Captain’s report: We have been dispatched to Portal-178, located ten days sail outside of Pantheon territory. The scout ship sent to investigate it determined it to be a dead portal, with dry land on the other side. While scouting through the portal, they made an astounding discovery and we’ve been ordered to assist them with its investigation.
Seated around the officer’s mess, Captain Baxtor explained the purpose of their voyage. A deckhand served hot grog with lemon juice and sugar to each of the men.
“What I don’t understand about scout ships,” said Albert Reeves, third captain of ‘The Phoenix’, “is why they’re even necessary. They go out, find new portals and sail in and out of them. What’s the point? Maybe they discover where it goes, but why send specialized ships?”
“Firstly,” said Radiance with a cringe, “they don’t sail in and out of them. The whole point of sending a scout vessel to investigate them is because they aren’t safe to sail through when you don’t know what’s on the other side. Worlds shift around portals over long periods of time and it isn’t always safe on the other side. It could be shallow water that the ship would run aground on. Or, it could be a solid rock wall, which would be like sailing into a cliffside. Or, the portal could be hanging in mid-air and the ship could fall and crash to the ground on the other side right after it went through.”
“So how do scout ships go through safely?” Reeves asked.
“They don’t. They sail up to an unknown portal, enclose it in their air bubble, then have a brave, or foolhardy, crew member go through with a rope tied around them. They’re pulled back once they’re through and report what they see on the other side,” said Radiance. “There’s a legend that, countless years ago, a scout ship was investigating a newly discovered portal and they put a crew member through. There must have been lava or something on the other side because all that came back was the charred end of the rope.”
“Wouldn’t it be magma if it was underground on the other side?” asked Sinclair Foran, the ship’s healer. In response to a dirty look from Radiance, the healer shrugged and continued. “So, what’s special about *THIS* portal and *THIS* scout ship? Why are we meeting them?”
“While scouting it, they found it was a dead portal, without any water on the other side. Sometimes scouts will explore the worlds these lead to, but often they just survey what can be seen from the portal, then move on. A dry world that can’t send and receive ships is of limited value. From this portal, they saw another portal, also hanging in the air, about 15 miles away. Two portals this close together is unusual, but not unheard of. What got everyone’s attention is that there were a number of ships crashed underneath the far portal and one of them was a Pantheon ship that went missing seven years ago.
If we can determine which dead portal this far one is, there’s the possibility of creating a new connection between the two portals. Something that has never been done before. It could change the topology of the Pantheon itself and allow the rapid expansion of our empire into this region.”
“So what role are we going to play?” asked Reeves.
“We’re going into the dead portal to scout the new world and determine where the far portal leads,” said Captain Baxtor.
* * *
‘The Phoenix’ moved forward slowly and, when the scout ship came into view ahead, Radiance cut the wind and the ship glided to a halt. Giving short bursts of air and using water sprites, Radiance maneuvered the ship to join the small craft which was tethered to the portal. A gangplank was placed between the two vessels, connecting them.
“Permission to come aboard, captain,” asked Robert Williams, captain of the scout ship the Swallow.
“Gladly, Captain Williams,” said Captain Baxtor, welcoming the other man aboard with a large grin and a firm handshake. “Was it three years ago, I last saw you?”
“Four,” said Captain Williams. “In Dranin.”
“Ah, yes. Dranin,” agreed Joseph Baxtor. “Let’s have a drink and you can tell me everything that the priests back in Mytertown should have, but didn’t bother. It must be a relief not to have to maintain your air bubble anymore.”
As an aside to Reeves, he said, “Let the Swallow’s deckhand and scout know they’re welcome to come aboard if they’d like to stretch their legs or have a meal.”
“It is, although you get used to it,” replied Robert as they headed below deck. “It’s the surfacing to sleep, then resubmerging the next day that gets really old.”
