The Desert Crystals – Part 42: It’s A Long Way Up

Desert Crystals Part 42 – It’s A Long Way Up

desert crystals2

Previous episode, for these characters.

With a strangled bellow, Tosser finally laid a sweating hand on the solid deck of the Viper. Her other hand snatched the looped rope from Guldwych’s outstretched arms and tied them off on the Viper’s railing. She let her trembling fingers tap out their exhausted rhythm on the rough steel while she recovered enough of her strength for the next step of actually achieving the deck. Her legs dangled over a thousand feet of air. Between them hung the rather scrawnier legs of Guldwych Ryme, still firmly clasped around his waist by Tosser’s thighs.

Ryme clung to the rope will all his inconsiderable strength. It did at least make him feel like he was contributing a little to Tosser’s staggering feat of hauling them both up hundreds of feet of rope. His weak, office-bound physique had done him no good that night. Hanging onto the rope was the limit of his ability, and in all honesty his quivering arms would not even allow that little effort. Instead Tosser had taken on both their weights (something Ryme could certainly contribute to) by the relatively simple expedient of looping their lines together and gripping him about the waist with her legs. Their rather intimate connection had long since ceased to offer any hint of embarrassing excitement. That had transformed into a crippling ache which felt like Tosser had crushed his pelvis. The idea of standing on his own two feet felt like an outlandish childhood dream.

“Ready? Last one Guldwych,” Tosser gasped.

She took his mute nod for enthusiastic assent. She wrapped both fists around a rail and took a deep breath. Bracing her feet against the hull, in a single violent thrust forwards and up she surged up and onto the rail. Ryme was pinned with his back to the rail, bent over almost double.  Tosser shifted the balance of their combined weight far enough and Ryme fell backwards onto the deck only to be flattened by Tosser landing on top of him. She rolled away, allowing the professor to refill his lungs. They both lay there gasping for a while.

They were bathed in the yellow glow of lanterns hung by the main cabin door and around the edge of the deck. The night was quiet.

“Where are the crew Tosser?” asked Ryme as he regained his breath and managed to sit up. There was no one on deck, and no tell tale bang or clangs from inside the wingship. “I thought they would be up here.”

Tosser opened her eyes. “So did I. If they’re aren’t busy they should have been hard at work winching us back in.”

The life ring held only their tethers tangled together. The deck was a mess of broken crates and splinters of tooth. Of Chall himself there was no sign, and nor was there any of the rest of the crew. A patch of drying blood was the only evidence that Captain Flame had been struck by one of Chall exploding tooth fragments. The rest of the crates that Flame had stolen from the other vessel were gone, and with them all the poisons and deadly substances stored in the Meriodonal University’s deepest hoards.

“It must be Chem,” declared Ryme, “he took the first crate, and then he came back for the rest.”

“And the crew?” asked Tosser. Ryme had no answer for her.

Tosser cautiously opened the cabin door and made her way into the still-lighted ship. Doors were smashed in, and the walls themselves had hunks torn out or indented.

“Looks like they fought their way inside,” she murmured. Ryme nervously followed.

The main storage area below the deck appeared to be untouched, except for a bright slash of blood extending from within to halfway down the hall.

“A fatal blow. For someone.”

“The cargo seems untouched,” remarked Ryme, “they did come for the poisons then. But why take the crew?”

“Who’s to say they took them at all?” Tosser rounded on the man, “Why not just fling them overboard?” she demanded, and then stalked off down the ship, opening cabin doors until reaching the cockpit.

Ryme was as yet unused to the prospect of brutality in the lives of the pirates. Though he’d seen another captain killed in cold blood and their ship emptied of goods, that still felt a world away from it happening to the ship he was on. Unfortunately his former faith in Eslie Chem, long time associate and fixer had been eroded throughout their journey. The other man’s contempt for him had undermined the relationship that Ryme had thought they had. Ryme was no longer confident that Chem acted in his interests, or even that he could guess at Chem’s own interests. The shocking revelation that Chem was not even the man that Ryme thought he was had barely registered on the professor yet. In fairness he had been either unconscious, spinning in terror or being squeezed to death as they ascended.

