Archive for Story

Part 22: War Camp

Not terribly far from where Filia had crouched in the underbrush, a tent sat sweltering in the afternoon sun. The inside of the tent was cooler than the outside air, and more humid. Three people – a woman, a baby, and a girl – labored inside. Their bare, brown bodies were lightly dusted with the tan, desert dust as each concentrated on their own particular business.

“Amada, come get him,” Mama said, aiming her chin at the baby, who was trying to crawl up into the grinding bowl. “He keeps getting in the way, and I need to finish the bread for lunch. The sound of that trumpet says that the men have returned early.”

“Yes, Mama,” Amada replied. She dropped the pestle into the mortar and set both on the rug beside her. She got up and scooped the baby into her arms.

“What are you doing, baby?” Amada asked the infant, who stared up into her face wide-eyed for a long moment before starting to squirm, wanting back down.

“Keep him over there for a bit,” Mama said, and Amada nodded. “I need to finish this grind and then I can feed him.”

Amada set the infant on the rug beyond the mortar and then resumed grinding. As the baby tried to crawl back toward his mother Amada would turn him to face the other way, then resume crushing the salt crystals into powder. Mama finished grinding the grain, poured the flour into a jar and then picked up the infant. She offered the little boy a nipple and then started setting up the mixing table. Amada finished her batch of salt, emptied the powder into another, smaller jar and then started grinding another batch.

“Amada, have you seen the sweet spice?” Mama asked as she searched through a pile of luggage.

“No, Mama,” Amada replied.

“I thought it was here,” she said, stooping down to rummage through the leather sacks while balancing her nursing child on her hip, “but I do not see it.”

“That’s where we always keep it, isn’t it?” Amada asked, pausing from her work. The sweet spice was essential to the making of the travel bread. Without it the bread was tasteless and would soon mold.

“Oh, here it is,” Mama said, pulling out a small sack. “No,” she amended, “it’s empty.” She frowned. “That’s no good.”

“How are we going to make the bread?” Amada asked, distress creeping into her voice.

“Aunt Joi will have some,” Mama said confidently. She fetched another sack from the luggage. “Here. Take this over to your Aunt Joi’s and trade her this for some sweet spice. Hurry so I can cook them after I finish the meat.”

Amada nodded and got up. She stowed the mortar and took the sack from Mama. She stepped toward the entry to the tent, then turned aside and grabbed a headdress off a peg driven into a tent pole.

“I don’t want to forget my bas!” Amada chirped.

“Not now, Amada, you’re only going to Aunt Joi’s,” Mama protested.

“No, I must wear it,” Amada replied, trying to put the awkward headdress on. “I am not a little girl anymore who can go out naked in the sun. What would Father think?”

“No one will see you,” countered Mama. “All the men are fighting today and all the boys are hunting. Hurry before anyone can see you.”

“No,” Amada said, placing the headdress on her head and starting to tie it on. “I am a young woman now, not a skinny naked girl. Look — see? look at all that hair I have grown!” She tugged on the wisps of curly hair that graced her pubis. “I cannot go out with my face uncovered.”

Mama sighed impatiently, then helped thread the ties of the headdress through the loops braided into the hair of Amada’s head. The girl did not protest when Mama cinched them tight, somehow managing to pull on every single hair on her head. A cascade of ropes fell down about her body, and a veil fell down over her face, darkening the whole world.

“I can’t see,” Amada complained. In response Mama adjusted the veil so that the eye-slit lined up with the girl’s eyes.

“You can see just fine,” Mama retorted. “Now go.” Mama gave Amada a gentle swat on her bare backside and turned back to her work.

Amada pushed through the tent door and looked around. Their tent was in the middle of the camp, and all she could see was other tents. There was no one else in sight. She straightened and started walking. It only took her a few strides to reach the main street through the camp. It was not as deserted as her mother had tried to impress on her. Small children ran and screamed, women of every age walked here and there, jars and sacks balanced on their wide-brimmed bais, and a few elders also strode the streets, their leathers slapping against their own leathery skin. Amada fretted a moment. She was really no bigger than most of the children still running in the streets, their faces as uncovered as the rest of their bodies. Would the women laugh at her for wearing the bas? She noted a group of women walking toward her. They all had sacks balanced on top their bais, and were chatting as they walked. They were headed in the direction of Aunt Joi’s, so Amada fell in with them. They allowed her to join them without comment. She admired the bangles they had added to the ropes suspended from their bais and from the fringes of their veils, and noted that the bas could be fashionable as well as utilitarian. The group threaded their way into the mass of tents on the other side of the street, and she followed, leaving the open space behind. After a moment they were joined by another woman who fell in behind Amada. The new woman crowded in, and Amada glanced back at her. She was startled to see that this stranger was different from the other women. The skin that shown generously between the ropes of her bas was much lighter than Amada’s, as was the fuzz of hair between her legs. Her bas was tipped on her head. She tried to steady the bas with her hand, and Amada could see that her eyes were wide behind her veil. Those eyes were a color Amada had never seen before. Amada had never seen a woman like her. Their eyes met for just a moment, and then the strange woman turned away and hurried between two tents. Amada was startled to see a nasty wound, barely healing, across one hip. She also noticed that the woman’s buttocks were even whiter than the rest of her skin, and realized with a shock that the stranger had actually smeared some dark substance on her body to darken her skin, and had somehow missed her backside. Amada stopped dead, staring down the short alleyway the stranger had vanished down. Should she follow the strange woman, and tell her she missed a spot? Should she tell one of the other women? Not far away Amada recognized the sound of Aunt Joi’s voice, and remembered her errand. Torn between two problems, Amada finally decided to press on.

Amada found Aunt Joi outside her tent. Hamad, her son, was with her.

“… were returning, so we all ran in from the bush,” he was explaining to his mother. Hamad was a few years older than her, and he wore a leather belt on which he carried his knife and water bag. Amada wondered why the men got to wear belts. A belt would not interfere with the bas. Perhaps she would mention it to Mama. As she approached Hamad saw her and smiled.

“Amada!” he called. “The hunters have returned!” He let off a high-pitched imitation of a man’s war cry, and his mother slapped him good-naturedly on the shoulder.

“Amada,” she asked, “What do you need?”

“Mother sent me to get some sweet spice for our bread.”

“Oh, I don’t have any either,” she said. “I used the last of mine for my bread. Here,” she handed another small sack to Amada. “Go with Hamad to the spice lady and get some more for us all.”

“Yes, Aunt Joi,” Amada said, taking the sack.

“Come on!” Hamas said, bounding away toward the street. Amada hesitated, and turned back to her aunt.

“Just a moment ago I saw a very strange woman,” Amada said.

“What do you mean, strange?” Aunt Joi asked.

“Her skin was pale, so pale she had to darken it, and she acted like she did not know how to wear a bas.”

Aunt Joi nodded. “Was she one of Doomas Bahtah’s wives?” she asked.


“The new tribe that joined us two days ago here. He comes from the Broken Hills. He has some slave wives, women that he captured in battle. Was she one of those?”

Amada frowned. “She might have been. Now that I think about it, she was hurt.”

Her aunt frowned. “I may go check on that. These hill people don’t always take care of their woman as they ought, even if they are slaves. Now hurry on, and get that spice so your mother can make her bread.”

Amada hurried after Hamad. As she ran the ropes that were supposed to surround and conceal her body instead bounced off and caught between her legs. She caught up with him at the road and together they hurried up to the head of the camp. There they ran into a crowd of people who were milling about the Chief’s tent. Amada saw her father and ran up to him.


He looked at her uncomprehendingly for a moment before breaking out into a smile. He caught her in his arms, but quickly released her.

“Daughter of mine, I did not know you in your new bas!” he said, a bright smile showing through his beard. He was covered in dust from the road, and the leather straps that hung about his body were hot from the sun. Amada felt moisture on her skin. She looked down and saw a smear of blood on her belly. She looked at her father’s face in shock.

“Are you hurt?” she asked, looking down at his waist, the source of the blood. There, suspended beside his own dangling manhood, was a set of severed genitals. It was they that had been the source of the blood. Amada felt, in rapid succession, relief that the wound was not her father’s, revulsion that she had just touched some man’s dead penis, pride that her father had been victorious in battle, and fascination with the bloody tokens. These feelings all replayed themselves again when Hamad touched them, and her father stood still while the youth handled them. As she stood and watched, fascinated and repulsed, she compared her cousin’s own small organs – brown, round and vital – to the adult set pinioned on her father’s belt – pale grey, limp, and flattened – and had a terrible vision of another boy, one day far too soon, admiring Hamad’s cluster as a gathered token of victory. She shook that image from her head.

Her father took her by the shoulders and spun her about, breaking her reverie. “We have taken a prisoner. Look!” He took her by the hips and lifted her up so she could see over the crowd. In the center there was a clearing, and she could see the chief seated, and standing beside him was a bald man with no armor and an odd-looking wrap around his waist. Most amazing, laid in front of them was the naked body of a man whose entire body was blue. At first she thought he was dead, but then he moved a bit. She could hear the chief asking him something, and then her father lowered her back down.

“Did you see him?” her father asked.

“I saw a blue man!” she said.

“A blue man?” Hamad asked, and her father repeated the maneuver with Hamad. Amada waited, wiping at the blood drying on her skin. Suddenly it occurred to her that Mama was waiting for her spice.

“Father, Mama sent me to get sweet spice, and I have to get it back to her to make the bread.”

“Go, then. I will tell you all about it when we eat.”

“Amada,” Hamad said as he dropped back down, “buy some for us too.” He tossed the bag to her, and she nodded, and headed off.

Amada circled around the crowd until she was back in the mass of tents, then headed for the tent of the spice lady. As she walked she thought about that blue man and wondered what they would do to him before they killed him. It occurred to her that the tokens her father had carried had been very pale, but still normally colored, not blue. She thought about that woman with her pale backside, and wondered if there was a connection. She wandered in thought for a moment, realized she was lost in a maze of twisty little passages where all the tents looked alike, and then headed back to the street to get her bearings. She found them, and after a few moments of walking she found the spice lady’s tent. The spice lady was actually named Famina, and Amada could see her inside as she approached. Famina waved her in, and Amada entered, bowing. Famina was obviously holding shop, for she was wearing a bas, although she had the cords all drawn up and stowed on top.

“Young Amada,” Famina said, “I almost didn’t recognize you in your new bas. How do you like it?”

“I like it,” Amada said proudly. “Mama and Aunt Joi sent me to get some sweet spice.”

Famina frowned. “I do not have sweet spice anymore. The new tribes need it, and the chief has taken all of mine to trade with them.”

“Mama needs it to make the bread with,” Amada protested.

“At least you still have grain for bread,” Famina said. “The chief has taken some of my grain also.” She considered a moment. “Perhaps I can sell you something else,” she said. “Anise? Sweetleaf?”

“I …” Amada thought. “I don’t think so. Mama said sweet spice.” She thought for a moment. “Would anyone else have some?”

“The spice woman from Doomas Bahtah’s tribe has all of mine,” Famina grumbled. “Why not go ask her?”

Amada quailed at the thought of going to strangers, but the spice was needed. “Where is she?”

“Just on the other side of the animal pen. Look for a red tent.”

Amada nodded and left the tent. She hurried, the ropes from her bas again dancing across her body and entangling themselves in her legs. She gathered them up in one hand to allow herself more freedom to run. The crowd was still gathered, but some people were already walking away. She saw her father and Hamad among them. She ran to catch up.

“Father!” she called. He turned and waited. “The spice lady has no sweet spice to sell us. She said it all went to the new tribe.”

He frowned. “They are taking all the water too. They need to know to share, or there will not be enough.”

“What will we do when the next tribe joins us?” Hamad asked.

Father pondered. “The chief will likely move us soon to a larger space with more water.” He nodded. “Perhaps the blue man will tell him where there is more water here.”

“Were there more blue people?” asked Amada.

“The people we ambushed were very pale, but not blue. We think there may have been another with him, a woman. We did not see her, though.”

“A blue woman,” said Hamad, his eyes wide.

“Perhaps,” Father said. He looked down at the two youth. “Hamad, take Amada to the new tribe. It is past the animal pen.”

“The spice lady said to look for a red tent.”

“Good idea. Hurry! I will tell Mama.”

The two children ran off, the unencumbered Hamad outpacing Amada in her tangling garb. He stopped and waited for her several times before they reached the animal paddock. It was a large oval roped off that held the pack animals. There were goats, and a few horses, but most of the animals were the pack lizards, the six-legged staple of the southern desert. These stood motionless in place, their tongues slowly forking in and out. Slower than the horses, but sturdier and with better endurance, they carried the tribe everywhere. Looking across the paddock, Amada caught a glimpse of red.

“There,” she said, pointing, and the two headed off around the animal pen. As the children walked past the animal pen they passed a number of people from the new tribe. Amada openly stared at the strangers. Their skin was the same brown as hers, but their dress was very, very different. Their men wore no leather, but instead sported armor made from tubes strung on cords. Rather than hanging free as Father’s did, their male parts were looped with cord and tied to their belts, almost like their cluster was already a token of war. Amada was shocked to see the men displayed so. The women were also dressed very oddly. Their faces were completely uncovered, as were their entire torsos. Whereas her own naked body was veiled by the long ropes hanging from the wide brim of the bas on her head, these women only wore strips of woven grass attached to a thin cord that circled the waist and passed between the labia. It looked very uncomfortable. Their children were completely naked, except for the older girls who wore a string between their legs like the women, and the older boys who were tied up like the men. Amada shook her head, amazed at their brazen immodesty. All members of that tribe painted their faces with some sort of green and pink paint. Their language was familiar enough for Amada to understand, but it was spoken with a thick accent. It occurred to Amada that the pale woman had been properly dressed in a bas, not naked like these people. The two children hurried past them all, heading for the red tent. They reached it unchallenged, and stopped at the door. Inside sat a woman, dressed like the others of her tribe except she had no face paint. She looked as old as Aunt Joi. She looked up at them.

“What do you want?” she asked brusquely.

“Sweet spice,” Amada answered immediately. She had no intention of being intimidated by this stranger.

“What is that?” the woman asked. “I have never heard of it.”

“We use it to make out bread,” Amada replied, then paused. She had no idea how to explain to this stranger what the spice actually was. “The spice lady said you got some from us when you arrived.”

The strange woman frowned, staring at them. Amada thought the woman was about to yell at them for bothering her, and she was at a loss as to what to do if that happened. The woman did not yell at her, however, but stood and pulled a satchel down from a wall and opened it.

“Do you see it in here?” she asked. Amada approached carefully and looked in the satchel. She saw a number of smaller sacks. One had familiar markings. Amada lifted it and sniffed it.

“This is it, I think,” Amada said. The half-naked stranger took the bag and opened it and showed Amada the spice. “Yes, that’s it.”

“What will you give me for it?” she asked. Amada handed her the sacks she had accumulated. The strange woman examined the sacks, examined the two children, then shrugged.

“All right,” she said, and handed the spice to Amada. “This is all I have. I traded you for it, and now you trade me back for it.”

“You didn’t trade me for it,” Amada replied, bemused. “I never saw you before.”

“I mean I traded your tribe for it,” she amended. “I had never seen that spice before. It was in the satchel I got when we met you. I had hoped for some left-handed spice, but you don’t seem to have that, and now we’re out.”

“Left-handed spice?” Hamad asked. “What is that?”

“We use it on cuts, to make them stop hurting,” she said. “It would have been useful to have some, since we’re all going to war. I think we will be seeing many cuts in the days to come.”

Amada flashed-back to the vision she had earlier of Hamad’s perfect parts as a war token. “How big of a cut does it work on?”

The stranger looked in her eyes for a moment. “Probably not as big a cut as you are thinking of,” she said. “If I had known we were going to war I would have found more left-handed spice, and also found some red-eye berries and some fairy-hair plant. We left so suddenly I had no time to do that.”

“Yes,” Hamad said, “we left suddenly too. My father was out hunting and we did not even wait for him to return. He had to catch up to us. It took him two days.”

“Were you worried?”

Hamad bit his lip and frowned, then shook his head. “No, my father is a great hunter. He could easily see where we had gone. Finding us was easy for him.” The stranger nodded knowingly. Amada felt that she was perhaps not so strange after all. “What did they tell you when they told you you were leaving?” asked Amada.

The stranger frowned. “It was so sudden. This man came to the camp. He was strange, because he wore strange clothes, and spoke in a strange accent. He spoke with the chief, and then the chief said we had to go. That was it.”

“What was strange about his clothes?”

She pondered. “It looked at first like they were made with blue leather, but when I got close enough to see it I could see it was not leather at all. I do not know what it was … but it was not leather. And he had trousers — very, very, small, short trousers.” She thought some more. “And he had metal to connect it. Brass. That was unusual also.” She shrugged. “Whatever he was wearing, the chief listened to him like he was the messenger of the gods, and we packed up and left. So here we are.”

The three stood silently for a moment, then Amada spoke.

“Well, I need to get this back to Mama so she can finish the bread.”

“Yes, go now,” the stranger said, not unkindly. “We all must finish preparing for the journey across the desert.”

Amada and Hamad worked their way back around the animal pen. As they walked they studied the strangers, noting their strange dress and speech. Once back at the street they hurried along to their respective homes. As they stranger had said, there was much work yet to be done. Father and Mama were both busy, in and out of the tent, and Amada was busy also. Once back in the tent she doffed the bas and hung it back up with care, not wanting to dirty it while cooking or packing, both of which were activities best performed naked. Mama already had the oven hot and the dough rising. Amada watched the baby and kneeded in the spice while Mama and Father fussed over the saddle baggage. There was talk of another tribe coming, and Father was agitated about that for some reason. Amada listened in quietly as she worked, and finally realized that Father was upset because the two tribes had recently been at war. It seemed someone Father knew had died in that war. He kept mentioning a name, but Amada did not recognize it. After a while Father left and Mama continued to work by herself. After a short while Amada spoke.

“Mama, who was this person that Father said died in the war with this new tribe?”

Mama frowned. “It was his brother.”

Amada was shocked. “Brother?” She was silent, stunned by the revelation. “I didn’t know Father had a brother.”

“He was killed a few years ago. Your father still mourns him, but he does not talk about him. You met him many times, but you were young and probably don’t remember him.”

Mama turned away, and Amada realized that she was upset by all this talk of war and dying. Amada felt a chill inside. She could again feel the cold of the blood from the dead man’s flesh. The vision from earlier returned, but this time it was not Hamad’s perfect parts on the stranger’s belt, but Father’s. Her stomach clenched in fear. She had no where to turn, though, for Mama was still hiding her face, and so Amada put her face back to her work. It was now time to bake the bread, and she set to patting the dough into patties. Once this was done she took them and her baby brother outside and began and cooking the patties in the small stone oven set up between the tents. When she had four flat loaves baked and cooled she bundled them into a package with some twine and hung them up on a line that hung between their tent and the next.

The baking was a time consuming process that could neither be rushed nor ignored. That was alright, though, because Amada had the baby to entertain her, and friends would stop by, and Amada could always just sit and watch the traffic in the nearby alleyway. She even thought she might have seen that strange woman with the pale skin and strange eyes go by. After a while Hamad stopped by and exchanged some meat for some bread. Mama took the meat and cooked it with some roots and herbs. By the time it was done the sun was setting. Amada was finished with the last loaves and Father had returned with the news that the new tribe had arrived, and that they were all off in the morning to cross the desert. They all sat down to eat dinner together in the tent. Before they did Father took off his belt and hung it on a peg.  There was little conversation as they ate, and Amada found her eyes drifting back and forth between the limp, gray token pinned to her father’s belt and his own live member. Before long she was so nervous she could not eat. Mama also ate little, and got up to pack. Amada went outside and started to pack up the bread into a basket for they journey. She paused to count the loaves.

“Mama, did you already start packing the bread?” She asked when Mama emerged from the tent behind her.

“No, why?”

Amada frowned and pointed. “I’m missing a bundle.”

“We gave one to Hamad, remember?”

“Yes, but I am still missing another. See? Hamad took that one,” she pointed at a gap in the line of bundles hanging on the line. “But there was one there too,” she pointed at the very end of the line, where there was a space between the last bundle and the tent wall. Mama and she studied the line for a long moment.

“Well, either you counted wrong or someone who needed it took it. Let’s pack the rest.”

Amada and Mama packed the remaining cakes into a basket, then took down the line and stowed it. The basket with the bread got added to the luggage, and then Mama pulled out the water bottles. She rinsed them out and carefully began dividing the remaining sweet spice into portions to be added to the bottles to sweeten the water. Once this was done she handed them all to Amada.

“Take these down to the well and fill them.”

Amada nodded. She looked up at her bas, but Mama shook her head.

“It’s getting dark. No one will see you anyway. Just go.”

Amada hesitated, then nodded. She walked out into the growing dusk with the empty water bottles as her only garb. She felt naked, which was odd since she had really just started wearing the bas a day or so ago, and had walked around with nothing on for most of her life. Still, she hurried and hoped Hamad was not at the well.

