The cascading mountains.
It was considered a wonder to see them in person, a massive structure of mountains that seemed to work their way up into the sky itself, with most of the mountains covered in roaring waters that poured down the entire mountainside. It was a fascinating sight to behold, and the sheer scale of the mountains meant the entire area was covered in mists from the constant churning waters that worked their way to the ocean in enormous waterfalls.
There was nothing on the other side of these mountains. The cascading mountains were the endpoint, with nothing beyond. A solid wall marked the edge of the habitable world, and there was no where else for us to sail, except… up.
“As you may now,” Lady Evanor was explaining to the crew, “for as long as we have tried to use air ships, we have been curious about just how high we could go. Our best engineers answered that question when they discovered the astral barrier above. That ceiling has always been the limit of our exploration, with us trapped within its mighty embrace! We have uncovered, however, that here at the cascading mountains, the astral barrier appears to be missing. Indeed, through the mist above, we don’t know what what we will find, and that is why I’ve brought you here. Our hope for tomorrow awaits us in the skies above.”
No one was particularly shocked by her speech, but many of us doubted that it was rational thinking. We went along with it because, honestly, thinking about the monsters that had claimed our homeland wasn’t great either.
“I know you’re skeptical, but I promise you… all will make sense.”
From there, we went to work, adding equipment that would convert our ships and help them give flight. Large balloons were strapped in place and my job finally came into focus. I created flames, blowing hot air into the balloons that would then lift us into the sky. They had their own instruments that would do the same, but Angus, myself, and a few other magic users helped to speed up the process. In fact, it didn’t take long at all before the ships began to groan and creak as they started to heave from the water and into the air.
The ships started toward the skies, with one magic user that could generate flames of any kind assigned to their own vessel. We kept up the work, pumping hot air into the balloons that lifted us higher and higher. As we climbed, the winds began to pick up, the fine mist turned into a light shower, and then a deluge of water that spun across our decks. The temperature grew colder, but I was okay with that. The cold wind helped me pump more hot air out without becoming overheated in the process.
Soon, we couldn’t see far ahead of us at all. We heard lookouts calling and folks signaled to one another with flashes of light, but I lost sight of every single ship. I did my job, focused on what I could, until I heard a devastating crack in the distance. A ball of fire erupted not far off our bow, and screams echoed out. One of the other ships had steered into the wall of the world, and the impact had set off an explosion that ended the lives of everyone onboard.
“Hold steady!” our Captain yelled.
Everyone was scared, including me. It might have been an exciting adventure, if it wasn’t for the haunting memories of the sick and controlled people back in Darthmonte. If I hadn’t been worried I’d left Maron to die… if I hadn’t found myself wondering if this was all it was worth, fleeing my home just to die out here anyway. I swallowed that pain down and focused on the actions. Flame. Rise. Stop. Fall.
Then, we broke through the clouds.
The wind, the rain… all of it was suddenly below us. The cascading mountains leveled out, we could see the tops, and to the eastern sky, away from the wall of the world, we saw… water. Not just a little bit, either. It was an entire ocean spread out before us.
“What are we seeing?” one of the passengers asked aloud.
“It is like… there’s another world above the astral barrier?!” another exclaimed.
The ship’s captain called for aerial controls. We blew in with the wind, capping the cascading mountains and slowly descending into the ocean waters. After nearly a full day of going up, we were suddenly on the ground again, or the ocean anyway.
I was finally relieved of duty, as I no longer had to fill the balloons with heat, and as the crew snapped into action to start taking down the large air bladders so that we didn’t get blown back over the edge, I wandered below deck, found a few dry sacks of grain, and collapsed there to fall asleep.
I woke to cheering voices on deck.
The ship’s crew had spotted a shore. It appeared to be a large landmass, but we couldn’t tell for sure how large from the ocean view. There was pure jubilation from most of us. Our entire world had ended, and then we’d literally flown into the heavens to find a new world. While many celebrated without question, a few others like me wondered how we had ended up here in the first place. Lady Evanor appeared to be the one that would fill us in on that knowledge.
She took her place at the front of the ship, letting the crew crowd onto the main deck. There were a few murmurs, but most of the folks looked genuinely happy. A suddenly renewed sense of hope and survival had spread through the crew in the wake of this discovery.
