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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Deliberations 3.3

“I’m assuming the cargo is below?”

He didn’t meet her eye, dark hair hanging over his face, staring at the pile of dust and steel that was his bodyguard.

“You killed her. Completely,” he said, sounding younger than he looked.

“Terrible shame,” Knell said, grip tightening, “but she didn’t give me a choice, did she?”

Fisk took the pistol and gave Knell an inquiring look.

“Grab him, watch him, and let’s go see his prisoners.”

Knell lead the way out and down to the staircase in the back, then gestured to the boy in his obvious finery. “You first. In case anyone would otherwise feel like taking a shot.”

The boy stared up at her for a long moment, blued-eyed, pale, until Fisk nudged his shoulder with the muzzle of the stolen pistol. His footsteps were heavy on the stairs, but it was a dull sound and carried poorly.

He stopped at the first exit, peering out into the corridors. “Is this it?” Knell asked, leaning by to see for herself. No sight, few sounds, and those were distant.

“I… think so,” the boy said, and Knell sighed.

“Nope. Let’s see what is here, anyway. Makes sense you’d be keeping ‘em in the belly,” she said, and left Fisk and the boy at the doorway.

Bloodstains and a few bullet-holes were scattered over the corridor and adjoining rooms; ammunition spilling from crates in one, rice in another, spare uniforms in a third. Few bodies and clean kills meant it wasn’t Wainwright. No more knights, which Knell couldn’t place as a bad sign or good. Satisfied, she returned to Fisk and the captive to descend deeper into the ship, down looser, rattling steps to the lowest deck. The engine room hummed ominously at their backs as they turned to face the heavy doors of the cargo bay, left ajar and unpowered. A dim rumble of voices crept through the aperture, and Knell waved her blade at Fisk; boy first, then you.

That she’d cover them was implied, but Fisk didn’t look happy as she pushed the child ahead, into the room beyond. No shouts, no gunfire, and Knell followed with her weapon outstretched, sweeping the blade across the room, eyes following the point.

The room was empty, and silent. Knell frowned and looked again for obvious Magic. Fisk caught it, though; “the engines, Captain,” she said. Knell understood; the engines dropped to a bare tremor and the sounds she’d come to ignore were gone. The ship was dead in the air.

“We win, then,” Knell said, slinging her weapon into the holster and crossing the room. She didn’t see Fisk relax.

The next room was what she’d been looking for; the smell hit her before she had to see a thing. With the engines powered down, ventilation was limited to key rooms – and a cargo bay wasn’t one of them.

They’d done their best. Buckets in the corner, all the filth collected in one spot – but they obviously hadn’t been given the opportunity to wash, huddling in dirty clothes in the corners of the room. A mix of humans and rats, a few with collars on their necks. One does his best to stand, cheeks hollow, sharp chin beneath a rough beard, and for a moment he holds a straight-backed posture before he cringes and falls, caught and held by a burly young woman before he hits the ground.

One of the captives was small and still against the back wall. Knell grimaced and held back the taste of bile when the sickly sweet odour reached her, ignoring the would-be slaves to turn her blade on her own hostage.

 

The boy was white as a sheet, and promptly threw up all over his shoes. Knell sneered.

“Oh, it’s so easy when you can sit high and mighty where you don’t have to see it, isn’t it?”

“Please, I did-” he coughed, retched, tears streaking his cheeks, “I didn’t know. They said we were carrying books and screws…”

Knell was about to retort, but caught Fisk staring at her.

“He’s just a child, Captain,” she said.

“When I was his age, I was-” Knell started, then frowned, shaking her head, “fuck it, he dies. Reparations.”

Fisk stood very still, knuckles white on the boy’s collar. He seemed to be resigned to his fate, staring at the floor, sobbing softly. Knell couldn’t stand to look at him.

“Aye, Captain,” Fisk said, her tone flat.

“Get him out of here. Get the crew,” Knell said, and turned her attention to the tall man and his collared companion who now approached. They were both limping, but his was worse.

Knell took an immediate dislike to him.

He spoke, but Knell didn’t know the language. “Trades, maybe?” she said. He nodded.

“I speak enough,” he said, “do we pay you or thank you, or die?”

Knell shook her head, “thanks is enough, but if you did have some funds to spare…”

“Keep this ship. Perhaps if you lead us safely to our allies in Auerstadt there could be more,” he said.

Knell shrugged, slinging her weapon. “The ship should cover us, to be honest,” she said. The engine alone is worth a fortune.

“But not enough to join the cause?” the woman said, staring at Knell with weary resignation. One of her eyes was missing; a clean and metal-lined socket where a Manatech replacement must have sat before she was put here. Something unclean seemed to be leaking from the seam near her nose.

Knell’s dark hand rippled and hummed in way only she could notice. No blood left to boil in there, but these things found a way.