* * *
Walking across the Swallow, Albert Reeves, Radiance, Henry Cook, and Sinclair Foran led a group of fifteen marines and three deckhands who were carting their gear. Standing on the smaller ship, they placed the plank over to the portal and eyed it.
“Radiance will go through first,” said Reeves. “He’ll form a small platform on the other side with earth sprites. We’ll be hanging a rope ladder off of the portal, with the platform holding it in place. This should make it a little easier to cross and get down.”
“The structure and the hooks onto the portal aren’t terribly secure, so we’ll go across and down one at a time. For those of you who have only crossed a portal in a ship, you’ll feel a tingling when you cross. This isn’t anything to be worried about, you’re just feeling it because you’re crossing more slowly than you would in a ship.”
“The tingling is a property of portals that degrade anything that remains across them. If you stopped moving, fairly soon it would become unpleasant, then painful. If you were held in place, eventually you’d be seared in two.”
Some of the men exchanged uneasy looks.
“Now, we’re going to be going across desert conditions on the other side. We’ve brought lots of water and Radiance can always summon more for us with water sprites. Keep your hats on, the sun can wear you down faster than you’d believe and you’ll be a hindrance for the rest of us if you pass out and need to be carried. We’ll have a five and a half hour hike across. We’ll make camp at the far portal, then return tomorrow.”
One at a time, with Radiance leading followed by the other officers, the group made their way through the portal and then down the rope ladder on the other side. After the group reconvened on the desert ground, they began their hike towards the portal hanging in the air in the distance.
* * *
As they hiked across the desert, Henry Cook periodically stopped to gather samples of the sand or to look through his farscope and write down measurements. After he completed his various tasks, he’d rush to catch back up with the group.
“What in the name of all the gods are you doing?” asked Sinclair Foran after watching the young engineer at work.
“There’s been talk about a situation like this for years, two dry portals. The theory is that a massive channel could be constructed, allowing ships to move between them and use them to create a new link in our portal network,” the engineer enthusiastically explained.
“The captain said something about connecting them,” said the healer. “But they’re clearly too far apart, too high in the air, and this world is too dry for that to work. Unless someone has figured out a way to move portals.”
“Not moving the portals. The idea is to build up a massive, stone trough-like structure between the two portals. Almost like an aqueduct, but large enough to hold a ship. Fill it with water and connect the two ends,” continued Henry Cook, excited to have a chance to talk about the project.
Looking between the two portals, Foran said, “They’re 15 miles away. Building a channel for ships to sail between them is impossible.”
“Not impossible,” said the engineer. “Just very difficult. It would be the largest mega-construction project in Pantheon history! Teams of engineers and elementalists will have to work on it for years. And we’re getting to make the first measurements!”
The healer grunted at the enthusiastic young engineer and returned his attention to walking through the sand.
* * *
Looking over a sand dune, Albert Reeves used Henry Cook’s farscope to watch a group of creatures stalking them from a distance.
“I’d swear they look like enormous praying mantises,” said the third captain. He returned the tool to the engineer. “I’d guess they’re seven or eight feet tall. Bright green. Mean looking buggers. I’m sure they’re after easier prey than us. We’ll keep moving, but stay alert.”
* * *
Ahead of the party lay a large pile of a dozen or so ships that had been smashed to the ground after falling from the portal. The topmost ship was the Adolpha, a Pantheon cargo ship, but underneath her were a variety of ships and styles, some of the lower ones of great antiquity. At the base of the pile, next to the sand, was debris left from shattered ships that had been broken apart. The dry climate seemed to have preserved debris that would have rotted decades ago elsewhere.
“These are incredible,” enthused Henry Cook. “Look at that trireme. It’s a shame we need to disturb them, I imagine some scholars would love to carefully study this pile.”
Looking at the engineer strangely, Albert Reeves ordered the men to secure the site. “Bring back wood for a fire and look for a secure area in one of the more intact ships that we can bunk in for the night.”
