Sword of the Sky
Steampunk Fantasy | Lunar Awards Entry | Storyletter Original
"Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens." - Khalil Gibran
Twenty thousand feet above the bastion city of Damashk, the air brushed across Azmi’s face like a lover's gentle caress. The young captain lifted the scarf over his nose, blocking the wind. His crew had gathered at the starboard side of Sayf al-Sama’–the crowned airship of the Damashk Guard–but Captain Azmi could care less about the glistening view of the city below. The failed mission had strangled any sense of awe from his mind.
“Take the steering,” he commanded, without looking at the man at his side.
Batal, his lieutenant, stepped forward and relieved the captain. Sayf al-Sama’ was an aircraft like none other, outfitted to harness the power of a Taqa battery; an energy source rivaled only by that of the sun. The battery granted the airship the ability to float through the atmosphere unimpeded; the engines fueled by a catalyst unknown to its current beneficiaries.
Captain Azmi grabbed hold of the railing even though he didn’t need to. His boots, laced with a magnetic lining, kept him safely upright on the ship’s deck. He stared out at the barren landscape. The off-white of his baggy uniform glowed in the sunset’s radiance, the chrome of his musadas sparkling on his hip.
He’d found nothing in his search for new resources. Now he was to return to his people in shame. Disgrace loomed on the horizon, but there was nothing he could do.
An aura to the south caught the captain’s attention: a wall of sand. Storms could no longer ravage Damashk. As a bastion city, the Taqa core protected the inhabitants from the natural world. The storm would be dissipated long before it reached the city.
Azmi blinked and the storm vanished. He removed the dust-specked goggles, placing them high on his forehead. His crew were still gathered at the front of the airship, oblivious. He searched for an explanation, but it only worsened. An inky ocean of liquid waves poured over the landscape. Terror filled him as he realized the city to the north was gone, engulfed in a dark cyclone of annihilation.
He yelled but his voice was as lost as his people.
Azmi opened his eyes to find that others were watching him. Thousands of faces directed their sympathetic expressions toward him. He cleared his throat and remembered where he was: his father’s funeral. The Malak's funeral.
The dream—no, the nightmare—from last night remained etched into his mind, like a holy vision. It replaced whatever kind words he had prepared for his father. The crowd murmured.
The funeral was outdoors, atop the steps of the great hall of Damashk; a tribute to those who had led them through the fall of the world, and to those that had built a city upon its rubble. The sun blazed, its heat cascading through the arching pillars that rose and fell to either side. No matter how protected they were from the sandstorms, the heat was inescapable.
Azmi shifted his weight under the stares of the attendees boring into him like ten thousand screws. He wasn’t sure if the sweat on his temples was from the heat, or from the pressure he found himself under.
“Malaki, are you alright?” came a voice from behind. It was Noora, his father’s most trusted advisor. The older woman was invaluable to him. Noora knew far more about running a bastion city than Azmi could ever hope for.
“Yes. I apologize.” His voice carried across the crowd thanks to the Taqa speakers that flanked him. “I’d like to close with some remarks.”
Azmi al-Thani regarded his relatives seated off to the side, facing the crowd. Closest to him on the bench was his mother, Amal, her head held high. She wore all black. Her cheeks remained dry, a stark contrast to the sobbing faces of Azmi’s younger siblings. Malaka Amal was a symbol of strength and resolve.
“My father, twenty-third Malak of Damashk, was a shrewd and ruthless man,” he said. The crowd reacted with a wave of hushed whispers. His voice cut through as he continued, “But he was the leader this city needed. Under his leadership we prospered in a time of diminished resources. Under his rule, we as a people grew closer together, not further apart. As his eldest son, I witnessed what it took to maintain the peace, despite the chaos raging so close to our borders. I…I am not my father. I cannot be the leader you want me to be.”
Azmi expected the crowd to rise up in protest. But they sat in silence. Even so, nothing had prepared them for what he was about to say.
