the adventures of longtail
sleeping fury
episode 4
by
xiangjun zeng

Chafing under the heavy hand of the Iron King, Nimi finds herself stonewalled and her crew confined. She searches for an ally that could help her break the impasse, and reach the Grand Bridge....


1.

His arms felt like molten lead. His fingers were numb and he could not make a fist if his life depended on it. Legs trembling, he kept his head upright only with the greatest of effort. He was slack-jawed with exhaustion and on the verge of passing out. Still his torturer would not relent.

The demon in front of him held up a leather pad stuffed with cloth strips, and Mauf lurched forward with a pathetic attempt at a punch. His tormentor side-stepped him with ease and gave a casual slap at the side of his head with the pad, then tripped him. Mauf went sprawling down, striking the hard sandy ground of the small yard outside the building where the crew of the Sand Strider were being confined by the Iron King.

Rage coursed through him. Or would have, if he weren't so tired. Lying down felt good, even with his crooked tailsheathe up in the air. His tormentor gave him a slight kick in his ribs.

"C'mon priest. Git. ‘Tain’t not even a glass yet, still's got us a lot of training ahead."

Mauf tried, but his body felt disconnected from his brain. A guttural groan emerged from somewhere deep within him. He couldn't lift a finger. Mauf slumped back in defeat.

His demonic tormentor gave him another swift kick and hissed, “Priest. Git! Pilot’s on her way!”

Summoning everything he had, Mauf tried to get up once again, somehow pushing himself up on wobbling legs. He lifted his head, feeling like someone had collared him with a millstone. Elder Nimi was watching him from across the yard, distaste and contempt in her eyes. She jerked her head at his tormentor to continue with the torture and turned back to her own training with the rest of the crew, throwing punches into pads with swift, nimble and powerful hits.

“Aight. Let’s keep moving! We’s goin’ to get you all muscled up!”

 

Another groan escaped him as Mauf took a listless swipe at the leather pad, then adjusted his tailsheathe to buy a precious few seconds of rest. He wanted to slump and cry in frustration. What had he done to deserve this, he wondered, that he was forced into this ridiculous hitting of leather pads?

This whole journey had been such a nightmare. He still could not believe that the Sand Strider had been destroyed by something he had always thought was a myth. Except that myth had turned out to be very real, and the attack had left them stranded in the middle of nowhere. There had been so much walking afterwards. So much! Even being sick on the Sand Strider was better. He had walked more in the days following the shipwreck than he had ever walked in his entire life.

That first night of walking had already pushed him to his limits. After what seemed like an eternity, the sun had risen at last and they stopped for the day. He fell where he stopped, exhausted, and it seemed as if he had only just closed his eyes when he was being shaken awake to continue walking again. Dragging his sore body along, he stumbled across the rocky barren desert after the ragtag survivors of the Sand Strider.

Supplies ran thin on the third day. They had salvaged as much as they could from the Sand Strider's wreckage, but it was not nearly enough for the long trek. The survivors went on half ration of water, and the march descended into hell after that. His feet were a bloodied mess. Blisters formed, then were scraped raw by the abrasive sand. The thirst was nigh unbearable, and his spittle was more sand than spit. His mouth went dry and cracked, and every breath was sandpaper raking through his windpipe. Even his eyeballs had started drying up.

By the fifth day, he no longer knew where he was or what he was doing. All he knew was that he would die of thirst, in the middle of a wasteland where nobody could find him.

They survived, somehow, but Mauf was unclear what had happened. Later, he found out that the Iron King had sent out a salvage mission to the Sand Strider, and picked up the bedraggled survivors along the way. He remembered thinking how odd it was that the Iron King knew to send a salvage mission. The Temple had not sent any messages ahead to announce their arrival, as far as he knew.

If there was anything that made him wish he remembered the rescue, it was the rumours of the Stone Singer. The sailors had spoken of him and his eyes had opened with wonder upon hearing it, even as he remained skeptical, what with the sailors’ penchant for exaggeration. Stone Singers were seldom seen in the Red Desert, almost as mythical as a Rock Toad. They were inhabitants of the Eternal Caverns, the smallest of the Inner Worlds and closest to the sun. There were no Grand Bridges connecting the Eternal Cavern to the rest of the Inner Worlds. Travels to and from the Cavern would require finding the smaller Skybridges, of which there weren't many. Few Stone Singers ever ventured from their home world, and fewer still visited the Red Desert.

Much as he would like to go in search of and learn more about their exotic saviour, there was a strict curfew imposed on the crew. They were confined into an empty building they now slept in, and he had been coerced into this horrendous training regime. Everyday for the past two weeks, one of Elder Nimi’s blighted crew would force him out of bed before the sun had risen and torture him with running, jumping, weights and all manner of undignified physical exertions. After that he would be pressed into menial chores he hadn’t done since he was an acolyte. It was all very humiliating.

He didn’t know what he had done to earn the Elder’s ire, but he was getting right sick of it. He was getting sick of the endless taunting and snide remarks from her crew as well. He turned towards the leather pad and threw a limp strike at it.

The sailor, thin as a rack with muscles that coiled around him like ropes and covered in dark grey fur, rolled his eyes. “C’mon priest, my grandmam could hit harder than that. Twist those scrawny hips ‘fore you throw that punch. Aight, git!”

Mauf made another uncoordinated attempt, tapping the target. The sailor snorted in disgust. Just then, Nimi’s voice rang out across the training ground. “Attention!”

The crew ceased all actions and turned towards the Elder. “Training is over.” Nimi’s voice was crisp. Mauf almost collapsed in relief, and wondered what had brought on his good fortune. He could see the ship’s captain standing beside her.

“Wash up and attend to your duties after. Evening assembly will be conducted by Captain Tasch. Dismissed!” Nimi strode off, and the captain followed. If the captain was around, then they must be meeting the Iron King. Whatever the reason, he was glad that the “training” was done with. He stumbled away from the courtyard and slumped against the wall, too tired to move. He fell asleep almost as soon as his back touched the sandstone, overwhelmed by fatigue.   

Ringing from the noon bell woke him with a start. Bleary, he tried to work out how long he had been unconscious. At least an hour, judging by the bell and the smell of food that wafted from the kitchens. Mauf put out a hand to steady himself as he stood on shaky legs. He was hungry, but the thought of food made him want to throw up. 

Stiff with muscle pain, he lifted a leg and tested his weight on it, trying to walk. After a few unsteady steps, he managed a kind of limp. Resentment washed over him. He couldn’t take much more of this. If he had to get up at the crack of dawn and get beaten up by the Elder’s louts one more time, he would kill himself. Perhaps if he found a task for himself, they would leave him alone. He should leave. Go in search of the Howlstone Temple.

All the other crew members must be at the mess now, and if he was lucky, he might pass through without alerting them.The Iron King had housed them within the grounds of the Granite Palace, citing “hospitality”. If he could make his way to the Temple branch in Howlstone, he could busy himself with some form of work. Hobbling into the room he shared with the crew, he donned his priest robes. Thank the Old Gods it was on the first level. Mauf did not think he had it in him to climb the stairs. 

Sounds of revelry were still coming from the mess as he limped back down the hallway. Mauf’s mood lifted as he stepped through the main doors of the quarters. He might be able to get out of this horrible place after all.

A hand slapped the back of his head. Mauf whirled around, and found the same sailor that had tortured him earlier lounging beside the doorway, a saucy grin on his snout. “Thought you could slip away didja?” Loud snickering came from behind the sailor. A group of other crew members stood, milling about and smirking at him. Mauf’s heart sank. They were waiting for him.  

Mauf shot the sailor that slapped his head an angry, sullen glare. He wasn't going to let a bunch of boors stop him. Ignoring the sailor, he turned around and continued walking. A chorus of delighted chortling came from the crew at his defiance. They could sense a show coming. His tormentor reached out a hand and wrapped a vice-like grip around his arm.

