The ground crackled as it cooled, the hot thruster wash baking the already dry clay of The Basin to a fine particulate. Small fires sprang up as the sparse vegetation, testament to life's tenancy, burned away filling the air with twisting ribbons of smoke and the reek of incomplete organic combustion. Elsewhere on the planet a starship landing might set off a major fire that would sweep over thousands of hectares in a few hours, but years of landings and clearance by the locals had left The Basin barren and bare of the necessary fuel for an inferno.
Dozens of ships already lay in the ten kilometer wide depression between unimpressive ridge lines that was all Kinshaya could muster in terms of topographical features. It was an extremely arid planet, where rain was greeted by the primitive inhabitants as a miracle from the Gods, and vegetation sent mile long taproots into the dry earth to reach distant artesian basins. At night the trees on Kinshaya opened like roses, spreading square meters of membranous bark like nets in an effort to catch what little water condensate the brief night cycles could shake into the scorched air. Life, however, worked its usual magic, and plants and insects flourished. Where Terran life competed for sunlight, Kinshaya’s natives competed for water. Colonies of biting ant like creatures worked together to bore into the hearts of the vast twisted trees whose size allowed them to reach the water beneath the earth. Translucent flies floated on the thermals and sank to sip the sparse condensate from the bark of trees before they could close and adsorb their bounty. Few vertebrates existed, mostly lifeforms similar to Terran Lizards though on a plan of eight short legs rather than four and with proportionally large underslung tusks. Men too lived on the surface of Kinshaya, survivors of some ancient and doomed colony expedition fallen to stone age barbarism. The Kinsyai made their homes in deep caves where rare springs, or ancient and carefully tended wells, allowed them enough water to eek out a tenuous existence. For the most part they were pastoralists, herding the larger lizards for meat and gathering plants and root bulbs for vegetable protein.
Galactic society, or the dregs there of, had rediscovered Kinshaya a century ago. At first it had seemed that it had little to recommend it and it had been rarely visited save for the occasional big game hunter looking to bag one of the larger lizard forms but trade, like life, often finds a way. Golki bulbs, large fibrous root structures that grew beneath the earth surrounding some of the larger trees had a mildly narcotic effect when processed and, it was rumored, could be used to help fight the effects of aging. Entrepreneurs had tried to set up extraction operations, but the roots were rare and seemed to follow no obvious distribution patterns. The wildfires that heat lightning kindled from time to time made hunting for the roots dangerous as did the moisture hungry insect and, in some cases, plant life. The natives too, proved to be opposed to outsiders plundering their planet, and though they had no technology more sophisticated than spears, that was sufficient to make the already questionable profit margins unpalatable for industrialized extraction.
Instead there was the Grass Festival. A single week each solar cycle in which native Kinshayai gathered all the bulbs they collected in a year and bought them to The Basin, where small traders would land and exchange water extraction equipment, water and, most importantly to the locals, metal in exchange for their valuable vegetables. Alcohol, of great quantity and dubious quality, was also provided by the traders as part of the arrangement, although in most cases it was little more than industrial ethanol cut with water and perhaps flavored electrolyte powder. Most Kinshayai made it to the gathering once or twice in their lives and it formed an important act of ritual pilgrimage. The same was true about most down on their luck traders. No matter how bad things got, you could always make a cred or two at the Grass Festival. The practice was so well known amongst traders that ‘cutting grass’ had become a colloquial expression for being in dire financial straits.
Kyra, like most trader captains in the Persian Plate prefered to think she was temporarily embarrassed tycoon, but the fact was that her aging freighter, the grandly named Magnum Opus, was almost identical to the dozens of others that had already come to rest in the Basin. A metal box forty meters long with boxy gimbaled thrusters attached along the side like seed pods. Years of wear and tear and indifferent maintenance left country craft like the Maggie, rust splotched and disheveled, operable only by the will of their captains and perhaps one or two desperte crewmen.
The cargo hatch cycled open with a grinding crunch and the concave hatch plate fell, only partially arrested by dilapidated pistons, to crash to the baked earth, lifting a shower of dust that billowed out towards the other ships. The Grass Festival had already been going for a day or so, lacking anything like an official calendar it was hard to say when it began or when it ended, but the smoking cook fires and the singing of natives mingled with music from a half dozen cultures blasting through ship PA systems told its own story. Shade cloths, in most cases grease spotted sheets of temperature stable plastic film had been rigged from the sides of most of the ships, providing awnings for protection from the sun, if not from the heat and aridity of the air. Reflective glow paint, meant for marking hulls and ore deposits on asteroids had been splashed liberally across the plastic in a riot of reflective yellows and oranges intended to appeal to the natives. Hard faced men and women sat on chairs or piled crates, bartering with tanned aboriginals with their skin burned the color of old leather by lifetimes spent beneath the powerful solar rays. They were smaller than their interstellar counterparts, perhaps owing to their less caloric diets and they appeared older, though that was an illusion caused by the effects of the dry air and harsh sunlight. Most of those attending the festival were probably younger than the traders they bartered with in crude pigeon galactic that served as the trade language for the Festival. Many of the natives were decorated, their bodies painted with crushed rock and powdered charcoal, ritual preparations for meeting with the star men. Ornaments of bone and carved wood hung from piercings and in long chains around their necks and ritual scarring crisscrossed the backs of many of the bare chested females.
Beyond the Fair itself the landscape was brutally sere. Trees with gnarled and twisted trunks, designed to maximize the surface area of the bark, clawed towards the sky at widely spaced intervals, while an irregular undergrowth of tangled brush carpeted the rocky ground. The foliage of both was an unappealing tan with hardly more than a hint of green as water rather than sunlight was the limiting reagent of life. Intermittent gusts of wind ruffled the brush like peristaltic waves, the reflections of the narrow shoulders of the valley hinting at complicated geometric patterns. Large anthills, three or four feet high, interspaced the trees like sentry towers, the mix of dirt and insect secretions indistinguishable from sedimentary rocks if not for their regular spacing and smooth surfaces. The contrast to the bright colors of the Fair and artificial lines of the starships landed there made the brownish landscape look dull and washed out, as though an artist had painted the fair itself and then merely sketched in the detail of the rest of the Basin.
“First time?” a voice called from the bottom of the ramp. Kyra looked down to see a stout looking man whose arms were so covered in tattoos as to appear black, though the patchy sunburn that peeled his reddened bulbous nose indicated that he had probably started out with a fairer complexion. He had an open and friendly face and a frizz of thinning hair that made him look like a clerk rather than a trader on the frontier of civilized face.
“Do I know you?” she asked as she walked down the ramp, her hand instinctively moving to rest on her belt beside the pistol that hung in a battered leather holster. At twenty nine Kyra was young to be captaining her own ship, though the scars and burns that discolored her hands attested to a life time spent in engine rooms and vacc suits, the mark of a true spacer. Her blue eyes were wide spaced, giving her face a look of perpetual puzzlement and her short greasy brown hair did little to accent her femininity.
“No, but I know you, and I know the Maggie,” the man said, nodding towards the freighter with a good natured smile.
“You screwed me out of a cargo of iridium on Meknah as I remember it,” he remarked jovially before thrusting out his hand.
“Clayton Hasp, pleased to meet you in person,” he added with a broad smile that displayed a set of remarkably white teeth. Kyra looked the fellow up and down for a moment and then clasped his hand in her own.
“Kyra Slade,” she said with a slight smile. She didn’t remember screwing anyone out of a cargo, but it was a cut throat business and there didn’t appear to be any hard feelings. Hasp pumped her hand for a moment and then let it go.
“No crew?” he asked, glancing over her shoulder.
“I have a battalion of infantry aboard,” Kyra replied in a dead pan, “Why thinking of stealing her?” Hasp laughed in appreciation of the joke, though the small lines at the corner of his mouth and eyes suggested that laughter was a frequent occurrence.
“You wound me Captain,” he replied with a twinkle in his eyes and then he gave her a conspiratorial wink.
“Besides if I was going to steal a ship I could do better than the Maggie.” It was Kyra’s turn to laugh as she glanced around at the dozens of ships that littered the Basin.
“I believe you could,” she said with a smile, “I take it you have been here before?”
“My fifth time,” he confessed with a mournful nod.
“Well in that case let me buy you a drink as an apology for the iridium and you can give me the lay of the land,” Kyra offered.
“The drinks are free at the Fair,” Hasp pointed out.
“In that case I’ll buy you two,” Kyra replied. Hasp laughed so hard he had to grip his sides.
“Lady, you are going to fit right in.”
“There go the horses,” Heinreick groaned, slapping the leaden glass cover of the window closed. A round of groans went up from the taverns occupants at the unwelcome news. The pistoliers were the only customers of the Hound and Badger this night, save for the terrified innkeeper who huddled behind the bar in a stained apron. The dozen Imperials, armed and armored, filled the taproom, lounging on the tables of coarse oak and drinking from heavy wooden flagons. They were a dirty an unkempt lot that would have given a Riekland drill sergeant nightmares. A pair of men stood to either side of the two small windows and another at the top of the short flight of stone stairs that led to the upper story. Candles of cheap tallow guttered and smoked in the damp wind that blew through the ancient stone walls, filling the room with a miasma of black smoke that gathered against the timbered ceiling.
“Monsieur!” came a shout from the rainswept night beyond the inn.
“Monsieur, are you still in there?” the Brettonian accent was artificially bright, especially for a man who must be soaked to the very expensive armor.
“Yes Gaston, I’m still here,” Reinholt replied casting any eye up to his man at the top of the stairs. Reinholt Harker was to all appearances a middling man. Somewhere in his mid twenties, of middling height, neither handsome or ugly, he looked for all the world like a clerk, albeit it a rather athletic one. His battered curriass and well cared for weapons combined and the deep tan burned into his skin by years in the saddle in all weathers told a different story.
“Have you given any more thought to my offer monsieur, I am afraid we cannot wait all night, and it is Henri, as I told you earlier,” the voice called back.
“Oh I don’t know Gaston,” Reinholt called back, keeping his hand on his flintlock as he took a drink from his tankard. There wasn’t any long term benefit in irritating Sir Henri Du Benoir but then there really wasn’t a lot of long term benefits in anything he might do.
“I’m still mulling it over,” he admitted, gaining a grim chuckle from the assembled pistoliers. There was a long silence interrupted only by the drum of rain upon the slate roof.
“I have someone who wishes to speak to you!” Henri’s voice called after a long minute. The pistoliers began to rumble uncertainty to one another, unsure of what this meant. Reinholt arched an eyebrow and gestured his men to quiet.
“Harker,” came another strained voice, this one with an upper class Reikland accent. “Harker, I want you and your men to accept Sir Henri’s offer,” the voice called. Reinholt’s lip curled in contempt. Gustav Hoffman had always been a fool, but Reinholt had never considered him a coward. The mercenary captain had made his name fighting hill brigands and endlessly reminding people he had once been a captain in an Imperial Regiment.
