In the coastal city Skargakar, residents make a living from hunting dragons and use them for everything from clothing to food, while airborne ships hunt them in the white expanse of a cloud sea, the Cloudmere.
Lian does his part carving the kyrillian crystals that power the ships through the Cloudmere, but when he makes an enemy of a dangerous man, Lian ships out on the next vessel available as a drachenjager, or dragon hunter.
He chooses the wrong ship. A fanatic captain, hunts more than just any dragon. His goal is the Firstborn Gargantuan—and Adaron is prepared to sacrifice everything for revenge.
Black Leviathan by Bernd Perplies will be available on February 25. Please enjoy the excerpt below!
Jägers in the Cloudmere
Seventh Day of the Fourth Moon, Year 822
The schooner glided through the air as its wooden hull pierced thick clouds of fog. Delicate wisps of mist crept silently upward, dissolved by the brightly shining sun as they rose. Thicker blankets of fog sank back into the endless whiteness that completely enveloped the small vessel.
At the ship’s bow, Adaron set both hands onto the swaying railing, gazing pensively into the unending and all-consuming Cloudmere. The fleece of the blanketing clouds spanned beneath him like freshly fallen snow on a hilly landscape, though the impression was misleading. The ground lay more than a thousand paces below, and perhaps more importantly, no water filled the space in between to buoy a person who fell. Only endless, weightless mist gathering into a thick gray fog as the vessel rose in the sky, until even the biggest creatures below were concealed from view.
These creatures—formidable dragons—were the reason the Queen of Fog had been aloft the island-studded Cloudmere for the past two weeks. Before their departure from the port city of Skargakar, Adaron and four of his crewmates—Enora, Ialrist, Jonn, and Finnar—had pawned all unnecessary possessions, many acquired from previous adventures, to purchase the skyship they now called home.
The name was more impressive than the actual vessel, which was relatively small and with barely any room below deck. However, the steering mechanics were in good condition and the kyrillian crystals, which gave the flying ship its buoyancy, were enclosed safely in their metal casings. In fact, the ancient Nondurier ship merchant had even boasted that Adaron wouldn’t find a more agile ship anywhere between Skargakar and Luvhartis afloat the Cloudmere’s waters.
They were still waiting to test this claim.
With their final few coins, Adaron and his crew recruited three young Nondurier to join their mission. Like so many others these days, the houndlings had been searching for work, but it had been prospect of great fortune from a dragon catch, Adaron reckoned—and not the mere handful of gems that Jonn had pushed into their hands—that convinced the Nondurier to board the vessel.
“Lost in thought again, are you?” A woman spoke from behind him.
As Adaron turned to discover Enora standing there, a smile curled his lips. The woman leaned against the railing, her long red hair billowing behind her. She was dressed in weatherworn leather trousers, a lightweight linen shirt, leather boots, and a dark green doublet to shield her from the cool morning breeze. Two Sidhari swords, her favorite weapons, short curved blades that had been gifted to her from a desert elf prince, hung from ornamented sheaths at her hips.
“Well?” she coaxed. “What is going on in there?”
“I’m thinking that at this very moment, my life could hardly be any better,” he confessed. “The Three Gods must truly love me to bestow such great fortune.”
“Embarking on a journey without a single coin in your purse, on the hunt for the most vicious creatures in this realm . . . you consider that to be the greatest fortune?” Enora looked shocked, but the sparkle in her blue eyes proved she was teasing.
Adaron chuckled. “It’s all a question of perspective. I think of it this way: aboard one’s own ship, in the company of the most loyal crew that I could wish for, we are approaching the most promising realm of Cloudmere. Great adventures, not to mention treasures, await us. And to top it all off, the sun shining from the blue heavens pales in comparison to the smile of the woman standing before me, who has my heart.”
“You’ve got such a flair for the poetic.” Enora smiled. “Any bard would turn green from jealousy. Or white with nausea.”
Adaron set his hands on his hips. “Well, this much is sure. I won’t waste any verses on you in my next epic.”
Now Enora laughed. “Settle down. I love you most because of your courage and your good heart. The beautiful words you whisper in my ear only increase that love beyond any shadow of doubt.” Her right hand wandered toward the medallion that she wore on a chain around her left wrist, a gift that Adaron had given her last moon cycle. Taijirin had crafted the token, promising protection to the wearer.