“Nuh uh. You are going straight back.” The sailor had a nasty smirk across his face and further tightened his grip. Hard. 

Panic rose like a tide within Mauf. He did not like the hand clutching his arm. He did not like being touched. Not by anyone. He tried pulling away with a violent jerk of his body. The sailor was prepared for that, and stepped in to catch the other arm as well. “That’s enough priest. Pilot’s orders, you ain’t going anywhere.”

Too close. He was too close. The panic crested into white hot anxiety. His breath came in short gasps and he started trembling. He looked around, wild-eyed, casting for some way to escape. The gleeful laughter of the sailors boomed in his ears like white noise.

As if from far away, he heard the sailor who grabbed him. “Aight, here we go!”, the sailor started hauling the priest along like a recalcitrant child.

Too close. Too close, too close, too close, too close! Something feral snapped in Mauf. He opened his jaws and clamped it over his tormentor’s arm, sinking his teeth as far as they would go. He tasted fur, and drew blood.

The sailor bellowed in outrage. He swung a fist, cracking it against the side of Mauf’s head. Daze, Mauf took a few teetering steps away. The sailor stepped in and followed up with another punch, driving it straight into Mauf’s liver, landing it with a loud smack.

Mauf doubled over, his breath torn from his body with a violent gasp. He sank onto his knees and folded his arms over his middle. Another fist came in, low, smashing into his jaw. Mauf flopped onto the ground, like a puppet with its strings cut.

 

The sailor stood over him and sneered. “How’s that dirt tasting, Your Worship?” He drew back his leg and slammed a booted feet into Mauf’s sides. Mauf curled into a fetal position and tried to crawl away.  

His blood up, the sailor went after the defeated priest and rammed another solid kick into Mauf amidst the cheers of the other sailors. Then he gave a third kick, and another, and another.

A furious roar bellowed from the doorway. “Oi, what is this?!” All actions ceased in the courtyard, and the sailors turned towards the source of the rage-filled voice, snapping to attention.

The sergeant who had followed Nimi on her death run through the desert stood glowering at everyone, including the supine Mauf. He marched out, right into the face of the sailor that had been beating Mauf, pinning him with a livid glare that promised all kinds of hell.

“Yer deaf sailor? I asked ya, what is this?” The sergeant growled.

The sailor tried to remain as calm as he could. “Priest’s sneakin’ out, sergeant. We’s tryin’ to stop him is all.”

“Why’s he on the ground then?” The sergeant’s quiet tone was ominous, the wrath behind it sharp as a honed knife. The sailor swallowed despite himself.

“Uh. Priest tripped, is all.”

“Tripped.” The sergeant rolled the word in his tongue, as if tasting it. “Priest tripped, did he?” He cocked his head at the sailor.

“Aye.” There was a nervous timbre in the sailor’s answer. 

“Tripped, because ye socked him in the head, then started kickin’ him din’ ya?” The sailor stared straight ahead, not meeting the sergeant’s eyes, and mouth shut tight. “I’ve got a word fer that where I grew up. It’s called bullying!!” The last was spoken with a roar, packed with so much fury that the sailor flinched and took a step back.

He opened his mouth to speak, but the sergeant thrust an angry finger up. “Not a word sailor! Not a word. Yer a disgrace to the Sand Strider’s name!” The sailor’s ears stiffened in outrage. “Yer ain’t in my squad, and I got no au’hority over ye, but I be damned sure to sound this to the cap’ain and your squad sergeant. Mark my words, but ye’ll wish ye’ve never signed on the Sand Strider. Do you understand, sailor?!” The sergeant roared into the sailor’s face.

The sailor’s nostrils flared as he struggled with indignation. “Aye, sergeant!”

“Now get out of my sight, all of ye!” He shouted at the group of sailors. When the last of the sailors had fled the courtyard and back into the barracks, he turned back to Mauf.

Mauf was struggling to sit up. He spat blood from his split lips, then retched as his stomach heaved. The sailor had not been gentle. Mauf wiped his lips with a shaky, trembling hand, hunching over himself, fearful of more blows.

The sergeant took a step towards the priest, and Mauf cringed, drawing away from him. The sergeant sighed. “Ain’t gonna hurt ya priest. Can ye stand?” He offered his arm to Mauf.

Mauf peered at the sergeant with a bruised eye, then held out a tentative hand. The sergeant grasped his arm and pulled him up. The upward motion dizzied Mauf and he staggered, leaning on the sergeant as he tried to find strength in his legs to stand.

“What brought ‘is on then?” The sergeant asked.

“I was going to the Temple.” Mauf mumbled as he turned to leave.

“No one’s allowed to leave the compound ‘less Cap’ain Tasch or the Pilot say so, priest,” the sergeant told him. Mauf put on a stubborn look, and the sergeant sighed.

“Ye know where it is?” The sergeant asked. Mauf shook his head. “ ‘old up. I’ll get someone to go with ya.” The sergeant could see the reluctance in Mauf’s eyes. “Pilot’s orders, priest. Ye can’t leave, not wi’out escort. Don’t make this harder on yerself.” When the sergeant was sure Mauf wouldn’t just sneak off with his back turned, he went back inside the building.

Before long, the sergeant returned with another sailor. Slim, with youthful good looks and eyes bright with curiosity, he walked with a bounce in his steps. “This ‘ere’s Bek. He’ll be guidin’ ye to the Temple, and other things.” The sergeant said as they drew close.

Mauf was suspicious. “Other things?” He asked in a hoarse voice.

“We might run into the Iron King’s guards, brother Mauf. ‘Twould be easier to explain if I was with you. The Iron King has forbidden us to be out and about by ourselves.” Bek said with a pleasant smile. “ ‘Sides, what if we run into the Pilot herself?” He chuckled. Mauf did not find that amusing.

“Be back half glass ‘fore evening assembly.” The sergeant said.

“Aye sergeant, I’ll make sure we do.” Bek saluted the sergeant, who returned it and left. “Are you able to walk brother Mauf?” When Mauf nodded, Bek said, “Follow me then.”

 Leading the way, Bek kept up a steady stream of chatter to lighten the atmosphere. “‘Tis about a half glass’ walk to the Temple, before we hit the Round. We’re in West Peak, by the by. Been in Howlstone before, brother Mauf?” Bek gave an inquiring look.

Mauf shook his head, his aching sides forcing him to take small, shuffling steps. “Right. Take your time, brother, we go at your pace. This here, “ Bek gestured around him, “We be in the noble quarter brother. The Granite Palace follows up the path here, behind us.” Bek hooked a thumb behind him, which Mauf ignored. Turning around for a look would take too much energy. “Rest ‘o the buildings here belong to city officials, well-to-do merchants and the like. You know, the rich and important folks.”

Mauf gave a cursory glance around. The buildings here were made of sandstone and mud, with flat roofs, same as the one the Sand Strider’s crew were housed in. They were plain, with none of the skilled artisan stone work common in noble houses in Red City. The houses were built on the slopes of the mountain that Howlstone was nestled in. Mauf had little doubt that the more important citizens of Howlstone lived further up the slopes. Drains were cut into ground that carried waste from the upper levels to lower levels. Howlstone had no sewer system, it seemed, and the smell at the bottom of the slope must be ripe indeed. He could not see the ‘rich and important folks’ living near that sort of stench.

Mauf sniffed. Red City was a much more civilised place, that was for sure. He eyed his high-spirited companion. “You served in the Temple before?” Only Temple initiates would address each other as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’.

“Aye.” Bek answered with good cheer. Mauf wondered if Bek was ever anything other than cheerful. “Me grandmam insisted. She was in the temple herself and had such fond memories of serving that she made it a family tradition. All me siblings served, and me Pa and his siblings.” 

