“You have to take me with you!” the small figure shouted, weaving deftly between the early morning traffic of the market place. Here and there she elicited a scowl; from a dark scaled Sorrian man who nearly tipped his basket of sugar cane; a human woman who fought to keep balance with a steaming tray of rice cakes. Hostility bounced off her like rain drops off a palm frond.
“No Ana” Sage boomed over his copious shoulder, “I do not”.
The sun barely up, a lemon cast bled in to the misty blue of the morning. The denizens of Skyton, built above the jungle canopy on an ancient concrete ruin once called an “intersection”, were mustering for a day of trading. The town’s history went back several hundred years, but for as long as anyone could remember it was a trading town. Situated close to several tributaries of the great Titanaboa River, it supplied most of the Five Lakes District with goods. Today was market day. In fact, to be entirely accurate, every day was market day. Several times a week, however, the market bled over from Trading Square of the Uptown district in to the streets beyond, and even to Downton, where the docks were located.
Somehow though, the frenetic knot of eager traders seemed to unravel for Sage, obligingly parting to create a path which quickly closed back up again. Ana struggled like an excitable dragonfly to keep up with him. Try as she might though, the crowd closed up ahead of her, and then had the audacity to be annoyed when she buffeted them!
That was hardly surprising though. Ana was a mere slip of a Dverg, barely 15 years of age, and short even for the standards of her diminutive race. Sage on the other hand was a towering Berengeii, well over two metres tall, with the unmistakably dangerous air of one who could navigate the savage wilds beyond the Skyton walls.
The cargo lift was already descending when she reached it. Her eyes narrowed as she judged the distance; too far to jump she decided, cursing lightly under her breath.
As the lift descended from uptown Skyton to Downton and the docks Sage shielded his eyes against the sun. He looked for his crew’s boat, and found it.
Quietly, he approved of the progress which had been made to ready their northbound journey.
He was suddenly startled by a zipping sound and a light click of leather on wood. Looking up at him from the corner of the lift platform stood a grinning Ana, holding the support rope she had just descended at high speed.
“Thing is, I know I’m young right” she said, spitting out the words like they were hot on her tongue. “But I can be useful! You’re one man down. I spent the whole of my childhood exploring the ruins by myself, and finding things, and fixing things, and I won’t be a burden and I can travel quick and silent and…”
Sage cut her off with a flick of a thick finger almost as big as Ana’s head.
“You are still a child” he rumbled in a tone which was firm but kindly enough to bely his stern expression. “we can’t be responsible for your safety out there” he continued. “A crew has to rely on each other. One weak link and we all die”.
“But Nix said maybe this time I…”
“Nix is reckless” he growled as the lift platform halted a hand’s span from the ground.
The dock area was, if anything, busier than Uptown. There was a huge pile of cargo, all neatly labelled by owner, waiting to be lifted up to the
market place above. Just beyond the bamboo fence which demarcated the dock area makeshift stalls were being erected, some no more than a sheet on the ground, others elaborate constructions of wood and cloth. Steam and smoke hung in the mild heat of the early morning, and hordes of the most eager professional buyers were rushing from stall to stall, buying up goods as they emerged.
Just like that, Ana was gone. Sage breathed a weary sigh of relief and headed towards the little steam launch they had rented for the coming mission.
The crowd here was busier, more distracted. Bails of cargo wrapped in hemp cloth, crates of miscellaneous goods, reed woven boxes of raw materials… the porters payed him little mind despite his size, and now it was he who ducked and weaved between them.
A low rumble of discontent punctuated Sage’s arrival at the Launch. Little Ana, face broad with an excited smile, was gesticulating wildly as she talked to Nix. The human woman, tall with a shock of red curls, grinned bemusedly at the Dverg’s enthusiasm.
Slethssk, an athletic Sorrian who served as the scout of the group, was tinkering with the boat’s boiler inexpertly, and perhaps wisely staying well out of the interaction.
