Runequest Thursday #98 - To Tweak the Nose of the Red Goddess, Part Three!

Clint Staples

If you have followed along with parts one and two, you know that the Brightwaters are in the Clanking Ruin, having taken service with the Lunars in order to gain access to the ruin, and to gather intelligence against the Empire. With their hired forge-knight, Manfred, as guide and mercenary, they have rowed their boat up the Canal into the deeper portion of the ruin and been attacked by several manchines, horrific amalgams of flesh and machine that sustain themselves by feeding on the living.

Now, returning with a living manchine, they face a number of challenges - moral and otherwise.

 

Part Three:

Manfred rowed on the trip back, tireless and becoming more proficient with each stroke of his long arms. The manchine, thoroughly bound, gnashing iron maw tied shut, they placed directly before Zoe, who could then steer the ship and maintain its befuddled state should its struggles become too frenetic. This occurred with such disturbing regularity that Zoe feared she would be unequal to the task of keeping the monster quiescent until they reached their destination.

With Deathray Bridge still hundreds of yards distant, as the manchine fought its restraints and Zoe fought its mind, Yelm’s light was occluded by the leathery wings of a pair of wyverns carrying their riders inland. But the thrashing of the manchine had been particularly enthusiastic as the fliers passed overhead, apparently attracting the attention of those on high. One of the wyverns banked, to sweep low over Canal and watercraft, its rider’s masked face directed downward, clearly interested in the goings on aboard River Maiden. At that moment, Zoe’s imprecations to Orlanth were heard, and the Manchine fell quiescent, but all aboard knew that the thing’s frenzy had been witnessed by the wyvern rider. Zoe’s glance flicked to Brightblade, in easy reach leaning against the gunwale, steered River Maiden a little closer to the high wall of the western bank to hamper an attack by the wyverns. She did not like their chances, but they needn’t have worried. The beast banked again, and climbed the heights with three thunderous wing-claps that rippled the water around the boat, disturbing Skryek on her perch, before re-joining its companion.

Zoe righted their course for the deep water of the Canal, tied off the steering oar, went to calm the raptor. Soft words had only partial effect, and she remembered the promise she had made the bird earlier. A whispered instruction in Skyspeech as she removed the hood, untied the jesses, and she hurled the gyrfalcon into the air. Rising in a flurry of wings, the joy of its cry obvious even to Wyrmhere and Sayyid, Skryek did as she had been bid, rapidly gaining on the comparatively ponderous wyverns. Zoe returned to the stern, let out the anchor, a smug look her only answer to Sayyid’s questioning look.

River Maiden settled and rose gently with the motion of the water. In the heat of the day, under Yelm’s vigorous attentions, with a salty, somewhat fishy, breeze blowing up the Canal from the Bay, it was easy to forget that less than a hundred paces from them, the east bank swarmed with the brethren of the monster currently drooling oily black spittle into the belly-strakes of the boat.

*****

Zoe whispered, “Good girl,” as she stroked the feathers between Skryek’s eyes, amazed, as ever, at their softness. The fatigue of continually stunning the mechanical horror in the bottom of the boat seemed a distant thing as she lifted the bird to its perch.

Turning to the others, she could not keep the sense of triumph from her face. Sayyid saw it first.

“What?” the Grazelander asked, causing Wyrmhere to look up from where he was adjusting the bonds on the manchine. The rough metal edges and sharp blades protruding from the machine’s metal body had nearly severed the ropes in two places. What they needed, he thought, was a net – a good heavy one, which would also serve them well at sea, of course. He resolved to mention this to Zoe, but stopped when he saw the look on her face.

“I sent Skryek to see if she could converse with the wyverns,” she began. “As creatures of the air, I wondered if they spoke Skyspeech too.”

Wyrmhere would have bet on Wyrmic, but he held his tongue, afraid the oft-times laconic half-blood would stop her explanation if he interrupted.

As Zoe set about drawing up the anchor, she spoke, “Skryek says they are stupid, devoted only to the demands of their stomachs and their riders. I don’t know if I can command them, but I can definitely talk with them. There has to be a way we can use that.”

The others contributed no ideas on the how of the matter as the boat got under way again. Manfred rowed intermittently, as the makingsea- tide drew the boat downstream at a steady pace. Wyrmhere and Sayyid watched a small cadre of manchines flank them on the east bank. Zoe kept the craft well to westward.

