It was supposed to be a job like any other.
The rain fell with an insistent urge, dashing upon the ground with a wet thud and a splash of spectacle. Brief, explosive, but determined to be seen.
Like the people in this city, the detective supposed. They live incessantly, desperate to be known, and die in moments of clamorous brilliance. This rain is for them; another loud showreel between the main attractions.
The adamant patter of rain on his hat and trenchcoat belied his presence in the street, impatient fingers rapping on him, the cadence insisting he make a move.
Have it your way, he thought, stepping out of the rain and underneath the awning of a nearby building. He turned briefly to gaze back down the street, obscured as it was by the torrent. In the distance, daubs of colour and light occasionally swept through the rain, exposing the rest of the city in all of its gaudy extravagance. The detective sniffed, the expression somewhere half between disdain and apathy, before turning away and placing his handle gently on the door to the building.
Above the noise of the rain, there was no sound as he opened the door and slipped inside.
She knew I was coming.
The detective had stared down the barrel of a gun before; more times than he cared to recount, in fact. Seldom, however, had he stared down the barrel of a gun held by a lady.
Quite a striking lady, at that, he thought, then sniffed again. Seems these aren’t professional annotations anymore.
She noticed the gesture, and her gun arm twitched at him. The gun wobbled in mid-air, in a desperate gesture of power assertion.
Was that supposed to scare me more? A desperate lady, with an obvious lack of experience in firearms, is pointing such a firearm at me. There’s nothing scarier than desperation.
“Lady...”, he began slowly, seeing her eyes widen in fear. Comforting. He continued, watching her with an inscrutable gaze. “It is far too tense in here for me not to be smoking... do you mind?”
She stared at him a moment. Her brow shifted. Another moment passed as she continued to gaze at him, incredulous.
“A-are you fuckin’ serious?”
“It’s an addiction; It doesn’t have to be rational. So... do you mind?”
The lady laughed, a high-pitched squeak of disbelief.
“Sure, do what you want. But any sudden moves and I’ll paint the walls in a distinctive shade of red”.
It would be more pink than anything else. Trust me, lady, I know.
“Duly noted”, the detective said.
Slowly, he reached into the pocket of his beige trenchcoat. It hung from him shoulders, shapeless and despondent. A dozen weary years weighed the coat down, and the man beneath felt every day, hour and minute of those years.
From the pocket he produced a battered metallic lighter.
Zippo, he thought to himself, if I could go back in time and burn your company to the ground, I’d probably get hit by a train on the way home. He suppressed a laugh, as not to alarm his would-be murderess.
So might as well keep smokin’
From his breast pocket, he drew a thin cigarette. Though unlit, it was stubbed at one end, and crumpled slightly in the middle. It was as haggard as the detective himself. With a practiced ease he placed it between his lips and drew the lighter to him. There was the distinctive flick-clink of the flint ignited and flame blossomed from the device and ignited the weary end of the cigarette. Even as he was placing the lighter back in his pocket he was dragging on the end of the stick, attempting to savour a flavour that his tastebuds had long been scoured of the ability to detect.
He dropped the lighter back into his pocket, and left his hand there, slumped against the warming steel. The other hand drew the cigarette from his mouth as he exuded a disorganised veil of smoke from between his lips. It wafted in midair a moment, hanging limply as if observing, before drifting lazily to the ceiling, to observe in peace.
“Now...” the detective began, his disenfranchised gaze meeting hers again, “let’s discuss why we’re here, and why you have that shooter trained on me”.
“I didn’t kill anyone, you hear!”
“Nobody’s saying you did, darlin’. But I gotta wonder why you hired a Private Detective all the way out here to hold him at gunpoint to tell him that”.
She paused, and the gun wavered in midair.
“You ... you can tell them, though! You can help me tell everyone I didn’t do it!”
“Lady, you have a gun pointed at me. I don’t find that particularly compelling reason to help you”.
“You... you have to! Nobody else can help me!”
“Why don’t you tell me who’s dead”. He took another drag of the cigarette. After the plume had gone the way of the one before, he spoke again. “Who didn’t you kill?”
“My father... my boss!”
“Why would you want ‘em dead?” More smoke drifted aloft. The small room they occupied had begun to smell acrid.
“Because I would have gotten everything. The company, the power, the money. Complete control”.
“Sounds like a perfect reason to kill him to me, lady”.
“But I haven’t! I haven’t got shit! The board took it all away from me?”
“Because they think I killed him”.
“So now you’re going to help me prove I didn’t”.
“Still with the gun pointed at me, though...”
“If you don’t help me, I’ll shoot you”.
“Ah, but then you will be a killer, lady, and you’re out to prove you’re not, right?”
“I have nothing else to lose, right!?” The gun swayed in the dying light of the room. Her finger twitched dangerously. The detective paused a moment on the inhale of his cigarette. The hand in his pocket flexed. Finally, he sighed and the smoke billowed clumsily from his mouth.
“Well. You have one more thing”.
“I ... I do?”
The police came shortly after I called them. They were suspicious for a while but I told them it was me or her. I didn’t tell them the details of the case but they figured out who she was pretty quickly. Her face was recognisable. No bullet holes to ruin it.
The badge worked in my favour. I know guys on the force, I’ve done some consulting for them. Nobody asks questions about how what happened to her came to be. And nobody asks questions about why there’s a smoking hole in the pocket of my coat.
Sunday, 13 May 2012
Waiting was tense. More tense than Valant would have liked. The Cobras had made no move to attack or to retreat from the Temptation, and forty of the forty-five minutes in her ultimatum had already passed. The Captain was tense. She tried to contain it, to show that she was not worried, but her brow constantly furrowed itself, despite her best efforts, and it looked as if her jaw might snap if she clenched it any further. Even Mr. Ghost, who had given control of the communications to a lesser crewman and returned to the bridge, attempted as little conversation with her as possible, to risk incurring her ire.
Like a pressured engine reaching its limit, the tension finally burst when a hiss came from the helm; the communications device sounding off again. Valant snapped forward for it so fast, Ghost was scare able to realise she'd moved until she had the equipment to her face. "What is it?", she demanded, with as much cool as she could muster. It only partially worked.
"A message, Captain, from the Cobra ship. A message for you".
Valant had no times for theatrics. "Speak, you fool! What message?"
"They say if we sail now, and leave them in our vapour trails, then they won't pursue us, and they won't blas... blast us into a thousand pieces... Captain". Valant's hands clenched around the machinery in her hands.
"And if I refuse?"
"...Then they'll leave nothing left of us to fall to ground" replied the deckhand, mustering as much courage as he could. His quivering voice betrayed him.
"No", said said simply, "tell them no. And to prepare to meet whatever awaits the overconfident on the other side!" She slammed the device back down onto its cradle with such force, Ghost was curious to see if it would ever work again. She wheeled on him, her face a dark vision of rage.
"Are the men prepared, Mr. Ghost?"
"They are, Captain, have been for forty ..." he looked to the timepiece on his breast pocket, "...three minutes".
She snarled. "What's two minutes between friends?" She turned back to the helmsman, briefly. "Take us to attack speed, sir. Now. Come about their aft". The soundless man at the wheel reached down and flicked the receiver of the two-way radio twice in rapid succession. After a short pause, the ship lurched as the Engine room complied with the code. She returned to face her First Mate. "Mr. Ghost, they have crossed and belittled the wrong woman today. Tell the men we give no quarter. Prepare the broadsides".
The tall man's face became very stern, instantly. "Aye, Captain!" he barked, "not one will live to tell of their loss today". He hastily left the Bridge and moved down onto the main deck, bellowing orders as the Temptation began to accelerate.
Across the yawning gap, the Cobra vessel began to move as well. Reacting to the sudden surge from the Temptation, she appeared to bring herself about further, but with a noticeable rise in altitude. She was slow, though; a symptom of her size. "Speed, Mr. Domm", she reminded her helmsman, " I want to be behind them before they're level with us".
Two more flicks to the Communication's mouthpiece followed her order, and a second later the wind whistled through Valant's hair a little more sharply. A stray strand here and there caught itself in the draft, dancing around her head, ethereal, whispery. Some might have said Angelic.
Yes. Angelic. I am the Angel of death for these poor bastards.
If the forty-five minutes waiting had been a lifetime, the 3 minutes it took to close the gap between the two ships was momentary. The Temptation looked down on them now, floating some meters below, but rising quickly. The helmsman brought them about, and slowly they moved past the side of the ship and began to approach her aft.
Seemingly seconds before, she was gazing at the small figures of men from afar, toy soldiers on the deck of a wooden model, now she was gazing into the whites of the eyes of real people; real men, hardened sailors, ready to fight. Ready to die.
Valant nearly forgot herself. She cleared her throat and raised her voice.
