Thursday, April 24, 2008

Deadline Blues

Hey everyone, just wanted to let folks know that a looming deadline has caused a delay in updates to the Hellstrom Voyage.

In May we should return to our usual broadcast schedule.Thanks to everyone for their patience and readership.


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Chapter Eight: The Storm

Chapter 8 of the Hellstrom Voyage has been posted in the official forums.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Spotlight on HMS Constant

The first character profile for Hellstrom Voyage has been posted in the new forums, focusing on the novel's silent character: HMS Constant.

Announcement #3

Chapter 8 got temporarily delayed on the isle of the Near-Men during the shenanigans that were recently announced. Tune in next week for the exciting continuation.

Announcement #2

Coming soon from Empty Room Studios: Voyage of Discovery d20!

Empty Room Studios and Charles Rice have teamed up to bring his popular web-novel, the Hellstrom Voyage, to life as a d20 RPG.

This setting will detail the devastating war of the Mad Emperor in his bid to conquer the world, a war waged on land and sea, as well as the nations who struggle for freedom against an unstoppable military machine.

Chuck says, "Hellstrom Voyage is a project I'm particularly passionate about and one I have a lot of plans for, as a novel, comic and game setting. Empty Room seemed uniquely suited to help develop the line in each of those areas, so I couldn't be happier about partnering with them on this project."

Setting information will include the former nations of the Continental Kingdoms, now ruled by the Mad Emperor as the Mandelieu Empire, as well as the Island Kingdom, the lone free nation left to stand against tyranny, protected by the wooden wall of her navy.

"I've had a chance to work on Steampunk Musha with Chuck, and can't wait to start really turning out work on this setting. I've been reading the Hellstrom Voyage web novel since the first post, and honestly get more excited about this project with every post and discussion," said Rick.

In addition to the setting, the core book will include new character classes, rules for naval warfare, mass combat and an all-new magic system. Future supplements will include adventure locations and battle scenarios.

Announcement #1

The Hellstrom Voyage has moved to its new home on the web, here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Hellstrom Voyage Chapter 7, The Battle

Before Broughton could say another word, the Captain was gone, circling around the edge of the camp like some terrible ghost, motioning for Broughton to go the other way with a curt wave of his hand.

Instantly Broughton saw their goal: Sergeant Castillo and the small contingent of marines he had sent to escort the lubbers. Unlike the Doctor and the Cartographer, these men weren’t in the center of the camp but were tied in a clump near the edge. Probably too tough to make a good meal right away, Broughton mused.

They moved quickly, the din of the orgiastic feasting drums and the darkness all the cover they could need. As they got closer, Broughton saw the men’s guns were strewn on the ground near them. The brutes had no idea what they were or the danger they possessed.

If they could get his marines free, they might stand a chance after all. Thankfully the Captain’s reason never fully left him, even in the grip of his worst madness. That, plus a little luck and they might be able make their escape.

The marines stiffened as they felt their crude ropes being cut from behind but made no sound. They knew their lives depended on not drawing the savages’ attention for a few seconds more. At a silent gesture from the major, they picked up their rifles and slipped back into the night, melting unseen from view.

The Captain’s orders were frighteningly specific, “You men will remain outside the light of the campfire while the Major and I free our guests. Guerilla sniping is the order of the day, gentlemen. You are to fire, then change position and reload. That should draw their attention. If I am killed, you are to make your way back to the beachhead and then to the ship.”

And with that he was gone, circling back around toward the edge of the camp closest to Doctor Argonis and the Royal Cartographer. The two stood in perfect silence, their muscles tense, like runners about to begin the race of their lives.

At the crack of the guns they moved, racing to the grisly preparation tables to cut their shipmates free. At first all was confusion, with the Near-Men not even realizing what was causing their companions to fall. At the sight of blood however, everything changed and the chaos turned to carnage.

Some ran right in the direction of the gunners, only to be cut down by a withering hail of fire. Others, however, went right for the Captain and the Major, almost instantly grasping from dozens of raids by rival tribes on their food what was happening.

The Cartographer said nothing as he ran from the camp at a gesture from Major Broughton, sending him into the protection of Sergeant Castillo and the marines. The Doctor though, a dedicated man of sterner stuff, headed straight for a small hut at the center of the camp.

The Captain grabbed his arm, shouting, “Are you mad, man?!? We have to leave! Now!”

Even as he spoke, he punched a charging brute in the face with the basket-hilt of his saber, then cut the creature from collarbone to waist as he tried to rise from the ground.

The Doctor shook free shouting, “My supplies! We found what we needed right before they captured us!”

The Major joined the Captain in the center of the camp, fixing a Near-Man on his bayonet and firing right into his chest at point blank range, kicking the brute free before he began to reload, his hands a blur as they went through motions practiced thousands of times to reload the muzzle-loader.

The Doctor quickly emerged from the shaman’s hut and the three were off, leaving a nightmare of blood and death behind them. What followed was something out of nightmare, a mad chase through the dense jungle, the Major leading the way, everyone trusting in his sense of direction.

Finally, they came into the clearing, the relief at seeing that their companions hadn’t abandoned them almost palpable. The line parted for them as they dashed through, the Major turning toward the jungle, knowing with the fear of a hunted animal that the Near-Men were seconds behind.

“On my mark!”

He watched with satisfaction as the marines moved like well-oiled cogs in a wheel. The ones he had left behind were loaded for bear and raised their rifles immediately, while Sergeant Castillo’s men knelt behind the line, furiously reloading their rifles.

The Captain moved with the Doctor, watching him quickly crush whatever herbs he had found with a mortar and pestle. The old hedge surgeon looked up at him as he applied the foul-smelling concoction to one of Miss Medeirra’s open wounds, “It will take effect quicker in the blood, but probably not quick enough.”


The mass of creatures emerging from the tree line fell as the rifles cracked. Sergeant Castillo’s men handed their rifles to the marines on the firing line, taking the weapons they had just fired to begin reloading them as the creatures came on, driven mad with bloodlust, heedless of their fallen companions.

The Captain watched his first officer as one accustomed to searching for the slightest hint of hope, like a man staring at a black spot on the horizon, praying for land. Her breathing had become more relaxed, slowly but surely, the pain and fear and rage slipping away as the Doctor’s concoction took effect.

At that moment, the creatures reached the line, charging right onto the marines’ bayonets. The line faltered, threatening to break under sheer weight of numbers as Castillo’s men in the rear swung around to the side, cutting another group down with gunfire before engaging with their bayonets.

Suddenly there was a wrenching sound of bending, perhaps even breaking wood. Even the Near-Men stopped for moment to watch in amazement as the Constant surged forward deep into the harbor, much too deep for a ship of her size, before swinging around.

Time seemed to stand still as the ship disappeared in a cloud of beautiful white smoke. Captain Hellstrom reacted first, shouting, “Incoming!” He then dove into the sand of the beach. His men instinctively followed suit, leaving the savages to stare dumfounded at the sight of the tall ship so close in the harbor, a technological wonder nothing in their lives had prepared them for.
Then they were screaming, and dying, as the cannon shot ripped through them with terrible effect. The rifles, though unknown to them, inflicted injuries they could fathom from a lifetime of hunting savagery. This new weapon though, was something they were not prepared for, as it ripped Near-Men apart, spraying his blood and entrails over his companions.

