Deliberations 3.9

“I met Wainwright six years ago, not long after Daffyd,” said Knell, steaming cup of tea in her hands. Fisk had refused, watching Cornelius with narrowed eyes and folded arms from her post by the door. Daffyd watched the steam rise, placid, and Rikker hunched forward in his seat like he was at a good show. “Back when I was just a monkey under Lensman,” she continued, “chasing bounties coz the Lezekim decided slavery in the northern Circle wasn’t fashionable anymore.” Continue reading

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Deliberations 3.8

Virday, 25th of Foundation, YD180

“You have enough able-bodied crew,” said Francois, “there is no need for this.”

Knell drummed her fingers on the clean, steel arms of the chair, looking up at the tiny lights set into the ceiling. Less of a cave and more of a hole, this obsessively clean chamber in the rock, full of carefully stacked equipment of uncertain purpose, lit only by the constellations of miniscule bulbs embedded in the uneven ceiling.

“The Clawtorn alone-”

“Wainwright is off the table,” Knell said, watching as Francois attached a clear glass ampoule into an ominous, dark hypodermic device the length of her forearm. “I ask you to do a week’s work in three days, I’m going to pay the extra.”

“Honour even among pirates.”

“I don’t like debts.”

“Prudent. This will hurt.”

Knell clenched her teeth as the needle entered and suppressed a shudder at the cold, sucking feeling of the extraction.

“I’m told bites are easier,” she said, grimacing.

“Not for me,” he replied, in a tone that cut off any inquiry.

He packs the ampoule away, a little red bauble.

“One from each of the crew, except Wainwright?” Knell said, uncertain, as she rubbed her arm and climbed out of the chair.

“Yes. And the money, of course.”

“Can’t blame you. I’ve never seen so much done in three days.”

“It will suffice?”

“Even better.”

And, Knell thought, we get to keep whatever the owners left behind.

Francois had given her a folder with his findings – notes in his steady yet scratchy hand detailing his best guesses about the curious devices in the gunship.

She waved, dismissively, as she left the room, and sent the next member of the crew in.  She’d spent the last three days wondering the best way to offload that hostage and get a look at Allbright Spire – the psychosurgeon had never said how close she had to be, where in the tower.

Knell shivered, strolling back to the Rustbucket. Had she lived there, once? Her lip curled into a sneer.

Just fucking wait – I’ll turn out to be a dragonsdamned princess who wiped the memory of her cruel noble parents.

The idea made her nauseous as much as it amused her.

“I need a drink,” she declared, sitting at the grimy brushed-steel bar and resting her elbows on it. The tapster gave her a pointed look from beneath a bushy unibrow.

“What?”

“You’ve just paid Francois, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” Knell said, leaning back and raising her brows.

“So a half-pint, then.”

“No, a full pint,” replied Knell, wondering what this woman cared for how much blood she’d given.

“If you’re sure,” said the tapster, pulling a pint.

Stumpy took the stool at her left, Rikker on her right, rubbing his arm with a scowl.

“Can we go somewhere without Vampires next?” He said, pointing out a bottle to the tapster before turning to Knell. “Nothing but trouble.”

“We can try,” she replied.

Rikker snorted. “Yeah, I suppose that’s all. Suckers’re everywhere.”

“You were ready to worship them, back in Towerpeak,” Knell said, arching a brow and sipping her pint.

He shrugs. “People tend to pray when their back’s against the wall.”

“You were on a fucking skyship!”

“Well,” he shrugged, “they have some scary guns on that tower. Seemed like we’d have a better chance getting away if they thought we were on-side.”

“Noster seemed pretty into it.”

“Noster had a little shrine in her berth,” he said, sipping his drink. “You didn’t know she was born at Towerpeak?”

“Tend not to ask my crew those kind of questions, Rikker,” she said. After a pause: “Sober.”

“Suppose now’s the time, then,” he said, grinning offering his glass. Knell tapped hers against his.

“What now, anyway? You have a plan?” He asked.

“Pretty simple. We have the money to get Wainwright a doctor, so we’ll leave him in Moonbend to be treated. I’ll take the gunships to Allbright and ransom the kid. We’ll offload those who don’t want to work in the Legion, sign up…” she trailed off.

“And then take care of some other business.”

“Why’re we joining the Legion, really?” he said. “We can dump the monk in Moonbend and get back to life as usual.”

“Because I don’t want to run and I don’t fancy fighting her. Besides, she’d kill me in my sleep.”

“She’s only one woman, Captain-”

“I fought her, however briefly, Rikker. She can beat me. I don’t know that I can get a shot sooner than she can stab me,” Knell replied, taking a deep draught. “And like I said – in my sleep.”

“As you like, Captain,” said Rikker, shrugging. “You don’t have to fight her fair, you know.”

“I’m not risking crew for this.”

“You’re happy to risk crew for anything else-”

Knell’s fist slammed the bartop.

“Fuck you, Rikker. We all take risks when we go raiding,” she snarled, jabbing a finger at his face.

“Don’t you dare, don’t you fucking – “ she struck the bar again – “dare to tell me I risk their lives for nothing. You’ve been doing this longer than me and you should damn well know better.”

The tapster loomed into view, and Knell almost jumped to her feet.

“No trouble,” she said, pointedly, and Knell nodded, sullen.

“No,” she said, draining her glass and giving the impassive Rikker a sidelong glance as she stormed out.


Virday, 30th of Foundation, YD180

Knell glowered at the smoking streets.

“Another civil war,” she said, flatly. Rikker and Daffyd stood behind her, trailing ends of hair and clothes drifting oddly in the eddies of the ‘Sea. The view from the Death’s topdeck was less than ideal, but she could see enough.

“A riot, more accurately,” Daffyd said, hands behind his back, standing at attention. “The librarians do not rule Moonbend and the Quiet Man is not directly involved.”

“He’s never directly involved,” muttered Rikker. “That’s the point.”

“So what is actually happening?” Knell snapped, turning to face Daffyd, with Rikker looking on expectantly.

Daffyd shrugged. “There was a massacre attributed to the vampires in the library, and the population have turned against them. The Quiet Man’s enforcers are trying to keep it under control, but the citizens will not back down.”

“Why is it always fuckin va-” Knell snarled, and stopped. She pauses, looking over her shoulder the plumes of smoke around the dome of the Archive, the crowds like teeming insects when seen from so far.

“Where is Blades?” she asked, through gritted teeth.

“We have not seen her,” replied Daffyd.

Knell’s brow creased and she made for the hatch, longcoat sweeping behind her. I am not going to like what Percy tells me, she thought, and slid down the ladder.

 

She found the Rat in his berth – a former closet in the aft of the ship, equipped with a little bunk and many shelves for all his things; a variety of teapots, fragrant pouches of leaves, and more books than Knell thought she could read in a lifetime. Although, she admitted to herself, it might be easier for others.

He was sat on his bunk with eyes shut and legs crossed, but spoke first.

“A revelation, captain?” he said, and Knell was sure he was thinking about smirking, even if it didn’t show.

“What is she doing, Percy?” asked Knell, leaning against the doorframe.

“Serving her purpose, Captain.”

“Don’t muck about, Percy. Explain.”

Percy sighed, opened his eyes, sat more comfortably.

“I don’t expect you to comprehend all of our beliefs, Captain, but you understand the basics?”

Knell nodded. “Each monk worships a god from the pantheon except Mytherion, and you can tell them by their fighting style, their attitude. I can recognize Galathine adherents and Adjukant worshipers, but I couldn’t place Blades.” She paused. “Is she the exception?”

“Our purpose, however we embrace it, is to destroy vampires,” Percy said, as if oblivious. “Each one a warrior without peer, able to fight a dozen ordinary troops to a standstill if not massacre them. With what are we armed in this duty?”

Knell stood straight, tamping down on her mounting irritation. “I’ve seen swords and staves, mostly. Killing tools.”

“And by what means are vampires slain?”

“Decapitation?”

“Among other things. How do you know the victim of a vampire?”

“Bite marks, if there’s even that much left.”

“What is Blades’ weapon?”

“A pair of needles…” Knell was beginning to understand and her guts turned to ice.

