Howdy! Am a hobbiest game dev, which means I have to be a jack of all trades. Always looking to improve my art/writing/coding/general workflow skills. Open for collabs.
I tend to go for extremes: Sci-fi stories with heavy emphasis on getting the science and the details exact, or fantasy stories that break every imaginable rule.
Hello! I continue to work on creative projects, but it will probably be a little while before my main Felarya story continues. I have had a couple breakthroughs in my coding, and have spent most of my free time with my game project(s). My next post will probably be the Rocket Frame 87 story, which is my sci-fi universe - that story has been 95% complete for many months.
But my Felarya story will continue, and I wanted to let you know that I really value those of you who have read all the parts so far, and been supportive!
The expansive multi-pane windows were wide open on this warm summer day, a gentle breeze wafting through the wide central corridor of Xin's city hall. I had never seen the administrative wing of this most prominent structure in the city. The indigenous construction stone used throughout the city varied in color from a slate gray to a golden sand tone. In most structures such color variations could be found scattered randomly throughout, yet in this four-meter high second story breezeway, subtle care was evident in the selection and placement of building stone. Opulent by Xin's standards, the geometric patterns were accented by decorative ceramic tiles, especially around the supporting arches and door frames. The door into the assistant magistrate's office, intricately carved and stained a navy blue tone, swung open with some difficulty, its considerable mass quite apparent.
"Have a seat Darin," said the assistant magistrate, motioning to one of the four ornate guest chairs lined up in front of his massive desk. "A resident only, but you volunteer for the rescue mission. Hmm." He glanced at a sheaf of papers on the desk in front of him. A short, somewhat rotund man with black curly hair, and a long purple jacket with gold embroidery that must have been oppressively warm on a day like today.
"A pity that you couldn't have saved the guild leader's son. But you were able to rescue a number of faire guests, helped bring the ship back and capture the perpetrators, so all in all, not a bad performance.
"At any rate, even with your status as a resident only, you are entitled to a share of the prize according to city law. The ship and crew are registered to a noble in Negav who claimed to have no knowledge of these activities. But he has offered us a tidy sum of compensation to help clear up the misunderstanding. And of course the prize pool comprises the personal possessions of the mercenaries and perpetrators as well."
"So what will happen to them? What is the punishment for that sort of thing?"
"The evidence is pretty clear, so the trial should be just a formality. As far as their punishment, I found a way to make it not only fitting, but also quite profitable for Xin," he said with a satisfied grin.
"They are to be fed to the mermaids. And in exchange the mermaids will escort our fishing fleet to the Emerald Shoals. It's a distant shoal teeming with exotic fish, including the 'Cayugah,' normally a rare, and highly sought after delicacy in this region. And quite a valuable trade good. It's a real win-win for the town!"
"You can't do that," I blurted out.
"Oh, don't worry, I've checked it thoroughly," replied the assistant magistrate, now giving me his full attention. "Xin law clearly states that the assistant magistrate is allowed to negotiate with predators, and has full discretion when sentencing criminals as well. The crime they perpetrated is clearly a capital offense and so–"
"No, I mean feeding them to the mermaids. We'll be doing exactly the same thing that they were! And how does that make us look to the predators?"
"It's not the same thing at all." The assistant magistrate's face bore a genuinely perplexed expression, the expression of a teacher stymied that one of his pupils might call into question a basic rule of arithmetic. "The species traffickers were sacrificing innocent lives for profit. We are completely justified in our actions. Instead of simply executing them, we are cleverly gaining a benefit for the entire city."
"But that's not what it looks like from the predator's point of view! They see one group of humans perfectly willing to feed some of their own to them. If we claim to be on the right side, we have to set a better example!"
"So you would have me waste this opportunity to benefit Xin – based on some principles that the predators may or may not understand?"
"Could you please at least think about it?"
"I suppose. Now anyway, you can talk to Shenipot about your share of the prize, but right now you are about to receive a real honor. The magistrate has asked to meet with you. Very few mere residents have spoken with her."
* * *
The magistrate's office, although larger than that of the assistant magistrate, had a more austere feel about it: missing were the ornate tapestries, the gilded display cases brimming with statues and knickknacks. In their place was a functional array of furniture with clean, sweeping lines.
The magistrate was quite tall and slender, her slightly elongated ears poking through the lustrous mane of waist-length raven hair may have reflected an elven ancestor somewhere in her past. Her full-length dress, with long folds of sweeping fabric was as enigmatic as she was, its color shifting from deep violet to black, depending on how light hit the shimmering fabric. Her greeting was as subtle and elegant as her office. "Greetings, resident. You have done a considerable service for the city of Xin. For that, you have our gratitude."
"I've lived here just a year. But I consider it home. Here on Felarya it seems that the contributions – the efforts of a mere human can be so insignificant. But I'm happy to have been able to help. I feel like I've finally accomplished something worthwhile."
"The guild leader also personally thanked me for what we did. And that thanks belongs to you."
"Thanked you? But… but we weren't able to rescue his son."
"His son may have bled to death from gunshot wounds, but the family at least had a body to bury. You're from another world, so you may not know this, but a proper funeral is very rare here on Felarya. Your actions at least brought them closure."
"I just wish I could have done more. For all of them. Especially Emaya. She fought for all of us, fought hard too. And better than I did."
"Nevertheless, you did fight. But fighting is not everything. More than that, you helped the investigation. The constable noted your contribution. And we can't have a mere resident making such a contribution. So you will have the opportunity to become a citizen. One of the conditions of course is property ownership, but with the prize money you earned, you should be able to purchase a modest property. The constable will inform you about the rest of the conditions."
"You honor me."
"And it pains me to ask more, but are you aware of what the assistant magistrate is planning on doing with the criminals?"
"A bit crude for my tastes, but effective. And within his rights."
"Can anything be done about it? I have no love of the criminals, but it seems wrong on principle."
"An interesting point of view for certain, but what would you have me do? I rarely intervene with the assistant magistrate's administrative decisions, and you would have me do so on behalf of criminals?"
I starred a moment long into the magistrate's mysterious eyes as I reflected. When put that way, it did seem emotional and unreasonable.
We were interrupted by the magistrate's secretary. "Magistrate, your next guest is here." She nodded at him, and turned back toward me.
"How can the predators ever respect us, if we are unable to respect ourselves?" I finally said.
"I understand you come from a world with no giant predators. A world so free of dangers, that the only real threats for humans are the ones they have created for themselves."
"Perhaps on such a world, the price of principles is not so dear."
* * *
My stein of frothy porter made a satisfying 'clunk' as Fogmort and I toasted to our continuing health and survival. Something one can never take for granted on Felarya.
"Say Darin," said Fogmort, "How did you survive being thrown off the ship. You were many kilometers out at sea, you get washed overboard while two giant mermaids were attacking the ship, and yet somehow you managed to find a lifeboat that had fallen free. And then make it all the way to shore? It seems rather implausible."
"So that's not what happened?"
"No, you're right that it seems implausible," I said with a sigh. "Look, what's happened over the past weeks… I have omitted certain details. On my world sometimes a law-man may look the other way, may maintain contacts with certain individuals who will bend the rules from time to time. I don't know if that sort of thing exists in Xin. The laws here seem so rigid."
