Bastard shot me shot me in the back I'll kill him
Lord it hurts so much every breath hurts I'll kill him eat his face suck down his marrow
Honour of gentleman hello M. Hat means nothing to him he's dead
Think he's stopped Are you there M. Hat you must concentrate me I'll chase him anywhere
Just need to get back on my feet there'll be some of those savages left still FOCUS M. HAT can feed off them
Reed blinked his eyes open, aware that his interior monologue was taking a strange turn. He was used to the idea that his thoughts came out of darkness, but he still believed they in some way came from him. It seemed that at the moment his mind was picking up thoughts whose origin was not him. He tried to relax, painfully aware of the bullets lodged in his back and side, and attempted to stop his own thoughts from clouding his mind.
M. Hat my name is Gellin Casseotipash I am working for a one M. Avindonos
The master! Surus was trying to get in contact with him. Levering himself up into a cross-legged position, Reed centred himself, pushing aside the pain and the bloodthirsty thoughts of revenge. He had never been touched by a telepathist before, but assumed the clearer his mind and the more focused his thoughts, the better the communication would go.
shot me I am listening M. Casseotipash please inform M. Avindonos that I am M. Reed these days in the back
There was a pause, and Reed presumed that the thaumaturgist was relaying his answer to Surus. Then again, the thought that appeared like it could have been one of his own:
Where are you Reed Do you have the item
I am in the Bleacweald have not obtained the Seed shot me twice
He could picture his master's face, the controlled disappointment, the clenching of his jaw, the slightest hint of a frown. Oh how he loathed to fail Surus, the one man living in all the world who treated him with respect and dignity.
Who has it where are they taking it
A professor Celis Richamarl He says he is returning/following it to some tower at the centre of the world
Another long pause, in which Reed opened his eyes to night in the clearing, his predator's instincts drawing his eyes to the dead bodies of the tribesmen. Without thinking, his long tongue swept out of his mouth and licked his dry lips. He was mightily tempted to leap over to the nearest one and refresh himself, but he restrained. He was sure there was more to come.
You must continue your pursuit Reed The seed must be controlled on our terms alone Do you understand these instructions
Reed nodded to himself before he remembered that they could not possibly see him.
Affirmation Pursue the thieves Retrieve the Seed Return it to you
M. Avindonos is pleased with you Reed He will try to get in contact with you again soon if possible I am disengaging now
And with that, Reed was once again left alone with his thoughts. He sat unmoving for another few moments, just to be sure that the telepathist had truly left and then got to his feet slowly, his legs trembling with the effort.
Fortunate indeed that the betrayers had been kind enough to leave the bodies as they were, rather than burning or burying them – Reed by far preferred his meat fresh, but raw was definitely a runaway second.
Surus at this moment was sitting across from the telepathist, M. Casseotipash, with his fingers steepled in front of his face. The thaumaturgist looked terrible as he removed the so-called "mindscope" from his head, his eyes bloodshot and sunken, face pale and drawn, as if he had just spent the last two days smoking opium and drinking rotgut whiskey. But Surus was impressed with him, his invention had worked beautifully, allowing Gellin to transplant his thoughts into Reed's head and vice versa, over a distance that Surus would not have thought possible. Clearly there was some money to be made off Gellin Casseotipash, it was truly a damn shame that it would be Capal Scalargos who would be making all that profit.
'Was that helpful sir? I apologise for not being able to project longer, but it was almost further than I had ever attempted before,' Gellin said, breaking Surus from his thoughts.
Surus dismissed the mage's concerns with a friendly wave of his gloved hand, 'No no M. Casseotipash, your assistance was most helpful. Indeed, you have provided a dear service for me.'
And indeed he had. The information that Surus had learned was very interesting, not least that the Seed was now in the possession of that man Celis Richamarl. Oh, Surus had heard of him, it was almost impossible not to have – the professor seemed to find his way into the news gazettes every other day with reports on his incredible new finds and adventures. Surus was certain that Simonis had a collection of the bawdy pulp sensationals that were supposedly true to life stories of the archaeologist's adventures, the butler seemed to hide something away every time Surus called on him unexpectedly.
