The Spirit of Duerra is airborne. The Old World, the Revenants and the Dwarves and the polluted drama of their existence have been left behind. Ahead of them is the Cauldron. A new trinity has formed: the party, the spirit of the ship, and the help they find along the way.
Andrazel, Edwyn, Selene, Marnos and Orryn watch through the expansive, curved bridge window as the ship flirts with the cloud cap. They rise above the clouds and looking back they can see the Cauldron shelf and the retreating city of Gathela. In front of them is the endless, dirty-colored cotton of the horizon. They fall below the clouds and take in the jagged descent and transition of the ground into a moonscape of small craters and the isolated inselberg towers. The rare small pond and brush of fungal growth appears to support some life although they haven't seen any evidence of large beasts or humanoids.
Tormgar is in control, motionless, centered inside the protective, embryonic envelope of his control pod. He's held in perfect stasis, immune to the motion of the ship. His eyes are open and staring. Orryn waves his hands in front of Tormgar's face but Tormgar doesn't notice.
Andrazel can see Tormgar's chest rise and fall. He's alive at least.
Tormgar is floating in vision. He feels powerful. He's a dragon that can seize and twist the world to his desire. He dives in a swoop and watches the ground approach. He pulls up into a long, arching glide. He knows he had a past life and the deep vein of obligations that came with it, but that link is broken. He can't think of it or access it. All that remains is the current imagery: the land in front of him. Somewhere out there, is the end he seeks.
The ship dives and the party has to catch themselves. Balcazar and Marnos grab the lip of the wide instrument console that circumscribes most of the bridge.
Eventually the ship stabilizes and glides along the undercarriage of the clouds. The party is cautious and waits for another drop, but Tormgar is apparently holding the ship on a steady line. Things appear stable enough for exploration. They turn towards the door at the back of the bridge. Beyond lies the body of the ship.
Balcazar opens the door to a long hallway spine that heads from tip to tail. Engine throb and mechanical energy pulse from deep within.
They walk down the corridor and open doors. The doors are thick and metal with a rubbery seal, but most open smoothly and without effort. There's a sleeping chamber with twelve stacked bunk beds and embedded banks of drawers; a small office filled with handwritten log books; a mess room with a central dining table and a walls of closed but not locked cabinets of food and machinery. Some hallway doors are locked and require a skillful application of the spell knock.
They find spaces they don't understand: a cramped, closet-sized space with a turret chair, a room of empty large jars on pedestals. One room won't open with knock. Towards the back, is a wide, sliding door that opens to the top of the engine room. They descend into a sleek maze of pumps and bulk chunks of humming, vibrant metal ringed by delicate catwalks. The sound is deafening. They turn back and close the door.
The ship is large, as large as Ukhlars' mansion, but the livable area is considerably smaller, around five rooms. There's a lot of room to hide, but considerably less to relax.
Marnos, Edwyn, Selene, Orryn and Andrazel have opened every door that responded to a simple touch or spell. Their heads spin with the vessel's complexity. They head back to the bridge to sit and ingest the scenery.
As they head from ship tail to bridge, Edwyn and Marnos overhear the cloth drag of hushed movement from inside the mess room. The room is still empty: closed cabinets and chored central table with twelve chairs. Edwyn walks in and starts opening cabinets, hand on hammer, ready to strike. There's a soft scrape a few cabinet doors down from his left, loud enough for everyone to hear. Edwyn takes a quick few steps to the spot and yanks the door open.
There's a Dwarf, hunched and cowering in the confined space. He's frightened. He tries to scurry behind a small tower of food cans and knocks them down. Edwyn reaches in, grabs him by the leg, and drags him into the open room. Edwyn holds him motionless as he squirms.
One immediate observation of the party. He's a Dwarf, not a Revenant. His eyes don't burn with the their resolve and chaotic intensity. He's trying to disengage. Selene steps next to him and tries to calm him down, tells him that he's perfectly safe, that there are no Revenants around and the party has no intention or desire to harm him. He stops struggling and takes in the party in full glances. Edwyn keeps a firm palm on his shoulder.
Selene talks with him. It's a one-sided dialog but she slowly begins to chip away at his silence. She gets a name, Arral, and gradually, and with great care and ability she begins to extract a story. The party listens as his assembles his narrative in jerks. The Dwarven language comes out so awkwardly they wonder the last time he had spoken.
Arral feels the tension subside as he speaks. And out the self-interest of his survival he beings to unspool his story.
Arral left Gathela two decades ago aboard the Fortress called the Jewel of the Gray Waste. He left by the momentum of his own feet. He wanted to go.
The launch was grand. He remembers the first wobble of the ship from its docking platform onto the permanent support of the Cauldron air. Everything was good. There weren't any signs or premonitions of the trouble to come. It was pure adventure. It was his chance to escape his family and find freedom. He knew he would be gone a long time but the Fortress was large and filled with entertainment. He could walk to the edge and see the land slowly edge by. He could make friends. He had never left Gathela before.
