The mercane call him Fistoclese. He’s the gargantuan boss of the Nexus Caravan, though you haven’t heard him utter a single order. These cosmic merchants are adept planar travelers that use the astral realm as a base of operations. Dozens of wondrous flying vehicles buy and sell magic wares that rival any major metropolis. For the benefit of their new guests, the procession has slowed to a mundane ten-knot cruising speed oriented directly above the soulstream. Life energy paints the entire caravan with golden light. It all feels quite fitting.
Aided by astral flight, it only takes a few hours for the Maelstrom to catch up with the scouting party. By Crane’s account, you have traveled over 1,000 miles in a single day. (Wouldn’t that have been nice when sailing to Azlant!) Papa waves the ship into position beside a certain opulent trade vessel. Kaledith holds eagerly to the rail with a look of reverent awe. On the opposite deck stands her family business partner in the un-summoned flesh. Zylith Hoclya steeples his long ringed fingers, closes his many eyes and bows deeply.
“I need a drink,” says Akane still visibly shaken by her experience with the astral bakekujira. She disappears below decks.
“Is it day now?” yawns Boniva. “Papa, you’re up.” He disappears into his cabin while rubbing at awkward saddle sores. “Damn griffon,” he mumbles.
Papa asks, “You seen dee warlock?” He shoves a few large rolls of damp hide into Weyland’s arms. (I forget Papa has a Jamaican/Haitian accent sometimes. Just think of Sebastian from Little Mermaid while reading.)
“He’s studying and asks not to be disturbed for anything less than stimulating,” responds Weyland. The android’s eyebrow raises in response to the cargo he now holds. “Fascinating,” he says.
After pleasantries, you settle into matters at hand with Zylith.
“Slate has most certainly not traveled up this passage. The boss would have intercepted. I remember him from your earlier travels. Slate may have the Grayscale’s playbook, but he is a simpleton after all. Now, what is this about platinum armor?” Zylith’s curiosity proves boundless. He can smell a good artifact.
“Yah mon, dats how he turned inta dee wyrm,” says Papa. “How ‘bout we give ya dee rights fo’ first offah aftah Slate hand eet ovah.”
“Priceless!” responds the mercane. “Let me ask you this: With this pakthryxl problem, the Grayscale is accumulating a vast amount of draconic hoard-wealth. Are you going to pursue it?” It surprises some that Grayscale is common knowledge to Zylith.
“We are exploring all possibilities in holy triplicate,” says Araris.
“Indeed.” Zylith gestures towards Araris’ rainments precisely where his talisman might be. “And as servants of Apsu, Abadar and – perhaps others – you are well-resourced to do so. However, I cannot be the first to wonder, and I will not be the last.”
“Zylith!” exclaims Kaledith.
“Oh goodness no, my Lady Sevardomos, um… Lady Laertes?” He glances at Weyland. “We mercane would never extort a client. We manage. Better to say, a partnership with the Nexus Caravan will yield the greatest profit for all involved.”
“An’ what we get outta dee deal?” asks Papa.
Simultaneously, Araris explains, “The firm of Razvimharroc, Septimus and Sevardomos can provide all the…”
Zylith answers and interrupts all at once. “We can give you time. How will this help, you ask? Consider this: What is Apsu’s interest in this displaced hoard-wealth? What of Abadar’s? How about your factions’? I wager several of them are drawing up plans for it even now. It’s an irresistible prize that will gather many in the end, especially if not managed well. Perhaps this has been the Grayscale’s goal all along – an illustrious planar audience! You see, it’s all a matter of time.”
“Zylith, I believe we were speaking of Slate’s whereabouts,” Araris solemnly reminds those gathered. “Do you know how to find either him or the Obelisks of Fortune?”
Everyone watches to see if Zylith feigns ignorance.
“My apologies.” Zylith bows. “Slate is a simple matter. Ask an astral leviathan. It’s whaling season after all. Pods of mothers and their calves will be flying upstream. One is bound to have seen a dimwit like Slate if platinum dragons are as spectacular as you describe. Just steer clear of the Astral Whaler. Nasty poacher, that Astral Whaler…”
Everyone shares knowing looks.
“As for the obelisks, the dragon’s pay us well to manage their secrets. However, as business partners it would be our rightful duty to aid the servants of Apsu in locating them.”
Since the captain is off-duty, Papa gathers the attending officers to discuss options. “She (Gash) tellin’ me dat dee whales can ‘port anywhere dey already been, an dat dey can ‘port to any bein’ dey already seen. Maybe we wake up dee dead one an ask eet ‘bout mistah Slate?”
“Papa, don’t be gross.” Kaledith wrinkles her face. “You said the Astral Whaler is hunting the soulstream opposite this one. Slate must have flown that way. Let’s just ask the leviathans there. We should also partner with Zylith. Weyland agrees. Don’t you dear?”
Papa and Araris share conspiratorial glances of alarm and lost brotherhood. Confused by their eye movements, Weyland says, “Something tells me we already have.”
Araris adds, “This game will never end with the mercane, but better to play it with them than against. Kaledith, would you mind drawing up first papers with Zylith?” She smiles, tugs at her heavy skirts and skitters back to her mentor.
