Sorry for the week long break in posts. I’ve been hammering out the second draft of my next book in a new Series. For some of you who have been looking at my bibliography page, you might have noticed the little tag for this book at the bottom of the screen. Well, I’m glad to announce that I should have it out by mid December as long as the Editor and some Beta readers, as well as the cover design are not delayed.
To celebrate this, here is the rough version of the first chapter, which is more of a Prologue.
Cloud Dancer By J.G. Johnson
Teusren the 32ed of Argoth
Year 837 of Revana
“Remind me why I ever let you talk me into this?” Jesse grunted as he hoisted the hoses over the side of the skiff to trail in the swirling milky white and blood red doom of the Eternal Storm, not nearly far enough away, below them. There were only two of them in the light skiff and it wasn’t because Spira crystal syphoning was a two-man job. In fact, they were breaking several laws and worse taboos by engaging in it at all. Hence why they were out here in the dark, lurking around in the shadow of one of the low flying islands which was on its death drift.
“Because you needed the cash,” Ben replied lazily from the tiller of the skiff, keeping them clear of the poisons exhaust from the Storm they were leaving in their wake as the old steam pump wheezed like an asthmatic cat with a hair ball in a catnip field, drawing the toxic soup from below and passing it through the catch. The soft tinkling sound of Spira crystals falling into the catch pan was music to their ears and Pel in their pockets. If they lived long enough to collect it. Even for a scoundrel like him, this was not a career, but a desperate gamble and Ben’s eyes never stopped scanning for ripples and other signs of a rise.
Spira crystals were the life blood of the world. They literally kept the world floating. Most of the time you were supposed to mine them from one of the deserted rocks, but was hard and dangerous work, not only did you have to dig for them, but you always had to worry about if the next one you removed would send the rock you were on down into the Eternal Storm and that was a one way trip, and for all of the risk, the crystals usually weren’t high grade. Easier was what they were doing, but it was illegal for good reason. The denizens of the Eternal Storm didn’t take kindly to those from above mucking up their domain. If a Kraken or Wyvern should rise to meet them, they might be able to run away from it or beat one off with the swivels, but if one of the others showed up, all they could hope for would be a quick end and to give it indigestion.
“Right. The cash.” Jesse listened to the light tinkling as the hopper filled and focused on the Pel each clink represented. Tiamat’s Pestilence had hit his family’s farm hard just after what, had looked to be a bumper crop when the government assayer had passed through, could been harvested and left them with only a pittance of their harvest. Worse still, the losses in their Rasp fruit orchards wouldn’t be recoverable for years and their fields were going to need to be cleansed and replanted. Usually, they could have hunkered down and made it but with the war on between the Orlan Federation and his own Salicia of the Russo Republic, and the Draft tax it entailed based on what the assayer had seen which couldn’t be adjusted, they had to either pay or provide the Draft to cover the tax. His family owned a good size chunk of land, but they weren’t a large family. There was only him, his brother, two sisters, and his mother. The war wasn’t going well, so if him and his brother went, it was doubtful they would ever return and even the two of them wouldn’t have covered the tax which left his elder sister to make up the difference as a “support” troop and the things he had heard about what was happening to the female draft as the war grew darker, made his blood run cold.
Unfortunately for common decency, they were one of the few backwaters as yet not fully engaged in the fight and that meant the garrison was made of the slimiest sort that could weasel their way out of the fighting and was therefore highly motivated to provide the warm bodies needed at the front so as not to be called up themselves. They couldn’t draft beyond their draft quota, plus the few daft volunteers who still trickled in, but they were real sticklers for catching everyone else that they could.
Jesse adjusted the hose, prayed, and listened to the tinkling in the pan. Two hours, two kilos of Spira crystals split fifty-fifty, and my family will be safe with a little bit extra to help us get back on our feet. He glanced at Ben. That is if Ben can truly sell them for what he says without getting caught. Not that any of this will be a problem for me if one of the lower creatures should take offence to our trespasses and end all of our worldly concerns. Stupid, pointless war. Why can’t they see that we never stood a chance! All they are succeeding in doing is reducing us to poverty before the Orlandans gobble us up. “Stupid Tiamat,” he grumbled, earning a writhing glare from Ben which he rightfully deserved. Siphoning was bad enough without dissing on the big’uns where they could hear you.
