Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Frozen Moment: Part 3


          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

The Frozen Moment: Part 2

                   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.

The roof!

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

The Frozen Moment: Part 1

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".