Short Story (Part 2): When The Tide Comes In

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Last week our intrepid party-goer Ellie met a rather curious bar-tender and found herself in a bit of a pickle as she hit the bathroom floor. The question is, where did she wake up?

(What do you mean you didn’t read last weeks installment? What are you waiting for, it’s right here: When The Tide Comes In Part 1)

And so the story continues……


2

Ellie remembered a bathroom floor.

Had she managed to throw up?

She was groggy, but the cold air blowing in from the car window was bringing her around from some nightmare about an old aeroplane. The car bucked and bounced through a pot hole. Jon must have found her and they were on their way home….

Next to her she heard voices speaking low.

“Jon?” she murmured, still half gone.

Damn, it felt cold. Didn’t he have the heating on?

Her eyes cracked opened in search of the window winder but instead found the cramped interior of a truck. The sound of its heavy engine surfaced through the haze of her thoughts as a sudden wave of cold morning air swirled in under the heavy canvas covering. The chill snapped her fully awake; she was wedged between two soldiers, and her head throbbed with a persistent ache. She reached up and probed the bandage gingerly.

“What the f – ?”

The truck bounced through a deep pot hole, nearly pitching her to floor but for the strong hand that held her steady. She looked into the face of the soldier next to her, weariness and resignation haunting his face. He nodded at her and went back to staring at the floor.

Ellie took a deep breath and closed her eyes against the vertigo rising up through the soles of her feet. There had been a bar…. the pill….. Was she still tripping? Dreaming perhaps? But it was all so real as she looked around at the soldiers, eyes glazed and staring at nothing, rifles held across laps or stood upright between their legs. No one seemed to have the energy to speak beyond a few mutters of gratitude for the pack of cigarettes being passed around like a form of communion, and she wasn’t about to refuse this small salvation from absurdity. The soldier next to her struck a match, lit up and offered her the flame.

She nodded her thanks and a moment later sat back with eyes closed against the weightlessness of her mind. She felt like a dandelion seed desperately clinging to its stalk while the wind howled and raged…..

*   *   *

It was the voice, not the name it called, that roused from the vague respite of slumber.

“Aphelia?”

Ellie stared into Jon’s face, but the schism in her mind was prepared this time. The man standing over her wasn’t the same Jon she knew: he wore a flying jacket similar to hers, his hand gripping the overhead rail as he looked on her with grave expression. Despite the knowing that it wasn’t him she couldn’t hold the name back, “Jon?”

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “It’s me, Theran.”

“S-sorry…. I…..”

“And who’s Jon?” Theran asked with a smile trying to cover his worry.

“No one, I…. I just got confused.”

“Not to worry. We’re nearly back.”

“Good,” Ellie replied, closing her eyes again. She took a deep breath to steady herself, and searched through her mind for the thread of reality that told her this was all a dream, but instead there was only a void, and she was floating between two memories: both were hazy, like dreams, and she didn’t know which one to go to any more. When she tried to retrace her steps, the place she wanted to go to receded further away until the memories she tried to coax from her brain just seemed like faint after images; she’d been at a party, with other people somewhere, and there had been a stranger in dark clothes. He had given her something and she had woken up here….

Or she had been in a plane crash and just dreamed about a party. That was the more probable explanation. As she wrestled with her thoughts the truck started to slow until it halted and soldiers began to stand, shuffling about and jumping out the rear.

“Like the fucking Matrix or something….” she muttered and opened her eyes to find Jon – no, Theran – staring at her with concern.

“What’s the Matrix?”

She frowned. “You know, I can’t remember. It’s a…. book, maybe?”

“The medic said you might have a mild concussion,” he said.

Ellie shook her head. “I don’t think that’s the problem….”

“You’ll be fine,” said Theran with a wide grin. “Which is good, because we’ll have to be back in action for tonight.

“Tonight?”

“Aye, can’t be flying without my navigator.”

“Navigator?”

“I swear, you must have bumped your head harder than I thought,” he chuckled and jumped down from the back of the truck. “Come on, it’s not much of a trek back.”

Ellie got up and followed Theran to the rear of the truck, hopping down onto a hard packed, gravel strewn road. As she stood in the morning light there didn’t seem too much out of the ordinary. The land here was a mossy heathland, purple heather and soft clouds scudding across the chill sky. The confusion she had felt was like a lurking discomfort, but every time she passed through it her mind became clearer: how could she have forgotten that she was Theran’s co-pilot and navigator? They had flown over a hundred night missions in their time together. Last night they had been on the return from bombing the hordes of creatures collectively known as the Tide when an engine failure had forced them down. They had been lucky to ditch on their side of the Front.

“Stand clear!” someone shouted, snapping her out her recollections as the truck ambled off in an arc, heading back the way it had come; it was heading back to retrieve more of the soldiery as they fell back. Ellie watched it dwindle away, passing an approaching truck laden with more retreating troopers, then she turned to follow Theran up the road –

– and gasped.

“What’s the matter?” asked Theran. “You look like you’ve never seen home before.”

They were a good mile off yet still the edifice’s tiered walls rose immense against the sky, bristling with artillery emplacements and gun platforms. The bulk of it was sunk into a rocky cliff face, and access was across a bridged chasm and through a heavily fortified gatehouse. This was the last redoubt of human courage, the hardened spirit of survival made from concrete and steel. It’s walls were thick enough to resist anything that the Tide had thrown at it, and it’s cannon barrages could pound any attack for mile upon mile, thinning their numbers with each step forward.