Tiamat usually stayed in the storm, or on the mythical lower lands if the loons were to be believed, but one of the recent air battles had been closer than anyone had liked and when one of the ships magazines had had the sheer gall to explode after the whole ship’s crew had already died to the Eternal Storm’s poison, Tiamat had made her ire known by wiping the skies of over half of the remaining ships, most of them Russo, and spreading a path of crop killing pestilence across the island as she overflew it.
Ben understood Jesse’s angst well enough. Afterall, he hadn’t always been on the wrong side of the law, but that didn’t mean he was stupid and there were some things you just didn’t do in this line of business. The Lawless Laws for the Lawless of the Skies were hard and uncaring, but they were the laws and they were there for a reason. He was about to rip into Jess when a ripple in the clouds below and almost out of his periphery caught his eye.
Jesse turned started to say sorry, when he saw Ben’s head whip around so fast it should have cracked like a whip as he stared into the swirling abyss beneath them, and his blood ran cold. “I’m so sorry,” he blubbered, but a warning glare from Ben made him shut up right quick.
“Watch the clouds and draw in the hose. If you see anything rise, cut them loose and pray it’s only a Kraken!”
Jesse nodded and set to work as quickly and as quietly as possible, killing the pump, which seemed almost a mercy after an hour of its retched hacking, and started reeling in the hoses. The hopper wasn’t as full as he would have liked but if they lived, it was going to have to be enough. Worse case, I’ll go to cover the lack. It’s what I deserve for breaking the law anyways. He leaned out to grab the hose as it spooled only to freeze as he saw something in the dark depths below them. The night was deep and eerily cast with only the faint red and blue light of Salis and Bathor in the night sky.
Ben saw Jesse freeze and knew they were both dead men but that didn’t mean he was one to go down without a fight. He rushed for the swivel and readied to give whatever came their way a one-kilo pinprick. Jesse pointed and Ben swung, the swivel, his finger tensing the trigger as he aimed.
Jesse pointed at the… “I think it’s a boat!”
Ben almost pulled the trigger as Jesse spoke, but his finger had stopped a half gram short of sending a kilo of death through the small dinghy bobbing on the edge of the Eternal Storm. He carefully pulled his finger away from the trigger before letting out a jagged breath, stepping away from the swivel and glancing at the tinny dinghy bobbing beneath them. “So it is,” he agreed, looking around for any signs of where it may have come from. Except for the battle, he didn’t know of any ships going down recently. What’s more, they didn’t even carry dinghies which were only good close into islands. “Throw the hoses back out. Since we are going down there anyways, we might as well risk a deep siphon while we are at it before we get out of dodge.”
“We’re going down there?”
“Of course, we are. There might be someone alive, but if we dawdle, they probably won’t be for long. Their Spira crystals or their charger must be about shot for it to be floating that low. I may be a smuggler and work outside the law, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a heart and we are going. So, pitch the hoses and let’s be about this!” Ben scowled at him, not having the time to give him a proper brow beating. Later. If we survive this.
Properly scolded, Jesse did as he was told. Praying the whole way while listening to the quickening of the tinkling in the pan as they neared the edge of death.
Their keel hummed as it brushed against the Spira rich and deadly clouds of the Eternal Storm and they bobbed next to the dinghy. Ben didn’t waste any time dinking around with tying off the dinghy and jumped across. The dinghy rocked lightly beneath his boots and sunk deep enough into the clouds to risk a little spillage causing his skin to burn and itch slightly. Moving quickly, he searched the boat from stem to stern and except for some rags and a small bundle near the rudder, it seemed empty. Given the shattered stays and planks, it was clear that the dinghy had gone through some rough stuff before getting here but there was nothing to say where it had come from or what had happened to it. He turned back to ask for a rope to hall it clear. If nothing else, it would make a good cover for what they were doing here if anyone happened across them. His hip bumped the bundle and a single squall of protest broke the silence of the night.
Jesse’s heart thundered as the indignant squawk shattered the still. “There’s a baby in those towels,” he stuttered, surprised and suddenly deeply ashamed that he had ever suggested they just cut and run.