“We cannot fight all the vampires,” Percy continued, “We cannot simply face those who have ingratiated themselves into the community. Their evils are seductive, and they are often cunning. I was a warrior, Captain,” he looked at her with weary eyes “Thousand Blades Smiling is a murderer of holy purpose.”

“So she wanders around getting people to turn on vampires instead of killing them herself?” Knell was aghast. “She’ll kill innocents over it?”

“No one is innocent, Captain.”

“Look, fuck your philosophy for a minute,” Knell growled, “are you telling me I’ve been carting some deranged terrorist around all this time? Did she do this to Towerpeak, too? It was the slaves that turned there, they must be used to death by vampire.”

He shrugged. “You encountered her hunting Feidhlim, did you not? He was an affront to Mytherion. Perhaps she found a means to lure him out, perhaps she was just in the right place…”

“Fuck’s sake,” Knell slumped against the frame. “I don’t have time for this – I need a doctor for Wainwright, new papers, and to get our hostage out of here.”

“The riots are contained,” he said, “and so should not much interfere.”

“Fucking hope so,” she muttered.

“Does this mean we can skip the Legion, Captain?”

Knell practically spun on the spot at Rikker’s intrusion.

“What?” She blurted, eyes narrow.

“If Blades’ has gone mental you don’t have to worry about her demands anymore, right?”

“Right… yeah, well, minds are made up, ain’t they?”

Rikker gazed impassively for a moment, as if studying her face.

“Yeah,” he said. “I suppose they are. Artyom’s first, then?”

Knell sighed and nodded. “He’ll know someone.” She took a step, but whirled on the rat. “You had nothing to do with this, Percy?”

“My crusade is ended, Captain.”

“When I’ve dealt with this mess,” she growled, “you and I are having a long conversation.”

Percy nodded. “Not as long as that revelation has taken you, I hope,” the graying rat smirked. Knell smiled in spite of herself and kept moving.

“You’re with me, Rikker,” she said, brightly, and Rikker swore.

 

They disembarked into the warehouse not long after, Knell in the lead with Daffyd helping a bound and hissing Wainwright to follow. Rikker was practically armoured in bullets, bandoleers crisscrossing his chest. Knell glanced between him and Fisk, rolling her shoulders and swaggering through the doors to the street, “You feel a bit underdressed, Quartermaster? I feel a bit underdressed.”

“You won’t laugh when I have to mow down a pack of agitators, Captain,” said Rikker.

“No,” Knell replied, more quietly. “I won’t.

The streets of Moonbend didn’t bustle; no buskers or hawkers to be seen, locals scurrying to safety or gathered in close, heavily armed mobs on corners. Aside from gestured threats at Wainwright’s approach, no one bothered Knell and her crew as they crept toward the healer.

“Ain’t Artyom a doctor?” Rikker asked, as they crossed a more populous boulevard to the curiosity of cafe patrons.

“Wainwright won’t go near Lybarim doctors for all the gems in the ‘Sea.”

“Fair.”

“Right. We’re just lucky there’s a Communer on the island.”

Knell paused at the end of a narrow alley, a little bronze sun hanging overhead from a washingline. “Someone did check that they’ll work on brains?”

All eyes turned to Daffyd.

“No. No one was dispatched to discuss this with the healer.” He said.

“For fuck’s sake,” Knell thumped the wall with her shadow fist and kept walking. “Why not, Daffyd?”

“Because you never ordered it, Captain.”

“I just assumed you all knew better!”

Rikker shrugged, “I didn’t know healers couldn’t heal things. Why would anyone else in the crew?”

“It’s not that they-” Knell started, and stopped, and breathed. “Never mind. Communers can’t all do everything and most won’t go near the brain. This might be a wasted trip.”

“And then we just ask Artyom,” Rikker said, cheerfully.

“Fuck off, Rikker,” Knell muttered, craning around the corner at the end of the alley to see a rust-coloured mushroom the size of a house, complete with twee round windows and a wooden door, bursting up through the rock and given a wide berth by nearby homes – an overgrown square in the middle of the tenements.  “This is the place.”

The door opened to admit them on its own, revealing a cozy one-room home that reminded Knell of a midwife’s cottage she visited a few years back; lots of shelves and low tables covered in trinkets and baubles, jars and bottles and pots of herbs. “Ho there,” called the owner – a silver-haired man with bushy beard and simple robe, sitting at a desk strewn with paper and brushes. He turned to face them as they piled into the room, smiling in a way that felt detached, to Knell. The smile faded, though not completely, when he saw Wainwright.

“Hello, doctor…?” Knell said, holding out a hand. He stood, but didn’t shake.

“I’m no doctor. Call me Cornelius,” he replied, looking the group over. “What seems to be the problem?”

“Our friend,” Knell started only for Rikker to snort. She gave him a dirty look and continued, “took a nasty blow to the head and hasn’t been himself since, we were wondering if you could fix him up? I’ve got gems…”

Cornelius shook his head, gestured for them to find seats amid the bric-a-brac. “Sit down. Sit down. Tell me what happened and I’ll examine him afterward,” he said, lighting an electrical hotplate and setting a teapot upon it.

Knell shook her head, sitting heavily and resting her face in her hands. “We were boarded,” she said. “We don’t know if a stray bullet hit him or if it was a ruptured bulkhead, but he’s not been himself since. Ship’s medic says his brain can’t heal.”

“I see,” Cornelius replied, nodding, hands clasped in front of him as she sat. Daffyd stood beside the door, Rikker made himself comfortable on a huge cushion, and Fisk sat straight-backed on a stool. Wainwright crouched on the floor in front of Knell, suspicious, mewling softly.

“And you would like me to heal it, of course,” Cornelius continued, watching the pot. “I don’t accept money,” he added.

“Then… a favour?” Knell offered, brow creasing.

“Not quite. Tell me why he deserves it.”

“What?” Fisk almost barked, incredulous. Knell’s ill feeling only got worse.

“What do you mean, deserve it?” she said,

“I have no doubt this will be a difficult task for me. Make it worth my while.”

“We’ve said we can pay-”

“And I don’t need your money.”

“Just to be told why you should heal him?”

“Just so.”

The only sound was the boiling water.

And then: “What exactly do we have to tell you?” Knell asked.

“Who is he?” Cornelius said, mildly, pouring strong-scented tea. “Is he worthy of healing, or is this a punishment he deserves?”

“That’s fucking inhuman,” Fisk said, bristling.

“Yes,” Cornelius said, meeting her eyes. “It is.”

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Interlude 3.x

What Frightful Gaze

10th of Foundation, YD 180

Audience Chamber

The Ashen Palace

Throne

The audience chamber at the Ashen Palace is lined with pillars. Six pillars, three a side, rising to the vaulted ceiling. Each is inscribed with the names of the fallen, each assigned to a different House. At the head of the room, the Onyx Throne is enwrapped around the pillar on which the dead of House Djuke are remembered. The light is never so bright as to illumine the whole room, and those wishing to pay respects must bring a torch or eyes that care not for the dark.

Imperus’ eyes are of that sort, piercing violet in the gloom. Zher talons click in slow rhythm on the arm of the throne, and zher gaze lingers on the ornate gauntlet which sits on a pedestal to zher left. Perhaps there will be need of it, in future.

Valdis Linnet, the Seneschal, bustles across the empty room followed by a figure in a pointed hood and dark grey and purple robes. Imperus’ talons cease tapping. More figures gather at the door, unwilling to cross the threshold.

“Your Excellence,” Linnet says in her melodious voice, bowing. “You said now was the time for audiences and pleas.”

“Yes, Seneschal,” Imperus replies, softly-spoken words echoing across the room. Zher gaze is on the hooded figure, an old man clearly straining to remain standing.

In the end, Imperus’ will is the stronger, and the man prostrates himself.

“Forgive me, your Divinity!” He cries. “I wish only to serve.”

Imperus ignores him.

“And the rest of his flock, Linnet?” Zhe asks.

Linnet grimaces, like eating a sour candy. “Persistent, your Excellence.”

“Leave them be,” Imperus sighs. “Anything else would only encourage this nonsense.”