Gathering the officers around, he continued, “I want all of you to wait until we’ve gotten the all-clear, then search in the ships, starting with the Adolpha for any logs or written documents of where they came from or where they were going. We’ll use any light we have remaining, then start again in the morning.”
Looking up at the portal hanging above them, he turned to the elementalist. “Radiance, you’re welcome to join our search, but start preparing to climb up to that portal and have a look through it however you feel is best.”
* * *
Sitting around the fire, the twenty-two men ate the food and drank the grog they’d brought with them. Albert Reeves produced four cigars, which the officers smoked, while enduring jealous glances from the marines and deckhands turned porters.
“From what I can tell from the logs, I think they came from Swivox,” Reeves told the other officers. “They were headed to the portal to Mytar, but ended up here by mistake somehow.”
One of the marines had a good singing voice and soon had the men joining in for a series of Pantheon folk songs and sea shanties. When they came to a break in the singing, one of the marines broached a subject with the Third Captain. The assembled men were highly interested as all conversation stopped and they listened carefully to the interaction.
“Begging your pardon, sir,” began the marine. “The boys and I were surveying the wrecks, as you ordered us.”
Albert Reeves, seeing where this was going, took a long drag on his cigar and then exhaled a plume of smoke. “Aye,” he said, not betraying his reaction to the request.
“And, salvager’s law is that whoever finds a wreck owns it,” continued the marine.
“To make a small correction, since we’re discussing the nuances of maritime law, it’s the owner of the ship who mounts the salvage expedition or the ranking officer who owns it.” Albert Reeves corrected the marine.
Looking crestfallen, the man continued, “Well, we found that there’s quite a bit of cargo that hasn’t been looked over, sir. I know that’s not what we’re out here for but, we just thought your attention should be drawn to it.”
“Well, I always like to reward initiative…” said Reeves, to which the men perked up. “But we need to be fair to our shipmates back on the Phoenix. I’ll tell you what. Each of you can bring fifteen pounds of salvage back with us. I expect you to honorably turn over whatever you find to the captain. He’ll divvy it up for the whole crew.” The assembled men smiled and nodded at this. Reeves continued, “No promises, but I’ll suggest double shares for the men who retrieved the salvage.” At this, the smiles got broader and the marines and deckhands toasted one another in celebration of their good fortune.
* * *
As one of the marines walked through the communal sleeping area to relieve himself, he woke up two other marines who joined him. The three men urinated into the darkness, out on the desert sand, near the glowing embers of their dying campfire.
“Pretty good deal, what Reeves gave us,” said one of the men. Another grunted in agreement. The third said, “I think I saw some spice bales. I’ve heard that some spices are worth more than their weight in gold! I think I’ll bring some of those back for my fifteen pounds.”
“Spices?” said the first. “That’s idiotic. You wouldn’t know which ones are valuable and they’re probably all stale after sitting out here for years.”
The second marine grunted noncommittally.
“Spices don’t go bad, do they?” asked the third. “I think some of them might have been in sealed containers. Maybe those would be ok?”
“Don’t overthink this,” said the first. “If you find gems and jewels, grab them first. If you can’t find any of them, take all the gold you can get. If you still have weight left over, grab silver. You know what it is and you know you’ll be able to sell it.”
The second marine grunted, acknowledging the traditional salvage strategy. From the darkness, an enormous insect head shot forward, mandibles slicing through the second marine’s neck, decapitating him where he stood. As the other two men watched the body topple over in horror, more insects lunged from the darkness and fell on them.
* * *
“So, where are Martin, White, and Clarke?” demanded Albert Reeves as the expedition prepared breakfast. “If they’ve run off with some salvage, I’m going to be furious.”
“Where would they go?” asked Henry Cook, sipping a cup of hot tea.
“There’s nowhere for them to go, but maybe they don’t realize that,” said Reeves, then dispatched two marines to look for the missing men.