Soon, River Maiden neared Deathray Bridge. The imposing Humakti who had allowed them passage on the way inland was again standing on the stone wharf under the bridge’s arch, longsword bared. A gesture with the weapon invited them to come up along the wharf. Simultaneously, the red eye of the death ray began to glow from its place in the middle of the armored bridge. Zoe leaned on the steering oar, not eager to test the ancient war-engine. Wyrmhere peered up at the unblinking red eye, wondering as to the workings of the dread machine.

By some means known only to the artificers of the Machine City, the device appeared able to sight at any angle to anywhere within range of the ray, this last point being a mystery, but measuring at least the thousand yards to the Broken Bridge. Wyrmhere took note of the baleful eye’s movement as it tracked River Maiden’s progress to the wharf, and of how the stone of the death ray’s mantle seemed to vanish to allow the eye an unobstructed view. Did the stone actually dematerialize under the gaze of the weapon? Or did it remain, transparent but present, protecting the engine from attack, yet somehow allowing the ray egress? The sorcerer chewed his lip in thought until the boat’s bumper against the wharf shook him from his musings.

He turned in time to see Sayyid on the nearer bench, oar shipped, hands away from her weapons, absently felt the thrum of Zoe’s power as she once again befuddled the manchine into a stupor. Overhead, a black silhouette limned in harsh sunlight, the Humakti stepped back. Wyrmhere sensed the potent magic of the man – spells wreathed him – the accolade of his grim god surrounded man and blade.

The cultist’s first words were flat, deadly as the shining sword in his hand, “What do you with that abomination?”

From her place at the steering oar, Zoe spoke, “We were contracted to provide the Lunars with a living manchine. Now we’re going to give it to them.” From her tone, Wyrmhere could picture the wicked grin on the ex-mercenary’s face. He was fairly certain that the Imperial clerk would not appreciate the manner in which his prize would be delivered.

“No,” the Humakti’s word held the finality of a deathblow. The man seemed unconcerned at the odds against him. Of course, the death ray would be on his side, if a fight erupted. Wyrmhere hoped that a lightning bolt, backed by every iota of power he could spare, would penetrate the man’s wards.

Zoe, after a moment’s hesitation, shot back, “No?!”

Wyrmhere felt the boat rock as Zoe moved, saw Sayyid’s hand reach for the axe at her side.

“You cannot deliver a living manchine to the Lunars,” the Humakti continued, refusing the provocation, “It is not alive. So – No.”

Sayyid, could not follow the accented Tradetalk. But, growing up only a few days ride from Necromancer’s Marsh, she knew something of the ways of Humakti.

“Have a care,” She spoke, In Sartarite, over Zoe’s next retort, “The Humakti’s honor is at stake.”

“What business is it of his, or Humakt’s?”

“It’s undead,” the understanding came to Wyrmhere like a lightning strike. “Not alive, not wholly machine. I felt an oddness about it, but I know little of such matters. I assumed it was the magic of mechanika.” He spoke in Tradetalk, for the benefit of their interrogator, knew that he would be assessed, his words weighed for truth or falsehood. But of undeath he truly knew little, and had no wish to pursue those dark secrets.

“It is so,” the Humakti admitted, switching to accented Sartarite for Sayyid's benefit, “my honor is at stake, as is that of my brethren. We have made compact to allow Lunar passage up and down the Canal. Yet to allow one of these things to exist . . .” the sword’s tip swept to indicate the manchine drooling in the belly of River Maiden, “is an affront to my God, and my Oaths.”

Wyrmhere tried to shift matters away from the manchine, recalled a rumor he had heard on his first night drinking late in the Wheelhouse, “I have heard the Lunars have a pet vampire.”

Everyone’s attention, even that of the baleful eye of the deathray, turned to Wyrmere at that announcement.

The Humakti spoke into the silence that followed, “It is why we came here. But with so many undead in the city, the thing has proven . . . elusive. Is this vampire truly the Lunars’ creature?”

“It is a rumor. I cannot corroborate it.” Wyrmhere had no interest in lying to a Humakti, especially about a matter obviously so important to this one.

