11 October 2011
Chapter 10: Shipwrecked
High Consul Pede Claudo stood at the railing outside of his cabin, leaning heavily on his intricately-carved thornwood cane, idly fingering the silver eagle that formed the knob. His leg was throbbing, making him irritable and impatient, which the very last thing the situation at hand called for. His Dreadnaught ran like a clock without much intervention from him; his crew knew their jobs, they were all seasoned, experienced men, trusted and steady. He'd taken them to the farthest realms and back, faced incredible odds and had always come back to dock with minimal casualties and full profit. This time, it looked as if this might be an exception. This realm...it was mysterious, difficult, and dangerous; the inhabitants were even more so, treacherous, vicious, unpredictable, and cunning.
The ship was tethered in a precarious position, hiding in the lee of one of the massive, city-sized islands that floated in the air by some devil-magic. There didn't seem to be anything like ground here, just an endless maze of floating islands that ranged in size from large boulders to hulks bigger than all of Carth, to continent-sized mammoths that defied belief, all hovering in the middle of space, scattered helter-skelter, some miles apart, others with outcroppings knocking against each other like boats at dock. The winds worked awful mischief too, currents blowing in wild directions, shifting and changing without warning, raging and whipping, slowing and vanishing and kicking up again moments later; even the mighty Dreadnaught was turned on end by sudden gusts of unbelievable force, the rigging was in constant disarray, sails were split and spars creaked and bent and snapped with a noise like a cannon, piercing everyone in the vicinity with splinters. One man had even been knocked clear off the yard and overboard to tumble into space that seemed to have no end. And the damned mages couldn't cast the realm-shift spell again for another thirty ship-days, so they were stuck here.
The natives were the worst nuisance of all. Perhaps nuisance wasn't the right word, however, Pede Claudo thought to himself. They were gallingly, devilishly crafty, masters of guerrilla warfare. They seemed to understand instinctively that they couldn't face the Corsairs on any kind of level playing field—should such a thing exist in this awful abode—so they would swoop down out of the sun in ever-shifting arrowhead formations, launching those red balls of fire from silver, pronged sticks the size of a gladius. They flew in perfect unison, never colliding, even during the most outrageous maneuvers, throwing the balls of fire back and forth like they were playing a game he'd seen back Earth-side, long ago, in another lifetime, played by the natives of a then-unknown continent...Claudo shook himself out the reverie. Memories of Earth would do no good. He slammed the butt of his cane on the deck, gruffed and cursed under his breath. The natives would be attacking soon, his gut told him. Best move positions.
“Garris!” Claudo's second in command swarmed up the ladder and waited for orders. “Un-tether us and set the screws at quarter strength. Bear straight ahead and bring us above this rock. I expect we'll have company soon, so have the troops at the ready.”
“Sir.” Garris slid down the ladder without touching a rung, calling orders as he went. A good lad, that, Claudo thought. Reminded him of a praefecti he'd known in the Seventh Legion. Of course, that praefecti had been captured, tortured, and exsanguinated by Pict raiders, but that was the hazard of being sent to Britannica. Claudo had to shake himself again. He was getting maudlin, it seemed. That wouldn't do, not at all.
Claudo's Dreadnaught, the Realmfall, shuddered and rumbled as the engines kicked into gear and set the four screws to spinning. The sun was setting—or descending, or whatever—lowering in the west, darkening the sky to shades of pink and red and orange. The natives seemed to have no problem in the dark, so the coming of night was no shelter or solace. The crew of the Realmfall was on edge, jumping at every sound, every gust of wind, and Claudo wasn't in much better shape. The Realmfall eased away from the rock to which she had been tethered and swung out into open space, nosing up and away from the archipelago she had been hidden in. Not for the first time, Claudo wished to Jupiter that the winds weren't so be-damned unpredictable so he could move in silence; the engine and screws were dead-giveaways to their position, but every time he upped sails, the wind wreaked havoc on the sheets and the rigging, tangling lines, snapping yards and spars, and making life a living hell for everyone. No, engine power was the best choice, but every time Claudo had the Realmfall shift position, they found themselves under attack by harrying raids of the natives.
