Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » September 15th, 2018, 3:57 pm

Chapter Twenty-nine: Sea voyage

Sister Rose and Argus weren’t the only ones heading for Shield Island’s interior, even allowing for Paukii being in retreat at the moment. The others bound for that location, however, were still a goodly number of miles distant from it; but they were on the way, and motivated.

It had taken no small amount of effort for People-Leader’s-Son and his companions to get into a position to head for the island at all, and building the canoes was only the start of that effort. There still remained the problem of getting the boats and the sailors down to water level, hundreds of feet below the vertical sea cliffs of the Eastern Wastes’ coast. There was only one way to do that, obviously: lower everyone and everything down the cliffs on the thick ropes that the tribe had been weaving alongside the work to make the canoes. Knowing it had to be done was one thing; doing it successfully was quite something else.

At least that was what People-Leader’s-Son told himself when he thought about the dead Outlander.

When Strong-Swimmer volunteered to join the mission, it didn’t take him long to accept the offer. She was young and fit; she had no children (of course, he intended for everyone to make it back alive, but accidents did happen and he wanted to create no orphans); she knew some Healing magic that might be useful; and the skill that gave her her name would come in handy if a canoe overturned, as seemed possible despite the outriggers. It was just bad luck that she, rather than a canoe, had been getting lowered down the cliff when a rope broke and she hurtled to her death.

As chagrined as the young leader was at the loss of life, he never considered aborting the mission because of it, although there was a quick, eerily silent inspection of the other ropes. Life among the Outlanders was hard, and random death could strike anyone at any time. There’d be a time for mourning when the explorers returned, and a ceremony for the repose of Strong-Swimmer’s soul would surely be held while they were gone … but there was a job to do.
The other Outlanders and their vessels made it down to the ocean without incident, remarkably enough. There were seven of them in total, four for one canoe, three for the other, since Strong-Swimmer had not been replaced. That was just as well, People-Leader’s-Son thought, already starting to put the death out of his mind for the moment; one of the canoes was smaller than the other and four occupants would have crowded it. There were five men, two women making the voyage, the largest band of Outlanders to travel to the Demon Isles in, well, nobody knew how long but it was a very long time.

The young leader turned to Learning-Spirits, who would serve as the priestess for this mission; the tribe would not risk the more adept Young-Magic-Man or Hurt-Tender’s-Daughter on such a risky endeavor. The girl was a promising student, though, and he thought she could calm the spirits if anyone could. More practically, she was also turning into a proficient Healer. “Will you speak to the gods, obtain their blessing and aid for what we are about to do?” he said.

The young woman nodded and her eyes got a faraway look for a minute or two, then she returned to the present. “It is done.”

People-Leader’s-Son nodded in a way that held both appreciation and respect for the title that the girl would inherit in only a year or so; he already had a way with his people. “Thank you. Now we go.” And that was that for a departure ceremony.

The canoes and voyagers were on a rocky strand, perhaps two hundred feet wide, at the foot of the cliffs. Even this scanty beach was a blessing, and the Outlanders knew it; at high tide the ocean would lap right up to the cliffs. Of course, that would have saved them the effort of getting the boats into the water, but at the risk of drowning the voyagers trying to board them. (That, after all, was part of why the late Strong-Swimmer was in the group.) An extra set of hands and legs would have helped with the launching, but it was done soon enough, and the voyagers were off.

Learning-Spirits’ prayers must have helped, People-Leader’s-Son thought as their long, strong arms drove the canoes forward; the sea was calmer than usual this morning. It would get rougher as the day went on, because of the same forces that created the spill storm, but as he understood it, they would be coming in on the lee side of the Demon Isles and would be sheltered from the worst of the waves. (Both Rose and Argus, now approaching the island’s summit, and Peregin Paukii, starting to search for a way uphill that dodged the grove of her nightmares, would have confirmed this, from opposite points of view.) What he did not know was how far they had to sail before the Isles would appear. Outlander folklore placed them far across the ocean, beyond the reach of any mortal, but he knew better than that; after all, Lore-Keeper had his legends, and they were tales of the Outlanders, not the gods. (Or so he thought, or hoped.)

Well, there was nothing to it but to paddle and hope for the best. The elements continued to cooperate; maybe the gods truly were blessing this expedition. There was an east wind, and there was also apparently a current pushing the boats to the west. (Of course these would be not blessings but curses on the return voyage, but one step at a time.) The voyagers fell into the routine of the oars, with an occasional song to liven the work, just as sea chanteys arose for the more technological seafarers of the Errant World. The hours, and the miles, passed beneath their canoes … and finally, as the sun was lowering toward the western horizon, the front Outlander on one of the vessels gave that call beloved of all mariners of all races on all worlds, in languages that all would understand.

