This short story was submitted to the Post Apocalyptic Media Short Story Contest for 2021. All rights belong to the writer.
The drawer fell from the cabinet and onto the floor with a loud clang. Documents and folders sailed across the concrete in every direction. Owain’s hand flew to the grip of his flanged mace. His body tensed as he held his breath and tucked his tail between his legs. He could hear no sound nor feel any vibrations except those from his pounding heart.
After a minute, he slowly exhaled, calming his nerves. Sudden noise could awaken monsters, and the fewer of those he had to fight, the better.
He knelt down and put his candle holder on the ground. Sifting through ancient documents like these was a large investment of time and rarely paid off. Still, he had plenty of rations and was not tight for Grams at the moment. He could indulge himself in his hobby. Few raiders browsed the ancient documents and fewer still could read them. Owain could not read the documents per se—as the humans had never agreed on a single language—but he did know a few words across the tongues local to this area. Enough to pick out anything of interest. There were people at the raider’s union who could translate it for him later. In fact, he knew one who would do it for free.
He took a small blanket from his pack and made himself a comfortable area to sit in. Like the filing cabinet, the ancient chair and desk in the room could not be trusted. After organizing the documents he sat down and took the first piece of paper.
After about two hours, Owain held a document that piqued his interest. It was a yellowed folder with a few pieces of paper in it. On the folder were bold, red letters he recognized. Information with those words on it was usually hidden away in the strangest places, but most of it was useless to him.
This document, however, had frequent uses of a word he had learned; “magie,” which meant ‘magic’ in the local language. It was rare to find documents about magic. History lessons taught him that the humans had gone extinct when they unleashed magic. The folder held a small painting.
These tiny paintings were a miracle to Owain, as their level of detail was so precise. He had seen quite a few, but rarely one like this. It was painted to look blurred, and the painting itself depicted what looked like a drawn schematic. He could barely make out a cup-like object. Why would anybody make a painting of a drawing? Still, the mention of magic made him curious enough that he put the folder in his backpack. He would enjoy reading a translation of this later. For now, he set aside his curiosity and continued to look through the piles of paper all around him.
Owain stepped outside four hours later. He stretched as the softest of breezes stroked his fur. He liked exploring underground ruins, but it was always nice to be back out in the open. Above him he could see the thick layer of clouds that covered Gaia. Dark shadows on the clouds betrayed where the skylands of Aerar hung close to the low sky.
He stood in what once was a park, although the only clue of this was the large swath of dirt beneath his paws. There was no grass anymore as there was not enough air for normal vegetation. Only some species of moss managed to survive here, nestled in nooks and crannies. Around the park were spires of stone, metal and glass. Once, they had been buildings: houses and places of work. Now, they were ruins. Most notable of the ruins was a red brick building with white rims and dark, pointed roofs. It used to be a national museum—or so he had been told—but Owain dared not enter. Large buildings with open areas like that often turned into a lair filled with scores of monsters.
Or a single terrifying one.
His ship was docked close by on a small square. He set off towards it, keeping to the edge of the park. It was safer that way. After a few steps, a figure emerged from behind a pillar a short distance away. She beckoned him to come closer.
It was a raider like him, as nobody else would venture below the clouds. Rabbitkin were generally a head shorter than wolfkin like him, but they were in no way lesser. Other raiders could be two things: helpful or trouble. On the off chance this orange rabbitkin was helpful he walked towards her. He did unsling his shield.
Once they were a few feet away from each other, which was just close enough to talk down on Gaia, she tutted.
“Taking out your shield? Such an act of hostility.”
Owain glanced at her fur. The fur itself was ginger, yes, but there were bright orange swirling patterns all over it. She was a fire elementalist, then. Often temperamental and dangerous. “You don’t have to worry. It’s a shield, I’m not going to slam it in your face.” She gave him a teasing smile. “So, what did you find?”
“Straight to business, I see. Admirable.”
“Oh, you know. Places to be. Grams to earn.”
“I found some old documents. Nothing too interesting. Certainly not worth much.” She frowned. “Nobody just collects old paper. It must be something useful. Valuable.” “Isn’t a guy allowed to have a hobby?” He gave a toothy smile.
