I have arrived at the first main event of these wild Ferron days. Island WS-F-007, or Isle Seven as I’ll call it henceforth. Its coordinates within the region already speak to considerable alteration, as the Upwell Storm has shuffled the pieces across these emerging skies, sending once known islands hundreds of miles away from their originally surveyed locations. Turning the charted into decidedly uncharted. Forgive my obfuscation of its discrete location for now, as I must keep some secrets. You understand, of course. The nature of the game!
Here, with Isle Seven, my aims and those of my hosts are aligned. They require multiple days of surveying and sampling for the sake their own bounties, and I shall immerse myself in a storm-sealed ecosystem for the duration of our stay. There, I will observe the no-doubt altered wildlife up close and in detail, and perhaps discover a few tantalizing secrets. This is a precious and momentous excursion, as Isle Seven will surely become a colony and port of call for a new wave of bold settlers within the decade. It will never be so pure again, and even I feel a touch of guilt at sullying this place with my boot prints tomorrow morning.
Verica rolled her eyes at KZ Springvale’s melodramatic view of the upcoming expedition, which meant she nailed the fake explorer’s specific voice. Well, fake wasn’t accurate. Most of KZ’s adventures were based on her own years in the Northwest Frontier, if polished up for the sake of narrative and certain details altered to shield herself from being identified as the author. Verica was KZ Springvale. But only a portion of her, an outgrowth of her exile, a coping mechanism and modest stream of income from back east. Springvale wasn’t as big as she hoped, but built up enough of a fanbase over the years to garner quick attention from editors whenever Verica sent over another bundle of tales and reports.
A compromise, between her former career and current exile. A mask, not even gendered, which was apparently a great source of debate among readers. Verica had been so focused on keeping her identity a secret in the earlier stories that she stripped KZ of everything but a voice and stance. It was Beatrix’s idea to lean into it and maintain the ambiguity, even if she thought the whole alter-ego charade nonsensical.
She eyed the stack of magazines she received from Beatrix back in Hub, a collection of the last year or so of KZ’s publication credits. Mostly escapist adventure magazines, a muddle of fact and fiction, more entertainment than science. Though there were a few credible missives in rigorous publications, occasions when she reined in KZ’s embellishments and focused on the actual work and cataloging of the bizarre wildlife out here.
After a moment of consideration to add more to the entry, she decided it was enough for now. Verica closed the slim, water-resistant field journal and set aside a pair of pens. It was the last thing she needed to pack for tomorrow. Everything else she required for three days on Isle Seven was packed and leaning against the wall near the door of her makeshift, cabin-slash-lab-slash-office.
Despite her extended stay on the Wink and Smile, there was minimal personalization to her cabin. Plenty of customization, certainly. One wall was filled by a storage shelf with numerous locking and secured bins, even a few that could hold an air-tight seal. The electrical hookups were modified and expanded. The overhead lights could go from soft and warm bedroom to clinical laboratory-bright as desired. There were, naturally, books galore on sundry biological and ecological topics, plus an effective minor degree in weather analysis and signals.
But aside from a leather-lined storage trunk with scuffed up brass casings, and its contents, almost nothing about this cabin declared, ‘This space belongs to Dr. Verica Chantil’. By design, of course. Part of the clinging notion that this was but a temporary posting, like all the others since the disaster in the Low Raelins. Another wall. Another disassociation. Another…
No. None of that now.
Pack it away once more. Verica had other tasks ahead, a modest but long-awaited solo mission beginning with the dawn. She stood from the desk, carrying KZ’s journal to the loaded travel pack near the door, secured to a safety point, of course. Verica slid the journal into a pocket, next to her beat-up and battle-tested notebook with more rigorous, non-alter-ego, observations and initial analysis. The two struck a balance, the latter always taking the majority share, KZ a filtered, polished expression more often than not.
An additional pack waited out in the cargo hold, containing camping supplies for a base of operations away from the Wink’s landing site. The plan was to drop her a few miles away from whatever clearing the crew found suitable for their own overnight site. They would perform a few ground-bound maintenance tasks and fly detailed surveying circuits around the island. Verica would have an all-too-brief immersion in what they all hoped would be a verdant landscape.
Isle Seven, being the seventh survey stop since they entered the Ferron Expanse, was a big one, literally and figuratively. Icomb’s original Imperial survey maps tagged this island with the high-value combination of ‘Rain Bowl’, ‘Self-Sustain’, and ‘Agri-plus’. Water. Established Ecosystem. Good for farming. And the signal data confirmed it was large enough to support a sizable colony.
A grand prize, especially if they could confirm that those tags were still valid after a decade of storms. Technically speaking, this was a rediscovery. A confirmation of continued existence. Nonetheless there was so much to see and investigate herself, and three days wasn’t nearly enough time. It was merely a range of safety given the still brooding storm all around them. But Verica found herself infected by Icomb’s starry-eyed explorer talk. Of seeing this place as a whole new realm, untouched, though its existence on the original maps shouted otherwise.
Or perhaps that was KZ Springvale talking.
This island is a true marvel. My enthusiasm yesterday was insufficient, for the details and subtle features and adaptations of this garden in the storm are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Today I’ll ascend the crags east of my camp, where the fickle flows descend from the rim-bound retaining pools and spray down into the lowlands like tumbling, playful spirits. Already I’ve spotted ground adapted flocks of grazer-variety avians, their wings atrophied, bellies fattened from the extensive forage upon this fertile ground. A self-sustaining herd, no doubt, but their origin? Still to be discovered…
Verica closed KZ’s journal, opened her field notes, and added ‘Kill a grazer bird’ to her list of to-dos. The agenda already exceeded her time on Isle Seven three-fold, if she were honest about the timeline. ‘True marvel’ was a spot-on assessment. There was far too much to do and not enough time to do it.
And yet here she was, taking a lazy late lunch and doing little more than soaking in the view. Verica looked up from notes. Her mid-day vantage point was the crest of a hill jutting from the tumbled crags and boulders along the southwestern section of the island. Isle Seven was bowl-shaped, with a complete rim of sheer cliffs descending into rolling, lake-studded lowlands. Ice crowned parts of the rim, the origin of countless streams of meltwater cascading down the cliffs. The flows parted around her vantage point and its gentle-enough ascent. Further below lay a mingle of meadows and woodlands, crossed by increasing streams flowing toward the isle’s many retaining lakes.
It was a textbook rain-catcher island, as close to perfect as she’d ever seen.
Verica took a bite from one of her ration bricks. Food quality aside, this was a pleasant set-up for a midday break. She even caught fleeting glimpses of blue sky and, marvel above all, moments of direct sunlight. The swiftly moving cloud ceiling tried to hide away these lapses in the upwell storm’s grip, cracks in the façade hastily painted over.
She lifted her binoculars, an old pair with cracked black leather grips and pristine Torsian lenses, and gave the isle another meditative sweep. The opposite side of the isle was lost in the hazy remainder of the morning fog that had smothered the lowlands and delayed her climb to midday. The winds picked up by the time Verica reached her planned ascent point, though not enough to discourage the venture. A pure, fresh scent swirled on the air, touched with ice and rain.
A marvel? Yes. Perfect? Not quite.
Verica shifted her gaze to the east, where a teardrop scar of blackened land marred the idyllic island. It was a relatively recent impact site, the surrounding land in early years of recovery from a wildfire. Elsewhere, though harder to see, were puncture holes through the underside of the island created by updraft forces. Closer, between the two nearest wind-rippled lakes lay a misplaced line of browned, dry land, a dividing line of low bluffs. She would scout that area in closer detail tomorrow, as their overflights on the Wink and Smile showed little more than a tight maze of crags and gullies.
This was an old land, with clear elements of a stable past. But the upwell storm will leave it riddled with aberrant terrain, its nature reshaped and modified by an extended tempest. And whatever its past, it will be the newer scars wrought a long exile that draw the most attention.