"As you will, Mr. Ghost!"
Watching her from his position on the main deck, the First Mate only nodded, incrementally, then turned back to the crew around him. His bellowing voice was at odds with the tense silence.
"Ready yourselves, you dogs! Scared of dying, is that it!? Death is nothing but the next thing to fight!" The men barked back at him, bringing their sabres and pistols down on the nearest surface. A mixture of thuds and clangs added their voice to the salute. Ghost continued.
"We show no quarter!" He didn't wait for their response before drawing his pistol, aiming across the bow of the Cobra vessel and, as he squeezed harshly on the trigger, roared.
His pistol shot cracked out across the sky between the ships and through the main deck of the enemy ship, rapidly fading from view as the Temptation came about her aft. There was a scream as the bullet caught some deckhand, and a thud as he hit the wooden decking.
Mr. Ghost never lacked for accuracy, the Captain thought.
His shot was followed a second later by the crew lighting the tapers of the cannons. A great multitude of hisses rose up through the air, like newly forged steel in the rain, before they ignited the powder in the barrels.
The noise from the broadside was a sound no man, or woman, could ever prepare for. The explosion of noise from the simultaneous release of so many shells, like a dozen cracks of thunder at once, ripped from the barrels as they forced their charges out across the breach. The entire ship reeled back several feet as the shout burst out and the Engines tried to compensate for the sudden movement. Squalls of smoke burst out from the barrels with the cannonballs, rising and around the ship.
Across the way, the broadside connected with the enemy ship along the final ten meters of her starboard side, and along her stern. Wood ruptured and splintered as the charge burst through metal and board alike, ripping great chunks of wood and cladding from its holdings and throwing them both back into the ship and out into the open air. One lucky shot caught one of the waiting cannons. There was a spark, then a ball of fire and scream as the gunpowder ignited, lifting the cannon off its axel and through the hull above it, hurling it out into the sky, where it finally gave up and plummeted.
Across the stern, it was much the same. Glass smashed and wood caved in under the pressure of the cannonballs, which in many cases propelled themselves through the entirety of the ship and out the other side. Atop the stern on the bridge, sailors stepped gingerly away, lest the decking beneath them give way to the shot structure below their feet.
But it was the noise Valant always remembered. After the first shot is fired, there's nothing but ringing, buzzing in the ears. You feel disconnected from everything else around you; you are isolated from the madness and the chaos that has erupted, but you can see it all, smell it all, like some observing spectre. Then the ringing begins to clear, and you hear the shouting of the fight, the creaking of the wood, the screams and the moans of the dying. The smell of acrid smoke filled Valant's nostrils and she came to her senses.
I have no time to sympathise with the dead. I can sympathise with them when I join them. That ship is mine
She surged forward and drew her pistol as the enemy ship began to retaliate. On the stern, sailors and Officers fired pot-shots from bows and pistols. The crack of gunfire and thrum of arrows loosing shouted near her ear, and whispered from afar. There was a grunt, and one of her crewman standing near the helm staggered back. An arrow had ripped through his breast, and a dark stain was blossoming across his tunic. He tried to speak, but he only spat a mouthful of blood. Gargling, he fell back against the hull and sank to the ground. Valant left him.
As she moved, she pointed her pistol across the breach, in the general direction of the Cobra sailors, and pulled the trigger. She didn't stop to see if she'd hit anything, just kept moving to the gunwale. She looked out at the Cobra ship, which had begun a turn to port in the aftermath of the first attack on her starboard bow. Gunfire and the whip of arrows still filled the air, but Valant's attention was drawn to something else. As the aft of the ship turned to face the Temptation, she saw exactly what she hadn't wanted to see.
A meter or so beneath a row of smashed glass, five slats were cut out of the wood, and from them poked snub-nosed barrels that Valant knew all too well.
Carronades were short, stubbed cannons used primarily for short-range combat. From a distance, they were almost useless, but close enough they were devastating.
Close enough, Valant thought, her mind racing. This is too close.
She turned to bellow an order to the helmsman. She heard herself screaming at the man to come about, but by then it was too late. With a sharp, short roar, the Carronades fired, the six guns spitting their ammunition the short distance to her ship. The Temptation rocked from the impact.
One of the cannons had been carrying chain and shot, Valant saw, grimacing. The ammunition, a crude design of two small cannonballs connected by a length of chain, had caught a bunch of rigging in its path before it finally wrapping itself around one of the ballast masts with a crunch. Wood splintered and caved. The tangled rigging strained and pulled, protesting, against the airsack they were attached to. With a moan of complaint, the stricken mast leaned against the pull of the rigging, drawing it taut. The rigging would not comply, however, and their competing forces drew the mast to a halt. For now. Above, the ballast balloon--one of several--swayed and grimaced, but remained.
Valant watched it for a moment, worried, before grabbing back onto the Gunwale, keeping low. She risked looking away from the ballast for a second to survey the rest of the damage.
At least one of the other cannons had been loaded with grapeshot, she saw. Grapeshot, designed to kill men, converted the cannon into a giant scattershot, launching smaller, densely packed charges at the crew. A lot of her crew were clutching small wounds in their legs and arms, whilst others writhed on the decking, their faces obscured by hands and masks of blood. The Captain presumed only one cannon had been loaded with the deadly grapeshot, as for every man writhing in pain, two more resumed the fight. Amongst them was her First Mate, unloading another shot at anything unlucky enough to be his target.
"Mr. Ghost!" She cried out above the noise of war. The pale man spotted her approaching and moved through the haze and fog of the battle to get closer.
"Captain!" He shouted, "what are your orders!?"
"There's no matching them for power, sir! Closer! Tell the men to prepare another broadside, and to prepare to board!"
The gaunt man looked briefly shocked, "board!? We'll have to come alongside them! If they manage to fire a broadside, we're done!"
Somewhere nearby, the dull thud of a hand-cannon could be heard. All around them men were shouting and moaning.
"Then we shall have to fire first! We are faster than them, in body and mind! Tell the men!"
The man nodded his nod, and started barking orders again. Across the deck, cannonballs rolled into barrels and were pushed further in by waiting crewmen. Satisfied, Valant returned to the bridge.
"Mr. Domm, take us to them, side to side. Ram them if you must, but get us close enough to board".
The helmsman clucked in his strange way, his hand moving to the side of the helm. He flicked once, twice on the receiver, paused a second, then flicked once more. The engines below decks gave a groan that could be heard from where they were stood. Valant wondered if they'd been damaged in the attack. If they had, it wasn't enough to stop the ship accelerating.
The helmsman gave a tug on the wheel, and the Temptation lurched sideways, drifting across the gap between the two ships. The Cobra vessel had turned to engage them properly, so the two ships were now side-to-side. Aboard the enemy vessel, men backed away from the gunwales in panic, anticipating the Pirate's next move. From the foredeck, Valant heard the bellow of "FIRE!" from her First Mate, and then the returned cry from the cannons as they fired, their thunder cracking across the space, above the noise and confusion of the battle.
The broadside blasted through the gun decks of the Trade Ship. Some charges caught cannons, sending them up in blusters of fire and smoke, whilst others just caused carnage, spraying splinters of wood across the deck. It had provided Valant with the single moment's advantage she needed. In the confusion, the enemy ship had lost its organisation, and failed to return fire. Now it was too late. Valant grabbed tighter to the railing and braced herself.
With a crash and several huge thuds, the two ships collided in mid-air. Aboard the Temptation, the crewmen held onto whatever they could find for support as the ships joined, scraping and bumping along one another. Aboard the Cobra ship, men were less anticipant. Some were thrown from their feet whilst others, unluckier still, were thrown from the sides to their deaths. The crew of the Temptation wasted no time; armed with cutlasses, maces, and bits of broken wood, her men breached the gap between the two, digging their fingers into the splintered hull of the Cobra vessel and hauling themselves up and onto her deck. Others threw grappling lines across, whilst two men manned harpoons at fore and aft. With a reeling thrum, the giant iron bolts launched. They broke through the wooden hull of the Trade Ship, embedding themselves deep and locking the two together.
With a final order of "Keep her steady, Mr. Domm!" Valant joined her crew. Placing one foot on the gunwale of the bridge, she forced herself up and over the railing and across the small gap, drawing her long, thin rapier as she did. She landed lightly on the aftcastle of the Trade Ship, amongst a still-shocked group of men. With no more warning, she launched herself at the nearest; a fine, sharp thrust the chest, and the men was dead before he knew what was happening. She gave him no thought, withdrawing her blade and whirling onto the next one. Across the way, others on the aftcastle of the Temptation followed her lead, leaping the gap to assist their Captain.