For a moment she stood amazed, as if she really hadn’t seen it before, but the fortresses name sprang instantly to mind, as if it had been there all along like a book forgotten on a shelf just waiting for her finger to run the length of its spine.

Bastion; last redoubt of a beleaguered humanity.

Aphelia was home.

*   *   *

Via the bridge and through the gatehouse, Aphelia and Theran made their way through the armoured bulk of the fortress for over two miles until they reached the enclosed airfields on the other side. Row upon row of assorted biplane stood waiting, engineers and crews working on those that had made it back and those that were to fly soon. These represented the last of their airborne capabilities, a hodgepodge of retrofitted civilian aircraft, trainers and purpose built scout bombers.

It was a scene so familiar that Aphelia wondered how she could have ever been confused about where she belonged. It was her workaday world, the reality she had lived for years as she and Theran bombed the advancing Tide over and over, sometimes flying three, four, even five sorties in any twenty four hour period until they bought themselves respite for a week, maybe two. Even so, the Front was a constantly shrinking series of trenches as humanity slowly retreated from the apparently unending numbers of the enemy.

The weight of that knowledge settled on her then, the nudging worry that the enemy was getting closer and closer, day by day. Yet somehow this place had become a mental fortress against the creep of an inevitable end. It’s walls were high and thick, impervious like its defenders.

So too did they had food, water and enough raw materials and manufacturing capability to last many more years. The notion that they could hold was reinforced upon them every day by the sermons of the Clerics who rallied spirits with their exhortations to not lose hope, to fight on, for the enemy must have its limits and it was humanity’s task to rain fire on the unholy creatures until those limits were found, until their numbers ran dry. It was a burden that Theran embraced with casual enthusiasm, dragging Aphelia in his wake day in and day out.

And right now he was gearing up to take them straight back out there, despite ditching in the field and with a navigator-cum-co-pilot who might have mild concussion. It had clearly caused some sort of strange bifurcation of her thoughts when she had bumped her head, but she was fine now, wasn’t she? As her comrades in the hangars hailed them with cheers she was certain the fugue in her mind had passed off.

“Aphelia! Aphelia!” roared a woman who looked like she could wrestle a bear. The ground veritably shook as the giant engineer Merrietta came running and scooped her up in her arms. “Dah! When I heard you had were down I feared the worse, but here you are with a head wrapped in bandages.”

“It’s nothing,” said Aphelia.

“Nothing? Pah!” snorted Merrietta and poked a finger at Theran. “I told this buffoon that the kite needed more work. Now he has lost us a plane and nearly lost us you.”

“Hey,” Theran held up his hands, “It wasn’t a complete waste. I managed to radio in the movement through the Gottane Valley.”

Merrietta nodded. “Dah, they are squeezing us tighter and tighter. I hear most of the troopers made it out.”

Theran smiled. “So, one plane for how many soldiers?”

“I’ll let you have this one then,” replied Merrietta and crossed her arms, returning her eyes to Aphelia. “More importantly, if you hadn’t made it back, then you were going to leave me that bottle of rum, dah?”

Aphelia grinned. “No chance of me not coming back while there’s still a drop of that left. I could use a glass right about now.”

“That,” Theran interjected, “Will have to wait until after we make a report to the captain.”

Aphelia groaned as Theran began to drag her away, and all she could do was give Merrietta an apologetic shrug before falling in line with Theran as the engineer waved and went back to her tasks with a rueful smile.

In the middle ground of the hangars stood the aerial command bunker, and together the pair descended through cordons of guards and officials, down corridors lined with bare bulbs hanging from cords. They were directed to a briefing room where Captain Nerrund sat amid a whirl of paperwork; he was the eye of a storm as his three secretaries organised, tidied and redeployed orders and communiques before they were lost to the constant threat of over-spill.

Theran knocked and the whirlwind paused. A moment later they stood before Nerrund who had suddenly become an isle of calm peering over his steepled fingers with faint gratitude.

“Good to have you back. You were instrumental to our successful withdrawal.”

“Thank you sir,” Theran saluted. Aphelia followed suit.

“And,” Nerrund continued, “I can see you’re ready for more.”

“Of course sir.”

“What about you?” Nerrund asked Aphelia. “You have a head wound?”

“Just a bump,” Aphelia replied. “I’m fine.”

Nerrund sighed. “I’ll have to take your word for it because tonight you’ll be flying resupply.”

“Fly by?”

Nerrud nodded and Aphelia groaned. “Fly by” meant skimming the ground and dropping supplies literally on top of the friendlies. While she had never missed a target, it was the most stressful kind of mission because you couldn’t make a mistake.

That, and the fact that there were Tidlings that could jump high enough to reach the plane. She’d seen it happen before: a crew in front were intercepted by dozens of creatures resembling giant, multicoloured frogs. They came arcing through the air like a jet of water, splashing over the plane and causing it to plummet. Theran and Aphelia has pulled up just in time to escape a similar fate.

“Who are they?” Theran asked.

“We have an outpost in the Chencorn Pass that was cut off. They’re still broadcasting, and the main flow of the Tide is heading past them on the east side. We’ll try and give them enough time for us to move the 7th Artillery Battery up from Pallasad and clear a path for them. So once you resupply you’ll be flying straight back out and pounding the Tide to stem the flow on the eastern side.”

“Very good sir. Who’ll be flying cover?”

“Sorry,” Nerrund shook his head. “You’ll be flying without escort.”

“That’s madness,” Theran retorted, then remembered himself, “Sir.”