The well was located next to the chief’s tent, or rather the chief’s tent had been pitched right next to the well. The well was a large, low structure of stone with steps that spiraled down from the surface to the water. Amada had been there several times since they had camped. Now there was a small crowd. Most of the people there were girls like herself, with a few boys and women thrown in. Drawing water was not a task a man would generally do in camp. Amada stood by the entrance until it was her time to go down. As she waited she looked around the compound. In front of the chief’s tent a stake had been pounded into the ground, and the blue man had been tied to it with a leather cord. He was still alive, although it looked like he had been beaten some. Blood stained his face and body. Two boys sat nearby with long, thin sticks. They were saying things at him, too far away for her to hear, but she didn’t think they were kind things. Occasionally one or the other would swat him with a stick. Amada looked away. She wished they would just kill him and get it over with. Then it was her turn, and she entered the well.

The stone was warm at the surface but cooled rapidly as she descended. Lower down the walls of the well were damp. The first time she had visited the well she had only to go down a few dozen steps to reach the water. Now she had to go twice that far; the entire camp only had two wells, and there were many people in the camp. Little of the fading light of day reached down to this level. Amada walked a step or two down into the water, so that she could reach past the muddy water she knew would be at the edge of the well. She filled each of the bottles carefully, knowing this water might need to last her family for several days. She had almost finished when the sounds of shouting filtered down from above. She hurried to fill the last bottles, then struggled back up with the full bottles, her belly knotted with fear. The scene she emerged into was one of chaos. There were people running everywhere, and people shouting. The sky had darkened, and Amada could see that there was a a large fire burning down towards where the animal pen was. Suddenly a goat ran past her, followed by a boy chasing it. They ran into the nearby tents, and Amada could see that there was a fire burning somewhere in the tents as well. She looked down towards where her family’s tent was, and was horrified to see fire and smoke in that direction also. Abandoning the water bottles, Amada starting running home. She hadn’t gotten far when a horse lunged out of the darkness, leaping and neighing. Amada looked up and was startled to see the pale woman and the blue man astride it. The blue man was clinging tightly to the horse’s neck, and the pale woman was clinging tightly to him. He pointed back toward the well, and the horse suddenly lunged past her. It ran to where her water bottles lay and suddenly stopped. The pale woman tumbled off into the dust, then got up, grabbed one of her water bottles, handed it up to the blue man, then climbed back on the horse and rode off with the blue man into the darkness.

Part 21: Council of War

That one, yes, the red one, hand it …”
” … Philatus needs one too, and I will … “
” … Junitius says that Amoxio is coming up. I need to get ready …”

The common room buzzed with activity as young acolytes and resident assistants moved in and out, carrying food and ointments, medicines, clothes, pillows and various other aids and comforts. Molli sat on a stone wall and watched, bemused and befuddled.

The pace at the Department of Animal Reconnaissance had picked up dramatically in the last twelve hours. Molli had been working there as an adjunct to a regional dragon squad for seven months and had never seen so many people in the building at one time. Then had come the news of the crash of the Constant Vision, and the whole place sprang to life.

Molli only knew a few people that had left with the great airship, and they had returned after the first bad storm. It had been a small flight of dragon riders with their mounts. After the first storm, two of the younger dragons had proved too unruly and were sent back. They were from her squad. Still, the idea that the ship had gone down was distressing. She had spent the last eight hours coordinating between the Whind adepts in the Department and her squad as they made high-altitude flights in an attempt to establish contact with the downed ship. The effort was exhausting, as she had to switch back and forth between what she thought of as her human mind and her dragon mind.

The small scout dragons were very odd creatures. Based on a six-limbed body plan, she knew from her classes that they had a more distributed brain than the four-limbed creatures on Kethrios. Their bones were lighter and harder, although once broken they healed much slower. They had many small hearts distributed throughout their bodies, and their method of reproduction was complex to say the least. Their eyes were more like the eyes of insects than the eyes of humans and their skin had both hair and scales. Communicating with them was possible, but it required special training, and special treatment. Molli had been chosen while young for her particular empathy with the creatures. A long regimen of instruction and medication had allowed her to hear their thoughts, and to send them instructions from a distance. Even with the training and treatments, such an effort required great concentration. She had summoned one from the squad’s aerie, and was now resting.

“Molli!” The call came from an older woman who stood at the door. “Thellon needs you.” Without another word, the woman turned and left. Molli got up and followed, leaving behind the busy room and heading up the narrow stairways to the room above. That room was darker, quieter. Molli stood a moment, allowing her eyes to adjust to the darkness. In a circle sat seven adepts, their blue skin making them almost invisible in the gloom. Several of them wore bandages across their blind eyes. One woman wore a shawl around her shoulders, and one man wore a turban on his head, but otherwise they were nude, to allow a more free flow of the Whind to penetrate them. It reminded her of the Great Defenders in the park.

“Molli.” She turned to see the woman gesturing from another door on the other side of the room. Molli picked her way across, weaving around scattered personal effects. She reached the woman and passed into another room, smaller and better lit. As the woman closed the door, Molli recognized her as Administrator Jerra, assistant to the Department head. Also inside was a female adept named Thellon, and two dragon riders that were outfitted for flight. Thellon looked pale and tired; rivulets of sweat traced down her blue tattooed skin from shoulder to shin.

“Molli, we need you to go up to the aerie and settle the dragons,” Thellon said, turning her blind eyes towards Molli. “All these flights, and the use of the adepts is making them restless. Fights are breaking out, and some of them have started regurgitating.”

“Are the riders not able to settle them?” Molli asked.

“We can settle our own mounts,” replied one of the riders, a young boy named Keli. “But not the others.”

“What about the adepts?” Molli asked. “Can they have any influence?”

“They have tried,” Thellon said. “It seemed to work for a while, but then then it became hard to communicate with the animals. We’re not sure why. We need you to go up and settle them all down.”

Molli nodded. “I’ve summoned one just now, Pretty Wings is her name. She’ll be here in a few minutes. I can take her up.”

“No,” Jerra countered, “we still need Pretty Wings to take Keli up. The cell has tuned into him.” She nodded at the door, indicating the adepts in the room beyond, “They’re ready to take their next reading.”

“Have we gotten any more news of the downed crew?” Molli asked.

“None since the first word,” Jerra replied. “We’re seeing things, but no actual contact has been made. There’s something blocking our communications there also.”

Molli looked over at Thellon, who shifted her weight from one foot to the other. The day was not an especially warm one, but the thin woman was covered in sweat. Molli knew it had to be from the exertion of using the Whind. The blue hue of her skin had paled almost to normal human tones, and her hands shook. Molli thought at first it was a chill, but then realized that the poor woman was so overwrought with fatigue that she was shaking. Not for the first time Molli was glad that her own training had taken her down a different path than that of an adept. Molli had no desire to see her own skin turn that color, or to subject herself to the rigors of an adept’s life.

“I will summon another dragon down, Administrator,” Molli said. Jerra nodded while Molli took a moment to concentrate. “I feel Pretty Wings nearby.” Molli nodded at Keli. “She’ll be landing soon.”

“Thank you for your help, Molli,” Jerra said. “I know this isn’t exactly your usual role.”

“I enjoy going to the aerie,” Molli said. “It’s scary, but it’s exciting too.”

“Come back down when you have the situation under control,” Jerra said and headed back into the council chamber. Thellon followed unsteadily.

“Let’s go,” Molli said to Keli. He nodded and followed Molli out of the open room and onto the flight platform outside. The other rider, a girl inexplicably named Horse, followed. Like all dragon riders, both were still young, just into their teens, and small even for their tender age. Their gear was minimal to save weight. Both wore thin leather gloves and a short leather coat with a high collar. Over the coat was a sturdy leather harness. The harness had a pair of straps with spring-loaded hooks used to secure the rider on the steed. Below the waist they wore open chaps. Molli knew that part of the reason was so that the riders could have skin-to-skin contact with the dragon. There was another reason as well; Molli didn’t want to think about that. Each rider was equally slender and undeveloped. Except for the modest dab of their different genders they could be identical twins. When trio reached the flight platform the two riders stood hand in hand and watched as the great lizard approached. Molli hung back, not as bold around the big animals as the riders were.

Pretty Wings was named for her rainbow-colored wings. The animal was not strictly a “she”, as the dragons rotated through three different genders during their lives, but the riders usually picked a gender for the mounts as a matter of convenience. She swept in, her wings ballooning out as she slowed and landed. Horse patted Keli’s backside familiarly as Pretty Wings settled onto the stone floor, then Horse cupped her hands and made a step for Keli as he vaulted up onto the dragon’s back. Pretty Wings crouched as the boy snapped himself to the dragon’s harness. Molli felt the mind of the dragon push into hers, and they exchanged a greeting. As always when she was close to the dragon, Molli’s mouth salivated involuntarily, her eyes watered, and she tasted a metallic tang on her tongue. Then Keli urged Pretty Wings on, and the dragon sprang over the edge of the platform. Rider and steed vanished from sight for a moment, then reappeared in flight, swooping away and climbing. Molli watched for a moment, then turned to go back.

“Are you going to call another dragon?” Horse asked as they re-entered the room.

“Yes,” replied Molli. She had already begun the simple mantra in her mind to help her prepare for the task.

“Are you flying up there?”

“Yes. Would you mind going and getting me some gear?”

Part 21: Council of War

“OK.” Horse left on the errand, and Molli began to chant quietly. She went to the edge of the room, where a low wall with pillars looked out to sea. She looked out across the waters, wondering what was happening out there, so far away at the crash site. The open sea helped her calm her mind, and she began to hear the thoughts of the dragons in her mind. She had been bonded to the dragons of a particular aerie, and unless she was physically close she would not hear any others. She asked which of the dragons were in the aerie, and listened to the answers. She thought about which dragons were bigger and which were healthier, and chose one that she felt could carry her weight. She negotiated with it, asking its indulgence, feeling its amusement at her impertinence and feeling grateful when it agreed to come. She could feel the wind under its wings as it leaped out into the open air. She savored that feeling, feeling the beat of its wings.

So enraptured was she that Horse had to take her hand and turn her around when the girl returned. Knowing the thick dullness that always followed communion with the dragons, Molli silently gestured to Horse and held her arms out to her sides. Horse had brought another rider back with her, a boy named Josck. Together the two of them undid Molli’s belt and vestments, carefully laying the blue fabric aside before beginning to dress her in the riding leathers. Molli patiently allowed them to minister to her as she waited for her mind to clear and for language to return. The feeling of their gentle hands on her skin helped her focus.

Once they were done she pulled on the harness, the goggles, and the gloves. By that time the dragon, Sir Maxim, was near. She let each rider take one of her hands and lead her to the platform. Sir Maxim was an older dragon with dark green wings. It had been male when named, but was now in the bearing phase, the carrying pouches on its throat puffy and engorged. It pushed into her mind and tears flowed down her cheeks. She felt two hands on her bottom, pushing her forward, and Sir Maxim crouched for her. The two teens helped her up, and she settled onto its back. Its body was hot between her thighs as she hastily hooked onto the harness and seized the handles. She was no rider, and had to rely on the dragon to get her safely to the aerie. One mighty surge and they were falling. Her heart skipped a beat, and then they were flying.

The first few moments of flight were paralyzing, as always. Once her mind took control, however, she quickly began to enjoy the flight. It was always a thrill to see Selkwyth spread out below her. She could not look straight down, because of the dragon’s width, but she could see much of the landscape below: homes and businesses, temples and factories, parks and roads. There were carriages, both drawn and motorized. She could see people, although they were indistinct dots from that height. And she could see the ships.

As a member of the dragon corps, Molli had never really been in line to serve in either the navy or the air corps. She had gone on a ship once, just to learn how a dragon squad worked aboard on of the great iron warships, but the cruise was only a two-day shakedown and she spent most of it working. As such she still had a great curiosity about the workings of boats and ships, and especially of the airships. She cast about now, looking for one of those great dirigibles. She quickly spotted one, then another, and another. The air over Selkwyth was seldom empty, as the great airships were constantly coming and going, connecting the diverse parts of Selkwyth’s empire. The closest airship was probably a mile distant. If she listened carefully she could hear the thrum of its engines.

Molli looked next for the great shipyards. Located near the coast, they were where most vessels started their lives, and rested when not at sea. The dragon’s flight would not take them close, but she could see the various ships, from the small corvettes to the great battleships. She allowed herself the luxury of just staring at them as the beast dragged their weight higher and higher into the air. Next she cast about for the airfield, and the huge hangars where the airships lived. They were further inland, and in fact they were flying over them. The first thing that caught her eye was a great, long vessel she knew had to be called the Righteous Victor.

Almost immediately after hearing that the Constant Vision had gone down, Molli heard that another airship was being sent to rescue the downed aviators. It wasn’t long before a name emerged: Righteous Victor. This airship was well-known. The second of the Victor-class of vessels, it was over 800 feet long. Not as large as the Constant Vision, the Righteous Victor was designed to optimize two aspects of airship performance: speed and firepower. With four nacelles it could easily outrun weather and enemies. As for firepower, Molli had read the accounts in the papers and in the official reports of the vessel’s prodigious output. In a recent battle, the Righteous Victor had reduced an enemy stronghold to rubble in less than a day.

Molli shivered suddenly, clutched harder to the saddle. Sir Maxim sensed this and stiffened just for a moment before resuming his labors. Molli watched as the scene below slowly scrolled by. Far below she could see a steady stream of small carts moving in and out of the waiting airship. Smoke billowed from the rear two nacelles, and faintly heard the whine of the giant fans. She tried to picture the scene where this massive warship was headed, but could not. In fact, she wasn’t sure she really wanted to try. That would only make her feel more vulnerable.

For many minutes she watched the landscape below slowly change from heavy industry to light industry to campus to residential to farms and finally to forest. They were over the mountains now, and were approaching the aerie. She looked ahead and tried to determine which one it was. The mountains were pockmarked with caves, and many were dragon aeries. Of those, most were inhabited by wild dragons and smaller species. Others held private or commercial liveries. Of the ones in use by the government, some few were the redoubts of great dragons, either retired or on medical leave and separated from their clans. Even with all those other caves set aside, though, there were still many caves in use by the Corps, and she had not been to her own assigned aerie often enough to recognize it from a distance.

Once they reached the mountains she saw more airborne travelers. Most of them were on dragons, but a few were in gliding rigs. These small aircraft were unpowered vehicles that were held aloft by the updrafts created when the ocean winds hit the mountains and flew upwards. Fragile as a rule, they were unreliable and risky, and as such attracted a particular audience. She watched a few as they negotiated a distant slope. She hoped fervently that her job never took her so far afield as to need one of those. Also in the air were a few odd-looking vessels. She saw a personal blimp or two, but more unusual were the crabships: strange flying craft held up by plates of levitating stone. They moved unlike any flying vessel she had ever seen elsewhere. All these other craft fell behind, however, once she entered the valleys and hills of the dragon aeries. Here the animals ruled.

Sir Maxim slipped down a narrow valley suspended on a mountainside, his wings moving constantly to adjust their course. She smelled the fragrance of the forest below, and felt humidity climb. She had forgotten how dry the air aloft could be. In her mind she felt the faint probings of many dragon minds as they passed aerie after aerie. She began to dread what she knew would come soon. Her eyes scanned the walls of the canyon, but it wasn’t until Sir Maxim began to flap harder that she spotted the entrance. The hillside became a high wall of stone coming inexorably closer, and she could feel the muscles under Sir Maxim’s hide moving like steel cables under her thighs. The sound of his wings came echoing back from the canyon walls. Sick anticipation twisted her insides and made her heart hammer in her chest. The entrance rushed up at them, and they went in.

The heat of the aerie was the first thing she experienced, followed a moment later by the musky smell. Sir Maxim skimmed the entrance area, gliding just a handsbreadth above the stone for meters before landing lightly on his feet. Molli braced herself for what she knew would come next. She knew that other dragon talkers had similar experiences, but it wasn’t talked about openly. As soon as Sir Maxim cleared the threshold of the aerie she unclipped, before he even touched down. As his claws clattered on the stone she swung her legs over his side and dropped to the ground, dancing aside to miss his great wings. She stepped up to the wall of the aerie, facing it, already feeling the pressure of so many minds pressing in in her. She steeled herself, but the sudden presence in her mind of so many dragons nearby was overwhelming.

The experience of having an alien mind in her own was always a challenge. Having so many come in at once was just overwhelming. Her eyes watered as if she had been slapped, and she had to swallow rapidly to keep her mouth clear of the saliva. Her nose began to run. Experience had taught her not to try and fight what came next, and she felt a moment of gratitude that riders wore only open chaps. Her legs locked, and her womb convulsed as an involuntary orgasm wracked her body. Before that even finished a blast of gas preceded a shower of urine that splashed at her feet. Her stomach heaved once, and again, but she successfully held back the vomit. Her vision went dim, then black as over a dozen minds crowded into her own, each one thrusting in a greeting. Her hand on the cave wall was all that held her upright as she swayed in place, trying to cope with the assault.

When she came back to her senses, she was being led by the hand, while someone walked beside her. In a moment her vision returned, and she knew that two dragon riders were escorting her into the human-occupied space of the aerie. She was led to a small chair and a cup was pressed into her hand. She sipped, steadying the cup with two shaking hands.

“How are you feeling?” a thin, reedy voice asked. Molli looked for the source. To her right stood a tiny woman she knew as Romina. Romina wore a heavy cloak; Molli realized that she was now wrapped in one as well. To her left another rider stood, a boy named Jayk. He wore only an undershirt, so she assumed it was his cloak she was wearing.

“Better,” Molli replied. “That arrival is always hard on me.”

“Yes, I remember the last time you came. This one was better,” Romina replied. She pulled up a stool and sat. Molli remembered that Romina was the second oldest rider in the corps, a woman of thirty-eight. She had an exceptional skill as a teacher, so she had persisted when others had retired or moved up in the ranks. She was also known as a bit of an eccentric.

“I’ll go clean the entrance,” Jayk said and left. Romina watched him for a moment, then turned back to Molli.

“Are you here to calm the dragons?” Romina asked. Molli nodded, her eyes watering again at the idea of having to talk to the dragons so soon after arriving. Romina noted her tears and also nodded. He put a hand on Molli’s shoulder. Just then came the sound of angry squawking from the aerie. “I have to go see who’s biting who now,” Romina said, rising. “Do what you can. And hurry.”

Molli nodded. She settled herself down into the chair, which was actually rather comfortable, though shabby. It was essentially a set of wooden slats tied together with twine and covered with blankets, cloaks and pillows. The entire room was the same. It was a ramshackle affair, grown over time as generations of riders came and went, their personal effects accumulating to form an uneven layer on the walls, floor, and ceiling. It was terribly unmilitary, but officers didn’t tend to come to the aerie. Indeed, no one did, because almost no one could. The dragons didn’t tolerate non-riders well, and access to the high caves was both regulated and very difficult. Even supplies didn’t come often, so what artifacts there were in the cave were either small and light or made up of things that were small and light, bound by well-knotted twine. Still, the smell was not too bad, and it was warm. Molli took another sip, set her cup aside, wrapped the cloak tighter around herself, and closed her eyes.

The first dragon she reached out to was Sir Maxim. It had moved on into the general population of the aerie and was busily making its greetings with the others, reinserting itself into the inevitable pecking order. She scanned across the surfaces of the minds she felt in the aerie until she felt its. She touched it lightly until it welcomed her. She began to commune with the dragon, showing her own self to it and acknowledging it as it showed itself.

The dragons were not a verbal folk. They did not use abstract symbols for the most part. The more analytical part of Molli’s mind accepted that the dragons were a less complex species, mentally, and did not have the higher brain functions of abstraction that humans had. There were a few symbols that were used for abstract concepts, such as for the passage of time and for species-specific things such as sex, which was very different between the two species. By and large, though, communication was through sensory memories and emotions.

Sir Maxim was feeling relatively calm after a good flight and some time away from the aerie, but there were others in the flight that were very agitated. Molli’s own human ears heard the screeching squawks of a dragon wronged, and the warning honking of a dragon guarding its own space. Sir Maxim supplied more information, showing that a dragon named Left Foot had encroached on the roost of another dragon named Ima Queen. Other dragons were weighing in on the bad behaviour of both, and tempers were flaring. This minor faux pas was not the underlying cause, though. All of Sir Maxim’s memories and thoughts were much more fleeting than usual. Molli chased them around in his head for a minute before giving up and moving onto Left Foot and Ima Queen. Sure enough, the incident was already fading in their minds, their shifting feelings not allowing anything to take hold. And there was something else, a blank spot in their minds that she had touched in Sir Maxim’s mind that she had no correlation for and so had ignored. Here it was again, a brief flicker of a thought or feeling that she had no symbol for and had never actually experienced herself. She chased it through Ima Queen’s mind, and she chased it through Left Foot’s mind, but could not catch it. In fact, as soon as she could begin to understand it, the dragons seemed to pull away for a moment, almost breaking the mental connection.