Ben crouched and moved the top fold of the bundle aside to show him a round, slightly drawn face with deep frowning brows set over jade green eyes laced with what looked like silver flecks. The frown held for just a moment, before the babies face split into a gurgling smile as the tightly wrapped bundle wobbled back and forth. The corners of stoic Ben’s mouth fought not to break into a smile and he forced himself to frown as he realized how much of a problem they had landed in but his frowns only seemed to encourage more gurgles from the stowaway, he gathered the bundle and quickly passed it to Jesse. “Find somewhere secure to stow this.”
Jesse took the baby while Ben quickly tied off the dinghy and hoped back over. “It’s a baby. Not a this,” he scolded, wiggling a finger in-front of the babies face and making little cooing noises.
“Stow that for the moment. Right now, it’s a noise maker and we need to be gone. This whole thing gives me the creeps. That boat was damaged in a battle but it ain’t from around here, the lines are all wrong,” Ben said, flipping a bullet he had found in one of the planks over to Jesse as he went back to his rudder and fed the small steam prop some power to start pulling away from the Eternal Storm. “Put it down and pull in the hoses!” he ordered, getting the feeling that they had worn out their welcome and luck.
Jesse scowled. “If anything was around, we wouldn’t be here anymore,” he argued.
Ben started to retort when the whole skiff bucked. Their forward momentum shuddered to a sudden halt despite the droning efforts of their prop as it labored to pull them away. They both looked back behind them just in time to see a great black hand, bigger than their whole skiff, reach out of the storm and crush the little dinghy to splinters. At the same time deep basso laughing like boulders being gargled, shook the very sky around them came out of the Storm. There was only one creature they knew of that laughed like that.
Knowing they were as good as dead but not willing to just roll over and die, Ben, dumped all of the steam pressure hey had into a last ditch burst through a nozzle at the rear of the skiff to try and get clear of Petrov and hopefully get an island between them.
Jesse fell to the deck as they suddenly rocketed up into the sky but managed to land so as not to crush the little bundle they had recovered. He could imagine the sound of tendons popping as he watched Ben straining at the rudder, his body tensed and veins bulging as he braced and fought the heavy rudder. The steam poured out for what felt like minutes but was only seconds as they rocketed up and around the small island they had been using for cover. A part of his mind realized they still were using it for cover but now it was in the opposite direction of what they had originally planned as they drifted up and away from it. The boat drifted ever slower as the wind dragged it to a stop and they fell to its mercy. “Why are you stopping!” Jesse demanded, looking back at Ben and the island behind them, while he clutched the giggling bundle close to his chest. The baby, as all baby kind do, had a demented sense of humor.
“That little maneuver used all the steam. It will take a few minutes to build a new head and get back underway,” Ben explained, looking back behind them also. Being Petrov, that was wear death would come from. His little trick was great for getting out of tight spots with customs boats and over cover fast, but if Petrov wanted them, they were as good as dead and no amount of running or tricks would see them to safety. All they could hope was that Petrov had a short attention span today.
As if summoned by their very fears, Petrov’s hands lanced out of the clouds again, biting into the sides of the small island below them with shattering force, renting great fissures in the bedrock base of the island. Almost immediately, the island began to sink. It was the Touch of Petrov. Of all the creatures of the Eternal Storm, he was the one which people feared the most. Where the others might bring death or some destruction, Petrov brought doom. His very touch drained Sipra energy from the crystals which kept everything afloat, as it was doing to the island that was sinking faster and faster below them. That island should have had at least another fifty to sixty-years before it sunk into the Eternal storm to be reborn, but not anymore. As the two men stared, at the mercy of the winds and wondering when the hands would return for them, the island disappeared into the swirl beneath them in silence.
The minutes dragged on in silence until they both started to smile and relax. An indignant squall shattered the calm and they jumped as their hearts raced faster than a Rasslebock on coffee. They glared at the to the wiggling bundle in Jesse’s arms before glancing to the still calm clouds beneath them. One island was apparently enough to sate Petrov for now. Coming off the rush, they laughed, only slightly hysterically, shaking with adrenaline crashes that would have made a tweaking chihuahua look steady, hardly believing they were still alive.
“Boy must have the luck of a smuggler,” Ben said, acknowledging the baby for the first time as it continued to squawk. “What’s wrong with him?” He may be good luck, but I’d rather not push it until we have a full head of steam again and many leagues behind us.