“Why did you leave then?” Mauf could not understand why anyone would want to leave the Temple if they could join in the first place.

“‘Tis family tradition for us, brother. We give our dues and go back to the family business. Although grandmam would not stop anyone of us if we wanted to stay. I could never sit still long enough, got into all sorts of trouble as acolyte, haha!” Bek’s laugh was loud and deep, right from the belly, and Mauf felt himself warming to the young sailor despite himself. “Always wanted to see the world, so I found the Pilot and made my case to her. Couldn’t pass up the opportunity, what with her being Temple Elder and House Lord of the Fleet! 

"What about you brother? What made you stay?” Bek asked.

What an odd question, Mauf thought. He stayed because there was nothing else for him outside the Temple. He stayed because he owned everything to Elder Lemnu and he loved the Elder like a father. That was the difference between him and most of the Named acolytes that came to the Temple like Bek, he supposed. They had a family to go back to, and for him, there were only the streets.

Outloud, all he said was, “The Library, and knowledge that the Old Ones left behind for us. It is sacred and we have a responsibility to preserve and understand their Word.” He didn’t quite know how to express his real thoughts. So, he lied. Not quite a lie, not all the way, but it was no truth either.

Bek said, “You are with the Library then. Your House Lord is Elder Lemnu, Keeper of Wisdoms?” Mauf nodded. “‘Twould seem you are the reason we’re on this journey then!” Bek exclaimed. Mauf shot him a wary, puzzled glance, wondering if he was about to get blamed for their circumstances.

Bek saw the look and hurried to reassure him. “ Oi! I misspoke, and badly! I don’t mean to cast blame. We’ve all heard some bits about this Prophecy, but not the whole picture. The Pilot only briefed us the gist ‘fore we left. It’s important work we’re doin’, but the crew, we be thinking time to time what the real story was.” He clapped Mauf on the shoulders. “Anyhow, we’re here brother Mauf.” He gestured towards the Temple.

It was a modest two-storey building with a flat roof common in Howlstone. The walls were plain and unadorned, with a wooden door. A stone wall ringed the house and provided stout barrier against intrusion. A smokestack on the roof was puffing away, showing signs that someone was within.

“We’re in luck! It looks like someone is in.” Mauf threw Bek a quizzical look. There should be plenty of priests and acolytes in the Temple. “The Iron King limits the Temple numbers in Howlstone, brother. Only one is allowed to be stationed here,” Bek explained, and laughed. “He doesn’t much like us!” Bek put a hand on Mauf’s shoulder and pointed. Mauf’s gaze followed the direction of his fingers. “But look brother, that’s the Round.”

A market space ringed a plateau that Howlstone called the Round. It was over a mile across, and linked the Eastern and Western peaks of Howlstone together. The Eastern Peak, which he could just about make out, was even uglier than the Western Peak. The smokestacks spewed thick clouds of blackened smoke, and the houses were mean and rude even by Howlstone standards.

The stores ran the gamut, from taverns and inns to tailors, grocers and general goods. It was still bustling with activity, even well past market time. Loud hawking and haggling filled the air as merchants and buyers engaged in the timeless act of trying to get the best deal from each other.

 

Bek pointed again. “See that hole over there?” Mauf looked. In the center of the plateau was an immense cavity, about half a mile in diameter, with several contingents of beefy guards standing guard over gated shafts that led into the pit.

“What’s that?” Mauf asked, curious despite himself.

“That’s where the Grand Bridge of Howlstone is. It sits under the Round, in a huge cavern. I heard it took them years to dig that hole.” Bek opened the Temple’s gates, leading into a small, unkempt yard.

“Why?” As they neared the Temple, Mauf could see the facade was fading. The stone and bricks were streaked with sand, and the paint was peeling off. The wooden doors looked worn. Mauf was unhappy at the state the Temple was in. If nothing else, at least the door should be well taken care of. It was made of wood!

“Why what?” Bek did not understand Mauf’s question.

“Why did they dig that hole?”

Bek paused. It was his turn to be puzzled. “For the Grand Bridge to pass through of course. The Grand Bridge ain’t going anywhere with solid rock blocking it!”

Mauf could hear someone talking through the doorway. “The Aetheric Tether passes through solid objects. It would go through the rock like it wasn’t there,” he replied, distracted by the voices. He didn’t see the open-mouthed look on Bek at the casual way he dropped this astounding piece of information. Were there guests in the Temple? Bek said only a single priest was allowed in the city. He walked up to the door, and knocked on it. The conversation inside died off, but there was no answer. He knocked harder.

Soft footsteps approached the door and there was a sound of a bar sliding back. The doors cracked open a sliver, and a short, pudgy priest with a nervous demeanor peered from behind the small opening. “Yes?” There was a harried quaver in his voice, and it was clear he didn’t want to be talking to Mauf.

For a moment, Mauf wasn’t quite sure what to say. He wasn’t expecting a great deal of warmth, but the utter lack of welcome in the other priest took him aback. He cleared his throat. “Greetings brother. I came from the main Temple in Red City and thought to pay my respects here.”

“Oh!” The other priest became even more nervous. “Well thank you for coming all this way brother. This might not be the best of time. Perhaps if you come back tomorrow.” The other priest started to close the door.

Mauf didn’t like the other priest’s attitude. He put his hand out to stop the door from closing. “Brother, the Temple should be open to all who asks for the blessings of the Old Gods. What troubles you? Perhaps I could help.”

“Oh…!” There was panic in the other priest’s voice now. “Well, y...y..yes. Yes, yes,  of course but uhhh.. this is….uuhh not the greatest time brother, please come back tomorrow.” There was naked pleading in the priest’s voice.

Mauf opened his mouth to speak, but the door swung open before he could get a word out. Elder Nimi stood within the doorway, glaring at Mauf. Bek put a hand to cover his face and shook his head. “Get in,” she snapped.

The last longtail he expected or wanted to see. Feeling a vague sense of guilt, he entered the tiny room that served as the entrance hall to the temple with shuffling footsteps, hands pulling at his robes with apprehension. The claustrophobic anteroom did nothing for his misgivings. Most of the space was taken up by an old desk with a chair behind it, and they were crowded close enough to touch.

 “Your Worship, I did not expect to find you here,” Mauf mumbled.

Nimi ignored him, and directed her attention towards Bek instead. “Bek. I gave you all a curfew. You’re not supposed to be out and about. There better be a good explanation. ”  Her words were stern and hard.

Bek snapped a salute. “Yes Pilot. ‘Twas a ...disagreement earlier with the crew.” He threw a glance at Mauf who was looking down at his feet, nervous, defiant and glum. Nimi followed Bek’s gaze and noted the bruises and cuts. She frowned.

“Squad four sergeant thought it best to sep’rate brother Mauf for a bit. Says he will submit a report to you and Cap’ain Tasch.” Bek continued.

Nimi said nothing. She turned back to the Howlstone priest, who had relaxed when her attention shifted to the newcomers. “Well?” There was enough chill in that word to freeze water.

The Howlstone priest shrank back, jowls wobbling as he stroked his whiskers in furious anxiety. “Your Worship...It...it..it..it’s...t..the Iron King. L...like I said” He stammered at last. 

“Yes I know the Iron King gave strict orders on the use of the Grand Bridge. I heard you the first time.” She snapped. “I'm asking you how Dhasi and his merchants do it?” Nimi scowled with impatience. “Worf, you have been here for almost two decades, how is it that you don’t know anything?!”

Worf, the little priest, drew himself as tall as he could go with indignation and, in his hurt pride, lost his stammer. “Your Worship. You don’t understand. The merchants don’t send bodies, they only ship the goods! No one can travel by the Grand Bridge without a writ from the Iron King himself! It’s hard labor in the coal mines if anyone is caught!” he squawked.