Molli moved on to another dragon, Royal Glory. Royal Glory was an older dragon that had never left the female phase and that often served as a focal point for the flight. She opened her mind to Molli easily, actually using the symbol of love as a greeting. Molli repeated the same social exercise with Royal Glory that she had used with Sir Maxim, and was rewarded in kind. Royal Glory was more sedate and relaxed, but even so her thoughts were moving fast. That same blank spot appeared. Molli was able to feel it better. It wasn’t truly blank, of course, but rather unknown. It had a definite feel, however. Molli probed the thought, and Royal Glory pulled back, closing her mind. Molli pressed in, and Royal Glory produced one of the more complex symbols that the dragons could use: Why? Molli replied back with memories of bonding and flight and food and the various sorts of ways that the humans and dragons interacted positively. She probed again. Oddly, Royal Glory replied with two more complex symbols, Good and Bad. Molli tried to probe again, but Royal Glory flashed back a very strong image: Thunder Eye.

Thunder Eye was the flight’s most senior dragon. Normally this would make him the master of the aerie, a force even the humans would have to reckon with, but a recent accident had left him with a broken leg. It was healing at the usual slow rate, but while he convalesced the aerie was somewhat leaderless. He did still played an important role, though, apparently. Molli cast about for the feel of his mind. He came up abruptly. It was as if he were in the room, staring at Molli with those great odd eyes. She was momentarily taken aback.

Thunder Eye was a bearer now, but during his time as a male he had created a legacy. From the egg he was dominant. As a male he had fathered a number of the flight, and as a female he had conceived a number as well. As a bearer he had carried only two, preferring to remain more aloof. He was both the oldest and the largest dragon. His mind probed Molli now, interrogating her. She allowed him to do so, responding as best she could. He was mostly wanting to know why she was bothering his dragons. She showed him her own images of the Constant Vision and the council and tried to follow his thoughts around. He was impatient, and when she got close to gathering an impression of his thoughts he would switch topics. It was frustrating. Molli relaxed and just tried to listen to his thoughts. To her surprise, Thunder Eye also relaxed, and centered on one thought: the ‘blank’ one.

Thunder Eye was probably the smartest dragon, a result of long life. Molli used her symbols to ask what this idea was. The response was a flood of images and symbols. Molli could feel the answer was there, forming, but she still couldn’t read it. Her human mind wanted to label and analyze the idea, and her dragon mind needed to see the whole pattern. She ran through the memories of the Constant Vision and the council again, adding in a mental image of the airship crashed. Again came the jumble of memories and symbols. She got a fleeting impression of something large, something powerful, something old, something dragon. Thunder Eye was acting restrained somehow, acting towards this blank idea in a way almost like how the others acted towards Thunder Eye.

Acting on a hunch, Molli conjured up an image of Thunder Eye’s bearer, an old dragon named Kite, now deceased. Thunder Eye replied with a lightning quick and amazingly concise genealogy of the entire flight, including hatchlings that had not survived their first flight and some dragons Molli didn’t know. The came the flood of information again, hard and fast, insistent and repeating, over and over. Other dragons joined in. Molli could feel her eyes and mouth watering again. Her stomach heaved. She clamped down on her sphincter and felt her clitoris pulse. She jammed her hands against her ears, as if to drown out the mental shouting. Then in a shock, it all crystallized. She had it. The dragons seized on her recognition, and poured out their explanations. Molli passed out.

It was almost six hours later that Sir Maxim again touched down on the landing platform at the Department of Animal Reconnaissance. Administrator Jerra was waiting, having been warned by an adept that Molli was returning. When the long, green dragon landed it crouched, but the form on its back did not dismount. Jerra came to Molli’s aid, helping her unhook herself and dismount. Sir Maxim brayed at them both in concern and then lept away. Jerra helped Molli to her feet and led her inside and wrapped her in a blanket. It was over five minutes before Molli could speak.

“It’s an outside force,” Molli explained, a draught of spirits in her hand. Jerra sat nearby with Thellon, with a few riders hanging back at the doors.

“Explain,” Jerra said.

“I couldn’t recognize it at first. I had no frame of reference,” Molli said. “Royal Glory tried to explain, but I couldn’t understand, so she turned me over to Thunder Eye.” Molli squirmed a bit at the memory, drawing the blanket tighter around her shoulders. “Royal Glory, one of our dragons, and other dragons too, had a thought in their head that I had no … no translation for. Thunder Eye is the boss dragon the aerie, and he tried to explain it. At first I thought that there was some other dragon in the area that was causing problems, or maybe one of the great dragons from Artillery. It’s not that. It’s … it’s all the dragons. At once. Or some other thing outside the dragons that’s tapping into something about them, using them somehow.” She saw the alarm in the others eyes. “Our dragons know that we are their friends, but somehow that have to do what this other tells them.”

“What is it telling them?” asked Thellon.

“It’s mostly asking for more information, information about the crash. It … it’s not interfering, but it’s controlling them, somehow. It’s almost like it doesn’t quite want us to know about the crash, but doesn’t want to stop the dragons from telling us.” Engrossed in the memory, Molli sat up, the forgotten blanket slipping off her bare shoulders. “It’s … it’s very complex.”

“What is it?” demanded Jerra.

“They don’t have a name for it,” Molli explained, pushing away the blanket from her bare torso and freeing her arms to gesture. “It’s too much a part of them. It’s more of a description …”

“Describe it,” prompted Thellon.

Molli considered for a moment, then her eyes widened. “It’s a great … no, it’s the great old wyrme,” she said. “Not a dragon … more like what dragons came from?” Her voice rose on the last word in uncertainty. “Very old, and with great … reach. It is of dragon kind, but not a great dragon, and not a riding dragon. And it is distracting the dragons, and agitating them. And it knows about the Constant Vision!” Molli sat still for a long moment, her arms limp across her torso and lap. “I remember … I remember that it knows about our crew out there, and it is trying to stop us from finding out more.”

Thellon put her hand to her own temple. Molli recognized this as a tic, one that indicated that Thellon was telepathically w’hispering to other adepts. Jerra also watched the blue-hued woman silently. After a moment Thellon nodded, slowly, unhappily.

“It is true. We see it now.” She looked hard at Jerra, her lips set in a grim line. “We have an enemy in our midst.”

Part 20: The Hunters

Life in the scrublands can be hard, and so many of the things that live there are hard. Spiny, too. Filia realized this quickly. She and Staun had to find a good balance between moving through the open areas between the scrubby trees, and moving through the more densely forested areas. The former left them exposed, both to the harsh sunlight and to any spying eyes. The latter was much more difficult to move through, with a multitude of thorns and prickles to block and stop them. Add to that the burden of keeping Staun upright and mobile and Filia was having a rough day.

Staun was also having a rough day. The cut above his scalp was scabbed over, but it wasn’t long before he was bleeding from a number of other scratches from the long thorns. Filia tried to lead him around the worst of them, but avoiding them entirely was almost impossible. He generally seemed to be weaker, as well. Filia was unsure exactly what had happened the night before, but whatever it was, Staun appeared drained. Several times he stumbled and fell, and soon he was limping as well as bleeding. Staun didn’t talk much, and appeared to withdraw inside himself as the sun rose in the sky. Filia didn’t try to pull him out of it, either, as she still felt embarrassed for what parts of the evening she could remember.

They started out walking through the open grass between clumps of thorny trees. Soon, however, the temperature increased, and Filia’s skin became uncomfortably hot. The jungle trees had filtered the light of the day, and neither of them had felt threatened by it. Now they were in the open, and sunburn was a real danger. She led Staun back to the trees.

The land itself still sloped downward, and they stayed close to the bottom of a shallow valley. Up the center of the valley there seemed to be some sort of water source, as the trees were thicker there. Filia soon spotted an animal trail of sorts, and followed it into the shadier woods. The thorns were a problem immediately, and the going was slow.

After a long period of careful traveling, Filia managed to bring Staun to a tiny stream. They paused to refill their water jug. Filia remembered that edible roots often liked to grow near water, so she poked around in the dirt next to the stream. Nothing looked promising. The stream itself was barely more than a trickle of water in the few places that it was actually exposed. Fortunately the trees here were taller, providing more cover, and the animal trail was relatively open and wide. With no food to eat for breakfast, Filia was feeling a bit more wobbly than she liked, and so the prospect of an easier walk was good.

As they sat in the dirt resting, Filia found herself staring at Staun. Did they really have sex? Filia hadn’t been a virgin for a while, but she also hadn’t had sex very often, and not since Jaspin. Still, she knew what it felt like afterward, and she had definitely felt that way when she woke up. She was already forgetting a lot of the things she had hallucinated under the mushroom’s influence, but she remembered thinking that Dartain was there.

The memory came back, vividly, of the feel of his hand on her breast, and then she realized that it must have been Staun’s hand. Or her own, even; she had been pretty far gone at that moment. She did remember the feel of male members in her hand, and she knew that hadn’t been either hers or Dartain’s. She felt a wave of pity for Staun. She had poisoned him, and then had sex with him! That made her feel dirtier than the feeling in her groin.

Staun arose first, silently, and she followed suit. They headed down the trail again. The stream grew wider and the trees taller. They saw birds and heard the occasional small animal in the undergrowth. Filia kept her eyes open for anything that looked like food, but she saw none. They walked in silence for what seemed like hours, until they came to a spot where the stream disappeared down a crack in the earth. They stood there and stared at the dark hole for several moments, then Filia chose one of the many divergent paths and pressed on.

The path plunged through a thorny thicket, slowng their pace to a crawl. Staun gasped in pain more than once, as did Filia, when thorns found tender places in their flesh to abuse. Eventually the thicket diminished and they were again in the open. Filia gripped her spear and kept a sharp watch for any movement, feeling very naked and exposed. She saw nothing, but soon sighted another stand of trees a short distance away, which was where the stream most likely reappeared. They continued on the path.

As the two of them walked, Staun seemed to grow more coherent. Once in the shade of the trees again, Staun pointed out where the stream returned. When they stopped for water Staun was able to point out places to look for food, but Filia was unable to pick out anything edible despite his direction. The ache in her womb gradually faded, and neither broached the topic of what happened the night before.

Filia was occasionally able to glance out from under the canopy and see into the distance. Not far away now she could see the broad expanse of the desert looming. The day was hot and the air was dry, even under the trees. She knew that soon there would be no more cover. What she didn’t know was how two naked city dwellers were going to cross the desert with nothing more than a wooden spear, a knapsack, a water bottle, a utility belt, and the shoes on their feet.

The valley abruptly narrowed and grew steeper. The going grew harder, as they had to climb down unknown and overgrown paths. Once they stopped to eat some plants that Staun directed Filia to, but for most of the afternoon they slogged on and downwards. Staun’s well-being seemed to wear out as well. He slowed, and spoke less often. Still, he was able to keep moving. The day was actually well-spent when the terrain leveled out. Filia was happy, and sad, to see this; happy because the going was easier, sad because it almost certainly meant the end of the trees was soon at hand.

Soon after the land leveled out, the forest opened up. The trees here were taller and older, and the terrain easier to traverse. The animals were a bit larger here, too. Filia grew more tense, recalling their encounters with the bird-animals, the great snake, and the spiders. She permitted Staun’s growing weariness to slow their pace, allowing her more time to look both for potential dangers and shelter. To her great relief, they came upon a berry thicket that actually bore fruit. She gathered some of the berries, alternately eating and storing the morsels. A plan formed in her head.

She turned to Staun, who sat on the ground in a funk, his hands smeared with the juice of the berries she had given him. At least he isn’t rocking back and forth, she thought.

“Staun,” she asked, “can you t’see any dragon wasp nests around? Old ones. I mean.”

He slowly lifted his head. “Why do you ask?” The petulance in his tone angered her, but she held her temper.

“I was thinking, ” she responded, “that if we could find a few dragon wasp egg shells that are more or less whole, or even half, we could use them as containers and carry some more water. Maybe then we could have an easier go of it crossing the desert.”

“Ah,” he said. He began to mutter to himself in a familiar cadence. Filia let him chant, and continued foraging, always keeping a vigilant eye out. Perhaps ten minutes passed before he spoke again.

“Filia, I think that there may be some over there, and perhaps some water.”

Filia looked to where he pointed, then carefully stowed the gathered berries. Together they set off. The spot he indicated was just on the other side of the berry thicket. A small tributary of the larger stream disappeared into a tiny sinkhole, and there were a few fragments of shells in the stream bed. Filia was disappointed, however, as they were small and of no use. She said as much to Staun.

“Maybe up there,” he said, indicating the far rim of the sinkhole. Filia obediently pushed up through the brush, searching for shells. At the top of the depression the forest opened up again. There was even a bit of a clearing. Filia noted that, thinking ahead to a campfire and sleep. It only took a moment of looking to spot a too-smooth stone protruding from a sandy bit of bare soil at the base of a wide tree. She dug at it, and to her delight was rewarded with almost half of an egg. It looked rock-like, and she marveled at how sturdy they must be to have lasted the many years intact.

“I found one!” she chirped to Staun, who struggled his way up the slope. “It will hold water!”

“Wonderful,” he replied, sounding nauseated.

She cast about for more. In the nearby brush she found another, also buried. She scraped away at the dirt with a stray shell fragment. Staun made it to the top of the depression and joined her. He hefted the first eggshell and rolled it over in his hands. “What’s your plan?” he asked.

“We can use these to hold berries,” she said, “and water. We can dry the berries, and find some way to cap off these shells. Then maybe we’ll have enough water and food to cross the desert at night. Maybe we can find some sort of branches or leaves to take with us for cover, or maybe kill a few animals for their skins.”

“That might work,” he replied, sounding uncertain.

“Here,” she said, handing him the shell fragment and leading his hands over to the buried egg. “You dig this one up and I’ll look for more.”

Together they worked, Filia finding and Staun digging. For the most part they worked in silence. Soon they had a pile of the eggshells. Filia began to gather them up. Staun took a few, and she piled them into his hands. The hollow shells made a dull creaking noise as they rubbed against each other. He leaned against the tree as she carefully stacked them in his arms. She had almost gotten all of them gathered together when she heard the sound of something large moving through the distant brush.

Filia froze. She looked up at Staun, and could see the fear in his face. Her hands found the spear, and to calm him she gently laid a hand on his thigh, hoping that he understood the need for quiet. A glance at his face showed he did.

With great care, Filia lifted her body up from her crouch and peered around the tree trunk. At first she saw and heard nothing but forest. Then she heard movement again, and spotted a group of shapes. At first she thought it was more of the bird-things, but quickly realized her error. What she thought were wings were actually shields, and what she though were necks were actually spears. What approached was a group of humans, armed and armored.

He first impulse was to duck and hide. Her second impulse, coming fast behind the first, was to spring up and hail them as saviors. Her third and lasting impulse was to remain motionless, and observe. She glanced back at Staun, who was still standing against the tree, his blue arms cradling the eggs. He sagged just the tiniest bit under the load, and one of the eggs murmured. Filia’s heart jumped in her throat. She cast a look at the approaching party, but they seemed to not notice. They continued to march toward them, single file. She willed Staun strength, and lifted a hand to steady his elbow before looking back to watch the group.

It was difficult to tell at first what sort of people they were. They were dressed in leather, with strips of cloths draped over them not unlike what she had seen Staun wearing. Their hair was long and unkept, and their skin dark. Filia could make out facial hair, so she assumed they were men. They were headed for the clearing just on the other side of the tree, and Filia lowered herself down below the level of the bushes as they gathered in a group there.

She watched and listened as they talked quietly among themselves. She could hear their words clearly, but she understood none of them. Cramps formed in her legs, but she dared not shift her position. Almost as if on cue, she felt a sharp pricking on her calf which she tried to ignore until it just hurt too much, and she brushed it away as quietly as she could. She glanced up at Staun, who now had to bear the load of the eggs alone. He expression was one of studied forbearance. The eggs remained silent. She went back to studying the strangers.

Now that they were closer, Filia could clearly see their swords. What she had originally thought were spears were actually blood-stained carbines. Most of the men wore a chest-plate of leather under the strips of cloth, along with a wide belt. At least two of the men had some sort of bloody token danging from those belts. Filia wanted to look away from those grisly trophies but could not, her mind somehow needing to know what they were. In a flash it came to her; these hunters carried as proof of combat the genitals of their fallen foes. One man, bald and bare-chested, appeared to be the leader. He quietly addressed the other four, who listened intently.

Part 20: The Hunters

Filia felt another sting, this one harder and on her other leg. As she brushed it away she looked down. It was a large ant. Another one crawled upon the back of her thigh, and she swiped it away as well. She watched to see if her movement had been noticed, but the men were still intent on their discussion. The leader was pointing off in the direction they had come, and then in the direction they were headed. Then he pointed skyward. The men nodded. Filia felt a sharp jab on the inside of her thigh that nearly made her jump. She quickly dispatched that bug.

A creak from one of the eggshells drew her attention to Staun. His face was now a rictus of pain. He twitched, and the eggshells hummed. She immediately saw why. His entire lower body was crawling with the bugs. As quietly as she could she moved closer to him and brushed the stinging insects off of him. Some of the fierce creatures already had their mandibles hooked into his blue skin. As she swiped her hand across his thighs and legs she could feel him tremble as the remaining bugs bit him. The eggs groaned dangerously in his arms, but she dared not disturb them for fear of making still more noise. She tried to support his elbow as she cleaned him off, hoping to aid him without revealing their position. As her efforts neared his feet she realized the source of the pain.

They were standing on an ant hill.

Filia took a quick glance around the tree. One of the men was sitting on the ground, examining one of the captured carbines. A terrible thought seized her: what if they decided to camp there? What would she do? Another creak from the eggshells in Staun’s arms brought her attention back to him. Most of the ants were gone now, but there were still some scattered all across his exposed flesh. She ran her hand over his belly, across his thighs, down his legs, and then back up to his buttocks. It was almost with irritation that she noted that there were two ants actually crawling on his scrotum. She picked them off, crushing the creatures in pure spite.

A change in the tone of the strangers’ speech drew her attention back to them. The conversation came to an end. The four followers resumed walking, with the leader glancing back for just a moment before bringing up the rear. She warily watched them depart, continuing to wipe the stinging ants off herself and Staun. Once the party had gone a decent distance, she quickly lifted the top eggs from Staun’s hands, ignoring the groan they all gave, and pulled him away and down into the brush.

“Are you OK?” she whispered.

“Yes,” he said. “Thank you very much for your help. I think you probably saved my life.”

“Our lives,” she agreed. “One more thing to watch out for.”

“I think … I think I may have understood just a bit of what they were saying.”

“You speak that language?”

“No, but the w’hind sometimes … you know. There’s a big attack happening, I think, and they are gathering at the airship.”

“That’s bad.”

“We need to warn them somehow.”

“Oh, I suspect they may already know.”

“Why? How?”

“I think they had some of our guns, captured. And, other things … parts … parts of men. To show …” Filia stumbled on the words. “Killed in battle.”

“I see.” Staun’s expression was stricken.

“Unless they killed them all, then I expect the people from the ship already know what’s going on.”

“They must have ambushed a search party. How many …”

“I saw five natives. “

“No, I mean our … how many … things …”

“Oh. I saw at least two, but every one of them had a carbine, and one man had two.”

“That’s bad.”

“Yes. I should follow them, to see where they’re going.”

“They are going to meet up with more of their people, I think.”

“We should try to find out more. Maybe you should stay here, while I follow them.”

Staun looked frightened, but nodded. “Be careful.”

Filia nodded. “Absolutely. You stay hidden. And try to call for help. But not too hard, OK?”


Filia nodded. She took one last look around and headed after the natives. She moved down into the clearing, and was surprised to discover that the area was actually a wide spot in a large, well-worn path. Feeling every inch of her own nudity, she clung tight to her spear and moved up the path in the direction the men had gone.

She trotted in a crouch, straining her vision to see if she could spot the men ahead. She hadn’t been on the trail for even a minute when a shout sounded from behind her, followed by Staun crying out in pain.

Filia spun around and ran back. Immediately she could hear the sound of at least two other men. They shouted as loud as they could, clearly calling for the others. She slowed, came to a halt. The voices were growing closer, fast. With a grimace, she dived into the undergrowth.

Her mind flitted back and forth between rushing to Staun’s rescue and staying hidden. As she debated within herself, three men came into view, all but carrying Staun. They hustled past. Filia emerged from the brush and followed at a safe distance, tears of anguish and terror streaming down her face.

Part 19: Coming Down

Filia expected the crash to be a sudden thing, but it wasn’t. She and Staun had time to prepare themselves, securing various bits of equipment and tying themselves to the basket before the first of the tree branches struck. After that there was an interminable time where the basket alternated between shaking violently and free-falling. It all ended in a great wallop that knocked Filia unconscious for a moment. She came to her senses lying on the forest floor, soaking wet.

The balloon came to rest at the bottom of a tree. The shredded float was festooned about, some of it still stuck in the lower branches. The basket had upended, spewing the helpless occupants out onto the ground. Filia got up, looking about as she checked herself for injuries. Staun was standing nearby, favoring one leg. She was glad to see him.

“Are you OK?” she asked, starting to walk towards the basket. She hadn’t gotten more than a step when she realized that her hip was burning. A quick examination showed a cut she had missed in her earlier inspection. It wasn’t deep, but it was bleeding. She could also new feel various bruises and scrapes making themselves felt, especially on her shoulders and back. She ignored them and went to the fallen basket.

