Chapters 21 – 30

Chapters 21 – 30

Continued from Parts 11 – 20

21     The Fish in the Bay

The sun scattered its dawning rays across the ocean’s waves and the golden shards revealed for the first time the Puffing Bey’s destination. Rising from the surface of the sea, the island was dominated by a rocky crag, standing amidst a skirt of forested slopes that fell steeply down to a ragged hem of swampy mangroves. Approaching from the northeast, the steamer pressed towards the concave shore of the island’s only visible bay. Soon after dawn it was already close enough that a single structure, in the form of a stout wooden jetty, could be seen thrusting out from between the tangled roots of mangrove trees. The sea beneath the vessel’s prow was a glittering pale blue, with the bay’s shallow bottom growing increasingly visible. The dark rock of the island’s crag seemed almost fortress-like, but on the bridge of the steamer, the island’s approach was greeted with enthusiasm and a rising of spirits. After the tensions of the journey, the arrival helped to reaffirm the hope of success.

“So what’s this island called?” asked Garreck, watching the steamer’s approach from the bridge with Jonneran and Honour, as the Captain piloted the vessel into the shallows. The weather-beaten sailor’s rough hands made continual fine adjustments to the wheel as his eyes scanned for sand bars and other sudden dangers in the bay.

“It does not have a name,” said Jonneran in a flat tone, as though he considered the question fatuous and distracting.

“Oh, mysterious,” replied Garreck in an equally flat tone.

“Many of the islands in the Scharde chain have no name,” said Honour. “Most are uninhabited and even those that do have people living there are often so small that only the locals know the name.” Jonneran and Garreck both looked at Honour quizzically.

“Viridian and I spoke to the scribes in Caspia before we left,” she said with a shrug. “It made sense to find out as much information as we could.”

“A sensible policy, I’m sure,” confirmed Jonneran, returning his attention to the island and its approaching jetty.

“Speakin’ of findin’ out as much as possible,” said Garreck. “Wha’s the gunmage’s thoughts; now that we’re here?”

“I think we’ve come to the end of his ‘usefulness’,” said Jonneran with a sneer. “Now that we’ve arrived at our destination, his role as a guide is virtually finished.” Garreck turned in surprise, looking first to Jonneran and then to Honour. The mage seemed sure in his dismissal of Matthias, but Honour appeared much less confident. Given the little information that was being shared about the island, Garreck felt an unpleasant knot in the bottom of his stomach.

“Maybe we’d better jus’ check,” he said warily, turning to leave the bridge.

“No need,” countered Jonneran haughtily. “Viridian has already gone to find your hedge wizard friend.” At that moment, as if upon cue, Matthias and Viridian appeared on the bridge’s port side gangway, the gunmage in the lead. He thrust himself into the wheelhouse and past the others to come directly to the Captain’s side.

“You cannot put in here!” he said, more in earnest than as a command. “You must go around to the west.” The Captain spared Matthias a questioning look, then glanced back to Honour and Jonneran. Over the course of their voyage, he had become increasingly wary of the apparent power plays between the two arcanists on his ship and he wanted to stay apart from it as much as possible. Jonneran nodded imperiously to the Captain and then addressed Matthias.

“I think it’s time you realized your limitations,” began the Fraternal Order mage. “Yet again you are proving that your knowledge and expertise is insufficient to the role of guide. If you knew even the least thing about sea travel, you would be aware that ships do not land on western side of islands, as they are exposed to the open sea, making them wilder and more dangerous. Isn’t that right, Captain?” The Captain nodded slowly, though he scowled and didn’t take his eyes from the bay. He resented being dragged into the conflict.

“It’s typical to avoid the west sides o’ islands that is further out,” he agreed in principle. “It ain’t a law though.”

“You see, gunmage,” said Jonneran, ignoring the Captain’s equivocation. “We approach from the east; it’s only sensible.”

“The west is the only safe way,” said Matthias through gritted teeth. “There are dangers here we must avoid.”

“We do not need you to tell us of the dangers,” responded Jonneran with a dismissive wave.

“We do have Prelate Marsendat’s report,” offered Viridian in a conciliatory tone.

“Marsendat was a fool!” spat Matthias and then immediately regretted it. Up to this point, Honour had seemed noncommittal, perhaps even willing to listen to Matthias’ protests. However, as soon as Matthias insulted the Prelate’s memory, she stiffened and her eyes hardened to angry opals that burned with unremitting fury. Without a word, she pushed Matthias backward out of the wheelhouse and then slid the wooden door closed, shutting him out. He looked at the weathered surface of the door and then looked down, shaking his head and inwardly cursing his mistake. A moment later he looked up at Viridian, who was still standing beside him on the gangway.

“That was an error,” he admitted to her. “Sorry.” He pushed past her and headed back down the gangway to the deck.

“Look, maybe I can persuade…” Viridian offered quietly as she followed, but Matthias shook his head.

“There will not be time!”

“Why?”

“Just get your things,” Matthias said, leaving her behind and heading into the cabins to fetch his duffel bag.

—-

In the wheelhouse, Honour stood next to the now closed door and focused her attentions on the waters of the bay. She felt her emotions and thoughts at war with themselves in her mind. Matthias’ insult to a ranking member of the church, especially one who had passed beyond the veil, was almost unforgivable. Nonetheless, she believed that he had, in all likelihood, had something to say that was probably worth hearing. Staring assiduously out the front window, she heard Garreck quietly leave by the wheelhouse’s other door.

“We should expect no better from a heretic,” said Jonneran after the dwarf had left. Honour was glad that he had at least held his tongue that long. It was strange to think, but she was convinced that Garreck and Matthias, a gang leader and a gunmage, who had never been friends or allies until a few days previous, had a more honest and unguarded relationship than the one she enjoyed with her fiancé. Dour thoughts occupied her mind and she was chewing on her bottom lip when she caught sight of a strange shape in the waters of the bay.

“What’s that,” she wondered out loud.

“Bluff reef,” answered the Captain immediately, already aware of the object that had caught Honour’s attention. “Trick o’ the light an’ the wind. Makes it look like’n there’s a big object just under the water’s surface. Mostly ’s just water grasses. Get ‘em all ’time on the river.”

“But we’re not on a river,” mused Honour as the shape appeared to vanish into the ripples on the ocean’s surface. Her attention was diverted by Jonneran.

“What is that fool doing now?”

Looking down onto the foredeck, Honour could see Matthias standing with his duffel bag slung over his shoulder and his magelock pistol drawn. The gunmage was searching the surface of the water, looking back and forth on both sides of the steamer. The ship’s mate came up beside him, carrying a long, boarding pike. The two looked somewhat like fishermen searching for a good place to cast their lines, but for the worry on their faces. Jonneran snorted in derision and was about to fire more insults the gunmage’s way when the Captain’s fearful voice cut him off.

“Tha’s no bluff reef!”

Not thirty paces off the steamer’s port bow, the relatively calm surface of the water was being churned to a fine foam by what looked to Honour like a carpet of pearly white daggers. Row after row of spine like blades, each one longer than the length of her forearm and apparently wickedly sharp, cut through the surface in a formation that was easily half the length of the Puffing Bey.

“What is that?” she asked the Captain. The man’s face had gone pale and he shook his head in disbelief.

“It can’t be,” the Captain muttered to himself. “They don’t grow that big!”

“What doesn’t grow that big?” asked Jonneran, his own concern evident in the rising tone of his voice.

“Hull grinders,” answered the Captain. Looking down to the foredeck, Honour could see that Matthias and the ship’s mate had now also spotted the approaching menace. The mate seemed genuinely shaken by the sight.

“Hull grinders are just a fish,” declared Jonneran with unpersuasive derision. “They might grow to the size of a man and many can wreck a row boat, but they don’t menace ships this size!”

“You think I don’ know tha’?” snapped the Captain. His remark was punctuated by the barking retort of Matthias’ magelock as both barrels fired at the approaching sea creature. There was a moment’s silence after the two bullets splashed through the foam amidst the approaching spines.

Then the beast struck the Bey. Everyone in the wheelhouse was thrown against the starboard walls and the ship’s timbers resounded with the scream of the hull being torn open. On the foredeck, Matthias was thrown against a coil of rope, sprawling awkwardly on the deck. The ship’s mate faired even worse, as the force of the impact jammed the butt end of his boarding pike into the scuppers. Being so anchored at one end, the pike arced through the air, flinging its wielder like a catapult shot. The mate cartwheeled through the air and struck the water on the steamer’s starboard side. It was just a moment before the mate’s head broke the surface and, quickly taking his bearings, he began to swim for all his worth towards the Bey. Matthias stood up from the deck and reached his arm out over the gunwales, ready to assist the mate back into the relative safety of the boat.

While he was still many paces distant from the ship, the mate’s body seemed to rise up on the crest of a sudden swell and from beneath the surface, he was entrapped in the grip of a spiny maw, over a yard across. The terrified man had a moment to scream before the giant fish bit him in two, its body flexing suddenly as it dove back beneath the surface, a crimson trail left in the water behind it. Matthias recoiled from the predator’s presence, but could see the dreadful beast through the clear water as it swam away beneath the boat. Its pearly white skin was the same colour as the sand on the bay floor, making it normally too well camouflaged to see, but the blood that trailed from its mouth ran in streamers down its length, highlighting its size and shape. It was easily two thirds the length of the Puffing Bey. Matthias collapsed against the gunwale, fighting down despair, as Garreck charged up, his own pistol in hand and a sack slung over his shoulder.

“What in all the bloody hells was that?” demanded the dwarf.

“Just one of the many reasons I never wanted to come back!” said Matthias and he began to reload his pistol.

22     Death of the Bey

Honour fell against the wall of the cabin gangway as the Puffing Bey shuddered under the impact of another strike from the giant hull grinder. From the wheelhouse up the stairs behind her she heard the Captain struggling with the rudder wheel and swearing violently. There was the cracking sound of a rope snapping under strain and the Captain cried out in pain. As she pushed herself back to her feet, Honour saw the beset sailor appear at the top of the stairs, blood trickling down the side of his face, from where the wheel had apparently struck him.

“That’s it, we’re free-wheeling!” he declared.

“What?” asked Honour as the Captain headed down the steps to her level.

“The rudder cable’s gone, we’ve got no steering!”

“What can we do?”

“Founder,” said the Captain bitterly. “The bay’s not that deep, so probably we won’t fully sink, but if that sea hag out there holes us any worse it won’t matter none, no how!”

“Why?”

