Song woke with a start, her mind scrambling to remember what had torn her from sleep. She got her bearings and looked around the captain’s cabin where she and Altain took turns sleeping. It was far less lonely to stay in there than in the barracks, with its empty hammocks swaying as though home to ghosts. Her mind zeroed in on the sound that had woken her—a woman screaming so loud she must’ve been right outside the door. Song leapt from the hammock and to the chamber door. After a pause in consideration she ran to the desk, searching through the drawers to find a small, stout dagger with a rounded T-shaped handle. She gripped the weapon in her fist, the metal cool between her middle and ring fingers. In one movement she opened the door and sprung on deck, but it was empty. At the helm Altain was pale with fear, his knuckles gripping the wheel so tight that they’d gone bone white.
“Do you hear that?” Song shouted over the din.
“Of course I bloody hear that!” His voice cracked, betraying his terror.
Song swallowed hard, forcing her panicked heart down out of her throat. “Well, what is it?”
More screams sounded in the night, permeating the thick fog that had settled upon them like a woolen blanket. Some screams were higher like a child, others low as a grown man, others still were merely moans. Altain shrugged, not daring to speak, lest his voice betray him again. Song stepped across the deck, her stockinged feet soft on the hard wood. Looking over the railing she saw only more fog.
“You’re too near the ground,” she called out.
“Nowhere near it.”
She growled low in exasperation and strode to Altain’s side, checking the altimeter beside the compass on the helm. Sure enough, they were hundreds of feet over any sort of ground. Her heart pressed into her throat once again and thundered so violently against her vocal cords that any sounds she might’ve tried making were impossible. To be so high and yet shrouded in such a thick fog was unheard of. Then there were the screams. How could any sound seem so close and yet there was no possible way for it to be there?
Song scanned through the fog, searching for anything besides white clouds. Something, perhaps a shadow, caught her eye. “Over there!” she exclaimed. “Portside.” She ran to the main deck and leaned over the railing, straining to make out any shapes.
Altain adjusted course to bring the skyship closer. The wind picked up, buffeting their clothing and forcing the air back into their lungs. Song covered her mouth and nose with one hand as her throat fought against the wind. The screams intensified, assaulting their ears and making them ring. The fog broke, revealing a rock wall stretching in all directions as far as the eye could see. Song gasped and skittered backward, falling to the deck, which rewarded her palms with biting splinters. Altain spun the wheel, turning the craft to avoid colliding with the cliff. The wind exploded against them as they flew past a long, deep cavern that frowned with sorrow in the stone. A low moan emanated from its mouth, shaking Song’s bones and bringing her windpipe to a nauseating close. Altain pressed his shoulder to one ear and used his free hand to cover the other. A woman’s scream pierced the air as they passed by a thin and shallow scar against the stony face.
“What the bloody hell is that all about then?” Altain shouted when they’d flown far enough away to hear their own thoughts and the cliff had been swallowed by the fog once more.
“How the bloody hell should I know?” Song snapped, picking herself up from the deck.
“There are maps in my quarters, get them.”
Song sheathed the little dagger and slipped it into her bodice, deciding it was a useful weapon for a lady. The maps were rolled and bound with ribbons, sitting upright in an umbrella stand. She laid them all out flat on the desk and scanned each one before sliding it to the floor. When she found the one she sought, she rolled it up and rushed back out to the helm, unfurling it on the deck at Altain’s feet.
“This has to be it,” she said, pointing at a spot as she knelt over the chart.
The map depicted Armalinia, a desert country whose populations centered around oases; it was world renowned for exotic spices and fine fabrics. Song had always loved items made there, but knew little else of it. Ocean surrounded three sides of Armalinia’s triangular landmass, but to the south was a stretch of mountains separating that country from Jashedar—a country politically similar to their home country of Andalise. On the Jashedar side, the Impasse Mountains tapered into the Blind Woods, but on the Armalinian side there was a hard line and swirling pen strokes.
“The Screaming Cliffs,” Altain read aloud.
“You can read?” Song gaped.
He pursed his lips and shot her a bitter glare. “What’s that small bit underneath say?”
“ZEPPELINS BEWARE: The Screaming Cliffs are shrouded in perpetual fog.”