“A love that I return,” Adaron said, approaching Enora. He wrapped his arms around her, gazing into her eyes. “Now we’re just missing one thing to make this moment perfect.”
“If you say ‘an heir to the family line,’ I’ll cast myself overboard,” Enora warned.
Adaron grinned. “A dragon,” he continued, his gaze wandering across the endless white of the Cloudmere that spanned before them. “A dragon to pursue and conquer, and to return home to the greatest laud and honor.” With that, the lovers parted and took their places at the railing.
“Well, we haven’t had much success on our hunt so far,” Enora admitted. “Except for the one bronzeneck that we caught last week, but he was just a buck, and not especially big. If we don’t find a full-grown bull soon, we’ll return to Skargakar just as poor as when we left.”
“Our stores aren’t used up yet,” Adaron soothed. “And anyway, we’re approaching the zone where most other jäger ships will surely turn back. Just wait. Soon we’ll be alone on the Cloudmere—free to make the catch of our lives.”
“What makes you so sure about that?”
“I just know it.”
“Comrades!” called Jonn from high atop the crow’s nest at mainmast.
“Ialrist is on his way back!”
Adaron looked up as Jonn pointed portside. The small, wiry man with wild black hair and the keen vision of a lynx had the withered skin of someone who had spent most of his days under the hot sun and whipping wind atop the crow’s nest as he kept a sharp lookout for dragons or other flying vessels.
The flying ships were an awe-inspiring combination of expert craftsmanship and magic. Two half-circle enclosures around the bow and the stern formed a frame, which held six metal cases against the wooden hull. On the underside of these cases, small, gill-like slats opened and closed by way of a rope-and-pulley system from a control stand above deck. These cases contained amethyst-like kyrillian crystals, which held powerful magical properties that propelled them upward when not enclosed by heavy metal. A sufficient number of these crystals could not only lift a ship’s hull into the air but could also raise entire rock masses, or lithos, from whose undersides kyrillian was mined. Fanlike sails along their sides enhanced most skyships, while trapeze-shaped ones hung on the masts above deck, to control the vessels’ propulsion and steering accuracy.
The ability to fly ships was first introduced to the foggy coast near Skargakar nearly a century earlier. On a cool autumn day, a fleet of flying ships first appeared through the fog. Both the humans and lizard-like Drak residing there were stunned. Those ships had been steered by the folk with small frames, red complexions, and heads like hounds. Non-durier were refugees from a distant land where an unknown evil had driven them south. During the first few weeks, the locals feared conquest and were wary of the outsiders. However, it soon became apparent that Nondurier were not hostile and that both their expertise and their ships could be precious commodities for the entire coastal region. For the first time, the prospect of free flight through the Cloudmere, just as the vogelfolk had always enjoyed, would now be possible for any man or woman without a set of wings.
Thanks to their ships and nautical abilities, the Nondurier quickly developed into highly sought-after employees. The abundance of dragons within the Cloudmere became apparent, and as the many possible uses those great reptiles were revealed, the coastal folk relinquished the last of their reservations. They built more and more flying ships, supported through an extensive discovery of kyrillian crystals. The coastal region, previously a collection of small, scattered settlements amid the lush wilderness, practically blossomed overnight. Especially Skargakar, which prospered from its new reputation as a hub for the most formidable jägers and their flying ships. Anyone on the hunt for Great Drachen wound up in Skargakar eventually—just as Adaron and his crew had done.
With a last beat of the great wings growing from his back, Ialrist landed on the deck beside Adaron and Enora. The Taijirin, as the vogel-folk called themselves, did not seem quite as foreign as the Nondurier on board, but no one could have mistaken Ialrist for a human. A fine tan and white speckled down covered the man’s skin. His large, dark eyes peered out from a gaunt face. Feathers grew from his head in a crest that nearly reached the floor, and powerful wings sprouted from his back that, when extended, spanned nearly four paces. As with most members of his kind, Ialrist had the lean and sinewy build that allowed him to lift into the air by strength alone.
The vogelfolk turned toward the group and called over the wind. “I come bearing good news. I’ve spotted a silverwing circling a flock of cliff birds not far from here.”
“A silverwing?” repeated Adaron. “Now that’s a beast worth hunting.”