“’Cause if the sea water hits the boiler, she’ll rupture like a cracked egg and the whole Bey’s gonna go up in a cloud o’ steam. Seen it happen once to a paddler run aground in a storm. Force o’ it’s like a bomb goin’ off in the hold! Least we won’t drown!”

“No?” asked Honour, surprised by the man’s assertion.

“Sure ‘nough that bitch’ll eat anyone the explosion don’t kill!” said the Captain and he pushed past her and down into the hold.

“Where are you going?” she called after his retreating form.

“To go hug the boiler! I’ll be blown up and cooked ‘afore I’ll be fish food!”

Honour’s shoulders slumped and she gave up chasing after defeated mariner. Jonneran emerged from their cabin into the gangway, carrying a leather bag stuffed with his spellbook, writing implements and a number of loose leaf scrolls.

“I’ve got everything,” he said breathlessly. “Let’s go before it’s too late.”

“What about my armour and weapons?” Honour asked.

“Are you mad? We’re abandoning ship; you can’t swim away with that kind of weight!”

“I’m not leaving,” she countered with a hard tone. “I’m going to stay and fight!”

“Fight?” Jonneran repeated. “How exactly do you propose to do that? We’re sinking – I heard the Captain himself say so – either we make for the shore or we all drown. Trying to fight that monster is just a fool’s errand.”

“What about your magic? You made all the difference against the pirates; why not today as well?”

“That was a scroll I used!” said Jonneran, shaking his head.

“Well use another!” Honour all but shouted at him. The timbers of the Puffing Bey creaked loudly and it began to list to port.

“I don’t have another,” the mage retorted. “That was my only one, and my most powerful! What I have left is for finding your lost friend. Nothing that will work against that damnable fish!”

“We still have to try!”

“Fine, you try! I’m leaving!”

With that, Jonneran struggled along the gangway and out onto the stern deck. Honour went into the cabin and quickly gathered up her armour, weapons and other possessions. With a campaign veteran’s speed she worked her way into the pieces of her armour. In spite of its weight and the coldness of the metal, she found it comforting as she buckled and clipped each part of her panoply into place; in short order she was dressed for battle. Settling her weapon belt around her waist, she hooked her sack of personal belongings around it, drew her sword and made her way out on deck.

—-

“It’s comin’ round agin!” declared Garreck, looking out over the starboard gunwale of the foredeck. Clinging to the rail for stability, he swung his heavy pistol out to point at the oncoming monster. He fired and the crack of his pistol was sharply followed by two more as Viridian also fired her brace. Garreck cast a glance over his shoulder to where Viridian held her graceful balance upon the listing deck, some paces behind him.

“Bloody elves,” he thought to himself as the sinking motion which Viridian seemed to barely notice made him sick to his stomach. He struggled to open the breech of his pistol one handed, unwilling to relinquish his grip on the rail.

“Did we get it?” he asked the elven pistoleer.

“For all the good it did,” Viridian answered with a nod. She swayed gently upon the deck, keeping her balance and reloading her own two sidearms. “It’s too big to be much worried by pistol shot. It’s ramming our ship, for gods’ sake. I doubt we’ve got much chance.”

From the prow there was a loud roar as Dokor, armed with his ogrun warcleaver, leaned out over the rail and swung at the hull grinder as it passed close across the bow. The heavy blade sheared away several of the long, white spines, but appeared to do no substantial damage. As the sea beast swam away its large, spiny tail whipped about and struck the steamer’s prow. Dokor was knocked from his feet and nearly tumbled into the ocean. He was saved by Matthias, who quickly grabbed the back of the ogrun’s thick, leather belt with both hands. Groaning with the effort, the gunmage hauled his comrade’s heavy body back from the edge and onto the decking, before collapsing to one knee. Having regained his balance, Dokor reached out a hand to help the kneeling Matthias to his feet. The Warlock took the offered hand but paused before standing as he sucked air into his lungs with a violent, coughing gasp. Dokor pulled him upright with ease and then fixed him with a serious look.

“My thanks,” said the ogrun.

“My pleasure,” responded Matthias, still slightly breathless from the effort of hauling on the ogrun’s heavy body. The two turned to see the fully equipped Honour emerge onto the foredeck.

“Dressed for the party, I see,” said Dokor with a smile.

“Best foot forward,” Honour replied, smiling back . With a stray thought, it occurred to Matthias that he had never seen her smile so fully or so readily as she did in combat. Perhaps she was most comfortable when the battle lines were clear; a common enough trait in a paladin. Now that Honour was on the foredeck with the others, a hurried conference occurred.

“What does the Captain say?” Dokor asked the paladin. “How long until we sink?” Honour shook her head.

“He thinks the water’s not deep enough to fully submerge us,” she answered. “We’ll only founder, but that’s not our worst problem.”

“Why’s that?” asked Viridian.

“He thinks the boiler will blow first,” said Honour. “If enough sea water hits it at once, it will crack and go off like a bomb, or so he says.”

“I heard o’ tha’ happenin’,” Garreck said. “Never wanted to see it close up though!”

“There’s nothing else for it,” said Matthias. “First we need to kill the beast; second we need to get off this boat.”

“Some of us have already moved onto the second part, it seems,” Viridian observed sourly as she noticed a figure retreating over the water’s surface. The others turned to see Jonneran floating no more than a foot above the surface of the water. He stood straight upright, moving forward as if riding in the prow of an invisible boat, though he moved with greater speed than any boat could muster. As they watched, they saw the spines of the hull grinder rise above the surface and the fish seemed to leap from the water to snap at Jonneran’s legs. It missed however, as the mage simply rose higher into the air, leaving the fish to sink back beneath the surface.

“Mayhaps he leads it away, to give us a chance to escape,” ventured Dokor.

“You give him too much credit,” Honour exclaimed bitterly and everyone turned to stare at her in surprise; everyone, except Matthias. He turned from the others and unslung his duffel bag. Scanning the water’s surface for the hull grinder, the gunmage rifled through his kit, locating a roll of parchment tied with a piece of faded blue ribbon. Using only his left hand, Matthias slid the ribbon away and unrolled the scroll; the yellowed parchment creaked softly from age and gave off a dusty odour. Were it not for the powerful magic bound into the sigils on its face, the ancient document would surely have rotted to dust long before. With the palm of his hand, the gunmage pressed the scroll open against the gunwale railing and pointed his magelock pistol out over the ocean. He began to read the spell from the scroll, gathering the bound arcane energies and preparing to unleash them. Although he kept both eyes upon the words on the scroll, reading and intoning the phrases of the dweomer, he still took flawless aim at the hull grinder, which had now surfaced again and was rushing on towards the Puffing Bey. By the arcane skills peculiar to his craft, Matthias could see his target perfectly, as though looking out through the barrel of his gun. It was his companion, his familiar; closer to his heart even than family.

The spell’s intoning grew in intensity and the magic began to leave the parchment, gathered under Matthias’ control. The invisible energies swirled through the ether and transferred themselves to the gold-inscribed shot that sat ready in the breech of the Warlock’s pistol. As the spell was transferred the parchment faded away, consumed by the magic it had held. Finally, when all the energies of the spell were contained in the shot, Matthias closed his eyes, taking aim by his arcane skills alone. The runes carved in the metal of the magelock’s barrel glowed with silvery light. In the water, the hull grinder surged towards the foundering steamer, the spines on its back churning the surface to foam. Amidst the white froth an arm was visible, remnant from the dismembered first mate, caught in the brutal spines and already bled nearly white by the monstrous fish’s swimming and diving. Matthias drew in a calming breath before the shot and for a fleeting moment it seemed that he hesitated. Then he fired.

The arcane shot seemed neither louder nor more forceful than any other pistol shot. Save for the glowing of the magelock’s barrel, there was nothing to pick it apart from any ordinary bullet. That was, until it struck the hull grinder’s hide. The bullet bit its way into the beast’s flesh near the dorsal fin with a tiny red fountain, which was momentarily visible before being swallowed by an eruption of intense green light. For a moment it seemed to those on the foredeck of the sinking Bey that the grinder’s body was a like covered lantern and that within it there glowed a bright green flame, which cast light through a myriad of seams in the ‘lantern’s’ surface. Then the green light faded and where it faded, it left neither flesh nor bone, only empty space, into which the foaming sea water rushed. The corpse of the great fish sank almost instantly beneath the waves, a large portion of its body simply disintegrated from existence by the arcane, green light.

On the Bey the survivors cheered, though Matthias bowed his head, his pistol hanging limply in his hand. The barrel that had fired the enchanted shot now warped so significantly that it cracked the wooden butt of the pistol. The arcane energies channeled through it proved too much for the sigils to contain and so the weapon was damaged beyond repair. As Viridian came up beside him, Matthias dropped the ruined magelock into the bay.

“Farewell, friend,” said the gunmage, his whispered voice grey and hollow.

“The magic was too much for it?” Viridian asked with the concern of a fellow gunfighter.

“It’s been coming for a while,” Matthias answered with a heavy shrug. “Spells and magics consume all but the finest Rhul-made weapons. I’ve felt that it would be soon for that one for a while. I probably would not have risked it, were it not for the two we took from the pirates.” Viridian nodded thoughtfully. She was about to say something more when a loud hissing came from the hold, accompanied by an anguished cry.

“The sea water’s reached the boiler,” shouted Honour. A dull, thudding explosion resounded through the deck planks, and wisps of steam curled through every crack and flaw in the crippled vessel’s timbers. A vast cloud rose up through the cabins and expelled itself through the windows, the gangways and finally, the boiler stack.

“That wasn’t as bad as I expected,” commented Viridian.

“Cap’n prob’ly managed t’ vent some o’ the steam,” said Garreck. “Lessen’d the blast.”

“And gave up his life in the doing,” observed Dokor. No one doubted the ruptured boiler had slain the Captain.

There was a rising, creaking noise that ended in a violent crack and the prow of the dead vessel dipped suddenly into the water.

“Explosion or no,” said Honour. “We cannot stay here!” The others agreed with her. They swiftly moved to organize their evacuation, rigging ropes and barrels to make rafts. Then they left the Bey to its fate, making their way to the island that held theirs.

23     The Island

Viridian sat herself down on one of the jetty’s aged, wooden pylons, the heel of one of her boots catching in the grooved and rotted surface. With a bedraggled flick of her head, she cast all of her hair to one side and, clasping the soaked, red tresses like a bundle of old washing, began to twist and squeeze the excess water out onto the dock. With her head held sideways while she forced the seawater out, she watched Dokor crouching on the dock’s edge and fishing the last of the party’s salvaged supplies from the sea with his warcleaver. Finally, he thrust the polearm down over the edge and yanked first Matthias and then Garreck out of the water, where they had been clinging to the dock’s edge and handing up the valuable flotsam. Viridian shook the last, loose drips from her hair and raised herself up straight, flexing her stiff shoulders. She smiled at Matthias and Garreck who stood dripping water onto the dock like miserable, wet cats. The gunmage returned her smile, but Garreck only scowled and stamped his feet, trying to shake off the excess seawater.

