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 Post subject: Mage's Big Project
PostPosted: 05 Mar 2015, 21:30 
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Here, have a massive pile of text.

This is a project I have been working on for a long time. It's called Firescape and it is...I dunno, I want it to be an episodic series but we'll see how that turns out. Though the fact that I have actually finished two episodes of it is at least a huge step up from my previous projects.

Anyway, Firescape is a steampunk-magitech sort of series set in a world called Cobaul, which is basically a heck of a lot of open sky filled with floating islands, hovering islands and, of course, airships. It follows the crew of one of said airships, who are far-sailers, or what the rather uncouth in this setting might refer to as reach-rats: combination salvagers, explorers, traders and smugglers who spend most of their time in the Reaches, a catchall term for the open skies between settlements where all kinds of strange treasures and perils can be found. Naturally this leads to all kinds of exciting adventures. Those who know me, or know sci-fi, can probably guess which TV shows were responsible for inspiring a great deal of this and, by extension, the title.

After working on this for so long I am pretty much just dying to show it to someone, so I'm dumping it on you guys. It is pretty long, though, so don't feel obliged to read it all in one go. In fact, don't feel obliged to read it at all. I'd appreciate you at least giving it a look, but I figure if it doesn't make you want to read it on your own, well, clearly I didn't do my job right. What I'm posting here are is a two-parter, two episodes each split into three parts for slightly more convenience.

Any feedback that you might have at all would be hugely appreciated.

A warning: this does contain profanity (both real and made up), what the ESRB might refer to as 'fantasy violence', and what I'm sure is terribly inaccurate usage of airship terminology because I haven't bothered to look it up and correct it yet.

Also, I should mention that while all of this is very subject to change-it's pretty much just a first draft-the various languages in particular are especially tentative. I'd like to construct some working conlangs for this setting if I could, but I haven't had the chance, so what's in here may get changed entirely when/if I do.

Thank you for your time.

One: Pilots and Merchants

Part One:
Spoiler: show
The border agent was a young man with a handsome face and an impressive mane of black hair set against an oaky complexion-all qualities he knew and exalted in. But there was a certain pinched quality to his features that was doomed to only increase with age, and the carefully practiced sneer he gave the line of people before him brought it to sharp prominence. He did not notice.

“Alright,” he said, letting his thick Abranyrth accent roll smoothly through his words, “which one of you is in charge here?”

His voice echoed around the cool chamber, bouncing off of walls gleaming with the sepia light of afternoon. The main bay of the ship seemed oddly large and empty for such a slight little craft, the ceiling stretching high to accommodate cables and lines of shimmering, twisting livemetal, and stranger things besides. A few border guardsmen stood scattered around the hull, some inspecting it, most uncomfortably scuffing their polished boot heels on the floor as their captain spoke. Before him the crew of the vessel stood, the latest of the day's roster of unfortunates.

As he spoke the agent eyed the enormously tall man standing at one end of the line. He had the rich dark skin and sharp edges of the southern Rvaptar clans, but even for a Rvaptaran he was huge. The man had to have been looking near to seven feet of height right in the eye, broad shoulders straining at the edges of a midnight-blue military coat, amber eyes glaring out from his harshly angled face like an angry hawk. But it was the Hibanli woman standing next to him that stepped forward and executed a bow perhaps a little too neatly to be entirely serious.

She had sharp, stubborn features and cutting eyes that were a shade of rich dark blue he'd never seen before. Her fair brown hair was tied back in a short, sensible braid with enough strands of it springing loose to mostly conceal the merchant-house signet tattooed on one temple, black lines stark against the gold-brown skin. Next to the Ravptaran man she had seemed short and unnoticeable, but as the agent stepped closer to her he realized she was almost a head taller than him. He had never thought of himself as short before.

The agent had to prevent himself from unconsciously standing on his toes as he spoke to her. “And you are?”

“Kathleen Harrier, at your service,” she said, clasping her hands behind her back.

“I see.” The agent looked her up and down, noting clothes that were functional, worn, and overall unremarkable in make but touched by various little marks and personal touches. She had a nicely cut brown leather pilot's coat, well-used but also well-preserved, and if her sturdy boots were not well shined they were not dirty either. “And what is your business in these parts, Captain Harrier?”

“Bringing a shipment of assorted goods to a trader based out of Joorshead,” Captain Harrier rattled off as if she had repeated the statement several times already, which, indeed, she had.

The agent flicked through the manifest on his clipboard. “Indeed. I can't help but noticed that the vast majority of these assorted goods”

The captain responded only with a look of patient fatigue, as though she were in a conversation with a particularly slow child.

“High quality toys, I'm sure,” the agent continued, letting the pages of the manifest slowly fall through his fingers. “Still...must be rather embarrassing for an experienced crew like yourselves, mm? Big, solid, custom craft like this. Weapons at your sides. Scowls on your faces. You look like you've been all over the Territories. And yet here you are, a crew of grim-faced wish-sprites, taking toys to children.” He smiled, and his face pinched together like a rodent's. “Fallen on hard times? Or just never up to scratch to begin with?”

The crew did not respond. Most of them continued to stare straight ahead with neutral boredom, but the agent saw looks of annoyance cross a couple of faces. He smiled tightly and turned towards the Ravptaran, who had responded with an incredibly exasperated eyeroll.

“What about you?” the agent demanded.

“What about me?” the Rvaptaran replied.

The agent sighed dramatically. “Who are you?”

“I'm the pilot,” the man responded.

“Ah. You fly this...thing.” The agent glanced around at the worn walls and drooping cables of livemetal. “And your name?”


“Samuel. Mm. You know, Samuel, I think I've seen that style of coat before. That's a Ravirin military coat, is it not?” When Samuel gave a barely discernible nod in response, the agent continued, “Which leaves me to wonder what could possess a man to leave such a distinguished service in exchange for a subordinate position on the sorriest crew of wish-sprites in Cobaul.”

Samuel gave him a level look. “Distinguished service is for officers and gentlemen, lad. For a wish-sprite like me it's just a bloody mess.”

“Or maybe you just stole that coat,” the agent said poisonously. “Picked it up off a dead man to give yourself a bit of grandeur. That seems rather more likely to me...speaking as the actual military man between the two of us.”

“Yessir,” Samuel replied. “It was hard work tracking down the only seven foot tall Ravirin pilot with my measurements and then following him around until he bit the dust, but the grandeur sure was worth it.”

The agent opened his mouth, closed it, and finally satisfied himself with a small condescending head-shake before turning to the rest of the crew.

Standing on the captain's other side was a pale, scrawny young man in oil-stained leathers and a wrinkled shirt that had probably been white once. He had the look of a Heights-man in his milky complexion and flyaway pale hair. He had fidgeted the entire time the crew had been standing there, playing with something in his pockets or twisting his jacket cuffs. There was a sour expression etched into his face that had deepened into acrid disdain as the agent had spoken.

“Didn't bother to clean up, did you?” the agent said, jabbing at a smear of oil above one narrow blue-gray eye. “What? You don't take these inspections seriously?”

The man said nothing.

“It is, after all, on my authority that your crew will get permission to cross into Abranyr,” the agent continued. “Does that not matter to you? Or did you think I just wouldn't notice?”

The man's voice was low and raspy, tight with suppressed contempt. “Engine oil doesn't come out on short notice...sir.”

The agent snorted, but moved on down the line. The next crew member was a petite Burshai girl, sharp-eyed and slight and probably not even twenty yet. A vibrant tattoo depicting a rose vine made of sparking electricity snaked up from below the neck of her shirt and wound around her neck, blooming onto her forehead and cheekbones. She was practically vibrating with anger by the time the agent turned towards her. He gave her a sickly sweet smile.
“Bit young to be serving on a vessel like this, aren't you?” he said.

She rolled her eyes. “That what you think? I'm older than plenty shiphands.”

“Mm.” He ran a finger delicately along the lines of her tattoo. She stiffened, setting her teeth tight. “I'm sure you are, sweetheart. I've heard stories about Burshai girls, you know.”

“Really?” the girl shot back. “Have you heard the one about how we bite fingers off of men we don't like?”

The agent took a step back, though his loving smirk remained. “Feisty. But hyperbolic, I'm sure. Your lovely mouth is far too delicate for...”

He stopped dead. The girl's grease-stained neighbor had stuck out his arm, revealing a three-fingered right hand. After a moment the agent swallowed and moved on.

Whatever amount of Heights blood the girl's left-hand neighbor had was nothing compared to the man on her right. He was pure Vevander, tall and thin-boned, pale as moonlight and his face all long aquiline angles. His fine white-blond hair was tied back in a long tail, and a band of embroidered purple cloth covered one eye. Tattoos wound all around his face and down his neck and chest, silver and black whorls and barbs that seemed to shift oddly when stared at too long. The agent found he didn't like to look at them.

“My, my,” he said. “We don't get a lot of pure-blood Vevander this far south. Don't want to get our common dirt all over their high-price skin, I suppose.” He leaned in close to the Vevander, a knowing quality to his smile. “But then, you're not exactly pure-blood, are you?” he murmured. “I recognize those tattoos. Outcast, are we? You're a...verlandish, aren't you? A walking dead man. Nobody wants you. Not even the vaushu.”

The Vevander's single eye flicked disdainfully down at the agent. “Verleneshck,” he said.
The agent blinked. “What?”
“The term is verleneshck,” the Vevander said. “Verlandish is not a word.”

The agent stared at the man for a moment, then scowled and swung on his heel towards the penultimate crewmember. The raptor looked back at him calmly, her long tail twitching slightly. She wore only breeches with a short kilt wrapped over her tail, and her bare red and gold scales gleamed gently in the room's soft light. The agent did not bother to hide his disgust as he looked her over. He made a noise of contempt and moved on, shaking his head.

At the very end of the line was a man who seemed so ordinary that he almost faded into the background compared to the rest of the crew. He had an average height, vaguely brown skin that was probably Hibanli on the grounds of not really being anything else, and not particularly interesting shaggy hair, faded ashen blond under an old gray cap. But there was a sickly air about him, as though he were recovering from a long illness, and a sharp-edged slenderness that showed in the hollows of his cheeks and around his eyes. The agent looked him up and down, noting a long face and unremarkable features, save for the eyes. They were the color of copper, deep-set and heavy lidded, and there was something undefinable about their gaze that made the agent uneasy. He paused at the end of the line as if about to move on, then turned and jabbed a finger in the man's direction. “You. What's your name?”

“Anderson,” the man said. His voice had a slight but noticeable slur to it. The agent narrowed his eyes.

“Drunk on duty, are we, Anderson?” he asked.

“No,” Anderson replied calmly.

Captain Harrier leaned forward and cleared her throat. “Anderson always talks like that, sir,” she said. “It's just a...speech impediment.”

“Thank you, Captain, but when I want information from you I shall ask for it. I'm sure Anderson here is fully capable of defending himself.” The agent turned back to surveying the quiet crewman. Although his hands were buried in the pockets of his old gray flight jacket, the agent could tell through close inspection that they were shaking.

“Tell me, Anderson,” he said. “What's your job aboard this ship?”

“Medic,” Anderson said.

“Really.” The agent smiled coldly. “Your crewmates here trust you to sew them up? I wouldn't.”

Anderson did not reply. His meditative stare gave no indication that he had even heard the remark.

The agent took several steps backward so that he could address the entire line at once. “So this is your crew, Captain Harrier,” he said. “Quite the motley bunch, aren't they? A cowering jothus, an insolent slob, a thief-runt...” The Burshai girl clenched her fists, causing both of her neighbors to lay a gentle restraining hand on her shoulders. The agent smirked and continued with slow, deliberate relish. “And on the other end of the line we have a discarded vaush, a sprogga, and a drunk.” He clicked his tongue between his teeth disapprovingly. “I take back what I said earlier. I don't find it all that unlikely that this ship is trading in toys; that seems to be about all you lot could handle.”

The feathered crest along the raptor's spine rose slightly at the slur, but her expression remained unchanged. The rest of the clew continued to glare at the agent with varying degrees of hostility, but no one said a word.

“Still, I'm afraid regulations must be followed,” the agent said after several moments of taut silence. “We'll have to go through all your cargo. Just to be on the safe side.”

There was a delicate cough from behind the agent. A guardsman with a sergeant’s insignia on his coat and streaks of gray at his temples had detached himself from the group. “We've already done that, sir,” he said, his voice carefully flat.

The agent turned on the sergeant. “Really,” he said icily. “I don't recall telling you to.”

“It's standard procedure, sir,” the sergeant replied. “You didn't tell us not to do it.”

The agent's mouth moved furiously for a moment, as if he were chewing through several responses before he managed to spit one out. “And what did you find?”

The sergeant handed the agent a sheaf of paper. “Everything's in order, sir. There's no reason to detain them further.”

“I will be the judge of that, thank you,” the agent snapped, snatching away the paper and leafing through it furiously.

“I know, sir,” the sergeant said. “But it's my job to tell you these things. Sir.”

The agent blew a furious stream of air through his nose and turned away. “Your opinion is noted, Sergeant Taverou, but if I recall correctly, I'm the one who makes the calls here. And it is my call that even assuming their ridiculous cover story were true, nothing this band of degenerates could bring into our territory would be worth the price of having them in there as well.”

“Hold on,” the Burshai girl burst out. “You're not going to allow us into Abranyr because...because you don't like us?”

Saoirse,” Captain Harrier warned under her breath.

The agent turned a sickly smile on the girl. “The authority is given to me, darling, to police the borders of our fair land from lowlifes, interlopers and sundry criminals using whatever judgment I see fit. And my judgment is that you're not likely criminals, but you are certainly lowlifes.” He jabbed a finger at Captain Harrier. “I know a merchant-mark when I see one. And merchant houses don't come trading to Abranyr in ancient ships and crews like these. I'm sure it's fun playing at being a reach-rat, but you'll need better credentials if you want past this border.”

“A large portion of this shipment is bound for the most prominent novelty maker in Lower Sunrise,” Captain Harrier interjected. Her voice was as calm as ever, though her fingers were beginning to beat an angry tattoo against the side of her coat. “He'll be expecting his goods. I'm certain he could vouch-”

“I've no intention of hauling up the honorable Mssr. Chzanta to vouch for a cast-off merchant's daughter playing at traders and her crew of vagrant toy-pirates,” the agent snapped. “I'm quite certain he has better things to do with his time. Go home, darling, get a bit more experience, see if Daddy will hire you a better crew.” He turned and began to stalk out of the hull, but a quiet reprimand in Abranyrth from Sergeant Taverou stopped him dead before he had gone five paces.

The agent turned slowly. His face had gone rather white. “You want to remember your place, Sergeant Taverou,” he said, each quiet word shaking gently. “Another insubordinate remark like that and I'll personally see you whipped and blacklisted out of every service from Rise to Set.”

“Yes, sir,” Sergeant Taverou said. His expression did not betray so much as a twitch.

The agent growled and flung the manifest over his shoulder. “Somebody get them a gatepass and get all the paperwork out of the way soon as. Whoever flies this wreck had better be ready to clear out the moment we release the clamps. I don't want to see this thing in my station a second longer than is absolutely necessary.”

The assembled crew stared at him with varying degrees of confusion, including more than one impressive double take. The captain looked from the agent to the sergeant and back again. “You're...letting us through?”

The agent bit off each word of his reply through gritted teeth, not even breaking stride as he stalked out of the chamber. “My generosity hangs from a thread today, Captain Harrier. Get your ship out of my station before I change my mind.”

The assembled guardsmen began to file out of the chamber. “We'll get you a gatepass right away,” the sergeant said, nodding politely to Captain Harrier. “Should only take a few minutes, if you don't mind to wait here.”
Captain Harrier bowed. “Of course. Thank you, Sergeant. For all of your help.”

The sergeant's lips twitched upwards in a slight but knowing smile. “Yes, well...” He leaned forward and dropped his voice so low that the crewmembers on the other end of line had to lean in to hear him. “I don't like him either.”

Then he turned, as if nothing had happened, and marched stately away, every inch the professional soldier. The crew as one let out their breath as the end of his coat swished out of view, leaving them alone at last.

“Raven's teeth, I thought we'd never be free of that idiot,” Samuel groaned. “What does jothus mean, anyway? I haven't heard that one before.”

“It's an Abranyr word, I think,” Captain Harrier said. “Means a man who allows himself to be dominated by a woman.”

Samuel let out a huge, melodious laugh. “So it was a compliment, then.”

“Depends on the woman, I suppose,” the captain said.

The pilot slung an arm around his captain and worked his fingers into her tense shoulder. “In that case it was definitely a compliment,” he murmured.

The pale mechanic rolled his eyes and turned away as the captain leaned against her tall partner. “This is why I hate going to Abranyr,” he said.

“This is why I love going to Abranyr,” the raptor countered. Her liquid voice was smooth and rich, with only the slightest sibilant undertone. “Everyone knows the Abranyr border guard throw their weight around because they're too incompetent to actually do their job effectively. I'd rather put up with some idiot spouting slurs than an officer who actually knows how to search a ship properly.”

“Easy for you to say,” Saoirse shot back. “You didn't have to put up with him touching you. Which reminds me.” She grabbed the mechanic around his bony shoulders and embraced him. “Lee, you're a prince.”

“Get off me,” Lee grumbled.

The girl rubbed her knuckles into his hair affectionately and released him as Sergeant Taverou came back, accompanied by a nervous young man in full flying harness. “The mechanics crew would like to know exactly where your ship's harmonizer shaft is. They can't seem to find it,” Taverou said dryly, with a significant glance at his subordinate. The younger guardsman cleared his throat.

“It's an unusual ship,” he said defensively.

“Aye, she's an eccentric old thing, but you couldn't ask for a grander dame,” Samuel replied proudly. Lee chuffed in agreement, a display of rabid enthusiasm coming from him.

Captain Harrier took pity on the young mechanic. “Lee, go help the lad out, and try not to bite his head off while you're at it.”

Lee advanced on the young guardsman with a thin smile. The guardsman did not look particularly enthused at this development, and followed several paces behind Lee as they exited the chamber. The sergeant watched them go, mouth twitching, before handing over a thick sheaf of paperwork to Captain Harrier, accompanied by an exquisite gold fountain pen. The captain arched her eyebrows and detached herself from Samuel to begin signing.

“I'd best go get the old gel warmed up,” Samuel said softly, giving the captain's shoulder one last affectionate squeeze. “Don't want to overstay our welcome by even a second longer than necessary.”

Captain Harrier gently rapped his knuckles with the pen. “Good idea. How long, do you reckon, to Joorshead?”

Samuel sighed and ran his fingers through his unruly horsetail of blue-black hair. “Four hours, most like, if the skies are good to us, but this part of the world brews some odd storms from time to time. 'd be easier if I could get a scent of the wind first.”

The captain nodded as she signed the last line with a flourish. “Dhuane?”

The Vevander saluted crisply and marched out without a word, stopping only for a sturdy leather satchel and coat hanging near the lower exit ramp. With a nod to Captain Harrier, Samuel left for the rickety stairs that stretched upwards towards another level of the ship.

Sergeant Taverou rifled through the paperwork, then took the passport Captain Harrier offered and flipped through it. Carefully balancing passport and inkpad in one hand, he stamped it appropriately and handed it back with a nod. “Everything's in order. As soon as your mechanic gets through you can-ah.”

Lee came striding back into the chamber, rubbing one leg. His wispy hair was even more tousled than before, and a pair of flight goggles hung from his neck. “Gatepass is in,” he said, and reached in his coat pocket for a cigarette.

The sergeant looked back and forth from Lee to the door. Lee was rather conspicuously not wearing a harness of any kind. The goggles, in fact, seemed to be his only concession to the fact that he had just gone scrambling across the underside of an airship in open dock. “What happened to Ilex?”

“Who? Oh. Him.” Lee lit the cigarette and took a long drag. “He left.”

“He left?” The sergeant had a look on his face suggesting that he half expected to be told that the young guardsman had 'left' by way of falling off the ship and plummeting to his death.

Lee waved a hand impatiently. “He went back to the station with all the other guardsmen. Seemed unnerved. Can't think why.”

Sergeant Taverou glanced at Captain Harrier, who shrugged and rolled her eyes. “I see. Well, at any rate, I suppose you're free to go, Captain. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

“No problem,” Captain Harrier replied, trading a firm handshake with the sergeant. “Thank you again.”

The sergeant tipped his cap slightly and left. The remaining crew watched the huge chamber door slide down and meet the rising ramp with an almighty bang. A moment later, the quiet hum of the passive ship deepened into a satisfied roar of engines waking from slumber. The ship shuddered and eased forward from the docks. There was a moment of quivering tension as she met the magical forcefield that protected Abranyr's borders. Then, just as the moment began to stretch too long for comfort, the field recognized the gatepass and let them through with a jolt.

The temperature within the ship dropped, causing surprised metal to creak in protest. Every member of the crew felt a tingling itch deep within their bones, and saw the world around them seem to shift and blur. Sparks raced along the metal railings and zapped fingers. It lasted only a few seconds, but the sensation seemed to stretch on for much longer, as though the field had distorted time itself.

And then, abruptly, they were clear, and the sudden release sent the ship rocketing forward like a stone shot from a sling. Inside the cockpit the pilot cackled with exhilaration as the ship soared gleefully onward. Saoirse whooped and danced, Captain Harrier exchanged a satisfied nod with the raptor, and even Lee smiled ever so slightly, one hand rubbing the nearby wall with genuine affection.

The Ancestral was on her way.

Minus Samuel, Dhuane, and Lee, who had gone off for a sulk somewhere, the remaining crew convened in the ship's tiny kitchen area. Anderson promptly went for the kettle, while Kathleen slumped down into one of the mismatched chairs and sighed. “Well. That took far longer than it had a right to.”

She shed her coat and scarf onto the back of the chair and stretched her legs out so that her boots were resting on one of the table's support beams. “Skels, is there any beer left? Actual beer, not whatever that ichor is that you drink.”

The raptor shut the miniature icebox, a glass bottle clutched in each hand. “Plebeian.”

“Weirdo,” Kath returned, taking the pro-offered bottle.



As the two of them argued cheerfully, Saoirse leaned against the wall and ran a finger along the lines of her tattoo. An old scar ran under her jawbone, stark white against bronze, and the girl rubbed it periodically as if to assure herself it was still there. She watched distractedly as Anderson prepared tea, his mouth set in a firm determined line as he struggled to be precise with trembling hands.

“I don't suppose anyone speaks Abranyrth better than I do?” Skels asked, the insult contest having finally stalled out. “Because I for one would like to know what that sergeant said to him.”

“ 'I think...I understand...your father...your father and Mssr. Chzanta...'” Kath shook her head. “I don't know. It's been too long. I could never get my tongue around Abranyrth that well to begin with.”

“'I believe Mssr. Chzanta attends your father's dinner parties, sir,'” Anderson said, without turning around.

Skels belted out a long, brassy laugh. “That is fucking brilliant.” She held her bottle across the table. “A toast! To nepotism!”

She and Kath clinked bottles. Kath took a huge swig and grinned radiantly. “You never cease to amaze me, Anderson. Where'd you learn Abranyrth? Or did you just make that up?”

Anderson shrugged. “I've been about.”

“Is that your answer to everything?” Skels asked.

“Yes,” Anderson said.

“One of these days,” Skels said, pausing to swallow a mouthful of beer, “I will get you properly, righteously drunk, and finally get you to spill all those damn mysteries of yours.”

From her position near the stovetop Saoirse saw a slight, knowing smile cross Anderson's face, but to Skels he said only, “Good luck with that.”

The kettle warbled and burst into screeching song. Anderson took it off the stove and tried to pour it off, but his hands were shaking so badly that the water went everywhere but the teapot, drenching the countertop and scalding Anderson as it splashed onto his hands. Saoirse stepped forward and gently took the kettle from him to fill the teapot with what water was left. Anderson glared at the offending kettle, rubbing the pinprick burns with weary resignation, but he nodded and murmured, “Thank you.”

Thacha,” Saoirse replied. She took one of Anderson's hands between her own, temporarily stifling the tremors. “You know, he treated you as badly as any of us,” she said sternly. “And he had no right. You gotta stand up for yourself one of these days, mate.”

“Skels is right,” Anderson said softly. “The man was no threat to us.”

Saoirse scowled. “I know, I know. Take the high road, keep your cool, sticks and stones, blah blah blah. Everyone on this ship tries to mother me so much, sometimes I forget I'm in the Reaches and not in boarding school.” She let out a long, frustrated sigh and stared glumly at the teapot. “It's just-I just-am I the only person on this ship who doesn't think it's so wrong to fight back? That just because your name and your honor and your reputation don't bleed and bruise doesn't mean they're not important?”

“You know us better than that by now, surely,” Kath interjected. “Don't tell me you've forgotten that bar fight Samuel started in Southstar because some poor bastard called him a heathen.”

