Friday, July 5, 2013

Beyond the Leaning City: Part 4

Moving in to the second half of the story now...




An Encounter at Sea

Sursha woke Thront by tugging on one of his eyelid cilia.

"Kal thinks he's seen another boat," she said. Thront's sleepy eye widened. He followed her out onto the deck.

The waves were high and rolling; the air was cutting sharp and frigid; barrel sized chunks of ice bobbed up and down in the choppy sea; moonslight scattered against and through the barrier of gusting mist, setting the frozen flotsam aglow.

Kal crouched in the bow.

"What did you see?" Thront asked him.

"A long boat, a galley of some kind, I saw oars and I think it had sails too."

"Sure it wasn't just a trick of the light?"

"Trick of the light? With three mounted guns?" Kal snorted and turned his back on Thront. "Look for yourself: there- to the north; it'll turn up again in a moment."

Thront took the telescope.

Minutes passed. Thront's eye watered excessively in the cold wind. He blinked a tear; it plopped to the deck and froze. He looked.

"I don't see anything," he said.

"It's there." Kal pulled the canvas hood off the deck gun.

"I didn't see it either," Sursha said.

Kal sighed. Ignoring his companions, he examined the gun, a thrower of eldritch design. The barrel was blue gray, fat and deadly looking; ruins and glyphs, charms of accuracy and protection were etched up and down its length; Kal suppressed his desire to thoroughly inspect the script, instead, he looked around the undercarriage for some kind of propulsion canister.

"Wait. Wait," Thront said. "I see it. It's a galley all right." He paused, squinting into the telescope. "Its Wister! I can see his cranial tentacles. Disgusting."

"Let's get the bastards,” Sursha said.

Thront nodded and lowered the telescope; he stepped towards the stern.

"I'll feed the engine,"

"I'll get the wheel," Sursha said.

Kal was still examining the gun. "Where's the primer on this thing, anyway?"

"Its self-contained; each projectile has its own booster," Thront said.

"Primitive." Sursha pursed her lips, and leaned closer to the gun.

"Loud as hell, too." Thront turned away.

Sursha took the helm and Thront shoveled a pile of fuel nodes into the furnace. The paddles threw up mighty churn of water. The Siren splashed northward at speed, pushing aside large hunks of ice.

The choppy and violent sea provided plenty of cover; they remained unseen until a mere wave trough away from the other vessel.

The Siren came up onto the crest of a wave, and into line of sight.

Kal activated the firing mechanism of the deck gun. Three shells arched over the dark ocean; the first two splashed into the sea, exploding on impact; huge quantities of water spurted upwards. The third struck the galley amidships; for an instant, the vessel vanished in a terrific, flower-bright explosion.

Kal hooted with glee and fired again.

The first three shots had discharged with rhythmic surety, like the successive beats of a heart. The fourth shot went awry; the gun barrel split open and exploded.

Kal sensed the danger at the last second and leapt into the sea. A second terrific explosion followed; the Siren wallowed, out of control, flames consumed the gun station; black smoke billowed up into the dark sky.

Thront hunched down; hot metal debris pelted his carapace. Horrified, Sursha watched from the deckhouse.

Thront dropped his shovel and ran forward; he caught one last sight of the activity on the galley: Wister's crewbeings rushed around; fire raged all along the galley's deck. Thront saw a burning shape plummet into the sea and then the mist and the waves came between the two vessels and the galley was gone.

Thront managed to get the fire on The Siren out in short order. As it turned out, the damage was mostly cosmetic. The gun would never function again, but, aside from that, the steamboat was unscathed.

Kal was nowhere to be seen. The dark night or the dark sea had swallowed him. Thront and Sursha called out his name over the icy waves, but received no reply.


The Boneyard

Ironically, Kal arrived first.

He spent the night on a largish chunk of ice, shivering. For several hours, he drifted in the wake of the burning galley, but eventually lost sight of it. Alone, he drifted onward. The night deepened and the waves pushed him further and further north.

Dawn traveled through the mist and emerged alien. The gray sea was rough and sharp and round with sloshing, agitated water. A vibral twitched out of mist, calling out as its quivering flight took it over Kal's head; shivering and miserable, he turned and watched.

When the vibral had vanished behind the misted veil, he hunched back into himself. His clothes were frozen and wet; his skin had taken on a greenish tint. He shook, and shook, his teeth knocking together with painful intensity.

He held his trembling head up and looked over the sea.

A layer of visibility existed between the water and the fog, its dimensions uncertain, its true depth unknowable and ambiguous; somehow, its existence, and the existence of the mist itself, contrived to make the sea seem even more vast than it might have on a clear, bright day out of sight from land.

Gray. Shifting. Hanging. Splashing. Foaming, deadly cold and endless, dawn stretched out before him; Kal clenched his teeth, stilling them, and waited for the day to unfold.

As the morning brightened, and he bobbed up and down, up and down on his vessel of ice, Kal became resigned to his own death. He was upset that he had no pen or paper with which to write a poem commemorating his passage, but, he realized, one must take death as it comes.

Not long after- he was still, in fact, trying to cheer himself up about the lack of a death poem when it happened- he saw a ship.

All at once, the sea calmed and went flat, and just as Kal was becoming aware in the change of conditions, the vessel loomed up out of the fog.

A huge and wide bellied craft, a galleon of some sort, it didn't rock or jib on the waves, and for a moment Kal thought it was a phantasm of misted light and swirling rime, but a handful of heartbeats later he was clambering up its side.

He stood on the deck, unbelieving; below, his icy funeral slab banged against the hull.

Badly damaged, the ship displayed many signs of decay and exposure.

Ice crusted the planks, massive pillars of it straddled the decks, and great cicles hung in the half collapsed rigging. Strange, blue vines dangled from the masts; some wound round and grew into the surrounding frost.

