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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Accusers 2.11

I am with my head in the dirt,” said Knell, chin in her hand, blinking against the sunlight.

Blades shook her head. Repeated the statement; “I am accessing the roots now,” she said, clicking her tongue and throat. Knell let her head hit the desk.

“It doesn’t work if you don’t try, Captain.” Blades said, unreadable behind her blindfold.

Stumpy looked at her and repeated Blades, perfectly.

“Can’t we teach him Trades’ or something?” Knell said, jerking her thumb at Stumpy at her right. “He already speaks Creak.”

“Practice is good for him, and your mind is too narrow.” Blades said.

“Indeed so,” Percy agreed, his voice echoing strangely from the tiny shower cubicle at the edge of her cabin. Cerro lay on the bed, glancing up from his book with a hint of a smile.

“I’m outnumbered,” Knell said, throwing up her hands, head still on the table.

“Better play along then,” Cerro murmured.

“I’d rather go down fighting the odds,” Knell said, pointing her finger at Cerro like a gun. His smile faded; Knell felt cold as he returned to his book, in silence.

“Why would I access roots anyway?” Knell said, and Stumpy put his hands to his earholes at her pronunciation.

Blades shrugged. “Crantiré magic allows them to share knowledge through the roots of the Wood. Living memory.”

“It’s decidedly more complex than that.” Said Percy, twisting a nut. “But I suppose close enough for someone who will never experience it.”

“Have you?” Knell asked.

“No. I’ve never even been to the Wood. But I have asked questions and read journals. Could a mammal access the minds of the forest? Perhaps, but the underlying biological mechanisms are designed for Crantiré, else the Elementals would have tapped in years ago and the whole place might have burned.”

“That was all gibberish, Percy.”

The rat smirked. “Back to your lesson, then.”

Knell put her head in her hands. “I am going to take a break, actually. Only way to keep awake.”

Blades nodded. “This is typical of initiates who lack discipline.”

“I woke up after dark, Blades. If I sleep now I’ll do it again. “ Knell said, wearily.

“Or you could nap, and get up.”

“You say that, but I don’t think you know how seductive a proper bed is.”

Blades’ nigh-omnipresent grin faded. “I know.”

Knell frowned. Stepping on everyone’s toes today.

“I’m taking a break.”

 

Knell shrugged off her jacket, and rolled up her sleeves, ignoring the cold as she stretched and flexed. Daffyd was silently and methodically wrapping his hands in cloth strips, eyes on his task. Knell linked her fingers, reaching over her head and bending back. The Awakened Wood squatted on the horizon, nothing but empty blue sky and green field ‘tween here and there. To the north, a Spire was visibly swarming with ships in the shadow of it’s tamed storm. To the south, further away, was another, less active. Twelve Spires ringed the Circle, each ruled by a family of Stormlords. Knell worked to keep her fist from clenching as she wrapped her hand. Staring at that Spire – Allbright, she thought.

“Bastards,” she muttered.

“The Stormlords, Captain?” Daffyd asked, glancing up. He was nude but for the wraps, his short, coarse fur twitching in the breeze.

“The very same, Daffyd.”

“I have heard this before.”

“You have. Bastards. They don’t call it slavery, but they practice it. Thinking they’re high and mighty because they can do Magic. Taxing ships that fly past them, as if they had any hand in it.”

“It makes them mighty,” Daffyd said, placidly. “This is inarguable.”

“It gives them no right to rule, Daffyd.”

He shrugged. “Do we have the right to piracy, Captain?”

Knell frowned. “We’ve never had a real choice, Daffyd.”

“We could not become privateers sooner?”

Knell fell silent. We have no choice was usually enough for other pirates. Piracy was freedom.

“My hands are tied, Daffyd.” She said, evading the question. “However it seems, I’m pretty sure that monk is going to kill me if I return to piracy, and she won’t fuck off as long as she thinks I’m an agent of her prophecy.”

Daffyd grunted, noncommittally.

“I suppose I could kill her, first.”

Daffyd shrugged, and fell into a fighting stance.

Knell followed suit, keeping her footwork loose, and grinned.

“I’ll beat you this time.”

The Orc immediately stepped forward and punched her in the face.

 

Knell returned to her cabin with a black eye just as a greasy Percy was leaving.

“Shower’s good to go, Captain,” he said, and limped away with his tools jangling in their bag. Knell called out a thanks, stepped into a room which mercifully did not contain Blades or Stumpy, and stripped as she crossed the room.