Fogmort gazed at me skeptically, swirling the foam around the top of his stein.
"Look, I've made a few contacts here and there that have helped me out. I can tell you this, but if Shenipot knew about it, it would put him in a very awkward position. He's the constable, and might be forced to investigate."
"So you know one of the species traffickers?"
"Those scumbags? Good gods no!"
"If it's one of the mercenaries, you need to watch out, those guys can be pretty cut-throat."
"And that's exactly the point. I know someone from an organization with a pretty fearsome reputation. But trust me when I say that my contact is above reproach. Look, when I say that nothing I'm involved with has the potential to hurt anybody, please take my word for it."
Fogmort glowered at me.
"If I ever do anything in the future to cause you to doubt my intentions, then I give you my word, I'll tell you the whole story. But for now, trust me. And trust that you are better off not knowing. Deal?"
"You're here a year and you already have some kind of shady connections. That's not a good sign, my friend. But you're also right, you've never done anything that would cause me to doubt your intentions. So – deal."
The waitress returned. "Gentlemen, we've got a rare treat on the menu today. Baked Cayugah on a bed of Pekoberries."
Felarya. A land of beauty. A land of wonders. A land of giants. A land of monsters. And some of the worst ones are human.
- End -
Ronny gripped the stout tiller of his trusty cat-rigged fishing boat. The beamy, shallow-draft, 8-meter long craft, his trusty stead for many years was stocked not only with fishing gear, but provisions and a bedroll as well. He had never sailed this far before, never ventured beyond the shallow waters around the city of Xin.
He shot a nervous smile the direction of the enormous mermaid, as the fishing fleet sailed into the rich waters of the Emerald Shoals. A fisherman, and on the ocean all his life, he had never before seen a mermaid this close. Mermaids were supposed to be beautiful harbingers of doom on the sea. Yet this one was not at all what he expected.
"Say there. We… We could probably bring along a healer on our next run. Might be able to do something about that nasty gash on your shoulder. And your ear. And eye. Err… Eye socket I mean."
"It's fine. It'll heal. The purifying waters of our great land will see to that," she replied in a calm, almost resigned voice.
"Well, OK. But boy, a mermaid your size, torn up like that. I'd hate to see the other guy. Err. Gal… Creature?"
"Harpy." she replied, a touch of disbelief reflected in her voice. "A harpy that apparently liked landfood more than I. Or my former friend."
- End -
Copyright © Kululu17, 2019
Epilogue to the main story arc, the chapters of which are listed below. If you've made it this far, thank you, I really appreciate your support. Felarya is a truly fascinating universe to work within, and I hope I've done it justice.
You may have noticed Rinloh being scarce these last chapters. I had actually planned (and written) a rather extensive combat scene of her trying to get Darin back; essentially the last two chapters as seen from her point of view. But it ended up being a little too gruesome, so I cut it out of the final story. Maybe someday I'll release a "cut scenes," story.
And while this is the end of this particular story arc, it certainly isn't the end of my ideas for the characters. And perhaps now they've grown enough that they would have a chance of surviving in the wilds of Felarya.
Thanks again for reading!
Part 1: "Fowl Play Suspected"
Part 2: "The Predator Sensei"
Part 3: "Maid for Adventure"
Part 4: "Life's not Faire"
Part 7: "A Speciest Argument"
Rinloh and Darin appeared in "Harpyness is Only Skin Deep"
or, enter your birth date.*
Continuing from "Murder, Mayhem, and the Mysterious Manatee," where Darin and his friends have seized control of the armed freighter Manatee, and are sailing back towards Xin. Fighting desperately to prevent the ruthless species traffickers from retaking the ship, a new threat now emerges from the depths. One as beautiful as she is deadly.
Note: Mature content. These final chapters are darker and more graphic than prior ones.
"Hello, my little treats!"
The musical voice came from the water below, but not nearly far enough below considering the fact that the deck I was crouched upon was a solid five meters above the ocean's surface. The voice belonged to a giant mermaid whose long black hair flowed behind her ears and down along the tanned skin of her neck as the seawater streamed off it. Despite being devoid of color, her silvery gray eyes sparkled with life; a life of overwhelming brilliance and power compared to my own. I hadn't faced one of the giants other than Rinloh since my first meeting with her. And the shock of it stunned me for a moment long.
"You're not the guy we usually talk to. Where is Malconar?" continued the mermaid in a voice with such power as to defy its sweet musical tone. Even from this distance, I could feel her warm breath – carrying a scent of saltwater and a hint of fish – overpowering the ambient scent of the sea.
"No, sorry about that." I said, in as matter-of-fact a fashion as I could muster. What would she do when she found out that we were in the middle of a shoot-out with someone whom she presumably knew. "I'm afraid he's indisposed at the moment. But my name is Darin. May I be of any assistance?"
"My name is Avonna, and this is Zodie. We're here because of our deal. Four treats each for every crossing."
"I see." As this was Felarya, I didn't have to guess as to the meaning of 'treats.'
"Landfood is rare out here, you know," she said, twirling her body playfully below her. With most of her graceful form underwater, I could only guess at her overall size, but her head was almost triple the size of Rinloh's, and her undulating tail's wake was enough to rock the ship noticeably.
"Listen, I'd love to chat, but we're having a bit of a gunfight here. And since you're an innocent bystander in all this, I'd really hate to see you accidentally get shot. Would it be possible to talk a bit later?"
"Shot? With those guns?" she said, while eyeing my heavy rifle. "Oh, don't worry, those little things won't hurt us."
"Ah! Well, that's a relief. I'd hate to have a misunderstanding. Say, these guns do hurt humans like myself, and your rocking the ship is rather throwing off my aim. Would it be too much trouble for you to stop?"
"That's also part of the deal. Anything that accidentally falls in the water is a bonus." She opened her mouth extra wide, dipped into the sea, and sucked in a mouthful of seawater that could have easily filled half a dozen bathtubs.
After playfully swirling the water in her mouth from cheek to cheek, Avonna pursed her lips and sprayed a heavy stream of seawater our direction. The force of the water, noticeably warmed from her mouth, knocked me well clear of my cover.
A series of deafening cracks disrupted my already tenuous train of thought, as Emaya and I scrambled back into cover. The succession of five rifle shots impacted the winch behind me. Emaya seemed remarkably cool-headed about our new threat – perhaps she had dealt with giant predators before?
"We can't damage the ship of course, that would be cheating. But any loose treats that fall off are ours. Say, I notice the ship is headed back the way it came from. You're not making the trip up the coast?"
"Well, there's been a bit of a mix up you see. Deals are important, right? Malconar was transporting a number of… um… treats... that didn't belong to him. So we need to head back to port and get it sorted out."
"So you won't need an escort up the coast today?"
"No, not actually today. Could we reschedule?"
