A cool air blew through the Mid Ocean. It churned the clouds and listed them slowly through the night sky.
A night sky that Fina had never seen before in her life.
Her ship, a compact craft whose alloyed frame shimmered in the Silver Moon's light, pressed onwards through the deep ultramarine pitch. Wispy flakes of magical energy streamed in its wake, leaving a trail of brilliance as it advanced as if a fleet of fireflies had formed into a smattered blaze. In that moment, she looked at the sky and felt the wind so keenly as to be overwhelmed. Her silken blonde hair fluttered in the breeze.
I made it…
The young woman held firm to that truth and the momentary solace it brought. The comfort came and went in a flash, replaced with a dawning realization of the burden she now faced. There was work to be done—so much work—and it had fallen on her lone shoulders to complete it. The sky's beauty faded and revealed something else entirely: a boundless and unfamiliar depth that threatened to swallow her whole. She took a breath and looked forward, her ship trailing further into the night.
Little did she know that she was being followed.
The Cygnus roze upwards shoving through a lower billowing of clouds to pursue its prey. The Valuan flagship's engines gave a powerful groan that scraped through the firmament. Ostentatious by any estimation, the Cygnus was both one of the Armada's crown jewels and its biggest indulgence. Steel-clad with cannons arrayed along the hull, it gleamed like an immaculately maintained trophy. Which, in truth, it was. As if to boast of its magnificence, choice sections bore an additional layer of hardened armor mixed with actual gold and specks of moonstone. It was too perfect of a ship, commanded by too pompous an admiral.
Upon the bridge, Alfonso grinned. His smile was a sickening display as perfectly white and immaculate as the Cygnus itself. Rising from his velvet captain's chair, he leaned upon a railing separating his perch from the crew below him. To call Alfonso foppish would be an understatement. The young man's white coat was adorned with braided satin accents, the effect almost giving his cornsilk hair a run for the money in the brightness department. His gloved hand raised idly to brush the yellow ribbons draped upon his shoulder pauldron. They were the mark of his admiralty and his fingers lingered upon them as it to remind himself of his station. It was a nervous motion and one that he dismissed as soon as he realized what he was doing. Nobility led by example and Admiral Alfonso finally had a chance to show his all-too-common crew what it meant to be blessed with such a splendid burden.
"We've finally found her," he said, alto voice lilting upwards. It was all he could do to hide his eagerness as he looked through the bow windows at a curious silver craft leaving a trail of light behind it. "It seems that Galcian's lap dog was right about something after all.."
"Indeed, my lord," Vice-Captain Salguero intoned at his side. The older man's voice slipped between the slits of his alabaster helmet. "She'll be in range of our cannons shortly."
Alfonso was not a patient man. Who needed patience when you had servants to handle your every demand immediately? He deigned to wait a few seconds only. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
At his word, the Cygnus' forward cannons burst into life with a thunderous clamour. They belched fire and smoke, sending artillery streaking towards the strange craft. The shells lobbed up through the air until they exploded directly besides their target. The silver craft shook and began to smoke. It slowly lost altitude as its once remarkable speed dragged into a plaintive limp. Within seconds, it hovered dead in the sky.
"Hit!" A straightforward confirmation from the gunnery captain. Alfonso grinned once more.
"Excellent," he crooned. "Prepare a strike team. Board the vessel and secure the target. The Empress will be very pleased."
The crew leapt to their task. Vice-Captain Salguero gave a salute before departing to oversee the operation. Alfonso exhaled and sank into the captain's chair. With a lazy curl of his fingers, he signaled for refreshment. A tea service was brought to his side rapidly. He gave no acknowledgement to the servants. You didn't thank a rock for being a rock. Why thank your lessers for doing as they were told?
Recovering the woman took little time. He was not halfway through his cup when Vice-Captain Salguero returned. Alfonso raised a haughty eyebrow. "Well?"
"It's done, my lord," Salguero confirmed. "The pilot was unconscious. It's the girl, as expected."
So he was right about that as well..Anfonso dismissed his thought. His mouth curled in a cruel twist. "I'm sure to be rewarded for this."
"Shall I bring her to you, my lord?"
"That won't be necessary," he said, before sipping at his tea. "It's not like she's going anywhere. We've all the time in the world."
A new thought slithered into his mind, sickly sweet in its satisfaction: Nothing can stop me now.