“Why am I wet?” Staun asked. She glanced over at him. He was sniffing his shirtsleeve.

“I’m sorry if the accommodations aren’t up to your standard,” she sneered, “but in case you hadn’t noticed we just crashed!” Her earlier happiness at seeing him up and alert evaporated, replaced by exasperation and contempt.

“What did we have in the basket that held so much fluid water?” he asked, holding his shirt out from his skin.

“Tell you what,” she said, “why don’t you try to be useful for once and see if you can w’hisper for some help?” Filia bent down and peered inside the skewed basket. Her hand pressed the damp fabric of her damaged pants against her wounded hip, which was really smarting. She fished what things she could out of the basket. Most of what had been installed appeared badly broken.

In particular, the large, heavy boxes had broken open. They appeared to be the source of the liquid that now soaked Filia, along with some thin metal plates. Seeing these broken black boxes, Filia immediately sensed something was very, very wrong. She straightened up and backed away from the basket, but the sense of wrongness just increased. She held her own shirtsleeve to her nose. Whatever had wetted them both did not smell like water.

“We need to wash,” she stated emphatically.

“What?” Staun said, caught off guard.

“This isn’t water. I … I don’t know what it is, but it’s not water and it’s not right and we need to wash it off now.” She looked around. “Do you t’see any water nearby?”

“I have some water in my canteen,” he said.

“Not enough.” She could feel her skin beginning to itch, and even burn in spots. She held her own shirt away from her body. “We need a lot of water, water to wash with.”

“There’s not any … no … ” he shook his head, confused. “Yes. Not real close, but yes. There.” He pointed his staff.

“Come on.” She went to him and took his hand and began to lead him. She was grateful she had not gotten any of that liquid on her head or in her eyes. The ground was very uneven, thick with undergrowth and crisscrossed with fallen branches. The going was slow, too slow.

“How far?” she asked.

“Maybe a few hundred feet,” he said. After a pause, he asked, “Is your skin starting to burn?”

The itching had indeed intensified. “Yes,” she said. “Whatever was in those black boxes was not water.”

“Acid,” he said. “Those must have been lead-acid batteries. You’re right — we need to wash this off quickly, before it burns us.”

The terrain was pitted with deep holes, each one easily the size of the basket they had ridden in. Filia threaded around these hazards, leading her blind charge and trying to ignore the burning sensation that was increasing on her skin. Her heart was thudding in her chest, more from incipient panic than from exertion. Emotions and memories from the incident in the engine room flooded back into her mind. The humiliation of being stripped and paraded naked through the ship fought against the searing memory of the burn, and the illness that accompanied it. The need to do something twisted her gut and drove her on.

“What am I looking for?” she asked.

“Yellow and red flowers.”

“Flowers!” she shouted, spinning to face him. “We’re burning! What are you doing?”

“The water is in the flowers!” he yelled back, pointing with his staff. “This is a jungle, remember? You don’t always find water in a stream! Go!”

She again took his hand and began pulling him along. The burning was really getting bad, and her hip was aflame. She began to untuck her blouse and considered taking it off, but the shame flooded back in and she stopped. She spotted yellow ahead, and homed in on it.

Sure enough, there was a large patch of broad-leaved plants with huge yellow blossoms. The flowers were shaped like upright bells. Once Filia reached the edge of the flower patch she broke away from Staun and dashed to the nearest large flower. It was half full of water. She seized it and tried to pull it free, but could not. She dropped to her knees and flattened the flower against her leg, splashing the water against her body.

“There’s not enough water here,” she said, looking around and reaching for the next plant.

“There is, you just have to gather it,” Staun replied. He also was on his knees and doing the same thing.

The next few minutes were spent in a frantic dance as each seized flower after flower in an effort to douse the chemical fires that raged across their bodies. By the time they were done each was a mess, smeared with green and yellow and red. Filia’s skin still smarted where the acid had inflamed her many cuts and scrapes. Her hip ached. They were both quite wet, but now it was water, not the acid from the batteries, that soaked them.

Staun sat in the middle of a mass of flattened plants and trodden mud. Filia wandered further afield, finding the few remaining blossoms to glean the last bit of water. Now that the urgency had diminished, she moved more deliberately, taking care not to spill the precious fluid. She had started using her multi-tool from her utility belt to cut the blossoms off so she could pour the water exactly where she wanted it.

A thought occurred to her. She looked back at where Staun sat, seemingly in a funk. She carefully cut two blossoms off, all she could easily carry, and turned back to him.

“Did you get any of that on your head or face?” she asked him, carefully walking back towards him through the chaos that had been a flower patch. She had to be wary, lest she trip on a vine and spill her precious cargo. She lifted each leg high, clearing the undergrowth. She noticed after a few steps that he still had not responded. “Did you get any of that on your head or face?” she repeated, louder. He didn’t move or respond at all. She came up to him, still holding her burden. “Staun.” Nothing. “Staun!” Nothing. Anger welled up in her breast, and she deliberately upended both blossoms, pouring the cold water over his head. Only then did he move, after a moment’s delay, in short, jerky movements.

“What?” he asked, confused. “I’m sorry, did you say something?”

“Are you OK?” She asked, very careful to control her tone and volume.

“I was t’seeing … something. There are … dangers … in the woods. We need to be cautious.” He gathered himself together and pulled himself upright. “We should make some shelter.” Shakily, he turned back towards the crash site, and with a sigh she again took his hand and began to lead him back.

“I can try to t’see more clearly what’s out there,” Staun said as they walked back. “If I can concentrate then my t’sight can get clearer. I just need a quiet, safe place to sit and meditate.”

“There you go again with that ‘safe’ thing,” Filia said. “Is there something I need to know that you’re not telling me?”

“I … t’saw … things … dangerous things, as shapes and sounds … not close, but definitely there. I can’t tell what they are, yet, but I will watch for them.” He paused. “You should watch for them, too.”

“Oh, I will.” Filia scanned the forest around them. It was relatively open, with many large trees, but even so there were many places and ways that a danger could be hiding.

The crash site was the same as when they had left it. Filia looked around and settled on a hollow spot next to a tree trunk where Staun could sit. Once he was settled she turned to the matter of shelter. The spot where they had landed was soft ground covered in tall grasses. The basket was almost upside down, caught on the bottom by some cables. Filia wrestled it free and dragged it next to Staun. The support cables were attached to the basket by bolts that were too tightly fastened for her to loosen with her little multitool, and with cables that were too thick for her to cut. She settled for dragging some of the torn balloon fabric down from the trees above and fashioning it into a crude lean-to tent.

As she worked, she watched the woods around them for movement. She saw a large number of insects, large and small, and a number of snakes and gomka perched around on bushes and tree trunks. Occasionally a bird would fly by, or something furry would flash through the underbrush. Staun took no note of any of this, but simply sat and chanted. Filia worked as quietly as she could, so as not to disturb him. Several times she got caught or snagged on various branches, and more than once managed to tear her clothes. Nonetheless she made quick progress.

Once the tent was up, Filia set about making a weapon. With the basket upended she had noticed for the first time that parts of it had been reinforced with angled metal strips. One of these was torn almost free. With a few minutes worth of bending she was able to snap off a section of the metal.

She looked about for a rock to pound it straight on. Spotting a large stone nearby, she bent to scoop up a smaller rock to use as a hammer. As she did so her pants split. She quickly looked around to see if Staun was looking, then chided herself when she recalled that he was blind. She was grateful for her underwear, until she realized that they had split as well. There was nothing she could do about it, so she took her hammer-rock and started pounding. She was able to pound the metal between the two rocks until it was relatively straight. Wire served to bind the metal to a straight wooden dowel from the upper part of the basket. Filia made sure it was quite secure before she started sharpening the metal to an edge, using a rough stone. She considered using the blade from her multitool to cut some of the softer aircraft metal away, but while she was sure the knife blade could cut the softer metal she was also afraid that doing so would dull the precious tool.

As she worked, she kept glancing over at Staun. He had stopped chanting and was now seated, quiet but not still. She could see that his eyes, though closed, were darting from side to side as if watching some sort of manic mudball match. His expression varied from moment to moment, crossing over from tense watchfulness to panicked fear. Several times she almost called out his name, to rouse him from this trance, and stopped only when she remembered how dire their overall situation was.

He was still deep in this state by the time she finished the blade. She watched him for a moment longer, then started inventorying their assets. Unhappily, those assets were relatively few, consisting mostly of the contents of her utility belt and his satchel. Food and water they had a bit of, and they had her multitool. There were some small metal fittings that she had found useful onboard the ship, but she doubted they would be much use here in the woods. He had some reading material that might make for good kindling if they needed a fire. Beyond that they didn’t have much. She stripped some of the line off the balloon shroud, on the idea that rope was always good to have. They also had her small brazing torch, which she usually kept relatively full of fuel. She hoped for rescue before they used it up.

The inventory done, she looked back at Staun. It only took a glance for her to know that he was in trouble. She sprang to his side. Every muscle in his body was rigid, and he was vibrating at a rate that no one could sustain for long. His face was contorted in a rictus of pain and terror.

“Staun!” she yelled, and shook him hard. Her hand slipped off his stiff arm, tearing his shirt in the process. “Snap out of it!” He didn’t open his eyes or stop shaking, and his body was as rigid as a corpse. She felt panic welling up inside her, and she released it all in the form of a walloping slap against the side of his face. “Snap it!” she screamed. He opened his eyes in shock and flailed in confusion, then collapsed against the tree trunk. She tried again to rouse him, but this time to no avail. A livid red mark on his face from where her hand had struck him stayed her from another blow. At least he was now limp, and not still convulsing.

Grabbing some balloon fabric, Filia made a bed on the ground. She pushed him over onto it. She tried to use the belt of his pants to pull him into a more comfortable position, but to her horror the garment split straight down his leg. She pushed the torn edges together, covering as much of his blue flesh as possible, then laid him out as best as she could. She covered him with balloon fabric, and waited.

It was dark by the time Staun stirred. Filia had a small fire going, and had doubled the fabric overhead. They were warm and, she hoped, safe, at least for the moment. Staun awoke with a jerk and slowly sat up. He looked around, squinting, then stared into the fire.

“How long have I been out?” he asked.

“Hard to say,” Filia replied. “A couple of hours, I think.”

“Sorry about that,” he said. “The w’hind is not always kind to those who can feel it.” He shifted about on his makeshift bed, and sensed something amiss. He tried to hike his pants up and discovered their tear.

“My turn to be sorry,” she said. “When you collapsed I tried to roll you over into a more comfortable position, and your pants sorta tore apart.”

“I see,” he said, uncertain.

“If it makes you feel any better, I think all our clothes are coming apart. I think the acid damaged them more than I expected.”

“Mmmmm,” Staun hummed. “Well, a country counts on more than clothes.”

“That’s good,” Filia replied, “because at this rate we soon won’t have any.” She sat in silence for a moment. “That seizure … how often does that happen?”

“More often than I’d like.”

“Doesn’t that limit your … usefulness?” Filia regretted the phrasing as soon as she said it.

Staun didn’t flinch. “Yes, and no. Obviously I’d like to be able to just perform on demand. But I’m actually one of the more reliable Adepts. Some Adepts lock up more often than they actually see something.”

“So — did you see anything at all?”

“If I did it’s all gone now, unless I said anything …” his voice trailed off into a question.

“I didn’t hear you say anything,” Filia replied.

“Ah. So no, sorry.”

They sat silently, watching the fire. Finally Filia broke the silence.

“Are you OK to stand a watch?”

“I think so.”

“OK.” Filia arose. She had her hands on the belt of her own pants, which had also torn while Staun was asleep. Holding the rotting fabric over herself for modesty, she moved into the basket, inside of which she had already made something of a bed for herself. “I am going to go to sleep. Do you think you can tend the fire and watch … watch or listen or w’hisp or whatever for anything out there?”

“I think so. I’ll wake you if I suspect a problem.”

“Fine. And wake me in a few hours or if you get sleepy, OK?”


Staun was true to his word. He woke Filia up early in the morning hours and they traded places. She in turn woke him up not too long before sunrise. It seemed that just after she lay down to sleep that it started to rain, but in reality she had been sleeping for some time. She awoke to the sound of distant thunder. Staun was awake and alert, and the fire was still burning. It was already raining softly, but the tent was working, channeling the water away from the pair. The rain increased to a downpour as the day lightened. Filia filled Staun’s canteen with the rainwater.

It wasn’t long before they realized that they had a problem. The place where they had pitched their tent was a local low spot, and the water was starting to rise. After a while they were forced to abandon the basket, as water rose up and swamped it. They retreated to the tree trunk, which arose from the ground gradually enough that they were able to perch on its lower limbs. By this time the work the acid had begun was complete; neither one could keep their shredded pants together any longer, and they were both down to only shirts and shoes. The rain stopped after a few hours, well before they would have been forced to move. Filia surveyed the surrounding pool from the safety of the tree. The water did not seem to be rising, nor did it seem to be flowing. Still, it had rendered their camp unusable.

“We’re going to have to find a better campsite,” she finally said.

“We should try to stay close to the balloon,” Staun said. “Any search party will look for it.”

“Agreed.” Filia pointed. “I think that’s some higher ground. We can make a camp up there.”

They gathered up the few things that they had and waded through the water ashore. They moved a short distance up a shallow slope to where the trees opened up a bit more. Filia cleared a small area for a firepit and set a fire. With Staun’s help she moved some fallen logs into a rough perimeter.

“It’s not much, but it will do for now,” she said when the last of the logs moved into place. “When the water recedes I will go down and get as much of that fabric as I can, to make a tent up here, and maybe some more clothes for us.”

“I don’t need more than my shirt,” Staun said, “but the tent is good idea. I will t’see what I can, and if you bring the ropes and fabric here I can put the tent together.”

“All right.” Filia looked around. “We’ll need to keep ourselves fed until rescue arrives. I think I saw something that looked like a berry patch yesterday, when we were looking for those flowers. I’m going to go down there and see if there are any ripe ones.”

“Be careful of the dangers,” Staun said, his head cocked oddly to one side.

“Right, dangers,” Filia responded. That idea did little to counter-balance the nakedness she felt, both literal and figurative. The air swishing between her thighs was just one distraction. She also wished that Staun’s shirt was long enough to keep his blue manhood covered, so she wouldn’t have to look at that thing peeking out. Like an accident, it kept drawing her eye in, and then chasing it away. She forced her mind to focus. “I’ll be careful. Yell if you need anything.”


Filia headed down the slope. She skirted the wet areas that lay in the hollows, keeping an eye out all around for anything that might be moving about. She had to make a wide detour to miss the marshy areas where they had been camping, and somewhere, not too far away, she thought she could hear a waterfall. The ground was treacherous, crumbling underfoot in spots, boggy and sodden in others. She was grateful her shoes had not disintegrated like her pants.

It was a while before she found the place where they had bathed the day before. The flowers they had disturbed had gone all brown, and the site was depressing in the gray overcast afternoon light. Filia paused a moment to get her bearings. Not far away she could hear what sounded like birds flapping about. She tried to spot them, but had no luck. Finally she moved again, feeling certain she had her bearings. After only a minute of walking she spotted the growth she had seen the day before. The undergrowth was heavy, and it took a bit to get there, but she finally was able to reach the dense thicket. She began searching through the foliage, looking for anything that looked like fruit. Nothing presented itself, and she began moving across the face of the thicket.

Filia had been looking for almost a quarter of an hour when she heard something heavy moving through the brush on the other side of the thicket. She froze. After just a moment the sounds stopped. She stayed frozen, trying not to breathe, for a minute or more. When the sounds did not return, she carefully started to move back out the way she came in. Whatever had made that sound might not be any threat, but she was not finding any food, and therefore the trip was not worth the risk. She carefully worked her way out of the dense growth, returning to where she had entered. She had almost reached that spot when the rustling noises resumed, louder than ever. She froze for a moment, and the noises stopped. She started moving again.


The call was birdlike, high-pitched and pure in tone. It was beautiful in its own way, and equally terrifying. Filia wanted to run, and wanted to freeze, and her body divided the two ideas and reduced her to a stilted walk.


This time the call came from another part of the thicket. Apparently there were two of these things. Filia’s bare lower limbs lost their stiffness, now that she was out in the open more, and she starting backing away from the thicket rapidly, wishing she had not left the spear with Staun. She was about to turn and run when movement caught her eye. A flash of brilliant color, red and green, caught her eye. Something stood up on the far side of the thicket, something as large as a man. It lunged straight at her, burying itself in the dense growth.


Filia didn’t hesitate. She simply turned, and ran.

Part 18: Precious Victory

Tritti walked rapidly across the compound, heading towards the captain’s tent. The sun was lowering in the sky, but still lay hot on her bare arms. With the primitive conditions and reduced headcount, the captain had lifted the dress requirements, and she had pulled the sleeves off her canvas blouse and cut it short to make a vest, which she wore loose and open.

She still kept her hat, however, as a badge of her rank. As a newly commissioned ensign, she had access to places and circles that a mere sailor would not. With so many crewmembers either injured or out with the search teams there had been plenty of appointments made. With each appointment came additional duties and responsibilities. Tritti was accustomed to work. It was the new responsibility that, like her new canvas whites, didn’t quite seem to fit.

Tritti returned the salute of the guard at the door of the tent and went in. The tent was divided into several small rooms, the first of which held two desks. Behind one sat Domas, newly appointed to the rank of third lieutenant. She stood at attention before his desk and held a salute as he finished off a barrage of calculations on an abacus. He jotted down the figure and returned her salute.

“What is it, ensign?” he asked, the softness in his tone belying the formality of his words. Tritti had known from the moment he had first spoken to her after his appointment that he would be one of the good officers.

“Marileyna is asking to speak to the captain,” Tritti said. “She says she has something that has to go on the rocket before we launch it.”

Domas looked up, startled. “Rocket? I wasn’t notified of a rocket launch.”

“Neither was I, sir,” Tritti replied quickly, “and I almost suspect that neither was the captain.” Her eyes widened meaningfully. Domas jumped up from his seat. “Stay here.” He moved briskly across the small space to the other desk where sat a second lieutenant, Dryier by name. There was a whispered discussion, then Dryier looked up at Tritti, who stood and stared back. Dryier stood and moved through the canvas door deeper into the tent, leaving behind Domas, who came back to Tritti.

“Did she say anything else?” he asked.

“She said it was very important, and it had to go onto the rocket before we launched it. She didn’t say anything else, but the way she said it, you know, with the way she was looking off into the distance, her being blind and all, it made me suspect this might be news the captain might want to hear.”

“Was Gomph there, or Quaternus?”

“I haven’t seen Gomph since morning, and Quaternus is back in the infirmary.” “How about the other one, the other adept?”

“Polnias? He was there, but he wasn’t talking. He seemed to be in some sort of trance. Jheffr was there, but he was with Polnias, wiping him down and keeping the flies out of his eyes. You could ask Jheffr, but he’s what, seven? Eight? I doubt he knows anything.”

The curtain whipped open and the captain emerged, his eyes fixing on her. Tritti whipped up a salute.

“Come,” he said, and he left the tent, followed by the what had to be the entire remaining command staff, including Dryier and Domas. Tritti waited her turn and followed them all out, last in line, last in the chain of command.

The officers retraced Tritti’s steps back to the tent that housed the adepts. They slowed as they approached, stepping aside to allow Tritti forward. The captain waited at the tent flap, his hand on the latch until Tritti approached.

“Let’s go see what she’s been seeing,” he said, his voice low and soothing but his eyes set and his lips grim. Tritti nodded and he opened the flap. She entered and he followed.

Like the captain’s tent, this tent had been subdivided. The expedition had brought three adepts and their staff, and the tent had been divided into four chambers. Tritti led the captain to the furthest one on the right. She stopped at the entrance and called out.

“Marileyna, are you in there? It’s me, Tri–Ensign Strongwaters.” She waited a moment for a reply, but there was none. She looked up at the captain, who nodded her to go in. Tritti opened the flap and ducked in. Marileyna was in the center of the room, seated on a cushion. Tritti motioned the captain to enter, and the two of them slowly approached the woman. She was somewhere in her thirties, heavier, her blue skin showing signs of wrinkling. At first she did not acknowledge them, but then she turned her head slightly, looking more or less in their direction.

“Ah, Captain, good to have you visit. Did Tritti give you my message?”

“Yes, she did, Marileyna,” Captain Veerus said. “I wanted to talk to you about that.”

“Certainly, Captain,” Marileyna said pleasantly, her head cocked in his general direction.

“What is this thing that you need to put on a rocket?”

“Oh, yes,” the blind adept replied, leaning over and reaching into a nearby basket. “I made it this morning. I know it’s not much to look at,” she said, handing the thing to the captain, “but you know how it is, magic things and all.”

“Yes, I know,” the captain said, taking the thing. Tritti watched as he turned it over in his hands. It looked like a crude bowl made of papier mache, off-white in color and lumpy. He could see that on the flat bottom had been painted an eye.

“What does it do?”

“It’s a seeing eye. It will allow me to see what the rocket sees.” She giggled. “It’ll be almost like riding the rocket itself, only not so explosive.” She laughed outright now. “That way I’ll be able to tell you what’s out there when you shoot your rocket at those tribesmen tonight.”