Verica lowered the binoculars and closed her eyes, taking a few slow breaths.
Now, now, she chided herself. Let’s not get too deep into personal parallels.
She didn’t want to sour this sense of peace, something as rare as this untouched, verdant island. There was an additional appeal in this dose of isolation. This was research and personal therapy rolled into a single excursion.
But she couldn’t help but draw those parallels between the Now and the Before. Call it her impulse to associate and classify. The mental legacy of seeing dire storms splintering your skies and reshaping your landscapes.
Post upwell storm cradles of life like this were so lightly studied. A full academic expedition could spend a year harvesting out the full scope of the island’s nature in a race against the normalization of migration and climate. Once the storm cleared, this island and the entire Ferron Expanse would quickly revert to a different and distinct mean. Verica might not have enough time to get a proper assessment of the island, but she could at the very least gather a reasonable snapshot.
Let her former colleagues back in the Core chew on that coup of discovery for a little while. Perhaps she would follow Beatrix’s advice and even put her real name on the report, daring all to disregard something so marvelous on account of her tarnished reputation.
Verica was getting ahead of herself. Task at hand.
Of greatest interest were the current fauna. The isle’s structure clearly worked as a shelter against the upwell storm, and a seemingly stable ecosystem had taken up residence in the intervening, confined years. She couldn’t yet judge if the denizens were native or refugees. Most likely both hybridized into something new.
The grazer herds were most curious. Large, ostensibly flightless (temporarily?) birds, similar to a number of continent-bound species. Perhaps a manner of ratite. They had adapted into pure grazers, their bodies fat from a shift in lifestyle, their wings shrunken and packed into a denser coat of feathers. Each time Verica saw them over the last two days, they moved as if hurried along, passing prime pasture. It was odd. Perhaps a continuation of their wandering flights? Or migration writ small?
Most of the other animal denizens were typical, despite Island Seven’s isolation. Likely populations from before the storm, locked into this island for the duration. There was thorough insect life, though gratefully light on the biting variety. Clear evidence of smaller serpentine classes, both long-distance drifters and terrestrial burrowers. No rodent infestation that she could see, which lined up with this island being visited by humans once or twice and only as a survey. That’ll change with the first colony ship, as stowaways were inevitable in all settlement operations, to say nothing of the normal array of domesticated species brought along. This island’s cycles will be simultaneously upended in same landing, at the top, middle, and bottom of the chain.
Just not enough time. Icomb would rightly sell the island’s coordinates and survey data as soon as possible. This was a prize island, ready for cultivation and settlement once the upwell storm faded into memory. Its value had even increased on account of the storm, as it was now considerably closer to settled territories.
Verica raised the binoculars to the skies and quickly found the Wink and Smile on a survey circuit. Isolation was all well and good, but it was comforting to have a retreat path. The view on high wasn’t detailed enough for Verica. She needed to be on the ground to get a sense of the place beyond surface details and sketches. An immersion and isolation, before those that followed washed the uniqueness away in a wave of metal-bound progress.
She frowned as the ship bobbed oddly in the crosswinds above the island. The bowl-shaped rim created a bubble of disruption and turbulent air, a feature likely responsible for the land’s general preservation in the face of the upwell storm’s endurance. But the ship seemed to struggle more than usual. Strange.
A chill wind tumbled down from the broken smile of the island’s rim and slithered across her shoulders. The scent and feel of the air shifted, becoming oddly charged, electric. Verica considered for a moment, then stowed her notebooks and the remnants of her rations in her day pack. A couple hours of harsher winds marred yesterday afternoon’s weather as well. Wisest to descend now.
She paused with the binoculars in hand, catching a fleeting ill feeling, a suspicion, before raising them to give the landscape one more look. The rolling, lake-studded island shivered and twitched in rising winds. The wheeling birds above the woodlands and waters descended into cover, nearly in unison, stripping the air above the island of its traffic and vitality.
No. No, the weather data was so empty.
She looked downhill of her position, seeking…ah there. One of the puncture holes in the ground. The thin-trunked trees nearest to the vent were tossed about in furious sudden updrafts. The storm was pulling energy from below, intensifying out of nowhere.
Her heartbeat rose with the winds, and the rest of her gear was stowed away with nervous efficiency. A glance up showed those peeks of blue fading to flowing whites and grays, the cloud ceiling thickening and descending to cap the island. As she started for the winding natural path downhill, the scattering of boulders and scree around her took on a lively, shivering cast. Verica stumbled against the winds slicing down from the rim with increasing fury. Yet she felt buoyed, lighter on her feet from the eternal lifting effects on the skies coming to bear against the island.
Verica scanned the sky for the Wink and Smile and she hiked downward, nearly tumbling twice from the poor footing and her divided attention. About halfway down, she spied the ship, barely visible and struggling against the surging cross currents above the island. The ship’s spotlight flashed in alarm, blinking for her attention as the clouds darkened and intensified into a proper storm. Then the Wink and Smile was shoved upward into the growing storm and became lost in the haze, a new ghost in the fog.
The rising winds drove Verica downward to the lowlands, where knee-high grasses danced in mad rhythms. She dug into her bag for a signal flare, hand blindly searching through her gear. Just as she found the flare the entire island recoiled from an impact, throwing her to the ground. A resounding crash echoed through the hills as Verica pushed herself to her feet and ran away from the slopes, all too aware of the loose scree and broken boulders adorning the island’s rim at her back.
The island settled from the impact, though dust and leaves flowed about on the lashing winds and she could smell rain on the air. Thunder grumbled across the land in time with unseen lightning. Judging herself far enough from the slopes to have a chance of escaping any rockfall, Verica pulled out an emergency flare and snapped it alight. Red light bathed the shifting meadow around her, a beacon in the rising haze choking the island.
The winds howled in discordant, dueling choruses. One sliced over the isle’s rim, singing of sorrow. The other was a basso bellow rising through the vents below, a scattering of dire voices throughout the fields and forests, singing of wrath. Wrath was winning out. She tried not to let her fears rise with the winds, waving the flare above her in an even circuit.
There. The Wink and Smile’s pale green hull pushed through the cloud ceiling. But something was wrong, and the ship struggled to descend, to cut through the invisible boundary between the two flows of air. They saw her. It didn’t matter. The uplifting winds worked double against an airship, the Wink’s buoyancy betraying her against these infernal updrafts.
The spotlight flashed out a message against the growing storm-bound darkness.
D. R. O. P.
A point of light emerged from behind the ship, descending too slow for gravity. It was the cubic shape of a supply crate, trailing a rope and a burning flare. It tumbled oddly in the winds, trying to float away but heavy enough to assert its fall. The damned winds still had their way with the crate, forcing it into an angled descent to the north. It vanished into the far side of a woodland. Verica etched the approximate location into her mental map of the island.
Then the Wink and Smile rose up and away, struggling against the flow but vanishing into the storm, resigned to retreat.
Verica let the flare fall from her hand, suddenly numb.
She was stranded. Again.
Verica locked her knees against a physical collapse and locked her mind a far more dangerous mental collapse. She shielding herself against the overwhelming flow of memories from a different time and a different island.
No. I will not fall to pieces here. Altered conditions and new considerations snapped into place in her mind, taking priority.
Task at hand before old personal parallels, Verica.
Dr. Verica Chantil snatched up the flare, a temporary light against the growing gloom. She looked around the meadow and spotted the wayfinding marker she left this morning, a blaze of red tape tied around a dead tree trunk. She set off back to her camp, for there was now so much more to do.
It would seem her wish for more time on the island had been granted.
