This is the last Roy Harper short story currently ready for publication. One other exists but its currently under consideration for publication in a fiction collection so I can’t list it here. Next week we’ll introduce Roy’s latest novella length outing and perhaps post the introduction as well.
In the mean time, enjoy a short about lost ships and the horrors that lurk within. For those curious about timelines these events take place about two months before the beginning of Firespinner. Books is a longstanding background character in Roy’s life and getting him onstage for a bit was a treat. I hope you enjoy.
“The prow says it’s the Edmund Fitzgeral.” Roy handed the spy glass over to Books and pulled his gloves back on, fingers already stinging from cold. “Doesn’t look like one of yours. More of a passenger ship if you ask me.”
“That’s certain,” Books said, studying the ship from his superior vantage point. He was only a foot taller than Roy was but standing next to him it felt more like a mile. “The Fitz is a liner out of Avalon’s harbor. Usually plies the Avalon-Hampshire route over in the Atlantic.”
Roy frowned as their small launch drew closer, skimming just above the water on a sheet of heated flight metal. “What’s it doing out here in the Pacific then?”
“By the looks of it, it got stranded somewhere in the Arctic.” Books lowered the glass and gestured at the ice surrounding the ship. “That ice is too thick to have come from anywhere else.”
“So what’s it doing down by Port Redwood? You don’t get much summer here but its hardly the Arctic.” Roy dug his pack out from under a bench. “I don’t like it when the cold comes too far south in unseasonable fashion. It doesn’t bode well.”
“You’re the expert on that front,” Books said, unfastening a short hafted boarding ax from the side of the launch. “Either way, the Sanna don’t like it on their side of the border so we’ve got to move it somehow.”
Their skiff rounded the prow of the ship and they could see a hole two decks high running half the length of the vessel. Roy scowled. “Or sink it.”
“Don’t think the Sanna would appreciate us leaving that on their side of the border but yes, we may have to.”
“Trust me, Books. There’s nothing good on that ship and we’re better off not going aboard.” Roy pulled two half-gallon pints of oil out of his pack.
Books gestured at them in meaningful fashion. “Why do you think I waited for you to come up from Keegan’s Bluff before mounting this expedition? We’ll look around and if we don’t like what we see you can burn the place to the waterline.”
“That’s an bronze belly boat, Books. I can’t burn the hull.” Roy fastened the flasks to his belt then pulled out a leaf bladed short sword and slung it there as well. Finally he got his trump card out, a bronze caged lantern holding two fist sized sulfurite crystal gleaming with the power of the fires trapped within. “Might be able to put a hole in it with these.”
Books whistled softly. “That’s an awful lot of magic you’ve got there, Harp. What were you expecting to find out here?”
“With you? I never know what to expect. Have you forgotten what happened when you convinced me to rejoin the regular Army for ‘just a quick trip south’ way back when?”
He snorted. “You stumble on one little Tetzlani blood cult and suddenly everyone thinks your a jinx. Just try not to char us alive with those, alright? Just because we’ve passed through the fires of the Stone Circle doesn’t mean we’re invincible.”
Roy glanced around at the other two in the skiff with them. “So you’ve changed your mind? We’re not taking your boys in with you?”
“I hired them to navigate the ship if we can get it moving, not to help us scout the ship for danger. You know I don’t trust many people watching my back these days.” Books pulled his wool overcoat off and dragged on a heavily padded duelist’s jacket on in its place. The garment strained over his shoulders, probably sewn to his dimensions in warm weather and now suffering from some shrinkage. On many people that wouldn’t matter. But Books was a dolmen breaker, imbued with superhuman strength and durability after accidental exposure to druidic magic some ten years ago when they were both in the 43rd Infantry. His stature and muscles had grown to accommodate his new capabilities.
In contrast, that same incident had turned Roy into a dolmen burner – a firemind to the druids, although he learned that much later – which came with very few physical perks. Sometimes he felt like he’d actually gotten shorter. That was probably a result of being around so many people who got taller but for an already short man the disparity of the outcome stung.
They ignored the hole in the side of the Edmund Fitzgerald, choosing to instead board the ship at the launching deck at the rear of the ship, where small boats generally came and went from large passenger ships. As they finished their preliminary rounds Roy caught a glimpse of movement from inside the gap in the hull. A flash of white he may have imagined, then nothing when he looked closely. “Got something moving just above the waterline.”
Books pivoted to follow his line of sight but neither one of them could spot further signs of life. “Well,” Books finally said, “We’ll keep on our toes.”