"I really had my heart set on some landfood for lunch today, and so did Zodie. It doesn't seem fair that we should go home with an empty stomach," she said, pouting theatrically. Pondering a moment, she ducked under the surface and disappeared. I knew better than to let my guard down, nevertheless I was caught by surprise when she leapt completely clear of the water a few moments later, propelling her entire body to almost the height of the superstructure. How can such a massive creature move like that? She landed with a tremendous impact, causing a wake higher than the entire ship. It crashed over the deck with enough force to sever the line holding the dinghy to its aft davit. The stern of the dinghy, now weighed down by the mass of seawater in it, crashed to the deck then was washed over the side by the retreating water, taking a section of the deck railing with it for good measure. It also washed away the stack of crates that Emaya was using for cover, and nearly carried her and myself along with it.
"You guys have great balance," she said, her exquisite face bearing an expression of radiant cheerfulness. A cheerfulness so at odds with the fatal threat she posed to our lives, that my mind flat refused to reconcile it.
The traffickers on the forecastle, noting that our cover had been drastically cut, seized the opportunity, and peppered our position with a hail of gunfire. Emaya scrambled behind the now precariously mounted winch and davit next to me, a position too small to provide us both with sufficient cover. She glanced at me, then at Avonna, finally saying, "And now?"A second volley of fire. We had to return fire, or they would start advancing on the bridge.
"On the count of three, I pop out from the right side, and you take the left," I said. "One – two – three!"
I fired my first round virtually blind, but was able to aim my second a bit more. When I noticed no return fire, I chambered a third round and tried to find an actual target to shoot at. Before I could squeeze the trigger, a shot rang out, with an almost simultaneous scream next to me. I turned around and ducked back into cover. Emaya had been hit in her left shoulder and was bleeding profusely. I set my rifle in my lap, and tried to tear one of my sleeves off, to stem the bleeding. But with a single hand the fabric simply wouldn't tear. And it looks so easy in the movies.
Emaya groans as blood trickles from between her fingers, a crimson stain spreading along her crude taupe tunic. "Don't want to die in these prison rags," she mutters, pressing her hand firmly against her shoulder.
My dagger! I pulled the little dagger from its sheath on my leg, and cut into my left sleeve. Once started, the fabric tore easily, and I shoved the wad of fabric into Emaya's shoulder.
"You'll be fine. We're probably halfway back to port by now, and you can get medical attention there." What was I saying? Emaya looked to be a far more experienced adventurer than I.
"Yeah, I'm OK. Just never been shot before," said Emaya, gazing at me with large ruby eyes as she tried to suppress a further groan. "Stabbed, but not shot." Her long furry auburn colored ears perked at the sound of a muffled yell from the cargo deck below. She shot a quick glance over her shoulder. "But we need to keep firing."
"Let me handle the next volley," I said, as I fumbled trying to put my little dagger back in its sheath. I caught motion out of the corner of my eye. A very large motion.
As Avonna again leaped skyward I could discern the carmine red bands running along her charcoal gray piscine lower half. Despite her sleek, hydrodynamic form, when she plunged back into the water, her sheer size again sent thousands of liters of water cascading over the ship. I had to hold my rifle, hold onto Emaya, grab the winch to prevent myself from being washed overboard, and found myself without enough hands to hold onto everything I needed.
Time slowed as I saw my little dagger being washed away from me.
The first weapon I had acquired on Felarya.
Being carried by the seawater down along the deck.
The little dagger that I had on my person at all times. My weapon of last resort. The sense of security that kept my outlook on the correct side of that slippery precipice we humans like to call sanity.
Almost at the edge of the deck.
The one thing that I knew I would always have with me should the worst happen and I find myself inside one of those giants. In my mind I knew that a small, non-magical dagger wouldn't be enough to cut my way out. I knew that such an escape attempt would most likely fail. But that dagger would give me something to do. Some course of action besides waiting helplessly to die. It would always be there to provide that most precious commodity to someone in a desperate situation: hope.
And I've just watched it wash over the side of the ship.
A deafening crack of rifle fire interrupted my little pity party. Two threats were simply too much for us to deal with simultaneously. I had to do something about one or the other.
"Yes?" A wide, friendly smile, and the full attention of her beautiful silver-gray eyes were now firmly upon me.
"So how did you and Malconar – that was his name, right – how did you first meet? There must be an interesting story behind it."
"Oh yes, it was kind of a funny story," she replied, then paused and gazed at me skeptically. "Say, you aren't trying to trick me are you?"
"Could you come a little closer," I asked.
Avonna swayed gracefully, drawing her exquisitely featured face to within a meter of mine, close enough that the moist warmth of her breath overpowered the climate of the ambient air. I was, at this range, essentially within the micro-climate that she was generating. "How's this?" she said, with an extra-wide grin.
"Perfect," I said. And I believed it too. A meter away or ten meters away, both were easily within her reach, but I needed to convince her, I needed to look her in the eyes. Beautiful silver-gray eyes that were half as large as my entire body. She batted her eyelashes alluringly.
"I certainly understand that you may suspect some humans of subterfuge. But if I were trying to trick you, then it would mean I would have some other goal. So… where is the ship headed right now?"
"Back to your human port."
"Exactly! And wasn't that precisely what I said we were going to do when we first met?"
"Yes you did."
"So I've been completely honest about what we've been up to. Haven't I? And I'll be honest about this too – I would like to avoid both getting shot, as well as falling off the ship and becoming a snack. But I really am curious about your story."
"Hehehe! You're kind of amusing," said Avonna. "If the ship accidentally sinks, I'll eat you last."
"That's very kind of you Avonna," I responded. My preference would have been 'not being eaten at all,' but it's important to be thankful for the little things in life. "Now, you and Malconar; how did you meet?"
Avonna flopped on her back, crossed her hands, resting them on her tummy, and began to tell the tale; a dreamy look in her eyes, and a gentle undulation of her tail more than sufficient for her to keep up with the ship, propelled as it were by the clanking reciprocation of a triple-expansion steam engine, and clumsy mechanical beating of a propeller.
Emaya, despite being in what must be excruciating pain, resumed firing. Sporadically, but enough to cover the bridge. With Avonna occupied happily telling me the tale of her first encounter with Malconar, this side of the ship seemed to have been covered. Unfortunately for us, there were two mermaids present this day.
A crash from the opposite side of the ship. I turned my gaze from Avonna to Emaya. She was a couple meters further forward than I. And happened to be reloading. A task that required two hands. As the ship lurched to the side, she dropped the rifle into her lap and tried to grab a hold of the one remaining davit. A deluge of salt water from the opposite side poured over us, slamming me against a stanchion hard enough to warp it; the impact of water against my face temporarily blinding me. I opened my eyes a moment later to witness the davit – now completely torn from its mounting – being washed over the side. And Emaya with it.
While I sat with a dumbfounded look of horror, Avonna cracked a gleeful smile and ducked under the water. Reacting faster than a creature her size should be able to move, she zeroed in on the form of Emaya, but rather than grabbing her with her hands, caught her under her outstretched tail, then flipped her skyward.
"Nice splash, Zodie! You knocked one off that time!"
Lying uselessly against the warped stanchion, watching the helpless form of Emaya being tossed about like a cheap pool toy, for the first time in my life a certain thought crossed my mind: I might not make it this time.
Like a seal at the zoo playfully catching a herring that was tossed to her, Avonna had the pitiful inu in her mouth before my fragile mind took any action.
