as the airbox dived down, making Evelyn remember why she had felt nauseous for most of the flight. “A lot of airships don’t return from this route. These pirates don’t just take your money. They take your life.”
“It doesn’t hurt to ask.”
Ignoring Conor’s shouts of protest, Evelyn cast the spell to amplify her voice. Then, as another spear passed over her head, she called out, “Will you stop chasing us?"
Well, at least it was worth asking.
“No,” a pirate countered with a voice also magically louder. “Surrender!”
“No. We don’t want to die!”
“Who said anything about dying? We wouldn’t kill anyone! Rough them up a bit, sure, but not kill!”
The confusion in the voice was only amplified with how loud it was. Either the pirates were terrific actors or they really weren’t murderers.
“But we heard you don’t leave survivors,” Evelyn said with a meaningful look at Conor.
“That’s just bad for business. Too many deaths mean people wouldn’t fly here anymore, and then we’d have no one to steal from.”
“Plus, killing is like, super bad,” the other pirate called out with a magically enhanced voice. If they both had enchanted voices, that means they both could use magic. “We’ll steal, but we draw the line at murder.”
Great, two wizard pirates and Evelyn could only magically make tea hotter. At least it looked like they weren’t going to kill them all. Maybe.
“But airships have been disappearing on this route,” Evelyn said.
“That’s probably from the dragons and storms. Very dangerous.”
Evelyn sent another meaningful look at Conor, who studiously ignored her. They continued flying as quickly as they could. The wind was giving Evelyn a headache. And she still felt sick.
“Could we all just stop and talk this out?” Evelyn cried out.
“A parlay?” Conor and the pirates asked at the same time.
“Sure,” Evelyn replied. Whatever a parlay was, it had to be better than this chase.
The airbox slowed down and the pirates slowed down as well. They were clearly experienced with flying since they wore multiple jackets, a number of scarves, and goggles. Oh yes, and at least a dozen gleaming weapons each looking scarier than the last.
Soon everyone simply hovered in the sky and glared at each other. Off to a good start.
“Well,” Evelyn said slowly as she rubbed her temples. “If storms and dragons are so dangerous then why would you risk flying yourselves?”
“Not a lot of ways to make money here. A few years back, we changed the area’s name to Hope Mountain in the hopes of becoming a popular vacation spot, but somehow the name changed to Give-Up-All-Hope Mountain.”
Evelyn considered the name apt given the dragons, storms, and pirates, but wisely didn’t comment.
The other pirate spoke up. “We even went to a wizarding school so we could learn a new trade and were kicked out before the end of the year! Apparently they didn’t like it when you prefer fighting to reading. We don’t really want to be pirates, but we need to make money somehow.”
Good thing schools didn’t teach lightning attack spells until the second year.
But even if the pirates didn’t know attack spells, they were already so powerful. The spears, the speed, and the ability to balance on a board over a thousand feet off the ground and not freeze in terror. They had to be either fearless or foolish to be a pirate. Just like everyone else who liked airships.
“So,” Evelyn said as an idea began to form, “would you be willing to relocate if you could make money?”
The two huddled together and silently chatted before one called out, “Sure. I mean, as long as we could visit home every once in awhile.”
“And could you endure travel, adventure, and maybe a little windburn?”
“For money? Sounds like a dream!”
Evelyn looked towards Conor. He laughed and said, “I think I know where you’re going with this, little wizard. And I like it! Always preferred fighting over reading myself.”
With a smile Evelyn turned back to the pirates. “Have you ever considered becoming airship pilots?”
After that it was just down to negotiations.
The once-pirates and now-pilots left with company employment contracts and only a few stolen coins. They even healed the would-be hero’s concussion without being asked.
Conor turned to Evelyn. “Don’t worry, the rest of the route should be just as easy. Probably. Maybe. With luck it will be just as easy!”
Evelyn vowed that next time she’d just walk.
This story originally appeared in Skies of Wonder, Skies of Danger: An Isle of Write Anthology.