The two of them did just that, taking great care in turning every corner and climbing every stairway along the top decks. After almost an hour of grinding tension and bitter cold they determined there was nothing out of doors on the Fitzgerald. Then they went below decks. Books took them down by the rearward crew access which led down into the kitchens where they found the first signs of something wrong. The decks had been totally empty, which was odd in retrospect, but the kitchen was a wreck. Pans, broken plates and scattered containers of spices littered the floor. It looked like the entire place had been working full tilt when a giant hand reached down and shook the ship like a baby rattle. There were a few old bloodstains, or perhaps old sauce stains but no signs of people.
Books crossed the kitchen carefully, making his way to the double doors that likely entered the dining room, but Roy grabbed his shoulder. “Wait. Look through the cupboards.”
“For what?” He asked, beginning to pull open doors.
“Food. What else?” Roy ignored the shelves and went through the kitchen until he found the ice chest, let himself in and held up his lantern to look around. With the exception of the racks full of chilled wine the shelves there were empty. Roy went back out and dug through cupboards until he met Books halfway. “Find anything?”
“Not a crumb.” Books folded his arms and shook his head. “Ships stock up on a generous amount of food when they put to sea, just in case there are complications. My freighters pack at least ten days of food per week of their trips. And I don’t have to worry about keeping passengers happy. They must’ve been missing a long time if they ate through all of their stores.”
“How long could they go missing without your hearing about it?”
Books cocked his head thoughtfully. “Well, rumors spread faster on the seas than you think. Word would be out on the docks she was late pretty much the day after she failed to show up. All sailors talk, you can’t stop them, so it’d spread pretty fast. Maybe two weeks?”
“And the Avalon-Hampshire route is how long?”
“Eight days for a ship like the Edmund Fitzgerald, so I’d be surprised if they had less than two weeks food on board…” Books shook his head. “And before you ask, no, I hadn’t heard that the Fitz was missing before today. You’re trying to narrow something down, Harp. What is it?”
“I think they stumbled across Hunger. Or at least something closely connected to it, like the Wendigoes like I saw during the Summer of Snow.”
Books heaved a sigh and nodded. “Like I said, you’re the expert on that one. What are we watching for?”
“It’s hard to say. If an avatar of the Antediluvian Deep is here we could get just about anything.” Roy laughed a hollow laugh. “If it’s just an elemental creature tied to it we could get anything, just less dangerous.”
“How helpful. Anything else we should look for here or can we move on?”
Roy drew his sword. “We move on.”
Books walked over to the double doors again and pushed them open.
A polar bear picked him up by the shoulders and threw him out into the dining room in a crash of breaking furniture. Roy froze for a second, trying to process that. He was pretty sure polar bears weren’t elementals, although bears in general bordered on the supernatural so there was a chance. The bear crashed back through the doors, Books’ shoulder buried in its stomach. He drove the creature straight into the back wall with an impact so hard the boat rocked under their feet.
The bear pushed off the wall and slammed Books into the ground. Even his superhuman strength was no match for the bear’s overpowering mass and reach. The bear’s jaws reached down to grab Books’ throat then Roy blasted it with a gout of flame from the sulfurite in his lantern. The bear reared up and roared in pain. Books scrambled to his feet, grabbed a serving cart and clobbered the animal with the cart, snapping the handle off of it and sending the cart careening off the wall. The bear dropped to the ground and rolled itself back and forth, quickly putting the fire on it out.
As the bear got up Books lunged forward, planted a boot in its back and kicked it back out into the dining room. Books sucked in a deep breath and the two of them charged out after the animal. As they ran Roy emptied the fire out of his lantern and held it in a single huge orb ready to throw. It might be overkill but when dealing with bears it was best to be absolutely sure. They burst into the dining room and skidded to a stop.
A woman holding a black orb and ice pick with a white bearskin draped over her shoulders was drawing herself to her feet. The skin was singed and the woman favored her side where Books had slammed her into the wall. Beyond that it was hard to pick out too many details under the layers of fur and thick clothing she wore. She carefully placed her implements on the ground and raised her hands. “Dust and ashes,” Books hissed, “who are you?”
The woman answered in a low, husky voice speaking words from some language Roy couldn’t place. Fortunately this wasn’t the first time for either of them to run into a language they couldn’t speak. He put his hand to his chest and said, “Roy.”
Books did the same. “Books.”
The woman caught on quickly. “Svuli.”
“Okay, Svuli,” Roy murmured. He pointed at her orb. “What’s that?”
She reached out and touched the stone. “Bjornrun.” The orb flashed with some kind of inner light and the bearskin began to meld with her body, blue stones in the eyes sparking with energy. She let go of the stone and the transformation stopped. Svuli returned to normal and pointed at Roy’s lantern. “Skaldrun.”