”Land ho.”
----
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » September 26th, 2018, 11:23 am

Chapter Thirty: Maars and burnt flesh

As the Outlanders came within sight of their goal, other interested parties were making progress in that direction, some more successfully than others.

Sister Rose and Argus were having much the easiest time among those interested parties, at least at the beginning. The path the swamp beast (beasts? It wasn’t clear whether more than one had been here recently) had taken to the high ground in the center of the island was not at all difficult to follow. Rose’s pregnancy hadn’t affected her high level of fitness much, and Argus had shaped up considerably since the two of them had met in Kiyoka. An hour and a half of quick but careful walking, and they reached the clearing at the summit of the island … and almost immediately saw what they were looking for, probably.

“Just as a guess, I’d say this must be it,” Argus commented drily as they stared at the gaping crater where the Millenarian bomb had gone off. Rose nodded. “Yep. Unless things like that eruption yesterday are a lot more common here than our intel says they are.” She laughed humorlessly. “Of course, that thing wasn’t supposed to be there, either.”

One did not become an archmage-level manipulator of inorganic matter, as Argus was, without studying quite a bit of geology at Sashi Mu. He examined the crater with a practiced, professional eye. “This one isn’t volcanic. Look at these rocks at the rim. They’re not igneous, nothing that a volcano would be throwing out. Now there is one type of volcanic crater called a maar that happens when underground magma and the sub-surface water table interact violently, makes a big bang and throws native rocks around like this, and they don’t have to be igneous, but –“

“You’re mansplaining,” Rose teased him.

Argus blushed. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’d heard the word, but didn’t know what it meant. Go on.”

“Anyway,” Argus resumed, “this isn’t a maar. They don’t happen on top of hills like this. They also fill up with water very quickly most of the time, if there’s enough ground water around for them to happen to begin with. You see, the magma to groundwater mass ratio must be –“

“Mansplaining again,” Rose chided him cheerfully.

Another blush. “Has to be right to make a big steam explosion, and this isn’t the right place for that.”

“Water table too far below, right?”

“Right, down where the swamp is. If we’d seen this crater down there on the flat, I’d have said yes, maybe it’s a natural feature. This looks more like a plain old explosion.” That practiced eye again. “Probably a magical component, and judging from the smell, a big chemical one too. Got a hint who might have the tools for that?”

It didn’t take long for Rose to come up with one. “Our Millenarian friends. But that stench isn’t just gunpowder, no matter how much we wish it was. I’m almost certain I recognize it.”

“Burnt flesh, Colonel?”

Rose blinked, wondering who the “colonel” was, before she remembered that she’d been breveted one for this mission. “Affirmative, Professor. Let’s see if we can figure out where it’s coming from. We probably need to know that.”

As usual in such a setting, finding the burnt flesh wasn’t difficult; they simply followed the flies. Lots of flies, unsurprisingly; they were only a few hundred feet above a moist, dank jungle, after all. In fact, their hardest problem was that the flies were avoiding them. Both Rose and Argus had military backgrounds and knew the way battlefields (not to mention swamps) became fly-infested. Unlike most soldiers, they had, and earlier had used, magical means to keep the bugs away, having seen clouds of insects rising from the swamps as they awoke. Now that magic was working against them, but the flies still led them to their goals, such as they were.

“Weave above,” Argus swore, knowing by now that Rose wouldn’t be offended at this non-Luminositan oath. “Place is like a charnel house.” There was nothing like an intact body in sight, but even after a few days’ attention from scavengers, scattered bones were everywhere, some with still enough flesh on them to make for a fly feast.

Rose nodded, fighting down nausea that pretty clearly wasn’t morning sickness this time. “Several people died here.” She poked with a foot at what could only have been a piece of femur, judging from its size. “Too many pieces of long bones for it to have been just one – unless these Outlanders that used to live in that village had eight legs each.”

Argus was looking a bit green himself. “Yeah. Can you get anything off the pieces?”

Rose shook her head. “Too long after death, and anyway, I’m not the forensics expert. Damn.” Argus wouldn’t be bothered by her own mild swearing, either. “I wish they’d sent Miguel on this – he’s the forensics expert, and –“ She caught herself. “No, I don’t wish that. I forgot that he’s getting married next week.” And I – we -- need to get back there in time for the wedding. “I think Marilyn would have waged all-out, one-woman war to keep him off the duty.”

The word “duty” triggered another dry Argus smile despite his nausea. “So my ultra-dutiful wife does it instead.”

He called me his wife, when it’s just the two of us here and nobody's listening. “I suppose, but somebody had to do it, and I owed Red one task before I bail, and – hey, what’s that?”

