When they emerged from The World Without Sun, The Celestine was still visible about half a mile away, tendrils flailing, blood gouting. The smoking ruin of the Lycos was already falling to the ground. Nell watched the dark shower slow, then stop as the bioship regenerated and wheeled to face them. At the same time, Harrow swung The Celebrant around to flee. Once they were facing northeast the ship hit full speed ahead and Nell could finally pry her white-knuckled hands from the arms of her seat.
“Now we run and hope,” Harrow said, through gritted teeth. She leaned to the side, fumbled in a pack lying beside her seat, and held a heavy, brutish-looking pistol over her shoulder.
“Cap’n,” she said, expectant. Nell forced herself to stand and take it. The weight surprised her, the smell of oil and faintly greasy surface.
“I’ve never used a gun before – will it even work against them?”
“It’s not for them,” Harrow replied, grim. “It’s for you, if they catch us.”
“What the fuck is going on?”
Nell, Harrow, and Tilda all snapped to look at the door. Jonah, a blunt-muzzled, wide gun in hand, stood in the doorway with more composure than his voice would suggest. “A lot of Magic just went wailing through the bones of this ship, so I would like to know why.”
He stepped forward, started, and ran to the window.
“And why,” he hissed, “are we over the fucking Wood?”
“To escape The Celestine,” Nell said, simply. Tired.
Jonah was very still.
“Right. Good. Fucking marvelous.”
He stalked out of the room, saying, “let me know if they catch us so I can sink the whole damned thing into The After.”
Nell moved past Tilda, silent in her chair, to the forward windows. The mist over the wood was denser, here, but she could make out the bounding shapes of the Windborne. Peering down at the canopy, she sidled left – or starboard, she thought – to see a titanic dome looming above the mist. Grey-green, spongy, the mist flowing from beneath it in thick waves.
“The Worldcap,” Tilda said, quietly. “I build clockwork that houses ghosts. The Stormlords build electrical and magnetic devices. Conflagrants build magnificent steam engines…”
She drummed her fingers on the desk a moment, stopped as Nell turned to look at her.
“The Crantiré make us all look like children. The Wood has always been here, and only the Infernal Houses have kept it from spreading.”
“History is all well and good,” said Harrow, “but The Celestine is really picking up speed. This ship doesn’t have a great sensorium in the aft arc – could you watch it, Captain? There’s an observation booth.”
Nell shivered, on deck. Gratefully, in a way – this was real cold, not like the chill of The After. The whipping wind slowed her down, but she made it to the little booth, like a small shed sitting on the aft. Malorn was already inside, in his armour, arms folded. He glanced over his shoulder at her arrival, and went back to watching the approaching Celestine.
“Will they really go for the bigger target first, I wonder?” He said. Nell could already see the tendrils waving from here, the raw red flesh covering the section annihilated by the cannon.
“We have to hope,” said Nell. “And maybe we can make another jump, fire again…” She trailed off.
Malorn shook his head. “I took a moment to check with Mr. Frisse. One or the other, but not both. The ship needs time to recharge or to spend a while soaking in death.”
Nell set her jaw. “Looks like we might be able to handle that.” She pointed.
A group of winged monsters were approaching the ship again. Malorn grunted. “One of them made it onboard before the last jump. Killed it almost instantly. Disappointing.”
Nell looked at him sidewise, and shook her head, absently. Malorn turned and left. Nell watched The Celestine draw closer, and wondered how it was seeing them. Was there a captain standing somewhere behind the drying new hide, watching the aft of her ship? Did it have eyes, or a nose for the scent of death that must cling to The Celebrant? Could it taste Magic?
The flying monsters glided over her booth, out of view – some feathered, some leathery, all eerily human around the limbs or torso. Too fast for a good look.
Nell clutched the pistol tighter and reached for the carved skull on the wall to her left.
“Bridge? This is the Captain. The Celestine is closing fast. We might need to jump away again.”
Something slammed against the door and Nell suppressed a squeak.
“What was that, Captain?” Harrow sounded worried.
“Malorn is on deck, fighting the… things.”
“I’d rather not jump with him out there,” Tilda cut in. “There are worse things than The Celestine out there.”
“I’d believe it,” she said. “Can we wheel around to fire, then?”
More monsters were streaking towards them, the undulating bulk of The Celestine ever nearer.
“Get Malorn inside if you intend to,” Harrow said. “This boat really doesn’t turn neatly; it’d take a short flicker to spin fast eno-”
Something slammed against the door again. The whole ship rocked and Nell almost lost her balance, spreading her feet to keep steady. “Locals are awake,” Harrow said. “Get back here, Cap’n.”
The intercom fell silent. Nell gripped the pistol in sweaty hands, mouth dry, and braced herself with hand on the door.
The deck was awash with blood; Malorn stood atop a corpse surrounded by three monsters. This close, they were easier to see, and more frightening for it – a blend of bird, bat, and human, and some creatures Nell didn’t recognize. What in the Dragon’s name had scythe-blades for hands?
Nell sidled to the gunwale on her right, eyes fixed on the scene. As she watched, Malorn leaped out of reach of scything claws, helm flashing in the sun, hand on the hilt of his undrawn blade. Like a dancer he stepped and slipped out of their reach, again and again. He led them to the opposite side of the deck as Nell edged forward, leaped over their heads – and then killed them. In a single motion he drew his blade and cut the malformed, many-eyed head from one monster, an arc of blood streaming from his blade as he cut again to split another in half, and deftly spun out of reach of grasping tentacles to kill the last monster with a stab in the gaping, fanged maw.