She ached from sparring, and the hot water soothed her muscles even as it made her skin prickle. Cerro would have something to say about that, she thought. She’d always assumed his fascination with pleasure and pain was part of his job. His job, Knell thought. But he’s here with me, now. Just me.

A little part of her wondered if he’d charge her, once he was back in Towerpeak.

Surely not. She thought. He loved her. The charge was because she knew she was using up his time, and the Madam might punish him for it. She knew she’d reprimanded crew for wasting her time with personal frivolities.

“Are you out there, Cerro?”

“Still reading.”

“Don’t want a shower?”

She couldn’t hear anything else, over the hum of the pump. She smiled, feeling him slip into the cubicle behind her.

“Wait, what’s the belt for?”

He tapped pipe crossing the top of the tiny room, sliding the door shut, smiling knowingly.

 

“Deal.”

Daffyd dealt, one light on in the galley to illuminate Knell, Wainwright, Rikker, and an obviously uncomfortable Fisk. Knell checked her hand, peered over the top of her cards at the faces of her fellow players. Wainwright was smiling. Probably a bluff. Rikker’s face was blank, but he was scratching the scar on his cheek. Thinking it over. Knell decided he hadn’t made up his mind, which meant his hand could go either way. Fisk’s discomfort was as good as a poker face, but Knell fancied she could be intimidated into folding. Wouldn’t want to upset the captain by winning.

“Raise,” Knell said, tossing some pebbles onto the pile in the middle of the table.

Wainwright, still smiling, folded. Rikker, after further thought, matched her. So did Fisk. Knell kept her frown off her face.

Bluff. Has to be.

Smugly, Knell showed her hand. Rikker grunted, tossed his hand down. Fisk inhaled, set hers down and stared at a point on the wall opposite.

“Pot goes to Fisk,” said Daffyd, shoving the pebbles across the table towards her. Knell waved her hand, dismissively. “I’m tired.” She said.

Wainwright yawned widely. “Bored now,” he said, and twisted around in his chair, feet on the table. In seconds, he was asleep; effortlessly comfortable.

Knell stood and stretched, as Fisk chewed her lip and stared at the pile of pebbles. Daffyd went to a cupboard and came back with a bottle of liquor, which he set down in front of Fisk.

“No money,” he says. “Just this prize.”

Knell slumped into her chair and leaned back. “At least a shot, Fisk. Drink up.”

“I’m not sure, I don’t really-” Fisk began.

“Rejecting crew traditions, Fisk?” Knell smirked.

“Can’t win graciously?” Rikker said, smirking along with Knell.

Wainwright opened one yellow eye. “No satisfaction in beating us?”

Fisk set her jaw.

“It’s my prize. I’ll share it with you, instead.”

Wainwright sat up and swiped the bottle while Rikker went for glasses. Four of them.

Daffyd excused himself, packing up the cards.

 

Knell collapsed into bed beside Cerro, who was reading by the light of the bedside lamp.

He stroked her hair, idly. “Drinks with the crew?” He said, softly.

“Mhmm,” she mumbled, face on the pillow.

“I didn’t think you were that close.”

“Fuckin’… fight and bleed at someone’s side. That’s friendship.” She said, and burped.

“Of a sort, I’m sure.”

“Trust ‘em with my life.”

“I’m sure of that, too.”

“You just have all the answers.”

“It only seems that way because I ask a lot of questions.”

“Are you gonna fuck me or not?”

“You’re drunk, Knell. Go to sleep.”

“Don’t wanna sleep,” she slurred, nuzzling up against his side.

“You need to.”

“Don’t want.”

“Shhh, sleep. I’m here. I’ll hold you.”

She yawned wide. “I love you…”

Maybe he replied. She had already fallen asleep and didn’t hear. Too drunk to remember him saying it.

She liked to believe he replied.

 

“An hour out from Measle, Captain,” Harrow said, as Knell sipped coffee and squinted in the light.

“Good. Good work, Harrow,” she said, swallowing hard, her throat full of hair.

“You got painkillers?”

“I did. Pars gave me a dirty look to go with ‘em, but I got some.”

“We need a real doctor on board, Captain.”

“I know,” Knell said, resting her forehead on her fingers, elbow braced on the arm of her captain’s chair. “Perhaps we’ll find one here, and if we don’t I’ll request one from the Legion after we sign up.”

“Why’re we evening signing up with the Legion?” Harrow asked, cheery.

“Because until I find a way to get rid of that monk, she’ll interfere with our usual work.”

“Why not sic Wainwright on her?”

Knell shook her head.