“It’s unfortunate, but nothing I can do. We’re low on numbers and I need them covering the artillery.”

“But – ”

“Those big guns are sitting ducks, while you have the advantage of speed over the enemy.”

“No good if we fly straight into them. It’s a full moon out there, and they’ll see us coming if they’re looking.”

“Of course,” sighed Nerrund, trying not to bristle. “I don’t like it any better than you do, but we’re stretched and there’s a whole battalion of troops out there. I have to weight the risks – a half dozen resupply planes against the loss of an artillery battery and a battalion of men. I’m sorry, but I can only do what I can do. You’ll have to pray that it clouds over.”

“But sir – ”

“Dismissed!” snapped Nerrund in a voice that brooked no argument. Everyone stiffened. Theran’s jaw bunched and he looked like he was chewing a mouthful of bees as Nerrund added. “You’ve got six hours to rest, so I suggest that you make the most of it.”

“Yes sir.”

The pair saluted and made to leave.

“And Aphelia,” Nerund called after her, “Get that head of yours looked at.”

“Yes sir.” With a casual salute she pulled the door closed behind her and found that Theran had disappeared. She sighed, and went to find Merrietta.

It was time for that glass of rum.

End of Part 2


Check out the next episode as our heroine has an (un)expected visitor and takes to the air in Part 3: When The Tide Comes In

Hope you’re all keeping sage and sane out there.

Peace.

DJC


Brain Boil: Mind-Thistle Reloaded

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Heads turned to see me, arms raised to the sky and imploring existence to “give me a goddamn notebook!”

School mothers quirked worried smiles at me as my son stopped his bike and said “are you alright daddy?”

No! Not at all, for my brain had caught alight and I had no means by which to write down the idea that had bloomed, fully fledged, into my mind.

Damnation!

Long experience has taught me that if you delay, you shall be lost: there you are, sitting in bed when this idea comes to you and you say “I’ll remember that in the morning,” the reality is that, no, you wont.

And you don’t…..

Balanced on a knife’s edge I had to keep the idea in my head.

I dropped the little one at the school gate and then, mumbling like some mad monk reciting a litany, I strode home without delay to unburden myself with pen and paper.

But what was it that triggered this incendiary brain boiling?

THE ACCELLERANT

I was wasting time browsing the hot guff that is Facebook when I came across an advert for Spire’s End, a card game based on the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. Intrigued, I did a little digging: it starts with a mysterious spire popping up in town, so you pick an adventurer and an ally and you play through the story by working through the deck of cards, making decisions and fighting monsters.

Awesome!

It recalled those old Choose Your Own Adventure books – I had some hazy memory of one about giant robots with a basic RPG element. A little more digging and I found that many of the old books are being reprinted (a moment later and I’d bought a cheap reprint of Deathtrap Dungeon), and that there are authors who are writing modern takes on it.

In fact, there’s a whole, thriving community of CYOA writers and readers!

And I’m thinking, “maybe I could do that?”

But first I would need a setting and a story……

As if in answer to my half formed thoughts, I got a review posted on the Fantasy Writers Forum for The Mind-Thistle Run:

“This smashes it in my opinion. I loved the character development, and the combination of Dune meets The Odyssey. The Mind-Thistle desert was a brilliant concept, allowing your characters to grapple with their inner demons and the reader to get a beautiful, non-info-dump insight into their back story. I love the way you built the suspense as it unfolded – the deadly Sweep impelling their actions.”

Not only did that make my day, but it solidified the idea that I was going to rework the flawed swashbuckling tale into something totally awesome.

GOT A MATCH?

Excited about the prospected, the fuel was on the fire. The ol’ grey matter was beginning to do it’s thing. I could see the end result, but how would I get there?

First I checked the obligatory “how do I……” search engine results for writing a CYOA. The online sources showed me that it was feasible – I would have to write maybe five plot lines, then problem solve where they intersected and be careful of contradictions.

But what was the actual story going to be? I couldn’t use the narrative as it was……

Next morning I went about the morning routine: caffeinated the wife and fueled the boy. Everyone was set to get to their place of labours, and I was looking forward to getting to the office.

But without any warning BOOM!

Like a fermenting bottle of moonshine it just popped as I was walking down the road.

The story would be this:

At the port of Irongate several ‘interested parties’ have learned of the secret temple (from the priest in the original whose secret was never revealed). It lies on the other side of the Mind-Thistle Desert. They set out to reach it, but the cyclical flooding of the desert low lands is about to occur (The Sweep). It’s a race against time, and each other, to cross the desert and reach the Temple to find its mysterious treasure.

Along the way there are all manner of choices, decisions and monsters. What started as a story was now getting game play elements – a race against time meant a system. What about items? Statistics? Adversaries and allies?

An image of game card sprang to mind, and if I could keep it relatively simple I could easily make demo versions for a play test. The game element, after all, would be solo play anyway.

So, a stack of cards that represented the Mind-Thistle, filled with its hallucinatory dangers that drained time and stamina…..

This was going to take planning.

Getting into the office I did some more research. If there were five stories, what would they be, and what kind of choices would there be? Etc. I would have to sketch the structure out, make connections and dead end.

It wasn’t long before I chanced upon a wonderful diagram maker – SimpleMinds Pro.

With a free trial and an hour or two of playing around I had this:

Screenshot (1)

(Sorry the screen grab might be a bit small)

Starting on the left you make your initial choice. This takes you into the adventure via one of several groups attempting to reach the Temple. The completion of this first section determines how much time you have to cross the Mind-Thistle Desert (the big purple square).