"They're chasing a shooting star!"
Ben had all but shouted it when he entered the house. The lookout took his job seriously and his voice rang with a mixture of alarm and excitement. He didn't even knock first.
Vyse staggered from his bed and quickly slipped on a pair of black trousers and an equally dark shirt. He shook his shaggy brown hair into a somewhat more manageable shape before padding over to look down at his crewmate from the loft above. The moon's light snaked through the door and lit up the entire house. His father was already grabbing his gear. Vest, boots, pistols, cigar. All the essentials.
Victor Dyne had been a Blue Rogue for over two decades. By any measure that was two decades more than plenty of sailors. His reputation preceded him and marked him as one of the most prominent pirates of the Mid Ocean. 'Dyne of the Blue Storm.' Dreaded by Valuans and Black Rogues, beloved by his crew and the everyman. He was a man truly worthy of the title "captain." With a sliver of annoyance he ran a hand through his brown hair, which was touched with the slightest amount of encroaching grey. Whatever Ben had to report was serious enough for him to barge into his home.
Realizing his faux-pas, Ben stood up straight. "Captain! Sir, it's a ship. A Vaulan warship. Can't be more than just short of a league away. It's alone, sir, and chasing… something."
Vyse started to follow his father's lead, scooping his favorite blue tunic from the floor, pulling it on, and tying a red scarf about his neck. He looked down again. "Alone? This far out into Mid Ocean?"
Dyne glanced at his son. His hand raised to silence him. Not harsh but firm. A curious eyebrow raised as he regarded Ben. "What are we dealing with?"
"First fleet, sir. Slyth-class. Hull golden as the treasures she's like to bear."
There was a pause as both Vyse and his father realized what that meant. The two flashed devilish grins at each other. It was like two mirror images, each regarding the other. Only time and experience separated the two.
"Admiral Alfonso," they spoke in unison.
"I know that grin," a playful voice chimed from further back in the room. Vyse's mother stepped into the moon's light, a robe wrapped securely about her body. Her tired eyes flashed with bemusement.
"Johanna," Dyne replied with outstretched arms. For a pirate captain, he sounded like his hand was caught in the cookie jar. "It's an admiral."
She replied with a short hum. "You'd best be off then, sailor," she offered warmly. You didn't marry a pirate without getting used to nightly raids. Still, she looked at him with stern eyes. "And you best return."
Dyne nodded. If there was one person he'd take orders from, it was his wife.
"We'll bleed them dry and be back before breakfast." He reached out and kissed her on the forehead before turning to give a firm nod to Ben. The lookout rushed out of the house. It wasn't long before alarm bells clanged throughout the village.
Vyse buckled his brown leather boots and leapt down from the loft. "Relax," he told his mother. "This isn't our first raid."
Johanna Dyne shook a powerful mother's finger in reply. "But it could be the last!"
His father agreed. "Never underestimate the enemy," he added before turning to walk out the doorway.
Vyse rushed to gather his weapons: two reliable cutlasses whose blue moonstone blades shone in the moonlight. Taking them in his hands, the young man couldn't help but bob with excitement. His mother laughed as she walked back towards the bed.
"Go on then," she said. "Misbehave."
Vyse rushed out into the village. Doors shot open and sailors scurried, grabbing necessities and saying goodbye to their families. To the untrained eye, it might've looked like chaos, but no pirate crew sailed off without firm and well-practiced procedures. Some gathered weapons and spare moonstones, others were already rushing down to the port. A well-built man with reddish hair, only somewhat older than Vyse, slipped by the young man and clapped one of his shoulders.
"Another night, another prize!" It was Luke, one of his fellow raiders. Their crew was split into a series of smaller teams, each responsible for striking their target from a different angle. Vyse and his partner took the aft; Luke and Mabel took the fore. Dyne and vice-captain Briggs lead a contingent amidship.
Vyse chuckled. "I'll race you to the holds!" Luke gave a casual salute and ran off into the night. Vyse took a moment to look around. His eyes scanned the hustle and bustle for his own partner. Where was she?
His father's booming voice brought him back to attention. Dyne stood tall in the moonlight, guiding his crew like a master conductor. A lit cigar was held loose in one hand.
"Make fast," he shouted. "Tonight's like nothing you lot have seen! There's a fine catch on the menu: fresh Valuan admiralty! So step to it!"