“A minute more trying to take Feidhlim down, and I guarantee she would’ve killed me. Paradise, she could’ve killed me anyway. I was lucky.”

“You’re always lucky. Should ask a Magus about that, sometime.”

I think you’re cursed.

Cursed with good luck?

She shook her head. Whose voice had that been?

“Maybe. Anyway; Wainwright’s a better fighter than me, and vicious bastard beside, but I think I’d put money on the monk. You’ve seen Percy in a fight, and he insists he’s lost all divine favour.”

“Not like you to credit zealots, Captain.”

“Giving the gods, or whatever passes for them, some credit, Harrow. Bit bloody silly to pretend there aren’t mysterious forces out there.”

Harrow shrugged. “You can talk to most of them, though. Scions are the closest you get, I reckon.”

“Imperus is the closest you get.” Knell said. “If I was of a mind to worship anything.”

“Don’t get much choice, when it comes to the Dragon-Emperor,” Harrow said. “I’ve heard standing in zher presence forces you to your knees.”

Knell sniggered and then clutched her head as the pain swelled.

“Point is,” she said, creaky-voiced from the pain. “Blades can probably take any one of us, and will take someone down if we gang up on her. So we make nice with the Legion, and see if we can’t quit the contract in a couple of months. Run away with good intel to sell at Moonbend, maybe nick a ship or two if we can.” She rubbed her chin. “And get passage to the Wood so we can dump Stumpy.”

Harrow shrugged. “Might change your mind by then. The crew’s taken a liking to him.”

“Why? He doesn’t speak!”

“He’s learning. Bit like having a dog, I suppose.”

“That’s disgusting,” Knell wrinkled her nose.

Harrow’s brow creased, ever so faintly.

“Next stop in the right port, I might have prejudices wiped.” She said.

“That’s weak, Harrow. Should be able to get over those yourself.”

“Bugger off, Captain. I’ll be a better person; the fact I did it the easy way is smart. Doing it the hard way doesn’t automatically improve the result. If anything, it’s less reliable.”

“But you don’t learn anything, do you?”

“What’s learning anyway?”

“Alright. Now you’re wandering into Cerro-territory. Talk to him about that sometime.”

“You brought it up.”

“Maybe he’s rubbing off on me.”

Maybe,” Harrow said, drawing the word out.

Knell shook her head, grinning, and regretted it.

“Ow. Fuck it, I’m going to lie down in a dark room for a while. Soft landing, please?”

Harrow checked her instruments. “Hmmmnope. Bumpy ride for the last ten minutes or so, guaranteed. The wind is weird enough I expect we’re going to have trouble in this port too, unless the problem is… southward.”

Knell stood, sighing, and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands.

“We live in interesting times, Harrow.”

“Aren’t we lucky, Captain?”

Knell checked her silver pocket watch. Almost lunchtime.

Tread carefully…

“For now,” she said.

 

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Accusers 2.10

Knell woke to the gentle hum of the engine and the easy rhythm of Cerro’s chest. She reached out to flick on a lamp, filling the cabin with a warm orange glow. His breath on the back of her neck tickled and she needed to get to the drop closet, but she only wriggled deeper under the covers, closer to him.

Eventually she had to quit the warmth of the bed, but the cabin wasn’t much cooler.

She stepped lightly across the much colder, metal floor of the cramped drop closet, shivered on the seat, and washed herself up for the day ahead.

Or night, she mused, seeing the clock on the opposite wall as she emerged back into her quarters. She left Cerro to sleep – last night had to have been harder on him.

A pacifist and a prostitute, and I dragged him around a warzone all night. She thought, sweeping her locks from one side over the buzzed part of her scalp, self-consciously covering the crude patch-job on the other side, and sat in a padded chair at the foot of the bed. Part of her was glad he hadn’t turned out to be one of those concubine-assassins that kept popping up in chip novels.

He stirred. She threw a curtain open to reveal a clear night sky, groaned, and fell onto the bed beside him. His arm was around her before he was fully awake.

“Slept late,” he said.

“Yeah. At least I had nothing to do today.”

“The ship runs without a Captain?”

She grunted. “Does now. Cleared out the problem crew, and Daffyd will keep the rest in line.”

“Sounds like you ask a lot of him.”

Knell held herself still for a moment, and turned to face him. Opened her mouth to speak, and he stopped it with a kiss – but she held the thought.

“You ask me a lot of questions like that.” She said.

“Important questions.” He said.

“How so?”

“I do not know what it is to be a pirate, or a captain, or an exile. When you come to me for help, I can’t tell you what to do.”