Next you take X number from the Mind-Thistle Deck and play through the stack as time starts to tick down, facing the mental horrors to confront, the strange time dilations and the monsters that lurk in there. A bit of RPG thrown in with some basic stats for attack, defence and health.

As you proceed your time counters run down. Run out and you get washed away by the Sweep. Make it out and you enter the Temple for the finale where you play through a variety of endings – a boss perhaps? Some treasure, a surprise and a twist.

It was still early days at this point and it’d all need developing, but since I had other work to finish, it would have to sit on the shelf for a time.

SPLASH OF COLD WATER, APPLY ALOE

In that interim, and with the waning of the initial rush of enthusiasm I realised that there was one problem: I was making a shit load of work for myself.

And what with all the changes happening around me, I was forced to cool my head and ask “do I have time to work on something like this?”

The answer is, I just don’t know.

That was when I reined it in a little. It was a sobering effect, damping the flame. Executing on an idea like isn’t going to be easy.

Enthusiasm pushes you one way, but practicality pushes the other.

COMPROMISE

Let me be clear. I’m not giving up on the idea. I’m going to earmark it for a future project, and right now I want to make sure this blog has consistent content.

But as a compromise to both blog and swashbuckling pulp in my head, I had an thought: What if I wrote a Mind Thistle Reloaded as a Nanowrimo project for November?

I’m going to set that as a challenge for myself and develop the story into a serial published monthly over 2020. Once delivered, and if gaining some interest, then I can look to developing it’s sister, the CYOA book and game.

And that, dear readers, is the state of the project at this time. I think it’s a good idea which would be great if I could get the traction required, but I’m going to need some encouragement to make it work.

So let me know what you think – how does it sound? Is it something that you’d be interested in? Would you like to become a supporter?

Leave a comment and let me know.

That’s all from me for this week, but as I’ve outlined elsewhere, I’m looking forward to bringing you fresh content every week. 

All the best.

DJC

COMING NEXT WEEK: Review For Wanderers by Chuck Wendig


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Short Story: The Mind-Thistle Run

Short story written for Fantasy Writers Forum August Challenge, 2019 – this was written pretty quickly and subject to a limit of 5k words, so apologies in advance for the rough edges and confusing ending.


Ankles, so called because he still bore the scars from his manacles. It was common amongst prisoners forced to march the dunes at the height of the Swelter, when the Sun burned so hot the metal scorched the flesh. What was uncommon was to survive the march.

Now he stood at the gunwale as a free man, the desert air still hot but cooling the sweat on his face.

He fancied that he could taste a hint of brine.

The Sweep was coming……

Beside him Captain Carolhano lowered her spyglass and passed it to him silently. Ankles scanned the desert for the object of her interest: a convoy of three transports. Strange.

“What do you think?” she asked. He gave her a wry smile. They both knew she had already decided.

“Well,” he said slowly as if ruminating, “We don’t have much time, Captain.”

“I know, but…..”

It was a juicy target, but was it worth drowning over? The Sweep had begun, judging by the position of the second moon; Udarik was growing larger by the hour, his pale yellow face upsetting the normal motions of the oceans beyond the Keshmon Tide Canyons. They would soon fill and overspill. They had maybe two or three days before the desert flooded.

Meanwhile a lonely convoy trundled across the Iyarpi Hot Pan. “They don’t appear to have any guards with them,” Carolhano added.

“Odd,” Ankles remarked. Of course, any guard would tell you it was no time to be out on the sand. “Think they’re just stragglers?”

The captain flashed him a smile, the kind made the pit of his stomach tingle. “Why don’t we go ask them?”

“And make it quick?”

She nodded. “Then we’ll head through Shooters Gully, around to Irongate.”

Ankles cocked an eyebrow. “Irongate?”

“It’s closer.”

“But we’ll lose half our loot.”

“True, but….” The Irongate Syndicate was renown for its loose morals and the high price that came with them. Corsairs such as themselves would find harbour at a cost, but the Aurai’s Gift needed repairs. “We better hope these rubes have something worth taking. Set sail Mr. Ankles.”

“Aye aye, Captain!” and Ankles swung into action, bellowing orders and rallying the crew as they prepared to catch the winds of the blue desert skies.

Meanwhile, high above, Udarik continued on his relentless path.

*   *   *

They approached low and fast across the flats, and by the time the convoy spotted the Aurai’s Gift there was no escape.

Carolhano stood on the foredeck as Spool worked the gunnery pod. His first shot crippled the engine core of the lead transport, and one by one he popped the other two. No one could beat an Imperial gunner when it came to this kind of work, and Carolhano had never regretted taking the disgraced soldier on board. His crimes, as heinous as they were, stayed in the past. He was crew now, and he was worth every penny of the share.

Through her eyeglass Carolhano grinned as chaos engulfed the convoy.

“Perfect,” she muttered.

Coming up from midship Ankles passed her sword with mock reverence. “We’re ready, Captain.”

Carolhano gave him a nod, noted his smile. It was a smile to win hearts and it belonged to another disgraced outcast she’d recovered, another stray who’d become crew. It was a smile she was very fond of.

She belted her sword, checked her pistol and went to the gunwale with her band of corsairs.

“On my mark!”

Closer.

“Ready!”

Closer.

“Now!”

*   *   *

Chaos whirled around the blue robed Holy Pillar of Shastan.