Loyal readers of my missives will know and understand that no adventure is properly complete without unforeseen complications. Were I oversensitive to the risks and dangers of Frontier skies, I’d have returned to Torsia years ago with the rest of the post-Dissolution repatriation waves. When storm clouds close off the sky and lash your expedition with wind and rain and stone, you seek shelter when needed, press on when you must, and never for a moment doubt your resolve and vision! All ill weather must pass, and this is hardly my first temporary stranding. I trust my allies to return at the earliest possible opportunity.
Besides, I am well-supplied (always prepared!) and this marvelous island certainly has plenty to eat…
As usual, Verica shared an incomplete and discontinuous portion of her pen name’s optimism.
Her camp was a comfortable set-up against the side of a massive and overgrown boulder jutting out of the middle of a meadow. A cheery yellow tarp, rising on poles and hooked into the boulder, covered tent and work areas alike. The rain began in earnest five minutes before she returned to her shelter yesterday. What followed was a frantic half hour of piling her various equipment into the leeward, mostly dry areas of the camp under the overhang, Verica herself becoming thoroughly soaked in the process.
Then she waited, watching through the tent’s opening as the signal flare guttered out on its hastily found perch on a knee-high boulder further out in the meadow. Rain fell ceaselessly and an hour became six as the day was lost to the sudden storm. The night was cool and damp and without a fire. Verica slept about as terribly as expected, half-dressed, her ears straining against the hiss of the downpour for the telltale whisk of the Wink and Smile’s descending turbines.
No such quick escape. As before.
So, on this first morning of her altered situation, with her breath faintly visible and hand aching against the cold, Verica wrote and let KZ Springvale put their optimistic spin on things. It helped pass the early hours of wan daylight as she kept vigil for a break in the storm. At least it got warmer by midmorning. She didn’t want to dip into the fuel supply of her two lanterns just yet.
Speaking of: It was a fine time for an accounting of supplies. Verica set aside KZ’s journal and returned to her own.
KZ’s claim of food to begin. ‘Plenty to eat’ was a presumptive exaggeration. There were three additional days of rations that could be stretched out to twice that. Verica nibbled at one packet, vaguely fruit flavored, as she scratched out a revised supply list. She didn’t have much of an appetite this morning. Water was not a problem. Her supply from ship, a silvery cask-like container, was about ninety percent full. She had a backup filtering pump as well, rated for about a week of use. Furthermore, the island itself held plenty of water, some stagnant, but numerous clear and flowing sources. Never mind the rainfall.
That last thought gave Verica pause mid-word, pen hovering above water-resistant paper.
She flipped open her field journal to a map of the area surrounding her camp. Carefully drawn from the overhead flights and her first hours on-isle, it was now riddled with notes and corrections. The nearest retaining lake, number six, was fed by an arc of drainage from the southwestern rim and this adjacent meadow was exceptionally low and flat. If the rain continued or worsened, the meadow could be flooded.
Damn it all.
Verica looked around her camp, calculating the risks and coming up well short of safe. The shelter was insufficient against a sustained storm in any case. Already the wind and rain ate at the edges of the dry area, finding gaps and vulnerabilities to spray mists of rainwater inside. She would have to relocate at the first opportunity. She tapped the map on the sharp points denoting that line of crags and gullies to the north. Worth scouting on the way to the supply drop.
Finish the accounting: Her camping supplies were meant for a three-day excursion with skiff pick-up. One first aid kit. There were multiple large weather-proof footlockers for sample collection and clothing storage. They were inconvenient to move on foot, but manageable. Most of the research/collection gear could be left here.
Heat. Multiple sets of matches, two lanterns and a modest amount of oil. Campfires would be difficult in the damp conditions, but she had the foresight to gather a few pieces from the edge of the meadow and stowed them in the driest (relatively speaking, in all things) part of the tent. She would have to re-collect firewood wherever she relocated.
Finally: Weapons. Her hunting rifle with eighteen rounds, an old companion in its waterproof case. A side arm pistol, borrowed, one of Oterrvo’s. Twenty-seven rounds, three magazines of nine. Machete. Utility knife. The smaller blades in her field examination kits weren’t terribly useful beyond their intended purpose, but available. Hunting supplemental food would be plausible, but only to an outer limit.
Verica wanted to assume the storm would be fleeting. That this accounting of supplies was her overthinking a daylong weather anomaly. That the skies would open up and the Wink and Smile would cut down through the dissipating haze, and she would saunter up to meet them as if nothing were amiss.
All foolish assumptions to make. She knew better. The Ferron Upwell storm was dying, but it wasn’t dead. Her previous…experience, uncaged and growling at the edges of her awareness, pushed her to perhaps over-prepare for what was originally a three-day stay on Island Seven.
Three weeks in that jungle hell. The cold words of her official report came back unbidden.
The Low Raelins could hardly be called part of the Northwest Frontier. They lay in that dead expanse splitting the frontier wedges on the map. Were they closer to any of the connective threads of civilization they might have been tamed and colonized with the rest of the settlement waves. Aside from unactionable echoes in deep nav/comm drags, a handful of fragmentary mentions in Kural exploration sagas, and exactly one line in a stolen Seeder log, there was little evidence the Low Raelins existed at all.
Verica shook her head. She couldn’t sit idle. That would only lead to bad places, the ill memories stalking closer in weak moments. She needed to stay busy. The next order of business was to recover the supply drop and scout a more secure camp. Hopefully in the same excursion.
Outside (a poor distinction, granted), rain descended like fine threads and crept into the corners of her shelter like mold. The thunder was distant, and the island had suffered no additional impacts since yesterday’s initial flurry. In terms of weather, this was the best she could expect.
Verica took down her coat, dry enough from hanging up overnight. Time to undo all that work. She shrugged into it, the worn leathers slipping over her like the second skin it was. Small comforts. She emptied her day pack of all but a signal flare, a canteen, and half a pack of rations, the rest of breakfast. Pistol and utility knife in her coat pockets. Roll of marking tape in the front pocket, red. Machete and sheath over her left shoulder.
She studied her field journal’s map once more before sealing it into a water-proof case with the rest the trip’s files and writings. The supply drop was, hopefully, on the far side of the grove to the north of her camp and area of investigation. She could follow that seam of dry land around the bluffs between the lakes and check for promising caves or overhangs. Then skirt the woodlands until she spotted the drop or was forced to start checking the denser brush.
Shoddy as her shelter was for these conditions, crossing the threshold dispelled all illusions of comfort and safety. The sky lay low over the island like a sealed lid. A slow, grinding circulation stirred the storm-gray ceiling, while aberrant formations appeared and vanished in alien patterns. Scattered pockets of sparking energy danced in the murk, producing only the faintest crackling thunder, as if the sky were experiencing unseen, hairline fractures.
This storm was strange, slow, and more powerful than it let on. Verica realized she had been staring for a while and turned away, wiping water from her face.
The rain was relatively mild, but persistent, and Verica sighed as she crossed out of the shadow of the boulder, resigned to becoming soaked once more. She paused at a pair of red streamers marking her campsite, snapping every which way in the winds. Secure enough and sharply visible against the terrain and weather conditions. Verica shot a glance behind her, toward the looming wall of the island’s rim to the south, frowning as she saw it was little more than a darker lower half of the horizon, lacking in features from the low visibility.
The surrounding meadow had taken on a gloomy character, the grasses slumped under the weight of rainfall. Gusts of wind stirred portions of the field to life here and there, like the ground shuddering in unease. The array of small creatures and ground-cover birds were tucked away in whatever burrows or secret shelters they could find, draining away passive and often ignored life from the margins.
Verica marched northward, leaning against capriciously changing winds that snatched at her coat and tied-up hair, the latter coming loose in damp black strands. Micro streams of draining water followed her path toward the heart of the island, babbling under her feet and drawing weaving lines through the once uniform meadow. The grasses parted away from the stronger flows, forming guidelines to avoid the worst of the mud, though her boots always seemed to squelch through and find a sticking point.
The joys of frontier exploration.