“This is absolutely splendid news Kaledith!” says Zylith with informal candor. “You know, I never did find you a wedding present. Will this suffice? It should make their scouting work a great deal more comfortable.” Beside a hogtied pile of splinters that was the last griffon-tethered dingy rests an elaborately carved chariot. It features pods of astral leviathans following diverging arcs of golden filigree. After a few more provisions are acquired and allocated, the second scouting mission begins.
The caravan and the Maelstrom can no longer be seen in the distance as the scouting party flies down the soulstream toward its last point of convergence. There they will follow the opposite tributary in search of astral leviathans, perchance they have spotted Slate in passing.
Araris has his saddle to himself again – all the better for these high velocity maneuvers. He looks back at the new chariot. Weyland is stoic as usual, but Papa keeps hooting and hollering. These exhilarating speeds (over 200 mph) are seldom experienced so casually.
As predicted, a levithan is soon spotted. It’s game time. Five shulsaga rangers and their astral sharks menace a sow. She is obviously exhausted, wounded and incapable of dimensional travel. Weyland spots a sinister vessel moving further away upstream. They quickly decide Scandrannon will fly into the hunting party at top-speed after Papa and Weyland disembark to slow down and magically enhance.
“Like we discussed,” asserts Araris while the griffon approaches the first ranger with at least some trepidation. “Remember, claws can grow back.” In one moment, the target is a spot in the distance. The next, they are upon it. Razor sharp talons fall across the shulsaga’s neck faster than arrows fly. The force of it snips off his head in surprisingly silent fashion. They bank hard for Araris to fire his shots, but his arrows are dulled by undead flesh. More juju zombies, the lot of them!
Papa decides to decelerate with transferred force rather than astral dancing. His first chain makes a fine mist of another ranger. The tension riddles his arms with tiny bone fractures and strained muscles. It is the first of many legendary and rage-filled exertions he will accomplish in scarcely a minute! He brutally tethers two astral sharks before coming to a full stop. Suspended in a web of chain and corpses, he presents two nearby rangers with an open target. Fully twenty arrows are fired into a mess of displacement and grizzly determination!
Weyland decelerates because it is the rational thing to do. By the time he arrives and rends another shulsaga, the mother leviathan is well on her way in pursuit of the ship. Scandrannon and Papa are covered in bloodless shark gore, and two rangers remain. Araris flies a vector that protects him and his mount from most arrows, though a few find their marks. The very worst is warded off by the Hellknight’s strange talisman. Once everyone is present, the immediate threat is over in seconds. Now for the Astral Whaler.
“MMMyyy chiiiLLLddd!!! I WWWiiilll cruuuSSSHHH yyyoooUUU AAAaaaLLL!!!” she cries out in one telepathical explosion. The mother leviathan cannot catch up to the Astral Whaler, but she still tries. Araris has picked up Papa and Weyland in the chariot. As the team comes near her, dozens of overprotective eyes look their way. She is ready to charge.
How fortunate. She’s as cunning as Scandrannon, thinks Araris. He slows and assumes nonthreatening posture – similar to approaching another rider without causing the horse to bolt (a remarkable trick considering a griffon’s appetite for horse meat). With soothing drawn-out tones, Araris broadcasts, “LLLeeettt UUUsss paaaSSS tttOOO fffiiiGHT theee whaaaLLLEEERRR!”
Surprised and inspired by such eloquent psychic whale-song, she responds with a titanic reverberation off her baleen. It sounds like every octave of a colossal pipe organ’s bass chords all at once. The musical Doppler effect is pronounced as Scandrannon passes reassuringly close to to her. You are now gaining on the Astral Whaler at the griffon’s full speed.
You inspect the ship from a distance while hiding in it’s likely blind spots. Papa and Weyland confer and agree the vessel is made of steel, maybe three decks worth! Such a boat would never float in the water, and no external means of propulsion are evident. The chemical scent of exhaust alerts Weyland to the possibility of an alchemical dragon. If so, it is beyond even material legend, operating with all the advantages of the astral plane.
“Dee rune’s ol’ hut eez always dee ansah fo’ deez kinda tings!” Papa holds Vaghol’s former prison, an adamantine cannonball suspended from his spiked chains. “Boom! Jus’ like dee real ting! Wha’cha tink?”
“An opening surprise hit low on the aft hull,” suggests Weyland. “They will react with the port or starboard harpoon banks.”
Araris adds, “We stagger our speeds. Papa first, then Weyland. Scandrannon and I will hide in the mother leviathan’s silhouette in case the whaler turns in time.”
Everyone is surprised with the alacrity of the plan’s formation, then they realize that everyone present is lawful and un-chaotic for a pleasant change of pace (meta, but hilarious).
Enhanced and loosed from the chariot with speed far greater than terminal velocity, Samdi shoots toward the Astral Whaler. Oh yah, dees gonna hurt, he thinks. His stinging eyes squint against the swell. His cheeks flap rapidly like a bulldog’s jowls.
In stark contrast to the pandemonium of falling, Papa has the strong impression of Gash floating effortlessly beside him. Inside an illusion of sensual calm, she leans in close enough for hot breath to caress his pierced ear. “I’m counting on it,” she sighs.