Sure enough, they hadn't so much as cleared the archipelago when he heard the distinctive battle-song of the winged warriors that made their homes in these floating mountains. Claudo peered over the edge and watched the arc of islands receding from view, but saw no shapes flying towards them; there was nothing above them but empty sky; then he saw them emerging from a cloudbank between three islands, each of which was big enough to hold all of the city of Carth twice over. Claudo put his telescope to his eye and brought it to bear on the approaching raiders. There were at least fifty of them, flying in a tight three-dimensional diamond formation, wide wings beating in perfect unison, each mouth singing in eery synchronicity the battle-song that always foreboded dead deckhands and Corsairs, more funerals, more families to visit once the year out and year back were finished.
Claudo cupped his hands around his mouth, bellowing, “All hands! Raiders to aft! Ready the deck guns!” Claudo turned to the helmsman and ordered him to bring the Realmfall about so her cannons could be used to some effect. The likelihood of actually hitting such small, maneuverable targets with anything so cumbersome as a cannon was laughable, but...he had to use everything he had. The deck guns, used primarily against targets that could conjure magical shields or force-fields, would be of more use, he hoped. He didn't know what effect the phage-globes had on living targets, but they would soon find out.
The Realmfall had swung about and brought her screws to a halt, all available hands manning any kind of projectile weapon available, long-bows, cross-bows, muskets, and rifles all carefully smuggled from various Earth eras, as well as other, stranger weapons magical in nature. Claudo knew he had an advantage over many other Dreadnaughts, in that Claudo knew Earth, knew when and where to go to procure weapons that would make all the difference in situations like this, where most other High Consuls didn't. Claudo's home realm was the one place the Carthians didn't like to raid, except for select times in history, when anomalies such as the Dreadnaught would go unremarked. One Consul had tried to raid Earth in a time-point too far advanced technologically, and the ship had never been seen again. Claudo knew all too well how that had happened, and he too stayed far away from his home realm as much as possible. He missed Earth, though. Quite a bit, sometimes...for so many reasons.
The lead warrior ended the battle-song with a long-drawn ululation that seemed to be the signal to open the attack, for when the sound of his voice faded, all the warriors unlimbered their weapons, each of them identical to the others: three-foot-long staffs, one in each hand, crafted of some kind of silvery metal that caught every shred of light and refracted it, intensified and prismatic. In his or her left hand—for women fought as well as men here, with equal viciousness and cunning—the warrior always held the pronged weapon, seven long and curving talon-like prongs cupped around a giant red, translucent, iridescent stone; from this hand, the left, the warrior conjured the red globes of fire that consumed with horrible swiftness anything and everything it touched, flesh, steel, wood, cloth, even the very air itself seemed to burn when the globes howled past. In the right hand, the warrior always held the hammer staff, a weapon the same length as the other, but with a a mace-head, round, bulbous, spiked, and heavy; with this hammer-headed staff the globes, once conjured, were hit to fly howling with an unnatural shriek for hundreds of feet. When Claudo first saw the warriors attack, he'd thought it to be another example of low-tech natives trying to attack a far superior force with sticks and fire, but then, when the devastating effectiveness of their sports-like technique was demonstrated, Claudo revised his opinion to grudging respect and even a little awe, in the manner that only a seasoned warrior can.
Claudo cursed yet again. He didn't know if his men could bear up under thirty days of this. He knew they couldn't. In thirty days, at this rate...they'd all be dead and the Realmfall would be a ghost ship, floating in the maze of sky-islands until it smashed against one and fell through the infinity of empty space in chunks of ruin.
Now the first warrior, the one at the very tip of the diamond, held the heads of his weapons against each other, chanted a single syllable, and ignited a ball of red fire. In unison, all the others followed suit, and at that moment, in the lowering, darkening haze of impending nightfall, there was a sudden blaze of red fire tracing through the sky; the warriors swung their hammers and the globes of fire exploded towards the Realmfall with a roar of rushing wind and a burst of howling energy. When the barrage was less than ten feet away, the formation broke, scattered up and down, left and right, prong-staffs igniting and tossing globes back and forth in a dizzying tracery that afterimages on retinas. Then red fire was splattering and spreading, creeping up masts and eating at the edges of reefed sails, devouring hair and boots and fingers, eliciting screams of agony and panic. Water didn't douse this fire, and water was always at a premium aboard ship; slapping only transferred it from cloth to palm; the only mercy was that it was short-lived, the fire burnt itself out after a few minutes, but each second that it burned caused awful devastation. By the time the first barrage had died down, there were at least three men dead and a dozen writhing with awful burns, flesh turned black with peeling oozing pink underneath. Now the warriors were darting overhead and past on either side and beneath, passing globes to and fro, swooping down beneath the mast to crush a head or open a chest with the hammer-staff; when the hammer impacted, it sent out a shock-wave that propelled the victim for several yards and battered against the ear drums and skin of anyone nearby.