“Tonight?” the captain asked, startled.

“Yes, just after the tribesmen attack.”

The captain furiously waved at Tritti, motioning for her to go tell the others. She gave a fast salute and ran out of the room.

* * *

The sun had set and the last light was fading rapidly from the cloudless sky when a light wind picked up, stirring the leaves of the scrubby shrubs that existed on the outskirts of the oasis. Not far away, the bent spine of the Constant Vision broke the rough line of the horizon. High atop the canted tail, the watchmen looked like tiny dots. The hull brightened a bit as the crew on the ground turned on another spotlight and used it to paint the hull with light. Not all the movement in the brush was caused by the wind. Here and there, now and again, a bird would flutter about for a moment, or a gomka would scurry off on six scaled legs in search of a safe burrow. One such lizard-like creature crawled up a branch and then stopped, its unblinking eyes fixed in the middle distance. It sat motionless for many long minutes at its new perch, only to leap to the ground and race off when the entire bush swayed violently and moved, carried away by the tribesman that hid behind it.

Here and there, now and again, all across the sweep of the scrublands, bushes were moving, slowly, carefully, and almost always forward, in towards the oasis. Each was propelled by a tribesman swathed in concealing robes and leathers, each armed with knives and swords and bows. A few carried even more potent weapons, weapons more advanced, or more magical. Their stealth was practiced, and, for the most part, unnoticed.

* * *

“You’re sure?” Dryier asked into the microphone that was clamped to his desk. The cable running to that mike terminated in a switch-box that allowed Dryier to select up to five different watch posts throughout the encampment. The current selection was for the watch at the top of the tail of the Constant Vision.

“Aye aye,” came the tinny response from the single speaker. “We can see two of them, hiding in the brush. They’re headed this way, quarter of a mile out, one hundred ten degrees.”

“Aye aye. Maintain observation, hold fire. Repeat, hold fire,” Dryier said.

“Seven-three,” the watchman replied, using the code that signified understanding and compliance.

Dryier snapped the switch to another setting, this time for a tower erected at the bow of the ship. He jammed his finger on the signal light as he spoke to an aide at his side. “Tell the captain we’ve got a contact, quarter of a mile, one hundred ten.” The aide saluted and left.

“Go ahead,” came a voice from the speaker.

“Confirm contact, quarter of a mile, one hundred ten,” Dryier said succinctly. “Hold fire.”

“Confirm contact, quarter of a mile, one hundred ten, seven-three.”

Dryier repeated the action three more times, then turned the dial back to the setting for the tail-top post. He was just reaching for the signal button when the captain emerged from the inner part of the tent, staff in tow.

“How many?” he demanded of Dryier.

“Two contacts, in the bush, Sir,” Dryier responded, half rising and saluting with one hand while the other completed its task of pushing the signal button.

“Hold fire until my signal. Confirm the sighting,” the captain ordered.

“Aye,”  Dryier replied.

“Go ahead,” came a voice over the speaker.

“Status,” Dryier said. As he did, two more signal lights lit up, one for the bow post, one for another post on the ground at the tail of the ship.

“Confirm three contacts in the bush, moving under cover, four hundred yards, one hundred twelve degrees.”

“Aye aye. Hold fire.” Dryier snapped the switch to the setting for the bow post.

“Go ahead,” he said.

“Confirm two contacts, four hundred yards, one hundred twenty degrees.”

“So, seven so far?” the captain asked.

“No, sir, two confirmed,” Dryier replied. “They’re all seeing the same contacts, just at different angles.” “I see.” He pondered a moment. “Where’s our scout cannon?”

“Mounted aft, sir.” Dryier indicated the remaining lit position.

“Do they confirm?” Dryier turned the switch to connect. “Go ahead.”

“Confirm three contacts, three-fifty yards, one hundred twelve degrees.” came the voice over the speaker.

“Aye aye. Stand by.” Dryier looked up at the captain, who frowned and considered a moment.

“Let’s send our bush friends a signal,” the captain replied.

Dryier leaned into the microphone, taking an involuntary gasp as he did. “Open fire on contacts. Repeat, open fire on contacts.”

At the port observation post, Dryier’s words had not yet finished before the officer in charge, a lieutenant by the name of Fiztern, spun to face the two-man cannon team.


Instantly, the evening calm was broken by the crack and flash of weapon fire. Anticipating the order, the fire team had been tracking the contacts from the moment they were spotted. Their weapon, one of the Constant Vision‘s two scout cannons, had been loaded and primed, the liquid fuel charge already injected and ready. The observer noted the projectile’s swift flight, as well as the resulting cloud of dust and sand where the solid projectile hit. The gunner immediately jacked open the bolt of the big, single-action rifle and shoved in the next slug. Slamming the bolt home and locking it, he kicked the fuel pedal, noting with grim satisfaction the muffled hiss of fuel vaporizing on hot metal.

“Three yards short, one yard left,” the observer noted calmly. The gunner expertly tapped the two aiming wheels, adjusting the elevation and azimuth of the gun. Once satisfied, he tripped the trigger again. The muzzle flash was bright in the growing dusk. The gunner immediately began reloading. “On target,” the observer noted, “but he’s moving. Five yard … seven yards right, five yards short.” Once again the gunner tapped expertly, and once again the weapon spoke. “Hit.”

“Where’s the other target?” asked Lieutenant Fitzern.

Almost as if in answer, there came the crack of a carbine, not from the camp, but from the brush. To the right of the post, mounted on a pole, stood one of the great spotlights that were trained on the ship’s hull. It exploded in sparks, and died.

“What was … they’ve got guns!” Fitzern exclaimed.

“Aye,” commented the observer, drawing his own sidearm. He expertly armed it and snapped off a careful shot into the growing darkness.

High above, on the aft rocket platform, Stolia clutched the grip of the ripple launcher with pale hands. “Should I shoot?” she pleaded, her gaze frozen at the dark mass of brush below. “Should I shoot? Should …”

“Hold fire,” replied Driss’ka as she held the signal button down on the transmitter. “Wait for orders.”

To her left the rotary gun emitted an oily rattle as the barrels began to spin. Drend had the barrel depressed and aimed at the vegetation below. Here and there around the camp came the sounds of gunfire, sporadic and isolated. Drend had not yet fired, but his eyes were fixed to the gunsights.

“Go ahead,” came the sound of Dryier’s voice on the speaker.

“Permissssion to fire!” Driss’ka hissed into the mike.

“Open fire!”

“Open … ” Driss’ka began, pointing below, but the rest of her order was drowned out by the roar of the rotary gun as Drend opened up. A moment later the noise was doubled as Stolia fired the ripple launcher, unleashing a torrent of rocket fire into the night. Driss’ka dropped into a crouch, her vestigial wings covering her head instinctively to protect her from the noise. Stolia, her hands frozen in terror, held the ripple launcher on bead entirely in spite of herself, firing the entire volley of sixteen rockets at the spot where the first enemy had been spotted. This involuntary example of massive overkill lit the evening sky like it was daytime, ripping the scrubby vegetation with shrapnel and setting fires over an area the size of a mudball field.

Drend quickly realized that his rounds were entirely redundant compared to the firestorm that Stolia had unleashed, and he instead traversed the barrels of the rotary across his field of fire, starting with the place of first contact and going left. It was getting dark fast, but not so dark that Drend couldn’t see where the bullets were kicking up dirt and dust below, and where the enemy was breaking from cover and running, some away from and some toward the ship. To his dismay, it wasn’t just a few contacts. There were hundreds.

The camp had been laid out on both sides of the ship, but mostly it had spread to the port side. This was partly because there was a dense thorny thicket to that side that lent an air of safely and enclosure. Nonetheless, Captain Veerus had prudently posted guards on that side as well, although fewer than on the starboard side. These men and women now found themselves faced with a nightmare: dozens of enemy suddenly appearing where moments before there had been just brush and sand.

Caught unaware, two of the guards died immediately, arrows piercing them in multiple places. Three others were better concealed and opened fire. One of them was a minor adept, and she unleashed a blast of wind into the faces of the attackers which lashed them with stinging sand, slowing them. The other two were armed with carbines, and snapped out rifle fire as fast as they could work the bolt actions on their weapons. A handful of the attackers fell, but more came surging on. Two more of the sentries died before a sailor appeared with a flamethrower and lit up the night, driving back the enemy in a panic.

This desert foe was not to be cowed for long. Arrows flew toward the sailor, as well as toward the remaining sentry. Guided by magic, these arrows found their marks where earlier arrows had missed. The dusk was again dim and quiet, for a moment. Stealthy figures, hidden by magic, leaped through the darkness. They reached the thorn thicket and began to penetrate it. Their quiet cunning was turned to pain and fear when it turned on them, coming to life and lashing them with sharp spines.

Not far away, in a tent, Polnias frowned in concentration, his fingers twitching and his blind eyes flicking from side to side as his magicks animated the thorny barrier. He took no notice when an arrow pierced the canvas tent, first to his left, then, closer, to his right. Outside the cries of the enemy faded as more of them freed themselves from the thorns and fled. Polnias continued his fight right up to the moment an arrow pierced the tent directly behind him. Without a cry he fell forward, the shaft buried deep in his heart. He never heard the sharp crack of carbines as reinforcements arrived to drive away the foe.

On the starboard side of the ship, the battle was over more quickly. Drend’s rotary, mounted on a platform high above the field of combat, had the disadvantage of firing from above, meaning that his aim had to be accurate to hit anything. The rotary mounted on the forward rocket platform of the Constant Vision was lower. Fire from that weapon could be much less accurate and still be effective. The operator knew this. Ignoring the huge gouts of flame coming from the rocket gun at the other end of the platform, she carefully and deliberately swung the cluster of spinning barrels through its entire traverse.

The enemy was completely unprepared for the onslaught. By the time she had exhausted the first box of rounds, the field to starboard was cleared. Seeing this, she motioned to the observer and together they hauled the heavy gun across the platform on its track and aimed it to port. Uncertain of the location of the friendly troops, the gunner fired a burst high, as a warning. She then raked the port side with the same thoroughness that she had used on the starboard side. When the box of ammunition was empty, she allowed the barrels to coast to a stop. From her post all she could see was the camp, and the darkness beyond. All she could hear was the cries of the wounded.

Captain Veerus was sitting in the tent with Marileyna. He was looking up at the wall of the tent, where an arrow was sticking through the canvas. Marileyna seemed unconcerned.

“… and I’m ready any time you are, Captain,” she was saying.

The captain nodded. “I’m just waiting to get word that the rocket is ready.”

“It is,” she said. “But I can wait.”

Just then, Tritti poked her head in the door flap. “Ready, sir,” she said, breathlessly.

“Here we go,” Veerus said, and pushed the button on the controller that sat in his lap. From outside came the banshee scream of a rocket launch. Marileyna rocked back on her heels.

“Wow!” she exclaimed, a look of sheer joy on her face.

The captain smiled and nodded nervously. He listened to the pitch of the rocket engine as it faded into the distance, burning through the boost phase and into the cruise phase. From the sounds of it the fire control chief had aimed it well, and they at least didn’t need to worry about the rocket landing back in the camp.

“The night clouds are quite beautiful tonight, Captain,” she said conversationally. Veerus nodded. He could hear that the rocket engine had cut out. The missile, unpowered now, would continue to arc upward a while before nosing over and descending.

“Have you ever heard of ‘stars’, Captain?” she asked. He shook his head. She nodded knowingly. “I heard someone talking about them once. Supposedly they are some sort of light you used to be able to see in the sky, long ago. I wonder what they were.”

“I don’t know,” Veerus said. He was about to ask her if she could see anything when the howl of a ripple launcher being fired drowned out his words. He actually flinched as several of the small, unguided rockets screeched over the tent, the whistle of their passage drowned out by the crack of explosions as the volley landed in the scrub outside the camp.

“Ah!” Marileyna said suddenly, looking down at the floor, just in front of Veerus’s knee. “I see you.”

“See who?” he asked, but she seemed not to hear him.

“Well, we can’t have that, now can we?” she said, lifting her hand and holding it out, palm down.  It trembled a bit, as if she was holding something down. The captain resisted the urge to ask her what she was talking about. “I’m starting to see something, captain,” Marileyna said. “I can see the enemy troops falling back. They’re regrouping out beyond the lights.”

“Will the rocket hit them?” Veerus asked hopefully.

“No, not even close,” she replied, frowning. “There’s not as many of them now. We killed a lot.” Veerus could see her eyes moving, scanning the floor between them, as if she were actually on that rocket, high in the air, and was looking down. She paused. “They’re leaving. They’re running away.

“Good,” replied the captain.

“Not all of them are running away, though,” she commented. “Some of them are staying. They’re talking among themselves.”

“Can you t’see what they’re saying?”

“It’s dim. Let me try.” She fell silent for a moment.  Her gaze was slowly rising, mirroring in inverse the trajectory of the rocket as it fell. “It’s hard. Their language is strange, as are their thoughts.” Another pause. “They are angry and afraid. They attacked too soon. They should have waited.”

“Waited? Waited for what?”

“For the rest. They will be here soon.” Her brow knit. Her gaze was leveling out. “There’s something else, too. I can’t quite t’see it, but there is something else there, with them.”

“What sort of thing?” asked Veerus.

“I don’t know,” she said. Suddenly she gasped. “It can t’see me too.” She leaned forward, as if peering at something. “Hello, what are you?” she asked. Her gaze continued to track upward, as if she were almost back to ground level. “I can hear you whispering to me, but I can’t hear what you are saying. What are you?” Her gaze was now level with Veerus’s face. Suddenly her eyes went wide, and a look of shock came over her face. Veerus felt a small thump as the shockwave from the rocket’s impact reached them through the soil. A moment later came the sound of the explosion. Silently, without moving, Marileyna pitched over to the side and fell to the floor.

Veerus got up and went out through the flap. Outside, Tritti was waiting. She glanced in at Marileyna, motionless on the floor, her eyes still open.

“Tend to her,” Veerus said, and went on. He passed out of the tent, his aids following with sidearms drawn. He paused at Dryier’s desk. “Have the big units hold fire,” he said, then headed outside. The night was lit dimly by the night clouds, by the one remaining spotlight that the enemy had not shot out, and by a few lights mounted on tent poles. Airmen were moving about with carbines unslung, and corpsmen were converging on the infirmary with wounded.

“Get those lights fixed,” Veerus said, pointing up at the hull. “We need light. Check the posts to be sure they’re manned. If we need to fall back, we fall back to the hull.” He looked around at the fires in the brush. “Set the rest of the brush on fire. I want a perimeter cleared for a half a mile. And get me a report of what store we have left — rockets, fuel, and rounds. Oh, and people.” His gaze focused on a small group dragging a man in from the darkness. He moved towards them.

“Carry that wounded,” he instructed. “This is an enemy, sir,” came the reply. “We’re bringing it back for questioning. We needed to keep our weapons out.” The two men dragging the victim waved pistols.

“It doesn’t look like much of a threat any more,” Veerus said, motioning them to release it. The airmen dropped the dusty robes they’re been using to haul the enemy. The captain hunkered down next to the nearly naked prisoner, noting the bloody, perforated, leather chest plate and the tattooed skin. The enemy was human, quite obviously male, and was looking at Veerus with glassy eyes. The enemy’s lips moved loosely.

“… gomshallunt hickan krelleeg …” he whispered.

Veerus looked up at the other men. One of them shrugged, but the other nodded.

“I speak just a bit of that language, captain,” he said. “I think he’s saying something about defending something. ‘Krelleeg’, I think.”

“What’s a ‘krelleeg’?”

“I’m not sure, sir.”

“Ask him about it,” Veerus said. “Ask him …” But looking down at the man, Veerus knew there was not to be any asking. The man’s gaze was now fixed and his chest unmoving. He was dead. Veerus stood. He stared at his enemy for a moment, then waved his hand. “Put him with the rest. We’ve got work to do.” The executive officer ran up, carbine slung over one shoulder, and saluted. The captain returned the gesture. “Report.”

“Tactically, sir, we have a victory. The enemy is moving off, and there are many enemy wounded and dead.” He paused for breath. “Strategically, this was costly. We expended nearly all our small rockets and half our rotary rounds. We have at least a dozen dead and lots of wounded. And we have lost all but one spotlight.”

“We’re alive, Commander,” replied the captain. “Let’s make that count for something.” He looked around. “Institute strict fire control. No one fires without orders, and only with a clear target. Give orders to conserve rounds, fuel, and water. Put senior officers on the rotaries and the rockets, and put priority on getting the lights back up.” He frowned. “This isn’t over. Not by a long shot.”

Part 17: Balloon Alone

Filia awoke shivering. For a long time she didn’t know where she was or why she was so cold, and she just lay there, miserable. She finally tried to move and felt the world move with her. It was then that she remembered that she was in a basket, suspended below a balloon.  Her memory returned in an instant. Looking around, Filia levered herself up on one elbow. Staun was slumped over on his bench, hanging on the safety straps. Filia pulled herself up, feeling in her body that she had been asleep for a while. She looked over the edge. On the ground below she saw, not yellow desert, but green trees, and not nearly as far away as they ought to be.

Filia stared at the verdant landscape for a long moment, her heart quickening in her breast. She turned back to Staun. She held her hand to his face, and could feel his breath. She took him by the shoulders and lifted him up.


His eyelids flickered. He sighed.


His eyes opened, and he lifted his head. He muttered something incoherent, and looked at her with bleary eyes.

“Jeffr?” he muttered. ” I must have fallen again …”

“It’s Filia, and we have a problem.” She resisted the urge to shake him awake, instead holding him upright as he awakened. “I need you to wake up now.”

“I’m awake,” he said, his blind eyes fixing on a point just over her right shoulder. “What’s happening?”

“I think the balloon is going down in a forest. I need your help.”

He closed his eyes for a moment, stiffening in her grasp. They popped open almost immediately.

“Yes. We’re definitely losing altitude.” She could hear the panic edging into his voice, and to her terror she could feel that same feeling seize her.

“How do I stop it?” she asked, clenching her hands tight around his shoulder. In answer his eyes flicked from side to side rapidly, and then he closed them, the eyeballs still moving under the lids.

“They built this balloon too fast,” he said. “There are none of the usual controls.” He tried to stand and the safety belts caught him. His hand beat hers to the clasp and he was on his feet in a flash. He gripped the sides of the basket, looking wildly around, down, and up. “The wind is still blowing us sideways. We should slow our sideways movement somehow.”

She looked around the basket, then pointed. “What about the tether? I coiled our half into the basket.”

“Tie fast one end, then throw the rest over!” he said. She complied, watching it unwind as it fell to its full length. Fully unwound, it was long enough to reach the treetops. She could see the wake it was making in the canopy.

“It’s dragging in the trees,” she said.

“Let’s hope it catches.” Staun said simply.

“Should I reel it back up and make some sort of anchor for it?” she asked.

He considered a moment, cocking his head upward. “Build the anchor first, then reel the rope in. That way we get the greatest opportunity for slowing.”

Filia nodded. She began to cast about the basket, looking for whatever could be made into some sort of anchor. Already she could feel the basket trembling as the rope below was dragged through the branches. She wondered if an anchor would really be all that necessary, and she said so.

“We may need to to fix our position once we stop,” Staun replied simply.

“I think I can disassemble your seat, perhaps,” she said. She flopped down on the floor, looking up at the underside of his simple bench. She flipped open her belt tool and attacked the screws that held the bench in place. It was difficult working upside-down in the shaking basket, though.

“Was …” Staun began, then paused.  “Was I sleeping?”

“I think we both were,” Filia responded slowly.

“I don’t remember … “

“I think we went too high,” Filia replied. “I think we both passed out from lack of oxygen.”  She frowned. “It’s a miracle we’re both alive.”

“The fact that balloon is falling saved our lives.”

“Yeah, let’s just hope that it doesn’t take out lives, too.”

Filia worked at the screws with her multi-tool. The basket had just been built that morning, and everything was quite tight. Whoever had put the bench in probably had done it with the basket on it’s side, with a power tool, and had the weight of gravity to help them sink the screws in. Her blade kept skipping off the tops of the metal fasteners.

“Filia, I need your eyes,” Staun said. She looked up at him. He was staring ahead, motionless. She scrambled to her knees.

“What is it?” she asked, following his gaze.

“What do you see ahead of us?” he asked.

“Lots of forest. I think we’re about to fly over some sort of shallow valley.” She paused just a moment at that, something tugging at her mind.  “Lots of blue sky, no clouds. Maybe some birds ahead, or little dragons.”

“Do you see anything that could be … dangerous?”

“Nothing … and everything. Can you be more specific?” She tried to keep the edge from her voice that seemed to appear every time she spoke to him.

“I … no, not yet.”

She looked again, intently, then shook her head. “Let me finish this anchor, then,” she replied, flopping back down on her back. “Let me know when you have a bit more focus on the problem.”

