Part 39 – Desert Blades
Last episode (for these characters)
The knife sharp crags of the Razor Ridge filled the view from the deck of The Dove’s Eye. The sand was hacked back by the vicious protrusion of rock, though the smooth weathered surface attested to aggressions of the desert storms. They had an uneasy peace between them which allowed the orange grains to spread up to where a feisty line of scrub began. It got no further – a sentinel row of claw firs shrouded the ground with their taloned leaves. In exchange the rocks were permitted to be weathered away to mere stubs, forming a trail of meandering stepping stones across the desert.
This was the morning view for Rosenhatch Traverstorm and Maxwell. The little cat sat with apparent disinterest on the edge of the railing and licked his paws assiduously. Rosenhatch was entranced. The orange giving out to flinty blacks and opalescent blues and greys was a welcome reminder of their expedition’s purpose. Given their misadventures so far he was slightly surprised that they had made it. He hadn’t had the heart to ask how many of the crew had been lost to the Sky Cliff and its horrid denizens, but the air ship was certainly less populous than it had been. Lord Corshorn now carried the soul beads of those who had not been lost overboard in a pouch he carried beneath his jacket. The rest would hopefully be collected by the wanderers of the sand. All that was behind them however. Rosenhatch was keen to reach the peaks and begin their hunt. The flashes of light they had caught sight of the previous day could well be the Crystal Finches they sought. He could admit that they might also have been mirages, different beasts, deposits of natural glasses or even signals between bandits. He was quite sure they would be birds though. Today there were none of the flashes. He and Jasparz had marked their approximate location last night while sketching out even rougher maps of the ridges. The Razor Ridge had been passed over many times by many crews, but cartographers had declined the opportunity to chart its undulations and crevasses. It appeared simply as a wide bar filled with sharp points and hazardous warnings.
“Damned if I know how we’re going to land on that,” remarked Jasparz.
“We could hold, allow an anchor crew off and tether her,” suggested Rosenhatch.
“It’ll be a bugger lowering your leggy friend off, but we’ve the block and tackle to do it. The captain’s more concerned about what we tether it to. The desert thrashes those rocks something brutal and it’ll grind us up against them razors when she blows.”
“So we’ll have to go to the top and work our way back down?”
“That’s the likely angle.”
“I suppose going down the ridge will be easier than climbing.”
“You won’t be saying that when we’re toting all your gear and specimens for the return trip,” Jasparz observed. He extracted a thin cigarette from an inner pocket, miraculously straight. “Calm your nerves?” he offered.
Rosenhatch accepted the cigarette.
“Harvey’s checking out his traps. I think they survived the fall. He is an excellent craftsman.”
“Do you think you’re going to find them – the Crystal Finches?”
“We’ll certainly find something,” Rosenhatch mused, “I consider my source to be quite reliable. There is a trading outpost between (I think) those two cleaver shaped mountain tops.” He waved vaguely with the cigarette. Its smoke had as much clarity as the direction he indicated.
“It seems an unlikely spot,” said Jasparz, squinting at the valley.
“There’s a river apparently, and its used by some of the caravans as a bit of respite before or after the Bane.”
“You’d be mad to attempt to cross it on foot, surely?”
“There are plenty of local colonists who do. Only some of them are mad. They rely on the network of Host Burrows of course, to escape the day’s heat.”
“Ah. Didn’t you do a paper on them?”
“Yes, thank you for remembering. We’re not really supposed to talk about it though. It made me rather unpopular with some of the University’s old timers,” Rosenhatch warmed to his subject,” you see I spent a summer out in the grasslands, searching for Quick Snakes and Thumb Fly. Nasty little buggers, I was checking my hands for months afterwards. Anyway, there’s a huge warren there, and some of the oldest Host Burrows we’ve come across. We were drinking quite heavily, as students sometimes do, and I found myself bumbling round there late one night, just looking for somewhere to lie down really and stop the world from spinning so rudely.”
Jasparz nodded sagely – this was a common experience. Drinking was discouraged if not outright forbidden while in the air which inevitably lead to a degree of excess on the ground. He gestured with his cigarette for Rosenhatch to continue.