“What do you think lads,” Reinholt asked his men in a quiet voice. They were hard bitten men, bastards and cutthroats, murderers and thieves all but everyone of them had bled with him on the brutal rides and desperate retreats of the last months. Their growls of anger and defiance were all he needed right now. He leaned his head close to the door once more.
“No, no I don’t think we will,” he called back.
“That is an order Harker I am your superior officer and I com…”
With a sudden jerk Reinholt threw open the heavy wooden door to reveal the rain soaked mud street beyond. Two men stood in the shadowed doorway of a leather shop across the way. Both were big men, though in Henri’s case it was more to do with the elaborate plate armor he wore rather than the bulk flesh that heavy eating and drinking had gifted Hoffman. Reinholt leveled his flintlock and fired, the flash of the pistol lit the night like a bolt of lightning, the familiar prickles of burning powder stinging his bare hands. The fatter of the two men, Hoffman, pitched forward into the street, thrashing like a poleaxed ox. Reinholt jerked the door closed a moment before it resounded to the blows of a half dozen arrows slamming into its heavy oak timbers.
“That was very foolish monsieur,” came Henri’s voice after a moment, his voice tight with the effort of sounding calm, despite knowing full well that the pistol ball would have punched through his breastplate as easily as it did Hoffman’s flesh. Reinholt tore the top of a waxed cartridge with his teeth and poured the charge into the barrel of his empty pistol, before adding the wadding and spitting the ball into the barrel. Reinholt wasn't sorry the incompetent ass was dead, though he would just have soon have left Henri dead in the street. Still there was some justice, they wouldn't be in this situation at all if Hoffman had any spine at all.
“I’m sorry Gaston,” Reinholt said with every appearance of sincerity. He worked the rod into the barrel and tamped down ball and charge, securing it in place with the cartridge paper. All the pistoliers were on their feet now, draining their cups and readying pistols and short swords.
“But I’m afraid you are just going to have to come in and get us.”
“This,” Opportunity Knox observed, “was a really bad idea.”
Even though her companion, James LASTNAME Phd, was only a few feet away in the cramped cockpit, she had to shout to be heard over the roar of the prop and the shriek of the storm beyond the flimsy plexiglass windshield. The air beyond was a black expanse of pounding rain light at irregular intervals by great bolts of lightning. Periodically a sheet of lightning would reveal the sea below, storm tossed and white capped, but for the most part she kept her eyes on the altimeter and compass as their luminous inlays reported their position. The Supermarine S.6 bucked and shuddered under the pounding winds and driving rain. It was a light weight machine, built for speed rather than heavy weather, though Opportunity, who was in a position to know, doubted there was a machine aloft that could have shrugged of this apocalyptic gale.
“You said that before we left Reykjavik,” James observed as he glanced down at his lap at an ancient crystal that they had found in the barrow in Upsala, making his own reckoning of their location.
“The fact we are about to die in a typhoon has not changed my position,” she snapped back as she wrestled with the stick to keep them level.
“We should only be a few minutes out,” James replied, avoiding the bait, “If Von Hesse left Liverpool on the twelfth he could already be there.” Friedrict Von Hesse was a German archaeologist of evil reputation and worse intentions. His murder of an American team working in Sweden, a murder expertly concealed by an artifical avalance had led James and Opportunity to this precarious situation. Von Hesse had left Liverpool on the freighter Olav Blitzen nearly a week ago, a head start that could only be erased by an aircraft and a fast one at that.
“According to what, you magic seeing stone?” Opportunity mocked her face set in effort as she strove to keep the wind from flipping the seaplane.
“According to Magnus Ivarson, the Cursed Skald,” James replied, his dark eyes scanning the horizon.
“What is that?” he asked suddenly. Opportunity risked a quick glance away from her instruments. To her surprise a faint rainbow light danced on the horizon.
“The aurora?” James asked uncertainty. Opportunity shook her head decisively.
“You can't see the aurora in a storm,” she replied, altering course slightly towards the rainbow glimmer. Below them the sea rose and fell in mighty white capped sheets. They were close to the arctic circle now and Opportunity glanced at the thermometer in the instrument panel. Shockingly they were still above freezing, despite the fact she would have expected to see sea ice below them. If anything the mercury had risen slightly since she had last glanced at it. Instinctively she checked the wings for icing but the aluminum merely glinted with its slick of rain. Lightning began to stab more frequently until the ambient light rose from continous bolts plunging into the sea.
“There!” James shouted with excitement pointing downwards to where a lonely island of rock shouldered its way up out of the icy depths of the North Atlantic. Opportunity lowered the nose slightly to pick up more speed and the island seemed to swim towards them.
“Well I’ll be…” sudden tingles tore through Opportunity’s body and she ripped her hands away from the controls and opened her mouth to shout at James to do the same. She just had time to close her eyes before the entire world went white with a defenaning clang like a battleship striking a dock. Every hair on Opportunities body stood straight up and dazzling purple lights burned on her retina even through her closed eyelids. The air reeked of ozone and hot metal and the sudden lack of engine vibration was more shocking than the bolt itself had been.
“What…?” James gasped, scrambling on the floor of the cockpit for the crystal he had been carrying. Blue light crawled over the controls for a second longer before Opportunity dared to grab them. The storm was deafening with the engine noise gone, growling and moaning like a frost giant of ancient legend. Opportunity thumbed the switch repeatedly but the engine did not so much as cough.
“Lightning strike,” Opportunity told him, a slight quaver in her voice giving away the fear she felt. She tried the controls only to find that the stick wasn’t responding properly, experimentally she yawed the nose left and right with the rudder pedals.
“What is wrong?” James asked, shouting despite the fact that it was quieter than it had been in hours. Opportunity laughed a little hysterically at that.
“The magneto is cooked, and the airelorns appear to be welded to the frame,” she explaned then she threw the nose upward in a zooming climb. Without the prop to lift them airspeed slowed rapidly and she wrestled with the stick to keep the nose up.
“Hold on,” she told James grimly and then the nose dropped suddenly and the aircraft pitched sickeningly to the right. There was a metallic clang and suddenly the stick was answering, she stamped on the rudder pedal and steadied them. The spin stall had cracked the weld the lightning had made between the airlorons and the frame. Opportunity hauled back as fast as she dared but she had to maintain what airspeed she had and hope against hope that they could reach the island. Where was the cursed island?
“Odin’s balls,” Opportunity swore as she saw the island still a quarter mile ahead of them. They weren’t going to make it.
“Are we going to make it?” James demanded looking pale after the aerobatic maneuver.
“I think we can get close,” Opportunity told him, but, as uncle Percy said, close only counted with horseshoes and hand grenades. The seaplane sank rapidly as it closed the distance to the island, boyed by the occasional shift in the wind but ultimately in the grim grip of gravity. Opportunity cast a sidelong glance at James.
“Better get ready to get wet, we might get lucky and the waves will drive us ashore,” she told the archaeologist. If James was dismayed his strong face gave no sign of it, merely grabbing for various items and thrusting them into his leather pack. The dark sea rose to meet them even as the island loomed larger and larger. They were perhaps five hundred meters from the gravel covered shore when the floats hit the water, the raging North Sea slapped them with an impact like a freight train, the aluminum body of the Supermarine screamed and the right float strut snapped plunging the right wing into the drink with a massive plume of spray that rained down as the wrecked aircraft turned sideway and slid down the front of a wave. Opportunity jumped to her feet only to be pitched forward into the instrument panel as the machine grounded on some as yet unseen reef with a rending sound that made the teeth hurt.
Icy water rushed in as James threw open the cockpit canopy and the deafening blast of wind was almost physically painful. Opportunity snatched up her rifle though more out of a desire not to face the unknown unarmed than the conviction it would do any real good. THe wind whipped spray had already soaked her as she clambered out of the cockpit, water already gurgling about her ankles. The island was still two hundred meters distant, an impossible distance to swim in the raging sea, even if they wouldn’t freeze to death first, already she could feel her strength ebbing.
“Maybe we can..” she began but James merely put an arm around her waist and pulled her close. For a moment she thought he was about to kiss her.
“This is no time to…” she began, but it was looking increasingly unlikely they would have any more time for anything. James pulled something on his pack and wiggled his shoulders. White silk ripped skywards as it was sized by the wind and Opportunity was jerked off her feet like a rag doll. The parachute filled with the storm wind whipping them across the wave tops so close her boots skidded off the surface every few seconds.
“How are you going..” she yelled into the icy blast but even as she spoke the wind dragged them upwards as it rose over the shore of the island. James pulled a knife with his free hand and slashed at the parachute cords and suddenly they were falling, plunging into the sea a few dozen meters short of the gravel shore. Opportunity hit in a geyser of icy spray but she was close enough to shore that when she kicked her feet hit the mucky bottom and propelled her most of the way up onto the strand. She was soaked to the bone and freezing but she staggered ashore stunned that she was alive. James staggered up the shale a dozen feet away bloodied and trailing the severed cords from his parachute. She hefted her rifle like a cane and staggered towards him, watching his face split into a grin.
“See?" he yelled over the roaring storm, his face lit by the lightning and the weird aroural glow, "Everything worked out!”
“It is her,” Captain Stroud declared, collapsing his spyglass with a brisk snap. HMS Tartar raced eastwards under a brisk soldier’s wind. To the north loomed the greenish stain of the Island of Borneo, the perfumes of those wild and unexplored jungles wafted to the ship by the land breeze to mingle with the more familiar scents of damp wood, tar and sweaty humanity. The whole ship, men and timber and canvas alike seemed to sigh with relief at the proclamation, though after week long stern chase that had began off Batavia there really hadn’t been any doubt.
“The Belladonna sir?” Captain Oliver Mercer of the East India Company’s, John Company’s, Army asked Captain Stroud. While aboard the 26 gun frigate Tartar Mercer was technically to be referred to as major, not so much because he had earned the rank but because a ship can only have one captain and there can be no confusion. The fact that the Honorable Horace Carslile, also a captain, though of His Majesty’s Dragoons, was an additional problem. Fortunately Stroud was a sensible man with no time for the needless complications of social stratigraphy and had simplified the whole matter by referring to his supernumerary guests by name.
“Quite so mister Mercer,” the captain said grimly, “quite so.” Stroud was a trim looking man in his early forties and a little too shabby looking in his threadbare captains coat and verdigris hat to fit the heroic image of a post captain in His Britannic Majesty’s Navy. Strout, like Mercer, was a bastard, and had scraped his way to his current rank by ability, no doubt resenting the faster rise of more well connected fellows of better breeding. Mercer found the captain to be good company and had enjoyed his company in the three months since they had set out on this accursed errand. The errand in question was the pursuit of the French Privateer Belladonna. Privateer’s were common enough in the Indies where they flourished among the innumerable islands and bays, preying on rich shipping of the Dutch, British, French and Spanish more or less at will, often with a letter of mark from each government against the others. While the Indiamen themselves often traveled in convoy and were a match for anything short of a frigate, the country craft that plied the trade east of India were easier meat. The Royal Navy had few ships out here, and those that were usually did not bother to hunt down privateers. Unlike national ships, fighting privateers furnished neither prize money nor glory, and so they persisted, like lice upon an apathetic beggar. What made Belladonna special was that she had been caught. HMS Surprise, another British Frigate had run her down and, after a short but vicious battle, had forced her to strike her colors. In contravention of all the rules of war and civilization, Belladona had fired on Surprise when she closed to board, cutting down the boarding party and crippling the frigate so badly she had fled back to Calcutta with word of the treacherous attack. Such a craven act was beyond reprehensible and almost unthinkable under the laws and customs of civilized warfare. Even Mercer who had employed many rue'd gauri against the Marhattas and their various allies in India that had earned him some skeptical looks from his superiors was sickened at the thought.
