A few hours later, we were back on the ship along with a sizable haul of ironwood and assorted gems — the mana-filled kind, too. I already had some ideas on how to enchant them. Sarah had been less than pleased to have her bear used at a pack mule, but even she had been forced to admit that its wide rump was perfect for the task.
And now we sailed further into the Cradle of the Gods, towards the one place in this monster infested Archipelago that hadn’t been brought to its knees.
At least the ocean was calm. I stood at the bow of the ship, gazing outward as the wind blew in my face. Ostensibly, I was keeping an eye out for threats — island dungeons weren’t the only dangerous thing in the Archipelago, and krakens were known to prey on lone ships. But in truth, I simply wanted some time to myself. It had been a long time since I’d last adventured, and I’d forgotten just how exhausting being around people day in and out was.
But my moment of quiet wasn’t meant to be, I realized as the creaking floorboards announced the arrival of a guest. Despite the creaking, no footsteps sounded out, and there was only one person aboard who could do so.
“So, we went and stashed the loot down in the hold, yeah?” David said as he stepped up to my place at the bow.
I turned around to face the boy. He seemed less skittish than usual. “Greetings to you, as well. Was there a problem?”
“Right, sorry. Hi. And no, there’s no problem, it’s just—” he shuffled in place hesitantly, “there were all these zombie guys down in the hold, yeah? Why didn’t you take some of them with you to the island?”
“Wights, not zombies. Zombies are a naturally occurring phenomenon,” I corrected. “And I left them aboard partially because of the logistics — getting them all ready and and off the boat wasn’t really worth it, not for a supposedly tame dungeon, like this one. And partially because I wasn’t sure they would be useful.”
“Winnie was plenty useful.”
“Winnie has received some upgrades the other wights didn’t, in order to help it keep up with Sarah’s demands,” I said, winching inwardly as I felt at the bear’s mana draw. “The rest of them are good enough to keep up with a few soldiers, perhaps even a rookie adventurer. But they’re not made for the kind of cooperation needed to clear a dungeon. At this point, they’d most likely get in the way.”
“Seems like a waste to bring them aboard if you’re not gonna use them,” he said, turning his gaze to the open sea.
“I do want to use them,” I said irritably, “I have plans for them.” I had been hoping to capture some animal-like dungeon monster, but the Circle had only sent plants, rocks and wind at us. Not the kind of monsters whose minds I wanted to dissect.
“Hey, hey, I’m not trying to throw shade,” David said, holding his hands up placatingly.
I smiled, accepting his apology with a wave of my hand. “Nothing to it.” A few moments passed in silence — and then the moments stretched into seconds, and after a while I began to wonder if perhaps this was what people referred to as an awkward silence. “Echm. Was there anything else?”
David flinched in surprise, eyes going wide. “Right, sorry. I spaced out. Good talk, I’m just gonna see myself out—” his figure became blurry, and then he was gone.
“Good talk,” I said with a chuckle. “Ah, kids these days.” I turned around, leaning over the railing as my thoughts went back to David’s words. My face turned into a frown as I considered the undead belowdeck. “Maybe I should have left them at home. Or taken the drake instead.”
But then what would I have done if I needed a disposable army? And I felt much safer with the drake close to my phylactery. But still, the wights I’d brought with me weren’t useful in their current state. Perhaps if I extended Winnie’s improvements to them?
Chasing that thought, I straightened up and left the limpid ocean behind. There was magic to be done.
Looking closely at a spell was one of the most beautiful things in the world. And I meant truly looking at a spell, taking in all of its details and intricacies, and how every thread meshed with each other to make a proper whole — not simply giving it a glance as a non-mage would. And the spell I was currently trying to improve was a work of art, and I wasn’t saying that only because it was my own. No, I was perfectly willing to do (and often did) slip-shod spells that would only survive for a few moments when the circumstances called for them. But the spell that animated the wights was not one of those, not by half. Its complexity was matched by few other spells, and I was proud to call it my magnum opus.
So when the words “Land ahoy!” rang out from the top of the ship, it was only begrudgingly that I broke myself from the trance I had been in. Dust had already set on my clothes, but I summoned the tiniest thread of Force to blow them away, and made my way out of the hold and up the stairs onto the deck.
An animated conversation was already taking place when I finally arrived among the rest of the group.
“—I’m saying is that it’s not fair how you get to see so much farther,” Cameron said sullenly.
“If you wanted better eyesight, maybe you should have become a ranger as well,” Alexis shot back.
“Mage suits me just fine, thank you. But still. You have to admit, seeing past the horizon is broken as hell. Like, how does that even work?”
“Right? What do your elf eyes see, Legolas?” Shiro said, and I could almost hear the smirk in his voice.
“They see a good deal of pain headed straight at you,” she said, directing a lightning fast jab to his elbow.
“Ow. So not only can you see past the horizon, but you can see the future as well? Where’s the fairness in this world.”
“It got left behind, along with the hot chocolate and running water,” said Sarah. She was sitting near the edge of the boat, polishing her helmet.