“What’s going on?” demanded the priest as people ran about him like headless chickens. He rubbed rheumy eyes, and cursed the damned heat again. Why had they stopped? And what were those damnably loud noises that had roused him from his slumber? Were they under attack? Out here?

“You! Stop!” he cried as he tried to collar a menial rushing past. He was roundly ignored, leaving him blustering to no one other than the wind.

“The impertinence! I’ll have your hides! Tell me – ”

But chaos had no ear for the Holy Pillar.

*   *   *

Ankles took a deep breath and charged down the ramp, his captain on one side and the man mountain they called Bunches on the other. The thrill of the charge swept him up, and he was at full pelt into the midst of panicking men and women dressed in blue robes…..

……who promptly surrendered, on their knees and crying for mercy. A few had taken off across the sand, heading for the mountains. The bloody fools!

“Where they going?” Bunches grunted as he shaded his eyes with a great slab of a hand. Ankles shrugged, deflated. He’d battled haggling merchants with more fight. He eyed the gaggled of menials who appeared to be from one of the temples, their robed marked with sigils from…..

“Pillars of Shastan,” said Carolhano, sheathing her sword beside him. “Blessed luck!”

“How so, captain?”

“Let’s just say that, unlike some temples, they’re happy for people to buy their forgiveness.”

“Wages of sin, captain?” Ankles grinned.

“Aye. Nothing sweeter than the coin of salvation, eh? Find me the fattest, sweatiest one of the lot.”

“Aye aye, captain.”

*   *   *

Carolhano braced herself. She could hear the sound of coin approaching, a sound remarkably akin to the self important blusterings of a pampered functionary. A moment later Ankles appeared, followed by Lewd and Bunches flanking a big man in a blue robe. He was a Pillar of rank, judging by the tattoos on his bald head and innumerable beads about his wrists. That and the fact he was carrying enough weight for three people. She knew the type well enough, had seen plenty of them in her past as a young woman serving in the temples…..

But that was another life.

She watched in amusement as the corpulent priest shot forward, shoving Ankles aside and bustled toward her, sandals slapping.

“He looks…. annoyed,” remarked Crapper, her mechanic.

“I shall no doubt have to apologise for the inconvenience,” Carolhano snorted. They were still chuckling when the priest arrived.

“I demand – ” but the Holy Pillar didn’t get any further as Carolhano slapped him across the face. He blinked in surprise, then turned red and erupted. She let him blow off a little steam for a moment with irreverent boredom.

“…… never in my life have I been so disrespected! It shall not stand! I will have you flayed and hung from the Gates of Yesh! I will – ”

“Ningen’s Balls! Does he ever shut up?” asked Ankles.

Laughter erupted, bringing the priest to a stammering halt. Carolhano took the opportunity to set him straight about a few things. “Listen priest, no ones gives a good goddamn! We’re just here to alleviated your burden of coin, so I’ll make you a deal. If it’s on my ship in the next five minutes I might find the mercy to take your people out of here. Or I can leave you all to the Sweep. The choice is yours.”

More bluster shot forth. She slapped him again, hard, and motioned to Ankles who kicked him in the back of the knee. Suddenly he found himself staring up at her with a sword pressed against the jowls of his neck. (Ankles would later recount to the crew how she was so fast he hadn’t even seen her draw it!).

“Perhaps I wasn’t making myself clear,” Carolhano growled. “Now blink once for yes, twice for no. Can you do that?”

Blink.

“Good. You might just make it out of this with you skin still attached to your body.”

*   *   *

Compassion, a rarity in the desert, but then the captain wasn’t the typical corsair either. Ankles had served her for two whole years now and learned that just as she could be hard as nails when needed, she didn’t revel in senseless violence like some of their compatriots, or indeed, other authorities: he’d seen enough during his time in an Imperial garrison to know the way their minds worked.

Bad times, bad memories….

No, his captain wasn’t like that. She was someone you could respect, someone with honour. Yeah, they were going to unburden the priest of his riches, but she wasn’t going to leave a bunch of hapless menials out here to die. They were corsairs, not monsters.

Standing beside her he felt a tingle of pride as she surveyed the blue robed menials lined up before her, the priest bound and gagged to one side. She took a breath, and began to speak: “I don’t know how you got here, nor do I care why you chose to cross the Iyarpi Hot Pan so late, but the Fates have seen fit to bring us together. While I confess that I am relieving your priest of his hoard, you can at least be thankful that I am unlike my fellow corsairs who would leave you to the Sweep, assuming you still had your heads on your shoulders. We, however, are a little more grateful for the wages you’ve brought us. As such I will offer you a place in the hold until such time as we reach Irongate. If you behave we wont throw you overboard. When we reach Irongate, you’ll be free to leave. What say you to this?”

There was some muttering followed by a relieved: “Aye!”

“Very good! Bunches, Lewd, Spool – show them aboard.”

As the menials filed away Ankles followed her to the priest.

“What are you gonna do with him?” he asked.

They looked down at the man. He was much quieter with the gag in, even if it hadn’t cooled his vigour for protest.

“If he keeps on like that he’ll probably do himself in,” Carolhano noted with a wry smile. “Perhaps we should just leave him here.”

In response the priest threw himself to grovel at her boots.

“No?” Carolhano asked, then gestured to Ankles to remove the gag. “Speak.”

“I-I’m worth m-more to you alive.”

Carolhano arched an eyebrow. “Go on.”

What he told them made the captain’s jaw drop. It was the first time Ankles had ever seen her truly surprised.