Walking over to Radiance, the men discussed the elementalist’s plans for getting up to the portal.
A few minutes later, the marines returned and reported that they found blood beyond the campfire and signs of a fight.
The officers investigated and quickly determined that animals must have attacked them during the night. Orders were given to stay with the group, not to wander off even to relieve themselves.
Setting up a camp for the day underneath the portal, Radiance began his preparations for assent. A rope ladder with a grappling hook, specially made with short teeth to latch onto the rim without going through the portal itself.
Inspecting the grappling hook, Henry Cook observed that it wouldn’t give a very solid purchase.
“No, it won’t,” agreed Radiance. “But it should be enough to get me up and back down again.
A wind had begun blowing, and sand swirled around the men.
“Are you comfortable going up in this?” asked Albert Reeves, gesturing at the brewing storm.
“I shouldn’t be too long,” said Radiance, eyeing the skies. “I’d like to get this over with so we can head back at dawn tomorrow.”
Using a pair of earth sprites, the grappling rose to latch on the hanging portal and caught its hook onto the rim. The rope ladder dangled down to the ground.
“If you can hold this as steady as possible,” the elementalist asked Sinclair Foran and Henry Cook, “that would be helpful.” With a final deep breath and a look up the ladder, the seven-foot-tall orange-skinned man began climbing.
* * *
The wind had picked up as Radiance began his assent and visibility was down to a few feet. The rope ladder occasionally shuddered as it was buffeted by winds and Sinclair Foran and Henry Cook exchanged a look of concern. The men stood around as a group, trying their best to keep the flying sand out of their clothing.
Suddenly, from out of the storm, a group of the giant mantises charged the expedition. Shouts of alarm rang out as one of the deckhands was impaled by the lead insect’s front, right leg. Three of the creatures began to consume the dying man, while the others moved in to attack the rest of the group.
“Draw and fire, engage at will,” ordered Albert Reeves as he drew his gold-plated hand cannon and fired at the closest giant mantis. The shot punched a hole into its thorax. Undeterred, the creature advanced on the third captain. Waiting for his gold hand cannon to automatically reload, Albert Reeves drew his rapier. Dodging under an attack from the giant insect’s front, left leg, he thrust his rapier between its mandibles and into his head.
The monster fell, pulling the third captain’s rapier from his hand, twitching to the desert sands.
“Aim for their heads!” Reeves yelled into the chaotic melee.
Sinclair Foran and Henry Cook stood frozen, at the base of the ladder trying to hold it steady. One of the attackers, from ten feet away, eyed the two men and crouched in preparation for a jump. As it sprang, Albert Reeves’ hand cannon fired and the ball ripped through the creature’s head as it launched into the air. Its headless body flew and crashed into the healer and engineer, knocking them and the ladder backward.
The rope ladder began falling to the ground and, seconds later, the body of Radiance came into view and fell hard onto the sandy ground. He had twisted onto his side while falling.
The marines began to get the measure of their attackers and, hand cannons long since spent, were effectively lunging at the insects and thrusting into their vulnerable areas. The tide had swung enough that the men closest to the deckhand’s partially eaten body were able to drive off the creatures that had been consuming the corpse.
“Retreat back to the ship we spent last night in,” yelled Reeves over the howl of the winds. Kneeling next to Radiance, he checked on the elementalist.
“I’m fine, just winded,” said Radiance, as he pulled himself up and started heading to the shipwreck with the third captain.
* * *
After a non-flammable area was constructed, the group started a fire in the large hold they were in. Beyond the lost deckhand, three marines were seriously injured, one of whom would need to have his arm amputated when they got back to the ship, according to healer Foran.
“Can you create a farcaster to the Phoenix so we can check in with the captain?” Reeves asked Radiance.
“The Phoenix is in a different world, so no farcasters,” said Radiance, reminding the third captain of the communication limitations. “We can send them a message with a sprite. Tell me what you want to send.”