“Sad. Truly sad. Alexis, play Despacito.” That earned Shiro another jab, but this time he was prepared, stepping away just in time to avoid being hit. “Nice—” The last word came out garbled as he tried, and failed to avoid the smack to the back of his head.
“Damn. You were right, Sarah. He really is much more sufferable with a smidge of violence.”
“I resent that accusation,” the boy in question said as he scratched his head.
I only understood part of what they were talking about, but I wasn’t going to admit to it before them. Instead, I waited until their conversation came to a lull and changed the subject.
“Good day, everyone,” I said, bringing their attention to myself — and a quick look at the horizon told me I was also wrong. “Or evening, I suppose.” I turned to Alexis. “I believe you said you saw land?”
I had never heard the expression ‘Land ahoy’ before, but there were only so many things it could mean.
“Yup,” she said, pointing straight ahead of our course. “Maybe an hour away. I guess? I don’t actually know how to tell.”
“An hour should be about right, if the maps are correct. Though, I’m surprised you can see so far.”
“It’s one of my skills. Gotta see far to shoot far.”
“I kinda wanna see you shoot an arrow past the horizon, now,” Shiro said, having lost all pretense at being upset. “Think you could do that?”
“Hmm… maybe with the right bow? Definitely not with this one, though. Not strong enough.”
“Makes sense. I don’t think anyone’s ever gone to a… bow maker? Is that what they’re called? Anyway, I don’t think anyone’s ever gone to one and said ‘Hey mister bow maker, make me a bow that can shoot farther than people can even see.’”
“I mean, if you’re high up enough, anyone can—”
“Or just high enough,” David interrupted with a snort. Strangely enough, he’d been completely quiet up to that point.
“Don’t be stupid, using a bow when you’re high is just asking to put an arrow through your foot,” said Alexis.
“But, the joke…”
“Wasn’t that good.”
“It’s okay, David,” Shiro said. “At least you can’t make two bad jokes in arrow, right? Get it? No? Okay.”
“Now, that was really bad,” David said.
“I concur,” I added with a serious nod.
“See, that’s a majority vote,” said Alexis with a sly smile. “You are now sentenced to five years of no more jokes.”
“So you’re… punishing me?” Shiro said, tensing up to avoid the jab he surely expected would come.
Instead, Alexis threw up her hands. “I give up. I just can’t wait to be off this boat so I can put a few miles between us.”
“It should be soon enough,” I said, walking up to the railing.
“Oh, right! I can see it now. Doesn’t look very floaty, though,” David said as he squinted his eyes.
“Yeah, shouldn’t it be up in the sky?” Shiro asked.
“Why would it be up in the sky?” I asked, tilting my head.
“Well, it’s called the floating city, right? So, shouldn’t it float?”
“But it does float,” I said, bemusement coloring my voice. “On water.” I gestured to the ocean surrounding us.
“Oh,” he said, crestfallen. “So it’s just an island city, then? That’s lame.”
“It’s not an island,” I corrected. “It floats, quite literally. It travels around the Archipelago, pushed by the currents.”
Shiro’s eyes went wide. “Okay, that’s pretty cool, actually. How does that work, anyway? Magic?”
“Mostly magic, yes. You’ll see soon enough.”
The following minutes passed in blessed silence as everyone watched the tiny speck on the horizon grow bigger and bigger with each passing moment. Soon enough, the Floating City was on display in its full glory.
From above, it didn’t look all that different from a normal island. The side we were approaching featured a beach, and as we got closer it was possible to see people as they relaxed in the sun and played in the shallow water. But if any of them went any further than a few dozen feet from the shore, they’d find themselves over the open ocean with nothing under their feet.
Remembering that the corvette did not come with automated steering, I quickly extricated myself from the group and walked up to the helm. The wheel squeaked as it turned, changing our heading as to not run aground of the city. Instead we’d be circling around until we reached the dock district.
As we sailed along the shore, I was pleasantly surprised to see people waving at us as we passed. I found myself waving back, much to the excitement of a gaggle of kids. Despite its relatively high population — even higher than Ardenburg, at nearly 200,000 souls — the Floating City did not see that many ships from outside, and understandably so. That we hadn’t run into any sea monsters so far was almost miraculous; there was a reason why it was widely considered that anyone who traveled to or from the Floating City was either very brave or very desperate. Or possibly both.
In short, nearly all the ships that transited the island were adventurers and the kids would likely have assumed so — another party of adventurers, back from an expedition to subjugate some island dungeon or another, carrying mountains of loot and untold riches. They wouldn’t even be wrong, not exactly.
The Floating City was merely our first stop in our quest to bring down the gods. Hopefully, I’d be able to find the leads I needed, stock up on supplies, and leave before anyone stirred too much trouble. Despite their distance from the Continent, there were bound to be zealots out for my head. But I was an Archmage, and the rest of my team were Heroes, empowered beyond the limits of normal humans — and undead, to boot. With a group like ours, who could possibly get in our way?