“Damn.” She turned to Ankles. “Find him a seat. Looks like he’s catching a ride to Irongate with us after all.”

*   *   *

Nightfall came and they were making good time, a little heavy but nothing that was going to get them drowned. The next day Tornie interrupted the Priest and his litany of complaints about the food, the taste of the water, the cramped conditions etc, etc. Carolhano was glad of the distraction as she followed the dark and willowy Tornie to the stern.

“What is it?”

Tornie, silent as ever, put a hand on the captain’s shoulder and pointed. Carolhano stared. There! Just a little too far off to be clear, something kicking up sand in a small cloud, something trailing them. A chill of suspicion ran up her neck, another bad memory.

And all she could think was that damned priest!

As if in reply a shudder ran through the ship and the deck jerked. The Aurai’s Gift began to slow, gliding on nothing but momentum. Carolhano cursed and left Tornie to keep watch as she rushed off to find her mechanic, Crapper. He was in the engine room with his head inside an open panel, monkey wrenching something technical. When he withdrew he looked vexed.

“Let me guess,” said Carolhano, “Sabotage?”

The mechanic nodded. “Nothing fancy, but enough. Damaged the power transfer regulator.”

She chewed her lip. Clearly someone in the priest’s retinue wasn’t just a menial and had no intention of letting them reach Irongate. She blew out a deep breath. “Can you fix it?”

“Of course,” Crapper almost laughed, “But we’ll be stuck going slow.”

“How slow?”

“Let’s just say that we ain’t gonna make Irongate via the usual route,” and he gave her a meaningful look.

“You mean….?”

He nodded. “We gotta cro – ” but she cut him off with a raised hand.

“Just do what you can, okay?”

He nodded. “There is one other option, captain.”

“I know what you’re going to say Crapper. Save it.”

“But we don’t owe them – ”

She spun around and the look in her eye told him everything.

“Just fix the rig. Fast.”

She turned and walked away.

Behind her Crapper returned to his task. “Aye, Captain.”

*   *   *

Ankles threw back the liquor’s and its warmth descended to his belly. He wasn’t much of a drinker but the look on his captain’s face told him that it’d be impolite to say no. He waited in the gloom of her cabin as she cradled the cup.

“We have an assassin on board,” Carolhano said. She put the cup down and poured another. “One of the priest’s people.”

“Assassin?” Ankles replied with a frown. “What kind of assassin?”

“The kind whose job it is to make sure that certain big mouthed priests don’t let any secrets slip.”

“Are you sure?”

She nodded, threw back her next drink. “Fairly sure. There’s something else; I think we have a tail.”

“Any idea who?”

“An idea, but right now we have a more pressing concern. With the rig damaged we’re not going to make Irongate by the usual route.”

Ankles watched her as he processed the information. “So, what are we going to do?” Even as he asked realisation was dawning.

“We’re going to have to make a run through the Mind-Thistle.”

What was the reasonable response to that? Freak out? Demand that there had to be another way? The very fact she was saying it meant there wasn’t. The Mind-Thistle Desert. It had many other names: Rapesands, The Wrack, the Sea of Nightmares, the Warp-Dunes etc. It was a part of the desert sunk in legend, a place said to be ancient and it did not welcome visitors. It was a place of visions and delusions, and whatever they were, they were sometimes real enough to kill.

Or worse…..

“Is there nothing else we can do?”

“Can you guess what Crapper’s idea was?”

“I think I can guess,” Ankles smiled. “Lighten the load?”

She nodded, the grave look on her face reaffirming everything he knew about her. She’d once told him that to retain your humanity in a place like this, you had to hold yourself up to the highest of standards. It was a matter of honour.

“You sure about this?” Ankles asked for want of anything to say.

“No.” She poured again. “But what choice do we have?”

“And the tail?”

“Let’s see if we make it out first.”

He gave her a foolish grin and threw back his drink.

“Aye, captain.”

*   *   *

Have you lost your mind?”

Carolhano regarded the priest with cool eyes. “Not yet.”

“But-but-but…..”

“There’s no argument. Consider yourself lucky I even bothered to inform you of my decision.”

“It’s madness! We shall not survive!”

“It’s the only way,” Carolhano replied levelly.

“There must be something you can do? If we are slow then jettison the unnecessary weight!”

“If you mean the coin, we need it to fix the ship.”

“I mean the servants!”

She smiled with all the warmth of a rockviper. “I thought you might see it that way.”

“It’s the logical thing to do! They’re – ”

Expendable? Say it…..

“ – expendable!”

She was across the table with the speed of a rockviper, slamming his head against the wooden surface and holding it. The knife that slammed down before his eyes bit his cheek.

“Out here,” she hissed in his ear, “We all take the risks as one. No one gets left behind, although I might be tempted to make one exception.”

“But…. you need….. me,” croaked the priest.

“More’s the pity.” She let him go and moved to the door as she sheathed her knife, sparing him one last glance. Tell him about the assassin? She decided against it. He’d only redouble his complaints.

Outside the door she spoke quietly to Bunches. “Take care. Someone wants him dead. Don’t trust anyone.”

The big man’s brow beetled, but he nodded his understanding.

“Aye, captain,” he growled.

*   *   *

The Aurai’s Gift crawled into the Mind-Thistle desert just after dawn. From the foredeck it looked no different, but Carolhano knew. She’d done this once before, and the first effects had started. First the heat began to subtly rise until it was almost suffocating and you thought it might burn you alive. She’d seen a man lose his mind, convinced that he was burning to a crisp. As a precaution she’d had Mend, the ships part-time medic, hand out sedatives just in case.