“This is as much as I can do,” Knell said, in harsher tones than she’d meant to. “I have a crew to think about,” she added, but the woman seemed unmoved.

“We must be grateful for this much. Willem Strauss,” the man said, holding out a hand.

Knell shook it, once again grateful that she’d remembered a glove, “Knell Blackhand.”

“Your reputation precedes you. I imagine it can’t all be true,” he replied, with a weak smile tugging the corners of his lips.

The woman, staring at the weeping boy, muttered “it’s never all true.”

Knell shrugged. “Less than half, I imagine.”

Heavy footsteps presaged Daffyd’s arrival, along with a dour-looking Fisk and complement of crew. Blades trailed in behind them, cheek spotted with blood like a dusting of freckles. Knell turned, arms folded, and Daffyd offered a salute.

“Rikker is on the bridge, keeping it under control. All three ships are disabled and Harrow is blocking any distress beacons as well as she can, but the field will bring us close to the ground. Wainwright appears to have boarded one of the other vessels,” he said, in clipped tones. A few of the crew exchanged uneasy looks.

The captain refused to muster any sympathy, and gestured to the room. “Get these people upstairs and into the quarters, so they can clean up,” she said, sparing the boy a glance. “And get him locked up somewhere safe until we decide what to do with him.”

“Ransom, obviously,” said a crewman – Potts. Daffyd nodded.

“The captain thought execution,” Fisk said, without emotion.

Blades took a step forward, needles in hand. Knell help up her palms. “Bit eager, there,” she said, but the monk only twirled her weapons around her fingers. “Ransom,” she said, “or the needles are for you.”

“Vow of Protection,” Daffyd said, “the child is an innocent.”

“No such thing,” Knell muttered, and waved a hand. “I gave an order, I want these people looked after.”

A chorus of ‘aye captain’ followed, and the crew set to their task. Knell watched Blades and Fisk help a sickly rat to his feet, turned on her heel, and went back upstairs, towards the bridge.


 

Hands tied, a line of Spire skymen knelt against the port wall of the bridge, a much larger and more complex affair than the one on Knell’s ship. A few of them were wounded, and two of the ten sat especially still, their uniforms stained with blood.

Rikker was standing over a crewman whose name Knell had never needed to know – Wesley, probably – and peering at the console with which that same man was tinkering. The rest stood a little straighter at Knell’s arrival, but she had to tap Rikker on the shoulder to get his attention.

He was holding up his hands as he turned, then relaxed.

“Should’ve known it was you, Captain,” he grinned, “I think we can fly this thing, just need to find the beacons and switch ‘em off.”

Knell nodded, and gestured at the prisoners. “We have to cut them loose, first. Land this somewhere near civilization and boot them out,” she said, “then we drop our new allies at a friendly port and hall this lot into Shaydensea.”

“No more Legion?”

“Have to offload all this stolen gear before we sign up, Rikker,” Knell said, “although the idea of handing this lot over for slaving…”

“It’d look good if we could prove it,” Rikker said.

Knell glanced around the room. “Anyone read Spire? Actually,” she held up a hand, “I’ll get Daffyd to do it. Anyone spare go secure any paperwork you can find.”

“It’d have to be ciphered, Captain,” Rikker said, leaning against a console.

“Ciphered Spire,” Knell said, shrugging. “Point is, there’s got to be some kind of evidence. And, Rikker, there’s at least one full-blood Magus onboard.”

Rikker’s face drained of blood. “Captain, if they fire off one spell-”

“They won’t,” Knell said, waving her hand. “But you understand that makes this an Inquisitorial case if we bring it to them, right?”

Rikker said nothing.

Knell wasn’t going to pursue it now. She glanced over the comms console and hit a few buttons.

“Harrow? Can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear, Captain.”

She caught herself sagging with relief.

“Good. Update?”

“Wainwright sounds entirely too pleased with himself over comms from the escort. Haven’t sent a cleanup to either yet, but they’re quiet at least,” Harrow replied. “I can turn off the jammer if we’re sure all the beacons are disabled, and you’d better hurry. We’ll hit the ground within an hour at this rate, and there’s no telling who else might come through this airspace.”

“Work to do, then. Miss Viggs, I know you can fly this ungainly thing. Get us into range to board the other escort,” Knell said, “and the rest of you muster to board. They probably won’t put up a fight, but let’s be ready.”

The comms crackled again as the crew began to filter out, one staying with a gun trained on the captives.

“Captain.”

Wainwright’s voice, pleased but ragged. “Captain are you there?”

“I’m here, Wainwright. You sound rough.”

“Railpistol, Captain. Put a hole in the ship. And my leg-” he dissolved into hacking coughs. “A few other bullets here and there, but I need a medic.”

“Belay that last order, Viggs. Keep us level,” Knell said.

“Aye Captain.”