As an engineer by training, he was assigned to the Propulsion Team, located in the belly of the Fortress in the third quadrant engine room. He was the junior of a thirty person team. The shifts were long, but he always stayed late. It was engrossing work. He asked and learned from the elder engineers. He picked up their gifts of experience. It was about sound and feeling as well as numbers. He began to be noticed.
Years passed but he wasn't counting. He was comfortable with his routine. Wake up. Spend the day in the engine room. Go to bed. Occasionally he would walk to the top deck, feel the dry air, and take in the alien land below.
One morning he entered the engineer crew break room to find a group of high-level Admins waiting for him. He was asked to attend a meeting in the control tower with the head of Engineering, Turi. The next morning he took the long desk walk to the tower and the elevator up to a glass-walled conference room with panoramic views of the Cauldron below. The conference room was already full. Senior people were gathered around the table. He was afraid.
By the grace of Marthammor Duin it was a promotion. He was reassigned. He was given orders not speak of the reassignment to anyone. He would work on the Surface Ship, the Spirit of Duerra. Arral was elated. It was the jewel within the jewel. He know of it as did most engineers, but access to the ship was tightly guarded. Of the thousands aboard the Fortress only fifty were allowed access. It was a great honor.
Arral was lead out of the meeting, out a separate set of access doors, down a second elevator, and through Fortress hallways he had never stepped foot. He was lead past a great vast space, a warehouse of warehouses, full of sounds and glitter, then to a single hatch. The hatch was opened and he climbed down into the Spirit of Duerra.
Arral drifts off at the memory and stops talking. It takes a while for Selene to edge him back into his story.
The Spirit of Duerra ran itself. He wasn't sure how he could help. The two other assigned engineers were no help. They were pointless, aimless, dumb Dwarves he felt were awarded the job because of connections. The systems were too difficult from them to understand, and he thinks now perhaps for even Dwarves to build. He spent his days and nights on the ship, wandering, trying to gain some connections to the forces under his feet. Everything was so beautiful. The Fortress felt brutish in comparison. He traced out every contour. He listened. Those around him felt brutish in comparison. They laughed too loud. Told stupid jokes. He would rather spend his time alone in the company of the ship.
He hated the ship's name. He calls it Saman for "friend".
He stopped leaving the ship except when ordered for meetings and the time away was anguish. He was done with people. He could feel the ship welcoming him back when he returned. It was calming. Everything outside was chaotic.
A few flight members and engineers voiced their concern about his behavior, but he was the only one who seemed to know what to do, what lever to pull or button to push, so they kept him on.
The ship would detach occasionally for a surface mission. These missions over time became more violent. He stayed away from the bridge because he hated the sights. It was always some new community. The ship would land and the landing crew would always return return bloody with mementos, bits of jewelery, and other such things. There was always the excuse that the Fortress needed the resources, but eventually it felt like sport. The planning felt half-hazard.
There wasn't a single precipitating event. But one day, Arral decided to disappear. He knew the ship. He could move between levels, through crawlspaces, to get to where he wanted to go. Saman would keep him feed and warm. He knew he would be OK.
It's apparent the strain of speaking has become to much. Selene stops Arral and invites him to the bridge. He gets up and follows the party.
Tormgar is still suspended and motionless. The trajectory of the ship is straight. The roughness of the dim ground below is washed smooth by the speed of the ship. They sit and watch. Arral says nothing.
From behind the ship, there's an abrupt blaze of bright light with the intensity of the summer sun and the color of the winter moon. The ground is briefly fully visible. The pale-lit ridges and rocks cast long, dark shadows. Immediately the ship rises, through and above the cloud cover. Tormgar, from within his bubble, felt the disturbance. He rises to investigate.
The ship turns right and the party can see, on the far horizon, a thick column on smoke, rising from the location of Gathela like a poisoned spectre.
Then, quickly upon them, an expanding rippled disturbance of cloud cover. Tormgar can't turn the ship and the ship is slammed sideways. Everyone but Tormgar is flung against the console. The ship is violently rocked. And then calm. Everyone staggers to their feet. The column has diffused into a large, expanding cone.
They don't speak. Marnos sits on the floor.
The ship settles back into a level line under the clouds. The liquid engulfing Tormgar rises and retreats back into the ceiling. Tormgar steps off the captain's chair. He's shaken. Everyone gives him space to grieve.
It's another day before Tormgar feels like he has the concentration to return to the bridge and step back into ship control. It's a relief for Tormgar to think about something beyond his grief and the self-recriminations of what he could have done.
The ship continues on and the day flows into the next.
Tormgar, as a challenge, begins to focus on the route. He's always been in control, but certain directions have been more comfortable. If he turns too sharply, travels North or South, or pull too far up, there's a buzzing nudge back West. Even the air looks a little brighter within the tunnel of forced intent.