It was then that Broughton’s brigade rose from the sand, like men clawing their way from a grave. At a yell from the Major they charged the Near-Men, despite the fact that they were massively outnumbered. This, combined with the terrible cannon shot that rang still in their ears, was too much for the dumb brutes.
Almost at once, as if a silent order had been given, they broke and ran. The marines chased as far as the tree line then turned back, raising their rifles in the air, letting out lusty screams of triumph in the direction of Constant, their home and today, not for the last time, their salvation.

Except for the major, who stared in silent relief, thanking the Mother as he saw the Doctor covering the body of his beloved Miranda, human once again. He ran to the Captain, looking down at her, “Does she-”

The Doctor snarled, waving him back, “She does, for now. But don’t celebrate yet, and get out of my light!”

The Captain smiled at his friend, startled only for a moment as the enormous man dropped his rifle and hugged him.

The marines were still cheering as the boats arrived from Constant, their shouts of, “All hail the conquering Lieutenant!” and “Castor drinks my ration for the next week!” echoing through the harbor as they made their way back to the ship.

Eventually, only the Captain and the Major were left on the beach, watching the sun sink behind their beloved ship. The Major clapped him on the back and laughed, “You know, she’s beached now and I can’t wait to see how we’re getting that ship out of this lagoon.”

The Captain laughed for only a moment, then frowned as he joined his laughing friend in the last boat off the hell forsaken island, thinking to himself, “How were they going to get the ship out of the harbor?”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Hellstrom Voyage Chapter 6: Isle of the Near-Men

Hellstrom followed Broughton at a run, the two men pausing only occasionally to ensure that they hadn’t lost the trail.

Broughton skidded to a stop, chest heaving as he leaned against a tree to catch his breath, “Must have been the easiest hunt these things ever had. They’re leaving a trail my grandmother could follow.”

Hellstrom nodded, then suddenly pushed the Major to the ground as a small dart buried itself in the tree above his head. In one motion he knelt and threw the dagger from his boot, killing the savage creature and pinning it upright against a tree, “We must be closer than we thought.”

Both men approached the creature, its features just human enough to increase the revulsion they felt at their first sight of the dreaded proto-human. It would have been tall if it could stand up all the way but was clearly more suited to a four-legged gait like a gorilla, walking on heavy knuckles. It was almost naked, wearing nothing but a loin cloth, and a small strap to carry the blowgun and darts it used to hunt prey of any kind. Its brow was heavy and its bones and muscles were massive.

“By the Mother, I think if my dagger had been a little more to the center it would have bounced off this thing’s breast bone,” Hellstrom remarked in quiet wonder.

Broughton moved closer until his face was only inches away from the creatures, “My grandfather told me stories about them but I never imagined. It’s horrible.”

Then he carefully took a dart from the creature’s pouch and smelled it, recoiling as if he’d gotten too close to a fire, “Poison, probably paralytic. They like fresh game.”

Hellstrom nodded as he heard the drums in the distance. He had always imagined the Near-men as animals in his mind but the reality was far worse. This was different than a lion hunting a man. These things might not be human, but they weren’t animals either. They had weapons, clothes, music and no compunction about hunting other men.

“Come on, it’s not far, we have to hurry,” and with that the two men began to move again. This time much slower and with greater stealth.

Ariel took a small step back, eyes narrowing as the group of conscripted sailors suddenly turned on her in a mob.

“You said this place was inhabited by Near-men? Well you can stay and be something’s dinner but we’re leaving.”

She had known it was a mistake the moment she’d said it, if nothing else based on the looks Corporal Windmere and Mr. Sawyer had given her. Once the things had shown up, the men would be too concerned with the fight to think about running but now, with time to consider their options, the Constant, floating gracefully in the lagoon so close at hand seemed like a heaven to them.

A different man from the first found his voice as they continued to slowly advance on the small girl, “I’m a carpenter. Bad enough I get roped into some sea voyage by being knocked on the head, but now you’re telling me I’m supposed to stand here and wait for those things to find us? The Captain’s already dead. We should go back to the ship. Maybe have a vote about what we do from there.”

Ariel took another tiny step back and felt the incoming tide splash against her ankle, she was running out of beach.

The sound of the drums had gotten louder and louder as the men slowly made their way to within sight of the Near-men’s camp. It was now felt more than heard, building to a crescendo, to a conclusion both men instinctively knew would mean the horrible deaths of their shipmates.

Suddenly they could see it. The sun had gone down and the camp was alive with activity. Women (if indeed that was the appropriate term) hunched over a table topless, working to prepare a grisly feast. Nearby, some of the younger Near-men were stretching the skin of what had once been a man on a rack, so that when the sun rose tomorrow it could be tanned and turned into clothing.

One of the women turned toward the large pot in the center of the camp, where the hunters danced in orgiastic glee, parting for her to put the leg of a men, severed at the hip, into a fire. Other women continued their work at the table, cutting the skinned man apart.

The two men watched stunned for a moment before finally registering what was happening. They were witnessing the death of the naturalist, Doctor Greeland. He had been staked out, naked and spread-eagle on a table. He had been skinned and now he was being carved up like a Christmas ham.

Suddenly their reverie was broken by a scream. It was the Royal Cartographer, releasing all the pent-up horror of what he had witnessed into the night.

The Major lightly touched the Captain’s shoulder, whispering, “I think the good Doctor will keep them tonight. We should wait until they settle down with a full belly and slip in.”

But he recognized the look on the Captain’s face, he had been taken by one of his rages and Broughton knew nothing could reach his heart when it turned to stone, “I’ll be damned if I’ll sit here and watch them feast, taking the chance that no one else will die. Damn them. Damn us all. We are going to attack.”

After moments of indecision that felt like hours, it was instinct that ultimately decided the tense standoff on the beach.

One of the men, the filthy carpenter, had reached out and touched Ariel as he made his comment about a “vote” deciding what would happen on the ship next. She wasn’t a fool. She knew what would happen to her, one of only two women on board (and likely the only one to survive the mutiny) if order was broken and cowardly scum like these men took control.

Suddenly, a lightning bolt struck the ground out of the overcast sky, turning the beach beside the men to glass. They recoiled for a moment, then surged forward. Someone yelled, “Get her!”

Before they heard the second thunderclap, the carpenter was on the ground, convulsing terribly before dying, covered in terrible burns, most of his hair gone and what remained standing at weird angles.

Suddenly a terrible wind swept in from the sea, knocking several of the mutinous conscripts off their feet. They hadn’t been afraid of her before. A tiny slip of a young girl. Now they looked on her as a terrible goddess, the men she’d knocked down with her wind not even trying to rise to their feet.

Her voice cracked with anger, “Mr. Sawyer, burn those boats. No one leaves until Captain Hellstrom returns and rescinds his last order. Corporal Windmere, put these wags in the line but put a row of your men behind each block of them. They can either fight the Near-men if they come and die like men, or run back onto your bayonets and die like cowards. It makes no difference to me.”

For a moment the two men stood stunned but only a moment. They were actually relieved. For experienced seamen, there was nothing more terrifying than being under a weak command, one that let the mob have their way. Now that she had proved her strength, they were like an old bay, comforted by their harness as they pulled a carriage.