There was a fraught, still silence left in the space after the attack. That was their way, the natives: swoop in, hit like lightning, and vanish. Damned effective. Claudo opened his mouth to order the cleanup, but his words were burned away by the raging fires of a second attack, hard on the heels of the first, a new contingent of aerial warriors singing and blasting howling balls of fire, smashing holes in men and in the sides of the ship, firing groups of red projectiles at the screws so that the ship shuddered and the engines groaned and the ship stuttered and yawed and drifted to a stop. The deck guns opened fire without orders, and found some effectiveness. The long, wide-mouthed guns belched, guttered, and emitted amorphous blobs of purple and yellow gelatinous liquid that formed itself into a teardrop shape as it gained momentum; the deck-guns were weapons magical in nature that Claudo didn't really understand fully, except to that they fired a modified version of the same energy that propelled the ship, the magical force that was drained from slaves, prisoners, and in cases of emergency, the crew itself on rotational conscription basis. The material was called chash, and its main property was an acid-like tendency to eat away at whatever it touched. It wasn't, as a rule, used against other living creatures, but Claudo wasn't too sure why this was. Probably because it was an awful and cruel way to kill another being, but that was just a guess.
The chash moved with a strange slowness, as if in slow-motion, but it reached, eventually, a clump of warriors stooping like hawks down at the ship; the yellow-purple teardrop swallowed the warriors, absorbed them, and their screams came down to the ship muffled and stifled, their forms disappeared and the screams were silenced, and the chash moved on, leaving nothing at all but a horrified memory, still glooping through the air to hit an island, through which the chash burrowed, hissing through rock and soil like a sword-blade through soft flesh to leave a gaping hole. The deck-guns were indeed an awful weapon to use against living things, but at this point, Claudo was willing to use whatever he had at his disposal to fend off the attacks of the flying warriors.
The second wave was scattered, warriors flying away in a dozen directions, disoriented by the disappearance of their comrades. There was a third wave on the way, however...Claudo heard shouts from three different quarters of the ship, and realized that this was not merely a few isolated guerrilla attacks, but rather was a concentrated effort to down the ship and kill all aboard. And they were winning, too, Claudo realized. His engine was stopped, his screws damaged, the sails were eaten to the point of uselessness by the fireballs, and his nearly half his crew was dead or wounded.
The hull of the ship echoed and crunched and grumbled under a constant barrage of fireballs, and Claudo heard the hiss of escaped air and energy as the reservoirs of magic holding the ship aloft escaped. That was another magical property of the Dreadnaughts that Claudo didn't fully understand, but rather knew about and trusted to in the way that one sat in a chair without consciously thinking about how the chair operated: in the very bottom-most holds of the ship there were a dozen sealed-off chambers that held some kind of magical spell-effect that had to be renewed at the beginning of every year-out-and-year-back journey by a quartet of hooded, glowing-eyed mages whispering sibilant spells. These chambers were punctured now, and the ship was juddering and sinking. There was a fairly large sky-island directly ahead and below the ship and with any luck they'd land there and be able to make a stand. They would be lost to posterity, of course, but they would sell their lives as dearly as they could.
The natives were buzzing the deck again, and one of them grabbed a deckhand with hands and feet—clawed appendages that seemed a cross between eagle talons and a monkey's opposable-thumbed feet, except they had two thumbs, one on each side, and their hands were the same—picked up the sailor as if he weighed no more than a rag doll, and flew out over the open air, threw him up and let him fall, darted down and caught him, the poor man screaming in terror all the while; he was tossed vertically again, and this time another warrior caught him with one hand and foot, slammed him with a hammer-staff. The man simply fell apart when struck, and the native warriors seemed to find this hysterical, cawing and whooping to each other, and that became a game to them.
Claudo climbed down the ladder to the deck, mingled among his terrified crew, shouting words of encouragement and orders to form groups and bands for common defense. He drew his gladius, reversed his grip on his staff so the eagle that formed the head became a weapon. A warrior swooped down at him and Claudo ducked to the side at the last second, bludgeoning the yellow-skinned warrior in the side and hacking with the sword, missing. This close, Claudo got a better look at his foe: they were enormous, measuring easily eight feet from head to foot, and they had long tails which added to their length. These tails were fascinating, being almost as long as the rest of the body, but thin, flattened, and prehensile. Claudo watched as one warrior landed on the mizzen-mast yard and clung there with feet and tail, like a monkey in the jungles Claudo had seen back on Earth, in his days as a new recruit in the Seventh Legion assigned to Africa. Then, as another warrior flew past him, Claudo realized that tails weren't just flattened, they could be changed for use as either a rudder or a vertical plane, which explained the incredible feats of maneuverability he'd seen.
