The Desert Crystals – Part 40: Night Thrills

Desert Crystals Part 40 – Night Thrills

Desert Crystals 2015
The sky reeled about, moons a blurred rainbow of cat-struck balls. The Sky Viper maintained its course, heading into the night while her crew dangled and spun beneath her. Guldwych Ryme had lost track of whether he was awake or in blackened sleep. His cheek smarted a little from Chem’s surprisingly chitinous punch, but most of his present pain stemmed from how his safety line was digging into his thighs. He’d twisted as he fell, rebounding from the hull and had somehow managed to end up with the safety rope twisted around his legs, keeping him upside down. It felt a lot like he was going to lose his legs below the knee.
Ryme had experienced a huge surge of adrenalin on being knocked overboard. He had suddenly come to understand that he was terrified of death. Its prospect had been a limited concern in the university. Ryme was senior enough to send others on field trips and to supervise practical lab work from a distance, seated at the front of the hall with a near impermeable glass shield. Out here though, death was everywhere. He’d seen it, heard it, felt it all around and then he was diving towards it, a scream barely managing to squeeze out of his throat. The jerk of the safety line taking his weight was almost as frightening as the fall itself, as if some vast beast had snatched him up in its monstrous jaws, his career caught devastatingly short, words unwritten, legacy uncertain. Slamming face first into the hull had diminished his self-pity into the first period of unconsciousness.
He had been awoken finally, in his present upside down posture by a dull roar circling him. He snapped awake, all those former fears of an airborne death alive once more. Some ghastly fate awaited him in the night. He could see it, eclipsing the stars and moons, drawing closer to him. The apparition swept past him and its proximity transformed the hungry roaring  into his own name, interspersed with wingship cursing. It was Tosser, he realised. She shot past him as her own safety line took her carried her in orbit around him. She had succeeded at flattening herself out so that she spun round on her back – a feat of aerial acrobatics not entirely unlike floating on one’s back in the sea. Not that anyone would swim in the sea by choice, and certainly not without keeping an eye under the water as much as above it. Ryme dizzily admired her expertise.
The next time she swung past Tosser was much closer, and caught his knee a glancing blow. Ryme gave out a shout of alarm as he tumbled head over heels until he snapped out sharply on the end of his rope, legs free at last to buzz with their fresh infusion of blood. Ryme was not at his best he conceded, considering how long it took him to figure out that Tosser had struck him deliberately to get him untangled. He was  not suited to the sky life. The ground was altogether preferable. Now that he was spinning properly he could focus on the hull which we swung around. There was a hole in it that he caught glimpses of the moon through. The Paama’s tears had demonstrated their corrosive effect, they were just lucky it had been only a few drops. Far below him the Great Bane Desert was the colour of old dried blood, and beyond that he saw jagged dark blue shapes like the lower jaw of a nightmare. Those must be the infamous Razor Ridge. They were almost there. He might actually beat Traverstorm to the punch, Ryme realised. Deciding impulsively to pursue the rogue academic felt like a decision he had made a lifetime ago. Ever since he had directed Eslie Chem to find them some transport that would catch up with Traverstorm’s expedition his life had descended into chaos. Was this how Traverstorm lived? A virtual prisoner on a ship of threatening strangers, besiged by violent and unpredicatble events. Or was that just him?
He shrieked embarrassingly as a hand closed around his ankle. In the same breath he remembered it was Tosser. Her grip arrested their spins eventually, as their opposing spins became one cycling figure eight. Tosser climbed up his body until she could clamp her legs around his, their safety lines separating their faces.
“Hi there!” said Tosser, breathless with her exertions.