It was confusing though. The archaeologist - and presumably his shadow, the huge primitive, whatever his name was – was, if Surus could extrapolate from the man's past behaviour, trying to return the Seed to its source. But the man was heading as directly away from the city as was humanly possible, away, more specifically, from the tomb of Aphomet, who Surus assumed was the Seed's creator.
He stroked his chin thoughtfully, ignoring Gellin, who seemed content to sip his overly sweet tea quietly.
Both he and Dester Lutanilash had come to the conclusion that the Seed was some kind of repository for the Lord of Marrow's powers, a kind of battery that he had empowered before beginning his hibernation. Dester had wanted to return this power back to Aphomet, heralding his return to life. Surus on the other hand had planned to subvert the Seed and take the power for himself, usurping the master's throne.
It seemed that further thought was needed. If Richamarl was indeed following the Seed back to its creator, as Hat – or Reed or whatever – was implying then perhaps that analysis was mistaken. What, therefore, was this tower at the centre of the world?
Surus thought back to the Annals, the records of his Order. The most sacred and revered documents were the few written in Aphomet's own hand, now largely lost or left with only poorly translated copies.
Sitting silently across from the mage, Surus did recall that some of the earliest of the entries had pertained to a power above Aphomet that the Lord of Marrow had allegiance towards. Perhaps the Seed had been created by that being rather than the master. Surus shook his head sharply, startling Gellin.
There was simply no way to tell from here, and whatever the case, it was clear to him that he needed to control the Seed above all other concerns. Once it was back in his care he could make more informed decisions, whether they were to try and recreate Richamarl's progress, or try and unlock the Seed's secrets like he and Dester had originally theorised.
He was beginning to regret sending only Reed after the Seed, but at the time he thought that he had only a boy to contend with. He considered the rest of the Order, not many now, and mainly old men, they would have been little use to the ghoul in the field.
Surus considered his options. He could hire some mercenaries and try and send them by aerostat to convene with Reed. He weighed this option in his mind, on one hand, with overwhelming firepower there was little that Richamarl would be able to do to stop him, but on the other hand, Surus was not sure that he had the finances to outfit such a mission, or pinpoint Reed's location.
It seemed that he had to trust in his brother, Reed, to pursue and retrieve the Seed. He sighed loudly, once again evincing a concerned look from Gellin. He had cast his hand without knowing the field it seemed, and he would suffer the tugs and triumphs of fate.
It was a most dismal situation to find himself in. A situation to make a man desperate and desperate men are wont to do very foolish things.
Shaking a very bemused Gellin Casseotipash by the hand, Surus excused himself, and placing his top hat carefully onto his head, exited to the streets of Beg Torphimel and his waiting carriage.
'What in the Silgur's name is this Snarl anyway?' Shank had asked, after the second day of marching with few explanations, 'You and Sev had been a'tighter lipped than a dead lady!'
That had earned him another smack around the head from Jarla, who it seemed only stuck close to him in order to do so. But Richamarl had pulled up short and allowed Shank to catch up with him.
'To be honest with you Aiago, no one really knows,' he had started, tipping back his hat and wiping the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief, 'Sages and scientists have been arguing over that very question for as long as they've been able to argue, and I have yet to see a convincing answer. In essence it is simply a patch of land northwest of the Bleacweald. It is largely desert-like though plants and some trees have been seen to be growing in it, which would imply there are stores of water somewhere.'
'So, why "snarl" then?'
'Well, that is exactly it my boy, it is utterly impenetrable. Over the centuries, hundreds if not thousands of explorers, scientists and flat out fantasists have tried to map it, but they have either returned empty-handed or not at all. There is something in the nature of the land that defies our senses. Directions flip seemingly at random – you could be walking as straight as an arrow and end up following your own tracks, or even worse, heading in completely the opposite direction. If you have ever been mazed by a thaumaturge than you will know what I am talking about.
'No one can say why that particular slice of land is the way it is. Even mapping expeditions in aerostats have utterly disappeared. The University will no longer give funding for a research trip to the Snarl, simply because it has always, always been a waste of lives and resources.'
'So, what are we gonna do if the Orb rolls us there?'
Richamarl had no answer then, merely shrugging imperceptibly and soldiering on.