The island was nearing, now, and Claudo began calling orders for the crew, or what was left of them, to ready for impact. The ship was falling quickly, the wind howling past, the natives following, launching more fireballs, knocking more holes in the hull. Then a fireball hit one of the chambers and reacted with the energy from the buoyancy spell; the explosion rocked the ship, sent it bucking and spinning and in flames, crumbling apart. The rock and trees of the sky-island were hurtling up at breakneck speed and the ship was in pieces, men clinging to hunks of hull and bits of rigging. Claudo was free-falling suddenly, seeing sky-ground-sky-ground; the foremast was falling past him and he grabbed at a bit of stray line, pulled himself to the mast, amused to see that his soldier's instincts had kept his grip on his weapons even as he fell. He shoved his sword back into the scabbard and clung tightly, watching men fall into the trees and vanish, and now the trees were whipping past him, long, twisted limbs like raw exposed muscle, wide leaves slapping at his face. The mast hit a branch and snapped it, but the moment of impact slowed him just enough to fling himself at the tree, ignoring the screaming agony from his game leg as he used it to to jump free; he fell, missed a branch, grabbed at another and clung to it desperately, feeling muscles and bones ache from the force of impact, watched the mast tumble down, down, down, realizing for the first time how Mars-be-damned massive these trees were. He'd fallen at least a hundred feet down before the mast hit a branch, and then he'd fallen another fifty feet or so, and down beneath him the ground was still out of view, just branches and leaves. Around him, other men had caught branches, like himself, and others had not been so lucky, or quick-witted. Some were hanging from the limbs, broken and bent in impossible positions; the hull was crashing through now, right above Claudo. Move, old man, he told himself. He ran along the branch, which was wider, in fact, than the yardarms of a Dreadnaught, saw another branch a few feet away, jumped with all his strength, caught at the tip with his fingers, got a grip on it and swung down until it reached its breaking point bent nearly double, held briefly, and then, unbelievably, snapped back up like rubber band, throwing Claudo airborne in an inward arc, away from the onrushing hulk of the crashing Dreadnaught by the sheer luck of physics. It passed by him, missing by less than a foot, carving a swath of felled trees with its passage. Claudo could see men still gripping to the railings, trailing behind it on ropes, falling away from it, saw one man even perched on the boss of a screw.
Then the Realmfall hit the ground and Claudo felt the sky-island quake and rock from the massive shock. Claudo had caught a branch at the apex of his upward flight and let it droop down under his weight, let go when it was about to snap back up, caught another on the way down, keeping his momentum under control to a certain degree. After what had to have been nearly five hundred feet, the ground finally came into view. There were men there beneath him, cursing, moaning, weeping, clutching wounds and holding injured comrades, gathering supplies...as Claudo dropped heavily to the soft black loam he felt pride in his men, especially the officers he could see that were milling among the men, issuing orders, keeping calm and establishing organization. The most crucial thing right now was to keep the men busy, keep them from panicking as they realized that they were stranded here.
Above, the sky was was almost black with impending nightfall. Claudo wondered what would come out to stalk among these mammoth trees at night. Perhaps he didn't want to know. No indeed.
What a mess.
“These intruders must be slain. They are an infection.”
“Peace, Ghil'nur'Athni. They cannot leave that murak. They are stranded in a foreign place, and we have lost enough souls to the Everhalls this day. We are Rhylathi, and we are not murderers. Let them make their way as they can. They will not harm us any more.”
“You underestimate them, I think. That they could craft a thing so large, and cause it to fly as only born-things may, that is a fact to remember. Where there is one such, there are more. What if they come again, or send more to look for their lost tree-skin-murak and the brethren who caused it to fly? They would tell them of us, and how we fight, and then we would lose the advantage of surprise.”
“You speak wise words, my bond-brother. But I cannot allow you ravage them when they are no longer a threat to us. They cannot fly without that...tree-skin-murak, as you called it; we have seen that during the fighting. They fell and could not fly. Thus, they cannot leave the murak. We have no heart-homes on that murak, and we need not go there. They will run out of food, and then they will die without us needing to risk more souls to the Everhalls.”