“You don’t sound too happy at the news sir,” Mercer remarked, leaning his arms against the bulwarks and squinting out across the gently rolling sea towards the distant smudge of white their quarries sails made against the eastern horizon. It was a fine day in late August, the cool season in these tropical latitudes, the gods be praised, and the sea sparkled as though it were made of azure gemstones. It was late in the sailing season and Stroud had gloomily informed them that they couldn’t hope to make their way back up the Malacca strait until early in the new year before the monsoons began. That meant that even should they manage to run down their quarry they would be forced to spend the blistering summer months in Batavia or one of the other Dutch possessions or else risk the long voyage across the pacific and the circumnavigation of the globe to return to the East Indies, a dangerous prospect given that all ports between the Dutch Molucass and Portuguese Brazil were in the hands of the Spanish, allies of the French and the American rebels. Stroud made an indellicate sound.
“This whole business is very rum, very rum indeed,” the captain groused, wiping his perspiring face with his neck cloth. Like most Europen’s Strout struggled in the tropics. Mercer who had spent years with John Company in India and whose skin had been burned a deep brown and whose blue eye had been bleached almost grey was an exception. Mercer was a solid looking man, handsome after a fashion but angular and hard as a knife edge.
“Why dosen’t she turn nor’wrd and strike for Manilla eh? Why keep pushing west when the current through the Lombok strait wants to push her north, as do the trades eh?” Strout expanded, evidently irritated at this obvious contradiction in what he probably imagined was obvious.
“Perhaps he plans to make for Dili, with the Portugese in Timor sir?” Mercer put in, more to demonstrate that he had some knowledge of the area rather than as a serious suggestion. Strout snorted derisively, the Captain and Mercer got along well, but in his heart of hearts Mercer remained a soldier, the lowest and most ignorant form of life to naval thinking.
“He’d be stuck there till epiphany if he did sar, and how is he to pay his men? Those that don’t die of malaria or the yellow jack’d jump ship or string him up if he got them bottled up in there till the trades change, mark me words!” He, in this context, was Ettiene Castain, the Captain of the Belladonna. Mercer had met Castain once back in 72 but didn’t remember much of the man beyond intelligent eyes and a prominent Gallic nose.
“I don’t presume to know sir,” Mercer replied, his tone mollifying. Naval matters were a mystery to him, though he grasped the basics of the trade winds from years of waiting for the East India Conveys to arrive from England. Stroud gave him a side long look.
“And then there is the question of why Hastings decided to saddle me with you and your Hindus,” the Captain remarked. Mercer’s eyes drifted down from the quarterdeck to where his sepoys, native soldiers in the employ of John Company, sweated and heaved at the ropes alongside Stroud's sailors. They didn’t wear their red coats now, though they were stored below if and when they should be called upon to fight. The sepoys were certainly not all Hindu, some were Sikhs others Mohammedans but Mercer forgave Stroud’s ignorance on such matters. The half company he had with him were guttersweepings and cut throats to a man and Mercer thought they would go through any European regiment like suet through goose. Officially the half company had been assigned to the Tartar in case the Belladona took shelter in some bolt hole that required infantry to drive her out. Unofficially the matter was a good deal more complicated.
“Hastings likes to have an eye on anything that seems strange or unusual on his patch,” Mercer added judiciously. In truth, since the events in the Punjabi hills last February, Warren Hastings had taken an interest in both Oliver Mercer and his friend Captain Horace Carlisle, that verged on the unhealthy. Despite the fact that the reports they had sent to Fort William about the horrifying battle in the back country with things that still occasionally slithered in to Mercer’s nightmares had been carefully constructed lies to keep all involved out of Bedlam, some word of what had happened had reached the Governor. Since then Mercer and Carlisle both had found themselves intermittently plucked and sent to investigate some or another strange happenings. So far all that had meant was a better than usual chance of getting knackered by the locals, but like Stroud, Mercer had an ill feeling about this one.
“Nothing strange about the Frogs being a bunch of honorless jackals,” Strout muttered, but the words lacked conviction. The news of Castain’s duplicitous attack had been a nine days wonder in Calcutta when the surprise had limped into harbor. What Stroud didn’t know is that Captain and his privateers had raided a Hindu temple on the Malabar coast a week prior to her encounter with the Surprise, though what exactly they had carried off was yet unknown.
Further conversation was cut off by by the arrival of a midshipman, an officer in training only fourteen years of age. He tugged his forelock in salute to his Captain before blurting out his message.
“Mr Chadburn’s compliments sar, and he suggests we shorten sail,” the lad all but shouted, his words tumbling over one and other. Strout cast a look up at the tangle of ropes and snapping rigging aloft.
“Aye, pipe hands to shorten sail,” Stroud declared casting a glance at Mercer.
“Mr Mercer I’d admire if you and Mr Carlisle would join me for dinner at six bells sar,” he told the Infantry officer dismissively. Mercer hesitated for a moment, caught between the desire not to appear foolish and a genuine need of information. Following the habit of a lifetime he pressed ahead, better to seem foolish than be caught unprepared.
“We uh… won’t be in action before then sir?” Mercer asked. The youngster goggled at him as though he had suggested they fly to the moon. The captain look scarcely less shocked, but evidently had more practice at covering up his surprise at the ignorance of landsmen.
“Not until after midnight Mr Mercer, not unless she turns to fight of course. A stern chase is, as they say, a long chase.” Mercer nodded.
“Then I will see you at six bells sir,” he said, leaving the quarterdeck as pipes began to shrill and sailors scrambled up into the rigging.
“Damn my eyes,” Carlisle declared, the burr of a lowlands Scot rumbling across his words as he lowered the spyglass and passed it to Mercer. It was well after midnight and the shadow form of the Belladonna had been growing larger for hours. Fortunately the sky was clear and the moon was full, providing more than enough illumination to see by. Both men had donned their red coats, swords and pistols ready for action. Mercer held a fusil, lighter and more accurate than the Brown Bess Tower Pattern Muskets his troops carried, slung across his right shoulder. Mercer took the glass and peered through at their quarry of these past many weeks. Though he had no eye for ships, Mercer could tell she was light and sleek, her galleries picked out with navy blue and gilt that had long since gone verdigris. She carried nearly all the canvas that could be crammed onto her yards though still the Tartar gained on her. None of that was what had prompted the Honorable Horace Carlisle to risk his Presbyterian Soul with blasphemy though. From each of the Belladonna’s yards hung a corpse dangling from a noose of coardage, twisting and flexing in the wind. It was impossible to tell from here, but Mercer didn’t get the impression they were fresh.
“What the devil?” he asked perplexed, shrugging his shoulders.
“Perhaps the man is mad as well as an honorless cur,” Carlisle opined grimly. They could just make out sailors aboard the other ship ascending and descending the rigging and Mercer fancied he could see the Captain Castain standing athwart his quarterdeck, though that seemed unlikely given the angle the Tartars Folksail made with the Belladonna’s aft taffrail. Behind them stood knot of curious sailors and two long lines of Sepoy infantry, now properly kitted out in red coats, short white trousers and barefoot. Japji, Mercer’s long time Halvidar, stood at their head, a naval cutlass tucked into his belt in very non-regulation fashion.
“FOG SAR! Fog two points off the larboard bow!” a lookout screamed from the topmasts through cupped hands.
“What the bloody devil?!” the captain’s voice could be heard from the quarterdeck.
“How can there be fog and we are just bloody learning of it?!” Stroud roared at the topsman.
“Just sprang up sir, one minute was clear, next there was fog!” the look out replied clearly perplexed. The fog rolled in swallowing the Belladonna in an impenetrable gray mist and pouring like a Himalayan avalanche towards HMS Tartar.
“Bosun!” Stroud roared, “Pipe the quiet!” Shrill pipes whistled and the sailors instantly quieted, a moment later the sepoys followed suit and there was no sound at all except for the slap of water upon the hull and the creaking of rigging and sails. The fog closed in around them, surprisingly dry and almost completely opaque. It prickled over Mercer’s skin as they slid into the fog bank and he found he was all but holding his breath. One of the midshipmen and a bosun's mate shoved their way forward climbing out onto the bowsprit and cupping hand to ears. After a long moment the youngster turned around and whispered.
“A point a’leward,” in a low voice that hardly seemed to carry any distance at all in the soupy fog. The whisper ran down the length of the ship, passed from sailor to sailor until it reached the captain who nodded to the quartermaster and his mate who put the helm slightly a lee. Mercer closed his eyes and listened and after a moment fancied he heard the snap of canvas on the wind somewhere out in the darkness. The moon till shone above which gave the encircling mist a silvery sheen, making it perversely more opaque as it seemed to fluoresce with diffuse light. And so it went, whispered command adjusting their heading to no destination Mercer could determine. It must be hellish easy to lose on opponent in fog this thick and perhaps they had come all this way to lose the Belladonna to infernal bad luck. With shocking suddenness a boot loomed out of the fog in Mercer’s peripheral vision and for an eyeblink he could make out make out the blackened and distorted face of a corpse hanging from the tip of a yard beyond which he sensed rather than saw the bulk of the other ship slipping past.
“A starboard!” he shouted after a moment of curious hesitation, almost unwilling to to break the silence. It felt like cursing at a funeral. All of a sudden a hundred things were happening at once. Captain Stroud yelled at men to stand to the starboard guns, and the light swivel guns on the quarter deck coughed their sprays of canister into the mist shrouded dark. Almost at the same time Stroud put the helm hard over and the hip slewed. Belladonna loomed up out of the mist like wraith but her gunners were evidently as surprised as Tartar’s were.
“Company! Present!” Mercer screamed, unlimbering his own fusil and bringing it to his shoulder in a smooth motion. The sepoys followed their commander unlimbering their own weapons and taking aim at the enemy ship. Mercer hesitated a moment, this was no time for the rhythmic volleys of platoon fire, every man needed to pick his own target regardless of how unlikely old Brown Bess was to hit it.