The rabbitkin made sure they stayed out of each other’s reach. Considering she had magic and he did not, that was a bad sign.
“Unlikely,” she said matter-of-factly.
“I suppose my word isn’t going to cut it? I hoped it would. Your talent would be wasted on me.”
“Look, wolf boy, just give it to me.”
Owain was quite convinced that the document held little monetary value, but he did not want to give it up. It was so rare to find ancient papers he deemed worth reading, and who said she’d stop at just his document?
“Shove it, cottontail,” he snarled. “Go find your own relics.”
The rabbitkinwas taken aback for a second, then as she gave a grunt the marks on her body glowed with orange light. Owain dropped and slid across the floor, dodging a spray of fire and barely managing to find cover behind a crumbling pillar of a nearby building. He growled in pain as the heat slammed into his skin. If his fur had not been black already, he would see it being singed.
“Leave me alone!” he barked.
A chuckle reverberated through the ruined structure. “Of course, little wolfkin!” his assailant said. “As soon as you hand over the relic.”
The document she was after was stored safely in his backpack. So far his attacker held back, but how long would it take her figure out his pack was fireproof?
“Why do you want it so badly?” he said.
“Grams. Why else.”
“There are enough relics around here,” Owain said as he unclasped a small chakram. “No need to hunt me.”
“Let’s be honest; a kin-at-arms like you? You have no chance against an elementalist like me. This is easier for me than going out and looking for something else.”
He gnashed his teeth. Why were magic wielders so arrogant! Well, he would show them what a mere kin-at-arms could do.
Owain spun a small chakram around his finger as he glanced around the pillar. He withdrew his head just as a blast of fire crashed into the stone, sending fragments of the crumbling structure flying.
Taking a deep breath, he sprinted from behind the pillar and threw the chakram in the direction the fire came from. The orange patterns in the rabbitkin’s fur glowed just as the chakram struck her in the face.
A deluge of curses crashed towards him. Blood trickled from her cheek.
“How dare you!”
“What? I’m just a kin-at-arms, aren’t I?” he snapped at her.
She kept cursing as she sent burst after burst of fire at his new hiding place. An ancient painting hung nearby. After a few seconds it caught fire, and the furless pinkskin depicted on it went up in flames.
A human going up in flames, how poetic.
He grabbed another chakram, but was not sure on how to get a clear line of sight. The last one had not done enough damage to discourage his assailant, leaving him at the mercy of the fire spewing maniac. He had gotten into scraps before, but usually with the monsters that inhabited these human ruins. To be fighting another raider… it just did not feel right.
Usually he would talk or charm his way out, but not this time. Either he had to find a way to escape, or he had to take her out. If he could get close enough he could take her out with his mace.
For a second, the fire stopped coming. Owain used the reprise to dash from his hiding place. As he turned a corner and ran into a corridor, he threw the chakram just as a gout of flame blasted into him. He managed to put his shield up in time, but the power of the blast still knocked him off his paws, throwing him to the floor.
The pain was blinding and the wind was knocked out of him. He lay on the floor, clutching his shield. It took him a few heartbeats to realize that something changed.
There was no more fire.
He scrambled to get up and saw that the rabbitkin was gasping for breath, desperately searching the floor. His chakram had hit the mark. It had severed her collar holding a breathing rune. The air on Gaia was far too thin to breathe without one.
Owain ran at the rabbitkin. When he grasped her throat she looked up, her eyes large and bloodshot. With a swift movement he rammed his shield in her face. The elementalist went limp. He searched the floor and managed to find the collar. Grabbing a piece of string, he tied the rune to the rabbitkin’s neck. At once, her wheezing eased into labored breaths. She would be knocked out for a while, but she’d live.
Looking down at her, he smirked. “Sorry, it seems that you were right to worry. I guess I did slam my shield in your face.”
It took him about fifteen minutes to get to his ship. He slid down a slope of rubble, knocking loose a few stones. When he came to a stop, he could see his ship a good hundred feet away, kept out of sight by a broken floor.
His breath caught in his throat; the ship was guarded.