“Don't let anyone tell you words don't matter,” Skels added. “Words're a weapon. If you don't know how to use them they'll do more harm to you than what you're aiming at. Oftentimes it's better to simply stand back and let the fools shoot themselves in the foot.”

“You're right. I know you're right. It just kills me to know that that slimy git can spew all that and then just-walk away, day after day, and always win.”

“We are smuggling contraband into his country,” Skels pointed out.

“Yeah, but not very much.”

Anderson gently removed his hand from hers and clasped her shoulder. For a brief moment, his grip was steady. “Consider it a luxury,” he said. The slur in the medic's voice had thickened, as it always did when he was tired, and his words came slowly, each one carefully enunciated so as not to be stammered or tripped over. “All too often we have no choice what form our battles will take. When given a chance, the wise man keeps his head low.” He smiled suddenly, sharply, a fleeting expression gone as soon as it had appeared. “And then, when they least expect it, you go for their fingers.”

Saoirse smiled back. “I'd like to see that from you one day.”

Anderson shrugged the comment off and turned back to the teapot. Saoirse blew out an aggravated breath and took over, filling a chipped mug with tea and stirring in a spoonful of honey before shoving it back at him. Anderson clutched the mug as steadily as he was able and took a cautious sip.

“Look at it this way,” Kath said. “I doubt that agent will be quite as keen to tease Burshai girls anymore.”

“I suppose I can accept that victory,” the girl mused.

Anderson turned to leave and paused as he passed Saoirse to press the back of a hand to her shoulder and murmur something in Burshai. Then he drifted out of the room, serene as ever despite his shaking. Saoirse watched him go.

“I've changed my mind,” Skels said. “It's you who needs to go and get him drunk. He never says things like that to me.”

Saoirse shook her head. “You think he tells me anything about himself? I can pester him into talking about just about anything in the world, except for the bit of it he occupies.”

“Everyone's entitled to their secrets,” Kath said philosophically. She finished the last drops of beer and tossed the bottle across the room with an expert hand. It spun in the air and clattered into the slot for the glassbox on the far side of the room.

“I suppose so,” Skels said. She rose from the chair and stretched, everything from her shoulders to tail flexing fluidly. “Well, I'm off for a nap before we have to deal with Joorshead.”

She slunk out of the room, followed by Kath. Saoirse watched them go, then turned and poured another cup of tea for herself. She took it to the stairs leading up to the observation bay and sat down to listen to Dhûane singing his evening prayers, his voice filling the bay with a rich, mysterious Vevander melody while he kept a watchful eye on the world streaming past them.

Silence reigned in the cockpit, comfortable and old, as Kath sat next to Samuel, leaning her head on his shoulder while he flew the Ancestral through the afternoon and into evening. Around them was the clear, infinite sky, the melancholy song of the ship's engines, and the slight tang of metal, leather and plasmic fluids that always hung in the background air of the old ship. Up there, in the quiet, long voyages took on an oddly timeless quality. You could get to thinking that a few hours had been an infinity, while also somehow feeling like only minutes. Old Hibanlac had a word for it; so did Rvaptaran, Veveln, Hojerva, and many more tongues than Kath could have listed-though, she mused, Anderson probably could have. It was something you had to have the mind for, or else you'd go mad of the boredom and stillness and the sheer, bloody emptiness of a sky which could so often seem to contain nothing but endless, endless blue. But Kath was true-blood Hiblani, and had that quality of madness bred in her bones, while Samuel would confide under certain inebriated circumstances to have been through proper madness and out the other side, and so between the two of them it meant little to sit there and watch the hours roll by.

Slowly the cold blue around them began to purple into twilight, and the sun sank into the west. In the Deeps you could see real, proper, beautiful sunsets, as the sun met the far horizon of the Mists and colored them in scarlet and gold even as they rose up to consume it. But they were much too high for that up in Abranyr, where the setting sun seemed to simply wither away like an old ghost, leaving in its wake a sky haunted with fading evening light.

As the last glimpse of the sun faded away, Samuel murmured his own evening prayers, which were much shorter and less poetic than Dhuane's. He spoke them in much the same way he was piloting, not with great passion but with the thoughtless ease of long practice. Kath enjoyed listening to it all the same. Samuel had a good voice for-well, just about anything, in her opinion, but for Rvaptaran especially. It brought out his brogue.

When he had finished, Samuel let out a sigh and cracked his fingers. “Probably 'bout an hour or so now,” he said. “Maybe less.”

Kath nodded and, with some reluctance, got up. “Best go get ready for unloading then,” she said.

Samuel blinked. “We don't have that much cargo, surely?”

“No, but that imbecile delayed us too much for my liking. We'll be late as it is; no sense in taking up more time hauling than we have to. Besides,” she added as she paused at the doorway, “I've never any desire to spend more time at the Joorshead docks than I have to.”

She heard Samuel make a noise somewhere between a snort of laughter and a wordless agreement as she stepped out onto the wire mesh stairs that lead down into the main level of the ship. It was a long, narrow staircase that cut a thin channel through the machinery that filled most of the interior prow of the ship, and the great noise of it all pressed in on Kath as she descended. Things creaked and heaved, clanked and ratcheted together and, occasionally, gurgled. Here and there the walls sported small round doors accessible through worn-out ladders, the entrances to maintenance shafts. Kath had never personally needed to enter one, for which she was profoundly grateful.

As the clattering of her boots on the rickety stairs slid into the sharp clicking of boots on the smooth metal floor of the main bay, Kath pulled the small crew radio from its customary position on her belt and punched the broadcast button. “Saoirse, Skels, I need you both up in the bay to help me get the cargo ready.”

Skels's voice, thick with sleep, sounded back a moment later. “Are we there already?”

“Nope. We're being proactive.” She clipped the radio back on her belt as Saoirse chirped an affirmative and Skels made an indistinct grumbling noise that Kath would have to take as an equivalent response. Before her stood the heavy door to the side cargo hold, one of two that flanked the main bay. She unlatched it and spun the wheel on the door, sending it sliding back on its casters. The hold was long and narrow, pressed between the bay and the outer wall of the ship, and it had a tight, still atmosphere under its low ceiling. The border guards had searched it for concealed compartments without success. This was because there were none. That would have been silly.

As she carefully pulled the first crate out into the bay she heard the sound of more boots as Saoirse arrived. She did not hear Skels, and so with the weight of experience she was not in the least surprised to see her when she turned, the raptor's smooth scaled feet having made no more than a whisper of sound across the sheer floor. Lee had also shown up, which was not remarkable; the man would bitch and complain with impressive vigor if not any actual sincerity over any work he was assigned, but in truth what he loathed above anything else was idleness. Given nothing to do he would pace, and shake, and smoke, and eventually would start taking apart whatever he could find. It was probably a good thing that it was a rare day when everything on the Ancestral was in working order, because if no other opportunities were available he would usually start on himself.

Lee went off to get the trolley while the other three hauled out all of the crates marked for Joorshead and sat them on the bay floor. They were good quality crates, made of solid reinforced wood, but otherwise unremarkable, save for two. Those were dark gray with the faintest sheen to them, and were sealed with careful, complicated locks. To hold delicate clockworks, as Kath had explained to the border agent, far and away the most valuable of their cargo.

Just as Skels was sliding the cargo door closed again, Lee came back with the trolley, leading it for all the world as if it were a nervous horse. It was certainly ungainly enough. The thing had been made from the frame of a one-man wind-skipper attached to the front half of an old marathon bike, its thick frame and stolid handlebars jutting from the wind-skipper like a bizarre abstract figurehead. It did not look as though it should be able to do anything at all, but it purred smoothly across the bay a steady six inches from the floor, maneuvering as sleekly as any racing bike, and gliding easily to a halt when Lee had brought it over.

“We touching down when we get there?” he asked as he swung the handlebars down and twisted a control on the frame of the bike. The trolley extended landing gear and settled to a full stop with a satisfied mechanical wheeze.

“Nope.” Kath waited as Skels hopped up into the back of the trolley, then handed her a crate. “I'd rather spend the money on the extra fuel to keep us hanging than spend hours at paperwork and greasing palms just to have the honored privilege of resting in Joorshead's own docks.” She reached down for another crate. “It probably costs just as much to get a down-dock permit as it does in fuel to high-dock on the outskirts anyway.”

“More, I should think,” Skels said.

Lee snorted in contempt. “It's not a high-dock if it costs fuel,” he said. “That's just empty space over the down-dock with a pretentious name. A proper high-dock-” He broke off under Kath's sideways glance and sighed heavily. “You'll want a bike, then,” he said.

“Yes. But I think I can manage to get it out myself.”

Lee threw up his hands and stalked off. Skels laughed as she took the final crate from Saoirse. “He'll be back,” she said.

He was, although not until after they had secured all the cargo and half pulled up the trolley's cover, and the lights of Joorshead had come up in the distance like a second sunset. Saoirse had watched the city grow closer from up on the observation deck, where Dhuane still kept vigilant watch over their course. Joorshead was built onto two spurs of hangingrock, connected by an intricate net of bridges. The central one was so large that it made up its own neighborhood, covered with shops and market stalls and sculpture that fit so perfectly together that they seemed to have been carved right out of the bridge itself. It was the picture of a quintessential Abranyr city, white rock and light, beautiful and pristine.

To Saoirse's eyes the picture seemed to get more and more austere as they came into dock-and Lee was right on that one, she mused, the only sense in which they were in dock was that the ship was no longer going anywhere. They were still someways away from Joorshead's proper docks, where all the sleek, busy-looking craft that could manage the permits rested in the bright glow of the watchlights. Out in the cold black stretching infinitely away from the city a few more ships hung, faint beacons in the dark, not rich or influential or simply not caring enough to get a place down below. The city loomed above them, stark and perfect and forbidding, making the night seem much deeper for the harsh contrast that its bright lights cut against the darkness. Saoirse ground her teeth and looked away. She was not sure which was harder to bear-the way those lights made her feel, small and insignificant and unclean, or the shame of being so affected by something so petty and intangible.

Dhuane caught her unconscious sigh and paused in the middle of stretching the stiffness from his back. “What is it?”

“What? Oh. Nothing, really.” She smiled forcibly. “Just...things never look quite as beautiful close up as they do from a distance.”

“Sometimes,” Dhuane said. “It's only a different kind of beauty, up close.”

Saoirse blinked at him, waiting to see if there would be any more of this philosophical insight, but Dhuane only kneaded the base of his neck and said, “Jath, I need a warm drink.”

A shudder ran through the air around them, and the ship groaned and creaked cantankerously as it slid into a stationary hover. A tiny ship, barely more than a bike, rose up from its position near the tower that jutted up from the down-dock and darted over to inspect them. Between the inspection and whatever passed over the radio between Kath and the controlman in the tower, they apparently passed muster, because the little ship flew off and the sweeping whistle of an all-clear sounded from the hand radios.

Dhuane and Saoirse clattered down the stairs into the main bay. That was where they found Lee, waiting next to the trolley and an inactive bike. Like all of the ship bikes, it had been repaired and refurbished so often that any specific make or style it had once had was long gone. Parts stuck out in unorthodox combinations, creating a dull medley of colors and shapes over the sheer black frame. There was also a ferret sitting on it.

“You know, Lee,” Kath said as she walked in with Samuel and Skels in her wake, “I really do appreciate your, shall we say, vigilance, but it may be slightly disproportionate to the situation.” She came up beside them and rested a hand on the bike. “We're running a quick shipment into the city, not a relay stretch in drake country. Quit looking like you're handing over your firstborn children.”

“I was bored,” Lee grumbled.

“Clearly.” Kath shooed the ferret off of the bike. It leaped into Lee's hands and ran up his arm to perch on his shoulder. “Be a good boy while we're gone and I'll bring you back a treat.”

Saoirse cut in over Lee's inarticulate griping. “So who's going, then?”

“Just us.” Kath made a vague gesture towards Samuel and Skels. All three of them had riding gear on, flight goggles and coats buttoned up tight. “If there's trouble I'd bet higher on it being legal rather than physical, in which case the fewer of us there are the better.”

“Should there be trouble?” Dhuane asked with a raised eyebrow.

“No. Which means that there probably will be. Try to keep the ship intact while we're gone.” She climbed onto her bike and twisted the activator. The tank glowed and sent lines of cool blue light racing up the framework with an eager hum. Samuel took up the controls of the trolley, while Skels jumped in the back and strapped in with what was left of the wind-skipper's harnessing. With a nod from Kath, Dhuane strode over to the side of the bay and heaved on the great switches that opened the bay door.

The bay ramp began to drop with a groan while the door above it rose up. The chamber was suddenly awash in cool night air and bright city lights. The three riders adjusted their flight goggles and glided out into the night, first Kath's sleek bike and then the cumbersome trolley in her wake, leaving behind them a scent of ozone and the rapidly dissipating afterglow of the engines.

Part Two:
Spoiler: show
Joorshead was in Festival, decked out in lanterns and garlands and the scent of odd spices. The young apprentice who met them at the dock entrance wore red and gold beads in her hair, and had tied a spray of flowers across the front of her bike. She looked to be in high good spirits.

“You'll be Captain Harrier, then,” she said cheerily. “I'm Maixa- Mssr. Chzanta's second apprentice. I'm to take you back to the shop.” She held up for inspection a guild insignia which hung on a braided cord below the neck of her jacket. Kath peered at it and nodded decisively, while behind her Samuel and Skels exchanged a bemused look. They could pick out Chzanta's personal mark, but aside from that the swirl of bright symbols embroidered onto the leather disc were only so much colorful gibberish to them. Within Abranyr the guild system was the backbone to everything and second nature to the citizens; a guild-mark was as trustworthy a form of identification as anyone could ask for. To most anyone else the whole thing was a vast esoteric mess. But Kath said, “Very good,” and extended a hand to shake.

Maixa shook hands and was briefly introduced to Samuel and Skels. “Nice rig,” she said with a huge grin, nodding at the trolley.

Samuel grinned back and patted the side of the trolley fondly. “She'll keep up,” he replied.

“Ah, we can't go too fast anyway, more's the pity.” She stepped back onto her bike and started it up. “We'll take the three-tier roads-they're not as bad as the main ones tonight, but they're still half-choked. Can't get nowhere during Festival.”

The streets around them certainly backed up that claim. Even the lower commercial road that they followed out of the docks was crowded with party-goers, decorations, and carts and stalls selling garlands, effigies, and carnival-style food, among other things. Tiny ritual bonfires sprouted up here and there, contained within burnished stone pots and fed with powders and sweetgrasses that colored the flames and scented the smoke. It all combined to make a rather dizzying assault on the senses. One could only imagine what it was like up on the main streets.

Kath glanced around at the festival-goers around them as they made a somewhat too leisurely pace up the road. No one paid them any mind. The carts may have been rickety, the decorations somewhat cheap, and the food rather less refined than the higher-tier classes would have been used to, but residents made it up for it with the sheer honest vigor with which they celebrated their holiday.

“I hope we're not keeping you from celebrating,” Kath said to Maixa, having to raise her voice over the hubbub. “We ought to have been earlier, but there was some trouble with customs.”

“Oh no,” Maixa called back, as cheerful as ever. “I volunteered, and it'll get me good graces. And this is early-the real fun won't start for some hours.” She waved and called a greeting to someone she knew, and was rewarded with a tossed pastry that she caught deftly in one hand. Somehow she managed to eat it without losing even an inch of control on her bike.

“I don't think she's suffering,” Skels commented dryly.

“Nothing like combining work and pleasure,” Samuel agreed.

It did take some time to navigate their way to Chzanta's workshop, but the journey was not an unpleasant one. The press of the crowds surged and ebbed erratically, leaving them sometimes able to make decent time and sometimes at all but a dead stop. The bikes, for the most part, had little trouble slipping through the populace, but the more cumbersome trolley presented a challenge; even when the crowds were low, Samuel had careful work maneuvering around the carts and bonfire pots that spilled over the curbs, sometimes all the way into the middle of the streets. But it was hard to feel the frustrations that would have normally quickly arisen in such jammed circumstances, not amongst the overwhelming exuberant cheer that filled the streets to overflowing, and the veritable gallery of interesting tableaus that caught the eye as they passed.

Skels slipped out of the harnessing and climbed up on top of the trolley's half-raised cover, where she perched with a good vantage point for the crowd around them, occasionally flipping a coin or an approving gesture at deserving vendors and performers. The crowd in turn pressed toward the trolley and tossed garlands and beads at the raptor with cheers of festival blessings, while the more opportunistic vendors fought closer to better offer a sale. A raptor with bells tied to his back head-prongs sold Skels a paper bag of candied crickets, which she alternately ate and tossed one by one to Samuel, and once when the crowds had brought them to standstill she even managed to secure a couple of paper cups of zhryca for them.

Eventually, however, the raucous fun died away as they left the lower tier and began a climb along the trade streets up towards the guild-residential area that occupied a higher place in the city. Here they passed through serious, demure shops interspersed with outlying warehouses, all battened down against the forces of Festival, their owners either off to celebrate somewhere else or barricaded disapprovingly behind shuttered windows. A few tradesmen and shop-workers were about enjoying the lights and having rather more refrained celebrations of their own, but as they got further up even those seemed to disappear. The only remaining passers-by were mostly high-class costumers of the refined higher-tier shops, who cast vaguely disapproving glances at the passing convoy if they deigned to notice it at all.

Still, the trade streets offered much quicker passage, and it wasn't long before they were climbing through a twist of narrow, well-sculpted road that rose up under the shadow of the top tier and emerged onto Guildsmark Way. The estates of the city's guildmasters flanked a street laid with glassy colored cobbles that formed mosaics of appropriate scenes as they swirled past each manse. The walks that ran along the side of the streets were made of quality stone and wood, and dotted with regular streetlamps that burned a deep, clean gold. Tasteful Festival decorations adorned the walks and fronts of the houses, and the smooth music and sophisticated laughter of genteel entertainment drifted out onto the street like the carrying scent of fine incense.

Maixa led them to an estate that perched on the very end of the way, on a jut of rock that edged out of line with the rest of the tier, pushing directly into the night sky. The property was comparatively small and the residence smaller, Chzanta being a modest man with a delicate craft, but the surrounding grounds were beautifully kept with spiraling arrangements of flowers in-between oak trees dangling with red and gold lanterns. A small side road just inside the gate swept steeply down below the rock spur to a hanger area cut directly into the city's white rock. Maixa drew up her bike and stopped as they turned into the hanger, the expression of easygoing cheer having abruptly slid off her face for the first time.

“What is it?” Kath asked, bringing her own bike to a halt beside the apprentice.

“He's got guests,” Maixa murmured, gesturing at the vehicles that were already occupying the hanger. One, sitting sedately on its own special pedestal, Kath took to be Chzanta's personal transport, but there were three more resting in the far corner. Two were sleek, pretty little street-gliders which Samuel expressed his disapproval of with one glance and a snort of amused disdain. The other was a real, honest-to-Gods horse-drawn carriage, white wood with gold molding that made it look like a gingerbread concoction. The horses were nowhere to be seen, undoubtedly taken discreetly elsewhere so as not to befoul the aesthetics of the hanger with their bodily functions.

“I had no idea, really I didn't,” Maixa went on, her voice gone high and fast with nerves. “There oughtn't be any guests, not until much later-at least he said there wouldn't be-they must have just dropped in...”

“It's alright,” Kath said, somewhat distracted by the absurdity of the carriage. Only in Abranyr, she thought. “We are late, after all. We can wait for them to leave.”

“Yes, but-I don't know how long they'll be,” Maixa said. “And, well...”

She looked at them miserably, unable to get the words out-but they were obvious all the same. The three of them, in flight goggles and worn coats, weathered faces and marked skin, would no more fit into whatever social gathering was proceeding upstairs than the horses would in the hanger. And while Kath knew from experience that Chzanta himself wasn't bothered by this one bit, it was a whole other thing for them to barge in while he was entertaining other guests. An Abranyrth guildmaster, moving in the cutthroat and high-strung world that he did, had to maintain his social circles like the complex machinery they were, no matter what his personal opinions were on the matter. To have three rough-cut foreign Reachers crash a private party-one might as well pour sharpening acid into one's bike engine.

Maixa's expression betrayed how well she knew all this, and how well she also knew that the drop-in guests could potentially linger over canapes and small talk for hours. Kath could tell that the apprentice had enough of a sense of duty to stay with them for as long as she needed to, even if it meant lingering until long after whatever Festival activities she had been looking forward to were over. She glanced back at her two crewmen, and Samuel's eyebrows went up at the gleam he saw in her eye.

“I don't see what the problem is,” Kath said, turning back to Maixa. “How'd you like to make a few more good graces before the evening's out?”

Life was quiet for the moment on the Ancestral. Saoirse, Lee and Dhuane had settled in the observation deck's central depression, where the bulk of the deck's sensory equipment congregated. The scope tower rose up above them in a twisted pinnacle, its lower viewers fanning out in a broken circle around the depression, while its upper glasses reached out to watch the sky in all directions. Occasional footholds allowed a practiced hand to clamber up the tower to a top platform to get a better view, adjust the weather and life-sensor arrays, or open a port through the glass and cold-shield of the deck's domed ceiling and clamber onto the outside of the ship. The power required to keep the cold-shield going lined the walls of the deck with thick relay pipes and kept the place perpetually chilly. Sitting in the depression in a nest of blankets that provided a thin shield against the cold, the three crewmembers dealt cards and kept a casual eye on the scopes.

“Horse,” Lee said, laying down a card.

“Scorpion.” Dhuane laid down two and connected them with a token.

Saoirse put her entire hand down, arranging her tokens in an intricate pattern around them. “Drake.”

Lee groaned dramatically and slumped back against the edge of the depression. “Son of a bitch!

Dhuane bowed his head gracefully. “Zau uthka.”

Trying and failing to keep the massive grin off her face, Saoirse scooped up the cards and began to shuffle them back into a deck. “Best out of three?”

“No!” Lee drained the dregs of his mug and stood up with all the careful, prickly poise of a damp cat. His ferret jumped off his shoulder indignantly and darted over to Saoirse to be stroked back into amiability. Ignoring this, Lee swung himself up onto the scope array and climbed up with a mutter about checking the arrays.

“He'll be back,” Saoirse said.

“Indeed.” Dhuane glanced around the scopes, crooking his head to get them all in his limited vision. Satisfied, he leaned back and took a demure sip of his steaming drink, an odd, salty Vevander tea brew which Dhuane swore by and no one else on the ship could stand. Saoirse shuddered just to watch him drink it, but if Dhuane noticed he didn't deign to show it.

Over the distant sounds of Lee muttering to himself, Saoirse tossed a nut in the air and watched the ferret jump after it. The long hours of their wait stretched before them under the intent stare of the glowing city. She sighed and shuffled some more. The cards were fraying at the edges.

“We need a new deck,” she said. “This one's worn through.”

“I would like to have a Coza deck,” Dhuane said wistfully. “But they are hard to find this far low.”

“I haven't heard of that one,” Saoirse said. “Is that a Vevander game?”

Dhuane smiled a little wryly. “Not really. More a Heights game. Lee would probably know it.” He took another sip and looked out into the distance. “We used to play it in the barracks in between drills.”

Saoirse felt her fingers slip on the cards. Dhuane mentioned his past rarely, and in any specifics even more rarely. She wanted to take up the opportunity to learn more, but bit down on her curiosity. Some things people talked about on their own whim or not at all, and trying to force it only risked infecting old wounds.

“Is that right, Lee?” she called up, trying to shift the subject a little. “You know this game? Maybe it's something you can actually win at-”
Lee's muttering suddenly rose into a noise that managed to sum up the general idea of several expletives without having to limit itself to any specific one. Saoirse initially took it as his usual response to her teasing. A moment later, the actual tone of his voice caught up with the content and she looked up with a frown.

“Everything all right up there?” she said.

There was a moment of tense silence punctuated by the sounds of Lee banging on one of the arrays. Then, in a soft voice which nonetheless carried in the big open chamber, he said, “I think we got company.”

Dhuane snapped to attention, his long frame unfolding as suddenly and sharply as a jackknife. Saoirse dropped the cards and was up and halfway onto the scope array in a heartbeat. “Who? How many? Where?...Why?” she added after a moment.

“Six. They're on hot bikes. They're circling; probably trying to figure out how to get in.” He leaned back and glanced down at them. “I can't answer your other questions.”

“Can we be sure they are hostile?” Dhuane asked, though his tone did not hold out much hope for other possibilities.

“Unless they're hoping to give us a surprise party, I don't see many friendly reasons for them to be tryin' to sneak up on us,” Lee said dryly. “They've not so much as flashed a signal. And their bikes are dark. We would never've known they were here if our girl weren't so clever with aura signatures.” He rubbed a hand proudly on the scope before him. Saoirse rolled her eyes.

“Still, this close to the docks,” she murmured, peering into the scope for herself. “That's pretty ballsy.”