Knell jogged into the corridor, shouting.

“Where’s Turpin?” She called, stopping her crew in their tracks.

“With the wounded,” said Daffyd, emerging from below.

“Get him into a dropsuit and over to the escort,” said Knell.

“Which one?” Daffyd said, still on the ladder.

“Ask Harrow,” Knell snapped, and shooed him down the ladder, following after to search for Fisk and the boy.


 

She found Fisk leaning against the door to the same office – on reflection it had been more of an office than a cabin – and her head snapped up.  “The zealot is in there with the kid,” Fisk said, irritably. “says she won’t trust the crew with him.”

Knell swore and Fisk stepped aside as she banged on the door. A moment passed, and the door opened to reveal Blades with needles at the ready.

“Fuck’s sake, Blades,” Knell sighed, stepping past the monk who relaxed her stance.

The boy sat behind the desk, ashen faced, staring at the surface. A few drawers were open, papers and pens cleared from the desktop to the floor. “A tantrum?” Knell said, quirking a brow and glancing at Blades. The monk shrugged. “I too would be angry.”

Knell snorted.

“Alright kid – what’s your name?”

“Albert,” the boy mumbled.

“Progress. Albert what?”

“Albert Allbright.”

“And to think,” Knell mused, “Allbright seemed less like scum than the rest of them.”

Albert glared at her. “This can’t have been done with my mother’s permission.”

“It’s sweet that you think so,” Knell said, smirking, then shook her head. “And a damned lie.”

“Believe what you want,” he muttered. “Are you going to kill me?”

Knell didn’t have to look to know Blades was tensing.

“No. You’re clearly more valuable as a ransom.”

He didn’t reply.

Before Knell could continue, Daffyd stepped into the room, panting slightly.

“Captain,” he said, “Turpin has been deployed and we’re coasting alongside the other escort now, but there’s trouble.”

“What trouble?” Knell said, turning, frowning.

“A ship approaching at high speed; Harrow says it’s the Herald.”

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Deliberations 3.2

“This is going to be uncomfortable, Captain.”

“I know, Harrow. But here we are.”

Wainwright unfolded from the corner and paced across the bridge.

“Think of the profit, though,” he said, “not just the payoff for the quitters.”

Knell tried not to look at this teeth.

“Less the profit, Wainwright. You get to unsheathe the claws for this one,” she said. “I think you knew that, too.”

Wainwright shrugged. “I’ve overheard you talking about it. Happy coincidence,” he said, and grinned wider. “Or unhappy.”

“Sharp ears, to hear me chatting to Noster about it so…” Knell trailed off, frowned. “Sharp ears.”

“I miss ‘er too, Captain,” said Harrow. “I do hate it when people go and catch religion.”

“I don’t,” Wainwright, “Miss her, that is. Too pleased with herself.”

“You don’t usually talk this much, Wainwright,” Knell said, drumming her fingers on the arm of her chair.

He shrugged again. “I’m in a good mood. If you ever had burning questions to ask, now is the time,” he said, pacing from wall to wall.

“You didn’t seem impressed with… Stumpy,” Knell said, “so I suppose you’ve seen plenty of Crantiré before. What is the Wood like?”

Wainwright paused. Stared into space.

“Violent,” he said. A moment of pacing later, he added; “Stumpy isn’t Crantiré.”

“What?” said Knell, sitting up, craning her neck to look at him.

“Crantiré are called… tk,” he stopped, making a clicking noise. “The Gods of Oak and Ash, in our tongue. Stumpy doesn’t look like a god.”

Harrow sniggered. “What do gods look like, then?”

“They don’t,” Wainwright replied, blunt. “Look like anything. You shouldn’t ever see gods. The Crantiré never needed us to see them.”

Knell frowned. “There’s a lot of that going on.”

Wainwright cocked his head, eerie yellow eyes fixed on Knell, but he said nothing. Knell shivered and looked forward into the bleak noon sky, the curtains of rain.

“Your info is good?” Knell said, not looking away. No sign of anything out in the gray.

Wainwright continued to pace. “Yes. Took it from the courier myself.”

“You took it? Did you kill him?” said Knell.

“No,” Wainwright laughed, “No, no.  Stealing from the Olimak Herald is dangerous enough, trying to kill him would be suicide.”

Knell winced, her brow furrowed, and winced again. Oh lovely, a headache is exactly what I needed now.

“He won’t follow?” she said, with a note of irritation.

“I will be most surprised.”

“What even possessed you to steal it?”

Wainwright’s expression was blank. “It was shiny,” he said, flatly.

Harrow cackled as her hands flew across the console.

“Ten minutes, Captain,” she said, “Signal’s faint, but I’ve got a proper bearing now.”

“Time to dance  this dance again, then. Get to the boarding atrium, Wainwright,” Knell said.

