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

Postby Graybeard » October 24th, 2018, 10:38 pm

Chapter Thirty-two: Overcoming one’s fears, sort of

Whoever started the rumor that elves didn’t need much sleep [i.e., Poe…], or spent it in a trance-like state rather than real sleep, obviously did not consult with Peregin Paukii. Of course, the circumstances of her slumber on Shield Island were not exactly representative of how and where elves slept; very much the contrary.

Her second round of sleep was no more restful than the first. She’d erected some magical defenses around her sleeping bag that would fry anything larger than a gnat if it got too close; in fact, that was part of the problem. The swarms of mosquitoes and flies that came looking for an elf-blood snack were dispatched with tiny flashes of light and a faint BZZT that would normally have been nearly inaudible. Paukii, however, was keyed up, and each mosquito disintegration sounded like a bomb going off in her near-delirious state.

She finally got to sleep sometime around midnight local time, to the extent that that concept meant anything. The bugs were not on the same clock, apparently; they continued approaching, and getting zapped, all through the night. Every time one was fried, Paukii sat bolt upright, with a momentary vision of a demonic Exitialis blazing fire from his eyes at her. It never lasted more than a second or so, but to ruin the night’s sleep, it didn’t have to.

It was a very tired and grumpy Peregin that arose in the morning to make breakfast, her mood not helped by the way the noxious vapors hanging above the surface made her food taste. (Argus and Sister Rose were spared the worst of this, by pure chance; they’d set up their camp in a location to get sea breezes. Such wind as there was on Paukii’s side of the island simply blew the miasma over her campsite. Much later, they would thank Dess Marson for that good fortune, getting a typical Marson chortle that he’d planned it all along … but many things would transpire before then.) The foulness of her mood, the food, and the setting all conspired to urge her back the way she’d come …

But Peregin Paukii was not one to be conspired against.

Every elf alive knew the basic elven creation myths, and knew that some part of them, like many myths, were indeed based on fact. However, not every elf was equally “religious” in responding to those myths. Peregins were notoriously irreligious as a group, and Paukii at least average in this regard. By the time she finished breakfast, her morning grouchiness had turned into much more calculating anger, at Exitialis if he still existed, at the island, at the bastards who’d sent her on this mission, against the band of idiots who’d apparently disappeared here to make it necessary, and above all, at herself. Dammit, I am not going to get freaked out again by 20,000-year-old stories, she thought as she cast a Hygiene spell and packed up her mess kit …

… Just in time for the huge spider that had inhabited the huge web, and fallen down into her pack and from there into the mess kit, picked that time to scuttle away from an unused pot.

That did it. She stomped off into the dank forest, swearing as she went, and leaving spider and pot behind.

Her magical capabilities were subpar this morning due to the bad night. That was probably just as well; her Durus Flamma made a satisfactory machete for hacking through the undergrowth, and if she’d tried to use spells to do the same work, she’d just have exhausted herself again. She hacked and chopped and carved and swore for some time, and then she came upon a game trail (well, swamp-beast trail) that led in the general direction she wanted to go, i.e., up.

Well, Anilis’ Naked Knockers, look at this. She turned onto the path at just about the same time as Argus and Rose were finishing their limited forensics and packing up to await Marson’s ship.

An hour later, after wandering in all directions (didn’t whatever damned beast made this thing know you can travel in a straight line? she grumped to herself) but mainly upward, she broke out of the jungle and into sight of the summit of the island. (Rose and Argus were long gone by now.) A rare smile creased her scowling face. Praise the gods if they’re not still in bed, I’m finally getting somewhere. Her superiors in the Hell Hole had told her that the now-defunct travel platform was up there, in all likelihood. They hadn’t told her about the crater, of course, but they hadn’t told her it wasn’t supposed to be there, either. That last part, she could work out for herself; she’d seen enough of Peregin Bauti’s specialty to be able to do that.

Now, some real caution was going to be called for; caution of a kind that rangers more typically had to exercise. First came some magic detection. That was odd; no magic anywhere, even from up at the crater where the platform had been. Wait, no, there were a few little magical pinpoints up there … and more surprisingly, from down in the trees to the left of her. What was that doing there? As far as she knew, Shield Island was uninhabited, at least by anyone not even more magically backward than the Veracians. (The thought that the Outlander whom she'd materialized on the travel platform with might not fit into that assessment did not cross her mind.) Holding her breath, she put up some sensory amplification, to listen for sounds coming from the area with the magic in the trees; nothing but forest sounds.

