Far past sundown, somewhere above the endless forests of Valiraura between Warden’s Keep and Havashem, Quinlan was mumbling and singing quietly to herself, much like she had been ever since everyone had nodded off to sleep for the night. A lurching brought the nerve-wracked Arkh fully awake with a start, and much to his dismay, he hears the continuous, thoughtful mumbling cease, and the solid THUD of Quinlan’s weight hitting the deck. Arkh heard Nameless shift and his head rise up. He had nodded off while watching her man the controls, and she had landed so close that the noise woke him. Quinlan caught his eye as he looked up at her, “Hey, there. I found the South River, so I’m cool to take a break. Wanna see something cool?”
Nameless stared at Quinlan for a moment, readjusting to wakefulness. He nodded. “You have yet to show me something not-cool. Please do.”
The creak of leather and slight movement of her ears betrayed her broad smile at the statement, and she shifted her goggles to sit on top of her head. The whites of her eyes shine brightly against her ruddy brown skin. “Well, I’m not sure how safe it is. I did it with a fox once and it seemed fine, but it didn’t want me to touch it again. Disorienting I guess. Anyway, I’ve been really curious to give it a shot with a person if you’re up to it.”
Nameless raised his brow and stood, slapping the light layer of moisture off his armor. It tended to collect when they flew through clouds. “If it shows me more of flying and the airship, I am definitely up to it.”
Eyes growing wide with excitement, Quinlan skipped forward and, realizing that nearly everyone else was asleep or trying to remain so, ducked her head and glanced around nervously, “Gimme your hands!” it came out as a muffled squeak from behind the stiff leather covering her face.
Nameless cocked an eyebrow, and held out his hands, trusting she wouldn’t do anything to hurt him on purpose.
Quinlan eagerly snatched them up, then thought better. She let go and removed her long, thick gloves, revealing more ruddy brown skin than she had since they’d met. She then took a deep breath and placed her delicate hands back into him palms, “Have you ever dealt with Pact Magic before?”
Nameless’ eye twitched, barely visible. He could almost feel the pact burning inside of him, full of an unknown amount of power he was scared to touch. “You could say I’m familiar.”
“Cool, that might make it easier. It’s not pure Pact, though.” You can feel the magic increasing, flowing from her through your hands. Arkh, sitting quietly aside and strapped to the mast and doing his best to avoid letting the sick in his stomach project into the material world, could feel it too. He remained silent during the exchange, eager to learn where this conversation would go.
The feel of it was strange, there seemed to be a bit of Pact, a bit of Vulcani, a bit of Dragon, and maybe even something else entirely. It felt wild and dangerous.
The corner of Nameless’ mouth curled up. This was something new. He held her hands tightly and closed his eyes, intent on feeling the magic.
“How much have you fiddled with magic?” Quinlan spoke up, “Know any mages or anything?” She was clearly stalling. Maybe even hesitating.
The tone in Quinlan’s voice made Nameless nervous. Better to tell her now than risk some kind of magical blowout. Quietly, he said, “I don’t use it, but I do have a pact. Would that cause… problems?”
A nervous laugh bubbled from her, “Uhh, I don’t know, the Fox didn’t have a Pact.” In a moment of silence, the magic began to saturate the air, “Who’s it with? Mine’s with Sepharine. She’s actually pretty nice.”
“I don’t know who Sepharine is, unfortunately. I may be missing out.” Nameless smiled, hesitated. Spoke. “Mine’s with Cerlissa.”
Raising an eyebrow, Arkh made a note to look up Sepharine later, but remained silent as he listened.
The magic never faltered but Quinlan was clearly giddy, “REALLY? Herself Herself? Sepharine says she’s the best Arbiter in the history of time, and I don’t think that it’s a hyperbole. She says she’d do anything for her. You met her in person? I heard that she refuses to hold more than a handful of Pacts at a time.”
Arkh chuckled at that, louder than he meant to.
Whispering loudly, Quinlan ducked her head and glanced sideways toward Arkh; apparently she hadn’t noticed him wake before, “Sorry I woke you, I got excited. Sky Goat’s met Cerlissa! Herself Herself!”
Gesturing groggily to the sleeping mercenaires, Arkh spoke. “We all have.”
Nameless chimed in, “I’m not very familiar with her, uh, personally, but I’ve talked to her some and… hit it off?” Nameless wasn’t sure how to explain himself, so he fell slilent.
“What?” Quinlan was clearly baffled and possibly a tad alarmed by the statement, but interrupted herself, “You ready? If I’m right, you’ll see something super duper magnificent but it’s also… well… you’ll see.”
Nameless steeled himself. “I’m ready.”
Arkh clutched the rope that held him to the pillar, but otherwise remained silent. To him, nothing spectacular seemed to happen, but Quinlan suddenly looked at Nameless uncertainly, then checked around the deck. Voice a bit alarmed and confused she blurted, “What?” She looked down at her hands in awe, still holding on to Nameless.