Owain sprinted behind cover, thanking the Winds that the air on Gaia was too thin for sound to travel far. The downside was that he could not hear what they were saying, either. He could see two other raiders. One was a moosekin, and the other was a wolfkin like him. It was difficult to tell from a distance whether they had magic or not, but any raider would be dangerous. Especially two against one.
It was likely that the rabbitkin he knocked out was a part of their group, which meant that she was hunting him specifically. There were raiders who preferred to prey on others, rather than do the leg work themselves. Just the thought made Owain grip his mace’s handle so hard it hurt. Another group of raiders meant another ship. If they were keeping his ship under guard, then he would take theirs. It was the most heinous crime a raider could do to another raider—short of murder—but there were exceptions.
A few minutes later, Owain was at what used to be the top floor of a tall building. There were barely any walls left at this height and at least half the floor had crumbled away. The roof was actually missing. It was a precarious place to be, but it gave him a good view of his surroundings. Besides, any raider worth their salt knew how to spot the safest places to put their paws.
He could barely make out his ship from here, and he could see movement around it. Raiders did not travel far from their ships, which meant that their ship had to be close by. It would be bigger than his, to account for a small team. That cut down the number of places it could be hidden. If it were him, he would hide the ship in a small square or the like, to give as much cover as possible.
Taking out a piece of paper, Owain made a rough map of such locations and decided on an order in which to search them. He had to be fast about it, as there was no telling when the rabbitkin would wake up. She might start to track him again. After all, she had found him once before.
He hurried down and darted from building to building, keeping constant vigilance. He cursed his luck for getting in such trouble. To be fair, this situation was more a result of his stubbornness than luck. If he just showed them what he found he could end this without too much trouble. However, even if they deemed his document worthless, raiders like that would take it regardless. His honor did not allow that.
So far, nobody followed him. Every time he entered a new building, he waited a few seconds, scanning his surroundings. It was tiresome. He was used to being careful, but being this paranoid for so long drained him.
Owain leaned against an interior wall, peering out. He felt a slight tremor in the stone, but his attention was drawn by some debris falling down. It was a subtle movement, but it was where he was standing a minute ago. Was he already being followed? As he stared at the disturbance something kept nagging at the back of his mind, screaming danger.
The realization that he felt a tremor finally sank in.
As he pushed himself off from the wall, the stone burst into a spray of chunks and dust. It launched him to the ground—again—but the claw that emerged missed him by a hair. With a frustrated screech, the monster crawled from the wall. It looked like a scorpion with spines covering its body.
This was an ironclaw, the nightmare of kin-at-arms. Its exoskeleton was made of metal, which made bows, swords and spears useless against them. As most kin-at-arms relied on those weapons to deal with the majority of the monsters and lacked the magic to deal with these creatures they usually wound up dead. Owain scoffed. He was not like most kin-at-arms who used sharp weapons, he used a mace!
While scrambling to get up, he took out his mace and spun around. The ironclaw advanced on the wolfkin, but hesitated a moment. It was used to its prey running away. After a second, it rushed forward and lashed out with its tail, holding its claws up to protect itself. The stinger slammed into Owain’s shield. The blow sent a wave of pain through his arm, but the adrenaline flooding his system allowed him to swing his mace. The weapon crashed into the monster’s defense, sending bits of exoskeleton flying.
The ironclaw took a step back with a shrill chirp, but Owain was not giving in now. He pressed his advantage and used his shield to bat away the monster’s stinger, then struck with his mace again. He nearly lost his balance as a result of his reckless attack, but the flanged metal head connected with the monster’s and a loud crunch could be heard. The ironclaw collapsed on the ground, ooze leaking from its head.
Owain hung his mace at his hip and reached inside the monster’s head. After rummaging around for a few seconds, scooping out flesh and organs, he pulled out a small, yellow crystal. Each monster had a crystal core, which was a valuable material. So precious, in fact, that this was the currency used in Aeras, measured in Grams.
Wiping his hand on his trousers he looked around before darting to the next building.