Well, that was good; at least nothing was going to eat her. She made her way slowly through the murk … and in a moment, she found what she was looking for.

It took a lot of force to snap a Durus Flamma blade. But that was what had happened. Only half of the characteristic, gem-like quiescent blade was at the base of a tree, brought there, she suspected, by a scavenger; at least there were shreds of an elven cape wrapped around the trunk. It did not occur to her, at least not yet, that a scavenger couldn’t propel cloth that way … but explosive force could.

Where there was one Durus Flamma, there would be more. Still detecting no signs of life (at least not noisy life), she started moving carefully toward the crater. Yes, another piece of magical blade there; another there, with an intact handle … and what had to be elven finger bones attached to it. She felt sick. Peregin Paukii had seen (indeed, caused) enough death over the years to be used to the idea … but these were elven deaths, probably including that of the foolish young (relatively speaking) Lentyn, who had led the expedition here instead of herself. If she felt any guilt at this realization, it passed quickly; guilt wasn’t a major part of Paukii’s psychological makeup. Elven death in general, however … and without the necessary rites to prepare what was left of the bodies for their voyages beyond Exitialis’ grasp … The lump rose in her throat.

At least she could take some bones back for a decent burial. Much as Harker had done earlier with the piece of femur, she scooped up fragments, put them into a Pocket Dimension; it would be hard to identify which deceased elf had contributed which bone, but surely the religious elves back in the Hell Hole could do something. Couldn’t they? Even at midday, the gloom made it hard to see all the bones in the muck and dirt, so she cast a strong Light spell to give her more to work with … and as soon as she did, she saw something else.

A much clearer trail cut through the forest on the opposite side of the summit clearing; specifically, the trail that Rose, Argus and Harker had used two or three hours earlier. Even more interesting – worrisome – were the footprints heading for it. The humans hadn’t been as diligent about covering their tracks as the Veracian party had been, a few days earlier.

The queasiness in Paukii’s gut vanished, to be replaced by the stomach acid of suspicion. Drawing her own sword, she started moving toward the trail.

=^=^=

“Hey, boss!” Harker called down from the tree that he’d climbed to keep a lookout for Dess Marson’s ship. “Light source back on the hill! You didn’t leave a light globe up there or something, did you?”

Rose and Argus looked at each other, knowing the answer was negative, and drawing the only possible conclusion. “We’ve got company …”
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » November 15th, 2018, 12:51 am

Chapter Thirty-three: Discovery

As the interested parties converged on Shield Island, a different, albeit related, discovery was being made in the ruins of the castle that had stood above Provatiel.

In some regards it was inevitable; in others, purely accidental. When the damage-assessment party passed over the town, the townsfolk understandably feared the worst. They’re coming back to finish us off! Many hid in their homes; others melted into the countryside. None crossed the river, since it was clear that that was where the most severe damage was. Besides, the bridge had been destroyed by Luminosita’s Wrath.

All of which suited the damage assessors perfectly well. They had no business with the town, or the townsfolk. The only subject of their attention (for the moment…) was the castle and those who lay buried in its ruins, alive or otherwise. In fact, once it was established that the bridge had been destroyed, the town was of no further significance to what had happened – except for any of the Millenarian militia who had been in town when the raid occurred.

Some of the security forces on the airship might have wondered why the weapons bearers on the ship had orders to shoot to kill anyone who tried to cross the river by boat in either direction. However, they didn’t. “Looters,” the shooters had been told, and then they’d been told very emphatically that there was to be no discussion, they were just to carry out the order. There were hard men on the airship, men who followed orders and didn’t think about them in the process; that was part of the plan.

Major Curiel, the commander of the security detachment who had wondered about the removal of the Millenarian from his outfit, was not as hard as many of the men in his command, but he did know that orders were to be followed. In the event, this particular order didn’t matter; there was no traffic on the river this day. Analysts back in Emerylon would puzzle over this observation at length, wondering whether they’d simply lucked out and found no Millenarian soldiers on the town side when Luminosita appeared, or whether the tall, blond men in town had dispersed into the countryside with their civilian peers, or most worrisome, whether there was another way into the castle that Brother Miguel hadn’t found in his wanderings with Lillith. They would also wonder whether a return trip by a more heavily armed party, to exterminate the soldiers who’d escaped, would be needed … but the damage-assessment people and their security force didn’t need to know that.