Nimi’s scowl grew darker. “That stupid, paranoid, flea-bitten rat. What fool locks up his own highway like that?” She growled.

“Like the Temple locks up Red City’s Grand Bridge?” Worf muttered under his breath.

“What’s that?” Nimi swung back to Worf, with a look that could crack rocks. Worf shook his head in a frenzy and shrank back, his temporary courage gone, ephemeral as the morning dew.

Nimi let out a sigh, and threw herself onto the only chair in the room. She was silent for a long time, and rubbed her temples as she sank into thought. It was rare for Bek to see the Pilot in such a vulnerable state, and the sight of her commanding figure burdened by worry filled him with unease.

“Meeting with the Iron King did'na go well I take it, Pilot?” He broke the silence.

"There'd need to be a meeting first for it to go badly, Bek," she said in a wry tone. "The iron rat is stonewalling us. He's keeping us on his leash. Meanwhile, the sands run out for us. We have nothing to make him come to the table either, not since we lost everything the Sand Strider carried."

“‘Twould seem we’re stuck then.”

Nimi shrugged. “I thought we could steal our way through by playing as merchants, but the iron rat seemed to have sealed that hole.” Bek’s eyes lit up with understanding. That was what all that talk about merchants and goods earlier was all about.

“Could sneak in anyway, past the guards.” Bek suggested, eyes glinting. Nimi said nothing, but there was an answering glint in her own eyes. Worf was looking between them in growing alarm.

“Th..th..that is a terrible idea, Your Worship!” He stammered, worry etching deep between his brows.

“Relax, Worf,” Nimi growled, although she did not say she would not do it. She flicked her gaze back to Mauf. “And you. What happened.”

Mauf opened his mouth to speak, but Bek laid a hand on Mauf’s shoulders, silencing him with a look. “Begging pardon, Ma’am, but if I may have leave to speak first for brother Mauf?” Nimi gave Bek a slight nod to continue.

“Brother Mauf was on his way here to fulfil his priestly duties, Ma’am. But some of the other crew, they got carried away honoring the curfew. ‘Twas a bit of a scuffle that happened after. Squad four sergeant said to get brother Mauf away for the time being. There will be a more detailed report ready for Cap’ain Tasch and yourself Ma’am.”

“I see.” Nimi replied. “And what priestly duties are you fulfilling, Mauf?” She fixed Mauf with a flat look that all but promised he would pay if his answer did not satisfy her.

Mauf swallowed. “To….to deliver the Prophecy to brother Worf here.” The excuse sounded weak to his own ears, even if it was true that it was customary to spread any Prophecies to the various Temple branches once it was proclaimed.

Nimi thought so too, and her eyes narrowed. Before she could speak however, Worf jumped in. “Th..there’s a new Prophecy? Oh no, that’s never good news..!” Worf wrung his hands. “Wha...what is it this time?”

Mauf looked to Nimi for permission to speak, and when she said nothing, he gave Worf a quick summary of what had led them here, leaving out the part he played in analysing and translating the archive. Worf wore a comical look of dread when Mauf was finished. Prophecies always meant great changes, but this was a catastrophe. Even if it did not affect the Red Desert in a direct manner, the consequences were dire.

“Oh my, oh my, this is bad news! That’s why Your Worship was trying so hard to...Oh my, oh my!” He gaped at the three of them, comprehension dawning on him at last.

Then he brightened as an idea struck him. “Oh my! There might be someone who could help!” Bek raised a questioning eyebrow at Worf. “The Stone Singer! Oh, I could never say his name right, but he might be able to help, oh yes!” Worf was nodding with hearty enthusiasm, excitement clear in his eyes.

“What do you mean?” Nimi asked.

“Oh, the Stone Singer is a very good scholar. Why, he comes to the Temple sometimes, to use our library!”

“You have a library?” Mauf was surprised. He didn’t think the Temple here was big enough to have one.

Worf puffed with pride “Oh yes, it’s small, much smaller than the Grand Library, but we have texts that even the Grand Library doesn’t have. We even have a Reader!” He was beaming from ear to ear. Mauf leaned forward. Texts that even the Grand Library did not have? Most curious!

“Worf, the Stone Singer,” Nimi snapped.

“Oh. Yes. The Stone Singer showed up one day, he caused quite a stir! No one had ever seen one before, though we all heard the stories of course.” The round little priest was gushing.

“Worf.” There was an unnatural calm to her voice. “Get to the point.”

“Oh...uh..yes. He came up from Bitter Lake, that city near the Cracked Lands,” A shiver coursed through Worf when he mentioned the Cracked Lands. He continued. “Said he’s been on the Red Desert for years, studying the...uhh...wild life, and some other things he said. In the Cracked Lands.” The little priest added the last bit for emphasis, and shivered again.

Mauf shared his unease. The Red Desert was dangerous as a whole, but the Cracked Lands were different altogether. There was something not right about that place, and the animals that made their home there even more so. If the Stone Singer had been there for years studying the wild life there, he must be a character to reckon with.

There must also be a Skybridge near the Cracked Lands. How else could he have come all this way from the Eternal Caverns? It would be worth talking to the Stone Singer if only to find the location of the Skybridge and catalogue it. Mauf found himself becoming eager to meet this strange creature from another world.  

“The Iron King is right impressed with him, oh yes he is!” Worf continued. “He’s been quite a boon to the city, sharing his knowledge. Crafting, bestiary, interpreting the words of the Old Gods. Quite a boon.” Worf paused to gather his thoughts, confused by his own rambling words. “The Stone Singer I mean. Not the Iron King. The Stone Singer is sharing his knowledge. Wouldn’t make sense for the Iron King to be sharing knowledge with himself!”

Nimi waved his words away in impatience, signaling Worf to get on with it. “Oh, right. Uhh. The Stone Singer’s earned the Iron King’s trust. Well. As much trust as that one could give anyway.”

“Maybe this Stone Singer could put in a good word for us; ‘twere it possible that we convince him of the nature of the Prophecy, Pilot,” Bek mused. Worf nodded with vigorous agreement.

Nimi was silent as she considered the proposal. “Where is the Stone Singer then?” She had not seen the Stone Singer since after he came to their rescue  and lifted them from the blade weevils like a knight right out of a Black Mane story.                 

“That would be... Ummm... his study is in the Workshop. Like as not he’s there, oh yes.”

“Workshop?” asked Bek.

“Yes. Yes, yes. The Workshop. Oh, the Iron King, he runs his uhhh, projects, there. It’s just past the Round, in East Peak. Can’t miss it, oh yes. It’s very loud.” The prospect of sending Nimi on her way and out of his hair made the little priest very cooperative. Eager, almost

Nimi stood up.  “It looks like there's a use for you after all, Mauf.” She stalked out of the Temple, determination in her steps, and motioning Bek to bring Mauf along.

Bek stretched out a hand towards Mauf. “Come, brother. You heard the Pilot. You might help us explain the Prophecy to the Stone Singer!” He took Bek’s outstretched hand and got up to follow the Elder as she strode off. He was curious about the Stone Singer himself.

 

2.

The Royal Workshop was a squat, ugly two-storied building with a yawning entrance that stretched several meters high. Carved right into the mountainside that cradled it, the Workshop was fronted by a sprawling yard that looked like a demented carnival an artist who had taken too much datang had sculpted. Half-rusted skeletons and pitted shells of incomprehensible machine parts had been  dumped into giant piles everywhere in a graveyard of metallic carcasses.

Loud clanging of metal upon metal mixed with the boisterous yells of workers made for a raucous cacophony announcing the presence of the Workshop long before it could be seen. The smell of charred wood, oil, and heated metal mixed with something sour completed the discordant assault on the senses.