And now the Snarl stretched out before them, the Bleacweald coming to an abrupt end. They simply stepped past the trunk of another immense tree and that was it – the horizon opened out, only a few small shrubs and bushes continuing out onto the rocky wasteland ahead of them. The sun was high in the sky, they had been walking all morning and Richamarl decided to call them to a halt for their midday meal. It was slightly earlier than usual, but the time would allow them to come to some kind of decision over how to proceed into the fabled Snarl.
Sev dropped to the ground uncharacteristically heavily, the big man having had little time to fully recover from the various beatings he had received on the course of the expedition, and Shank could Richamarl eyeing him with concern.
They ate their dried meat and travel biscuits in relative silence for the pace set by the professor had been hard. Jarla had found it particularly difficult, for she had been imprisoned by the savages for some time. But Shank was impressed by her, she never complained, never asked for a break that was not given to her. He had found himself competing with her, not stopping unless she stopped, not complaining about the harsh pace until she did so first. At first it had been because she was a girl, and there was no way a girl was going to prove herself tougher than him. But eventually he discovered it was from a kind of fear, fear that he would show himself to be the liability on this expedition, the one who was slowing them down and holding them back. So he sank to the ground gratefully, his feet burning inside his boots that he dared not to remove, dreading that he might not be able to fit them on again.
Richamarl squatted down next to Sev, the man seemingly tireless.
'What do you think Sev, how should we do this?' Richamarl asked.
Sev finished chewing his mouthful, and washed it down with a swig of water before answering, 'It's the Snarl Celis. If anyone had any easy answers to that question, we wouldn't be looking for anything,' he shook his head and sighed, 'First things first, we should tie ourselves together, so no one wanders off alone. Secondly, as you said, the effect is much like a mazing, so I may be able to ward off some of the worst of it, but only if everyone stays close to me. Even then, with four people, I will not be able to last very long.'
Richamarl clapped his hands together with excitement, 'It's a start my friend, a very good start. Here, use my pen.' The professor handed over his pen to the waiting Sev, who motioned for him to roll up his sleeve.
Shank watched curiously as Sev gently slid his hand up from Richamarl's wrist, concentrating hard, before pointing at a spot on the professor's inner arm. Then, holding the limb steady, began to draw a shape with the pen on the skin.
'What's that? What's going on,' Shank said.
Sev was the one to answer, still leaning close to Richamarl's arm, 'Thaumatic energy, magic, can be more easily channelled through certain materials and forms. It is well documented that gold, and for some reason brass, are good conductors, while blood is the most unstable. Circles are also a common form for formulas and diagrammatics. With this,' he paused, scribbling some more lines on to Richamarl's arm, 'it should reduce the strain on me, as well as focus my efforts.'
He beckoned Jarla and Shank over as Richamarl tested the Orb and set the line of their travel. Straight into the heart of the Snarl.
In the time it took for Sev to finish the diagram on each of them, and to find the rope and attach it around the straps of their bags, Shank was feeling quite refreshed and actually eager to see what the Snarl had in store. For the past few minutes, Richamarl had been chatting excitedly, pointing out how the Snarl was positive evidence for the existence of their destination. He said that there was simply no magic in all the world that was capable of creating an effect as large and as pervasive as the Snarl. It looked more and more likely that Dr. Bost's theories on a Golden Age of culture and magic were correct, or at least, more true than what had been common scientific belief.
Richamarl made one last attempt at convincing Jarla to stay behind, offering to leave her with sufficient supplies and as best directions as he could offer to the nearest safety, but she again firmly refused. He had dragged her in the opposite direction of the guards in his rush to find his treasure and she figured that her best chance of survival stood with sticking as close to them, and Sev in particular, as possible.
So the group set out, taking their first few steps into the Snarl.
At first, Shank found nothing unusual about the experience. The ground underfoot was stony and he had to watch his steps, especially walking so close behind Jarla, but there was none of the confusion that he had expected, no fuzziness in his mind ruining his sense of direction. He looked to Sev, wondering whether it was his work that was keeping the Snarl's curse at bay, but the giant didn't seem to be doing anything, simply walking in Richamarl's footsteps.
The professor led them in a straight line, directly in the direction that the Orb had rolled in. Their didn't seem to be any major obstructions ahead of them, but of course, none of them could say that for sure. Shank was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about when he turned around to look how far they had come.
The forest was no longer behind them.