Lee shrugged. “This is Abranyr and we're broke, nameless foreigners. They could get away with a lot, 'specially if they have a well-known patron. It's all but their word against ours, so long as they don't get caught doing something really stupid.”

“Then we must tread carefully,” Dhuane said. “But then, so must they.”

The three of them looked at each other for a moment. Then everyone started moving. Dhuane went for his armor, shrugging the spell-woven mesh shirt on and belting it in place under his overshirt. Lee took up his radio and woke Anderson as he recalibrated the arrays for high alert. Saoirse swung down from the tower and grabbed a belt of ammunition from the lockers at the far side of the room, carefully cinching it across her waist so that it did not tangle with the holster for her pistol, before strapping on a wrist-sheath and sliding one of her belt knives into it.

“They're stopping near the main bay doors,” Lee reported. “That'll take them a few minutes, either to work out how to get it open or force their way in. They can't afford to be noisy with it. That would fall right well into the 'really stupid' category.”

Dhuane handed him the jacket and toolbag he had left hanging on the tower as the engineer clambered down to the floor. Lee belted the toolbag to his waist and yanked his jacket on over it, his mouth set so tight that his lips paled against a suddenly more hollow face.

“Let us go to do battle,” Dhuane intoned, mostly to himself, as he led the way out of the chamber; Lee and Saoirse had to scramble to keep up with his long-legged pace.

Saoirse made a Burshai battle-sign over her heart and murmured her own Splintered City battle cry: “Draw swords, kill rats.”

“Sure,” Lee muttered. “There's only six well-paid, well-armed hoisters against four chewed-up, strung-out mad scrounge-rats, only one of whom isn't too broken-skulled to aim a gun straight. What could go wrong?”

“For us or for them?” Saoirse asked.

“For the universe in general, I should think,” Lee said.

Kath finished straightening the neckcloth and stepped back a few paces so that she could get a full look at Samuel's titan frame. He stood to attention, his sharp features looking more fearsome than ever; only someone who knew him as well as Kath could have spotted the uncomfortable light in his eyes. His life thus far had afforded him only one significant style of experience with formal situations, that being the military one, and military was, now, what Samuel loathed to be reminded of more than anything.

Still, he did a good job of it. With his hair combed back, the dust washed from his boots, and the borrowed dress coat and neckcloth over his worn shirt, he looked, if not exactly princely, then at least close to ducal. His height and cutting glare did most of the work, daring any observers to question his nobility; it gave him the air of a distinguished officer or working trader-lord who commanded no less respect for being somewhat unavoidably travel-stained.

Maixa had gone above and beyond in her directive to beg, borrow and scavenge whatever formal wear she could find among the servants, apprentices, and guildhouse storage; not only had she produced an impressive array of articles on her own, but her frantic searching had rapidly drawn curious attention from several of the house staff. One offer of help followed another, and suddenly an errand had become an epic quest in which everyone wanted to be involved. Clothing, jewelry, perfumes and makeup had been offered up, dug out of storage, or discreetly lifted for the evening. Chzanta's own valet took charge of the incoming offerings and expertly selected the most appropriate pieces for all three of them, muttering commentary extensively under his breath all the while. There was no hiding the fact that they were no nobles, not with their scars and weather-worn skin so obvious, but now they had the look more of exotic and affluent traders rather than crude criminals.

Skels shifted uneasily, tugging at the beaded scarf knotted around the prongs that jutted into a crest over the back of her head-an Abranyrth fashion that she had never had cause to adopt. There had been considerably more trouble dressing her up, the household not being overstocked with raptor clothing, but Chzanta's kindly old bookkeeper had lent her his dress coat from bygone days, and several odds and ends had been creatively used to make up the slack. She had offered several times to simply wait with the trolley, and had been resolutely ignored.
“What are you trying to prove, Kath?” she murmured as the valet shooed everyone else away. “You think you're going to topple the ingrained Abranyrth aristocratic bigotry by shoving me into a room full of nobles? Topple this whole gig, more like.”

“No, I just think I'm going to amuse myself quite a bit,” Kath murmured back. “Besides, you know more Abranyrth than either of us. Could come in handy.”

“Yeah, by about five words,” Skels replied, but had no more time for further remarks; the valet was looking meaningfully at them. Kath gave him a nod and shoved her two companions into formation. The valet nodded to the doormaster and melted away into the background. The doormaster cleared his throat, stepped forward, and flung open the doors to the room with an expert flourish.

All conversation in the room ceased as the guests turned to look. The doormaster bowed and announced, “Master Chzanta, good gentlemen, ladies, I present you three honorable guests to join the festivities,” before stepping aside to give the floor to Kath.

Kath stepped forward and inclined her head, the motion stopping just short of what could be called a bow. “I beg to present to you the decorated Lord Pilot Vin Samuel Eastlin of the Lower Blue,” she said, stepping back so that the three of them were side-by-side, “Lord Swordbearer Vul Skaeh-Diago-Skels of the most noble line of Sunblood, and myself, Lord Captain Vul Kathleen Harrier, daughter and first heir of Merchant House Harrier.”

She seized the moment of confused silence that followed and continued, “Lord Chzanta, I beg your apologies for the our lateness and roughness of appearance. We have traveled a long way to make our appointment and the skies were harsh.”

Mero Chzanta was a slight, weathered man who looked the very picture of a genial grandfatherly figure, from his wiry white hair to his natural rosy smile, but there was a downright devilish gleam of glee in his innocently blue eyes as he stepped forward. “Oh, think nothing of it, think nothing of it, I am sure,” he said. “Such a daring and difficult job could only come with an equal share of inconveniences; no reasonable man could expect any less. I am simply glad that you are here now.”

“And pray, what job is that?” a tall woman with elaborately beaded hair inquired rather frostily.

“Why, they are traders,” Chzanta replied, his voice laid with surprise that she should have to inquire to the obvious. “They are some of my top suppliers for certain delicate materials I simply cannot get locally. I cannot recommend their services highly enough. Come, let me make further introductions.”

The atmosphere in the room eased considerably. Traders carried significant weight in Abranyr's upper echelons, vital as they were for securing the goods that the guilds needed to operate, which were often rare enough to require great skill and expertise to track down. They had a special kind of status of their own, held highly but at arm's reach, and the need to keep them happy and not bruise their independent spirits was understood if not necessarily appreciated by everyone. Whatever the guests might have felt about the intruders, no one could reasonably make an open complaint about a craftsman honoring an appointment with them over an unexpected minor social gathering-and if they were rather unusual traders, that was only to be expected when dealing with an eccentric craftsman working in an unorthodox field.

The ice cracked if not entirely broken, Chzanta made further introductions while an attending footman served the new arrivals with drinks. They met the noblewoman Lady Ilda Yewlyn, she of the beaded hair and frosty questions, and her husband Lord Bell Yewlyn, a quiet man with a financial gaze; Lord Achille Cuiautl, a minister of weather, and his wife Fausta and teenage son Gaetano; and Guildmaster Vico Izai, an older man, tall but wiry, who wore a long coat and tophat and braided his hair with many different colors of gleaming wire.

Samuel and Skels hung back, uncomfortable, sipping their drinks and supplying only the occasional comment, but Kath dove right in. She chatted brightly with the nobles, exchanged pleasantries with the minister's wife and son, and joked dryly with Guildmaster Izai. Before they quite knew what was happening, Samuel had been steered into a conversation with Lord Cuiautl about the difficulty of balancing weather systems, and Skels was describing the Kelathan storm circuit to his enthralled wife and son.

The Yewlyns left before very long, to no one's great surprise, but the Cuiautl family seemed to be enjoying themselves and stayed for some time. Kath moved back and forth, livening up flagging conversations with questions or remarks that sparked a whole new line of discussion, and quietly talking to Chzanta and Izai in-between. She turned down a stronger drink refill, the better to keep her wits; Samuel, who could probably have gone through the entire pulled stock without so much as a blink, drank sedately but clutched his glass like a totem. Kath did not seem to notice, but Skels made sure that he caught the evil look she gave him that silently begrudged him his constitution.

Her own brandy was barely touched, in any case; it was of excellent quality for humans, but clearly not made with either the tastes or physiology of raptors in mind. When the footman suddenly appeared at her elbow she jumped and looked rather guiltily at her full glass, but he smiled and offered her a small tumbler filled with dark greenish liquid.

“Compliments of the butler, ma'am,” he said. “Your pardon for the delay, but it took a while for the word to get down to him,” he added in an undertone.

Skels's crest rose with surprise as she took the glass of very fine raptor rum and sniffed it appreciatively. “You, my good man, are a lifesaver,” she said softly. “Wherever did your butler get this?”

“I couldn't possibly say,” the footman replied. “He does like to be prepared for all possible contingencies, though. I dare say he has a bottle or two of just about everything down there.”

“Well, thank him most highly for me, and, apologies for the waste of the brandy.”

“Oh, don't worry about that, ma'am,” the footman said with a perfectly straight face as he relieved her of the brandy glass. “It'll be taken care of.”

He glided away, and Skels, in a rather better mood, drifted back towards the rest of the party. Samuel and Kath were in a corner, having been temporarily relieved of conversational duties by Izai, who was entertaining the other guests with a story involving a narcoleptic auditor. Samuel looked privately amused.

“What're you smiling about?” Skels asked.

“Oh, just trying to think what it would be like if we'd brought Lee along,” Samuel said.

Skels barely suppressed a snort. “Good gods. I couldn't imagine.”

“He would never have made it in here,” Kath said dryly. “I would have chained him to the trolley.”

“Oh?” Skels said. “And here I thought you were all about dragging crewmen into parties in the face of adversity.”

Kath rolled her eyes. “I look after my crewmen in the face of adversity, not in the face of being a foul-mouthed git. Besides,” she added, “you know he's much happier on the ship. Well, inasmuch as that word can ever be applied to Lee.”

I'd be much happier on the ship,” Skels muttered, and took a long drink.

“Shit, this place is a mess,” the leader said.

He stood near the doors which had finally been coaxed open, looking around the main bay. His men fanned out behind him, casting dubious looks at each other.

“Never seen anything like this before,” one of them said.

“Of course not,” Chief snapped back. “They don't make things like this in the plural. Some drunk bastard has an idea and slaps something together with spare parts and spit before he sobers up and realizes what a stupid idea it was and never does it again. The Reaches are full of one-of-a-kind ships, and every one of them is as shit as all the rest.” He sighed heavily and kicked at nothing. “But it's gonna make it a bloody hassle to search the place. Gods only know how many hidden nooks and crannies there are in this thing. No wonder Paize couldn't find anything.”

“So?” his lieutenant prompted quietly.

Chief allowed himself a moment longer to survey their surroundings. “Find the crew and make 'em talk. Easiest thing to do. What Paize shoulda done to begin with, but that moron couldn't intimidate a wet dog.”

He tossed his head at a solid, quiet man in the back of the group.“Loarc, you're standing watch here. Anyone that's not us pokes their head out, stun 'em and restrain 'em til I get back. Anyone approaches the ship, sound the alarm and take cover. I want check-ins every five minutes, and you're not to come after us for nothing unless you actually hear me on the radio telling you to.”

Loarc nodded once and took up position against the wall, folding his arms across his broad chest and settling into a sentry's stance like a statue being positioned onto its podium.

Chief marched off across the bay towards the stairs, the remaining four men falling in behind him. “I want everyone to stay close,” he said as they began to ascend the stairs. “It's bound to be a labyrinth in here and the last thing I need tonight is to have all of my men scattered across the ship dead lost and no good to anyone.”

The stairs led to a walkway running all along the bay, splitting off into three further stairways: one at the farther wall, leading up in the direction of the ship's prow; one almost directly opposite leading into the main body of the ship, and one to the right of the ascending men, an extremely steep set of steps leading out of sight behind a open doorway at the back corner of the walkway. Chief stepped over to the doorway and craned his head up to see a very short staircase in a tight space, spiraling around to reach another corridor directly above the walkway. He grunted in distaste and gestured to his men.

It was impossible to go quietly; the rickety metal stairs clanged and clattered no matter how lightly the men moved. Chief gritted his teeth and said nothing, only stepped as quickly and silently as he could off the stairs and into the narrow corridor. Mismatched doors lined the walls, spotted with personal touches-a string of charms dangling from the latch, a glyph in shimmering silver paint. In the middle of the corridor the two lines of rooms both split to allow an access shaft on each side with a ladder extending out of sight in both directions.

Chief moved forward ever so slowly, pressing his boots down gently but firmly on the corrugated floor, a single crooked finger gesturing for his lieutenant to do likewise. The other two men waited, poised on the edge of the stairway, even their breathing stilled into near perfect silence. Chief leaned forward to check the left access shaft, gun drawn, ready to strike at a second's notice at anything waiting.

Then a screaming ferret flung itself at his face.

The man screamed himself and reeled backward, pawing desperately at a faceful of ferret; but the maddened creature twisted and writhed like quicksilver, dodging out of his grip, spitting, clawing, and biting all the while in an insane stew of fury and terror. The lieutenant hesitated for an agonizing second, unsure of any way to dispatch the animal without also dispatching his captain, before reaching in with a grimace and attempting to pull it off himself.

The ferret eagerly took the opportunity to escape the situation and jumped at the lieutenant, winding around his arms and clawing at his jacket. The lieutenant yelled and bucked; the ferret screamed; and then the lieutenant slumped and fell to the floor even as the ferret jumped free and skittered away, running down the opposite access shaft and out of sight.

There was pause enough for a single intake of breath, and then the foremost of the men at the stairs, the only one who had seen the flash of light from the access shaft in the confusion, yelled, “Gunfire! Everybody down!”

They made a valiant effort, but the cramped space offered very few options. The two men in the rear jumped back and fell over each other on the sharply bending stairs, while the third struggled to get his head down and get out of the corridor at the same time. More shots zipped past, the bright blue light leaving scorch marks on the walls and dissolving into sparks as it narrowly missed the retreating men.

“Back! Back down the stairs!” the foremost hoister shouted, drawing his own firearm and shooting wildly back; but the curved wall of the access shaft that the shots were coming from gave the shooter an impromptu riot shield. The men behind him scrambled back down the stairs, leaving him with slightly more room to maneuver. He backed against the wall of the stairwell-the same curvature that protected the shooter also limited their own range of fire-and dug into a belt pouch for a spell-grenade. He pressed down the end of the slim metal capsule, priming it, and tossed it into the corridor. Even before it left his hand it was cold enough to burn.

There was a moment's ringing silence, punctuated by the ragged breathing of the prone captain. The grenade made no noise when the spell unwound and fired; if anything, it seemed to emit a lack of sound, a deep, velvety silence that rolled over the corridor in a very nearly palpable way, catching all noise within its reach and strangling it. A chill spread outward behind it, making the air thin with frost and the metal walls and flooring harsh to the touch. The shots stopped abruptly as the workings of the gun suddenly worked no more.

The hoister darted forward, drawing a baton from his belt loop: a solid, heavy stick for hitting people with, nothing fancy or elaborate, but also nothing that would be affected by the stasis field crackling in the air around him. He slid forward and down, aiming exactly for the access shaft and letting his momentum drive the blow that was lashing out to strike a useless gun from clutching fingers even before he had found his target.

He stopped. The baton tapped gently against the side of the shaft. There was no one in it.

The shaft seemed to have extendable floor panels of some kind, because there was now a very definite and close bottom to it, a circular base which, despite interlocking perfectly with the corridor, had most certainly not been there before. A quick glance upwards showed him that a similar panel had appeared at the top. The shooter had fled; up or down, there was no immediate way to tell, but either way they had blocked off pursuit. The hoister swore and scrabbled around the remaining area, but no method of controlling the panels presented itself to him.

He gave up and turned, still keeping low to the floor, to examine the two fallen men beside him. A quick glance at the lieutenant revealed that he had only been hit with a stun bolt. He lay breathing shallowly, thoroughly unconscious but otherwise unharmed, excepting the ferret scratches on his hand and arm. Chief had crawled out of the immediate area of fire and was now struggling upright, desperately pawing and rubbing at his eyes with his sleeve to clear his eyes. His face was covered in blood and fur, obliterating the outlines of the actual wounds; it had to have looked worse than it was, but it looked pretty damn bad.

The other hoister was about to move toward his captain's aid when a gleam caught his eye. Something was laying hidden in the crook of the lieutenant's limp arm, something small and metallic that would never have been seen if it hadn't reflected the light. The hoister realized it was only his fallen grenade and turned away. Then he realized it wasn't his grenade. His was laying on the floor a foot away, still glowing with the cold blue script of the stasis spell currently disabling all magical works within the area of effect. The hoister gently moved the lieutenant aside and peered closely at the other device. It puzzled him; it looked like a basic stun grenade but the simple spell lines that wound around it were still, not pulsing or spiraling as they should have been if the spell were unwinding, or dark as they would have been if the device were inactive or depleted.

If he'd had time, the hoister would have grabbed the other two men and hightailed it out of there before the malfunctioning grenade did something unexpected. Given somewhat less time, he would have at least thrown himself clear, or as clear as he could get. But as it was, he had only the time to see the rapidly fading script of the stasis grenade out of the corner of his eye and make the realization before the light flickered out altogether, and the stun grenade, released from its temporary hibernation, resumed its duties.

Saoirse allowed herself a moment to catch her breath, stolen more by a sudden spike in adrenaline than by physical exertion. It had been a close call, a damn close call; she'd never expected the hoisters to be packing anything as expensive and impressive as stasis grenades. It was enough to make one wonder if they weren't facing a force that was strikingly out of their league, but now was not the time to waste brainpower thinking about it.

The moment over, she continued up the ladder, silently praying that her hastily conceived plan with the stun grenade had worked. If so, that was half the men down already, not half bad work so far. But now things were getting tricky: she had no idea what the other two men would do, or if Lee had succeeded at his part of the plan, or if Dhuane was still in position, and whether it was safe to use the radios to find out.

She swung into a maintenance tunnel looming next to the ladder. The shaft continued for some way above her, but it only led up into what Lee called the rafters, access for the very top of the ship, where the upper hull and upper engine relays and the pipes for the shield systems could be fixed or prodded or overhauled, depending on the engineer's mood. But if you went through the third right tunnel from the south-central main vertical shaft, you could go straight to the otherwise nearly unreachable ancillary side-engine rooms, once used to house the workings for a pair of hot fluid-boosters, which Lee had yanked out long ago, and now used to house cargo, spare parts, the main radio equipment, and reclusive engineers, among other things.

The tunnel ended in a trapdoor. With practiced grace, Saoirse opened it, swung out through it and fell a few inches to the floor while pulling the door shut so gently it made hardly a noise. The room she had dropped into had never been very big to begin with, and the boxes, barrels and crammed shelves that lined the walls made it absolutely tiny. It was also quite dark, being only illuminated by the castoffs of the lamp in the next room. There was a doorway but no door to block the harsh greaselamp light, only a thin but jovially patterned curtain tied to a rack above the opening. Saoirse would have been astounded if the hoisters had actually made it in here, of all places, and so quickly, but nonetheless she kept a hand on her gun as she padded to the doorway and slowly pushed the curtain aside.

She was so wired and nerved up that she almost felt her heart smack against her ribcage when she saw that the room was occupied, and had to lean against the doorway and let out a long breath when she realized a split second later that it was only Lee. He was crouching in front of the radio console at the far end of the room, doing something incomprehensible with it. When Saoirse tapped gently on the wall, he jolted backwards so hard his feet left the floor, and involuntarily flung the radio he was holding halfway across the room. Saoirse caught it and shook her head ruefully as she handed it back to him. Lee startled like a nervous pigeon even when the ship wasn't under attack, and there wasn't really a way to avoid it.

In truth, this room wasn't really any bigger than the other one, but it appeared to be so by dint of being slightly less crowded. The tightly stacked boxes gave way here to a loose collection of bits and pieces-tools, jars of screws and bolts, bottles of murky plasma, paperback books, ferret toys- that piled up on each other, flowed in and out of open bins and jars, and crested up to break upon the makeshift shelves. At the opposite end from the radio console there was a cabinet containing a small portable stove with a kettle on it, crowded by mugs and utensils.
Lee took the radio back without comment and resumed his work as if nothing had happened. Saoirse watched him curiously, realizing that what he held wasn't one of their radios. “You got that already? I'm impressed.”

“I took it off their head honcho while he was busy rolling around on the floor. I suppose your lessons have paid off, ” Lee replied, spinning a dial and then thumping the console and hitting a button on the handheld at the same time. The radio made an odd, choking sound, and then began to emit a dour droning noise, like the buzz of a dying insect. Lee smiled, tightly and triumphantly.

“Done,” he said, setting the radio next to the console. “That's no talking to each other, no calling for back-up, no trying to whinge about us to the dock authorities. They might as well be trying to communicate with bricks while that jam is in place. Oh, and while I'm at it...” He held up a small block of what looked like blue wax, the exact same size and shape as a radio battery, covered in strange little lines and indentations and raised his eyebrows significantly.

Saoirse grinned. Lately she had been teaching Lee the art of pickpocketing; he was surprisingly good at it for someone so twitchy. “You can repay me by teaching me how you did that,” she said, nodding at the console.

“Well, it's mostly about being good at picking out signals-if you have a source to work from, and the right equipment, you can broadcast a jammer from within the channel itself...” He caught himself. “But now is probably not the time. How many do we have left?”
Saoirse told him what had happened. He swore profusely at the revelation that the hoisters had stasis grenades, but perked up when she mentioned her trick with the stunner. “Well, that's something worthwhile, at any rate,” he said. “But we don't know where the other two got to. Or three.”

“We don't know where Dhuane is, either,” Saorise added.

Lee pulled out his own radio and tapped the signal button. It sent a near-silent buzz through all the ship radios, just noticeable enough to alert the carrier without giving them away if they were being covert.

They both held their breath for a long moment, until Dhuane's low voice came back over the line. “Here.”

“We have two down, two on the loose, and one who might be either-besides the man on the door,” Lee said. “And they're packing better gear than we thought. One of them pitched a stasis grenade at 'Se.”

Dhuane made a vaguely unimpressed sound. “Two came down the stairs. They went back towards the engines. The door guard is still in place.”

Lee blew out through his nose, making a contemplative kind of noise. “Looks like your man went down then,” he said. “Unless they got stupid enough to split up.”

“If he went anywhere from the crew hallway without going back through the bay, he's got to be dead lost by now,” Saoirse said. “Either way, I think we can focus on the other two for now.”

Lee nodded. “Radios are out, so you can take out the door guard,” he told Dhuane. “Probably best to take care of him before he notices anything's wrong, if he hasn't already.”


Lee glanced at Saoirse. She nodded and pushed back the curtain to leave. “Three down, three to go,” she murmured hopefully. “Should be all downhill from here.”

But Lee shook his head. “Brag when you're riding home,” he said darkly.

Not a lot of people have heard the battle cries of the Vevander.

Many think they have, but they are only mistaking for them the incoherent screams of battle, born of rage and pain and bloodlust, which the Vevander are no less susceptible to than anyone else. Others are are closer to the truth of the matter, but have still only heard a small part of the true thing, the last line of a much longer song. The Vevander reputation for religious verbosity is not unearned, but they are not total fools. That they feel quite strongly that everything that needs to be said in a war-cry is rather longer than the usual one or two words does not cause them to try and fit it all in anyway during the actual war. They make their prayers well beforehand, and leave only the very last to be shouted as they charge in.

That part of the battle cry that most have heard could therefore be roughly translated as 'amen', though the Vevander will not favor you with kind looks if you employ that translation around them.

Well above the floor of the main bay, concealed amongst the mess of cables and pipes, Dhuane put a hand to the back of his head to check that the clip keeping his long hair pinned up was still firmly in place and sighed inwardly. He was not so honorable that he would not have much preferred to drop Loarc with a single well-placed bolt from a secure distance. But placing shots well was not as easy as it had once been, and this was hardly a convenient point to aim from in any case. That he would have considered such tactics too low to use at the time before he was too handicapped to easily pull them off was a bitter irony that never failed to occur to him. Now, he was pretty sure he could get the man on his first shot; he was nowhere near as sure about getting a second one, let alone making it.

Better to have insurance.

He eased himself carefully back towards the southern wall. There was a small platform there, accessible from the ceiling with a bit of a drop and from the walkway with a bit of a hop, but hard to see in the shadows if you didn't know it was there. Dhuane gripped the hood of his coat to hide the tell-tale flash of his bright hair, and dropped noiselessly down. He kept his gaze on the hoister as he opened the long pouch strapped to his leg and drew out the contents, grateful that he had done this enough times that he no longer needed to look at what he was doing.