Battle was joined at last. Down on the foredeck of the Trade Ship, Valant's crew had taken them by surprise. Everywhere she looked, sabres were locked, and the clamour of sword fighting, the crack of pistol fire and the screams of death filled the air. She could smell them, like she could smell the smoke from her cannons. It smelled like battle. It smells like victory.
Above her, she spotted a man in the rigging aiming down at her, his pistol cocked and ready. In a moment of blind panic, Valant froze.
There was a shot. The man in the rigging gave a grunt, then a scream as he fell from his perch on the main brace. Several dozen feet below on the deck, he impacted with a sickening, satisfying, thud. He arched his back, his scream a silent widening of the jaw, then went slack. Valant breathed a long, composing breath. At her side, Mr. Ghost's outstretched arm held his smoking pistol victoriously. Valant looked up at him, a modicum of gratitude written on her features, then past him. She released the shortest of gasps, causing Ghost to follow her gaze to across the breach and back at the Temptation. He muttered a curse.
With the collision, the precariously balanced rigging on the Temptation gave out its struggle. With a mighty crack, the main rope supporting the mast snapped to the floor, catching one of the crewman full in the face. It lifted him from his feet, sending him sailing across the decking. The force of the blow, however, saw that he was dead before he hit the ground.
With no more opposing force, and with the rigging holding the main brace broken, the mast vaulted back on itself suddenly, pressing fatally into the already stricken gassbag. As Valant watched in horror, the ballast, forced by the ailing mast, pushed free of its rigging and then, under continual assault from the wooden beam, split down the centre. The ripping sound was heard above the noise of the fighting, and the two opposing groups halted their struggle to watch. A great gale of air burst from the broken balloon, gusting warm air into the combatant's faces. With no more support on one side, the Temptation sagged viciously to starboard, pushing the Trade Ship into leaning inwards as well, towards the damaged Pirate Ship.
This drift propelled the mast through the wreckage of the ballast with greater force and, with one finally groaning cry, it split itself from its base fully and hurled itself across the deck of the two airships. Railings and decking shattered as it came down across them, many men flung clear by the shaking of the impact. Some others, unluckier, were caught beneath the fallen beam.
My ship... Valant paused a moment, unsure. Ghost looked to her. She felt his gaze on her, and was vaguely aware he was calling to her. My ship ... but not my victory!
"Mr. Ghost!" She said. Her voice was of stronger steel than any of the blades around her. "They have damaged my ship. They have crossed Temptation. We take the Captain, we take the ship". She looked to him, her hand gripping tighter on the hilt of her blade. "We take it now".
He said nothing, nor did he give anything away, but when she moved to the stairs and away from the aftcastle, she heard his light footfalls and knew he was following her.
The shock of the collapsing mast had soon worn off, so as Valant and Ghost made their way down to the main foredeck, the fighting had resumed in earnest, and the sounds of battle once more rang across the sky. She fought her way down the stairs, the pale man with her at every step. They cut, thrust and riposte their way from the aftcastle and onto the main deck. Despite the distraction, or maybe because of it, her men fought with vigour and determination, and it was clear to see that the Trade ship crew were being pushed back. Valant raised her voice, cutting down another man as she did so. She cried.
"Who amongst you is Captain of this sorry whale!?"
The response was almost immediate. From the centre of the fracas, a man broke from a cluster of sailors that had so far resisted her crew's assault. He was dressed in clothes that befit a higher rank of Officer. He had done away with his Dress Coat as the battle had raged, but he still wore a pale brown, full length waistcoat, embroidered and trimmed in gold. The chain of a pocket watch looped from one pocket to the other, and at the bottom of his breaches dark black, formal boots gripped him to the upper calf. They were badly scuffed from battle and caked in dust and blood, like the rest of his uniform.
The battle did not stop for them. He did not stop, either. He closed the distance between them and swept his blade at her. The sword, already drawn and soaked in the blood of its victims, gleamed in the high sun. Valant stepped nimbly to one side and brought her rapier against his bigger, flatter blade. She drew her rapier down to his hilt and, with all her strength, locked him there. He looked up at her, and finally spoke.
"I have that honour, you vagrant". His voice, despite everything, was calm and collected. "If you wish to demand my surrender, you'll find it at the end of my blade".
"I do not want your surrender, sir. I want your ship and your cargo". He struggled against her blade, but she held him fast. "You have damaged my vessel, and for it I will have your life. At the end of my blade is vengeance, Captain. At the end of my blade is your death".
She drew away from him, darting back. He anticipated her and followed forward with his sword, swiping through the air inches from her face. He composed the swing well, and quickly gave chase.
Their swords rang out as they danced back and forth across the deck, criss-crossing between other combatants, ducking under rigging, swords, gunfire, emerging through clouds of dust and smoke. Still they fought. He had the advantage of power, both physically and in his larger weapon. His blows rained down hard, and Valant was forced to dodge and weave, rather than facing him directly. They both tired from the exchange; once his sword glanced too close for comfort, another time he nicked her cheek; a bead of blood caught on the end of his blade.
He smiled a beleaguered smile. She glared.
They were standing alone now, on the forecastle. On the main deck, the battle continued; the Pirates were greater in skill, and were pressing down on their enemies, but the Traders were determined and well armed. Defeat would have to be wrenched from their dead hands.
Suits me, just fine, Valant thought. She looked her opponent over. He was hunched forward, and was panting heavily, moreso than her; the blade in his hands becoming more and more like dead weight as their battle continued. She ached, every muscle in her moaned in exhaustion, yet her rapier still felt light and nimble in her grip.
He came at her again, swinging his blade down at her with uncharacteristic sluggishness. She moved aside with ease. Exhausted, but not to be outdone, the Trader Captain swung to the side, following her. She ducked underneath it, barely exerting herself, and thrust out her slender needle at his leg. He pulled away at the very last moment, but the blade still sliced through his breeches and caught him along the skin all the same. She withdrew the rapier just as quickly as it had jutted out.
The Captain roared in frustration. He raised his blade above his head, blocking out the afternoon sun. In his eyes, Valant could see an anger, a fury. It was a rage that her she knew well. She always spotted it in the eyes of the nobility, those better than her. She hated it. She hated him. His scream reached a crescendo and his fingers twitched around the handle of his blade as he made to swing the final blow.
With breathtaking speed, the rapier darted through the air. There was a popping sound, then nothing for a moment. That moment seemed an eternity to Valant, but then, finally, the chop of the Captain's blade embedding itself in the wooden deck behind him broke the tension. The bubble burst. Valant saw.
The rapier had pierced his throat below the Adam's Apple and emerged, glistening, from the other side. A full four inches of metal protruded out of the back of the man's neck, from a hole the size of a finger nail. The Tradesman's mouth was still open in his furious scream, but was now silent, save for a few miserable half coughs. The rage was gone from his eyes, replaced with a wide, wet shock. His pupils were tiny specks of black against a sky of white, and then they saw no more.
Valant slid the blade from the man, and let him fall backwards to the floor, where he landed in an ungainly heap. The Pirate rose and looked over him.
"At the end of my blade, Captain", she said to his corpse, "is my victory".
Thursday, 29 March 2012
The thin, reedy whistle of the boiling kettle pierced the atmosphere of the room with its shrill whine, drawing attention and ire from everybody in the room. With a bluster of air and dropped sheets, a large woman hurried through the small living room and into the adjoining kitchen. The whistling finally subsided when she drew the kettle from atop the stove and onto another, unlit hob. The room exhaled in unison. The two youngest children made an exaggerated show of unclogging their ears after the assault on their senses. Their father--the large woman's husband--merely smiled at the children knowingly, before crossing the room to join his wife in the kitchen.
The oldest of the three children, Jaim, simply looked away from the offending object and back to his reading. A tale of adventure, mystery, suspense and action; precisely the kind of tale the boy could often be found engrossing himself in. He had been poised at a moment of crucial dialogue, when the main character had opened his mouth and let forth a high pitched whistling. As a thirteen year old boy, Jaim cared least of all for the dialogue in his books, but he nevertheless found it distracting--not to mention rude--that someone would interrupt the protagonist when he was talking like that.
He scanned back down the page to find where he was up to. There.
Ser Gaudrion was steely-eyed and determined. He drew the blade of legend forth from the sheath at his hip and levelled the point of its blade at his old, immortal foe. His face was a dark mask of strength and determination. When he opened his mouth to speak, his words cut as deep as his sword ever would:
"Jaim, we're out of water again. Could you run to the Middle Sixth and get us some, son?"
It took a second for Jaim to place the voice as his Father's, and not that of Ser Gaudrion. He sighed, but did not openly complain. Neatly folding the corner of the page he was up to, he placed the book on the side table, atop an ever-increasing pile of other books, then stood and faced his Father.
"How much do we need this time? I can only carry so much".