Frantic and trembling, Kal hunted for fuel; he chipped away ice with his knife and pried long splinters from the planking underneath. Once he'd made a small pile, he drew forth his sparkmaker; the device was waterproof and wholly intact, but Kal shivered with such intensity that several moments passed before he could make it work.

Near the rail, out of the wind, he crouched low by the tiny fire. The blaze grew; its warmth spread outward, melting the ice that lay over the adjacent deck; Kal chiseled free additional fuel and tossed it on.

The vines nearby writhed away.

The movement surprised Kal. He watched the vines suspiciously for any further signs of activity as his cloths dried. He was still engaged in said observation, reviewing his options at the back of his mind, when the fog swirled away for an instant and he saw the neighboring ship, and several of the vessels beyond that.

The ships hulked close against each other, bonded by grasping formations of ice and tangles of vinery, most looked severely damaged.

The Ship's Boneyard.

Kal stood and took a step away from the fire. Hypnotized by the wonder of it, he gazed into the indistinct distance.


The First Sign

The greenskin soldier affected a swayback position of respect.

Ommman fluttered his hands. "Speak." He said.

The soldier was a half-clear, but even so its speech was inelegant and crude, and its lightwork was almost without meaning. "Intruders." was the entirety of what Ommman could glean from its statement.

Nevertheless, he was pleased. His time drew near. He paused for a moment to seethe and then turned to the soldier.

"Bring them to the temple chamber," he said. "Take as much assistance as you require."

The drone stood motionless, staring.

"What is it?" Ommman's question was all snapping cloth and flashing light, he barely needed to speak at all.

"You're giving him too much responsibility." Ghusst, Ommman's son stood at the other end of the cabin; he held an open copy of the holy book. "His kind is not made to think." He made a holy sign. "Such is not the will of the Icyarch; leadership is for the clearheads alone."

"You will go then," Ommman said. "Do not fail."

Ghusst made a motion of surprised and confused acquiescence and departed the chamber.

Ommman went to the observation window. His view was to the north; he saw farmers at work on the ocean floor, but he caught no hint of the Icyarch, or its children.

He contemplated what possession of the second sacrifice would mean. He would turn the key to the third notch, and beckon his brothers into the new age. It would be one of destiny's great moments: he would be the new arch-Vissel, and his name would be recorded on the wall of the tower forevermore.

It would be only the first of his great deeds.

Ommman's thoughts were interrupted by an unpleasant and dry sensation at the back of his head. Cursing softly, he looked about for a moistening brush.


Fight in the snow

A white-furred and round creature scuttled across the deck and went over the side. Its body was a perfect sphere, horizontally bisected by twelve legs. Several slender fibrils (eyestalks?) sprouted, seemingly at random locations on its body, from its fur. A fleshy, sack-like appendage hung from the creatures belly; the open end of the sack dragged across the deck as the creature fled. A glittering, dark hole opened and closed on its dorsal side.

"What was that?" Sursha hauled herself the rest of the way over the rail. "Did you see, it had a mouth on its back." she bent to examine the trail of frosted slime the thing had left behind. Thront stood beside her, but he did not reply.

Sursha wrinkled her nose at the slime and looked up at her companion.

"He's all right you know."

"I'm certain of it."

"Don't humor me," she said. "I'm sure he made it here; if we just keep looking we'll find him."

"We should light a lamp soon; it'll be dangerous climbing from ship to ship like this in the dark; you don't want to fall in; that water is cold-" Thront mumbled down into silence. Sursha felt sorry for him. Earlier, while they were making ready to depart the sloop, he had watched, his great eye drooping with sadness, as she had stuffed a pack full of warm clothes for Kal. She had told him then that Kal was alive, but cold. He hadn't believed her. He didn't believe her now. Thought she was making it up. What an idiot.

They walked across the deck towards an ice bridge that connected the next vessel. Sursha bent and scooped up a handful of snow as they ascended a flight of stairs and stepped onto the vessel's poop deck.

She packed the white powder down into a ball. She dropped it into her pocket and bent for another handful. She made five snowballs in all.

"You'd better listen to me one-eye. Kal is fine. Believe me."

"Sursha, I think you should try to stay calm. We have to learn to accept-"

The first snowball whistled through the air and impacted the center of Thront's pupil.

"Shut up!"

Thront gasped and swayed backwards. She pelted him twice more: hitting his chest and the upper portion of his ocular case.

"Do you believe me?"

He looked up at her. "Sursha be reasonable-"

She nailed him in the eye again.

"Say it! Say you believe me!" Sursha stomped her foot.

Thront roared; he rolled across the deck away from her, and grabbed a handful of snow. He ducked another snowball, Sursha's last, as he came to his feet- and packed his own.

He dodged around the deckhouse, grabbing up more snow and smashing it down.

"Thront!" Sursha screamed.

Great, he thought, she's gone feeble minded. Females.

He came around the corner, his massive arm cocked to throw. Sursha ran towards him; a score of creatures swarmed across the ship behind her; they were roughly humanoid covered with rubbery looking green hide, dead black eyes rested above noseless faces and gash mouths. One of the creatures wore a striking transparent headdress.

Thront's arm released before he even realized what had happened. The throw went high; the snowball sailed past Sursha, his intended target, and arced over the deck. It shot through the air, followed by the sharp noise of its passage.

The snowball hit Vissel Ghusst, son of Vissel Ommman in the part of his head that Thront had mistaken for a headdress.

Ghusst's brain came apart with a quivering splat. He tumbled to the deck; black fluid flowed from the greasy remains of his cranium.

Brain jelly was everywhere. It stained the masts, and streaked across nearby faces and hull planking.

There was a moment of silence.

"Greetings." Thront held up his hand.

The throng closed in.


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