Laughter and cheering rose up in response. Footfalls increased pace until the crew had all managed to rush to the port below. It had taken a handful of minutes at most, but Dyne and the crew of the Albatross were ready to head out. The venerable brigantine sailed off into the sea of clouds. It was an old ship possessed of a picturesque beauty, The sort of vessel anyone would think of at the word "pirate." Five full sails caught the wind and a collection of automated fins rowed at the bottom of the hull. The frame was reliable Meridian wood, fortified with fine iron and affixed with armor at choice locations along the body.
Any Blue Rogue alive knew that looks were deceptive and so it was with the Albatross. The powerful rotors of a Valuan airship spun with an intensity that suggested greater speed. Let them think themselves faster,' Dyne would always boast. The Albatross was not the fastest Blue Rogue vessel—that superlative belonged to some cocksure bastard in the Northern Frontier—but it was more than fast enough to catch Valuan prey. That was clear as the ship cruised further into the night. It took little time to catch up to the admiral's gaudy vessel. Doubly so owing to the flagship's flamboyant and heavy armor.
To avoid detection, the Albatross flew high into the cloud layer. It streamed further and further until it lurked above its Valuan prey like a vulture. At Dyne's signal, the deck erupted into action. One by one, the crew fell into their positions.
Vyse watched it all from the crow's nest. At this height, he felt as close to the sky as possible. Was this what it felt like to be a bird? To never be constrained? To go wherever you wanted until you were far beyond the horizon? It was hard to know for sure. All Vyse knew was that there was no place in the world where his life made more sense than here. He fished into his pocket and slipped a lone goggle over his right eye that one could easily mistake for an eyepatch. His hand came to its side and gave a tiny mechanism a flick. His vision zoomed down below like he was peering through a telescope. Scanning the Valuan flagship, he took stock of its stern deck. That would be his landing point.
He flicked the goggle back to its default and looked down at the Albatross' deck. His eyes began to scan once again for his partner, but there was neither hide nor hair to be seen.
A flicker of motion caught his eye; his father was waving upwards. It was time. His hand traced a small scar on his left cheek right beneath his eye. He'd received it during a botched rescue attempt on a burning frigate when he was ten. Would he add another to his face tonight?
"Hooks!" Captain Dyne's voice rang loud. It was enough to cut through whipping wind and the nearby roaring of their prey's rotary engines.
The Albatross lowered until it was directly beside the Valuan vessel and the crew gathered on the starboard with grappling hooks at the ready. A stream of ropes flew out and one by one; the hooks latched onto their target. They pulled taut as the Albatross rose just enough to bring them to an angle.
That was all Vyse needed. Cutlasses in hand, he hopped onto the crow's nest railings and jumped.
He was falling. He was flying.
The young rogue arced downwards through the air and grinned all the while. His heart leapt—not with fear but excitement. Though a single mistake would lead to a graceless plummet into the endless sky, he worried for nothing. He was born for this sort of gallantry. It was the first rule of being a Blue Rogue: always be audacious. For Vyse, leaping into danger was as natural and necessary as breathing.
Vyse continued to fall, holding his cutlasses above him. Eventually, there was a snag of resistance as their cross-guards caught against one of the hooked ropes. Holding tight, the young rogue began to ride down the length until he reached the Valuan ship's deck. He tucked into a roll as he landed and came to a kneeling stop. He raised his head and discovered that he was not alone. Five Valuan soldiers, clad in their peculiar iron armor and beaked helmets stared at him.
Their armor featured pine green touches and pointed armet helmets. They turned with swords in hand.
"Hey there," Vyse said, rising deliberately to his feet. "Bit far from home, ain'tcha?"
"¡Alto ahí!" One of the soldiers stepped forward. Insignia on his chest marked him as raised his cutlasses in response. The Valuans raised their swords. Their ranking officer spoke once more; this time in common tongue.
"Air pirate dog! Don't you realize who you're attacking? This is a ship of the Valuan Empire!"
Vyse feigned shock for a moment before rolling his eyes. "Of course I know," he said. "Why do you think we attacked? You guys have the best stuff!"
His posture lowered like a feralisk ready to pounce. "I'm Vyse of the Blue Rogues," he greeted with a smile. "And in a few minutes, I'll be relieving you of all your valuables!"