“Skirmish order! Fire in your own time!” he snapped. He could see the enemy warship as the distance between the hulls narrowed at a frightening pace. Finally he heard someone yell ‘Fire!’ below almost at the same instant he heard ‘Triez!’ from the French ship. Both their gun decks erupted in noise and flame to deafen the world. Timber screamed and exploded into showers of splinters as their eighteen pounders tore into the French even as her own lighter guns slashed at Tartar. Men were screaming on both vessel and the rumbling recoil of guns echoed. Mercer fired his fusil at a french sailor in the rigging and the fellow tumbled free, turning a half circle before his back hit the bulwark with a crack audible even over the screams and scattering of musket fire. There was a rending crash of wood as Tartar impacted with the privateer, pitching every man jack not holding on for dear life to the deck, Mercer and Carlisle included. The grinding and shrieking of shattering scantlings dragged on for long seconds and then the Belladonna was sliding past them.
“Hard a’larboard!” Stroud screamed from the quarterdeck and the ship began to come round in a greasy arc.
“Fire as you bear!” At least some of the guns below hadn’t fired and Mercer looked up in time to see glasswork of the French privateers stern gallery shatter as ball smashed into it, hammering through the bulkhead in a long raking shot. Then the mist closed around the enemy ship and they were alone save for the screaming of wounded men.
“Get the wounded below! Loblolly boys front and center!” a naval lieutenant was bawling. Mercer wiped blood from a scratch across his cheek as he regained his feet. One of his men was down screaming and thrashing with a hundred splinters quilling his face and chest like a porcupine. A sailor stood over him raising a belaying pin. The tar, who couldn’t have been twenty years old paused as he saw Mercer looking at him, face suddenly uncertain. Mercer nodded grimly and the tar bought the pin down and caved in the wounded man’s skull with a merciful stroke, quieting the racket. There was no recovery from wounds like those and taking the man to the surgeon meant only a long slow death of infection and suppurating wounds. Mercer looked around the shattered timbers and torn rigging as the ship heeled around, her sails cracking like musket fire as they took up the wind and drove off in the direction of their fleeing foe.
“What a shitting mess,” Mercer growled, turning to find Carlisle staring upwards into the fog. The mustachioed cavalryman was white as a sheet, his face locked in ricktus of Mercer knew not what. He felt a sudden surge of alarm, it wasn’t like the Scotsman to freeze up in action.
“Carlisle?” Mercer called stepping close to touch his friends elbow. The big cavalryman made no response.
“Horace?” Mercer asked. Carlisle finally turned to face the John Company man his eyes still wide.
“There was a gap Oliver,” Carlisle declared. The use of his first name from a man so hidebound that he seemed to shit the Kings Regulations shocked Mercer more than a slap to the face would have done.
“A gap in the fog,” Carlisle explained his face haunted and close to panic.
“So what?” Mercer asked, reaching down to retrieve his spent fusil from the deck.
“You don't understand, I saw the moons,” Carlisle snapped, grabbing hold of Mercer’s shoulders fircely enough that the infantryman flinched. The effort seemed to ground Carlisle though and his vision cleared from the distant look of glazed panic, blood rushing in to make his aristocratic features seem to blush.
“The Moon? Why does…” Mercer trailed off. Carlise nodded, his voice quiet and deadly, a whisper designed not to reach the men a they went about the work of carrying off the wounded and continuing the hunt.
“There were two of them....”
“This doesn't seem like the business of the King’s officers,” Carlisle muttered, and not for the first time. The tall scot shrugged irritable. The heavy red coat he wore had once been fine, but after hours on the road the orange brown dust of pulverized laterite clung to the sweat stains like rust below a drain pipe. Even so, Lieutenant Carlisle was dressed a cut above most officers who served the King or the Company in northern Bengal. His shirt, though soaked in sweat, was clean and his brass buttons and polished boots gleamed in the fading tropic sun. Though he might disgrace a parade ground in Europe, he looked every inch the King’s Officer out here on the frontier.
Mercer didn’t much like Carlisle . In four years as an officer with the East India Company’s army he had seen too many Carlisles . Each year the Indiamen arrived, filled with the same entitled swine from families who couldn’t afford, or wouldn’t pay for commissions in respectable English regiments but whose access to money allowed them to buy their way to a rank that Mercer, the seventh son of an aristocrat so minor he might as well be common, and a bastard besides, had needed to fight his way to. The same swaggering idiots and base incompetence had managed to lose an entire continent to the American Rebels while Mercer and his Sepoys battled Hyder Ali and his French allies to a stand still. The only consolation, so far as Mercer could see, is that by the time the monsoons faded half of the fresh crop of Carlisles would be dead. Typhoid, Malaria, Yellow Jack and a dozen other tropical diseases would decimate the newcomers as surely as the sun rose in the east, and as sure as Bengali’s lied.
“To a bloody war or a sickly season,” Mercer muttered, speaking the old barrack’s room oath under his breath, though apparently not as quietly as he had imagined because Carlisle turned to glance at him, arching an eyebrow. Gray streaks of wig powder ran down his forehead, turned to sludge by sweat. By sundown, the heat of the day would have glued the wig to his head, powder and sweat forming an adhesive. Christ, wigs in this weather.
“What was that Lieutenant Mercer?” Carlisle asked, the irritating burr of the lowland scot dragging at the back of his throat. Though the two men were notionally the same rank, and Mercer was several years senior to Carlisle, the fact that Carlisle was regular army and a cavalryman to boot, whereas Mercer was a John Company officer and commanded foot, meant that the scot was in command.
“Scouts returning sir,” Mercer replied smoothly, saved from potential embarrassment by the emergence of a half dozen figures, four red coated sepoys and a pair of pyjama clad natives, from a tamaron grove a quarter mile down the dusty track. The heat of the late Indian summer made the air shimmer as the party made there way along the simple dirt track. To the east of them a river flowed sluggishly, drawn deep into its sandy bed by the long dry season until it was only a few dozen yards across. When the monsoons came the rain would sluice through the low scrubby hills and ravines and swell the river to a torrent that couldn’t be imagined back in Europe, pouring down to join the great artery of the Ganges. To the west the land rose slowly in the first inklings of the massive rises of the distant Himlayays, though there were many miles of scrub and jungle covered hills before the snow capped titans came into view. Close to the river the land was under a rough sort of cultivation, though it wasn’t anything grand enough for the company to notice. Groves of tamaron and mango trees stood, both thronged with colorful birds stood along the road way, leaning slightly towards the river and unobstructed access to sunlight it provided. Here and there hillsides had been terraced with greyish river stone to give footings for barley and millet though seldom in particular profusion. Huts and low wattle daub huts stood at irregular intervals, the more prosperous had livestock pens or chicken coops fenced off with twisted dried reeds, but in both cases these were in the minority.
“Japji Shaib, kya khabar hai?” Mercer called out to his havildar. The leading sepoy, dressed in a coat but wearing no head gear waved his hand. Japji was an oddity in the company, unlike the other soldiers he wasn’t Bengali and Mercer had never heard anyone discuss his caste. There were vague rumors that he was from the north country, Afgani or Peshwar but if that were true the havildar had never confirmed it. He was a solid looking man, his face lined and angular in a way that puts the observer in the mind of blocks of mahogany in ancient temples, still shining after millennia of service. His eyes were deep brown, and seemed to possess a mocking quality. Mercer had inherited Japji from the previous commander of this company of light infantry. That officer, an aged and veteran of the subcontinent, had told him both to trust Japji implicitly and never to cross him. Mercer had seen many things during his time, things men might consider terrifying, he had been stalked by great tigers, stood among the hail of canister shot, and lay in the nightmares of tropical fever. He had never considered himself a fearful man but there was something about Japji’s calm dark eyes that scared the wits out of him. Still, the old officers advice had proven sound. He had given Japji his trust and he had never had cause to regret it.
“What is he saying?” Carlisle asked as Japji called back to Mercer, most of which he lost due to Carlise’s interruption. The senior officers face pinched with irritation as he swatted with a riding crop at the ominpresent insects. Predictably, despite being here for half a year, he had no Hindi. That didn’t make him unique, most officers couldn’t say more than, food, drink and woman and kept enough of a distance from the common folk that it would suffice.
“Tell the great white whale that if he dosen’t take of some of those clothes he will be dead before the rains come. Possibly sooner if he hits any of my men with that ridiculous stick,” Japji called in liquid Hindi. Carlisle hadn’t threatened to hit any of the sepoys with the crop, but it was the sort of thing that happened, though only once where Mercer’s men were concerned.
“He says the men he brings to us have information to share,” Mercer mistranslated diplomatically. Though the sepoy had said no such thing, it was so patently obvious that the statement was safe enough to make. The slight widening of Japji’s grin let Mercer know that he had heard his commanders less than truthful translation. Fortunately he was wise enough not to push the issue. If Carlisle thought one of the sepoys insubordinate, he might order one of them flogged. That would be unfortunate for the sepoy, but it would be fatal for Carlisle who would be shot by ‘bandits’ at some point in the immediate aftermath. That didn’t bother Mercer, but he would be just as happy not to have to worry about it back at camp.
Mercer glanced back down the road. His thirty men were lounging under the shade of the trees, brown bess muskets slung nearby or propped against rock and near at hand. The sepoys looked relaxed, but they had fought Hyder Ali and his men, and Marrhatas and Pindari before that. They were veterans and dangerous men for all the lack of respect their ragged red coats and white shorts earned them. A few fires were burning where men cooked rations, but for the most part they preferred to eat the rations raw rather than go through the effort. Carlisle's contingent, dozen dragoons, with short carbines and long cavalry sabres were less relaxed. Held to a higher standard by their officers, the cavalry sat ram rod straight in a loose column, sweating and broiling in the tropical sun while their steeds flicked their ears at passing insects. Most of the men had been in the India long enough to know better but the combination of their officer’s idiotic example and some desire to show themselves ‘more disciplined’ than the John Company infantry forced them to it.
“Can’t you make him speak English?” Carlisle all but whinged. Mercer kept his face professionally blank.
“I can’t make him do anything that isn’t in the Company Regulations,” Mercer responded, the touch of a grin in his voice, though it didn't show on his face. Carlisle glanced sidelong at him, sensing he was being made sport of. Sepoys spoke some English, and they certainly understood the commands they drilled under, but for the most part they spoke their native languages.
Japji led his men toward the two officers. The two men the sepoys were escorting were clearly farmers. Both were dirty and looked unhealthy, underneath their mud stained clothing the were almost skeletal, thin twisted bones pulled tight against the skin. Mercer frowned, the landscape around them was not rich, but food seemed plentiful enough that the appearance of the peasants struck him as wrong.
“These are the dangerous rebels we have been sent to cow?” Carlisle asked and for once Mercer found himself in agreement with the Scot. When they had been summoned to the Generals Headquarters in Madras, they had been given some vague reports of native unrest, with the instruction to ride through and show the flag Mercer had imagined that it was the usual nonsense. Some merchant or another had been roughed up, or one of the local princes had been putting on airs. He hadn’t imagined the situation was anything he hadn’t seen a hundred times in his career in the East India Company, but something about the strangely skeletal men before him made his skin crawl.
