The valley Grauheim occupied narrowed the further north along the Hochenflosse. While the basin's walls became ever steeper, more of the city's sprawl yawned into their slopping heights. At the summits of those slopes, far down the Hochenflosse's length, had all the city's aeronautical Ports been constructed. The 5th Port, the port Mr. Pipps' stagecoach was shambling up the highway hillocks to get to, was built on one of the highest points along the valley. Milva peered out the carriage window and received a tremendous view of the cityscape below. Hundreds of thousands of homes, edifices and factories scattered about a web of busy streets. All Grauheim was draped in a shroud of steam and smog that churned like clouds with the wind's movements. The glimmering waters of the Hochenflosse surged downstream while junkers and steamboats ambled by bank-side factories and fisherman's pinnacles. The view was magnificent; Milva had never seen Grauheim from such a height.
Professor Kreug glanced out with her. Though he was less impressed by the sight, the grin he had was unmistakable to Milva.
Mr. Pipps followed the hillock highway flanked by dozens of cabs, cargo carts and the odd automobile. The steep climb only levelled out when the track went from dust turf to paved stone. Through two opened gates the carriage verged out into the vast spread of a densely inhabited stone courtyard carved out of the hillside. The yard was bristling with activity. Traders of every clime congregated in the marketplace, a pulsing colony of tents and stalls where everything from husk and spices to cudgels and terracotta were sold. Box-small stores delimited the square; offices to bankers, merchants and guildsmen; where brokers sold leases between crews and customers, and where privateer owners haggled with councilmen over their deployment.
Milva looked up as she left the stagecoach. Against a levelled hillside so steep it declined almost vertically, an enormous wall-side rigging moored dozens of mighty airships to port. She counted forty-eight ships in all, with each one tethered to its own notch of the cliff-like hill. The ships were strung together in a singular line stretching from one side of 5th Port to the other.
Professor Kreug stepped out with the luggage he and Milva brought. They would travel light, bringing with them only clothes, notes, and of course, the Rheinshard (though that was safely tucked away with the Professor). Everything else they needed would be provided by The Octavia.
It was so loud at 5th Port, what with all the trader shouting and foot shuffling, in addition to the groaning wooden hulls of overhanging airships practically yearning for the open air. Because of that clamour she almost missed a familiar voice calling to them...
"Professor Kreug! Miss Milva!" She yelled. "Ahoy!"
Milva and Kreug turned just as she jogged up to the pair. The Dark Elf smiled softly as she recalled that cropped, dusky blonde hair from a past meeting. Tetra.
She grinned brightly at them both. "So good to see you two! En't it now? How's your jobbing up then? Good?"
"The ride was a rough one," commented Kreug. "Those highways are in dire need of re-pavement."
Tetra nodded sympathetically. "You en't far off there, Professor. I hate this place, I bloody do. There en't no respect for aeronauting in Grauheim, `less it's military. That's why the ports around here en't fit for a cock's worth of the groundage."
Tetra's salty language drew Milva's blush.
"And how are you then, aye, Miss Milva?" Tetra asked.
Milva took her by the hand with a smile. "I am fine, thank you. But... you can call me Milva. I don't mind."
"Alrighty then. Milva it is."
Then, unexpectedly, Tetra took both Milva's valise and Kreug's suitcase into her hands and nudged toward the cliffside rigging. "Come on then, `way we go."
"Wouldn't you rather fetch some helpers?" Suggested Kreug.
Tetra shook her head. "The Octavia's crew does its own loading, sir. No stevedores, no primage. Captain Quy's orders. I'll be in for a whippin' if I let you lug these onto our ship too."
There was enough pride in the Professor's stomach for him to balk at the image of a woman carrying his luggage but he didn't voice it. He just followed Tetra toward the rigging. Milva gave Mr. Pipps a parting hug, tiding him over with two 50-coins until she saw him next. She then followed Tetra and Kreug over to a shambling oak and iron scaffold masquerading as a staircase up one of the rigging's ship notches.
"From bow to stern The Octavia's around 100ft in length," Explained Tetra on the way up. "The gasbag's about 220. She's not a warship or a freighter so she's nimble in the air, but she lifts a good load and wields a gunnage ten cannons strong."
Ascending the rigging's steps revealed the ship's grandiosity only in inches. It was when Milva came to the top, and tailed Tetra and Professor Kreug down the woven logs and panels of the gangplank, that she saw the ship in its entirety; an elongated, barrel-shaped beige gasbag webbed in a mesh of toughly plaited ropes locking it to a lean hardwood galleon. Amidships, two massive 'fins', skeletal rods of brass-painted iron webbed in hemp protruded; one to port, the other starboard. Four other, smaller fins extended either-side of the bow & stern, and behind the rearmost of those, a honeycomb of unlocked hatches flaunted the unfurled propellers that impelled the ship toward its many destinations.
Milva felt a quiet kind of esteem. It was a beautiful ship, The Octavia. But while she and Professor Kreug marvelled at its splendour, Tetra was busy flagging two crewmen up above. She yelled for them to lower the winch lift. The pair huddled around the rope skein to turn the cranks. Pulleys slowly lowered the lift to the gangplank. Tetra loaded the luggage onto it and climbed on, gesturing for Milva to follow. The Dark Elf did just that, taking Tetra's hand, and very mindful of the 300-foot drop back down into 5th Port's flagstones.
"We go up first," Tetra told Kreug. "Then the men'll lower it for you."
He nodded. Tetra flagged the two crewmen once again and once again they twisted the cranks of the skein, this time anti-clockwise, in unison. Once more the lift rose. Then suddenly there was a juddering jerk. The lift lurched hard to the left and Milva yelped in panic until Tetra quickly gripped her by the waist, holding her steady.
"Don't fret now, I have you." She said soothingly. Then Tetra sent a wrathful glare up above. "Will you ruddy great bastards watch what you do? Cogsblast it!"
They apologized. Apparently one of the two went too fast. They steadied themselves and continued until the lift was up to their height, then they reached over and helped the two girls onto The Octavia's deck.
From forecastle to poop the ship's deck was brimming with activity; hard calloused hands tugged terse ropes from the gasbag's mesh and secured them around bitts while crewmembers scuttled around un-boxing freight, unyoking bollards, and shouting calls. The two men at the winch helped Professor Kreug up. Once he was safely on board Tetra commanded them to lock up the equipment and "assist with the unmooring". It was strange, Milva thought, that a girl so young, only eighteen, commanded men, but it was a good kind of `strange', like a first kiss. She was so enamoured by that she failed to notice a few whispers of "elf" around her.
Tetra called for a deck hand, a young man no older than nineteen by the looks of things. He came up in a flash. "Yes, 3rd Mate?"
"Where's our artillery chief then, aye?"
"She's right here ...and she's only a deputy."
It was Flannery behind them. Milva felt another tint of familiarity with that still expression and fiery auburn hair. The "deputy artillery chief" nodded her hellos to Milva and Kreug, distant as ever.
"What do you need?" Flannery asked dourly.
"Foremost effects foremost," Tetra turned to the deck hand and threw a thumb over her shoulder. "You there. Take these good folk's luggage to their cabins."
He busied himself with the grunt work in an instant, taking their bags and making his way over to the companionway, then Tetra's attention returned to Flannery. "I en't looking to bother you while you're fixing Her rifles but I need to show these two landlings all The Octavia's particulars, so you wouldn't help direct the cast-off in my place, would you?"