Linnet nods, even as the hooded man shouts “At your command, Divinity, I rebel!”

Imperus snorts and debates signaling the guards hidden invisibly around the room.

“Send in the first supplicant,” zhe commands, and Linnet bows again before leaving. The ‘high priest’, as he styles himself, remains. The herald enters and stands at the foot of the dais on which the throne sits, and turns as a delegate from Kaer arrives flanked by armed guards. The herald takes a breath.

“The Kaeri Ambassador to Throne, Manda Braithe – you stand now before Djuke Imperus, King of Kings.”

The ambassador bows low. Her escort does not, hands on their rifles, visibly struggling to stand straight. The Ambassador cannot straighten.

“Thank you for seeing me, Excellence.” She says.

“You are welcome, Ambassador Braithe,” Imperus replies. “How fare your people?”

“We thrive, Excellence – the recovery continues apace.”

“That is good news. Why do you seek my counsel?”

“Excellence, it has been made known to us that Towerpeak is riven by civil war. We seek permission to contain the threat.”

“Denied, Ambassador.”

“But… but your Excellence, the leeches are weak and disrupted, we-”

“Denied,” Imperus repeats. “The Kromsians are free to practice their faith and resolve their conflicts without intervention. You would do well to remember my decree.”

“… Of course, Excellence.”

 

“Roisin Dubh, Crantire Ambassador to Throne – you stand now before Djuke Imperus, King of Kings.”

The elegant, dark Dryad bows, creaking under the pressure.

“Your Excellence, I will not waste your time – we seek Inquisitorial support.”

“And why do you come to me?”

“Lord Inquisitor Mormont believes our concerns to be unfounded, but there is a… a contaminant on our border which we can neither identify nor contain.”

“A contaminant.”

“The wreck of a skyship, humming with perverse energies. We understand one of our wayward saplings was sighted recently and fear his hand in this transgression.”

“Feidhlim of The Black Gate.”

“Just so, Excellence.”

“I will request that this be investigated, but recall I do not control the Inquisition.”

“Of course, Excellence.”

 

“Chancellor of Treasury, Izzot Tux, you-”

“I know damn well where I am, Poster.”

“At ease, herald. What is it, Izzot?”

“We cannot support your new directive, Excellence,” Izzot says, fuming. “It will drain our coffers to complete the new military hires, and I cannot fathom the need for some of these materials-”

“That will be accounted for, Chancellor.”

“I’m doing the accounting, Excellence, do not think me remiss in my duties.”

“I do not, Chancellor. Find me in the observatory after sunset and we will discuss this further.”

“…As you command, Excellence.”

 

“Lord Commander Deadwood of the Bulwark Regiment – you stand now before Imperus, King of Kings.”

“Your Excellence, I beg your aid,” says the kneeling soldier, his long coat thick with the dust of the road. “We have lost no less than fifty troops to the Grievers in the last week. I beg you, deploy the Aerial Legion or lend us soldiers. We cannot cleanse them otherwise without unacceptable losses.”

“You are negligent to come here yourself at such a time of need, Commander.”

The old soldier flashes a feral grin.

“I have brought forces for a pincer on their hideout, Excellence. We need only the numbers to deliver the killing blow.”

“Granted. You are exempted from this service, Commander.”

“Excellence?”

“More losses would be unacceptable. I am sending the Talon.”

Deadwood slumps with relief.

“Thank you, Excellence.”

 

“Eight Days Darkness, Kromsian Ambassador to Throne – you stand now before Imperus, King of Kings.”

The vampire showed no sign of strain or fatigue, standing regal and steady with barely a shred of clothing. Their form was attenuated, tall, with long fingers and softly luminous patagia. It bowed, and returned to full height.

“Your Excellence, we would request aid to end the turmoil which plagues our home. A band of Necromancers and strangers have murdered our charges and our agents, and sought to destroy all that we have built for reasons which yet elude us.”

“Troubling and tragic in equal measure, Ambassador. What need have you?”

“Anything you might spare, Excellence. We are in sore need of means to find and root out these terrorists.”

“I will summon the Hulbradim, Ambassador, and recommend you contract a Desolator in the meantime.”

“Your wisdom is equalled only by your beneficence, Excellence, and we-”

The guards did not move with zher order – and so the young man dashing into the room, dressed in the raiment of the cult that insisted on worshiping Imperus, was unimpeded. The Dragon-Emperor was impressed; he managed to stand, sweating, not ten feet from zher. A pity.

The herald stared in horror, mouth agape. Linnet was hurling herself behind a pillar. The onlookers at the edge of the court yelled and cried.

The young zealot was not calm, but in his fervour Imperus saw a kind of serenity; the tendons of his neck taut, his teeth clenched in rictus smile of dark intent. He drew from his coat a pistol – new and smelling of gun oil, sleek and modern – and pointed it at Imperus upon the throne.

The assembled crowd cowered in the report, deafened by the blast. His cry – the shooter’s cry – was expected; “Defiance is Victory!”

The bullet hung in the air between Imperus eyes for a bare moment, before zhe reached out and held it between zher talons, and cast it aside. The young man quivered before zher gaze, blood running from the corner of his mouth in a thin trickle.

The gunshot still seemed to echo in the sonorous hall. When Imperus stood, the martyr’s knees shattered, the crack and shriek following in the explosive wake of his failure.

“You know who I am, mortal, that you should dare.”

“I-I am blessed to die by your hand….”

Imperus picked him from the ground in one hand, gently, tugging the weapon from him and crushing it in a flash of violet light.

“You are mislead, you idiot child.”

A figure in dark clothes melted from the shadows and stood behind the martyr.

“Take him to the hospital. Have him healed. Assign a counselor.”

The dark-clothed agent nodded, and slung the protesting shooter over their shoulder.

Imperus swept the room with zher gaze, and many flinched as it passed over them.

“Mistake not my kindness for cruelty, nor my silence for consent. I demand no worship, only obedience.”

A chorus rippled across the assembly. “Hail Imperus!”

Imperus nodded, returning to the throne. Adequate.

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Deliberations 3.7

Peaceful Sleep was in a nicer district of Moonbend, close to the Quiet Man’s known haunts. An open garden with bolts of silk and light, strong wooden walls like small huts or gazebos. Knell had never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world, but it still felt familiar to stand before the gates and see the strange, crooked trees with phosphorescent blossoms peeking over the wall.  The shadow of the Dome was ominously close. Knell wondered if Blades’ trespass would be noticeable, from here, or if it would go wholly unknown to the thousands of people on these streets.

Knell pushed through the doors into a dark cloth-walled courtyard, a single tree in the middle under which sat a woman in blood red robes, surrounded by small stone pillars encircled with glyphs and studded with rubies. Knell nodded approvingly; they put on a good show.

“How may I assist?” The woman asked, opening startling violet eyes and offering a polite, professional smile.

Knell rubbed the back of her head, dark hand cool against her skin, and though that a haircut might be in order.

“I… was a patient here? Knell Blackhand.”

“Hm… I have no record of a Blackhand.”

“That may have come afterward – what about Knell?”

Her hands made gentle motions around the pillars and gently floating stones.

“A few. I’m afraid I can’t be more specific,” she said. “We have rules. Would you like to see a surgeon? They should be able to match you to our records without breaching our privacy standards.”

Knell paused. “Is there a consultation fee for that much?”

“No,” the receptionist replied, with a more genuine smile.

“Alright, yes, please.”

“You and your companion can go through to the waiting garden. Someone will be with you very soon.”

 

The ‘waiting garden’ was much like reception – open-topped, decorated with the unusual foliage of the ‘Sea, ornamental bells and bridges over flowing sand. Benches were carefully positioned under trees where the light of the flowers could supplement the sunset glow of the ‘Sea.

Knell picked the nearest and sat, crossing her legs and arms. Stumpy followed like a lost child, staring at the tree, touching the bark with his hand.

 

The sand streams hissed softly, and there was no other sound. Knell frowned – some kind of dampening spells woven into the cloth, ingrained in the wood? Not that sound carried well in the ‘Sea.

Stumpy seemed content to explore, and she felt no need to keep track of him as he wandered out of sight around the decor.