As the Corporal put the stunned sailors into position, Ariel looked down at the small pouch of trinkets and snarled, picking it up and hurling it into the sea. She had thought it helped her, the chalk, the magic circles, the thaumaturgy she’d learned at university. Now she knew that her power was as primal, in its own way, as Miss Medeirra’s that her anger, her rage, gave her more power than she ever dreamed possible.

Turning her back on the mass of men, on the island, she stared into the flickering light as Mr. Sawyer fired the boats, clenching her fists to stop her hands from shaking, inwardly terrified at the force within her she had tapped.

In the distance, a thunderclap pealed in answer to the rage and fear inside her.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Hellstrom Voyage Chapter 5

Hellstrom Voyage: Chapter 5, Beached

Several hours later, Captain Hellstrom was asleep in his bed, one of only two such luxuries allowed on the ship, the other being in the Royal Cartographer’s quarters, when a call from the deck sent him instantly awake.

He walked quickly to the door, taking his uniform jacket off the hook, noting how thoroughly Fournier had cleaned it. How he removed the blood was anyone’s guess and he probably wouldn’t share any of his “trade secrets” anyway.

Within moments the Captain was on deck, squinting into the distance. Lt. Castor had regained enough health to return to duty and limped over to him, “Good morning, Lieutenant, how’s the foot?”

The young man nodded formally, not wishing to show any pain or discomfort here on deck, “It’s healing nicely, Sir, whatever the Doctor did to me it seems to be working.”

The Captain nodded, again looking into the distance, “Report.”

“We’ve found her, Captain, she swam into that sheltered lagoon up ahead. She’s beached, Sir.”

The Captain frowned, turning to his Windmaster, Miss Theodorra, the closest thing he had to an expert on such matters, “I don’t understand, why is she still in her animal form. Unconsciousness usually reverts her to her natural state.”

The small girl looked up at him, eyes bright with tears, that’s all he needed was an emotional girl on board, “It’s the pain, Sir. Pain is primal. As long as she’s in pain, she will stay in the form and mentality of that creature. And washed ashore, her pain will only be increasing. She won’t last long.”

The Captain simply nodded, as if he’d received a report on the weather, “Lieutenant, bring the good Doctor up on deck, and that naturalist who got us all into this, I believe we have need of his talents now as well. Mr. Sawyer, I believe we can bring Constant into that lagoon. Mr. Star, check depth and call it out, just to be sure.”

Looking up almost directly into the sun, he called, “Mr. Ansel, keep watch on the horizon for sails. We still have a Mandelieu raider out there, unfortunately.”

The Royal Cartographer came up from behind him, eyes bright at the sight of an unknown shore, “Captain, if it please you, I would request permission to join the landing party as well, if nothing else in order to claim this land for Her Majesty.”

The Captain nodded, realizing Mr. Manfred was positively desperate to make a landing on an undiscovered land, perhaps a practice run in case their voyage, against all odds, was indeed a success.

In less than an hour, they were on the beach, dwarfed by the enormous leviathan they were there, somehow, to save. As the Cartographer claimed the island for Her Majesty, Hellstrom stepped ashore, not seeing anything to separate this island from a thousand others, except for the excellent depth and shelter afforded her lagoon.

Such a lagoon, on an unknown shore, would make an excellent place for a wounded privateer to run after encountering one of Her Majesty’s finest frigates, which is why the Captain had Mr. Ansel scrutinizing the horizon so intently.

Other than the strange, clump-like bushes that dotted the shore, this island could be any other he’d visited in his travels. Of course, it seemed much more interesting to the Doctor, Naturalist and Cartographer he’d brought along, all of whom were new to the sea.

He turned to his guests, watching as the second boat arrived, carrying Major Broughton and a dozen of his marines. It never hurt to be cautious.

“Doctor, this leviathan is your patient. You don’t have time to heal her, so we’ll need to put your knowledge of herbalism to use, hopefully you and the good Mr. Greeland, our esteemed naturalist can find some herbs on this island to deaden her pain and allow our First Officer to return to us.”

He noted the growing question on the Doctor’s face and cut him off, “Your stores on board Constant are not an option. We’re not going to exhaust our medical supplies this early in the voyage for a single shipmate. I’m afraid this island is our only hope. Miss Theodorra, give us some cloud cover and a light rain if you will please, that will give us more time.”

He looked over at the massive bulk beside him; already her breathing was becoming labored, as the leviathan was crushed under her own weight.

The Captain and Major Broughton stayed behind with their shipmate, her massive bulk rising and falling almost peacefully, even as the sound of her breathing took on a wheezing quality.
This close to Miss Medeirra, on this dreary island, made even more dreary by the dry sky and light rain summoned by Miss Theodorra, the first cracks in Major Broughton’s professionalism began to show through as he stared into the leviathan’s eyes.

The Captain, more as his oldest friend than his commander, put a hand on his shoulder, “She’ll be all right, Andrew. Somehow, I can just feel it. We’ll get her back.”

The Major looked at him, eyes cloudy, “You can’t know that. Her fate is in the hands of those lubbers, idiots the lot of them. Three very educated idiots. I even sent Sergeant Castillo with them to make sure they found their way back. Like to get lost and starve to death on this tiny island. And when she- if we lose her, she’ll die in this form won’t she. I won’t even have her back then. We won’t be able to end her suffering. A bullet to the brain wouldn’t even make a dent. And she’s so huge, we’d never be able to bury her. We’re just going to sail off on our Children’s Crusade, our last hope, while the sea gulls pick at my Castilian beauty.”

Suddenly his friend was gone, and his Captain addressed him, “Major, I have every sympathy. But do not speak as if hope is lost. The Mad Emperor might control the continent, but the fleet will protect the Island Kingdom. Their army will never set foot there.”

Broughton looked at him sharply, face taking on a sinister aspect as the water ran freely down the metallic side of his face, “Yes, the fleet will protect us. Like you protected-”

For a moment Captain Hellstrom thought they would come to blows, his friend was on the verge of saying something that could not be unsaid. Not only about his decisions in this most recent action but also the service to which he belonged.

Instead, a curious expression crossed the Major’s face and he pushed past him, walking over to one of the curious clumps of bushes the Captain had noted earlier. He suddenly reached up with both massive hands and pulled downward, revealing the stone underneath.
The Captain watched in growing horror as he pulled again and again, finally revealing a massive stone head, buried in the sand, snarling at the sea and whispered “By the Gods of the Righteous.”

The two men looked at one another. The sight of the statue shocking them out of their depressed state with the clarity of cannon shot from out of the fog across the bow. The young marines watching in stunned silence as both men stripped their heavy uniform shirts off, removing the buckles from their shoes, anything that might make noise or slow them down.

The Major approached Corporal Windmere, the third in seniority of his marines, “Corporal, form a firing line, two ranks deep. You will fix bayonets and hold this line in front of our First Officer no matter what happens. No matter what. Is that understood. You are to fight to the last man. No retreat, no withdrawal. Repeat my last order.”

The young man stuttered for a moment, distracted as the Captain pulled a small mirror out of his watch pocket and began signaling the ship but a quick shake from the Major brought him back to full attention, “I- I am to fix bayonets. Form a firing line. Hold to the last man.”