A sigh. "...Very well. But I'm owed something for this."
With this fresh work on her shoulders Flannery disappeared into the amorphous throng of crewmembers shunting about the deck. She could no longer be seen but the boom of her voice she could heard shouting fresh directions to various shipmen.
"Well then," Tetra said. "Fancy a look about?"
Whether it was the cabin's ambient darkness (countered only by a bright lantern's flame), or the distinct aroma of cigars and liquor, or even her comparative lack of age and humanity, Milva felt out of place at this round table. It simply didn't seem as though this were her business. Nevertheless, she was here, and Milva warned herself to pay attention to what they had to say.
Her low-hung eyes went from the cocoa flask in her hands to the chair at her left, Professor Kreug's. His finger skated a firm line along a map's parchment, spread out across the table. He tapped a spot on the map a noteworthy distance from what appeared to be Grauheim.
"This is the easiest entry point," he explained. "I don't know the exact location but Gaustenfolt's manor is downriver of this forest. If we make our way here..." Kreug's trim fingertip moved outward from a forested spot to a river bank. "...and a few of us disembark here, we can search out the manor and speak with him."
"And when last had you congress with this... Gaustenfolt?" Asked Captain Quy, who sat across the table from Milva. His interlocked hands balanced his bearded chin and a lit cigar while a half-swilled glass of sherry stood in wait for him.
"I never have."
Quy groaned, rubbing his temples. "How readily certain can you be of this contact you've never had the pleasure of meeting? Even without the valkyries, the Realm Across the Scar is a dangerous place."
There was a dead plant in the centre of the table, oddly. In life its petals looked to have been some shade of purple, but death they had crinkled into a disfigured brown. Quy reached across the table and tipped the ash off his cigar into the dead flower's pot. Kreug studied him in the lantern-light.
"You're a man of the air, Captain. Surely you've noticed how reliable one's gut can be."
Quy glanced at him. "Undoubtedly. But I'd never forsake certainty for it. We will work with you, Kreug, but we can't be scouring the entire Realm on a hunch. Be cognizant of that."
"I am, Captain, I am." Kreug said.
There was a clink to Milva's left. There sat Abel, The Octavia's 2nd Mate, pouring a tumbler of sherry from a decanter. Over fifty years of life had all but wintered his hair to a snow's tint. He sipped from the tumbler and slid the decanter over to Kreug.
"I think it's time you explained what your goals are."
Kreug poured his own glass. "Indeed" he whispered after a swill, and he reached into his pocket. Milva, Quy and Abel all looked on in a curious mixture of awe, interest and suspicion as Kreug set the Rheinshard down. It produced it own shimmering golden light, a light bright enough to match that of the lantern.
"A nugget of gold?" Abel suggested. He withdrew his monocle for a closer examination. "No, not quite. The texture is smooth in spite of its shape. What exactly is this?"
The Professor explained his theory that the Rheinshard, one half of the Rheingold, summoned the valkyries to this world. He laid out his plan to find the other Rheinshard and re-forge the two into the Rheingold -- which he would then use to reverse the summoning. This would in turn prevent the impending Valkyrie War.
Milva observed Quy and Abel all through Kreug's elucidation. They weren't nearly as sceptical as she expected them to be.
"Little bit of altruism in that heart, eh?" Quy chuckled. "I don't begrudge you for it. And it all sounds a little... fantastical, but an aeronaut spies many things a landling doesn't. I'll take you at your word."
Abel tucked his monocle away. "A relic of the Gods, aye? Well, we've seen less plausible phenomena turn up trumps, Professor. This journey might be worth the spectacle, if not the money."
"And you have Milva to thank for that," Kreug gestured to her. "If not for her I never could have done business with you."
Milva's concentration wilted under everyone's sudden stare. She did not see herself as the saviour of the voyage, obviously, but Kreug's words did not embellish her import. The second Edmund confirmed that Agatha's estate had been left to her, she discussed how to go about selling it with him. Fortunately the Council's contractors had been looking for a spot to commemorate those who died during the valkyrie attack. Selling it to them was quick and painless, and while Milva sold the flat for less than 80% of its overall worth, that was more than enough to cover the cost of The Octavia and her crew.
Milva could not mistake the minute but palpable satisfaction of knowing that Agatha's lavish flat would be demolished to commemorate dead neighbours she hardly even cared for.
"So we have you to thank, eh?" Quy grinned.
Abel's face was still. "Are you from the Realm Across the Scar?"
"I... do not know where I am from, sir. I was orphaned in Grauheim and I don't have any recollection of my parents."
Kreug reached across the table and took Milva's hand. He tugged up a reassuring smile and stroked a thumb into her gloved palm. "That is part of the reason I insisted on you coming with us, Milva. This might be your chance to find out who you really are. We can do that once you help me banish the valkyries."
Abel's stare remained upon her. "How can this child help such a process?"
"Because this `child', as you call her, possesses the Arcane."
Quy smirked with intrigue, Abel blanched; clearly they were of two minds on the subject of magic. A question of belief or efficacy? Who could say. But Milva felt more uncomfortable underneath Abel's epochal glare now that the word "arcane" had been used.
"The Arcane..." Quy murmured.
Abel finally turned to Kreug. "Has she any tutelage, any training?"
"Milva sits very next to you, sir. Ask her yourself."
And so he did. "Well...? Do you have any training in the ways of the Arcane?"
"...No, sir. What I know... I learned myself... from texts I was able to find in Grauheim."
"And did you have any problems controlling it?"
Kreug frowned. "Exactly what are you getting at here, 2nd Mate Abel?"
"I am not a young man, Professor. As the captain said, we aeronauts see many a thing in our lives. I've seen the destructive nature of the Arcane. I have seen it cause catastrophes the likes of which you may never fathom. Without the proper schooling, wielders of the Arcane, human or no, are a danger to themselves and everyone around them."
Milva fixed her eyes on the cocoa flask again as a nervy silence filled the Captain's cabin to its breeches. It became so quiet only the ship's distinct sounds, its yawning wood and croaking ropes, spoke for them. That was until Quy interjected.
"Milva. Show me the Arcane."
Abel blinked. "But Captain! Remember-"
"No `buts' now, you old goat. Think of another word, `daring', and learn it again. Let's see Milva's power. Mayhap it will prove to be of use to us on this journey."
That did nothing to temper Abel's misgivings but a surreptitious pulling of rank served to quieten him. The older gentlemen settled back into his chair and made sport with his sherry while Kreug offered Milva a nod of encouragement. She was nervous, especially with Abel at her side, but she wanted to prove herself too, that amongst these men of academics and aeronauting, she had some leverage.
"What should I do?"
"You see this plant?" Quy gestured to the dead potted plant he had been tipping his cigar's ashes in. "I want you to restore its life."
Could she do that? It seemed impossible. Milva glanced at Kreug and he gave her a cajoling nod, but no directions. He was a thorough man, and if he was not willing to direct her, he must believe she could handle it on her own. The girl resolved herself on that and reached for the ceramic pot with a sigh. It slid over the table to her.
Under the lantern light, Milva wondered how she would approach this. So she thought back to the two times thus far she manipulated the Arcane. First, to kill the valkyrie that attacked her at West Square, then to the transubstantiation she worked in conjunction with the Rheinshard at Kreug's flat. Each time she had only visualized the actuality of her desire, her wish, or her feelings, and it was. From the texts she knew there to be mechanics and technicalities to the practices of the Arcane. It wasn't just blind alchemy.