“Everyone,” Evanor spoke as loudly as she could. “I know this journey has been difficult. We were pushed to move faster than we intended, and many of the details surrounding this expedition were left unclear, not intentionally, but due to a lack of time. The first question I want to address, is how we knew to come here. The answer to that is actually several years old. The Kingdom of Lederan paid for many aerial experiments using hot air balloons. Most were meant to measure temperature, magical energy fields, and other areas of research that interested the kingdom, but one balloon, released several years prior, did not reach the astral barrier when it was released. Eventually, just a few years ago, we sent a single individual to float upward. They discovered this world above our own. We had intended to study this place further, but the return of the Yunai changed our goals. Now that we have arrived… now that I have seen this place with my own eyes, I am confident we have found our new home.”
I didn’t like that. This place was not my home. It would never be my home. Still, as I looked around I didn’t see the brave faces of soldiers who had fled their lands. I saw scared families, mothers and fathers, children, and I started to understand that for many of these people, this was all they had left. This would be their home.
“We’ll begin by scouting the landmass for an ideal landing site,” she added. “From there, we’ll talk about supplies, provisions, and getting folks off these crowded vessels and onto solid ground. I know things have been hard, and I know we’re not safe yet, but we’ve escaped the Yunai threat, and we have no reason to believe they are coming for us. Stay strong. We will persevere.”
The scouts found a location that they felt could be fortified. It was a peninsula that jutted from the shore, large enough for a city, but with only one major path into the larger landmass. Beyond that, a marshland would serve as a natural barrier from whatever animals might live up here.
Several of the larger ships anchored just off the shore, while the smaller vessels practically beached themselves. They could be pulled back to the water if necessary, but assuming we decided to stay here, we would simply dismantle them piece by piece, using their wood for our first structures.
I helped load several small rowboats with supplies and then traveled with the expeditionary force up the beach and to the tree-line where we found the marshland.
“I hate swamps,” Appoleon said as he stood next to me looking into the darkness of the tree-filled area.
“Is it the smell?” I asked, holding my nose with a smile.
“The smell, the humidity, the heat, and the animals,” he replied. “There isn’t anything fun about it.”
“We could scout around it.”
“One of the smaller ships already sailed up north a bit. The swap dries out and turns arid. Something like a desert area, flat, open, and there’s that completely unnatural mountain range…”
I looked in the direction Appoleon pointed. I had seen the mountains he was referring to before, but I hadn’t actually looked at them for any real length of time. I saw them more clearly now, dark objects with sharp lines that dominated the skyline to the north. They had to be massive.
“They look like enormous buildings,” Appoleon said while I looked. “I don’t know. This is all too much.”
“What’s that?” I asked. “Knowing that if we drilled down right now we’d drop down on our old house?”
“What about to the south?” I asked, changing the topic. “What’s down there?”
“Cliffs,” Appoleon replied. “At least, they say they’re cliffs. We think it may be another wall of the world.”
I didn’t say anything, but I think we all felt the same way about things at the moment. We had always known our world was strange, with walls at the edge and an astral barrier that refused to let us touch the heavens, but coming up here, seeing this… second level… it meant there was something truly artificial about our world. I was starting to feel like I was in a cage, no matter where we traveled.”
“Anywya, it’s a swamp for us. We’ll have to cross it, I imagine. At least get in there and start finding something to eat. Our supplies won’t last forever. I suspect with all the extra refugees we’ll be running short of drinking water within a few weeks.”
“You ever had crocolisk before?” I asked.
Appoleon frowned. “No, why?”
I pointed out what looked like a log floating down one of the swampy rivers not far from where we were standing. “Because there’s one right there.”
“That looks like a tree in the river.”
“Trust me,” I assured him. “I’ve seen them before.”
“When?” Appoleon asked. “You never left Udiria or Stonehaven for more than a few days.”
“Hardy har,” I rebutted. “Make fun if you want. It was a traveling circus.”
“Right,” Appoleon replied. “Well then, let’s go get us some crocolisk meat.”
The first few nights on the shore were rough. It mostly consisted of arguments about which way we should travel, or if we should travel at all. The peninsula where we had landed was large, at least large enough for a colony, and the waterway surrounding it would help prevent attackers from making a large assault. Almost everyone agreed that this was where the old and unhealthy travelers should make camp.
The younger survivors wanted to keep pressing, further north, and perhaps further inland.
By the third day I was volunteering for almost any scouting trip I could get on. Appoleon and other survivors soldiers had become the leaders of our “militia”, if we dared call it that. Angus was using his skills to keep everyone warm, and I got to watch as his skills with the flame were put to extensive use, using it to weld metal, burn through wooden beams, and even roast meat without burning it up.