Nameless only grinned and said quietly, excitedly, “IT WORKED!”
Suddenly, Quinlan let go of Nameless and wiped her hands off on her pants as if to brush something away. “I… I’m sorry.” she stutters a bit, seeming to cringe, and looks at Nameless a bit fearfully.
At the same time, Nameless shook his head to clear it, “That was… Very strange.”
There was a long, tense silence as Quinlan simply stared at the Beastman with wide eyes. Then, seeming to realize something, she strode forward and wrapped her long arms around his torso and laid her head against his cold armor. “I’m sorry. You’re always so quiet… I never knew you were so angry.”
Nameless was taken aback, and shivered. Not from the cold, but from memories. For a split second, they flashed in front of his eyes and he relived them… And just like every other time, he swallowed them, and burned them for fuel in his heart’s forge. He seemed to deflate in her arms, and put one arm around her in response. “It was not something I expected to share.”
Arkh only stared, having no idea what was happening beween the two of them.
Quinlan moved her head from Nameless’ armor and looked up, a flicker of sadness gave way to excitement, “It WAS really cool, though, right?”
Nameless smiled, and nodded. “It was definitely that.” then, he considered. “Did you see everything?”
Quinlan stepped back, staring at her boots and glancing at Nameless apologetically said, “I didn’t see anything. I could just feel it. You don’t have to explain, really. I didn’t think… I didn’t know… I really want to try it again, because despite… It’s really super cool.”
Quinlan shifted her glance toward Arkh, and when they locked eyes, she cocked her eyebrow questioningly.
Nameless followed her eyes, and grinned goatily at the Orc. “I think it’s your turn, friend.”
Arkh raised an eyebrow quizzically. “I’m not sure I even understand what just happened.”
Tension fading quickly, Quinlan held out a hand, “I don’t think words would suffice. What do you think, Sky Goat?”
With a pondering look, Nameless nodded, as if he contained certain wisdom Arkh did not. “I think someone as scholarly as Arkh would benefit greatly from the experience.”
Quinlan’s smirk grew to a shit-eating grin and she held Arkh’s gaze.
Frowning dramatically, Arkh furrowed his brow. “Well now I’m just uncomfortable.”
After a short, lofty silence Quinlan stated, “That’s not a ‘no’”
“I JUST WANT YOU TO KNOW I’M UNCOMFORTABLE.” Arkh said, emphatically. “I NEVER SAID NO.”
Giggling, Quinlan strode up to Arkh, “Take off your gloves, then, before it fades.”
Frowning, Arkh removed the fur-lined gloves. “You think as a kid that grew up around magic, I’d be more comfortable being surrounded by it.” He offered his hands forward, pensive of what came next. “Well, let’s get this over with, then.”
“You’ve been surrounded by it for hours…” Quinlan cocked her head, “Well, fair point.” Not waiting for any more prompting, Quinlan reached out took Arkh’s hands, her rich red-brown skin offsetting his olive weirdly.
“By the way, I didn’t even know you had Pact, Nameless,” he called over the Fey’s shoulder, to the Beastman behind her.
“It won’t take as long this time. So you don’t have a Pact? How long have you been together?”
Arkh recalled his journal. “I’ve been with the others for about eighteen days now.”
“That’s a roughly specific number.” She stated teasingly, then tensed, “It’s like falling…”
Nameless chimed in. "It feels just like a Pact Travel.”
Arkh smiled at the Fey’s wit. “I’m not sure if we’re still in yesterday, or if we’ve reached tomorrooOOH BOY,” as the world dropped out beneath him. Arkh braced and closed his eyes for a moment, then it was over.
When he opened his eyes, he was very surprised to see himself. He felt the deck beneath his feet, though it felt familiar now, rather than alien and terrifying. Everything was the same, but he felt vastly different. He jerked his arm, expecting to watch the Arkh in front of him move, but there was nothing, though he clearly felt his arm move.
He felt more than than his arm, though. He could feel the zeppelin. It wasn’t just a hunk of dead wood tied together and sewn bits of cloth. It was alive. Arkh had never known what it felt like to be truly confident until he stood, leather clad, atop his own creation. Flying.
“Fascinating.” He heard Quinlan’s voice rather than his own. So that’s it. They switched. He watched himself look over to Nameless and throw him a flirtatious wink, and took another leather-scented breath, “I have to admit, I’ve never hear of anything like this before.” Nameless was smiling and returned the playful wink, “How long have you been able to…”
Arkh went limp as he fell back into the more familiar Orcish muscles.
“Hey!” Quinlan, still holding tightly to Arkh’s hands was pulled down with him, “Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no I’m sorry I’m so sorry.”
Brushing himself off, he slowly returned to his pillar of sanctuary, where he held fast as he spoke. “Ahem. How did you swing that deal?”
Smiling as he let Quinlan help him back to his feet, “I meant to ask, how did you do that?” Gesturing, he continued, “All of it, that is. The zeppelin, the… switching places… I’ve never heard of any of this.”