The Major nodded, as the Captain approached, turning the stunned young man to face him, “I’ve just signaled the ship. Mr. Sawyer is coming with two dozen hands to supplement your ranks.”

The Captain then turned to Miss Theodorra, shaking her physically to bring her out of the reverie she had slipped into, “Men from the ship are coming to help the marines defend this position. You are in command here on the beach. You are to fight to the last and hold this position. If we lose this position, I’ve ordered Lieutenant Castor to take command and bring the Constant home to the Island Kingdom. The Major and I are going inland to retrieve our charges. Hopefully it will not come to that.”

The young woman just stared him, as stunned as if he had just renounced Queen and country, “I, Sir, in command? But I’m not- I’ve never, Sir, what’s happening?”

The Captain checked his pistols, shifting his saber from its accustomed position on his hips to his back. He had tucked an extremely wicked-looking knife she had never noticed he carried before into his boot. He seemed a different man, more pirate than the staid authority figure of the ship. He had already headed off at a run to join Major Broughton, who stood impatiently at the edge of the thick, oppressive jungle.

“Near-men. And for God’s sake woman, stop that infernal rain. The men’s powder must stay dry.”

And with that they were gone, her attention fixed on the statue the Major had uncovered. Even the marines stopped momentarily in their controlled chaos to stare at it as the truth slowly dawned on them.

Near-men. Evolutionary throwbacks. Savage cannibals who had finally been driven out of the civilized lands over a century ago, in a war that had finally united all the true folk to put aside their petty political differences in a war of survival.

The true reality of the situation was still dawning on her as two more boats arrived from the ship, carrying Mr. Sawyer and the most level-headed of this conscript crew. The ebony giant walked up to the tiny girl and deferentially asked, “Your orders, Miss?”

She stared up at him for a moment, mouth working as though she were speaking but not a sound came from her lips. She noticed that the Corporal and his marines had turned to her as well.

Her orders?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Hellstrom Voyage Chapter 4: The Chase

Hellstrom Voyage: Chapter 4, The Chase

Captain Hellstrom arrived back on deck quickly. He had taken a chance by relaying the orders below deck himself. With the First Officer gone, there was no one on deck to give an order.

He inhaled deeply. Tasting the wind. Feeling the thrum of the deck beneath his feet. The sensation was exhilarating and he was totally unashamed in his enjoyment of it. He now knew all he needed to know about this captured Mandelieu vessel. She cut through the water straight and strong, despite the hole he knew had been punctured in her hull.

“Mr. Sawyer, turn on my mark. Miss Theodorra, after the helmsman has completed his turn, strengthen the wind. Drive those ships away from us,” looking up, he saw Major Broughton had moved even higher in the rigging, all the better to snipe anyone foolish enough to openly give an order on the enemy ship.

He signaled Mr. Sawyer with his hand, enjoying the feel of the wind in his face as the ship turned. Suddenly the wind grew stronger as the Windsman spoke her words. The ship rocked sharply as the cannons fired, shredding the sails of one ship. This caused her to pick up less speed from the wind, and the port ship, still reeling from an unexpected encounter with a leviathan, made no attempt to slow down to stay with her comrade vessel. The stronger wind thus began to separate the two ships, leaving this one to Constant’s tender mercies.

In a moment they would have her.

In the distance, he saw the leviathan, his First Officer, speed toward the enemy privateer again. The ship had finally recovered from the shock and fired her cannons full into the water. Several of the brass balls struck the creature, drawing a wince from Captain Hellstrom he hoped none of his crewmen noticed.

Her momentum still carried her full force into the vessel and this time the damage was terminal. The vessel split with a terrible noise and began sinking at a rate that would see most of her officers and crew dragged down to Davy Jones’ Locker. But the animal had now taken full hold of Miss Medeirra. With an almost human cry of pain, blood filling the water, she swam away from the vessel at a high rate of speed.

Captain Hellstrom watched for a moment, looking at the scene in front of him. He could either finish off the wounded privateer, perhaps even capture her. This would not only greatly increase their chances of completing their mission but also, if he was able to bring her home again, would actually provide a bounty for him and his crew to share from the proceeds of selling the vessel to the Her Majesty’s Fleet.

In fact this was his plan all along. It would be an almost incalculable benefit to the morale of his largely conscripted crew. And of course, the law of the sea said he should stay and help the men being dragged under by the weight of their ship, now sinking in at least two sections in the frothing ocean.

In the end, his decision was made for him.

He reached into his jacket and took out the finest spyglass anyone on board was ever likely to see. Enchanted, it had a tremendous clarity and range. He handed the glass to Mr. Ansell, the youngest of the three midshipmen under his command.

“Mr. Ansell, take this up to the crow’s nest. You will help us keep track of Miss Medeirra. She doesn’t need the wind and it may be some time before we find her,” he watched for moment as the young man tucked the glass into his jacket and made his way up before calling “And if you drop my glass, Mr. Ansell, just jump.”

He paused at the entranceway to the lower decks, “Miss Theodorra, will you accompany me to the Ship’s Surgeon please.”

“But I’m not- yes, yes Captain, of course,” she picked up her crystals and her chalk, tucking them into a small bag the Captain hoped was calfskin and hurried below decks after him.

Along the way they encountered Mr. Star, the second of the ship’s midshipmen in seniority, aged 13, only a year older than Mr. Ansell and at sea for his third year. He was struggling to carry his half of the weight of the unconscious Lt. Castor along with the last of the three midshipmen, Mr. Patton, who was 15 years old, at sea for 6 years and studying for his examinations to become a Lieutenant in his own right.

The Captain moved in and picked up Lt. Castor, looking at the two young midshipmen, their faces black from the powdersmoke of manning their cannons, “I’ll take him to the surgeon. You two get up on deck. Mr. Patton, you have command while I am with the surgeon. We are to follow Miss Medeirra, who is a leviathan at our best possible speed. Mr. Star, you are to find Mr. Crittendon and have him report to me at the ship’s surgeon.”

He watched with satisfaction as Mr. Patton ran up toward the deck as if he’d told him it was raining gold coins. Mr. Star took off in the other direction, deeper into the ship, looking for the ship’s carpenter. The ship had taken several hits from a cannon, at least one below the waterline. First principles. Make sure they weren’t sinking, make sure none of the crew were killed, then proceed with the mission.

He sank heavily into an open cot in the sick bay, looking around to see who was injured, grateful that most of the injuries seemed minor, he waved the Doctor away irritably as he started toward his face, which he was sure looked much worse than it really was, peppered with splinters and covered in blood from his nose.

“Tend to Lt. Castor first. He has a crushed foot and has lost quite a bit of blood.”

The Captain winced as the Doctor cut the boot off. The foot was a crumpled mess. Doctor Argonis seemed almost unconcerned, as he took the foot and placed it in a bucket, which began to hiss and sputter and smell of sulphur.

“What is that, Doctor,” the Captain remarked uncertainly. As he looked around he realized he had not been in Sick Bay since the doctor had moved in. The place looked like a witch doctor’s hut more than the Sick Bay of one Her Majesty’s finest vessels.