“Is it some kind of catalyst?” Books asked.
“Or a kind of fulminite power storage she uses to shape shift, I guess.” The fire he was holding was starting to slip out of his grasp, his ability to command flames no more able to grasp that much magic for long times than his hands were able to hold hundreds of pounds for any length. He looked at the broken dining tables that Books and Svuli had destroyed and threw the flames down on them so they would have something beside his own powers to feed them. As the wooden furniture burned there he began slowly feeding smaller amounts of it back into the sulfurite in his lantern. “I’ll tell you this. If she’s some kind of skin shifter like the selkies of Avalon or the Sanna skinwalkers she’s bad news but not nearly powerful enough to wreck this ship.”
“Avalon?” Svuli shook her head. “Ultima Thule.”
Roy glanced at Books. “Ever heard that one?”
“Yeah. It’s a long story but they’re supposedly people who live at the uttermost north, in places where it’s always winter. Sailors talk about ’em every so often.” Books knelt down and looked at her ice pick, turning it over in his hands. “They know a lot about the magic of water and using it to change forms, although the details in the stories I’ve heard are very spotty. Some of the tales say they can all change shapes. Others say only their most powerful mages can.”
Roy finished channeling the fire back into the crystals in his lantern. They were dimmer than when he’d boarded the ship, at a guess he estimated he’d lost about one fifth of the magic he’d brought onto the ship an hour ago. “Svuli.” He crouched down and looked her in the eyes, catching a glimpse of pale gray irises around pupils as dark as onyx. He patted the deck and said, “Ship?”
She pointed down through the deck. “Kraken.”
Roy looked up at his big friend. “And that one?”
“First time hearing it.”
He turned back to the woman and pointed two fingers at his eyes. “Show me.” For a moment she looked confused, staring at his eyes as if she expected to see something. He held up his lantern and repeated the gesture, then turned those fingers around to point at the lantern. “Show me skaldrun.” He repeated the process with her orb. “Show me bjornrun.” When she nodded her understanding he finished with, “Show me kraken.”
Svuli held out her hand for the bjornrun, which Roy returned after a quick, unspoken consultation with Books. Then she snatched up her pick and led them across the dining hall towards another entrance. Books stopped to retrieve his ax from among the wreckage of the tables then the two men hurried after her. Roy tried to ignore the haunting sight of ranks upon ranks of tables draped in white cloth. It was like he was in the Infantry again, walking through the morgues after a major battle, wondering if the dead soldiers would rise to reprimand him for surviving when they had died.
But there was nothing under those tables. Nothing but chairs and the deck of the ship.
And, it turned out, the hole in the side of the hull. Svuli led them up a hallway and down a flight of stairs to the next deck down where the damaged hull lay gaping open on their left and the floor was strewn with ice, twisted pieces of metal and the occasional scrap of timber from furniture or fixtures from the walls of the ship. About twenty feet down from the stairway the damage to the ship cut through the hallway floor entirely. Svuli carefully picked her way down to that point and peeked around the torn remnant of the inner wall. After a quick trade of glances, Roy followed and leaned over her to follow her line of sight.
The hole in the ship went another fifteen feet deeper towards the center line, give or take. It had been torn through two decks of rooms vertically and was at least fifty feet wide along the length of the ship. The demolished rooms had been carefully filled with ice in what looked like a very systematic fashion. Buried in that ice were hundreds and hundreds of people. They looked like passengers and crew alike, based on the way they were dressed, and many of them looked like they’d been torn by giant claws or smashed by huge hands before they were frozen. A few gazed out of the ice with expressions of terror, as if they’d been frozen alive.
In the central, deepest part of the hole was the kraken.
It was a round orb of blubber as tall as a human body, suspended in a huge sack of fluid surrounded by ice in the center of the frozen abattoir. Long tendrils, half again longer than the lump of blubber was, drifted around the creature, twitching absently. Two black eyes stared sightless out of the fluid. It reminded Roy of a chicken egg he’d seen broken before the chick within finished growing. It was unsettling and ugly but it didn’t look particularly dangerous. He stepped past Svuli and was looking for a way down onto the ice when the creature snapped around, its eyes focused on him, and a blast of freezing wind and sleet nearly blew him out of the ship and into the ocean. Svuli grabbed him at the last second and dragged him back into the hallway.
Books was there a second later, dragging them both back to the stairway single handed. Once they were both safely out of danger he said, “What in stormwrack was that?”
“I think it’s the kraken chick’s defensive magic.” Roy got up and dusted himself off. “If I’m reading this right, it looks like the Edmund Fitzgerald was attacked by an adult kraken. It made that hole and killed everyone it could grab from the passengers and crew then froze their bodies there for its child to eat. Maybe it cleaned out the kitchen, too? I suspect magic was involved somehow. Then it layed an egg and left it here to hatch.”
