Sailing over the Skyrift
by JMD Reid
Here is my addition to the Story Hop Blog Tour. Sailing over the Skyrift is a short tale taken from the history of my Above the Storm Fantasy series. It is a world of floating islands and flying ships over an ever churning storm. Join Xostrial, a scholar and member of a bird-like race, as she seeks to discover the secrets of the skyrifts. If you want to read more entries, click here!
The Neta Skyrift, 313 VF (1874 SR)
Xostrial stood on the stern deck as the Uastraes hurtled towards the Neta Skyrift at full sail, the fierce winds propelling the wooden sky ship at breakneck speeds. The sleek, Soweral rake’s crimson sails billowed behind the combined force of two Windwardens. A third Windwarden stood ready to ward the Uastraes from the violent winds of the skyrift. The trio of Windwardens, individuals blessed by Riasruo the sun goddess with the Blessing of Major Wind, were tied securely to the railing of the stern deck of the Uastraes near Xostrial, their beaks tight with concentration.
Xostrial buzzed with excitement. Like the rest of the crew, she was a bird-like Luastria of the Soweral flock. She stood shorter than a human, her delicate, gray-feathered body cloaked in a thick, brown robe. Two ropes bound her waist, cinching her robe and irritating her feathers beneath. The scholar held a wax writing slate in one wing. The distal feathers—five prehensile feathers found in a Luastria’s wings between their flight feathers—gripped a bone writing stylus, ready to scrawl her notes into the impressionable wax as the Uastraes flew over the skyrift.
No one in the history of the skies had ever flown over one.
Sensible captains avoided skyrifts, giving them a wide berth as they sailed over the Storm Below. The Storm was far below. The Uastraes flew at the height of her altitude ceiling, the air thin, increasing Xostrial’s light-headed excitement. Xostrial hoped the high altitude would counteract the sucking winds found at the edges of a skyrift. Her heart fluttered in her chest, and her talons dug into the iron oak planks.
“Brace,” chirped Captain Dwaifeed, her head snapping around in quick jerks as she scanned the deck of her sailing ship. Her eyes twinkled with excitement. Captain Dwaifeed was not a sensible captain. “Every hen and drake stay secure. We make history today.”
It had taken Xostrial three years to find a captain willing to entertain her proposal. Xostrial studied the mysterious skyrifts. They were strange anomalies. Only five were known to exist in the entirety of the skies. They were breaks in the ever-churning Storm, the vast blanket of angry clouds created two thousand years ago by the Goddess Theisseg to cover the world and block her sister’s sun from the mythical ground.
But Riasruo had raised the skylands and created a new way of life for her chosen children to live above the Storm, thwarting Theisseg’s petty cruelty.
But in these five rare spots, rifts had formed, sucking air down into the Storm. The skyrifts were surrounded by dangerous winds. Clouds were drawn in, forming vast walls of boiling gray rushing down into the Storm. The rifts could be leagues wide. Xostrial’s careful measurements had shown they were widest in their centers and then tapered into points at their edges.
What caused them? Xostrial hoped today’s flight would answer that question.
“We’re almost there,” she chirped, staring at the gray cloud wall.
“Windwardens, ready,” Captain Dwaifeed sang.
The Windwardens were crucial. They not only charged the Uastraes engine, allowing the ship to fly, but they conjured the breezes that propelled the ship. A Windwarden could also protect a ship, deflecting winds away from it.
But could a Windwarden stop the force of the descending column of air ahead?
Fear and excitement warred in Xostrial’s gizzard as the skyrifts roar grew louder and louder. A tumultuous cacophony of sounds assaulted her ears, drowning out Dwaifeed’s commanding chirps. Xostrial, on the corner of the stern, leaned over the railing to peer down the side of the ship.
The Storm Below was a vast carpet of dark gray striated with ever-changing patterns of near-blacks and paler ash. The clouds boiled and crashed together. But at the edge of the skyrift, the Storm’s clouds undulated almost like waves washing on the shore of a lake.
The wall of gray rushing down approached. Soweral rakes were the fastest ships in the sky, and this one flew without cargo. Xostrial hoped the speed and altitude would allow them to punch through the narrow edge near the end of the Neta Skyrift.
She trembled, clutching onto her wax writing board. She took in a final breath through her beak. Every feather on her body stood up. Her talons dug deeper into the planks. The captain would be angry at the damage, but Xostrial was too scared by their impending clash with nature to fear the captain’s chirps.
The wall loomed over the ship. It filled Xostrial’s vision. Her gizzard churned around her stone. She wanted to retch it up. The bow of the ship knifed for the wall. The roar was so loud it threatened to crush her.
The edge of the Windwarden’s influence struck the skyrift. The gray clouds parted like a stone outcropping jutting through the flow of a waterfall. Hope relaxed Xostrial’s gizzard for one moment as the spar of the ship entered the skyrift. The bubble widened, clearing space for the ship’s two masts and wide spars to enter.
And then the ship shuddered. The winds hammered at the bubble of calm. The clouds pressed in on it. In heartbeats, the entire ship had penetrated the skyrift. Around Xostrial, angry winds reached for the ship. The masts waved and the hull groaned beneath her talons.