The older man smiled again. Jaim had no option but to smile back; his father was always grinning. He barely every grumbled or frowned, and it was even more rare for him to be angry. Whenever Foster Lanse rose his voice, you knew there was real trouble somewhere.
"Oh not so much as last time, boy. Just the one large Gourd. Just enough for supper". His smile broadened into a laugh. "If you're lucky, we'll let you go again tomorrow to get some more. But only if you're lucky".
Jaim grimaced at him, then cried out when a large hand ruffled his hair. He shut his eyes tight at his Father tormented him, hearing him say "Go on then, off with you. Sooner you're back, the sooner we eat".
That was incentive enough for the boy. He headed into the kitchen, his mother smiling down on him and thanking him for being a "good lad" and fetching the water. He took the gourd--a large, peanut shaped container--from the table and hooked his arms through the straps. It sat on his back, peering over his shoulder. It wasn't very heavy, but once he filled it with water, it would be. He jostled it a few times, to get it as comfortable as it was going to get. When he was satisfied, he headed for the door.
Before leaving, he made sure the wooden sword he kept by the door to their small house was run through his belt and secured there firmly. He swung the wooden exit open and walked out into the afternoon. It was, like any other afternoon in the Third Quarters, grey. Above them, the dark smog cloud hung over the city like it always did, high enough that they didn't choke on the poisonous fumes, but so low that they were guaranteed to never see the sun. His parents had told them stories of how some people went their entire lives in Paceguard without ever seeing the raw beauty of the sun, not once. All they'd had to go on was the tales and stories they'd heard, as they slaved under the dull, charcoal sky from the cradle to the grave.
Jaim was certain he was not going to be one of those people; he would be an adventurer like all those men (and sometimes women) he had read about. He would be as great as Ser Gaudrion, and one day the sun would be an insignificant yellow speck compared to all the things he had seen and done. He would fight monsters and unlock secret mysteries. One day, Paceguard would be a tiny dot on the map to him; just another place he had visited. It would be home, always, but not where he lived.
With thought of monsters and adventures firmly in his mind, he set off along the precarious steel walkways of the Third Quarters, on his way to the Middle Sixth. All around, the sights and sounds of a typical busy day in the Third rose to meet him. He could smell sawdust, iron filings, molten metal and a host of other unidentifiable aromas. He saw people pushing wheelbarrows laden with wooden tools and components, and iron weapons all together. The men and women of the streets around him moved with a purpose, dedication and knowledge; they repeated this routine day in, day out; a clockwork monotony that kept them in business; that kept them fed.
Jaim followed the steel walkway along, staying firmly in the centre when the railings to either side of him vanished. Before long, the rickety houses and stacked buildings of the Fourth Quarter began to give up and vanish from sight as well, as the boy continued his journey across the city. To his left, the afternoon mist--or maybe it was smog, who knew--began to part, and the white stone finger of the Viscount's Tower reared up out of the murkiness, pointing its slim, pale digit at the heavens. Up, through the smog cloud and beyond. Jaime wondered what rested at the top of the edifice; he knew the Viscount lived there, and his daughter. He wondered what adventurers they were a part of, what mysteries they conspired to create or to solve. He longed for the opportunity to find out. His fingers itched along the wooden sword on his hip. He sighed and continued walking. Not today, Jaime. One day, but not today.
Smoke and smog billowed up to his right, from the factories that littered this quarter of the city. He coughed as stray fumes drifted around him. The smog was particularly thick in this sector of the city. The factory workers were required to wear masks at all times to mitigate the damage the smog did to them. It wreathed the buildings and obscured them from sight; a poisonous, overzealous blanket. The chimneys protruded from the low lying fog, the only proof that the factories existed beyond stray glimpses between the otherwise all-consuming smog. They themselves belched more of the viscous smog into the atmosphere, where great clouds of it fell to continue obscuring the work plants. The rest drifted ever higher, to eventually join the rest of the grey matter in the giant smog cloud above the city.
Luckily, Jaime didn't have to endure the smothering, choking depression of the Factory District for too long. He was taking a direct route to the Middle Sixth, which cut across the Fourth and Fifth districts only briefly, hugging along the side of the Viscount's Tower and minimizing travelling distance. Before long the smog was clearing around him and Jaim could see the seemingly endless rows of buildings that housed the factory workers. Now that Jaime considered it, they were just as depressing as the factories smothered by the swirling smog behind him. He didn't stop to consider the thousands of people down there, he wouldn't let himself. Instead, he just quickened his pace and moved on as fast as his legs would carry him.
Soon enough, the steel walkway beneath him showed its terminus. About a hundred meters ahead of him, the walkway merged into the cobbled pavement of the Middle Sixth. At last, the young boy thought. The ground, which had for a long time been so far beneath him as he traversed the Fourth and Fifth districts, was gradually rising to meet him. Here and there, small, nice looking houses dotted the landscape. As Jaim made his way from the steel walkway and onto the cobbles, the houses multiplied until, eventually, the boy was walking down a row of houses joined to each other. People were milling about outside or walking along the street. None of them towards the Fifth district he noticed. Some stopped to look at him, curiosity in their eyes. Most of them ignored him. He preferred it that way.
He reached a fork in the road. To his left was his destination, and more houses on one side of the road. On the other, stores with awnings and large, decorative signs loudly declared who they were and what they were selling. Inbetween these houses, darkened alleys skulked, hiding themselves in shadow as if, if they were seen, they would be removed. To his right was a system of shortcuts he knew to get to the public Well. He gazed off down to the right, and heard the trouble before he saw it. Loud shouting, the sound of smashing glasses and crockery, screaming. Towards the end of the street, he spotted it; a tavern, most of the patrons outside, shouting. The windows had been smashed and inside, people were hurling knives and flammable material at the bystanders. He wondered where they had come from; there was never a raucous moment in the Middle Sixth.
Jaime decided that perhaps it was best he went the other way. He turned and took a left. As he did so, he saw a group of the Viscount Household Guard rush past. Twenty six of them, clad entirely in their silver chainmail and armour, the blue half cloaks of their Lord flapping from their left shoulders. Their swords and Polearms glinted dangerously in the afternoon light. He sighed again, wishing he could be amongst them as they quelled the stupid drunkards in the tavern. Jaime took one last look at the unit of Guards before carrying on down the street.
He had not gotten far when something caught in his periphery and drew his attention. He turned just in time to see a figure vanish down the alleyway between two shops. Normally, Jaim would have done what his Father told him to do, but the Tower, the Guards, the fighting ... everything conspired against him, overriding his senses and drawing him into following the figure, who he had only been given the briefest of glances of, down the alleyway.
Jaim's hand was gripped tight to the coarse hilt of his wooden sword, his defence and his protection. He kept a reasonable distance from the figure, who he could now see was dressed entirely in black, a dark hood pulled up to hide his features. Jaim followed him down the alley, around several corners and away from the main street. His heart raced. He was wearing his courage on his sleeve. The excitement and the adrenalin spurred him on, pushing him to continue following the hooded figure, despite every other inch of his mind telling him to turn back and ignore what he saw.
Eventually, after tailing the hooded man--he assumed it was a man--for about five or ten minutes, the figure turned into a small, derelict looking building. Surprisingly, he left the door ajar. Jaim followed as close as he dared. As he got closer to the door, he heard the muffled, unintelligible yet unmistakable sound of voices talking. He drew closer, and closer, barely touching the ground with every step; a shadow in rough spun clothing. The voices detangled themselves from the air around them and finally became intelligible as he drew up alongside the door.
"Everything's going to plan" came one voice. It sounded high class, clipped, educated. He must be from the Seventh, Jaim wondered to himself. The voice continued. "The men are keeping the Household Guard busy in the tavern. By the time they realise no help is coming to aid them it will be too late for them to surrender. If we're lucky they might take some of the Household Guard with them before they're cut to ribbons" He laughed. "That crooked Senator played his part in session today as well".
"We won't be leaving him as a loose end, will we?" Another voice. This one didn't sound as smart as its companion's. It had a drawl to it that Jaim didn't recognise as regional to any of the districts of Paceguard. An outsider? That didn't make any sense of him. None of this did, come to think of it.
"No. He'll be dealt with in due time. I have my men on the way to the Tower now that the Guard is preoccupied. They should have it secured and the Viscount captured in the next hour".
The Viscount! In danger! Jaim had never been so close to real adventure in his life. It didn't feel like he thought it should; a deep, uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach. He didn't feel all that brave suddenly. He wanted to go home.
"Will the Viscount give us what we want?" the lower voice said.
"I doubt it. Not at first. But he will in the end, or I'll gut his daughter like a fish, then him".