The manchine prisoner chose that moment to throw off the effects of Zoe’s spell, and began to thrash in earnest, endeavoring to propel itself such that its champing iron teeth might find purchase in Wyrmhere’s foot. The Humakti raised his sword and did something that quelled the thing so thoroughly that it cowered and lay still like a struck cur. The Humakti then took a step back from the water’s edge and, gesturing with his sword, said, “Protea and I would like to invite you ashore. She will ward your charge, and take whatever actions are required.”

The deathray seemed to glint, as if in accord with the statement. Zoe tossed the stern rope to the man on the wharf, hooded and tied Skryek as Sayyid and the sorcerer stepped off, before following, Brightblade in her fist.

The Humakti was taller even than Zoe’s new-won height, and well built for a fighting man. Heavy shoulders, lean waist, and powerful arms, accentuated by the breast and back, pauldrons and a harness-stained arming coat with mail voiders inside the elbows and under the arms. He was tanned, whether from long exposure to the sun, or by dint of his ancestry, she could not guess. His features were not those of Sartar, nor his dark straight hair, which he wore in an outlander bowl cut, with a neatly trimmed beard that contained a few grey hairs. Older than he appeared from the wharf, she thought, but not one to take lightly on account of it. She was reminded of some of the knights of the Black Horse – professional killers all.

His empty hand directed them to a postern-like door in the wharf wall, where it joined, and was sheltered by, the substructure of the Bridge. Sayyid, never one to shy from the unknown, stuck her axe through her belt, tried the door, and descended the short flight of stairs beyond. Wyrmhere, Manfred and Zoe followed, their host closing the door behind them all with an echoing boom.

They found themselves in a roomy, if low-ceilinged and somewhat damp and musty, stone hall, square, with doorways leaded to other rooms or halls. In this one, they saw several other folk, all bearing the death rune on their aketons, some also with odd heraldic symbols as well, either worked in with the sword-shaped rune, or on their own. Zoe noted three spanned crossbows on tables in easy reach, and a number of bared swords, but none in hand. All within were seated, but the tension here was no less than it had been under the unwinking stare of the death ray.

“I am Aelen du Morragone, and this is my company, and family. We came here in pursuit of a vampire that fled across the Mirrorsea. We thought the trail lost, when we felt the Death Rune call us hither. We found, and took, this place – at some cost. Now we guard Protea, and seek to exercise Humakt’s will upon this place.

“I cannot destroy your prisoner without breaking my word to the Lunars, who have adhered to theirs with us. But I urge you to destroy the thing. It is wrong.”

Sayyid appreciated the death cultists’ quandary. Honor and death were their all, and in this case, one precluded their service to the other. Recalled the bundles on the quay at Anchor Home, a thought struck her, “The Lunars have all the materials for a powerful siege engine. We thought they might turn it on the Rotunda, but could they strike here form Anchor Home?”

Zoe, who had seen such engines in use by the Black Horse Company’s Lunar allies spoke into the hubbub that the nomad’s speculation had caused, “Yes, with sylphs to aid the missile, and gnomes bound into the rock to sap the target.” She could not help but look around at the squat hall, imagining the devastation gnomic trebuchet stones that weighed as much as a yearling steer could do to this place.

She caught the glint of a child’s eyes from under a corner table, peering around the legs of a stool. It dawned on her that this Humakti Hall was as much a settlement as Brightwater. Shre turned to Du Morragonne.

“Can Protea reach as far as Anchor Home?” She was fairly certain she knew the answer.

Du Morragonne did not answer immediately, but he was clearly no great haggler. The set of his lips, his harsh gaze, told her the answer before he loosed his begrudging negation. The ex-mercenary seized the advantage, “Clearly the Empire does not feel bound by points of honor, once they have outlived their usefulness.”

Wyrmhere had been paying only partial attention to the discussion, following his own line of thinking, interject, “Manfred? Do you know of any vampires having arrived in the Machine City?”

The Forge-Knight replied in his clicking tone, “I have heard the same tales as you. That such a one resides with the Lunars.”

Wyrmhere turned to Zoe, eyes feirce, “We can’t give them a “living” manchine. What a Lunar necromancer would  do with such a thing, I don’t want to find out.”

“We must return with something, or they won’t fix my boat,” she pleaded, “and the wyvern riders saw it, thrashing about. The Lunars will know if we just destroy it.”

