From the author: Amy Airlung, a young member of an airship crew, faces off against the mythical warship, the Firebringer
They called it the Firebringer, that soot-black ship that some say was crafted by Hephaestus himself. It rode the airwaves like the sea voyageurs of old, gliding up and down along the top edges of the clouds, with its sails billowing like the puffed-up cheeks of Old Man Winter. It was a ghost ship of the most superstitious kind—the kind that meant death for anyone who laid eyes on it.
Amy Airlung first heard about the Firebringer from the weathered book of airship tales that Captain Perkins kept in the library for the passengers' amusement. Though most of them were tall tales, stories for children much younger than sixteen-year-old Amy, she devoured them eagerly at every opportunity. Besides the legend of the Firebringer, there were tales of Steelhand the Cyborg who wreaked havoc on the skies of the Southern Hemisphere, Captain Neono who was the first to construct an airship that could also float on water, and the fierce Captain Juliet Silver, the most fearsome female airpilot in history.
"Someday my name will be the thing of legends, too," Amy Airlung told Jacob one day when he caught her curled up in the library, reading of these heros. Amy and Jacob were both runaways from their broken homes, hired on by Captain Perkins at the same port, and thus they'd begun their rivalry that had at some point, despite their intentions, had evolved into a friendship. "I'll be the best airship pilot in the world and fly the fastest and strongest ship, and maybe, just maybe I'll let you fly with me as my second-in-command."
"It'll be my name you're reading about if you don't get up to the crow's nest and take your shift," he said, throwing a pair of goggles at her. Amy scowled and glanced at the clock, ticking loudly on the mantel.
"Gears and grindstones!" she swore, jumping up. "Why didn't you tell me I was running late!"
"And lose out on a chance to make myself look good?" Jacob asked with a wink.
"Kidding," Jacob said. "I promise I didn't tell the Cap'n. But you better get up there quick or he'll find out anyway."
Amy Airlung grabbed the goggles with their adjustable binocular lenses, threw on her leather jacket, and rushed up to the crow's nest. By the time she settled herself on the perch, high in the clouds, she was panting and out of breath. She sucked a few breaths from the airtank strapped to the main mast and pulled her jacket tight around her to block out the biting wind.
"I can't believe I lost track of time," she muttered to herself, as she commonly did when in the crow's nest. There, high above the airship's bellows, where the wind snatched away even the roar of the ship's propellers, Amy couldn't help but feel alone in the world, and the sound of her voice calmed her. "I missed out on a whole half-hour of cloud-gazing. That one there looks like a submarine... and that one's the shape of the Cap'n's hat... and that one—"
Amy pressed her weathered palms against the rim of the crow's nest and leaned out, pulling in a long drag of the thin atmosphere. She squinted into the silvery wisps of cirrus clouds, trying to trace the trail through the feathery-white to its present location. There. There it was again, just a glint of black, a glimmer of night in this bright-noon day.
The shape was unmistakable. It looked exactly as it had in the book.
Amy Airlung wrestled the long, rubber piping hooked to the side of the crow's nest and brought it to her face. Her tongue moved over her lips, trying to soothe the chapped surface, smooth the ragged edges. "Hey, Cap'n?"
"Yes, Miss Airlung?" A burst of warm air from the ship's bellows hit her ear along with the words.
"You're not gonna believe this."
"I'll keep an open mind."
"It's the Firebringer."
"Land sakes, lass. That's just a story. A fable."
"A soot-black ship that glides on the edge of the clouds." Amy adjusted the lenses in her goggles. "Flying a flag bearing a red anvil."
"Hephaestus' symbol." That gust was warmer, more forceful. "Get down here at once."
Amy popped open the trap door with her boot and braced her feet and hands on either side of the long, straight ladder that led straight down, down, down to the belly of the air-beast. Her gaze flicked upward and caught another flash of black, and then she let herself drop, sliding down along the edge of the ladder until she landed on the bottom. The force jolted her knees, but she sprang up and dashed off to the control room, pressing past passengers with a polite "Excuse me, sir," or "Pardon, miss."
Captain Perkins stood at the wheel, spit-shined and pressed as always, but with a scowl on his normally carefree brow. "You're sure about this, Miss Airlung? It was the Firebringer? You saw it with your own eyes?"
No pleasantries, then. "Yes, sir. It was pure ebony and left a streak of charcoal as a tail."
"Blazes. Bring us down, fast!" This last he bellowed into another pipe, and instantly the floor dropped beneath Amy's feet. She grabbed onto a handrail and bent her knees, ready to spring into action.
"What should I do?"
The Captain brushed her aside, a half-distracted dismissal. She knew him well enough not to take personally. Had she been the new cabin boy, Robbie, he'd have stopped, flustered-faced and rosy, to order her to stay out of the way. But she'd been part of this sky long enough to earn her keep and to know where her help was needed.
But how does one help when a mythical airship forged by the god of fire and piloted by a ghost threatens to overtake you and burn you to a crisp with its own particular form of evil?