Jesse frowned, sharing Ben’s wish while he bounced the baby, trying to quiet him but nothing seemed to be working. “I don’t know…” he started to say when the smell hit him. “Oh. I think he needs his dipper changed,” he said, looking to Ben.
“Why are you looking at me. I’m a smuggler and cloud hopper. You’re the family man,” Ben argued, but his mind was on other things. How did a baby get out here in the middle of nowhere and yet its dipper is still in decent shape? The little critter ought to be filthy. His head started pivoting as his worry mounted but there was no signs of anyone or thing else in the gloom surrounding them and he forced himself to relax.
Jesse frowned, but couldn’t really argue with the logic. He set the baby down and started un-wrapping the bundle. There were three heavy thuds in the bottom of the skiff when he was about a third of the way through the mummy like layers of wrapping.
Curious and with nothing better to do than let his worries eat him up, Ben came over and picked the objects up in the soft glow of the steam engine’s fires. He held up two daggers and a small but heavy pouch. “Practical parents,” he mused, checking the daggers. The geometry was elegant in its simplicity, each dagger being about twenty centimeters but well balanced for use as a thrusting or slashing weapon. They were also sharper than anything short of a woman’s tongue after catching you with her best friend and the black steel made him feel a bit queasy as the pattern swirled within it like oil on water. He shook off their mesmerizing affects and set them aside to see what was in the heavy pouch that had accompanied them. Emptying the pouches contents into his hands, he almost suffered another heart attack as three heavy coins landed in his hand.
Jesse’s eyes went wide as he looked from his efforts to un-swaddle the baby and lit on the flash of gold in the fire light. “Are those…” he gulped.
Ben nodded, shifting the heavy coins in his hands. “Gold. Solid gold Drakkas.” He’d only ever seen one once and had never though he would touch one, let alone three of them. Forget a kilo of Spira, what he held was enough to live for a decade in the lap of luxury. But he knew better, nothing was free, and all things came with a price and for three gold Drakkas, the price was sure to be high. So, before he could get to enthralled in daydreams of pleasure, he shifted his attention, almost painfully, back to the piece of paper which had accompanied the coins, slipping the coins back into the pouch where they couldn’t distract him, and opened the letter.
To whom finds this,
I hope that your reading this means that you found my daughter Delphi well. I and my people are no more, so I can only hope that you are good people and implore your sense of decency to bring her to safety. I know it isn’t much, but with this letter, are three Drakkas. I can’t force you to do the right thing, but I ask that you accept two of them to cover the cost of her upbringing. The third is yours, freely given for rescuing her. Protect her. Please, protect my baby, Delphi. Her birthday is the 2ed of Hoden, Year 837 of Revana.
Ben tried to make out the name at the end, but the ink was smudged and impossible to read except for the first letter, “Z.” He started to pass the letter over to Jesse to read when Jesse suddenly thrust away from the stinky swaddle and baby. “Sure, it stinks, but it ain’t that bad. I’ve been on whale barges that were worse.” He frowned at Jesse who was pale white in the harsh cast of the engine and pointing at the baby. He looked at her and just stared for the third time of the night as he saw something that he never thought he would and chewed the inside of his cheek. “She’s going to need gloves.”
After the events of the night, the ride back to Salicia was almost boring. Once his initial shock had worn off, Jesse had finished cleaning Delphi, wrapped a bandage around her left hand and had taken care of her for the remainder of the voyage home.
Not knowing the situation or Delphi’s condition beyond the obvious, they quickly stashed their ill begotten Spira as well as their coins and tied off the skiff at Ben’s hidden dock before heading to the plain above and the gryphon waiting in the pen. Town was a hard day’s flight away but as they said, “best to keep your transgressions a hundred kilometers from the market.” The cover story was that they had “gone hunting” and Ben tied a few Rasslebock to the saddle to give truth to their lie.
As they flew, Jesse pondered how they were going to explain the baby which was far from the game most would expect them to return with after a hunting trip. He was still trying to figure that out when they sighted the plumes of smoke rising from the direction of the town.
Ben brought them in low and they landed almost ten kilometers short of town as it became clear that all was not well. Delphi squawked making her opinion of the delay clear but fussed remarkably little for how tired and hungry she must have been. They had given her some water, but milk wasn’t the sort of beverage one usually took out with them siphoning. Still, he admired her composure and apparent understanding.