She had barely managed to loosen the first screw when she realized that she no longer felt the trembling in the basket from the rope. She was considering standing when she felt the balloon start to drop. That got her to her feet. She looked over the edge, gripping the edge of the basket. She grasped the situation in an instant. The winds dipped down into the valley, and were carrying the balloon with them. She could see now that there was a bit of a drop-off behind them, which explained the sudden dip. Her mind said she should go back to work, but her hands refused to release the edge as they continued to fall down into the valley. Looking over the edge she could see that the rope had lifted clear of the trees when they had gone over the edge, but now it was dipping back down into the verdure. As she watched, more and more of the rope disappeared.

“Staun!” she cried, gripping the basket.

“What do you see?!” he replied, his own knuckles blanched with tension as he clung to the basket.

“We’re going down!” she said. “I think we’re going …”

“No!” he countered. “No, we’re not, not yet.” His eyes unfocused for a moment. “We’re still too buoyant. We …”

There was a tremendous lurch as the rope snagged on something. Filia was bent back over the edge of the basket, and Staun was launched across at her. Their bodies slammed together and they dropped down into the basket in a heap. As they flailed about, trying to orient themselves, there came another jolt, and another. Staun reached his feet first, clawing his way to his former perch at the basket’s edge.

“I think it’s working!” he commented.

“Can it work a little less rough?” Filia asked, picking herself up. She looked over the edge beside Staun, back along the way they came. She could see the rope parting the leaves below. She waited for the next tug, but nothing came. She looked forward, to where they were headed, and gasped.



“We’re not going to make it! There’re cliffs ahead!”

“Are there trees on them?”

“On top, not on the sides.”

“Then that’s actually good. The balloon will cushion the impact, and we may be able to grab on, or jump out.”

“You’re crazy!”

“It may be our best chance!”

“There’s nothing to grab onto! We’ll fall!”

“We’ll be okay! Get ready to jump!” he moved to the forward side of the basket, one hand gripping the edge, the other out ahead, as if feeling for the approaching rock wall.

“Staun, no, it’s crazy …” Filia protested, edging over to his side. She looked ahead. “Besides, I think we may miss it now. We’re rising.”

She watched the approaching cliffs as they both loomed larger and slipped away beneath them. The updraft had a firm grip on the balloon, and they were gaining speed. Filia’s heart lightened as she realized they would clear the rock wall, then suddenly dropped again when she realized that the basket would not clear the trees growing on top of the cliffs.

“Staun, get down,” Filia said, grabbing his shirt and pulling him down with her. “We’re about to go through a tree!”

Staun opened his mouth to protest, then the basket lurched as the balloon hit. Once again the two mingled limbs on the basket floor, but this time Filia was more prepared and managed their fall better. The next few seconds were a chaotic flurry of lurches and bumps. Filia clenched her eyes shut tight and clung fast to the basket and to Staun. Leaves and twigs fell on them as they crashed through the foliage. Finally they were through, the basket swaying from side to side. Filia waited for more impacts, and when none came she stood. She looked down. The trees were falling away below as the updraft continued to carry them aloft. She looked up, and froze. Something was wrong.

“Staun,” she said carefully, then stopped, staring upward. Her secret sense told her something was wrong, but her eyes and her mind could not yet see what. “Staun, I think …” Then she saw it. There was a tear in the balloon. “Staun, there’s a tear in the balloon!”

“That could be a good thing,” he said slowly, pulling himself up. “We need to get down somehow. How big is it?”

“Not real big,” she said. “As long as your arm, maybe?”

“That’s actually a good size,” he said. “Big enough to let some lifting gas out, but not so big we fall to our deaths.”

“That’s a relief,” she replied. “I was worried that …”

The sound of the rope tightening warned her almost soon enough to brace herself for the jolt that came. Once again the two were tossed to the floor. This time Filia ended up on top. As she lay there in a heap she watched the balloon strain against the tether. The small tear grew upward until the top edge passed out of sight. To her horror, she could feel the balloon start to fall.

Part 16: Into the Darkness

(This story contains scenes which may not be suitable for all audiences. Reader discretion is advised.)

It was almost nighttime when Filia and Staun emerged from the tunnel. The pair had reached a place where the walls of the old passageway had been breached. From the look of it, a flash flood had carved a ravine in a hillside, long ago, excavating the tunnel. Filia stood in the impromptu entrance, blinking in the fading light. Staun, his blind eyes impervious to the sun, continued on until his cane found the edge of the pavement, then he stopped. They both stood there for a long moment. Filia snuffed out the torch, sat down, and buried her face in her hands.

Their day had started much earlier, in the depth of the ancient temple. Staun awoke first, uncurling and shuffling off in the darkness to relieve himself somewhere up one of the nearby tunnels. Filia chose a different tunnel for a similar purpose, thankful for the dim blue glow provided by the great sworl trap. She was pleasantly surprised to find that she was not terribly stiff after a night asleep on the stone floor. Her injuries began to hurt almost immediately, however, and Staun admitted his did as well. From the sworl trap they gleaned enough information about the path ahead to begin.

“When once the edge of the forest you reach, there you may rest, but not before,” it had advised. “Nor would I rest in the open. Seek shelter.”

They had agreed. Staun had taken time to fill the water flask while Filia gathered material for torches. Staun was talking to the sworl trap and gathering water as she headed off across the chamber. The blue light let her find plenty of material. Her bag was as full as she could make it with crude torches when they finally bid farewell to the old sworl trap and headed up the tunnel.

At first the walk was easy. The tunnel was comparatively clean and well lit. They walked in silence, affording Filia’s mind the chance to wander. Her thoughts returned again and again to wistful recollections of daily life in Selkwyth: simple, regular life, with Gomph to tell her what to do at work and Dartain to lead her around the city at night. That all seemed so close now, despite how far away it really was. She wanted nothing more than for all this to go away, and for her to be back in her nice safe clothes in her nice safe city with her nice safe routine and her nice safe friends. Even with all its oddities, Selkwyth was far better than this, and Dartain would be far better company than Staun.

The blue light had served them for almost a mile, by Filila’s reckoning, before it became too dim to use. She had lit a torch and they continued on. The sworl trap described a journey of many miles, and she wasn’t sure how they would make the torches last that long. The answer came in the form of tree roots that grew down into the tunnel. Her knife made quick work of them when they appeared, and they supplemented the supply of fuel quite well. Food and water was scarcer. They had drunk deep before leaving, but soon they were thirsty again, and so far had seen no glordia fruit.

Their pace had quickened a bit when they saw the sunlight ahead. Now that they were out in the open, all Filia could feel was exhaustion and hunger.

“Staun,” she asked, “do you t’see anything?”

He turned and stared off at what seemed a random angle for a long moment. “Not danger, I don’t think. Not rescue, either. But perhaps …” He turned slowly, then pointed. “There. Water.”

She followed his direction and climbed off the trail and down into the ravine. The underbrush was a bit thinner here, but still managed to add to the growing maze of scratches on her naked legs and belly. She persevered, and was rewarded with the thin sound of running water. She uncovered the tiniest trickle of a stream and, using the cup from the temple, filled their water flask. She also spotted two different sorts of berries. Looking around, she found what looked like a thin, curved bit of tunnel debris. She picked the berries and balanced them on her makeshift plate as she fought her way back to Staun.

“Here’s water,” she said, carefully holding the flask up to him from where she was standing in the ravine. He took it and held it. She thought for a moment. “Go ahead and drink it all, and I’ll go get more.” He nodded, and began to drink.

As Filia stood there, her mind wandered for a moment. She wondered what Dartain was doing at that moment back in Selkwyth. She imagined him at the arena, strapped up and ready to play. In her mind’s eye, he stood tall and unafraid. She wondered if he had learned that the airship had gone down. She wished she were there with him and not in the woods with some naked, blue person.

She came back to herself, and realized with chagrin that she was staring at the forked end of Staun’s limp, blue member. She turned her eyes up to his face instead, and held up her hand to take the flask when he was done drinking. She handed him the flat with berries on it. “Here’s some fruit. Check to see if it’s any good.” He nodded, and she turned back to the ravine, hoping that he could not somehow sense her embarrassment.

Filia once again headed down the ravine for more water. Remembering the sworl trap’s comments about food, she watched for any mushrooms. She spotted a few, and decide to focus on the water first. She once again filled the flask, drank it, refilled the flask, and headed back up. She paused on the way up to pick the mushrooms and put them in the sack. Then she returned to where Staun stood. She noticed that he had a worried look on his face, and was holding the flat debris fragment over his head and was running his hand across the bottom.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Don’t spill the berries.”

“Where did you get this?” he asked, lowering the makeshift plate. Filia retrieved it from him, taking care not to spill its cargo.

“Down in the ravine. Why?”

“Was there more of this down there?”

“What is it? Why are you so worried?” She nibbled at a berry, wondering if she would be able to tell if they were poisonous by taste alone.

“That’s a fragment of a dragon wasp egg.”

Filia almost dropped the plate. She hastily set it and the berries on the ground, and spit out the berry in her mouth.

“How do you know?”

“The texture, and the curve. Were there more down there?”

Filia looked down into the ravine. “It’s all covered over with brush and leaves and stuff. I pulled that bit out from under the leaves.” She hefted the spear, looking around at the trees nervously.

“So you don’t see the shells themselves?” Staun actually sounded relieved.


“Okay,” he replied, visibly relaxing. “It must be an old nest.” He shuffled his feet a bit. “I didn’t know how long egg fragments would last in the wild.”

“So are there going to be dragon wasps around here?” she asked, still looking around. “They’re dangerous — one of my uncles was killed in a dragon wasp outbreak.”

“There are probably no wasps left here anymore. I’m sure they all died out long ago. And by the way, the berries should be fine.”

Filia carefully picked the plate back up again. She looked it over, then divided the berries between the two of them. They ate them, and she tossed the plate aside.

“I’m going to gather more torch materials,” she said. It didn’t take long to replenish their supply, and in short order she was ready to go. She looked around for anything that might make some sort of makeshift clothing, but there was nothing. She looked at Staun, who was now just naked, save for his shoes. His shirt had been scavenged for material to bind the torches. She shuddered to think what the other crewmembers would say when they rescued them.

“Best get going again?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

Filia knelt and opened the satchel. She pulled out an unlit torch and their mechanical torch. She checked the torch’s bindings, to be sure she would not end up with a handful of loose, burning fibers later. As she did so, she looked down the dark throat of the tunnel.

“I suppose you already checked the tunnel for traces of dragon wasps?” she asked.

“Dragon wasp infestations don’t last long, in our world today. They don’t do well in areas already rich with life. This colony probably died out centuries ago.” He cast about with his head. “In fact, I would guess that the tunnel and temple complex was probably built in and around an old wasp nest. This passage itself could even be a wasp tunnel that the ancient ones straightened and lined with masonry.”

“We’re walking down a dragon wasp tunnel,” Filia muttered to herself. “Naked. With no weapons but a wooden stick.” She sighed and lit the torch. “It just doesn’t get any better than this, does it?”

They walked back into the dark passageway. Once again they made their way silently. Long hours of walking in the dim torch light sapped their spirits, and they spoke little. They pressed on until they could go no further, then settled down for the night next to an outcropping of roots. Filia built a small fire, and soon they were both asleep, again curled together for warmth and safety. Filia had dreams, but did not remember them after she awoke.

They had very little idea of the time in the darkness and so merely continued on their way. The tunnel was fairly clear, and they made good time. They found water, again, but this time it was inside the tunnel, running down the wall into a niche and then down in a tiny waterfall to a drain. They also found the glordia fruit, although Staun insisted they not eat them in the dark. They continued on for a long time, until they saw the light at the end. The tunnel ended in a jumble of fallen stones that they clambered over and through and into the sunlight.

They found themselves on a rocky hillside overlooking a small box canyon covered in scrubby brush and rocky outcroppings. The open end led to a forest. Staun took a quick look around and then indicated that they should proceed toward the trees. They clambered down and hurried through the brush, Filia keeping a careful eye out for animals or other dangers. They soon reached the trees, and came to a halt. The sun was setting, and after a discussion in low tones they both decided to stop for the night. Staun insisted that a fire would be a bad idea, but out of the tunnel the air was warm, and Filia was able to find a dry place with lots of soft, dead grass in which to make a bed.

Once their camp site was set, Filia opened up the knapsack and pulled out the mushrooms they had gathered. She offered one to Staun and asked if it was acceptable. He studied it for a bit, then nodded affirmatively. She took it back, then broke them all into bits and divided them between the two of them. As she ate, she allowed herself to study Staun’s wound. It seemed to have healed a bit since the day before. She felt her own wound,and was pleased to note that it hurt less.

“Do you sense any water nearby?” she whispered to Staun when she was done eating. He nodded, his mouth full, and pointed. “I’ll be back.” Filia gathered up her spear and the water flask and moved carefully in the direction indicated, keeping an eye out for danger.

The land sloped gently downward, and she didn’t have to go far to find a small stream. As she approached it, she passed a small pool of water, and caught sight of her own reflection. She was a fright. She was just plain naked, with scratches and cuts and dirt all over her body. Her hair was a mess. She had never been a terribly heavy person, but after her illness and her days on thin rations her ribs showed, and she even felt a bit lightheaded. Once again she shuddered, thinking of what their rescuers would say. She felt sick at the idea that word of this would get back home to Dartain and the others. She pushed the thought out of her mind and filled the flask.

Filia returned safely, if a bit wobbly, to find Staun sitting with his back to a thick mat of grass, his knees pulled up under his chin. His eyes tracked her as she approached, but he said nothing. She compressed the grass to make a place for herself to lie down in, doing so gingerly as she still felt a bit faint. She considered looking for more to eat, but decided to wait until morning. She lay on her back, breathing just a bit heavily. Overhead the leaves swayed gently in the breeze, the last light of the day flickering from one to the next.

“Can you t’see any better out here than you could in there?” she asked him softly.

“A bit,” he replied slowly. “But … but the whispers are louder too.”

Filia’s stomach trembled at that word, and a chill sent goose flesh across her naked body.

“What are they?” she asked, not wanting to hear the answer.

“I don’t know,” he replied, misery in his voice. “I can never make out what they are saying. I try and try, but …” his voice caught on a sob, and he stopped.

An uncomfortable silence followed.

“How old were you when you became an acolyte?” Filia asked him.

“I was three,” he said. “Father was a Third Adept, and knew right from the start that I was very attuned to the Whind. We are descendants of Kaytla, the Dreamer.”

“She is one of the ones in Memorial Park, right?” Filia rolled slightly to her right, so she could see him. “That place with all those huge statues of naked people?”

“Yes, the park with the huge statues of naked people,” Staun replied wryly. “She is one of the biggest ones. Her statue is right beside the one of Martus, the only one of the Great Defenders whose statue is not standing upright.”

The Kethrios Cycle“I don’t remember seeing that one,” Filia replied. “I’ll have to go back and look at it when we get back to Selkwyth.” In the growing darkness it was becoming hard to make him out. He was still seated with his knees drawn up under his chin, with his arms wrapped around his shins and his heels drawn almost up the the bulge of his genitals. She could not make out his expression.

“Martus was the first of the Great Defenders to die in the battle,” he said. “The circle of power had not yet been completed, and the magistrates had ordered the crowd broken up and the ringleaders caught. Martus led a small group of protesters forward to meet the soldiers. His power was telepathy, and he used it to delay the soldiers.”

“Hang on,” Filia said, laying back down and watching the sunlight dapple the leaves above. “I think I remember this one. He had the ability to let people hear each other’s thoughts, and so he confused the guards by letting them hear what the other guards were thinking.”

“Yes, that’s it.”

“Yeah,” Filia said. “It’s coming back to me. Jaspin and I had just arrived in Selkwyth. and he was giving me a tour of the city. Naturally, the first place he took me was Memorial Park. I think he thought that having to be naked with all those naked people would somehow make me more comfortable with being in a strange new city.”

“You’re not comfortable with being naked,” Staun said.

“Not even close,” she replied, covering her delta with her left hand and her breasts with her right. “And Jaspin knew it. I think he was hoping that the sudden change would make me feel differently. Anyway, he took me on a tour through the park and told me the story of how the Great Eight– ”


“Great Twelve, the Great Defenders, defeated the Actarnine and liberated the city.” She lay there for a moment, admiring the play of the sun on the tree limbs and enjoying the feel of its warmth on her skin.”I do remember one good thing about that day in the park. That was the day I met Dartain. He was standing on a plinth, telling the story of one of the Defenders to a bunch of schoolchildren and I stopped to listen to his story. I suppose Jaspin must have wandered off.”

Filia frowned. “No, wait, that can’t be right.”

She rolled over on her side and looked at Staun. He was sitting beside her, having put his shirt back on and leaning back on one arm. He managed to smile at her without making her feel uncomfortable or angry. “I’m getting this all mixed up.”

Filia shook her head, feeling as if her skull was immersed in syrup. “I think I’m lightheaded from lack of food. I didn’t meet Dartain until I was already on the outs with Jaspin. I had left him for the first time, and was staying in that hostel with those kids, and they took me for a tour of the city, and got me lost, and we ended up at Memorial Park again. I wanted to just wait but they insisted I come and so I had to get naked in public all over again and then they abandoned me so they could go play in a mudball tournament, and I wandered all over that park for hours and hours until the sun was starting to go down and that’s when I met Dartain.”

Filia lay back, folding her legs over each other, trapping her hand between her thighs. “I think I was desperate. He was standing on that plinth covered in white paint and un-dressed-up like one of the Defenders. I think it was Martus, or maybe that other guy who died, whatsit, Blinder?”

“Belinder,” Gomph’s quavering voice said from the shadows behind her.

“Yeah, Belinder. Anyway,” Filia said, rocking to and fro on her back, still covering her breasts with her right hand while squeezing her left hand between her thighs, ”he looked like he worked there, so I sat down to wait for him to finish, so I could get directions on how to get out of the park.” Filia smiled, blinking in the strong sunlight. “He was cute, too, talking to all those little kids and answering their questions. I could actually stand to look at him, even though he was naked under all that paint. I’d actually say he was nude, not naked, because he was so comfortable there, so comfortable in his skin.”

Staun nodded, smiling, as did the figure of Gomph behind her. Filia smiled back. “So I waited for him to finish, and it turns out he doesn’t work there, he’s just doing this for fun!” Filia laughed at this amazing concept. The others joined in. “He’s just doing this because he wants to! So I tell him I’m lost and he promises to take me to the lockers where my clothes are. So we go to this underground building where all these workers are and he takes me into this locker room and goes in and takes a shower while he’s talking to me and then he gets dressed and starts to leave, and I ask him where my clothes are, and he says well aren’t they here, and I say no, they’re in my locker, and he says I thought you meant these lockers!” Filia joined all the others in riotous laughter at the inherent humor in the story.

“So we walk all the way around the park, because we can’t go in any more because he’s dressed now, even though I’m still naked, and it’s dark by this time and he even gives me his shirt to wear because I’m getting cold, and we never did find my clothes, and he finally suggests that he take me home, and I realize I don’t even know where the hostel is, so he suggested that we go to his place.” Filia lay back with a sigh. “Oh, Dartain. If only I had known. Right?”

Filia opened her eyes. Dartain, who was kneeling at her side, smiled at her and nodded. His form appeared to waver, like a reflection in a pond. He reached out and gently laid a hand on her arm. Filia sighed happily and closed her eyes again, listening to the birds singing gently above.”If only I had known that, even as I was walking home with you, Jaspin had his face buried between some barmaid’s legs,” she said bitterly, “while some other barmaid did the same to him! I would have just spent the night with you, Dartain. I really would have.” Filia could feel his warm hands caressing her shoulders. “Instead of wasting my time with that diddler Jaspin, I should have been spending my nights with you, Dartain.”

Filia rolled to her side and reached out to touch Dartain. He in turn touched the back of her hand. She moved to his side and wrapped herself around his warm body. She kissed his neck and back, and he caressed her side from breast to knee. She lay him back and covered him with her body, allowing his hands to move across her skin. She kissed him and tasted him and touched him, and he did the same, heating her mood to a fever pitch. Her hands found his eager member and seized it. All around them friends and family and former lovers and all the people she had ever known stood and shouted encouragement. Hungrily, she fumbled with his organ, pressing its forked tongue against her sex as he pressed her breasts and thumbed her nipples.

She finally engulfed him, howling her pleasure as he filled her up. All the world was engorged with light and heat and sound as she gripped him as hard as she could, inside and out, pushing him in again and again and again. Her mind and her body tensed on the verge of ecstasy, and she surrendered totally to it, letting her body go where it would. The moment came, and seized her, wracking her in electric spasms that would not stop, filling her mind with blinding light, until all was white and the world disappeared.

*  *  *

Filia knew two things instantly the moment she woke up. Firstly, she knew she was exposed. It wasn’t just that she was naked, either. She was in the open. Secondly, she knew that someone had been in her. That hadn’t happened very often, but she knew the feeling and didn’t like it. She especially didn’t like not remembering it. That make her feel doubly naked. She covered her breasts with one forearm and her mons with the other hand and sat up, looking around.

When she had lain down the night before, she had been hidden in a copse of young trees. Now those trees lay splayed out, flattened to the ground, with all the leaves and twigs stripped away. Beside her, on his side, facing away from her, lay Staun, unmoving.