That was the kind of skill I lacked. Kaellax had told me to not try controlling the fire magic, but Angus was clearly in full control when he used his powers. It was possible I was simply missing some of the finer points, but I wasn’t too eager to stay back and cook food either, so I ventured out into the swamps instead.
That was when I found her.
I watched a bolt of magical energy swirl through the air and slam into some writhing vines that had tried to snap up a soldier. I quickly helped by burning the leafy tendrils away with a blast of fire. As it retreated with a loud squeal, I practically felt magical energy reach out and grab me. It was familiar, quiet, but practically calling out my name.
I turned toward it and saw a woman standing with a wand in her hand.
The wand, without doubt, that had been stolen from me back in Lederan.
“You!” I shouted.
The woman looked up and sure enough, it was Sellia.
“Seriously?” she asked aloud. “You?”
I flicked my wrist and felt the wand pulling toward me. She tightened her grip and held fast, suddenly pushing back with her own magical energy.
“What’s going on?” a soldier asked, confused by the sudden confrontation.
“Yeah, what is this—” Appoleon, started, then stopped short when we saw the woman. “You!”
“Damn,” she grumbled. “Both of you?”
Appoleon was already stepping toward her with his crystal blade held up. “I think we have some unfinished business.”
“Wait,” she said, her hands going up in a defensive stance. The magical energy pushing me back relinquished and I saw her draw up her energy to form a shield in case we decided to attack. “I’m not sure we should be doing this here, not now.”
“Oh really?” Appoleon started.
“Give me my wand,” I said, stepping toward her. “We’ll leave you be if you give it to me.”
She frowned. “Well, no, that’s not going to happen.”
“It is,” Appoleon said, his voice louder now. “That doesn’t belong to you.”
“Well it’s all I have now,” she remarked. “I need to protect myself, and Fynn. So I’m not just going to hand it over.”
“Who’s Fynn?” Appoleon asked. “A boyfriend?”
“No,” she said. “He’s my…my son.”
I took another step toward her and wanted to say something along the lines of explaining how frustrated she made me, but then I was in the air, spinning backward and completely out of breath, like someone had just slammed me in the chest. I hit the ground, facedown, in the mud. My initial thought was that Sellia had attacked, but then I heard a horn blow and Appoleon called out for defensive positions.
It was another group of attackers.
I struggled to my feet and lit a line of fire that cut through the enemy numbers, then stumbled over to where Appoleon was taking up his defensive position. Sellia was right there with him.
Magic snapped and whizzed in the air around us as soldiers grunted and fell back per our orders. I heard groans and saw light flashing through the air. Overhead, I heard a kind of thumping sound that roared over us and then started growing quiet again. There was shouting in the marsh, but I couldn’t see anyone. I gathered all the energy I could and swirled it outward, toward the marsh where I felt the attack had originated. Fire erupted from my arms and spiraled into the trees, lighting everything ablaze as it scorched outward like a tornado.
There was a scream, this one laced with agony. I had hit a target. As my spell died out I saw a flaming body as it rushed toward the swampy water nearby. Instinct called out to my mind, we had seen too many terrible monsters near the water’s edge, but I dared not warn them.
I heard a terrible smash and spun around to see Appoleon locked in combat with one of the attackers. They were a large figure, over six feet tall, and they were holding Appoleon’s arms so that he couldn’t swing his blade. I tried to line up a shot with a fireball, but I couldn’t risk burning Appoleon with the spell, so I decided for another tactic instead. Running straight over, I grabbed the blade from Appoelon’s grasp, swung up, and took off the attacker’s arms at the elbows.
The attacker cried out, stepping back in shock. We didn’t waste the moment, darting away from the attack while I handed the blade back to Appoleon.
“I owe you,” he said.
We barely had a moment to take a breath before a horn blast echoed from the peninsula.
“Our encampment,” Appoleon said. “They’re going for the others!”
I looked around and caught sight of Sellia. We made eye contact and she nodded, rushing over to me as though I was the best option she had. “Hold my hands,” she said, extending a hand to each of us. “Now.”
We did as she ordered. I felt her as she reached out into the twisting aether and locked onto the magical energy swirling around our encampment. A moment later, we appeared in the middle of the battleground.
My heart was pounding. I felt like I was going to be sick, like my energy was bursting out of my body. I stood my ground and conjured my first spell.
I was all in now. Just like the generations that had come before me. It was us versus them and I wasn’t going to die here on this beach, not after all I’d been through.
In the end, the fire spells came all too easy.