The lightning-spear, as it is commonly and improperly translated, was designed with the intention of being constantly at its bearer's side, and accordingly could be folded and worn in a side sheath. Fully straightened, the hekasch stood at nearly his own height, solid ash reinforced with iron and silver, and topped with a wickedly sharp blade that boasted a single set of barbs at the base. Once the spear had been unfolded, each section carefully snapped and bolted into place, Dhuane gently pricked a finger on one of those barbs and smeared the blood in a curved line across the side of the blade. He stamped the hekasch against the floor once-firmly, but quietly-and the storm-catchers that ran along the sides began to glow. The faintest scent of ozone wafted through the air. Only then did he draw the pistol on his other side and aim ever so precisely.

The reason so few people hear even the last bit of the Vevander war-cry comes down a simple matter of priority. The prayer-promise of war is not a thing to be done lightly-for reasons of time if nothing else- and the Vevander don't sing it unless they feel it's really needed. Those who hear the end of it as they watch a battalion of mounted war-adepts bearing down on them can at least take comfort in knowing that the enemy felt them to be a worthy opponent.

Dhuane had last sung his war-prayers some weeks ago, but he hadn't felt the need to consecrate them yet and he wasn't about to start now.

Lee knew full well that he was much more of a liability than an asset in any kind of combat situation, but that did not dispel the customary sick twist of guilt in his stomach as he left the action for others and scurried off to the obsdeck, looking over his shoulder all the while. He had felt the same the last time he'd gone for hiding when the guns came out, and he would feel the same the next time-and there would be a next time, sure as sun, the lifestyle he seemed to have fallen into being what it was. No justification or reassurance would kill that feeling, anymore than it would slow his panicking heartbeat or ease the trembling that had seized him all over. He simply carried on, as ever.

He jumped the last few steps onto the obsdeck and scrambled up onto the scope tower. The ship's sensors were not nearly good enough to pick up individual life-signs or minimal-grade aura signatures-like, say, the kind emitted by the average handgun-so it was not a great deal of help in tracking what was going on within the ship itself, although he could pick out a faint reading from a relatively large local concentration which was almost certainly Dhuane using that ridiculous spear of his.

But it was very good at keeping track on the larger scale of what was happening outside. From here he would have advance warning if reinforcements arrived, or local law enforcement started taking an interest. He didn't expect to see anything much, but that was, of course, the point of keeping a sentry in the first place- if you really knew what to expect there wasn't much use for one. He had nothing better to contribute, at any rate, and at least from here he could get to most anywhere else on the ship pretty quickly if need be.

There was in fact one interesting reading there, though-something approaching the docks, a small ship but with a truly impressive aura signature. He frowned at it, leaning closer to the array and squinting as if that would make the bright swirls of color that spun in the air any clearer. It was approaching from some distance, which made it less likely to be coming after them. Any enemies they had were most likely to be local. Probably just another ship coming into dock. Still, it was very odd...there was something strange, off-key about that signature that made it stand out against the bright cluster of the other nearby ships. And what kind of ship could support such a deep well of magic at such a small size?

On a sudden, chilly hunch, he flipped open the control box for the array and adjusted the settings, tapping and sliding runes so that the readings for inorganic-based auras dwindled and all but disappeared. The other ships, the dock's own structural spells, the guards surrounding the nearby city, all faded into pale ghostly shapes. But that one odd spot, getting closer now, and closer, remained just as bright.

He set the readings for life-signs to maximum.


Lee tasted blood in his mouth. He'd been absently chewing on his lower lip before even entering the obsdeck, a particular nervous tic he'd never been able to shake, and now the ragged skin was bleeding freely. He barely noticed.

“Oh, gods,” he whispered, staring at that bright spot, which when looked at in a new light was not small but utterly, monstrously massive. “Oh, bloody hell.”

Part Three:
Spoiler: show
Mssr. Chzanta's private workshop was surprisingly cozy. The hard stone floor was covered in softly worn rugs, warm in the light of a dozen lamps strategically scattered across the room. One wall was taken up entirely with a huge work desk flanked by drawers and cabinets; opposite it was a kiln built into the wall next to a sink and counter-top. A small handcarved table sat in the corner, surrounded by mismatched chairs. Every available remaining section of wall was lined with shelves overflowing with tools and supplies, from the simple and predictable to the utterly arcane. The room lived in a kind of organized chaos; what seemed to be random stacks of clutter turned out, to the careful eye, to be grouped in patterns, and however oddly it may have been placed no tool was anything less than scrupulously well cared for. The savvy observer wouldn't have bet a single coin on Chzanta not being able to find anything he needed within moments.

“I must apologize,” he said as he led them down the stairs. “I truly did not expect guests until much later, but the good minister felt the need to pay a social call, and the Yewleyns followed on their heels, and, well...” He sighed heavily. “Some people simply cannot take hints.”

“Don't worry about it,” Kath said, shifting her grip on the crate in her arms. “We were late anyway. And it turned out well enough...I hope.”

“Oh, yes. The Cuiautls were quite impressed, you know. So was I. I certainly did not expect to see you walk in in my valet's second-best waistcoat.”

“Ah, yes, well, we did have to...improvise a little bit,” Kath admitted. “But we couldn't bear to think of insulting your guests.”

“Oh yes, quite, quite. One has to do what one has to do.”

Kath and Samuel set their crates down gently in the middle of the room, while Chzanta bustled about lighting lamps. “Your pardon for the mess, but I rarely entertain guests down here.”

The three of them looked around at the comfortable little room. “You think this is a mess?” Samuel said. “I hope you never have to board our ship.”

Chzanta smiled and sat down at the table. “I wouldn't presume to judge. So, shall we see what we have?”

Kath dropped her borrowed coat and waistcoat over the back of a chair before kneeling down before the crates. One by one she unlocked them and carefully lifted their contents onto the floor. They did, indeed, hold delicate clockworks, samples of work from a small artisan company in Kelath that Chzanta's had taken an interest in. The guildmaster lifted the trays onto the table and pored over them with a keen eye.

“Fantastic technique,” he murmured. “I must get in contact with the artist. They could do wonders with a good commission.” He glanced down at the now empty boxes. “And the other...?”

Kath pulled up the soft leather lining the bottom of the crate, unfolded it on the floor, and placed the crate on top of it. Then she reached inside and felt about for a catch concealed in the bottom corner, a tiny piece of metal painted to match the gray of the crate exactly.
The sides of the crate melted away. Solid metal abruptly turned semi-liquid and collapsed into a shining pool, leaving behind only a simple wooden frame. Kath lifted it up; the metal did not cling to it at all, just slid off like oil off glass and poured back into its pool. She picked it up and pushed it into a rough ball, which she presented to Chzanta.

He adjusted his glasses and leaned close with a look of awe. Ever so slowly he prodded it with one finger. It sunk at his touch and then, when he removed his hand, oozed right back into shape.

“Pure high-grade Ephrasian livesteel,” Kath said softly. “Undiluted.”

“Remarkable,” Chzanta breathed. “How did you do it?”

Kath shrugged. “Simple enough. Customs checked what was in the crates, not the crates themselves. The wood has a steel wire running through it as an anchor, so all it takes is a bit of form thaumaturgy and the livesteel follows about the same shape and locks into place. Until you remove the focus,” -she held up the bit of gray metal- “and the spell collapses and the two separate themselves with no fuss.”

Chzanta sat back in his chair, eyebrows raised. “You're remarkably open with your trade secrets.”

“If it's a trade secret it's an open one,” Kath said. “My own dad taught me this. It can survive me telling you. Besides,” she added, “you are a man of many great talents, Messr, but I don't see you smuggling livemetal across borders anytime soon.”

“No, I suppose not.” Seeing Kath awkwardly shift the metal between her hands, Chzanta hastened to the drawers on the other side of the room and produced a large ceramic urn. Kath poured the metal in and Chzanta screwed the top on.

“The ministry simply doesn't seem to understand that there are some things you just can't do with substandard materials,” he said while Kath went to work on the second box. “There's no livesteel of that quality to be found inside our borders and the guild suffers for it, but the embargo remains. As if it does anyone any good. It's as if they think that if they hold it long enough we'll all get over it and go back to original quality.” He shook his head sadly. “It's a sad time when an honest old man has to resort to smuggling to keep his craft.”

Kath smiled. The crafty spark in Chzanta's pure blue eyes hadn't gone anywhere. “Indeed. But I foresee you making it out alright.”

She poured the second crate into another urn and folded up the leather linings, leaving only the bare wooden frames standing innocently on the carpet. Chzanta and Kath had a quiet exchange of payment while Samuel and Skels divested themselves of their borrowed decoration. Skels scratched her head in relief at the removal of the scarf. “I'll never understand Abranyrth fashions,” she murmured.

Chzanta crossed the room, rubbing his hands, with Kath behind him pocketing the small velvet bag he had given her. “Well, now that business is over, we should have a little time left while the rest of your shipment is unloaded. Could I interest you in an after-dinner drink?”

Before any of them could reply, there was an urgent knock from the top of the stairs. Chzanta frowned and crossed over to the landing. “Yes? What is it?”

The door swung open. Maixa stood leaning against the frame, pale and out of breath. “I'm sorry, sir, I wouldn't interrupt, but your guests-I think they ought to know-and you, of course-”

She faltered, gulping for air. Kath stepped onto the landing and peered up at her. “Ought to know what?”

“There's a lot of...a lot of excitement and hurry up at the docks,” Maixa said. “Word is-well-word's not real clear, but it sounds like...they're under attack.”

The older hoister came around the corner first, his gun drawn and his pace wary. He did a fairly good job of checking the path before him. It was a very small error, and entirely forgivable, to not notice that the door of one of the many access tunnels dotting the staircase didn't fit entirely perfectly in its frame.

Saoirse waited, ever so patient, watching through the tiny sliver of space left for her by the ajar door. It was a tight space even for her, normally traversed in an awkward shuffling crouch, and in which she now lay flat, feeling the cold press of the metal in her stomach. The circumstances didn't give her a lot of room for error in her aiming. It would need to be a very precise couple of shots. She had to smile.

A furtive hand gesture brought the younger hoister into the corridor, following his older colleague with an almost exaggerated nervousness. He really was young, Saoirse thought with some surprise. He was probably older than he looked-he would almost have to be-but his wide eyes and the out-of-depth dread on his pasty face dragged his presence and bearing below whatever amount of years he actually had. Saoirse found herself wondering about him: how he'd ended up in a field he was so obviously, painfully unfamiliar with, and why the apparently otherwise experienced hoisters kept him around. But then, she would be the first to vouch for the ability of some people to be a lot more dangerous than they looked.

She considered for a moment, then changed her aim. By all rights the older hoister should have been the bigger threat, but the kid looked like the unpredictable type, and unpredictable was worse than experienced any day. It would be trickier to get him first, given the way he slunk along in his companion's cover like a heeled dog, but if she didn't he might bolt, or shoot a hole in the ceiling, or do any number of other stupid things.

So she waited, feeling the tick of each second as the two men approached, watching the feet shuffling slowly up step by step, the hands moving on the grips of their guns, the uncertain weaving of their heads ever so slight as they scanned every inch of the stairwell and-there. The kid had edged forward to murmur something into his partner's ear. Her fingers glided the gun barrel a fraction of an inch to the right and tightened.

She had the shot. She had the shot.

But in that breath of space between the bolt blossoming into the air and striking its target, the world shifted on its side.

What had been open space occupied by a frightened young hoister was suddenly more like a wall, and the smooth tunnel around her was a slide that would have sent her tumbling for a nasty landing on the steps if she hadn't managed to grip the doorframe and brace her feet against the wall in time. The shot grazed the older hoister's shoulder, dazing him into losing his balance and going toppling past his fellow into the briefly inverted wall. The kid let out a yelp and stumbled backward, flailing at the wall for support and almost tripping over his own feet.

One foot braced against the side of the crawlspace, Saoirse steadied her hands and fought to get her aim again. There was still a chance to salvage this and find out what the hell had happened later. But before she could make her shot the ship tilted again, swinging out into the other direction before righting itself. From somewhere far above came a ghostly screech of metal on metal.

As soon as the floor beneath his feet was more or less level, the younger man did indeed bolt-though under the circumstances she could hardly blame him. His coat tails were vanishing around the corner well before Saoirse had the chance to do anything about it, leaving the other struggling to rise from his corner. She opted to expend the shot on him instead.

While the hoister gently crumpled to the floor from a proper full-force stun Saoirse grabbed for her radio and jammed the call button so hard it left it an imprint on her thumb. “What the fuck was that?”

There was a long, empty moment when the only thing to come over the radio was the pop and hiss of dead air. Then at long last: a clacking noise and Lee's voice, thin and hoarse: “There's something out there.”

Saoirse, fumbling out of the tunnel, thought she heard a noise from Dhuane at that, but she couldn't have said what exactly it was, or if it wasn't just a phantom of static. She took the ladder in two quick hops and hastened over to secure the unconscious hoister as she talked. “What do you mean? Another ship is doing that?”

The next noise was barely on the edge of hearing, but it rode down its high frequency through the skin of the ship and touched her as sensation rather than sound, like a tingle of electricity felt in the bones. It was like metal creaking under strain-or no, not just squealing but protesting. For a moment it seemed to Saoirse as if the entire ship were crying out in pain, every nut and bolt of her. She suddenly felt dizzy, and grabbed at the wall for support, only to jump away as soon as her fingers brushed the edge. For the scantest second, the metal had been deathly cold.

“Not a ship.” Lee sounded as bad as she felt. His voice had gone high and tight, as if he were fighting to keep it from breaking. “I think it's-hell!”

The ship swayed again, worse this time, not clearly in one direction but in a kind of full-body shiver. Struggling to keep her balance without touching the wall, Saoirse dropped to the floor and grabbed the nearest step. The sharp metal edge seemed colder than usual, but not frostbite-cold like the wall--perhaps it was just her imagination.

Then the third sound.

This was no half-heard whisper, no tingle in the eardrums. A high, bugling wail crashed down upon them without warning in a white wall of sound, sweeping away all other noise in its wake. Saoirse clutched her hands about her head and huddled against the stairs, feeling sick and sore with ague. The cry went on and on forever, angry and hungry and very much alive.

And then it broke, leaving her gasping in shock, the sudden silence consumed by the ringing in her ears. Through the haze she heard Dhuane blaspheming over the radio. “Vracthas hretha ikata!”

She grappled with her own radio and found with some surprise that it was in fact still tightly clutched in one numb hand. Gingerly she uncurled her locked fingers and called over it, “Lee? Lee, are you okay?”

A low moan of despair came back. Saoirse held her breath until Lee's voice finally drifted back, sounding intact in body if not in spirit. “We're fucked. We are so, so fucked.”

Dhuane said something in response, but his already strong accent tended to thicken under stress and all Saoirse could make out was something along the lines of “...must act quickly...”

Lee did not have the same linguistic difficulties. “Are you completely insane?!” he screamed, making the poor radio shriek in sympathy. “What do you expect us to do about that?”

“What is necessary.” For all the straightfowardness of his words Dhuane sounded as if he were struggling to keep calm himself.

Saoirse had known Lee long enough to know that his frantic spluttering was foreboding an imminent panic attack. She coughed loudly, shutting the two men up at least temporarily. “Um. Would someone take pity on a poor midworld city girl and explain exactly what the hell is up there?”

“Ilhlaihaaoylwhe,” Dhuane said, with the reverent horror of a small child putting a name to the boogeyman.

Lee gave it in more familiar words. “It's a frostwyrm.”

“This is suicide!”

Absorbed in the task of strapping himself into the crew's only wingset, Dhuane barely registered Lee's complaints. The wings had seen better days, though probably not much better. They had the look of a thing that had been made old and gone downhill from there. The controls were crude and stiff, the battery barely held a charge at all, and a great deal of the wires and straps were held together with tape and string. It was a rather more ignominious start than Dhuane had imagined this scenario having as a youth. Somehow his boyhood daydreams of drake-slaying had always involved more shining armor and distressed damsels and fewer cantankerous engineers swearing in his ear.

“Have you a better option?” he asked vaguely, rolling his shoulders to settle the harness onto his back.

“Anything would be a better option!”

“Oh good.” Now the gloves. The wrist straps never did want to go tight enough. “Perhaps you could list them off.”

“Well, we could just, y'know, let the actual city guard deal with it.” Even through the sarcasm it was clear that Lee knew too well how unlikely that one was.

“If they were going to, I think they would have,” Dhuane said. “In any case I do not think we can afford to wait much longer for them. It is only a matter of time before the drake does serious damage to the ship.”

“Couldn't we just try to chase it off?” Saoirse asked hopefully.

“Where? Towards the city?”

There was rather a long pause.

“Uh, how about the direction it came from?” Lee put in. “Which should not include the city, unless they have a very expensive menagerie...”

“If it has come here at all there must be something it wants very much. It is not going to go back into the dark unsated, not when there is so much else here to tempt it. Besides,” Dhuane added dryly, “I very much doubt the chances of me scaring it.” He jabbed at the power switch. The damn thing took such a long time to start.

“That's still more likely than your actual plan. What the hell do you think you're going to do against a thing like that?”

“It is a mortal beast, no god or demon. Formidable certainly, but they can be vanquished. My people have done so many times-”

“Yeah, your people. What about you? You ever take down a frostwyrm?”

Dhuane sighed. “No. But-”

“Exactly. You'll get yourself so killed your last three ancestors' graves will fall over! We won't have to burn you, we'll just mop up the blood and leave the bits to melt...”

The deep chill of the power cell pressed into Dhuane's ribs. This damned old suit leaked so much cold that wearing it too long could make your lips blue. Nothing at all like the ones back home, which he'd used more times than he could count to soar over green fields and white stone, alone with only the wind to whisper to...

“If need be I will make it an order,” he said, interrupting Lee's continuing stream of colorful and unlikely predictions.

His words startled the engineer into a blessed if brief silence. “O-order me? Did you bang your head and forget you don't go by a title anymore? You can't order me! There's no ordering here! This is not a rank-based infrastructure!” After a contemplative pause he added, “And if it was I would probably outrank you!”

The ship shuddered again. Dhuane ground his teeth. Sometimes these people didn't seem to understand anything. Anyone should know what he meant. “That is not what I am trying to say,” he said sharply. “I only meant that I...that I...that you are right. I may very well be...finished, in this battle. And I would not wish to offload that burden onto anyone. You should not carry guilt for a death you never agreed to. So I would give an order, and take it out of your hands, and take this responsibility only upon myself, rather than leave it with the living.” He let out a long breath as the last of the horribly clumsy words shuddered to a halt. “...Admittedly it does not work quite so well in this context.”

He expected Lee to respond with as much manic invective as ever, but the only noise on the radio was the ringing hum of the shield generators being adjusted.

“Fuck that,” Lee said quietly. “Alright. What's your plan?”

The abrupt swing in the discussion left Dhuane completely unable to produce a response for a moment. “Erm,” he said. “...I need to get close. Anything I could shoot at it, it would only eat. A physical blow is the only chance.”

Lee made a disparaging “nnhhrrr” kind of noise.

“We don't have anything that would work?” Saoirse broke in. “There are still those old Sledge rifles in the workshop-”

Both Lee and Dhuane interrupted with vehement variations on “No”. “The ilhlai- the wyrms are much too strong in magic,” Dhuane went on. “To do anything more than anger one would require...more firepower than I could carry, I think. And the ship's guns-”

“-are not really designed to fire at the ship,” Lee finished. “No...unless...”

Dhuane gave him a moment. “Well?”

“Shut up, I'm thinking,” Lee said distractedly. “...'Se, get in harness and meet me in the prow gunnery, yeah? I'll tell you what to do when you get there.”

“On it,” Saoirse replied at once. The background air over the radio quieted a little as she cut out.

“Alright Scout, listen up,” Lee told Dhuane while the latter was still processing the change in tone. “I think I can get you that firepower, but I'm going to need time to rig it up, and I'm not going to be able to stand on the shields while I do that. So-”

Dhuane blinked. He'd been wondering why the beast was being so slow in its destruction. “Is that what you've been doing?”

Lee snorted impatiently. “I'm not completely useless. Of course that's what I've been doing. But I can't keep it up and pull this hat trick off at the same time, and without such an expert hand to phase them at the right times that thing'll punch through 'em like paper. So your new job is to go up there and distract it from clawing our roof off until 'Se and I are ready. Think you can?”

“Well, it is certainly an easier prospect than my previous one.”

“Good man. I'll give you two minutes or until I hear screaming to get up there and then I'll be off.”

“Good. I will go.” Cold at his back, spear in his hand, anxious to be doing something, anything, at long last, Dhuane pushed open the flight-access door that made up most of the far wall of the tiny lock-chamber. The lights of Joorshead bled into his eyes, somehow very far away. He started to say something and found that it did not feel quite right. What was it the old Jalah Heights-men said to one another before dangerous jobs? “Do not fall too far, friends.”

Lee surprised him yet again by replying in Veveln. “Moch vehele'a, old man.”

Feeling suddenly at ease, Dhuane clipped the radio into its pocket and stepped out onto the tiny half-circle of metal that made for a takeoff pad. The painfully cold air hit him like a lash, burning down the inside of his throat when he gasped. He stamped his left foot twice and, with much protestation, the creaky old wings lifted him into a hover. A push of his hands shot him upward through the thin night sky, above the ship, above the frostwyrm.

He had not seen one in a very long time. It seemed smaller than his recollections-and yet, seen for the first time in the setting of his adulthood, against the intimately familiar scale of the ship under its grasping coils, it was also, somehow, much greater. It was agitated, pawing restlessly at the ship, its massive horned head swinging from side to side in confusion at the new and overwhelming stimuli all around it-but it looked up as Dhuane descended, dripping chill vapor from the wings, electricity arcing across the prongs of the hekasch, and eight mad, whirling eyes focused directly upon him.

“Vaas ich'i unsh saativocha,” Dhuane cried into the wind.

The last line of the Vevander war cry is best translated as “I accept this pain”, and it is not discriminating as to whose.

Two: Vagabonds and Thieves

Part One:

Spoiler: show
Guildsmark Way had fallen into an ominous silence. Far down the twisting ways of Joorshead a roiling of lights could be seen bearing down on the docks like a swarm of bees. Word was spreading fast. Not coherently or accurately, but fast.

“What is going on down there?” Skels wondered, sounding somewhat impressed. Samuel, looking out from the very edge of the hanger, shrugged and shook his head.

“We'll find out,” Kath said, striding briskly over to their waiting vehicles. “Maixa, what's the fastest way to get to the docks from here? Safety not required.”

Maixa scrambled up the hanger stairs, struggling to keep up with Kath's haste. “Nothing, if you're riding. The whole city's a mess. Between Festival, and now this...apparently they're shutting off a lot of the perimeter areas, and around the docks. Traffic's unspeakable. You won't get anywhere fast on a bike.”

Kath drummed her fingers on the handlebar of the bike, not looking convinced. “So what are you suggesting?”

“I can take you on foot,” Maixa offered. “I know a lot of shortcuts...if you don't mind a little running and jumping here and there.”

“Not hardly, but that's not going to work,” Kath said, shaking her head.

“Look, I know it sounds slow, but please, trust me, it'll be a lot faster on foot if you know the way. You try to ride and you'll either wind up stuck somewhere or the guards'll block you off-”

“I believe you,” Kath interrupted. “But it's not about speed. If we go on foot we won't have any way to get to our ship if we need to. And I think we may very well need to.” She glanced back in the direction of the docks, though there was no view of them from inside the hanger.

A deep voice boomed out from the stairwell and echoed around the hanger. “I think I might be of some assistance there.”

Guildmaster Izai stepped into the hanger. He cut quite the striking figure with his mane of elaborately dressed hair and his dress coat tossing behind him. Chzanta, following close behind him, seemed barely noticeable in comparison.

“What guild did you say he was in?” Skels muttered to Kath. “Guild of Amateur Theatrics, was it?”

Izai stepped onto the platform and beamed down at Kath. “I hear something quite exciting is going on docks, and that you have a need to get there as quickly as possible.”

“Exciting is perhaps not the word I would use,” Kath said dryly. “But yes. I need to see to my ship at once. They're probably right in the middle of things, if past experience is any judge,” she added in an undertone.

“Well, I am always glad to be of aid to a lady and a captain,” Izai said. “I happen to have certain...privileges, when it comes to transport. Now, though I would love nothing less than to employ my full powers to get you to your destination in the merest blink, that would unfortunately raise some attention-which I do not mind,” -Samuel barely suppressed a snort- “but I imagine someone of your position might mind very much, yes?”


But as it happens I myself have quite the professional calling to be at the docks rather urgently, and as I would not wish to destabilize the besieged infrastructure of this fine city with the more rapid methods of travel available to me, I shall need to fly—and no one will get in my way.” He smiled radiantly and a little dangerously. “And if old Vico should offer a ride to a party guest or two that he took a shine to, well, no one would see anything particularly odd about that.”

Kath tilted her head to one side. “And once we get there?”

“And once we get there, if there is a situation which needs attending to, I shall attend to it-and it would be only proper to take along any individuals who were involved in the events-say, if their ship was in danger.” He held out a hand. “So, could I give the good lady a lift?”