After an hour, he found a small square where a ship was docked. The ship was about twice the size of his own and unguarded. Their crew must have only counted three. Would they be on his tail by now? Would they guess what he was about to do?
Were they secretly guarding the ship? Due to the unwritten rules, one rarely needed to guard their ship. Monsters were not interested either, they only cared about eating living flesh. Owain picked up a small stone and threw it at the ship. It bounced off the hull, but nothing else happened. He waited a bit longer before creeping closer to the ship. Whoever piloted had that ship down here was skilled. It was surrounded by tall, crumbling buildings with only a tight window to the sky above.
Once within reach, he placed his hand on the ship’s hull. There were no vibrations he could feel. A good sign. Owain climbed onboard. There was nobody to be seen. For a second he relaxed and let out a breath he did not realize he had been holding. Raiding was such a tense occupation.
He climbed onboard the ship and looked around. Where he had a hatch that he could open for some extra storage, this ship had an actual lower level. There would be beds there and plenty of room to store provisions and equipment for a small band of raiders.
Thinking about it, he frowned. It was the perfect hiding spot.
He held his shield in front of him and descended the stairs. When his paw hit the floorboards a shape burst from the shadows. In reflex he tilted the shield just as a sword slammed into it. The blow knocked both him and his assailant back.
Some said that the mousekin were handed the shortest end of the stick of all beastkin, but Owain begged to differ. What they lacked in size, they made up for in ferocity. And the ability to hit him below the shield. Owain lowered his stance to compensate as best he could. This gray furred mousekin’s ears twitched as she leered at him.
“Get off my ship,” the mousekin said with a dramatic wave of his sword.
She wore a thick gambeson, metal shoulderguards and a helmet. Well-protected against sharp weapons. Owain gripped his mace tighter.
The mousekin’s eyes darted to the mace. “One of those, are you?”
Owain was taken aback. “One of those what?”
“Murderers,” the mousekin hissed.
“Hey now!” Owain blustered. “I am not! And look who’s talking!”
“What’s that supposed to mean, doggy?”
Owain growled. Each beastkin had their own special insult the other kin liked to use. “Listen up, pipsqueak. Don’t you tell me that your mates aren’t a cottontail, a wolfkin and a deer.”
The mousekin hesitated for a second. “Ah,” she said with a squeak. “You have fallen victim, have you?”
“Yea, so don’t you dare claim the moral high ground.”
Her shoulders slumped. “I didn’t want to team up with them, you know? I had no choice. I had to earn a living. It’s why they don’t trust me, why they left me here.”
“That seems dumb,” Owain said, not lowering his shield. “What’s stopping you from just stealing their ship?”
The tip of her sword lowered as the pipsqueak cast her eyes down.
“No way,” Owain whispered. “You can’t fly a ship?”
“I’m new at this, okay!” she shouted, completely dropping her guard.
For a minute the two stared at each other in silence.
“So, what now?” the mousekin asked.
“Your squadmembers are staking out my ship, so I’m taking this one.”
Her little ear twitched. “What about me?”
“What about you?” Owain said.
“If I step aside, they’ll leave me here!”
“You would have to fight me to get the ship from me.”
“You might get hurt.”
The mousekin stammered, “You might die.”
“So could you.”
“Ah, damn the Winds!” the mouskin yelled as she threw the sword on the floor. The noise was deafening in the tight space.
She sat down and rested her head in her hands. “I don’t want to kill other people.” “Then don’t,” Owain said as he returned his mace to his frog. “Stick to finding relics, if you want to keep being a raider.”
“I—I do, or I have to. I have no other options.”
“We can take the ship back together and you can find a new group to raid with,” Owain said. “I guess so. Can’t I stick to you? You seem nice enough.”
Owain shrugged. “I’m not in it for the profit. I make enough to get by as a raider, but I live on my ship. I’m here for the lost human knowledge.”
“I see,” the mousekin said. “Until I find a more fitting squad, then? I’ll carry my weight.” The wolfkin sighed. “I suppose that is fine. What’s your name, anyway?”
“I’m Owain. Let’s go.”
Gwinn nodded and rushed past Owain to the deck. She danced around the riggings like it was nothing.