As they went deeper the next illusion began to form. The day came on fast, as if time was speeding up. While the chronometer ticked over without alteration the blaze of the sun arced with sudden speed across the sky and there was a desperate rush to pull googles on.

The sand-glider lurched forward as if sucked forward into the brilliance.

“Whath happenin’?” shouted Tongue, his voice strangely thin and high in the overload of the sun’s light.

“It’s just an illusion,” shouted Carolhano in reply, her words equally distorted. “Keep us full ahead!”

They ploughed on into the heat and light, feeling as if they were going to boil, their minds eclipsed into white emptiness until suddenly it was gone. Darkness swallowed all the light and heat, sucked the air out of your lungs as ice raced around your veins. In the blink of an eye they plunged into frigid darkness where no stars speckled the sky.

“Cahptaan!” Tongue was shouting, his voice now heavy with bass as if underwater. “Cn’t thee hhit!”

“It’ll pass!” Carolhano cried. “Just maintain course!”

Into the endless, disorientating dark the Aurai’s Gift crept on, floating in a silence where there was no up, no down…..

….. and then reality gasped! and the world returned. Rocky escarpments ringed the horizon and mesas rose like islands in the still, rolling ocean of wind sculpted sand dunes…..

*   *   *

. And nothing happened.

In some ways that was worse.

Ankles wiped sweat from his brow and probed for some oddity, some inconsistency that would signal the onset of mad visions or a bending in reality. His senses found nothing. They rode on over the sand, and he was pleased when Carolhano joined him. She said nothing, her dark hair blowing in the wind. He fancied that she was staring the desert down, taunting it to do it’s worse.

“Do you see it?” she asked.

He followed her gaze. There was something…. no, someone standing on the dunes ahead.

“Who…..?” but the words trailed away as they came close enough to see that it was a statue. It was made of sand. As they sailed past he caught its expression of staring horror, the mouth opened in mute anguish.

And there were more. He could see them forming up, growing out of the sand. Worse, there were faces he recognised. Here an old friend, dead, and there a man he had shot during the Scar Gap raid. The man had been unarmed, but Ankles had pulled the trigger a split second too soon. He hadn’t meant to kill him. He looked away to see Carolhano staring, eyes fixed with faint horror.

“What are they?” Ankles asked in a near whisper.

“Bad memories,” and her eyes snapped to his. “Just bad memories.”

They ploughed on beneath a clear blue sky as Inari continued to climb towards his zenith.

Somewhere, someone was sobbing.

*   *   *

Carolhano slipped and a strong hand caught her. She looked up into the face of the man she had been sent to kill. The Imperial regiments might keep the peace, but it was the priesthoods that controlled the populace. So when a temple tried to make a bid for power it threatened to upset the apple cart. Here was one such man, and she had come to slip a knife into his heart.

His crime? He actually gave a damn! Imagine, a leader who thought that maybe there was a better way for everyone to live. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, but then who was?

She’d still killed him. He was a dead man anyway, from the moment he made his stand, and it was her love for him that made it quick. The alternative was a slow, drawn out and dehumanising torture that would have robbed him of the very dignity he sought for others.

In the year that followed she had deserted the temple, gone rogue and found safe passage on a sand-glider much like the Aurai’s Gift.

“It’s been a long time, Carolhano,” said the ghost.

She turned away.

“Will you say nothing?”

“There is nothing to say.”

*   *   *

Ankles understood now. “Mind-thistle”. It was lodged like a barb, some invisible tendril piercing his skull and leaching his thoughts. It was a cold splinter in his head…..

….. he was in a market, not long after the captain had freed him. His ankles were bandaged, clean clothes on his back and a small roll of coin in his pouch. It had been his first share and while the Aurai’s Gift was in dock getting serviced, he was freed to roam the town at leisure.

A flurry of activity drew his attention and for a moment his instinct was to resist the flow of people, but this was not hostility, and he was not being taken away. He went with it and found himself in a square covered with brightly coloured awnings. At it’s centre people crowded a machine, whooping with delight. Intrigued, he pushed his way toward the spectacle.

It was a machine that turned precious water into ice. He paid his coin and received a cup of crushed ice, flavoured with fruit syrups. It was a delight. Sweet and cold, unlike anything he had experienced, just as the pain that came with it was unlike anything else. A burning cold clamped his head, thrust a finger into his brain, then passed away…..

…..it was a sensation that plagued him now as they sailed on through The Wrack.

It was torture.

*   *   *

Carolhano blinked. They were lost, she was sure. She looked around to see if she could find Tongue, but he was not at the tiller. The Aurai’s Gift roved on, unmanned. She had no idea how far they had travelled, no idea if they were even heading towards Irongate. Somewhere she thought she could hear someone calling her name…..

Turning, she looked out and saw nothing but endless sand. Where were they? The statues were gone, but there! What was that? A plant? Was the air thickening? Confusion crept around the edges of her mind. The desert was changing hue. Everything swayed and in a moment of panic she thought she couldn’t breath. They were underwater, and she should be drowning and by the gods! Fish! Fish were swimming past and all manner of bright and colourful things bobbing and darting and weaving….. little silver bullets that moved like flocks of birds, sleek and dark shapes that kinked and flexed with mouths seeking prey as frilled orbs with tendrils pulsed through the currents.