Peaceful, but the soft shadows were less comforting than might have been intended.

 

The psychosurgeon sat beside Knell, silent in white robes. A porcelain mask hid their features, under a peaked hood.

“You like your pageantry, don’t you?” Knell muttered.

“A certain amount of ceremony is good for the soul,” replied the doctor.

“Are names allowed?”

“Delia,” she said.

“Knell.”

“I know.”

“Of course,” Knell smirked, glancing at the taller woman, “so are you going to check me against your files?”

“Already did. You match our records, but there’s not much we can do for you.”

“You don’t even know what I want,” Knell snapped.

“I don’t need to; that’s how little chance there is we could give it to you.”

“Speak plainly.”

“You had memory surgery, erasing even the event if the surgery. Do you think we just keep the expunged memories on file?”

“Yes.” Knell clenched and unclenched her fists.

“That would be unethical. The only person with a right to those memories was the one who had them removed, and since the person you are now lacks the context, you can’t be considered capable of consenting to restoration even if we did hold onto them.”

“I need to know, damn you,” Knell stood, turned to face the sitting doctor, “my life is at stake, I can see it, and no one can tell me why I did this.”

“You shouldn’t even remember the surgery clearly,” said Delia, “so the removal wasn’t perfect. We can’t help you, but there’s a way you can help yourself.”

“How? Tell me,” Knell pleaded.

The doctor shifted uncomfortably.

“Memories are patterns, flashing to life in the instant they are remembered, triggered by other memories and thoughts,” she replied. “We can rarely fully remove them; triggering the right sensations, the right feelings and ideas, can cause them to recover strength. “

“So I just need to find out what I’ve forgotten to remember it,” Knell said, flatly.

“In a sense, actually. The right places and people can trigger recovery,” said the doctor.

“I don’t know where to start.”

“Will you let me look, then?”

“…Fine.”

A long silence, Knell struggling to relax, keeping her guard down. She felt nothing as the surgeon probed her mind.

“Alright. There is a place you can start – Allbright Spire,” said the surgeon, relaxing.

Knell stared, arms limp, mouth open, and then laughed bitterly.

 

“It has to wait,” Knell said. “I’ve pushed the crew too far already.”

Daffyd nodded, watching the junkers do their work with something akin to childlike wonder. Swinging cranes, hissing saws; the floating bulk of the recovered freighter being slowly reduced by an industrious family of rats and hastily hired day-labourers.

“Daffyd,” she said. He snapped to attention, but couldn’t take his eyes wholly off the machines at work. The dark hulk of the ship against the dim fog that spread for miles, spotlights creeping over the hull to direct the workers, overpowered then by sparks from cutting tools.

“Captain?”

“I want you protect the Death here in port for a few revolutions.”

“Where will you be, Captain?”

“I’m taking the other ship and the hostage to Francois. We’ll get her refit, and then I’ll come back here to get some falsified papers.” She said.

“From the Lybar,” Daffyd said, gruff and displeased.

“Artyom is the best man for the job.”

“You’re the captain.”

“Right. Did we get a price?”

At their back, where they sat on the remnants of a field gun hammered into a crude bench, Stumpy was idly picking through the scrap.

“They mortgaged their business to pay for the ship,” Daffyd said, “then dropped the price to account for all the blood.”

“No way the crew was cleaning it out.”

“No way,” he said, and nodded.

“And so the price is…”

“One hundred thousand standard cut gems.”

Knell watched a rat – a teenager, probably – carefully burning rivets out of a bulkhead, goggles bright and strange in the cutter’s light.

“You know where they got that money, don’t you?” She said.

“No,” Daffyd replied.

“The specifics don’t matter. Someone you don’t want to owe money to is where they got it.”

“Guilt by association, Captain?”

“Something like that. Still,” she sighed. “Their mistake.”

“Indeed.”

“Take the money to a gem-reader, would you? You’ll be in port long enough to root out any spells someone has slipped into them.”

“Of course, Captain.”

“Where is the money?”

“The safe on the ship.”

“Good, alright. Be watchful, Daffyd,” she said. “And please-” she stopped.

“Captain?”

“…I’ll take Wainwright with me.”

“As you wish, Captain.”

“Come on, Stumpy. Don’t let them think you’re buying anything.”

 

The next steps were easy enough; a pilot willing to make a short jaunt off the island and leave them at the meeting point, followed by the stolen gunship and Knell’s skeleton crew picking them up. Harder was getting the pilot to take a chained and sulking Wainwright into the bargain.

Knell stood on the edge of the flat rock that served as a meeting point, chained to a pair of other floating stones by some unknown, holding it steady. She stood rigid, hands behind her back, fingers clenched around each other as Stumpy sat with Wainwright, barely scratched by the Clawtorn’s sporadic outbursts.

They faded from her awareness. All she could see was the paradoxical fog, the drifting stones, the angle from whence the ship had to come. Her only motion was the worrying of her fingers, harder and more frantic.

 

When the blunt nose of the stolen vessel emerged from behind an especially large stone, Knell almost clapped and jumped. I can trust you afterall, Rikker.

 

The ship smelled like the better part of a week sitting in the ‘Sea – stale sweat, sex, and slightly suspect military rations. Rikker hadn’t bothered to shave, and he greeted Knell with a hug that tickled her face.

“Alright, you’re happy to see me, good. Ship doesn’t come with basic utilities then?” Knell chuckled, shoving him back and inspecting the vessel.

“It’s got one cubicle and the water’s already run out,” he said. “Not built for long hauls, looks like.”

“We’ll get it modified,” Knell said, banging a bulkhead experimentally. “Make it easy to get from this to the Death so shifts can swap out. You get a good look at the guns?”

Rikker followed her onto the bridge and leaned against the wall.

“Oh yeah. We were lucky, Captain,” he said, “looks like someone forgot to lift a couple of prototypes out of it – or they felt they were needed for the escort.”

He gestured to the control consoles, pointing out unusual buttons and displays. Knell wasn’t sure she liked this modern Spire stuff, all black screens and electronic type, but she had to admit it took less training to fly these days. “There’s something different with the engines – don’t understand it, personally – and on top of the usual sponson automatics there’s a beast of a railcaster mounted under the upper hull.”

“Upper hull?” Knell repeated, eyes narrowing. “Why the fuck did they put it there? The only way to compensate for the recoil is balancing it against the thrusters and lift plates.”

“Some kind of dampening spells? He shrugged.

“Expensive.”

“Sell the parts?”

“Not until we know what it does, exactly,” she said, walking past him and into the gangway again. “Might be more useful than we think.”

“That’d be your luck, Captain.”

“I suppose it would,”  she said, quietly, and searched for a suitable place to house Wainwright.

 

A day later the stolen ship drifted into Francois’ drydock, gently cruising through the open hole in the rocky shell and settling into the clamps. Knell carefully coaxed Wainwright out of his cell and had Rikker check the crew into the Mews, while she herself waiting on the docking bridge for the proprietor.

Francois clambered down the hanging chains and pipes to meet her, after only a short wait, his eyes glinting red in the dim light, thick, black hairs rustling as he touched one long, spidery limb to the surface and followed with a smooth motion, a fluttering of cloak, so that he stood towering over Knell. Only his glowing eyes were visible. Knell waved up at him.

“Francois. Did you get a haircut?”

“Funny, Blackhand,” he said, without emotion. “Age has its benefits.”

“Good for you.”

“Still not ideal, of course.”

“It never is. But this is that last step you mentioned?”

“Autonomously self-improving biological shell,” he replied. “Expensive, difficult, but less limiting.”

“I always thought you preferred machines.”

“We’re all machines, Blackhand. Some of us have less reliable components.”

“Right, well, speaking of components,” Knell said, changing the subject. “This ship is currently between legal owners and in need of an overhaul.”

“Clean?”

“Comparatively.”

“Looks new. Stormtech, sleeker design than the last time I saw one. Corvette.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“What do you need?”

“Profile’s too distinctive. Need it to look less like it was nicked from a naval shipyard, and there’s some fancy gear onboard we don’t have the tools to grasp.”

Francois’ gaze swept the length of the vessel.