“Well, you’re not clueless to flying,” Owain said, crossing his arms.
“I know how to prepare the ship; they taught me that much. I can’t actually fly it, though. I think the ship doesn’t like me.”
He scowled. “If you’re part of the crew then the ship shouldn’t dislike you.” Gwinn gave him a shrug and continued with what she was doing.
Owain walked to the crystal that rested in the middle of the deck. It was surrounded by brass machinery, and inside the crystal a cloud-like substance swirled. The air elemental. Elementalists could communicate with it directly, others could get no more than a vague feeling from them. He placed a finger on the crystal surface and the elemental inside whirled in agitation.
“Gwinn, how did your crew get this ship?”
“Eh…” She stopped in her tracks halfway down a line of rope. “I’m not sure, but I think they stole it.”
“Good, that gives us a chance, at least,” he said as he placed both his hands on the crystal. The surface felt hot and cold at the same time, sending biting pain up his arms. Owain gritted his teeth and persevered. Slowly, the sensation faded away and the shape in the crystal calmed down.
“What are you doing?” Gwinn asked. “You look like you’re in pain. Are you sure you should be doing that?”
Panting slightly Owain said, “I’m showing the elemental that we are not the thieves who took it.”
She scratched behind her ear. “But we are taking it, aren’t we?”
As he drew back his hands he said, “An air crystal forms a bond with its pilot. Somehow your teammates managed to subdue this one to work for them, but she hated their guts.” “So I was right? It did dislike me!”
“Well, yea. Now that it has been freed from its captors, it may listen to us.” “It may?”
“Let’s find out!” Owain said as he bounded to the ship’s helm.
The ship’s controls were simple enough, but flying was a different matter. Flying a ship involved reading the minute changes in air currents and dealing with the elemental’s temperament, just to name a few difficulties. Flipping a few switches, the sails and fins adjusted and the crystal’s mechanics started to spin and whir. Keeping the ship stable he waited until the magic-powered updraft launched it into the sky. There, he steered the ship to climb as fast as possible, leaving Gaia behind him.
The flight was uneventful, thank the Winds. No pirates, no turbulence and no magical anomalies.
“You really know how to fly!” Gwinn said.
“This was smooth sailing,” Owain said. “Anybody could have done that.” Seeing her expression he quickly added, “Anyone who knows how to pilot a ship, of course.” The two of them walked towards the nearest union outpost. They had landed on a fairly small skyland, one that Owain visited frequently. He liked the people who lived here. On some skylands, the guild had massive buildings, but here they had a building the size of a small shop. Inside the walls were plastered with posters showing what missions were available. Behind the counter was an old moosekin with one cracked antler.
“Heya Lox, how’s the union?”
The cowkin perked up and grinned. “Well, well, if it isn’t Owain. And a friend! That’s a first.” “Temporary teammate,” Owain said. “She helped me get away from Gaia.” “An alliance of need,” Gwinn said. “But, who knows?”
Owain sighed. “I’m not the best to hang around if you want to earn Grams. I’d probably bore you to death.”
Gwinn shook her head but kept her tongue.
“So,” Lox said. “What kind of text did you find this time?”
Owain smiled and passed him the folder. “Who knows, am I right? It mentions something about magic, so that’s always interesting.”
“Magic, eh?” Lox said as he took out the sheets and looked them over.
“I hope your Gaian hasn’t gotten rusty,” Owain said.
“There is no such thing as Gaian, and no, I am not becoming rusty.”
Gwinn tugged Owain’s gambeson. “Shouldn’t you let him do his… thing?” “Nah.” He shrugged. “Banter is what keeps that old mind of his sharp.”
Lox sighed. “If your skill in fighting matched half your wits you’d be the best raider around.” “Well, I can’t hog all the glory, now can I? Lox?”
The guild worker had fallen silent, squinting at the pages. Were his hands… shaking? “Lox, buddy? Are you all right?”
When Lox tore his attention from the pages his eyes were huge.
“Owain,” he said, his voice catching in his throat. “This is huge!”
“What do you mean, buddy?”
“Well, let’s say you wont have to worry about Grams anytime soon.”