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It was with only limited regret that we bade goodbye to the Merlesee. While such wandering holy men are considered good luck to have on board in these lands, and he did very likely save the ship and all of our lives from the creature in the cargo hold, there was a general unease he created with the crew, what with his penchant for standing in one particular place for days on end, emitting long plaintive howls, and of course his very musky smell.
The break up was, at least, mutual, as he made a kind of short bow before disappearing into the forest of cone-shaped rocks.
"Where to, Captian?" asks Ensign Fleabauge.
We've been kept so busy here in the Far Reaches that I haven't had time to dwell on the terrible tragedy that drove us here--the loss of our gifted airshipmechanic apprentice @Eve.
I fall into a deep melancholy as we head farther to the west, towards the giant, sinking orange sun and over the yellow sands.
After the ruckus in the hold, the merchant and his small entourage requested to disembark at the nearest town.
Then, the Merlesee began to dance. He stood on the bridge and began to rock back and forth, taking tiny steps and shifting his orientation in a way that we eventually interpreted as a compass, his conical shape swaying like a bell, dipping gently here and there to direct our course. Helmsmen took shifts watching him and piloting the ship in a way that followed his movements.
And still, beneath its cloak, something stirred now and then. Like an unborn baby giving an occasional kick.
His continued presence on the bridge made it begin to smell like a barnyard, but eventually we found ourselves in a great barren waste, peppered with irregular towers like termite mounds and pools of rusty water and belching sulfurous puffs.
"Oooooooeeeeeeoooooooo" the Merlesee cooed.
We landed the Albion on the outskirts, and watched as the Merlesee strode out into the eerie landscape. It wandered for a while between the mounds, stopping here as if in conversation with them. Finally, it seemed satisfied, and squatted over one of the pools, completely covering it with the bottom of its felted cone.
In unison, the surrounding pools erupted in a single mighty fart as the Merlesee deposited its package.
The thrashing in the cargo hold alerted old Adam Sol as he was sweeping the decks. He in turn alerted the Watch, who alerted the Night Mate, who woke me. The Merlesee was already at the doors of the hold when we arrived.
"Oooooooeeeeeeoooooooo..." said the Merlesee. He looked at me from under his hood with his wide, double pupiled eyes. The pupils were square, like a goat's. So was his smell.
BANG BANG BANG the Night Mate banged on the cargo bay door with his fist. "What's going on in there?"
Thankfully, the Night Mate was not severely injured when the doors were blown open by the Succulent Berserker. The mercenaries lay in bloody pieces around the hold, and the thousand needle filled mouths opened up and hissed as the creature turned its spiny head towards us.
I'd never known the Merlesee to move so fast. Or that it had arms. Its conical felt cloak opened like a shell, and six bony arms flew out, like a beetle taking flight. Like lightning, it zig zagged across the floor, up the far wall, did a flip and landed on the other side of the creature, and zipped up another wall, all the while gesticulating wildly and drawing great gold and silver streaks in the air around it.
The Merlesse landed back near the door, ahead of us, and began to draw in its web of light like a net. The creature squirmed within it, thrashing and shrieking as the holy man, using all six arms, pulled the net tighter and tighter, smaller and smaller, until it was wrapped in a glowing ball the size of a grapefruit.
The Merlesse took the ball of light and all six arms and wrapped his conical cloak back around him.
For a moment you could see slight movement under the cloak, as the arms tended to some unseen business.
The weapons used in the war are apparently horrific. The body of the young soldier is kept in an oversized sarcophagus, guarded by a pair of steely eyed mercenaries. They remain on vigil with the body in the cargo hold.
We've also taken on a merchant and his small entourage, similarly retreating from the front. They are patient with our slow understanding of their patois, and describe the weaponry responsible for the soldier's death. Large crystals, borne in wagons, are coaxed into releasing beams of an appalling and malign energy, which transform their victims into leathery, succulent-like creatures with multiple mouths lined with needle teeth, and spidery arms perfect for speeding across the dunes. These transformed soldiers turn on their fellows like berserkers, murdering their comrades until brought down or (more frequently) burn out on their own accord (usually within a few hours of transformation).
The Merlesee called upon the mercenaries in the cargo hold but they refuse to let him in. Generally considered a bad practice in terms of Merlesee.
We've arrived on the outskirts of a war. Refugees arriving in rag-tag caravans pulled by lumbering reptiles. Some are wind driven, by sail and propellor, others powered by the resonance of strange crystals.
We're approached by a wagon pulled by a particularly massive and nasty looking pair of fanged turtles. They're transporting the body of a young soldier from the war, but the trip from the front has taken longer than expected and there's now way they can reach the scheduled funeral in time. Could the Albion take the body to the family?