Avonna gazed my direction. "Hmm?"
I tried my best to focus, but the sight of one of Emaya's arms flailing wildly from between Avonna's lips didn't make it easy. "Come here... Please?"
Avonna's graceful form ducked under the water, than popped up in front of me in a single elegant undulation, her face again less then a meter from mine. Yet this time the warmth and scent of her breath were absent, as her voluptuous lips were tightly sealed around the protruding arm of Emaya.
In a foolishly desperate move I grabbed Emaya's outstretched arm. My body prone at the edge of the deck, my other arm wrapped around the warped stanchion that supported the remaining railing in a virtual death grip.
"Let her go."
"Let her go… please?"
Gone was my casual banter. But I had no hope of pulling Emaya out. Avonna's strength was so far beyond my own – what was I even doing? No. If all I can do about this giant predator is talk, than that is what I will do to the best of my ability. "Avonna, I know this was part of your deal. And this treat is yours. I completely understand. But this one wasn't supposed to be here. Could we trade her for something? There must be something else I could give you. Dry land is full of so many interesting treats."
Avonna's decision was made apparent by a slow tug on my hand – a tug of unimaginable force. My wrist. Elbow. Shoulder. All burn in agony. The warped steel stanchion I'm bracing against cuts into my ribs so hard I can barely breath.
Don't let go.
My tendons are on fire.
Don't let go.
Avonna's lips now envelop my hand.
Don't let go.
The warped stanchion bends further under the pressure. If it breaks, I will share Emaya's fate. It's impossible not to notice the touch of Avonna's warm, soft lips. A softness so at odds with the disintegration chamber that lies on the other side of them.
Don't let go.
A tingling sensation washes over my arm. I gaze at my hand… my empty hand, in disbelief. A chill comes over it as the moisture from Avonna's saliva begins to evaporate from my skin. My dumbfounded gaze returns to Avonna's gorgeous silver-gray eyes; her eyelids blink with a slow, deliberate seductiveness. Why? Why couldn't she be a hideous leviathan covered in scales and spines?
There are no muffled screams, no signs of struggle apparent from outside Avonna's lips. No gulping sounds, just a twinkle of satisfaction, a subtle smile, a gentle fluttering of Avonna's eyelids. Then a bulge appears at the back of her chin, moves quickly to her throat, then disappears into her chest without a sound. No scream, no splash, and no more Emaya.
Flopping on my back on the hardwood planks covering the otherwise cold steel vessel, I don't even have the solace of gazing up at a blue sky for a moment. Just a gray shroud. Amorphous gray in every direction. Just like what Emaya must be–
Another splash. The deluge of seawater on my face barely registers. A scream of terror from the opposite side of the ship. A pause. Shots again. And yelling. More shots. Followed by screams of pain this time. The traffickers are undoubtedly advancing on the bridge. Emaya is gone. My rifle is gone. But I have to do something. My right hand falls upon a metal bulge strapped to my waist. Shenipot's old black powder revolver. Would it even fire after being doused in seawater? I roll onto my stomach. The railing, the davits, every trace of cover had now been torn from the deck in front of me. If I stay in prone position, the angle of this elevated deck would serve as some protection from gunfire from below, but there would be nothing to prevent me from being swept into the sea if either of the two mermaids decide to have a go at shaking loose another treat or two.
Another shot. Yelling. This time I recognize the voice. Fogmort. My friend.
I pull out the revolver and wiggle my way forward along the four meters of completely exposed deck. Peeking over the edge, I can see that two of the traffickers have advanced to the far edge of the closest of the four large cargo hatches.
Both hands wrapped around the heavy revolver – I cock and fire. It kicks hard and the cloud of thick smoke it ejects is blown back in my face by the forward motion of the ship, acrid fumes gagging me. Now I understand the distinction between this type of weapon, and that of 'smokeless' powder. Only six shots. I can no longer be just a distraction. I have to actually hit something. I cock and fire again at the closest two. A miss. Again. Concentrate. Sight along the barrel. Another deafening crack. One of the two grabs his shoulder, and both of them duck into cover behind the cargo hatch. Good. That should keep them down for a little while. I fire off a shot in the direction of the forecastle. No hope of hitting anything useful from this distance, but maybe it will keep their heads down.
Wait, that sounds like a bell. A bell? The outermost marker buoys along the shoals have bells on them. Had we made it?
Another roaring splash from the opposite side of the ship. My stomach sinks. A deluge of water. Nothing to grab on to. And over the side I go.
Hitting the sea's surface from a 5-meter fall, the impact is a painfully jarring slap. No thinking about the pain, no hesitating! You can swim. Quite well in fact. Can you reach the buoy? I pop my head above the surface, and spit out half a mouthful of saltwater. Nothing to grab onto on the ship even if I could reach it. They probably don't even know I'm gone, but the ship is at least showing me the direction I need to swim in this murky fog.
But I had barely taken my first stroke when my body is launched into the air. My vision fades under the force of being flipped skyward by the tail of one of the two mermaids. I fight to remain conscious despite the gee-forces.
The air is no longer an unfamiliar element to me. I may not have my wingsuit, but countless hours practice mean that I can at least right myself in the air, much as a falling cat is able to.
I see the elegant charcoal-gray elongated body of Avonna below me, fast approaching. I know how to cushion my landing somewhat, but without my wingsuit I'm simply falling too fast. Avonna's tail fans out below me. Will this impact kill me? Her tail catches me far more gently than I would have imagined. Of course. She was practiced in the art of keeping her prey alive. I cough, trying to catch my breath. I struggle to stand up on her tail, but she curves her tail fin inward, sending me toppling toward the center of what could otherwise be a graceful pair of cupped hands.
A queasy sensation in my stomach, like that of an extreme roller-coaster, as her tail drops towards the water's surface – preparation for another toss. This time my vision fades further under the brutal acceleration, forcing the lifeblood away from my brain. I have to fight to stay conscious; to keep moving, to keep escaping. It doesn't matter how hopeless the situation is, keep fighting. Giving in now means certain death, and an unspeakable one at that. But my body finally refuses to respond. Everything goes black.
* * *I awake. Or did I? Everything is completely dark. I can't move. Maybe I'm not awake; this could be a dream. It's difficult to orient myself in the blackness, but it feels like I'm flat on my back. I seem to be able to move my fingers and wiggle my toes a little.
Let's try to sit up. Hopeless, something is crushing me from above. Whatever seems to be surrounding me feels soft yet somehow unyielding. Oh gods… no… not that.
Don't panic. I don't seem to be in any pain, so maybe there's another explanation. Another explanation besides my worst nightmare – being in the belly of one of those mermaids.
I'm able to tilt my head to the side, to rest my cheek against this surface I'm laying upon. Brushing my cheek against it, I can feel that it's not only soft to the touch, but warm as well. Another wave of panic washes over me. No, NO! There has to be another explanation. Calm your breathing. Calm your heart rate. I press my cheek against the warm surface once again, and this time I can hear… no, I can hear and feel:
Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub.
The sound of a beating heart. A heart many times more massive than my own.