“What do you suppose happened?” Jesse asked, as they neared his farm. They both agreed it was for the best to stay clear of town until they had a better idea of what was what.
Ben shrugged, sneaking a smile at Delphi, before returning to his normal dower frown. “Some sort of accident or a battle I would guess. The smoke seems to be coming from near the harbor and the constabulary, so I’d guess it was the latter of the two.”
Jesse nodded his head in general agreement. “But if it was a battle, the question is: Who won?” They both shared the same opinion on that question, but the answer left them both unsure. After all, sometimes the Sobek you knew would bite you if you turned your back on it was better than the Rasselbock that went for the throat when you were sleeping.
Ben opened the gate to the Kursk family farm for them and followed Jesse in, making sure to secure the gate behind them and checking the sky and road for any signs they had been seen. Except for some Hippogryphs and what looked to be a Roc in the distance, it didn’t appear anyone had noticed their arrival.
Too keyed up, they both jumped as the door to the house flung open before Jesse could even reach for the knob and he had to move quick to keep Delphi from getting crushed by Mama Kursk hug. After several seconds passed, she released him and gave Ben a much cooler nod.
Mama Kursk had never much cared for Ben Sheridan, but just this once she was willing to let his dragging her son off slide since it had kept him away when the fighting had come. She knew Jesse had no love for their leaders, but she also knew he would have felt compelled to fight when it came to protecting their home and she shuddered to think what could have happened to him given the results of the previous day. But she wasn’t about to say that. She squared her shoulders as only a disapproving mother can and crossed her arms. “You boys had best get inside before your noticed and get cleaned up. There is much to talk about!”
“Yes, ma’am,” they both chorused as they did as they were told. You could take the boy out of the man but the whooping lasted forever.
“Now that’s an understatement,” Ben muttered, earning himself a smack upside the head as he passed and a curious, if worried, glance from Mama Kursk.
Mama Kursk followed them in and her curiosity blossomed as she saw Jesse pawing through her orderly cabinets and pulling out one of the kid’s old bottles that she kept around for when they had visitors and going to the steam fridge to get out the mornings milk. It was only then that she really took note of the wiggling bundle of rags on the table. She rushed over, going full “mommy mode” and scooped it up, brushing the folds aside to reveal the gurgling baby within. “A baby!” she demanded, rounding on Ben as she hip-checked Jesse out of the way and readied the bottle in a one-handed flourish that was pure “mommy magic,” giving it to Delphi who gurgled appreciatively. “What have you involved my son in?!”
Ben wiped his brow with a rag wishing he was in a bar brawl instead of here because he would have gotten fewer bruises in the brawl. “Well you see…”
It was dark out and the four of them sat around the table in silence. Jesse’s younger brother and sister had made appearances as soon as they realized he was back, but Mama Kursk had quickly sent them on their way, knowing there were some things that you just didn’t talk about around kids. It’s bad enough they know Ben is around. She glared at Ben as he held a pack of ice to a black eye.
Taniya, Jesse’s older sister who was of age with Ben, had, invited or not, stayed at the table for the explanation of what had happened to them and to help explain what had transpired here at home while they were away. Mama Kursk didn’t much like it either for entirely different reasons.
Ben found Taniya unnerving in that she was as beautiful as he remembered, twice as smart as he would even generously call himself and had a will to be reckoned with. Worse yet, rehabilitating one Smuggler known as Ben Sheridan, seemed to be her greatest hobby to the horror of Ben and the consternation of one Mama Kursk. As to why her daughter’s interest in rehabilitating him so disturbed Mama, he was not sure since she had always seemed to be of a similar mind where he was concerned.
“So, the war is truly over?” Jesse asked, shocked by the sudden change of their fortunes. Whether it was for the better or worse, was yet to be seen, but where before he was driven to crime to dodge the draft tax, it now no longer mattered. Given the haul they had managed to bring in from their impromptu deep siphon, it could mean a lot for them. Granted, there was still the issue of them now being under the “gentle” care of the Orlan Federation, but if even half the propaganda was true it meant things were probably looking better in the long term. Mama had been right to worry though. Right or wrong, had he been home when the attack came, he would have felt compelled to go to their island’s defense and like most of the constabulary troops and a good size chunk of the militia, he would probably be dead now.