“You’re not coming, Captain?” Wainwright said, with an air of mockery.

Knell’s trigger finger twitched. “I will. Things to do.”

When Wainwright had left, she told the pilot to keep her posted, and went to find Cerro.


 

He was huddled in her office chair, legs tucked himself, reading.

His eyes flicked up to as she entered, but his head didn’t move. He said nothing.

“We’re going to battle, Cerro,” she said, standing across the table from him, the dark expanse of polished wood between them.

“Hmm,” he said.

“You need to stay here, where it’s safe,” she said.

“Where else would I go?” he said.

Knell’s dark fingers tapped the handle of her gun.

“I just want you to be safe.”

“Safe. I know,” he said, without emotion.

Knell’s frustration was wordless, practically a growl.

“Why does this have to be so fucking difficult?” she said.

Cerro finally looked at her. Gaze meeting Knell’s. Silent. His face like carved wood; lined and lifeless.

The seconds yawned into a gulf, and she felt tears pricking the corners of her eyes.

“Because you would ask that question, I think,” he said, quietly.

“I brought you onto my ship, I’ve protected you-”

“I don’t believe I’ve been ungrateful. I don’t believe I’ve made this hard.”

“Oh, so it’s my fault, so conveniently.”

“There is nothing convenient about it.”

The ship rocked gently in the silence.

Knell stared at him like seeing him for the first time, eyes tracing his brow and his cheeks and shoulders. Avoiding his eyes.

She stalked from the room without a word and went to prepare with her crew.

 


 

Knell swaggered into the lower starboard boarding atrium; one of the four that held crew ready to leap onto the target deck. A capsule of a room with space for a dozen people, lined with handrails, the floor fitted with reels of strong cord and magnetic clamps. Only Knell, Wainwright, and Blades were present.

“Decided to join us after all, exalted?” Knell said, the honorific dripping with sarcasm.

“You would undo slavers. This is fine time to practice my art; in this I am like you, Captain,” she replied.

“I’ve killed, but I tend not to think of myself as a killer. Or treat it like an art,” Knell replied, hand on hip.

“You misunderstand,” the monk said with enigmatic smile, but did not elaborate.

Wainwright, meanwhile, carefully hung his clothes on a set of hooks in the back of the atrium. Knell was used to the sight, the wiry muscles shifting beneath his fur, tip of his stubby tail hairless with scar tissue.

Knell stood back, gestured for Blades to do the same, as the Elemental took his place in front of the doors.

“How much have you been told, then? You weren’t there for the briefing,” Knell said to Blades, clicking her tongue. “Poor form, that.”

“Our foes are slavers. This is enough,” she replied.

Wainwright grew a foot taller, with a sickly crack. His eyes shut tight and fur on end.

“Yes. A Spire cartel ship with minimal escort, planning to sell political dissidents into slavery. Which means either knights or stormguard, depending on the Spire, and possible even a Magus,” Knell continued.

“Immaterial. They live, they die.”

Wainwright’s claws extended another five inches, his teeth turning into saber-like fangs. The stripes of his fur stood out in gold and black, a far cry from his typical red and brown.

If Blades could see, she’d be staring, Knell thought. Her head was inclined towards the now hulking Wainwright.

“Is the blindfold magical?” she wondered aloud.

“No,” the monk replied.

“Hiding some spooky curse or blessing?”

“No.”

“A secret monk technique to overcome blindness?”

Blades turned to face Knell, brows quirked above the blindfold.

“My initiation was a journey, and I did not need eyes to see where I was going.”

Knell elected to leave it at that, the uneasy silence broken only by Wainwright’s popping, cracking bones and finally, the chime of the intercom.

“Five minutes. Target in sight,” Harrow said. “Two ships in escort, one Spire barge. Orders, Captain?”

Knell hit the button.

“Listen up, crew. Wainwright goes in first, then the top-star boarders. I’ll follow, then Harrow’ll wheel us around for the port boarders. Gunners, hit weapons or engines, whichever is easier.”

She paused. “Try not to junk ‘em too hard, we might get a chance to salvage.”

The minutes passed in silence, then with the rumble of the guns.  The ship shuddered with impact. Blades didn’t move as a dent burst inward from the door.

Wainwright growled, tensing a second before the klaxon blared, and Knell pulled a lever to open the doors.

The wind whipped by them, carrying torn streamers of mist. Wainwright leapt from the atrium onto the upper hull of the barge, an expanse of gunmetal and dark blue plates, and was promptly lost to sight as the ship carried on, Knell slamming the hatch again.

The hull rang with gunfire, and Knell stared at the monk for lack of anything better to do. The gun-blade swung gently against the small of her back, her pistols a comforting weight on her hips. She pulled the goggles from her head over her eyes.