“So in the best interest of the people I bestow the rule of Damashk to my mother, Malaka Amal—”
Chaos had found its way inside the impermeable barriers of Damashk.
Sayf al-Sama’ dipped in altitude. Out of reflex, the captain looked at Batal at the helm. The lieutenant was no longer there. A mechanized being had replaced him. It glared at Azmi with glowing red eyes. The being was made of bronze plates and silver gears twisting against one another. Steam hissed from its mouth as two pieces parted to form a wicked grin.
Azmi searched for his crew but found they’d become like Batal, an army of bronze corpses stalking toward their captain.
The mechanized beings spoke in unison, their voices filling the air with a demonic vibration. “War is coming. Act now, or perish.”
The metal arm of his former lieutenant grabbed hold of the altitude lever and slammed it forward; a forced dive straight down.
“No!” Azmi screamed. He lunged to stop the airship from plummeting to its demise, but his boot magnets strengthened, keeping him from falling overboard.
He didn’t understand. Somewhere deep down he felt like this was what he deserved. He was a failure, a disappointment. The only end to his story that resembled anything of value was his death. It was the only way he would make his father proud. The dead Malak would finally be proud.
The airship lived up to its name. It cut through the sky like a sword descending upon its victim. Within moments, the captain and crew of Sayf al-Sama’ would be obliterated.
Azmi closed his eyes.
He heard Noora instructing the guards to lift him from the stairs. The crowd’s shouts berated his senses. His head felt as if it was being split into two. A stinging coolness shocked his forehead and he heard his mother's voice. It was comforting. It grounded him. But flying, he loved flying. He wished to remain a captain, to fly over the desert as free as a bird. Was he saying this aloud? He was. His own voice was alien to his ears. He didn’t feel well. The vision was coming over him, taking him, showing him.
Coughing up a mouthful of sand, Azmi rose from his desert grave. The hot air burned his lungs. His ears rang with an incessant high-pitch. Or was it the whine of the exposed engine? He couldn’t tell. The numbing shock told him to remain in his pit of despair, but his mind told him to move, to get away from the wreckage, to live.
Every bone in his body groaned as he stood. He surveyed the open carcass of the once elegant airship. No one could have survived. And yet, he’d come out unscathed.
His crew flashed before his eyes. Not the machine horde they’d become, but the men and women who had served him. They deserved better. He’d failed them, again.
Distancing himself from Sayf al-Sama’–now susceptible to evaporating in a fiery explosion–he found that the sandstorm had grown. The wall of sand barreled toward him. He raised his scarf and secured the goggles over his eyes. If there was one thing in life he’d come to master, it was weathering the storm.
“What happened?” He sat on the edge of the regal bed in the Malak's chambers. He looked around the interior of the room. A blue vase held gold-dipped flowers along a wall of wooden bookshelves the color of blood. A rug near the bed was askew. At first he found it odd that he'd notice such things, but then again, his reality was being questioned.
“You collapsed after that ludicrous speech. The doctors think it was heat stroke. Have you been drinking again?” his mother asked.
“What? No. What became of the funeral?”
Amal looked away as she sat down next to him. Her hand absently brushed the fabric. The essence occupying the light in her eyes was one of fond remembrance. Azmi realized he had never taken the time to address the fact that she’d lost someone too. Not just someone, but arguably her other half.
“I’m sorry,” Azmi said.
“For what, habibi?” She finally met his gaze, the passage of time had marked the skin around her eyes. God. When had she aged?
“For not being strong like you and Father.”
A tear fell down her cheek as she smiled. Amal leaned in and hugged her son.
“It’s all for show, habibi. It’s all for show.”
Sandy wind blasted the captain, forcing him to lean into the torrent. His goggles protected his eyes, but did nothing to improve his vision. His face grew hot from the scarf trapping his breath. Sweat soaked his uniform.
With his hand resting atop the grip of his musadas, he flicked the lever to charge the weapon. His ammo reserves had been lost in the crash. With only one shot, he’d have to make it count. Azmi hadn’t seen any threats since his awakening, but the image of Batal grinning hot steam haunted him.