Woosh – GOOOoooNNNnnnGGGggg! (…The vibration continues for rounds)
The concentrated point of the magic adamantine ball contacts a steel panel of the Astral Whaler, and it bends inward like soft gold. Papa feels a flash of brilliant warmth as his weight compresses into the fresh divot. Rivets pop clear like bullets and welds fail. Time freezes into split seconds of anticipation… Then, a bloody arm raises clear of the impact crater holding the same sturdy siege ammunition. With mythic will, Papa strikes again. He and the panel fall aside.
In response, the Astral Whaler manages a 45-degree turn starboard. Weyland and Araris can see the siege ports opening.
In light of Papa’s success, Weyland is suddenly faced with the need for orderly deceleration. He slows as much as possible with magical flight, but it isn’t enough. He has to use his scythe to hook the new aperture. For the most part, it works. He careens into an interior cabin. Two narrow halls and two mechanical side doors lead into the room. Weyland smells refined oils and carrion. He hears metal-clad marching and rhythmic foundry processes beyond the bulkheads.
The Astral Whaler completes its turn ready to fire upon an enemy craft. The perceptive pilot surveys for a target and grows nervous. All he can see is the distant mother leviathan against the soulstream. And here he had spent critical time readying ten explosive siege harpoons for these intruders. They are already on board! he worries. Araris notices a figure rushing out of an observation deck.
As seen from that very deck, the mother leviathan appears to be sprouting feathers. Then, Scandrannon unfurls his black wings and leaves her shadowy outline. They silently bank for the ship’s brand new entrance before the Astral Whaler abruptly rolls! The world goes sideways for those inside.
Papa and Weyland fly mostly clear, but the turn is disorienting. Neither bothers to correct the astral anomaly as alchemical golems spill through the halls and doorways as if the shift never occurred. Ampules fire into the cabin and break open, bombarding the two with copious amounts of negative energy. Papa grits his teeth. Weyland seems somewhat more comfortable with the life-stealing substances.
Scandrannon rolls to align with the portal as Araris glimpses the melee. The golems in the cramped hallways did not fare well, so his crew-mates now cover the doorways. He dismounts upright into the rear cabin and crosses it in search of the pilot.
Papa is a full-body bruised color beneath a honeycomb of shrapnel, and that was before the negative energy. He tugs a shard of bone in his forearm and wonders if it’s his. There are no more golems behind his door, so he disappears down an empty corridor. “Oh, yah mon! Papa Samdi found dee whale!” he hoots.
Weyland is not so lucky. (Or is he?) At least five alchemical golems had “manned” the harpoons outside his door. Now they’re pushing through like some conga line of death! To make matters worse, they begin arming themselves with the blasted siege works! Weyland determines the best angle for cover, steps into position and begins.
A negative energy bomb is thrown, not launched, at Weyland from the opposite hallway. The pilot! thinks Araris. He sneaks a glance, but the way seems clear. He imbues his vision to see the unseen and proceeds with caution. He soon finds a complicated metal door with no handle or lock of any kind. It leads into the deck’s central room. Araris smiles. He’s getting to use all kinds of neat tricks today.
While cutting the leviathan calf from from its tethers, Samdi recognizes that several sedatives have been used. He thinks as much as sings to the newborn, “Hush baby whale-y don’cha cry, Papa gonna sing ya a lullaby…” Outside, you can hear the mother calling. Once the final tether is cut, the calf reacts and accidentally slams Papa into a huge grate on the floor. He shakes off the black spots in his vision, grins and starts pounding away at the metal.
The negative energy is starting to take its toll, but Weyland swings again. He has the golems positioned in the doorway to risk more of his attacks if they want a two-on-one advantage. He knows it’s difficult for the constructs to decide. It’s certainly a challenge for him to determine or “feel” when the use of Apsu’s power is appropriate. Like now, for instance: Weyland imagines Papa urging him, “Come on Way-land, go all dee fuckin’ way fo’ dee Way-bringah!” He surges, and his scythe cleaves through the glass and iron entirely.
Seen from inside the central compartment, the arc of a magic sword glides through steel. Araris Septimus steps through the broken doorway with a look of impending doom. The invisible pilot is shulsaga, and not a zombie this time. Three out of four mechanical contraptions whirl away as he tends to discolored jets of fire issuing from a fourth. Though panicked, the pilot’s concentration is focused. He quickly abandons his work to use a lifting platform that moves him a deck higher.
BHHHOOOOOOM! The bulkheads begin screaming and howling after something rams the Astral Whaler. Everyone inside takes a rough tumble. Up and down get confusing, but Weyland and Papa resume slaying their respective golems and docking bays. Araris notices that two of the four devices now billow multi-color plumes of smoke! Magic light sources dim and pulse red. A lever allows Araris to use the lifting platform. He now stands across from the pilot on the Astral Whaler’s observation deck.
“Get off my ship, or I will blow us all to the nine hells!” he threatens loudly. His hand squeezes an exotic looking control on the forward console. Golden light from the soulstream shines softly through every portal.
To be continued…