“And I want it to clip onto the Death,” Knell continued. “It doesn’t look too fit for long haul but I don’t plan on being tied to one place.”

“Tricky,” Francois hummed. “Six hours to estimate?”

“Sure, sure. I’ve missed the Rustbucket anyway,” Knell replied, adjusting her gunbelt before striding past the towering engineer.

“Blackhand,” he said, without turning.

Knell stopped, stared at the back of his head.

“I have a new payment plan…”

Knell grimaced. Was that a joke?

“Tell me about it when you have the bill, Francois.”

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Deliberations 3.6

Wainwright had to be caged, for his own good. He couldn’t manage conversation, so Knell did most of the talking, sat on the opposite side of the barred doorway to a disused hold that passed for a brig. He did most of the drinking.

“I can’t decide which is worse,” she said, as Wainwright clutched an oversized metal cup in one shaking hand, sat awkwardly cross-legged in his cell.

“Is this my fault? I mean, he knew me. I don’t know him,” she said, swigging the wine, “but he knew me, and I forgot? Perhaps I wouldn’t’ve tried this job, if I remembered, or might’ve known he’d come.”

Wainwright held his cup out against the bars, as if looking for a toast. Knell clinked the bottle against it as best she could.

“How did he find us, anyway? No one should’ve known.”

Wainwright nodded, messily sipping from his cup.

“So what can’t you tell me?”

“Can’t ‘ell m’,” he slurred in reply. He frowned. “Din’t know.”

His cup clanged against the opposite wall as he rose to his feet in a blur of fur, and then sank to sit facing Knell again, tears gathering in his eyes.

“Din’t know, can’- can’,” he trailed off, clenching his teeth. “Speak things. Can’t.”

“You forgot words. I know,” Knell said, pouring him a fresh cup. Turpin and Percy both had spoken against her giving him liquor, but they’d run out of sedatives and Wainwright was prone to hurting himself now. When Stumpy had stumbled and stepped on Wainwright’s freshly grown foot, they’d had to heavily dose the Clawtorn to keep him from growing out of control and tearing everyone in the room apart. Turpin said his impulse control was likely damaged, and said his trouble with words was like agnosia. Knell decided that sounded bad enough that she’d rather not know more.

“You forgot some words. We’ll find a way to heal you though, alright?” She said. It wasn’t wholly a lie.

Wainwright toasted again, spilling some of his drink, and emptied the vessel into his mouth.

“That’s two of us,” Knell replied, wiped her eyes, and left him to sleep.

Knell sat with her chin on her palm, elbow on the desk, watching a half-empty bottle of beer drift slowly from left to right an inch above the surface. Stumpy sat in one of the chairs opposite, one rough digit tracing lines of text from a chip novel. Knell’s gaze flicked from him to the bottle and back, then a the beer approached the edge of the desk she tapped it lightly on the opposite side, sending it drifting gently back the way it came.

“It’s too easy, Stumpy,” she said. The Spriggan didn’t reply.

“Cerro is just gone, the Herald left without telling me anything, and now I’m just stuck with you and Blades.”

Stumpy nodded, not looking up.

“Can you even understand me?”

A creak of shoulders shrugging.

“Close enough, then. How do your people deal with this?”

Stumpy looked up, perplexed, but said nothing.

“Blades explained it to me – you spend what, ten, fifteen years as a sapling, stuck in the ground?”

The spriggan leaned forward, book face-down on the desk.

“Alright, so years, anyway, stuck in place – but your minds are in a kind…. A fake world, in the roots of the forest?” Knell continued, lips twisted in an askance frown, “and you learn the language and everything in there, because for all you know, it’s real.”

She drummed her fingers on the wood, and then tapped the floating bottle – which fell with a clink halfway through its journey.

“And then you come out of the dream… but what if you don’t?” Knell said, slowly. Stumpy merely stared, concern etched in his bark.

“I’ve forgotten a lot, apparently. Things keep… changing…” She clenched her fists and stared downward, into the grain of the desk’s surface.

“How do you know which memories are real? How do you, do you check to make sure it’s not an illusion?” Knell said, a single tear running down her taut cheeks, her teeth clenched. Visions of her body propped in a psychosurgeon’s chair, blank-faced and wired up to arcane machinery, covered in dust floated through her head.

She was pulled from the reverie by rough bark on her wrist – Stumpy leaning over the desk and gently touching her arm.

“This is real,” he said, in halting, accented Trades’.

Knell shook her head, looked away. “I suppose I have to take your word for it, eh? Some Magical secret you’re not sharing.”

Stumpy only stared.

“You’re too calm,” she said, annoyed, “you don’t know where you come from, do you? I mean, how could you. You remember when… when we met.”

Stumpy’s face creased and croaked, his long fingers twining around each other on the desk before him.

“I was… someone else,” he said, “that could not be hidden. But now I am me, and I have much to learn, and I do not worry about those things I do not yet know.” He nods, as if reassuring himself. “Blades says this is ‘wisdom’ and that wisdom is good.”

Knell licked her lips and folded her arms. “That’s hard to argue with, honestly.”

They sat in silence, for a short while, when the intercom buzzed into life.

“Captain, we’re arriving in Moonbend in about half an hour, Morley’s dock like you said,” said Harrow, fuzzy over the speaker.

“Good. Keep me updated,” Knell replied.

“Is there a reason Daffyd has been in here all day?”

“Yes,” she said, coldly.

A pause.

“Understood, Captain.”

Click. Silence.

Knell was first out the door when the ship touched down, stepping from warm interior to the cooler air of the ‘Sea, Moonbend curving over her and casting no shadow.

She stood on the edge of a polished landing platform, circular, clearly repaired many times but well-maintained. She took a moment to find the dome of the Archive and keep its position in mind.

Right. Just spinward of city centre, she thought, looking from there to her right, following the curve of the immense, crescent-shaped rock on which the city was built. From here the spinward tip was almost overhead, and Knell’s stomach rolled. She grimaced and took a step forward, getting used to the extra spring in her step. A few crew were making similar preparations around her, and one whose name she’d never really bothered to learn – the one with the very hooked nose – recovered first, strolling by her with a rolling gait and descending the steps into Morley’s warehouse.

Knell took a step to follow, and frowned. A new sign was bolted to the wall over the door – Wyvern Shipping. Change in management, she shrugged, and carried on, patting the pouch of gems on her hip.

She stepped into the mostly bare building – a few crates stacked neatly in the opposite corner, but little else. An Orc in workman’s leathers watched her and her crew over the top of beaten-looking lift mechanism, a fastidiously organized toolbox at his feet and a wrench in one metallic fist.

“I do not think you have permission to land here,” he said, in a rich deep voice with noticeable Cogger accent.

“Old Morley went out of business, then?” Knell asked, innocently.

“I do not know any Morley,” he replied. “Management are out to lunch.”

Knell pulled a handful of gems from the pouch and held them up in her open palm.

“Well, what’s the docking fee? We’ll pay if you’ll let us stay until we pick a different port,” she said.

The Orc set his wrench down and folded his gleaming mechanical arms with a hiss of hydraulics.

“We have no set fee. This a charter dock,” he said.

“Well, is anyone scheduled for it today?”

“No.”

“So can we offer you money to stay?”

“No.”

Knell licked her lips and tilted her head, but as she opened her mouth the exit at the far end of the warehouse rolled open, admitting a slight woman in a black longcoat.

“Everything alright in here?” She said, pausing mid stride and standing casually.

“These people are stealing our dock,” said the Orc.

“Hang about-” Knell started.

“How are they stealing our dock?”

“They are using it without permission or payment.”

The woman nodded. “I suppose we’ll just charge you, then. Captain?” She said, looking to Knell.

Knell rattled the pouch of gems.

“How does ten standard cut sound?”

“Ten standard and five chips,” the woman replied, hands on her hips.

“That’s… very specific,” Knell said.

“This is a specific case,” she replied. “And you can’t call it unreasonable.”

“Bloody awkward. Mix of chips fine?”

“Jet, for preference.”

“Do we have to do this now?”

“I suppose not.”

Knell turned and picked a crewmember at random. “Oi, go tell our new Quartermaster she’s negotiating with the dock owners.”