She frowned.

“I don’t understand.”

“Do you really need to?”

“…I suppose not. But I’ve told you everything I remember about my life, everything I’ve done. I know so little about you.”

“And do you really need to?”

“That is getting annoying.”

“Perhaps you don’t like the answer.”

“It wasn’t an answer!”

“I didn’t mean that…”

She sighed, and sat up.

“Breakfast,” she said. “And then a tour of the ship. And I suppose I should see what the zealot and the imbecile are doing without supervision.”

“That is uncharitable,” Cerro said, softly. Chiding.

“It is.” She said, and started dressing.

After a long pause, he too began to dress.

“What happens now, Knell?”

She turned away as she laced her breeches, pointedly tugging them up tighter.

“We stay somewhere that won’t go insane for a week or two, sign on as privateers, and lobby for a posting in the ‘sea.”

“And I just come with you.” He said, flatly.

“Yrva’s clanking balls, yes, Cerro. You come with me, so you’re safe.”

“I was safe in Towerpeak.”

“Until Towerpeak stopped being safe.”

“Will Shaydensea be better?”

“Yes. I’ll be there with you.”

“You’re getting possessive, Knell.”

She buttoned up a vest in silence.

“Even if I was in another profession, Knell, I’m not to be owned.”

She strapped on the sheath of her new weapon, nestled across the small of her back.

“Knell-”

“I know!” She snapped, turned to face him, hands on her hips. She let them fall limp at her side.

“I know,” she said, quieter. “I just don’t want to lose you, Cerro.”

He shook his head, moved to embrace her. His clothes still smelled of sweat and gunsmoke. She leant into him, hands tucked under her chin.

“I will stay with you until Towerpeak is safe, and then I am going home. You can visit me, like you always have.” He said.

She nodded.

“It’s a dangerous world, Cerro. If you can’t protect yourself…”

“I will be careful,” he said, conciliatory.

Knell stepped away, rubbed her eyes, and made for the door.

“Let me show you around, introduce you to some of the crew.”


The galley was crowded, a faint smell of sweat covered by sweet spices and rich meat, and a powerful dose of cleanser. The crew were subdued, but still the rumble of conversation drowned out all other noise. A few waved, or made sloppy salutes in Knell’s direction. A crewwoman whose name Knell couldn’t recall tried to make a lewd gesture when she saw Cerro, but Celridge, one of the potential mutineers, slapped her hand down with a warning look. Knell ignored it and spooned out two bowls of stew, handing one to Cerro and seating herself at the head of the table. Daffyd finished washing his bowl and loomed at her side, offering his seat to Cerro.

“Good stew,” she said. “Whose idea was this?”

“Noster,” Daffyd said. “In an effort to bribe the crew, she purchased lamb in amounts outside the agreed budget. Acting quartermaster Fisk decided it would be good for morale, and not to use it would be intolerably wasteful.”

“Well,” Knell said, as a chunk of meat dissolved in her mouth. “Enjoy your promotion, Quartermaster Fisk.”

Fisk, seated two seats down, stood and saluted. The crew pelted her with bread and chunks of carrot, jeering. She weathered it with grim patience, and Knell fancied this was far from the first time.

“Settle down!” Daffyd yelled.

“And extra pay for John. Outstanding work.” She said, glancing around for the cook. He raised his mug, saying nothing.

Knell finished her meal in silence, as Daffyd filled her in on recent events. Percy and Thousand Blades Smiling had almost come to blows, but were now the best of friends. The crew had taken to calling the other guest Stumpy, and Knell groaned around a mouthful of food. That kind of thing stuck.

“They are on the top deck,” Daffyd said. “Wainwright is with them. He and the monk appear to share an affinity for murder.”

“Fucking. Marvelous.” Knell said, dropped her bowl in the sink, and stretched. “Well, if they’re not dead yet, they won’t be soon. C’mon, Cerro, let’s introduce you to Harrow.”

She took a step to the door, stopped, and turned, thoughtful.

“Listen up, crew. This here,” she laid a hand on her lover’s shoulder, “is Cerro. Treat him with the same respect you do me. If anyone wants to cry favouritism, they’d be right – but fuck ‘em. His stay comes out of my cut.” There was a brief, cheerful chorus of assent.

“As for the other passengers – be nice to the monk, because she’ll gut you. Be nice to the tree, because he’s a simpleton. I am itching to hand out some proper reprimands, lads, don’t test me.”

Another ripple of ‘aye, captain’.

“Finally, I’ve made a decision about our way forward.”