Jaim gasped and the voices went silent. There was a sudden scuffling, and the door swung open. He stared up, wide-eyed and terrified, as the man he had been following leered down at him, his face a mixture of shock and anger. Before the boy could even more, the hooded figure--now hoodless, reached and clenched a fist around the scruff of his tunic. With a strength Jaim wasn't expecting from the man, he heaved him up to eye level.
"Who is it, Teech?" The distant voice seemed right at Jaim's ear now.
"Some child, sir. I reckon he's been here a while. I thought I felt somebody following me".
"If you think he's heard our plans, then be a good man and dispose of him, would you? We're in something of a hurry".
Teech smiled at Jaim, and uttered a mock apology. "Sorry kid, but business is business".
The flash of silver in Teech's hand was the last thing Jaime saw before the arm swung. The wooden sword clattered to the ground.
The wind sighed through the trees of the Flowmarches. Through the trees, through the leaves and barks, the stumps and flowers, and through the wisps of Truval's hair. He let the breeze play over him, and with the stray strands of brown hair that had escaped his ponytail. He continued resting lazily against the stump of the tree he had grown accustomed to.
It is a good stump, a fine stump. He thought. It is the kind of stump made to be lain against.
On the ground to his right, Truval had placed his quiver, the arrows within it lazing against the ground just as much as he was, huddled together; the fletching of each quivered as the wind continued to tickle around them playfully.
To this right lay Truval's Longbow, his pride and joy. It was 6 foot tall to the inch, almost exactly the same height as Truval himself. It was made from a single piece of Yew, gently curving outwards as a bow does, less of a "D" shape, as everybody seemed to describe it as, but more of a gentle arch. Truval often quipped that anybody who thought it looked like a D either had very cramped, squashed handwriting, or simply couldn't write.
The bowstring was drawn taught between the two ends of the arch. Small droplets of dew and water had gathered along it in the hours Truval had been relaxing; they winked at him when he turned his eyes to the bow, he winked back, chuckling.
Truval sighed a contented sigh; this was a life he could get used to.
Through the small breach in the canopy of leaves and branches above him, Truval could see the blue-orange sky, streaked with wisps of white and grey. It had rained earlier; nothing torrential, and the woods had been a faithful defence against the rain. He had even appreciated, after the shower had passed, the sounds of droplets pattering their way through the trees and to the ground; they had created a different ambience to the surroundings. Not quite the same as total silence, but peaceful in its own way.
Truval thought back to his day. It was slowly ending now, as the blue of the daytime sky began to fade into orange. Soon, the orange would cede to purplish sunset, and then finally dark night would descend. As much as he had enjoyed relaxing here, Truval did not find the prospect of spending a night in this forest particularly inviting. And yet there were others in this forest that would be spending their night here, Truval had seen to that. He was far away from them now, but he had left them a parting gift.
He had been running for days, and days. Weeks, even. Running from hunters, running from townsfolk and bounties. Running from life. When he had found this glade in the middle of the vast forest he had fled into, he felt that there was no further point from life or civilisation. Not one that he was likely to find anyway. So he had stopped, and he had fed and rested and, as it had happened, he had stayed here many hours. But all good things must he end, he supposed, and so he must move on. Already the light of the day was starting to fade. The shadows of the trees, so inviting earlier, began to lengthen and slowly blend with the forest floor, becoming more unwelcoming.
Truval got to his feet and brushed his tunic down. He kicked the stump he had been laying against firmly, knocking mud and twigs and water that had gathered from them. He grabbed his hat from the top of the stump, shook that off, and replaced it on his head. As he was reclaiming his quiver and bow, his attention was drawn by a cracking sound from deeper into the forest.
He looked up, suspicious, and quickly grabbed an arrow from his quiver and notched it lightly against his longbow. He prepared for the eventuality that some civilian--or worse, a bounty hunter, had found him and meant to claim him for the sizeable reward placed on his head. The size of the reward was a matter of some pride for Truval, but that satisfaction was tempered by a determination to never see it paid out.
"I am warning you", he began, "braver men than you have probably tried to stop me. Ask my companions some miles away in the forest. They shall be spending a long night here. Many long nights, perhaps, unless somebody finds them soon, I should think". He made himself laugh, a nervous sound, all air and bravado.
There was no response from the forest. An increasing darkness greeted him, and silence. Truval stepped away from his tree trunk and into the centre of the copse.
From the dark, silent blackness ahead of him, around him, above him, there was a slow, rattling sound. Truval was hesitant to call it a breath; it was more an exhalation, just air leaving something. It did not sound like life. It came again, this rasping dead sound. The sound of two pieces of emery paper rubbing together. Truval began to wonder if he was dealing with hunters at all anymore.
From the darkness ahead in front of him, two red slices appeared, stark against the inky forest. Thin, red, unblinking eyes.
Truval drew his bowstring back, the fletching of the arrow pressed against his breast. His voice was shaky, "I warned you". He loosed the arrow at the redness, straight for the head.
In the silence of the forest, the twang of the bowstring and the thwip of the arrow were a cacophony; birds took flight and small creatures on the forest floor hurried away. The dull thud of the arrow hitting its target unnerved Truval even more; once the arrow had landed, silence reigned again; there was no grunt, no scream, no hiss of blood. Just that redness remained; the eyes remained.
Truval took a worried step back. He stilled himself and reached back, his arm shaking, for another arrow. As he drew it out, the ground crunched. He hadn't moved. He listened. Another crunch, then another. The unmistakable sound of footsteps. Whatever it was, it was moving. Truval felt his mouth go dry. He notched another arrow, aimed, loosed.
Twang, thwip, thud.
The slightest outline of the red-eyed ... thing began to emerge as it drew slowly, slowly closer. Truval couldn't make out any details, at all, but he could see it was human in basic shape, and in the fading daylight he could also see that neither of his arrows had missed. They protruded from its head, glinting in the ebbing sun. Yet still, crunch. Crunch. Truval gritted his teeth, frowned; he was as angry now as he was afraid. He reached back, drew a third arrow, notched, aimed, loosed.
Twang, thwip, thud.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunchcrunchcrunch.
Truval nearly tripped moving backwards. He looked back, down at his feet, and when he looked back his blood ran cold.
The thing, the red eyed thing, had emerged from the clearing. The waning light of day illuminated it, highlighting in all its monstrosity. Truval assumed that once it may have been human, but not anymore, and not for some time. The two red slices of eyes stared, unrelentingly, at him. They were sunken into a colourless face, in hollow, cavernous sockets. The cheekbones were high on the face, and almost entirely visible through the translucent, grey, dead skin. The right cheekbone was higher than the other, but not through breakage. Where it should have ended, just below the eye, the cheekbone continued to spread out, up and around the eye, protruding some half inch from the face. It moved around the eye, up and across to the other side of the forehead, before trailing off to a ridge over the left side of his head.
Its nose--his nose, Truval supposed, was a broken, indiscernible mess inbetween the mutated cheeks. Two punctures marked its nostrils, amidst a mash of cartilage and grey. The mouth, a gaping, yawning cry of agony, drooped to the left, showing a row of rotten, sharpened teeth and no tongue. Truval hated that part, the mouth. It was from its mouth that the dry, dead rasping expulsion of air was emitted in long, drawn out heaves. Every shuffling step it took was accompanied by one of these protracted, scraping winds.
It ambled forward, dressed in a ripped and broken grey robe. It reached all the way down to his feet, but was so ripped and torn and tattered that it offered little to no protection in the way it should. Inbetween the rips and breaks in the fabric, Truval could see that he wore nothing, and his emaciated husk of a body had punctured so many times, ribs and collar bones poking through the paper-thin, sagging skin. Below the robe, his feet protruded, with every shuddering movement, gnarled and misshapen. They pushed dirt forward in an ever increasing pile as he scraped towards him.
But of it all, he hated the eyes most. The face was a broken, mutated mess, but its eyes were sharp, and slim. Red and staring, Truval saw them, and felt judged by them. His revulsion and his anger reared up and overwrote his fear. He dropped his bow and slid his dirk from its sheath high on his hip.
"Come on, you freak! You're just brain dead! How could I have hoped to kill you that way?"
He launched forward, shouting, bringing his sword down hard and fast against whatever part of the monstrosity he could find first. He felt the blade connect, and his arm vibrate painfully as the weapon glanced off bone. He jumped back, and threw himself forwards again, this time with a clear target in mind.
He swung the Dirk in a horizontal arc, at the creature's face. It connected just as he had wanted it to, where he wanted it to, along the outcropping of mutated cheekbone. He heard the slice of the blade joining with the bone, and the thud as it stuck there.
Truval gazed in horror at the thing, his sword now embedded an inch into its head. He tugged, but the sword wouldn’t come loose. He tugged again, more desperately, but still nothing. The red eyes gazed at him, judged him. Hated him. He gave another pull at the blade, pathetically this time. He whimpered as the eyes bored into him.
