Here Be Dragons Episode 2
Here Be Dragons
An introductory story to The Peraverse
Potion & Perspective
By DW Brownlaw
Copyright © DW Brownlaw 2020-2022. All rights reserved.
Copyright © DW Brownlaw 2020-2022. All rights reserved.
Prentyze Brassard was the last to disembark, but could only stand in the dishevelled cabin, head pounding, gasping for breath in the thin air, rooted to the spot.
He squinted out of the side hatch to the others. They were outside, on a rock ledge in front of a gallery sized tunnel entrance, setting down equipment cases retrieved from under the cabin’s benches, the afternoon sun reflecting in blinding flashes off sharp angles on their suits of armour. They were only three metres away.
Three metres. That was all.
Yes, but three metres of empty space above a vertiginous void.
One glance down had been enough, a big mistake, and one he would not make again.
With no moorings available, three metres was as close as the pilot dared hold the airship in these blustery conditions. Any closer, a sudden blast might dash the vessel into the rock face. Seen from the hatch, the mountain bobbed and shifted nearer and further in the fight between the temperamental gusts and the pilot’s struggle to keep her craft in position.
A wooden gangplank, formerly the cabin floor, telescoped out of the airship like an extended ladder. The co-pilot had locked one end onto the hatch’s lower rim but left the other unsecured on the ledge, allowing it to slide as the craft bucked. Noise assaulted Prentyze through the hatchway: the shifting ledge rasped at the plank’s underside, the damaged lift crystals varied pitch in a broken, buzzing whine and over it all the wind made squally blasts and moans.
No, he wouldn’t look down again. Not at that frightening drop.
In fact, he couldn’t.
His eyes could swivel up and around, but no lower than horizontal. He could only look ahead through the open hatch. The carrying and fetching done, Father straightened up and began checking packing-case labels against his paperwork, Zubin peeled away to one end of the ledge to take in the view and Flammia sat on a case to dab at her burnt face with a damp cloth, grimacing as if it stung.
They had skipped over that sliding gangplank, as casually as crossing a muddy street on duckboards.
So why couldn’t he follow them — at all?
A theatrical throat-clearing behind reminded him of the co-pilot’s proximity. “Sir, if you’d be so good as to disembark, we can drop the ship back to safety.”
He would not condescend to pay her any regard. The gangplank, though he could not examine it, claimed all his attention anyway. “Why aren’t there any railings?”
Oh. That was a stupid question — he knew it the moment it left his lips. Serving also as the floor between the bench seats, there was no room under their legs for railings.
“So marines can practice being fearless, sir.”
What? Was that a joke? Was she making fun of him?
“In any case, sir, one hand is holding your drink and the other is nursing your hang … er, altitude headache. You’d need three hands for a railing.”
The cheek of the woman! It would demean him to argue the point, so he dropped the matter. It was better to let her think there was alcohol in the flask than to be seen arguing with staff.
“If you please, sir.”
She was correct in one thing: he would have to cross over the … to the ledge sooner or later. He moved forward, her presence and polite disdain propelling him to the hatchway. He mounted the fixed end of the gangplank and teetered there, uncertain of his footing on the first of the many cleats which crossed the varnished wood for better traction.
The air was freezing cold on his face.
“In your own time, sir.”
That was a snide admonishment to hurry-up if ever he had heard one. He would never tolerate such insolence from House Brassard’s staff.
But, hang it all, he shouldn’t react. Hadn't he already decided to let it drop?
Just take one step at a time. Try to think of something other than … the gangplank.
He took a step out into space, keeping his eyes on Flammia. Though she had red weals and blisters across her face, lacked eyebrows and now had a receding hairline, she was still beautiful and her bronze, almost-gold eyes claimed his worship.
In unnoticed adoration, he took a second step. And a third.
A flurry of wind caught him and he put his boot down on another cleat. Arms flapping, he regained his balance. How could he avoid stepping on the stupid things if he couldn’t look down at them?
“Almost half-way. You’re doing fine, sir. Like a brave marine, the way you’re charging across.”
Insolent woman, to dare such irony. That did it! Keeping his attention on Flammia, he rushed the remaining length, stumbling on cleats, tottering and fighting for balance in the cunning wind.
His boots touched solid rock.
“He’s clear! Kill it!”
The twin teeth-rasping buzzes of the lift crystals stopped in a sudden implosion of silence. With a graunching of wood on stone, the gangplank both slid forwards and levered up on the ledge, catching him in his armoured rump and tumbling him to his hands and knees.