All conversation stopped. This had their full attention, Knell thought.

“I’m planning to sign the ship up with the Throne Aerial Legion, and aim for a posting in Shaydensea-” A murmur of mixed dissent, curiosity, and elation. “-So when we next stop, we’ll renegotiate the charters and all contracts. I won’t force you to come with me in this, but I’d be damned happy to have you. You proved you were loyal during our night at Towerpeak. If the Dragon is giving us orders, then I’d want you all at my back.”

A ragged cheer went up, and Knell grinned.


“That went well,” Cerro murmured.

“Better,” Knell said. “Much better than I thought.”

“Why?”

“Hell if I know. Dinner was very good.”

“I meant, why was that better than you thought?”

“Oh,” she waved a hand. “Pirates hunting pirates is a hard sell. On the one hand, you almost always get to keep some good loot and you don’t have to worry about the authorities, ‘cause technically you are the authorities. On the other hand,” she held out her shadowy limb. “You’re subject to oversight, have to register takings, wait on wages, and you could get conscripted for a proper war.”

“It’s been a long time since there was a proper war.”

“All the more reason to be paranoid,” she said, opening the door to the bridge and stepping through.

“Quiet evening, Captain,” Harrow said, without looking up.

“A good one to you, Harrow. What’s our heading?” Knell said.

“Thought Farsight Commune was a good stop?”

Knell shook her head. “Too soon since last time. How about Measle?”

Harrow adjusted the controls. “Can do. Botanical Gardens?”

“I was thinking of the theatre, but Wainwright does love those gardens for some reason.”

“Considerate,” Cerro said.

“A happy crew is a fighting crew,” Knell said.

“Or mercenary,” he said, chuckling.

Harrow sniffed.

“Who’s the boy?”

“Cerro,” Knell said.

“Nice to meet you,” Harrow said.

“You too.”

“You reek of sex, by the way.”

Knell bristled, but Cerro only laughed.

“I’ll get Percy to look at the shower eventually,” Knell said.

“You should, what with these tight quarters.” Harrow sniggered.

“Are you asking us to leave?” Cerro said.

“Nah. Just a friendly reminder.”

“We’re leaving anyway,” Knell said, taking Cerro’s hand and dragging him away from the forward window.

“Righto. Come back with a drink and keep me company later.”

“Will do.”

Knell lead Cerro towards the top deck.


“Is she… always there?” He asked.

“Yes,” Knell said. “Harrow’s never been satisfied with the body nature gave her.  Spends her money on anti-agapics, psychosurgery, biomods…”

“That seems too personal a predilection for you to share.”

Knell shrugged.

“She’s had so much work done on her brain, it’d be hard to really offend her or make her feel betrayed. She doesn’t do fear, or sleep, and her anger is on a leash. She’d tell you all this herself, if you asked.”

Cerro went quiet. Knell decided not to press the matter now, but he was thinking loudly. It’d be nice to get his real opinion on something, for once. She liked him better when he was judging someone. Someone other than her, at least.

Maybe if he wasn’t right so often.


It was a cold night, and Knell shivered as she emerged from the hatch onto the top deck. A small space, maybe twelve metres long and six wide, ringed by a very low rail and slightly sunk into the hull. Knell had considered having a gun installed up here, but so far it hadn’t really seemed necessary.

“Captain,” Percy greeted her, with a nod, gesturing for her to join the little group. He, Blades, and the Crantiré currently known as Stumpy were sat around his hot-plate, a big pot of tea steaming into the night air.

Percy was tall, for a rat. Graying fur, shot through with lines of silver. Shrewd, alert eyes. Missing a finger from his left paw, and dressed in tight-fitting robes patched and repairs half a dozen times.

Blades sat to his right, on the opposite side of the pot, and Stumpy beside her. The Spriggan was staring up at the stars.

Cerro, smiling, took the offered space and glanced over his shoulder at Knell. She shivered again, and sat close to the drifting steam.

Percy took the green-enameled pot off the plate, and turned it up. Knell leaned forward, gratefully, as the wizened rat began to pour.

“You hide strange wonders in your crew, Captain,” Blades said. “Who could guess I would find him here?”

Knell shrugged. “Don’t know the value of theology, Blades,” she smirked. “That’s my problem.”

“Truly,” the monk replied, as if that was that.  Stumpy was now staring at Knell. So like a child.

“You will need to learn, Captain,” Percy said, handing her a delicate cup of jasmine tea.

“Why’s that, Percy?”

He sipped his own tea, rolled his shoulders, and remained silent a moment.

