Runequest Thursday #96 - Fiction: To Tweak the Nose of the Red Goddess, Part Two!

Clint Staples

Two weeks ago, I posted the first Chapter of some fiction about my current campaign, Brightwater Saga, in which some fo the heroes adventure in the Clanking Ruin, for which I have been preparing for several weeks now - as you can see by checking my posts for the last couple of months.

I had hoped to post chapter two last week, but I was sick as a pack of dogs. So it had to wait until now. If you need to catch up, or refresh, from chapter one, go here.

As stated elsewhere, I have repurposed the terrific Map of Cassadega by the incredible cartographer Jonathan Roberts, who created it for Kobold Press' Sunken Empires.

To Tweak the Noose of the Red Goddess, Part Two

The Brightwaters had little time to sweat on the quay at Anchor Home before Dalan’s boat appeared from the landward side, skimming the smooth water of the Bay in its zig-zag course. The return trip was brief, their agile ferry slipping between fishing boats and other vessels before delivering them to Wheelhouse Quay. Again Dalan paid special attention to the ladies as they disembarked. Sayyid refused to look at the man for fear of staring, but Zoe had seen such habitual nudity during her Imperial service. Looking Dalan in the eye, she thought that his manner with his female charters surely won him certain dividends on occasion. He smiled under her gaze, wished them well, and flashed an appreciative grin in Wyrmhere’s direction for the half-guilder the Sorcerer tossed his way.

Wyrmhere caught Zoe’s eye. They had not spoken of the contract on leaving the Lunar office, while on Anchor Home, or during the boat ride. Zoe had been going over in her mind the strange feeling she’d had the moment she scribed her name. As if reading her thoughts, the sorcerer echoed the clerk’s word, “Binding.”

The anger she had felt on leaving the Imperial office returned. She should have known that the Lunars would have some way of controlling their contractors. Sayyid, spoke into the silence that Wyrmhere’s word had brought, “How do we capture a living manchine, whatever that is?”

The sorcerer peered toward the husk of the Machine City, appeared to share Zoe’s fear that the “manchines” mentioned by the Lunar were one and the same with the hunched figures she had witnessed stalking the deeper ruins on the mainland. He said, “The officer did not contract us to retrieve one, only said they would pay well if we could. The Binding covers our share and their right to whatever we bring back.”

Zoe followed his gaze inland, but said, nothing. She turned to the boat as Sayyid and Wyrmhere deposited their armor bags on the quay, and went to search of Ughari.

Quayside, Zoe breathed deeply, slowly, as she sought the calm necessary to interact with Skryek. She withdrew the hood from the falcon, and rolled her shoulder as she said “perch” in Air Speech. A piercing cry of protest and a flurry of Skryek’s powerful wings carried her to her perch, where she folded them again, talons gripping the scarred pin projecting from the forward mast cradle. The bird’s mistress followed onto River Maiden, tied off Skryek’s jesses, whispering an earnest vow of a real flight soon, before slipping the hood back over the ivory hook of her beak. Even hooded, the bird shrugged and mantled in eagerness at the promise. The former mercenary took in the bowline, drawing River Maiden in until she rode the bumper, then tied her off. Stepping on the gunwale she transferred the bundles of gear that the others had left dockside, stowing it in the rowing benches, then set about readying her vessel for the journey up what the clerk had called “the Canal”, and into the Ruin proper.

The others checked their suite for sign of Ughari. Unsuccessful, Sayyid led their way down the stairs through the archway of the Wheelhouse. An enquiry of the bar-woman provided them nothing in the way of news. Returning to the waterside, they found Zoe and the Master’s man in conference.

“. . . not asking after your business.  But you have not yet experienced the 'welcome' extended most often on the mainland.”

“We’ll be fine,” Zoe said withouth looking up as she cast off the forward line. She had no interest in acquiring the agent of Avorax as a fellow expeditionary, and spy, for his master. Wyrmhere and Sayyid scrambled aboard as Zoe set her oar against the dock and shoved the River Maiden away from its mooring. She let the bow swing away from the dock toward the water of the Bay, then signaled for Sayyid to cast off the stern line. Glaring Wyrmhere to the portside oar-bench, she maneuvered her oar through the web of lines to the starboard bench and set her oar in its lock.