But she began by feeling.
Milva's eyes slipped shut as the world around her fell out of focus, ever so briefly. Her fingers carefully rose up the withered plant's stalk. From then on Milva baptized her own mind in beautiful images of shrubbery, flourishing fields of flowers and vine gardens. Daffodils and sunflowers. Apple trees. Roses. Her skin prickled at a wave of warmth spreading out from her heart across all her body and swimming towards her hands. They became hot.
Then her eyes opened. Milva (as well as Kreug, Quy and Abel) beheld a beautifully bulbous crocus flower, blushing with life and vitality.
"...Incredible." Spoke Quy.
Milva smiled bashfully. "Thank you, sir."
The Octavia's various bodily groans and strains were more pronounced at night but though they were part of the problem, Milva could not blame them for her lack of sleep. She tumbled around in her bedding with eyes firmly shut yet beleaguered by a persistent immunity to sleep. After a few hours of tossing, pillow fluffing, blanket yanking and cog counting; Milva gave up trying. She leaned up to the headboard with a yawn.
Why couldn't she sleep?
Normally when she yeaned for slumber and could not reach it, it meant she was upset about something. Milva couldn't count on an abacus the amount of times she'd emerged whimpering from Agatha's bedroom and returned to her own only to be claimed by a sudden insomnia. It wasn't like that now. No, if anything she felt the opposite. She was excited.
Events had moved so swiftly since her morning at the Houses of Council; she met Kreug, Tetra, Flannery and Elberich, the Valkyrie attack on Grauheim, Agatha's death, the Rheinshard, clearing out the flat, the funeral and the inheritance and its sale, then coming aboard The Octavia and finally setting off for the Realm Across the Scar. Everything moved at such a swift pace it was hard to keep track of it all and why she was doing it. Her current dwellings were a cramped lower deck cabin and fine difference its was from the extravagant gaslamp trappings of Schäfer's Parade or West Square!
Milva knew she ought to be more afraid, more wary of what she'd embarked on, and more unnerved by what the future held after throwing away a secure home to fund a quest that might ultimately end in ruin. But all those concerns, for the moment at least, were tempered by a newborn pleasure in 'freedom'. Yes, she was scared. But the chance to find other Dark Elves, the chance to prevent war, the chance to see the last great unexplored land of the world... surely those things outweighed any fear?
Milva sipped water from a flagon hung from a hook by her bed. It's taste was leather and failed to refresh her. So instead she climbed out of berth, thrust her feet into a pair of cushion-padded moccasins and left her cabin.
She carefully ascended the companionway's rusting iron ladder and went up into the crisp nightly air of the deck.
There was a view that left Milva breathless.
The Octavia soared up hundreds upon hundreds of feet through the air, surrounded on all quarters by a majestic panorama of the emerald-grassed plains. They surged across the land until they met the horizon's many hills and knolls, and disappeared beyond the star-kissed nocturne. And the stars had colour! A cerulean starlight filled patches of the sky in mist. It was such a beautiful sight -- enough to send Milva's pounding. Never before had she seen a night so beautiful.
Milva came to the deck railing for a better look at her surrounds. Then off in the distance she saw something, a bird. And a peculiar little creature it was, with the breast of a robin, the beak of a toucan and the neck and wings of a cockatrice. It flapped aggressively through the air at an even higher altitude than The Octavia (which struck Milva as odd). Could birds fly at this height? Nevertheless that bird was joined by more of its odd kind, dozens more, all flapping up from the plains below and gliding in a similar direction to The Octavia.
Then Milva saw something else. A silvering bolt vaulted through the sky at the flock and impaled a bird through its elongated neck. With a dying "squawk!" it plummeted from the group which carried on regardless. Milva recoiled and threw a glare down the deck's length. Flannery stood at the other end below the quarterdeck. With an oilskin quiver strapped to her back and a strung longbow in her hands she withdrew an arrow and cast a steady, terse gaze at the flock of eccentric birds. Milva blanched.
She shot the bird? But why?
Milva jogged down the deck to ask her that, just as Flannery's second shot plucked another bird from the sky. "Stop that!"
"What are you doing?" She caught her breath. "Why are you doing that?"
Flannery stared at her a moment. "...It bothers you?"
"Of course it does. You aren't... hunting those creatures, are you? You're just killing them."
For the first time since they had met, Milva saw Flannery pull a smile. It was a scintilla of a grin, perhaps unremarkable were it to come from any one else, yet still somehow meaningful. Flannery held that tiny smile as she nocked a fresh arrow, seemingly regardless. As the flock passed by The Octavia's rope-enmeshed gasbag, she loosened the arrow and shot down another eccentric bird. Milva winced.
It was close enough to land on the deck with a thud, a far heavier sound than a bird that size aught to make. Once again the rest of the flock flew onward. Even as Flannery sniped their brethren they continued on in their emotionless flight without panic or pause.
Milva frowned at Flannery as she went for the bird she killed. "...What purpose does that serve?"
She ripped the arrow out of its chest wound. The blood staining its head was thick and black. Flannery hauled the carcass back to where Milva stood and held it up in front of her. "Why don't I show you something?" she said, and dug two fingers into its wounded breast. Flannery tore off strips of its feathered flesh until she revealed its innards; a multifarious arrangement of infinitesimally small gears, cogs, springs and escapements all clunking together into a single mechanism.
Within the bird's chest throbbed no heart... but a clockwork's torque.
"They're called fauldrukops," Flannery said. "and they're only machines."
"You haven't heard the story of the fauldrukops?"
Milva shook her head "no".
In light of that Flannery returned to the deck railing. She tossed the "dead" eccentric bird overboard then pointed something out over the distance. Despite their distance from the ship Milva spotted them on the edge of a highway curving into the slopes of a hillock. Ruins. Some old building, toppled, lay in crumpled piles of wood, stone, glass and metal. Amidst all the rubble one saw "shadows" of what the ruins once were, the lingering corner wall of a room or the cracked oblong of a chimney, but it was almost impossible to tell what those ruins had been.
Milva's eyes thinned. "W-what is that?"
"That's what's left of the Blauheim School of Magics. They say a spurned sorceress destroyed it eighteen years ago after its Dean banished her."
Milva recollected her conversation with the Curator at the museum. Everyone and their dog knew that story. "...But what does this have to do with those machine birds?"
"I'm coming to that." Flannery said forthrightly. "Those fauldrukops were a race of birds rendered extinct during the Doom of the Gods. They say that after the Migration of Spirits, a demented ornithologist commissioned a factory for the construction of a fauldrukop replica that ultimately proved defective. When the ornithologist went bankrupt, the factory was buried and the Blauheim school was built over it. So when the school was destroyed and all its magical residue was released into the atmosphere, the power of the Arcane gave the clockwork fauldrukops animation."
Machines powered by the Arcane?
Milva watched the cloud of fauldrukops disappear into the east. To see them flap and squawk, to ignore their peculiar shape, one would labour to see any difference from a biological bird. They were so... lifelike.
Flannery picked up her bow. "Does that satisfy you?"
"And why not?"
"Didn't the Arcane give them life?" Milva thought back to the plant she restored in the Captain's cabin. "Whether it's blood or oil in their veins... it still seems... cruel to do that to them."
Flannery's small smile returned her. "...Do you eat meat?"
Milva paused, eyes on Flannery, repulsed by her actions but finding some pleasure in discussing this with her, perhaps to prove that the archer was nowhere near as laconic as she'd seemed thus far. It was an odd feeling that Milva had no answer for, so she ignored it.