This concern dealt with, and a squad put in place at the riverbank to make sure that the curious were warned away (with lethal force if necessary), he was now talking to the head of the damage-assessment detail, whom he deemed possibly the oddest priest of Luminosita he’d ever met in his life.

“Brother Casper,” as the man called himself – it was almost certainly an alias – was short, pale, and not nearly as fit as the military men on board. His watery eyes squinted through glasses; apparently he had waited until too advanced an age to get Healing on them, or it had been against his personal beliefs (some of the most Orthodox clergy were that way), or something. (The possibility that a Heal hadn’t taken because the man had a bit of half-elf blood in him occurred to no one.) There were insignia on his priest’s robes that Curiel did not recognize; indicators of rank, apparently, but rank in what? Certainly neither the military nor the Orthodox Church. Well, he probably didn’t need to know, and so he wasn’t going to ask; he would just follow orders, and his orders were to give this odd fellow as much protection and support as possible.

“Will your people want escorts?” Curiel asked. “There might still be – hostiles in there.” He waved at the ruins.

Casper gave an oddly beatific smile. “Not to worry, Major. My people can take care of themselves.”

Curiel raised an eyebrow. “Your call. If you need us, you know where we’ll be.” He waved at the airship, the river bank, the edge of the ruins. The odd little man smiled again and waddled off with other damage assessors, heading into what was left of the castle.

=^=^=

It was about an hour later that a pair of the assessors found two things, one of them strange and interesting, the other … nauseating.

They’d studied Miguel’s map carefully, along with their colleagues, and headed for where Miguel thought the underground weapons depot had been. Now all that remained of it was rubble and bent metal. That was gratifying; whatever unholy weapons the Millenarians had been developing there would trouble them no longer.

Or so the pair thought.

They were just about to move on when one of them noticed the nauseating thing. “Look at those flies, Clint,” he motioned to his companion, indicating a corner of the collapsed chamber that indeed had vast swarms of flies emerging from it. “Usually, where there are clouds of flies, there are bodies. We’d better check it out.” (He'd had some of the same experiences with flies as Sister Rose, apparently.) The second man looked dubious, but nodded, and they made their way through the rubble … to discover that the flies were emerging from several, hard to tell how many, smashed human bodies.

Then they found the really interesting thing, even as unseen magical energies stirred beneath their feet.

One of the dead men, apparently a higher-ranking one than the others if the ornateness of his tattered uniform met anything, was clutching a piece of parchment in his hand. This had survived the magical attack, somehow. A quick bit of forensics magic – the assessors were all skilled spellcasters, at least by Veracian standards – explained how: a Preservation spell had been cast on the parchment. Whatever it was, it was apparently important.

Clint frowned. “We’d probably better take this back. Can’t make any sense of it here. Can you?”

His colleague shook his own head. “Southern Resource Area … Test Range … Luminosita’s Spear … Recall. Locations, if the first two mean anything. But what is Luminosita’s Spear? Where are the others? What are these odd runes after the words?”

Clint had a brainstorm. “Runes … hmmm. I took a class long ago on the language of the heathen elves.” (His companion looked shocked, but said nothing.) “These look elven.” {The other assessor looked even more shocked.) “I bet I can figure them out phonetically, even if we don’t know what they mean.” He searched his memory. “Yes, it’s coming back to me. This first one, by the ‘Southern Resource Area’ text, is something like Hu-Wo-Ah-Na-Kil, if I remember ri—“

With a ZRRAAAAKK, the repurposed travel platform beneath them functioned, rubble, bodies and all.
----
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » November 30th, 2018, 2:11 pm

[Not part of the story, except for a couple of paragraphs, but a bit of thinking about an oddity of the Errant World. Not sure whether Poe ever reasoned this through explicitly, but it all fits, so ...]

Interlude: On energy and ecology

While all these things were going on, a very unusual airship was being prepared for flight in Tsuirakushiti.

=^=^=

Fossil fuels -- petroleum and coal and natural gas -- were nearly unknown in the Errant World. Part of the reason was that the need for them wasn't urgent in most of the world. After all, why lug any of that disagreeable stuff around, and then burn it to produce even more disagreeable stuff, when magic could be substituted for it instead, and do the job cleanly and efficiently? That lesson had been learned by humans as far back as their first encounter with the elves in the Far North. The elves had never had to learn it at all. As for the trolls, well, they were trolls, and thought about things their own way.