Mauf was overwhelmed. He could hear nothing, and thought of nothing except the chaos that blasted through him. Nausea arose, and he wondered how anyone could work in a place like this.

Undaunted by the pandemonium, Nimi moved through the confusion in the cluttered yard with her typical self-assurance. She spotted an older male dressed in worn leathers spreading tar on some iron spikes, and approached him.

“Greetings!” Nimi raised her voice above the din.

The older male looked up. “Aye?”

“I am looking for the Stone Singer.”

The male made a gesture towards the gaping entrance of the Workshop. “Find the matron. She'll take ya. Stairs on the right as ye enter. Go all the way up. Only door there is at the end.”

“My thanks,” Nimi said as she marched on. The male nodded and bent back to his work. 

They found the staircase, right where the male said it would be. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust from the afternoon sun to the interior of the Workshop. When they did, the true scale of the Workshop hit them. The facade did much to disguise the immensity of the space within, which rose about twenty meters high, and had a floor space triple that of the yard outside.

Oil lanterns shuttered to shunt light into powerful beams cut across the Workshop providing illumination. The occasional furnace flooded the area around it with a brooding, sinister glow. Shadowed humps of strange contraptions lay in neat rows across the floor, belying the chaos out in the yard. The din within was even louder than outside, echoing through the Workshop in a hollow, thunderous roar. Workers scurried throughout the Workshop wearing ear muffs that protected them from the noise.

Nimi took a deep breath. The air reeked of oiled metal and varnished wood. It spoke of hard and honest labour and for the first time in weeks, she found herself relaxing, just a little.

She thrived when times were hard. She had spent almost all her life in the fleet, amongst a tribe that understood the value of good, clean work. Nimi had followed her grandmam out into the Dune Sea when she was but her grandmam’s knees in height. She was cast of iron, was her grandmam. Nimi had to earn every scrap of respect from her, and her grandmam made sure that it was earned the hard way.

Command had come easy to her and she shouldered burdens that would have bowed many. And yet the past few weeks had been difficult. She had lost everything dear to her.

The Sand Strider was her life, her pride and joy. It had taken her almost twenty years to build the Sand Strider, and another twenty before that to become House Lord of the Fleet and Elder of the Temple.

There would be hell to pay when she returned to Red City. The other Elders and even some from the Fleet would not soon let her forget this defeat, and would try to pull her down. She cared little for the carrion feeders that would nip at her heels. How could they understand what it was like to lose something she had spent her whole life building? And lose a daughter too, along the way.

Phael was not of her blood, but she was the closest thing Nimi had to a daughter. She had taken Phael under her wing and watched as the young female grew into a competent sailor. Phael was a quick study, and overcame many of the challenges Nimi had thrown at her. Nimi had wanted to see Phael succeed and get her own command.

Now she was dead, and Nimi had been the one to send her to her death. She did not even have a body to bury. Unbidden, memories of long evenings spent with Phael over wine on board the Sand Strider surfaced and her heart clenched, both for Phael and for the Sand Strider.

Forcing her maudlin thoughts away, she focused on the present. They still had to find the Stone Singer, and he was not going to appear on his own. Nimi mounted the stairs, two steps at a time, and soon reached the top where they found a door made of thin sheets of metal leading into a small room. 

A heavyset, older female seated at a small desk looked up from a mountain of paperwork as they entered. Her arms were covered in sawdust and grease, and she was wrapped in a worn leather apron like the other workers. She took the group in with a quick look, and spoke to Nimi.

“That's some hair ye got missy,” she said in a loud booming voice that reverberated in the small room. She got up from her desk and walked towards them. “Would love to know how ye keep it that way. What can I do for ye'all then?”

Nimi gave the matron a tight smile. She wasn’t here to talk about her hair. “I’m looking for the Stone Singer.”

“Sszesskri?” The matron pronounced it as “Sass-kri”.   “Aye, he's here sure enough.” She leaned forward to take a closer look at Nimi and the others. “Ye be the ones he pulled out from the blade weevils then? What ye be wantin’ him for?” She raised her shoulders in a shrug. “Have to look out for my guest’s privacy.”                     

  “I have matters to discuss with him, regarding his scholarship.”  

“Ahh. Temple matters and such then? Must be some’ma important, for an Elder to come all this way herself.” Nimi paused and studied the matron anew, suspicion tinting her thoughts. “Aye, don’t you stare daggers at me! I do be the one that hauled your ship off the desert, and sent the Stone Singer after ye, at the behest of the Iron King.” She wiped the sawdust off her hands with a clean towel that was draped over a stool and offered it. “Name’s Gerti.”

Nimi did not take it. This female hauled the Sand Strider out? Gerti sensed Nimi’s hesitation, and retracted her hand. “It’s here, yer ship. We be stripping it for salvage. Deal was struck with yer Temple. She’s a fine vessel, bet’er than anything I’ve seen.”

Clenching her fist, Nimi fought to keep herself still. The thought of her ship being stripped for salvage was intolerable. She wanted to break the arms of any that dared touched her ship.

Gerti could see Nimi’s mood and her features softened in sympathy. “She’s a right marvel. Had a good soul and a good crew, could see it in the wood.” She set the towel back onto the stool and walked out of the room, motioning for the trio to follow her. “Right then. Nothin’s get’in’ done if we be just standin’ around. Follow me, I’ll bring ye to the Stone Singer’s hidey hole.”       

They followed close behind Gerti as she navigated the spider-web of ramps and walkways that crisscrossed the Workshop. She waved her beefy arms around her, beaming with obvious pride as she presented the Workshop to them. “This be the Royal Workshop then. We be doin’ most of the crafting work in Howlstone! Furnaces n’ smokestacks n’ mining tools n’ the like. We ship some of ‘em out to Flint, where the mines are, few leagues east of here. Rest we keep and trade. 

"Been looking after the workshop nigh thirty years,” Gerti continued. Somehow, Gerti made her voice heard even over the din in the workshop. “Even ‘fore the Iron King was the Iron King. Wasn’t nothin’ more’n a shed back in the day.”

She put her hands on her hips as she surveyed the well-ordered bustle in the shop floor. “Watched it grew from a rundown rat’s nest to this mess now. The Iron King says, good work taking care of that. Slapped a name on me and now I'm stuck with this lot.” There was a fondness in her voice as she gestured at the scurrying workers around her. “Has a vision, does the Iron King.”

Bek perked up in curiosity. “What vision is that, matron?”

Gerti had a mischievous twinkle in her eye as she started walking again. “Ye’ll have to shake that out’a the Iron King himself, if ye could!” Before long, they reached a section of the wall on the other side of the workshop with a door cut into it. There was a bell by the side, but instead of using it, the matron raised her meaty hands and banged on the door.

“Sszesskri!” She bellowed. Mauf jumped. He hadn't thought her voice could get any louder. “Open the door!”

A brief moment later, and the door swung open. An insectoid head swung out from under a frame that was too short for the creature. “Gerti. Truly, your voice iss a treasure.”

“Oh, but you’re my treasure Sszesskri,” Gerti winked. “Some guests be looking for ye, scholar!” She waved a hand towards Nimi and her party.

Recognising the trio that stood behind Gerti, he exclaimed: “Ahhhh. I sssee you have brought me Elder Nimi and her crew.” He gave the Elder a bow. “I trust you are well and recovered from your ordeals.” Stone Singer waved them inside. “Come inside, all of you. I have lin berry tea!”

“Thank ye Stone Singer, but I must pass. The Iron King’s paperwork be wantin’ his eyes.” Gerti gave the Stone Singer a hearty slap on the arm. “Take care of these folks then, Stone Singer. Just you remember to let them go ‘n not keep them with yer dronin’ on!”

The Stone Singer made a hissing sound that Mauf assumed was some kind of laughter. “Of courssse matron,” Sszesskri replied. Gerti gave Nimi a nod and left.