He made a confused noise in his throat, and Jarla must have heard for she twisted in place to look at him. He saw her eyebrows rise as she noticed what had happened. Shank spun his head, looking for the Bleacweald, seeing it off to the left of the direction of their travel. But that was impossible! He tracked the marks left by their footsteps in the loose gravel and they trailed behind them in a straight line. How then had they begun moving off at right angles?
Jarla tugged on the rope, stopping Sev and Richamarl, who looked up at the two of them questioningly.
'It's happening,' was all she said, pointing at the Bleacweald.
Richamarl cursed and Sev frowned, and Shank realised that they had not been aware of the change either.
So that was the true danger of the Snarl, it lured you in and then shifted with no warning and no sign. People expected to be able to sense magic, to resist it with strength of will. But there was no resisting this. You didn't even know it was happening.
'Alright everyone, we shall set ourselves again and Sev shall try warding off the mazing. Stay close,' said Richamarl, pulling the Orb from his bag and placing it on the ground. After watching it roll a yard in a direction at an angle to their line of travel he picked it back up and nodded at Sev.
Sev took a deep breath and then started muttering under his breath, letting Richamarl almost pull him along, his hands bunched into fists with the strain.
It was no use though. Within moments, Sev's brow was streaming with sweat, and he was trembling, unable to both walk and channel. Shank looked to their rear and saw that they were actually closer to the forest than when Sev had begun his chanting.
'Oi Prof. This isn't no working. Sev doesn't look good, and we ain't getting nowhere.' Shank said loudly, pulling up beside Sev.
Richamarl nodded, his jaw tight, but did not saw anything. Shank could see that the frustration was getting to him, and he wondered what it was like for the man, to come across a barrier that not even his indomitable drive could overcome.
'Does the Snarl stop us from a'leaving,' asked Shank.
'The effect is the same whatever direction you are travelling in,' muttered Sev hoarsely.
Shank's shoulders slumped, 'So we're dead then?'
Beside him, Jarla rubbed her temples, 'Answer me this professor,' Richamarl glanced at her but said nothing.
'That orb thing that we are following. It is leading us to a destination right?'
He nodded noncommittally.
'So,' she glared at him, 'why aren't we following it now?'
Everyone stared at her, at then looked at each other.
Richamarl swept off his hat and threw it onto the dusty ground, 'In the name of Silgur woman you are a genius! Why didn't I think of it before?' he strode over to Jarla and taking a hold of her shoulders, 'If I were the impulsive type I would marry you here and now!'
She gave him a dark look which he ignored.
'Of course, the Orb will be attracted to the tower in whichever direction it lies. It might not lead us in a straight line, but by Silgur, it will lead us on the right line!' He scrambled into his bag, digging out the Orb and kneeling to place it on the ground.
'But we must not dawdle my friends. We cannot afford to lose sight of the Orb or we may be lost in this hellish place unto our lingering deaths.' He looked up at Sev, who still looked a bit pale.
'Are you able to walk Sev? We can have a rest if you would like?'
Sev shook his head, 'No, I can walk. I just was not expecting the... magnitude of this place's power.'
'Tally ho then!'
Richamarl released the Orb, which after a moment began to roll. With a whoop, Richamarl set after it, the rest of the group following close behind.
He had their scent. All of them.
But most especially the betrayer, the green-eyed one, the thundermaker. The enemy's actual name was a distant memory that he had no real inclination to pursue, it was unimportant. Only two things remained to him now. The mission, from kinleader, and the hunt, the bloody vengeance.
He had lost most of the trappings of civilisation. His close were torn and shredded, his white skin peeking through. His shinies that he so treasured were either long gone or barely hanging onto what remained of his waistcoat. His name he had discarded.
On the second afternoon he had stumbled upon a small group of the savages. It seemed they were on their way to the clearing, to try and discover what had happened to their god and fellow tribesmen. He had fallen on them like a fox entering a henhouse, hands hooked like talons and teeth bared.
When he had emerged from his murder he was sheathed in human blood, and full to bursting point. He did not bother to try and hide the remains, let the savages find them, let them truly fear the dark spaces in the forest. If he was to herald the return of the Black Lord of Marrow, he would do it in the appropriate manner... with sacrifice.
Revitalised by his feasting on fresh meat, his long-legged stride ate up the miles, always in pursuit of that scent that led him ever northwards.