No one spoke for a dozen heartbeats. When it came, the sigh from the half-blood was audible throughout the room, “Fine,” she ground out. Zoe’s head rose from her contemplation of the flagstones.

Turning to their host, her smile was back, “Syr, I give you my word, witnessed by Orlanth Victorious, sword-brother to Humakt. The manchine will not survive to reach the Lunars. But I ask that you allow us to dispose of it in their sight.”

The Humakti said, “I accept your word and oath. And we are all in your debt for giving us the whereabouts of our foe, and the news of this new engine. I know the Lunars chafe at having to pay us for passage. Just today their wyvern riders alighted here to pay their toll. I will die before they bind Protea. You are free to go. And return again as allies, if you wish.”

“I can think of none better.” Zoe said, extending her hand, looking about the room as their silent audience sat back, removed hands that had been within easy reach of hilt or stock.

*****

The Humakti saw them off after a little more talk, but before daylight had fled the Bay. It seemed that a relative of Syr Aelen, another Du Morragone Humakti knight with the name Syr Calador, had settled in a tower in the southern portion of the River of Cradles. Wyrmhere thought this was worthy of investigation on their return to Brightwater. Syr Aelen had also, without his knowledge, confirmed Zoe’s suspicions regarding the wyvern riders. She hummed an old march tune as she rode plied the steering oar.

She was impressed, and somewhat dismayed at the degree to which the manchine had been cowed by whatever the Death Knight had done. Her plan relied on the beast being its normal feisty self. She prodded the gore and grim-encrusted flank of the mechanical terror, and it did not so much as shift away.

She needn’t have worried however. By the time River Maiden had exited the Canal, the manchine was again champing its mouthparts threateningly, and attempting to saw through the thick bonds over its talons. They were well within sight of Anchor Home when the thing burst loose, and they had all had time to cast whatever battle magic suited them.

Even then it was a near-run thing. The manchine managed to saw through Sayyids leather leg armor and leave a nasty wound in her calf. An instant later, its talon caught Zoe between her lamellar pauldron and her vambrace, even as Brightblade hacked the claw free of its owner. But the cut sliced aketon and arm cleanly. Blood flowed like a river and Zoe staggered back, healing as she sat too heavily on an oar-bench. In the next exchange Sayyid brought her axe down on the iron skull of the thing and a torrent of black gore and sparks erupted from the cleft. The manchine collapsed as they drifted ever closer to Anchor Home. Wyrmhere, wishing to be sure that there was neither life nor undeath left in the husk, hammered it with tow potent lightning bolts as it shuddered and jigged in the belly of the boat.

They left the husk on the Lunar Quay, in the care of the same functionary that had sealed their contract, with the excuse that the thing had escaped it bonds in the Bay, and the shipmates had had to destroy it or die. Livid, the young mage could do little beyond refusing them further work. Because of the contract that he too had signed, he slapped a scrip into Zoe’s hand – for full repairs in the Lunar boatworks, and for five percent of the manchine’s scrap value, which proved enough to pay for several more nights at the Wheelhouse. 

Zoe was singing as they neared the Rotunda, the rudest version of the one about the half-troll barmaid and the Yelmalian Initiate, when Sayyid pointed to the score of toughs, led by Andronikos, awaiting them on Wheelhouse Quay. Zoe remembered his requirement, that they dock here before continuing to Anchor Home, or suffer the consequences. She left off her song before the refrain. She was beginning to dislike the Dragonewt’s man, and this place.

Then she remembered what the Humakti had confirmed for her. She gave another glance at the gang of toughs on the quay, and dropped anchor. As if on queue, a wyvern lifted off from Anchor Home. As River Maiden’s anchor settled to the bottom, Zoe followed its lazy progress to the Spire at the mouth of the Bay, said to her companions, forge-knight included, “I don’t think they know who rides them.. I’m willing to bet that all the riders wear their harness whenever they are around their wyverns. I think the wyverns know the harness, not the individual riders.”

“Makes sense,” Sayyid allowed, “It would be easier to replace riders in the case of one dying, especially if the creatures are so simple-minded.” It would never work on a horse, she knew, but wyverns were not horses.

“So, Manfred,” Zoe asked, “Know where we can get outrhands on some wyvern rider harness?”

 

End of Part Three

Go to part 4.