The cloud wall was thick. She glanced up at the masts. They waved and flexed. The rigging creaked and the sails snapped. Downdrafts burst through the Windwarden’s controls, crashing across the ship and sending errant gusts swirling across the deck and the crew.
Captain Dwaifeed chirped at Xostrial, but the words were lost. The ship shuddered again, and then Xostrial’s gizzard swam up her throat. She let out a frightened chirp as the ship dropped several ropes in altitude. She stumbled forward and then was jerked short by the ropes about her waist.
The violent downdrafts slammed over and over into the ship. Wood snapped above. A spar collapsed on the foremast. The middle sail fluttered as half of it dangled towards the deck. The ship rocked again, pitching Xostrial forward.
And then they dropped again.
Her talons rose from the decking. Xostrial released her wax tablet in her panic. It tumbled in the air beside her as she sang in fear. The ropes went taut, keeping her hovering above the deck. She spread her wings wide.
The driving wind caught them and spun her about. Wing feathers ripped off, points of pain pricking down her wings. Her torso burned as the rope dug deep into her flesh. She closed her wings and fell hard to the deck.
The ship had stopped falling. Her tailbone ached as she gained her feet.
“Don’t try to fly with a wind that strong behind us,” chided the Captain, her voice audible over the roar.
The skyrift’s roar had diminished.
Excitement burst through Xostrial. She rushed to the railing and peered down. The clouds roaring down around the ship thinned. Her gizzard twisted. “Is it the edge? Are we through to the interior?”
She gripped her stylus, eager to write down her estimate of the cloud wall’s thickness. Her wax tablet was gone. Pieces lay shattered across the decking. Xostrial chirped in disappointment, but she had her memory.
The clouds thinned more, and then they were through. Her eyes widened. The noon sun shown down overhead. She stared at the ground. The world went silent around her. Xostrial’s heart hammered in her chest as she stared at a dark, glistening muck. Pools of water reflected sunlight as their surfaces rippled. The ground rose to her right towards the center of the skyrift. She let her gaze follow along it. A sluggish river wound through the murk, flowing down an outcropping of stone.
“Beautiful,” she chirped to herself. It may have been a brackish swamp, but once her ancestors had lived far below. “Why didn’t we fly lower? We could see more details. I can’t tell if anything lives down there. Are those brownish-red patches more dirt? Or vegetation? And is that a mountain rising to our right, or just a large hill?”
The ship’s bow pitched down, knocking Xostrial out of her thoughts. The front of the ship had reached the other side already. She clutched to the railing with her distal feathers, her vision absorbing everything she saw as the ship struggled to gain level flight.
The roar grew louder again. The winds slammed down. The ship creaked and flexed beneath her talons. The masts swayed over her head. Xostrial ignored it all, twisting her head to look behind the ship. She had a final glance at the ground below and what may have been a peak rising up into the heart of the skyrift before the gray clouds engulfed the stern of the ship. The ship dropped as she stared in awe.
“I saw the ground. It does exist.”
A loud, booming snap crashed across the deck. Xostrial jump and chirped in surprise. She whirled and her gizzard clenched. The main mast teetered. Wood splintered where the mast had cracked near the base. It swayed, the rigging almost holding it upright.
And then it crashed towards the stern of the ship.
Canvas sail smacked into Xostrial, driving her to the decking. Her world became crimson. She panicked, crushed beneath its weight. Her wings tried to lift the heavy canvas. Her legs kicked, her talons scraping along the fabric. The ship plummeted again. She rose from the decking, pressed into the canvas. It wrapped about her, cocooning her.
“No,” she chirped as she crashed back into the decking. “Please, no. Help, help.”
Only the roar of the skyrift answered her. She strained with her wings to break free. Her sharp talons caught the fabric. Canvas ripped and her foot broke through to free air. She chirped in relief, using her feet to rip the canvas apart. The tear surged up her body and then broke through to her face.
Gray boiled above her. The ship rocked and shuddered. She stood up through the tear and gripped the railing. The ship dropped again, driven down by the powerful force of the skyrift. Her gizzard rose into her throat. It clenched and rebelled, and she coughed out her small stone. It spun in the air before her, wet and rounded smooth before it crashed to the deck along with her.
Xostrial ached. Fear hammered her heart. Her plan had failed. The rake wasn’t fast enough to penetrate the skyrift. She had killed all forty members of the crew along with herself. She closed her eyes, remembering the ground, wanting to take the image up with her to Riasruo’s sun.
The ship stopped shaking. Sunlight beamed down. Xostrial sat up and let out a chirp of relief.
The Uastraes had broken free. She sang for joy, praising Riasruo Above as she stood up. Other members of the crew, the captain included, unburied themselves from the collapsed sail and rigging. The ship groaned and creaked.
“We did it,” chirped Captain Dwaifeed. She spread her wings wide as the Uastraes drifted to a halt.
Xostrial turned and looked at the Neta Skyrift. They had penetrated it. They were on the eastern side now. The Storm was far closer. They had dropped over three thousand ropes in altitude. Another few hundred, and they would have been lost to the Storm.
The scholar kept singing out her fear as she stared at the skyrift. She had seen the ground and it was beautiful. The risk to their lives had been worth this insight into the natural world. She had glimpsed a peak.
Theories formed in her head. She unknotted the ropes and rushed to find quill and parchment.