The memory of what had happened in the night, or what she had thought had happened in the night, returned to her. Her breath came fast and ragged, and she felt nauseated. She looked at Staun with alternating pity and loathing. What had happened? she asked herself. It was obvious that it had been a dream, or a nightmare, or even a hallucination. But it had also been real, as the feeling in her groin told her.

Filia tried to stand, but an awful ache in her womb refused to let her. With a moan, she lay back down. Real, and quite … vigorous. Violent, even, from the looks of the surrounding area. She looked about. Whatever had happened had flattened every tree, bush, and plant for dozens of meters around, yet without injuring either of them.

Or had it? Staun remained still.

“Staun,” Filia said. He didn’t move, but at least he was breathing. She prodded him with her foot, still covering her breasts.

“Staun!” No reaction. A hint of concern seized her. She touched him, found his skin to be cold and clammy. She pulled him toward her. His head lolled loose on his neck. His eyes were open and his mouth was slack. Blood was streaked across his face from a cut somewhere above his hairline.

“Staun!!” She gingerly lifted him into her arms and cradled his head. His torso was warm, but his arms were cold. She put her face to his, and could feel his breath, but just barely. She rubbed his arms. “Staun! Wake up!” She grabbed the water flask and bathed his face. She dribbled a bit of water on his tongue, then splashed more on his face. Finally he flinched.

“Staun, wake up!” Filia looked around, scanning for danger. The landscape appeared empty. She looked back to Staun. His eyes were moving slowly from side to side. He blinked, and closed his mouth and swallowed. He moved his arms, legs, and head awkwardly, without power. “Staun, can you hear me?”

“Uhhhhh …” he said, as if trying to talk. His eyes rolled around, unfocused.

“Staun, can you hear me?” she repeated. She rubbed his arms again.

“Uh, mmmmm. Fiiil … Filia?” A puzzled look crossed his face, and he brought one hand to his head. He flinched as he touched the scab. “What … what did …” He opened his eyes and looked towards her, animation in his face now. With his arms and legs he pushed himself away from her, clumsily and without grace. Rolling off her lap, he flopped onto his belly, his limbs flailing as he tried to propel himself. After a moment he righted himself, then retreated, curling up as he had the night before. He cast distrustful looks her way. “What happened last night?” he asked.

“I …” Filia looked around. “I don’t know. I … you and … I … don’t know.”

Staun rubbed his privates in a way that showed he, too, was suffering the after-effects of their union. Then a surprised look came over his face. He straightened up and turned his head from side to side, as if listening to the landscape. Surprise gave way to awe.

“What happened here, Filia?” he asked.

“Whatever … we … did last night, all the trees and bushes are just flattened, all around us. It’s like something burst right here, right where we were … were laying, and it knocked the trees down all around us.”

Staun held his hand to his tongue, tasting it, then stood, shakily. She went to him, flinched in revulsion for a moment, then took his hand and steadied him.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

He put his hand to his head. “It was one of the mushrooms, I think. You should have let me check them all.”

“I’m sorry,” Filia said, and to her surprise a tear rolled down her cheek.

“I’ve never … “ he turned his head from side to side, his expression one of disbelief. “We need to get going.”

Filia nodded. “Okay.” She gathered up the knapsack and his walking stick, and began to lead him out of the debris field. When they reached the open scrubland they began to skirt the afflicted area. As they left it behind, Filia threw one last look back over her shoulder at the wreckage.

What had they done?

Part 15: A Higher View

Time seemed to have a different sort of passage when one was staring out into the vast yellow expanse of the desert. The insistent, drying wind and the unrelenting sun seemed to progress the minutes and hours, but a quick check of more artificial methods of timekeeping quickly revealed that this progress was an illusion. The intense light and vast vistas of dead landscape mocked any attempts to overcome them. The desert was oppressive and indifferent at the same time.

“How long have we been up here?” Stolia asked, moving gingerly across the trembling metal framework that held them suspended so high above the barren dirt below. The young brown-haired woman adjusted her harness for what had to be the fiftieth time, revealing white indentations across the bottoms of her breasts where the straps had been. Her pale skin was marked here and there by purple bruises and reddened abrasions, and her movements were halting and stiff.

Drend lowered his spyglass but did not take his eyes off the landscape. Without looking, he drew his pocket watch out of his gunner’s pants and brought it to his face. He gave it a quick glance. “Ninety minutes.” He returned the watch to his pocket and lifted the spyglass to his eye again, his free hand following to scratch underneath the white bandage that was wrapped around his head. The bandage on his shin was dirtier, and reddened where blood and serum had soaked through, and yet still contrasted strongly with his tanned skin.  He wore no shirt or harness, having instead a wide canvas utility belt at his waist.

“And how long do we have to be up here?” Stolia asked. She carefully detached her safety cable from the rail, moved around Drend, then reattached, moving further along the platform.

“Four hour shift,” Filia responded dryly. And if you keep this up, she thought to herself, we will feel every single minute of it. She also adjusted her harness, which she had strapped on over her blouse. For just a moment she considered removing the shirt, in the hope of feeling a bit cooler, then decided against it. She tugged her safety cable to ensure that it was still attached to the big gun to which she was assigned. It was.

“Do you want me to take the spyglass for a turn, Drend?” Stolia asked, still moving carefully along the rail. Filia expected the girl was desiring the illusory security of being closer to the bulk of the downed dirigible. Filia was glad for the heavy gun and its mount. It gave at least the illusion of stability.

“No, I’ve got it,” Drend replied stolidly, maintaining his steady scan of the horizon. His assignment was the big rail-mounted wire-guided rockets overhead. Filia hoped that it would not become necessary to fire them. The backblast would probably set them all alight.

Stolia had moved around Filia’s rotary gun mount and had reached the end of the rail. “Do you want me to relieve you on the gun?” Stolia asked, standing still at the end of the railing.

Filia shook her head. “No, I have it.”

Stolia stood motionless for all of four seconds, then started walking back in the direction she had come.

Filia looked past her at the side of the giant airship. Her proud lines, formerly so svelte and majestic, were now bent. The break had come almost exactly amidship, with the tail bent upward at what seemed like a sixty degree angle. The trio was perched on the aft rocket platform, which had been lowered on one end to be level once again. The captain had assigned rotating shifts among the crew to stand watch while technicians and engineers scrambled to salvage what equipment and material they could from the crashed vessel.

Amazingly, there were no fatalities in the crash. Serious injuries were few, but minor injuries were common. Unlike Stolia and Drend, Filia had managed to escape relatively unscathed. Filia was grateful the crash had not been worse. After she had fallen off the railing, the gas bags had cushioned her fall through the center of the ship. She had landed on the bottom skin of the float and had climbed aboard one of the stringers. She later learned that the storm had flung the ship high in the air and ruptured several gas bags, but did not break her any worse. As the storm dissipated, the ship sank to the desert floor. Using the engines, the crew was able to slow the descent enough that the crash was survivable.

Even before the ship crashed, the captain and officers had a plan. The moment the ship was stopped crew members debarked with tow ropes. Others remained aboard and began to jettison ballast and heavy items. Lightened, the wrecked airship again floated, for a time, and by working quickly the crew was able to tow the ship several miles to an oasis. Led there by those who could hear the whind, the crew allowed the ship to once again settle to the ground.

Filia was among the last of the crew to emerge from the wreck. Her recent illness had weakened her, and she had been buried deep inside the hull. By the time she emerged the crew had already set up lights and a simple camp. More significantly, they had also righted the ship enough to bring the fore weapons out into play. As they were leading the ship to safety, the whind readers had also realized that they were being observed.

Filia watched Drend as he scanned the desert. She also watched the areas he watched. Without the spyglass she could not see much, but she noticed the small changes in color in the middle distance. She was keeping the gun aimed in that direction, although whatever might be out there was far beyond the range of the weapon.

“Report.” The voice came distorted and muffled from a small speaker someone had mounted on the rail. It was driven by a thin wire run up to the platform earlier in the day. Drend bent down to address the speaker.

“Forces continue to gather, but they have come no closer.” He stayed down, listening.

“Continue your watch.” The voice was clipped, but even Filia recognized it as Captain Veerus. Drend straightened and resumed his scan.

Filia looked up the hull. High above them was the tail, now canted painfully forward. Filia knew that a watch had been set there. She did not envy the man she had seen climbing up there, but she expected he was probably a seasoned airman and was possibly even enjoying the view. She, however, like Stolia, was not. She had not volunteered to man a weapon high in the air. The captain had chosen the smallest members of his crew for the rickety platform. Filia had lost a fair amount of weight when ill, and both Stolia and Drend were small of stature. Their orders were clear: observe, report, and, if ordered, defend.

Stolia was standing now beside Filia and the gun, staring at it. Filia stared back, but their eyes did not meet. Instead Filia was studying the pattern of bruises on Stolia’s upper arms. She wondered how the slight woman had gotten them. Stolia had said that she was a doper’s mate. Filia wasn’t quite sure what that was, but it sounded like someone who worked on the ship’s hull. How did she manage to be so pale?

“It seems like just yesterday when we were training on these things,” she said. Filia had never trained with the slender brunette, so she assumed that Stolia was either speaking to Drend or speaking to herself. Almost as if in reply, Stolia looked Filia straight in the eyes. “When did you train on the gun?” Filia was a bit startled by the earnest, almost desperate look in the girl’s eyes. The idea of this frightened girl firing a weapon in earnest was absurd.

“Second day out Gomph and Proctor Quaternus asked the captain to have me evaluated. I fired the gun and the rockets.” Filia indicated the bulky black ripple launcher at the far end of the platform. It was supposed to be Stolia’s station. Filia suspected the girl had spent less than a minute at it, and allowed her suspicions to come out her mouth. “Did you get to fire the rocket launcher? Too?” Filia hoped that the addition of the last word didn’t sound too forced.

“Yes,” Stolia’s eyes lost their focus, and Filia could tell she was drifting back into memory. “Drend was my instructor.” Her voice put a lilt on that last word, but she didn’t look at Drend. “We fired your rotary cannon at the dragon banners, and we fired the ripple launcher, and I fired the rocket gun. That was fun.” She looked over at Drend finally. Drend did not turn, but continued his scanning. “I remember we had to wait for the group ahead of us to finish their timed rocket drills. That’s when I learned that Drend used to be an acolyte of the Whind.”

“Are you serious?” Filia asked, turning to look at Drend, both genuinely interested and grateful for the chance to discuss something other than weapons. “Is that right?”

“Yes,” Drend replied. “My parents dedicated me when I was three, and I accepted my burden when I was sixteen.”

There was a moment of silence before Filia spoke. “What made you leave?”

Drend also hesitated before replying. “I was sealed to the Silent Corps. Their training is rigorous, and you have to pass the tests perfectly. I was never able to completely block out the Whind.” He paused again. “They gave me the choice of another corp, or renewal and an appointment to the High Court. I chose the appointment, but the renewal was incomplete. The High Court didn’t quite know what to do with me after that, so I just left. I wandered a while, then signed up with the air corps. As long as you have two hands, two feet, two eyes and two ears, they don’t care what else you may be missing.”

“What do you mean, ‘missing’,” Filia asked. “What are you …” She glanced over at Stolia, but the girl’s wide eyes were fixed on Drend’s midsection. Filia followed that gaze, and noticed for the first time Drend’s unnaturally flat groin. “Oh,” Filia said, and shut her mouth.

Drend shifted his posture, turning his hips away from the two women. “The Silent Corps protect the new acolytes, both from outside threats and from themselves,” he said. “They have to be immune to any unnecessary distractions or potential weakness, even if it means … sacrifices.” He finally looked over at Filia, and she saw genuine acceptance in his eyes. “I was raised knowing what the choice was, and I made it. I don’t regret the decision, just that it didn’t work out.” He turned back to the far horizon and resumed his work. Filia wanted to say something, but couldn’t decide what would be appropriate, and so remained silent. Stolia continued to stand at the gun, staring at Drend for a moment longer, then wandered away.

It was only a few minutes later that Filia felt the first tremblings underfoot. She could tell that Drend did as well, and soon even Stolia was looking around. The three of them looked up and down the hull, but saw nothing amiss. Filia moved to the hatch leading into the hull and looked down into the darkened float. From the sound of it, someone was climbing up. She called out a hail.

“Stand by,” came the reply. Filia went back to her gun and waited. After a minute or so Driss’ka emerged.

“Filia,” Driss’ka said between hissing breaths. “I am here to relieve you.”

“I just started my shift,” Filia replied, surprised.

“Gomph calls for you, and the captain has agreed.” The Drevonian squatted down, arms and legs splayed out to help her cool herself. She ruffled her white head and back feathers and panted loudly, her huge eyelids blinking slowly in the bright light. Her pink shorts and harness were a marked contrast to her turquoise skin.

“They want me back down there?” Filia asked, suddenly fearing the descent much as she had feared the ascent.

“Yes. Now.”


“They did not tell me, but I hear. You are to ascend.”

“I’m supposed to what?”


“What does that mean?”

“Mine not to tell,” the Drevonian replied, standing and shaking herself. She unclipped her safety cable from the rail and snapped it to the gun. “Now go.”

Driss’ka outranked Filia, so Filia nodded. Climbing down from the gunner’s niche, she moved to the open hatch. The cant of the hull necessitated a careful transition, so she got down on hands and knees and fished for the first rung with one foot. Finding it, she slowly lowered herself down. The others watched silently from their stations; Stolia with her eyes wide and afraid, Drend sober and stolid, and Driss’ka alien and inscrutable. Filia stretched herself out onto the rungs of the catwalk and began her descent.

The internal pathways of the ship had been designed to allow access even in extreme orientations, so it was possible to move up and down inside the tilted hull. Just because it was possible, however, did not mean it was easy. Ascending from the ground to the weapons platform had been like climbing a long ladder. This was more like climbing down off a skeletal mountain at night. Many internal lights had not survived, and the float had been dimly lit at the best of times. Add to this her own recent illness and Filia was shaking by the time she emerged into the sunlight at the bottom. There she was met by a sailor who led her to the center of the camp.

“Filia!” She turned to see Gomph emerging from a tent. “There you are! Come! I have an adventure for you!”

“I was already having an adventure, thank you,” she replied. She had wanted to sound tart and sarcastic, but it just came out wobbly.

“You are perfect for this mission,” he said, gathering her up and leading her away from her escort. “We have a portable spark sender working, and we need to get it as high up as possible so that Selkwyth will hear our call for help.”

“And naturally you thought of me,” she replied.

“That was actually the captain’s idea, not mine,” he replied under his breath. “I think you are too weak still, but he insists that you are small enough and strong enough to go up with Staun in the balloon.”

“Oh, this just gets better and better,” she replied weakly, leaning on his arm. “Now tell me I have to be naked and shoot at people.”

“No, I don’t think that will be required,” he said. “But we need you to work the spark sender, and keep an eye on Staun.”

Filia groaned. “Any chance we can go back to naked and shooting?”

“You can be naked if you want,” Gomph said with a shrug. “But shooting is out of the question. That would disturb Staun.”

He led her to a long tent that had been erected alongside the dirigible. Filia wondered why the guard had escorted her away from the ship when she was only going to go back to it. As if reading her thoughts, Gomph handed her a flask of sweet liquid, which she drained. Inside the tent were crew members working hard on the thin material that formed the ship’s gas bags. Gomph led her all the way through the tent, which was cooler than out in the sun. They emerged from the other end at the nose of the ship, where a smaller crew was busily inflating one of the gas bags. It was already off the ground and was slowing rising, encumbered by what seemed to be a flimsy network of thin ropes.

“As you see,” Gomph said, “we have turned the bag into a balloon. It will be ready by early afternoon.” He turned and motioned for Filia to follow. “Now let me show you the spark sender.”

He led her to a small tent nearby. The ropes led off the balloon and went into the tent. Inside was a wickerwork carriage with many devices bolted inside and connected with wire. Large batteries filled the corners on the floor of the big metal basket. Filia studied the arrangement as Gomph explained to her how the electricity was accumulated, amplified, and released into the aether. Gomph fell silent and waited as she absorbed what he said. Finally she nodded.

“Yes, it’ll work.”

Gomph sighed with relief. “Wonderful. Now let’s practice sending the message.”

For the next hour Gomph and Filia worked the machine as men and women labored around them. The pair would send a message to be received by the equipment aboard the Constant Vision. A runner from the dirigible let them know how their messages came out. Above them, the gas bag slowly inflated until it was straining against the ropes holding it down. Finally Gomph was sure Filia could manage the message correctly. Staun was summoned, and the captain and senior officers led him out to the balloon.

“… tell her if you feel poorly or feel that you are about to have any episode. She will immediately signal us and we will bring you both back down. Understood?” the captain was saying to Staun as the party arrived.

“Understood, captain,” Staun replied. “Hello, Filia. Nice to t’see you again.” He stood there with his walking stick on one hand and a satchel over the other shoulder, not looking at anyone or anything in particular. The tent had been cleared away from the carriage, and Filia was inside. After an awkward silence she realized that everyone was looking at her. She took Staun’s hand and led him into the carriage. There was a thin bench for him to sit on. She had none. She led him to his perch and helped him strap in, grateful that his handlers had dressed him in something more substantial than his traditional and sparse attire. Once he was secure she ran through the small checklist she and Gomph had made up. She could feel the eyes of the entire command staff on her. Finally it was done. She looked up at the captain.

“We’re ready to launch, sir. At your order.” She had never really be trained in any chain of command, but she felt that was the appropriate thing to say. He nodded, and stepped away, nodding at Gomph.

“Stay in constant contact,” Gomph said to her as the crew began to cast off the lines holding the balloon down. “Wait for my signal to send the first message.”

Filia nodded. She swallowed hard as the carriage began to shake and lift. She steadied herself and watched Gomph’s face fall away below, his figure growing smaller and smaller as the balloon ascended.

Gomph and the command staff watched as the crew slowly played out the tether. Once it was clear that all was going well they turned and retreated to the shade of the hull.

Soon, the balloon halted its ascent as it came to the end of the tether. Part of the tether was a thin wire that powered a voice transceiver in the gondola. Filia addressed herself to it now.

“Control, do you read?”

“Affirmative.” The sound was reassuringly loud and clear.

“Ascent is smooth.” She looked around, her view all but unobstructed by the flimsy gondola. “No unusual sightings yet. I’m going to look around with the spyglass.”

“Afirmative. Please ask Staun if he t’sees anything.”

Filia looked over at Staun, who was staring straight ahead, not seeming to notice or acknowledge her at all. She frowned. “I think he can hear you. Can you hear them, Staun?”

“Yes,” he replied, not moving.

“Can you hear him?” Filia asked.

“We can hear him.”

“Good.” She lifted the spyglass to her eye. “I’ll let you communicate among yourselves.”

She swung the small telescope slowly around, examining the countryside. She was unused to using one, and it was hard to point it exactly. Most of the time all she could see was the bare, yellow dirt that covered the rolling landscape. Staun and the operator exchanged a pleasantry and Staun explained that he was listening and would be silent for a while. Then all was quiet.

Filia finished her first scan when Gomph’s voice came over the speaker.

“Filia, send your first message.”

“Acknowledged,” she said, moving to the spark sender. “Sending now.” She flipped the electrical valves, allowing power to reach the unit. She waited a moment for the device to reach equilibrium, then carefully tapped out the rehearsed message. Once she was done, she spoke again. “Message sent. Over.”

“We received it clearly,” Gomph said. “Good job. Standby.”

“Standing by,” Filia replied, and stood again. This time she just looked around with her natural gaze, being careful to avoid looking at Staun. Minutes passed by slowly. All was quiet in the gondola, save for the creaking of the tether rope.

The gondola abruptly shuddered. Filia automatically steadied herself, moved to the side of the gondola and peered out over the edge. The rope, all five hundred feet of it, led down to a winch atop the Constant Vision, which sat like a broken almond-shaped hump on the desert floor. The airship’s crew looked tiny and doll-like from this height. She gave a reassuring wave to anyone who might be watching, then moved to stand in the center of the carriage. She glanced at Staun, who sat on the bench with his fingers steepled.

“Well, we’re as high as we can go,” she said.

“I noticed,” he replied, making no move to stand.

“So…you’re just going to sit there?” He nodded. Filia pursed her lips and glared at the man. Something fierce and unaccustomed boiled in her breast. She crouched down and put her face up close to his. “Now listen,” she said through gritted teeth, “It’s not getting any cooler, and I don’t want to be up here a second longer than I need to be. So use that–that t’sight of yours so we can go back down.”

“That’s precisely what I am doing,” he replied, a little testily. “I will let you know if I…t’see anything worth mentioning.”

Filia jumped to her feet, causing the gondola to rock slightly. Throughout the trip she had done her best to tolerate the man, but now she found him positively insufferable. Her fingers curled into the beginning of a rude gesture. Go ahead, he’s blind, he won’t see it, said a part of her. A moment later she relaxed her hands and turned away. Even though he lacked normal vision, it still wasn’t right.