“Rhul don’t swim!” he declared flatly, to no one in particular.

“They don’t do much of a job of floating, either,” said Matthias with a half smile. He ignored Garreck’s angry glare and stepped past the surly dwarf to where Viridian was standing. She was about to speak when they both heard raised voices coming from the landward end of the jetty. The speakers were out of sight behind mangrove trees.

“The happy couple?” asked the Warlock.

“Not for much longer,” replied Viridian, hopeful that her oldest friend was at that moment ending her disastrous engagement. The overhanging branches of the nearest mangrove trees burst apart as Honour’s steel shod boots drummed an accelerating cadence on the pier’s deck. The paladin strode so swiftly towards the rest of her companions that she nearly tripped herself up. Behind her came Jonneran, his face showing first pleading despair then violent anger in a boiling succession of emotions. It seemed as if Honour was doing her best to end the conversation, but Jonneran, like a harrying sheep dog, would not let her go, instead nipping at her heels with protestations and arguments.

“You’re not being fair!” Jonneran declared as Honour came to a halt in front of Matthias and Viridian. The paladin whirled on her heel to face her fiancé.

“You left us to die!” she said, her fury burning in her face and lending her words a savage vehemence.

“No, I didn’t!” protested the mage, then realised that he was now arguing in front of an audience; an audience he had left behind on the sinking steamer. “It’s not like that…” he added, more weakly.

“What’s it like then?” asked Viridian, inserting herself into the argument. Jonneran glared at her momentarily, his face a mask of withering contempt.

“You keep out of this!” he spat venomously.

“No, Jon’,” countered Honour. “You should answer her question. What were you doing, if not abandoning us to our fate?”

Jonneran’s gaze searched the jetty surface, his face downcast; he felt acutely the stares of the others. The fundamental truth was that he had not expected any of them to survive the hull grinder’s attack and now he could not think of the right way to make his pragmatism not seem like cowardice. He ventured a glance up and looked into five pairs of hostile eyes. Like a deer caught in a circle of hunters, he lashed out feebly but without reserve.

“Why are you so angry at me?” he asked, his voice going up in pitch with his rising panic. Mostly he addressed Honour, but an idea occurred to him as he was speaking. He turned on Matthias. “He didn’t even warn us about that monster! He knew about it all this time and he never mentioned it!”

Some of the others cast querying glances in Matthias’ direction. Viridian came to the Warlock’s defense, more as a way to oppose Jonneran than because the gunmage genuinely needed support.

“He did try to warn us,” she said.

“No he didn’t!” Jonerran retorted.

“He did, but you didn’t…” Viridian paused, remembering the altercation in the wheelhouse of the Puffing Bey.

“He did,” Honour agreed quietly. “But we did not listen to him.” Jonneran stared at Honour with incomprehension. He couldn’t believe that she would publicly accept the blame in the way that she was. He had expected her to side with him, if only to avoid the shame of admitting she had been wrong in front of the others. Still hoping to draw her on to his side, he pressed the attack against Matthias.

“But the gunmage knew all along!” he accused. “He didn’t think to say anything until it was too late. And what about those pirates? We didn’t hear a word about them until they were right on top of us! He’s been sabotaging us all the way along!”

“Enough, Jonneran,” said Honour. She frowned sourly, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“Can’t you see, he’s working to undermine us…”

“I said enough!” Honour shouted, her voice ringing out with the authority of a captain on a parade ground. Viridian smiled to see the strength returning to her friend, but Jonneran recoiled as if physically struck. Honour continued her rebuke, addressing the group as a whole. “This expedition has had quite enough rule by committee! From now on everyone remembers that I am in command here! I will hear advice and weigh the issues, but second guessing my decisions stops now! If anyone objects, they are free to make their own way!”

Honour cast her eyes over her companions, each in turn. No one spoke and even the sound of the waves lapping against the jetty pylons seemed muted. A hushed sense of crisis blanketed them, suppressing all other sound. Dokor and Viridian nodded their acceptance of Honour’s command without hesitation. Garreck shrugged, though with no sense of churlishness.

“Fine wif’ me,” he said quietly. Honour turned to Matthias and the gunmage met her gaze levelly. He seemed to be searching in her eyes again, as he had that night on the deck of Bey. This time she let him look, her back straight and her demeanour unashamed. At last Matthias smiled his wry grin and also nodded his ascent. Finally, she turned to face Jonneran once more.

“Well,” she said calmly, but with an iron tone in her voice. “Can you accept me, Jonneran, not as your betrothed, but as your commander.”

“Darling,” Jonneran replied. “You’re being rash. You don’t have to…”

“No,” Honour commanded, cutting him off. “No more pleading. No more persuading. Either accept my orders or find your own way.”

Jonneran stiffened under Honour’s ultimatum. His eyes narrowed to slits and he fixed her with a hateful glare. The he drew himself up to his full height and cast a disdainful glance across the collected group.

“Very well,” he said. “Since you will not see reason, I think there is no point in us continuing our association. Honour Pendragon, I no longer consider our betrothal as valid; from this point on you will have to seek your own way in the world, without my assistance. As for the rest of you, we’ll see just how long you last on your own. Without my magic I imagine this quest will only result in your death.”

Before anyone could respond to his declaration, Jonneran turned on his heel and strode confidently down the jetty and into the mangroves. Honour and Viridian watched him go in silence, but Garreck smirked and Matthias shook his head.

“It is as if he has dismissed us from his company,” observed Dokor, more puzzled than offended.

“In his mind, I imagine he thinks he has,” said Matthias. “So what now?”

“Now, you have some questions to answer,” said Honour, turning to face Matthias. “And you can start by telling us how you knew about a sea monster that Prelate Marsendat never refers to once in his report.” Faced with this direct question, Matthias sighed with a long breath, then crouched down on his haunches.

“Take a seat,” he said. “This is not a simple story.”

24     Matthias’ Story – Part 1

Matthias crouched down on the jetty and picked at a long sliver in one of the planks. He pulled out the sliver and began to turn it in his fingers. Then he sighed and looked up, studying the horizon momentarily, as if hoping for some sight or sign that would deliver him from his difficult tale. At last, he began to relate the painful story of his first journey to this island.

“I was a young novice,” he began. “Of the Order of Keepers. My master in the Order was Brother Harriun, a Master of the Fifteen.”

“Fifteen what?” asked Garreck. Honour and Viridian both shot the dwarf hard glances, fearful that his interruption, coming so early in the story, would derail the telling.

“The Fifteen is one of the Order of Keeping’s system’s of combat. It refers to a set of fifteen stances on which a whole series of techniques is based,” Matthias explained. “Its practitioners also have particular responsibilities within the Order. We…they are entrusted with protecting weapon relics; holy items of war.”

“I have heard the term,” Honour said quietly. “But did not understand the meaning.”

“The Order is quite tight-lipped, especially about the details of our…their training and responsibilities.” Matthias paused, as he realized for the second time he had spoken of himself as though he were still a monastic of the Keepers. He looked back down at the grey wooden splinter in his fingers once more. The roughness of it teased his fingertips. In the silence, Viridian chewed her lip and Honour leaned in closely. Garreck was less patient.

“Well, go on!” he urged.

“The Church mounted an expedition by sea here, to the Scharde Isles,” Matthias continued with a grimace, returning to the tale of his past. “The expedition had a number of aims. The first was to investigate reports of faithful amongst the smaller uncharted islands. Records indicated that two separate missionary groups set out in the last century to preach to the islanders and, very occasionally, word came back that the faith had indeed taken root amongst some of the fishers and corsairs, especially in the north, further from Cryx.”

“Astonishing,” whispered Dokor in wonder.

“Bloody foolish!” declared Garreck. Dokor ignored him, but Honour scowled.

“The reports were reliable enough to bear investigating,” Matthias explained. “Besides, there were the two missions. They had not returned, but auguries indicated that they had not died by violence. That was the second purpose of our expedition, to find out for sure what had happened to the missionaries that had come this far. The last part of our purpose was to recover, if possible, the relics that the missionaries had taken with them. This last was why Brother Harriun was aboard and I as his novice, went as well.”

“So this was an official mission of the Church?” Viridian asked, more it seemed, to emphasize the point than to clarify a misunderstanding. The notion of Matthias Warlock on an official Church mission did not seem to sit well with Honour, who cast her eyes out over the waves of the bay.

“We were near sixty in number, when we set sail,” said Matthias. “Priests and men-at-arms for the most part. The soldiery were commanded by an old paladin with a long moustache named… what was the old man’s name…?” Matthias’ voice trailed off. His eyes were unfocused and it seemed to those watching as if he might be seeing his past, as the images of his memory played fresh in his mind. At last his eyes refocused and he shrugged.

“Well whatever the man’s name, the expedition set forth and we sailed around a couple of islands, closer to the coast, putting in to various little villages and fisher communities. For the most part we posed as traders.” Matthias paused again in his tale and smirked to himself. Viridian cocked her head.

“Why so funny?” she asked.

“Oh we were abysmal traders,” laughed the gunmage. “You should have seen us all, trying to pretend we were ready to haggle and barter. The only thing we really wanted from the villagers was information, but we couldn’t say that without revealing our true identities, and the only things we had with us were things we wanted to keep. We posed as traders who never said exactly what they wanted and wouldn’t offer anything in exchange. Marsendat was pretty useful – he had a more pragmatic mindset and tended to get snippets of information. It was he who got the location of this island from a pair of blighted fishermen in an outrigger. Brother Harriun didn’t trust them, but most of us on the voyage were so desperate for the slightest whiff of hope that we were ecstatic to hear of our new destination.”

“It don’t seem tha’ bad a place t’ set sail fer!” said Garreck, scanning the jungle clad slopes of the tall, thin peak. Then his eyes went back out to the bay, and the wreckage of the foundered steamer. “ ‘Cept for the fish, o’ course!”

“I imagine we were not the first to see it like that,” said Matthias. He frowned and cast a glance over his shoulder at the mangroves behind him. “I know we were not the first to wash up here, even back then, and there have probably been others in the years since.”

“I don’t see too many ships out there with our little steamer,” Viridian observed, scanning the bay. Honour nodded, looking out to the water. Matthias smiled, an ominous, predatory smile.