“As a captain,” Kath said, shaking his hand. “As a lady, I'm afraid I'm already spoken for.”

“I should bloody well hope so,” Izai said.

The acoustics of the gunnery were unpleasantly good. Saoirse could hear the wyrm's scrapes and scuttling about much better than she would have liked as she waited helplessly for Lee. She couldn't have been in there much more than a minute, but it felt like an eon of pacing and tugging at the harness straps before Lee clattered down the stairs. He was carrying a massive coil of cable, his heavy-duty toolbox, and two glowing fuel cylinders that Saoirse was fairly sure belonged to the bikes. Or somebody's bikes, at any rate. The combined weight pulled the engineer's scrawny frame down the stairs and sent him catapulting into the gunnery, where he very nearly careened into the wall before Saoirse steadied him.

Lee flung down the mass of cable with a gasp, swayed slightly, and jumped forward towards one of the two bright-guns mounted on either side of the triangular room. The solid, squat cannons were small for ship's guns, especially when idle and contracted as they were now, but they outweighed anything in the armory by a couple orders of magnitude, not to speak of how much they outweighed the engineer. An overly long cable connected each one to a power core in the center of the room, its swirling plasma sullen with the glow of banked fires. Lee dropped the cylinders next to his target, kicked open the toolbox, and took a wrench to the bolts that held the cannon to the floor.

Saoirse watched open-mouthed. “Um. What are we doing?”

“Pitching this cannon out of the ship,” Lee replied. He pulled off the first bolt and tossed it aside. The second one shortly followed. Saoirse glanced warily towards the looming power core. “Uh-”

“Disconnect that for me, would you. These guns aren't built into the ship.” The third bolt. Saoirse obediently pulled the gun's power cable from the core and stooped to pick up the fallen bolts. “They're not even meant to be ship guns at all. For stationary defense mostly. Heavy-duty work. Not real portable.” The fourth bolt. Lee rolled onto his back and began to pry open a panel on the underside of the gun that guarded a thick strand of wires, running out of the cannon into a port on the floor. “Had to do a lot of jury-rigging to get the things in here. Which I am now going to undo.”

He reached into the guts of the cannon and yanked. A fistful of wires came free, less than gently. Saoirse winced, but whatever frustration the engineer might have been feeling he didn't show. He rolled himself upright and began to work on the two much larger lines that plugged the cannon into the walls. “Go get the power line from the other one, bring it over here.”

By the time she had dragged the bulk of the huge cable over, Lee had pulled all of the connector lines. The cannon sat free, bound to its position only by its own weight and want of a push.

“Okay,” he said. “Now comes the fun part.”

A thin scream echoed through the chamber from above. Whether it was anger or fear or pain they could not tell. It was too alien a sound. The two of them shared a bleak look over the back of the cannon. Lee closed his eyes for a moment, then shook himself and reached for the cables he had brought in. Saoirse still had no idea what he was about, but she hauled the coils off the floor and began to connect them where he pointed.

They worked feverishly for the next few minutes, giving the cannon a new mooring. One cable attached it to the inside wall, but the others Lee heaved towards the firing-port. He nodded towards the gunnery access door, a small concealed hatch at the front point of the room, mostly an artifact from when the ship's original built-in guns might have needed outside maintenance. Saoirse clambered outside, attached her harness to the rings placed for that very same maintenance, and took the ends of the cables one by one as Lee handed them to her through the firing-port. He had to shout to tell her where to attach them, over the cutting wind and the screams ringing out above them. Saoirse caught herself glancing upward at every opportunity, fearing to see a pale form cut down and plummeting past, but none appeared, and the sounds of a tormented frostwyrm continued often enough to confirm that Dhuane was holding up his end of the bargain. She gritted her teeth and clipped on the last cable, fingers stiff and clumsy in the unnatural cold.

“All done,” she yelled. Lee poked his head through the port to check her work, nodded, and ducked back inside. Saoirse swung herself over so she could lean in through the port. With the gun in the way she could only get her head in, but at least she didn't have to shout so loud. “What exactly are we doing?”

“Told you,” Lee said. He was attaching the cable from the second gun to the end of the other one, effectively making one extremely long cable. “This thing can't hit the wyrm from where it is inside the ship, so we're moving it outside the ship. Unfortunately, since there's no way the connective wiring's going to run that far, you're going to have to get out there and shoot it manually.” He said it flippantly enough, but she could tell he was anguishing over having to drop the task on her.

At the moment she had other concerns, however. “Uh, Lee,” she said, watching him connect the cable back into the power core. “I...really don't think I can lift this thing.”

“I know you can't,” he said. “Samuel couldn't get these off the ground. We had a hell of a time getting them in here. Fun day. No, that's what these are for.”

He picked up one of the fuel cylinders and she realized that, while most of its wires had been hastily pulled, one was still connected to a smooth metal ball the size of an apple. That was definitely the gyroball from a bike, though it was larger and a good deal more polished than any of theirs. “Where did that come from?”

“Our visiting friends made a donation to the cause,” Lee said. “Fitting, since I wouldn't be at all surprised if the wyrm followed them here in the first place. Those are damn powerful bikes.” He rummaged in the toolbox for the ever-loyal roll of tape and began strapping the cylinder onto the side of the cannon. It took Saoirse a moment to process what he was doing.

“We're going to float the thing out?” she exclaimed.

“That's the plan.” He started on the other cylinder, sparing no expense with the tape. It was hardly pretty but Saoirse thought even the frostwyrm would have trouble taking the cylinders off through all those layers. “Mind, I don't expect it to do anything but float. It's not exactly going to be balanced, or steerable. And as for how long it will last-” He caught her eye apologetically. “Well, try to be quick.”

“Really,” she said. “And here I figured I had all the time in the world.”

He didn't smile. “I'll go up and steer her about, give you the best angle that I can. Don't know how much I can do.” He finished taping and leaned over to activate the gyroballs. On sudden inspiration Saoirse grabbed the abandoned tape and used it to secure her radio to one wrist, then taped down the call button.

The spell-script on the gyroballs began to glow. They both held their breath, hardly daring to hope...and slowly the cannon began to lift off the floor in a faintly glowing nimbus of gold. Lee let out his breath in a ragged whistle. “Alright. Let's get her out.”

Together they eased the cannon out of the firing-port. Saoirse was sure it would drop the instant it cleared the ship, but it kept on floating, miraculous and somehow beautiful. She detached her harness from the ship and clipped it onto the cannon's cables-hardly where the clips were meant to go but she made it work-and kicked off, dragging the cannon out into the open air. The cables reached out to hold them, while the power cord dangled out of the ship like a wound spilling entrails.

“I'll wake it up for you from here,” Lee shouted. His thin voice barely made it through the wind. “She'll take time to start at this distance. Wait for the lights to come on all the way.”

He turned and was gone. Somewhere out of her line of sight she imagined she heard him reactivate the power core, then his footsteps receding up the stairs. She waited as a slow hum worked its way down the lengthened line, concentrating on breathing evenly and not letting fear overwhelm her. Unlike all the rest of the crew-well, no one ever really knew with Anderson-she'd been city-bound all her life until entering Kath's employment. The close, narrow confines of the Splintered City hadn't offered quite the same opportunities for getting used to heights as the others had had. She'd thought she'd done enough dock-work and clambering across the rooftop roads to get the hang of it, and normally she was fine. But this--she tried not to look down, but everywhere was down. All around her stretched black emptiness unbroken by ground or street. Fall here, and you might have a quick crunching death on the roof of another ship, if you were lucky. Otherwise it was the long dark...

And then, the lights came on.

First the small red power light at the base of the cannon shaft, and then, moments later, the big ready lights on the sides began to shine a bright, eager orange. She inched back until she lay flat on the end of the gun, legs dangling and arms reaching underneath to the controls. It was not a comfortable situation. She looked up-and from here she could see Dhuane, arcing and twisting about in the air on mechanical wings, dodging the great snapping teeth and lashing tail as if he'd done this all his life. It wasn't going to last much longer, though. The wyrm was getting bored: it went for Dhuane only if he got too close, and was turning its attention back to the ship, claws scratching about on the roof and only lazily swiping at the Vevander. There was no more time to be scared.

Saoirse raised her radio arm as the flying figure backed off the roof to hover in the air far above her, and screamed, “DHUANE! LOOK DOWN!”

He did. He was much too far away for her to see any expression on his face, but the surprised jerk of his shoulders told it all. She grinned despite everything. “It's ready to fire! Try to get it over the edge!”

She could imagine Dhuane taking a deep breath, and then he swooped back in, spinning the hekasch and screaming so loud even she could hear it, though she couldn't make out the words. There might not have been any. He plunged so close to the wyrm that she drew back and shuddered in instinctive sympathy. Lightning arced all around, illuminating the scene in sharply dramatic stills. The wyrm finally gave out a growl of frustration and struck forward, head snapping out like a gargantuan snake. Dhuane shot clear of the massive jaws and soared up and up, far out of its reach. And there was the shot.

Fingers frozen around the twin trigger-handles, no time to pray, only to hope, she fired.

The night shattered. Saoirse closed her eyes only just in time to avoid being blinded by the lance of light that shot forth like a second sun, and even behind closed eyelids it burned. There was a long second of desperate, pleading blindness, when all she could do was hang on as tight as she could and think, “Don't hit the ship, don't hit Dhuane,” and then there was the noise.

She opened her eyes, squinting against the lights that danced across her vision, and saw the wyrm writhing and bellowing, its side gored by cannon-fire, two or three of its short side-legs blackened and shriveled into nothing. Elation at having scored a hit-and at not hitting anything else-very quickly gave way to utter panic. The wyrm might well die from the blow in time, but right now it was still alive and raging, and it knew too well who to blame for its pain.

The great scaled coils unwound as the frostwyrm slithered down the side of the ship, faster than that bulk should have allowed, hissing and spluttering like a boiling river. Saoirse pulled again on the triggers, to no avail-the ready-lights were dead, the cannon recharging. All she could do was watch, banging on the side of the cannon and cursing those dead lights for every second they remained dark, as the wyrm came closer and closer.

And stopped. It was close enough now that she could really see it, four pairs of eyes all focused on her, long whiskers trembling, thick bluish blood oozing from the charred hole in its side. It edged forward, made a tentative thrust into the air, and fell back with a strange high noise.

It couldn't fly, she realized. The shot must have hit its flight organs—or maybe the pain was simply too much for it. It was quivering all over. Saoirse felt her gorge rise and her eyes sting at the same time. It felt a little strange to feel sorry for much of anything at the moment, let alone a giant worm-monster that was trying to kill her, but there it was. You couldn't look at that wound and not feel something-sympathetic nausea, at the very least. It really was a magnificent creature, in its own strange way, now blasted and dying because of her.

Well, regret was something she could feel on her own time. At this moment, as the wyrm lunged and fell back once again, and the ready-lights at long long last flared back on, blame and remorse and sympathy and fear were unaffordable luxuries. What she did have was the total certainty that it would be a much greater sin not to finish the job.

She looked straight at the wyrm, at those pale blue eyes writhing in confusion and pain, and fired.

Hard to miss at that distance. Impossible not to hear all too well the sizzling and the scream, and to smell the reek of ozone and plasma and hideously burnt flesh. She opened her eyes when the light had died away and immediately closed them again, fighting back the rising bile. The wyrm certainly would not live out the night, but neither was it dead yet. Unfortunately for it.

She pulled her scarf up over her nose and forced herself to look back. Somewhere, far back in some corner of her mind too distant to bother with the more pressing concerns of the moment, she thought, That's gonna be a bitch to clean.

The wyrm moved forward again, trickling blood and worse and making little whistling gasps and pants of pain. Saoirse wished desperately that it would just give up already, but clearly it had other plans. The head turned towards her and she swore she could see deep, vengeful intent in those eyes. It knew it was dying and damned if it wasn't going to take her out with it. Slowly, deliberately, with a kind of great, glacial patience, it reached out and seized the cannon cables in its dripping jaws.

Saoirse felt her stomach drop as if she had already fallen. There was nothing at all she could think of to do but pummel the barrel in front of her and pray for it to be ready again, but this tactic worked no better the second time. The wyrm gnawed on the cables like a dog chewing itself free of its rope. Ice began to form under its methodically working teeth and spread outward in creaks and pops. Saoirse had enough time to see the power cable drop away in shreds and know no help was coming, just before the wyrm gave one final, determined bite, and the whole bundle shattered in its grip.

There was a terrible pause while the gyroballs struggled to keep bearing the weight before deciding this was not what they had signed up for, and fizzled out.

Saoirse closed her eyes.

She did not fall straight down. Instead she felt herself swing out in a great arc, as though she were riding the edge of the world's largest clock pendulum. Curiosity somehow overcame blinding terror enough for her to open one eye. She almost laughed. The wyrm had missed one cable, the one that was connected to the inside of the ship and so had not run so near to the others. Now cannon and girl were hanging from that one lifeline as it dropped and sent its passengers soaring underneath the ship. A pity that had not been one of the cables her harness had been attached to.

She wondered idly if the cable would hold, and if so, if she could hold. One of the outcomes might be favorable but she didn't think she could bet on both. She was only hanging on by the grip of her aching knees and numb fingers, neither of which were likely to make it much longer. And the, it wouldn't be the cable that broke, she thought, it would be the clasp that was holding it to the ship: she could see it in her mind's eye, the clasp ripping free like a pulled weed and the cable coiling out of the port...

It all went through her mind in a couple of seconds. Funny how that worked. She closed her eye again-there was nothing to see but the sickeningly moving sky all around her, she couldn't even tell which way was up-and waited.

She felt herself abruptly yanked backward and suddenly she was moving the other way. Odd, she thought. Maybe it's swung all the way and now it's going back?

But she wasn't swinging anymore, she was going straight up, and up...

Well, dammit, guess I have to open my eyes again.

It was Dhuane, hands tight on her harness-straps, struggling upward, hekasch held awkwardly under one arm. The ancient wings did not much want to lift both their weight, but they hadn't given up just yet. She hung there limply, feeling sick and cold and too confused to be properly relieved as they rose up above the top of the ship and stopped short.

The wyrm was lying there, riming the metal with streams of frosted-over ooze, apparently having crawled back up to have a horizontal surface to die on. Saoirse jerked in surprise. They were much closer than she would have liked, and she could see the fierce dying light in the wyrm's eyes, behind clouds of pain. She understood now, truly and utterly, Lee's flat, dead fear and Dhuane's unshakable insistence that nothing less than the ship's guns would have a hope of working. Despite its horrific injuries, despite the blood and ichor covering the ship, despite the white gleam of bones and pulsing of organs revealed to open air, despite two direct hits from a cannon designed to take out whole ships, the frostwyrm still clung to life, and to anger. It pulled itself towards them, tail weakly smacking against the metal below it, and lunged forward with the desperate ire of the dying.

Dhuane dropped her out of the wyrm's reach and flung himself aside just in time. She hit the ship hard and lay there for a moment, all the air knocked out of her and too dazed to move. The movement of the wyrm's coils at the edge of her vision woke her up. She rolled over just in time to see a huge front limb lash out and hit Dhuane full in the chest. The electric blue outline of the wings flickered and died, and Dhuane crumpled and fell with a crack.

Saoirse was up and on her feet without pause for thought, barely noticing the dizziness that came with. The wyrm was nosing towards the fallen Vevander, unpleasant fluids dribbling from its grinding teeth. Dhuane groaned and stirred, but did not get up. Needing to do something, anything, Saoirse drew her pistol-amazing it was still there, after all this-and fired wildly, screaming threats and obscenities fueled white-hot by a long evening of terrible inconvenience.

The shots hit the wyrm's great hide and seemed to just sink in, like raindrops falling into a pool. But the noise, at least, seemed to attract the beast's attention, and it turned briefly to give Saoirse a considering look. Behind it Dhuane raised his head, looking ill and paler than ever, but conscious. Just a little more time, Saoirse thought, if we can just get off the damn roof, and leave this thing to die already...

The wyrm didn't seem to find her interesting enough to abandon its more ready prey. Its eyes rolled and it began to turn its head back to Dhuane. In sheer desperation she drew her knife from its wrist sheath and threw it straight at the open wound that split down the wyrm's neck and belly. The knife was a toothpick to a thing like that, a toy that would have bounced off the thick hide like a pebble against a castle wall...but it hit where the hide had been boiled away into nothing, and stuck deep in the exposed gore. The wyrm screamed and spat in pain, head waving back and forth as it tried to decide what to focus on, and for the briefest moment it looked as though it might simply give up and fall down. But then it turned back to Dhuane, choosing the target closer at hand.

But Dhuane had gotten up.

He stood there leaning on the hekasch, sodden with blood from the furrows of the wyrm's claws, his eye narrowed in pain. The power core for the wings was cracked and sparking; disorienting flashes of light flickered erratically around him in air heavy with the reek of ozone. One arm dangled loose at quite the wrong angle. But he was standing.

Saoirse realized too late that the plan had something of a weak point: getting away and leaving the wyrm to its demise wasn't going to work so well if there was no escape route to exit by. Dhuane had nowhere to go. The wyrm's great mass lay across the whole width of the ship like a slimy wall, and its encroaching tail and slowly advancing head were blocking Dhuane into a corner. He could hardly use the wings anymore, and with that arm climbing down the side didn't look real likely either.

She opened her mouth to shout some half-formed idea about helping him down, or maybe just to swear, she hadn't decided yet, and stopped. Against all reason, Dhuane was smiling. She saw him mouth something that was lost to the wind, and then he hefted the hekasch and went the only way open to him: forward.

The wyrm seemed just as surprised as Saoirse. It reared back, hissing but not attacking as Dhuane charged it. At the last moment its head swung down, one great snap of its jaws sweeping toward its attacker. The great vulnerability of its chest wound was suddenly concealed behind rows of vicious teeth and flashes of impenetrable hide, nowhere presenting any kind of target. But if Dhuane was thrown off by this, it was impossible to see. With one smooth movement he planted the hekasch behind him and vaulted up onto the wyrm's head.

How he didn't immediately get thrown off again Saoirse would never know. The wyrm thrashed and swung about, trying to shake this sudden mysterious burden, but Dhuane, crouching among the nest of horns and waving antennae, kept his balance. He raised the hekasch, still sparking and crackling, up high and shouted something that might have been a curse or a prayer or just hoarse wordless noise. The wyrm paused, its eyes rolling up towards the glowing spear, attention instinctively focused on the sudden surge of magical power above it. Everything seemed to slow.

Dhuane plunged the hekasch down straight into the wyrm's largest right eye. The wyrm screamed, ichor and blood spewed, and Dhuane kept going, sinking the spear farther and farther until the blade had disappeared completely, and even the first set of barbs, then the second, then the third were buried. The wyrm made a noise unlike anything living, a sound like a great killing storm bearing down upon them, a sound with ice and lightning in it. Blood crackled into sharp points all over the shiptop; Saoirse felt sure her fingers would blacken and fall off any moment, while Dhuane's tattered shirt froze in painful spikes to his chest. The moment stretched on and on forever, winter and the end of days collapsed into the space of a scream.

And then the wyrm toppled to the side, falling with the slow ponderous weight of a great old tree, totally, unmistakably, finally dead. Dhuane sagged, pain and exhaustion crashing down on him all at once, while Saoirse let out a long, slow breath that fogged into the air before her. Then they heard the noise and three eyes met in confusion that dawned into realization not quite quickly enough.

The wyrm in its death throes had tossed itself to the very edge of the shiptop, and now, with claws no longer gripping and no muscles engaged against the ice coating everything, it was slipping slowly off and tilting the ship with it. The further it slipped the further its own weight pulled it, and in the space of a startled breath it suddenly went from a slow slide to a full-speed fall that carried off the huge coils like a cut rope unraveling. Dhuane scrabbled down off the wyrm's head and tried to jump clear, but his recent trials had caught up with him. Robbed of strength or grace, he dropped clumsily and slid on the ice, and went backward.

Saoirse dashed over to him, struggling to go quickly without slipping herself. Dhuane clawed at ice desperately, but he had only one arm to work with and the slick surface offered no purchase. The tilt of the ship was carrying him inexorably downward.

“Lee!” Saoirse yelled, abruptly remembering the radio she had taped on an eon ago. “Lee, right the ship, right the ship!

There was absolutely no response, not even the static of an open line. Saoirse swore and dived forward, grabbing a mooring ring with one hand and throwing out the other to catch Dhuane. She reached an impossible distance as he fell all the way down the side, reached out farther than she would have ever thought she could, and somehow, miracle of miracles, grabbed a limply outstretched hand and held it, stopping the fall short and leaving Dhuane hanging off the shiptop from one arm. Unfortunately it was the broken one.

There was a noise that Saoirse knew she would be hearing in her worse dreams for some time, and the weight below her instantly went slack. Dhuane himself made no sound at all on his way out; the pain hit much too quickly to even give him a chance. Saoirse tried hard not to look, but from this viewpoint it was difficult not to see that spar of white sticking out at a stomach-turning angle. Her own arm felt like it was about to pop from its socket, and she watched with horror as her grip began to slip and Dhuane's wrist slowly slid free.

“No, nonono,” she moaned, letting go of the mooring ring so she could use both hands. This sent her sliding forward, but she managed to catch a foot in the ring and brace the other against it, and came to a tentative halt in an awkward position hanging halfway off the ship. Her arms screamed with the strain. She fumbled about with one and got a grip on one of the wing-straps. It cut into her aching fingers, but Dhuane stopped sliding free.

She gave one valiant heave, but it was hopeless. Dhuane might have been thin as a rake, but he was still a good foot taller than her, and wearing some heavy equipment besides-not to even mention the impossible position that would have made lifting so much as a wrench difficult. Without him able to provide even a little bit of assistance, she had no chance of pulling him up. She might as well have tried to kick the ship under him.

“Lee,” she panted into the radio. “Lee, please, please, for all gods' sake, pick up! Turn us over, Lee, turn her over starboard, I can't hold on much longer!

Nothing. Maybe the radio was dead, maybe the cold had frozen it useless, maybe Lee simply wasn't there-nothing.

There was no help coming.

Part Two:

Spoiler: show
Lee had a decidedly unathletic sprint, all knees and elbows pinwheeling wildly, but from the prow gunnery to the cockpit was mostly up, not across, a matter of stairways and ladders, and not even Dhuane could match Lee on that field. Lee had a lifetime of practice in the shipyard mechanic's fine art of navigating obstacles, which mostly centered around the core tenet that obstacles were irrelevant. Ladders were barely considered, and stairways were for other people.

Of course in this case the stairway actually was the most efficient way to get to the cockpit. In fact it was the only way, barring attempting to jump straight from an access tunnel onto the landing-- which Lee had in fact pulled off once, but he didn't feel that now was the time to go for a repeat performance. He jumped onto the bay walkway and skidded about in a half-turn, preparing to take the steps three at a time.
Something hit him in the chest like a sledgehammer and he staggered, choking. The force kept going, pushing him back, nothing he could see but a physical force all the same, that grabbed him and flung him down the stairs and across the landing as easily as he might toss a crumpled shirt. He hit the walkway railing with a BANG and lay still.

There was movement ahead of him, but his eyes wouldn't focus for the longest time. Only when it had come much nearer could he make it out: a scrawny young man in an old jockey jumpsuit under a black jacket, goggles pushed down around his neck and a gun at his waist. He was holding his hands out in front of him as though signifying peace, but his eyes were wild.

Weird... Lee thought vaguely. Must be a hoister, but the hell does he think he's doing?

Strange blue shapes were forming around the boy's splayed fingers. Something about those shapes was familiar. Lee squinted at them, and gears began to click back into place inside his head. He shook away the black sparks that were swirling across his vision and realized.

“Shit,” he mumbled, struggling to get up. The boy was an Adept.

Movement only made things worse. The black sparks came back in force and his stomach tried to crawl up out of his throat. No good. He watched blearily as the Adept hoister advanced with trembling but determined steps, unable to put together the proper nerve sequences to get out of the way and too weak to execute them even if he had.

The boy stepped down off the last stair and began to make strange gestures that made the shapes twist and fold out in patterns that were confusing enough to the sober mind and an optical illusion hell for the dazed engineer. He even had his mouth open to say the words that would unleash gods-knew-what horrible spell on his helpless victim, before the foot came out of nowhere and tripped him flat on his chest.

Lee stared blankly as Anderson stepped from the shadows of the walkway corner, a knockout stick in one hand. He pinned the hoister to the floor with one foot across his shoulderblades and casually leaned down to jab the stick into the back of the boy's neck. The boy was only just beginning to struggle when he slumped against the walkway, the shapes around his hand spiraling into nothingness like the sparks of a smothered fire.

Anderson pocketed the spent stick and turned to look at Lee. “You know,” he said. “I realize I'm hardly much aid in combat situations but you could still at least tell me that they're happening.”

Lee felt he was obligated to make some kind of sarcastic comment in such a situation, but nothing would come to mind, and at any rate Anderson seemed to be getting very far away and probably couldn't hear him from such a distance anyway...