They reached the cockpit and found that it too was empty. It was as if Captain Flame had just stepped out for a moment. Their course was still fixed, travelling toward the Razor Ridge at a leisurely pace. Tosser halted their drift, bringing them to a full stop.

“If they’ve gone overboard-” she began, “if they’re over the side we won’t see them this high.”

“Tosser,” tried Ryme gently, “if they went over the side there will be no saving them. We’re too high.”

Tosser ground frustrated tears out of her eyes.

“They’re my friends Guldwych. How can I not seek them out?”

“That spray of blood from the hold. Can we know to whom it belonged?”

Tosser shook her head.

“But it would have been a fatal wound. Why throw the dead overboard too and then just abandon the wingship?”

“Ryme, you’re a genius!” cried Tosser, grabbing him by the shoulders, “that means they’ve all been taken. Which means some of them must still be alive.”

“But taken where?”

“If they could fly the wingship they would have taken it, not just left it to drift away. There’s no airship to seek – they must be travelling on the ground.” Tosser beamed with hope.

“It’ll be dawn soon. I suggest we get some rest and pursue them in day light,” Ryme said.

Tosser nodded wearily, the toll of the climb finally showing on her face. She staggered off to their cabin and crashed out. Ryme, to his surprise felt very sore but not yet tired. He walked back out onto the deck, clipping himself back onto the life line as he went. He felt oddly stimulated, his mind filled with whirling thoughts. Uppermost in them was the desire to regain his crew mates, a group to whom he owed little, but who had also been betrayed by his old associate Eslie Chem. Ryme wanted to know why, and in particular why a Chiverly Hermit Beetle had been masquerading as his aide for years only to reveal himself while stealing the university’s most lethal substances. The world, it appeared, was not how it had seemed to be from his old office.

Coming Soon: Part 43 – Screaming Trees

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

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 39: Desert Blades

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.

DesertCrystals8

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

The Desert Crystals – Part 38: Love Letters

Part 38 – Love Letters

Last episode (for these characters)

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3rd Toothember, Embrachon

My darling Mehlion,

I found your l second letter, at last, hidden from view. It’s fortunate that I had occasion to visit the university and pay some mind to my poor abandoned office, else I’d never have spotted it through the mirror. When did you find the time to sneak into my office? The twins found theirs much earlier, and were suitably shocked to discover them!

What can I tell you, that you won’t already know by the time we see you?

Well, Chilai has lost two teeth and is presently sparring with Erlaigh in hopes of losing more. I’ve tried to tell them that there’s no haste, but you know the pair as well as I – it seems they must lose them at a matching rate else they’ll be twins no more. It seems a touch drastic, but I’ve no wish to place myself in the midst of their twinhood. Either way, I’ve a store of purple belleen flowers to reward their increasing toothlessness. I’ve no doubt they’ll be thrilled to show you their gapped grins and the frightful whistles they can now emit.

Erlaigh’s developed a charming habit of offering teas at all occasions. I suppose he takes after you my dear, in believing that all events are made better with tea. The flower-bedecked tea set you brought back from the Far Colony has been in constant use this week, with cups and saucers offered to all visitors, and even set out for the odd-weasels which still hide in the garden. It’s become a task of its own to simply gather the crockery, since it’s shared with all and sundry. I for one am keen to enjoy a Mehlion-brewed pot; Erlaigh’s a bit too keen on her own recipes gathered from the garden’s fruits. I’ve had to be rather stern with her botanical choices – can you imagine, she offered your father a draught of mulled picklenuts! It was only the scent that tipped her hand. I’ll begin a stricter regime with them tomorrow. They spend all of their time outdoors, at least that which is not at the university sub-school at least. It makes one wonder what they’re teaching them at all – perhaps I should interrogate their teachers next time I’m near the juvenile quadrant.