The sorcerer spoke, settling his own oar as Zoe sat,  “We are missing Ughari. Three Against the Clanking Ruin sounds like the title of a Lunar Play.”

The ex-mercenary abruptly began to row, giving the boat forward motion even as it pivoted the bow back in the direction of the quay.. The sorcerer missed a sweep, then caught the rhythm, his attention focussed on turning the raft toward the Bay again. Sayyid took Zoe’s silence as something like acquiescence. Standing in the bow,  she turned to Andronikos, and yelled, “Perhaps you could recommend someone?”

Over the widening gulf, Andronikos replied, “Try the Seaweed, just past the Wet Market. Ask for Manfred.”

About to enter the channel between the Rotunda and Anchor Home, Zoe called a halt, surrendered her oar, and a look of chagrin to Sayyid, and took up the steering oar. In the busy harbor, the rowed slowly, rounding Wheelhouse Quay, bow swinging across their view of the mainland before pointing the way just off the Wet Market Quay, perhaps a hundred sweeps away. A slight breeze had picked up, but seemed to do little to mitigate the heat. Yelm’s light beamed from wavelet and chalky quay, causing them all to squint, and Zoe to be grateful for another delay of their expedition. She had little interest in armoring up in such heat, and began to consider the practicality of Dalan the boatman’s lack of attire.

Where light did not beam from its surface, the waters of the Bay were windows to the bottom – squares and circles of shadow were contained by the skeletons of dwellings, centuries old, seemingly only an arms length below the surface. Odd rocky structures, some colorful, and all of them beacons to sea life, covered many, obscuring the once clear lines of the squares, rectangles and circles that typified local habitation. Ahead, Dark shapes flitted just below the surface. In an instant merfolk surrounded River Maiden, offering fish, shells, crabs and fine coral carvings for sale in an attempt to steal trade from the Wet Market. Sayyid waved them off, but asked after the Seaweed before the last of the sea-dwellers dove. A sleekly muscled shark-grey arm pointed further around the Rotunda before it disappeared.

Heeding the arm’s direction, Zoe directed their craft wide of the Wet Market, then into the shade of the Rotunda and the broad expanse of a heavy wooden dock. Sayyid exclaimed, pointing to a sign proclaiming the Seaweed in Sartarite. The sign was just above the waterline, and the tavern appeared to be at least partially submerged. Zoe called to back oars and they waited for a barge not unlike those that plied the River of Cradles to pole its ponderous way to deeper water before easing into the vacancy wharfside.

No one appeared to collect a fee, so Zoe unhooded Skryek, untied her jesses, and with a word, set her to guard the River Maiden and their gear. Having seen the gyrfalcon bring down a yearling sun elk, she had little doubt of the raptor scaring off casual thieves. 

The tavern Seaweed was situated beside a large area of cultivated seaweed and other water plants, merfolk moving in and out of the rows, tending and harvesting the waving fronds and seed polyps, even the tall stalks of the plant itself. The Brightwaters had to descend a short set of stairs to a plank-covered platform barely above the waterline to enter the tavern. Within, Seaweed was split into two distinct sides, and clienteles.

To the right, was a large pool, with tables above the surface and vague shapes of benches or chairs below it. Some of these were occupied by mermen and merwomen, others by sodden-looking humans. Sitting submerged to the waist, a tall humanoid with an odd combination of leafy fronds and spiky protrusions of coral, turned at their entrance to reveal an elfin face topped by a crown of the same broad leafy growths.  

Wyrmhere, in the lead, and reasonably certain that the sea elf did not answer to Manfred, turned to the left side of the tavern. There, a scant few patrons enjoyed a more traditional setting. Booths and benches, which seemed to have been excavated out of the limestone walls, ringed tables. Where the left and right sides met, there appeared to be a series of tables designed to accommodate clients of either preference.

A dry-side serving girl barely in her teens approached with a professional smile and a pair of earthenware mugs grasped in each small hand. The sorcerer asked after Manfred. With a nod of her head, the girl led them toward the back, where a fully armored man was taking his ease in a heavy chair, a steaming glass before him on the table.

The helmed head turned at their approach, revealing a set of glowing round oculars, a sharp triangular “nose” and a hinged lower jaw. The jaw moved as the Brightwaters halted before the table. Wyrmhere addressed the figure as Zoe took in the great sword leaning against the limestone wall, within easy reach of the gauntleted hand.