The leather straps were cutting strips into Saoirse's hands. It would have been quite painful if she had had any feeling left in them anymore. She couldn't have opened her right-hand grip with a chisel, and if Dhuane's wrist should slip from her left hand she doubted she'd be able to tell unless she were looking right at it.

She racked her brains for something, anything she could do, but her thoughts were wandering with the pain and cold and no ingenious ideas emerged from the nonsense. She thought she heard Lee, standing beside her, saying scornfully, “Oh come on, this? This is basics. Haven't you heard anything I've told you? All you need here is a good old fashioned-”

“-basic pulley system,” she finished, or thought she did.

“Right, exactly.” The voice of the phantom Lee began to drift away. “Give me half a minute and I'll have one set up.”

The voice faded into the wind. “Lend me your cigarette while you're gone, mate, it's freezing out here,” Saoirse mumbled. Her lips were chapped and stinging.

A lazy blue spark jumped from the cracked power core of the wings and drifted up along the straps. It burst against her clenched hand with a slight sting that she felt a thousand miles away. She blinked groggily. Wings, hah, bloody useless, if that old set was any good there wouldn't even be a problem right now...they could just fly away...

A couple of loose thoughts collided in the fog filling her head. She frowned at the power core. It wasn't completely dead, apparently. There was still the occasional sketch of a wing flickering in the air behind Dhuane's limp form. Something had to still be alive in there...if she could only jumpstart it, just for a moment, just a second...

Slowly, not daring even to think about what she was doing in case it scared the idea away, she let go of Dhuane's wrist and gasped as the full weight fell on her right hand alone. The straps were beginning to fray, she realized with dull, exhausted horror; if she didn't break, the harness would. The thought spurred her on. This might be an insane idea but it was provably better than doing nothing.

She had to twist her arm into a strange position to reach her belt, and her fingers were so numb that for a moment she feared she wouldn't be able to grip anything at all. But after a long and terrible moment of clumsy fumbling her hand wrapped closed on her pistol. She pulled it out and brought it forward, slowly, carefully, fearing to drop it. A good thing her target was so close and all but impossible to miss; she couldn't have landed an accurate shot on a corpse at the moment.

It was a stupid idea. But it made a kind of sense. The wings had a basic cold-aspect power cell-incredibly basic, in fact, which was the only reason this had a chance of working. And the gun was an old, reliable Six O'Clock Stunner, a standard cold boltgun which fired rounds of energized imbued plasma overlaid with a simple spell for harmless unconsciousness. Or in other words, it fired pure cold-aspect magical energy wrapped only in a thin layer of goo and a minor spell...

Lee would kill me for even thinking about this, she thought. On the other hand, he'd have to survive me killing him for not answering the damn radio first...

She thumbed the stun setting to the lowest it could go, held the gun as steady as she could, took a deep breath, murmured, “Cygha, Maodoch,” and fired.

The gun made its normal whiirrPPHOAW noise, but this time it ended in a strange kind of wet bang as the shot went straight from the barrel to the power core. There was a sharp crackling noise as light built up in the core and began to spread outward in crawling lightning-strands all around it, tickling Saoirse's hand unpleasantly. The glow got brighter and brighter-brighter than it was when the wings were functioning normally, in fact, and even brighter...

Abruptly the weight tearing at her hand lessened. The wings were flickering rapidly now, so much so that she had to close her eyes against the bright lines shattering her vision. She grabbed the sparking harness in both hands, summoned every last drop of strength she could find, and pulled.

Dhuane shot upward over the edge of the ship, flinging her backward with him all the way to the center of the coldshield. There was a BANG as the power core exploded, sending shards of crystal everywhere, and a horrible pop that she felt more than heard as something went wrong with her arm. White hot pain flared in her shoulder, which was not at all eased when Dhuane came crashing down on top of her.

For a time all she could do was lie there, breathing in short, rapid gulps while the pain hammered relentlessly at her. Eventually the shock ebbed away and the pain eased enough for her to think at least somewhat clearly. Dhuane's face was waxy and cold, but she could feel him breathing. She didn't dare to try to move him, for fear of making his injuries even worse-or hers, for that matter. She looked for her radio and found it strapped to her injured arm, a mile away across the shiptop and totally unreachable. Attempting to move it even a little bit closer brought a new wave of pain crashing down and whiting out everything.

She was beginning to despair of the both of them dying alone in the ruthless cold when she noticed something clipped to Dhuane's belt under his coat. A small dark rectangle with a single antennae. A radio.

She eased her fingers forward and unclipped it. It seemed the hardest operation she had ever had to perform in her life. She had to curl her arm around Dhuane's neck to bring it within speaking distance, her shaking fingers did not want to close around the call button, and it took an age to gather the breath to speak, but at long last she managed to wheeze into the open line. “Anderson...”

Lee had not had any chance to formulate an idea of what might be happening when he came to, but if he had had a list, Anderson going through his pockets definitely would not have been on it.

He opened his eyes and gasped with the oddest feeling of suddenly coming up for air, as if he had fallen into deep waters and had to struggle desperately back to the surface for a time that seemed both an eternity and the merest moment. He was left with no conception at all as to whether he had been there for hours or if his eyes had closed for only seconds. Everything seemed too bright, and when he turned his head the world pitched and spun sickeningly. And there was Anderson, kneeling before him and digging through his jacket pockets.

Lee blinked at him a few times. He would not have pegged Anderson as the sort to go straight to theft as soon as a body was down, but then the man had never exactly been the most understandable. It just went to show, you never really knew anyone... “Din' know you had it in you, mate,” he mumbled. His radio crackled sharply as if in agreement.

“Hush,” Anderson said, producing Lee's lighter from its sanctuary in the jacket's inside pocket. Lee glared at him as well as he could manage considering his eyes didn't want to focus.

“Here, you give that back,” he said weakly. “Tha' was my da's...”

Anderson, taking no heed of this, flicked the lighter on and slowly passed the flame back and forth in front of Lee's eyes. Lee shied away from the too-bright pinprick of light, but the medic gently held his chin to make him look forward until he had evidently seen enough. He flicked off the lighter and held up three fingers. “How many fingers do you see?”

Lee groaned. “Oh, come on...”

Inscrutable brown eyes stared back at him, no-nonsense. “How many fingers?”

“Three,” Lee muttered.

Anderson nodded and put up a full hand. “Now how many?”


This continued for three more rounds before Anderson was satisfied, at least with that line of questioning. “Can you tell me your name, and where you are?”

Lee let out a wordless sound of protest and struggled to get up, though the medic's firm hand on his shoulder was easily enough to forestall the feeble attempt. When Anderson was on the job he did not stammer or shake. His voice might still slur but it was steady, his spindly hands no less so as they worked. Even the man's presence, normally vague and unmemorable, seemed to sharpen to attention. It was as if he hoarded every drop of health and life so that he could pour it all into his work when it was needed.

“I don't have time for this,” Lee said. “Gotta...gotta get up and...and help...” What was it? There was something important he had to do, but he couldn't recall exactly...something about steering the ship...steering the ship to help Saoirse and Dhuane...because of the...the...oh, gods...

Anderson snapped his fingers and Lee jerked back to attention. “What? Oh...” He blew out a frustrated breath and rattled off, “My name is Lee Brigham Salace and I'm on the walkway outside the cockpit. Of our ship. The Ancestral. Outside Joorshead.” He glared again, with slightly more success this time. “Can I get up now?”

“No,” Anderson said, although he did give the lighter back.

“What d'you mean, no? I answered the damn question, didn't I? Got it all right, didn't I? Let me go!

“You did get it right, yes, but only after I asked you three times,” Anderson replied dryly. “You are quite concussed. I need to get you to sickbay-”

“I don't have time!” Lee growled, trying to ignore that damning three times business. “I've got to go help! There's a godsdamned frostwyrm attacking the ship and 'Se and Scout are out there tryin' to kill the thing all by themselves...”

“The wyrm is dead.” Anderson was searching through his satchel for something and made the comment completely offhand.

Lee stopped trying to get up. “What? How do you know?”

“I heard it,” Anderson replied, and did not see fit to elaborate further.

Lee frowned, about to confront this unhelpfully vague statement, and was distracted by another crackle from his radio. He unclipped it and fiddled with the controls, but the distorted noise didn't clear up any. “Damn thing's shorted out or somethin',” he muttered, banging it against the floor as a futile last resort. “Lemme see yours...why is it off?”

“Because I suspected something like that was about to happen,” Anderson said, gesturing at the prone Adept. He pulled a small plasma packet from his satchel and rubbed it between his hands. The single rune inked onto it began to glow clear blue as he wrapped it in a handkerchief.

Direct magical emissions, or at least badly-controlled ones, did have a tendency to play havoc with some kinds of auric equipment, or at least particularly old and worn-out ones like the ship radios. Lee was tempted to ask exactly how Anderson had known the man was an adept and why he was following him around the ship in the first place, but there were more important matters at hand. He turned the working radio on and said, “Hello? Who's out there?”

Saoirse's voice came back, faint and in decidedly rough condition. “Lee? Thank the gods you're alive...I'm gonna kill you.”

“Uh,” Lee managed.

“Where's Anderson? We need some help up here...really...need some...”

“I'm right here,” Anderson said. “What's the problem?”

A weak, rather hysterical little laugh came over the radio. “Where should I start...?”

Anderson sighed. “Where are you?”

“We're on the roof. Dhuane and me. He's in bad shape. Out cold. Cut up...arm's broken...”

“I'm on my way. Sit tight and stay calm.” The medic handed the packet to Lee before picking himself up and sling his satchel back over one shoulder. “You stay here,” he said sternly. “Keep that pressed to your head, wherever it hurts most.”

“I can make it to sickbay...” Lee tried.

“No,” Anderson said flatly.

Lee would have argued, but Anderson was already on his way, moving in that strange, loping stride that seemed to carry him faster than any run-and anyway the man was right, damn it all. He slumped back against the railing and stared glumly at the retreating figure. “I'll hold you to it,” he mumbled.

Master Izai traveled in style.

“I must revise my opinion of Mssr. Chzanta's guests,” Skels mused as she watched the blur of city lights passing below them. “I had assumed this carriage was drawn by horses.”

“Ah, well, there are a few, so you needn't bother revising too much,” Izai replied. “But only a few. They require a permit to be used on public streets. Most animals do. They make such a mess, you see. Most folks don't find it worth the bother. Plenty of other ways to show off.”

“When you say public streets,” Samuel said, “do you mean all of them or just the fancier ones?”

“Funny you should ask that,” Izai said cheerfully. “As it happens permits are generally only checked if someone makes a complaint. It never seems to happen on the lower streets, so I have to assume they are full of respectable law-abiding citizens who keep their paperwork in order and cause no trouble. It's the only explanation.”

“Mm.” Samuel leaned against the window, keeping one arm around Kath's shoulder. “Democracy by whinging.”

“It's hardly a perfect system, but it's what we've got.”

Below them the focal point of the city's recent mania was already coming into their view. The downdock gates were a seething mass of activity, with more visitors approaching every minute by vehicle or by foot like ants returning to an upturned hive. Behind the sealed gates, guarded now by rather sterner guards than they had been a few hours before, the docks themselves were surprisingly bare. A number of ships seemed to have vacated the area altogether, replaced in some instances with much smaller, sleeker crafts bearing important insignias. Distant figures scuttled back and forth across the space, yelling and gesturing wildly-a fair few of them, but nothing compared to the crowds outside.

Izai bypassed the whole scene entirely, flying the carriage straight over the gates without the barest pause. They soared straight down the dock's central lane, casting an eclipse over dozens of bewildered officials below them, before executing a stomach-flippingly sharp turn and touching delicately down to face the long stretch of lane and all its startled inhabitants. He took the time to flourish the reins dramatically, but Kath was jumping out unceremoniously almost before the carriage had stopped moving. She parted the scattered crowd around her like a hawk through a flock of doves, stalking across the cobbles with a speed and determination that forced the others to scramble to keep up. They had all seen something, passing too quickly outside the windows of the speeding carriage to be sure of what it was-but that only made it all the more horrible.

Kath rounded the last of the line of ships remaining on that side of the dock and stopped. The last several lots were emptied, and most of the crowd had filled in the resulting open space. Some talked urgently, in furtive, desperate murmurs or in imperious shouts and some were running back and forth with radios, clipboards, or weapons, but mostly they stared out the fence, up and away towards the high-dock. It wasn't hard to guess what they were looking at.

“That can't be what I think it is,” Samuel said, staring in plaintive confusion at the scene before them.

“One way to find out,” Kath replied. She spoke calmly, but her expression was drawn and tight. “Clear a path for me.”

Samuel didn't bother yelling or waving his arms. He simply walked forward and people got out of his way, often without initially realizing that they had done so. Kath and Skels followed in his wake, scarcely noticed at all in the pilot's seven foot shadow-not until the three of them suddenly emerged at the front of the crowd. As attention began to draw towards them, Skels swung up onto Samuel's braced shoulders and unfolded, stretching out from the crouched posture usual to raptors to a full five feet and more of height. This immediately sparked comment and protest from the crowd, but they went unheeded.

“Please don't strangle me,” Samuel murmured as Skels steadied herself by wrapping her tail around his neck.

“Sorry, force of habit,” Skels replied absently, busy focusing the spyglass Kath had handed her. Her crest spiked straight outward as she found her mark. “Fucking hell.”

“It's ours, isn't it,” Samuel said wearily.

“It's ours alright. And I'll be damned if that's not a frostwyrm of all things sittin' right on top of it.” She lowered the spyglass and shook her head slowly, feathers flattening only slightly. “How we always wind up in the middle of these things-”

Kath began to offer comment, but she was interrupted by an extremely beleaguered dock official who had made it behind them. “Ta Faerzch huica, who let the fucking sprogga in here? Get down! The hell do you think you're doing?”

“Language, my dear sir, language.” Izai was suddenly looming over the shorter man, looking down at him with a kind of amiable menace. “The situation is stressful but there is no need to be crass.”

The official swallowed hard, an expression passing over his face that suggested that there was now more need than ever to be crass. “Of course. My apologies, Guildmaster. But we have enough problems without having to deal with-whatever these shenanigans are!” He gesticulated wildly at the ten-foot tower of crewmen before him. “You must leave, I don't know how you got in here but this area is restricted-”

“Easy now, dockmaster. These people are my guests. Could I borrow that for a moment, madam? Thank you.” He extended a hand for the spyglass and Skels obligingly handed it over.

The dockmaster's consternation was growing so great that even the fucking sprogga felt sorry for him. “Your guests-? But sir-why-”

“That's my ship,” Kath said.

The dockmaster actually flinched as he turned to meet her gaze. “I-your ship? That's yours? You're sure?”

“Quite.” The dockmaster backed up a step and swallowed again, struggling to regain his composure-such as it was-in the face of the grinding blue glare. “Well-that's unfortunate ma'am-but there's nothing you can do about it right now-we've cordoned off the highdock and it's much too unsafe to go out if you could just move along and we'll be sure to tell you when things...settle down...”

“And when will that be?” Kath demanded. “As far as I can see you're not doing anything to effect a resolution.”

“I don't-I mean...that's not really your business, ma'am, that's a matter for the dock officials...”

Kath didn't blink.“When my ship is under attack, it is a matter for me.”

The official held his ground, though his twitching was increasing. “I'm very sorry, ma'am, but-”

“Hold.” Izai held up a hand, slicing through the tense exchange like a falling blade. “I believe the situation is changing...”

Both Kath and the dockmaster turned and began speaking at once. “What? What is it?”

Izai didn't need to reply. Even with the naked eye all of the observers could see clearly what was happening. The crowd pushed forward, gabbling furiously and fighting for a better view, as the distant shape of the wyrm slipped off the edge of the ship.

The dockmaster almost shrieked. “It's coming here!”

“No,” Izai said softly, eye still pressed to the glass. “It's not flying. It's falling.”

There was a long moment of silence as all those within earshot processed this.

“You mean it's-it's-” the dockmaster stammered.

“Dead. Yes, almost certainly. Dead, or nearly dead.”

The dockmaster was suddenly all activity, barking orders into his radio as if his confidence had never shaken. “Sentry! Report-yes? Good. Get the salvage tow up and out now. I want that thing brought back here. No, don't drop the alert yet. You heard me. Move!”

Kath, Samuel and Skels all exchanged a look of disbelieving awe. “They killed it?” Skels murmured, staring out at the shape of the salvage tow as it rose ponderously and drifted out into the highdock, flanked by a pair of lightweight gliders. “How?

Kath shook herself. “Never mind. I need to get up there, now. Izai-”

“Impossible,” the dockmaster snapped. “The highdock is still unsecured and restricted as such. You'll have to wait until it's been cleared.”

“My people are up there!” Kath snarled, rounding on him with fists clenched. “I will not just leave them-”

“Easy.” Izai laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “The danger's passed now. Your people did well, it seems. Allow me a few moments to settle things here and I'll take you up myself.”

He turned to follow the dockmaster towards the main aisle of the dock, a strange tall figure standing out in a sea of confused motion, leaving Kath to stand shaking by the fence.

“They've got it,” Skels said. She had taken the spyglass back and was watching the salvage tow collecting the massive corpse. It looked to be quite a complicated operation.

“Gods.” Kath was staring into the dark beyond the fence, seeing none of it. “What must be going on up there...”

Skels slithered down, ignoring Samuel's exaggerated groan of relief, and handed Kath her spyglass. “He's right, you know,” she told the captain. “We're better off waiting a little while than trying to force our way up now, even if we could. It'd be right complicated trying to move now, and complicated is slow.”

“I can't just stand here,” Kath whispered. “I can't just...”

“Sure you can,” Skels said bluntly. “As the man said. The danger's over. The thing is dead. What do you even have left to do at this point?”

Kath turned slowly, fixing the raptor with a hollow gaze.“My crew could be dying up there.”

Skels looked steadily back, unperturbed. “If they're dead, they're dead. If they're dying, they're gonna die. If they're hurt, Anders will look after them a damn sight better than any of us could. You know it's the truth.”

In the pocket of silence that followed, the salvage tow started back toward the downdock. The distant shouts of the dockmaster could be heard, clearing space and moving back the crowd. The three of them had been abandoned in the rush of new activity, left alone in the empty lot with only the nearby ships for company.

Ever so gently, Samuel reached out a hand, and Kath let him twine his fingers with hers. She took a long, shaking breath and finally looked away from Skels. “I hate it when you're right.”

“I know,” Skels said. “It's my job.” She turned and began to lope across the lot. On the far end of the docks, the salvage tow was touching down, surrounded by a crowd only barely kept at a safe distance. “C'mon. Let's go check out their handiwork, yeah?”

By the time they had crossed the docks the tow was fully landed, with its back bay wall dropped and loading ramps extended. They shoved through the crowd, ignoring the yells of the dock guards, and pushed up the least crowded ramp. In the bustle of salvage crew, dock guards, and city officials, they went more or less unnoticed, even when they got to the front of the pack and saw the wyrm closeup.

It stretched out across the entire flat bay of the tow, pushing aside what bits of scrap had been remaining unloaded. A series of hastily laid-out tarps were rapidly staining with various unpleasant fluids, while the metal beneath creaked and protested in the sudden cold. This close, people were only talking in whispers and murmurs, caught in fearful respect of those masses of scales and empty, accusatory eyes. Not to mention the teeth.

“Dhuane,” Kath said blankly-an unnecessary comment; they all recognized the spear shaft protruding from the creature's skull. It was still buzzing and sparking with points of cold electric blue light. The salvage crew were giving it unhappy looks.

“Sure enough, but Dhuane never did that,” Samuel said, pointing at the gaping wound that had carved open the wyrm's upper chest. “Not with that spear, certainly, and not with anything we've got in stock that I can think of.”

“We have ship gunpower enough to do that, but the thing was on top...” Kath mused. “Maybe it was injured before it got here. Would explain why it'd just show up in about the least likely place for a frostwyrm to be. Injured, outraged, desperate.”

“I don't know.” Skels had perched on the side wall to get a better look. “I don't think even a frostwyrm could fly much of anywhere with a hole that big in it. It's been blasted in two places, look-its side is ripped up too. Surely it couldn't take all that and live long enough to go find a ship to harass. I'd say maybe the dock guards took a shot at it,”

“No,” Kath agreed.

“Nah,” Samuel added.

“No indeed.” Izai glided over towards them, followed by a couple of young men in tousled guild officer uniforms and the ever put-upon dockmaster. “The dock hasn't fired a shot, or so they tell me. Too much risk of hitting one of the ships.”

“Yeah, that's why you've been sitting on your arses doin' nothing all this time,” Skels muttered. The dockmaster, unsure of her exact words but smart enough to know they were not complimentary, glared at her.

“I was rather hoping you could enlighten us,” Izai went on. “There were some pretty impressive flashes of light seen from your ship just as we arrived. It would seem your intrepid crewmen have been quite active this evening, but no one seems to be quite sure of the details.”

“I'd quite like to know them myself,” Kath said. “I know that-” she waved a hand at the hekasch, “-belongs to one of mine, alright, but how it got there, and what they were doing that blasted those holes through the thing...”

Izai smiled. “Well, one simple enough way to solve this mystery presents itself. Good captain, I believe I promised you a ride earlier.”

“I believe you damn well did,” Kath replied.

There were no Hibanlac expletives adequate for the situation, so Saoirse occupied herself during the wait by going through every insult, slur, cussword, blasphemy or general complaint that she could pull from her native Burshai. It was a rich source. She had only gotten as far as morrgydhu tiachyr gnast zyuch when the aft hatch opened and Anderson clambered up onto the shiptop. He looked down at the two of them and raised his eyebrows. Saoirse winced. It must have been bad indeed to get that much reaction from him.

“What've we got?” he asked, shucking off his coat as he strode towards them. The ice was melting rapidly in the wake of the wyrm's absence, which if anything was only serving to make the shiptop more treacherous, but Anderson didn't seem to notice.

She told him, as clearly as she could, what had happened, speaking haltingly around flashes of pain. Anderson, busy folding a heating pack into his coat and wrapping it awkwardly around Dhuane, didn't seem to be paying much attention, but when she finished he looked up sharply and said, “And what about you?”

“I'm alright, don't worry about me,” she said hastily. There was another agonizing pulse in her shoulder as if to directly call her on this, but she paid it no heed. “It's Dhuane who's in trouble.”

Anderson looked at her levelly. “Your shoulder is dislocated, your lips are blue and your fingers are bleeding.”

Saoirse risked a glance at the offended limb. It certainly did look rather out of shape. “Oh,” she said lamely.

Anderson sighed but didn't pass further comment, which she took from experience to mean that he agreed but only temporarily. He rustled in the satchel for a tiny vial of clear liquid, gently ran a finger along the edge of Dhuane's chest, and let the resulting blood drip from his finger into the vial before shaking it vigorously. Saoirse had seen him do this before, but only rarely, and could not remember whether to be relieved or not when the vial's contents settled and turned a dark purplish-red. Anderson, though, tipped a drop onto his finger, sniffed, and nodded with evident satisfaction. He examined Dhuane for a few moments longer, looking for something he seemed pleased not to find, before leaning back and saying, “ me turn him over.”

With great care they slid the stricken Vevander down and turned him onto his back. Dhuane's head tossed at the movement and he mumbled without opening his eye. “The skull...did you get the skull? It's important...”

“Quiet, you, you've no business being awake,” Anderson said.

As if in response to the command Dhuane stilled again. Saoirse sat up gingerly and peered anxiously at him. The man's chest was a ghastly shredded mess; he didn't look as if he had any business being alive, let alone awake. Sludgily melting blood covered everything so thoroughly that the actual wound was completely obscured, and here and there something pale and splintered was just visible under the mass of dark red slime and shredded tissue.

“Is he...” Saoirse began, stopped to swallow hard, and went on, “Is he going to make it?”

“No internal bleeding, or punctures, it seems,” Anderson mused, picking apart the layers of gore with rather more calm than she felt the situation entirely warranted. “Didn't feel anything broken under there. I think...aha.”

He pulled the mess apart in the middle with a faint ripping sound. Saoirse stared in abject horror for a moment before the image suddenly righted itself in her eyes. She almost laughed. What had under the blood seemed like Dhuane's exposed insides was in fact mostly the remnants of his shirt, coat and wing-harness, torn into an unrecognizable mess. Below it was what was left of his armored shirt. The three deep gouge-marks were only just distinguishable from the splinters of the plating that had cracked like glass.

“It's certainly true what they say about fortune favoring the prepared,” Anderson said. He began unwinding a spool of bandages. “If he hadn't been wearing that, he wouldn't be needing my services anymore.”

“Wha...” Saoirse stared as Anderson began to wrap the bandages with practiced efficiency. She winced and shifted at another throb of pain. “I don't get it. If his shirt caught the blow...where's all the blood coming from?”