After multiple messages were sent back and forth, Reeves assured the Captain that a rescue party wasn’t needed and that they would be able to complete the mission without assistance from Frank Ward or any of the remaining marines on the ship. Reeves reported that he hoped the wind would die down soon and they’d be able to get up to the new portal and then return to the Phoenix by the end of the day.
* * *
Three days later, their rations long since consumed, the wind continued blowing.
“How much longer are we going to wait? I should go up the ladder again right now,” Radiance said to Albert Reeves.
“In this storm? You got knocked off last time, how are you going to make it now?” Reeves responded as they went through the argument they’d been having for the last day.
Sinclair Foran cut in. “My amputation of Price’s arm wasn’t as clean as I could have done back on the ship. It’s up in the air whether he’ll survive if we take him back right now. I don’t give him much of a chance if we stay out here much longer.”
“We’re out of food, there’s nothing to forage, we have three seriously injured men, and a number of minor wounds. It’s worth the risk,” said Radiance. “I can have earth sprites reinforce the ladder with iron once it’s in place on the ring. That should help it withstand the winds. We’ll have to leave it behind when we’re done, but at this point, a rope ladder is a cheap price to pay to finish up here.”
“And what if those insects attack again?” asked Reeves.
“You and the marines will ring the ladder and fight them off if they do,” said Radiance.
“Fine,” decided the third captain. “If you’re sure you can make it up in this storm, we’ll keep the creatures away from the ladder.”
* * *
The marines ringed the elementalist as he directed his earth sprites from the base of the rope ladder. After the sprites had again carried the grappling hook to the portal’s rim and caught it on the edge, they began looping around the sides of the rope ladder, reinforcing the flimsy rope with iron strands.
Eyeing the rope, Henry Cook began iterating the issues that could result if the rigid structure was knocked over or caught by a particularly strong gust of wind.
“Instead of telling me what could go wrong, make suggestions on how to prevent it,” snarled Radiance.
“I’d like to have at least a couple of earth sprites holding the ladder in place at the top, where it connects to the portal,” said Henry Cook. “A couple of earth sprites holding you against the ladder would be good too. Then, as many more as you can summon, spread out along its length holding it in place.”
Radiance stared at the young man. “Those are good ideas, I’ll do all of that.” The young engineer nodded.
Albert Reeves checked in on the elementalist. “My men are ready for an attack. When will you start to climb?”
“It’s just about ready now,” said the elementalist. Earth sprites popped into existence around him, then most of them flew upwards into the storm.
Just within sight from the base, a single earth sprite could be seen holding the ladder in place about fifteen feet up. A strong wind arose, blowing sand into the men, and obscuring the earth sprite and the upper reaches of the ladder and the portal.
Taking hold of the ladder, Radiance began climbing as the two earth spirits pressed against his back, holding him against it. Sinclair Foran and Henry Cook held the ladder again. In a short time, Radiance climbed out of sight.
* * *
An air sprite appeared in front of Reeves and, after a loud goat-like bleating noise, repeated a message in Radiance’s voice three times. “I’ve made it to the top and gone through the portal. As we suspected from the ship’s logs, it leads to Swivox. I’ve made contact with them through a farcaster. This portal is a few miles away from the portal to Mytar and, up to now, it’s been overlooked. They didn’t even realize it was here. The ships that went through made a navigation error, thought this was the portal to Mytar, then crashed as soon as they went through it and were lost. I’ve made contact with the authorities here and reported the position of this portal to them. I’ve updated the Captain as well and will be descending the ladder shortly.”
* * *
Albert Reeves nodded to healer Foran and Henry Cook as they heard the good news and the air sprite repeated its message twice. The three men shared a grin, which was interrupted by another attack from the giant praying mantises.
Attacking from all sides, the insects charged the men and were greeted by fire from their hand cannons. The insects took damage but kept attacking. The marines drew their rapiers and engaged the alien monsters.