The Doctor gave him a look he recognized, the same one he’d given Miss Theodorra for questioning his orders on deck earlier, “Alchemy, sir. It will staunch the blood flow and draw the bones together in their proper alignment. If we’re lucky, I might even be able to save it. If you approve of my methods, that is.”

“No, no, as you will, Doctor, just make sure he has a soul when you’re done please,” this brought a gale of sarcastic laughter from the Doctor, who seemed to find superstition, even in jest, hilarious.

“That will take awhile to set it, now let me see this face of yours. Not that it could get much uglier, but I take it you’d like to breathe normally?” He was already picking at the splinters, carefully pulling them from the skin with tweezers.

“Yes, Doctor, that would be preferable,” he turned to the Winsdman, motioning for her to sit.

“You’re new to the service, so I’ll be brief. Don’t ever question my orders again when the ship is under fire. If I assign a crewman a task, it’s because it will serve the greater good for the entire ship,” he looked at her, wondering just how young she was suddenly.

“Even if it means their death?” She shot back, almost accusingly. He knew she was Medeirra’s friend but her reaction made him wonder if she was suited to a military life.

“Especially then. Miss Medeirra might die but whether she lives or dies, her actions saved many lives. Without her contribution to this most recent action, there’s a strong possibility none of us would be having this conversation right now.”

She opened her mouth as if to speak again, but a look from the Captain silenced her, “We have a long way yet to travel, in fact we’ve just barely begun. Soon enough in our journey to turn back and request another Windsman. No one will think less of you if you decide this isn’t the life for you.”

The young woman looked as stunned as if he’d slapped her in the face, but the comment had its desired effect, “No, no Sir, I understand. It won’t happen again. May I return to my station on deck? We’ll need to keep the wind.”

The Captain nodded, watching as she hurried out of the Sick Bay. He frowned as the Doctor washed the blood off his face, their faces almost touching as he inspected the ruined mass that was his nose.

“I’m going to need to pack this so it heals right,” he moved away, collecting God knew what from an old withered looking footlocker held against the wall from the movement of the ship by netting.

“I need the Lieutenant awake as soon as possible, Doctor,” he called after him, looking over at the young unconscious man. He deeply regretted what would have to come next. A questioning, possibly a hearing, a demotion, at the very least a flogging in front of the men.

The Doctor muttered something he couldn’t hear as Mr. Mandel, the ship’s navigator stepped into the Sick Bay, his hat in his hands, looking nervous. The Captain smiled comfortingly. Despite serving with him for decades, Mandel was always nervous in his presence, as if the old man felt the slightest mistake would get him cashiered from the service.

“Mr. Mandel, I expected you would be up on deck hovering, what with an infant being in command and all.”

“Begging your pardon, Sir, but this seemed the time to talk to you, before things got, well, before things progressed,” he shot a look at Lt. Castor before stepping in closer, almost whispering.

“Mr. Sawyer and I were on deck earlier, Captain. The lad was not derelict in his duty on my mother’s grave, Sir. They approached in the right fashion, flashing this month’s call sign and they had all the proper flags. There was no way to tell they weren’t one of ours, Sir. Which means-”
Captain Hellstrom threw his hand up, looking around sharply, “Understood, Mr. Mandel. I would ask you to go back up on deck and assist Mr. Patton. I would also ask you to discretely take Mr. Sawyer aside and give him an order from me not to speak of this again to anyone, even you. That applies to you as well. Understood, Mr. Mandel?”

The man nodded quickly, “Oh yes, Captain. Understood completely. I just wanted, well I’ve seen these things get ugly and I wanted you to know the lad did his duty.”

Captain Hellstrom leaned back in the bunk, ignoring the Doctor’s conversation as he packed his nose with some vile-smelling sulphurous compound, literally rebuilding his nose from the inside to its proper shape.

Despite a slight dizziness, though thankfully accompanied by a complete loss of pain, his mind raced at what the Navigator had just told him. The ships were in a perfect position to intercept Constant. They knew all the proper call signs, as well. It could mean only one thing: there was a Mandelieu spy on board his vessel.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Hellstrom Mondays

Just a note here about the schedule for the Hellstrom Voyage.

There's going to be a new chapter on Mondays from now on.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hellstrom Voyage Chapter 3

Hellstrom Voyage: Chapter 3, Privateers

Captain Hellstrom’s face turned red with anger as he saw not one, but two vessels bearing down on the Constant, almost at point blank range for their cannons. Though she outgunned them individually, they were in a perfect flanking position and in moments would be raking her with fire from both sides.

He shot a murderous glance at Lieutenant Castor, the officer on deck during the meal, the man whose inattention to his duty had most likely killed them all but said nothing other than, “Lieutenant! Your place is below deck commanding the port cannons!” If they lived, there would be time to deal with him later.

“Where is my Windsman!” he shouted again. A small cannonball from a bowchaser flew by his ear, felt more than heard. In truth, he hadn’t yet laid eyes on his new Windsman. Her official title was “Warrant Officer of the Winds” and her gift was to control the weather.

She was personally recommended to him by Miss Medeirra and if she was not everything she was advertised to be, they were certainly dead.

“Miss Theodora, dead calm now, please! Major Broughton, the starboard ship, clear her decks if you will,” As he watched the Major’s sharpshooters forming up into orderly ranks, their uniforms looking pressed, gleaming bright blue in the sun, he was at least glad for one officer he could absolutely count on in this situation.

Hellstrom glanced down with annoyance as Miss Theodora drew some sort of chalk circle on his deck. Not one of those. He hated scribers. She probably learned that nonsense at university.

“Mr. Sawyer, our wind is about to die entirely. When it does, you will turn immediately to starboard. There should be quite a bit of chaos on their decks by then, preventing them from turning with us.”

“Aye, Captain,” the enormous man rolled up his sleeves, his enormous ebony arms seemed to drink in the sunlight as he pulled on his gloves. There was a reason why the helmsman needed to be the biggest, strongest man on the ship. He was another crewmate of long standing. Captain Hellstrom had no doubt that if the ship didn’t turn as ordered, it would be because the rudder, or one of his arms, had broken in an attempt to carry out the maneuver.

The rifles of Major Broughton’s sharpshooters cracked with a satisfying finality. The men manning the bowchaser on the starboard ship as well as several crewman pitched and fell backward, with a single man falling headfirst into the water, ploughed under by his own ship.

The Major turned to his Sergeant and gave the command to fire at will, as the men maintained their two-deep ranks at the bow of the ship, reloading their weapons with accomplished speed. The Major then jumped up into the rigging, climbing up about half way, until the elevation gave him a perfect view of the enemy ship’s deck.

Hanging by one arm and one leg he’d hooked through the rigging, he loaded his rifle. Each swing of the ship put him not over the deck but over the clear ocean, a terrifying sensation of near-flight that caused more men to fall from the rigging than anything else.

Broughton waited calmly, until the movement of the ship brought him up to his highest elevation. He smiled as he saw identified the enemy captain despite the fact that no one was wearing uniforms.

“Take this you right bloody privateer,” he murmured under his breath, spitting out the packet he’d used to pour the gunpowder down the barrel of his rifle, the taste comforting as he brought his rifle up to his shoulder, firing quickly before his view swung from the ship to the ocean. He didn’t need to see the result. The enemy captain was lying dead on the deck with a terrible hole right between his eyes.