I was lost. After all this. All I had achieved, all my experiences – now it would all disappear forever. Maybe I had done some good in my life. Maybe the ship had made it back to Xin. I hope it did. But I will never know. My story will end in the belly of one of those slimy mermaids.
How I despise this warm, soft surface: trapping me, preventing movement, preventing fighting, preventing a death with dignity. I may feel her heartbeat, but this is a heartless creature. How long do I have left before this fleshy prison begins tearing me apart cell by cell?
At least there's no pain just yet. Or am I in shock? People in shock sometimes don't feel pain. Or perhaps my nerve endings have already been completely burned off? Doesn't that happen to burn victims? If that were the case then I only have a few more minutes before–
No. My last thoughts will not be self pity. Relax and calm yourself. That slimy mermaid may have gotten my body, but she will not have my spirit. Relax. Breathe deep.
Say, for being inside a slimy mermaid, it feels oddly dry.
The air is warm. Very warm. But somehow also fresh. A faint scent washes through my lungs, a scent permeating my body with a sensation of contentment. A subtle, somehow familiar scent.
Breathe deep again. This isn't the smell of death. It smells of joy. Of happy memories. It smells like–
"Shsssh!" came a hushed, yet familiar voice from above my head. "You have to be still. We're at the edge of our nesting grounds, and I can't have my sisters find you."
"I can't move."
Blackness changes to a deep blue, as the weight pinning me from above lifts away. I turn my head right then left to orient myself. We're in a field; the silhouette of a grove of enormous trees visible to my right. Indistinct squawking. Must be the rest of the harpies. Rinloh is lying on her back. Glancing up and down her body, I can now see that I'm lying on her tummy, just below her ribs, and that she had covered me with one of her wings. What had happened? How did I get here?
"I had to keep you hidden. Hope I didn't frighten you."
"However you did it, Rinloh, I owe you my life… And my soul."
"Don't forget your tasty little body! That's mine too, ya hairless monkey."
She's so cute when she tries to speak proper harpy.
"Darin, I know you wanted to take care of those human criminals on your own. It was a matter of pride for you. I understand that. But another predator will not harm you." As she paused a moment, I felt the warm skin of her chest below me rise as she drew a deeper breath. "Now go to sleep. We'll leave at first light before the others wake up."
As her wing came down on me, I rest my cheek once again on her tummy. How I adore this warm, soft surface; a living cocoon, surrounding and protecting me. I breath deeply the warm air carrying her faint scent, listen and feel the beating of a powerful heart. A heart belonging to my dearest friend. A heart belonging to a predator. All my questions seem to fade into triviality, as I fall into the deepest, most trouble-free slumber I've experienced since coming to Felarya.
- End -
In a last-ditch effort to rescue the abductees, Darin and his friends have seized control of the armed freighter Manatee, and are sailing back towards Xin. Fighting desperately to prevent the ruthless species traffickers from retaking the ship, a new threat now emerges from the depths. One as beautiful as she is deadly.
Note: Mature content. These final chapters are darker and more graphic than prior ones.
This is part 7 of the story. The other parts may be found here:
Part 1: "Fowl Play Suspected"
Part 2: "The Predator Sensei"
Part 3: "Maid for Adventure"
Part 4: "Life's not Faire"
Rinloh and Darin appeared in "Harpyness is Only Skin Deep"
A reference drawing of the Manatee may be found here
Hello! This is a simple map I did as a reference for my Felarya stories. Unlike the wonderful map done by Mr Karbo here, I make no claims of any sort of artistic value. It's just a simple reference.
Oh, and for those with a sharp eye you may notice some slight differences to the "real" map above. Why is this you may ask? Simple, the real map was created by the famed cartographer Professor Obrak following a year long surveying expedition. He is quoted as saying "The area in and around the city of Xin was so dull in comparison to the rest of Felarya, that I just sent one of my less competent interns to do the surveying. After escaping the maws of countless giant nagas, it just wouldn't do for me to die of boredom."
or, enter your birth date.*
Continuing from "The Terrible Tribulations of Tribute," where with the help of his harpy companion Rinloh, Darin has finally managed to return to Xin to warn his friends of an attack on the city faire. However, a devious ambush set by the species traffickers has trapped the majority of the town watch in the sewers under the city, and he and his friends are now hopelessly outnumbered by the band of criminals.
Note: Mature content. These final chapters are darker and more graphic than prior ones.
Stepping off the end of the worn stone causeway, the heavy timbers of the dock creaked under our feet. Here over the water the eerie fog is thicker still than that above the city: a thick blanket which muffles sounds of the harbor and obscures their direction. The gentle sloshing of seawater within the shallow harbor, the creaking and groaning of timbers and pilings as they shifted to and fro, the occasional shriek of a seabird. It was all happening somewhere within this damp gray soup.
In Felarya, danger is ever present. From the moment one steps out of the house, and sometimes even before that. But this was different: not the possibility that a giant predator was out there somewhere, no this was a certainty. This gang of species traffickers is right here in the harbor, undoubtedly on the lookout for anyone out to interfere with their plans. Yet somehow this lack of uncertainty about whether we would be facing danger was almost comforting. I didn't have to spare a thought to the "if," only the "what," and the "when."
"Head left along the second to the last dock. In this soup nobody's going to be out fishing, so there should be several large boats moored. We can 'deliver' this gear," said Shenipot, in a voice just above a whisper.
The scent of dried sea-grass wafted from the worn crab traps I carried, traps which left no hands free should I need to defend myself. Yet as Shenipot had drilled into the four of us, should there be a confrontation with the species traffickers, we could only win by guile. The gear we had "borrowed" should support the illusion that we were four fisherman going about our business in the harbor.
Sand, fragments of clam and crab shells, and tendrils of dried sea-grass crunched lightly under our feet as we traversed the worn timbers of the wide central dock. The masts of numerous small fishing boats – moored to the much narrower side docks – swayed peacefully in the gentle swell: some clearly visible, some almost completely shrouded in fog. Xin's shallow harbor had served as a haven for me during the 14 months I had lived here. A place outside the claustrophobic narrow streets and alleys within the city walls. A place one could take a leisurely stroll; let a salty breeze clear the cobwebs from one's mind. A paradox in Felarya: wide open views to the horizon, yet relatively safe. Shoals for several kilometers in all directions prevented giant or even moderate-sized sea creatures from approaching, lest they be stranded by the ebb tide, while the fortified city lie between the harbor and the surrounding countryside.
Shenipot stepped from the wide central walkway of the dock system to one of the much narrower side docks, where the largest of the local boats were moored. We set our gear down between a small barge, piled high with simple dredging gear, and the wide hull of a cat-rigged crab boat. I knelt on the narrow dock and went through the motions of inspecting one of the crab traps. A black steel hull, five times the size of the next largest vessel in the harbor loomed to my right.
"Looks like they are getting ready to make sail," whispered Fogmort, fidgeting with some fishing floats from the crate he had been carrying.
"What are we waiting for?" said Granvale, brandishing his gaff-hook in a manner more consistent with a halberd than the maritime tool that it actually was; his voice raised too far for stealth. "We have to stop them!"
