The Crimson Crown
Captain Hector - Bats CH 1
And the Bats in the Belfry
This tale is from the height of my adventures in the Shadows surrounding Texorami. It was peculiar of me perhaps to frequent an area once beloved by our King, considering his son Martin slew my father. In truth, I cared little for this. The Shadows in that place had been strengthened greatly by the King’s youthful partylust, and they formed a ring that we sometimes called the ‘Brass Circle’.
At the time I had not procured the beautiful hull that I christened The Defiance, we flew a lesser, though still serviceable, ship named Terpsichore. Though a man such as myself will never really want for anything, there is a difference between comfort and true wealth. The luxuries of the infinite worlds still require some effort to acquire, and there are some things which may not be so easily purchased with coin.
It was an acquaintance of mine, one Professor Crispin Meath, who had a thing that could not be bought, nor easily found. He was a collector of strange artifacts and ancient talismans. I was having tea with him one fine evening in the city of Kulash when I spotted the object.
“Professor, what in the shadowed worlds is that on your bookshelf?” I inquired, indicating a sparkling gem of deepest blue with silver lights that swam in it like koi.
“Hmm? You mean my copy of The Many Names of Fate?” He blinked at me from behind his spectacles, torn from whatever thoughts he had drifted into while the conversation had lulled.
“No man, the gem, the GEM.” I shook my scone at the treasure hard enough to dislodge several of its embedded cranberries.
“Oh, that.” He blinked sleepily, still returning to the present. “It was an acquisition from a completely destroyed world. An ancient castle stood upon a broken, rocky hill. Deep within the castle, and the hill itself, there was a design of great power. Sadly, I was unable to ascertain the potencies of that design. The trip was not in vain, however, as my faithful bearer, Moji, found the remains of a king so long gone as to be more dust than bone.”
The Professor slipped further into his overstuffed leather chair as he rambled on. “Hmmm, yes, it was the most curious thing. The bones of the king had mostly crumbled away, his finery was mere dust. Even his crown was tarnished and missing its stones from the sheer weight of the ages since any living man had visited his palace.” He sipped his tea, slurping it as he always did. “The stone though… it still shone, untouched by dust and time. Even its setting was as brilliant and clean as you see it now. It utterly refused to age.”
It was a Oberonian effort to conceal my lust for the stone, but somehow I managed. Or the Professor was too distracted. At any rate I think my voice was even enough when I ventured, “Would you be willing to part with it?”
“Part with it? You mean to make me an offer?” The Professor turned to regard me fully, and suddenly I was treated to a view of his true face, and not for the first time. His countenance was at once smoother and harder, his eyes glittered now not with age but with a shrewd gleam. Here was the face of a man who had faced more years than most mortals, and who had stolen fire from the gods more than once in his tenure.
“Yes.” I continued, still affecting a casual manner. “I have a lady who’s difficult to impress. Seems like just the thing.”
The Professor smirked. “Well, such things don’t come easily, nor often. I would never sell it for mere money.”
Casting aside my pretense of disinterest, I ate the rest of my scone in a single gulp and dusted off my hands. “Out with it, you old grave robber. What will it take for you to give up that stone?”
“I want something retrieved, your specialty, isn’t it?” He leaned smugly back into his armchair, and I couldn’t help but smirk in admiration at his bravado.
“Yes, some people consider that a specialty of mine. What is it?” I folded my arms across my chest. “You know I won’t take a job before I know the details.”
“Three worlds anti-current of here there are some ruins that the locals call The Grave of Stones, though learned men know them better as the remains of the city that was once called Ked’Thuzin.”
The Professor’s voice had slipped into his lecturing drone, so I moved quickly to cut him off. “Yes yes, I know the ruin. What do you want from there?”
Irked at being cut off, the Professor peered at me from over his spectacles. “I was getting to that, my impatient Captain. Deep within the ruins, between the sarcophagi of two mighty queens you will find a simple golden box, with ornate scrolled engraving on it.”
“What’s in it?”
“It wouldn’t be any fun if I told you.”
I rolled my eyes. “At least give me a hint. What do you want it for?”
The Professor considered. “It contains a gift, for Ereshkigal.”
“And Ereskigal is…?” I arched a brow.
“Not a student of the local legends?” The Professor poured himself another cup of tea. “That’s the name of the Goddess of the Underworld.”
I shook my head, finding my curiosity curbed. “So you want the box? Easy enough.”
“I want the box and its contents both. Un-opened, if you please.”
I chuckled. “Very well, is that a deal then? I bring you that box, with whatever is inside it, and you give me the stone?”
“Indeed.” The Professor confirmed, and we shook hands to seal our honor on it.
I rose and turned, my coat whirling most magnificently around me, I thought, and made all haste back to my Terpsichore.
I had wasted no time upon returning to my ship, the officers barely had time to roust the crew out of their various dens of iniquity before we were sailing in pursuit of the city of Ked’Thuzin. Anti-current the Professor had said, for the winds and waters of our little Brass Circle move ever with the hands of a clock, making it easy to tell which direction one was taking on the joined Shadows. I had heard tell that King Random, simply Random to the folk in these parts, was enamored of traveling by hang-glider, and thus it may be he who conjured winds to carry him. Or perhaps he choose this place for its winds.