Known for their shimmering scales and glimmering silvery wings, which were fashioned into expensive robes back in Skargakar, silverwings— depending on age—could span from ten to twenty paces.
“Where is the beast now?” asked Belhac, the Nondurier who manned the helm.
“Over there,” Ialrist said, pointing starboard. The crew could decipher nothing beyond the endless clouds that streamed past.
“That would lead us dangerously close to Death’s Bleak,” the houndling warned.
“Death’s Bleak?” Adaron looked bemused. “That sounds remarkably dramatic to my ears. Who thought of that name?”
“I don’t know,” answered Belhac. “But I will say this much: any experienced jäger you’d meet in the taverns of Skargakar would avoid that area at all costs. Rumor has it that the mountain peaks hidden beneath the fleece are so treacherous that one wrong encounter could be a ship’s undoing. They also tell of firebloods lurking in the fog there, awaiting unsuspecting prey.”
“A red dragon.” Enora’s eyes glimmered with anticipation. “That would be the catch of our lives!”
“You can forget about that,” said Belhac, shaking his head. “We aren’t prepared for a battle against a fire-breather, and neither is our ship.”
“That may be,” Adaron cut in gruffly, “but we’re the ones who pay your wages. So we’ll decide the course of action. Anyone who doesn’t like it I will happily remove from the deck.”
“Who is steering this ship, then?” the Nondurier challenged, eyeing Adaron. “You?”
“Belhac is right,” Finnar said—being without a doubt the most sensible person on board. The massive bearded man, who had previously earned a living as a weaponsmith before being dealt a bad hand, crossed his arms in front of his huge chest. “This is our first voyage into the Cloudmere. Let’s not go immediately for the most dangerous dragon of all. That can only end badly, and I for one would like to return home in one piece, to sell our wares and buy endless barrels of mead with all of the money we earn.”
“Wisely said,” said Belhac. “My brothers and I share your opinion.”
“Fine, then we’ll keep a distance from red dragons for now,” Adaron announced. “But we shouldn’t let any silverwings escape us. You know how rare they are; their scales alone are worth a pretty pile of crystals.”
“Maybe we’ll even be lucky enough to find a drachen pearl inside its heart,” added Enora, wistfully.
“Why not? The chances are certainly higher than with bronzenecks.” Adaron’s gaze passed over Ialrist, Jonn, and finally Finnar. “I say we follow Ialrist’s lead. On the edge of this so-called Death’s Bleak, there’s only a slight threat of hitting any cliffs. I trust that the Three Gods will know how to keep us from encountering any firebloods on our way.”
“I agree with Adaron,” said Ialrist, now growing restless. “Let us hunt the silverwing.”
“I’m with you,” called Jonn from the crow’s nest, and Enora nodded. “Good, then,” agreed Finnar. “Let’s look upon our riches.”
At the order, Belhac steered the Queen of Fog into a wide curve, clearly unhappy with the decision. His younger brother, Wuffzan, also looked grumpy and resigned. Only the youngest of the three brothers, Felhim, seemed to have caught the hunting fever. He had already positioned the crystal rudders and now set to work hoisting the extra sail from beneath the bowsprit. Veils of fog rippled around the ship as it picked up speed, gliding toward the unknown.
The sun had passed its zenith, well hidden behind a cluster of clouds, when the crew first discovered the silverwing. The dragon circled elegantly over a stone reef, whose peak stuck out through the mist in two sharp crags, each looming forty paces high and pointing up like an admonishing claw. At the start of their journey, Adaron had not yet learned to discern whether a piece of land protruding from Cloudmere was the summit of a mountain rooted deep within the earth or a lithos floating in the air from an abundance of kyrillian ore on its underside. Time aloft had, thankfully, sharpened his eye to decipher the subtle movements that set free-floating masses apart from unmoving ones.
The reef, which before the dragon’s arrival had been a flock of birds’ undisturbed breeding colony, rose and fell gently as if it drifted over the gentle waves of a quiet, ordinary ocean of water. Even today, Adaron could barely grasp that hard, heavy stone, often as large as a dwelling and occasionally as massive as an entire village, could hang in the fog, suspended as though weightless. He pushed back his astonishment; they were not there to marvel at the magic of kyrillian crystals.