“What kind of thing is a kraken?” Books asked.
“A wiggly thing?” Roy wriggled his arm like it was a snake. “Except it had a big round body and a bunch of worm heads? It could be like a hydra.”
“No, it sounds like a squid,” Books said, nodding, “I’ve seen those before. Always thought they were warm water creatures.”
Svuli hefted her pick and mimed striking something with it. “Svuli drapet kraken.”
She started to shape shift back into her bear form but Roy grabbed her hand holding the orb and pushed it down gently. “Roy show Svuli?”
“Show?” She gave him an inquisitive look.
Roy nodded. “Show drapet.” He turned to Books. “Do you know where the furnace room on this thing is kept?”
Turned out it was kept two more decks down and behind the room full of coal, which made sense if you thought about it. The engine room was not as impressive as what you found on a sky train. Those were a forest of pipes that routed the magic in the primary furnace out to the dozens of panels of aluminum that held the train aloft. However, according to Books, the Edmund Fitzgerald was built along a much simpler design.
The primary furnace was fed with coal and the resulting fire was channeled into a massive sulfurite array which held the magic in such a way as to release it in controlled fashion. The magic, in turn, was fed into the keel of the ship in a steady stream. Like most metal hulled ships, the Fitz was built along a core of tin swift to provide the propulsion that moved the ship forward so there was little need to distributed the magic from the furnace to the whole vessel when the keel would do that just fine on its own.
The furnace room was really little more than a place for someone to stand and shovel coal from the feeder, the furnace itself, a set of dials measuring the stability of the sulfurite array and a chimney to take away the smoke. Roy hadn’t anticipated that they’d need to pull apart the furnace to get at the sulfurite. But after half a sweaty, dusty hour of profanity laced work they managed to pull the huge pile of crystals out of the ashen interior of the furnace and drag it back to the coal room.
The furnace and array were entirely cold when they found it so Svuli seemed quite confused as to what they were planning to do at first. It was only once they had dragged the bronze and sulfurite array back to the coal bin and Roy opened a flask of oil that her eyes got wide. Pointing at the array she said, “Skaldrun surt?”
“Surt?” Books asked.
Svuli clenched her fists together then flung her fingers outward to mime an explosion.
“Yeah,” Roy confirmed. “Skaldrun surt.”
“Y’know, Harp,” Books said, balancing the array on the edge of the walkway that overlooked the bin, “I’m not sure this is gonna work.”
“Sure it will.” Roy liberally drizzled some oil onto the top of the coal a few feet below them. By his estimate the thirty foot by twenty foot bin was full of coal up to his shoulders and that ought to be more than enough for their purposes. “You’ve seen siege crystals at work during the war, right? You just have to overcharge them with heat and they’ll cook off. That engine isn’t using crystals as big as what we worked with in the Infantry but I think together they’ll give us more than enough oomf to blast a hole in the bottom of the ship and sink it.”
“That’s the part that bothers me.” He started pulling sulfurite out of the wire array and piling it on the deck beside them. Roy added the two crystals from his lantern for good measure. “Harp, squid are supposed to live in the water and I’m guessing a kraken isn’t any different. I don’t think sinking the Fitz is gonna be enough to kill it.”
Roy hesitated, seeing the point there. “Okay. So we can’t just sink the ship we need to kill the kraken in the process. Everything around it is frozen so perhaps we can just blast the creature with the heat?”
“How’re we gonna do that?” Books dropped the last of the sulfurite into the pile and discarded the bronze array. “We need fire to charge it. Once we overcharge it we’ve got maybe ten seconds to move the crystals to the kraken and get away before they explode. It’s at least forty seconds from here back to where we were if we sprint with our hands empty. It may be more if we have to set the crystals somewhere else so the thing’s ward doesn’t blow them out to see before they cook off.
“But there’s more. Based on the structural damage I saw around the hole and down along the keel as we were walking along it here that explosion is going to sink the Fitz one way or another so we’d be best off not being on the ship at all when they explode.” Books crossed his arms and gave Roy a skeptical look. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to set this all up and get away in time.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” Roy focused and pulled a bead of fire out of one of his lantern’s sulfurite crystals and let it hover in the air in front of him like a pearl from the sun. Svuli jumped slightly and backed away. Then, when it was clear the small flame wasn’t going anywhere she approached and studied it with something akin to wonder. “Listen, I’ve learned a lot about this parlor trick in the years since the end of the war. One thing about it is you can hold a flame in places it wouldn’t normally want to stay for longer than it would naturally burn. Usually that means out in the middle of the air, like this. But you can also use it to overcharge sulfurite crystals and keep them that way for longer than normal.”