“Thousand Smiling Blades believes you to be an agent of prophecy, Captain. In this, she demonstrates wisdom and ignorance in equal measure.”

Knell glanced to Blades, who was grinning.

“Prophecy is hope, and hope is a subtle poison, Captain. You would do best to ignore it, and listen carefully to Thousand Smiling Blades.”

“You aren’t making sense, Percy.” She looked to Cerro for confirmation, but he was watching Percy in the same way he’d looked at the Vampires. She sighed, dramatically.

“More all-powerful ancient creatures lurking in plain sight, then? More privileged glimpses of the secret history of the world?” She sneered.

Cerro shook his head. “It’s his philosophy that scares me,” he said. “Why haven’t you already killed him?”

“Why the fu-”

“Because heresies are often truths too fearsome to contain,” Blades said. “Pursuer of Blasphemies is terrible indeed, to accept these things as true.”

“It’s just Percy, now,” the rat said, quietly. Blades recoiled as if she’d been slapped, and said nothing.

“Do I need to understand any of this jabber? What’s the fucking prophecy, anyway?” Knell grumbled, blowing on her tea to cool it a little.

Blades sat straighter, recited by rote;

“Oblivion’s Hand will shatter the Gates of Death, yet leave them unbroken.

Oblivion’s Hand will sublime her wisdom of the sword, yet reach heaven by violence.

Oblivion’s Hand will seize the Throne of Want

And the world will end.”

Knell shook her head. “Bollocks.”

Percy nodded.

“See, even Percy knows it.”

Blades shrugged.  “All refuse the call, at first.” She said.

Knell held up her black hand. “It’s a fancy prosthetic, Blades, not a… a divine mandate.”

“And yet you destroyed the Gate of Death,” she said.

“Fuck right off. I wiped someone’s memory.” She looked sidewise at the silent Crantiré, and felt a pang of guilt.

“Scripture is typically allegorical,” Cerro said.

“The value in the lie is in teaching you to see through it,” Percy said, sipping his tea.

Blades frowned. “Prophecy is prophecy. Not everyone can see the omens, is all.”

“That’s a common misconception,” Cerro said, warming to the topic. “A propensity of the mind to justify its beliefs by latching onto evidence…”

Knell tuned them out. Prophecy, philosophy, and the other p-word Cerro was interested in bored her. But it was nice to see him so excited to talk about something. She leaned against him, and followed Stumpy’s gaze up to the stars.

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Interlude 2.x

Beyond Campfire’s Light

YD 176, northern outskirts of The Awakened Wood.

The interface shimmered softly in the evening light, and Khar’s Hearth was frightened. Their own flames flickering in the shadows of the towering trees, the Elementals gathered anxiously behind their Kindler. Khar himself stood erect, bow in hand, trying to hide his trepidation. The omens had been clear; the Forest demanded to spread, and Khar knew his Hearth must fulfill this demand or perish.

He had seen the consequences of defiance before. Had served them. The Forest provided for those willing to strive – the beasts deadly, certain plants poisonous, and rival clades everywhere, but bountiful if one knew how to live with it, to hunt and defend, and honour the Forest. When a nearby clade ignored the omens, the seer had visions of Khar’s mother leading her people to battle against them. When she and her warriors arrived to fulfill the prophecy, they found a battered clan, ravaged by a wolf of monstrous size, their scouts and hunters betrayed by the very trees which howled as if with a great wind.

Eager to spare his people that fate, Khar had not hesitated to obey. “Flame and shadow,” the seer had said. “A darkness which must be cleansed, and new seeds planted. By your hand, I saw it was so.” The signs pointed north of their home among the rocks and stonebarks, to this place where they must mind their flames carefully lest the whole grove burn.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, kept himself from flinching, and looked to see his younger sister, Riss, at his side.

“Now or never,” she murmured. “The stories all tell of monsters beyond this point; unnatural and terrible.”

Khar nodded, and stepped forward, towards the shimmering barrier at the edge of the trees.

He focused, using long-practiced meditative techniques to seize upon Primus and infuse his body with its light.

Tall, muscular, with spiraling tattoos that guided his personal flames over his red-brown skin, the fire blazing from his head in place of hair, Khar stood at the edge of his homeland with his bow at his feet and hands clasped, as his warriors watched.

White light crept over his tattoos, then suffused his flames, burning brighter and stronger for a moment, a flash of fire that dimmed to a soft, golden glow. A corona of sacred, calming energy surrounded his head, licked his body with wisps of light. When he stepped forward, the barrier parted to admit him.