When Azmi crested a small sand dune, he was surprised to actually decipher structures ahead through the haze; two pillars side by side.
His legs were revived at the sight. An energy he’d assumed had been lost to the dunes rushed back to his limbs, soaked up by the muscles like water on cracked earth. He sprinted across the shifting sands, pushing against the winds of grit. Reaching the pillars, he hunkered down to revel in the slight reprieve. He ripped the scarf from his face, his bearded chin welcoming fresh air.
The twin pillars defiantly resisted the winds. They had once formed an archway; the entry into Damashk. His calloused fingers rested on the eroded stone. He’d made it home. At least, what was left of it.
A mechanized scream erupted from behind him. It overpowered the roar of the sandstorm. Captain Azmi spun, removing his musadas for protection. Nothing approached. The cloud of death continued to rage in every direction, likely giving cover to the deadly machinations that had brought down his airship.
He had no time to lose. He returned to his search for salvation out of this blistering purgatory. Azmi passed through the archway, but slipped. The dune dropped off into a void of blackness. The same black liquid he’d seen on the horizon.
Below, a great bridge stretched out across the bubbling depths. He aimed for it, falling to his backside in a downward slide to conserve energy.
His boots found purchase on the aged stone. An earthy fog hovered at eye level. However, it wasn't fog, it was granules of sand, suspended in the air in rebellion against the laws of nature.
Something shifted in the expanse before him. There was a whirring of gears and the hiss of hot air escaping from unseen valves. The bridge shook once, a sharp smack of metal on stone. Then it came again. A shadow emerged on the other end. Its outline was that of a large man, but Azmi knew better. He raised his musadas, the barrel ready and glowing a hot orange. One shot. He mustn’t waste it.
The shadow loomed. Azmi looked for an escape. The dune behind him was too steep. There was no going back.
As the machine neared, he closed his eyes. He blocked out the sounds of gears grinding and spinning, the steam hissing, his heartbeat pounding in his eardrums. Captain Azmi placed the musadas’ barrel against his temple and squeezed the trigger.
“...al-Thani? Malak Azmi al-Thani?”
Noora’s voice pulled him from his thoughts. “Don’t call me that.”
“Whatever do you mean, sir? You are the Malak now.”
Azmi ignored her as he pulled on his gloves. He grabbed his musadas off the table in the stateroom where they now stood. A map of the bastion cities occupied the wall to his left, along with the last unexplored territory within the Desolation.
“I’m still the captain of Sayf al-Sama’. You will refer to me as 'Captain'. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mal– Captain Azmi. I understand. But you will be the first Malak to remain in command of an airship. We do not yet know how the public will respond to their leader so willfully risking his own life. Please exercise some caution going forward.”
“Yes, mother,” Azmi quipped.
In the vision, he’d pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. He’d opened his eyes to discover his father with an expressionless face, the face Azmi’s resembled most.
“I will not rule like my father,” Azmi said, wrapping his scarf around his neck.
“Then how?” Noora asked.
He thought for a moment. The sun's rays filtered through the thin drapes. Outside the tower’s window, Sayf al-Sama’ was docked nearby. The lieutenant was climbing aboard. Batal looked through the window and noticed his captain. He pointed a finger up toward the sky. Azmi did so in return.
“I will restore the fleet,” Azmi said. “I’ll delegate authority on legislative matters to you and my mother. It doesn’t have to be publicly known, but that is the only way. For now, at least. My place is cutting through the sky on an airship. Free and unrestricted.”
Noora nodded. Azmi turned his back to her and opened the door.
“War is coming. Act now, or perish.”
Azmi stopped cold. They were the words from his nightmare. He turned to see Noora watching him curiously.
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘May God be with you, Captain’.”
He thanked her and left the stateroom in a daze. If the visions were to be believed, then something terrible was on the horizon. Azmi would do everything in his power to protect the city of Damashk on his own terms, but he’d need to take care of some inner demons first.
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