Eventually the forest ended, rather suddenly, leaving him blinking in the sharp, painful glare of sunlight. He slunk back to the cool shade of the trees and took stock. Something in the back of his mind was warning him, telling him to take care, but he could not pin down what it was. Something about a place far to the north which ate men up and did not even spit up their bodies.
He quickly found the remains of another of the group's camps, although it did not seem like they stayed long here, no fire had been built and there were no marks of tents being constructed. He felt like he was getting closer and he let out a satisfied hiss.
He felt powerful, strong, every movement thrumming taut with purpose. He did not fear the wasteland. Whatever lived within should fear him.
The ghoul took in a deep breath, and ran after the scent of his prey.
Following behind the Orb was a much different experience than simply walking in the Snarl. For one thing, they did not walk in a straight line, anything but. Every few yards the Orb would veer off in another direction, sometimes almost along the path it had previously travelled. Their road was like a winding snake, or a length of string thrown haphazardly onto a map. But that was not the worst of it, no, the worst thing was the horizon. Every time the group changed direction, the distance landmarks would shift about them, blurring as the world seemed to twirl about them, as if they were the pivot and the landscape was painted on sheets that revolved about them. Shank had long since learned to keep his eyes on the ground at his feet, trusting Jarla to lead him the right way, the nausea he felt as the horizon acted in such a completely unnatural way too much for him to bear.
They came across the first of the aerostats late in the afternoon of the first day. It snuck up on them, appearing as the Orb turned around a striated boulder – the wreck emerging from the ground like a grey and rusting whale from the ocean's surf. Richamarl immediately rushed to pick up the Orb as they wordlessly investigated. For Shank, who had never in his short life been anywhere near as close as he was to one of the airships, it was a novel and exciting experience and he ducked under the metal struts and ribs that stuck out from the loose desert soil. Richamarl and Sev put their heads together and spoke quietly, while Jarla just took the opportunity to get off her feet.
Shank was wandering through the skeleton of the ship, marvelling at its size and how it might have looked with its gasbag inflated, when he stumbled across a pair of skeletons. Startled, he clutched at his chest and jumped back, taking some deep breaths. He had no idea how long the bodies had been there, but they had been stripped to the bone, not a single shred of flesh remaining. He lifted his gaze to look out across the Snarl, suddenly wondering just how empty it really was.
He hurried back to Richamarl's side, intruding on their discussion.
'I would agree Sev, definitely a Queraji vessel, the High Querish script really leaves us with no other option.' Richamarl said, moving amongst the metal parts, 'But would you care to estimate the period?'
Sev tilted his head from one side to the other, looking up and down the length of the wreck thoughtfully, 'Conclave era, but the burn damage makes it hard to be more accurate, and Quer was never very original with their designs.'
Shank followed Sev's point and noticed the black seared and bubbling metal. It looked like the aerostat had been pulverised by some intense jet of heat. No wonder it had crashed, there was no way the delicate balloon would have been able to withstand that kind of punishment.
'I concur,' said Richamarl, stroking his moustache, 'Perhaps this explains why no airship mission over the Snarl has returned, though I must admit it is not the explanation I was expecting. What could have caused this kind of damage? A weapon of some type we do not know of? Thaumaturgy?'
'Igniting the gases would leave scorch marks. Admittedly nothing like what we have seen here,' said Sev, lightly shrugging.
The group explored the wreckage for a few moments more, but it was soon clear that nothing they would find would explain the mystery of the ships violent end, so once again, Richamarl laid the Orb on the ground, and they set after it.
They soon found that the Queraji aerostat was by no means the only skeleton in the Snarl. League by league than came across more of the ruins, most burned with similar marks as to the first ship, but others torn to pieces by some massive tearing and rending force. Richamarl absentmindedly made a comparison with the wounds that arcadiles' teeth left in meat and Shank found himself sticking even closer to his fellow men as he walked, his eyes scanning the desert for any approaching lizards.