By the Gods! If the wood had snagged on his stupid armour and pulled him backwards ...
He rose from his hands and knees, shaking, and turned towards the airship, heart hammering, face flushing, hands and teeth clenched, sure of the curse he would fling.
It wasn’t there. The airship had gone.
Sky, just sky.
Sky everywhere: above, in front, to the sides and …
He wobbled and looked down into a void — an abyss of sky. There came a faint clang of a hatch shutting and, looking in that direction, there it was. The soot-streaked, silvery seed-shape of the airship was tiny and shrinking fast. In silence, it fell and disappeared into the infinite sky below, gravity alone giving it the speed to avoid any murderous draclings on its way.
One of those foul creatures had clung to the hull and tried to rip the porthole off, letting him see right down the bugger’s gullet. Prentyze shuddered. He could have shat himself, back then. Now he felt like shit. And — oh, the Dual Discordant Deities be praised! — his monstrous headache was Ascending to God-hood.
He should try to calm himself; breathe deeply. His lungs sucked on nothing, there was no air.
How he hated this stupid dragon hunt! And that went double for his stupid father, the bastard, for plunging him into it. He didn’t belong here, dressed in stupid, fancy-dress armour, on a high mountain with a dizzying fall into nothing but more sky.
If only he was back in his study with his blessèd books.
His eyelids swelled and his eyes became watery, but he could not sob — he lacked the air.
Oh! Of course!
Panting, nausea, god-sized headache … he had altitude sickness.
Despite everything, he still grasped the flask in one hand. He twisted the cap open with a hiss of compressed air and took a sip.
The potion was glutinous and tasted of … Eurgh! It was so bad, it had his father’s hallmark all over it. He gagged and spat it into his hand. The appearance matched the flavour: the slime was bilious green, flecked with streaks of purple, and it stuck to his palm. It also stank. His fine, wine-trained palate caught notes of under-cooked blood pudding, graphite shavings, mouldy cheese, earth and dung.
How had the others gulped it down with only a slight grimace?
He laboured to get the suddenly-heavy flask back to his mouth but could only swallow a tiny amount. He gagged again, as much as before. The flavour was no better; in fact, it was worse — a putrid after-taste of vomit and excrement was building at the back of his palate. Alternating between swallowing and gagging on small amounts, he finished the disgusting sludge as fast as his rebellious digestion allowed.
How in the Planes had Flammia tossed it down in a single swig? This had to be one of the hardest things he had ever done.
He spat out the remaining foul-tasting slime lingering in his mouth and flung the solid silver flask with all his strength. Trembling, he watched it twinkle out of sight as it plummeted into the void.
He still couldn’t breathe. His lungs pumped and wheezed, but nothing seemed to come in. The air was so meagre, every breath was a laboured gasp. His brain burned, his heart raced, and his arms wrapped themselves around his rebellious stomach. His bulky armour contained so many heavy layers of fire-retardant padding that it clamped his body like a vice, restricting his heaving chest and giving him no option but to pant.
How long would it be before that disgusting potion took effect?
He was still peering down into the emptiness of the sky, though the flask had long vanished. And then the sheer impossibility of the view crashed down on him.
Why was there so much sky?
Where had the world gone?
Where there should be land, stretching away into the distance, there was only sky and yet more ...
Ah. It was there, further down, at the base of the mountain and … tilted downwards, away from him. At a very steep angle.
With a sudden switch of perspective, he was no longer standing upright looking down. Instead, he seemed to lay back on a reclining couch, looking out across the Plane of Sheol which stretched ahead, between and beyond his upwards-pointing toes.
Yet, in another bewildering shift, he was again looking down, perhaps from a sky-high tower like the infamous Tower of Freeport, against whose base, far below, an artist had leant an enormous canvas. A canvas on which they had painted a detailed map of the eastern reaches of the world.
Along the top edge, nearest Prentyze, the artist had painted a row of fir-green, brown and grey splotches representing the foothills of the Rimtop range. A thin shoreline of whites, greys and yellows fractally divided the canvas a third of the way down. Between the two, a dark band of ever-greens represented the forested territory of the Rim’s lowlands. The natural harbour of the Rim Bay Sands was a brilliant bubble of yellow and cyan protruding into the dark green, glowing in the late afternoon sun. Along with white daubs and swirls for clouds, coloured dots spotted the upper part of the canvas: the earliest signs of Autumn in golds, reds, oranges and browns; three brown dots represented the sailing ships at anchor in the bay; creams, yellows and pale blues indicated the settlement’s larger pavilions. A fine brown line encompassed these last dots in a circle, a suggestion of a wooden palisade around the settlement of Rimtown. All such minutiae seemed as microscopic as the creatures he enjoyed studying in samples of ditch water.