Their poking at the bone had turned up something lying underneath it, something that shouldn’t have been there, a multi-faceted crystal that glowed with magical energy. They’d both traveled with Drusia for long enough that they knew what it was. “Durus Flamma,” they chorused in unison, and then each cursed again in their own culture’s style. Now there wasn’t much doubt as to who’d died here … nor to why Emerylon wanted the place investigated discreetly.

Argus bent to pick the elven weapon up, but Rose stopped him. “Whoa. We have to be careful with that. Drusia says these things can cause – reactions in humans.” She wasn’t sure how truthful the maverick Peregin had been with her warnings, but now wasn’t the time to take chances.

“But we need to get it back for – analysis,” Argus protested, well aware that that “analysis” would probably lead to the magical sword getting swallowed up by the Orthodox Church and never seen again. Rose could only nod, having had the exact same thought. “We do, and – EEK!”

She wasn’t so much scared (she’d seen far scarier things) as startled, as a small, coveralls-clad form darted between them, snatched up the Durus Flamma, and stuck it in a pocket that seemed capable of holding things ten times its size, if past experience meant anything. “Don’t worry, toots,” Harker said in tones far too cheerful for this setting, at least coming from anyone but Harker. “I got it, and I’m pretty much immune to magical crap like this.” He snickered. “I’ll even give it back when we get out of here … for a price.”

Rose and Argus looked at each other, facepalmed; both knew the way Harker’s mind worked, and knew that that “price” would involve drawing one or both of them in … lewd positions. They also knew that when push came to shove, Argus would talk him out of it, “talking” with a carefully aimed boot if necessary. Another look, and then Rose took a deep breath. “Well,” she said, “I think we’ve done our job here, at least as well as we have time for. I hate to say it, but we’d better take one of these bones too.”

“On it,” Harker said before Argus could reply, and stuffed the femur piece into his coveralls; it literally was twice the size of the pocket he put it in, but it fit anyway.

Another loud exhalation from Rose; she really hadn’t wanted to carry the thing herself. “Thanks. Now we better hustle back down, Marson will be coming for us before long.” They turned and started back down the swamp-beast trail …

… But as events would soon show, there was no hurry to meet Dess Marson down at the improvised loading ramp Argus had made, no hurry at all.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » October 13th, 2018, 11:31 pm

Chapter Thirty-one: The law of the sea, and a mutiny

Two ships left Anuba City harbor early that morning bound for Shield Island. Both incorporated dwarven technology. However, the resemblance ended there.

=*=*=

Dess Marson’s odd vessel was the earlier departure, even though he had been rather the later of the two skippers in getting to bed, social obligations (read: drinking bouts) being what they were. In fact, he’d barely slept at all, and when he did wake up, it was with a near-paralyzing hangover. That didn’t last long; somewhere in his travels, he had picked up a magical gadget, probably of Tsuirakuan origin although it was hard to be sure, that thaumatically countered the toxins that were threatening to tear apart his head, at least according to his shrieking nerves. (If Elgin Bindiel had had such a device in Isabel the previous morning, he might have become functional a few minutes earlier, his crystal-ball calls would also have happened earlier, and things might have played out very differently for his lamentably deceased family … but what if.)

There was nothing to do about the fatigue, though, and as his vessel crept out of the harbor while it was not yet light, he did something he almost never did: he turned the helm over to Tomas to navigate out to deeper water. He knew his minion was a competent helmsman, but there were just some things that the skipper of a ship needed to do himself, particularly since neither of them had known about the catamaran capability until just a few days earlier. This was an exception, however; Marson knew he was tired enough that maneuvering in tight quarters would be risky, unforgiving. As soon as Tomas was installed at the wheel, he kicked back for a nap, and was out within seconds.

=*=*=

Lucy Kankaniel saw, through the slowly brightening twilight, the odd boat(s) leave. She was up early, as usual; she didn’t need as much sleep as most people, and her deep-seated caution and suspicion, necessary for survival in her trade, had contributed to her wakefulness in this strange, unpleasant place. In particular, she wondered if that Luminosita-damned elf had done something to her ship to make her sleep uncomfortable. That would be just like the bitch, wouldn’t it? She left her carefully secured cabin and did a quick inspection of the bridge, without being completely sure what kind of abnormalities she was looking for. Something magical, no doubt, she thought; she wouldn’t have the detection skills to know what, but she knew her ship very well, and she was pretty sure she could detect something amiss. Finding no such thing on the bridge, she descended into the holds, paying particular attention to the one where Paukii had stowed away; nothing there either, remarkably enough.

She did not bother to check the keel.

She decided to leave the harbor with only a skeleton crew awake and on deck. They’d worked hard into the night after making landfall, loading up certain goods to make the return trip worthwhile and repairing such storm damage as they could. (Again, what if; one of the crewmen had gone over the side shortly after they docked and done a quick inspection of the underside, pronouncing it sound, including the keel … barely thirty minutes before Nikolai had attached his little toy to it.) It was good, she reflected, that they had that work to distract them from the rage they’d felt when Edric was killed. There’d been mutterings among the crew about going after the elf bitch when she got back on board, and she’d had to quell them forcefully … at least for the moment.