“No,” he agreed. “There’s a reason for that. Getting back to the story; almost as soon as our coaster was headed west things began to go awry. Little things at first, things that only the sailors noticed. By the time we were only a day out from this bay, even some of the chaplains were muttering about Toruk’s influence.”

“The Lord of Cryx?” breathed Viridian. Matthias nodded.

“Ye think th’ father o’ all dragons was out to git ye?” asked Garreck dubiously. “Ye don’ think tha’s somethin’ o’ a bold claim?”

“Not really,” Matthias answered. “Remember that we were bringing the power of the Church of Morrow with us. We were like burglars stealing into castle while beating drums and dancing about with bull’s-eye lanterns. We were asking for trouble.”

“You speak as though Toruk would have a right to oppose the righteous work of the Church,” Dokor growled.

“Indeed!” Honour agreed vehemently. “The righteous truth shines like a light in the darkness!”

“Oh please, spare me!” Matthias protested, his hand slashing the air with a cutting gesture. “This was not about righteous truth! This was about a greedy church hierarchy hopeful of extending its power-base and acquiring important magical artifacts to do it with. Even if we had the right to invade Toruk’s domain, we should have at least have been smart enough to know that that was what we were doing!”

An unseen bird cried out from its treetop roost somewhere behind them in the mangroves. Several of the party started with fear, scanning the canopy of the island’s forest.

“So this is a Cryxian island?” Viridian asked, her hands resting on the butts of her pistols. “Are Toruk’s minions here?” Matthias shook his head.

“No,” he said. “At least I do not think so.”

“So what is ‘ere, Warlock?” Garreck snapped, his voice full of a mixture of restrained fear and less well restrained impatience. “What happened t’ yer ship?”

Matthias sighed and stood, casting the splinter he held into the water under the jetty. It plunged beneath the surface and then bobbed back up to be tossed upon the chop.

“The last night’s voyage we were struck by a wild storm; preternatural, the Captain called it,” Matthias said, continuing his story. “The wind seemed to come from every point at once. Men were thrown over the ‘wales by wave after wave. Even the wind seemed strong enough to cast men into the deep. The sails shredded and the foremast cracked. It was so loud; I thought someone had fired a cannon shot. A man in the rigging fell to the deck not ten feet from me, his body just lay like a crumpled heap, like a puppet with its strings cut. A falling coil struck Marsendat across the back and the force of it rammed him head first into the main mast. There was blood everywhere. Brother Harriun charged me to watch over him and see him safely home. In the end, even the sailors gave up hope of keeping to the watches and every man just bound himself to the ship and prayed for dawn. Through the wind I could hear the voice of one faithful man, crying out in continual prayer, counting the hours. For myself, I clung to Marsendat’s unconscious body like a mother to her child and waited to be taken with him into the depths.”

Matthias paused again in the telling of his tale, but this time no one chided him to go on. His eyes were dark and it was clear the horrors of that night were alive once more in his sight. At last he seemed to breathe normally once more and the light came back into his eyes. The torment was locked away in its stronghold cell once again. Matthias and Honour’s eyes met for a moment and the gunmage was reminded of the first night on the Puffing Bey, when it had been Honour’s turn to hide the depths of her pain behind a mask.

“Well obviously, I did not drown that night,” he said with his customary smile, though in this one moment it seemed less charming and more pitiable. “Nor indeed did Marsendat, poor sod. When dawn came the clouds cleared and this bay was in sight. The Coaster had been all but shaken to pieces and was barely seaworthy, but we rejoiced. The clerics pronounced Morrow’s mercy upon us, having seen us through the unspeakable wilds of the night. The ship was limping towards the jetty and a rough service of thanksgiving was underway when the bay’s denizen hit the coaster amidships. Normally she’d have been fifty times the strength of the Bey, but after the night’s storm, she was holed immediately. The ship began to founder and break apart. As men went into the water, the hull grinder tore their bodies to pieces.”

“So what did you do?” Viridian asked.

“Much the same as we did today,” said Matthias with a shrug. “We clung to the ship until it became clear that we would have to make for the shore and then we made for the shore. There was a crowd of us, all pressing on together. Some few stayed behind to save what they could of the coaster and see if they could slay the beast, but most abandoned ship. I tied the unconscious Marsendat to a pair of empty water barrels and pushed him like a raft through the water. The grinder pursued the crowd of swimmers and every now and then it came up and took one of us. It was the longest swim of my life, pushing Marsendat’s body through the water and foam, swallowing salt and praying with every breath. I remember thinking that I would never reach the jetty, that the thing would sweep up from the depths at any moment and shred me as it had the others. Someone pulled Marsendat and then me out of the water. I fell on the deck, amidst thirty-odd survivors, and I wept for joy, at being alive. If I had known what was coming, I might have merely wept.”

5     Matthias’ Story – Part 2

“Marsendat was unconscious?” Viridian declared, the spark of sudden realization in her eyes. “That’s why there’s no mention of the hull grinder in his report!” Matthias nodded.

“Yes,” said the gunmage. “By my reckoning we were here for twenty seven or twenty eight days and Marsendat spent the whole time in and out of sleep. There were days where he never woke; many times I thought he would never wake again, only drift into death. When he did awaken, he ranted like a madman, now praying to unseen angels, now cursing and blaspheming like a thrice-damned infernal. While Marsendat was with us here, his mind knew nothing of its condition.”

“You didn’t abandon him though?” Viridian interjected. There was a tone of emphasis in her voice, as though she was trying to mark an important point in the story. Honour cast her a sour, sidelong glance. Their eyes met and they exchanged a knowing look. Honour looked away first.

“Brother Harriun had charged me with Marsendat’s care,” Matthias said in reply to Viridian’s question. If he noticed the unspoken exchange between Viridian and Honour, he did not acknowledge it.

“Yer takin’ yer sweet time gettin’ ta th’ point, gunmage!” Garreck grumbled. “Wha’s ‘ere an’ wha’s it goin’ ta do ta us?” Matthias nodded and looked over his shoulder at the island once more.

“I did not know what they were,” he replied eventually. “And I have never seen even one of them since the day Marsendat and I escaped. From my description, a scholar I consulted named Pendrake, called them cephalyx.” Matthias Warlock paused in his exposition, as if he feared the cephalyx might simply appear at the mention of their name. The silence between the group stretched eerily, while the lapping water almost seemed to take on the character of wet, flopping footsteps upon the jetty’s planks.

“So wha’s a cephalyx then?” asked Garreck, deliberately accentuating his typical gruffness, to emphasize just how ‘unafraid’ he was.

“They are under-dwellers, are they not?” said Dokor softly. Matthias nodded. “I had heard they were but legend.”

“Unfortunately not.”

“Well, what of them?” asked Honour, apparently more annoyed than concerned. “Will they hunt us down? Do they drink the blood of the living or devour children whole? We are not babes, gunmage! We need to be informed, not teased with fey tales!” Matthias’ eyes narrowed and he fixed Honour with a cold glare.

“What the cephalyx eat or drink, or even indeed if they do, is not information I have to share,” he said icily. “What I can tell you is that they are in possession of arcane knowledge that is both extensive and alien to any known in the Iron Kingdoms. Each of them is akin to a mage of great power, garbed in robes of black leather and floating through the air like umbral specters. If they have voices, they never use them, communicating instead by thought. The touch of their thoughts in your mind is like having an oily talon scraping itself along your spine; it makes you feel violated, as though your mind has been raped by their presence.” Matthias paused, his cold anger swamped by his memories of the cephalyx and their invasive telepathy. He sucked in an uncomfortable breath and swallowed visibly.

“I’m not sure where they are from or what their greater motivations are, but Pendrake said, and my experience confirms this, that they engross themselves in scientific inquiry.”

“Scientific inquiry?” repeated Viridian. “Into what?”

“Life,” Matthias answered simply. “To the cephalyx, life itself is a resource. They mine the flesh in the way we mine ore and gems; they fashion bone and sinew the way a smith might forge iron into a plow or a weapon. They refashion the bodies of their slaves, and their own bodies, mingling blood with quicksilver; bone with iron; flesh with brass. The night after we swam ashore, the cephalyx sent their drudges amongst us, to herd us and bring us down the way hounds harry wild horses into corrals. Most of us were too weak to fight after the ordeal of the night storm; those that did fight were clubbed unconscious by fists encased in massive brass gauntlets.”

“What is a drudge?” asked Dokor.

“Drudge is the name the cephalyx give to their servitors,” Matthias explained. “Ordinary mortals fitted with devices that make them thoughtless slaves, void of will. As with so many mages, who consider the menialities of life beneath them, the cephalyx maintain drudges to perform all the tasks which they…consider beneath them.”

“Mindless slaves don’t sound too dangerous,” said Honour. “How did they capture hardened warriors and priests of the church? Your story lacks…” Honour paused, leaving her thought hanging in the air.

“Lacks what?” asked Matthias. Honour stiffened and then straightened her back with an almost hateful resolve to complete the statement.

“Credibility,” she replied. The rest of the group tensed, their eyes flicking back and forth between Honour and Matthias, wondering if this confrontation might come to blows. Honour looked ready to fight, but the gunmage only shook his head wearily. He stood and walked away to the very seaward end of the jetty, several paces from where the group had been talking.

“What is your problem?” asked Viridian, cuffing her old friend across the shoulder, her gloved hand making the metal pauldron momentarily ring like a poorly tuned bell.

“Ever since we conceived of this mission, we have had men, mages, eager to come along, to help us upon the way,” Honour hissed angrily. “First Jonneran, then this hedge wizard. Now suddenly, we discover that there is a conclave of powerful creatures here with arcane knowledge sufficient to over-power an entire contingent of the Church’s most devout.” Honour’s gaze was fixed upon Matthias’ back, a kind of wild hatred boiling in her eyes.

“What are you saying?” asked Dokor, his deep voice rumbling loudly, even as he tried to whisper.

“I am saying that it is too convenient,” Honour replied, rising to her feet, her voice increasing in volume as she spoke. Her sword hand clutched about the hilt of her battle blade, as if she felt the need of its comfort. “What do you say gunmage? Hedge wizard? Have you and Jonneran been competing for the chance to bargain with the cephalyx once more? That’s the plan isn’t it – offer us up in return for more magical power? You arrived here a monk and left an arcane practitioner! Surely that is the kind of strange transformation that a mind raper might wreak! Or has Jonneran left even now to bring them to us? Are the two of you in collusion, performing your petty conflict like mummers on a stage while plotting our demise?”

The others recoiled aghast, from Honour’s words. Garreck and Dokor shook their heads, apparently unconvinced by the accusation. Viridian was more passionate in her response.