“Come!” Sszesskri urged Nimi, Bek and Mauf inside to a room that was well kept, albeit crammed. Shelves of books lined the walls and many more were stacked on the floor. A display cabinet held some trinkets, which looked to Mauf to be of the Old Gods’ make. Several clumps of glowing mushrooms growing from pots kept the room well lit.

Sszesskri caught Mauf and Bek staring at the mushrooms and said, “They are called glow bulbsss, from back home. I brought some shoots when I left. They make better lights than oil lamps!”       

“Your home. You mean the Eternal Caverns?” Mauf asked, still staring in fascination at the mushrooms. They would make great table lamps in the Library; There would be no need to deal with smoke, or potential fire hazard.

“Yess, I do believe you call it such!” The Stone Singer pushed the doors of his room close, which Mauf could see was padded with heavy fabric. It did much to reduce the clamour from outside and there was instant relief from the constant din. Mauf relaxed. He could hear himself think again!

The Stone Singer bustled around, clearing space for his guests. “Please, sssit!” He set out some cups and a pot of lin berry tea, suffusing the room with a sweet fragrance. When Nimi and the others had sat themselves, Sszesskri poured out cups of tea for everyone. “Now then, allow me to introduce myself. I am Sszesskri Ssszsonj.” There was a complex pulse of light from his gills as he spoke his name, and the last syllable was incomprehensible to the three Red City longtails.

“Can't catch that last bit, Stone Singer,” Bek remarked. Sszesskri’s antennae wriggled and there was a brief flash of light as his gills flared in merriment.

“Indeed! Our tongue is not made for Red Desert folks. You can call me whatever you feel comfortable with,” Sszesskri trilled. “Now, may I have the pleasure of your namesss?” There was a melodic lilt to the Stone Singer’s speech that Mauf found entrancing, and his welcoming manner put him at ease.

“That is Bek, my crew. Mauf, of the Temple.” Nimi gestured at the two males. “You know who I am. I must thank you again for coming to our aid and pulling my crew out of trouble.”

Sszesskri wriggled his antennae. “It is my honor, I assure you. How is the injured one? The one that lost his arm?”

“He is recovering,” Nimi replied. “We will take care of him.” There was a solemn weight to her words that convey the situation. Bek’s face fell. It had not been easy on Seb, and he had been well-liked on the Sand Strider.

“I ssee. My best wishes to him then.” Sszesskri’s response was somber. “Be that as it may, I am pleased to meet you today. Tell me, to what do I owe this visit?”

“Mauf, tell the scholar what you found.” Nimi lifted her cup and took a sip. She was surprised to find honey in it. It was expensive to import from the Steaming Jungle, and difficult to find even in Red City. She raised her eyebrow at Sszesskri. “Good tea, and honey.”

“Yess, I do so love honey! The matron let me had it once and it has became a vice since. It iss a treat and you are my guestss.” He turned towards Mauf, who was still staring at the mushrooms, his imagination caught, and wondering what the Eternal Caverns might look like. “Pleasse, Priest Mauf, tell me what you have found.”

Mauf cleared his throat, nervous all of a sudden. “I...I am of the...I am a scribe in the Grand Library...”

Sszesskri’s gills flared for a brief moment at the mention of the Grand Library. “The Library! You are a ssscholar!!” The excitement and pleasure was evident in his voice. “This isss a good day! It is a fond hope of mine to read in the Library one day! I have made it my life’s work to study the relics of the Oness Who Left.”

Mauf sat up straighter, becoming animated at the thought of finding a kindred spirit. “Ones Who Left? You mean the Old Gods?”

“Yess, the Old Gods iss what you Red Desert folks call the Oness Who Left.” The Stone Singer replied. 

Interesting, Mauf thought. He wondered if the Tree Dwellers had their own name for the Old Gods as well. “The Temple recovered an archive sometime back,” he continued. It was not quite the truth. A vagrant had retrieved it, but it was close enough, Mauf felt. “I was tasked to translate it by my House Lord.

"In my work, I came across a...section.” Mauf paused, wondering how next to continue. If the Stone Singers had different names for the Old Gods, then they might not share the same language the Temple used. “It had Observations.” Mauf saw the uncertain tilt of Sszesskri’s head. Mauf stopped and tried again. “Numbers, and charts. Lines…”

There was a bright flare from the Stone Singer’s gills. “Ahh! The Proofs! How the Oness Who Left showed the workings of their marvels! Yess, what did you find?” Sszesskri leaned forward, his attention rapt.  

            Encouraged, Mauf continued. “The Steaming Jungle will face a calamity very soon. It would destroy several cities at least. We,” he made a circular motion that included all of them. “depend a lot on the trade we have with the Tree Dwellers, especially crops...”

“Red City would not survive without the Tree Dwellersss’ abilities to grow seeds that thrive in the desert, and Howlstone would starve ssoon after. Yess.” The Stone Singer finished for Mauf. “Can you show me what the Proofs said?”

“Some. The important parts, but I would need something to write with....”Mauf looked around. The Stone Singer sprang up and went to his study table, motioning Mauf to follow.

In no time, both the Stone Singer and Mauf were lost in discussion.

Nimi watched the two scholars. The Stone Singer seemed to be excited about what Mauf was laying out, which she supposed was good. If the Stone Singer could be convinced, then perhaps he could help them bring the stone-blind iron rat around. Meantime, she had a great opportunity here in the Workshop and she would be foolish to let it slip by.

“Bek.” She whispered, making sure that Mauf and Sszesskri could not hear. Bek's ears twitched at her tone. He could sense that something was up. “I want you to take a stroll. Walk around.”

Bek pitched his voice low as well. “Mingle with the folks. A little chit chat here and there, find out the latest gossip in the Workshop?”

Nimi nodded. “Be casual.”

Bek stood up and stretched, groaning as if he was very stiff. In a louder voice, meant for Mauf and Sszesskri to hear, he said, “Seems like this might take a while Pilot. Going to stretch my legs, if ye be willing.”

“Go.” Nimi's reply was nonchalant. Bek ducked his head, and left the room. Mauf and Sszesskri did not look up.

She took a long slow sip of the honeyed tea, savouring it. Phael had had a weakness for sweet things, and she would have liked it. Holding the cup close to her, Nimi inhaled the soft fragrance of the lin berry tea. Memories of her adopted daughter played in her mind, and a small smile lifted her lips as she remembered. She took another sip of the honeyed tea and held the memories for a moment, then put the cup of tea, and the recollections, away.

Looking up, she listened in on the conversation between the Stone Singer and Mauf. The pup was much different when talking about his books. He was much more confident and sure of himself, leading the Stone Singer scholar through his workings with little hesitation. She could not understand the esoteric nuances they were talking about. Lemnu kept most of those secret, guarded and held them close to the Library.

Not that she wanted to learn. It would have taken far too long and there were more important things on her mind. Bending over a desk for hours on end was not her idea of a good way to spend time. The only reason she was forcing herself to sit still and listen now, was to give Bek time to do his work. She tried to follow as best as she could, but found her thoughts drifting away to other matters all the same.

She was brought back into the present by a change in the cadence of the conversation between Sszesskri and Mauf. She stood as the two scholars returned. “Did the Observations make sense to you, Stone Singer?”

“Yess, yess, it is a grave matter indeed. Priest Mauf’s interpretation of the Proofs was quite complete, sssuch as he was able to show me. Thank you for sharing this with me, Elder. I am most honoured. It would make a tremendous entry into my journals” The Stone Singer gave a deep bow and straightened.

A long moment of awkward silence followed. Mauf shuffled his feet while Sszesskri gazed at Nimi, his antennae twitching in what could be a puzzled manner as the moment dragged. Nimi gave a small sigh.