She only watched as Flannery stretched her firing arm, circling it against her body. "...That's a curious thing about people; hypocrisy. It would look pathetic if it weren't so commonplace."
Milva tried to ignore that comment. "H-how do you know so much about the fauldrukops...?"
"2nd Mate Abel. He tells that story to everyone."
Flannery spied her bow's integrity as she spoke. "Him? He knows because he was a lecturer there. He was one of the few survivors."
The Dark Elf gasped. Now it made sense. That was why her powers with the Arcane had Abel so anxious. To be a first-hand witness to the most famous magical disaster in the Eleven Dukedoms... "Wait. Abel was a lecturer at the Blauheim school? Does that mean that he has the power of the Arcane also?"
Flannery nodded. "But he swore an oath never to use it again."
"...That must be difficult."
The archer did not answer. She nocked another arrow in her bowstring and took aim at an unseen target. Flannery pulled the string but held the arrow, perhaps she was merely testing the bowstring's integrity. When the silence between them grew noticeably Milva broke it, saying,
"So it doesn't trouble you to kill those fauldrukops?"
They were all gone now. Only a few drops of oil and moulted feathers remained of the fauldrukop Flannery dissected. "Not as such. I simply picture them as valkyries... and let my instincts do the rest."
"Oh, you're Cog-sent, Milva!"
When Tetra first ate her cooking (a loaf of sweetbread she baked herself with the permission of the ship's cooks) Milva watched in fascination as the tomboyish 3rd Mate woofed down six slices in as many seconds. At the time she wondered if Tetra's love for her treats was merely a clumsy way of giving her a place on The Octavia. Now she watched as Tetra slurped her way to the bottom of a bowl of her stew and realized that it wasn't at all hyperbole.
Milva spent so many years cooking for a woman who didn't thank or appreciate anything of the effort, it was disarming (and at the same time very, very heartening) to have someone value it in the present.
She and Tetra sat huddled in a small nook by the wood steps conjoining the main and quarter decks. Between the two of them they shared a flagon of water (still very leathery) while Tetra ate.
"It pleases you?" Milva asked, teasingly.
"Oh, I swear, it's like a kiss from a goddess," her teeth chomped through the potato chunks. "I mean, it en't like Mrs. Pottscram's a bad cook, it's just that she don't put no effort into it, d'you know what mean?"
Tetra swilled some water. "When you're out in air, it en't no fairy ride. Not a one o'these aeronauts can do their job on an empty stomach, Milva, and it `elps to eat when the eating's good."
Two days had marched and passed since The Octavia left 5th Port. Most of that time (while Kreug conducted more analysis on the Rheinshard and Flannery & Tetra were busy doing their chores) Milva was left to her own devises. After enough hours twiddling her thumbs she sought out Captain Quy and asked him if there was anything she could do to help the crew. In his own words she was too "slight and pretty a thing" for the gasbag rigging or deck maintenance, and "too fanciful" for "a holystone and some scrubbing" so passed the problem over to Tetra, who, while fully willing to send Milva scrubbing, was mindful of her captain's opinion on the matter.
Only when Milva mentioned her skills with cookery and linen did they
overcame the impasse. In some ways it was a little demeaning, when so many men and women were doing the rugged business of aeronauting and she, the elf, was left to tend to their clothing and food, but if this was the best role for her now then she would not shirk it.
Milva sipped the flagon and set down again. "I'm still not sure why we couldn't eat in the mess room."
"It's `cause I woke late this morning and if I don't run through dinner to make up the shift Captain Quy'll put me on dogwatch." A boy thundered down the steps as she said this. Tetra yelled after him, "Oi! Douglass! Anymore o'that and I'll recommend you for the bloody Sennet whip!"
"Sorry, 3rd Mate!" He yelled back, and scampered over to the cordage where some other crewmember gave him directions. People always seemed to be in a hurry on deck but no one was permitted to run unless there was an emergency.
Tetra smothered a burp with her fist when she finished the stew. "Oh, that was wonderful, Milva. I en't eaten like that since me Old Girl passed away. But we'd best not kip here too long, aye, lest another one of his like trundles by again."
"Should I assist Mrs. Pottscram in the galley?" Asked Milva.
"Yeah, you're best to. But be sure'n tell her to let you off before eight o'the clock. Meet me and Flannery by the fo'c'sle then. I've a surprise for you."
Tetra gave Milva a mischievous wink and marched down the deck to assist the morning re-tightening of the gasbag's rig. For the rest of the day she was left wondering what Tetra had in store for her. So it was that by
eight o'the clock, long after Mrs. Pottscram's dismissal, Milva put away the linen she'd been needling and went back up to the deck.
The terrain below had changed greatly in the past two days. What was once an almost endless sea of emerald plains and rolling hillocks became a vast tract of sandstone, dust and siroccos. Grass only flowered up from the land in small, dusky patches to be grazed on by small, unidentifiable herds of animals. To the north these tracts gave birth to the mountainous regions, to the south they collapsed into labyrinthine valley of lakes and streams, and to the east; the Realm Across the Scar. Quy told Milva that by midday tomorrow he would lend her his spyglass and she would see it for herself.
Milva went to fo'c'sle. Flannery stood waiting for her there, arms folded, calm and meditative. The sun's impending fall offered the deck a ginger glow, adding shimmer to Flannery's fiery tresses.
"Are you ready to go?"
"Where are we going?" Milva asked.
Flannery led her back down the companionway, but instead of going into the lower deck, she paused halfway down the ladder and fiddled with a square door in the surrounding column of wood. Eventually she unsnapped it then beckoned for Milva to follow as she crawled in. Milva winced at the tight space but followed suit (as she was still dressed in the dreary olive workwoman's dress she wore to the galley she didn't worry about getting it dusty).
It was not unlike a horizontally-toppled chimney and Flannery led the way through to an adjacent cubiform room. Flannery pounced out with a hop and reached a hand back to help Milva step out. As they appeared, seven girls (including Tetra) lifted pottles up and shouted a unanimous "Hah!" at their arrival.
When Milva glanced around she saw that all the girls from the ship (aside from Mrs. Pottscram) were assembled here; the three apprentice cooks she worked with in the galley, the two linen-menders she helped in the cabins, the loblolly girl, and of course Tetra.
The girls all sat together over a wide flung tussah blanket. Sticks of wax illuminated the otherwise dark room in candlelight. Vittles (such as grapes, cheese wedges and sweetbread) were there for the eating.
"What is this?" Milva wondered aloud.
Tetra giddily seized her hand and brought her to the blanket. "Just a little lady's revelry. Sit here next to me, Milva."
The loblolly girl poured her a drink. "...Most of The Octavia's crew is blokes and little-boys-who-wanna-be-blokes, but it's one of only a couple of aeronautical ships that has crewwomen in it. It en't no picnic on a boat full of sweaty balls so every couple of banyans we Octavia girls get together and recuperate! `Ere you go."
Milva thanked her for the drink but recoiled at its alcoholic stench. With a whiff she said "What is this?" and the girls all shared a little bit of a giggle. Flannery seated herself the other side of Tetra. She lit up what the aeronauts called a "smooth", a cigarette, on one of the candles.
"Didn't you drink in Grauheim?" She quipped.
Milva blushed, feeling a little light of weight amongst the other girls. In her eighteen solstices she drank rarely, always at Agatha's behest. "Not very much."