“I already told her no” Sage shouted above the din of the docks.
“Who’s the boss of this crew, you or me?” Nix shouted back, mischief in her green eyes.
“You are” He said, softer now as he approached them, “but as you well know that doesn’t matter. You get the deciding vote in a tie, other than that we go with a majority when accepting a new member”.
Nix shrugged, jumping on the spot athletically a few times and winking at Ana.
“A tie? Well, that might just be what we have, right Slethssk?” Nix called back in to the boat, her voice as clear as a bell.
“Don’t drag me into this mess” Slethssk replied, hitting the boiler with a spanner and hissing in frustration”.
“I could fix that you know!” Ana squealed excitedly. “I’m an expert at all sorts of fixing things. My speciality is electronics but I can weld, metalsmith.. probably make a petrol engine from scratch, at a push, although I’ve never tried. Anyway, a steam engine should be…”
“I don’t care if she can raise the skylift or hand craft a thinking engine out of fruit; she’s not coming to the Pinnacles” Sage said firmly.
“Slethssk, what do you have to say about it?” Nix said, winking at Ana and poking her tongue out at Sage.
The Sorrian raised his reptilian head and sighed, hopping out of the boat after a few short strides. He looked down at Ana’s hopeful expression. He grinned at her, bearing an array of sharp little teeth, which still failed to make his kind face look predatory.
“How old are you girl?” he asked.
“Eighteen” she replied, but there was a definite question mark at the end of the word.
“She’s fifteen” Sage boomed.
Slethssk crouched down so as to level with Ana.
“I’m sorry” He said. “You’re just too young. Give it a couple of years and I’d be happy to have you. Fall knows we could use a good mech”.
Ana turned back to Nix, her face wavering between hope and disappointment.
“But you said on a tie you decide right? So what about Coran? If he agrees, and you agree that’s two for and against!”
“No flies on you are there? Except his name is Corian, not Coran.” Nix said. “You’re still clean out of luck though. Corian had to handle something for us in Woodlake. He’ll be back in three weeks, so even if he agrees it’ll be too late for this trip little one!”
Ana’s dejection, inevitable for so long, finally settled upon her frame like a great weight. She nodded sadly, but still managed to break a friendly smile as she waved goodbye to them each in turn before disappearing in to the crowd.
By midday the heat had turned the air to molasses. The thick wetland jungle stream they had navigated all morning had opened in to a lagoon ringed by a reed marsh. It was this marsh, plagued with dog sized mosquitos and predatory, metre long dragon flies, that they navigated now. Slethssk stood on the prow of the boat swatting at the wildlife and shouting directions to Sage, who had the rudder.
In the centre of the lake, was a rising island of shattered ruins. A jagged honeycomb of overgrown concrete and plas-glass which stabbed out of the lake like a collection of broken knives.
As they approached it the scale of the island, known as the Pinnacles, became clearer. From a distance it appeared to be just three tall towers, but as the distance closed it became clear that the tallest ruins were surrounded by a thick and ominous tangle of vegetation and broken buildings.
After the insect roar of the marshes the lake provided a silence which seemed to herald an ominous phase in their journey. Crossing it took another pensive hour. As the Pinnacles grew larger they began to hear unsettling whoops and screeches above the sound of the steam engine.
After a short exploratory circle of the island they pulled in to a small cove protected by a collapsed portion of ancient wall. The air was thick and still here, scented with rotting vegetation and acrid life.
By now the light was seeping out of the sky, leaving a sombre blue in the sky, and a thick maroon black in the shadows of the jungle inland. It was time to make camp.
The three companions knew each other well enough that they did not need to discuss their evening’s activities. They would of course sleep on the boat for safety. The dangers that lurked in the forest of Pinnacle Island were well known. Before they slept though, Slethssk scouted the nearby area and gathered wood for the boiler, while Sage and Nix organised a camp fire and the evening meal.