“We came to ask for your help, Stone Singer,” she said.

“My help?” Sszesskri queried; the twitching of his antennae deepened.  

Nimi replied, “We journeyed here in hopes of reaching the Tree Dwellers in time to salvage what we can of this disastrous event. Bring them back to where it’s safe, if they are willing.” Or even if they are not willing, Nimi thought.

“And the Iron King has blocked your way!” the Stone Singer interjected. “Of course, he hass stringent rules about the uses of the Grand Bridge.”

“Yes,” Nimi agreed. “We heard that you have the trust of the Iron King…”

“And you hoped I would intercede on your behalf,” Sszesskri finished for Nimi. She nodded. “Well, I would not say I have hisss trust. Trust does not come easy for the Iron King. Nevertheless...” the Stone Singer paused as he considered.

“I make no promisess,” the Stone Singer looked at Nimi, his deep, alien eyes reflecting her image. “The Iron King had been amenable to some of my suggestionsss before, but he iss hard to persuade.”

“That is acceptable for the moment,” Nimi returned.

“I will do my best. This is dire news for everyone, and I would be saddened if the Tree Dwellers died out. The Iron King should see that it is also in his interestsss to tend to the well-being of the Tree Dwellers,” the Stone Singer mused.

Nimi reached out her hand and clasped the Stone Singer’s arm. “Thank you, Stone Singer. Time is of the essence.”

Sszesskri clasped her arm back. “I will send word ass soon asss I can.”

 

3.

The sharp fragrance of incense drifted through the Council room bringing a measure of calm to Lemnu. He had lit a stick while waiting for Dhasi to bring news from Howlstone. There had been little updates from Nimi since the Iron King had sent a curt message saying they were rescued. The last one they had received from Nimi had been been a terse note about having to deal with the Iron King refusing them passage through the Grand Bridge. There was some mention of a plan, but with no further details. Tension had been mounting since.

For him anyway. Osli had been nonchalant since the beginning, and the way he was sprawled over his chair showed that he did not care much about the whole affair. Dhasi was as he always had been, walking a tightrope between calm and excitability, and Imru was nowhere to be found.

The door to the Council Room swung open. Lemnu looked up as Dhasi entered. Lemnu was on his feet in an instant, his stress getting the better of him. “The Iron King has allowed them passage?”

Dhasi gave a brusque nod. His lips stretched in a humourless smile. “At last. But the paranoid rat insisted on sending his personal guards along.  'A precaution to protect Howlstone's interest', he said.” Dhasi's tone was mocking.

Lemnu sat back down, relieved. Whatever Nimi had done seemed to have worked. “That’s that then….” He closed his weary eyes. Everything was far from over, of course, but at least things could start to happen now. The Iron King’s guard would prove to be a problem when Nimi returns however. An unfriendly army in the middle of the Temple was a dangerous thing to have. He opened his eyes and turned to face Osli. “We might need to welcome the Iron King’s guards when Nimi returns. A show of force to keep them in their place would be a welcome thing.”

Osli looked up. “No.”

It took a moment for Osli’s answer to sink in. “No?” Lemnu wasn’t quite sure he heard Osli right.

“No.” Osli repeated.

With careful deliberation, Lemnu asked, “Perhaps you could explain, Elder Osli.”

Meeting Lemnu square in the eyes, Osli said, “I have more important matters to take care of.”

Lemnu heaved an inward sigh, but held Osli’s gaze. Unity was never a virtue with the Temple Elders, but even Osli must see that this was not the time to be playing for advantage. “And what would those matters be?” he asked, holding hard to patience.

After a long pause, Osli replied “The Spider’s missing.”

Lemnu was incredulous. Osli was playing games because of Imru? He kept his features still, but Dhasi did not hold back. He snorted as he pulled out a chair and sat. “What, did you sleep with her after all these years? She finally had you wrapped around her fingers or something? You’re going to let the Iron King’s lackeys run around because Imru did not pet you on the head?”

Osli glowered at Dhasi, murder in his eyes. “She’s gone. No one has seen her, not even her own House. Who knows what she’s up to?”

Dhasi rolled his eyes. He was exhausted, and could care less about that scheming female. “Off to set up one of her many plots, no doubt. Why do we care where she's gone?”

“Which of those plots had ended well for us?” Osli retorted. “Forget the Iron King’s toy soldiers. You are going to let the Spider spin her web in peace!? You know what they said about the Great Fire!”

Dhasi grunted. “Maybe one of your men had seen her or something.”  He was dismissive, but there was now an undercurrent of unease in his manner. 

“None of my men have seen her either.” Osli grated.

“What about that right hand of hers?” Lemnu asked Osli. In truth, Lemnu was also feeling some disquiet over Imru’s absence. She was the youngest longtail to have ever achieved Elder rank, and had wielded power longer than any of them had. He himself had only ascended after his predecessor died in the Great Fire that Osli mentioned. There were disturbing whispers about her and the young priest responsible for the Fire. The rumours said that she might have engineered the event. No one dared accuse her of it, of course. All the same, Lemnu had kept a wary distance from the devious Elder. 

“That brute? Gor?” Dhasi said, scratching his chin. “One of mine saw him pick up a stray buying some heat stones. Odd business that. Didn’t strike me as the sort that would bother himself with a low life. Stuck in my mind.”

“When was this? And where? Do you know where he is now?” Osli probed.

Dhasi thought for a moment. “The slum markets. And no! I don’t know where he is. I don’t keep track of things like these!”

“What does this stray look like?” Osli pressed.

“I said I don’t keep track of such things!” Dhasi snapped, irritated at Osli’s insistent queries. “You can go talk to my merchants if you want.”

“I will send my men then.”

“Don't break anything, Osli.” Dhasi rolled his eyes. He didn’t understand the obsession Osli had with Imru. So maybe the witch had gotten the better of Osli a few times. More than a few times. The fool should just learn his lesson and back off.

Osli gave a non-committal shrug. “We should search her quarters as well, find out if she had left any clues.” There was obvious relish in his voice as he said this.

Lemnu was shocked. This was stepping way out of line, akin to an invasion and an encroachment of territory. He opened his jaws to give Osli a sharp rebuke.

Osli cut in. “She's derelict in her duty. She's been absent for weeks now. We have good grounds to do this.”

Lemnu narrowed his eyes. Nostrils flaring, he spoke with slow, careful words, making clear where he stood. “Elder. I will have no part of this. Look for her if you must. Question Elder Dhasi’s people, if you must. I will oppose any actions that will lead to the invasion of the sanctity of our Houses.” He stared at Osli.

Osli leaned back with an unreadable look on his face. He studied his fellow Elders for a long moment, then stood up. “Very well. I will round up who we know to be her spies and start probing. I trust that will be acceptable to you, Elder Lemnu.”

Osli left the Council Room without waiting for an answer.

 

4.

The chill morning breeze rippled around Nimi, flitting through her mane and sending cool, playful fingers that caressed her cheeks. She stood near the center of the Round with her crew, at the gigantic hole that led downwards to the Grand Bridge of Howlstone. Time at last to to see the end of this journey.

The Stone Singer had proven to be most useful in breaking through to the Iron King. He had laid out the case, explained the translated texts that Mauf had worked on and had persuaded him somehow. It had taken days, almost two weeks, but the Iron King had at last granted them permits to enter the Grand Bridge.

Not without conditions, however. He had insisted on sending a full contingent of his personal guards with them, to “guard his interests”. It was the one thing he would not budge on.

 

So it was that Nimi found herself her at the break of dawn, watching the guards ready themselves for the journey ahead. The guards fell into formation, sounded off and started checking their gears. Each of them carried a backpack of their belongings and weapons; iron tipped spears and firearms - muskets and pistols.