“Pardon. Are you Manfred?” The sorcerer’s Tradetalk was smooth. It was polite to finish a greeting in the tongue of Issaries with talk of business, so he added,  “If the answer is yes, we have an offer.”

The armored figure gestured at the vacant seats in the booth, voice hollow, “I am that one. Will you sit and take refreshment?” This was rapidly accomplished and the serving girl appeared to accommodate them. When she retreated to the bar, Wyrmhere continued, “A man by the name of Andronikos recommended you as someone to accompany us into the Ruin.”

“I have done this six-hundred-eighty-one times previously. Would you like me to act as reinforcement to your three?” The armored figure’s voice was muffled, strangely devoid of inflection, and accompanied by a slight hiss of air and a clicking from the motion of the hinged jaw.

Manfred added, “My rate is Thirty Lunars per day; plus first choice of any Routines discovered.”

Sayyid and Zoe were about to ask about “Routines”, but Wyrmhere thought he had some notion of its meaning, and of Manfred’s nature, “We would have little use for any Routines we find. But what can you tell me about this?” With these words the sorcerer reached into the satchel at his side, and produced a roll of smudged and aged parchment, which he then unrolled on the table.

Depicted on the grimy sheet was a strangely stylized drawing of an arm, with line pointing to various parts of its anatomy. Certain portions of the arm, or its interior portions, were detailed within circles that orbited the main image of the limb. These details betrayed that the depicted arm was not organic, as considerable attention had been paid to show the complex interweave of cables, gears, pistons and pulleys under the “skin”.

“Ah,” began Manfred, “This is a rubbing of a manufacturing scroll. Had you the original, and a Manuforge, you could have one produced.”

Wyrmhere sat back, a huff of irritation escaping his lips. The demon arms writhed, loosing the corner of the diagram it held, and the sorcerer clamped down upon the traitorous limb with his good hand.

The serving girl appeared and set out three earthenware mugs. Sayyid handed her  Lunar waiving the girl away with a sizable tip, and spoke into the awkward silence of the table, “And do you know where manufacturing scrolls and manuforges may be found?”

Manfred did not appear to notice the movement of the black-clad arm, and replied, “Yes. Do you also wish me to act as your guide into the Machine City? My rate is Thirty Lunars per day.” Zoe leaned forward, ready to haggle, when Wyrmhere wheezed, “Done.”

***

“Sixty a day!?” Zoe said in a fierce whisper to Skryek, who sat her shoulder as she leaned on the steering oar, “We could have hired a Lance of the Black Horse, for only a little more!”  Air Speech, she had found, was a remarkably expressive language for cursing. Each noun she had uttered ended with the cursive declentional variant.

After presenting the Lunar banner than gave them passage under Death Ray Bridge, River Maiden moved from wharfside to the middle of the Canal. The Humakti who controlled the bridge still charged them thirty Silvers in passing, which she thought the Lunars might object to, but she did not feel like testing the patience of Death cultists with an eldritch terror weapon that could obliterate crew and boat with ease.

Here the Canal was a channel bounded by towering walls three times Zoe’s considerable height, broken in places by worrisome gaps above and below the waterline. Zoe imagined the stalkers she had seen earlier in the day at a distance, they mantis-like posture and gait as they stalked the very ruins she glimpsed through gaps in the wall. She felt no eagerness to meet one, let alone return it alive to the Lunars at Anchor Home.

Earning his extra pay as a guide, Manfred explained that the Canal had not always been a waterway, but that sea levels had risen or centuries, or the Machine City had sunk, creating the Bay area from the westernmost portion of what had been the Western Cogs during the time of the Machine City, and the Canal of its main thoroughfare, once called The Artery. From her oarbench, Sayyid thought the combination of mechanical and anatomical terms was fascinating, and ghoulish; but she said nothing, eager to hear more.

Manfred, it appeared, was something known in and around the Clanking Ruin, as a forge-knight, an artificial creature built to purpose centuries ago by the inhabitants of the Machine City. What the Brightwaters had taken for armor when they had encountered Manfred in the Seaweed, was actually more akin to his skin, and he could no more remove it than Sayyid could hers. When Manfred had told them he had made nearly seven hundred expeditions into the Clanking Ruin, he had referred to his primary activity for the last several hundred years. Upon agreeing to his rate of pay, and the Brightwaters finishing their sea-beer, he had taken up his greatsword and followed them to River Maiden, watched as his employers donned their harness, and sat amidships as they got under way. If he was worried about falling from the boat into the waters of the Bay, the forge-knight showed no sign of this.