“Jo Tumane Mujhase Kaha that, usase kaho,” Japji snapped giving the larger of the two farmers a cuff under the ear. The man staggered forward falling to his knees before the two mounted officers. He clasped his hands together in an attitude of prayer. The peasant appeared unhealthy, his skin tinted with a sickly looking gray and his eyes distant and staring. It seemed to Mercer that he blinked too little and in a rhythm that was somehow oddly unsettling. Japji watched the prisoner coldly, his face was grim and his eyes seemed to shine with a light Mercer hadn’t seen in them before. The sepoy appeared almost hungry looking and the expression made the Englishman shiver inwardly.
“Aapane hamen apane kaam se kyon nikaala hai. ham shram karate hain, hamen pankh rahit raanee ke lie shram karana chaahie!” the farmer babbled, growing more irrate and strident as the he went on.
“What is he saying?” Carlisle drawled, frustration showing in the set of his jaw and a slight thickening of his accent. Mercer ignored the cavalryman, focusing to try to decipher the rapid fire Hindi.
“Something about… laboring for a Queen of some kind?” Mercer ventured uncertainly, glancing at Japji. The Sepoy shrugged as though it made no more sense to him than it did to the John Company officer.
“No Sultana here Sahib, not for many leagues,” Japji told Mercer in his broken English, presumably for Carlisle’s benefit.
“Pank rahit?” Mercer queried, “With wings?” Japji shook his head.
“No wings Sahib,” the sepoy corrected, his tone indicating that it was nonsensical to him as well.
“Is this ‘Sultana’ causing the unrest?” Mercer asked, but hardly had the words left his lips when the prisoner convulsed violently and fell to the ground. Both of the officers horses stepped back with whinnys of panic and Carlise’s cavalry mount reared back, though the Scot expertly bought the beast back under control. Yellow tinged froth bubbled from the fallen man’s lips and his eyes were rolled back so only the whites were visible. His hands clawed at the reddish dirt in obvious agony.
“What the devil...” Carlisle snapped. One of the sepoys screamed and reeled back as the farmer pyjamas rippled and distended oddly around his midsection. There was a sudden stink of ruptured intestines, tinged with the sharp scents of ether and sulphur. Japji bought the butt of his Brown Bess musket down on the writhing man’s head with a sickening crunch of shattering bone. The fellow flopped once and blood ran from his nose before he stilled. His chest continued to wriggle grotesquely and Japji drew his long curved knife and slashed the fabric open with a deft cut. A mass of grey yellow things writhed beneath, slipping between the ropes of pinkish intestine that were slithering from the dead man's ruptured chest cavity. They were a half a foot long, segmented, mango sized and maggot like, their blind heads quested for Mercer knew not what. Even Japji stumbled back in horror. The lounging sepoys were on their feet now, rations forgotten and muskets to hand. Mercer pulled his cavalry pistols free and pulled the dogs back, the clicks inaudible over the shouts of question and yells of panic. Before he could fire Japji drove his heel into one of the creatures, crushing it beneath his sandal with a spray of yellowish goo. Pain erupted in Mercer’s mind and every man present grabbed at his head, even the horses screamed and bucked. Staggering, Mercer leaped from his saddle and joined his Havildar, his cavalry boots stomping the creatures to mush. Each time one died the stab of pain nearly blinded him, but they persevered until nothing else wriggled and their legs were gore soaked to the knee.
“What in the name of Saint George was that Lieutenant,” a pale and shaking Carlisle asked, once the grim business was complete.
“I wish I knew Sir,” Mercer responded breathlessly, wiping the sweat from his face. The stink of human waste was almost pleasant compared to the alien alchemical stink of the crushed worms. Uniquely in Mercer’s experience, none of the omnipresent blow flies seemed interested in the carrion.
“But we had better find out…”
The tropical sunset fell with the suddenness of an axe stroke, the brilliant sweep of color seeming to paint the sky for a few brief minutes before vanishing. Mercer wiped the sweat from his brow, relieved to feel the evening start to cool even as he worried at the lack of light. Even after sunset the sky would be bright enough to see by for another hour, that would have to be enough. They had pushed the men hard, leaving the road and crossing the broken country to the valley where Japji claimed the dead prisoner had called home.
Carlisle it seemed was not a complete fool and had consented to let Mercer and his men scout the place before simply riding in. The valley was a slide saddleback in a larger rise, its very inaccessibility made it a desirable location. A stream sprang from the eastern end of it and ran down the length to where it joined larger water courses, although at this time of year it would be little more than a trickle. The John Company officer pulled himself up through the mass of shrubby tropical trees. Cicadas screamed in all directions and tropical birds hooted and called on the sultry night air. After four years Mercer had some of the trick of moving silently, but he had to admit to himself that he would never have the skill of the sepoys who flited through the dark with barely a sound. These men were of a light company, trained as skirmishers and scouts, Mercer doubted any man in King’s uniform could match them. For the hundredth time he touched the frissons of his pistols, making sure they were closed. It probably made more sense to unload them completely, rather than to risk they would snag in the brush and misfire, but there was something strange on the air that lifted the hairs on the back of the Englishman’s neck. Something was very wrong here even if he couldn’t put his finger on it.
“No smoke Mercer Sahib,” Japji whispered, having suddenly materialized beside his commander. It was all Mercer could do not to jump out of his skin.
“What the devil are you talking about?” he snapped, more sharply than he had intended, both for being startled and for the fact that it seemed for a moment that the Havildar had been reading his mind.
“No cook fires in the village, we would smell,” Japji replied, giving no indication he had noticed Mercer’s discomfort. Japji every village in the country would be preparing their evening meal, the smell of wood or dung fires was so ubiquitous that one didn’t even notice it. Mercer sniffed at the air, nothing but the warm rich scent of the jungle. The prickling on his neck intensified. Gripping the trunk of a small smooth tree he pulled himself up the to the crest of the ridge, where the reddish brown rock thrust itself up out of its sheathing blanket of greenery and peered down into the valley beyond. Air rushed from his lungs and his mind froze in mindless terror that had been ancient when fire was invented. The very marrow of his bones was ice and the only thing that stopped him from screaming was his own lack of breath. The eastern arm of the valley was completely stripped of vegetation. Bare red laterite glimmered like blood beneath the rising moon. Across the open expanse was strung gossamer cables that might have been spider silk if spiders were the size of horses. At the narrow of the valley was a narrow, almost vaginal opening from inside of which shone a jaundiced and unwholesome light. Creatures that defied a sane man’s description skittered and glided back and forth. They were larger than anything Mercer had ever seen save for an elephant, and even there they might have competed in length if not height. Each of the creatures had a disconcerting uncertain number of strange limb like appendages, though they were jointed in a dozen places and seemed to undulate in bizarre angles which seemed incapable of supporting their segmented tubular bodies. Their heads were trapezoidal though there were no obvious eyes or mouth that could be determined. Instead a strange beard of spines and tendrils, that quivered and quested for some unknowable goal. Dozens of men and women moved amongst the beasts, their eyes sightless and glazed. Most of them were clothed in rags, or naked and their bellies were grotesquely distended. Though he couldn’t see it at this range his mind easily supplied the wriggling of alien grubs beneath their reddish brown skin.
“Mother of God…” he breathed, able at last to force his lungs to work, though the words were only a rasping whisper.
One of the Sepoys screamed and threw away his musket, bolting down the hill and shrieking in Hindi. Down in the valley trapezoidal heads whipped around, undulating legs twisting the creatures towards the sound with unnatural fluidity. They seemed to scan the ridgeline for a long frozen moment, spindly beards bristling. And then they surged forwards like a wave of oil on a hot skillet.
“Christ on the fucking Cross,” Mercer breathed, watching as they came on at incredible speed. Off the smoothed rock surface they seemed to grow ungainly twisting and whirling in strange undulation but making no less speed for that, even through the scrubby shrubs that covered the nearside of the valley. They moved at about the speed of a cantering horse, and that knowledge unfroze his mind. If he could think of the monsters in terms of cavalry he could force himself to act. Unfortunately light infantry fell back when confronted with cavalry and judging by the speed at which the things were coming, even that wasn’t an option.
“Ready arms!” yelled Mercer, his voice warbling unsteadily under the strain, but growing stronger with each syllable. A half dozen of the sepoys responded, more or less automatically, raiding their muskets before their bodies. The creatures were halfway up the rise now, they seemed to be going out of their way to avoid the trees, even though they could easily have flattened them, giving them an even queasier aspect as they twisted and slipped with liquid grace.
“Present arms!” Mercer screamed, and Japji added what must have been sulphurous curses in Hindi. The John Company officer looked over his shoulder, intending to shout for a men to fetch Carlisle and his dragoons, but looking down he saw the red coated horseman pounding away to the west in flight.
“God curse you for a coward,” Mercer whispered, but there was no time for further recrimination. The lead creature was perhaps fifty yards away and it seemed to carry a bow wave of acrid stench that stung at the eyes and nostrils. He aimed his own pistol at the onrushing abomination.
A ragged volley erupted from the hilltop, power smoke blossoming out in great clouds from a score of muskets. The familiar rotten egg reek of burned powder filled the air, a blessed relief from the strange chemical sent of the monsters. The lead creature staggered under the impact of a dozen musket balls, screaming with a high pitched keening that throbbed in Mercers skull. One of the strange appendages was shot clean away, spewing a noxious looking yellow fluid from where it joined the things leathery carapace. The things stumbled and went down in the brush in a tangle of what passed for limbs. Its screaming doubled in volume as it thrash about, the greyish skin of its body blistering and turning red like a boiled shellfish as it slid back down the hill. Here fortune had favored the sepoys and their commander. By chance they had crested the ridge at the point where it kinked slightly and the slight concavity shaped the ground into a funnel, the screaming, blistering beast tumbled down, into its companions. A half a dozen razor sharp legs stabbed into it from nearby creatures as its compatriots tore it apart in fury of violence that left the men on the ridge line momentarily shocked.
“Reload!” Mercer bellowed, his voice echoing back to him from across the valley. Several small brush fires had already erupted on the bone dry hilltop, ignited by flaming musket wadding, but that was far from a concern right now. The Sepoys, braced by the familiar activity, began to bite of cartridges reload. A well trained man, and all of Mercer’s sepoys were well trained, could fire four rounds in a minute. Even so this might have been the quickest Mercer had ever seen it done, fear giving speed to an action performed so many times as to be instinctive. The massacre below as concluding and the creatures again began to climb once more, strange spindly limbs soaked in the yellowish ichor of their fallen victim.
“Ready arms!” Mercer yelled even as his mind realised that there wasn’t going to be enough time to complete the evolution before the beasts were upon them.