Driving them back with thrusts and lunges, the marines held them at bay. “I think we have their number men, keep it up!” yelled Reeves with enthusiasm. The mantis that was facing off against him crouched and then jumped high over the third captain. Later they would guess that it was trying to get behind him but, as it flew through the air, it smashed into Radiance’s rope ladder.
Sinclair Foran and Henry Cook were both pulled off their feet as the rigid, iron-coated rope ladder pulled hard in their hands. The rigid shape deformed where the mantis broke through it, bending at a sharp angle before it broke. Pulled free of the portal’s rim, the ladder began to fall, while the earth sprites holding it caused the ladder to spin and twist as it crashed earthwards.
“Radiance is out there in the storm,” yelled Reeves. “Finish these things, then follow the ladder to find him.” Charging at the mantis that had collided with the ladder and was now prone and trying to get up, Albert Reeves thrust his rapier through its head from behind, killing the creature.
* * *
Back in the shipwreck’s hold, the expedition was having their wounds treated by Sinclair Foran.
While he stitched a wound on a marine’s arm, where a mantis’ barbs had caught him, he gave a report on Radiance’s condition. “It seems like he came down hard on his right arm, which is broken, then hit his head. I don’t know how bad it is, but he’s unconscious and that’s never a good sign.”
“But he’ll survive the trip back to the ship?” Reeves asked.
“Head injuries are never a sure thing. The sooner he wakes up, the better odds I’d give him. The best thing we can do for him is to get him back to the Phoenix as soon as possible. Otherwise, maybe we should take him through the portal here to Swivox?”
“Pack everything up,” ordered the third captain loudly. “As soon as healer Foran is ready, we’re headed home. I want us leaving as soon as the healer is ready.” A few half-hearted cheers greeted this news. To the healer he said, “We can’t go through the portal here without Radiance. It’d be a challenge to get up to it, but even if we did, we’d need him to make an air bubble on the other side and to farcast to contact the locals.”
Calling loudly, the third captain ordered everyone to leave behind any salvage they’d gathered, which was greeted with grumbling from the men.
* * *
As Sinclair Foran continued dressing the wounds of the injured men, another air sprite flew up to Radiance’s comatose body, bleated, then gave a similar message to the previous visits.
Adam Hudson’s voice came from the sprite. “Radiance, we haven’t heard back from you after the last two messages we’ve sent. Please report in. We’ve sent messages to Albert Reeves, Sinclair Foran, and Henry Cook as well.”
As this message repeated two more times, air sprites arrived to deliver similar messages to the other three officers.
* * *
With the seventeen remaining members, the bandaged troop moved across the desert, through the sandstorm. Radiance and the two surviving, injured marines were being carried on makeshift stretchers. Radiance had yet to regain consciousness.
A wavering farcaster appeared in front of Albert Reeves. Calling a halt, the third captain looked at Captain Baxtor and Adam Hudson on the other side of the farcaster. They stood on the makeshift platform attached to the portal of origin and were in the same sandstorm Reeves’ group was moving through.
“Third Captain Reeves?” said Joseph Baxtor, looking through the distortion of the farcaster. His voice came through strangely.
“Yes, here, sir,” said Reeves. “Be careful on that platform. It’s only really intended for a single person.”
Looking down, Baxtor responded, “We’ll keep this brief then. Do you need assistance?”
“This is a pretty bad storm, Captain,” said Reeves. “I’d be worried that anyone else coming out into it would just be getting themselves into trouble. We’re roughly a quarter of the way back, I think we’re fine.”
“Very good,” said the captain. “What’s the condition of Radiance and the injured men?”
“Healer Sinclair isn’t committing to anything definite. They’re hurt, but the sooner we get them back to the Phoenix, the better chance for them he says.”
“Carry on then. I’ll have Mr. Hudson check in on you every hour,” said Captain Baxtor before the farcaster vanished.