“Look at him!” called Enora, her eyes wide and sparkling as she gazed at the silverwing. The dragon measured about fifteen paces from its head to the tip of its tail—it must have been a young animal. Its body was a light gray, and the scale sheath running from its tail, past its back and flank, and all the way up to its neck glittered in a matte silver. Black scales lined its four legs, indicating the beast was male. Certainly, the creature’s wings did its name justice; silverwing—the leathery skin growing between the bony spokes sprouting from its back shimmered, reflecting rays of sunshine into brilliant sheets of silver.
“He’s beautiful,” said Adaron, awestruck, before turning to the others. “We all know what needs to be done, mates. I’ll man the harpoon ballista. Finnar, Enora, you stand ready by the kyrillian buoys. Ialrist, fetch your reaver. And Belhac . . .” Adaron paused, his eyes aflame. “Don’t let him out of your sight.”
“Don’t worry, Captain. We know what to do. The dragon won’t get away from us,” Belhac answered solemnly.
The Queen of Fog picked up speed and leaned into a wide curve to circumvent a mound of cloud and sneak up on the dragon from the side. Adaron stepped up to the harpoon ballista. Attached securely to the ship’s bow, the contraption resembled an oversized crossbow on a swiveling gun carriage. He laid the harpoon into the crossbow’s shelf and threaded fine, unbreakable Sidhari hemp through the eye at the rod’s base. Four rolls of rope lay ready next to him, which would gradually bind the prey, sure and steadfast, to the ship’s side. Using a winch, Adaron began to pull back the bowstring, made of tightly wound dragon skin. He raised his head occasionally to gauge when their target would come within shooting range.
Ialrist appeared at Adaron’s side. The spear in his hands was nearly three paces long, ending in a flat, sharp, scythe-like blade. On the opposite end, an iron ball ended in a spike, which served as a counterweight. Aside from the short bow, used in long-distance battle, a reaver was the most common weapon used by Taijirin in sky battle. In a fight in the winding alleys of Skargakar, Ialrist would surely lose; he needed room for the both the reaver’s swing and his own wingspan to make the most of the weapon. When he had sufficient room, he was a dangerous opponent.
Even a dragon would be wise to be wary; a Taijirin warrior could descend on its prey as quick and sure as a raptor. If everything went according to plan, Ialrist would swoop in, slicing through the muscle fibers at the base of the beast’s wings. A dragon that could no longer fly was a far easier target.
One thing was sure: a giant beast in full possession of its strength shouldn’t be underestimated. Even if they didn’t possess any particular natural weapons, such as spitting fire or deadly acid, they were still immensely powerful. One blow could break bones, and one bite would cut straight through an unarmored opponent without second thought. In addition, dragons were clever and cunning creatures—as this one proved once the wavering mountain reappeared in the Queen of Fog’s view.
“Where did he go?” Adaron said, looking around in confusion. The silverwing, which had eaten its fill of the bird colony, had disappeared. Whether the beast was simply full or sensed approaching danger, it was impossible to say.
Jonn’s sharp vision spotted the dragon first. “There, he’s flying ahead!” called the wiry man pointing starboard, past the cliff’s sharp crags.
Adaron squinted. Between clouds far in the distance, he could make out the beast’s body glinting in the afternoon sun. “Belhac, take pursuit!” he roared.
“On it, Captain,” the gruff Nondurier called from the helm.
“He’s not diving,” Enora remarked. “He doesn’t seem to be leaving because of us.” She stood next to the kyrillian buoys, metal cases with gilled undersides similar to those at the hull, which could unleash the crystal’s hidden powers in large amounts when opened. These buoys would be employed to give a fishing boat extra lift should a dragon, once shot by a harpoon and successfully bound, threaten to pull the vessel into the depths of Cloudmere, taking its men along with it into the depths of the foggy abyss.
“We can’t overtake a silverwing with this skyship,” called Belhac. “We’ll have to follow him until he stops to rest or feed again.” He stopped short.
“Why are you hesitating?” Adaron asked.
The hound-headed man curled his lips into a snarl. “He’s flying straight for the . . . ,” he growled.
“Spit it out, man!”
Belhac bowed forward. A chilling expression loomed over his face. “If the silver doesn’t turn around soon, he’ll lead us straight into Death’s Bleak.”
Copyright © 2020 by Bernd Perplies
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