“Present Ar…” the Sepoys fired a ragged volley into the creatures without orders as they surged to the top of the ridge. Mercer fired both his pistols with a snap-crack and heard the sound of the heavy musket balls smacking into the fleshy bulks of their attackers. This time none of the beast fell and he had only a second to scream before they crashed over the crest of the ridge in a chitinous wave. Mercer threw himself flat as a razor sharp limb swept through the air he had just occupied. There was a terrible tearing sound and slap of wet meat as one of the sepoys beside him was cut clean in two, blood spraying the dry foliage. Clawing his sword, a heavy cavalry hangar, rather than the decorative sword officers of the foot normally favored, he rolled beneath the beast and thrust upwards into its body. The point struck the leathery chiton but failed to penetrate more than an inch into the tough fibrous material. A spear like appendage stabbed downwards for his life, and he barely managed to roll aside as it buried itself a foot into the stony ground with a spray of grit and slivers of rock. With desperation he slashed at the things legs cutting through two of them with the sort of hollow chunk he associated with an axe stroke on bamboo. The monster let out an undulating scream and toppled sideways. Screaming a sulfurous oath he dove, clear, the hem of his coat catching a moment beneath the things collapsing bulk.
“The legs!” he shouted at the top of his lungs, throwing his sword into a hasty parry from another of the creatures. The shock of the impact nearly knocked him from his feet and spun him around as the blow jarred his arm and wrist. Two Sepoys lay at his feet, one missing an arm, the other with his innards laid open, another lay on the ground with no discernable wounds. What in hell was the Hindi word for legs? His vocabulary was good but in the stress and terror of the moment it fled his mind.
“Mercer Sahib, we must retreat!” Japji yelled, emerging from the smoke and carnage, curved knife dripping icor. The havildar had a cut across his forehead that dripped blood into his eyes, though if it discomforted him he didn’t show it.
“We can’t out run these things,” Mercer replied making a needless gesture with his sword. Though he wanted with all his heart to flee, all he could think of was the terrible worm like monsters running them down like so many fleeing ants. If only there were some place they could go where the monsters couldn’t follow.
“The cave!” Mercer yelled.
“Down the hill!” He screamed and dashed down the hill into the demon haunted valley. The glowing opening at the end of the valley was not a hopeful goal, but it was perhaps the one place where the rock would be too narrow to allow pursuit. A dozen sepoys followed him, taking advantage of the monsters distractiong as they tore the bodies of fallen sepoys, and their own fallen. Mercer hoped that more of his men had fled down the far side of the hill, but there was nothing that could be done.
The half ran half tumbled down the slope towards the area of exposed stone, keeping their feet out of desperation and the certain knowledge that to fall was to die. Even so, in his haste Mercer failed to notice a foot of drop off between the edge of the patchy grass and the bare rock. He tumbled forward and hit the rock face first with a painful thud. The rock was slick as ice and he slid along, clutching desperately at its glassy surface. Those following him also tumbled on the unexpectedly slick surface, clattering to the ground. Japji, having miraculously kept his footing, grabbed Mercers arm and yanked him to his feet. One of the glassy eyed villagers stumbled towards him and the Havildar bought his knife up in a quick professional arc, opening the man from groin to collarbone. More of the gray wormlike lavave spilled from his chest as he collapsed in a pool of his own gore, twisting and writhing. Mercer risked a glance over his shoulder and caught sight of the beasts lopping down the mountain. Curiously they moved no faster descending the escarpment than they had ascending it, moving with same alien grace and care. Blood shimmered on their limbs in the moonlight and the reflected glow of grass fires burning on the ridge line where the musketry had ignited them.
“RUN!” he screamed at the struggling sepoys and bounded uncertainly over the mirror smooth rock.A terror overtook him that his men might not be able to climb to the cave with the ground so slippery but between grabbing handfuls of the strange alien webs they kept their feet scrambling into the narrow slit in the rock. It was perhaps two yards wide and the unhealthy yellow glow lit it like a street lamp. To the Englishman’s bitter dissapointment it wasn’t deep and opened only slightly into a narrow chamber of porous dark rock. A stone altar, a single large slab of bassalt lay in the center of it. Several coins, herbs and precious stones lay atop it in some carefully contrived ritual pattern, though Mercer had neither the time or inclination to study it.
“Japji! Help me! The rest of you form and load!” Mercer yelled as he grabbed one edge of the heavy altar stone and heaved. The havildar grabbed the other side of the slab and they pitched it over to block the entrance as best they could. The altar crashed into place, shaking dust from the ceiling that made Mercer blink and sneeze. The stone wasn’t big enough to block the opening but it did afford a sort of waist high breast work. The creatures had reached the bare stone now, and they rampaged through the webs like bulls, ripping and shredding as they went, trampling those few villagers who got in their way. They seemed to be in a fury though Mercer couldn’t even begin to guess at the mental state of such creatures.
“You men, load, pass the weapons to the Havildar and me,” Mercer snapped and Japji quickly relayed the order in Hindi. One of the sepoys passed his weapon forward and began to load another. Mercer tossed both is empty pistols back to the sepoys who immediately began to prime the weapons. The onrushing pack of monsters was thunderous, there were perhaps a dozen of them and their spindly legs clattered on the laterite like hale on a slate roof. Mercer bought the musket to his shoulder and aimed at the lead creature. It reached the cave and reared back to thrust into the cavern with its spear like legs. Mercer squeezed the trigger and the musket slapped hard against his shoulder a half second before Japji’s weapons went off. Mercer tossed the sent weapon back to the sepoys and drew his sword. The spine like protrusion stabbed into the opening like a spear seeking fish. Mercer twisted aside and bought his sword down in a two handed chop that severed the tentacle cleanly. The creature let out a weird warbling hiss and withdrew as though it had been scalded. A musket went off close enough to his face that burning power splashed with pricks of agony. Two more chitonos spears thrust in, one of them opening a bloody gash on Japji’s shoulder. The veteran havildar grasped the thing with one hand and drove the but of his discharged musket against it with an audible crack snapping and mangling the arm. One of the sepoys screamed as the second leg impaled him just below the breast bone and yanked him out of the tenuous cover of the cave. A half dozen of the creatures shredded him in a shower of blood and viscera.
Suddenly the creatures seemed to scream in confusion and a sharp brassy sound split through the din of striking limbs and echoing musket blasts. Carlisle and his cavalry hit the creatures from behind with a sound like nothing Mercer had ever heard before in his life. The screaming of the monstrous beasts was shattering, but combined with the screams of horses, and the heavy chopping of cavalry sabers. The creatures were driven to a frenzy as they impact of the cavalry pressed them against the cave mouth, fouling and tangling with each other in the process. Mercer crouched behind the makeshift altar stone as a frenzy of limbs slashed over his head. Japji screamed something in a language he didn’t understand and then something struck him heavily across the side of the head and he knew no more.
The stink woke him. It was something between burning molasses and the reek of a corpse long superated in the tropical sun. Grudgingly he opened his eyes, enduring the wave of nausea that overtook him. He lay upon the slope of the valley with a handful of other men, all blooddies, though not too seriously as far as he could make out. Fires burned on the exposed rock at the end of the valley. Sepoys and red coats were lugging wood down from the ridge and hurling onto a great blaze that had been set at the mouth of the cave. The bodies of the creatures were piled there, their deadly legs burning and popping like a tannenbaum, though their great bulks were slower to deform.
“Lieutenant Mercer,” a voice with the soft burr of a lowland Scot called. Mercer pivoted his head gingerly, the nausea threatening to overwhelm him. Carlisle walked across the grass. He had shucked his red coat and his white undershirt was stained with blood, an ugly looking bruise was spreading from his collarbone down the left arm. He held his cavalry sabre in a loose grip in his off hand. The cavalry hadn’t been running, instead they had ridden hard around the western spur and raced up the mouth of the valley. Carlisle couldn't have known what was on the other side of the ridge, but he had committed his men nonetheless. The cavalry officer flopped to the ground beside Mercer and produced a leather canteen which he pressed into the infantry officers hand. Mercer guzzled the warm brackish water greedily letting fluid spill down his chin.
“I suppose I have to admit when I was wrong Mr Mercer,” Carlisle said with a sigh. Mercer gave him a confused look.
“Sir?” he questioned.
“Turns out this was business for the King’s officers after all,” Carlisle drawled with a grin and then began to laugh. Mercer through back his head and joined him
“If we reach Yutehiem alive, I’ll sell you for sure Irish,” Ulf Trollbane roared, his voice carrying his enormous belly laugh even over the fury of the raging sea. Lightning rent the black sky, casting the shadows of the men straining at their oars with a clarity that was almost painful.
“Stroke!” Ulf roared, his eyes filled with the berserk joy that, on a battlefield, might have taken him through a shield wall, great axe lopping heads and limbs with each stroke, but on the sea merely meant he was truly enjoying himself. There were those who claimed that Ulf Trollbane was mad, certainly anyone who had asked him to tell the story of how he had slain the Skejig Troll would say so, though none could deny that Ulf had returned, alone of a dozen reavers who set out for that cursed place, loaded down with ancient roman gold and with a strange look in his eyes.
“Stroke for your lives you poxed sons of whores! ” Ulf screamed down the deck of the longship, eyes gleaming and seafoam flecking his great red beard.
“By Thor what a day to be a sailor!”
Deana crouched down, bracing her lithe lean body between the final oars bench and the platform below the steering oar where Ulf stood, casting his defiance to the storm. Deana did not think Ulf Trollbane was mad, but she did think he had strayed closer to the gods than any mortal should. She had been Ulf’s companion for nearly a year, first a prisoner taken from an Irish village, and then, slowly, something more like a friend, or at least a pet. Before every landfall Ulf promised he was going to sell her, but each time he found some excuse to delay. It was as though he viewed her as some kind of talisman or a charm. If that were the case, she was afraid his next order was going to be that she should be put over the side as an offering to the sea.
For three days the storm had raged above them, a vast twisting maelstrom shattered by sheets of lightning and sudden cloud bursts of rain, hard enough to sting the skin. At times slivers of hail battered the ship like tiny knives, forcing the crew to hunch beneath their oilskin cloaks. Below them the sea rose in great swells, fifty feet tall and with tops shredded to white foam by the howling winds. Their long ship, the Corpseworm, slid up over a crest, white water surging around her gunnels as the oarsmen pulled for their very lives. THe bow dipped and Deana felt her stomach drop as the stern lifted skyward. For a moment she could see the rolling waves stretching from horizon to horizon an empty desolation of icy water. That they were alive at all was surely testament to the fact that Thor smiled on Ulf Trollbane, crazy or otherwise.
The Corpseworm raced down the rear face of the vast swell, her dragon carved bow showering the crew as it sliced through the icy water like a dagger. The oars, long length of straight grained pine, tugged at the sea like a water beetle trying to keep afloat in a millrace. Even with the sail down, for the wind would tear the mast step from the keel, the stroke was only enough to keep the ship bow on for the surge would flip her in a heartbeat if she broached and the dark sea would take them all.