“I wonder who is maintaining the air bubble if they’re on this side of the portal,” asked Henry Cook.
“The Captain of the Swallow most likely,” said Reeves as they resumed their march.
* * *
Moving through the sandstorm and struggling to make progress, Henry Cook jogged up to walk next to Albert Reeves.
“Third Captain,” Cook said in greeting. “Some of the men seem exhausted. The pair carrying Radiance almost dropped him when they stumbled a few minutes ago. Do you think we should stop for water?”
“The water’s gone, son, and without Radiance we aren’t getting more until we get back to the ship,” said Reeves. Looking appraisingly at the group, he continued. “I’d really like to get us back as soon as possible. Tell you what, next time Mr. Hudson contacts us, we’ll stop for a five-minute break.”
As the men were talking, they heard shouting from behind them in the sandstorm. Rushing back, Reeves heard hand cannons firing as he came within sight of three marines facing off against an enormous cat with large tusks on its jaw. Seeing the third Captain, one reported, “There were two others we drove off with our hand cannons.” The men had drawn their rapiers and the cat creature was advancing on them and swatting at them with a paw.
Drawing his gold hand cannon, Reeves fired at the cat, his ball taking it in its shoulder. With an angry growl, it spun around and disappeared into the storm.
“Spread out and help anyone who needs it, rendezvous at Radiance,” ordered the third captain as he ran into the storm.
* * *
Henry Cook followed two marines through the storm. The three men found two men who had been carrying one of the injured men. The marine was holding the giant cat off with his rapier, his spent hand cannon on the ground. The cat seemed aware that the rapier was dangerous and was trying to knock it out of the marine’s hand.
As the newly arrived marines charged at it with a yell, the cat turned and ran into the storm.
“Let me help carry the injured man,” said Henry Cook. “We’re supposed to meet up at Radiance if anyone has any idea what direction he’s in.”
* * *
Albert Reeves came upon two marines who were fending off three cats. Using pack tactics, the cats were spreading out around the men, looking for an opening. The men gave warning jabs, occasionally nicking one of the beasts, keeping them at a distance.
Firing his gold hand cannon into the side of the cat on the far right, Reeves then charged at the cat on the far left. He dodged out of the way of its first swipe as he came at it, then thrust and caught a paw with his rapier. Feeling the pain, the cat backed up a few feet, pursued by the third captain.
“You dumb beast, while we dance around one another it’s just a matter of time before my hand cannon reloads and I’m going to shoot you in your big, stupid face,” Reeves said, taunting the animal to keep its attention. The giant cat hissed at him. In response to this, Reeve aimed his hand cannon and fired a shot into the cat’s face. It fell to the ground dead.
“Told you. Too bad we can’t skin these…” he began, turning to the rest of the fight as the cat he had shot in the side earlier leapt onto his back, knocking him to the ground. Holding him in place, it began racking him with its hind claws.
* * *
Henry Cook stood with Sinclair Foran and the injured men, ringed by the marines. The deckhands were assisting the healer as he treated the fresh wounds and checked in on the other injured men.
“Perhaps the smell of blood attracted them,” mused Henry Cook, looking at the grisly scene of injuries in front of them.
A commotion with the marines caught his attention and he turned to see two marines half carrying the mauled body of the third captain. He was coated in blood and couldn’t walk or stand unaided.
As Henry Cook rushed to his side, the third captain grinned at him and said, “It’s not as bad as it looks,” before he passed out.
* * *
Adam Hudson spoke to them through the farcaster. “Oh, geez, that’s terrible,” he said, horrified, after Henry Cook relayed what had happened and the current situation.
Henry Cook said, “Tell Captain Baxtor that we wouldn’t object to Frank Ward and some marines helping us make it the rest of the way back. I actually had an idea for how you might be able to help us.”
“Anything I can do,” Adam Hudson said.