"Well that's gonna change while you're slumming on our wee excuse for a junker," chortled Tetra. "Now get that booze down you."
It was some kind of mead. She smelt the hops. Milva felt little desire for it, but to please Tetra and prove herself to Flannery, she threw open her lips and drank as heartily as she could. The girls all cheered.
Tetra smiled deeply. "I knew you could."
There was a camaraderie amongst the girls that Milva had never known or seen before. At the orphanage, all those years ago, she had no friends. She'd known little except hatred's string; a snide comment about her ears here, a cuff for her `insolence' there. Milva was actually relieved when Agatha bought her. But in less than a week she knew she'd simply been shunted from one hell to another, a solitary realm only she and Agatha occupied, one where her only role was to cater to her other's wishes.
When Milva compared that life to what the girls of The Octavia had, she saw there was no comparison. Suddenly she felt blessed to be free of all left behind in Grauheim and cheerful about the moment, this moment, not just the promise of the future.
Since no one had a dogwatch or trick at the wheel, they spent the entire night eating, drinking, cursing, chitchatting, and spinning filthy jokes. Even no-nonsense Flannery drew a few chuckles. Eat and drink were eaten and drunk till there was no more eat or drink to be eaten or drunk. Hours passed like minutes and one-by-one the girls all nodded off into a well earned slumber.
It was warm. With the exhaust pipework of the ship's steam engines fixed into the very walls, The Octavia's girl's hideaway trapped a serendipitous warmth inside itself. There was more comfort here than in the cabins.
When Milva awoke in that comfort it startled her, or at least it did, until she saw Tetra lying astride her in the darkness, tossing and turning.
Is she having a bad dream? Milva wondered.
Beads of sweat dotted her forehead and cheeks like a childhood pox. She looked very hot, as if in the throes of some terrible fever. And she had grown very pale. But somehow Milva knew that Tetra was not sick. She moaned a name in her malaise; "V-Val... pheena..."
The war heroine? But why?
At the time Milva had no idea why she was so moved to ease Tetra's restlessness, but her hand reached across the space between them. It was night. All the candles had been blown out to spare the wicks. Yet Milva's fingers shimmered with sky-sapphire light and broke the veil of nocturne as the Arcane worked its ways with Tetra. The 3rd Mate's writhing slowed to a stop. Her whimpers calmed. Sweat cleared from her brow.
Then her eyes shot open.
Milva gasped, startled. "I... I..."
"I'm sorry... you were having a bad dream..."
Tetra sighed, glancing about her, first to Flannery then to the rest of the girls. They were all asleep. Tetra turned and propped herself up on her shoulder. She strained for a smile that was too insincere to fool Milva.
"I'm fine now."
She didn't believe her. But she would never be so rude as to call Tetra a liar. "...All right."
Tetra's eyes did not leave hers. Milva gnawed at her lip, embarrassed, and looked away. She glanced about the room making meaningless notes about the amount of wax expended tonight, how many plates needed a washing, whose clothing required a re-stitch. Then inevitably Milva's eyes tumbled back to Tetra... and her bluest orbs were there waiting for her.
The air was hot. You could call it sweltering, how warm it became all of a sudden. Yet all Milva saw was blue, oceans of it, buoyed up by a brief yet exceedingly proud smile. Tetra took Milva's hand in hers.
Milva watched Tetra's rouged lips curl and loop in speech but could not hear her words, for the blood in her ears beat too thunderous a drum. The little wisp of space between their lips slowly began to dissolve. Tetra's smile disappeared and a yearning blue collapsed before a receptive black.
It was unlike anything Milva had ever done before. Agatha's kisses, powerful though they were, were so full of anger and possessiveness. It was disarming. Her kiss with Tetra was utterly unlike that. Hidden away in the sweltering darkness their lips lapped together in mutual curiosity, oblivious to everything but each other.
A tempestuous surge of joyous emotions welled and churned inside Milva's heart, one so strong it made her seek out Tetra's kiss again when she pulled away, but the 3rd Mate put a finger to her lips, pausing her.
"Shouldnt've done that."
"...Why?" Asked Milva.
"Captain Quy'll be mad at me," Tetra admitted. "I'm supposed to take care of you... but I like you, Milva..."
The Dark Elf blushed. "...I like you too."
A shared interest sealed with another kiss. Milva and Tetra's was a connection so intimate they did not notice another pair of eyes; awoken and shaking, were fixed on them. Flannery watched the two kiss softly in the blackness. Her fist trembled.
"Come on, come on now! Wake up, girls. Captain Quy's got orders."
Mrs. Pottscram hadn't been invited to the girl's night in the lazaret but she damn well knew where it was. She came thundering in with a steel pan and a wooden spoon, banging the two together, drawing female portion of The Octavia's crew from their hard-drunk sleep.
The furious bangs of kitchenware and chorus of sighs, yawns, and curses at that noise was more than enough to awaken Milva. She yawned. Tetra slumbered next to her with a deep smile. They had fallen asleep cuddling to Milva's recollection. That thought made her smile too.
"Up now!" Mrs. Pottscram yelled. "Tetra, wake your idle bones up now, cogsblast it! A fine example you're setting for the other girls, en't it?!"
That was enough to jog her. Tetra tiredly wiped the matter from her eyes while the other girls tutted and re-dressed, behind the ship's cook. "What time is it...?" She asked of Mrs. Pottscram.
"Capital question, 3rd Mate! It's nine o'the clock! Nine o'the clock, lassie! You're already late for morning deck duty, carry on like this and the Captain'll have your guts for garters! Now move it! Up! Up now!"
"Alrighty, alrighty..." she yawned. "I'm getting up."
Tetra and Milva shared a smile as she did. But when the blonde girl looked about the room to make sure everything was alright, she noticed one face missing. "Where's Flannery got to?"
"She's out on deck filling in for your sorry behind," Said Mrs. Pottscram, handing over Tetra's bodice. "It's blooming charming how that girl dotes on you and you don't do a cogsblasted thing to earn it."
Tetra sighed. "I'll give her me thanks later, Mrs. Pottscram."
Then the portly older woman waddled over to Milva, her hands perched on her hips, and proclaimed, "Now don't you go thinking I'll go easy you either. I en't easy on girls or guests. Up you come, Milva. You got leeks, carrots, and `tatoes in the galley what need chopping."
She actually didn't begrudge the work. It made her feel like part of the crew. "Yes, ma'am."
After giving the girls what Tetra referred to as the "Stink Eye", Mrs. Pottscram crawled back through the open hatch in the wall. She did it surprisingly well for a larger woman. Spry, too.
Milva turned to Tetra with a grin. "She's quite a handful."
Tetra yanked her slacks up her legs as she spoke. "Mrs. Pottscram? Oh, she's a pussycat, really. She keeps us all on our toes though, especially me. Always on at me to follow me dream."
"Yeah. I wanna run me own ship one day. Be a Captain. There'll be no lads onboard, though. There's too many cocks in the air as it is."
Milva didn't know why it surprised her so much... Tetra having dreams, too. Such talk reminded her of her own goals. "I hope you succeed."
Tetra was buckling her belt when they locked eyes. She smiled again, that friendly little grin of hers. "...Maybe you're be there with me."
When Milva was finally done chopping carrots, straining beets, peeling potatoes and stripping lettuce for lunch... she was exhausted! And it was only midday, believe it or not. But as hard as she had been working Milva had to admit to some distraction.