“Stroke!” Ulf yelled again, his knuckles mottled against the steering oar from the strength of his grip, vast muscles rippling as he struggled to hold the ship on course by main strength. They hit the trough between swells with a force that made teeth rattle and timbers shriek, the ship itself flexed, the long cross cuts of oak flexing to take the impact, then springing back into place as the ship rose on the next swell. As the reached the top purple lighting slashed to the raging sea at a dozen points, close enough that Deana felt the fine hairs on the back of her hands rise, though the concussion of the strike was muted compared to the scream of the wind on the power of the tumultuous sea. As they hung at the apex Deana caught sight of something, back lit by the weird purplish afterlight of the lightning and the glowing limbal of the corpesant that collected on the mast and at stem and forepost. Something caught her attention on one of the nearby wave tops and her eyes widened in shock though she beheld the object only for a moment before it slid down the reverse of a swell. Icy terror grabbed at her heart, beyond even the fear that she would be drowned in the next few minutes.
“A ship!” she yelled, her voice seeming pathetic against the overwhelming roar of the angry ocean.
“What?!” Ulf bellowed, leaning his great bearded head close to her. He hadn’t heard the words but he must have sensed the urgency in them.
“A ship on the next wave top!” she yelled, screaming in his ear but still only barely audible. The big viking’s eyes s flicked uselessly upwards to the concealing bulk of the monstrous swell. The rowers heaved again at their oars and the ship sped down the trailing edge of the wave. The odds of two ships meeting were slim enough and doubly so in weather as ship killing and unnatural as this, but all ships were enemies on the Reaver seas.
“It was moving towards us,” she screamed, aware as she said it that this was the true cause of her terror.
“Don’t be a fool Irish!” Ulf snapped, his nautical mind spotting the problem with the statement long before hers did, for all of the fact she had been at sea for most of a year. There was no way that a ship could move against the wind in seas like this, though her oarsmen be gods themselves.
“Ship!” Olaf Blacktooh’s screamed, his voice shredded by the wind as it carried back along the Corpseworm’s deck and unintelligible if the word hadn’t already been in the mind of the listeners. At the crest of the next wave a vessel could be seen. It blazed with corpesant, bathed in a weird green purple light that could exist only on the sea or in nightmares. It was bone white and bore the head of a great sea beast on its prow. A shark or a serpent or something in between, jaws spread to devour them. For a moment it hung on the swell, a sail snapping from its single mast, torn to rags by the wind and little more than a veil. Dread swelled in Deana’s heart, though she had been aboard when they clashed with Erik Halfdan’s ship a month ago and had seen men killed a dozen times, something about this situation twisted her guts in cold knots.
“Arms!” Ulf bellowed, though he himself kept a grip of the steering oar. All ships were foes in these seas, even now, and the vikings who followed Ulf Trollbane knew that better than most. Men dropped their oars and grabbed for sword and axe, though few of the men wore their heavy mail. The pale ship raced down the wave like a stooping gull and as it approached Deana’s mouth fell open in horror. The vessel was crewed not by men, but by corpses. They wore mail and carried weapons like vikings, but their skin was the pale bluish grey familiar enough to Irish peasant and Danish reaver as the pallor of the drowned returned by the sea. Their eyes shone with weird light, that somehow held the nacreous oplacence of oyster shell. Their bodies were bloated and fish eaten, swollen corpses pressing against armor that was caked with rust and sea salt. Unclean things wiggled in eye sockets and behind half rotted jaws as they screamed silent war cries.
“Draughr!” Ulf howled but even as he shouted the ships rushed together like the jaws of a trap, the word pregnant with the horror of old folktales. Corpseworm screamed in agony as the pale ship crashed into her, its stern grinding along the length of the vessel like a flensing knife. The oars snapped back like bow staves pine shattering to splinters, death sentences to the rower if Ulf had not already ordered them to arms. The pale ship, seeming gray driftwood now it was close aboard, ground against the side of them, spinning both vessels against the onrushing waves. Only their combined mass saved both of them from capsizing on the spot, though some how Deana doubted that was a concern to the nightmare vessel that accosted them. Spears flew in both directions as the warriors cast, metal tips flashing in the queer light. Anvar Olafsun screamed as an ancient bronze war spear punched into his stomach and pitched him over the side into the storm tossed waters.
Pale hands slammed grapples into the deck of Corpseworm, binding them together with lengths of mouldy braided rope that moaned like the damned as it took up the strain. In a heartbeat, whip quick corpses leaped aboard, trailing mud and the stink of the sea bottom in their wake like vile slugs, rusted wargear clattering against the timbered deck.. Ulf dropped the steering oar, useless now the two ships were bound and grabbed his great war axe from where it sat, wedged between the side of the ship and a keg of ale. Letting out a berserk roar, he leaped towards the nearest foe. The deck lifted on the swell as he jumped, oddly foreshortening the motion so he seemed to glide a few inches above the rising deck though the illusion robbed it of none of its power. The great overhand chop split the skull of the nearest corpse, shearing downwards through its ancient bronze helmet dropping the creature to the ground in a pile of twitching, stinking offal.
The vikings clashed with the corpses in a desperate fury, weapons flashing with the purple light of the storm as the ships rose and fell on the monstrous seas that might, at any moment, suck both of them to the bottom. One of the reavers fell beneath a scything sword stroke that carved up into his rib cage, vomiting blood as he slumped to the deck. His sword clattered to Deana’s feet and she snatched it up, though she had no skill with any weapon beyond the bow with which her father had taught her to hunt rabbits, and gripped it as she had seen Ulf and the other vikings do. The deck was rolling chaos. Olaf, blood streaming from a cut on his scalp, smashed one of the corpse things into the sea with a shattered oar handle, apparently having lost his own weapon. Ulf whirled his axe, cutting the legs out from under one of the draughurs before cleaving its neck against the deck as casually as a man might split firewood. Three more of the vikings were down, disappearing beneath the stabbing blades and blackened clawing fingernails of their attackers. The stink was unimaginable, a mingled reek of mud and salt and death, tinged with something fey and indefinable, like sulphur or lightning burned wood.
One of the creatures staggered towards Deana, hand outstretched, and she lashed out with the sword, artlessly, but with all the strength that a year on a long ship had given her. The keen blade swept through the things arm just above the elbow, dropping the amputated limb to the deck with a wet slap before the motion of the ship rolled it beneath the rowing bench. The creature hissed like a cat and struck out with a curved dagger in its remaining hand. Deana barely blocked it with her sword, the impact jarring her arm and driving her back against the steering oar. The creature lifted its dagger to finish her but before it could there was a flash of steel and a sound like a melon bursting the back end of Ulf’s axe smashed its head to pulp. Ulf turned back to the bloody melee without wasting effort on words and Deana gripped her borrowed sword in numb fingers, preparing to fight in any way she was able.
Just as she stood to rush forward the ships turned broadside on the crest of a wave and she was thrown from her feet, arms flailing as the deck dropped away beneath her. She hit the deck of the pale ship hard enough that her split her lip, dizzying her with the flash of red hot pain and the taste of blood. Miraculously she kept a grip on the sword and staggered to her feet to find herself alone on the deck of the corpse ship. A ship perhaps, but no ship anyone outside of Nephelheim had ever imagined. The pale timber was the grey of sea drowned driftwood, but the ribs of the vessel were of bone, great curving lengths of yellow white that must have come from a creature so large that it beggared present imagination. Deana had a dim memory of her grandmother, telling her of the two great giants Grug and Grog who stalked the mists on chilly nights. Sinewy cords of dry pale leather and nails of iron that bled streaks of red rust held the vessel together only as much as deposits of barnacles, sickly looking things with disturbing phosphorescence that grew in oddly shaped colonies, their slime acting as the tar and pitch that sealed the Corpseworm’s seams.
“Irish!” Ulf bellowed and she pulled herself together enough to glance back at the Corpseworm. Ulf was at the head of his men now, axe striking like lightning and showering the deck with severed limbs and heads but for all the beserkers fury it was clear that the battle had but one conclusion. Corpse white hands dragged down vikings who, without mail, were vulnerable. Even Ulf himself was wounded, though the blood coursing down his broad muscled chest did not seem to be slowing the bigh pirate.
“Thor, Odin, Danu, save us,” she breathed as they plunged down the reverse side of the massive sheet of water, the Corpseworm forcing the side of the pale ship down far enough that icy water splashed over Deana’s knees for a moment, chilling her to the bone and barely avoiding swamping the ship.
With desperation, Deana began to chop at the grapples that held the two ships together, though the sword was a poor choice for the task. Despite its decayed look the sodden rope was surprisingly resilient and it took a half a dozen cuts to part the first strand. A sudden lurch through her against the stern post as the ships crested the unearthly swell again. In the distance she saw forks of lighting snap from the whirling clouds to the heaving sea with stuttering insistence. She paused, lifting the now dull sword blade but not bringing it down. Even if she parted the ships, surely she would succeed only in being stranded on this one for the few moments before it went under, but something had to be done. Something. Lightning flashed again.
With sudden decision she rushed down the length of the pale ship, splashing through ankle deep water and trying to ignore the way wisps of seaweed seemed to grasp and tug at her ankles. Reaching the forepost she climbed hand over hand up the ancient driftwood, praying that her slight weight wouldn’t crumble the ancient timbethough whatever enchantment kept the boat afloat was surely proof against her slight additional weight. Gripping the forepost with her thighs she reached the carven head of the ship, the great snake that could only be the midgard serpent. Its jaws leered at her, its every scale reproduced with an artistry disturbing for its contrast with the rest of the ship. It seemed for all the world like at any second it might rear back and strike, the wood growing slippery and slimy beneath her grasping fingers. With a fury born of desperation she drew back her sword with both hands, clinging to the forepost purely by the strength of her thighs, and drove the sword down into the crown of the serpent's head, the keen blade wedging in the ancient wood. Cold water exploded over her as the ships plummeted into another trough and only a desperate grab saved her from being swept away into the storm tossed sea, even so the icy North Atlantic closed around her for a few heart stopping seconds, dulling the sound of the storm before the buoyancy of the ship pulled her once more out of the realm of ice and death. As the ships began to ascend the next swell Deana leaped from the forepost, crashing back into the slick belly of the pale ship, barnacle shells tearing open her knees and palms as she broke her fall.
Ulf and his men fought still, though the reavers had been forced into a knot at the rear of the Corpseworm. Of the twenty men of Ulf’s crew perhaps half were still on their feet, hacking desperately with sword or axe or in one case a length of broken timber. Even to Deana it was obvious they couldn’t hold out much longer, without armor or even shields, they were being ground down by their implacable and otherworldly opponents. The sudden prickle against her arms made her turn as the locked ships rose towards the crest. Pale purple green corpesant had gathered around the sword transfixed in the carven head atop the forepost. It coiled like a pseudopod, reaching vainly towards the sky. Deana scrambled backwards, unsure of what was about to happen but sure she wanted nothing to do with it the way a fox flees the sound of hooves. White light so intense that even through closed eyes Deana saw the forepost etched in blazing clarity, lanced from the sky with a sound like the world ending. The light touched the hilt of the sword and coursed down through the metal shattering steal and timber together like a bomb. Paine enveloped Deana’s arms as her body arced with the force of the light pulsing through her, and the smell of burning flesh and hair filled her nostrils. She was screaming though it was a cry of defiance rather than pain as all around her burning wood hissed with the quenching rush of the icy water that rushed in to fill the void of the shattered bow of the pale ship. Water reached for her as hungrily as fire as it surged into the bowels of the ship plunging her beneath its icy curtain.