Nell slipped in blood and fell, then, face to face with something that might have been a man, once. Face twisted, teeth breaking the skin around the mouth, one eye dangling from a ridged tendril, but undeniably once-human.
It wasn’t dead. Nell shuddered and tried to recoil, pissing herself in terror.
“Please… kill…” It croaked, barely comprehensible through the ragged mouth. Membranous wings twitched, clawed digits flexed, weaker and weaker.
Malorn cut its throat in the same motion he hauled Nell to her feet, sticky with blood. He was looking southward, and Nell turned to follow his gaze. He said something, but over her own frantic breath, the pounding in her ears, she didn’t hear it. A dragonfly of titanic size, shimmering in gorgeous hues of green and blue, seemingly eyeless, was mounting The Celestine with a bone-shaking drone, fierce mouthparts tearing into it even as the The Celestine tried to eat it right back. Nell half-staggered, was half-dragged back towards the bridge.
Pain exploded in her back, her right arm, and she tumbled alongside the forecastle, jarring her funnybone and rolling onto her back with a stifled cry.
Another monster. This one had Malorn by the throat. A mirror was behind them – no. No, that was before. But still, the thing held Malorn aloft. Thick furred, human-shaped, a hideous face with upturned nose and red eyes. Long ears. Thick fur all over, leathery wings from the shoulders. It held Malorn in taloned hands.
“Herald of Olimak…” It said, thoughtful. Malorn only choked, struggling. His swordbelt had been cut and the weapon lay near Nell’s feet.
“Young, this time,” it continued. “Will you not burn me. Olimak?”
Malorn’s struggles were getting weaker. His veins glowed red beneath his flesh. Golden tears ran down his cheeks.
“No,” it clicked to itself. Trembling, Nell tried to raise the pistol. She feared her right arm was broken, numb and unmoving. Her left was slow, weaving. Point.. .and shoot. The head.
“Why did you come here, we wonder? The blood-knowing is denied us…”
Nell squinted, closed one eye. Her vision was swimming. The stink of blood and shit distracting her.
“You will not die here, Olimak. No. Grandfather remembers. The mindsculptors will scour your skull and leave you a husk.” It leaned closer. “I will make them.”
Nell pulled the trigger, deafened herself with the report. The monster dropped Malorn, who hit the deck like a discarded doll. The creature stumbled back, claw to its head. Nell’s teeth clenched in a fierce, painful grin, feral in her triumph.
And then the hole in its skull began to close, the blood visibly retreating into the wound, and it turned luminous red eyes upon her. Like a hideous fusion of bat and human, the eyes so familiar in a monstrous face. Fangs glinting as it hissed…
“Brave and foolish, little thing.” It said, advancing on her with slow, considered steps, talons clicking on the deck. “Maybe we will keep you for a while, hm?” It loomed over her, blotting out the light. Feebly Nell tried to crawl away, pushing herself back. Her face was hot with tears, her body cold with sweat, arm screaming in agony as she tried to escape.
It stood over her, feet either side of her body, and reached down for her arm. Her vision went black with pain.
“Fragile, aren’t you?”
The pain stopped, her shoulder cold. Watching it raise her torn arm in front of her was worse for that. Its long tongue curled around the stump of bone, cleaning it of blood.
“Fascinating,” the monster breathed.
And sprouted a blade from its chest, the red eyes going dark. Malorn, panting, bruised, buried a spur of bone from a dead monster in the thing’s chest, withdrew his sword, and shoved it over the side.
Nell blacked out.
The black ocean was everything. Above her the sky was moonless and dark, studded with faint and distant stars. She had never seen so much water. She stood on the surface of the waves and it tickled her bare feet. She raised her hands to her face; the left was flesh and blood, the right was bone. She looked down into the black water and saw the faces of her crew, her fellow orphans, her overseers. Staring up, rapturous. She felt the talons on her shoulders…
She woke in dim light. A soft ticking at the edge of hearing. Exhausted. Immediately the dark wood of the ceiling was washed away with a point of bright light.
“Nell?” The voice was familiar. Tilda. “Nell, can you hear me?”
The point of light was everything. Moved left to right and back.
“I hear…” she said, in a small voice.
“Praise Mytherion,” Tilda breathed, voice heavy with relief. “No brain damage. I think one of the boarders was secreting a sedative but I don’t have anything for chemical analysis here and I’m not even a real doctor-”
“Malorn,” Nell said. Her tongue felt thick and hairy.
“He’s fine. You can’t kill an Olimak with anything short of a ship-scale weapon.”
“The monster…” Nell wanted to yell. She wanted to sit up, but she felt so weak.
“Malorn killed them all. Easily, I should think. You need to rest, Nell. You lost a lot of blood and there’s some spinal trauma, not to mention…” she cut herself off.
“Your arm. I can replace it, but… it’s not going to be the same.”
“Celestine?” Nell asked, refusing to think about it right now. Focus on the task at hand.
“Out of range. We managed a long jump, but it was lucky. Very lucky. No one is allowed on deck until I get out there to exorcise a stowaway. We went off course, but we’re still only about a day from Kaiden Spire.”
Tilda leaned over, so Nell could see her clearly. Laid a hand on her left shoulder. Nell was caught between anger and gratitude. She smiled. Forced.
“Congratulations, Captain. First ship to cross the Awakened Wood without an Imperial agent on board.”
Nell snorted a laugh, then grimaced with pain.
“Worth it…” she muttered, and laughed again. Tilda’s smile died away. She took a step back.
Now is not the time to tell her about Jonah, the Necromancer decided.