The main reason, however, was that the resources, by and large, simply didn't exist. The Errant World was young. It had never had the vast, planet-covering forests that, over tens and even hundreds of millions of years, fell and were compressed by the slow but implacable forces of gravity and geology into buried combustibles, the way things worked on a different, older planet around a yellow star. About the nearest things to the fossil-fuel wealth of Earth were small beds of peat in some of the cooler, wetter places -- the Eastern Wastes, the Southern Continent, a few sites in the Northern Confederacy and Far North.

These beds were considered, at most, a curiosity by most nations. It hadn't taken much experimentation, back in the long-ago, to determine that yes, one could produce heat from this disagreeable material, but that in doing so, particularly foul things were emitted into the air and water. The one peat bed in the islands of Tsuiraku had been turned into a national park of sorts, with entry not particularly encouraged, indeed, rather strongly discouraged (not that any sky-dwelling Tsuirakushitians, or most of their land-bound countrymen, would be enthusiastic about venturing into such a place), and removal and burning of the gross stuff strictly forbidden. The Veracians and Farrelites had very little need for their own peat bogs; even in places where magic was shunned or unknown, forests were abundant, and wood burning would suffice to power locomotives and marine steam engines and even short-range airships. Add a little magic to those engines (reluctantly and almost surreptitiously in Veracia, enthusiastically in Farrel once the Tsuirakuans showed them how), and the need for peat simply didn't exist. Even in the more "primitive" nations, peat burning was an expedient rather than something routine -- although more than one Outlander hunting party were glad to warm their chilled bones over bricks from a worked bank of peat when they were lucky enough to find one.

These factors, taken together, were why internal-combustion engines were also nearly unknown in the Errant World. Wood might work fine as fuel in a boiler, but it didn't have nearly a high enough energy density for the most basic engine that an Earthling would recognize, not to mention the obvious logistics problems. If such engines were unavailable, things that required light, concentrated sources of power to function -- notably lighter-than-air vehicles like airplanes -- would also not work. This was one reason why the skies of Tsuirakushiti were full of airships but not aircraft. Actually, the Tsuirakuans could have built airplanes if they'd felt like it; they knew enough non-thaumatic science to be able to transform wood and other plants into synthetic fuels that could be transported easily and burned efficiently. But under the circumstances, why bother? Magical power, plus what they (and the Farrelites, Northerners, and even Veracians) had learned to harvest from the sun and the wind and the waves, made all that work unnecessary.

At least it was unnecessary until a reawakening Tsuiraku, brought into the world by the visit of Luminosita to Praenubilus Astu, started to realize just how big that world was. And in that realization lay the real reason why the Deitanu Wilderness and Preserve was nearly off limits to the average Tsuirakuan.

The first long-range airships launched by Tsuiraku to map the world had run into some frightening, and in one memorable case, even fatal problems when their voyages of discovery took them too far. Magical lift and propulsion was just fine for cruising, but a backup was needed, particularly for making the ship airborne to begin with. (The limitation of magic for levitating such a large mass would be one of the things that caused Meji to marvel at Ian's effortless magical flight. The other reason, of course, was that it was Ian that was doing it.) There was also the small matter of emergency power -- a matter that had not been so small on certain explorations, including that fatal one. The airships had vast banks of what amounted to storage batteries for that, both thaumatic and chemical; but batteries could be discharged. Huge solar panels could replenish those batteries, slowly, if there was enough sunlight; but there would be no such time in an emergency. Furthermore, there were places far from Tsuiraku where the sun rarely shone ... places like, say, the Eastern Wastes.

=^=^=

It was for this reason that the captain of the long-range airship that was being sent for Shinichi's body was holding his nose against the stench that was percolating through his magical defenses, as the airship's fuel tanks were being loaded. It didn't use peat in a raw form for fuel, obviously, but the reserves of Deitanu were the best available starting material for the synthetic fuel that it did use. Unfortunately, while thaumato-chemical processing turned the foul matter into something more efficient for burning for emergency thrust, it didn't remove the odor.

The captain managed to only gag once before the fueling was completed. "Finally," he muttered to his navigator. "Now let's get the Weave out of here." Final preparations were made, and the ship lifted off, bound for the coordinates the Coastwatcher had given them.
----
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