“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.
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.
“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.