Oh! And I must recount to you Chilai’s other obsession that’s arisen of late. Never mind the teeth for a moment (though their ejected state and consequent riches do prey on the boy’s mind). He’s got a mind for adventure (and mischief – knowing you I gather they’re much the same thing). I’m sure you remember the fakemice that infest the garden, and endlessly chew at the thorn grass you spent those weeks planting and watering… Well, Chilai’s been teasing them out of the grasses with tiny tumblers of gortch essence. Did you know they like that stuff? I had no idea. I’ve looked it up at work, and as far as I can see, Chilai’s hit upon something new! We’re bringing up tiny scientists! I can’t help but encourage him to keep notes and despite his ghastly handscrawling I really think he might have found something new. I’ve not the heart to discourage him, so we’ve got a little cage of gortch addicted fakemice in the kitchen. Don’t worry – it’s nowhere near the pantry. The twins have established an experimental protocol and are busy domesticating the little brutes. I’m not sure I’ll ever consent to them being outside the cage, but they don’t seem to be stinging as much…

Well, that’s the twins – apart from their innate cuddleability of course! But you hardly need reminding of that. They are terribly proud of you, you know, all the way up in the air, exploring new places and finding new things. I showed them a picture of Rosenhatch Traverstorm (he’s a handsome devil – you’d best be behaving yourself up there!) and they’ve apparently been getting some attention at subschool for your antics. But what have I been doing? I hear you ask. The paper is going well but I think Professor Ryme is going to drive me mad. The endless nitpicking and questions… It’s not even a subject he’s well versed in. I’m confident in my conclusions however: the sudden evolution and rapid response to pressure is easily and clearly seen in the monkrats and char leaves. I just need to find another professor to endorse the research.

What am I thinking – you won’t have heard the latest news! Ryme is missing – presumed gone after Traverstorm! The madness. It should make it easier to find a fresh sponsor for my work. There’s that, which is proving controversial enough – he’s left without funding, and has left no travel plans. There’s also been a fresh uproar (though they’re trying to keep it quiet) – the poison vault has been raided. I know, impossible! And yet… The university is a-buzz nonetheless. Can you believe Vile Teeth and cherxen vanes are missing? I’ve always thought it a bad idea to retain the things. I mean, what could one usefully do with a substance that shreds the skin of Chiverlys? A baffling mystery. I did bump into that odd fellow who directs the annual plays , you know – the one who the say is a hermit beetle. He was conducting a rehearsal and he had an awfully good voice. I’m not so sure about his case though. I suppose I’ll have to go, but I’ll enlist your father to look after the twins. I don’t think they deserve to suffer through the show.

I’ve teased you with news enough my love. What can I say that you don’t already know? You have my heart, my beloved Mehlion. And you have the hearts of your beautiful children, who only blossom further, the better to present their adorable petals when you return. Our bed is chillier without you in it. I’ve every confidence that you’re having a fine time in the sky, but don’t forget to come back to us.

Your love,

Emaille.

Coming Soon: Part 39 – Desert Blades

The Desert Crystals – Part 37: Ask Not, Get Not

Part 37 – Ask Not, Get Not

Last episode (for these characters)

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Rectangles of reflected light bounced around the cabin as a tremor ran through Traverstorm’s hand. The scalpel he held wavered and then stilled.

“Give me another drink, just one to steady my hand.” he begged.

“No. You’ve had two, and that’s two more than I’d want anyone to have before slicing my eye open,” replied Harvey, “And my eyes don’t even see colour.”

Traverstorm perched on a camp chair by Jacob’s bunk. Harvey spilled over the opposite bunk and half up a wall, his antennae vibrating with tension. Between them squatted Jasparz, Lord Corshorn’s aide, with a tray of clean bandages, tins and a jar of the purest alcohol in the ship’s stores. There was barely room for their patient. Harvey had carefully torn out the cabin’s window frame to allow as much light as possible into the room. The delicacy of the operation had even demanded that The Dove’s Eye ascend above the gentle breeze for maximum stability.

Traverstorm eyed the jar of Bumblescrape whiskey, licked his lips anxiously, wiped his brow with his rolled up shirt sleeve and once again leaned over the unconscious boy’s face. Jacob was unconscious partly because of the giant mug of Bumblescrape he’d forced himself to drink. Traverstorm was well aware of its humbling potency, having found himself in a bush chewing buttons several times after rather serious nights out. Jacob had been given more than he’d ever considered consuming. With luck that would keep him out for the operation. In case it didn’t, Jacob was also strapped into the bunk at forehead, shoulders, elbows, waist, knees and ankles.

“Okay. It’s going to be fine. I can do this. We can do this. It’s just a little cut.” Rosenhatch’s self-help muttering only reassured himself.