The days were exhausting, not simply because of the stress of the landscape on the mind, but also because the terrain was difficult to negotiate, with great gashes in the earth that either had to be climbed through, or avoided. With all directionality lost, it was impossible to tell whether these diversions were costing or saving them time. Whatever the case, when the Orb brought them past a small spring surrounded by green leafed trees, it was universally decided that they would stop and camp for the night. The Orb was returned to its place in Richamarl's bag and the tents were erected skilfully and quickly by Shank and Sev while Jarla prepared a fire. Over the days of their expedition, Shank had been pleased to find his skills as an outdoorsman were increasing and putting up a tent no longer held any frustration for him.
The water from the spring had been sweet and surprisingly cool, and had been a wonderful opportunity for each of them to clean the grime of both the Bleacweald and the Snarl from their skin for the first time in what seemed like an eon. Shank, who was not normally the cleanliest of individuals, sighed in pleasure as he felt the sweat run off his face.
Richamarl, surprisingly for a gentleman in the company of a woman, had stripped to his waist and was sluicing water across his chest with an absurd grin underneath his bushy moustache. Shank was shocked to see that the man's entire torso was mangled by hundreds of small circular bite marks. The professor met his gaze and after a moment of confusion at the horror on both his and Jarla's faces, he looked down at his chest and smiled ruefully.
'Not the most pleasant of sights is it now ma'am?' said Richamarl.
Jarla shook her head, 'That it is not Professor. Can I?'
Richamarl nodded slowly and she stood from the pot of stew she was cooking. She gingerly poked a finger against one of the marks, and Sev looked up from whatever it was he was doing.
'Sweet Silgur, even your back is covered in 'em,' Jarla exclaimed, 'I've never seen anything like 'em. They are almost leech bites, but you couldn't have been bitten that many times.'
Richamarl shook his head, 'No, not leeches. These are the sucker marks of a marsh kraken.'
Shanks brow creased in ignorance and the professor spotted the look.
'It's a creature that makes its home in marshes and swamps; it is not a true cephalopod like the krakens of the ocean depths, but is more like a vicious plant or fungus. This one would have killed me in pretty short order if it weren't for Sev being there,' Richamarl gave the big man a private little smile, '...as usual.'
Embarrassed by the intimacy of the moment, Shank shook out his hair and hobbled over to check the stew. He was quickly joined by Jarla, who winked at him.
'Better give those two their space eh?' she said slyly.
Shank looked back at her blankly.
The next day things began to change. Where the ground they had been walking over for the most part had been loose, dusty soil or naked rock, they now strode over what appeared to be fitted paving stones, each wider in length and breadth than Sev Van Tai lying on his back. The Professor had been thrilled when he had first noticed them, dropping to his knees and examining them closely, trying to determine how they had been constructed and fitted together. Shank had been infected by Richamarl's excitement for a few minutes but it quickly wore off when he realised he was getting excited about stones. He had wandered over to Jarla while Richamarl and Sev exclaimed the improbability of a whole desert being paved.
The woman was still something of a mystery to Shank. She spoke to him whenever he asked her question, and apart from the times when she found an excuse to cuff him around the head, she was a pleasant companion, one who knew a surprising number of the tall sea stories that Shank liked to bandy around. But, at the same time, he knew very little about her or where she had come from before the savages had captured her. The fact that she had uncomplainingly stepped into perhaps the most deadly region of the world was something that Shank was not prepared to simply overlook. She was something else, that was certain.
At the moment, she stood at the limit of the length of rope that tied her to Sev, gazing back the way they had came, as much as that meant in the Snarl.
'See anything much?' Shank asked, stopping just behind her.
Jarla shook her head, 'I thought I did, a flash of something in the distance, but it's either gone now, or was never there in the first place.'
He strained his eyes, looking in the direction she was facing, but he couldn't see anything unusual, so shrugged and jammed his hands into his pockets, fishing for something to fiddle with. All he could find was the crumbly remains of a travel biscuit, so in wont of something more interesting to do, he pushed it into his mouth.
'I really hate this horrible place,'
Shank gave Jarla the best sympathetic look he could manage with his mouth full of sweaty, mouldy biscuit and nodded in agreement.
Either the professor heard her sentiment, or the pair had decided that there was little more they could deduce from the existence of the stones and the group set off again, their pace increasing now that they were walking on the flat. From time to time they were even forced to jog forwards in order to make sure that the Orb did not escape from them.
Due to the way the Snarl forced one to walk with their gaze looking firmly at the ground in front of them, none of the group was looking to the sky, and by the time they noticed the shadow that was looming down upon them, it was far too late.