 

On the second pass, Wainwright had torn through a maintenance hatch and was out of sight. Blades dropped through after him as Knell was checking her safety line, and followed. She hit the inner deck, past the sparking and glowing tangle of cables, in a roll. Springing to her feet as she released the line and attached the magnet to the wall. More crew followed, swinging down the lines, fixing them to walls and hull. Blades was out of sight, but Knell was backed up by five of her trusted mates. And Fisk, but Knell was warming to the girl and appreciated how comfortably she held her boarding knife.

Likewise, she preferred to keep potential enemies close.

The corridor of the ship was wider than standard, for ease of moving cargo. Eyeing the markings on the wall, resembling jagged sparks of lightning, Knell supposed it might also be part of the ship’s arcane systems (given that on some ships, red stripes really do make them faster). Convenient for her purposes.

“Rikker,” she said, “take this lot and hold the bridge. Daffyd should have the engines. Fisk, with me.”

“Where to, Captain?” she asked, her voice just barely cracking.

Knell gestured to a smear of blood trailing from the torn hatch to a ladder in an alcove.

“After Wainwright.”


 

Knell was vaguely grateful as she stepped off the ladder into the lower decks, her shadowy hand fading to let the blood slick onto the floor and the other protected by a good leather glove. She stepped left and around a corner, away from Wainwright’s victim, standing in wait for Fisk. This gangway seemed to run the length of the vessel, right near the belly. Gunfire, screams, and the clashing of blades echoed throughout the ship, rising toward a crescendo that would be nightmarishly brief. A body was clinging, broken, to the wheel on a secure door at the far end. Knell fancied that was important, and with Fisk grimly wiping her hands on her breeches, Knell walked ahead.

The room looked to be right beneath the bridge, and Knell pegged it as captain’s quarters. She kicked the corpse off the wheel-lock and gave it a spin.

The room beyond, all austere deckplates and extravagant desk, was as she expected. The teenage boy behind the desk and his armoured bodyguard were not.

The bot was no threat; Knell trained her guns on his protector – a knight in heavy plate decorated with scales, the helm shaped to resemble a dragon’s head, fully enclosed. A sapphire glowed in the cente of the breastplate, and a spear audibly hummed in their hand. Knell dropped her guns and drew the blade as the knight took a step forward, weapon raised.

“Ah ah ah,” Knell chided them, “I bet you’ve got a field to keep bullets off, but this shoots spells.” She nodded at the glowing gem. “But I’ll bet the kid’s ransom that armour doesn’t stop spells.”

“Ransom,” the knight said, dully, rolling the ‘r’ in an accent typical of Spire nobility. “That at least simplifies matters.”

“You would think so. Where’s the cargo?” Knell said.

“Rescuing a compatriot? That can be arranged if you let my charge go.”

“Never really was the sort for politics. Just doing a good deed.”

The knight inclined their head, “this is a poor time for jokes.”

“I’m sure you feel that way about most good deeds, but I’m holding the gun. Drop your spear and let’s get this over with.”

The knight remained still, then the spear hissed from their hand, the point growing in Knell’s vision with terrible certainty. She didn’t think; her own blade turning a certain death into a scar along her shoulder even as she pulled the trigger. The screaming pulse from her weapon cracked the knight’s gem and sent them tumbling to the floor. Dust puffed from the gaps in the armour.

Panting, staring, Knell made a mental note to save the Necromantic shells for emergencies. She only registered the boy taking a pistol from the desk when Fisk barrelled past her tense and paralyzed form to seize his wrist.

The breath hissed out of her, and Knell relaxed, limp armed.

“Let that be a lesson, I suppose,” she said, gesturing at the boy as blood dripped from her shoulder, “dishonour should definitely be your preference.”
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Deliberations 3.1

“Attention crew,” Knell said, into the intercom, “first thing tomorrow we start charter renegotiations. If you want individual contracts, let Daffyd know. I’m too hungover to deal with anything before then – so feel free to enjoy some ground leave.”

Knell yawned, stretched, and tottered back over to her bed.

“Going back to sleep?” Cerro asked, running a finger of Knell’s sparse library. All chip novels and other dross.

“No. No, I should eat and stay awake until a couple of hours after sunset, at least.”

“I expect there are good places to eat at this port.”

“There are!” she said, sitting up suddenly. “A few. Might as well enjoy tonight while I’m here – negotiations are always a headache.”

“And you mentioned botanical gardens…”

Knell flopped back against the covers. “I’m all for going for a walk – a short walk – and dinner, but the gardens are boring.”

“It would remind me of my birthplace.” Cerro said, straightening. He was wearing spare clothes from the crew, and Knell felt they served him better than his silken wraps and satin kilts.

“You’re going to need to justify that better, m’dear,” she said.

“I can go without you,” he said, mildly.

She considers suggesting otherwise, but Measle is a safe port.