“Honour, no!” she declared, grabbing her friend by the arms and shaking her. Honour shrugged out of the half-elf’s grip. Desperate, Viridian turned to Matthias, who still stood at the end of the dock, his back to the island.

“Tell her it isn’t true!” Viridian almost pleaded. “Tell her, Matthias!” Every eye turned to Matthias, watching to see how he would respond, either to Viridian’s plea, or Honour’s accusation. In the elongated silence, they began to hear Matthias’ voice, speaking very quietly, almost whispering. As they strained forward, all of them realized at the same moment, that he was intoning magic and casting spells. With a roar, Dokor hefted his warcleaver from the deck, but he was too late.

26     Haste

Matthias uttered the final words of his hasting spell and felt time loosen its grip upon him. Dokor’s battle cry rippled slowly through the air towards him while the ogrun’s hefted warcleaver rose to strike with the gentle upwards waft of an errant feather upon a lazy, summer breeze. It seemed as though the whole world were being restrained while Matthias himself felt free to run, with the pace of a thoroughbred. A smile lit his lips as he swayed easily back a step from Dokor’s lethal downstroke. Then he surged forward, placing one foot onto the back-spike of the cleaver’s head, using it like a step to leap into the air. As he flew over Dokor’s shoulder, he twisted until he was almost horizontal. His left arm lanced out with a knife hand strike that drove straight into Dokor’s throat, while his leg swung in an arcing kick that crashed across the side of Garreck’s head and knocked the rhul to the jetty’s decking, momentarily insensible. Matthias’ blow stunned Dokor, keeping him from breathing. The ogrun warrior dropped his cleaver and clutched at his windpipe, desperate for breath.

Before Dokor even released his hold upon his weapon, Matthias had already dropped on his feet and was racing towards Viridian and Honour. Surprised as she was, Viridian still reflexively put her hands to her pistols and was in the process of drawing them from their holsters when Matthias reached her. With the deftness granted him by his enchanted speed, he snatched the two sidearms from Viridian’s hands and spinning, hooked his heel into her back, tripping her face first. Viridian’s pistoleer reflexes saved her from a crashing fall, as she tucked and tumbled over the ancient planks. With the stolen pistols in hand, Matthias crossed the final step to confront Honour, who was drawing her sword. Kicking upward, he drove the weapon from her hand and then brought his foot back down in a sweeping trip that laid Honour on her back on the deck. He dropped over top of her, crouching, with his feet trapping her arms and Viridian’s stolen pistols pointed at her face. He released a long breath and willed the haste dweomer from his body. The magic fell away like a discarded cloak and the world began to run about him at normal speed; time gripped him closely once more.

“Now,” said the gunmage, sucking in a long breath, like a runner after a race. “If I can have your undivided attention. I fled this island with only one of the several dozen comrades that accompanied me here – many I counted as friends and some as dear as brothers. I fled with my oaths to Morrow and my duty to the Order intact. Since that day I have suffered curses, injuries and indignities that you have yet to imagine. I know that you have deep wounds in your heart and that faith in Morrow and Katrena is the bandage with which you have bound them!” Matthias paused as he saw horror and shame blossom in Honour’s eyes. Talk of the wounds in her heart, spoken of so openly and directly, was almost as confronting as being trapped under the gunmage. From behind him, Matthias heard Dokor finally clear his throat and reclaim his warcleaver. Without turning his eyes from Honour’s, Matthias swung one Viridian’s pistols around to point directly at Dokor’s face.

“Stay there, ogrun,” said Matthias in a tone that was not threatening, but brooked no opposition. “This will only take a moment longer.” Matthias then addressed Honour once more.

“Since the moment I found you and Viridian in my rooms, you have abused and insulted me. You have despised my skills; derided my knowledge and opinions; and cursed me for the peculiarities of my relationship with the Faith. I am sorry, but I have had enough! By your designs and for your reasons, I find myself wrecked once more upon this accursed island. I swear to you my life is the only thing I possess that I wouldn’t give to be anywhere else in the world than here! Wishing and wanting will not change the fact however, and it is the facts of which I wish to make you, unmistakably aware!”

Matthias paused once more. He could hear Garreck groaning as the dwarf struggled back to consciousness. In the corner of one eye, he could see Viridian, standing again and plainly caught in indecision. Perhaps even more than Honour, who had no other choice, Viridian hung upon Matthias’ every word. With a weary shake of his head, Matthias made his final points.

“We are all shipwrecked here now and in short order we can expect the cephalyx to be aware us, if they are not already,” said the gunmage. “I assure you that they will no more welcome myself, or Jonneran, than any of you. In fact, as a successful escapee, I imagine I might well be singled out for especially unpleasant investigation. We have come here to rescue your friend; keep that ever in the front of your mind, for it is the first of only two goals that matter. It is almost certain that she has been captured by the island’s masters, but you say the clerics of the Church believe she is still alive. Though it is to me a vain hope, your dream tells you that you will rescue her and I urge you to hold to that. I will give you every aid I am able to, because I left too many others behind the first time and I will not willingly leave another living soul to the mercy of the soulless!” Matthias gently eased himself into a standing position, but kept the pistols still trained on Dokor and Honour.

“So, Honour Pendragon,” he finished. “I suggest you find an unction to heal your heart-wounds swiftly or else you find a better armour than a haughty air and sharp tongue with which to guard them. Your friend needs you, as do we all. No one will be left behind and that will be easier if we have your aid.” In the silence as Matthias awaited Honour’s answer, he allowed the two pistols to lower slowly and point at the deck. Almost immediately, Dokor hefted his warcleaver and a rumble in his chest threatened to burst into a bellowing warcry. Before he could attack however, Honour raised her hand.

“Dokor, no!” she commanded and then levered herself to her feet. “I…he…Mat…Matthias is correct. I was wrong to accuse him of treachery. I…I think I have come to see deceit and betrayal in every man.”

“You’ve had some great examples to go on!” muttered Viridian in a sour voice and all knew that she was referring to Jonneran.

“So?” asked Matthias.

“You shall lead,” Honour conceded, nodding her head. Matthias shook his.

“No, you lead; I will guide!”

Honour raised her head and a surprised smile dawned on her lips. Matthias returned it and the tension that had hung about the group passed momentarily. Honour looked to the sky, enjoying the light upon her face. After a short while, she addressed the group.

“We are shipwrecked and injured,” she began. “We have but few supplies and as yet, no way to leave this island. Nonetheless, we have our purpose and…” She paused to cast a glance to Matthias. “And we have each other. Moreover, we have the advantage of foreknowledge. Let us about our task and, as the Warlock says, let us ensure that no one is left behind!”

Everyone nodded, though Garreck was not too vehement in his agreement, clutching his head where Matthias’ kick had landed.

“Dokor, see to the salvage,” Honour ordered, her military training giving her practical directions to move forward. “Whatever we cannot carry, we’ll try to find a hiding place for. Make a close count of any ammunition and rations. Viridian, we’ve lost Jonneran’s magic support, but I still have my amulet. As long as we have it, we can still find Tarleen. Let’s go into the trees and see if we can find her location.” Viridian looked awkwardly from Honour to Matthias.

“We need to speak privately, Warlock,” Honour said, misunderstanding Viridian’s awkwardness. “We shan’t travel far.” Matthias nodded, but Viridian stepped up to him and cleared her throat loudly.

“Yes?” asked Matthias.

“You have some things that belong to me,” answered Viridian, looking down with a cocked eyebrow at the pistols still in Matthias’ hands. He ducked his head in mild embarrassment.

“Sorry,” he said, handing the pistols back to her. Viridian could not tell if he was apologizing for not returning them, or for taking them in the first place. “Oh, and I think the powder has leached in the left one; the charge isn’t sound.”

Viridian looked at the pistol he was talking about. Experimentally, she pointed it out over the water and squeezed the trigger. The hammer fell, but the shot did not fire. Viridian stared at Matthias in amazement.

“I am a gunmage,” he said with a smirk, explaining how he had known the shot would hangfire.

“You were pointing a useless pistol at me?” Honour asked. Matthias shook his head.

“At Dokor,” he said. The three of them turned to look at the ogrun who had busied himself with the salvaged supplies. If he had heard that he had been faced down by a harmless pistol, he gave no indication. Honour shared Viridian’s amazement for a moment, then the two of them began to walk towards the mangroves. They had only gone a step however, when Honour turned back to ask the gunmage one last question.

“Why?”

“Dokor was not the one I was afraid of,” answered Matthias and then he looked to Garreck, who was sitting on the edge of the jetty, still rubbing his skull. Honour turned and walked away with Viridian, the two talking in hushed tones. Matthias sank to the deck next to Garreck who scowled at him.

“Sorry about that Three Fingers Short,” Matthias apologized. “I was just making a point.”

“Ye sure ‘it ‘ard enough fer makin’ a point!” said Garreck. “Dropped me like a sack!”

“I needed to make sure no one intervened between myself and the lady knight before I had finished speaking.”

“I wouldn’ a’ gotten involved,” Garreck protested. He picked a splinter from his plaited hair. “No wonder you done fer me boys!” The two men were silent for a moment, before Garreck’s words triggered a shock in Matthias.

“Those were Red Serpents in Catskinner’s Alley, not Gosling Street Runners?” he asked the former gang Thane, remembering the two men who had attacked him on his second last night in Five Fingers. Garreck Three Fingers Short nodded. “Why?”

“Oily Hermes leased ‘em out from me,” the rhul explained with a shrug. “ ‘E said somethin’ ‘bout havin’ spent a load on some secret assassin from out’a town, ‘e just wanted some bodies ta clean up after! ‘Parently they got o’er eager and you done ‘em in a’fore the assassin even showed up. When Hermes told me they was dead, I sent ‘im after you for blood feud. I figured I’d win any way it played out. I didn’t know ‘bout Greyfingers, ‘course.”

Matthias shook his head in wonder at the intricacies of underworld politics. More in disbelief than anger, he said, “I saved your life!”

“Yeah, well,” said Garreck, looking with wary eyes at the rocky island in front of them. “A lot o’ things have ‘appened since then!”

27     Clearer Understandings

The edge of the mangroves approached like a curtain woven of contorted branches and skeins of inch thick vines; in spite of their vibrant life, Viridian felt the trees spoke of cloying death, like the heat of the deep jungle. As she and Honour neared the end of the jetty, the half-elven pistoleer wondered how her full-blooded cousins could ever enjoy their close relationship with forests. As far as Viridian was concerned, anything more than four trees in a single group was too much of a forest for her. What this place needed was a couple of steamjacks with axes; big axes.