All morning she'd been thinking of Tetra. Of her deep blue eyes and sun-kissed skin, or her soft lips and her adorable accent, of her kindness, her scent, her warmth. She was such a special person. Milva almost nicked her finger slicing carrots into coins for all that thinking she did. She could not wait to see her again.
So when Mrs. Pottscram explained to her that the deckhands needed their lunch taken to them (since they were working through mess hall hours) Milva was the first to elect herself for the task. She and three other girls were given iron trays to ferry around bowls of stew, strips of bread, flagons of water and half an orange per man. It was standard fixings for a ship crew (dreary as it seemed) but with her ever more useful know-how around the galley, Milva made Tetra's helping with a little extra spice and seasoning.
Milva and the other girls left the galley for the deck, and there was a collection of gasps, no least Milva's, when they beheld The Octavia's current location.
The Scar itself.
It was a vast, gigantic, nigh immeasurable gorge that stretched from one corner of the horizon to the other. It was so deep it had no visible bottom but an endless swirl of darkness from which the canyon walls emerged. On the western side of the Scar were the dusky tracts of the human world. On the eastern side stood the enormous tropical expanse of jungles, lakes, rivers, and mountains forming the eclectic land known commonly as the Realm Across the Scar.
Judging by its position The Octavia, which now seemed so very small in comparison, had traversed over two-third's of the Scar already, with another mile or so to go. Despite that tremendous distance one saw the Realm beyond very clearly.
For a moment Milva paused and swallowed up the beauty of it from this height. Never before had she been so jealous of the life of an aeronaut. From this altitude one could see all the world. The panorama was so astounding you could almost grasp it, seize it, as though you were a God surveying both the beauty and the bounty of your creation.
But she kept her head.
Milva searched out Tetra, who stood by the portside railing, gazing deep down into the black pit of the Scar thousands of leagues below the hull. Her food came first. Milva strode down the main deck's length to the dumbwaiter hatch and telephoned down to the galley for Mrs. Pottscram to send up the meals. The old, un-greased wheels squeaked and strained at the sudden act but slowly sent up a tray. Tetra's tray. Milva took it up and motioned for the other girls to get their in order while she brought it over to Tetra.
There was a big grin waiting for her. "Cheers, Milva. I'm famished."
"You're welcome." She replied.
She took a seat on a square rope locker and gestured for Milva to do the same. While Tetra ate they both gazed over the balustrade at the limitless void beneath their ship, and the endless twisting jungles of vegetations and habitat they were unhurriedly floating toward.
"It's amazing, en't it?"
Milva nodded. "Yes. But frightening... in a way."
"I know what you mean. At this altitude everything seems grander, don't it? You know sometimes I-"
The 3rd Mate paused as if alerted to something.
"What's wrong, Tetra?"
"Don't you hear that? Like a... bird squawking?"
Come to think of it, she did. It was gentle at first so it could only be heard by the wind's carry. It put Milva in mind of the fauldrukops. But then that eerie, bird-like sound kept getting louder and louder, loud enough to drown out the rope-rigging's groans and the propulsive puffs of the steam engines.
As it encroached it was clear that the eerie cacophony was coming from the rear, so Milva and Tetra glanced stern-side. And from there they bore witness to a grey cloud of wings and talons flapping toward The Octavia with murderous intent. As range revealed their numbers, a cold terror swept into Milva's stomach.
Someone was swift to ring the alarm bell when Tetra yelled, "Valkyries, sternward-borne!" and swung off the rope locker, grabbing Milva by the wrist and yanking her toward the companionway. The Dark Elf was hardly conscious of anything around her, neither the cookery girl's livid screams nor the tremendous shouts of the crew, "To arms!" and "Under attack! Under attack!".
Milva's eyes were to that menacing cloud of valkyries swooping towards The Octavia's rear. When the first one landed its talons went straight for the chest of a crewman, the boy Tetra called Douglass. The creature cracked his head into to the poop's grain and sunk its jagged little teeth into his neck. The valkyrie tore Douglass' larynx out with a single, hideous jerk of its neck.
One by one the swarming birds of prey landed like mosquitoes over the ship's stern, or flapped abaft threateningly, teasing out more fear with every shriek and cry. Burly deckhands split into groups at Tetra's desperate behest, some engaging the valkyries with their bare fists or whatever tools were spare, some herding the cookery girls toward the companionway, some sending shouts down the deck-ready telegraph for help.
Right away a geyser of rifle-armed crewmen headed by Captain Quy and Flannery came gushing out of the companionway. As Quy took charge of the situation, he threw his muzzle-loaded firearm into embrace and summoned up the two flying squads at his flanks. They all scrambled into a tactical formation with all the swiftness of any professional soldier, two lines of three down the starboard gangway and two lines of three down the portside. Every single man had his gun loaded.
"All unarmed to the bow!" Quy bellowed.
Bloodied corpses had already been carved at the stern. The rearmost men ran as swift as they could down the deck, narrowly escaping the savage thrust of another talon. When Quy had them behind his rifles and the attacking creatures swooped up the deck, the steeled Captain shouted to his men, "Front rank!"
The front three men of both flying squads raised their rifles into embrace and took aim at the impinging wave of valkyries.
A riot of gunshots peppered the charging valkyrie lines. The bird-like monsters were blasted into a stop, one or two dropping out of swoop from a bullet wound or a clipped wing, while three or more lunged on, just as Captain Quy yelled, "Advance!"
The rear ranks of the flying squads lunged forward while the front ranks crouched down behind them to reload. As the remaining of the valkyries' first wave whooshed amidships, Quy raised his own weapon and gallantly roared his commands;
"Rear rank -- Fire!"
Another chorus of gunfire tore through half the deck, ripping into the valkyrie assault. Ugly blood and blasted feathers fluttered up from the attacking few as they toppled in death -- only for one to lunge past her fallen sisters and streak for the starboard flying squad. It jumped so quick amongst the first three men they could hardly respond.
Quy, Tetra, Milva, the portside flying squad, the deckhands and the cookery girls all gaped on in powerless horror as that single valkyrie tore two men to bloody pieces, savaging off ones limbs and gutting the other's innards. The last man of the starboard front rank whipped out his side pocket revolver and blasted her a hole through her scaly left temple. It toppled overboard into the endless blackness of the Scar.
The rest of the valkyries, cackling in amusement or gnashing at the bit for a taste of the awaiting human blood, shouted a dissonant chorale of shrieks by the stern. It was almost like a war song, Milva thought, and it signalled their unanimous swoop. The entire flock plunged down the deck and around the gasbag like falcons for the flesh of their prey.
Captain Quy shouted, "All ranks, fire at will!" and the valkyries' warring shrieks were met by claps of rifle fire. Whatever valkyries they managed to hit were simply forgotten by the rest as they plunged down on Quy's flying squads to begin the swift and savage business of slashing them to shreds.
Milva gasped as one swooped overhead, lunging for one of the cookery girls, until an arrow thumped its breast. The valkyrie flapped haphazardly about their heads until finally plummeting into the steps of the fo'c'sle, smearing them in its hideous blood.
Quy's commands could no longer be heard over the tremendous chaos of gunfire, death cries and valkyrie shrieks. The valkyries now abandoned whatever attack plan they had concocted and swarmed all over The Octavia; at the hull, the bow, amidships, the forecastle, the quarter deck and the keel, ripping her board-from-board.
That was when it happened.