“Never been here before, right?” she said

“No,” he said. “Similar cities, though I’m more familiar with local Communes. Do you want to tell me about it?”

“Walk and talk,” she said, dressing.

“Good idea,” he said, and waited for her to finish. Pointedly not watching, she thought.

 

Measle stretched out below the airdock in a patchwork of light and shadow. Thirty-thousand souls to call it home and nearly double that in people passing through, like Knell and her crew. The walls were high, made of smooth, gray stone, studded with watchposts. Knell and Cerro descended from the airdock outside the walls, down a sloping and somewhat rickety flight of stairs onto the ramparts.

“Popular place, the walls,” Knell said.

“Oh?”

“Good view of the city, nice to walk around. The checkpoints are sealed up, only accessible from inside the wall.”

“But couldn’t someone sabotage their defenses?”

Knell shrugged. “Measle’s one of those places with a ruling council of Magi. Probably some dirty great sorcerous weapon ready to blast hostile ships out of the air hidden around here.” She paused as they reached the murmuring pairs and trios ambling along the rampart, the stone stairs to street level visible a few feet away. “Not like you to ask something like that.”

“I’m worried they might attack you. You are a known pirate, yes?”

“Yes…” Knell said, glancing up and down the walk. “But Measle has no navy, and they’re not a protectorate of any of the Spires. If you don’t have to worry about pirates attacking, it’s better for business to pretend you haven’t recognized them.”

Even as she said so, a passing guard in armoured uniform gave her sidewise look; we’re watching you, scum.

Knell threw him a lazy salute, took Cerro’s hand, and lead him down into the bustling streets.

 

They dined at a restaurant under a canopy painted with constellations, arranged in a ring around a wide, decorative pond subtly broken into smaller tanks. The host charmed fish, shellfish, and other beasts from the water in a complex dance; the chef killed and cleaned them mid-air with deft swings of sword and knife. Assistants finished the gutting and cleaning, laying the meat on beds of herbs and rice before serving, drizzled in sauce.

“So you grew up in a Commune?” Knell asked, as she cracked a popshell along its seam and prized out the steaming meat.

“You’ve never seemed so interested before,” Cerro said, sipping his wine.

“We’ve never had an actual dinner together before,” she replied.

“I suppose the noodle-cart’s midnight special doesn’t quite count,” he said, smiling.

“No. So tell me.”

Cerro turned his head to take in the show; the red, blue, and silver creatures leaping through the air, trailed by silvery arcs of water. Caught and flipped to a chopping block, mid-flight.

“I born in Ytslaw Commune, spinward ‘round the Wood from here. You know it?” he said.

“No,” she said. “Don’t often visit the Communes.”

He nodded. “My fathers-”

“Fathers?” she said, fork poised over a morsel.

He tilted his head slightly, cutting a lightly fried tentacle on his plate.

“Ytslaw has a small number of very talented Communers. Orod, the most powerful, drew from my fathers to create me. They carried me between them for nine months, they birthed me, they raised me.”

That’s fucking weird, Knell thought, but tried not to show it.

“Must have been expensive,” she said.

“We didn’t use money at Ytslaw.”

“I’ve heard the Communes often work like that. Everything bartered?”

“From each by their ability, to each for their needs.”

“For free?” Knell said, brow rising.

Cerro managed a thin smile. “Just so.”

“So how do you end up being a joyboy if you don’t need money?” she asked, around a mouthful of crab.

Cerro’s smile remained fixed.

“It hadn’t occurred to you I was more than that?”

“It’s a perfectly valid profession,” Knell said, mildy. “Just… seems odd you’d chose it, considering.”

“How much time have we spent talking?” he said.

Knell frowned. “Hours, I suppose, but I wouldn’t really call it talking, you just-”

“Ask questions,” he finished.

“And that’s part of the job?” she said, staring at her plate with less appetite.

“For me, it is. For those trained like me,” he said.

“Your fathers supported that?” she said, steering the subject away.

“They did. My great-grandmother was a soldier fond of the Patriot’s Maxim.” he said.

“Which is…” she said, suspecting the answer would bore her, but be safer.

“I am a soldier, that my child may be a diplomat, that their child may be a teacher, that their child may be an artist,” he said, with a cadence that was clearly echoing someone else.

“And you consider yourself an artist?” she said, and managed a smirk.

His smile seemed more genuine, at that. “Do you intend to tell me I am not?” he said, and sipped his wine.

Knell shrugged, “I just know what I like.”

“And you like piracy?”

“I like freedom,” she said.

“Doesn’t everyone?” he said.

“Doesn’t seem that way. Not the ones on the top.”

“Aren’t you at the top?”

Knell shook her head, stabbed at a slice of fish with especial viciousness.

“My crew agreed to be where they are. They signed the charter, they agreed on my captaincy, and they’re treated like equal partners in the enterprise,” she said.