Conditions wise, she still couldn’t complain overmuch. As far as storms went, well…she didn’t want to think how much worse it could get. Verica already knew firsthand how deep the scale went.
A distant, stronger rumble made her pause, ears straining against the static-like hiss of rain. Thunder or an impact? The ground remained still. The former. She paused at a couple points while crossing the fields, quickly tying off strips of red tape as guide markers to anything handy and solid.
Her targeted woodlands rose ahead as the rain mercifully faded to a thin, tolerable mist. The winds held no such sympathy, seeming to snap out with gusts designed solely to knock her over. To her left, a marching line of broken bluffs split the landscape, a seam of brown, gray and faintly golden stone between dense clusters of trees. The permanent and storm-made drainage streams parted around the barren land, though the bluffs and short cliffs dripped with run-off of their own.
The shallow canyons and caves, primal as they were, would certainly make a superior shelter in these conditions. Verica gingerly stepped up the slope of slick stone at the fringes of the bluffs, eying the dark portals of overhangs and caves. Not wanting to linger here too long, she tied a couple long strips of marker tape around sturdy knobs of stone at the entrance to the nearest cave. The interior was dry and deep enough for her needs. A narrow cleft to the left of the entrance seemed to funnel drainage water away from it. Good enough for her purposes.
Verica returned to the surer footing of the woodland fringes and continued northward. With the fading of the rain rose the sounds of the island. Mostly the wind, howling through the bluffs and whispering through the canopies. Below that, furtive and exploratory, were the cries and calls of the islands denizens, chirping out signals to each other. Deeper in the woodland to her right came numerous low calls and responses among the grazer herds, and a cursory glance about the ground revealed fresh three-clawed prints in the mud.
She skirted the edge of the grove, a tangled woodland of swaying conifers and hardy ground shrubs and ferns. The few broad-leaved trees were in varying confused seasonal stages. The island appeared unsure whether it was spring or autumn, something Verica attributed firmly to the years of storms playing havoc with the local climate. Wind keened above and below, the constant reminder of the storm’s energies. Yet that bellow from below grew stronger as she trudged through the damp ground cover. She soon discovered why.
Ah. One of these.
A vent hole lay in her path, one of the aberrant punctures through the entire underside of the island. Verica touched her lifering through her coat and kept a generous distance, the barren stone around the vent slick and shiny in the dim light of day. Roughly circular with wind-smoothed edges, it was about fifteen feet wide. As much as she wanted to peer over the edge, the hole was dangerous to stay near even in dry conditions. Heated air rose on updrafts from the Down Below through the vent and washed over the surrounding area. Steam wafted on the rising air, scattering the misty rain.
She lingered here, so close to an expression of a cause of her stranding, drinking her fill of the heat. Once one dismissed the sundry Hellish traditions and folklore, the warmth was a damned relief. Nonetheless, Verica pulled herself further away once she noticed the countless scattered stones strewn about the area, all primal and dark and uncovered by plant growth. New additions from below, and an implicit threat that the updrafts weren’t always so warmly soothing.
The area around the vent was clear of cover, but lay right at the seam between woodland and crag lands, opening up sight lines for hunting and observation. Short grasses fringed the woods nearest the vent, no doubt decent pasture and forage. She noted this position for later, tying a long strip of red tape around the nearest tree that didn’t look about to fall over from the temperature havoc. Might as well take advantage of whatever the island and storm saw fit to provide.
Resigned to leave the vent’s warmth behind, Verica continued along the edge of the woodlands. She passed two more vents, though both were deeper into the crags and bluffs, keening through the rocky landscape like haunting spirits. There must be a shallow line along the underside of the island here, allowing for the storm to carve upward over the years.
She found the supply drop right where she expected. Hurrah for small victories. It landed a spare few feet away from one of the island’s many murky pools. The surface of the pond shivered from rainfall and wind, and the carpet of broad pads and clusters of shoulder-tall stalks would be a fascination in any other circumstance. As expected, Verica spotted a clear line of rising water, the rainfall collection keeping pace with this new storm. It would only be worse at the lake nearest her camp.
Verica knelt beside the supply crate, which lay broken open from the impact. A hodgepodge of gear was inside and she mechanically transferred everything to her pack. A layer of rations. Good. A few more flares. Rope. A first aid pack. While sealed, everything was wet which might have compromised the flares. Can’t win on every front. Verica looked up and nodded a wordless thanks through the gray, ominous skies to her allies on the Wink and Smile.
Standing, she considered the broken crate, then stooped to wrench the top of the crate off its hinges. It was light enough to carry back, if awkwardly, and could serve as a rain-catcher at the very least.
She started back, slipping twice on mats of grass before she got used to the load. After barely passing out of sight of the pond, the island violently shuddered from another string of collisions below. Verica staggered to a stop and knelt in place, waiting for the vibrations to cease while eyeing the low-hanging skies for anything falling from above. Not that she had much say in the matter. It’s simply nice to have advance warning of annihilation.
As she waited for the tremors to fade, Verica caught the fleeting scent of carrion on the air. The winds stole away the odor, as if it were only her imagination. The hairs on her neck said otherwise. She knew that scent, the clinging stench of a predator with no qualms about the age of its meat. Strange. She’d seen no other evidence of such a creature on Island Seven thus far.
The tremors faded and Verica hurried along, considering. A large predator wasn’t implausible for this island. Perhaps a bigger serpent or raptor, stranded with the rest? Something purely terrestrial was out of the question, given the island’s remoteness.
Not enough data. There was too much she didn’t know about this island.
She passed by the first vent on the way back to the camp, retracing her waypoints of red tape. It was even less pleasant this time around, with pebbles of stone rising on the updraft like inverted hail. All around the vent water hissed while thin vegetation burned and wilted wherever the precipitate landed.
Verica gave the hole a wide berth, keeping close to the tree line and stepping around larger chunks of primordial stone recently smashed against the ground. The rocks were a shadowy black and radiated an uncanny amount of heat she could feel from many feet away. Fragments from the Down Below, hot and fresh. It was like standing near a campfire.
Dispensing with folkloric superstition, but perhaps against her better judgement, Verica set down the top of the supply crate near one of the heated black rocks. Keeping one eye on the vent, she hovered a hand over the stone. Not quite like an open flame, but remarkably even. Like a heating coil. She stood and nudged the stone with her boot. It wasn’t as heavy as it looked and rolled easily into the crate.
The stone hissed all the way back to meadow and her shelter. It didn’t melt through the container, though Verica shifted her hands around the rim frequently. Too wet for a fire, but this will serve. Assuming it didn’t poison her like the old myths claimed.
No scientific evidence corroborated those beliefs.
So far as she knew, anyway.
The storm rose with every step, the skies a barely contained tempest waiting to unleash another round at the worst possible time. Verica hustled across the meadow and rounded the boulder.
Her camp was in shambles.
Multiple support poles were snapped or uprooted. The yellow ceiling tarp had caved in over everything, half of it flapping in the increasing winds. Rivulets of runoff slithered out from under the mess, declaring the interior properly saturated.
Verica tossed aside the heated stone and its cradle. The day pack followed in a dejected drop. She didn’t bother with internal denials. Her shelter had collapsed in on itself, and a few crates were dented and set askew. Verica prowled a circuit around the destruction. The ground was turned up in places. There were no tracks or other signs of animal influence. She found the briefcase-sized case containing her writings, brushing away the smear of mud from the black shell. It had been thrown from the camp but was intact, a lucky break.
Setting the case aside, Verica pulled up the broken tarp to reveal a complete mess of her supplies underneath. A five-foot long stone lay at the epicenter of the destruction, directly on top of her tent. It didn’t match the neighboring boulder, a paler brown. This had fallen from elsewhere.
Verica eyed the sky warily and dismissed the useless image of this rock crushing her while she slept.