Amy spun on her heel, an idea flashing through her mind as bright as the Firebringer was dark. She stumbled back through the corridor, her ears popping with the ship's steep decline. A coil of rope lay on the floor, and Amy snatched it up. Up, over, around, through, and then it was wound tightly around her like a harness.
"What in blazes do you think you're doing?" Jacob was suddenly her side, one hand clutched to the rail to steady himself and the other on the rope.
"Let me be," she said, pulling away from his grasp. "I'm going to save the day; just you watch. Maybe if you're lucky the newspaper reporters will want to interview you about what it was like to be there the day Amy Airlung took on the great Firebringer."
"The Firebringer? That's just a story."
"The Cap'n seems to believe me. That's why he's bringing the ship down; trying to get out of its way."
"Then you're going to get yourself killed, is what you're going to do."
"No, I'm not."Hand over hand, she raced up the ladder, pausing only to reach for the long, needle-like cloud harpoons that hung from a hook beside her.
"Amy, stop!" Jacob called. Amy could hear his boots following behind her on the ladder. "What in the aether do you think you're doing?"
"I'm going to shoot the clouds so that they rain down and extinguish the ship's fire."
"You don't think a ship like that would be able to withstand a little shower?" Jacob asked.
Amy scowled at him. "A little shower, maybe, but a full-on storm?"
"If there was a way to take it down, the Cap'n would know about it. He'd have ordered us to fight it instead of running away."
"The Cap'n thought it was just a story up until five minutes ago, Jacob," Amy said, kneeling to prep the harpoons. "It'll work, I know it. Now either help me or get out of the way."
Jacob thought for a moment, biting his lip, and then reached over to grab some cloud harpoons from her. "We have to signal the rest of the fleet. They might be close enough to help."
"All right," Amy said, glad that he wasn't going to try to talk her out of it. She supposed, if she thought about it, that if she had to share her moment of glory with someone else, she'd rather it be Jacob than anyone else.
The trapdoor flung open and Amy's boots lifted from the rung as the ship fell faster. Her hair whipped around her, as though the Firebringer had harnessed the winds themselves to ensnare her. A flash of dark movement. There it was, close enough that she could make out its fiery cannons, those which—if legend held true—would burn the sky, and their delicate airship the Grecian with it.
She reached for the signaling lantern and swung it up over her head. Its mirrors reflected the light thousands of times, and with each opening and shutting of the shutter, Amy spelled out a plan to any other airships that might be nearby. "I hope it'll be enough."
"It'd better be," Jacob said over the wind. He knelt in the crow's nest, preparing the cloud-harpoons. Every few moments he'd look to the skies, his brow furrowed in concern.
Amy lowered the lantern, her lips moving in a silent countdown that she spoke out loud as she reached "five... four..."
Amy kept one eye to the skies as she reached for a harpoon. Jacob didn't argue about who ought to be the one to throw it; they both knew Amy had the better aim. He handed it to her and began loading the next.
"Three." Just a bit closer, a bit more. Amy could now see the ship's flag with its red anvil even without the powerful binocular lenses of her goggles.
"Two." An orange bud of flame burst from the Firebringer's cannon, growing as it consumed the sky.
"One." There wasn't a moment to lose.
"Now!" She let loose the harpoon, and beside her, Jacob handed her the next. She'd barely released the first one when he handed her another and she threw it as well, not even stopping to watch the cloud harpoon arch far above the Firebringer and into a thick, white clouds.
One after another, she riddled the sky with the sharp-tipped cloud harpoons. When they reached the center of the cloud, they burst open and spewed ice chips out in every direction. From her perch in the crow's nest, Amy could see another wave of harpoons coming in from off to the left.
"Look! Someone else is helping! They must have gotten the message," she said, grabbing Jacob's arm and pointing off into the distance. The clouds were growing now and darkening. The wind pushed them about, warping them into strange, threatening shapes and making them too thick and soupy to see the rest of the fleet, but Amy knew they were there, and at least one of them had been willing to risk the wrath of the Firebringer in order to come to their aid.
"Do you think it'll work?" Jacob asked, watching the sky with a furrowed brow. The sun, shining so brightly a few moments earlier, was now obscured by the dark cloud which swirled around them, growing like a sea monster unfurling its tentacles.
"I sure hope so. I just wish we had more cloud harpoons," Amy said, squinting up into the storm. The Firebringer was barely visible now, positioned to the south and slightly above them. The Grecian was still dropping rapidly, but the ghost ship kept pace. "I don't know that this storm will be big enough."
Thunder rumbled across the sky and a gust of wind sent Amy's hair flying out behind her and tugged on Jacob's jacket.
"Come on, rain, come on!" Amy cheered, bouncing on her toes.
Then, the rain fell, first lightly, but then with a thick, gushing downpour that drenched the Firebringer. Its fire sputtered, raging furiously, and Amy and Jacob cheered, thinking that perhaps somehow they had won.
Then, the fire consumed them.
For the next hundred years, Amy Airlung rode the airwaves like the sea voyageurs of old, gliding up and down along the top edges of the clouds, in a ghost ship of the most superstitious kind.
This story originally appeared in Refractions, Golden Fleece Press.