The rest of the canvas, below the shoreline, represented the great Eastern Ocean — a wash of steel-grey and blues near the shore graduated to a white, misty haze further down. The haze, down by the indistinct bottom edge, contained off-white hints of mountaintops on distant, unseen land masses.
Or were they far along the Plane, in the distance?
Or down … Or far ...
Prentyze’s sense of perspective switched in rapid succession between him standing up and reclining.
His stomach, already jittery from the dracling attack and nauseous with altitude sickness, quivered anew with the challenging shifts of orientation.
Was he standing or lying back?
Was he swaying?
Might he fall? Follow the airship and plunge into the infinite sky?
Yes, he WAS falling!
He was swaying.
He took a few uncertain steps backwards, away from the edge, gagging.
Looking down at that — whatever it was — was a big mistake.
He swallowed saliva to quell his rebellious stomach. It was still vile with the potion’s medicinal after-taste. Would the muck stay down to cure his altitude sickness, or would vertigo make him puke?
By the Gods, he would never hear the last of it from Father if he dropped vomit all over this stupid armour.
He collapsed to his knees, intending to stay there until the nausea passed.
To take his mind off his mutinous stomach, he looked around, panting for lack of air. Further back, inside the tunnel entrance, the representatives of House Brassard and House Anluan bickered as they unpacked and assembled four dragon-lances from a case. As fast as they removed parts, the wind tore the straw packing away and blew it over the edge and down into the void.
The old man kept rubbing the heel of one hand on his dented breastplate, as if trying to massage a painful chest, while Flammia reached up as often to touch the red and blistering weals across her face, as if exploring new features.
Were they irritable because they were in pain or because it was the usual ‘my house is better than your house’ effluence? If only a childish wish would shut them up.
He watched Flammia for a moment, remembering the previous evening when he first met her. Father had been in a rare good mood and sent Prentyze to the shore to welcome Flammia off her ship.
Like a decorated champion, she stood at the boat’s prow as it approached the shore. She wore engraved and polished battle armour reflecting the setting sun and allowed her lustrous mahogany hair and burgundy cloak to stir free in the light breeze.
His heart almost stopped at her beauty.
He accompanied her from there to the priest’s pavilion for dinner, but she did not deign to speak to him, brushing off all his tongue-tied attempts at conversation. Later, at the dining table, she wore a burgundy gown that covered neither her shoulders nor most of her back. What kept it up was a mystery. Prentyze couldn’t guess. Magic? Her dark hair, which draped around her shoulders and curled down her back seemed only to accentuate her contours and bare skin, which he imagined must be creamy-smooth.
And still she ignored him.
But that had not got in the way of his hot and vivid dreams during the night.
Today, she wore the same stupid, bulky prototype armour as everyone else, which gave no hint of the curves beneath. He would give anything to know what she looked like in reality from the neck down, without gown or armour and, like his dream, without any ...
Flammia’s snarl shattered his half-remembered erotic fantasies. A curved flange over the wrist of one of her steel gauntlets was caught on a nail in the packing case, trapping her hand in its depths, and she struggled to tug it free.
These stupid suits of armour would be the death of them all. The design was unlike anything that Waldemar had fielded in battle against Freeport: they appeared more like the ridiculously horned and sharp-finned fantasies in which playhouse costumiers liked to dress their ‘big, bad-boss villains’. These suits were as comical in appearance, but every alien-looking fin, flange and faring was designed with meticulous care for a deadly purpose.
Soon, their lives would hang on every bizarre feature. They would stand or fall on its design.
But that was only if they survived long enough to need the stupid armour. Everyone was getting ratty because these stupid flanges kept catching on doors, furniture, crates — and even each other’s suits. It wouldn’t take much for someone to explode in frustrated rage. With the way Father was needling Flammia, it was obvious who would snap first.
Flammia fumed and yanked while his father, the bastard, just stood there. Smirking.
Prentyze couldn’t watch, and he turned forwards once more glad that his kneeling position and distance from the edge obscured the stomach twisting view below.
Copyright © DW Brownlaw 2020-2022. All rights reserved.
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