“It didn't stop it, entirely,” Anderson said. “These things are designed to absorb impact, not particularly to block bladed edges. Scouts and fliers tend to be more worried about crashing or falling than someone knifing...or clawing...them, after all. And it did absorb the impact, which is quite the impressive last stand for a piece of this quality. Not all of it, of course, it's not up to that. But it blunted the force of the blow. Frostwyrm claws aren't particularly sharp; they're meant more for brute force than precision cuts. It meant to bludgeon him to death, not slice him up. With so much power taken out of its swipe it couldn't cut very deep with the edge of its claws alone.”

“But it did still cut him.”

“Well, yes. You can't have everything.” He reached into his bag for some more ice packets, grimacing slightly in annoyance at the smears of blood he left behind, and bound them into the bandaging.

“ he might...he could live?” Saoirse asked, not daring to rely on it.

“I'm not worried about the wound,” Anderson said. “I'm worried about the shock and cold and blood loss. I need to get him below, fast.” He glanced at her as he finished. “Both of you. I can't have people dying of hypothermia in Abranyr in Mathis, it's not dignified. Let me see that arm.”

“No, really, worry about him first,” she said. “Please. I'm not bleeding out.”

“Indeed not, but as much as I honor the god of triage, or would if there was one, I will be able to help him much more efficiently if you have two working arms to help me get him back inside the ship...which will be enough of a trial as it is.” He knelt next to her, pulled a pair of fine pilot's gloves over his gory hands, and examined her shoulder with a critical eye. Saoirse tried not to flinch as he felt gently along the top of her arm and the distended joint itself. She'd seen and suffered through more than one such injury, and the resolutions had never exactly been pleasant. Sometimes there was someone around to help and sometimes, such as one fall through a rotten staircase that she preferred not to remember, you just had to do the best you could on your own, but either way it tended to involve more unpleasant noises and slamming oneself into things than it did soothing words and comforting hands. She closed her eyes and set her jaw, bracing for the pain. Then something occurred to her and her eyes flew back open.

“Wait,” she said. “What about the poison?”

Anderson paused in the act of unfolding a knife, for some reason she didn't want to speculate on.“What poison?”

She goggled at him. Even she, who had grown up in streets that had never seen frost, let alone a frostwyrm, knew of the infamy of their venom. The idea that Anderson-a man who frequently seemed to have invented entirely new branches of alchemy entirely for his own amusement-didn't wasn't something she could process right now.

“From...from the wyrm,” she stammered. “You know...frostwyrm venom...incredibly deadly? Right?”

“What makes you think he's been poisoned?”

She glanced at Dhuane, who had curled up on himself slightly and was moaning gently. “Well, I don't know...I mean I didn't see or anything, but I didn't see everything...what if he was?

“I can assure you he hasn't seen a drop,” Anderson said, returning to his work unfazed. She watched the knife with trepidation and felt something of a fool when he only used it to cut the radio out of the tape. He was as careful and delicate as anyone could hope for, but she still had to bite down on a yelp of pain when the process jostled her arm slightly. “But how can you be sure?

“Multiple reasons. Try to sit up as straight as you can-there you go. And bring your shoulders in towards your spine...that's right, good. For one thing, frostwyrms don't use their venom on humans.”

Despite everything, the prospect of something new to learn pulled her attention away. “What? Not ever?”

“Well, I haven't seen every case firsthand, but it's never been observed,” Anderson said dryly. “Frostwyrms are patience predators, mostly. They kill their prey slowly-stalk them for days, go in for a quick jab when they get the chance, and then hang back and wait until it succumbs. Venom that powerful takes a lot of time and energy to produce, so they don't waste it on smaller things. Certainly not on humans. They don't need to. It'd be like you using that cannon to swat a fly.”

“Hey,” she protested, wounded on Dhuane's behalf. “That fly won.”

“I had no intention of disparaging either yours or Dhuane's combat abilities.” Somehow he managed to sound even dryer this time. “Frostwyrms are intelligent. They're not that intelligent. They don't usually consider things like tactics and anti-airship cannons.”

“Fair enough.” He bent her arm at the elbow against her side and began to slowly move it outward. She closed her eyes again and hurriedly asked, “So what other reasons, then?”

“They inject that venom by biting. Only way they can. Gets it straight into the bloodstream. I didn't see any bite marks on Dhuane. It would have been hard not to see them.”

She thought of those huge jaws gnashing at the cables and swallowed hard. Anderson had moved her arm out as far as it would willingly go, and when she involuntarily let out a little gasp of pain he murmured, “Easy now,” and began to move it up.

“Anything else?” she asked, trying not to think about what was coming. “I mean that thing was oozing all over towards the end. How do you know it didn't just--”

At that point Anderson began moving her arm back towards her shoulder and she bit down hard on her other wrist-which after recent events did not taste particularly good-and tensed in anticipation.

There was a click as her arm slid smoothly back into place and the pain eased in a sudden exhilarating rush. Her eyes came open in shock. Anderson was calmly examining the joint with quiet professional satisfaction. He let go and said softly, “Frostwyrms hunt big prey. A single dose of that venom can kill a leviathan in a couple of days. If Dhuane had gotten any he wouldn't just be dead right now. He'd have shattered when you pulled him up.”

It was a moment before she was able to say, weakly, “...I thought that would hurt a lot more.”

Anderson sighed the long-suffering sigh of one who has been over this far too many times. “It doesn't have to if you know what you're doing.”

He unbuttoned his jacket and tied it around her arm and shoulder in a rough sling. She made a move to protest, seeing his too-thin frame exposed with only his worn-out shirt for cover, but he gave her a look that killed the words before they made it out. “We need to get both of you inside...preferably without injuring you further. The trolley would be the thing to have right now, so I suppose they took it with them.”

“They did,” Saoirse said. “I don't know if we have anything else that would work. Unless...uh...”

There was something coming towards them from the downdock, which was rather more crowded now than it had been when they'd arrived. The small dark shape was rapidly becoming clear as a vehicle that was...eccentric, to say the least...but that took second place to the fact that it was undoubtedly heading straight for them.

“Please, no,” she moaned. “Not something else to deal with.”

The griffins banked gently around the curve of the ship and dropped into a smooth descent that landed the delicate gingerbread confection of a carriage they bore onto the shiptop with hardly even a bump. They folded their wings primly and waited as the side door opened and Kath dropped onto the roof, followed a moment later by a huge man with an overly-elaborate hairstyle and a radiant grin climbing out of the pilotside door. “Well,” he boomed as he walked around the carriage to the accident scene, “here we are to save the day!”

Dhuane shifted and squinted up at him. “About damn time,” he said.

Part Three:

Spoiler: show
If Izai minded the incredible mess made of his fine seats in the short time it took to bring the injured parties inside, he never said. Samuel shucked off his coat to use as a makeshift stretcher, and he and Izai carried the prone Dhuane to sickbay. One of them alone could likely have lifted his slight frame, but Anderson insisted on them carrying him laid out.

“There certainly is a story for the ages here,” Izai remarked as they lowered Dhuane onto the table. Anderson was washing his hands in the corner sink with almost maniacal swiftness. “And I would love to hear it. However, I think for the moment I will get out of your way, and go see what assistance I can be of at the dock.” He nodded to Kath where she was watching from the hallway. “Can you make it back groundside, if need be?”

“Yes, we'll be alright. Someone will have to go back at any rate to get the craft we left at Master Chzanta's.”

“I wouldn't be too concerned about that. I believe I overheard him instructing a few servants to set about bringing your vehicles to the docks as we were leaving.”

“Oh. That's...certainly convenient.” Kath rubbed her eyes wearily. “I cannot thank you enough for your help.”

“Oh, you needn't mention it at all. I like to be in the thick of things.” Izai winked. “I'll be going, but I imagine I'll see you on the ground presently enough. Tuiato!

He strode off down the corridor, jingling slightly. Kath leaned on the doorframe into the room, arms folded. “Alright, what the fuck?”

“Busy,” Anderson replied. He was stripping Dhuane's jacket off with the aid of a particularly sharp knife. “Would someone go get Lee, by the way?”

Kath and Samuel traded a look. “Go get Lee?” Samuel said. “Where is he and why does he need to be got?”

“If he did what I told him to, he's nursing a concussion on the upper walkway across the cockpit stairs,” Anderson said. “If he did get up I doubt he got very far.”

“You told him to get concussed?” Samuel wondered.

Go,” Anderson said.

Samuel went.

“You-sit down, for pity's sake. Are you up to mixing some things for me?” he asked Saoirse.

“Yeah, sure, 'course.” Saoirse dropped into the chair by the counter, trying not to shiver. “What do you need?”

Anderson glanced at her. “I need to bandage your hands. No, never mind, can't do it now. Wash them off and get Samuel to help you when he gets back. You.” He nodded at Kath. “Go get some blankets.”

A moment later he looked up, as if suddenly remembering something, and added in a much softer voice, “Please.”

But Kath had already gone.

Sometime later she broke the dead silence of the sickbay to ask, “Really. What happened?”

“Broken arm, concussion, lacerations, dislocated shoulder...near hypothermia,” Anderson said without looking up from his work repairing Dhuane's arm. The remains of everything from the Vevander's waist up, save his eyepatch, lay in a bloody heap on the floor, replaced with neat, clean bandages under blankets warmed by more heating packs. Here and there, where his side was exposed for Anderson's work, his tattoos were visible, knots and barbs poking out from the covering in patterns that hurt the eye somehow. Somehow Kath found them worse to look at than his shattered arm.

“...Bruising,” Anderson added.

“Yes, thank you,” Kath said. “I was hoping for something more along the lines of how those injuries came about.”

She glanced around the cramped sickbay. Dhuane stared groggily at the ceiling, floating on a copious amount of pain tonic. Saoirse sat by the counter, wrapped in a blanket and sipping from a steaming mug of tea in-between instructions from Anderson. Lee was on the floor in the corner, still holding the ice pack to his head in one hand and in the other a glass of clear liquid which, if his expression was anything to go by, was none too palatable. Samuel had carried him in as easily as if the protesting engineer was a child, before leaving to join Skels in assessing the damage to the ship. Kath had no doubt that the Joorshead authorities were wanting a word or two of input from the captain of the besieged ship-most likely so they could find some way to blame her for it-but she had no intention of leaving until all her people were back on their feet. Probably they would need to lean on someone to get there, but she could handle that.

“Well, first thing was these hoisters showed up,” Saoirse began. She had been hard at work mixing one thing or another for Anderson-Lee's drink, the strange, bitter tea, some kind of foul-smelling goop, as yet unused, a restorative for blood loss, and the medic's favored remedy for pain and shock, a warm, sweet potion that tasted faintly of vanilla and lemon. Kath had helped with some amusement at the pride in the girl's voice as she had instructed her captain knowingly. Saoirse wanted to learn everything, but she had dedicated herself to studying what Anderson would teach her with a particular zeal.

Kath couldn't help but interrupt. “The first thing?”

“It's been a long night,” Saoirse said. She paused for a drink of tea and went on, “Must've been about, what, an hour after you left. We saw them come in from the scopes. Six guys on flashy bikes. From what we overheard, sounded like that jackass at the border sent them. Thought we were hiding something. Or maybe he was just being a jackass, jackassing around. Not sure.”

“That son of a bitch,” Kath said. “I didn't think he had the guts for something like that. Should've known...”

“Why?” Lee asked. His voice slurred, though whether that was from the head wound or from what Anderson had given him for it Kath couldn't have said. “I' no' like the rest of us did.”

“Anyway, we took care of them,” Saoirse went on. She blinked and looked up guiltily. “Um. I guess they're still around here somewhere. We kind of left them scattered about...”

“I tied mine up,” Dhuane put in.

“They're all restrained,” Saoirse said irritably. “Just not, y'know, collected.”

Kath pinched the bridge of her nose but didn't comment on this. “Any casualties?”

“Nah, we just stunned them. Well, the one in charge got a bit scratched up...”

“He had i' comin',” Lee said. “He insulted m' ship.” He took a gulp of his drink and pulled a face. “Anders, this stuff is hideous.”

“Yes, you know what else is hideous?” Anderson said. “Brain damage. Drink it.”

“Alright, six hoisters taken care of,” Kath broke in over Lee's exaggerated gagging noises. “Then what happened?”

“Five hoisters,” Saoirse said. “I was going for the last two when the wyrm showed up.”

“Yes, that.” Kath shook her head. “Anyone have an idea why a damn frostwyrm decided to show up and attack us? In Abranyrth, of all places?”

Dhuane shifted to face her, causing Anderson to smack him lightly. “I've no idea why it was so far down,” he said. “But it may have followed the...intruders here. Those bikes they had were very strong, very hot, from what I saw.”

“Single-loop reactive hot-plasma engines,” Lee said derisively. “Very crude, very unreliable, very ine'...ineff...inefficient.”

“Yes, that too,” Dhaune agreed.

“I've heard that those wyrms are attracted to strong auric concentrations,” Kath said thoughtfully. “Never had much experience with them myself, though.”

“They are,” Dhuane said. “Once it followed them here, it probably got confused by the city, and the spells of the dock itself. They don't normally go near large settlements. It probably found our cold-shield somewhat familiar, so it took refuge on it.”

“Lucky us.” Kath looked around at her battered crew. “Alright. Now we get to the crux of the matter. How the hell did you kill that thing? I saw Dhuane's spear sticking out of its eye when they hauled it onto the docks. I can't believe there's not a fascinating lead-up to that.”

Three of the four glanced around at each other, unsure where to start. Anderson didn't bother to look up.

“Well,” Saoirse finally said. “Lee was bouncing the shields to keep it from breaking them, and Dhuane wanted to go up and kill it 'cause we couldn't think of anything else to do, and the only thing we had that would hurt it was the cannons, so Dhuane went up and distracted it and Lee and I pitched one of the cannons out the side with a couple of the hoisters' bike parts, so I shot it a couple times, but it wouldn't die, and it clawed right through the cannon chains and I nearly fell off but Dhuane got me, and we landed on the top of the ship and the wyrm came for us and smacked Dhuane right out of the air, but he got up and speared the thing right in the head and it finally died, except it fell off and took Dhuane with it and I had to catch him and shoot out the wingset to lift him up.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “I don't know what happened to Lee.”

“I go' thrown into a railin' by abou' ninety pounds of Adept,” Lee said. “Wait, you did what?

Kath opened and closed her mouth a few times before finally asking, “The hoisters had an Adept?”

“Yep. Last one lef'. Caugh' me on the stairs.” Lee finished his drink, shuddered dramatically, and turned to Anderson. “Anders, did you tie him up?”

“Didn't have time,” Anderson said distractedly. “But with what I hit him with, he should be out for some time still.”

“How long is 'some time' ?” Kath asked.

Anderson frowned slightly in thought. “Twelve hours?”

“Ah. Right. I think we can deal with that, then.” She sighed and ran one hand through her hair. “Well, this certainly turned into an interesting evening.”

“Dunno,” Lee put in. “Seemed pretty boring t' me.”

Anderson stepped back, rubbing his fingers. “I need the bone gel, and bandages, please-the normal and the cast ones.”

Kath handed him the pot of horrible goo. “What is in that?”

“Bone, mostly,” Anderson replied. He cut several lengths of bandage and laid them aside before sticking two fingers in the gel and slathering it over the injured arm. Dhuane bore it with grace.

Anderson picked up a strand of bandage and glanced at Kath. “If you could help-thank you.”

Kath had already pushed up her sleeves. She held Dhuane's arm as the medic bandaged over the bone gel, building up a cast that held the precariously repaired bone firmly in place. As he finished he looked over at Dhuane and said, “The smell does wear off.”

“Oh good,” Dhuane said weakly.

Saoirse watched the whole process curiously. As Anderson began to clean up she said, “Hey Dhuane. When we were up on the roof you said something about needing to get the skull. What was that about?”

Dhuane looked embarrassed. “Ah. It's...not important.”

“That's not what you said earlier. Actually, it's the exact opposite of what you said earlier.”

“It's a Vevander custom, I believe,” Anderson said. “To preserve a part of a vanquished beast, to pacify its spirit.”

“To honor and celebrate it,” Dhuane agreed. “So that you remember both the victory and the cost of victory, and honor the fall of your opponent, or its spirit will seek to relive the battle.” He turned on his side and closed his eye. “But I am no longer Vevander, and I could not ask-”

“The hell you can't,” Kath said. “I don't know about the rest of you, but dealing with this thing once seems quite enough to me. Get your coat on-in your own time,” she added, seeing Dhuane glance at his immobilized arm. “I'm going to see about those hoisters, and then I think we need to go have a few words with the dock authorities. And you, put a shirt on, before I give in to the impulse to force-feed your skin and bones a square meal or ten.”

Anderson, who had crossed to the sink and elbowed the tap on, chose to ignore that comment. “He really ought to rest,” he said, though his tone acknowledged that he had already been defeated on that point. “Everyone really ought to rest.”

“Haven't you learned by now, mate?” Kath asked, tossing her coat over one shoulder and heading out of the room. “There is no rest for the wicked.”

The dock authorities had to wait a while. Between rounding up the hoisters, checking the damage to the ship, and some final ministrations that Anderson insisted on, it was well on two hours before the Ancestral, to the alarm of the long-suffering dock sentries, dropped out of hover and glided sedately over to the down-dock. Radios crackled in the watchtower, but the ship met no opposition as it slide into a halt above the outward-facing end of the down-dock and dropped gangplank.

Much of the earlier crowd had dissipated or been driven off, but some of the numbers had been made up by various captains and crews that had found their way in. The Ancestral's shadow had barely fallen over the dock before people were surging forward to investigate. For some long moments the ship simply hung there, the extended gangplank untroubled by use. There was ample time for the crowd to condense, staring and murmuring and pressing each other forward but leaving a cautious space around the gangplank.

Skels came down first, and the pistol and long knife ready at one long hand caused no shortage of comment from the spectators. Several dock guards, struggling forward through the crowd, began to shout objections, but their attention was quickly diverted from the raptor.

The four men came down the gangplank sullenly, scowling defiantly at everything around them with puffy eyes squinted against the light, barefoot and stripped to trousers and undershirts, hands bound neatly behind their backs. Dhuane and Saoirse flanked them, following just behind enough to make sure everyone kept moving forward. Saoirse had gotten out of harness-gear and wore a clean, warm wool shirt, arm bound in a proper sling over her jacket. Dhuane had managed, with some help, to get into a short-sleeved shirt, and half-wore an old spare coat with the left sleeve flapping empty. Blood and slime had dried in splotchy patches across his trousers and boots. Both of them wore guns on their good sides, and despite their injuries-or perhaps because of them, and the accompanying go ahead, I've seen much worse than you tonight looks on their weary faces-the hoisters did not seem eager to try them.

Behind them came Kath and Samuel, each carrying one of the remaining hoisters. Kath cradled the fragile form of the Adept, who, true to Anderson's word, was still deeply unconscious. Samuel hefted the lieutenant, who occasionally twitched and shifted in his arms like a child in a nightmare, but did not wake.

Anderson and Lee came last. The medic's recovered shirt was smeared and spotted with red fingerprints, but his hands and face were scrubbed red-raw clean and the old gray cap hid the worst of the sticky spots in his hair. The jacket, evidently, had not been worth attempting. He was supporting Lee, who stepped down the gangplank slowly and somewhat drunkenly, although his eyes were much clearer. The ferret was perched on his shoulder, meticulously grooming his hair.

The procession moved all the way off the gangplank before stopping. The crowd obligingly parted around them, leaving a margin of a few cautious feet. There was, for the moment, little noise. This was so far from what anyone had expected that there were no good responses prepared for it.

Unsurprisingly, the first voice clearly raised belonged to Izai. He finished clearing a path through the onlookers from the salvage tow, where the massive corpse of the wyrm still lay undisturbed, and stood hands on hips, looking vaguely amused. “Goodness. Well, this is not what I expected-but then, nothing this evening has been.” He ran a hand across a few of the beads in his hair, idly rolling and clicking them together. “And here I thought that fellow was a member of your crew.” He nodded at Loarc. “I suppose I should have wondered more about why he was tied to a mooring hook, but I don't like to judge.”

“What is going on now?” The beleaguered dockmaster burst through the crowd and drew up short, turning a bit white as he realized how close he was to the looming hoisters. He looked a mess, his shirt wrinkled and smudged, cravat and handkerchief long gone, with bags starting to form under his eyes. He looked over the assembly before him with an expression suggesting that his headache had somehow just gotten even worse.

“What is the meaning of this,” he said, too tired to bother injecting the statement with the kind of outrage it usually required. “You cannot simply walk about the docks openly armed-and why are these men under duress?” A thought occurred to him and he swallowed rather hard. “Is this...a hostage situation?”

Kath busied herself shifting the weight of the Adept to cover her strangled laugh. “Nothing like. I'm simply turning these gentlemen over to the proper authorities. Wherever they might be.”

The dockmaster edged away from Chief's glare and frowned. “I don't understand.”

“I returned to my ship to find that it had been subject to an attempted boarding action in my absence,” Kath said. “Courtesy of the fellows you see here. I couldn't be having that, you understand. But I'm not a vigilante sort, so I'll be happy to drop them off here and be on my way.”
One of the hoisters spat viciously. Dhuane put a hand on his shoulder and gave the man an exceedingly calm look. After a moment the hoister slumped and looked away.

The dockmaster sighed heavily and tapped his radio, sending out three short squawks. “Do you have any proof of this claim?”

“Lee,” Kath said.

Lee let go of Anderson's supporting arm, muttering “I'm alright,” and reached into his satchel to produce Chief's stolen radio and the square of blue wax. The dockmaster's eyebrows shot up. An appreciative murmur welled up from a few select spots in the crowd.

Izai on the other hand was less than impressed. “Erhem,” he rumbled. “If someone could enlighten me...”

“Magic has memory,” Lee said simply. He was sounding rather sick. “When you use it as a power source-like for a radio battery-it remembers what it was used for. If you can access that power source soon enough, you can read it.”

Most of the hoisters still seemed confused, but Chief was staring at Lee in growing horror. The engineer swallowed, steadied himself, and went on. “This wouldn't work so well with a higher-end radio, because the battery would be shielded. But these aren't. These leak.”

“Like ours don't,” Saoirse muttered.

“Shut up. That means that it's not just the battery that remembers. The space remembers too. The space the battery was in. Not for very long, but long enough. If you have this stuff.”

He held up the wax battery. “Beeswax to hold the shape and plasma to hold the memory. Some other stuff...never mind. Put it in the space you want to read and...” Ever so gently, he popped the wax into the battery compartment and paused with his finger poised above the radio's call button. “As above, so below.”

Lee hit the call button.

There was a long moment of nothing but crackling static. Then, slowly, Chief's voice began to emerge with growing clarity. “Finally found somethin' that looks like a fucking door. Get over here, you lot. Baisce, get your tools out and get working on it. Quietly! We're not aimin' to alert the whole dock guard, are we? Loarc, Pascha, get up there and get ready to haul this thing open. We do this right, they won't even know we're inside...”

The voice wound back down into empty, popping static.

“Congratulations,” Kath said to Lee. “That was a remarkably succinct explanation.”

Lee shrugged. “I'm tired.”

“Damning enough,” the dockmaster admitted. “But it is a bit...unspecific. For all that tells me, they might have been working with you to rob another ship, and you sold them out.”

“I thought you might say something like that,” Lee said. “Fortunately-for us-we did see them coming, which is why we left this in our main bay. Wanted to know what they were doing, you understand.”

He pulled another radio out of the satchel, this one of a smaller, dingier make, twin to the ones most of the Ancestral crew were still wearing. This time the static had a shrill, tortured quality, and the incriminating voices were tinny and distant, but the words were still understandable.

“Shit, this place is a mess.” “Never seen anything like this before.” “Of course not. They don't make things like this in the plural...” It went on and on. Chief closed his eyes as if that might block out the sound. “...Find the crew and make 'em talk. Easiest thing to do...Loarc, you're standing watch here. Anyone that's not us pokes their head out, stun 'em and restrain 'em til I get back...”

As the last of it faded out, Lee clicked the call button and stopped the recording. “There's a bit more of it, if you want to let it play for some twenty minutes,” he said. “Not much though, just a...bit of a fight. It shorted out eventually from a bit of uncontrolled auric manipulation...” He glared at the Adept still asleep in Kath's arms. “But nothing else all that interesting happened within its radius anyway.”

“If you have any doubt still it should be easy enough to check whether any ships-I should say, any other ships in the dock report a boarding,” Kath said to the dockmaster. “Obviously they succeeded in at least the initial stages of their attempt, and if no other ship claims the crime, well then.”

The dockmaster had cocked his head to one side and was examining the hoisters with an interesting look on his face. “Could I see those, please?” he asked Lee with surprising politeness.

Lee held out the two radios obligingly. “Sure. Keep 'em. But you'll have to come over here and get them because I don't think I can walk that far without throwing up on your nice walkway.”