“Anyway, I don’t know how many moons there were, but it all seemed very bright and then very dark all of a sudden. I’d fallen into one of the Host Burrows. I was pleased, I mean – it would be somewhere to sleep. But there was nothing in the burrow. No bed, no furniture at all. I’d never seen one that was incomplete – maybe it was new. All this was sloshing around in my head, and then I noticed a hole in one wall – a hole leading into a warren of tunnels. Those things are usually sealed up you know, but this one was open and well, I followed it. A tunnel is brilliant when you’re drunk – I bounced off the walls like a Skag Beetle.
Eventually I came out into the night again. I fell over immediately as I lost walls to hold on to. I’d come out in the middle of this wide bowl, still thick with ankle height Dell grass. All over the place were Host Lizards emerging from more holes scattered across the area. There were already quite a lot of Lizards already there. I didn’t worry too much about counting them – I saw two of everything anyway! So I just lay where I’d fallen. As a budding biologinarist this was a great opportunity to observe this helpful species on their own.”
Jasparz nodded, his eyes focussed on the Razor Ridge ahead of them. Rosenhatch didn’t notice.
“I may have dozed off a bit because I was startled by a loud shout. Host Lizards are silent. No one’s ever heard them talk to each other, or to anyone else for that matter. I re-oriented myself so I could see what was going on. A group of Host Lizards were dragging a man dressed in his pyjamas out of a hole a few yards from where I lay. He looked like a wealthy fellow – they were nice pyjamas at any rate. I guessed he was a merchant on one of the caravans. I was so surprised I couldn’t think what to do. The recently sleeping man was pulled to his feet, surrounded by a crowd of the Host Lizards. They’re only small, about up o my waist with those two sets of arms, one pair for digging, the other for fine detail – as it turned out, they are also good as cutlery. He looked as bewildered as I felt, standing under the moons in his nightshirt surrounded by Host Lizards. They let him look confused for all of a minute. And then they pounced. They tore the man apart. Strips of clothing flew everywhere. They were completely silent as they ate him, right down to and including the bones. As they turned to fastidiously cleaning their bloody claws I very surreptitiously crawled backwards into the hole I’d come out of. I got out of that tunnel as fast as I could and ran far away from the Host Burrow before collapsing with exhaustion. And drunkenness. When I woke up the next day I was still next to that first burrow I’d fallen into. I suppose I must have been running in circles. Since it was bright daylight again I ventured back into the hole. It was finished, just like every other Host Burrow you’ve ever seen. No sign of the tunnel I’d explored the night before. Nothing. The sneaky demons had tidied up in the night, removing all trace of their murderous nature. And that’s why I won’t use Host Burrows again.” Rosenhatch declared.
Jasparz rolled his eyes at Rosenhatch’s tall tale, “so how do you know you didn’t dream it all?”
Rosenhatch smiled, as if he expected such a response. Which he did, because it was the same response he got whenever he told people what he had seen. The academic response to his paper had been excoriating. Rosenhatch was undaunted.
“Because, ” he said, reaching into an inner pocket of his coat, “when I woke up I was clutching this.” He opened his hand to reveal a torn scrap of fabric, with a blue and white striped pattern. Its edges were the dark brown of old blood.
Jasparz affected polite surprise and took the proffered evidence. “Well, it’s certainly something for a man to think about isn’t it?” he said, gingerly sniffing the scrap to see if he could detect the scent of old blood. It mainly smelled of whisky and sweat.He gave it back to the apparently victorious explorer.
Rosenhatch tucked it carefully back into his pocket. “That was my first real adventure,” he said.
“Eyes up Traverstorm – looks like we’re about to get started on your next one,” Jasparz pointed out at the spears of rock ahead. Flurries of flashes were rippling up and down the thick forest that lay in the valleys between ridges like moustache in a gentleman’s philtrum.
A cry came from the cockpit: “All hands prepare for descent.” They were almost at their destination.
Coming Soon: Part 40 – Night Thrills