Faster than Truval could have ever imagined, the thing's arm shot forward and caught him by the throat, gripping tight, restricting.
Above the sudden lack of oxygen, Truval's first impression of the grip was how hot it was. The bony fingers clawed into his flesh and they burned. But they didn't just burn at his throat; the heat spread up and down his body, into his arms and legs, up his neck and then, finally, into his brain.
When it reached his head, Truval's eyes bulged wide. He opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came from his mouth. His tongue burned. He needed oxygen, he desperately needed to breathe, but it was nothing to how his insides burned white hot. He felt like he would go on forever like this, this searing pain inside him.
And then something gave. And Truval saw; the thousands things he wasn't, and would never be. The sheer scope of it all, and his place in it. How he had risen and fallen, less than the first breathing of a baby, and less than the final breath of the dying man. The thing gripped suddenly tighter. There was a snap, Truval's eyes went entirely white, and he went limp.
The creature dropped him unceremoniously. In death the huntsman’s face maintained that gaping, agonised expression. But the thing continued watching the archer with its crimson eyes, even as the last light of day vanished above them, and night covered them both in its blanket.
Its red eyes watched him.
Monday, 19 March 2012
Captain Valant stood at the aft of her Airship, the Sweet Temptation, with one hand on the helm and the other around the telescoped monocular placed against her eye. In the distance, she could see the unmistakable gas bags and vapour trail of another airship. Through the telescope, she could see clearly it was a merchant vessel; its hull swollen to accommodate the goods she could carry, making her look like some giant, wooden, airborne whale.
She'll do, Valant concluded, smiling.
She contracted the eyeglass and placed it back on her hip, alongside her blade. Turning to her First Mate, she nodded. "Mr. Ghost, prepare for offensive action. I shall have that ship".
Mr. Ghost, as pale as his namesake but no less intimidating for it, returned the nod. "Aye, ma'am. They're putting distance between us from the looks of it, no doubt they've spotted us". At six and a half feet tall, Mr. Ghost, or the Ghost as he was often called, was an imposing figure all in dark grey. He was thin, but lithe. His silence and emaciation belied his nimble strength. It was said that the man was everywhere at once, and heard everything. Whether or not it was true, Valant didn't care; it kept her crew in line.
"A wise choice, really" she smiled. "I wouldn't want to be caught by Temptation either".
"Nor I, ma'am, but there'll be no outrunning us. They may prolong the inevitable, but there's no Airship in the sky that can match us for speed".
"You have the truth of it, Mr. Ghost. See to the preparations".
The Ghost nodded once more, before making for the foredeck, barking orders to awaiting crewmen as he went. Valant watched him go, before turning to her other side. "Helmsman, take us after her. I'll be in my cabin. Call me when we're on top of them".
The helmsman made no motion to acknowledge her order, beyond taking the wheel firmly in his hands. He is much more silent since I had his tongue out, to be sure, but a nod wouldn't go amiss. Thinking no more of it, the Captain made her way down the stairs of the aftcastle and then into the interior of the Airship. Arriving at her private cabin, she closed the door behind her and locked it.
The cabin itself was fairly spacious, and not lacking for luxury. The centrepiece of the room was her desk; a huge, varnished Oak table, with gilded corners and strong, narrowing legs that ended in strong claws. The animal they had belonged to was unknown to her, but its feet were fierce. The desk was fierce. Atop it was littered all manner of trinkets and paraphernalia that the Sweet Temptation had plundered over the course of its illustrious career.
Moving around the table, she stopped before her window, and gazed out. Windows were a rare thing aboard War-faring Airships, but Valant had insisted. In an uncommon moment of capitulation, the Captain had agreed to have the window inset somewhat, and to reduce its size, thus minimising the danger of it shattering or providing too much of a target to enemies. What was originally intended to be a window spanning the entire length and breadth of the back wall, was now markedly smaller. It still ran the entire length of her wall, but was now a strip of glass, a meter from top to bottom, broken only in the centre, where the bare wall was covered with a map of the major airways and secret hideouts that only she and a select few knew of. From outside the ship, it gave the impression that the aft of the Temptation was glaring.
Let them think that, Valant had thought, There's nothing on the Temptation for them but death. They would do well to stay away.
The view out of the window was nothing but sky as far as she could see; roiling white clouds not far below her, everywhere else blue, fading slowly to orange, as the daylight began to accede to night's advances. It was a beautiful view, but one she had seen many, many times before.
She moved away from the window and gazed at her map. It was mainly decorative; she had another map for annotations on her desk, but she enjoyed looking at this one. The main Air-trade routes were marked with thick dotted lines. At either end, the names of their terminus' were written in an elegant, delicate handwriting.
The route they were winding their way down now was called the 'Wispway', a smaller sub-route branching off the main 'Cloudline', as it was known. This sub-route was less patrolled by the vessels of the Unified Navy, so Valant had decided that any ship brave, or foolish, enough to travel it deserved whatever befell them. It was, admittedly, a shorter route to the mountain city of Aclivite than the main, heavily defended, 'Nimbusline', so a number of larger trade ships, thinking themselves invincible, made the journey in order to maximise on time and money.
They were her favourite; the ones who thought they could fight her.
The Temptation wasn't the largest Airship in the skies, but she was larger than some of the official Navy warships, and more than a match for any Tradecraft flying. What she lacked in power, she made up for in speed; It had been known for the Temptation to disable its prey and be boarding before the poor, unsuspecting target could get to their ready-stations.
Oh and we can fight, too, Valant thought. We can fight with the best of them. Her crew did not lack for bloodlust, and dozens of battles above the skies of a dozen cities had made them hardened, skilled and truly ruthless warriors. If their speed did not win the day, her crew would.
She reached out and touched the map. The rough parchment was coarse against her skin, but she welcomed it. Slowly, she traced the route of the Cloudline from its starting city, up north at Paceguard, down and down past where the Wispway branched off, travelling further south still, until her finger rested against the end of the line. Marked next to her finger, in the elegant scrawl of the Cartographer, Chronos Bastion. Next to it, in a much scruffier, capitalised scrawl, someone had written one word.
Her finger lingered on that point of the map a few seconds. Her eyes slid closed. In her mind, huge stone walls reared up, their distant battlements peaked with flagpoles, their heralds snapping sharply in the ever changing wind. Turrets and minarets peered over the wall at those beyond the defences. At the top of the highest tower, a window lay open. Through the window, she could see the face she always saw, peering out at her. The face of--
Three sharp knocks at the door brought her back to reality with a gasp. Her finger slipped from its place on the map, and she remembered herself. With a cough, she turned, and made for the door.
It was The Ghost waiting, when she opened the heavy wooden breach. He tilted his head slightly when he saw the slightly distant look in her eyes, but thought better than to ask. "Captain, we're almost upon them. They appear to be coming about".
Valant coughed again. "They're bigger fools than we could have hoped for, then. Mr. Ghost, tell the men to prepare their battle stations, I shall follow".
The First mate nodded curtly, and disappeared down the corridor. The Captain took a moment to compose herself, unnecessarily smoothing down her tunic, and then followed.
On deck, it was frantic, but composed. Men were running back and forth across the deck, fulfilling orders that just kept being barked from The Ghost. Cannonballs were being drawn in crates from below decks to supply the artillery on the main deck. Below the boards, the Temptation housed a hefty broadside of heavier cannonry, but the accuracy and speed of the smaller, above-deck shots were invaluable.
Valant moved through and around the scrambling crew and to the foredeck, to get a better view. Leaning on the bow and looking out across the sky, she could the Tradeship in the near distance, no more than a kilometre away. It was indeed coming about to present her broadside to them, and it looked more heavily armed than she had anticipated. Two sub-decks of cannons poked from her hull's flank. Black noses, suspicious and twitchy. She was certain that if they were to exchange broadsides in straight combat, the Temptation would not fare well.
What can you be carrying that's so important as to be defended so heavily? She wondered. The cost of the ship and all those armaments would offset the price of transporting almost anything. It had to be something special. Something exceedingly valuable.
Valant was determined she would have it. Whatever it was, somebody had gone to a lot of trouble for it.
When she returned to the Helm, she was joined by her First Mate, who had finished shouting orders. "The crew awaits your command, Captain" he said.
"Very good, Mr. Ghost. They're boasting a two-deck broadside and I don't want so much as a splinter on my hull". She turned her head to address the helmsman, "Take us higher. Above their guns". Again, with no acknowledgement, the mute man put his foot to a pedal just below the large, brass steering device. Down at the very stern of the Temptation, the altitude rudders raised their heads curiously. The airship began to steadily ascend.
She turned back to her First Mate. "Tell the engine room, take us to attack speed ".