In the city he had grown up in, Shank had occasionally come across drakes. They were usually the luxuries of the rich and influential, a symbol to express their position in the world. They were pitiful creatures, normally no bigger than a dog and always a disappointment. When Shank had been younger, and running the streets cutting purses, a friend of his, a waif of a girl who resolutely called herself Grace, had breathlessly told him that she had seen a dragon. The two of them had dashed through the streets, him only a step behind her, while images of golden scaled fire breathers winged their way through his imagination.
When they had finally arrived in White Shades, to spy on the gathering of gentlemen and their ladies, they were both puffing hard, but Shank still found himself holding his breath while he tried to follow Grace's pointing finger. What he saw murdered the creature in his mind.
It was a product of the sculptor's art, even at a young age he could recognise that. It's too small wings twitched fitfully as grafted nerves misfired against an alien nervous system, and its glossy silver scales impeded the movements of its limbs, giving it an awkward stiff gait as its master pulled it along. Like all the others that Shank had spied since in his short life, it was a product of the flesh factories, a cosmetic project that turned some lizard into a temporary fancy for the amusement of the wealthy. The thin puffs of smoke that the customers demanded would burn and sear the beasts' lungs and throats, sentencing them to permanent fits of coughs and blistering pain, and the creatures rarely lasted more than a season.
The winged behemoth that descended upon them was to those baubles as the Steam Palace was to a kettle.
The party was blown from their feet by the down sweep of the immense leathery wings, and they all dove for cover as the weight of the monster impacted on the ground with a shuddering thump. There was no time to run, no shelter to seek on the flat and featureless plaza and the rope that linked them together prevented them from scattering in all directions.
Celis Richamarl, hero of a thousand encounters with creatures of every shape and size, found himself shouting in disbelief as he scrabbled around in the dust, one hand holding his hat onto his skull, the other shielding his eyes from the flying particles of dust and sand that threatened to blind him. He felt a tugging around his waist, and turned onto his back to see Aiago trying to crawl away one way while Jarla scuttled in another. He reached for his holsters, hoping to at least grab the attention of the great lizard so the others might have a chance, and cocking the hammer back, turned to face it.
Jaws large enough for a horse to trot comfortably through opened. Great man-height spikes burst through the hide of the mouth, pitted and seared black teeth that protruded out from the jaw. The huge muscle of the tongue, purple and thick with saliva and oils, forked like any lizard, tasting the air in sinuous curves. The heavy and blunt tentacles that draped down from the upper jaw, furling and curling like ferns, reaching hungrily.
It was too much to take in as a single creature, and Richamarl could not help but dart his concentration from feature to feature, before his sense was blown from him with the trembling, bone-shaking roar that the beast, the dragon, released. Louder than any noise that man could create by nature or artifice, and more sonorous than even the fog horns of the ironclad ocean-going vessels of Beg Torphimel, it replaced thought with sound, and drove them down to their knees, both in mind as in the flesh.
The head swung from side to side, and Richamarl could see the small luminous eyes that considered them, the gleam of thought. Long bundles of coarse, trunk think hairs sprouted from behind the horned plates the adorned the dragon's head. Its skin was covered in scales and thick armour that looked more like stained metal than bone. Easily bigger than many houses, it was suddenly clear what had downed the aerostats that littered the Snarl.
No one spoke, the only noise on the warped plain, was the gusting breaths of the monster. It seemed in no rush to gobble them up and Richamarl tore his gaze from it, turning his head to look at his companions. They, like him only a moment before, were staring open-mouthed at the leviathan, and he could not stop himself from breaking into a grin.
He had always considered himself a fairly open-minded gentleman, ready to apprehend any fact that might present itself to his consideration. But this creature, this myth made real, it was almost too much, too huge. It was tempting to believe that it was an apparition conjured up by the power that twisted the Snarl, another trap of the mind of the cursed ground, but it was a theory that he could not keep a hold of. The dragon was simply too real¸ too heavy, like it was clay model as compared to a pencil drawing.
Truly, he had stepped into the past now.