Ryme was abruptly aware that their hips were mashed tightly together, his respectable academic belly squeezed around their safety lines.
“Are you alright?” she asked, his startled silence giving her no clues.
“As well as one could expect,” Ryme rallied heroically, “thanks, um, for getting me untied.”
Tosser graced him with one of her broad grins, a fixed point behind whom the night whirled on.
“What do we do now?” he asked.
“I’ve been hoping that we’ll be hauled back up for hours now, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.”
“They should have pulled us up by now?” Ryme asked.
“Oh yeah, ages ago. We ain’t crashing which means someone’s still up there, and our course is still right,” She pointed over at the Razor Ridge,  “but for reeling in the crew to be last on the list means there’s got to be more urgent stuff than us to do up there.”
Ryme was partly reassured by that explanation, for all that it lacked certainties. If Tosser wasn’t worried then he should worry less.
“What I was wondering though, was if you might lend a lass a hand,” Tosser said.
“Oh. Of course. What can I do?” Ryme couldn’t think of any assistance he could possibly offer.
“Well, I reckon I can get us back up on deck but I’ve got a little problem,” she tugged the breast of her leather flight harness apart.
Ryme’s heart almost stopped.
“Do you think you can get this out?”
Tosser thumbed the vicious spar of bone which protruded from her chest, just to the left of her breastbone. The blouse around it was soaked with blood. It was one of the fang fragments that had flown across the deck when Chall exploded under the tension of the Vileteeth curling in around his body.
“Does it hurt?” Ryme asked, stupidly.
Tosser looked at him as if he were daft. “Well yeah. I don’t think it’s too deep though, but I can’t get a proper grip on it.”
Cautiously Ryme reached out. Tosser smiled encouragingly at him. He gingerly gripped the end of the tooth. It shifted nauseatingly in Tosser’s chest. Her grin had become fixed and a sweat had broken out on her forehead.
“Nice and quick now Guldwych. You can do it.”
He dried his fingers on his shirt and returned to his task. The shaft of tooth was as wide around as two of his fingers. It looked as if it had gone between a couple of ribs but been slowed down by her sternum. He closed his eyes, swallowed hard and then pulled. It felt like he was tugging out one of his own teeth. Tosser was obviously fighting back tears; he could tell because the grip of her thighs was numbing his legs as much as the rope had. With a horrid sucking sound the spear of tooth came all the way out of her chest. It was followed by a brief spurt of blood. Tosser took the tooth off him and shoved it into her boot pocket. Then she slapped a wad of cloth torn off her shirt onto her chest and laid his hand on top of it.
“Well done. Keep pressing on this as hard as you can.”
Ryme clamped the cloth against the freshly revealed wound. Against her breast. His heart was hammering in his chest. Tosser gave no indication that she was aware of his discomfort, if that was even the right word. Instead she tore off both of her shirt sleeves and tore them into two long bandages.
“Right. That’s good Guldwych,” she hissed. “Now, help me bind this up.”
Ryme was pressed tight against her as she hugged him to allow his looping the bandage round her back. With much awkwardness Ryme knotted it, trapping the bloodsoaked wad of cloth firmly against the wound. Finally she slumped in his arms and allowed herself a heartfelt shudder.
“Just give me a minute, ” Tosser sighed, her legs’ grip slackening. Ryme hung on tight to her, allowing her a few minutes to rest after their mid-air surgery. He was struck by how incredibly tiring it was to keep them both together; Tosser was even stronger than he’d imagined. In no time he was sweating and his shoulders were trembling with the effort. When he felt as if he must surely release her or lose his arms forever to tremors, Tosser took a deep breath and gave him that familiar grin. It was shaded with pain.
“Right then,” she exclaimed, “time to get back on board the Viper.”
With that she grabbed hold of the rope that reached up into the sky, and began to haul them both up.
Coming Soon: Part 41 – Sharp and Nasty