It made a fine argument for moving her camp now. Before the storm decided to get worse. Verica waited only a few minutes next to the heated stone and its cauldron, soaking up the fading warmth as she ate a bland brick of nutrition from the recovered supply drop. This one tasted like military surplus from the War and was about as fond of an experience.
One of those caves would have to serve. She could move the essentials in a few trips, assess the damage in the process. Thankfully it was a shallow descent and the metal crates might slide along the slick grass.
There would be no rest. Not just yet.
I am sufficiently self-aware to know that humility and I have a somewhat detached relationship. This storm, however, in all its fury and destruction and creation, seems bent on forcing a dose of harsh medicine down my throat. I’ve sheltered in place for nearly two days on account of unreal winds and ceaseless downpours. To say nothing of seismic shocks from below, the Upwell storm continuing to, ah, upwell material from the great Down Below. But there is also opportunity, regardless of how restricted I am in location. For who else can claim to have such a front-row seat to the active processes, the rage and fury of a dying upwell storm? I find myself transfixed by it in idle moments, awestruck and…
Verica’s most recent spate of distraction via KZ’s sunny perspective petered out within a few more paragraphs. The storm’s fury had continued unabated for two full days since the initial motions and her stranding. Were it only rain, that would be one thing. But it was the selfsame upwell effects that so fascinated both her and KZ that kept her confined into this cave. She was growing accustomed to the island’s shivers from the impacts below and falling rocks above, hardly noticing them unless they triggered an interior rain of dust from the cave’s ceiling.
And yet distractions were all she had left. She passed the plentiful idle moments of the last two days by poring over her research and notes taken before the storm, revising and writing them into more usable form. It was a finite task as they were a fractured framework, initial suppositions without the requisite follow-up investigations, harvests, and explorations.
Verica returned KZ’s journal to its storage case, eyeing the rest of her writings and considering another revision before sealing the whole thing up. She stood and stretched, her body an alliance of stubborn aches from the frenzy of hauling her supplies into the first cave, then transferring everything to this one after finding it drier and tall enough walk about in. It had been a while since her last extended field expedition, to say nothing of the increasing weight of years.
As far as caves went, this one could be worse. A quirk of stone and geology gave Verica enough room for her needs, though the general damp kept everything in a state of almost tolerable. It even connected to a narrow secondary entrance deeper in, though gaps in the ceiling left that area drenched but politely flowing away from the primary chamber.
Verica stepped around her bedroll and makeshift kitchen and pantry, which was just a storage crate next to the water cask. That damned cask was most responsible for her sore back. It now carried a fresh array of scratches and dents from the half-rolling, half lugged journey between camps. Next came two more containers, holding a hodgepodge of supplies in one, and her precious supply of clean clothing and first aid material in the other. The broken crate with another (cooled) upwell stone guarded the entrance with one of the lanterns and her mud-caked boots.
She went to the edge of the cave’s overhang, just beyond the furthest line of rainfall reaching into the opening, and leaned against the wall. Outside, conditions were in the same, monotonous state as the last forty hours: Rainfall ranging between steady and torrential, vicious winds, and irregular thumps of sound, either impacts or thunder. The updrafts were warming the island significantly, the previous days’ chill fading to an almost tropical feel.
Her general weariness was never far away. When Verica closed her eyes and listened to the storm, she could almost lull herself into thinking she wasn’t in dire danger. Her thoughts wandered to another time, the discovery of another island.
Verica’s own research in the Low Raelins was such a thin line. A quirk of migration routes in the southern half of the Northwest Frontier overlaid with the always questionable data from whaling operations. Whale harvests in the southern fringes didn’t match up with region’s known geography and number of active crews. There was too much blood flowing into Reaches, which meant there was an extension of a live sky further than they knew. There had to be another major island chain to the south.
She pulled enough strings and had enough evidence to get Beatrix on board, who in turn found the sponsors for a fact-finding survey. They flew a comm ship out to the southern edge of the frontier, flying dead silent to avoid roving wings of post-Dissolution pirates and gluttonous whaling crews draining out the generally lawless skies.
Verica was validated. They found a hit and narrowed down a coordinate range. There was an island chain out there. But there was something else in the signal, similar to whale song but deeper and far stranger. This Verica kept to herself when they returned to Hub to plan their next steps.
Verica eyes snapped open and she gasped against the dredged up memories. How long had she dozed, half standing here? The rocky expanse outside the cave had brightened noticeably, and the rain was thin and waning. The opportunity to get out of the cave for any amount of time repelled her memories of the Low Raelins. For now, like a circle of torches around a jungle camp keeping away the night’s curious predators, a thin defense.
Her boots struck the damp, stony ground outside the cave within minutes. The reassuring dual weight on her shoulders from her daypack and rifle gave her a sense of normalcy, damn the storm and stranding. Any relief at being out under the occluded sun faded as she took in the brooding, weighty sky above. It was unchanged, still a thick barrier of low clouds, like a wax seal from rim to rim. The storm felt…settled. As if it weren’t moving anywhere for a while. A consistent pressure hung in the warm, humid air, and the plant life along the verges of the barren caves and canyonlands was limp and beaten down from the days of rainfall. A far cry from the chilly, loose feeling of the initial movements of the storm.
Verica quickly went to work, walking a circuit of her signal points: Three X’s in red marking tape pinned down with stones. She made a few adjustments, resetting the weights where the streamers came loose in the winds. The waning rain departed by the time she was satisfied the signals would last through another round of storm.
There was no sign this lull would last long, but Verica couldn’t wait out another afternoon and evening of doing nothing. Circling the extent of these rocky lands of narrow canyons and caves would serve for today. Also, a chance to hunt, both to sustain herself away from dreary ration packs and the needed distraction of taking down a piece of game and prodding at its distinct features, classifying it as much as she could without her reference books safely dry on the Wink and Smile.
Verica retraced her route toward the supply drop, threading the margin between barren stone and lush meadows and woodlands. She didn’t have the attention to give on her previous frantic trip through this area, never mind the driving rain and valuable cargo she carried. The transition space between biomes was no more than a few paces across in spots, the grasses shrinking to scattered clusters poking out of cracks in the stony ground. It looked mature and established, marking this band of rocky land a long-term feature. In terms of plant life, Island Seven wasn’t anything special, containing the typical mix of wide-spread grasses and trees who’s seeds could ride the skies for thousands of miles. If anything, being common in that regard made it all the more desirable for colonization.
Warm crosswinds swirled out of the shadowed clefts and pathways leading deeper into the crags. The air carried a charged scent from the storm and the Churn. Verica surmised there were multiple additional vent holes within. With the amount of ejecta she’d seen, heard, and felt in the last few day, the vents would be an explanation for the totally barren state of this area. Even the most sterile land was usually threaded with vines and weeds that needed only the smallest crack to take root.
She paused and considered the crags in a new light, deciding then and there to avoid the interior. It would be a trivial matter to get turned around inside, or fall through a sudden drop into nothingness. Verica touched her lifering through her coat. Present, even if rescue wouldn’t be coming afterward.
A trilling call drew her attention back to the woodlands flanking the crags. One of the large grazer birds peered out from the edges of the trees, checking the area with quick, snappy turns of its head. Verica lowered herself behind a short boulder, moving slow enough not to startle the creature. It must have seen her, but didn’t recognize her as a threat. No ingrained wariness of humans. Noted. She pulled out her binoculars and settled in to watch. Might as well get in another round of close observation.
The grazer was similar to various flightless ratites found across Osspor and some areas of the Northwest Frontier, though the latter were often introduced. Its fat body spoke to a long confinement on this island, perhaps even generational. Two humps jutted out where the wings would be on either flank, joined to the spine. The heavy, dun coat around the wings implied atrophied, long held-in limbs.
