The Celebrant drifted back into the waking world like mist, so far from Allbright it was practically out of sight.
Nell shivered, pressing herself to the fore windows and watching the sunlight on the plains below.
“Damned fine work, Navigator,” Harrow said. “Must’ve shaved a good sixty miles off the trip.”
“You handled the trip, I just opened the way.” Tilda grinned.
“Where are we?” Nell asked, staring out across the grasslands. She could make out distant Spires and their cloudcaps, dotted around the horizon, but otherwise the land seemed bare. A green sea of blades, rippling in the wind.
“Another two hundred miles from Kaiden’s, give or take.” Said Tilda, checking her collection of maps and charts. “So just over an empty portion of the Storm Circle, a touch south of the Wood…” She rose from her seat, heels clicking as she crossed to the port windows.
“Quite a sight,” she clasped her hands. Nell look up, finally starting to feel warm again. The memories of the jaunt were fading – the darkness, the cold, the voices – but she fancied that they would haunt her for a long time. Malorn would probably appreciate the pun.
She joined Tilda at the port windows, and her jaw fell.
Nell had seen trees, of course. A few stands of them grew near the ricefields, a few hardy specimens wound around masonry in town, but the Wood almost made her dizzy. Trees as tall and as thick around as any Spire, a profusion of foliage like dense cloud, scattered with bright flowers and colourful birds. A dome of thin mist seemed to cover everything, extending from a titanic mushroom visible deeper in the Wood, rising over the canopy.
“Don’t suppose you can get us around the Wood quicker?” Harrow asked, amiably.
“Afraid not. The Interface is more likely to trap us inside than let us just skip through.”
“Can we fly over? Nell asked, staring. She wanted to see more of the Wood. Get closer to that mushroom cap. She could just about make out human shapes in the canopy, gliding as if winged, plucking blossoms and catching birds with nets.
“No,” Malorn said. “The Crantiré respond violently to any perceived trespass.”
“The… the people with the nets?” Nell’s brow furrowed. The pale figures didn’t look dangerous from here.
Malorn moved to her side, shook his head; dismissive.
“Windborne. Savages. Little more than guard dogs.” He folded his arms. “We wouldn’t even see the Crantiré if they took a mislike to us; one of their engineered beasts or vampire allies would do the job.”
“Every time I ask a question, you just raise more questions,” Nell sighed.
“The world feels too big for all of us,” Tilda said, laying a hand on Nell’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze. Nell smiled back, uncertain.
“How about a drink?” Harrow suggested, breaking the silence. “Great way to get all the right feelin’ back after a trip in the dark.”
“Can’t hurt,” Tilda chirped, and flounced off to the galley.
An hour later, Nell sat in the galley with a fork and a tin of preserved fish.
“I’m hiring a cook next,” she muttered.
“We were lucky the ship was seized after a resupply,” Malorn said, idly searching the cupboards.
“Yes,” she said, staring at the pungent mush. “Lucky.”
Without a word Malorn sauntered out, leaving Nell to her meal.
It gave her time to think. Better than letting her mind fully settle on the fish. The gentle, rocking silence of the ship’s belly.
Her position had become clear, with time to reflect; she was in significant debt to the Herald of Infernal House Olimak who was, allegedly, indebted to her too. She had acquired an airship that she wasn’t yet convinced wasn’t powered by imprisoned ghosts, and along with it a commitment to deliver a pocketwatch to a family of rats out in Shaydensea. And, it turned out, she had been lucky enough to find a crew with the precise, rare skillset required to fly The Celebrant.
It was certainly better than the workhouse. And, Nell thought, I am a fighter. I can do this. She had thought the same thing years before; Callow Lugh had floored her with the first punch, a dull thud as her head struck a rain-sodden beam, fingers sank into mud. He hadn’t expected her find her feet again so quickly, or the strength of her arm; hours of cranking until her palms were raw, right into into his belly. Little effect,in the end, but Lugh had grinned and coughed and bought her a pint. A month later she’d won her first paid fistfight. The second fight, she bet on herself first.