And she was not drowning……

She stared in wonder at a world both alien and beautiful, a world that had long since vanished. This was all just another memory, the memory of the desert itself……

Fading……

With a gasp, she was back on deck, and the sound of voices calling her name.

“Where are we?” she croaked as a hand pulled her up. She looked into the smiling eyes of Ankles before her eyes roved to where Tongue held the tiller. The helmsman’s body was rigid and his eyes closed even as his lips moved. He might have been praying.

“Did you see……?” Ankles asked, his voice trailing as he sought to find the words.

Carolhano nodded. “It was an ocean. Or the ghost of an ocean.”

“What does it mean?”

“I don’t know. Maybe nothing.” She straightened and brushed herself down. She could feel it. It was fading, the whole damned freak show of a mad god’s desert was fading. They were out. She began to shout orders. “Check the instruments! Where are we? How long until the Sweep? And find out if anyone’s missing!”

*   *   *

Amid the disorientation they found Lewd bled out down below, but judging by the colour of the wound it was poison that had done him first. Bunches picked him up, almost delicately, and took him to the deck. Of Tornie there was no sign and Spool was actually asleep in the gunnery pod.

“Hey,” Ankles poked him, “Wake up.”

“Whas’ up?”

“Seriously? You sleep through that?”

“What?”

Ankles was about to explain, but instead just shook his head. “Look sharp. We got a back stabber on board.”

Spool sniffed, fished out a cigarette. “Damn.”

Ankles left him smoking and carried on. Crapper was still trying to fix the rig, and Mend was checking on one of the priests entourage who’d become catatonic. Three others were missing, presumed lost in the Wrack. He told Carolhano as much as she stared off the stern where a gout of sand was following them.

“What the hell is that?”

“I thought the Mind-Thistle might’ve put it off,” she said absently.

“Captain?”

She threw him a look, took a deep breath. “It’s a Farlight.”

“I thought those were just stories,” said Ankles. Farlights were said to burrow through sand and rock, their name derived from an eerie star light exuded from their mouths.

Carolhano turned to him. “They’re real alright. I’ve seen one before….. I…..”

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she waved it off. “Listen. The assassin has a lure hidden in the ship. When it gets close enough, it’ll attack.”

“You got a plan?”

She smiled at him. “Of course.”

“Then what are we waiting for?”

*   *   *

On deck Carolhano waited as her remaining crew corralled the priest’s blue clad menials with whatever weapons they had to hand.

“I really must protest!” the priest was shouting as he mopped his brow. “This really isn’t necessary, and furthermore…..”

She let him prattle on for a moment, then held up a hand. “One of your people is an assassin.”

“What? Preposterous!”

As Carolhano explained, she enjoyed watching the bluster leave him like a leaking air bladder. “Someone wants your secret kept that way.”

“But – ”

She ignored him and spoke to the throng: “One of you is a killer. Luckily, you’re also an incompetent saboteur.”

Glances were exchanged as Carolhano scrutinised them.

“Of course, it didn’t take much to learn which one of you it is.”

She held up a small, emerald pendant that sparkled in the light. It bore an assassin’s sigil.

“Looks like you lost this.”

And there! She saw the surprised reaction, and so did Ankles, just like she’d told him. He had the woman up, arm behind her back while Bunches and Spool trained weapons on her. As Carolhano descended, the woman watched her with burning eyes.

“Where’s the lure, my dear?”

“I’ll never tell,” the woman snarled.

“You don’t have to,” Carolhano smiled. “It’s obvious.” She called Ankles over. “Check the priest’s donation box. The lure is in the box.”

The look on the assassin’s face was confirmation that her instincts had been right.

“How – ?”

“Just a hunch. I guess the delicious irony was just too much for you, so you hid it in the one thing we weren’t about to toss overboard. That’s twice today you’ve given yourself away.”

With a kick the woman broke free and sprang, blade out. The captain’s own dagger met it and their blades pressed together. As her men backed off Carolhano was face to face with the assassin.

“We should all be dead,” hissed the assassin.

“Speak for yourself,” Carolhano growled as the blades started to scrape.

“Especially you…. traitor!

Carolhano shook her head. “I made a choice when I had to kill a man I loved. I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”

Their arms strained, locked together. The first to give would be at the disadvantage.

“I don’t know how we made it through the Mind-Thistle, but you won’t reach Irongate.”

“You certainly wont,” Carolhano grated. She forced their blades into the air and gave the woman a hefty boot in the chest that sent her over the gunwale.

She and Ankles were already running to the stern where they caught a glimpse of the blue robe bright against the sand. The raging sand cloud behind went straight for it. A moment passed before a faint scream was eclipsed by something erupting from below, an ethereal light that winked out as jaws clamped shut.

The Farlight began to thrash the sand as it dwindled into the distance.

“How…?” said Ankles.

Carolhano flashed him a smile. “I snagged the lure on her robe when she attacked.”

“Will it follow?”

She shook her head. “No, it’s drawn to the lure.”

He nodded, and a grin of joyous relief split his face.

Together they began to laugh.

*   *   *

An hour later Ankles stood beside Carolhano on the foredeck, enjoying the wind on his face.

“Where did you get that pendant?” he asked presently.

The captain gave him an enigmatic smile. “Just another bad memory I had locked away in my cabin.”

His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t press further. They were alive, and that’s what counted. The rig was running again and they would just beat the Sweep. Irongate was only an hour away, and once safe, they would get the Aurai’s Gift repaired.

And then, he thought, we’ll find out if the priest was telling the truth.

Judging by recent events, he’d put money on it.


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