“How much overcharge for how much longer than normal?” Books asked.
“With those two crystals from the lantern, twice the normal burn for about half an hour.” He gestured to the twenty crystals from the furnace array, each about three quarters the size of one of those from his lantern. “With all these together? I can’t say for sure, since it’s a bit like juggling. A juggler can keep two or three things in the air easily but adding a fourth makes it pretty difficult and the fifth is a whole new world of complexity.”
“But you can do it for all two dozen of them?” Books looked doubtful.
“Twenty two. And no, but I can manage it for a baker’s dozen of ’em, so long as you can find the right place to put ’em so as to kill that thing.”
Books nodded. “We can probably arrange that. Svuli. Come.”
After a moment of confusion Books beckoned her and she got the message, the two of them leaving Roy alone with the coal bin. It was just as well. Juggling was an apt analogy for what he was about to do but it wasn’t a perfect analogy. Concentration was going to be key.
Roy glanced at his small bead of flame and sent it down into the coal bin to light the oil he’d spread there. The massive reserve of fuel quickly lit up. Then he shifted his attention to the sulfurite crystals and began filling them one at a time, willing the magic rising from the coal in waves away from its normal paths and into the crystals one at a time. They were three quarters full when Books came back pushing a rattling serving cart with an enormous copper soup tureen on it.
“How’s it looking?” He asked.
“I have most of them full,” Roy replied. “I’m going to top them all off so you and Svuli have something you can use to fight off the kraken or at least break up its wind wards if you need it. Have you found a place to set them off?”
“Yeah. Weak joint in a bulkhead, Svuli smelled it out as a bear and she seems pretty sure the kraken is on the other side of it.” He pulled a huge ladle out of the tureen. “I brought a way to transport the crystals but I had a thought on my way back.”
“How long will we have after we put these in place before they go off?”
“As long as I can give you. Now let me focus.”
The fires danced before him and Roy reached down to pull them into his thrall. Flame kept secrets from most mortal men, but not him. He could hear its whispers. It spoke of worlds beyond flesh and blood, where the only elements were heat and fury, and all men need do to find that world was make a place for it in the present. Such was the promise of the Primeval Fire.
The promise held no lure for Roy. That ancient flame had nearly claimed his life once and he wouldn’t countenance it again. Instead he made demands of it. The sulfurite he’d chosen for his task lept into the air at his command. Flames shot up from crackling coal and crystal and flame joined in a dizzying whirl of passion and potential. One by one they filled to bursting. Nothing kept them from breaking apart other than the ceaseless pressure of Roy Harper’s will. Five there were, then six.
Once seven were full the easy part was over, the eighth and ninth took teeth grating focus. The tenth burned his mind like a lit match against the back of his eyes and the eleventh dried out the inside of his nose and mouth. When he reached a dozen full crystals his hands broke out in sweat. Then he reached down once more and pulled the last dregs of flame from the coal bin and crammed it into the thirteenth crystal.
Holding it there was like like grabbing the tail of a phoenix. Roy opened parched lips and whispered, “It’s ready, Books.”
He wasn’t really sure what happened after that. He was aware of vague motion. Books and Svuli yelling at each other. And all the while the burning, writhing, furious fire, straining to get free from the prison he’d trapped it in. After an eternity – or perhaps just a minute or two – the fire began to recede in the distance. Keeping it in place got harder and harder. Finally he lost his grip on it all at once and Roy collapsed onto the bottom of the skiff as it swept away from the Edmund Fitzgerald. A second later the side of the ship erupted with a sound like giant pot breaking, pieces of melted bronze flying high in the air.
As he lay on the bottom of the skiff, feeling dryer than an autumn leaf, Roy grinned and croaked, “Well. That wasn’t too hard.”
Books reached down and pulled off a piece of tentacle that somehow got stuck to his shoulder and threw it into the ocean. “Speak for yourself.”
“Books, Roy, bad come Ultima Thule,” Svuli snapped. Then she jumped off the side of the skiff into the water, melding with her bearskin in the process, and took off towards the north and, presumably, Ultima Thule.
“Bad come?” Roy asked Books, trying to figure that one out. “She telling us not to come?”
“Probably. Would you want us to come after seeing that?” Books shrugged and looked back at the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, slowly burning and sinking beneath the waves. “We’ll have to report her lost when we get back. Shame.”
“We did what we could. At least the kraken is dead and the Sanna will be happy. Let’s hope that’s enough for a good day’s work.”