She glanced around the empty room, fist clenching around her fork at the thought of another bloody ghost. But it was a carved wooden skull with faintly luminous eyesockets, mounted on the wall beside the door.
“I hate this fucking ship,” Nell muttered.
“Captain to the bridge, please.”
Harrow was fiddling with a cluster of copper dials on her console when Nell arrived.
“What’s the problem?” Nell said, settling into the captain’s chair and immediately stumbling back up from the cold touch of the black-stained wood.
Harrow didn’t look up.
“Hang on a sec, ma’am. Just…” She trailed off, turning the knobs. Through the forward windows Nell could see a number of other ships, miles distant, barely visible. She fell back as they leapt into focus, the glass twitching as the details became so much clearer.
“Ha! Farsight lens, fucking kne-” she paused, glanced at Nell, who was staring, and decided this was a captain without a stick up their arse about swearing. “Fucking knew it,” she finished.
The scene before them was a riot, too much happening to reliably follow. A beast the size of an airship, bulging with gasbags and sinuous wings was wrapping tentacles around a more conventional airship; a sleek, sealed vessel of blued steel. Smaller ships and monsters flanked them, of similar sorts, with weapons fire flashing bright enough that Nell couldn’t focus. Gouts of blood must’ve been falling like macabre rain on anyone caught below. From the corner of her eye, Nell saw a creature composed mainly of tentacles and wings tear the pilot from one of the smaller ships and-
She squeezed her eyes shut. “Can you stop it?”
“Yes,” Harrow said, her voice tight. The massacre was reduced to shapes in the distance.
“What was that?” Nell asked, quietly.
“We’re in Silverlight territory, so the stormship was probably theirs. Patrol boat, could make out the name over… yeah.” Her curls swung wide with her shaking head. “The other thing was The Celestine. What do we do, Captain?”
Nell didn’t know a lot about the world, but everyone heard about The Celestine eventually.
“What can we do?” She said, a note of panic creeping into her voice.
Harrow shook her head. “Safest route is southward past Silverlight, but they’re going to charge through the nose no matter the reason.”
Harrow turned slightly in her seat, giving Nell a sidewise look. “Passage tolls. Silverlight are right bastards for it.”
She resumed her forward view. “But for all I know Celestine is heading that way, too.”
“We don’t have enough to get out of the impound-”
“Can you ask tall, hot, and sexy?”
“Malorn?” Nell said, pausing in her pacing.
“House Olimak is made of money…”
“I’m not getting into debt with an Infernal House,” Nell said, decisively.
“Then we either go back, wait here until the fight is over and hope she doesn’t notice us, or try crossing the Wood.”
“Can’t it follow us that way too?” Nell said, chewing her lip as she paused. “It might even flee that way, if Silverlight have anything like a navy.”
“Too old fashioned – still recruit knights, do Silverlight. Nothing big enough to scare Celestine away. But’s a bigger target-”
“-So anything the… cranter?”
“Crantiré. Yeah, anything they send to fight is more likely to go after her than us.”
Nell mulled it over.
“Take us north, Ms. Harrow.”
“Aye aye, Cap’n,” Harrow grinned. “We should get Tilda up here, in case we can jaunt the last few miles.”
“Make it so.”
Harrow looked back over her shoulder. “Really getting back into it now we’re airborne, eh? The Scion puts me on edge, too.”
“Something like that.”
“Navigator to the bridge…”
“This is suicide!” Tilda stood with hands on hips, almost leaning on her desk, almost glaring at Nell in her chair. “Can’t we just take the impound?”
“Fine for you,” Nell growled. “I end up with my ship stolen within days of buying her and no way of getting it back.”
Tilda frowned. “Well.. you could come with one of us, or Malorn-”
“I’m not his fucking pet, or whatever you think.” She hissed. “I can’t expect you to carry me out of this mess.”
Harrow was studiously silent. Tilda simply lapsed, and Nell came close to sneering at her expression. So concerned.
“We can get out of this. We swing close enough to The Celestine to get her attention, then cross over the Wood. Anything the Crantiré send after us has to go for the bigger target.”
“How can you be sure they’ll follow us?” Said Tilda, tapping a foot. She’d abandoned the high-heeled boots for stockinged feet.