The assembled warriors uttered a soft prayer, in unison, and strode past Khar as he held the way open.

Beyond the barrier was a landscape eerie and foreign to the Flamehearts. Barely a tree in sight, and those few they could see, distantly, were of pitiful size. The open plains stretched to the sunset, and Khar shivered. Nowhere to hide. No fruit, no prey.  

The wind stirred the long grass, like waves on a lake. Khar had heard that the world was an island on a lake that went on forever, and seeing these great, empty spaces lent some credence to the idea. It did nothing to make the prospect less horrifying.

Masking his uncertainty in action, Khar strode to the fore of the group, as Likha pointed to their destination. “It is as the seer said, Kindler,” the scout said, and stepped back, behind another warrior. Khar couldn’t blame him. In the evening light it was a pool of shadow; some strange structure looming within a field of dead grass. It was about half as tall as the smaller trees of the Wood, and canted slightly to one side. Branches protruded from one face of the monolith, flapping with tattered… Khar frowned. Webbing, perhaps? Pale and flapping in the breeze- His frown deepened. The air is still.

“We go,” he said, then louder; “We go!”

Not waiting for an answer, he allowed his flames to burn yellow-red again as he jogged across the field. He heard his warriors fall into line at his back, and felt just a little heartened. Still, his bow was at the ready.

“How do we remove this stain, Khar?”

He almost lost his stride, glancing to RIss now at his side.

“We burn it, Riss. All we can do is burn it.”

She didn’t answer.

“Can we?” She said, after a moment.

Khar tried to ignore a feeling like a belly full of cold water.

“We can.” He said. “We must.”

She remained silent. They moved further from the Wood that was their home, and Khar called a halt.

“Scouts forward,” he said, pointing northwest and northeast. They nodded, and dimmed their fires before scurrying into the gloaming. He turned to examine his warriors, and was pleased to see that they remained straight-backed and at the ready. The glowing dome of the Wood was at their back, and comforting in its permanence. This excursion must be brief, this trek through hissing grasses. The Wood would remain. It would be stronger.

Khar’s fears were consumed in that shimmering glow.

Only Likha returned from the scouting trip.

“Nothing, Kindler.” He said. “Only nothing.”

“Where is Chokha?”

Likha started to shrug, stopped, and glanced around. Afraid of nothing?

“We did not meet. I thought it best to hurry back.”

The news should have been disquieting, but Khar’s eyes narrowed in resolve.

“Forward. We’ll find him.”

“The dead grass is near, Kindler.”

“Good. This will be over sooner.”

From a distance, the assembled Elementals looked like a roving fire; a conflagration rolling softly across the fields. A collection of candles in procession.

One by one, they winked out, and all was dark.

Khar was cold. He’d never been cold before, but he understood the idea. He had been less-warm, but cold was a word he had learned from a traveler who passed through the Wood once; a stranger the gods of Oak and Ash had permitted to walk in their shadow. Likha was moaning quietly, shivering with every step. The flames of the entire Hearth burned green in this place, and the stars were wrong. If he stared long enough, Khar thought a rocky vault like a Steeltooth cave was above them. But there was no time to stare; they were upon their target now.

He couldn’t tell what it was meant to be. A burial place, perhaps? It had three sides, two curving to a narrow edge, smooth and bare. Where those two walls met the third were carvings of cavorting skeletons, and the furthest wall had those branches with eerie web. The clade’s flames flickered in the same breeze that flapped the tatters hanging from the dark spires. The structure was buried in the ground at its thickest point.

Riss climbed up onto the thing before Khar could order otherwise.

Watching her, he gestured for his warriors to surround the tomb.

“What have you found, Riss?” He called.

“A door, I think.”

“It does not look like a door.”

“A foreign door. The kind that close up.”

“Don’t go into the cursed place, Riss. It must burn.”

“Are you not curious?”

“No.”

She snorted, and stepped down.

Once more, Khar focused. His flames turned to gold, and he held his hands up, gathered the fire therein.

His fellow Flamehearts matched the gesture, their flames still an unholy green, and when Khar cast his fire upon the tomb, they echoed the motion.

The structure was consumed in the blaze, the tongues of flame bending and streaming in all directions as if blown to and fro by swirling winds at every angle. They found little purchase on the wood of the strange grave, but the billowing fabric burned away almost immediately.

Khar found himself staring at the ‘door’ with which Riss had been tampering. Square, set into the wall about half-way up. Did the builders fly, perhaps?