There was something about places like this which always seemed to hold a sense of primeval dread. Perhaps the unnatural shadows cast by the ruins, or the peculiar way the vegetation grew around the broken fragments of the Pre-Fall world. Perhaps, as the Sorrian tribes of the Western Lagoons were told, the ruins were haunted by the ancients who once lived there, jealously guarding the sites of their former primacy. Whatever the reason, it was not hard to see why so many shunned the ruins, especially the more remote sites.
They sat down to a blaze far heartier than either the temperature or cooking demanded. The smoke, as well as the fire itself, provided a deterrent to all but the most foolhardy of jungle creatures. Slethssk told his companions that he had found the tracks of a pack of Denekus: mid-sized raptorid Sorr’s who usually hunted in family groups. They would attack people, sure enough, but usually avoided groups of two or larger; Unless of course, they were hungry. He’d also found a Clubtail footprint, which was a species of vegetarian Sorr which was deadly when provoked, but not typically aggressive. Nothing else he’d found was of note.
On balance this was good news, but none of them rested far from their weapons or relaxed their guard too much. Things in the wilds could change on a gust of wind, from placid to lethal, and the wise kept alert, even in sleep.
The next morning the three woke early, eager to get started after a mostly uneventful rest. Half way through the night some sort of river creature had knocked in to the boat, likely establishing whether it was edible or not, but apart from a few ominous sounds from the forest nothing else had occurred to disturb them.
However, on waking, Slethssk was witness to a perplexing scene. Dragged up on to shore was a bark skin canoe, and tending a fire over which were spitted four spatchcocked Gaths (small semi-flighted Sorrs), was little Ana, humming to herself cheerfully.
The happy little scene was interrupted by a piercing laugh, followed shortly by a penetrating groan as Nix, then Sage had saw her too.
“Breakfast’s up!” Ana called over. Her grin was a warm beacon in the pale light of the morning. Slethssk weighed anchor as Sage took the pole and began punting the launch towards shore, muttering to himself.
“Smells good girl!” Nix called over cheerfully as she hopped to shore, eyes scanning the tree line. “Rill Spice right?”
“How in the Fall did you make it here so quickly?” Slethssk asked.
“Oh that’s not too hard” Ana grinned in reply. “I built a little alcohol engine for my canoe. It’s not too powerful, but enough for me and Lucile”.
“You brought a friend?” Slethssk asked incredulously.
“Oh no” Ana laughed, “This is Lucile!”. She gestured towards a large rifle, slightly taller than she was in fact, with a curious underslung barrel and a collection of copper and glass chambers wired and welded to it.
“She’s my trusty companion! I made her too” she said easily, turning the skewers.
Nix had begun to help Ana at the fire, while Slethssk couldn’t help but look impressed. Sage however, stood back stormy faced, arms crossed in front of his chest.
“We eat, she waits in the boat” he said with an unchallengeable finality.
“Oh come on grump mountain!” Nix said, “She’s come this far by herself, managed to track and find us in the night, and even cooked us breakfast. You don’t think that’s better than any test we might’ve set her?”
Sage’s expression betrayed that, however reluctantly, he conceded at least part of that argument.
“Yes well, that may be true… It doesn’t change the fact that she’s a 15 year old child. It’s just not safe.”
“You worry too much Herby” Nix said around a mouthful of piping hot Gath.
“Don’t call me that” Sage growled darkly.
“I hate to disappoint her after she’s shown such initiative, but I’m still with Sage on this” Slethssk chimed in. “It’s too dangerous, especially without Corian. Maybe when we get back to Skyton we can train her up a bit and take her on a few low risk trips first”.
“You’re going to make me wait in the boat?!” Ana intoned, face a mask of frustrated disbelief.
“Once we’re back in Skyton, you’re in, whatever these two say” Nix said to her, punching her arm lightly and dazzling her with a salesman’s smile. Ana nodded ambivalently, and pulled her own Gath off the fire, flicking off the charred parts.
Click HERE for part 2.