“When you are left with one choice, are you really free to make it?”

“What do you mean?”

“How did you become a pirate?”

“I… had a ship,” she said, “and no desire to shuttle cargo back and forth, beholden to fat cartel nobs.”

“You could have been an independent trader…”

“They control all trade across the Circle. Look,” she said, “when a strike works, no one dies and we walk away with goods that can be sold elsewhere, the prize is usually insured, and we hurt the Spires.”

“Yes. Revenge, you said.”

“It’s bigger than revenge!” she said. And became aware that other diners had stopped, were looking at her with amusement, or surprise, or concern.

“It’s about ending their tyranny,” she said, quieter.

“You were content to support the tyranny of the Savaan,” he said.

“You do what you have to, to survive,” she said.

“And if the Spires demand that you kneel or die?”

“I’ll take as many of them with me as I can.”

“Sounds vengeful, Knell.”

“So?” she snapped, dropping her fork. “Vengeance is a virtue, according to the Infernal Houses.”

“Not like you, to fall back on theology.”

“Why the fuck are you doing this?”

“I’m trying to help.”

“Fucking stop,” she said, “because I don’t need it, not in this. We’re joining the Legion, no more piracy. Law-abiding privateers.”

“So freedom has limits…”

“Believe what you like. You can’t see inside my head,” she said, and stood up. Dropped a pouch of gems on the table, and stalked out.

 

Cerro didn’t speak to her the rest of the night.

 

The crew, assembled in the Galley, chattered and laughed among themselves as Knell entered. Everyone sitting or leaning against walls, as Harrow sat at the head of the table. Her manatech eyes clicked and whirred as she glanced around, the only real giveaway they weren’t real if you discounted the acid-green colour. Her skin was a healthy tan, with a suspicious sheen, and her face devoid of lines or wrinkles. Everything else was hidden under a tight-fitting flight suit with thick, metallic collar.

“Settle down!” Daffyd barked, as Knell stood beside him. The crew obeyed, in a trickle of quietening voices.

“Where is Blades?” Knell asked.

“Top deck, with Cerro and Stumpy,” someone called.

“Get her, please,” Knell said, glancing at the papers in front of Harrow. The pilot had a pen poised over the page, ready to go.

“Draft, edit, complete?” she asked, and Knell nodded.

Blades swaggered in behind the crewman who’d been sent for her – Teso, a Shade with dark tattos all over her pale face.

“Right, now we’re all here…” Knell said, “we’re renegotiating the charter.”

“Charter has two months left on it, cap’n,” Rikker said, from the forefront of the gathering.

Knell nodded. “Right. I’ll pay out the last shares anyone leaving is owed. Now,” she said, “it’s my ship, and I have seniority, so I’m once again putting myself forward as captain. It is my intent to sign the crew on with the Throne Aerial Legion as privateers. Charter to be negotiated in light of that. Anyone want to challenge me for captaincy, before we proceed?”

 

Silence.

 

Then, very slowly, Taffer raised his hand. Staring Knell in the eye. His expression was hard, the muscles in his neck taut. Knell had to focus to keep from reaching for her weapon. Taffer licked his lips, thoughtful, and finally spoke.

“I nominate Daffyd for captain.”

The crew exploded into laughter, including Knell, as Daffyd stood impassive at her side. Blades seemed bemused. Harrow leaned over and whispered, “Crew tradition.”

“Right, good,” Knell said, still chuckling – as much from sheer relief as anything – and wiped her eye. “So, here’s the deal – we sign on as privateers, which means we receive a stipend of which everyone will get a fair share. Not quite enough to live on, mind, but…” She glanced at Harrow, who nodded. “Given that they’ll be paying me a captain’s salary, I’ll reduce my share in booty to that of any other crewman. Means everyone receives a minimum of three percent. depending on our numbers.”

She looked meaningfully at a charcoal-complexioned crewman, Astrid. “Given that some of us may not want to keep on the crew however good the money, now.”

 

Atrid sucked her teeth – the lower set made of a fine, silver alloy, set into an artificial jaw – and shook her head. “We need severance too, Captain. It’s in the charter.”

“I said you’d get two months-”

“It’s less than the charter says. We leave, we get our share of the last prize we took and enough money for a month.”

“We’ll need it, to buy passage to a dock where we’ll get hired,” another crewman added.

“Definitely out then, Yarrick?” Knell said, frowning.

“Record as long as Astrid’s,” he said.

“I can negotiate a pardon-”

“Not for all of us, and you know it, Captain,” he said, and shrugged. “Doesn’t mean I blame you, o’ course.”

Knell frowned.

“We don’t have the money to pay that all off right now, lads,” she said, hands out in supplication. Wainwright, half-asleep and obviously bored, pushed himself from where he leaned against the wall. Offering an envelope to Knell.

“Well, Captain,” he said with feline grin, “you know how can fix that.