Fortunately for the walkway, dock security chose that moment to make their long-awaited entrance. The head of the squad announced their arrival well in advance with deep-voiced shouts of “Clear away, clear away! Dock security coming through! Clear away, folks!”

A short but powerfully built woman in a gold and white uniform stepped into the space and saluted the dockmaster. Four other officers assembled themselves behind her, endeavoring to keep their expressions coolly neutral. The dockmaster nodded back. “Take these...are those two among the group as well?” He gestured vaguely at the two unconscious hoisters. Kath nodded. “Take these six men into custody under suspicion of unlawful boarding. The young man there has a couple of items of evidence...”

As security began to collect the hoisters, Chief edged close to Kath and hissed, “You think this will take? The authorities are never gonna convict us of anything on the word of a bunch of foreign reach-rats. We'll be out before that shitheap of yours even clears the docks.”
“I don't give a rat's ass what the authorities do to you,” Kath said calmly. “You just got caught and beaten by a bunch of foreign reach-rats and paraded around with your pants down in front of most of the captains and officials of Abranyrth's central trade hub. Have fun ever getting hired again.”

Before Chief could respond, a security officer took him by the shoulders and began to steer him away. As they passed Lee the engineer smiled and waved. “You'll want to get those scratches looked at. You leave 'em dirty like that, they'll scar something nasty.”

This proved to be the last straw. “You and that fucking dirty rat!” Chief screamed, writhing in the guard's grip as he desperately tried to get to Lee. “I'll claw your fucking face off! I'll kill that thing with my bare hands-you filthy little son of a bitch, I'll snap your neck-”

Another guard came to the rescue, and the two of them were able to get Chief under control. As one of them clamped a hand over his mouth, muffling the vitriol, Lee grinned savagely at him.

“You think it's bad now?” he said. “Wait til you find out what those claws have been in.”

“I still can't believe you threw Screwloose at him,” Saoirse said as a pair of security guards took the unconscious hoisters from Kath and Samuel. The powerfully built woman shepherded them all away through the crowd sternly.

“I didn't throw her, she jumped,” Lee said, sounding deeply offended. “I was just going to spray him- didn't know she'd followed me up the shaft until it was too late. Anyway, she's got as much right to defend her turf as the rest of us.” He stroked the ferret's tail affectionately and got a nip on the hand for his trouble.

Saoirse frowned. “So...what was on her claws?”

“Nothing.” Lee swallowed and rubbed at his eyes. Saoirse moved around so that he could lean on her good shoulder. “I'll have you know Screwloose is a very clean lady. But what he doesn't know might hurt him.” He paused thoughtfully and added, “Actually, I ought to wash her now that she's been on that greasy bastard's face.”

“...alert you of the findings, if you like,” the dockmaster was saying to Kath. “But if that concludes your business, ma'am, I really must ask you to remove your ship. This dock is not currently open for new arrivals and you can't just leave it there...”

“I'll remove my ship soon enough,” Kath said easily. “But my business is not concluded.”

The dockmaster slumped miserably. “No?” he said, rather pleadingly. “What else...”

Kath clapped him on the shoulder and pressed forward. “My good sir, I have a head-price to collect.”

She led her crew, along with Izai and the poor dockmaster, down the walkway to the salvage tow. The crowd followed obligingly, though only a few of them ventured up the loading ramps, city officials and dock workers mostly. The captains and ship crews stayed below, taking bets.

The great corpse of the wyrm still lay across the tow, without so much as a single coil disturbed since the tow had landed. The air around it was still cool and crackling dry, though nowhere close to the frostbite-warning temperatures it had given off in life. Lee's breath caught a little as he got his first proper look at the thing. Even those who had seen it before were shaken by the reappearance. Anderson alone looked unimpressed.

Izai beamed like a child with a wrapped present before him. “So, now we are all here, perhaps the story can come out! Tell me, good people, how did it come about that this mighty creature was laid low on our docks with a spear in its eye?”

“I put it there,” Dhuane said. “With some force.”

Before Izai could work out a response to this, a stout man wearing salvager's leathers under a heavy coat decorated with rank badges spoke up. “That thing is yours, then?”

Dhuane inclined his head. “Indeed.”

“Well in the name of the Lady Mother, get it out already!” the man bellowed. “We can't make any progress cutting this thing apart with that damn thing in there! It's shocking my workers every time they get near it! None of us can figure out how to turn it off-I'm sure there's some trick to it, yes?” He looked sideways at Dhuane.

“There is a...trick to it, yes,” Dhuane said, with a hint of distaste.

“Well then tell us what it is, so we can get on with things!” The shout was taken up in varying forms by the dock workers and spread a little more demurely to the city officials. The crowd below started yelling as well, apparently out of lack of anything better to do.

Kath laid a hand on Dhuane's shoulder, although he had not moved so much as a step closer to the wyrm. “May I ask,” she said, pitching her voice above the din without quite shouting, “what you intend to do with the wyrm?”

As the shouts finally began to die away, the dockmaster frowned at her. “I really can't say, ma'am. My concern is getting it out of here. After that it's a matter for the city and Master Izai...”

“Oh, we'll have a grand time!” Izai gushed. “This is an opportunity for study the like of which I could not have dreamed of in a year. Why, every apprentice in the guild could jump straight to journeyman with the experience of half an hour dissecting even a fraction...”

“What is your guild, anyway,” Saoirse muttered.

“Amateur dramatics,” Skels told her.

“You can't mean to take the whole thing, Izai,” a tall, tweedy man with a mustache snapped. “The profits from a successful harvest of this creature would be of such benefit to the city it'd be criminal to pass them by!”

“Good luck with that,” one of the dock officials said gloomily. “At least twelve different captains have already approached me claiming salvage rights.”

“On what grounds?!” Mustache demanded.

“Right of first eyes!” a voice called out from the crowd below. “You see it, you make your claim first, you got it! Don't matter what it was up to before! That's old law, that is-you lot have always respected it.”

Mustache turned a pained look on the dock official, who shrugged. “He's right...more or less. It's an old trade law. Whoever can prove first claim to an unowned object of salvage has that claim. Granted it's meant for salvage out in the, uh, wilds-I've never heard of anyone applying it in a city, but technically I don't think there's anything against it...”

“You didn't see it first, you bastard! You weren't even here til the beast had been dead ten minutes!” someone called out.

“Yeah? And can you prove that?” the first voice said smugly. “I registered first claim with the proper man. That's all that counts!”

The dock erupted into cacophony. Kath folded her hands behind her back and waited it out calmly. Lee attempted to light a cigarette and got it knocked out of his hands by Anderson.

Eventually the stout man in the nice coat managed to bring the conversation back around to his original point. “This is all useless nonsense!” he boomed. “You lot can settle what you want to do with it later, but I want it out of my tow!”

This at least was something everyone could agree on. “Yeah!” the original claimant yelled among the murmurs of assent. “Get that damn spear out of the way so we can settle this already!”

Attention turned back to Kath and her crew, and the noise began to die down as everyone waited for her response. The dockmaster saw the look in her eye and sighed heavily. “You are going to make your own claim to it, aren't you,” he said wearily.

“Oh, quite,” Kath said. “By my estimation I have the most claim to it. After all, I think it can be quite definitively assumed that my crew saw it first.”

The shouts broke out again, somehow even louder than before. Kath sighed and gave Samuel a look. He nodded, took a deep breath, and, with all the volume of a broad-chested seven-foot-tall trained Rvaptaran bard, roared, “SHUT YOUR GODSDAMNED MOUTHS!”

Everyone did.

In the ringing silence, Kath spoke up, still calm but with the merest touch of ice to her voice. “Now, I wouldn't ask for the whole thing. That would hardly be fair to your, ahem, eminences, let alone to the guild of good Master Izai, who has been so helpful tonight. And we'd never get it onto the ship.”

There was a ripple of tentative laughter. Kath continued, “But y'see, it happens that one of my crewmen-this good man here-” she indicated Dhuane, who looked away rather shyly, “has a custom among his people that when one slays a great beast, and I think this qualifies,” -more laughter- “that the slayer, or slayers, should keep a part of its body and honor it to respect its vanquished spirit.” She looked around in the shocked silence and added, “Generally the skull, where that is possible.”

Angry comments were beginning to rise from the crowd. “You cannot be serious,” Mustache said, his distinguishing feature twitching. “You're asserting a claim based on-on some kind of barbaric custom?”

“Yeah!” the claimant below called back in sudden allegiance. “You think we're all gonna step aside because of some vaush shit?”

“My good people, you have this all wrong,” Kath said. “I don't expect you to oblige a request because the man making it is practicing his religion-whatever that religion may be.” She paused to look over her audience, making sure all of them had to meet her gaze. “I expect you to oblige a request because the man making it climbed on top of an angry frostwrym and put a spear in its FUCKING EYE.” She let out a breath and smiled sweetly. “Call me old-fashioned, but the way I see it a man who can do that can do whatever else he pleases.”

She stepped forward, put one foot atop the wrym's snout, folded her arms and leaned towards Mustache conversationally. “Gentlemen, allow me to get right to the point. The rest of you blighters get to look purely for gain out of this evening, but I have to think about considerable loss as well. My ship was attacked. Twice. It did not escape all this excitement undamaged-it will require repairs. My people have been injured, badly enough that it is only through the prompt attention of a truly incredibly medic that my crew roster this evening stands the same as it did this morning. And it is only, only because of those people that we are having this discussion. If they were not clever and brave and mad enough to do what they did you sure as hell wouldn't be arguing over what to do with this thing. Because when it flew into your dock and started attacking my ship and threatening my crew, you did nothing. NOTHING!

Kath straightened up and took a long breath. “I don't care what your reasons were. I don't care if you want to say that you were gathering forces, or didn't want to risk damaging other ships in the harbor, or what have you. My people-foreigners, reach-rats, bastard traders-defended your city from a threat that you could, or would, do nothing but stare at and whimper and quiver in your boots. Well, now they're demanding their due, and I don't care what law or right of salvage you have to file it under- you are damn well going to give it to them.”

This time the silence lasted.

At long last Izai sighed mournfully and said, “Does it have to be the head?”

“I'm afraid so,” Kath said. “I'm sorry to have to do this to you, mssr. I truly do appreciate the lengths you've gone to tonight. But yes, it does. For our losses.”

Izai looked longingly at the great horned head for a moment before nodding. “Oh, very well. The guild would be happy to gift a percentage of the find to its...donors.”

“Izai, you cannot be serious!” Mustache cried for the second time that evening. “You cannot just give that over to these-these-”

“Oh, give it a rest, man,” Izai told him. “You're not going to win this argument. Believe me. I've had drinks with this lady.” He gave Kath a wistful look and said, “Perhaps...we could keep just an eye, and perhaps a tooth? For study?”

Kath looked over at Dhuane. He shrugged. “It will have to be skinned anyway. The outside does not really matter. As for the teeth, well.” He looked at Saoirse and smiled a little. “They should all be kept, but I believe one or two of them may be loose anyway.”

“Go on then,” Kath told Izai. “You get to dig them out though.”

Izai clapped his hands like a child told to pick out a piece of candy and immediately began gabbling over his personal radio for guildsmen to come with specimen jars. Kath looked at Mustache. He looked around him, but the other officials only muttered and shrugged. Mustache dropped his head.

“Oh, very well,” he said. “I suppose the rest of the wyrm will be sufficient for the city. And...whatever other claimants it has.”

“Damn straight.” Kath stepped down from the wyrm's head and nodded to Dhuane. “Go on then, Scout.”

All eyes followed Dhuane as he stepped up to the wyrm and the instrument of its death. Sparks were still coiling around its haft, looking lazy but snapping at anyone who came near. Dhuane braced one foot against the walkway and one against the wyrm below the eye, shifted his shoulders, and gripped the hekasch with his good arm. It was no more friendly to its owner, sparking and hissing and sending shocks through his arm, but he simply gritted his teeth and began to pull it out. It was no easy task for him with only one arm. The spear had gone quite deep, and it took Dhuane some time simply to loosen the point where it had lodged inside the skull. After that a few more tugs brought the hekasch out, splattering gore all over the floor of the tow. Dhuane tapped it twice against the floor, and the sparks died instantly.

His audience gaped at him. Even the Ancestral crew was taken aback, although Anderson had one hand across his face and was muttering something that sounded more exasperated than anything.

“You said there was a trick to it!” the tow-master protested.

“There was,” Dhuane said. “And that was it.” He took in the tow-master's rather outraged face and shrugged. “I never said it was an easy trick.”

As an after-thought he knelt down and, after a few moments of feeling around in the gaping wound that swallowed up the wyrm's neck, pulled Saoirse's knife free and handed it back to her.

“Oh...thanks.” She cleaned the blade roughly on her trousers, which were so damaged by the night's excursions that it barely made a difference, and tucked it into her belt. A few dock officials scooted farther away.

Further arguments, if there were any, were rapidly eclipsed by the process of removing the head. The tow workers came forward with a heavy beam-cutter and thick aprons and began to saw it off, sending anyone else remaining on the tow scurrying for cover. Izai's men were shepherded up the ramps by their guildmaster to collect the allotted samples. Kath sent Dhuane and Saoirse back to the ship for a heavy tarp and drifted over to a free corner of the docks where Maixa and another apprentice were waiting with the trolley and Kath's bike.

“You are fantastic,” Kath said, shaking their hands. “I'm sorry we derailed your Festival fun.”

“Are you kidding? This is the best Festival night I've ever had! We'll be talking about this one for years.” Maixa's sunny grin was back in force. “That speech you gave- Tei's already working on performing it for next year.”

Kath blinked at the slight, quiet boy beside Maixa. “Uh. I'm flattered?”

“You inspired a ballad? Brilliant!” Samuel leaned down, hands on knees, so that he was somewhat nearer Tei's eyeline. “I can give you some tips on projection if you like.”

“No, you can't, we have to go,” Kath said firmly. “Maixa, Tei, thank you again for all your help.” She reached in her pocket for a couple of coins and, on sudden inspiration, untied the carved charm that was attached to the pocket's button. She handed both apprentices a coin and pressed the charm into Maixa's hand. “Here. I know it's not much, but-it's what I have. A token of thanks. A memento, if you like.”

Maixa looked at the charm as if it were carved from the finest gemstone rather than wood, and tied it onto the cord holding her guild-mark. “I hope you come back soon,” she said.

“Well, no offense meant at all, but frankly I hope we don't,” Kath said. “But I do hope I can meet you again sometime. Maybe Samuel can give Tei those shouting lessons after all.”

They spread the tarp across the trolley and moved it over to the tow so that the salvage workers could use a junking crane to drop the head in it. The trolley groaned under the strain, but under Samuel's gentle guidance it courageously puttered up the Ancestral's gangplank. Kath took Izai's official documentation of transfer and herded her crew after the trolley, before anyone could start another fight. There was some grumbling from the crews watching them go, but also some applause. A few people called blessings or good-luck charms, or simply congratulations, after them. Kath hurried the pace once captains started giving out competing offers.

Izai met them at the bottom of the gangplank. “I forgive you,” he said magnanimously.

“Oh good,” Kath said. “Hey, I don't suppose you would know where to find a good salvage yard near here.”

Izai stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Hmm. There is a quite well-known one about ten sheys west-even of here, but I don't know if it will have what you want. They're used to more, ah...average clientele.” He glanced up at the eccentric shape of the Ancestral above them. “But I have also heard tell of a much larger yard, half a day's travel north-high. Some of my men take our more unusual vehicles out there to be serviced. They say the owner is an...interesting woman, but I get the feeling that may suit you quite well. Here, allow me to give you directions.”

Kath took the piece of paper he scribbled on and tucked it into her pocket. “Thank you again,” she said. “I'm sorry we couldn't leave more frostwyrm for you.”

Izai waved a hand. “Ah, don't worry about it. It's a sad loss, but what we have will keep the guild on its toes for months-even after the city gets a hold of it.”

“I foresee an epic battle on that subject,” Kath said. “Do give my regards to Master Chzanta-and apologies for having to rush out.”

They shook hands, and Kath headed up the gangplank. Samuel was parking the trolley in the bay. Lee was already rigging up a pulley to lift the head out; Saoirse watched, looking amused for some reason.

Kath handed Samuel the directions. “You think she can make it this far?”

He squinted at Izai's handwriting and nodded slowly. “She's fit to fly well enough, so long as we don't run into any trouble. The shields are out and the upper roof's not in real good shape, but if we take it slow we should be fine.”

Across the bay Dhuane was attempting to raise the gangplank while being accosted by Anderson. “What was that?” the medic demanded. “You think I spent all that time sewing you back together just so you could go right out and electrocute yourself to death instead?”

Samuel gently took over the gangplank levers. Dhuane smiled as he walked away, leaning rather heavily on the hekasch. “Don't worry so. I know my business, thauel.”

“And I know mine, yelstha.” Anderson pushed Dhuane towards the kitchen. “Go on. You're drinking another cup of tea and then I want to see you in bed. No arguments. There's been enough foolishness tonight already. You too, Saoirse- go on, you know how to brew it. And speaking of, Lee, you need more tonic before you go to sleep.”

Lee groaned. “This night just gets more and more miserable.”

Dhuane paused as he passed. “Have we not been victorious?”

“Oh, sure, you get to keep this bloody thing for whatever reason, and Kath gets to give a big speech to a bunch of gits, and Anders gets to make me drink all the vile medicine he can come up with, but what do I get? I get to fix the damn ship. And a massive headache into the bargain.”

A paper bag fell from the walkway above and landed right at his feet. Lee looked up, scowling, to see Skels leaning down and waving at him. Slowly he picked the bag up and opened it. “Is this what I think it is?”

“Real Abranyrth taffy,” Skels said. “I saw a street vendor selling it and I could only think of you.”

Lee clutched the bag to his chest as if it were suddenly his most precious possession, which it might well have been. “Skels, have I ever told you how much I love you?”

“I don't date guys without tails,” Skels said. “But you're welcome.”

“Hey!” Saoirse, lingering near the steps, crossed her arms and looked from Lee to Dhuane in mock indignation. “Lee gets candy, Dhuane gets the decaying head of his enemy...why don't I get a prize?”

Kath clapped her on the shoulder. “I'll get you a new gun.”

Saoirse's eyes lit up. “Really?”

“Soon as we get to market. Now go on, take your medicine, rest.” She watched the three injured crewmen stagger off to the kitchen with various degrees of grumbling and turned to Anderson. “What is that stuff you're making them drink? I don't think I know it.”

“Feverbane,” Anderson said absently. “Wards off agues and chills and such. Frostwyrms tend to spread them. That and just the cold itself, and blood loss and shock...”

“So I take it you'll be having some, then?”

Anderson blinked at her and shook his head a little, evidently thrown from some private line of thought. “Hm? What?”

Kath gave him an arch look. “I seem to recall seeing you sitting out there in the cold, bare-chested and up to your elbows in various unhealthy fluids.”

“Ah...right. That's not really...I don't exactly...” He sighed and trailed off in the face of Kath's unrelenting skepticism. “I mean, yes. Of course I'll drink some.”

She smiled with satisfied amusement. “What is it about doctors-all doctors, the skies over-that makes them fuss and fight and insist over their patients down to the last little scratch and drop of tonic in the bottle, but when it comes to their own selves all that care is nowhere to be seen? Is it something they teach you, or is it in the bones, you think?”

“Spend long enough knowing pain by sight and I suppose you forget how to know it by feel,” Anderson said quietly. He paused, then shrugged and said in a much less serious tone, “That, or we're all just ornery old fools.”

Kath studied his face, feeling that she should say something but unable to think what. Eventually she just shrugged and said, “That seems likely enough to me.”

She waited until Anderson had drifted off-to sickbay, or to his room, wherever it was he went at these times-took one last, long look at the frostwyrm's defeated visage, and went to join Samuel in the cockpit.

 Post subject: Re: Mage's Big Project
PostPosted: 05 Mar 2015, 21:49 
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Prepare — more communication from me than you've... maybe ever had?

The Time Being wrote:
Here, have a massive pile of text.

Ooh, I love those! Well, sometimes.

The Time Being wrote:
This is a project I have been working on for a long time. It's called Firescape and it is...I dunno, I want it to be an episodic series but we'll see how that turns out. Though the fact that I have actually finished two episodes of it is at least a huge step up from my previous projects.

Anyway, Firescape is a steampunk-magitech sort of series set in a world called Cobaul, which is basically a heck of a lot of open sky filled with floating islands, hovering islands and, of course, airships. It follows the crew of one of said airships, who are far-sailers, or what the rather uncouth in this setting might refer to as reach-rats: combination salvagers, explorers, traders and smugglers who spend most of their time in the Reaches, a catchall term for the open skies between settlements where all kinds of strange treasures and perils can be found. Naturally this leads to all kinds of exciting adventures. Those who know me, or know sci-fi, can probably guess which TV shows were responsible for inspiring a great deal of this and, by extension, the title.

Sounds fun. If I pronounce them with an exaggerated accent, the two titles sound nearly identical.

The Time Being wrote:
After working on this for so long I am pretty much just dying to show it to someone

I know these feelings.

The Time Being wrote:
...don't feel obliged to read it at all.

It's more fun to read things when I don't. Any recommendations for music while reading?

The Time Being wrote:
Any feedback that you might have at all would be hugely appreciated.

I actually do have a question here before I get started — what kind of feedback do you most want? Notes on concept? Style? Literally everything? Proofreading (which is better left to Dino)?

The Time Being wrote:
A warning: this does contain profanity, what the ESRB might refer to as 'fantasy violence'...

No worries, so do I.

The Time Being wrote:
Thank you for your time.

You're welcome.

Small Feedback Addendum: The first part held my attention well enough, though it lagged a bit towards the end, though I cannot say why. The characters seem rather interesting (and some of them a bit unnerving), and the style, aside from a few instances of inelegant variation, is clear and unobtrusive. I especially liked this passage:

where the setting sun seemed to simply wither away like an old ghost, leaving in its wake a sky haunted with fading evening light.

Though think it a little wordy, and that it might be better phrased as 'Where the setting sun simply withered away like an old ghost...'

I read through it while listening to music I normally listen to.

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 Post subject: Re: Mage's Big Project
PostPosted: 05 Mar 2015, 23:53 
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Literally any feedback.

I don't know that I can make any recommendations as to what to listen to while reading it. I can tell you that what went into writing it was mostly Steam Powered Giraffe, the Silent Comedy and Caravan of Thieves.

The first part held my attention well enough, though it lagged a bit towards the end, though I cannot say why.

Well if you find out, let me know.

 Post subject: Re: Mage's Big Project
PostPosted: 06 Mar 2015, 21:12 
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The Time Being wrote:
Literally any feedback.

Well, here you go; the document contains comments on about half of this first part.

The Time Being wrote:
The first part held my attention well enough, though it lagged a bit towards the end, though I cannot say why.

Well if you find out, let me know.[/quote]
Maybe because it felt like I had gotten a complete story segment, and then followed into something that seemed rather like more buildup to something else? I also might have been a little sleepy. I stopped in the above where I was tired from giving commentary, but that's a rather more labour-intensive thing than simply reading.

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 Post subject: Re: Mage's Big Project
PostPosted: 07 Mar 2015, 00:30 
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Duly noted, thanks. I'll restrain myself from replying point-by-point, but for future reference, here's a pronunciation guide for the names:

Spoiler: show
Saoirse: SEER-say (making the later shortening of it to 'Se as just 'say')
Dhuane: DHOO-en (rhymes with ruin)
Taverou: Tav-ROW
Chzanta: SHANT-a
Maixa: MY-sha

The proper pronunciation of 'Rvaptaran' requires a kind of humming 'rrr-vap' noise native to the Rvaptaran language which just about everyone else finds impossible to get their mouth around, but simply pronouncing it with the v silent is usually considered acceptable.

 Post subject: Re: Mage's Big Project
PostPosted: 07 Mar 2015, 13:22 
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I'll confess that so far I've only read the first excerpt. I will read the others later but I find it very hard to focus when sitting up at a computer to read. However, I must say that what I've read of this so far I like very much indeed. This kind of setting appeals to me and I've always loved your writing style. If this were a published novel I'd definitely buy it and would be very happy to lounge on a sofa with a large coffee beside me and totally immerse myself in it for hours at a time.

I can give detailed word-by-word feedback like Klarth has done if you'd like it but at this stage I imagine you might be more interested in the overall impression people have of it than proof-reading or comments on the style of individual sentences (and I have far fewer issues with those than Klarth seems to have found, though his one about 'exalted' probably should be fixed).


 Post subject: Re: Mage's Big Project
PostPosted: 08 Mar 2015, 23:43 
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The Time Being wrote:
Duly noted, thanks. I'll restrain myself from replying point-by-point...

You can feel free to make comments or ask questions, though I'm mostly expecting you to take what you like (if anything), and ignore what you don't.

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