“Could you send a fire sprite and have it fly between Radiance and Second Captain Ward? Just have it keep going back and forth. It’ll give us something to follow and make sure we don’t lose our direction in this storm. And the frequency it returns to us will let us know how far away we are,” said Henry Cook.
“That’s actually… a really good idea,” said the apprentice elementalist. “I’ll start doing that as soon as Ward is here.”
The farcaster vanished, and Henry Cooked addressed the men. “I want us to stay closer together. Keep your hand cannons loaded and be ready to fight if we’re attacked again. Rushing full out isn’t going to help us if we keep having to carry more wounded.”
“Begging your pardon, son,” said one of the marines, “But the third captain told us to make for the portal in all haste. I think we should keep following his last order. Perhaps all haste would include leaving the wounded behind…”
“That’s sir, not son, marine. If I could see who the hell you are in this storm I’d be assigning you a flogging,” said Henry Cook, eliciting a few chuckles. “Make the most of this break, as soon as the healer has done what he needs to do we’re going to start moving again and you’ll all need your strength to carry the wounded.”
* * *
Moving along, the eight men carrying stretchers were protected by marines encircling them. The marines carrying the injured kept their loaded hand cannons close and were prepared to lower the injured, draw their weapons, then fire.
Moving through the storm, a fire sprite appeared ahead of them from off to the right, zipped over to Radiance’s unconscious body, then turned around and disappeared back the way it had come. “Follow that sprite,” ordered Henry Cook.
A few minutes later, after they’d been making good progress, a call went up that five of the giant cats were stalking them from behind. The marines who weren’t carrying a stretcher fired at them, killing two of them and driving off the other three. The remaining marines drew their hand cannons, but there was nothing there to fire at.”
“Stay ready while the others reload,” ordered Henry Cook.
“Shouldn’t we keep moving?” asked one of the marines.
“No, we need to be ready in case they return,’ said Henry Cook. “Follow my orders.”
The fire sprite had flown past Radiance twice while the marines reloaded and started moving again.
“We’re close to the other party,” announced engineer Cook. “I don’t want anyone to fire their hand cannons at them when they appear.”
A couple of minutes later, as predicted, Frank Ward and a team of marines came running up to the group.
* * *
Laying on his cot in the infirmary, Albert Reeves smiled at the head engineer. “You really should have figured out who the two lippy marines were and assigned them a few lashes.”
“They were just blowing off steam,” said Henry Cook. “It’s fine. Sir.”
“It was probably that bastard Davies. He has quite the mouth on him and I wouldn’t put it past him to leave me behind,” said Reeves with a grin. “How did you get us up the rope ladder? That can’t have been easy with the big guy,” he gestured to Radiance who was pretending not to listen but, since Cook’s arrival, hadn’t turned the page of the book he was reading.
“We tried a similar trick to when Radiance went up the far ladder. It worked well enough until that insect smashed into it. We had earth sprites steady the climbers and help lift the injured. It was a bit of a zoo, but second captain Ward got things organized and got us up the ladder faster than any of us expected.”
* * *
Adam Hudson brought Radiance a meal to his bed in the infirmary. “I heard that the healer sometimes doesn’t let you eat what you want, so I brought you a dinner from the mess, sir.”
“If the healer wants to control his patients’ diet, that’s his prerogative and we should respect it,” said Radiance, as he took the meal and started eating it. “So, I hear that you maintained an air bubble while I was away.”
“I assisted Captain Williams, they were his sprites, he just passed control to me,” said Hudson.
“I don’t hold with passing control of sprites around. That’s sloppy technique. A proper elementalist summons his own sprites. We’re not miners,” said Radiance.
“Yes, sir,” said the apprentice.
“I wouldn’t have rushed you into that, but maybe we should start working on having you summon your own sprites for an air bubble,” continued the elementalist.
“Yes, sir,” said the apprentice.
“What have you been reading while I’ve been recovering?” asked Radiance.
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