Lieutenant Medeirra arrived on deck, her eyes wide as she saw the two ships barreling toward them. They had the wind, they were in perfect position. Things couldn’t be much worse.

“How the hell did they get this close before-”

Captain Hellstrom cut her off, speaking quietly, “We’ll discuss that later. We have only one chance to make it through this. Constant will handle the starboard ship. I need you to handle the ship on the port side.”

Medeirra looked up at him, only a moment’s hesitation clouding her vision before she turned to the side of the ship, dropping her green cloak and belt to the deck. Her sword and pistol had barely clattered to a stop before she was over the side in a perfect swan dive.

Time seemed to stand still on all three ships as she hit the water with barely a splash and began swimming toward the port ship, filling her mind with hatred of the ship, a desire to drive it from the ocean, knowing that thought would be at the front of her mind long enough to take hold, before she was consumed by the primal.

Suddenly she went under and a shadow grew under the water. And grew. When it came back up, a jet of air and water shot high in the air as a leviathan sped toward the ship to port like a cannonball. Men began jumping from the deck of the ship in blind panic as the massive creature slammed into the side of the vessel, the sound of cracking wood deafening.

Suddenly time seemed to kick back into motion as the Windsman muttered, “He just sent her to die. I don’t believe it.”

“Miss Theodora, my wind please. Now!” Evidently the Lieutenant wasn’t the only one he was going to have to speak to after this was over. If they lived.

The girl composed herself quickly, throwing a small clear stone on the deck and muttering words of power in a language that would drive a man insane if he dared to speak it and the wind died, the sails of the privateers going suddenly slack, hanging loosely from the masts.

Without waiting for the order, the Mr. Sawyer threw his massive bulk against the wheel with a roar that would frighten a lion. Three crewmen flew off the side of the Constant as she turned, wood groaning dangerously.

For a terrifying moment it seemed they might hit the port privateer head on but Mr. Sawyer roared again, literally throwing himself against the wheel in a second effort, willing the ship to turn just enough so that they passed within inches of the port side of the vessel, putting her between the Constant and the second privateer so only one of the vessels could fire.

There was now a chance they would live. Suddenly the ship heaved as Constant fired 20 guns directly into the privateer at a range of less than 100 yards. Captain Hellstrom waited for what he knew had to come and he didn’t have to wait long.

Suddenly he was thrown face first onto the deck as she returned fire, the sound of cracking wood was sickening, splinters buried themselves in his cheek and his nose was shattered on the hardwood deck.

He leaped to his feet, ignoring the gush of blood that stained his blue uniform black. He threw himself below deck, arriving on the first gundeck at a run. With a practiced eye he stepped over the bodies of dead and dying crewmen, until he made eye contact with Lieutenant Castor.

“We will be turning hard to port as soon as we pass this ship. Hold your fire until then. Load chains in your cannons. I want to destroy her sails, her rudder if possible,” he noted the speed with which the cannons were being loaded. Castor always had been an excellent gunner, one reason he had been promoted to Second Lieutenant so quickly.

He winced and limped over to his crews, repeating Hellstrom’s order. The Captain noted that a cannon had come free and rolled over his foot. The boot was completely crushed, the leather soaked soft with blood.

“Do you need to see the surgeon now, Mr. Castor?” He asked, watching the crews, feeling the wind begin to pick up again. He had counted on that. Even the most powerful Windsman couldn’t affect a long term change in the wind.

“No sir, Captain, I will see him after the battle,” his face was pale from loss of blood, but it didn’t appear as though he would pass out anytime soon.

The Captain simply nodded and headed back up onto the deck.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hellstrom Voyage Chapter 2: At Sea

Captain’s Log: Captain Herriman Hellstrom, commanding H.M.S. Constant

In an hour I will formally meet my officers for the first time at my first official dinner as Captain of this vessel. Many of my crew has served with me before but others are total strangers to me. Hopefully they are all competent and brave men and women or this voyage might be a good deal shorter than Her Majesty intends.

By the state of her dress when she returned, I infer that Miss Medeirra had to use her gift while returning Dr. Greeland to the Constant. Her gift is fascinating to me and certainly an asset to me as Captain, one reason I picked her to be my first officer for this voyage following the promotion of Lieutenant Selgen to his own command.

With the Constant traveling into unknown waters, for the Gods know how long a journey, an officer with the ability to change into any animal could be the difference between life and a slow death as our supplies run out.

The Constant only has room for 6 months supplies and Greeland’s prediction of the size of the Earth is just wrong, as any navigator could tell him if he’d take the time to listen. That means if this voyage is to succeed, we will need to find sources of food and water along the way.

Of course, every gift has its price and here I am no expert. The ship’s physician, Doctor Argonis explained it to me as a tapping into a wild, primal force responsible for the creation of the universe. The greater the power of one’s gift, the less easily it can be controlled.

In Miss Medeirra’s case, she assumes not just the physical body of the creatures she transforms into but the longer she maintains a form the more she assumes the mentality of that form. I can only imagine what that must be like.

Captain Hellstrom looked up as his cook walked in after a brief, perfunctory knock. While few among the crew had the license to enter his quarters at will, this man certainly merited such a privilege as it would be he who made the long tedium that made up voyages like this tolerable.

“Well my good Mr. Fournier, what will you have for us tonight?”

The slight man smoothed his line-thin mustache before answering, “I managed to purchase from fresh fish just before leaving port, which I will broil and serve with lemon slices. We’ll have baked potatoes and bread pudding for desert.”

The Captain leaned back in his chair, idly watching his logbook as it slid back and forth on his table with the easy, rolling gait of the ship. For a moment he slipped into a reverie, imagining the meal, which only made him hungry.

“Excellent as always Mr. Fournier. And the crew, what will they be eating for their first meal as shipmates on the Constant?” The question caused Mr. Fournier to smooth his mustache again, which forced Captain Hellstrom to hide a smile.

Almost grimacing before answering, as if the very thought of cooking for the common crew made him want to vomit, Fournier answered, “Cabbage stew and bread, Sir. Since we have a long voyage, Dr. Argonis has advised me to build up the men’s supply of certain nutrients that will stave off scurvy. He doubts many of these dregs had balanced diets before, so we must start right away.”

Hellstrom winced at the thought. The cabbage would certainly help the men avoid scurvy but it would also give them gas. Any nostalgia for life below decks as a crewman immediately ran from his mind, “An excellent thought Mr. Fournier. Both you and the doctor are to be commended for seeing to the men’s health. You are dismissed.”

Mr. Fournier looked inordinately proud as he left the cabin. Captain Hellstrom picked up his pen but sat it down again before committing another word to paper. The waning light coming through the window of his stateroom seemed to draw him out onto the rear balcony of the ship.

He leaned against the railing, staring back the way the ship had come as the ship rose and fell in the water. In the distance, his home, his family, the entirety of the Island Kingdom and her war against the Mandileu Empire faded into the distance.

Despite the gravity of the situation, with the Island Kingdom standing alone against an empire that had conquered the entire continent behind him and an unknown journey to a strange land before him, Captain Herriman suddenly felt he was the luckiest man alive as he enjoyed one of the many luxuries afforded a ship captain and stared out over the sea as the sun went down.