Wyrmhere had just asked about Manuforges – something Manfred had mentioned back at the Seaweed – when he was interrupted by a crackling drone, like lightning striking a swarm of hornets, accompanied by a wash of red light that lit water, walls, even River Maiden and its occupants, in red. Overhead, A lance of energy extended from the Humakti bridge, disappearing through a break on the Canal wall. Sayyid gasped. There was no sense of motion to the glowing line. It had nothing in common with an arrow’s flight. It simply appeared, connecting the bridge and the gap. She shuddered as she considered that whatever it struck likely had died unknowing of its fate.

The red beam, the buzzing and the crackle, winked out – and the red light surrounding them with it. “Bet the Lunars want that!” spoke Zoe into the silence.

Manfred had hesitated in his discourse, as if the emission of the death ray were something that was merely worthy of a courteous pause. He now began again, but aware of the curiosity of his employers, he changed subjects, “During the time of the Machine City, there were a number of such weapons. The Siege of the Elders lasted for ten years – weapons great and terrible, and equally great and terrible deeds, were the order of the day.

Wyrmhere, deciding that he had been too much enthralled by his imaginings of the Machine City at its height, began to take greater interest in their current surroundings. Craning his head as he plied his oar, he spied motion in another gap along the top of the Canal wall – furtive figures with long digitigrade legs that looked extremely capable in regard to running and leaping, skulked out of sight of the Death Ray Bridge. Glad of the sixty or more feet between boat and wall, he breathed a sigh of relief as the hunched figures disappeared behind the wall again, unseen, but keeping pace with their progress.

Hundreds of yards beyond the bridge, which indeed ran as straight as an avenue, River Maiden approached another span across the Canal. This one was not covered like the Humakti’s bridge, being protected only by a mostly intact, solid wall about half the height of a man. It was also missing a segment of some two spear-lengths near the middle, rendering it of little use in crossing the Canal. Wyrmhere began to ruminate upon the presence of the Canal, the broken bridge before them, and that of the Death Ray Bridge to their rear, and the effects this effective barrier might have upon the local wildlife.

It was at this moment, however, that River Maiden came under the broken bridge, though not under the open area near its middle. Zoe, having acquired a suspicious nature in her early years as a half-blood living amongst Sartarites bitter over their current state at the hands of their Lunar oppressors, saw no profit in tempting anything that might happen to believe that the prospect of a massacre might be worth the risk of falling into the water. Thus she had altered their course to favour the west wall of the Canal.

Alas, Zoe had not seen what Wyrmhere had, and thus was unaware of the powerful legs, seemingly purpose built by some malevolent intellect for leaping. Thus is was that the first of the manchines jumped from the broken bridge, easily cleared the forty or so feet of space separating it from the River Maiden, and landed, hissing like some saurian predator, in the bow, only a stride from the unprotected backs of the rowers, Wyrmhere and Sayyid. 

Although the mental processes of a forge-knight are relatively unguessable, it may be that Manfred felt in some way responsible for the presence of the Manchine on deck. If so, he acted according to his own purpose, and, drawing his greatsword from the place where it was affixed to his back, brought it down on the spiked spine of the no-longer-human monstrosity before him.

The Manchine turned with preternatural swiftness, clicking, whirring, hissing and groaning simultaneously from its machine and somewhat human portions, allowing the sword strike to glance from its shoulder placard, and clutched at its attacker with its pair of mantis-like mechanical talons. It was interrupted, however, in this endeavour by the disappearance of its head, which simultaneoulsy vaporized and exploded, having been struck by a lightning bolt.

The following stroke of the greatsword smashed the machine to the deck, and Manfred looked across its corpse to his benefactor, Wyrmhere whose hand still smoked eldritch discharge. But neither could do more, because three things occurred then that occupied the full attention of everyone on board.