A light crew should suffice to get out of this place. Her ship was both stable and maneuverable (a rare combination, but dwarven technology, after all), and she’d made sure that her anchorage had some maneuvering room. They cast off, and she and the helmsman were preparing to come about and start out of the harbor, when she noticed the peculiar outline of Marson’s vessel in the distance. It was too far away for a clear look without pulling out the spyglass, and apparently, already gaining speed as it left the bay. It wasn’t going to be a problem, she judged, and she went back to getting her own ship into open water, giving the odd outline no more thought.

Yet.

=*=*=

An hour or so later, Marson woke up, feeling slightly refreshed – just slightly, but a short nap was better than no nap at all. Everything seemed to be in hand; his ship was making cruising speed now, and the weather was better than usual for this part of the ocean. The shoreline had passed under the horizon while he was asleep. He thought about taking the helm back from Tomas, decided he didn’t need to, and indulged in the rare luxury of just sweeping the sea with his own spyglass … and it wasn’t long before something caught his attention.

“We got company,” he told Tomas. “Damn if I haven’t seen that boat before, although I can’t figger where. Makin’ good time, keepin’ up with us, parallel course. Here, have a look an’ tell me what you think.”

Tomas wasn’t sure about this; the helmsman should keep his eye on the helm, or so his sailing experience (which he had never confided to Marson) had drummed into him. Sensing his hesitation, Marson smiled broadly. “Hey, I won’t tell anybody,” he chuckled. “’Sides, we’re out in the middle of the ocean. Nothin’ ever happens out here, it’s just close to port where we gotta worry. Here.” He handed Tomas the glass.

The other man just grunted, but decided he could risk a quick look. “Beats me,” he said. “Should I evade?”

Marson’s grin deepened. “Hey, maybe we can sell ‘em somethin’! An’ if you’re thinking pirates, don’t – Ol’ Bessie can defend herself.” Both men knew this to be true, and not just because of what had happened on the Southern Continent.

He took the glass back. “Prob’ly they’s just headin’ south, maybe for the Continent, runnin’ with the wind. Not usually like that out here.” He put the glass to his eye …

Damn,” he said, and lowered the glass, elaboration being unnecessary.

=^=^=

Three minutes earlier, an almost identical, word-for-word, conversation had occurred between Lucy Kankaniel and her helmsman. It had a slightly different ending; every bone in Lucy’s body was suspicious from birth, and long years on the sea had taught her that parallel courses were never coincidental.

“Get ready to maneuver,” she told her helmsman. “I don’t like this. That damned crazy double-hulled rig again.”

“Aye, aye,” he answered. Then: “Ma’am? Are you sure we can’t just leave that bitch on the island and get outta here?”

Lucy considered it for a long, fateful moment, then sighed and shook her head. “No, we better not. If we do and she ever gets off that Luminosita-damned lump, she’ll come looking for us, and she’s an elf, she has all the time in the world to find us. When she does, she’ll kill us all. Slowly.” (The helmsman shuddered despite himself.) “No, we better go through with this. But be ready to engage the – special drive. Even at half power, it’s better than nothing, and we may need –“

Nikolai’s device functioned.

=*=*=

The two men on the dwarven assault boat/catamaran didn’t need the spyglass to see the burst of magical flame rise into the air. Marson’s response was a loud “WHEEE! FIREWORKS!” and a Marsonesque grin. Tomas’ reaction was … different. He cranked the wheel hard ‘aport, and the boat started to come about with surprising agility.

Marson lost his bearings for just a second, but recovered soon enough. “TOMAS!” he bellowed. “What in Luminosita’s big yellow jockstrap d’ye think you’re doin’?”

The helmsman’s jaw was set. “Preparing to pick up survivors,” he said coldly. “The law of the sea.”

Marson’s eyes widened. “But Argie an’ his wife are waitin’ for us! And they’re the payin’ customers on this trip.”

“They can wait.”

Marson flushed. “Like hell they can!” he roared. “We’re comin’ back about, right NOW! I’m givin’ you an order, an’ –“

He broke off, noticing that Tomas had palmed a small pistol somewhere, and that the pistol was now aimed in the general direction of his pancreas.

“The law of the sea,” Tomas repeated. “Never abandon a shipwreck without searching for survivors. If you don’t like it, you can swim … sir.”

Marson was no fool. He also was unarmed. “Well … I s’pose Argie an’ Rose will understand a little delay. Make it so.” He had to recover some face, after all. Tomas said nothing, but the boat came about and started to retrace its path, back toward where magical flames rose above the horizon.
----
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