The bird stepped out of the tree line and started foraging in the damp grass, though the warmth out of the crags had already dried this area out by a few degrees. A chorus of warbles and gobbles from within the trees revealed the rest of its herd waited nearby, too cautious to dare venture out of cover.
What were they afraid of? The storm? Most species possessed a sixth sense for when the weather was about to turn. They should all be out in the open, enforcing safety in numbers. A quick look around confirmed this in other species, with smaller birds flitting out over the treetops and crags, quick to take advantage of the lull in the storm. This particular grazer must simply be bolder than the rest.
It snapped at the grass with every other step, long neck descending in cadence with its feet, then rising to peer over the field. After a minute, it found a spot of choice forage, stopping about twenty feet outside the trees and digging at a point unseen to Verica’s eyes. The grazer turned in place around its meal, revealing a significant wound on its left flank. A claw pattern of angry red marks marred the bird’s rump, wider than a human hand splayed out. They glinted with crusted blood, the wounds no more than a day or two old. The pattern was unmistakable. It wasn’t a scrape from a fall and much larger than the grazer’s own feet, ruling out a squabble with one of its kind.
Something large had taken a swipe at this grazer but didn’t land the kill. Which is why the herd was sheltering in the trees despite the weather settling into a relative calm. They were hiding from an aggressor, making use of denser cover to evade a larger foe.
Earlier estimates of no large predator species on this island appeared to be incorrect. Verica mirrored her former prey’s quick glance over the surrounding landscape. The winds were constantly shifting, blowing scents in all directions and masking trails. That curious whiff of rot and decay she caught the other day took on greater meaning with complementary evidence piling up before her eyes.
Verica shrugged her rifle off her shoulder and prepared to take a shot. She already wanted to cut this bird open and examine the atrophied wing structure. The wound made the decision for her. This was for science.
Her stomach rumbled and betrayed baser intentions. Incidentally, she had enough dry wood for a proper fire tonight.
She sighted out a clean shot on the bird when a fierce wind shifted out of the crags, carrying a tumbling cloud of debris. Verica swore and curled in place against the blast, pebbles snapping against her back. As the zephyr weakened, she re-set her rifle’s sight line and growled when she saw her target disappearing into the trees. No doubt it caught her scent and decided that was enough bold action for the day.
A thin razor lash struck across the back of her extended left hand. She hissed in a breath and caught sight of a dark pointed shape riding the tail end of the gust. Pressing a thumb against the inch-long cut, she rose from her stake-out and followed the inanimate attacker until it caught against a clump of grass downhill.
What is that?
Abandoning her perch entirely, Verica hurried downhill and pinned the object with the edge of her boot before it had a chance to fly away on the next breeze. It was a feather, picture perfect plumage and ready for a classic ink quill. The pointed end glinted with razor-fine edges, now hued with drops of her blood. She carefully picked it up by the shaft, turning it in the overcast light. It was a mix of dark blue and gray in color and nearly eight inches long. Verica ran a careful finger along the vane, avoiding the sharpened edges. It felt like thin metal, almost artificial but not quite.
It didn’t match a single species observed on the island thus far. While plenty of avian species could bear feathers similar to this, the size, color and feel of the feather implied something else, something rarer, something unconfirmed outside of folklore.
Verica’s hunger dropped to an ignorable annoyance. She returned to her pack and rifle, the grazer herd forgotten. Field rations would serve for now, and she dug out a palm-sized brick from her pack and forced herself to not cut too many calories. She sat there for a while, turning the feather in her fingers, considering the possibilities. She wanted to jump to a fantastical conclusion right away. After all, she’d seen something like this feather before, in market stalls and curiosity shops, with grand claims as to their origin. They were often well-made fakes or mistaken for a different known species.
Was this an authentic example? And if so, dare she find the source?
A quick examination of the skies showed no change above, the storm present but dormant for the time being. She might as well continue the scouting circuit, though now the crags held a sinister presence in their shadows and blind turns. Packing up her gear, Verica continued northward, eyes keen for other details, her natural urge to catalog and observe honed back to a hunter’s focus. She had a target now, even if she dare not imagine its form just yet.
At the north end of the crags, the landscape descended into the bowl-shaped center, running through checkered woodlands and meadows. The collected runoff of the craglands descended along a tumbling channel, weaving downhill into another retaining lake. Number Three, if Verica remembered the overflight map correctly.
There was so much land to cover, and Verica had about twenty greater concerns than speculation. Doubts crept into her thoughts, healthy skepticism. The wound could have been from another large bird species with wide-clawed feet challenging the grazers. The feather could be an exceptional one from a common species.
Verica pulled the feather out of her pack and ran a careful finger along the sharpened edge. No. This is too strange and too much like what I fear and hope.
A powerful, screeching cry rang out over the land and froze Verica in place. It was unlike any she’d heard before, bestial and primal, yet eerie and enigmatic. She listened to the echoes of the sound, trying to commit it to memory. No follow-up, only the sigh of the winds through the trees and crags.
Verica found a sturdy tree and leaned against it, thinking, dredging though her memories and education for a solid, commonplace, known match. She must not get too excited about that cry. Even if the only mentions of anything like it came from cryptozoological fluff or the ramblings and boasts of unreliable crewmen plying long frontier routes. Part feline, part avian, but infused with the undercurrent of ‘cannot be’. For as much as the skies contained the strange and unpredictable, they always fell into classes of creatures and plants. Functional equivalents to what was known and familiar on the core continents, if perhaps twisted by the forces below, rapidly adapted to isolated environments.
She knew this feeling.
Leviathan, the world serpent. Larger than even empryeans and said to be the immortal progenitor of serpents and their ilk. It appeared in almost every culture’s myths, even in utterly disconnected peoples on the far side of Eku, long before the northern contact was re-established. All tales spoke of knowing its call when you heard it, like a primal sense etched into biological memory. During preparations for the Raelins expedition, she kept all this to herself, the data too thin, the idea too wild.
And now Isle Seven presented a smaller myth, in a similar stranding, to the same fractured woman. If she could bring down this beast, haul it out of Ferron and hang it high for all to see…well, well. It wouldn’t restore her reputation. But it certainly would be a partial redemption.
Verica didn’t believe in fate, but she did have a growing appreciation for life’s ironies.
Her resolve strengthened, Verica shoved off from the tree and continued her tracing. She needed something closer to proof. A tangible piece of evidence to turn this stranding into a true hunt instead of impressions and possibilities. The cry came from northwest of her position. She glanced to the sky in reflex, trying to judge how much daylight remained in spite of the heavy cloud cover. One more hour, then she would return to her shelter. While she hoped and feared for the fantastic result, there was no sense in being out in the dark. Especially if her faint suspicions were even partially true.
She unshouldered her rifle. Best be cautious and on guard from here on out, now that she heard it.
It took another half hour and a stroke of luck to find exactly what she wanted to see. She came to a glade, a half circle of trees facing the crags, the precise sort of pasture the grazers seemed to favor. Aside from looking like a charnel house, that is. Splatters of blood and fly-coated viscera lay in a wide arc around a jumbled pile of snapped bones and soaked feathers. This was a recent kill, untouched by the morning’s rain.
A flurry of blackbirds retreated to the branches at Verica’s intrusion, showering her with angry quorks and caws. They and other scavengers had done their work with a quickness, and there wasn’t much left of what she presumed was a grazer bird. The few intact rib bones matched up in size, and smaller footprints in patches of mud confirmed a herd’s presence here.
Verica didn’t want to linger here. The monster could still be close. She quickly searched around the glade for a sign, a leaving. The mud patches didn’t hold anything but grazer and blackbird prints. Ah. There. Another long feather. Verica knelt and gingerly plucked it from the ground. It was a long as her forearm, the plumage a muted dark gray that shimmered with blue when turned about in the overcast daylight. Not a precise match to the previous feather, but similar and bearing the same sharp edges.