"Shhh! Look at how they're armed. Every one of them has a repeater rifle. The four of us would have no chance against them in an assault," said Fogmort, casually motioning for us to step behind the dredging equipment, out of the line of sight of the ship.
"Not to mention the number of innocent lives that they are transporting," I said.
"We may have to brace ourselves for the fact that there could be some collateral damage in a rescue attempt," said Fogmort.
"What?" I responded in disbelief. Collateral damage was a euphemism. A phase for politicians and schemers, not brave adventurers, not heroes, not my friends.
"I'm afraid he's right," said Shenipot. "The way these guys are armed, the odds are against us. I hate to say it, but save as many as you can, and don't beat yourself up if you can't save them all."
Fogmort had been through numerous adventures, and although he had not shown this side to me yet, I suspected he could be ruthless if need be. But I was shocked to hear Shenipot, the constable, the peacekeeper, agree with him.
"This dense fog will work in our favor. The three of you see if you can get aboard, and do whatever you can to stall them. I'll go see what's left of the city watch. Hopefully I can round up some help," said Shenipot. "But this could turn into a blood bath if we're not lucky. Darin, you're from a world that has a lot of firearms: you know how to use one of these?" he asked, handing me his stout revolver.
"I can use one, just don't expect me to hit anything with it." I responded, recollecting the few firearms I had shot in my youth. The revolver was heavy in my hands, a far cry from the .22 I had last handled. "But shouldn't Fogmort or Granvale get this? They're both more experienced than I am."
"Granvale already has one, and I'm going to guess that Fogmort prefers a dagger or club for this sort of thing."
Fogmort nodded in agreement. "And you two be careful with those. This is going to depend on surprise, so no gunfire until we absolutely have to."
"It's a black-powder model, and here's a spare cylinder. The catch is here, tip the barrel, and you can swap cylinders. Six shots each, so make them count." Shenipot reflected a moment. "It's probably not as advanced as the weapons you'll be facing, but it should do the job." He glanced back at Granvale, pausing a moment. "Granvale, I know I've only just recently deputized Fogmort, but he has more experience with an operation like this. I need you to follow his lead on this. Can you do that?"
Granvale gave a skeptical grimace; the expression a proud viking raider might have if informed that his village needed him to switch careers to that of flower arranging. "Yeah, I can follow him. This time."
As Shenipot parted to make his way back towards the city, my thoughts drifted to the one friend who was missing. To the one friend who none of the others knew about. Who none of the others could know about. Yet while I cherished every minute of time with Rinloh, this was my fight. This was a crime committed by humans; to be resolved among humans.
Fogmort's piercing blue eyes scrutinized our surroundings, the gears turning in his head, before his gaze finally fixed upon the gentle bobbing of a flimsy wooden dinghy tied to the stern of the dredging barge. "Granvale, if we grab that dinghy, do you think we could make it around to the far side of the ship unseen?"
"Good idea. All eyes are on the pier. They won't be watching the sea."
* * *From the diminutive dinghy, the black hull of the freighter towered overhead, appearing significantly larger than it had from the dock. From this distance we could see that the ship's name, Manatee had been hastily painted over with the false name of Djebel. Our planned point of ingress – the gaping hawse, through which the anchor chain passed – was several meters above our heads. Fogmort threw a short length of rope around the bow anchor and the three of us were able to wiggle our way past the anchor into the forecastle. The anchor hoist equipment was enclosed in a large room, one level below the top deck of the forecastle. Besides housing the huge anchor capstan, the space served as storage room for various lines, tarpaulins, and ship's spares. On the one hand we were lucky: it was devoid of guards, and offered many excellent hiding places. But it was also the least strategic part of the ship. Peaking out one of the two access hatches, we could see across the main deck to the elevated bridge at the stern, where a single lookout gazed nervously at the dock, a smoldering pipe in his mouth. The four large centerline hatches leading to the cargo holds below were raised off the main deck, but at under a meter high, would not have obscured our visibility from the lookout on the bridge, even if we crawled. The large loading crane in the center offered a bit more concealment, but it was doubtful we could reach it undetected.
"Not a lot of activity now, let's see if we can have a peek at the cargo holds below," said Fogmort.
The stairs to the deck below were partially exposed, but with only a single crewman focused on this section of the ship, we slipped past while his gaze was elsewhere.
The room below was similar to that above, although smaller; as the hull of the ship tapered inward. A hatch on either side led to the cargo holds, however both were chained shut from the other side.
"Bad luck," said Fogmort, eyeing the heavy chain and padlock through the thick glass of the oval viewport.
"Looks like a water-tight hatch. Plenty sturdy. Not designed to be locked, but I suppose they want to prevent break-outs," I said.
"So we have to take the upper deck? I don't like it. There's a fine line between bold and suicidal," said Granvale.
I ran my hands along the hatch frame. "Say, what if we unbolt the entire hatch?"
"Interesting. Does appear to be a separate module," said Fogmort, inspecting it more carefully. "Of course it'll make a racket when it finally comes loose. Hmm."
"How are we going to do that? Unbolt it, I mean. Wait, never mind, there were plenty of tools in the room above," said Granvale.
"How long do you think it'll take?" said Fogmort.
I thought back to my attempts to repair various vehicles on my home world. Although reasonably handy, I considered my strongest skill to be "not making things worse," rather than "accurately estimating repair times." Hmmm. Count the number of bolts. Take the time I think it should require to get them all undone. Add in time for dropping tools and miscellaneous cursing. Then double that number. "Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes," I finally responded.
"They'll probably check to make sure all the watertight hatches are secure before departing," said Fogmort. "So if we're in the middle of taking it apart when they do that, we'll be discovered. We'd better wait until they depart. Maybe we can slow them down when they reach the outer shoals – the navigable passage for a ship this size is pretty narrow even at high tide. If we take the helm at the right moment we could possibly beach the ship, then they'd be stuck."
"And if we can't?" said Granvale.
"Then we have to take the ship."
The three of us fell silent, none wanting to mention the probable 5 to 1 numerical advantage the species traffickers had.
* * *Despite my trepidation, we were able to remove the hatch in just under 20 minutes, the racket from the reciprocating steam engine more than loud enough to drown out our hatch-disassembly noises. Setting the hatch frame back in and securing it with bailing wire, nothing would appear out of place unless someone looked very closely.
The hatches between the four cargo holds were not locked, and there was a narrow horizontal corridor between each of them as well. Voices alerted us to the presence of the crew with enough time to duck into one of the horizontal corridors.
"The three of them are discussing something with someone from behind that hatch," whispered Fogmort. "The one in the middle seems to be giving them orders. This is as good a chance as we're going to get. If they come this way, we'll grab them."
Fogmort turned to me and grimaced. "If they do come this way it's three versus three. But Darin, you're not an experienced fighter. The best thing you can do to help us is to distract them so Granvale and I can come at them from behind."
"I'll take care of it." I had no idea how I'd do so, but surely I'd think of something in the next thirty seconds. No pressure.
Footsteps coming our direction. This was it.
