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Out in the vast cloudscape, a lone sky ship in full sail cut through the thin air. Ahead, at the end of a rope-tether, a gigantic bird flapped its mighty black-and-white wings as it led the ship ever further into that place of terror for all the creatures from the Edge open sky.
'Weather vortex straight ahead,' the small oakelf shouted from the caternest at the top of the main-mast. His voice was shrill with fear. 'And it's a monster!'
Down at the helm of the Edgedancer, a young sky pirate captain in a hammelhornskin waistcoat raised his telescope to his eye with shaking hands. As he focused in on the dark, swirling air, his heart missed a beat. The approaching vortex was indeed monstrous. It was as if the great milky clouds were curdling and falling in on themselves, swirling into a great blood-red throat at the centre of which was an inky blackness that threatened to swallow the tiny sky ship whole.
'I see it, Spooler,' the young captain called to the oakelf.
'It's coming in at a rate of about a hundred strides per second, Captain Twig, sir,' Spooler shouted, panic plain in his voice. 'We've precious little time till impact.'
Twig nodded grimly. Already the currents of air around them were beginning to spin unpredictably. They were passing in and out of great banks of cloud; plummeting as they went in, soaring up again as they emerged on the other side. With the binding tether taut, the caterbird continued its steady, relentless flight.
'Surely this is madness!' complained the wiry weasel-faced quartermaster in the gaudy brocaded coat. He pulled the large tricorn hat from his headand wiped his sweaty brow. 'It's heading straight for the vortex.'
'We must follow where the caterbird leads, Sleet,' Twig shouted back.
'B . . . but . . .' stuttered Wingnut Sleet, his voice a thin whine.
'Sleet!' Twig called back. 'We are all in this together. just make sure those tolley-ropes are securely cleated.'
Muttering under his breath, the quartermaster went to do the young captain's bidding. On the lower deck, he found a heavy flat-head goblin clinging to the rigging, its eyes white with fear.
'Nothing to worry about, Bogwitt,' Sleet said through gritted teeth. 'If our young captain really does believe that that great scraggy bird can lead us to his long-lost father rather than to certain death in the heart of the vortex, then who are we to argue?'
'Who indeed!' shouted a stocky figure with the tell-tale flame-red skin and hair of a Deepwoods slaughterer. 'You signed on with Captain Twig, just like the rest of us. And I reckon, just like the rest of us, you saw something special in him - like he saw something special in each of us. We're the chosen few, we are, and we'll see this through to the end.'
'Yes, well,' replied Sleet uncertainly. 'The end seems rather closer than I'd expected.'
'Vortex, a hundred thousand strides and closing,' came the nerve-racked voice of Spooler from the caternest.
'It's all right to be afraid, Sleet,' murmured a soft, hissing voice from the shadows behind them.
Sleet dropped the tolley-rope and turned. 'Reading my thoughts again, were you, Woodfish?' he said.
Woodfish recoiled. He was a slight, reptilian individual with webbed hands and feet and enormous fanned ears which were constantly aquiver.
'I can't help it,' he apologized. 'It's what we waterwaifs do. And I can tell you this, too. The young captain knows this caterbird well. He was there at its hatching, and for that the creature is bound to watch over him as long as they both shall live. It was the caterbird who discovered Twig's father marooned in a wreck of a ship in open sky. It enlisted Captain Twig's help, and he enlisted ours. We are behind him all the way. Besides,' he added, 'the caterbird knows what it's doing - even though its thoughts are a bit tricky to read.'
'Oh, well, that makes me feel much better,' Wingnut Sleet replied sarcastically.
'I know,' said Woodfish quietly. 'I can read your thoughts quite clearly.'
Sleet's smile froze, and his sallow cheeks reddened.
'The tolley-ropes, Sleet!' shouted Twig.
The young captain stared ahead into the great open void. The Stormchaser, his father's sky pirate ship was out there somewhere, deeper in open sky than any sky ship had ever sailed before, and he would find it, whatever it took.
They had already travelled for twenty days and twenty nights, with the caterbird out ahead, leading them on unfalteringly into the treacherous void. Now, as the pink light from the rising sun spread out across the sky on that twenty-first morning, the seemingly tireless creature was taking them still further. And all the while, the winds were becoming more and more unpredictable as the dominant south-westerlies collided with the tunnel of air coming in from the east.
'Take the helm, Goom,' Twig said to the great shaggy mountain of hair and tusks standing behind him. Every sky pirate captain needed a faithful lieutenant, and Goom the banderbear was Twig's. 'Hold a steady course. We've got to keep on after the caterbird.'
Goom grunted, his feathery ears fluttering.
Twig turned his attention to the two rows of bonehandled levers that controlled the sky ship. With dextrous expertise, his hands played over them - raising the sternweight and lowering the prow-weight; lowering the starboard hull-weights, small, medium and large, as far as they would go, while raising their counterparts on the port side completely.
The sky ship dipped and listed sharply to starboard as Twig attempted to follow the caterbird's erratic path. Cries of alarm went up from the lower decks. Twig gritted his teeth and concentrated. Flying a sky ship was a difficult skill at the best of times, but with a vortex looming in from open sky, Twig was being tested to the limit.
With one hand, he positioned the neben- and klutehull-weights. With the other, he adjusted the angles of the sails - tilting the staysail, slackening off the mainsail, bringing the jib gently round . . . Easy does it. . . .
'Angle, speed and balance,' Twig muttered to himself. They were the three fundamentals of skysailing. Yet as the wind became more turbulent with every passing minute, it was difficult to maintain any of them.
'Harder to starboard, Goom!' Twig bellowed, as he realigned the hull-weights. 'We've got to maintain the angle of . . .'
All at once a fearsome juddering went through the sky ship. The hull creaked, the masts trembled. Abruptly it flipped up and listed to the other side.
'Tether down!' Twig bellowed at his crew. At any moment, the Edgedancer could turn turvey - and, with no land below them, anyone who fell would fall for ever.