Three of the swarm glided up to the roof of the gasbag. One took up her talons and plunged them into the gasbag's canvas, causing it to piss out a stream of helium more threatening in ramification than anything else the valkyries could do.
When someone shouted "Puncture!" at the top of their lungs not a single man or woman on deck didn't feel their blood run cold.
The Octavia, suspended high above thousands upon thousands of feet of nothing but air, suddenly convulsed. Two of the ropes tying the gasbag to the ship's deck snapped and whirled their way around the hull like whiskers. Everyone on deck grabbed anything to stabilize themselves. Then Milva watched in horror as one of cookery girls stumbled over that loose rope and flopped over the balustrade.
A heartbreaking shriek followed her all the way down to a faceless death.
More ropes snapped as the valkyries gnawed and slashed at them. A series of jerks and shudders threw The Octavia off its equilibrium, roughly tipping the once mighty galleon portside.
Tetra immediately grappled Milva, holding her waste tight, just as Quy began yelling calls of "abandon ship!" as he shot hopelessly at the flying creatures huddled around the gasbag. Flannery gripped the nearest, most stable gasbag rope she could find and scrambled to nock another arrow.
"Milva!" Tetra had to yell to be heard over the anarchy. "Get down to the lower deck and get aboard one of the aeroyawls! It's your only chance!"
"But what about you!"
She snatched a revolver from one of the re-armed deckhands nearby, many of whom were now scrambling down the companionway to escape this. "Don't go worrying about me! Find Kreug, go to the aeroyawls, and jettison! We'll fight off the valkyries to buy you time!"
Flannery angrily grabbed Milva by the shoulder and yanked the elf around to face her. "Don't argue with us! If you care about Tetra at all you'll do as she damn well says! Now go!"
There was a kind of rhyme to that that Milva immediately knew she couldn't argue with, but even as she tried to protest, Tetra ran with the loaded revolver to assist Quy in the valkyrie resistance amidships, yelling back "Trust me, Milva!". And she did. She did trust her. Despite the twinge in her heart begging her not to leave her newfound friends behind, a stronger sense of responsibility, and perhaps faith, took her over. It ushered her down the ladder of the companionway.
Gunshots and valkyrie's screams declined in volume as she scaled down to the lower deck. Doors were ajar. Clothes and goods littered up the corridor, and a flood of crewmembers scuttled screaming down the other end to the aeroyawls bay. For now Milva ignored that and turned a corner to the cabins. The hall was empty.
Suddenly there was a violent jerk. The hall swayed a heavy left under the booming groan of wood and iron, and Milva grabbed to the wall for dear life. Now Milva knew the truth with shocking clarity. The Octavia was going to sink. She had to get her friends out of here.
Once The Octavia stabilized enough Milva inched her way to Kreug's cabin. She kicked the door open and found the professor there, pinned underneath the weight of his overturned bunk. A revolver lay beside his skull as he strained to push it off, and in the corner an inert valkyrie sat hunched and broken-winged. There was a gaping bullet-sized wound in its skull. It was dead.
"Milva!" The professor yelled. "Help me!"
She quickly went to his side. She grit her teeth and with all her strength helped lift the heavy bunk off of him, giving Kreug just enough time to scrape up from underneath it.
He caught his breath. "My word... what is happening up there?"
"There's no time to explain!" Milva took his hand. "We have to escape!"
"I've got the Rheinshard. Lets go."
The two of them ran as best they could down the sloping hallways of The Octavia, and circled around past the galley and the mess hall, until they came to another ladder. Kreug led the way down it to the third deck, which filtered off into four directions; 1) to the engine room, 2) to the cargo hold, 3) to the brig, and 4) to the aeroyawl bay. Milva and Kreug took the forth.
They followed the long path inching deeper sternward into The Octavia's innards. But the further and further the got the more they smelt that terrible stench in the air. Blood. By the time they got to the aeroyawl bay Milva was ready to regurgitate... and she soon knew why.
All of escapees whom had come before her were dead.
Every single one, even poor Mrs. Pottscram, whose slashed face lay in a warm and widening pool of fresh blood, were butchered. They were all torn, ripped, maimed and half-devoured into hideous husks of meat. If not for their clothing it might have been impossible to tell who they were now.
Then an even more chilling fact presented itself.
All of the aeroyawls, tiny longboats with webbed brass wings and small parachute jibs, had been destroyed. They lay about the bay in broken piles of scrap; iron and wood, silk and brass. Even the mini-davits used for lowering them, and the hatches that opened out of the ship's hull to release them, had either been broken or slashed shut.
There was no better proof than this that the valkyries were more than some random horde of rampage beasts. They were ruthless and relentless engines of killing. Milva heart sank.
Twin shrieks broke the gloomy silence in the bay. Two valkyries jumped down from the overhead and landed either side of them. Kreug pulled Milva to his back as the two valkyries encircled them, like wolves hunting around their frightened sheep-like prey, their tiny teeth and broad talons glistening with blood.
Kreug slowly reached down to his side pocket for his revolver, only to realize with deprecating self-hate that, "...I left it in my cabin..."
The two valkyries continued to scuttle around them, intimidating rather than attacking, something they seemed to enjoy when they had a couple of humans on their own. They eyed the pair like a future meal.
"Milva," whispered Kreug, eyes locked on his grinning enemy. "You have to stop them..."
"...You used the Arcane to fight one before, didn't you? You must do it again."
She remembered. The events at West Square already seemed so distant. Despite the haze of that night she had to repeat it unless she wanted to go to the Realm Across the Scar inside a valkyrie's stomach. So she paused and tried her hardest to concentrate.
The second valkyrie stepped closer to Kreug, snarling. "Milva..."
Like before she tried to picture the flames of the north, heat, the roiling magma to which the Dark Elves had been banished and from which they had created the weapons that equipped Lord Loki's armies...
She trembled. "I-I-I'm t-trying...!"
Milva struggled to summon up the same heat inside herself, the same fury, the same maddening images of an unjust past encoded into the very corpuscles of her people. Yet nothing came. The Arcane would not bend to her command...
"Oh, Cogs, please..."
...and the valkyrie lunged at Kreug...
A gunshot tore through the aeroyawl bay. A bullet sunk in one side of the valkyrie's head and purified grey matter splattered out the other. It fell dead at to Kreug's boots. Before the second one could even think to assist its sister in the fight, a vaulting arrow went "thunk!" into its shoulder. It screeched in pain and threw itself toward one of the hatches, smashing it open with its shoulder-full of chain mail-like scales, and flapping out.
Tetra and Flannery lowered their weapons. Milva and Kreug jogged to their side.
"Are you two okay?" Asked the professor.
Tetra nodded. "Only cuts and bruises. We en't hurt. How about you? Milva, are you hurt?"
"No, I'm fine. We both are. But the aeroyawls, they've been..."
Flannery and Tetra surveyed the damage. The aeroyawls had all been broken up so badly there was little hope of getting them airborne. Then they saw the sheer carnage at their feet. So many slaughtered bodies, all of them friends and compatriots. Tetra held a hand to face, struggling to hold back her tears when she finally took it in.
"Even Mrs. Pottscram..." she sobbed.
Flannery sneered. "There's no time for that now, Tetra. We have to get out of here!"
"But how?" The ship lurched again as Kreug spoke. "Our only escape route is gone!"
The valiant archer shook her head. "That might be the only way out, but its not the only way off. We'll have to jump before The Octavia crashes."
"But we're floating over the Scar, Flannery. You want us to jump from one certain death to another?"