By the time all his guests had arrived, the sun was down and the yeoman had lit the lamps around the Captain’s table. Besides Captain Hellstrom and First Lieutenant Medeirra, the Captain had invited the ship’s surgeon, Dr. Argonis, the Royal Cartographer, Silas Manfred and Major Broughton, leader of the ship’s marine sharpshooters contingent.

The fish had gone over splendidly, as had the bread pudding and everyone was laughing and enjoying their conversation as the third bottle of port wine was passed around the table.

Dr. Argonis filled his glass before sitting the bottle of port back on the table, where it slid toward the edge of the table with the movement of the ship. The Doctor realized his error too late but Major Broughton was an old hand and deftly scooped up the bottle as it teetered on the edge of the table, refilling his glass before returning it to the center of the table, this time closer to the center where it was in no danger of falling off.

As he leaned back in his chair, the metal plate on Major Broughton’s temple caught the light and the doctor’s attention.

“That’s quite a piece of workmanship you have there Major,” the old surgeon remarked, eyeing the metal plate without the slightest hint of self-consciousness, as one who was used to inspecting wounds could do.

The Major just smiled and turned his head to give the doctor a better look. He also made sure to turn more toward the Royal Cartographer, who had been trying to avoid looking or remarking on his injury all night. His discomfort seemed to make the Major almost as proud as his war wound.

“Yes, indeed it is. Though the metal makes me a bit nervous when I’m up in the rigging during a storm,” this was followed by laughter both from Major Broughton and Captain Hellstrom.

“Your former ship’s surgeon must have been a genius. May I ask how the operation was performed?” His attention was still fixed on the plate, almost as if he was looking at himself in the reflection.

“Well the operation was mostly cutting away all the flesh that couldn’t be saved. The plate itself was a bit of luck actually. No surgeon could have done it. We were transporting... oh what was her title?” He looked at the Captain helplessly, clearly quite distressed that his memory of the lady responsible for saving his life had slipped his mind.

Captain Herriman smiled for a moment, taking a particular delight in his Major’s discomfort before saving him, “Royal Metallurgist,” he said at last.

“Yes! Royal Metallurgist. Lucky stroke really. Without her gift, I would have never survived. She could mold the hardest metal without heat. But what she did in my case was something she had never done before. She actually melded the metal to the bone. It’s as much a part of my skull now as, well, my skull!” He smiled again, the metallic teeth on the back catching the light now as well.

Suddenly his smile faded and he turned to the Captain, practically snarling, “And you, letting me flounder as I tried to remember her title. That will positively be the last time I die for you, Sir!”

This brought laughter from the entire table, which seemed to infuriate the Major more before he finally succumbed and joined in.

When the laughter died down, the Major continued to tell the Doctor the story of the surgery in grisly detail, which seemed to fascinate the old surgeon immensely. The Royal Cartographer, on the other hand, was getting greener by the minute. For a mapmaker, he seemed rather ill at home on ship, and the tale of blood and metal and bone from the Major’s side of the table didn’t seem to be helping.

Captain Hellstrom knew the Major well enough to know this was intentional. The Major was as much an old hand as he and like many old hands, he delighted in making lubbers deposit their dinners on the deck, on their clothes or at least over the side. As someone with his eye on the Admiralty however, the Captain was a bit more tactful with lubbers, especially those who had Her Majesty’s ear.

“I understand you lobbied rather hard to be included on this voyage. I’m afraid we’re ill equipped for dignitaries. Are your quarters satisfactory?” The Captain smiled, seeing the grateful look on the thin man’s green-hued face, he was clearly eager for any distraction from the tales of surgical exploits.

“Oh yes, yes, it’s fine. I just didn’t think the ship would be this... in motion,” at which the gaunt man looked down rather sheepishly, as the Major and First Lieutenant had a laugh at his expense.

“Yes, a ship will acquaint you, and your stomach, with movement in every direction. Just think of it like riding a large horse through the hills during a hunt and you should be fine,” this seemed to comfort the mapmaker enough for him to compose a question of his own.

“And what of you, my good Captain? There seems much about this assignment that must be unfamiliar to you. A military vessel, heading off into the unknown, carrying mapmakers and naturalists, in search of uncharted lands. It’s not the usual mission for a frigate,” he looked around as if he had noticed for the first time that Dr. Greeland hadn’t attended. “Speaking of which, where is the good man responsible for our voyage?”

At this the First Lieutenant broke her companionable silence, “Sleeping off his last night as a free man. I’m afraid he’s as ill-suited to the sea as you, my Lord but he had rather a bit more... shore leave... than you before his departure. ”

The cartographer smiled, turning to the Captain again, “I see. Still, this must be a new experience for you. Especially on this ship, a captured vessel of the Mandelieu, after so many decades on Stalwart.”

The Captain smiled, he thought for a moment that the mapmaker might be trying to get under his skin but his expression belied his genuine curiosity in the many new experiences everyone on board was having to adjust to, “Well, as a member of Her Majesty’s Service, I am not often afforded the luxury of choice. Giving up the Stalwart was difficult, as you said, I had served on her since I was a boy. She was my home. But a forty-year old ship was not going to survive a voyage like this and Her Majesty had commanded me to undertake it. As I had just captured this ship, renamed Constant, I transferred my flag here and promoted my former First Lieutenant to command of the Stalwart.”

At this the cartographer’s eyes lit up, “Ah! So you chose to take command here. And got to pick your successor on your former vessel. Fascinating!”

The Captain smiled, “One of the luxuries afforded a senior Captain from time to time. Especially when given an unusual assignment such as this. And of course, Stalwart was needed to maintain the blockade.”

By the expression on his face, he could see that personally mapping a historic first sighting of a new land wasn’t the only reason the cartographer had lobbied so hard to accompany the voyage himself, it seemed he was an avid reader about the exploits of the navy.

At a crack in the distance though, the reality of the heaving ship once again overtook the literary naval exploits he enjoyed reading, “Oh, no! Not a storm already?”

But Captain Hellstrom was already on his feet, his uniform jacket in his hand as he bolted for the deck, Major Broughton hot on his heels, “That’s not thunder, Sir but a ship’s cannon. Lieutenant Medeirra, see to the safety of our royal passengers and then join me on deck!”

Monday, February 18, 2008

Chapter One: Setting Sail

Hellstrom Voyage: Chapter One, Setting Sail

Captain’s Log: Captain Herriman Hellstrom, commanding H.M.S. Constant, first log entry.

It is always with mixed emotions that I watch a ship being loaded for departure. The sea is where I am most at home. I took to sea at the age of 11 and the sea has been my true home for the rest of my life, where I have made my career and whatever petty distinction I may have earned.

But today, as an older man, with a wife and children I see far too seldom, I find myself wondering whether it would not be better to stay with them rather than risk my life and lives of those souls under my command to the sea once again.

But as I am a creature of duty, when my Queen commands, I of course obey. And the sea. She continues to call me. The mistress that pulls me from my familial bed.

Captain Hellstrom capped the bottle of ink on the desk in his cabin, laying his pen to the side, leaving his logbook open for the ink to dry. He heard the loud clatter of footsteps increasing on the deck above. This ship, the Constant, was as much a part of him as his right arm and he knew with certainty as he buttoned up his uniform coat and headed up that the crew was beginning to arrive.