He noticed again that he was still holding onto his pistol and glanced at Sev, who was muttering under his breath, his brow furrowed in concentration. Richamarl did not know a great deal about hex or cants, but he clearly recognised that Sev was gathering his strength for some kind of magic. Richamarl's grin creased his cheeks, Sev muttering was the thaumatic equivalent of a bare-knuckle boxer rolling up his sleeves.
The forelimbs of the dragon, far too short for its size, met under the weight of its bulk, wringing together like it was some sort of gargantuan fly considering its next meal of rancid meat. Slowly, ensuring he made no sudden movements, Celis pushed himself to his feet, drawing out his other pistol as he did, and held them cocked at his side. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Sev rising, scooping some sand into one hand.
So long since the little ones have come so close to the centre, oh yes
The voice bloomed in Richamarl's mind like a thorny rose, bypassing his ears, and his understanding of languages, and unfolding as pure meaning. He dropped both his revolvers and clapped his hands to his temples, disorientated and blinded for a moment by the pain behind his eyes. At his side, Jarla and Aiago cried and covered their ears. Sev merely frowned and gritted his teeth, turning his face away as if pushing through a gale.
Shank howled as the voice of the dragon replaced any cohesive thought he had with its own too big meanderings. The Orb, which he had leapt on as the dragon has descended, almost dropped from the crook of his elbow as he covered his ears, instinctively trying to block out a voice that was not a noise.
Curious Mother Aörga is. Many of your kind has she pulled from the sky, but none have ventured so deep. What magicks guards your minds? Who has sent you? Does beautiful Sil seek forgiveness, or terrible Caldur mercy? The Most High will not see-
The cry was not torn from Shank's lips and he squinted through eyes that had been squeezed shut in pain. Sev Van Tai was standing in front of them, hands upraised and held wide, a tiny bastion between them and the gargantuan monster that loomed over them. The dragon cocked its scaly head, swinging its jaws to the side so it could bring one beady eye to stare at Sev.
Shank looked closer, pushing himself to his knees, and could see that Sev was straining, the muscles in his thick neck taut wires. Slowly, the big man brought his palm to his forehead.
A moment of silence passed, the dragon and Sev staring each other down. Then the great beast heaved, its tiny forelegs slapping together, the head swinging from side to side and the foursome was blasted with the hot, wet air of its breath. Shank cringed, expecting to see Sev either vaporised by a spear of flame or picked up by a tentacle and gulped down.
It soon became apparent that the creature was not going to kill Sev, and Shank began to relax once more. He lived in what he knew was the greatest city in all the world, and it was definitely the most cosmopolitan, with creatures of all manner of species interacting and one thing that he had noticed was that amusement manifested in all of them. A capriman's bleating cackle or the ichthyican's breathy hunf hunf, every creature he had come across had a way of expressing its delight.
The dragon was laughing at them.
He almost smiled and tried to meet the gaze of Jarla or the Professor, but both of them were getting to their feet apprehensively. Richamarl still hadn't put away his pistols, but he had eased the hammers forward and Shank couldn't help but grin. The dragon wouldn't have even felt the tiny bullets pinging against its skin, but he admired the Professor's bravery.
The voice that came next was not the bloody thunder that had sent the humans to their knees, rather it was a tentative whisper, a gentle probe that did not replace their thoughts but simply slid up alongside them.
Apologies little ones. Mother Aörga forgets how small you are, how delicate your tiny minds are. Aörga can barely hear the voice of the sorcerer.
He sidled up to the Professor, Jarla closing in on the other side.
'What do we do Celis,' Shank asked, gaze locked on the dragon, which had focussed almost completely on Sev – their "sorcerer".
'Little we can do Aiago, until we know the intentions of this "Aörga" – whether we must fight or if she will allow us to pass.'
'I suppose fleeing isn't an option for you, is it Professor,' Jarla asked under her breath.
Richamarl's only reply was a stubborn grin under his moustache. Looking from him to the dragon, Shank decided that he would not be the one standing up to the beast, and he fiddled with flick knife he had secreted in his pocket. He would slice the rope as soon as things went balls up and run. After all, he would be protecting the Orb and the Professor would want that, wouldn't he? That was what they had come all this way for and it was the only way they could reach their goal.
It was the right decision.
What brings the little ones to Mother Aörga's home?
Sev's shot Richamarl a look, silently questioning and the professor nodded, his expression set.