Part 2 – Aloft
Harvey had carefully planned the route they would take around the southern rim of the Great Bane Desert where the scorched sand was penned in by a vast razored ridge of glassy rock. True to his word, Rosenhatch had ensured that their hunt for the Crystal Finches would be conducted in style. Harvey’s complaints about the malice of the region were well founded and Rosenhatch had no intention of dying before they had even found the birds, let alone returned with the prize. There were other, far richer fans and enthusiasts of exotic and possibly mythical fauna whom Rosenhatch could tap.
The airship was sixty feet of colourful balloon carrying an elegant cradle of brass and glass. She was a beauty and the proudest possession of Lord Emmaline Corshorn. He was a patron of the university and had supported several of Rosenhatch’s wilder exploits. More importantly, Lady Corshorn had an especial fondness for beasts of the air and after hearing Rosenhatch’s impassioned expedition pitch had demanded that Emmaline lend the explorers his airship. The point blank refusal that followed was eroded by glacial marital disharmony into reluctant acquiesence.
Lord Emmaline’s consent to use The Dove’s Eye was conditional on his captaining the luxurious vessel. He also supplied the crew, which was fortunate since Rosenhatch’s knowledge of flight extended as far as climbing the gangplank. He was an initially grumpy host, but separation from his wife and the extraordinary cigars and whiskey that Rosenhatch had brought aboard won him over. The pair stood upon the airship’s deck watching the sun set through the Corrigible Mountains, its vivid red and orange flowing through the tips of the peaks. They sipped whiskey from Corshorn’s priceless crystal glasses and tapped cigar ash into the air below.
“So, hoping to bag a few Finches, eh Rosenhatch?”
“We think we’ve got a good chance, yes Lord Emmaline.”
“Planning to pop ’em in those, eh?” Corshorn waved his cigar at the peculiar cages stacked and strapped down at the other end of the deck.
“Quite. Harvey has some fascinating theories about the Crystal Finches. It’s said that they emit their own light, which is then diffracted through their feathers.”
“The same light that will burn the flesh off a fellow’s bones?”
“Well yes. So they say. I rather hope that might be a part of the story that actually is a myth. However, we certainly expect our eyes to be sensitive to them.”
“We won’t know until it’s almost too late,” Harvey’s ominous tones made Lord Emmaline stiffen and slosh whiskey over the railing.
“Dammit man, you don’t need to sneak up on us.”
“My apologies Lord Emmaline. It’s the carpeting in your cabins.”
“Well, wear a bell or something.”
“Ha ha. Only Maxwell gets a bell, and then only when we’re at home,” added Rosenhatch.
“The Finches,” Harvey continued undaunted by Corshorn’s rudeness or discomfort, “perpetuate their own light. It is to them as your blood is to you,” he gestured to his own segmented thorax with a pair of legs, “or my ichor is to me. They at once depend on it for life and use it for hunting. My plan is simple. I have designed these boxes which as you can see are comprised of mirrors and crystal shards. The angles will reflect the Finches light back at them and contain their lethal rays. I have also constructed goggles for each member of the party. I have every expectation that they will protect our eyes from the Finches’ harmful emissions. Maxwell is trying his out now.”
Maxwell rolled out onto the deck, alternately stepping and clawing at the mask strapped over his face.
“Of course, in Maxwell’s case the goggles were difficult to fit,” Harvey pointed at the clasps holding the mask into place over the cat’s head. Maxwell fell into a heap of hissing and kicking in an attempt to remove the offending articles. “Now, don’t scratch the lenses.”
“Can’t see properly,” declared Maxwell, rolling over and kicking at the straps with his hind feet.
“Stop making such a fuss. You’ll be glad of them when we reach the pass.”
Harvey and Rosenhatch had painstakingly mapped out the trails of the desert traders whose rumours of the crystalline beasts had initiated the project. All of the original trade routes had passed through a narrow valley that punctured the Corrigibles before opening out into the desert itself. The mountains jagged up almost to the clouds, which scudded violently away from the dagger blades of translucent rock. From the peaks a mean grassy scrub flared out into thick forestation that vanished into the valley. Below that the lush vegetation died away into the desert landscape. The valley’s likely climate seemed to match the preferences of the common finches, and it fit with the other worrying accounts of those early voyages into and across the Bane.
“Well, we’ll be there by morning I should say,” declared Lord Emmaline, tossing back his whiskey and hurling the glass at the ridge they followed. He wandered off back to the helm where he bawled a few directions at his lieutenant and retired for the evening.
Rosenhatch scooped up Maxwell and scruffed his fur while he undid the straps. Maxwell examined them closely for scratches. They stood there for a while with the cat purring in the man’s arms, and together they watched the sun slip below the peaks.
Next Week: Part 3 – The Sharp Lands