But their appears to be brief moments of second possibilities, other alternatives, like old trails grown over and forgotten. He latches onto one and ignores the buzzing to re-direct himself. The feeling is different, smooth and natural.
Eventually the discomfort grows too great for him to ignore and he returns the ship to its preferred direction.
It's something he will bring up with the party.
Tormgar is hungry. The ship is hungry. It needs fuel. Instinctively Tormgar knows he needs to land. What he needs is in the Earth, but the composition must be exact. He needs to find a suitable spot. He scans. Most ground is poor, nutrient poor, but well ahead, on is a sharp isolated inselberg is a level spot half way up. It looks promising. He approaches. It looks like a good place to land.
The others on the ship notice the descent and crowd into the bridge wondering what's going on. The rock face approaches. The ship pauses and slowly lowers. There's a growl under their feet, the sound of moving metal, hisses of air, and then a dull thud. The ship has quit moving. Everyone assumes they've landed.
Tormgar releases himself from the control seat. "We need fuel", he says. "The ship will take care of everything, but we should probably make sure nothing is interfering with the process. I suggest we head out."
Everyone gears up. They meet at the descent door near the back of the ship. Arral is with the party, they didn't want to leave him alone in the ship, although Edwyn had to physically grab him. He struggles until he exhausts himself. He's quiet.
The door opens. Dry, gritty air blows in. The air is cool and clean.
They descend down unrolled stairs to the dusty surface and look around. Under the ship they see thick, shovel plates unfold and begin to plunge and pull up mounds of dirt into the body of the ship. It's loud. The shoves split and shatter rock and boulder.
The party walk a circumference around the ship's body and take in the view. It's their first steps deep inside the Cauldron. Edwyn carries Arral.
Marnos, after his eyes readjust from the brightness of the ship to the diffuse outside light spots a trail weaving down the mountain below. It's thin and it appears to end at their current plateau shelf. Marnos and Andrazel keep watch.
The shovels continue. The ground shakes.
Orryn runs around the corner from the back of his ship, waving his hands. He puts up his hands in the silent scout symbol of prey and points around the corner. The party collects and the round the back of the ship.
They see the hands first and then the body as pair of trolls, one larger and one smaller, pull themselves around the corner. The party has no choice but to engage.
Both trolls are killed and buried under the fire and flame of Selene's spells. Edwyn pokes at their corpses and is satisfied. They won't be coming back. Andrazel and Marnos go back to monitoring the trail. They've found a second trail continuing from their current location to further up, above the cloud cover. They head up the trail to escape the pounding of the massive shovels. Their impulses hurt their ears.
Five cowled and feathered heads are in a line, staring intently in rapture at the ship. They're crouched behind a low slab or rock. One of them has set aside a pull sled of piled vegetation. Their black cloaks and black-feathered limbs are nearly invisible against the grey soil. Andrazel, the first to spot them, identifies them as Kenkus.
Andrazel knows they're after the ship. Although Andrazel hasn't met one in person he knows as a race they aren't evil, but perhaps a bit chaotic. They are, however, obsessed with flight. The legend he learned goes that their ancestors, by the consequence of their greed, robbed themselves and their linage of children of flight. They've sought to regain that freedom.
The Kenkus know they've been spotted. They stand up and shuffle sideways across the ascending slope and disappear into the fog of the cloud cover. Andrazel and Marnos return to warn everyone else.
On their short descent, the pounding stops. The silence is beautiful. The ship must be finished. Tormgar is standing by the stairs, hand on the rail. He says that they'll be ready to go on a few minutes. He wants to be sure the undercarriage pack-up goes well. He glances under the ship as the big blades fold and slowly pack themselves into the ship belly.
Selene yells from the opposite side of the ship. Balcazar, Marnos, and Andrazel run around to see a pair of Kenkus rapidly climbing the side of the ship.
There's a loud click from the ship's belly. Tormgar yells that the ship's ready.
The Kenkus have made it to the upper spine and are sitting down. They call down to the party with two perfect echoes of Tormgar's "ship's ready".
The full party coalesces around Tormgar. He's spotted the Kenkus. He tells everyone to wait. He casts Heat Metal directly under the Kenkus. The plates glow with heat. They yelp and scurry down the side.
Tormgar quickly ushers everyone in. He's the last. He closes the door behind him. A far wall console is beeping. Tormgar sits in the chair, is enveloped, and the ship rises. There's a rumble under the ship. The console stops beeping.
Marnos, Edwyn, Selene, and Andrazel can see the faces of the Kenkus as they depart, starting up in sadness. Under their landing spot is a large hole, cut from rock. A splash of fresh debris spills over the edge and falls into the bottom of the cut earth.
They have fuel. They're in flight. They escaped the obsessive Kenkus and the clubs of the Trolls. They're back on the path set by the vision of Tormgar.