I stepped out of the narrow side corridor, my back toward the three approaching men – three well-armed, well-trained, and absolutely ruthless individuals – and strode nonchalantly along the main corridor. They would surely recognize that I was not one of the crew. Or would they? My back was to them, and nobody aboard had a "uniform" as such. Each step I took dragged for an eternity. Finally, when I was convinced that the three of them had passed the side corridor where Fogmort and Granvale were hiding, I turned around.
"Hey, you there. Why is the ship still moving? Xin's pilot boat won't be able to meet up with us at this pace."
The two flanking men eyed me suspiciously, placing their hands on their weapons, while the one in the center, presumably the leader, refused to accept my story at face value as well. "Who are you, and what are you doing here."
"Darin. The name's Darin. I work for the harbor master. Supposed to 'assist' your helmsmen navigate the shoals. What's your name?"
"I'm Royce. And if you're supposed to be helping the helmsman, you should be on the bridge, not in the cargo hold."
This was not going well. Who would have known that high-school drama would later become a life-and-death skill. I shrugged my shoulders as dramatically as I could, shaking my head. "I know, I know. Look, between us, the whole thing's a bit of a scam. If you follow the marker buoys, any competent helmsman can do it. It's just a way to levy–"
I kept my gaze downward to avoid a facial expression that might inadvertently give away the fact that Fogmort and Granvale were coming up from behind them. The sound of their clubs impacting the skulls of the two flanking crewmen curdled my blood – like a pair of heavy boots crunching through refrozen snow. Royce immediately turned – just in time to face a club impact directly to his forehead, and let out a grunting cry before collapsing next to the other two.
"Nice job, Darin," said Granvale, now bristling with energy, eager for more combat. "Grab the leader, and drag him out of the main corridor."
I hesitated a moment, drawing a handkerchief from my pocket to clear the few drops of Royce's blood that had splattered into my eyes. His muffled yell had failed to raise the alarm, and after a brief moment of hesitation on my part, we pulled the three of them into the narrow side corridor.
"This one's dead. I hit him a little too hard," said Granvale, after feeling for a pulse.
"These two are just out," said Fogmort. "Before we try anything else we need to hide these bodies. I think there may have only been a single voice coming from that room down the hall. I have an idea."
Fogmort quickly removed Royce's jacket and trousers. Although about the same height as Fogmort, Royce was considerably bulkier and stronger, allowing Fogmort to slip the jacket and trousers over the top of his own clothes.
Granvale pressed himself against the bulkhead flanking the hatch on its hinged side, while Fogmort stood on the other side and knocked.
"What is it this time," groused the burly crewman, opening the hatch in annoyance. Fogmort had his back to him, and had knelt down, apparently tying his shoes. "Oh, it's you again. Sorry sir. What do you want?"
Fogmort grunted noncommittally.
Granvale tapped the man on his back, startling him, and re-directing his attention.
A crack on the head from Fogmort's club, and he was out. Or perhaps dead? I was still shocked at how casually the two of them had treated the 'accidental' death of the prior crewman.
This man was in fact the sole occupant of the small cabin, which turned out to be a sort of quartermaster's office. We dragged the bodies of the other three into the cabin, and surveyed its contents.
"Oh, baby, we're in luck now," said Granvale, his eyes gleaming, his mouth salivating as he strode towards a small gun-rack mounted to the cabin's bulkhead; strode in the manner a gentlemen might, when approaching a lady in anticipation of asking her for the next dance.
Fogmort searched the men, producing two revolvers of a more modern design than that which I carried and two key rings each with a dozen and a half keys of different sizes and shapes. He pushed his way past the salivating figure of Granvale, quickly located the correct key, and unlocked the rack.
Pulling the first of the four rifles off the rack and inspecting it, he announced, "Bolt-action smokeless cartridge gun. Looks to be a pretty high power piece. About a .40 caliber I'd say. Maybe a bit heavier. Not that practical for close quarters action against these guys, but let's take them all anyway. Better if we have them than if they do."
Fogmort was full of surprises. Seeing him up till now with a sword, a club, or a dagger had set a certain image in my mind. His quick and matter-of-fact assessment of the rifle seemed out of character. But this was Felarya, not some fantasy game. A seasoned adventurer would be wise to know about many different types of weapons.
He glanced at the key rings. "I hope one of these will open the prisoner enclosures. We could use a little extra manpower."
"Shall I tie up these three," I asked, looking around the small cabin for some rope or wire.
"We should probably kill them," said Fogmort, reaching for his dagger. "If they come around, it'll just make our rescue all the more difficult."
Too stunned by these words to even respond, I was fortunate that Granvale spoke up. "We can't do that. Whatever else we are, we're deputies of Xin. Shoot to kill is fine by me. Executing prisoners is not."
"Your funeral," said Fogmort. "But regardless: somebody will notice that these guys are missing, so we've got to move quickly now. Darin, you take the keys. We can put the extra weapons in this sack here, and you can take that too. Let's try to free a few captives, then move straight to the machine room and take the ship."
My mind was having an even harder time keeping up on this day than my body, but fortunately Granvale, apparently surprised not to get a stronger objection to his statement, simply responded with "Lead the way."
We passed through three hatches in succession; each time the same sequence: Granvale would open the hatch, leaving Fogmort's hands free to fight. Fogmort would poke his head cautiously through, and I took up the rear, carrying the sack of extra weapons and the key rings – ready to open any locks in our way. Twice the opposite side of the hatch was empty, but the third time we weren't so lucky. Fogmort surprised the first of two burly guards, knocking him out, but the second fought back hard – shoving his massive forearm against Fogmort's neck. I barely had my hand on my revolver when Granvale motioned me to back down with a gentle wave of his right hand. Stepping through the hatchway with a speed that belied his size and strength, a crimson flash of blood from the guard's throat splattered against the dull gray paint of the bulkhead behind him faster than my eyes could track the long dagger in Granvale's left hand.
Again my mind slowed, my gaze focusing on the trickling lifeblood against the pealing gray paint of the steel bulkhead in front of me. The blood of a human guard who now lay gurgling on the floor. Why? This was Felarya: a land of magic and wonder, a land whose very soil radiated magic enough to heal injury and disease. Weren't the giant predators enough to worry about? Did we humans have to kill each other as well? A clamor of activity from the captives brought me back to my senses. Captives. Yes, rescuing them might make good some of the blood spilled today.
Some captives were in fully enclosed cabins, while others were in cage enclosures which resembled a stereotypical jail cell. Yet all the captives in this third hold of the ship could sense that a rescue attempt was underway. I frantically tried the guard's keys in each of three locked enclosures, without success.
"Damn," said Fogmort. "It seems these cells are keyed separately. I thought that guy was the leader, and one of these would be a master key. Maybe we won't be able to get any of them open."
"Haha. For some reason I keep thinking about something my brother-in-law once said," I mumbled, as I frantically tried key after key in the lock of the fourth cabin.
"And what's that?" replied Granvale, while diligently searching the bodies of the two guards for additional keys.
"It's how he once described a cruise ship: People in a big steel cage. Packed in like sardines, unaware what's really going on. And waiting for dinner."
"Waiting for dinner. Yeah. Hilarious," said Fogmort.