“It is for us,” Mama Kursk, replied. “From the little news which has gotten in, the Orlandans broke Russo’s main fleet when they drove their thrust here. Some of the ships managed to retreat, or more like run scared like a cat on wash day, but no one believes they have any fight left in them. Given that the Orlandans cut loose a goodly sized chunk of their fleet to give chase in pairs after the escapees, most will be forced to vent steam and cut their pennants or be lost to the Storm before the week is out. Sadly, given the quality of those who do manage to evade those fates, we will probably be looking at a bit of a pirate issue for the next few years, but that is nothing new for us. As for the Peoples Republic of Russo, the war is all but over. If the capital is smart, they will surrender, but if this war has proven anything, it is that our dear and beloved leaders are most certainly lacking in smarts.” Her words dripped acid strong enough to reduce the hull of a battleship to sludge and disgust for their little loved or grieved nation. Now to see if life in the Federation is any better.
They all nodded their heads in agreement with Mama’s sentiment and sat in silence for a few more moments as it sank in that the war was finally over. Delphi broke the silence, giving a little coo in her sleep and all for adults regarded her quietly.
“What do we do about her?” Ben asked, broaching the topic they had all been avoiding.
Mama frowned at Delphi, but as she looked at her, she couldn’t help smiling. “The laws and the Taboo, if you put stock in such things, are pretty clear on that, over the edge or to the constable she goes, but given that you brought her back here and your cavalier attitude about the laws, I take it that you have already decided to ignore them?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
Ben thought about it for a moment. “It just doesn’t sit right. She’s a baby and it ain’t like she’s done anything to deserve that,” he argued, clawing at some odd feeling in his gut which he couldn’t really put into words. After his father passed when he was seven, he’d grownup an orphan and knew how hard that road was even on a nice island like Salicia. “You read the letter. She ain’t got no one to return to. So yah, if there is some way that we can manage it, I mean to let her grow up as safely and happily as possible!”
Mama was hard pressed not to laugh at the obstinate pose Ben took. “Oh, relax and stop saving spit. It makes you look like you are four,” she scolded. “For what it’s worth, I agree. But it’s going to be dangerously tough to explain and we can’t have people asking the wrong questions or even thinking them, because those same laws and the Taboo are clear on what to do with those who are harboring one of the marked, so we are going to have to keep her left hand covered and she’ll need to keep her lower back covered.”
Taniya surprised them all by laughing and relieving her mother of the softer swaddle they had shifted Delphi to. “You are all over thinking this,” she said, smiling at Delphi. “You have kept me cloistered in this house and out of the city for the better part of six months now for fear of what the troops might do, but that offers us an opportunity.” She smiled and looked across the table at Ben with an arched eyebrow.
Mama Kursk swore under her breath and tried not to feel sick as she realized what Taniya had in mind. She was a good girl but there were some things about her which Mama would never understand. Jesse, for his part, just looked confused.
I hope you could enjoy this and are looking forward to more.
If you would like to look at some of my other publications while you wait, here they are. My style has changed quite a bit since these books but I hope that you can still enjoy my works, new and old.
If you could leave a review when you are finished reading any of these, that would be a great help. Reviews help me to know your thoughts and help others know if a book is for them. Thank you.
Account of the Change Series:
Swell: Jake thought he knew what he was getting into when he moved to Japan. But destiny has other ideas and as the Swell draws near, no one is safe. Beware teacups, and adapt or die, because it is a brave new world out there and it will just as soon eat you as save you. Myths and Legends, new and old, are back to play, so keep your friends close and your Tanuki closer because you’re going to need all the help you can get if you plan to survive.
Swell: A New Beginning: Sometimes new beginnings are actually old. Aida Kyoko thought she knew who she was and what she was going to do with her life. But when she catches wind of what is to come, her life is forever changed as she travels through the changed world that she tried to warn everyone was coming. With the aid of friends and plucky family, can she survive the demands of this new world and find her place in it?
Swell: A Different Path: When Mick Renalds packed his bags and left for Japan, he thought he was rid of his old life, but some people are destined to walk a Different Path. As much as Mick would like to live the quiet life, Destiny has something else in mind and Mick is just the man for the Job. As the world turns upside down, the real monsters are out to play, and only Mick can stand in their way.