“Ios are weird,” she muttered under her breath, only partly aware of the irony of cursing her own heritage. Like so many half-elves, she had never known her elven ancestors and viewed their culture with the same mistrust that most humans did.

“What was that?” asked Honour, not looking up from the amulet in her hand. The medallion was made of a set of concentric iron and gold circles, forged together, with a single, flat piece of quartz in the center. As she held it, Honour could sense the presence of her friend and comrade Tarleen of Morridane; to the south-west, near the center of the island. It filled Honour with hope to be so close at last.

“What did you say?” she asked again, looking up at last.

“Nevermind,” Viridian replied with a shrug. “So can we find her?”

“I believe so,” Honour said with a smile.

“Well that’s something.” Viridian looked back over her shoulder, where she could see their companions working at the end of the dock. Heavy-leaved mangrove branches waved down across her vision, giving her a momentary shiver. “I suppose we should fetch the others and go do what we came for.”

“Yes,” Honour agreed. She turned back and caught sight of the three men sorting through their meager supplies. Pausing, she watched them for a space, the amulet in her hand forgotten for a moment. Viridian thought she heard Honour catch her breath.

“Farthing for your thoughts?” she asked. Honour blinked and turned to look at her friend.

“It was an impressive display, was it not?” she asked, referring to Matthias’ recent actions.

“Like Caine,” Viridian agreed, thinking of the Cygnar military’s preeminent gunmage.

“Caine is a warcaster,” Honour protested reflexively.

“And what’s he?” asked Viridian, nodding to where Matthias was leaning over the jetty’s edge, helping Dokor with something in the water. Honour shrugged.

“I just thought…a warcaster…well they are soldiers, not freebooters, as you know.”

“I don’t think it’s that simple,” Viridian mused. She slapped her thigh and chuckled. “Damn, he went through us like a dose of salts. I can’t remember being so easily beaten, not since I was a little sod.”

“He surprised us,” Honour said. Viridian thought she might be about to say more, but Honour’s voice merely trailed off.

“Now what are you thinking?”

Honour drew in a deep breath. “I was remembering,” she explained. “When I was sitting there, his weight pressing upon me and the pistol pointed straight at my eyes. The whole time he was talking, I kept seeing that sea-witch, the satyxis, in my mind. The way she knelt there in front of him. I wondered if she had felt the way I felt.”

“How did you feel?” Viridian asked her friend, studying Honour’s face in surprise. Honour swallowed.

“Funny…strange,” said the paladin hesitating between the words. “Do you think he would have done it? Would he really have shot me?”

“No,” said Viridian reflexively. Then she shrugged and shook her head. “Maybe…I don’t know.”

“He shot her,” said Honour. “Do you think he loved her?”

“How the bloody hell should I know?” Viridian responded, incredulous. Then she realized the true direction her friend’s thoughts were tending. A wry smile twisted her lips. “He’s not Jonneran, is he?”

“No, he is not,” Honour answered honestly, before she realized the direction that Viridian was drawing her. She waved angrily at her friend. “Oh don’t be ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous? Oh I don’t think so!”

Honour said no more, but tried to dismiss the subject with a derisive snort. Viridian chuckled again, knowingly. Honour’s imperious façade slowly melted to a soft mix of insecurity and guilty pleasure. The two women stood together in silence for a moment, sharing their thoughts without speaking in the way that old friends sometimes can.

“It was so much simpler with Jonneran,” Honour said at last.

“You’d rather be with him?” asked Viridian in disbelief.

“No, not at all, but…at least he wasn’t so…complicated.” Honour paused, thinking about the changes in the directions of her heart. A sudden thought gripped her with panic. “Do you think he knows?”

“The Warlock? About you? I don’t know,” said Viridian. “He’s pretty canny, that’s for sure, but even so…probably not.”

“Why not?”

“Well, he’s only a man, isn’t he?”

The two women chuckled and headed back to the others.

—-

Matthias wedged the last of their meager stores up under the jetty, above the high tide line. He pulled hard upon the knotted cord that would hold the makeshift oilskin bags in place and threaded the end back through a gap in the jetty planks, where Garreck’s thick fingers took it and tied it off tightly. With a push against a pylon, Matthias swung himself back up to the jetty’s edge. As he struggled to get purchase against the slick, wet wood on the jetty’s side, Dokor thrust out a massive hand to help. The Warlock took the offered aid and found himself easily levered up onto the edge. Dokor did not let go however; instead, he held the gunmage at the jetty’s edge by his grip and drew his face down close to Matthias’. The two stood there for many moments, eye-to-eye and stony-faced. Finally, Garreck broke the silence.

“Some’it on yer mind, big fella?” asked the dwarf warily. “Or is you boys jus’ makin’ friends?” Dokor did not look down to the rhul standing at his side. All of his attention and powerful presence were focused on Matthias.

“You saved my life today, Matthias Warlock,” Dokor said in his clipped, measured voice, his vast shoulders thrust forward so that his upper body all but overshadowed the gunmage. “That fact notwithstanding, I will not let you threaten her again.”

“Fair enough,” Matthias replied flatly, not shirking from Dokor’s angry gaze.

“Mark me, gunmage,” Dokor said, emphasizing his words with a shake on Matthias’ entrapped hand. “I will give you no further warning.”

“I doubt you’ll find a need.”

“There ya go,” Garreck intervened, like a man trying to keep two drunken mates from coming to blows over ill-chosen words. “You warned ‘im good an’ proper Dokor an’ he’s marked it an’ thinks it won’t be no problem. So how’s about we jus’ finish shakin’ on it and put on some smiles, eh? It looks as if th’ ladies is comin’ back.”

Dokor looked to see Honour and Viridian walking back down the jetty. With a helpful pull onto the jetty proper, he released his grip upon Matthias and headed in the women’s direction. On the way he bent down to pick up the two sacks that he had sorted with supplies, one for each woman. Dokor handed the first sack to Honour, the second to Viridian.

“ ‘E means it, ye know?” Garreck said quietly, bending down to claim his own small sack and tie it under his belt.

“Of course he means it,” said Matthias. The gunmage crouched in front of his own kit bag. On the deck in front of it was the elegant wooden case that held the brace of magelocks the party had claimed from the satyxis ship. He hesitated, his hand hovering over the case’s polished brass latch. Then he took it and placed it, unopened, in the top of his kitbag.

“Tha’s jus’ deadweight if ye ain’t gonna use ‘em,” Garreck observed, referring to the pistols inside.

“I know that,” said Matthias testily as he slung his kitbag over his shoulder, gripping the sling rope with one hand. “You’re just full of statements of the bleedingly obvious today, aren’t you.”

Matthias headed up the jetty to join Dokor and the women. Garreck also followed, scowling.

28     Into the Green

It was still an hour from sundown when Honour led the companions off the jetty and into the green gloom under the tree canopy, following a narrow muddy track. The interwoven foliage was as thick as a thatched roof, admitting only dim light, but trapping the heat. The path turned, switchback upon itself several times as it rapidly climbed to a ridge that commanded full views of the entire bay through a single break in the canopy, which ran like a gallery window alongside the path. The break was so tailored to the path that the companions were certain that the island’s inhabitants had deliberately created it. In the dying light the half-submerged wreck of the Puffing Bey seemed like nothing more than a roughly shaped rock or piece of coral, but on the water around it there floated a strangely multicoloured film.

“Engine oil,” Garreck observed to Viridian as the two looked down at the water through the gap. “Like the blood of a machine.”

“A poetic observation, old dwarf,” answered Viridian. She drew a kerchief from her belt and used it to mop sweat from her face and the back of her neck. “Damn, I’d have expected to get cooler in the shadows, not hotter.”

“I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout trees,” said Garreck with a shrug.

“Me neither,” Viridian agreed and the two of them moved on to keep up with the others.

The group paused at a point on the path at the end of the ridge, while Honour consulted Matthias. In her hand she held the locating amulet.

“I sense her down there,” Honour insisted, pointing downwards, where the trail followed the curve of the mountain into a deep-sided gully. “You are sure we shouldn’t follow the path?”

“Absolutely,” Matthias Warlock said without looking to where Honour pointed. Instead, his eyes were searching above them, looking for something much further up the slope. “I think we need to leave the path here.”

“And go upward?” Honour was struggling to keep to her recent resolution to trust Matthias’ advice.

“Yes,” said the gunmage; he reached out and used a tree trunk to lever himself off the path onto the slope above the ridge. Slipping on the muddy hillside, he proceeded to half walk, half climb up the mountainside. More than once, he went down onto his knees, or caught his foot on the edge of his mage robe. Using branches or trunks or even the fronds of long growing palms, he as much pulled himself upwards and climbed. After watching his progress for a moment, the others followed one at a time. Honour and Viridian did their best to keep their balance, picking their way upward carefully, while behind them Garreck used his lesser height to his advantage by bending forward to almost on all fours, crawling as much as walking. Though he made no better time, he slipped much less. Dokor came last of all, taking advantage of his own unusual height; using a tree trunk as a launching point, he thrust himself one massive step upward and then reached out for another tree trunk to pull himself up by. He made his way in a staggering, stop-start fashion, his path weaving back and forth as he sought suitable trunks within reach.

The companions were scattered up the slope when a low growl issued from Dokor below them. All turned to see the ogrun crouched behind a tree trunk and watching the path below. In the final rays of daylight, it was difficult to even make out the ogrun’s form against the bark and dark earth. The path itself was almost invisible. After a moment the sound of heavy footfalls began to filter up through the rainforest and the companions all hid themselves as best they could behind palms or trees.

Upon the path beneath them, they were able to barely make out three figures. The first two seemed to lumber in heavy armour, their brass-helmeted heads swaying in time with the thumping sound of their footsteps. The third figure moved so smoothly that it seemed to float along, rather than making steps. The trio moved in an unhurried fashion, taking their time and there was something about them that was vaguely unsettling. After a moment’s study Honour realized that it was the nature of each figure’s motion. The first two moved with a kind of unmotivated gait, as if they could walk without any sense of purpose; they reminded her of oxen yoked to a cart. Even steamjacks and warjacks showed more notion of intention in their motion. It was as if the two figures possessed the power of motion but lacked the strength of will to move on their own. The third figure was the opposite. It moved forward without showing any signs of bodily motion, as though all that it required was the will to move. The darkness settling under the trees made it all but impossible to make out any of the final figure’s features, but the three together gave Honour the impression of some perverse shepherd, herding two equally perverse ‘sheep’ along the mountain path. None of the three looked up the hill, continuing along the path to the shoreline.