Realizing her mistake, Quinlan punched Arkh’s chest in playful relief, causing him to rock back and rub at the point of impact. That seemed to cure her irritation and she replied to his question, “I dunno, I just kindof figured it out.” Quinlan smiled and looked at her new best friends, “No one wanted to teach me and I didn’t know where to start so I just said, ‘what the heck, let’s start with this’ and there was no one around to tell me it wasn’t possible.”
“No offense,” Arkh offered, as he put his gloves back on, and returned to his place by the pillar. “But that’s extremely strange, even for Pact.”
Quinlan cocked her head, “I’m a Vulcani mage, too. And a bit of Dragon. I read some books, but they were in Estanic. I’m not… great at Estanic.” Eyeing the still, sleeping form of Goldie as if contemplating waking her, Quinlan hesitated, “I… don’t think it’s something people should know. Not my people, anyway.”
“I could help you with those books, if you’d like.” Arkh immediately wondered if it was a mistake to make such an offer, but brushed the concern aside. “And beyond that, you’re quite talented. You said you’re only eighty years old?”
Quinlan began climbing up the swinging rope ladder toward the control platform, and this time her connection to both Vulcani and Pact magic was more clear as she prepped for her duties, but still carried on a conversation as if she didn’t even consciously do it, “Eighty-seven, but, you know, I didn’t do much but fiddle and read for most of my childhood. I’ve always loved magic, just not the… fighting part like the Holly makes us learn.” Chuckling, she reached for one of the many levers, “You could say I wasn’t great at it.”
Sending a sideways glance at Nameless with a bit of a smirk, Arkh called up the platform. “I think the others have the fighting part covered.”
Nameless nodded, and would have pat the handle of his sword were it not hanging from his back.
Quinlan leaned precariously over the nest to look down at Arkh, “I said ’wasn’t’. Enough scorn from your peers and a kid will do anything to catch up. Sepharine helped me do it.” Quinlan’s smirk was clear, even in the dark.
Taking pains to conceal his slightly soured mood, Arkh began re-securing himself. "Yes… Cerlissa helped me catch up too, for a while.” Realizing the uncomfortable road he’d turned onto, he straightened back up. “When we land, I’d love to take a look at some of those books.”
Giving Arkh a clearly befuddled look, “Why would you ever back out of a contract with Cerlissa?” She looked away suddenly, as if to hear something only her long, straight ears could pick up, “You guys should try and get some sleep. There’s a storm ahead.”
Arkh nestled into his blanket, and tried to ignore his nerves at the prospect of a coming storm. “Long story,” he offered, and did his best to close his eyes.
“They’re in Utica, the books. I borrowed them,” Clearly distracted, she placed her green-tinted goggles over her eyes and waved, disappearing above.
It wasn’t long until her voice was heard again, singing a Fey song, Arkh could translate the first verse as
“Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.”
Arkh bundled up and slid to the deck to attempt some sleep, as she had suggested, but he heard Nameless’ metal shoes click and the rope ladder creak as he followed her.
After Quinlan had sung a few lines and tapered off, humming it instead, Nameless’ voice droned, “The song is about the Fey houses?”
“mmhmm, the courts. You know about the war?” She didn’t look at him, immersed in her controls.
“I am almost entirely ignorant of other cultures. I was fairly settled in my town before things occurred and I was driven to leave.”
“Oh,” Now she turned to give him an unreadable glance, “Well, the Ivy court has always been a bit troublesome, this war has been a long time coming. Utica was the last straw, though.”
“Always been a bit troublesome? How do you mean?”
“You know,” She shrugged as if he had to know, “always grasping for more control. They’re all traditionalists. Short sighted, xenophobic. Been at it for a few decades now, but the Holly will win.” Nameless noticed a slight hesitation in her movements after she said that, “Have you seen much of Cinderfell? …You’re from Cinderfell, right?”
“I am. A town far removed from most of society. I’ve traveled through a few places, but mostly just as work came along. Building, transportation. I fought in an arena once.” Nameless flashed his teeth.
“Oooohhhh, tough guy. You wouldn’t mention it if you hadn’t been a winner, hmm?”
“It is still something I am proud of. If you go to the arena in Tagliari, you will see my name on the wall as winner of last year’s brawl.”
“Well, maybe after whatever it is you’re doing here is over, you can show me where Tagliari is.” The smile showed in her voice where it was hidden behind her mask, “Shouldn’t you be resting now? I imagine someone like you gets himself into enough trouble without facing it tired.”
Nameless nodded. “I should. Thank you. For waking me, and showing me.. Whatever it is you call that magic. I hope to show you Tagliari when we’re through here.” He smiled again, and went back down the ladder.
“Hey, do me a favor?” She called down as his foot hit the deck, “can you tie this rope back onto the dooblidoo over there before you hunker down? It broke again.”