“This is feeling coordinated, Wainwright.” Knell said, taking and tearing open the envelope.

“Not at all, cap’n,” he said, looking pleased, hands clasped behind his back.

Knell’s brows knitted as she struggled with the graceful handwriting, the long words.

And then she smiled to rival Wainwright.

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Intermission 2: Theology Lessons

Siddhar’s Ethics

Introduction

Glory to the True Dragon, arbiter of will.

I am Siddhar, of House Djuke. My siblings and contemporaries now war and bicker, yet here I, as highest of the House, sit with pen in claw. It is evident that our House, and the lesser Houses, have forgotten their way – if they ever understood it, or the path.

Therefore I now commit to history this first step on the path to enlightenment and righteousness. Let this become a beacon and map for the pilgrimage, so that my kin may find the way, and not fall to mere mortal excellence.

 

Seven Tenets of Divinity

We are born to rule, and we are born of divine parentage; therefore it is proper that the Scions of the Great Houses conduct themselves in the manner of divinity; in this, the monks of Eotre have some understanding.

Emulate the divine not to do as the gods do, but to be as they are. Understand;

  1. Purity is the highest virtue. You must have purity of purpose, of will, of intent, of body and soul. Questions of morality are irrelevant; gods are neither good nor evil. Divinity supercedes such ideas, which are the flimsy restraints mortals place upon themselves to forestall the inevitable.
  2. Beauty is a principal virtue. The divine is glorious, and beautiful, and announces itself with every aspect of its presence and with every action. It is not, then, limited purely to mortal conceptions of beauty – though the lowest creatures cower before Lezek’s light and the land is burned, we who have eyes to see comprehend the glory of his radiance. Neither does this lie purely in physical aspect, but in action. Know that justice is a form of beauty, and the purity of hierarchy is beautiful.
  3. Vengeance is a principal virtue. What god brooks offence? What weakling forgives such temerity? Those who would wrong you must know your vengeance – in exercise of your rage, you are justified. Were it beneath you, you would not be angered. Yet be not indiscriminate in your pursuit of vengeance, diluting the purity of your fury with careless strikes.
  4. Vigilance is a principal virtue. One cannot sit idle upon the throne, nor presume that devious and unworthy foes do not intend an attack, nor that jealous and cunning subordinates do not plot betrayal. It is in the nature of weakness to despise strength. One must exercise vigilance in all things, and be prepared to cut one’s own throat to thwart the ambitions of the unworthy.
  5. Discipline is a principal virtue. It lies not in denial of the self, or of desire, or appetite; it lies in the mastery of these things. One must yoke their desires, as a hound brought to heel, that they might be rendered pure. You are will, not instinct. The body is your weapon, with which to demonstrate your power over this fallen world.
  6. Control is a principal virtue. Mastery of your surroundings, of your allies, of your enemies. Knowledge is the key to control. You need not hold a claw to your foes’ neck if you know what she values more than her own life. Further, a dead enemy is not controlled; in death there is no dominion. All things exist harmoniously in their divinely appointed place – are you not divine? Can you not tolerate a weed in your garden? Have you forgotten that you set out to grow?
  7. Patience is a principal virtue. You are immortal – rash action is weakness. Those enemies you do not destroy will fade with the passing of time, while you remain. It is wise, then, to bide your time so that you may understand the enemy, the obstacle, the mountain or river. Only then may your action be pure, your answer absolute.

 

Six Mortal Duties

Think not of mortalkind as comprised of individuals; it is a beast with many faces, of vast size and dull intellect, disposed towards destruction of themselves and others. Therefore the crime of one is the crime of the whole, the punishment of one will serve for the many. Obedience is their salvation.

  1. Humility. Mortals must understand their place in the order of nature. In this, they may find pride.
  2. Charity. Mortals have not the fortitude for cruelty nor power of mercy. Kindness is their salvation from ruin.
  3. Piety. Faith is to be rewarded.
  4. Temperance. Mortals are frail; they cannot survive their own desires unbound, nor draw strength from them.
  5. Diligence. Duty fills an empty life, to serve is a blessing.
  6. Honesty. Lie to us, and we will know. Lie to each other, and the unity on which mortals must rely is tainted.

 

The Nature of a Ruling King

The Ruling King is fluid and unbreakable.

Zhe must have no affections, yet love easily. Zhe must be patient, yet brook no insult. Betrayal must be crushed before it begins.  The Ruling King is divine, and therefore must conduct themselves as such, or they will cease to rule; the illusion of rule is seductive. True dominion is terrifying.

Power exists in the exercise of power – a King who sits idle is dead.

Those who are not royalty cannot understand the Ruling King. It is folly to try. The world must rest on their shoulders, and to know this path is to walk it.

If you do not wish to kill your King, do not seek to comprehend them.

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