She slung her bow over her shoulder. "Think. We're only a few hundred yards offshore of the Realm Across the Scar. If we cut the ballast and open the amidships fins, we might get enough altitude on what's left of the gasbag to carry us the rest of the way."
"And if we don't?" Milva asked.
"If we don't then we're dead. So we really don't have a choice."
There was no arguing with that logic, nor was there any time to lose. Resolved on Flannery's plan, the four of them left the aeroyawl bay and scuttled back to the third deck junction way and hooked north, in the direction of the bow, to the engine room. It was a shorter distance from the junction than the aeroyawls bay was.
Flannery kicked the door open with a swift boot, and lunged into the chugging, jarringly loud "BOOM, SHOOM, BOOM, SHOOM" of the steam engine room. The engine itself lay fixed in the centre of the room while the numerous dials, levers, gauges and coils controlling its steam dispersal around The Octavia were abandoned. Those crewmembers whom had been manning them probably fled as soon as they heard the call to. You could see some of their shoes lying on the floor.
Kreug took himself to the main panel. "If we're going to do this we'll need to do both manoeuvres at once so as not to throw off the ship's balance any further."
"Right," Tetra threw her thumb at the rope ladder dangling from the deckhead that climbed up to the Bridge. "I'll open the amidships fins from up there while you drop the ballast from down here. Flannery and Milva can communicate over the audio-telegraph to coordinate it."
Flannery was already on her way up the ladder. "Very well, lets go."
The two of them climbed until they were gone. Milva took herself over to the chadburn and waited for the ring while Kreug made the necessary adjustments. It took a few minutes but eventually that distinctive ring came. Milva took up the receiver. Flannery's voice commanded through it,
"Is he ready?"
Milva turned to Kreug. "Are you ready?"
"Yes." He replied, anxious.
Flannery swallowed. "Okay. On the count of three, all right? Three..."
...Then Flannery and Milva shouted in unison... "NOW!"
Kreug flung down the control board's massive main lever the same time Tetra released hers. The entire ship thudded with force as a half-dozen set of 100-pound bags of kentledge ballast were dropped from the holds the exact same time the two aerodynamic amidships fins unfurled themselves from the ribs of The Octavia. There was a stark and sudden uplift in the ship's integrity, rocking everything back then lurching everything forward, until it stabilized into a slow, paced nosedive. But they would not know if it was enough until they returned to the deck...
Milva held onto the wall long enough to get another call from Flannery from the bridge.
"It's me," she said. "Come up to the bridge, it's easier to get to the deck from there."
Milva put the telegraph receiver down and relayed the message to Kreug. The two assaulted the rope ladder as fast as they could, Milva going up before Kreug, until they climbed up into the Bridge.
It was another ghastly sight. All the windows surrounding its inner walls were smashed. Blood was everywhere. The helm, itself stuttering with The Octavia's currently irregular moments, was soaked in it. Even more unsettling was the corpse of the ship's main pilot, Elberich, lying dead and mauled beneath it.
Tetra was at her side before the tears could well. "Flannery's right, Milva. There en't nothing we can do for them now. We just have to focus on us now, aye?"
She nodded, meekly.
With Flannery at the head of their party, the four of them cycled out of the bridge to the main deck's nearest entrance.
By now everything had become unsettlingly silent up above. No screams. No gunfire. No howls of pain. Just the miserable groans and yawns of The Octavia's off-balance mass. Flannery lead the way up to the main deck through a hidden catch in the overhead. It didn't open right away. With all of her efforts Flannery heaved to push off the weight of whatever it was that blocked the hatch. When they all climbed out they saw for themselves.
The deck, once a cheerful place for the business of aeronauting, was now a desolate, broken butcher's floor. Fires raged up and down the forecastle and stern, sending columns of thick black smoke into the sky. Bullets occupied every nook imaginable. Strewn across the floorboards were dozens of corpses, both human and valkyrie, prostrate in gutted or bullet-ridden clumps of offal. As the ship had tipped toward its nose, the bow, blood oozed down in that direction; bony red fingers yearning toward the figurehead.
Milva had seen nothing that disturbed her so.
This. "The glorious field of war".
This was what the people of Grauheim yearned for.
And it sickened her.
The valkyries had fled, clearly believing the damage already done. Out the corner of her eye Milva saw them flapping away in another flock toward the Realm Across the Scar. They were smaller in numbers now than they were before but without a shadow of a doubt, they were the victors.
As The Octavia lurched forward at an angle on its slow course, Flannery gazed across the air. Though they were still plummeting at frighteningly high altitude, they had more than enough elevation to hit land.
Flannery breathed a sigh of relief. "Grab some blankets if you can. We'll have to jump off in a few minutes the way this is-"
A shrieking valkyrie cry broke Flannery's sentence.
A single one of them flapped up and over the balustrade with an arrow in its shoulder -- the one that escaped from the aeroyawls -- and it dove directly at Tetra. It flew to her so quickly she barely had time to ready her gun. Milva and Flannery both screamed her name in horror as the relentless valkyrie yanked open its jaws and sunk its tiny rows of teeth into her shoulder.
Tetra's terrifying scream of agony almost broke Milva's heart.
With a bloody mouthful of her shoulder, the valkyrie belted its wings hard to rise with the extra weight, finally dragging her into the air. An incensed Flannery reached back for bow, but when she went to her quiver she found it empty. "...Oh no...! Cogsblast it, no!"
So it was that Kreug shoved past the two of them and reached for a bloodstained rifle off the deck. With a shaky hand Kreug took aim at the valkyrie, as it tried to carry a screaming Tetra off with her.
"Get ready!" He yelled to Flannery, nodding his neck to the deck.
Milva watched the redhead nod with understand and gallop down the deck, shadowing Tetra and valkyrie from below. Gunfire cracked one last time. The valkyrie's back arched as Kreug's shot burst through its tough scales into her chest. It lulled limply out of flight into death and fell back towards the quarter deck, its loosening teeth freeing Tetra from its grasp. Flannery bravely darted through the flames and vaulted up, catching her friend through the smoke and rolling roughly into the broken steps of the poop.
Milva shouted across the flames, "Are you okay!?"
"...She's fine!" Flannery coughed, taking a moment to answer. "I've got her...!"
Kreug tossed the rifle away. By now The Octavia was in complete free fall, nose-diving at a faster and faster rate toward the vast green canopy of jungle terrain that was The Realm Across the Scar. Flannery waded her way through the flames and smoke, almost skidded on the all the feathers and blood pools. Tetra hung limp and unconscious in Flannery's arms, and her jaw-shaped bite wound bled profusely.
Milva struggled to see her like this. "Oh Tetra..."
"Not now!" Flannery bellowed. "We have to jump!"
"What about the blankets!?"
"There's no time for that, Milva!" Kreug said. "Take my hand!"
There was no choice but to jump. As the stench of flames, blood, smoke and gunpowder soiled the air around them, and loud, lashing airstreams whipped their way through their garbs and tresses, Milva took Kreug's hand and followed him to the balustrade. The second Kreug and Flannery signalled each other, they climbed over the fleeting safety of the railing and threw themselves off of the ship... and into the hands of fate.
Milva cranked her eyes shut as vicious falling winds tore at her from all sides in a horrifying 150-foot drop to the canopy. She fumbled to grab Kreug, squeezing him tight as a newborn, screaming in fear as she, the others and the raped wreckage of The Octavia all plunged blindly into the hideous depths of the unknown...
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