The Desert Crystals – Part 41: Sharp and Nasty

Desert Crystals Part 41 – Sharp and Nasty

Desert Crystals 2015

The Dove’s Eye had been painstakingly tethered to a fine spire of rock. It now bobbed in the ceaseless currents passing from the blazing heat of the desert to the brutal shards of the Razor Ridge. From below it looked terribly fragile, more so knowing that it was the only way back to civilisation and a warm bed. Jasparz sighed and prepared to receive the next net filled with crates, cases and guns. Traverstorm’s expedition was finally about to get under way and it was an enormous relief to get the man off the ship. It wasn’t that he was troublesome in particular, but the rogue academic had a way of getting underfoot, and of getting his own way, even in matters more properly left to Jasparz, the captain’s first mate.
That minor meddling had begun early that morning as he insisted that he and his giant centipede companion be winched down first to get the lay of the land. Jasparz had naturally objected – a bare minimum of staff would make ground first, secure the immediate area and set up a perimeter guard. The Razor Ridge, though frequently over-flown had rarely been set foot in by airship crews or cartographers. While the Great Bane Desert had provided unexpected frights and dangers, Jasparz fully expected the Ridge to be heaving with murderous surprises – Traverstorm’s mere presence virtually guaranteed it. The fellow was pleasant enough but securing the ground was a task for the crew, not a bookish madman. Jasparz had been adamant. Traverstorm had been adamant. Lord Corshorn had compromised.
Jasparz had sent two men shimmying down the tether to tie it off fully. They had been immediately followed by the centipede, Harvey who had been winched down in a net from which he smoothly exited and slunk into the undergrowth. The two sky men had waited anxiously, repeating rifles held at the ready, pointing into the brush. The foliage barely shivered with Harvey’s exploring and he soon returned to declare the immediate area unoccupied. Unloading began in earnest. Jasparz managed to keep Traverstorm on board for slightly longer than the other man would have liked, but it ensured he wouldn’t just run off into the bush, leading the others into some unseen death. He himself had made land before the head of the expedition to and had overseen much of the unloading. A base camp was forming up around the tether as a wide perimeter was hacked out of the surrounding green. Once everyone and everything was down, the worm’s eye was attached to the tether and fixed fifty feet in the air, far below the airship but far enough above the base camp to keep an eye on it. Two men would occupy the worm’s nest at all times, their own life lines linked to the Dove’s Eye to allow a safe recall should everything proceed in the manner of every other Traverstorm expedition. Not for nothing was the job comparable to being a worm on a hook.
Fully half of the Dove’s Eye’s crew had descended. A third of those would man the base camp, the rest would accompany the expedition’s leaders. Jasparz was resigned to being in the latter group. He had supervised the packing of tents, provisions and weapons for lugging down the ridge. Harvey had arranged their trapping gear for ease of carrying already and now watched over their being loaded onto shoulders and onto the panniers that overhung his own carapace. There was little Jasparz could do to delay the expedition further – they were as ready as they were going to be. He shouldered his own pack and strode over to where Traverstorm had spread a broad and terribly vague map upon a  crate. He and Maxwell were sketching their location, or rather Traverstorm was sketching and Maxwell was sprawled over the edge of the map, apparently asleep. Jasparz eyed the cat warily. He had no idea why anyone would bring a cat into this sort of adventure.
“Oh don’t worry about Maxwell,” Traverstorm said, catching Jasparz’ eye regarding the snoring cat, “he’s an excellent navigator – I’ve never known him to be unable to find his way home, or to where there’s food.”
Maxwell yawned and stretched, tearing a hole in the edge of the map as his claws dug into the wooden crate.
“Well. We’re packed. I suggest we head downhill at a steady pace. I’ll dispatch scouts a few hundred yards ahead to assess the way.”
“Splendid. I think we’ll make good time – the terrain looked acceptable from above. I estimate that we’ll reach one of the gullies by nightfall tomorrow, though I’m hopeful that we’ll catch sight of the crystal finches flashing before then. I doubt our team will want to wear these all of the time.” Traverstorm tapped the heavy goggles that hung around his neck.