Cold settled into her limbs as her body stilled, her long black hair spreading in the water. A calm settled over her as the realization that death was upon her settled into her marrow. Pieces of timber trailing bubbles of what had seconds ago been smoke slid past her like rain sinking forever to the depths..The roar of the storm was gone as she sank deeper and the light that still flickered with dazzling after images across her eyes converged into the figure of a woman, racing toward her with the sound of a thousand raven wings. Her hair was black as night and her eyes as cold as death itself, though her features bore a smile that Deana couldn’t quite interpret. The Morrigan, she thought/said, the word swimming to her mind from whispered tales and ancient legends. She reached for the goddesses's outstretched hand when, with a suddenness more shocking than the lightning strike, fingers grabbed her by the hair and wrenched her back out of the water and back into the word of the living.
Ulf deposited her on the deck of the Corpseworm with all the gentleness he would have reserved for a sack of rotten grain. Tears started from her eyes as her buttocks hit the timber and she blinked in open mouthed shock. The deck was littered with bodies, and blood sluiced with the sea water. Of the pale ship there was no sign, though it was a miracle it hadn't dragged Corpseworm to the depths with it. Ulf seized the steering oar and heaved the ship back onto its course, though the sea was settling with unnatural speed. Within a period of a half dozen waves the swell had fallen to the normal pitch of a mortal sea, and not the towering horror of the hours before, the clouds, so long lowering overhead were growing patchy and the wholesome natural light of the moon broke through. Pain prompted Deana to look down at her arms, and she was surprised to find pale burns like jagged forked lightning running from her shoulders to her fingertips.
“You know what this means Irish?” Ulf yelled, a wolfish grin peeling back his lips to flash his white teeth.
“Now I am definitely going to sell you!” Ulf declared, and then threw his head back and laughed with such gusto and life that Deana couldn’t help but join in, howling till tears poured from her eyes. The surviving crew watched bewildered as Ulf Trollbane laughed at death, and Deana Stormkissed laughed with him.
Raggedy Nell, Raggedy Nell, She comes in the night up out of some hell, All those who know her fall under her spell, Dragged off in the dark by ol’ raggedy Nell.
Imperial children’s rhyme
Camilla awoke with a start. The small fire which had blazed in the hearth had subsided to the ruddy red glow of fading embers. The lambent light made sinister shadows dance and creep along the walls. Beside her Cydric slept, his familiar breathing rising and falling like the bellows of a distant forge. The room they had rented, though the best the Three Sisters had to offer, was small and dingy, scarcely more than a bed, a few rickety chairs and a fireplace. Despite that it had seemed a welcome respite from nights spent on the road, sleeping rough around a campfire. Now though… the utter silence of the night disturbed her. No timbers creaked, now trees waved in the breeze, even the fire seemed to be reluctant to crackle, only the sound of Cydric’s breathing seemed to penetrate the unnatural quiet.
Slipping from beneath the covers Camilla stole over to one of the grime obscured windows, pulling her cotton shift tightly about her. The darkened street of Ravenmeer, a simple stretch of dirt pounded tight by the passage of feet and rutted by wagons was only dimly visible. The stone tower of the Temple of Sigmar, the only structure of particular note beside the merchants guild hall, thrust up into the sky like a bony finger. Pale moonlight bathed the street in a soft light, casting fantastic shadows which seemed too sharp to be entirely natural. Something, impossible to distinguish through the dirty window, flitted through the night. No dogs barked, no one stirred.
Her flesh crawling Camilla returned to the slumbering Cydric and seized him by the shoulders. Gently at first, and then with increasing force, she shook him but Cydric, used to being up on his feet and armed a moment after a sentry's shout, did not move so much as a muscle. Fighting down panic, Camilla drew back her hand and slapped him hard across the face. The Ostlander didn’t so much as flinch from the blow, the slap of flesh on flesh unnaturally loud in the queer and silent night. A queasy feeling stole over Camilla and she reached forward and peeled back Cydric’s eyelid with thumb and forefinger. He stared sightless and unmoving, only the metronomic rise and fall of his chest giving testament to his continued life.
Whispering a curse in Tilean, Camilla pulled on her shirt and trousers, tugging on her boots and settling her weapons belt around her hips. Some instinct told her to remain quiet, though for what purpose she couldn’t have said. Dressed and armed she lifted the latch that secured the door and slipped out of the room. The hallway beyond was illuminated only by moonlight that streamed through a window at the end of the hall. The ancient clock which the innkeeper had bragged about no longer ticked, the pendulum still. Both of the ornate brass hands pointed upwards to midnight.
The hallways continued to the end of the building, where it turned onto a narrow stairwell. Camilla followed it, moving down the stairs to a small landing which overlooked the taproom. Here too the remains of a fire cast an ugly ruby light from the great stone hearth. Men and women slumped in attitudes of somnolence, heads resting on tables, or slumped to the reed covered floor. The scent of woodsmoke and the reek of sour ale seemed unnaturally sharp. Even the barman lay sprawled across the bar, his slow intake of breath waking ripples in a puddle of spilled ale that gathered around his pudgy cheek.
The silence was oppressive, the only sounds were the soft crackling of fire and the steady drip of spilled ale as it fell from the bar to the floor in regular intervals with a gentle patter. Camilla tried to hum to herself in a conscious effort to break the quiet but as she did so her heart rose into her throat and her body trembled in fear. Instead, she crept down the stairs and onto the floor, wincing as the rushes crunched under her booted feet. Above her the corn poppets which had seemed so festive the night before, hung from the rafters like a coven of witches, silently revolving on unseen air currents.
Reaching the stone lintel of the door she peered out into the street. Moonlight shone down, almost as bright as day, although no shadows so stark and terrible as these were ever cast by the sun. The air was still over the deserted street, not disturbed by birds, or dogs or men. Of the shape she had spied from her window she could see nothing. Drawing her blade, more for the comfort that the gesture brought than from anticipation of need, she stepped out into the street. In the eeire quiet she could feel the thunder of her pulse in her temples, a pounding and terrible reminder that she was still alive.
Movement drew her eye as from one of the larger houses a door opened. Two children, both clad in night clothes stepped into the street. They were a brother and sister, evident enough by their similar features, though how many summers the pair had seen was difficult for her to tell. Less than ten certainly, they boy perhaps as few as five. They gripped each other by the hand, the older girl clearly leading the younger sibling, though their eyes were closed in an attitude of sleep. Camilla reached into her tunic and gripped the amulet that hung there, the crossed x of Ranald biting into her flesh as she squeezed. So zealous was the grip that a trickle of blood ran from her hand before she could bring herself to release it.
The children began to walk down the street, towards the distant woods which dominated the lowlands south of Ravenmeer. Moving as quickly as she dared, Camilla crossed the street to block their path, reaching out to grip the girl by the shoulder. The child's flesh was clammy and cold, almost corpse like and she slipped free of the Tilean’s grip continuing to move down the street. Camilla seized her again, more forcefully this time and the girl tugged futilely against the woman’s grip, all the while without opening her eyes. The boy slipped his sisters grip to continue his journey now that his sister had ceased to leave him. Camilla dropped her sword and grabbed the childs hand, holding them both in place by main strength. Her heart hammered in her chest, so forcefully that che was certain it must be audible over the eerie silence of the night. Despite the instinctive animal panic she forced her reluctant voice to work, though it seemed her tongue was thick and her mouth swollen.
“Wake up,” she half grunted half gasped, the words seeming to crack from her lips like distant cannon fire. Cold fingers dug into her shoulder, like knives of ice. Camilla tried to scream but the agony tore her breath from her lungs. She lost her grip on the children who stepped to either side of her like water parting around a boulder. Movement was impossible, her muscles frozen in place as the cold thundered through her, chilling her blood to ice water. The thundering of her heart grew so rapid and so loud she thought she must die and then, with the strange aspect of honey running slowly down a spoon her knees gave way and she toppled into the street, the bony fingers at her shoulder guiding her down.
Gasping she lay on her side for a moment before her unseen assailant turned her from her side to her back. Pitiless stars burned in the sky and the two moons wheeled overhead, seeming to circle the bell tower of the temple mockingly. A dark shape swam into her view, an old woman wrapped in a mourners hood, but yet no natural woman. Her skin, the color of burnt walnuts seemed to ripple and wave as to some unseen breeze and her eyes were black pits of ancient stygian darkness. Yellowed teeth filed to points curved into an eerie simulacrum of a smile.
“You are abroad this night,” the woman-thing noted. The lips didn’t move, the words seeming to seer into Camilla’s mind like brands of ice. The cold was spreading from her shoulder, down towards her heart and up towards her head, even as warm blood seeped from the wounds. Trails of mist rose into the air from the blood, like fog rising off a lack. Camilla tried to speak, tried to scream, but the effort was like lifting a smith's anvil with her bare hands.
“Do you not know me?” the figure asked/thought, in apparent puzzlement. There was an ancient malice behind the words, pure and terrible. Camilla’s hand scrabbled for the hilt of her sword but the rapier lay a half dozen feet away, its hilt mockingly pointed towards her hand. Amusement boiled from the creature as it observed her actions.
“No weapon can harm me child I am…”
Camilla snatched the pistol from her belt, leveled it at the thing’s chest and fired. The crack-snap of the weapon seemed washed out in the queer silence of the night. Mist and shadows swirled where the ball should have struck. The creature’s rotted teeth curved into a smile and then, suddenly, transmuted to a snarl of horror. A sound, soft at first, but growing steadily, filled the night. The deep resonant toll of a bell, growing louder and more terrible by the moment. The creature let go of Camilla and turned to look up in horror at the bell tower of the Temple of Sigmar. Camilla felt her pulse slow but somehow knew it was time itself, not her heart, that slowed its frantic tattoo. The peel of the bell grew so loud and so omnipresent that she was sure that it must shake the very earth appart. The creature wailed in impotent fury as moonlight winked off the brass bell, beams of oddly golden moonlight struck like lances, piercing the mass of shadow that served for the creatures body, tearing the darkness like knives of pure light. Camilla tried to scream, so intense was the peel of the bell’s sounding, but no sound escaped her silently screaming lips. She must die or go mad for surely no mortal thing could endure the terrible bell a moment longer. The old woman flew appart in a blaze of golden moonlight that seared at Camilla’s eyes, and then, as suddenly as it had began it was over. Camilla Del La Trantio lay in a dusty street. Somewhere a child cried, a dog barked, and a temple bell hummed with soft resonance, all that a small leaden pistol ball could have struck from it.
Raggedy Nell, Raggedy Nell, No sword nor musket, nor weapon may fell, Naught but the sound of a Holy mans bell, Can hope to banish ol’ Raggedy Nell.