As he made his way up the stairs he saw his enormous helmsman carrying two unconscious men below deck.

“New recruits then, Mr. Sawyer.”

“Aye, Captain. It seems that fool Greeland has been telling anyone who would listen that we sail for a new land. Not only do the common swabs see no chance of bounty in that, but they also think there’s a good chance we’ll sail off the end of the world, or be swallowed by a leviathan.”

The enormous man continued down below as Hellstrom felt his face grow hot with anger. Not only was the purpose of their voyage supposed to be a secret, but his entire crew, minus the officers, would have to be shanghaied just as those men were. Their entire crew would be the derelicts and bar-scum too dim-witted to avoid the press.

As he stepped on deck, everything seemed to add to his irritation, even though the day was undeniably glorious and the air sweet, to him it seemed unseasonably hot and bright. He grimaced, his temperature rising even more as he saw more of his officers herding unsavory dock-men below deck.

His officers knew his temper and avoided looking his way as they made their way below deck. “Miss Medeirra!”

The slim figure of his first officer shimmied down the ropes where she had been inspecting the upper rigging with a lithe grace. She was at his side in an instant.

“Aye, Captain?”

Hellstrom took a deep breath, composing himself before continuing, all eyes had been on him since his outburst and it seemed time had come to a complete stop in the small world that was the ship. By the time he spoke, the cold, awful aura of command had settled back around him and time had begun to move again on the ship, as the officers forced struggling and unconscious crew below decks.

“Miss Medeirra, take the midshipmen with you into port and search every bar, every brothel, until you find Dr. Greeland. Bring him to me. In irons, if necessary.”

The woman smiled, running a hand through the mass of brown hair on her head, before tying a scarf around it to keep it out of her eyes. She placed her hand on the hilt of her saber, clearly relishing the idea of dragging the naturalist who had spurred this expedition in like the rest of the dock-scum.

“That, Sir, will be my personal pleasure.”

Turning, she walked over to the midshipmen, ages 12, 13 and 15, “Misters Ansel, Star and Patton, we have an errand to run in port. Come along then!”

It didn’t take long for them to find Greeland. Medeirra had started with the brothels, calculating that he’d already spent his time bragging in the bars. As she described him to the matron running the desk of the “hotel”, she was pleased to see that her knowledge of the science that was a rumor running rampant through a dock town was as refined as ever.

Fiddling with the brass clasp of the enormous, oversized cloak she wore over herself, she made her way upstairs, a silver coin having secured the doctor’s room number from the matron.

As they made their way to the top of the stairs, however, it seemed the matron had other loyalties that couldn’t be bought. The pimp that ran the establishment and two of his toughs were waiting for them. Medeirra could feel their eyes on her body even through the heavy cloak she wore over herself but ignored it with a practiced ease.

She raised her chin defiantly as she spoke, “Don’t mind us gentlemen, we’re just here to pick up a shipmate before he misses his voyage.”

The pimp just shook his head, slapping a thick, wicked looking rattan fighting stick against the palm of his hand. Medeirra noticed the practiced ease with which he handled the stick and the leather wrapped around its hilt.

“No miss, you’re not going anywhere, except to a bedroom down the hall to begin entertaining clients. A man in my position knows an opportunity when he sees one, and a lass like you, with those noble cheekbones, is worth a little trouble.”

As he spoke, the pimp’s two companions moved to either side of the midshipmen. The poor boys looked terrified. Naive though they may be, they seemed savvy enough to realize that this man intended to kill them, rather than allow them to report back to the ship and bring an army of angry sailors down on this wretched place.

That got her ire up, the idea that this little man thought she needed protection. And his crack about her cheekbones. The pride of her family history was always there, bristling under the surface and it was not be trifled with by a man like this.

Still, she smiled, “Come now men, we don’t want any trouble. And my Captain will be oh, so upset if we’re late. I can pay you -”

At that the pimp lashed out with the stick, snarling, “Everything you have is mine now you impudent little-”

Suddenly there was a shimmer in the air, like hot air rising from a cobblestone road on a summer day, combined with the sound of tearing cloth. Medeirra’s last conscious thought was to commend the midshipmen for the way they fought and controlled fear against the larger, stronger toughs.

Suddenly there was a whirlwind among the pimp and his toughs. A black shadow accented by the bright green of Medeirra’s cloak. Their confidence shattered as the pimp went down with a sickening crack, the arm that held the rattan stick bent at an impossible angle, blood spurting through the wound where the broken bone had punctured the flesh.

Medeirra, or what had once been her, jumped to the balcony railing and then to the chandelier that tried to give the first floor of the brothel a touch of elegance. She swung back and forth there with an easy, natural grace, eyeing the two toughs malevolently.

Neither of them had ever seen a gorilla before, and they froze, their eyes caught by this creature that was almost human, except for the way it moved.

Suddenly she was among them again, leaping off the chandelier at its closest arcing point to them. She landed full in the chest of one with all four hand and he went down with a heavy thud under her weight. She let out an inhuman cry of victory before punching him in the head and chest several times.

Then she leaped off him, ambling in a roly-poly gait toward the last of the toughs, who finally remembered his feet and ran like he’d never run before.

Snarling again, she turned on midshipmen, who were as stunned and frozen as the toughs, before a strange glimmer of recognition sparked in her inhuman eyes. A sadness that revealed the woman fighting free, struggling against the undercurrent of the primal.

Finally, after a torturous moment of indecision, the woman triumphed over the animal, and the air shimmered again. Her human nakedness quickly covered by the heavy, oversized cloak, the only garment to have survived the transformation.

Her voice sounded thick, like someone learning how to talk again after a lifetime among the animals of the jungle, “He’s down the hall. Bring him.”

Bending down, she picked up her belt, which was fastened in such a way as to slip free rather than break and fastened it around her naked waist. She briefly laid a light touch on the hilt of her sword and her pistol to make sure they were in easy reach, then cast a quick glance around the lower level of the brothel.

Everyone was still in place where they had been before the fight started, still trying to process what they had seen. Finally one of the trollops pointed at her and yelled, “Witch!” Then ran from the lobby, no doubt seeking the nearest guard or inquisitor to deal with her.

With a sigh the twitching, gasping mess that was the pimp caught her eye. Carefully avoiding the blood, she reached down and picked the rattan stick from the ruined wreck of his arm and gripped it tightly in her hand.

Gently, almost whispering, she said, “They’re going to have to amputate the arm. Even if you live, there’s going to be months of extreme pain, followed by a lifetime of smaller pain and addiction to the drugs that get you through that awful first year.”

Blood bubbled from his lips as he hissed, “Just do it.”

Glancing at the midshipmen, she inclined her head toward the door, where they drug the struggling, protesting Doctor Greeland. After they had moved past the scene of the fight, Medeirra slid the stick into her belt and placed both forearms against the side of the pimp’s neck.

Her eyes held his as the steady pressure quickly cut off the flow of blood to his brain and he passed out. She continued to hold until, with an experienced eye she was certain he was dead. Much quicker and more humane than the end he had waiting for him, or for the one he had planned for her and her midshipmen.

Then she followed the midshipmen out into the street and turned toward the towering sails that marked the docks.