“You need to do it now, look at the boy’s eye,” snapped Jasparz. Jacob’s eye looked as if it were in motion. His eyelids were spread open with the finest tongs in the adventurer’s sampling kit. The eyeball throbbed with waves of movement inside. “Delay further and there’ll be little worth in your knife. If you won’t do it, I will.”

A glance at Jasparz’ leathery and knotted hands proved to be enough motivation for Traverstorm.

“Alright, alright. Now – be ready with the pincers once I do this.”

Another deep breath, another mopping of the brow. Briefly Rosenhatch wished that he had bushier eyebrows. Or that the ship’s Death Cheater were not already occupied in removing slivers of bone from the legs of one of the crew who had taken a brutal spin around the ship. Or that he’d had another drink.

Then it was time. With infinite care and a pounding heart Traverstorm braced himself across the lad’s chest and with the scalpel drew a half inch line across Jacob’s eyeball, just underneath his iris. The surface of Jacob’s eye retreated from the incision, and the cut opened, spilling a thin fluid into his pinioned eyelid. The boy trembled under Traverstorm’s arm and he mumbled in his drunken haze.

“Alright. Pass me the pincers,” Jasparz exchanged the scalpel for the delicate instrument, intended for carefully dissecting insects and splaying their tiny bodies for examination.

There was much swallowing of gorges all round, with the exception of Harvey who had no gorge and instead found his forcipules trembling – those massive pincer legs that reached around his head. It was an especially alarming sight for Jasparz to have in the corner of his eye. In slight fright he set the contents of his tray jingling.

“I’m going to try for them now,” Traverstorm said through pursed lips. Oddly he was more relaxed now that he’d cut the boy’s eye open.

As he leaned forwards again, the pincers aiming for the opening one of the ghastly maggots began to push its way through. Its glutinous head nosed forwards, looking as if it were sniffing the air. Traverstorm quickly pinched it on either side of the head and gently tugged it out. Jasparz choked down a retch and held up the lidded can they’d put aside for holding the things. It twisted around the pincers and Traverstorm tapped it into the can.

Now that there was an exit for the grubs they seemed keen to escape their nest. Although the sight of them was spectacularly nauseating it was certainly making Traverstorm’s job easier. His main concern was getting them out before they tore new holes in Jacob’s eye, which their new urgency to leave threatened.

Traverstorm found that he needed to press down with his fingers on Jacob’s eyeball while squeezing gently around the incision to encourage the horrid brutes to escape only through that gap. It felt like the boy’s eye was bubbling and he plucked out one after another. Each one fell into the heap of its companions and writhed pathetically.

“I think I’ve got them all,” Traverstorm said as the ripples ceased. Jacob’s eye had partially collapsed, with the mass of worms taken away.

“Can you be sure?” asked Harvey, leaning as close as possible, his antennae flexing as he attempted to detect any residual movement in the boy’s eye.

Just as Traverstorm was contemplating the next step of the operation, a huge shape rolled up from under Jacob’s eye socket and wriggled across the side of his eye.

“Oh. Looks like we missed one. Maybe it knows it’s not quite its time yet.” Traverstorm glumly accepted that he was going to need to delve deeper into the boy’s eyeball than he wanted to. He could only hope that he wouldn’t do any serious damage.

“It’s swimming all round the eyeball,” said Jasparz as the shape came into view again, “if you can get the pincers in there and wait for it, it should come straight to you.”

“We’re going to need a bigger hole,” muttered Traverstorm as the grub came into view again. Taking the scalpel again he enlarged the cut by a quarter of an inch at either side. Then he pushed the pincers inside. It felt like cutting jelly with a fork in the dark.

With pincers splayed he waited for the final maggot to slide between the metal bars. Twice it nudged the pincers and moved on, but at last it nudged between the tips of the pincers. Traverstorm squeezed, trapping the creature but being careful not to pop it, and tenderly withdrew the pincers with the last squirming horror. With disgust he dropped it into the can which Jasparz quickly sealed.

Vitreous fluid dripped like tears down Jacob’s cheek. Jasparz handed Traverstorm the needle and thread.

Coming Soon: Part 38 – Love Letters