It was not something I worried about overmuch. Though I may not be as single-minded (or as bloody-minded) as my sister, I still am not counted among the Family’s philosophers. I had but one object on my mind at the time, a stone that could be an analogue to Amber’s famous Jewel.
Before you accuse me of the Family nervosa, by which I mean megalomania, I had no desire to wield this lesser stone to overturn empires or conspire against the throne in Amber. Such gems must be rare even in endless Shadow, and it was the rarity alone that drew me to what I was privately calling the Silver Sapphire.
It would be fun to relate a tale of adventure on the journey to Ked’Thuzin, but sadly there was no such opportunity. Even in those days I had developed a reputation as someone not to casually accost. It is also the blessing and curse of airship travel that one is rarely interrupted by adventure, but rather that one has opportunities to choose which adventures to interrupt!
So it was quickly enough that we arrived at Ked’Thuzin’s iconic ruined towers which mark the place where the city touches on the great wind and water current of the Brass Circle. We chose to set down at the towers themselves, finding it a safe enough spot to anchor The Terpsichore. We had never heard of activity near the towers themselves, only stories of danger deeper into the ruins.
I left my crew behind, having none at the time who I would trust to face dangers in the way I intended to face them. Rashly, depending on the blessings of my blood to win the day. It was not long either before I was glad I had done so.
The city was a proper ruin, avenues and streets long ago obliterated by the collapse of buildings. The place was not so much a city any longer as a collection of sun-bleached stones, cracked from falling and weathered by time. After nearly two hours of climbing over and through shattered structures I was merely well warmed up, though a mortal man would have been gasping.
It was then that I beheld the center of the city, and saw at once an echo of the glory she must have had in her prime. Broad avenues radiated out from the center of the city, their paving stones so tightly and expertly packed that even now only a few tufts of grass managed to claim purchase there. Smaller streets spiraled inward between the avenues, creating the impression of a massive wheel or disc. The wheel was mostly populated with smaller buildings, still intact by virtue of the lesser demands on their construction. Evenly spaced in the spiral were mighty obelisks of black stone, and though a few had fallen, the vast majority of them stood tall.
In the center, a great ziggurat who’s terraces had once been graced by what must have been beautiful gardens. It now sat hunched under the weight of countless vines and vivid tropical flowers.
I was feeling good about myself, and congratulated myself on a speedy quest, though there was a bit of a pang of disappointment at the ease of it all. I need not have worried about the lack of adventure. As I stood taking in the panorama, a movement on the ziggurat caught my eye. A humanoid figure, moving among the vines.
Though there was no way that the other adventurer could have known what I was looking for, the Professor had always had an eye for value. He or she could easily be after my prize, or simply spot the box and take a fancy to it. Not willing to take the chance, I cursed, and began running down one of the long avenues, making all speed for the ziggurat.
My immediate aim had changed from exploring the structure to catching up to the other adventurer. What did I plan to do with my rival once I caught him? Well, I suppose it would depend on how polite he was when we did finally meet. In general though, I had no intention to be gentle, nor did I offer any apology for that intention then or now. Treasure hunters are no innocent civilians.
Faster than many could have managed it, I reached the ziggurat, and began climbing in great bounds up the stairs. Vines rustled under my feet, and as I sprinted across one of the terraces, flowers broke under the violence of my pursuit. It must have looked strange and wonderful, a wake of swirling petals behind me. The fragrances were almost overwhelming, and that thought gave me pause, a perfume strong enough to affect one of my blood would overwhelm any mortal.
The other treasure hunter may not have disturbed the flowers as much, but probably still should not have been moving so spritely among the flowers as I had seen from a distance. Feeling the need for caution, I drew my sword and pistol, still making my way to the spot where I had seen my quarry disappear into the ziggurat.
Upon entering the structure I was greeted by the magnificent sight of an ancient door. It had obviously seen more use than most of the structure recently, in light of it being free of vines or plants of any kind. A sunburst dominated the center of the massive stone disc that was the door, while rings of symbols and pictoglyphs told some tale that had no doubt fascinated the Professor, but to who’s charms I was immune.
There was no sign of my quarry other than a few disturbed vines on the floor, and so I knew that the trick to open the door must be an easy one. Or at least, that I would feel quite the fool if I failed to quickly find it.
I searched the corridor as quickly as I could, but found no obvious levers, buttons, or trigger-flagstones. Frustrated at the ruin’s lack of participation in the usual tropes, I heaved against the door itself. It moved, but not easily. I threw my back into it, and the great stone shuddered as it rolled away from the doorway.
This by no means tested the limits of my strength, but it was no casual effort either. As a man who has cause to be proud of his physical prowess even among immortals, this disturbed me. Had my quarry really rolled away the stone, among all this debilitating perfume, and then replaced it so quickly? Who was I following anyway?