My heart leaped with joy at the faint 'clink' as the third to the last key succeeded, and the solid steel hatch to one of the cabin style enclosures creaked open. Inside were a human and two inus. A quick glance was all it took to see that the human was in sorry shape. He was a man of perhaps twenty years, but lacking the health and vitality one would expect of someone that age. His matted black hair was unkempt and greasy, his eyes sunken, with deep bags from lack of sleep. He struggled to his feet. Both inus – a male and female – on the other hand appeared quite healthy. I had seen members of their race – with it's distinctive canine-like features – only once before. These two sprang deftly to their feet, sizing us up with big, bright, alert eyes, and advanced on the like a pack of wolves.
"We're here to rescue you!" barked Fogmort, trying to avoid a misunderstanding. "But we need your help to retake the ship."
Both responded enthusiastically, their long fluffy ears perked in anticipation. The male, sporting dark green eyes, brunette hair and a shorter, bushier tail than the female, responded first. "Those bastards separated us from our pack-mates – I'm ready to fight. The name's Gaoku. This is Emaya."
Emaya nodded in agreement, her piercing ruby eyes smoldering with energy and alertness. She was slightly taller than Gaoku, and her long auburn hair pulled behind her head in twin pony tails.
"Good," said Fogmort. "Either of you any good with firearms?"
"Emaya's a crack shot. I'm OK," responded Gaoku.
"Pick your poison." Fogmort stepped out of the way and motioned toward the bag of firearms I was carrying. Emaya picked one of the rifles, the weapon falling into her grasp so naturally that she may as well have been reuniting with a missing body part. Gaoku took a revolver.
"That just leaves two rifles," I said. "And the black-powder revolver that Shenipot gave me, of course."
"And what's your story?" Fogmort asked the fragile-looking man in the shadow of the two inus. "You look terrible."
"I'm from Xin. I've been here for weeks. I suspected something was going on at the docks at night, but when I went to investigate, they grabbed me. I think they're using me as a hostage."
"The fishmonger's guild leader! Now it all makes sense," I said.
"Yes, I'm Philo, his son. A couple of the fishermen had been bribed into helping the traffickers. The kidnappings a few weeks back were just a test run; kidnap a few people no one would miss, to see how their plan would work. They would then come back during the faire, when lots of people from all over would be there. People nobody locally would know or report missing. But enough talk, let me help."
"You can barely stand," said Fogmort. "Come with us, but stay out of the line of fire."
We burst into the machine room to find it empty, save for an overworked elf who simply raised his hands, and gazed back at us with sunken eyes.
"Excellent," said Fogmort. "If we capture the bridge, the ship is ours. Granvale, Gaoku, and Philo, you stay down here. You've got great cover in case they try to retake the controls directly from the machine room. Emaya, Darin, you're with me. Let's take the bridge."
We ascended three steep internal sets of stairs – Fogmort taking point – before emerging on the aft deck, just one level below the bridge. Raised voices in the distance. Had the alarm been sounded? A final set of stairs. A yell. A gunshot. It certainly was now.
The two crew on the bridge didn't appear to be armed. Fogmort broke through the hatch, pointed his heavy revolver at the helmsman and announced, "Hands off the wheel!"
"Don't shoot. We're just the crew," said the helmsman, as they both extended their hands in the air.
I dashed through the hatch, and motioned towards the back of the bridge with my revolver as Fogmort spun the wheel hard to port.
"The helm's responding. I think we've got this," said Fogmort; a trace of optimism beginning to return to his voice. "If we can hold them off for the next 25 minutes or so, we'll be back in port, and hopefully Shenipot will have rounded up some help. Granvale has the perfect defensive position along the bulkhead below, so if they come at us, it'll probably be from on deck. I can see it all from here, and I'll pop off a shot at them every so often, but I need you two to defend the bridge. Go out on deck, find some cover and shoot at them from another angle. Give them multiple threats to worry about."
I found a spot on deck just aft of the bridge with a clear field of fire across the main deck. Emaya took cover behind some sturdy crates stacked against the superstructure, and I behind a set of davits supporting a small dinghy. The davits and the dinghy appeared to be a recent addition to the ship, and had been sloppily welded to the edge of the deck. They were narrow, however an adjacent haphazardly assembled winch mechanism provided a little extra cover. I glanced at the receiver of the heavy, bolt-action rifle I held in my lap. No time like the present to try it out. I gritted my teeth, turned and popped my head and shoulders above the winch, aimed in the general direction of the forecastle, and squeezed the trigger. A deafening crack rang out, as the blood-red walnut stock slammed hard into my shoulder. Ducking back into cover, I remembered Granvale's advice. "These are high-powered rifles, so they kick a bit." No kidding. Any harder and it would've broken my fucking collarbone. I grabbed the bolt and chambered the next round. Plenty of ammo. We just need to keep them away from the bridge until we make it back to port. I leaned around the other side of the davit, practically hanging off the side of the ship, and fired off two rounds. I was getting the hang of working the bolt. Emaya followed suit with two more shots.
Popping out again to take another shot, my eyes focused on the forecastle where the traffickers were scrambling to drag at least two of their crew back into cover. Emaya was a crack shot indeed. And I… I was a distraction at least. Glancing at the deck above us, my gaze fell upon the starboard side autocannon.
"Say Emaya, do you think we could make it up there?"
She glanced up at the 2-meter long, pedestal-mounted 20mm autocannon. "Do you know where the ammo for it is?"
"Do you know how to operate it?"
"No... Fine. Bad idea. I just wanted to-" Right. Don't I feel like an idiot. I had now conclusively proven that Granvale's preferred M.O. of: Shoot first, stab second, find a bigger gun, shoot some more, then get one of your friends to handle those pesky questions didn't suit me at all.
Flashing a reassuring smile, Emaya gave my hand a quick squeeze. "We'll be fine. From this position, at this distance, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. We'll get through this. Just keep me covered, Darin."
With all the action of the last hours, I was running on adrenaline. I can't afford to relax: I have no idea what it feels like to get shot, and I really don't want to find out. With this single-minded focus on the worthy goal of not being shot, little attention was left to spare observing my surroundings. With either my eyes or my predator sense.
A voice from a highly unexpected direction shocked me so badly that I nearly dropped my rifle.
"Hello, my little treats!"
My gaze shifted to the source of the melodious voice, falling upon a pair of silvery gray eyes. Eyes fixed firmly upon me. Eyes belonging to a giant mermaid.
- End -The story will continue in "A Speciest Argument."
Darin, with the help of his giant harpy companion, Rinloh, has finally made it back to Xin to warn his friends of an attack on the city faire. However, a devious ambush set by the species traffickers has trapped the majority of the town watch in the sewers under the city, and he and his friends, now hopelessly outnumbered, must find a way to stop the band of criminal's plot to abduct many hundreds of faire guests.
The title has changed, as the story was split in a different location than originally anticipated. This, and the following final chapter (which will follow shortly) are darker and more graphic than prior ones.
This is part 6 of the story. The other parts may be found here:
Part 1: "Fowl Play Suspected"
Part 2: "The Predator Sensei"
Part 3: "Maid for Adventure"
Part 4: "Life's not Faire"
Rinloh and Darin appeared in "Harpyness is Only Skin Deep"
A reference drawing of the Manatee may be found here here