Firstly, some apparatus on the dead manchine, sprayed flaming oil all over River Maiden, where it began rapidly to eat at the oiled timbers. Secondly, another manchine leapt from the end of the bridge above, landing amidships and rocking the beleaguered craft with its impact. Thirdly, Zoe screamed, near berserk at the threat to her boat. Drawing Brightblade, which had begun its existence as a giant’s dagger, she left off the steering oar, ran forward, vaulting entirely over Sayyid – who crouched by her oar whispering the Bladesharp chant over her axe – and brought the bronze blade down to counter a rising claw, smashing the limb into the metal-clad torso of the monstrosity.

Sayyid stood, caught the other claw on her kite shield, and clove the manchine’s torso, which erupted in a spray of black blood and steaming oil. The clanking horror was still able however, and bit at the arm wielding the axe. Scales flew as rasping blades within the thing’s mouth fastened on to rend armor, seeking the flesh beneath. But Zoe’s glowing brand whirled skyward, wheeled and smashed into the head of the manchine, cutting through the human face that had been riveted to the skull plates, and into whatever served this creature as a brain. In its death spasm, it whirled, ruined head releasing Sayyid’s arm, and its own fire syringe spewing flaming oil about. Sayyid rammed it with her shield, shoving it overboard as two more manchines dropped from above.

Manfred strode to the abandoned oars, saying, “Do you wish me to row? My fee is . . .”

“YES!” roared Zoe as she turned, keening the death of her beloved River Maiden, eager to drive Brightblade through the skull of another metal horror if it would save the vessel. Wyrmhere, meanwhile, called his salamander, Leaper, into his longsword. As flames sprang up along its length, he said, “Keep them off me for a moment. I have an idea.”

Manfred squatted between the oarbenches, took the oars abandoned by Sayyid and the sorcerer with his long arms, and using main strength in place of skill, moved the boat away from beneath the broken bridge. One of the dropping monsters struck the gunwale, rocking the boat tremendously, balanced there for an instance, then leapt forward, talons wide to embrace, teeth and raspers gnashing.

Whether the second manchine would have managed the leap or not became irrelevant. It vanished in a wash of red light and a buzzing crackle of sound. Sayyid cast a prayer of thanks to the death god.

Wyrmhere from his place behind Zoe and Sayyid, called upon Leaper to do something that he had previously contemplated, but had never had occasion to attempt. He directed the Salamander not to spread fire – as was it wont but to swallow the flames that presently played over River Maiden. The salamander, possessing neither intellect nor desires of its own, did as its creator willed. As Wyrmhere waved the blade over the expanse of the flames, his creature drew them from the wood into itself. The blade grew brighter, and hotter, until even Wyrmhere’s demon hand could no longer hold it. He hurled the burning sword overboard where it sank beneath a column of steam.

Sayyid, axe-edge gleaming with the promise of her battle-magic, held her shield high to cover her slash at the leg of the monster striking at Zoe with both claws. The axe smashed through a gap in the manchine’s armor, drawing forth a gout of dark fluid. The manchine gave the wound no notice, intent upon feasting on the flesh of the half-blood. She sidestepped one claw and parried the other, but the manchine caught the glowing blade, holding it in a grip of iron as the second claw reversed toward her face.

Zoe saw her death in that gore-clotted arc of metal, yet refused to relinquish her sword to the grip of the manchine. Instead, she surged forward with a cry to Orlanth, hurling a Befuddle at whatever passed for the mind of this mechanical horror. The god heard her plea! Her spell negating the maniacal purpose of her foe, the momentum of the descending claw lost along with the intent behind the attack.

Zoe leapt back, the presentiment of her doom lifting. “Hold” she cried!

The word caught Sayyid in mid stroke and she shifted awkwardly to avoid striking, and thus reawakening, the motionless hulk. Wyrmhere, who had loosed the salamander from the ruin of his sword before it sank out of sight, stood with lightning writhing over his good hand. He too, awaited Zoe’s next move, recognizing the condition of their enemy.

“Did we just capture a manchine alive?” Sayyid said, breathless in the aftermath of the fight.

Zoe carefully pried Brightblade from the claw of the manchine, a plan forming as a grin spread over her features. When she turned to the others, her lunar side was evident in the hard lines around her eyes, and the malice of her smile.

“Yes,” she said, voice low, “And are we ever going to give it to the Lunars!”

End of Part Two.

Go to part 3.