The rat scuttled off, and Knell snapped the pouch back onto her belt.

“Good enough?” She said.

“It’ll do. How long are you staying?”

“Could be a week?”

“Five chips a day, any mix is fine.”

“Not my problem now, ma’am. Knell Blackhand, by the way.”

“Astrid, of Wyvern Trading. Not likely to partner with us, I take it?” She said, with the ghost of a smile.

“Sounds like we’d cost you more money than we’d make,” Knell sniggered. “One big payoff every few months.”

“I appreciate your honesty, however oblique. Well, don’t let me delay you.”

“Much obliged,” Knell said, and strode into the noisy street with her crew dispersing around her and more trudging through the warehouse. She paused, turned, and called to Astrid.

“Can you recommend a junker?”

“Can you pay a finder’s fee?” Astrid replied.

Knell was starting to like her.

She left directions to the junker with Daffyd, who dutifully returned to the ship after a plate of diced raw fish and pint of chocolate mixed with coffee, leaving her, Blades, and Stumpy in the crew’s favourite inn. Red light seeped in through the high windows and mingled with the dim electric lighting, few figures moving among the rough-hewn wooden chairs and polished stone tables except a young man collecting abandoned plates and glasses.

Knell leaned back in her seat, stretching against the protesting wood, and sighed.

“Well, I feel as good as I’m going to,” she said, looking at Blades, who was seated on a high stool. “How are you going to ruin my day?”

Blades cocked her head. “Why would I do that?”

“Because it’s what you always do, when you’re not making a bad day worse.”

“The Captain is observant,” the monk grinned.

“Fucking knew it. Come on, out with it.”

“I must go the Archive.”

“Good. Do it.”

Blades paused.

“I feel manipulated.”

Knell crossed her arms behind her head. “Just because I’m eager to see you kill yourself on a crusade doesn’t mean I really thought you were dense enough to.”

Stumpy raised a hand, and Knell rolled her eyes.

“Blades here is part of a holy war against Vampires,” Knell said. “And the Archive is run by them.”

The furry, bat-faced kind, Knell thought, and suppressed a bloom of nausea.

“It is more complex that that,” Blades said. Knell shrugged.

“It’s also not my problem. Do you want me to return your rags to your bosses, or something?”

Blades rose to her feet, relaxed.

“You do not deserve truth,” she said, and left.

Knell watched with surly glower, and sipped her drink before slamming the empty wooden tankard on the table.

“Come on, Stumpy. You and me have a doctor’s appointment.”

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Deliberations 3.5

“Fuck,” exclaimed Knell, as she stood with arms folded watching over the Herald and Wainwright on what passed for medical beds in a lower hold. The Herald’s was shored up with scrap steel to keep it from collapsing under his weight.

“Hm?” Turpin grunting, without looking up from Wainwright’s bleeding wrist-stump.

“I just remembered I never paid Dr. Quinn for patching me up,” she said, hand on her forehead.

Turpin merely sucked air through his teeth as if he’d burned himself, and kept stitching.

“Should they be unconscious this long?” Knell asked, leaning against the bulkhead. The hold was lit by a single light and stained with blood. Daffyd was silently, stolidly holding a hand-cannon to the Herald’s head.

“Nope,” Turpin said, cheerily, “they may be sedated now but they were out long enough for minor brain damage.”

“How minor is minor? If it’s brain damage,” Knell said, slowly.

“Well, I’m not actually a doctor, but I want to say fine motor skills are shot,” Turpin said, snipping a thread.

Knell had a vague memory of someone slurring their speech, unable to uncurl their fist. She could attach nothing else to the thought but a headache.

Wainwright’s breathing was fine and deep, though he was missing a hand and a leg, fur matted with blood, shaven bald and pink where Turpin needed to work.

The Herald was nude but for his underwear, a bullet wound in his muscular chest, side, and back, fragments of armour melted into the flesh. The skin around the wounds was angry and red, partly fused with the crimson and gold of the broken armour plates. His breathing was more ragged, his eyes darting under their lids.

“Is he giving you a headache, too?” Knell said, glancing to Turpin and Daffyd, gesturing at the prostrate Herald.

“No,” they grunted in unison, as Turpin carefully prodded and examined the shards of armour protruding from his skin.

Knell’s brow creased, “Looking at him gives me a headache.”

Turpin fumbled in a pocket with bloody hand. “I’ve got some pills here…” he said.

“Painkillers?”

He shrugged, “Maybe?”

Knell glared at him, “I’ll manage without. Call me if he wakes up.”

Daffyd nodded. Turpin continued his ministrations. Knell tromped up the gangway and hauled herself up a ladder, hands clammy with dirt, a mix of old and fresh sweat, stick patches of dried blood.

She shed clothes as she crossed her cabin and half-collapsed under the shower.

 

Knell thrashed awake, flesh hand striking someone that was trying to catch her, trying to trap her and haul her away-

She sat up, bedclothes pooling around her in the dim light. Cerro was sat on the floor, like he’d fallen, one hand cover his eye, teeth exposed in a grimace.

“Shit, I’m sorry, Cerro I-”

“Was having a nightmare,” he said. “They need you downstairs and you turned off your intercom.”

“Where are my guns?”

“Will you really need them?” he asked, getting to his feet.

“Better to have them,” she said, trailing off and struggling into fresh clothes.

“On your desk,” he said, already leaving the room.

She opened her mouth, but watched him go. He wasn’t there when she passed the partition, and she stood dumbly for a moment before collecting her weapons. What was I even going to say? What’s left to say?

She paused at the door, looked at the open case of cheap clothes he’d bought in the city. He’s going to be pissed about the hostage, she thought, and sighed, closing the door behind her and descending to the hold.

 

Knell arrived at a standoff – on her right, the Herald standing with arms folded, his wounds sealed with raw red flesh and eyes blazing, Turpin at his back. On her left, Wainwright lurking under one of the makeshift gurneys, hissing softly. Daffyd stood in the middle of the room with a shotgun and saluted at Knell’s arrival.

She opened her mouth, but Daffyd cut her off; “Wainwright’s brain damage is severe, but healing. We have secured all salvage and touched down south of the Wood. Pilot Harrow says we have two more hours to evacuate before enemy assistance arrives. That is what the fuck is going on,” he added, and Knell grinned in spite of the situation. “Is that a joke?”

“No,” Daffyd replied after a slow-blink, “and Herald Malorn-” he continued, but stopped as Knell clutched her head, lips peeled back over clenched teeth, eyes squeezed shut.

“Captain?” He said, stepping forward, lowering the gun.

Knell held her head in her heads and fought to keep upright. “What’re you doing?” she choked out, fumbling for a gun and pointing it at the Herald, who remained impassive in the face of her weaving aim. Turpin shuffled a little further behind the towering figure.

“What… why is it only me?” she said, tears streaming down her face.

“Nell,” Malorn said, covering the gap in one long stride and reaching out, something like concern on his hard features.

Knell tried to bat him away with an incoherent scream of pain when Wainwright, missing a hand and leg, hurled himself across the room and sank his teeth into Malorn’s shoulder. The deva hurled him against the bulkhead with casual ease, leaving him yowling in agony. Daffyd turned the gun on Malorn as Knell pulled the trigger, bullet ricocheting off the deckplates and narrowly missing Turpin.

The Olimak seized her wrist and half-turned to Turpin. “Sedative,” he said, in commanding tone. But Turpin merely held up his hands, face a rictus of fear.

Knell pulled the trigger again, punching a hole in Malorn’s shoulder, forcing him to let go as his boiling blood sizzled on the metal floor, and she staggered from the room.

Her vision was swimming, the dark bronze tones of the hull smearing in the flickering light of badly-wired bulbs, the deck rocking under her feet. Her eyes stung and her dark hand could not support her, spreading like smoke as she rested it against the bulkhead only to stumble sideways and slam her shoulder against it.

She thought, at first, that it was Cerro who helped her to her feet, so gentle was their manner. But the hands were white, the fingers too long. She felt a pinch at the base of her neck and-

Was seated in her Captain’s chair, staring at the back of Harrow’s head, with Blades at her right and Stumpy on her left.