She unhitched the spyglass from her belt and took a compass from her pocket. Facing north, she stared into the bland distance. A small discoloration caught her eye. Gazing through the spyglass, she observed what seemed to be a small domed building perhaps eight or ten miles distant. Filia wondered if perhaps it was some sort of temple or monastery; a possibility for shelter if they couldn’t get the airship repaired. The view to the west revealed nothing but featureless desert. On the eastern horizon she thought she saw greenery, but couldn’t be sure. Fortunately, the oasis below them had plenty of fresh water, so thirst wouldn’t be a problem in the short term. She pocketed the compass and replaced the spyglass on her belt. Staun was still seated, in same motionless posture.

“Well?” Filia finally asked, a trace of impatience in her voice. “What do you see?”

His pale lips turned up into a faint smile. “You mean, what do I t’see?” Filia scoffed, but said nothing. Staun unstrapped himself and slowly levered himself upright. “The patterns of the storm are gone. However, there is something else….” He turned about uncertainly.

“What is it?”

“The strands…filaments…forming, but I’m not sure….”

A gust of wind rocked the gondola, and the balloon began tugging against the tether. Filia gripped the edge of the basket and looked down. A strange gray mist had formed immediately below the balloon, and now obscured the ground.

“That can’t be right,” she said. “If there’s a wind, then–”

Another gust slammed into the balloon. Filia and Staun fell together into the bottom of the gondola.

“What’s going on?” Filia cried. “I thought you said the storm was gone!”

Staun opened his mouth, but at that same moment a third rush of wind hit the balloon with startling ferocity. The gondola swung wildly. Filia screamed and seized a stanchion on the side of the basket. Then the basket was still. Filia stood and went to the side.

“What do you see?” asked Staun, his voice showing fear for the first time.

“Nothing,” replied Filia, and it was true. The gray mist had become a cloud that surrounded the balloon, but did not touch it. It was as if they were the kernel of a nut with a fluffy gray shell. Staun stood.

“You can’t even see the ground, can you?” he asked.

“No. And you?”

“Whatever you see is also obscuring my t’sight.”

Filia frowned. “This can’t be good.” She bent down to address the voice transceiver. “Control, do you see whatever it is that’s surrounding us?”

“This feels bad,” Staun said, once again seated on the bench.

“Very bad,” Filia agreed, sorry now that she had been testy with him and frightened about what was happening. “Control, we can’t see you. We’re surrounded by some sort of gray cloud.”

“Did you say gray?” Staun asked.


“It’s gray in my head, too,” he said.

“Is that odd?”

“Why should it have a color at all?” he replied. She was taken aback by the thought. She pondered this uneasily for a moment, then turned back to the speaker. “Control, do you see us?” She listened for just a moment before realizing the device looked wrong. She ran her trembling finders over the grill and up over the connecting wire. She followed the wire over the edge of the gondola. “Oh, no.”

“What is it?” Staun’s voice was tense.

Filia traced the wire to where it joined the tether. She realized in an instant their peril. The thick rope hung limp off the carriage.

“We’re loose,” she said, and slumped to the floor.

Part 14: Savage Brush

Ardrana, the Constant Vision’s assistant quartermaster, cupped her hands to her mouth and yelled, “Staun! Filia!”

No reply came, save the soft buzzing of insects in the warm, humid air.

“Aren’t you afraid you’ll reveal our position to the locals?” asked Jomn, moving up to stand beside her. He shifted his carbine uncomfortably, casting his gaze around the immediate area.

They had been walking all day. When its tether line had snapped, Staun and Filia’s balloon had been blown by the wind. It had last been seen headed for this area. Ardrana’s dark hair, normally worn in a neat bun, had come loose and now hung in limp strands. Her uniform, once crisp and pressed, was stained with sweat and grime.

“It’s more important that we reveal our position to Staun, if he’s nearby,” Ardrana replied, though she privately agreed with the crewman’s concern. The dry, empty plain where the airship had crashed somehow felt more secure, since any approaching invaders would easily be seen. But as the search parties traveled, the desert gave way to scrubland,with some grasses and bushes tall enough to conceal a crouching man.

Ardrana had heard stories about Tajaniv Island, of how no colony or settlement had ever taken hold here. Some claimed that the island had a will of its own, and could either drive settlers to return to their homeland, or simply drive them mad. The people that did manage to live on the island led a semi-nomadic life, and did not always welcome outsiders.

Seven more crewmen, the rest of Ardrana’s search party, rustled through the stiff grass and came to a halt behind her and Jomn. Satisfied that they were still progressing, she continued walking and signaled the others to follow.

Jomn shrugged his wide shoulders and fell in step beside Ardrana. “I just would hate to meet up with hostiles with as little ammo as we have,” he said, casting an anxious glance over his shoulder.

Ardrana sighed irritably, flicking a strand of hair out of her eyes. The man may not have heard the stories about the island, but he was right to be wary. Still, she had to put up a reassuring front.

“Relax, would you? For all we know the locals are friendly, and helping Staun get back even as we speak. And if they’re not, they likely have never even seen a carbine, much less heard one fired. They’d probably just run away.”

“Let’s hope so,” Jomn replied, clearly unconvinced.

“Anyway, the other teams aren’t far away. You can still see Major Frendlen’s team over there.” She pointed off to her right.

“I know,” Jomn said, looking longingly at a line of crewmen, little more than dark dots, moving parallel to them across the grassland. He tore his eyes away from the distant group and looked ahead. “Let’s hope they’re in there somewhere.”

What lay ahead was a thick stand of trees, an island of green in the otherwise drab landscape. The vegetation within the copse grew taller and denser. Scattered about were a number of stone boulders, some of them appearing to have been shaped into pillars or blocks.

“If they came this way, it’s likely they would have at least investigated this area. It’s worth checking,” Ardrana said. She halted on the edge of the greenery while her team caught up. Once all eight people were together she spoke. “We’ll check this out. Stay close. Try to go two abreast where possible. Keep visual on the person ahead and behind. If you get separated, yell out — don’t be shy. If you get no answer, fire a round into the ground and stay put until we find you. Keep an eye out for any traces of Staun or … um … ”

“Filia,” a crewman snapped.

Ardrana faced him. “Filia, yes. Thank you–Montio, isn’t it? Now let’s go.”

The search party advanced into the copse. As Ardrana feared, the way through the vegetation became progressively tougher. In many places they were reduced to walking in a single-file line as the great stone blocks crowded close together.

“I wish we had brought swords,” commented Jomn as he thrashed his way through some heavy brush, following Ardrana between a row of blocks, each twice as tall as a man. “We could have cut our way through.”

“I think it thins out ahead,” Ardrana replied. She glanced back, satisfying herself that the others in her team were with her. She pushed through the brush and turned a corner in the passageway between the rows of stones. She paused, looking down, as Jomn waited behind her. “Yes! I see bare dirt, and it looks recently disturbed! I’m going to follow it. Wait here … I don’t want you to disturb the tracks!”

Ardrana walked slowly forward, her head down. “These tracks were made recently. It looks like they were made by someone smaller. I don’t recognize the tread, but it looks like at least one was barefoot.”

She continued forward. “I think they were headed into the thicket, but it’s hard to tell. I think they spilled something here.” She bent down and touched the ground, then brought her fingers to her nose. “No smell, so at least it’s not urine. They must have water, then.”

She took a step more. “Hang on. That looks like a different footprint. That’s three sets of tracks.” She straightened suddenly. “Natives.” Her voice tightened. “We better back out.” She turned back. “Jomn, tell the …”

The passage behind her was empty, with only greenery to mark the end. Her breath caught in her throat. She took a step toward the entrance to the passage, then staggered as the worst pain she had felt in her entire life seized her by the breastbone and froze her in place. Her hands clutched at her chest entirely of their own accord. Looking down, she saw a bloody spike protruding from the front of her uniform, squarely between her breasts.

Ardrana opened her mouth to call for help, but found that she lacked the breath to make a sound. Then the world spun around her. As she fell to her knees, she glimpsed a shaggy-haired man standing over her. He was dressed in cloth strips and patches of leather, and held a sword in his hand. The sword came up, then slashed toward her with terrifying speed. She tried to cry out again, then closed her eyes for the last time.

* * *

The passage between the stones suddenly filled with men, each outfitted in simple leather clothing and carrying blood-stained blades. They gathered around Ardrana’s fallen form, which was now surrounded by a growing pool of blood. The shaggy-haired man that crouched over her stood, and held aloft the woman’s severed head. He tossed it to the ground.

One by one the other men stepped up and tossed their burdens to the ground as well, until there were eight heads bleeding on the ground. The leader, bald and bare-chested, made a quick count of the heads, then was satisfied. He spoke quietly to the others, then motioned for them to go. A few men went to pick up the heads, but he waved them off. He made as if to heft one, then motioned with his hands to indicate something smaller. One of the older men held up a bloody token for the others to see: a severed set of male parts. The others nodded and moved off to seek their own trophies.

The leader went to Ardrana’s prone body and cut away her trousers. He rolled the body onto its back, then stopped, confused by the gender he saw. He muttered something, crudely cut off what he could, then turned to leave. As he headed out of the passage he paused to examine the heads. He watched silently as a fly landed on Ardrana’s dead face.

The chattering of his men caused the leader to look up. Some of them were examining the oddly-shaped wooden sticks that the strangers had been carrying, and wondering about their significance. He was about to tell them to leave the things alone,  but curiosity seized him. Were they weapons of some kind? It was inconceivable that men would venture out unarmed.

He barked out orders. The men swiftly collected the sticks and, along with their human trophies, departed. The leader took one last look around, then faded into the jungle.

Silence fell. For a few moments nothing more stirred, then, high above the grisly scene, under a shallow ledge on one of the rock walls, a small sworl catcher slowly closed its eyes.

Part 13: Attachments

Hurry, Filia, or you’ll get left behind!”

Filia sat up in her bunk. She put out a hand and steadied herself on the bedpost. The frame that supported the mattress was aluminum, but the furnishings around it were from her parent’s dingy hut in Braemond. A single ship’s light, hung from the hand-hewn wooden rafters overhead, barely illuminated the dim space. Filia swung her legs over the side and stood up. The morning air was chilly on her bare body. Tiptoeing across the dirt floor, Filia looked out the single window. The sun outside was blazing bright. Hot air blew in, and far, far below she could see the desert stretching out for miles in every direction.  Returning to the bedside, she opened her locker and pulled out her good, red dress. She slipped it on over her head and followed Mother, who was carrying little Fria, out the door to the waiting cart.

“Let’s go!” Mother called back to her.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Filia replied, struggling to comb out her long hair. She looked down at her naked feet as she pushed through the mud that was always outside their door. I need to find my shoes, she thought to herself. She looked up into the air and saw the Constant Vision hanging there, waiting. They won’t let me back on the ship again if I have muddy feet, she told herself.

Mother was lifting little Fria up onto the cart, and Father was standing in the yoke, ready to pull the cart to town. Loaded in the cart was a crop of yams, with rocks and small animals mixed throughout. Filia clambered on top, holding her skirt up with one hand to avoid soiling it. She picked a spot on the top of the cart, perched precariously between a large squash and a tree stump. Just as she settled into place Father got out of the yoke and walked back towards the house.

“Where are you going?!” Mother yelled, and climbed down to pursue him. Fria shook her head sadly and started pulling yams out of her pockets. Not again, Filia thought to herself and climbed back down off the cart. By the time she reached the ground both parents were inside the house. The ground shook suddenly. Filia looked up to be sure that her baby sister hadn’t fallen off the cart, but Fria was still there, brushing the dirt off a yam. Filia turned towards the house.

“Don’t go far, Filia,” Fria called to her. “You don’t want to get left behind!”

I’d love to get left behind, Filia thought to herself. She walked around the house, going to the back yard. As she expected, there she saw Father and Brother Harmond, the cleric in his brown robe and Father naked in the washtub. Brother Harmond was chanting and pouring water over Father’s head. After each dousing Father handed him a small coin.

“Come on, Filia,” Father said, “we need to complete the rites before we can go to town.”  Mother and Fria emerged from the house, each one already undressed and carrying their water pitcher. The ground shook again, and they both fell to the ground. Mother helped Fria up, brushing at the mud that smeared the young teen’s shoulders and hips. Fortunately, neither pitcher spilled. They turned and looked at Filia expectantly. Mother silently pointed back at the hut.

“Why do we have to do this again?” Filia asked, hurrying back to the house. “We just did it last week!”

“Don’t argue with your Father,” Mother said, pouring green, glowing water from her pitcher over Fria’s head. Even from where Filia was standing she could feel the heat from that water.

Filia entered the house and pulled off her blouse. She hung the blouse up on the hook beside her good, red dress. Filia missed that red dress, but it hadn’t fit in years. Clad only in her skirt, she grabbed her water pitcher. She went back out into the back yard to fill it at the well. She could hear her father’s laughter coming from the road, where he and the rest of the family were waiting at the cart. Filia hung the pitcher on the edge of the well and dropped the bucket down. When it splashed down at the bottom she let it sink, then started pulling it up.

“Let me help you.”

Filia looked up. There was Jaspin, dressed in his green velvet shirt and smiling like the sun. He bent down and reached for the rope. Filia could feel the soft velvet of his shirt sleeve slide across her bare chest. She let him take the rope, and then stood up and watched him work. She was glad he had come, but she also resented his presence. She looked up at the roof of her parent’s cottage where all the crewmembers sat watching. Loillola was there, her arm around Jok. Loillola waved. Filia waved back.

“We need to do the ritual,” Father said from the tub. He was holding Fria up out of the water. He had one hand under each of her armpits, with her facing away from him, and he was dunking her in the water, up and down, slowly. Each time he raised her up Mother, now dressed in Brother Harmond’s robes, would pour water over the little girl’s head. The water no longer glowed, but it smelled really awful.

“I need to get back to the ship,” Filia said, looking up at the crew. They were all getting up to go, with some of them already climbing the long rope ladder back up to the waiting airship, so high in the sky. The ground shook once more, and the crewmembers began to hurry. Filia looked back at her family. “I need to go, before it’s too late!”

“This won’t take long at all,” Jaspin said, pulling down her skirt and handing her the newly filled water pitcher. It was wet and cold against her bare skin. Jaspin himself was now naked and climbed into the tub with Father and Fria, who was now a teenager and clutching an equally naked boyfriend to her. “Come on, or you’ll be left behind.” Jaspin reached out from the tub and took her hand. Filia tried to pull away, but couldn’t.

“I don’t want to do the ritual anymore,” Filia explained desperately. “I want to leave! I want to go with you where you are going!”

“You can go, but first you have to do the ritual,” Father explained from the washtub. His grip on her hand was tightening, and it was starting to hurt. He turned to Jaspin. “Help her  in.”

Jaspin climbed out of the tub, water streaming from his bare body. Never taking his eyes off Filia, he circled around behind her. She wanted to watch him, to keep her eyes on him, but she couldn’t turn her head, and he slipped out of sight. She tried to get Mother’s attention, but she and Fria were standing together talking and would not look at her. Filia tried to break her father’s grip with her free hand, but before she could move she could feel a hand reach around her, sliding up across her thigh, belly, and breast. She screamed.

Filia woke with a start. It was dark, and she was in her bunk on the Constant Vision. Something touched her breast again, and she yelped, trying to brush it away. Whatever it was, it ran across her body. Filia tried to throw off the blanket but her arm refused to work right. Suddenly she knew what it was that was touching her — it was her own hand. Her arm had fallen asleep. She sat up, and a wave of nausea swept over her.  She lifted a leg up, to get out of bed, and the ship shook so hard she tumbled to the floor. All around her she could hear the support structure of the great ship groan in protest.

“Stations!” someone yelled nearby. “Man your stations! Brace for …”

Just then the deck heaved, throwing Filia up against her bunk. All around her cries and yells indicated that others were equally tossed. She seized the stanchions and lifted herself to her feet. Nausea swept over her and she shivered violently. Her knees gave way and she eased herself to the bed. It had been two days since the incident in the engine room and she had spent most of that time in the infirmary asleep. Only this evening has she been allowed to go back to her own bunk, where she had again fallen asleep.  And now …

From outboard she could hear the sound of the engines spooling up. A familiar shudder passed under her feet as they sought a new harmonic, increasing their power output. Filia knew she needed to go man her station. She pushed herself to her feet. She was already fully dressed, a futile effort to ward off the chills. She grabbed her utility belt and strapped it on. She had barely gotten it buckled when she succumbed to the illness in her gut. She barely made it to the wastebasket before the heaves overtook her. She had nothing left to give up, and spent several awful minutes proving it. Finally the nausea faded and she was able to head out. She clipped her safety line to the rail and slogged towards her work station.

Twice more the ship was shaken as she made her way through the dimness. By the time she had traveled the normally short distance to the starboard nacelle the engines had already reached their new, higher output. Filia had only heard the engines pushed so hard once before, and then only for moments in a test. Now they were running hard and steady. The engine room was better lit but still dim. From the looks of it all shifts were in place. Montio was at the controls with Stimjack the engine master and Yttria the night foreman. Her own station was manned by Edwyn and Graff, her counterparts on the second and third shifts. Rounding out the crew were the greasemonkeys: Lew, Genny, Mertria, Breyda, Dawt and Driss’ka. Driss’ka always drew a double-take from Filia; the green-skinned mechanic was the only Drevonian onboard, and only the second Drevionian female Filia had ever met. Filia paused at the door to catch her breath, then moved to her own station.

“Go back to bed, Filia,” Edwyn said. “You need to be taking care of yourself.”

“I can help,” Filia protested feebly.

“She’s better off here,” murmured Graff. “It’s probably safer.”

They both looked up at the great engine. Filia did as well. It was almost a blur, it was moving so fast. Inside the nacelle the roar of the blades as they sliced the air was a physical thing. Filia’s station was at the center of the nacelle, just forward of the fan assembly. She could almost not hear what the others were saying.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“All hands, and then full power,” Edwyn said. “That’s all we know.”

“It’s a storm,” Graff said. “Has to be. You could hear the winds just a minute ago.” He sniffed the air. “Smells like dust and smoke.”

“Since you’re here, take your place,” Edwyn said. “We’ve seen two breaks in the lines already, so be ready to rebalance.”

Filia nodded and moved into the workstation. Her duties not only included repairing the fluid valves, but monitoring the fluid flow. Most of the time the hardware required little or no attention. Only when the engine operated very slowly or very fast did things get complex, or when things broke. A quick glance showed Filia that Graff had already activated the secondary pressure regulators, and had shunted flow past two dead lines. The multiply redundant system allowed that, but adjustments had to be made manually. As she took her place she smoothly shifted a few controls, evening out the flow in spots. She had barely done this when the throttle chime sounded full speed.

“Finally,” Edwyn said softly. “Full speed I can deal with. Flank speed just scares me.”

The engine slowed. After a minute or so it settled down to the new setting. Filia listened to it. It wasn’t running as smoothly as she liked, but it didn’t sound dangerous to her. Satisfied, she turned back to her gauges. Only then did she notice the other two looking at her expectantly. She remembered that she was considered to have a special talent when it came to seeing things that were wrong or out of place. She swallowed hard, and nodded. They relaxed and turned back to their instruments.

Filia rebalanced the flow, then turned her attention to the broken lines. A quick glance at the gauges showed exactly what she feared. She turned to Edwyn.

“I think I know what broke. It’s those replacement valves. They don’t match the line gauge well enough, and the lines have split.”

“Best we could do, under the circumstances,” Edwyn replied. “Fast, good, or cheap. There’s always a tradeoff somewhere.” He opened a cabinet door and pulled out some pipe. He handed it to Filia. “Here. The first break is right at the galley junction. Should be right under the catwalk. Splice this in.”

Filia nodded, swallowing hard. She took the pipe. She had actually been looking forward to staying put for a bit. At least the center of the ship would be fairly stable. She unclipped herself and headed out, pausing to grab some tools as she went. She was feeling a bit better now, actually, and she made good time. The interior of the ship was better lit now, and she was soon in the galley, which was empty. The junction was actually under the catwalk beside the galley. She opened the access panel and started working. She had almost gotten the broken line out when she could hear the engines spooling up again. The floor tilted as the great airship climbed.

Filia steadied herself and stowed the tools she wasn’t using. She worked the split pipe out and started to put the new pipe in its place. The ship shuddered. Filia tried to hurry, but the pipe would have none of it, refusing to slip nicely into place. The spilled fluid made everything slick and hard to grasp. The ship shook, not just once but repeatedly. Filia had to stop working and hold on. When the shaking stopped she could hear voices shouting in the distance, but she forced herself to focus.

She started over, removing the new pipe and replacing. It went in, and she started to dog down the fasteners. Then the whole ship heaved upwards, as if it was trying to stand on its tail. Filia grabbed onto the rail as she almost flipped end over end herself. She watched in horror as the interior of the ship shifted and moved. The great gas bags on either side suddenly were moving closer, compressing inward. As Filia watched, the catwalk that ran up the center of the ship bowed, bent, twisted, and then folded not ten feet from where she was clinging to it. Filia found herself dangling from the rail, which was now directly over her head. All around her came the sound of metal bending, fittings snapping, and people screaming. It was as if the ship itself was convulsing in slow motion. The rail she was holding snapped, and she fell until her safety line caught her. She hung from it, face down, suspended over a long chasm that, moments before, had been the centerline of the ship. To either side the giant gasbags that held up the ship writhed and billowed. Then the rest of the rail gave out too, and she fell.