“That was they?” Honour asked Matthias as she clambered carefully to his spot beside a tree. The gunmage nodded.

“A cephalyx and two drudges.”

“The drudges are men?”

“Aye, or they were once at least,” Matthias answered with a nod. “Now they are mere servitors, as un-human as any thrall or mechanism.” The pair of them waited in the twilight for the others to clamber to their height. By the time Dokor reached them the sun was gone and the darkness beneath the canopy was a deep as any cave or tunnel. In whispers, Matthias outlined his plan for the night.

“Just above us is a rock outcrop,” the gunmage explained. “We should be able to make it there without getting lost. It will give us something to hide behind so we can camp without being seen from the path or slipping down the mountain in the night. Cold camp, of course.”

“Of course,” agreed Honour readily.

With deliberate care the companions scrambled, single-file, up the final few paces to the rocky outcrop. Each made sure that the one following was never more than a pace behind, reaching out to touch each other in the darkness, so as not to get lost. Eventually they levered themselves over the granite lip and slithered across the table-like surface of the outcrop. Last of all, Dokor pushed up onto the stone, not standing, but sitting cross-legged, with his back leaning against the earth of the steep slope. In the warm darkness they lay flat, listening to the island’s myriad small sounds; insects chirruped and lizards skittered across the ground beneath the canopy. From the north spur of the bay there came the distant sound of surf, beating on the shore. Crawling to the edge of the rock, Viridian and Garreck peered into the darkness beneath them.

“Lanterns!” Viridian said, pointing to faint, luminous dots, some way down the mountain to the south.

“I guess,” whispered Garreck. “But from th’ way they’re movin’ I’d swear th’ hands holdin’ ‘em is drunk or stupid.” Viridian understood Garreck’s observation, for the small lights seemed to dance and whirl about in wild and erratic patterns.

“Surely they aren’t fireflies,” Viridian mused. “The lights are too large.”

“Moonwings,” whispered Matthias from further back on the rock. Viridian nodded, unseen in the darkness, but Garreck was still confused.

“What the damn’s a moonwing?” he asked hoarsely.

“A kind of moth or butterfly,” Viridian explained. “With a wingspan about the width of a man’s shoulders.”

“Tha’s a bloody big moth!”

“Aye,” agreed Viridian. “They’re drawn to fires and lanterns; that’s what causes their bodies to light up like that.”

“So they ain’t search lanterns but they could be showing us where the searchers are?” Garreck ventured.

“Unlikely! Drudges do not need light to see by,” Matthias disagreed. “More likely they are a natural phenomenon, a break in the canopy that lets the moonlight in.” Garreck and Viridian went back to watching the dancing luminescence, gradually falling into surprisingly relaxed sleep. Matthias and Honour remained awake much longer.

“They are pleasant to watch,” the paladin whispered, so quietly that only Matthias could hear. “A small blessing of Morrow to ease the tension of our journey.”

“You will count them a curse soon enough,” the gunmage countered. “Their wings drop a fine powder that brings deep slumber. Not dangerous in itself, but on this island a sleep you cannot wake from will be your last, I promise.” Honour said nothing for a moment and there was a deep rustling sound as Dokor adjusted his weight. He was asleep, but it was the alert sleep of an experienced scout.

“Why do you hate my faith so?” Honour asked at last. “Is it really so wrong, what I believe? Or is that what it means to be a heretic; that you hate belief in others?”

“I do not hate your faith,” Matthias said quietly. “Remember that until today my heresy was your cause for cursing me.”

“True, but I cannot understand how anyone can turn their back upon their faith.”

“I have not,” Matthias said. “My faith has turned its back upon me.”

“But why,” Honour asked. “What did you do?” Matthias’ mouth twisted in his familiar wry smile that she could feel in his words, in spite of the darkness.

“It is truly not that simple,” he answered. “And it is not something to be explained in the shadows of a cold camp. The faith you have is something that I once enjoyed, but it has been battered by the beliefs of others. It has become a twisted, cynical grotesque of itself. Nonetheless, it is founded in truth and I will not relinquish it! I do not curse you for your faith, I envy you.” Matthias let his words hang in the warm air.

“But you can be restored,” Honour said eventually, her voice filled with more compassion than Matthias had ever seen her demonstrate before. It was a sweet thing; he shook his head.

“It is not that simple,” he repeated. “Sleep now, and pray that Morrow will gird that simple faith of yours; tomorrow will bring it some heavy shocks.” Matthias lowered his head to the rock, arranging his arms underneath as an uncomfortable pillow.

“Where do we go tomorrow?” asked Honour.

“To meet a maggot.”

29    Maggot

The dawn awakened the rainforest to a chorus of chirruping and birdcalls. By the time the sun was fully above the horizon, the group had made their way upward from their night camp, climbing the slope to just below the shoulder of the mountain. There Matthias directed them to a shadowy cleft between two faces of rock. Being a dwarf, Garreck poked his head through the opening first, then ducked back to deliver his ‘professional’ opinion.

“This openin’s nat’ral, but there’s a tunnel jus’ inside ‘as been purposely built,” he declared. Matthias nodded.

“This is the exit to a secret access-way to the cephalyx settlement.

“Settlement?” asked Viridian. The gunmage nodded.

“What else should I call it?” he asked with a shrug.

“I don’t know. It just seems like such a benign term.”

“So we just follow this tunnel?” asked Honour. Matthias shook his head.

“There’s more to it, isn’t there?” Garreck observed sourly.

“Of course,” Matthias replied, his familiar sardonic smile playing again on his lips. “After all this time, did you expect it to be otherwise? Now for this next bit, it would be best if you all kept behind me.”

“Why?” asked Honour.

“Because the owner of this tunnel can be an unpleasant fellow,” the gunmage answered, reaching into his duffle bag. He pulled out an amulet of graven silver, hung from a simple leather cord. Passing the cord over his head, he flashed them all one more smile. “He knows me.”

Matthias Warlock slipped between the rocks and down the lip to the tunnel proper. The rock was dark, volcanic granite, riddled through with slivers of basalt that twinkled damply in the moist air. After very few steps though, the light from the opening faded and deep shadow awaited. Matthias paused for a moment and uttered a few arcane phrases, effecting a magical transformation to allow himself to see without light. From behind him there came a sarcastic cough. Turning, he saw Viridian standing in the tunnel entrance with her hands on her hips, frowning.

“I’m sure your magic works wonderfully for you, but what are the rest of us supposed to do?” she asked archly.

“I’m fine,” said Garreck, pushing past the half-elf and into the tunnel. Viridian glared at the back of his head. “I thought elves had good eyes.”

“There’s a difference between good eyes and seeing in pitch darkness,” she snapped. “And all the Ios eyesight in the world isn’t going to help Honour, is it?”

“She ‘as a point, Warlock,” Garreck conceded. The three stood in silence for a moment and from the entrance to the caves there came the sound of grunting and a despairing sigh. Honour then stood beside them, a bull’s-eye lantern in hand, its shutter’s pulled open.

“Seems like the problem’s solved,” observed the dwarf.

Honour cast him a momentary, quizzical look, but did not wait to see if he would explain further. Instead she pressed past him to Matthias’ side.

“There is no way that Dokor is going to be able to fit through this tunnel, not unless it widens very soon,” she informed the gunmage. “Even on all fours, he will barely fit.” Matthias winced and sucked his breath over his teeth.

“I half-hoped it wouldn’t be a problem,” he admitted. “But the tunnel is like this almost the whole way. I guess he will have to wait for us here.”

Honour studied Matthias’ face for a long moment, looking for a crack in the gunmage’s certainty. At last she sighed in acceptance. Eyes downcast, she pushed back up the tunnel. As she passed Viridian, the two exchanged knowing glances and nods of resignation.

The three in the tunnel waited in silence as Honour gave Dokor the bad news. There was no cry of refusal, no heated denial, only quiet. Everyone knew that Dokor would accept the situation with the same stoicism he brought to every aspect of his life.

“Can’t be easy on ‘im,” Garreck whispered just before Honour reappeared.

“You have no idea,” Viridian replied in a whisper that was almost swallowed by the sound of Honour’s armour as the woman knight reentered the tunnel. She held the lantern up so that its light fell over all four of them. Her face showed clearly the pain leaving her battle-brother behind. The unpleasant silence continued for several moments until at last, Honour spoke.

“It cannot be avoided,” she acknowledged, accepting the situation. “He understands that. It is no treachery to ask him to guard our escape.” They all nodded their agreement, but Honour’s tone conveyed none of the certainty of her words.

Matthias led the way deeper into the tunnel.

—-

For some time the four made their way into the darkness, the light of Honour’s lantern lancing into the blackness ahead. The air cooled rapidly and the tunnel soon became quite steep. Viridian and Honour both lost their footing at different points, their boots missing uneven rocks amidst the shadows. Even Matthias, who led with confidence, cursed at one point, slipping on an unseen patch of moss. Only Garreck’s mood seemed to lighten as the dark journey continued, his rhullic heritage coming to the fore. He smiled broadly and even sighed happily on occasions. Viridian was about to suggest that he shut up before she shoved her fist down his throat, when Matthias brought them to a halt with a hiss of warning. He signaled for them to follow him slowly.

Matthias crept forward, the amulet now held in his left hand. Rounding a slight bend, he came upon a fork in the tunnel. To the right, the tunnel continued on a gentle, downward path. To the left, a parallel path dropped six feet in only a few paces, before continuing onward for many more paces. The two paths remained effectively parallel, so that the right hand path seemed like a raised gallery to the left hand path. From down in the darkness at the end of the length of the two paths there came a scratching sound, similar to rats in the corners of houses, but louder and somehow more disturbing. As the others rounded the corner, the light of the lantern revealed the figure of a bone thin man, his skin so white that it was virtually translucent. Whatever clothes he had once possessed were long gone, with only a threadbare loincloth covering his nakedness. The hair on his head was long and ragged, so thin that it almost looked like cobwebs. He crouched at the end of the left hand tunnel, apparently digging through the rock with his own bony fingers. As the light played across his body, he ceased his digging and whistled quietly. With a shriek, he turned and charged wildly towards the companions.

Matthias thrust the medallion in his hands forward and shouted at the charging figure to halt. In spite of the fury of the creature’s assault, it recoiled from the presented silver amulet as though the object were a burning brand. Alternately whimpering and hissing, the figure retreated to the end of the lower tunnel, glaring at Matthias with eyes black like long dried blood. The others crowded behind Matthias as he addressed the pallid monstrosity.