There. A talon?
Partially hidden in a churned up hummock of earth and grass lay a talon. Verica pulled it out. It was five curving inches of pointed death-dealing, and the base and point bore crusts of blood, so it was recently broken off. Into her pack it went, along with another pair of matching feathers, making a set of four. This was enough for today.
Verica left the ravens to their meal and retreated back to her camp, hurrying against the fading daylight. The creature would be sated from the kill, likely laired up for a short time. It may be the subject of myth and tall tales, but it had to follow some rules of life. Besides, she had much to consider, such as how and when she would kill the beast and bring complete proof of its existence to the light of day.
After all, she needed something to pass the time while awaiting rescue.
My earlier brief mention of humility was more prescient than I could know. There is another here, though I dare not voice its name without additional proof. Without being absolutely certain of what I suspect. The storm has settled into a persistent, enclosing dome, with little rain but constant swirling gusts carrying scents across the island. Does the creature know I am here? I must assume so. Thus, I have a new challenge: to learn my new rival’s form and, perhaps, be forced to overcome it by wit and strength of arms. Forgive my coy dodging around its nature. I’m not one to make wild claims without proof. And proof I shall attain while I await rescue…
There was a griffin on this island and Verica wasn’t leaving without firm evidence of its existence. Ideally the whole damn carcass.
She wrote by the light of a crackling campfire outside the mouth of her cave. The storm was static and it hadn’t rained in a day, allowing her to collect plenty of dead wood from the groves. She even managed to pin down a meal in the process. Setting aside the notebook, Verica reached over and turned the skewered serpent over her campfire. Fragments of charred scale flaked off to fall into the flames. The creature’s frilled wings drooped low and, while thin on meat, were ready to come off. Its head was severed and contained in one of the few sample jars she didn’t leave behind at the boulder camp. She wanted to compare the snout and fangs structure to her reference books later, when all this was over and done with.
The evening was oppressively dark outside the ring of light from her fire, but otherwise pleasant and warm. She wore her second-to-last clean shirt and savored the illusion of feeling clean and the actual state of being dry. Combined with a hot meal, she was almost comfortable, relatively speaking. All the same, her rifle and pistol were at hand, and her ears strained against the insects buzzing in the darkness for any hint of motion nearby.
Verica scrapped off a line of cooked flesh from the serpent’s midsection, balancing it on her knife as it cooled. This was a wide-roaming, fan-winged type, about two feet long with mellow gray scales laced with silver bands. They were common in the Northwest Frontier, able to nest in a range of habitats, from pure wilderness to being a nuisance in cities and towns. When one said ‘serpent’, this species was what folk imagined. They were edible, if rather bland, and this one didn’t have the discoloration in the eyes from a parasite common to the serpent’s kind.
Verica chewed on serpent morsels and her plan for the griffin (suspected, alleged, unconfirmed) alike. She would keep it simple. Clearly the creature hunted the grazer herds, otherwise said herds wouldn’t be huddled in thickets where the griffin could not easily reach them. It seemed to hunt by day, which suited Verica fine. She had no desire to wander this island by night.
Its scent implied it would take carrion. From a basic blind at the edge of the woodlands, she would bring one grazer down and leave the carcass outside the shelter of the trees. The rocky clearings around one of the vent holes would serve as an arena and was far enough from her own lair. Then she would wait and see what honed in on the scent of blood on the wind. Even if the griffin was a no-show (or didn’t exist and all of this was her jumping to conclusions), Verica could at least observe the other scavengers which called this island home. Likely only the blackbirds, but perhaps something else.
If her suspicions were correct, she could watch the griffin from a distance, see what she was up against beyond tempting shadows and silhouettes in her imagination. Take the shot if one presented itself. She could retreat deeper into the trees if need be, making use of the same shelter its prey did.
Verica shifted the spit away from the fire to let the rest of the serpent cool. She picked up the cleaned griffin (possibly) talon which she set aside earlier after sketching it into her notes. Careful of the knife-like inner edge, she turned it over in her hands and tried to think things over once more. Her mind wandered all the same, back to a similar line of hope and evidence.
Verica became the strongest advocate for a full expedition, cajoling with the sponsors, appealing to old Imperial virtues at a time when they were hungry to find their footing. The scars of the Dissolution were fresh and they would take any opportunity to evoke the good old days of bold deeds and daring ventures. She was more KZ Springvale then, though she didn’t have a name for it. Did she exaggerate the possibilities? Could she even honestly answer that, so many years removed, the fallout coming down on her head like the stone hail onto this new island? She wasn’t sure. Not anymore. Perhaps not even at the time, the starry-eyed desire to make her mark on history blinding her to the risks, smoothing away the edges and leading the expedition to those damn islands.
She was becoming accustomed to the strong reminisces and the shift from Then back to the Now no longer startled her. It simply took a few blinks and a shake of the head to clear them away, like a zephyr clearing a temporary path through clinging mists.
The serpent was ready to eat. Then she would let the fire wane and sleep as best she could.
Long day tomorrow.
An unsuspecting grazer finally strayed out of the trees on the far side of the vent clearing. Verica followed it through her rifle sight for a moment, waiting for a pause in the bird’s swaying walk. It took an hour for the herd to settle down from her intrusion. She could wait a few more seconds.
A rifle shot thundered across the land, breaking the general calm from the oppressive storm above. The grazer jumped in surprise and took two steps before falling over. Alarmed calls and panicked gobbles retreated from unseen places in the woodlands, the rest of the grazer herd abandoning their fallen member. This might be her only chance with this method, the grazers likely learning a bit from the experience. Verica listened for anything untoward, a response cry from her true target. Nothing. The island settled back into its strained and sheltered quiet, broken only by resumed birdsong.
She eased out of her blind, taking care to not jostle the flimsy construction and cover of cut fronds. Not her finest work there, but it would serve and possessed a reasonably clear view of the clearing beyond the final line of trees. Shouldering her rifle, Verica exited the murky shadows of the grove into the dull overcast daylight, boots striking barren stone in long strides.
Allowing herself a moment of study, she stood over the dead grazer, head tilted in examination, picking out distinct features. Definitely related to a flight-capable ratite-like species, though an aberrant off-shot for sure. Verica knelt around the waning stream of blood and prodded at the creature’s wings, extending the folded-in structure. As expected, the muscles and bones therein were atrophied or underdeveloped. These wings weren’t built to fly anymore but it wasn’t a metamorphic species, like a sikki.
Satisfied, Verica grasped the now-bait by its ridged, muscular legs and dragged it to the far side of the vent hole, opposite her blind and closer to the crags. It was heavy, the feathers hiding significant bulk. The head lolled behind, bouncing over the ground, eyes wide in complete, frozen surprise.
The vent warmed the area with a consistent, calm updraft, like a giant heating coil. She kept a fair distance from the edge, but even with the storm calm for the last two days, she trusted the updrafts about as far as she could throw this damn dead bird. One spot was as good as another and she let the carcass go and knelt beside it. Verica shifted around the bird and rotated it onto its side. She drew her utility knife and made a deep, precise cut along its underbelly and scooted back as the entrails oozed out. A hot coppery scent muddled with the typical foulness bathed the air. Her head swam from the impact of the smell as she straightened and stood back. That will be more than enough of a smell to pull out her quarry, if it had a sense of smell at all.
Though she hustled around the vent and across the clearing, by the time Verica weaved through the layered trees and undergrowth and slid into her hunting blind, a trio of raven-like blackbirds pecked at the carcass. Good. Even if the griffin didn’t show up, she would get at least some observations out of this mad plan.
Back to waiting, now amplified by anticipation. Every rustle on the wind took greater meaning, only to be dismissed as nothing. The same for every chirp or cry. Though a distraction from her true objective, the speed at which the blackbirds increased in number to dozens was impressive. They quarreled over the carcass, spreading gore and the scent of blood. Even if the smell clung to her, and she did get a whiff of blood on her clothes despite her caution, the squawking buffet line would draw greater attention.