 

Knell shook her head, clearing cobwebs and shadows, then stared at her black hand.

“Status,” she said, maintaining a veneer of authority.

“The Herald has agreed vengeance was served,” Harrow said. “He left money for treating Wainwright, and left us with our salvage, hostage, and passengers.”

“No threat of a tail?” Knell said, sitting up straighter.

“None. He said we’re outside any jurisdiction he recognizes.”

“Good,” she glanced at Blades. “Could you two leave us?”

“No,” Blades replied.

Knell blinked, turning in her seat. “No?”

“Cerro asked me to watch you, and the sapling there is concerned for you,” she said.

“Bullshit. But fine, whatever, you’re no-one to me anyway,” she snarled, and rested her chin in her hand, elbow on the arm of her chair, staring into the distance. It was dark beyond the bridge window, distant lights of shipping lanes and canal-boats dotting the night as if all way sky.

“Harrow,” Knell said, “what did you fucking do?”

Harrow didn’t reply immediately, and Knell could almost hear muscles tense in the pregnant silence, the soft creaking of Stumpy’s respiration, the near-inaudible tick of Blades’ tongue against her palate.

“Captain, I’m not sure why you don’t remember,” she said. “You use the same psychosurgeon I do and sometimes the work you had done… frays.”

Knell swallowed hard and leaned back, limbs limp.

“Is that why I don’t remember? Because the spells are breaking down?” she said.

“Must be,” Harrow said. “I gave you my last stabilizer – I didn’t know how bad it had gotten or that you’d really forgotten.” She pressed a few buttons on her console, reflexive.

“We need to head into the ‘Sea anyway to sell off what we have. We can stop at Peaceful Sleep while we’re there,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at Knell.

“Alright,” Knell said, still tense. “Chart a course the long way around Shaydengate and we’ll take care of business at Moonbend.”

“Aye, Captain,” she replied.

“Where’s Cerro?”

Silence again.

“He… the Herald offered him a flight back to Towerpeak. There’s a refugee camp and House Lezek are en route to help quell the rebellion,” said Harrow.

“This was the for the best,” Blades added, matter of fact.

Knell frowned again and stared directly ahead.

“For the best. He was cluttering up my ship,” she said, in a flatter tone than she meant.

No one had any reply for that.

 

A day later Knell’s Death hovered a dozen feet off the grass, near a copse of trees through which a wide river flowed towards the coast, water shining gold in the setting sunlight beyond the trees. The stolen freighter was beside it, casting a shadow over the copse itself. An unseasonal chill that made Knell miss the blue suede duster an ex-boyfriend had stolen before jumping ship to a rival crew.

Warily, the wizened and wiry rats who had answered the call eyed her and the wounded rebels.

“You just need us to get this people to a hospital?” said the mother, fur bleached almost white by years and sunshine.

“That’s right,” Knell said, nodding and folding her arms with her hands on her elbows – more to keep warm than anything. “I understand you have their doctor with you.”

“Doctor? Why would have-” the father began, in heavily accented Trades’, but the mother flicked his ear with her tailtip. They gesture to the pups hiding behind trees or peering over the gunwales of their river barge, and one of the older ones leads a man in dark coat and concealing hat to the meeting place.

“Captain Blackhand, wasn’t it?” he said, with no trace of accent. He neither bowed nor offered hand to shake.

“It was. You’re the contact?”

“I am. Call me Link,” he said. “I’ll bring my comrades home to Auerstadt and I have here a sum of money, in gratitude.”

Knell took the offered satchel, watching his movements carefully, ready to seize her pistol. But he tried nothing, even stood back with arms out to his sides when she handed off the cash to Daffyd.

“You’ve seen what the Allbrights were doing,” he said, conversational. “You won’t help us any further? You have two ships, our support, the element of surprise…”

“I don’t do politics, mate,” she said. “I just hate slavers and tyrants.”

“Fair,” he said, in a tone that suggested he felt her attitude was anything but.

 

A weary line of surviving rebels made their way from the belly of the freighter to hiding places on the barge, and Knell felt a pang of guilt – whatever they were paying those rats wasn’t close to enough.

 

A week later they crossed the mountains at the far end of The Teeth. Shaydensea sat before them like a dust-cloud; a sphere of roiling crimson fog eerily lit from within, miles from edge to edge. It was quieter here, further north than most would travel reach the edge of the ‘Sea near the ruins of old Tanquay.

The best way for known pirates to slip in and out with a bounty like the two ships that limped in Knell’s wake.

 

The rough and scarred little flotilla paused at the edge of the ‘Sea, near the upper curve of it’s eerie and improbable hemisphere barely stirred by the wind of the world beyond its confines. With Knell’s Death in the lead, they flew through the surface and into the murk beyond.

 

Knell relaxed as the sprawling fields and snow-capped mounts, the distant ocean, were replaced by the soft and bloody glow of Shaydensea’s mist. For miles all that could be seen were the floating islands, the drifting stones and spinning rocks. As she sat behind Harrow, the ship hummed and clanked, reconfiguring. Here, Harrow was an artist, the ship swooping and diving between stones and curving on bends of broken gravity, tracing the sorcerous scars of some atrocity long forgotten.
Answers had to be close, now.

 

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Deliberations 3.4

Knell burst into the bridge, and crewman Viggs threw himself over the console, peering over with a hand-crossbow at the ready. Knell crossed the room and he relaxed knowing it was only her, but tensed again before he could question her; she slapped a hand on the comms and called the Death.

“Drop the field, Harrow! We have to run,” she cried. “Viggs, get this thing in a position to offload crew.” She changed the dial, “Turpin, Wainwright, see if you can get that thing to ascend a bit and prepare for recovery.”

“We can’t move fast enough, Captain…” Viggs began, even as his hands danced over the controls.

“I know, I know,” Knell said, pacing. “Just do what you can and we’ll find a way to hold them back.”

She slapped the comms again. “I’m serious, Wainwright. Get out of there.”

“Aye captain,” came the hoarse reply, and silence. The engines rumbled and shook the vessel, and only now Knell realized how to the ground had become, a flock of terrified sheep bouncing into the distance from the shadow of the ship. The shepherd was not far behind them, waving their arms and staff.

The stolen freighter lurched upward and Knell clung to the console as Viggs got them into the sky again, the pace agonizing compared to the approaching red glow of the Herald’s vessel, like a comet of ill-omen blazing across the sky.

Knell quit the bridge and headed for the gouge they’d made in the top of the ship, shimmying up a rope with teeth gritted and muffled swearing to stand overlooking the ramshackle escort she’d acquired.

She looked to the slowly rising ship containing Wainwright and Turpin, to her own ship dropping to collect crew, aligning with the hull on which she stood.  She sat cross-legged on the cold metal and set her weapons in front of her, methodically checking her ammunition, her holsters, the shells in the gun-blade.

Very deliberately, she stood up, walked to the open boarding atrium of the Death and hit the intercom.

“Cerro,” she said.

Silence.

“Cerro, please.”

A pause.

“Yes?” He sounded as relieved as she felt.

“In my desk there is a bullet, dull, sort of brown. Please find it and get it out to me,” Knell said. “You don’t have to come yourself.”

She went back to her gear just as the crew emerged from the hole in the hull and returned through the atria. The Herald’s ship was high overhead, an ominous eye seeking weakness.

It won’t be long now, she thought, and a shadow fell over her. Stumpy, the bullet in an outstretched hand.

“Thank you,” she said, in rough Creak, the little from the lessons that had sunk in. Stumpy stared for a long moment with pale, eerie eyes, and nodded, heading back onto the ship.

Knell loaded the bullet and spun the cylinder. She felt better not knowing which pull of the trigger would do it.

She stared at her guns as the light grew blinding, and faded. She reholstered the lot, stood up, and banged on the hull of her ship, leaning calmly across the gap between the vessels over a lethal drop to the washed-out greenfields below.

When the atrium opened, she hit the intercom again.