“We meet again, Maggot,” Matthias said. In spite of the insulting nature of the epithet, it seemed to the others an appropriate term. The figure so plainly resembled a maggot. “You have made some good distance since last time.”

“What is that thing?” Viridian asked, as Maggot hissed again at Matthias.

“A shaft wight,” answered Garreck with a tremor in his voice.

“What’s it doing here?”

“Digging,” said Matthias flatly. Viridian and Honour both snorted in disgust, but Matthias dared a look over his shoulder to show his earnest face. “I am serious. This is what they do.”

“He ain’t lyin’,” Garreck concurred. “These things is the bane o’ all miners.”

“Why?” asked Honour. “I can see that it’s disgusting, but hardly all that fearsome…” Her words were cut short as the shaft wight suddenly sprayed a wet mixture of gravel and dust from its mouth, as if vomiting the rocky matter from a recent, geological meal. The brackish particles sprayed across the lower tunnel floor in a foul smelling puddle.

“That’s why,” Garreck answered. “Woe betide ye git that in yer mouth or eyes.” The two women waited for the dwarf to finish his explanation, their eyes never leaving the maggot.

“Why?” they both asked in frustration.

“It is how they make more of their own kind,” Matthias answered. “The amulet will keep him at a safe distance though.”

“So why waste time with the magic?” asked Viridian, her face contorting in disgust. “Why not just kill the thing?”

“It serves a purpose.”

“What purpose could this abomination possibly serve?” Honour asked in revolted disbelief.

“A lesser evil to stopper a more vile container,” Matthias answered enigmatically.

“If ye reckon,” Garreck muttered. “So what do we do now?”

“We leave Maggot to his digging,” said Matthias, ushering the others down the right passage with his free hand. The group made their way cautiously along the ledge-like path, making sure to stay as far from Maggot as possible. Matthias acted as a shield man, keeping the medallion at arm’s length, its power forcing Maggot further back into the cleft of its own mining. At last the others were all past the branching tunnel and Matthias crept along the ledge. Just as he was passing the end of the lower tunnel, Maggot again spewed forth a spray of wet, black gravel. The gout of muck splattered against the wall of the lower passage, with only the smallest amount reaching the toes of Matthias’ boots.

“Uh-uh,” Matthias chided. “Do not be rude; we were just leaving! Be nice and next time I’ll bring you a shovel…or a pick.” Maggot only screeched as the power of Matthias’ amulet pressed closely upon the undead’s being. At last, Matthias stepped through the opening at the other end of the upper passage and left Maggot behind.

“Won’t it follow us?” asked Viridian as Matthias joined the others further along the tunnel. The gunmage shook his head.

“Maggot would not hesitate to rip us apart and pour that filth down into us to make more of his kind, but he does not care about us and now that we have gone, he will return to his digging and not give us another thought.”

“You talk about it like an old friend,” Honour observed. Matthias shook his head with a wry smile.

“Not quite,” he said. “But there was a time when I was all but certain Maggot’s would be the last face I would ever see. It has left me with a certain affection for the ugly brute.”

“Where was it digging to?” Viridian asked as Matthias made his way to the front of the line once more.

“I do not know,” the gunmage answered.

“No one knows,” added Garreck. “Damn things just dig; dig an’ kill miners!”

30   The Aviary Temple

After a long time in darkness the tunnel finally emerged onto a ledge that ran to the left along the sheer rock face of a deep ravine. Looking upward the company could see the sunlight, perhaps a hundred feet above them. Over the edge, the dark coloured rock plunged downward beyond the deepest reach of the light. The other side of the chasm was as featureless as the side with the ledge, twenty or thirty paces distant across the yawning space. After the pressing confines of the tunnel, the sudden openness seemed to almost suck at their bodies, threatening to draw them into a fatal fall.

“Well this was unexpected,” said Viridian. Even at normal volume her voice echoed off the rock walls. “Where to now.”

“Does it look like we got alot ‘o choices?” quipped Garreck with a mocking smile. Viridian cuffed him on the shoulder.

“The path follows a curve around to the left out of sight,” explained Matthias.

“Then what?”

“You will see!”

The ledge was broad enough for the party to walk single file. Honour took the lead at the head of the line. From somewhere above the sound of birdsong trilled through the air, answered by another avian voice. As the corner drew nearer, so the numbers of birdcalls grew. Cautiously Honour reached out with a hand to grasp the corner of the wall and stepped around.

“Mercy of Morrow!” she swore, her face rising in astonishment. Out of concern for her comrade, Viridian stepped past Garreck, dangerously risking a fall. As she rounded the corner she too breathed a disbelieving oath.

In the midst of the ravine rose a pagoda, a ten-sided tower, three levels in height. It was built from some ancient wood as pale as cream and its beams and gables were as ornate as any temple any of them had seen. Carved dragons festooned the walls, their scales painted in brilliant reds, blues and greens. Murals on every wall depicted dragons and birds in flight. The bottom floor had no windows, but on the second floor were openings barred with intricately woven patterns of wood. The top floor, the smallest of the three, had neither windows nor walls, only ten wooden pillars that supported the pointed, tile roof. Through the spaces of the third level flew birds of innumerable species. Predator and prey, they flew into and out of the temple and roosted under the tower-top roof. Their cries echoed from the ravine walls and mingled with a blowing breeze that descended from above. Most amazingly though, the pagoda seemed to float in the space of the ravine, free of the ground and connected to the rock wall by only a flimsy wooden footbridge that looked as if it would break under the weight of a single mortal foot, let alone the massive weight of the tower. As they approached, the four could see a similar bridge crossing from the pagoda to the other side of the ravine.

“Did you know this was here?” asked Honour looking in wonder from the tower to Matthias at the back of the line. The gunmage smiled and nodded.

“This is the Aviary Temple of the Order of the Nine Dragons.”

“The Order o’ what?” asked Garreck.

“The Nine Dragons.”

“Toruk worshippers?” Honour demanded, suspicious of the title.

“Not in the least,” said Matthias with a chuckle.

Honour came level with the footbridge and found the remains of what might once have been statues, broken down to the very foundations. Standing at the ravine end of the bridge, the others joined her and together they watched the birds swoop and fly around the temple. Their flight was a pleasure to watch and all found themselves smiling for a moment, the meditative sight temporarily lifting the heavy burdens of their long journey.

“So we cross here, right?” asked Viridian.

“I hope so,” said Matthias, a note of uncertainty in his voice. He led the way out onto the footbridge. The ancient wood was deeply crusted with the droppings of a hundred generations of birds. Though the gunmage seemed to almost float over the noisome surface, the boots of the other three cut into the ancient guano, kicking up grey-white puffs of dust. The bridge had neither rails nor handholds and as they walked, the dark ravine seemed to leer at them. They fixed their eyes on the temple entry ahead, trying to forget the pagoda’s impossible position in space.

Matthias stopped just inside the doorway of the temple and the other three gathered up behind him. The entire first floor of the pagoda was a single open space and across the opposite side they could see the entryway for the other bridge. A further short walk would take them to the other side of the ravine and the only thing that blocked their way was a thin, bald man sitting in the middle of the floor. Wearing a simple robe of tan cotton and a white belt, he sat on his feet with his eyes closed and his hands in his lap.

After a moment the group noticed eight others, all seated in the same fashion as the monastic, around the walls. Three of the figures seemed to be women, but all were shaven-headed and still. On their shoulders, each of the eight around the walls had small birds, twittering and trilling in their ears. Some would alight, sing for a time and then fly away, only to be replaced by other birds. It was as if the sparrows and gulls, crows and swallows, all stopped to gossip with each other while the monks sat quietly and listened. Only the monk in the middle was unattended by any avians.

“What’s with the birds?” asked Viridian, ducking as a magpie swept past her face.

“They come from across the kingdoms,” whispered Matthias. “They tell the monks the news of the world. These nine monks are more informed than chroniclers and better studied than the greatest sages.”

“Informed? By birds?” scoffed Garreck. “What’s a bird know?”

“They know better than some to not let underlings plot against them, Master Three-Fingers-Short,” said the monk in the middle of the floor without opening his eyes. Matthias and Viridian smirked but Garreck scowled to be reminded of his betrayal by Greyfingers the gobber.

“So you knows me name, so what?”

If the monk heard Garreck’s reply, he gave no indication. Matthias lowered himself to his knees and bowed to the floor, making obeisance. The others watched, unsure if they were expected to do the same. As Matthias lifted himself to sit back on his knees, one of the other monks spoke, causing the swallow on her shoulder to pause in its song and stand by, twitching its wings.

“You still wear our sash,” she said. Her face was not deeply lined, so that she seemed no more than forty years of age, and her voice was strong, but there was the weight of ages in her words. “Have you thought to return it?”

Matthias unwound the sash from around his waist and folded it, placing it neatly on the floor in front of him.

“It has served me well, No Sa,” he said with a quiet humility that surprised his companions. They had never seen him so humble. “You said I would have a chance to return the gift. I did not believe you, but I have been proved wrong.”

“Even so,” said the nun No Sa. None of the other monks spoke, but the birdsong quieted completely so that silence filled the pagoda. In the quiet the sound of the breeze outside could be heard and the wood of the impossible temple groaned softly in the moving air. As the quiet continued the companions shifted back and forth, unclear what was expected of them. Honour leaned forward to ask Matthias what to do next when another monk spoke, sending the bird on his shoulder flittering away out the entry on the opposite side.

“You wish to ask for something more.” It was not a question.

“We need to pass through the temple, No Den.”

“The temple is not a passage, but a journey,” answered the monk No Den. “You know this.”

Matthias nodded, but it was Viridian who spoke.

“So can we make the journey?” she asked. There was an impatience to her voice. None of the monks replied directly, but it seemed to the pistoleer that the one in the middle cocked his head to listen to her, as if she was another bird singing in his ear. She felt suddenly like a little girl in a room full of adults.

“Ah, sod this!” said Garreck harshly and with one hand on the hilt of his short sword, as if he expected trouble, he shouldered past Matthias. It was clear that he meant to force the issue. He had set his boot down on the floor of the pagoda proper when the monk in the middle of the floor moved. Like the blur of a hummingbird’s wings, the monk surged forward with a motion almost too fast to be seen and his palm landed flat on the dwarf’s chest. The force of the push lifted Garreck bodily into the air and flung him out of the temple. He landed on the footings of the bridge and skidded onto the ledge, ending up lying stunned against the ravine wall. The monk stood peacefully with his hands clasped in front of his chest. Viridian and Honour looked at his now open eyes and were astonished to see they were nearly white with rheumy blindness.

“Ill manners are ill desired,” he said with a quiet voice.

Continued in Parts 31 – 40

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