The wagon driver marks our maps while the coffin is loaded.
We've taken on a Merlesee--one of the local wandering holy men. They say it's good luck to have one on board, and bad luck to turn one away. That's how they ride for free.
Not that it's any bother. It's tall and stands in the back, in a big felt cloak that fits it like a cone. Smells a little like a goat.
"Oooooooeeeeeeoooooooo" it says sometimes out of its little goat mouth.
Various merchants visit the bridge when we're at port to make their deals. The desert is cool this time of year, and the sunsets are a vibrant peach. We watch the moons rise over streaky clouds as the sky turns purple.
At each stop we make, I encourage the remaining crew to take their leave. In my prior life, the Giant Bee Honey businesses treated me well, and at even the most remote port of call I can arrange a wire transfer for a healthy retirement bonus that would set any crew member up quite nicely. But I'm afraid the crew has grown in their own feelings for me, and that remaining with the Albion has become their own way to commemorate their fallen shipmate.
This terrible tragedy has only made us stronger.
So each day we head deeper into the desert, towards the setting sun, trading goods as available at each frontier port. Though the conditions become more harsh as we go, the trade becomes more lively as resources become more scarce:
1) Dried meat of the Yztlanti, which is an enormous thin-skinned mammal that lives just under the desert sands--a single animal sometimes stretching for an acre or more. Native families usually raise a single creature, carefully trimming flesh from its edges for harvest and allowing it to grow back. The lifespan of a Yztlanti is unknown.
2) Mind Milk of the sentient Ugatcha cactus. Much more dangerous than the docile Yztlanti, the Ugatcha defends its milk with a deadly ferocity, shooting their poisonous spines accurately up to 50 yards, triggered by the telepathic impulses of those hunting for it. Ugatcha hunters train for years to specifically not think about the creature while going through the motions of tracking, approaching, and scalping the cacti.
3) Krakey Dew Candy. The giant wind scorpions of this region leave secretions on the grasses and scrub brushes which crystalize in the first rays of morning light. These crystals have a smokey, fruity taste, and are mildly hallucinogenic.
The Albion continues to scour the desert, hoping for a single desperate sign of Airshipmechanic apprentice @Eve.
There is nothing.
The sandstorm has scrubbed the desert clean in places, revealing outcroppings of stone and petrified bones of long dead beasts. In other areas, hillocks and dunes where before there were none. There are no tracks or unnatural debris. She could be buried, or utterly sandblasted away to oblivion.
I conduct the service from the deck. A jar of honey poured over the rail, as is our custom.
Perhaps captaining such a vessel is something I'm not ready for, and never should have taken on. Better I tend hives--then the only one to be stung is me.
We watch the orange sun set over the yellow sands, and think about our lost comrade.
I never should have sent @Eve and her crew to chisel the syrup. I never should have taken my eyes off the horizon, searching for sandstorms. Instead of daydreaming about bees. I never should have taken the Albion into the Deep Dessert.
But if it wasn't for airshipmechanic apprentice @Eve, more lives may have been lost. More than just hers.
When @Eve saw the sandstorm approaching, she began sending her clean-up crew up the ropes. There they all were, dangling off the hull, hammers and chisels in hand, doing the important detail work of removing the encrusted imitation maple syrup from vital ship components. When young, plump Tommy Airfatz lost his grip and fell to the end of his safety rope, it was @Eve who made sure we was retrieved and pulled up to safety. But when we returned to pull @Eve up, she was gone. The force of the sand blast sheared straight through the rope.
The Albion pulled up, up, up to the limits of its pitch, out of the sandstorm, skimming its edge high into the sunset.
But @Eve is gone.
I never should have sent an apprentice on that job. It should have been me.
The Albion proceeds at speed across the desert. Nothing better than the lilting waves of ultraviolet energy from the sun to burn away the crusty vestiges of sugary crust from our hull. Well, that and a little elbow grease, as I've directed airshipmechanic apprentice @Eve to take a team outside to the hull and chip away at the sticky remnants. The sugary crystals catch the sunlight like snow as they puff away little clouds. It wouldn't hurt to drive us down low through a little dust storm to scrape away the rest.
But what I wouldn't give to have a few Giant Bees around. Drones I'm thinking. We paint up the hull gain in a striking black and yellow, command our own small swarm... we could have our way around these parts! Well, at least protect ourselves properly from the wrong kinda folk.
I was sure @Eva had her team under control, properly roped for safety as they repelled down the outer hull of the Albion, chisels in hand, but I felt like taking a look. As soon as I emerged from the hatch up top, Ensign Fleabauge reported.
"Sir. Sandstorm 9 degrees off starboard. Approaching fast. It's a big one."