“Why wouldn’t they? If she even has a crew.” Said Nell.
“She does. Ask Malorn.”
Nell’s brows rose.
“Ask me what?”
All three women turned to see Malorn, standing half-dressed in the doorway. “Ask me what?” He tried again, stepping onto the bridge. He paused, staring forwards.
“Ah. My cousins.”
“Cousins? They’re your cousins?” Nell said, through clenched teeth.
“Technically. A crew of renegade Lybarim.” He folded bare arms across bare chest, and Nell noticed Tilda blushing from the corner of her eye. “If I had a Fist at my back, I would be tempted to try and kill them myself.”
“But you’re Olimak-”
“We are all divine. The monsters crewing that ship have more in common with me than I do with any of you. And they shame all of our bloodlines.”
He glanced from face to face, then settled back on Nell.
“What are you planning, Captain?”
Nell stood, faced him, and folded her arms, mimicking him without thinking. “We’re going to lure The Celestine over the Wood, and escape while the locals go for it.”
Malorn appeared to think for a long moment.
“You’ll need their attention.” He said. “This ship has weapons somewhere, I’m sure.”
Harrow’s hands flew over her console, and she nodded.
“She’s mostly a boarding vessel, but there’s an entropic cannon mounted under the prow, down near her belly.”
Malorn nodded. “Last resort, of course. You’d have a hard time looting a ship hit with that.” He moved to stand beside Nell. “Captain?”
Nell settled back into her chair.
“Fly up close, hit them where it hurts, and head north. If Tilda can plot us a short jump over the Wood, we can put a little more distance between us.”
Harrow nodded. “Good idea. Celestine can’t do a lot from a distance, from what I know. Built for boarding, a bit like us.”
Malorn grunted. “Yes. They prefer to feel their prey suffer.” He stepped closer to the windows. “I suggest we aim for the stormship. They would hate to be denied a plaything, and it’s a far kinder fate than what Lybar Alectus would have in store for them.”
Nell kept her face impassive, but her stomach was a cold knot.
“We hit the stormship, then.” She said, searching her seat for the controls to the cannon – finally folding them out of an arm; a skeletal hand and silver-rimmed monocle. She frowned, but Tilda was already approaching, her voice weary.
“I’ll help you plot a firing solution. Captain.”
The knot in her belly tightened. A cold certainty she would need a new navigator, when this was over.
By the time they were in range, the stormship – Lycos – was defeated. Smoking wrecks littered the ground far below, and the Celestine was sawing chunks off with fanged tendrils to keep the dead weight from dragging it further down.
Nell could see the ghosts drifting away, through the cool presence of the monocle. Everything washed in shades of gray except the bright points of freed souls, and the ominous red glow of The Celestine and her attendant beasts. The equally red shapes moving with increasing desperation through the corroded hull of the stormship. She gripped the controls, the cold dead hand, to keep her fingers from twitching against the skeletal digits and ruining the line of fire Tilda had helped her set up. Yet another skull, superimposed over the point where crew were being moved from Lycos to Celestine, marked the place the shot would land.
A few beasts detached from their monstrous mother, drifting on leathery wings and gasbags toward The Celebrant. “I’ll have to dress for our guests.” Malorn said, leaving the bridge.
Nell couldn’t really look away from the bioship. It had, at this range, at this relative quiescence, a definite beauty to it. Sleek lines, luminescent strips, protuberances that suggested the human body or collections of them tangled sensually together. She was ready to kill it, for that, for mingling disgust and fascination in her.
“Ready to jump, Captain.” Harrow said, professional to the end.
“We should come out about half a mile north, up a few degrees.” Tilda added.
Nell nodded. “Good work.”
Now she was watching the beasts approach; all teeth and eyes and less identifiable organs. She squeezed her eyes shut, drew her hand back, and pulled the middle finger of the hand up. A cold wind swept through the bridge; an inhuman shriek drove everyone to put their hands over their ears. Nell opened her eyes to see a dark orb bloom between the two ships, fading like an afterimage of the sun on closed eyelids in a shower of soft, gray ash.
And then the cold dark enveloped them.