“My scouts will wear them constantly. I’ve no desire for our eyes to be struck blind by your birds.”
“Indeed, though that would be the least of their concerns. While Harvey and I have prepared as best we can, I rather fear that immolation is a greater worry than blindness.”
“With that enormous reassurance Rosenhatch, I think we should get started. Midday is still an hour away and we can make good time.”
Rounding the party up still took longer than Jasparz would have liked, but everything was on someone’s back eventually. Jasparz’ scouts headed off into the bush first, well armed and tightly goggled. He took a last look up at the Dove’s Eye way overhead and waved sharply to the men in the worm’s nest. The convoy filed out of the freshly hacked clearing and into the trees. Traverstorm and a pair of sky men lead the group, with Harvey ranging farther out as an additional scout. Maxwell rode on Traverstorm’s shoulders, and again appeared to be asleep. Jasparz followed with the six final members carrying the bulk of the kit. The last man, one Torblyn had the heaviest of their guns and he held it very ready indeed.
The going was easy until the ground tilted down and their chosen route turned out to be much steeper than it had seemed from the air. The scouts came and went, reporting on more serious obstacles like the frequent deep gashes in the hillside which had no visible bottom. As they came alongside the first of these Jasparz shuddered. They looked as if some mighty beast had stabbed its claws into the mountain and torn out its guts. Bright silver winked out of the churned earth and rocks that spilled from the holes.
“Possible source of those flashes we saw, Traverstorm?” Jasparz called.
“Maybe,” the explorer grunted, “but there’s too much leaf cover and too great a scatter of the elements to produce the effects we saw yesterday.” With a stick he jabbed at the silvery effluvia. It recoiled from his poking and vanished beneath the torn up earth.
“Peculiar,” commented Traverstorm, “parageology isn’t really my area but I don’t expect ores to do that!”
He paused to kneel down and poke further at the recalcitrant silver. Maxwell immediately ran down his back and vanished into the shrubbery that covered the ground.
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Jasparz asked.
“We won’t know unless we investigate – this is a scientific expedition after all.”
Harvey had returned to them, noticing that the group had mostly stopped to watch their leader prod at mud. He snapped at the mud with his mandibles, tasting the air.
“There’s a breeze coming from these holes Rosenhatch, a cold breeze.” The great centipede reared up, extending his body over the ede of the hole while remaining firmly anchored by Traverstorm’s side. “Can you lift up some of the topsoil?” he asked of Traverstorm.
Traverstorm wedged the stick into the earth and flicked a clot of it into the air. Underneath the silver quivered and then latched onto the stick, flowing up it in thick lumpy waves. Traverstorm sensibly released it and took a step back. Jasparz took an extra step back, figuring that having double the caution of the adventurer was the bare minimum he should aim for.
“Oh, well that’s interesting,” said Harvey, still leaning over the edge of the hole. There’s a lot more of it in here – and it seems to be coming up.”
The silver pumped up out of the earth like bright treacle, bubbling and squeaking as it rubbed over itself. The stick quivered in the silver’s grip and shattered in a spray of wood fibres. The silver syrup bulged up as if a skilled glass blower lay beneath it, forming spirals and arcs in the air – a delicate silver filigree of nonsense architecture. Harvey shuffled back with Traverstorm as the silvering extended further and further into the air until it hung over them like a tree consumed with frost spirals. A mighty shriek split the air and the curls of silver folded down revealing themselves to be gleaming sharp sabres which lashed out at the trees between it and the expedition. Branches tumbled to the ground around them, and the party leaped backwards. Lances of the silvery structure dived towards them, their tips unfolding to reveal tiny sharp mouths, snapping as they drew near.
“Looks like we’ve found something interesting,” Traverstorm said as he scrambled backwards, drawing his pistols from his coat.
Jasparz just glared at him while he drew his own repeater from over his shoulder.

With that she grabbed hold of the rope that reached up into the sky, and began to haul them both up.
Coming Soon: Part 42 – It’s A Long Way Up