Behind the door I found dark corridors of smooth, polished stone. There wasn’t much in the way of tracks to follow so I simply zig-zagged my way through, pressing toward what I hoped was the center of the structure. I traded out my pistol for a small chemical flare which cast just enough light to keep me from bumping into the walls or tripping on debris. I hoped it wouldn’t give away my presence to anyone else in the maze, especially if they were using their own light.
So I was hopeful when I saw a light glimmering from around a corner ahead of me. I placed the flare quietly on the floor and moved toward the light. Though I am not a burglar, one learns that a certain amount stealth is always an asset while taking treasures.
I expected then to come across my quarry unprepared, and mentally prepared to burst into a sudden ambush the moment I saw him. With enough speed and surprise, anyone can be overwhelmed. Then I could ask the questions on my own terms.
Darting around the corner, I raised my blade… and cursed as I was forced to parry a swipe from a heavy brass bar! My ambush had not found my quarry but one of the dangers of the ruin instead, a clockwork man of brass, with an eldritch fire burning in his chest.
Though ancient and long neglected, the craftsmanship on this mechanical monstrosity far outshone even the elegance of the central city. It moved with speed and precision, swinging a jointed brass bar at me. The bar flexed and rotated like some deadly combination of flail and rotor, and in the confined space of the maze it nearly cracked my skull in the first few swings!
I shuffled forward in a fighting stance and lunged forward with my blade, my aim being to swipe that brass flail off-course and create an opportunity. Sparks flew when my blade met the rod, and I both felt and heard my sword creak in protest at the force it encountered!
Cursing the brute construction of the clockwork, I retreated, raising my coat to my face against a spray of rock. The clockwork’s retaliation was even faster than I expected, and though my retreat had taken me beyond its reach, the deadly flail tore a chunk out of the maze wall. Considering my options, I continued to step backwards toward my flare.
The pistol seemed to be my best option, but I was wary of a ricochet. Also, I wasn’t so sure I had a good target for a bullet. The furnace was exposed, but I doubted it held anything delicate. The dials and lights on the clockwork’s frame may only have been for the convenience of its creator. Destroying them held no guarantee of disabling the mechanical itself.
I had to cut short my strategizing when some sixth sense warned me to duck. Dropping and rolling saved my life as the wall rang from the brutal impact of a second brass flail! Another brass clockwork advanced on me from a side passage. I had wondered why the first one had walked slowly when it was so fast with its flail. Now I felt it had herded me toward the other, and fire of rage burned in my chest to match that of my would-be assassins.
Outsmarted by a pair of automatons? That will never be the fate of Captain Hector! Seizing the moment, I stormed toward the first clockwork. It brought that flail down on me, and I had no choice but to deflect it with my blade, letting the steel bear the full brunt of that awful stroke. The blade held, but had already acquired a permanent bend from the strain.
Without sparing a thought for my sword in the moment, I closed tight with the automaton. The heat of its furnace was searing in close quarters, but my gamble that the head would be cool enough to touch paid off! While the clockwork tried to calculate how to attack someone well within its flail range, I twisted the head, bending the neck. First one neck strut broke, then another… and I was hurled against the wall by a powerful electrical current!
The clockwork had apparently the power to arc electricity from the fan-like struts that projected from its back. Luckily, I had done enough damage that its head hung at a strange angle, and thus threw off all its calculations as to targeting. The first hit of the flail was far from me. The second came much closer, however, and I forced my muscles to obey me, despite the electric weakness that suffused them.
I managed to get to my feet just in time to avoid the flail of the second clockwork, and had to scramble back in desperation from the two automatons. Backing up into a dark maze, the only light coming from two mechanicals bent on my death, I had forgotten everything else. All thoughts of my quarry, the box, even the Silver Sapphire vanished.
“If I get out of this,” I thought, “It’ll be a miracle.” My options were limited. I still had no good targets for my pistol. My blade could take perhaps one more hit from one of those flails before it broke.
“The better part of Valor it is then!” I said to the clockworks, though sadly the humor was wasted on them. Trusting to luck, I turned and ran down the dark passageway, hoping to lose the clockworks, or get away from whatever they had been commanded to guard.
The thing about trusting to luck is that it is the act of a truly desperate man. I had plenty of time to reflect on this when the ground vanished beneath me. In my dark, blind run I had encountered some kind of stone slide, which dropped me tumbling into the bowels of the ziggurat.
Bruised, and still dizzy from being electrocuted, I staggered to my feet at the bottom of the slide in a room of pitch, utter blackness. “Bloody hell!” I yelled, partly out of pain, and also to test the size of this new chamber. The echoes told me it was a good size. I need not have bothered with my shouting however, as lights were already flickering to life around me.
I saw revealed a large room with a pyramid ceiling, and four exits. To my horror I despaired of using any of those doors, however, as each of them was guarded by two clockworks of identical vintage to the two I had so recently fled! As the eight clockworks whirred to life, their furnaces ignited with a crackling cough.
They wasted no time closing in toward me. This time I had not even the presence of mind for a pithy comment. Indeed, I was at that time convinced that I had reached the end of a decidedly short ‘immortal’ life.
That’s probably enough for this evening though. It’s so hard to tell stories with a parched throat, after all. If I had just a drop to drink I might be able to tell a little more of the tale…