She had blinked at that. Howlstone’s iron working had become quite considerable. Muskets and pistols were no match for heat spears, only capable of firing a single round before reloading, but it was the skill behind the forge work that surprised her. In her younger days, all Howlstone could produce were the raw iron ingots that they shipped out to other longtail cities.

Bek's report had suggested that the Workshop was capable of advanced techniques. Plowshares, stoves, and even elaborate wrought iron meshes. He had not seen any production of firearms however. The Iron King must have moved the construction of their weapons to another location.

Red City would have to deal with this on their return. Single fire pistols and rifles were not a big threat to Red City and most of the Temple guards carried heat spears, but the Iron King had sent an entire company. Having them in the heart of Red City would be problematic; raising tensions and increasing the odds of violence. No doubt the Iron King knew and wanted that. Nimi could feel a headache coming on.

The guard Captain, having settled his troops, approached her. He snapped a salute. “Good morning, Elder. I am Vith, a captain of the Iron King’s Guards. My company had been tasked to assist you in your journey ahead,” he said in crisp, professional tones. “We wait only for the Bridge Keeper to align the Grand Bridge and the Stone Singer to join us.”

The Stone Singer was coming? She wondered why. Out loud, however, all she said was, “Thank you Captain. When will the Bridge Keeper be done?”

“My guess is another hour, Elder. He is the careful sort.” Captain Vith replied.

“I trust that you will work with us together to solve a common problem.” Her words were cool and icy. This was her mission, and she would not have the Iron King’s lackeys interfering.

Captain Vith held a polite smile, shined to professional perfection. “Of course, Elder. The Iron King would not jeopardize his own interests.” He matched her wintry tone. Red City would gain no unfair advantage over Howlstone, not as long as he was around.

There was a long, frozen moment. “Thank you Captain. You may see to your troops.” Nimi dismissed him. The professional smile on Captain Vith’s face slipped just a tiny bit, but he snapped a salute and left.

The hour crawled pass. On occasion, a longtail from the guards or the Sand Strider's crew would look up and eye each other like strange cats in an alley. For the most part however, they kept to themselves. During this time, Sszesskri had joined them, bearing a huge backpack.

At last, the Bridge Keeper completed his task. There was a great commotion as the gate guards readied the platform that would lower them to the chamber where the Grand Bridge was. Captain Vith signaled for his company to get onto the platform, and Nimi did the same with the Sand Strider’s crew.

The platform became crowded. All told, there were perhaps over a hundred longtails milling about the platform, with the larger fraction being Captain Vith and his company. Mauf, uncomfortable with the close proximity of so many, edged towards a corner, and found himself standing next to the Stone Singer. He gave Sszesskri a tight smile.

“Ah, Priest Mauf, good morning!” Strain in Sszesskri’s voice marred his usual good manners. His antennae were twitching in spasmodic jerks. “Pardon my manners today, friend. I find the crowd to be quite overwhelming.”

Mauf was surprised to hear that. “Me too.”

Sszesskri did not seem to have heard. “You Red Desert folks have quite the scent, you know.” Embarrassed, Mauf took a quick sniff of his robes. “Well, not scent as you know it,” the Stone Singer continued, “but I can sense you, from quite a range. It didn’t take very long to find you and the Elder out in the desert. So many of you at once...this is quite overwhelming,” Sszesskri repeated, the quavering of his antennae showing his agitation.  

Without warning, the platform gave a lurch as it descended, the rumbling of enormous gears grinding loud in Mauf’s ears. He threw out his hands for a handrail to steady himself and calm his nerves. It was not natural to be dangling several meters up in the air!

Mauf could not see much, pressed into the corner as he was, but he could feel the sunlight cutting off as the depths of the cavern loomed overhead. As if in counterpoint, a soft nimbus beneath them grew. A thrumming rolled from deep within the earth, cresting and rising until it hit a crystalline hum that rang throughout the caverns. The radiance of the Grand Bridge expanded, and as the platform continued its descent, Mauf had the feeling of being lowered into a glowing lake. He closed his eyes and gripped the handrail tight.

With a deafening boom, the platform came to a stop.  Mauf opened his eyes and beheld the Grand Bridge, and his breath caught. It was every bit as majestic as the one in Red City, spanning several meters tall and just as wide. The ethereal glow swelled as the Aetheric Tether stabilised itself, and blasted through the skies into the stars beyond in a blinding burst of light.

Thin wisps of an alien song drifted just beyond the range of hearing as the Aetheric Tether pulsed. The gates of the Grand Bridge slid open to reveal an immense disc, floating by some unknown power, in the serene light.

It was time to go. The motley band, surviving crew of the Sand Strider and the personal guards of the Iron King alike, organized themselves and stepped onto the disc. The gates closed behind the last longtail to board. The spectral alien song became stronger as the light pulses intensified. A strange tension brewed in the air.

A shimmering veil covered the disc and its occupants, and shot upwards, hurtling those onboard towards the heavens.

 

5.    

When Mauf stepped out of the Grand Bridge and into the overpowering glare of daylight in the Steaming Jungle, he felt like he was being cooked in the heart of a furnace. The white hot sun burned his eyes, and the heat wrapped itself around Mauf like a blanket, constricting his chest, searing and bearing down on him with a palpable force.

The scent of fresh sap and leaves combined with the cloying perfume of flowers, so much more vigorous than the garden around Red City's Grand Bridge, assaulted his nose. Underneath that was the smell of wet loam mixed with the sweetness of decaying leaves. It was a dizzying and potent mix.

A steady buzzing of insects surrounded him, rising and falling, weaving in and out of each other. Soft lilting melody of birds spun through the air, creating a chaotic symphony that somehow held together.

The glare of the sun faded as Mauf’s eyes adjusted. He cracked his eyelids open and was confronted with a profusion of green and growing things; hanging vines that circled thick trunks, and branches crowned in thick luscious leaves and an explosion of colorful flowers swaying in gentle rhythm with the mist that flowed through the Jungle like a gentle cotton river. Mauf was awestruck, staring at the prolific greenery with open-jawed wonder.

His ignorance burned at him too. He had always thought the Temple garden a marvel of unsurpassed beauty and magnificence, but it was a pale ghost beside this vibrant, verdant paradise. A mimicry. Mauf had never seen anything like this and he felt small.

He took a step forward, and his feet hit cobbled floor. The mist swept past at that moment and his breath was taken away. He was not in a jungle. Not at all. He was on a tree. A single, colossal tree. The Grand Bridge sat on a ledge that connected to several branches. Branches so big that he thought at first they were themselves trees. As the mist faded away, he could see that the ledge stretched in a complex web across the entire crown of the tree. 

As his eyes drank in the incredible vista before him, he saw that the mist covered an unimaginable expanse, stretching as far as his eyes could see. It churned and seethed, breaking off into clumps and forming fanciful shapes before rolling back into each other again. Vast shapes, shadowed and distant, punctured the sea of mist, causing it to flow around the forms of those mysterious silhouettes. Mauf squinted his eyes, trying to make out what they were.

Then his knees weakened and a smile of wonder grew on his face as the realisation hit him. He stumbled forward. They were trees! As grand and enormous as the one he stood on, and the mist was no mist at all. They were clouds. These trees were so immense that they grew into the very skies. From the murmuring around him, he gathered that the other longtails were just as astonished as he was.

A buzzing from above caught his attention, and he saw an enormous dragonfly fly past. Instinct made him duck, but it circled the Grand Bridge and landed. A strange creature dismounted. Mauf could only assume that this was a Tree Dweller. It was tall, and slim, and walked with a strange rolling grace. Shoots and flowers bloomed from its hair and a heady perfume blossomed as it spoke. 

“Welcome.It spoke in a soft whisper that somehow carried, and all in the band heard it. “We bid welcome to the Canopy of Tr Y’mn, Third First of the Pillar Trees.”