The first speaker, Ghil'nur'Athni, the Song-leader, a huge, hulking, long-winged warrior with dusky red skin, hissed his frustration, slapped his wings against his sides, and thumped the ground with his tail, but Avra'kel'Zhura was the Song-maker, and she could not be gainsaid.
Avra tapped a long claw on the arm of her chair, eyes unfocused as she considered the best course. At length, she said, “Because I hear the truth in your words, and because you are a wise and skillful Song-leader—if you are a bit rash and prone to strike without thinking—I will grant you this one small concession: you may select two bond-brothers and watch the wingless intruders. Watch, I say, Ghil, and watch only. You may have no contact with them, and you especially must not harm them, unless they attack you first. This will be a great test for you, I think, and by it you will grow, should you succeed in heeding my injunctions.”
“I hear your words, Song-maker. I will not fail you, though it will sore try me to watch and do nothing.”
Avra chuckled, a dry, aged rasp that let through a glimmer of the humor that her weighty responsibilities of office forced her to keep hidden. “I know it will be a trial for you, my son, but you are equal to the task. I would not send you thus if I thought you would fail.”
Ghil bowed low, spreading his wings and curling them around him in the formal bow of respect. “Thank you, mother.” He stepped close to her chair—an elaborate, high-backed throne crafted of living wood, a thing that grew and aged and changed even as she herself did—and touched the tips of his wings to her shoulders, an intimate gesture shared only by the closest of blood-bonds.
Ghil turned away from his mother and queen, stomped out onto the landing-balcony with long, jerking strides that showed his underlying anger, despite his vocal and gestural acquiescence to the Song-maker. When he was near the edge of the balcony he crouched, coiled his tail and leapt leaf-ward with a mighty bound that carried him nearly twenty feet into the air. He let himself fall a few feet before he unfurled his long, wide, ribbed wings and sailed away over the treetops. He rode the root-ward current, banking and turning and dipping around muraks until he came to the murak on which he made his home. It was a small sky-island, no more than three wingbeats in diameter, shallow, ovoid in shape. He'd claimed it as his, and no one had contested it; here he made his heart-home, here he trained with his closest bond-brothers, and he was fiercely protective of it, as all Rhylathi were protective of their heart-homes. Ghil settled to the ground lightly, barely stirring the dust or making a sound, and called for his two best warriors, Treyev'iyl'Zurath and Khoryth'nur'Vedyov. The two warriors sang the three-note call of obedience, their harmony twisting and echoing from the next nearest murak. Within seconds, they were dropping to the ground, touching wingtips to dirt, staffs planted by their knees.
“We are to observe the invaders,” Ghil said, without preamble. “As much it galls me, we are under strict orders to watch without interference. No contact. Do you hear my song?”
Treyev and Khoryth responded in practiced unison. “We sing with you, Song-leader.”
Three figures perched on branches hundreds of feet above the camp of the flightless intruders. They hadn't strayed away from their wrecked flying-tree, the warriors were amused to note. They had scavenged things from within it, and had made temporary heart-homes and hearth-fires surrounding it. There were at least a hundred of them, crowded around fires, swilling from mugs and jars, eating, laughing in low tones. Standing outside the light of each fire was a sentry, in full armor, watchful and alert. The three figures were silent shadows lurking in the depths of the darkness, invisible and barely breathing, not so much as rustling a leaf. Night deepened, men slept, all but the sentries, who were replaced eventually. When daylight came, the strange, small, wingless things showed industriousness that surprised the watchers. They dismantled the huge thing that had borne them piece by piece, cut down trees—which caused each of the warriors to cringe and shed tears for the awful, tragic waste of such violence—and used the dead wood to make shelters for themselves. It seemed, to Ghil, that they knew they would not be able to leave, so they were attempting to make the best of their situation.
For many days, without food or drink, Ghil, Treyev, and Khoryth watched, immobile and silent.
Then, when Ghil felt they had a firm grasp of the natures of the intruders, they climbed to the tops of the trees and leapt leaf-ward to make their report to their queen.
The invaders were resourceful, and intelligent. But they were still stranded. Perhaps, as Song-maker Avra predicted, they would fade away with time and the ravaged tree-spirits of that murak would be reborn. If not, Ghil swore that he would sneak down there and kill them all in the night, throw their bodies off the murak to tumble root-ward for all of eternity.