Ghost looked as confused as she had at the prospect of the ship being so heavily armed. "My Captain, are you ... certain about this? A two-deck broadside is a powerful showing. Who knows what else they--"
"I am always certain, sir. Now tell the engine room. I need speed". There was no more arguing. With another curt nod, the pale man headed for the Communications deck. Valant turned to the helmsman.
"Prepare for evasive manoeuvres, Mr. Domm. And be ready to flank them. Like I said, not a splinter".
This time the helmsman did nod, his grip on the wheel tightening.
Valant looked to the fore. Ahead of them, the Tradeship loomed, dropping below the prow of the ship as the Temptation rose higher. She could just make out the figures of men on-deck, braced and ready for combat. Briefly, the Captain considered the possibility that she was making a mistake, but she soon banished the thought.
There was a hiss from next to the helm; the small two-way mouthpiece was sounding off. Valant grabbed it, taking the mouthpiece in one hand, and putting the receiver to her ear. "Mr. Ghost?"
"Aye, Captain. Engine room complying with orders. Awaiting further command".
"Very good. Stay where you are, I'll need a direct line to the Engines".
"As you will".
Ahead of them, only the gasbags of the larger ship could be seen as the Temptation reached a height that Valant was comfortable with. Along their sides was emblazoned their insignia, swelling in the centre with the curve of the balloon. Something struck Valant about this particular insignia; a large red oval formed the background. On top of that was a treasure chest, mostly closed, but straining somewhat under the amount of gold and shining material trying to burst forth from it. In front of the chest, three large serpents reared up, facing anyone who looked at the insignia. Their hoods were wide and their eyes were angry.
Valant didn't like it. Worse still, she recognised it.
There were no Trading Companies that used such brazenly defensive imagery in their logos, nor did any she know have them screened across the ships themselves. It had been a long time since she had seen anything like this on an Airship, save her own simplistic insignia, and yet she couldn't quite remember it. Those snakes, defending that chest, and their hoods.
She realised what it was just as there was another hiss from her ear. "Captain. We're being hailed".
She took a moment to respond, still struck by her realisation. "Y-yes, Mr. Ghost. Hailed by whom?"
Ghost did not sound happy in his reply. "By the trade ship, ma'am". Something about the way he said 'Trade' made her feel uneasy. "They demand to speak to the Captain".
Valant balked at that. "Demand? Who do they think they are, to demand anything from me!?"
There was a short pause. "They demand to speak to the Captain. They demand it, by order of the Guild of the Three Cobras".
That was it. The Guild of the Three Cobras. Notorious across the world as the best, and perhaps more famously, most expensive, escort-cum-courier service that money could buy. If you could afford it. They carried enough guns and armaments aboard their Galleons to cause even some of the strongest self-proclaimed Skylords to keep their distance. Through loopholes and caveats in the legal system, they were not bound by how many guns and weapons they were allowed to carry--a gap in the 'Disproportionate Firepower' act that had yet to be plugged.
Whatever the Cobras carried aboard their ships was defended by enough men and gunpowder to start a war in the skies that could be seen from the Frozen wastes of the Eastern Fringes.
The wind seemed somehow stronger to Valant. She took a heavy step forward and placed her hand on the railing to steady herself, lest this wind blow her away. Glancing around, she saw that the rest of the crew didn't seem to notice the sudden gale.
"Ma'am?" Ghost's voice was still in her ear. "Ma'am. The Cobras demand a response... Captain!"
Captain. Yes, Captain, that's what I am. She remembered. Of course she remembered. How could she forget? She was the scourge of the skies. She got what she wanted; she always got what she wanted.
"Tell them they have 30 minutes, Mr. Ghost. There will be no negotiations but for this; tell them to lower their standards, present her aft to us, and surrender. If my demands are not fulfilled in that time, then we're coming aboard, and there will be no quarter".
Ghost's voice was stern. "Captain Valant, these are Cobras. We could be starting a war with the entire compa--"
"Thirty minutes, Mr. Ghost, tell them". There was a pause. She waited. After a few, long moments, her First Mate finally replied.
"As you will".
He stood up suddenly, far faster than he should have. The world span, his vision blurred. He swayed on the spot, reached out to grab something to support himself and, when nothing presented itself, fell to his knees. He took several long moments to draw breath, place himself, and remember.
Fighting. There had been fighting. Blood. Death. Explosions. He had sat in his seat and he had ... he had ... what had he done? He hadn't ... he hadn't ... agreed? No, he had said no to someone. To something. Someone.
He drew himself back to his feet. Slower, this time, with determined purpose. Once he had composed himself, he took a look around the scene. The Chamber of Governance was a picture of chaos. Senators were fleeing, their deep crimson robes flowing behind them and, in some unlucky cases, below them, as they tripped or fell. Some were people he knew, had seen before, some were unknown, their faces obscured behind masks, hoods, or blood.
In the centre of the room, the battle he had committed to raged. His faithful guard, emblazoned in their Golden armour, struck out at the opposing foe, Blood splashed across their gleaming silver breastplates and stained their sky-blue capes a deeper, navy shade of night. For all their skill and courage, however, his men appeared to be losing at the moment of their cessation. They had fought valiantly, but everything had turned sour just before the roof had imploded.
He turned, suddenly terrified, to gaze wide-eyed at the gaping maw in the ceiling. He was briefly afraid it was still collapsing, and staggered backwards away from it. In his panic, he nearly tripped and fell down the great stone stairs behind him, but he managed to regain his composure as he realised that, much like the men around him, the Airship's attack had frozen in time as well.
Frozen in time. I thought it was a fairy tale.
He drew himself up again, to his full height. Proud, rigid. Fear and panic are not feelings that the Grand Prince of the Empire should show.
This Empire, his Empire had been born in the ashes of his Father, the Grand King of the Second. His father had succumbed to an illness not long after declaring war on the North. It was an official declaration, backed by both the Senate and the people. They had mobilised that very same moment, the Empire’s airfleet sailing forth with speed and strength to engage the Unified Navy in the skies over Chronos Bastion. It would be their first great victory. With it, they forced the capitulation of the Bastion without the loss of a single man within its walls.
The battle in the skies above had been so fierce, and lasted for so long, that many doubted anybody would win, but when the drumbeat of cannons had finally stopped, and the mist cleared, the great standard of the Empire snapped and fluttered angrily above them, with not a single Unified Airship left.
The Bastion had welcomed an end to the fighting, then. They had even welcomed him, the Crown Prince of the Empire, when he had arrived to be their Regent; Commander of their foothold in the north. From his seat in the 'impregnable' Chronos Bastion, the castle that nobody thought could be taken, he had launched his offensive along the skylines and shores of the entire Northern continent. Within a month, five of the eight shoreline cities had surrendered, and the Trade-routes all flew through the Bastion to refuel and resupply.
Traders didn't care who was in charge, they just cared about the profit. The Prince understood this, the Prince accepted this. The Prince welcomed this. Other despots would have shot them out of the sky, and there'd have been no trade in Chronos Bastion for a hundred generations. The Prince welcomed them with open arms, making sure the Castle produced as much as possible to trade and resupply traders who had flown all the way to the end of the line.
It was in this way that the Bastion had grown, and soon become the central point of the entire Empire, second only to the Grand Capital. But the Bastion was his, the victories were his. Chronos Bastion was the stage from where the war was fought. The Grand Capital was half a world away, stagnant and delicate, untouched and unknowing of the war and glory that existed to the North. The Grand Capital was no longer the Empire. The Empire, in reality, was his.
But what Empire? He thought. What now? I have lost everything. I lost my trade, I lost my Bastion, I lost my war, and then I lost time itself. And now here I am, trapped. Trapped by the last, dying act of a vengeful woman and an even more Vengeful Viscount.
No, he suddenly thought, gazing around him. No. Not trapped. Freed. I walk again, I feel. For me, time flows again. Something must have gone wrong. Gone right! She failed, because time flows through me again, and I through it. The rest of this world may be frozen, but not I!
He almost skipped down the steps. He strode with purpose through the scene before him, glancing left and right at the madness that had stopped around him. In a way, he thought he should be thankful. The stopping of time may well have saved these people's lives. His people's lives, anyway. Not his enemy's.
No. For his enemies, death would be welcome thing when the Empire of the Second was reborn around them.
Monday, 5 March 2012
So here it is. The first chapter (+ prologue) of the "novel" I wrote last November, during "NaNoWriMo". I've been editing and improving on the very rough, original draft, so the version you see here will be the version I have polished as much as I can (which could go either way, to be honest).
Another fun fact; I haven't actually finished the novel yet. I stopped just after 50k (the total required to 'win' NaNoWriMO), and haven't started back up. But you can bet I'm going to go ahead and get it finished, now that I'm slowly putting the chapters online.
