Desert Crystals Part 41 – Sharp and Nasty
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.
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