The door opened a crack, and Khar’s eyes widened. The flames were having barely any effect, but perhaps that was the first sign of damage? They’d need to pause soon, recover their energies for another blast. It was strange, for something to resist burning like this that was not made of stone or metal.

The door burst open, breaking and falling, narrowly missing Riss who had to stop burning, the sudden distraction halting the entire clade. Khar let the stream of fire stop, but held it in his hands, ready to incinerate whatever might attack.

Only a velvet darkness lay beyond. It occurred to Khar that the flames of his clade were doing little to illuminate the darkness that surrounded them, here. If anything, they seemed to grow dimmer.

The monster burst from the earth, not the door. A giant made of bone and earth, pitted and corroded. Yellowing ribcages assembled into an arm, stuffed with rotting meat and dark soil. Legs made from femurs lashed together. The skulls of two great beasts, one horned and reptilian, the other like that of a cat, sat between the broad shoulders.

“Burn it!”

Khar wheeled around in terror. Riss had given the order. Those who had kept their mettle fired, a stench of burning meat filling the air. It was fruitless; the bones blackened, but not enough, not in time to stop one sweep of the arm – as long as any three warriors together would be tall – from scattering Khar’s forces like pebbles. Their flames died almost as soon as they were struck, lost in the umbra.

There was no reason to order a retreat – they were already running. If fire would not hurt it, nor would arrows, and so the Flamehearts fled.

Khar was among them. If they were shamed, they were shamed together. He fled with tears steaming from his eyes and his breath tearing at his lungs, the dead grass burning spectral green in his footsteps.  He could feel the earth shake as the monster pursued with lumbering strides, but none of the warriors to his side or running ahead disappeared. Easy to follow in the dark.

I have failed but I will atone. I will not die here. I will avenge them. I will serve. I will atone.

He collided with someone with a strangled cry, the two falling into a heap of tangled limbs.

Khar struck out, and realized after his fist connected that he was fighting Likha. The rumbling of the beast seemed distant.

Likha held Khar’s wrists, panic making a rigid mask of his features, his hot breath in Khar’s face.

“We’re trapped!” He cried, and Khar slapped him.

“We are not trapped! We need only run out over the edge.”

“It’s gone!” Likha wailed.

Khar dropped him, got to his feet.

Likha was right. They were far enough from the tomb that they should be out of its dark influence, and yet the dead fields rolled out forever under the sparse and scattered stars. Khar pulled him to his feet.

“This… this must be a dream. An illusion,” he said. “We need only keep going-”

“We are doomed, Khar!” Likha laughed, a mad and desperate sound, turning and stumbling back towards the tomb. The Kindler watched flames going out in the dark nearby, knowing the monster was claiming more lives, and followed, grasping for Likha’s necklace.

“Stop! Stop, there’s no reason to-”

Likha drove him away with a backward elbow, and carried on. From laughter to tears. Khar tried again, and tripped, igniting the grass where he fell. A body. He was sure of it. He couldn’t look, only hauled himself to his feet and carried on.

He found Likha leaning heavily against the tomb, as if the strength had left his legs. He felt much the same, when he saw the spirit.

A man – a hu-man, Khar thought – pale and hairless, dressed in a close-fitting robe that covered his body from neck to heavy black boots. His colours seemed washed out, and his light step upon the earth betrayed his nature.

In one hand, he carried a silvery tool of unknown purpose, one which Khar had not seen before – like a crab’s claw at one end, fitted with a threaded cylinder, decorated with small circles engraved in the metal.

He spoke, mild, curious. Khar didn’t know the words.

At first, as the man approached, Khar thought he was as tall as his tomb. But no; he had fallen to his knees.

He spoke again, and Khar plead for his life. The man shook his head, sighed. His disappointment was palpable.

And then Riss wrapped her hands around his throat and pulled, clinging to his back. For a moment, the ghost staggered, it bent, cried out as if choking. Khar rose to his feet and his flames blazed brighter – and the choking became a laugh. The ghost stepped aside and Riss fell forward, losing her grip entirely, arms passing through him. Still chuckling, the ghost swung his weapon in a wide, rising arc, catching her under the chin with a harsh crack. Her flames dimmed as her body sailed through the air, out of sight.

Likha’s desperate laughter joined that of the ghost. The man with the silver club returned his misty gaze to Khar.

The Kindler called the fire from within himself. If he would die, it would be on his terms.

His failure denied him his place with the ancestors. I will be a star before oblivion.

His radiance blinded him before he died, but the ghost was recoiling. Its skin was blackening.

It can burn, he thought, and smiled into death.

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