I'd be delighted to hear your thoughts on it, good or bad, so long as it's constructive. "It's shit lol" won't fly.
(inb4 "It's shit lol").
Also, Creative Commons apply yada yada yada; this is my work, don't steal it, it's my Intellectual property. If you do, things will happen. Bad things).
I hope you enjoy!
The Frozen Moment
A NaNoWriMo Accident; by Peter Stewart
The Audience Chamber was still.
A large, circular, domed room, the chamber was filled with people. Some were pointing, some were shouting, others were running and fighting and dying. All of them were motionless and silent.
The room was a tableau of chaos. Those who were sitting down were trying to stand up. Those who were pointing were screaming. Those who were shouting were wide-eyed, afraid. And all of them were still, held in place. Dozens of men and women halted in-situ, stuck between steps, fear forever etched onto their faces.
In the centre of the auditorium, a battle was unmoving, paused at its peak. Men with swords and spears were thrusting, stabbing and blocking the weapons of those attacking them--their enemies. Some had not been so lucky, and their faces were the halted, haunting images of death; expressions of agony, shock and disappointment wrought on their features as they were indiscriminately slain.
From their opened, unmoving wounds, gushes of dark, crimson blood had erupted and been suspended in mid-air. Bone and sinew and flesh hung motionless in the air, trailing streamers of solid state caught in time.
Above this macabre portrait, a large portion of the domed roof had collapsed. Stone and glass and mortar had caved inwards and fallen arbitrarily. Several large chunks of masonry lay strewn across the chaotic scene below; some had fallen on patches of empty ground, whilst others had claimed those unfortunate enough to have been in their path, their broken twisted limbs held forever as a testament to the scene.
Much like the blood, other pieces of the collapsing ceiling had frozen during their descents. Large boulders were seized in the space, as were the multitude of smaller, cascading rocks and pebbles. A thick cloud of dust had erupted with the roof's implosion and hung above the scene like the descending swarm of some angry plague.
Beyond the roof, hanging in the sky, was the source of the destruction. The airship floated loftily in the near distance, the ripple of explosions still blossoming across its broadside, frozen like everything else, a still shot of destruction. Bunches of cannon shot loomed ominously between the vessel and the auditorium, as if waiting for the perfect moment to descend.
At the centre of this portrait of madness, in the high seat at the back of the Chamber, a solemn figure sat. He wore sharp, elegant clothing befitting of a man of power; an elaborately decorated breastplate covered his upper body, a deep burgundy half-cape draped over the right shoulder, clasped to the breastplate by a brooch in the style of a sword, stabbing through the material.
Unlike the rest of the crazed, terrified people around him, his face was a passive, still mask. His eyes gazed at something just out of sight, oblivious to any one point of the chaos around him; it didn't seem to be reaching him. His pupils, however, were tiny black specks in a deep blue ocean; whatever this man was seeing, he feared it.
Like the rest of the madness around him, he was a statue; an image locked in stasis. His power, his dress, his feelings were all stilled, irrelevant and ceased. Whatever he had hoped to achieve was stuck; his aspirations were lost. This maddening scene of chaos around him was deafeningly silent, a void of sound trapped within this bubble of timelessness.
And then, with a desperate rushing of air, he moved.
The balustrade of the balcony was cold when Lucé placed her hands upon it and looked out over Paceguard. In the crisp morning air, the dense smog that covered the city so many hundreds of feet below looked almost like nothing more than an early mist, settled over the city whilst it slept.
Would that it were so, she thought, gripping the steel bar tighter.
The balustrade was always cold in the mornings, even in Summer. Her balcony faced away from the rising sun, so it was the middle of the day before the first trails of sunlight began to warm her side of the Viscount's Tower. The long dawn shadow of the tower stretched out before her, lying contented against the city below it. It would slowly wake, receding inch by inch before stretching itself out once again on the other side of the city.
Lucé shivered as a crisp winter breeze whisked around the heights and through her thin bedclothes, yet she remained outside, gazing at the slowly rousing city. Below the smog, the first echoes of awakening began, breaking the fragile morning silence. Her eyes darted to the source of every sound she heard, squinting desperately, as if by narrowing her vision she could penetrate the opaqueness. As ever, though, it was no use. All she had was sounds to go by as the city below--her city--rose to face another day.
"Madame?" came an inquiring voice from behind her, within her bedchamber. It was a warm voice, but it frustrated her nevertheless. "You mustn't be out here so early, it's always so cold this side of the tower, especially in Winter".
"It's quite alright, Suse, I'll be fine for another minute or more. I'm just enjoying the city". Go away, woman. "See to my breakfast, would you? I'll be along shortly. I'll have the usual".
Suse hesitated a moment, concern on her face, before she nodded, backed away from the window and headed out of the bedchamber. At the door, she paused a moment again, muttered something to somebody outside, then busied herself with Lucé's request.
Lucé took a deep breath in through her nose. The morning air was cold, as Suse had said; it burned its way through her nostrils and down into her lungs. She shivered again, but savoured the sensation of the chilled air within her. It was refreshing, like a splash of cold water in the face. She couldn't stay here forever, she knew that, but she would linger as long as she could.
"My lady, that's enough gazing for one morning". Another voice. This one cold, clipped; It brooked no argument. "Time to come back inside and prepare for the day".
Lucé turned, but kept one hand on the railing, the cold a sharp tether. "Just a while longer, Traech. You know I love these mornings. The city is so beautiful"
Traech frowned. He was a tall man, and thin. He was dressed entirely in black; formal, as suited his office. His face was cast seriously, stern, but it held the potential to be kinder. "You can barely see the city, my lady, and there is nothing to gaze on past the walls. This is idle folly. Dare I say, procrastination. Your father expects you to be prepared for a morning's officiating with him today and instead I find you wasting time?"
"What is time, Traech, if not to be wasted?"
He snorted. "A precious thing, Lady Lucé. One you understand so little of, it seems. Am I to report to your father that this is how you are frittering the responsibilities of state?"
She sighed. There was no arguing, she had lost. She let go of the balustrade and began back into her bedroom. "Fine", she huffed, deliberately exaggerating, "but it simply won't do for me to be interrupted like this. Father best be prepared for me at my worst today".
Traech smiled behind her back. "As ever, my lady".
Viscount Armén was not a man who enjoyed being kept waiting. The one thing he held precious beyond everything else was time, and that was something he was certain everybody else held dear as well. It baffled him, then, that some people chose to dawdle with their arrangements so much.
The Viscount had more patience for his daughter than most, admittedly, but at the same time he though she, of all people, should understand the value of the time she took for granted. Instead, he sat, waiting, in the high seat in the Chamber of the Senate--bereft of any Senators. The seat next to him, reserved for his daughter, was empty when it shouldn't be. The room was silent. Outside the hall, the regional Senators waited for their weekly opportunity to address the Viscount directly, explain their grievances and requests, and await his official decree on the matter.
The Viscount loved the notion of this democracy, but did so despise having to sit through their wearisome complaints and squabbles. Having his daughter accompany him--or perhaps, suffer with him--during his official business was the only thing that kept him going through it.
Finally, twenty minutes later than they had agreed, the side door to the to the chamber opened, and his daughter, Baroness Lucé stepped through, the look on her face when she saw her father a beaming picture of insolence. Nothing I say can harm her, Armén thought. Or rather, I can't bring myself to say anything that can harm her. His Chief Steward, Traech, stepped through the door after Lucé, flanking her. He wore his usual impassive mask of stern day-to-day business upon his face. On meeting the Viscounts gaze, he gave an insignificant shrug and bowed his head.
"Sweet child", Armén began, as stern as he dared, "I asked for you twenty minutes past. The Senators will not like being kept waiting".
His daughter, to her credit, at least tried to look contrite. "They will not like it even more when you say no to their requests, Father. Besides, you know how I enjoy looking out of the window of a morning. The city is so beautiful".
"The City so-- Lucé, the City is invisible from up here; a blanket of smog from wall to wall. What is so beautiful about looking down at nothing?"
She laughed. "You don't understand, Father. Nobody ever understands. You don't look with just your eyes. There are things beneath the smog, I can hear them, and when I hear them I see them. Not with my eyes, but I see them all the same. Little ideas in my head".
Armén smiled. He had lost again. "As you say, child. Come, take your seat. The day's business is to begin. The sooner we start, the sooner we can be done".
With a sigh, Lucé crossed the distance to her seat and, with another--deliberate--sigh, lowered herself into it. Besides her, the Viscount patted her head with a gloved hand, then looked up to his steward, who had moved to the Chamber's large, ornate central doors.
"Traech, show them in would you? Let's get this over with".
"As you say, my Lord".