“Alright, lads,” she said, with a sigh. “The Olimak Herald is going to hit us any minute now, whenever they’re satisfied we’re pissing ourselves at the prospect. Don’t engage,” she continued, with a bite in her voice. “Don’t, you hear me? I’ll hold them off, beat them back, something. This one’s on me. The rest of you make a run for it.”

No answer.

It was only when the captured gunship started to peel away and up that Knell realized she hadn’t seen Wainwright or Turpin get back on board.

Knell swore and watched them go, the few guns still operational firing volleys toward the descending Olimak ship.

Knell shielded her eyes with her dark hand. “Just once this year I would like a job to go smoothly,” she muttered.

 

The Herald’s ship streaked by, battering her with a hot wind. She caught only a glimpse of red, gold, and black before it was gone and her enemy stood on the hull before her. Oddler’s guns, she thought, he just fucking jumped.

The Herald was silhouetted against the sun, seven feet tall on basalt-black hooves, dressed in blood-red armour that looked like lacquered wooden plates. She wasn’t sure if the horns came with the helmet or not, curling like those of a ram. She felt static on her skin and raised her guns against him, though he had yet to draw. Keep him talking, she thought, but didn’t spare a moment as to why she thought he.

“We have hostages,” she said.

“Yet still no manners,” he replied in a sonorous voice.

Knell’s lip curled. “Sounds like you have me at a disadvantage, Herald.”

“No need for games, Nell,” he replied, folding his arms, relaxed, the sword on his hip undrawn. “You know those guns can’t hurt me.”

Knell thought quickly as the ship on which she stood began picking up speed, following Harrow eastward.

“Ah. Yes,” she said, lowering her revolvers, “took a blow to the head a few months back, you know how it is.”

He nodded. “I always told you your luck would run out, one day. But not today.”

She tried to keep her face blank as she raced to work out how the ‘Sea this deva knew her, and said; “Very gracious, that.”

“It is,” he said. “As ever you aspire above your station, but I cannot say this was not a sacred act.”

“Thanks,” Knell managed, uncertain.

She got the distinct feeling he was amused.

“Where is your crewman that stole from me?” he asked.

Knell pointed to the looming gunship, over his shoulder.

He turned his head, so slight it was all arrogance, and nodded.

“I suggest you get moving then, before the Spire authorities get here,” he said.

He turned to face the gunship, drawing his blade. Knell raised her guns again.

“Don’t kill him. He’s part of my crew, under my protection,” she said, levelly.

The Herald treated her with that same backward glance he’d given the ship.

“You can’t protect him. But don’t worry, I don’t plan to kill him.”

Knell thought something had exploded, at first, the sound drowning out all else and making her head swim. She squeezed the trigger before she knew what she was doing, but the shot was wide. Wainwright had opened fire, angling a machine gun turret downward to hammer on the hull in an effort to put the Olimak down, but he still stood before the hail of bullets, sword flashing.

He’s parrying the fucking gun, Knell thought, eyes wide, ducking and staring as the shots tumbled into the air and whipped past her. The Olimak was slowly stepping forward, and Knell realized he couldn’t deflect every shot, that he wasn’t; his blood was bright yellow-orange, hissing and burning the hull where it splashed from his wounds. Arcs of electricity were leaping from his body to the ship beneath his hooves. She didn’t think they had any real effect; he pressed on, closing the gap. When the barrel finally spun into silence as Wainwright’s ammo ran out, the Herald leapt into the air.

His sword cut a shallow rent in the canopy of the gunship’s cockpit, allowing him to grip the opening with one hand and cling to the front of the ship, slashing three times more to make a hole.

Wainwright must have already run, Knell thought, seeing the hulking Olimak break into the cockpit and move out of sight.

Knell frowned and searched the skies; gunship behind the freighter, it’s crippled twin vanishing into the distance, and her own ship ahead.

She ran under the gunship, thinking Wainwright must have locked the controls, and drew the gun-blade, cycling desperately through the shells.

“Something in here has to do it…” she muttered, chambering one that seemed to be made of densely packed sand. “Chronomantic?” she said to herself, “So… space and time. This has to work out.”

She raised the blade to point at the lower hull of the gunship, squinting. Please? she thought, and pulled the trigger.

The report was soft, more like sand shifting under the wind than a gunshot. The bullet lodged itself in the hull, and nothing happened.

Knell waited, tense, unmoved from her firing position.

Still nothing.

“Fuck!” Knell yelled, swinging the blade and scoring the hull at her feet. She sore again, stamping. A third time, swinging the blade in hissing arcs. Panting, head pounding, she swung one final time at the gunship, the tip of the blade striking the bullet embedded in the steel.

The rest of the weapon’s passage left a luminous rent in the hull right through to a gunner’s position, the metal fading and bending. Knell’s jaw dropped. She looked at the gun-blade’s cylinder, to the hole, and back. Two part activation, she thought. I need a qualified Magus to look at this fucking thing, really.

And very carefully, she threw herself up into the rift she’d made.  There was a brief sensation of nothing, like losing a fistfight especially badly and waking up on the cobbles five seconds later with no idea how you got there, and she staggered onto the floor of the gunner’s box. The hole wasn’t closing.

The ship was already slowing, wobbling at the extra drag. Knell clenched her jaw and climbed up through a hatch into the inner compartment.

It was one of the larger model gunships, probably with a crew over a dozen and an unusually large hold. The walls were slick with blood, the floor strewn with fragments of meat and bone, and Knell gagged. She tasted bile and retched, doubling over, keeping from touching anything as best she could. The sounds of splitting metal echoed from somewhere to the aft of the vessel. Grimacing, Knell followed the scorched hoofprints in the blood and tried not to look to hard at the few faces that remained intact among the dead.

 

She picked her way past bloody hands and exposed ribs, slowly becoming inured to the smell, resisting the urge to cover her face, keeping her guns at the ready as she approached the engine room. She could hear Wainwright hissing and growling, the clash of the Herald’s sword, and picked up speed, slipping in the viscera, almost bashing her head on the doorway, stumbling into the engine room. The humming reactor cast everything in flickering blue light, the bulbs all broken to leave it the only source of light. The room was definitely larger than standard, and to her untrained eye the engine seemed bigger than comparable ships, but even so; there was a lot of empty floor space that made her wonder about its purpose.

Knell could make out the looming form of the Herald, stood well back across the room, near the entrance from the opposite corridor. Wainwright, fur matted with blood, leg hanging on by a sinew, crouched among the girders and conduits above the engine, snarling. Back to his normal size, now.

Knell trained her guns on the Herald, loudly and unnecessarily pulling back the hammers.

He was standing with his sword at the ready, but relaxed in his stance. That changed when he heard Knell, straightening up only to drop his guard again.

“Still reckless,” he said, with a note of mirth.

“Apparently,” Knell said, keeping her voice even. “Looks like you’re at an impasse,” she added.

“Safe here, captain,” Wainwright interjected, more spite than strength, breath strained.

“For now,” said the Herald.

“Better you leave him be, Herald,” said Knell.

“Reckless shading to stupid. You know you can’t hurt me,” he replied.

“I can’t hurt you easily,” Knell hissed.

“I just came for the thief’s hand,” the Herald said, exasperated.

“You can’t have it!” Wainwright growled.

The Herald tilted his head, like a curious dog.

“Yes. I can,” he said, and stepped forward, electricity flashing between him and the engine, the light bright and blue, seething over the metal and gemstones like snakes. Coruscating around the Herald’s limbs as he reached out, sword ready in the other hand. Wainwright’s gums were bleeding from how tightly clenched his jaw was, tiny streams of smoke rising from his fur.

Knell fired, three deafening reports in the enclosed space.  She couldn’t tell if she’d hit her mark or if the shots had gone wide, spots dancing before her eyes, the whole deck rocking beneath her.

And then it was over. Her vision returning as the engine compartment grew dark but for the glow of the reactor. She recovered her senses just in time to see the Herald dragging an unconscious Wainwright.

“I trust you have a doctor?” he said, laying Wainwright at her side.

“Yes,” she said, numbly.

“Good,” the Herald said, helmet sliding away to reveal burning gold eyes. Knell’s head hurt to look at them, and she barely noticed him slipping to the ground until his shoulder clanged against the wall, and he slumped, unconscious.

 

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