A learning experience, no matter the outcome, make the most of this stranding before—
Verica didn’t recognize that deep trilling sound to her left, like a feline rumble. Through the trees on her flank, toward the nearest juncture of the bluffs and the woodlands. She kept her breath even as she shifted in place to better peer through the trees. What if the target didn’t take the obvious route?
A dark form slinked up to the edge of the trees, visible only by its coloring not matching the isle’s prevailing tones. A shadow against shadows, one wing extending from its left shoulder like a sail. The right wing was absent. Fascinating. The griffin closed cautiously and not toward the carrion. Too intelligent green-gold eyes glared at the tangle of trees and undergrowth, seeking a way through. Then it met Verica’s gaze, challenging and assessing. It was almost on top of her. She didn’t have clean firing line, never mind having to rotate hard left to even have a chance.
Verica burst up from her blind and fled deeper into the woods, weaving around the narrow, close packed trees. The griffin crashed through the brush behind her, voicing no cries or roars, the forest providing the requisite noise. She searched for the scouted partial wall of tangled trunks and fallen branches. There, a strip of signal tape, bloody red against the dim, haste-blurred green and gray. She slid sideways between a gap in the cage-like wall of growth into a small clearing and drew her pistol.
She stopped and turned in place, wide stance, weapon raised, two hands steady. Her eyes scanned the woodlands dim shade, searching for motion in pursuit. The sightlines were terrible, but the terrain should give her an opening against the beast. Assuming it was as large as her brief sighting of it implied. Seconds passed, her heart hammering, but she felt marginally in control. The griffin must have slowed its pursuit, blending into the terrain and quieting the woodlands. How can something so large move so easily in here?
Leaves crunched to her right. Verica turned in place, keeping herself calm. In a flash a feline shape emerged from the shadows and leapt against the partial cage of tree trunks. A single dark wing snapped out behind its back, edges slicing through vegetation like a scythe. Clawed forelimbs tore at the tree trunks, talons rending bark at a touch. An aquiline face with a cruelly a hooked beak, like a terror bird, gnashed at Verica through the gap.
Feline lower body, though leaner. Assume same physiology.
Verica fired four times into the griffin’s torso. One must have struck home, though not fatally. The beast let out a cry, a chilling screech. It recoiled from the shots, slinking down and away from her. Its angry, too-clever eyes remained fixed on Verica, considering her place in its world. The moment of shared consideration made her lose sight of the creature’s wing, which whipped down with eerie agility through a gap in the trees. Verica jumped to the side, but the wing’s edge sliced into her right shoulder.
She screamed. It burned like every single nerve had been set aflame. She staggered back, right arm weak, switched the pistol to her left hand and wildly emptied the magazine at the griffin. Five more shots snapped through the woods, eliciting another grunt of pain from the griffin. It bounded away with two crashing strides before disappearing from sight.
Fighting down panic, Verica fell to her knees and listened to the woodlands, now quiet but for her own panting breath. Blood soaked through her right sleeve and down her arm, the initial burn of the wing’s strike (flensing edges?) fading to a more common, but no less dangerous pain. The blood wasn’t too bad, not a torrent. Perhaps the wound wouldn’t be so bad either. Such lies were essential for making it through the initial stages, at least.
Surging adrenaline aside, her head was clear, her heartbeat fast but not influenced by a toxin. For now, at least. She fumbled with the pistol, sliding in her second magazine, then set it on the ground within easy reach. Verica found a pocket kerchief and pressed it against her shoulder, trying to calm herself as she gathered the will to get moving again. Focus on recent observations before they get lost in the haze of action and recovery.
She severely underestimated the creature’s intelligence. It recognized the bait as suspicious and investigated the area first instead of greedily taking the meal. A chorus of squawks confirmed that it now went for the carrion. Verica waited, running through details of the encounter in her head to distract her from the pain and renewed sense of vulnerability.
It did indeed have trouble in dense woodlands. That wing, however, was agile, flexible. Only one wing, an injury of its own? Feline body for ground agility, though those claws were oversized and awkward for an entirely terrestrial life. This beast could fly and was built to fight in three dimensions. Verica couldn’t estimate its…no, her precise size. It was female by the muted coloring and figure of the torso and body, assuming griffins hewed to the cat-like proportions of their supposed hybrid origin.
After some time, her body jangling with alarms great and small, Verica gathered herself together and got back on her feet. She crept through the woods and returned to her blind, alert to every rustle and sigh. She needed to get back to her shelter, treat her wound, and reconsider the situation at hand. Looking over the clearing, she spotted a bloody streak on the ground leading north and west, into the very same crags and canyons that Verica herself sheltered in. It had taken the gift back to its lair. Thankfully the trail led in the opposite direction from her own cave. Lingering blackbirds pecked at a few choice bits of entrails scattered on the ground, though the griffin left very little for them.
Verica gathered her rifle and pack and set off back to her own lair. She kept close to the tree line as much as possible and constantly checked the crags for the motion of anything stalking in her wake. She had a wound to treat and so much else to reconsider and record.
One thing was certain: She was no longer the sole apex predator on this island.
I’ve always hoped to make a discovery such as this, and I’m not alone in that regard. It’s one of the primary reasons that drives the bold and stout-hearted into the fringes of our seemingly unbounded world. Sure, these creatures have been the subject of folklore and tavern tales for the skybound for centuries. Yes, yes, ‘authentic’ feathers, quills like razor-fine metal, and fragmentary bones, deceptively lightweight and strong, float around the less reputable markets across the skies. But we’ve never had a solid confirmation. The same goes for other cryptic creatures. Your mist-wraiths, your seraphs, your Leviathans and the mythical like. Now, at least, I have the scar to remember it by, if not the beast itself.
Thanks to the storm, I have time enough to recover and plan for another bout with the beast.
Verica was reasonably certain she wasn’t going to die of an infected wound. The actual cut was but a long, shallow scratch. The accompanying hard, pummeling blow and associated bruise was far more impressive at this point. That wing strike was fascinating, and she ran it through her mind’s eye again and again as she sat, bare to the waist, a line of replacement bandages soaked in her limited antiseptic wrapped around her shoulder.
Writing with the injured arm was unlikely to be helpful. Then again, neither was the next steps she had in mind. She couldn’t confine herself in the cave for too long. If the griffin was similar to most stranger creatures of the skies small arms fire, baring a lucky shot to a vital, would be shrugged off and healed in short order. It had no trouble retreating to its lair with the grazer carcass in tow, after all.
Outside the cave, the skies remained low over the isle’s rim like a slate lid. Lightning flickered in the depths in hues of blue and orange, and each hour the temperature rose a touch more. Yesterday’s rain was but a brief relapse, and the storm was once more settling into a lull. Verica set aside the notebook and rested elbows on raised knees, wincing at the tugs of pain from her shoulder.
It knows I’m nearby. I must assume that.
A new plan for the griffin was sorely needed and she was coming up empty. Seeking out its lair, which she surmised was on the far end of these bluffs, wasn’t feasible. The crags contained far too many places for an ambush from above or from around a blind corner. The creature’s right wing was a healing stub, but she had to assume it was agile enough to climb the short cliffs and ravines. While she had no evidence of the creature possessing regenerative abilities, the myths and rumors that so defined the species always spoke of that function. If so, then it must be hunting daily to power its healing processes.
Assuming the grazers cooperated, would a repeat of their previous encounter work? Was it that level of clever to see through it? It sniffed her out in the brush, after all.
Verica eyed her coat, which took the brunt of the griffin’s attack and was now in desperate need of a deep cleaning and mending. There were exactly two tailors in the Northwest Frontier she trusted with that job. Despite the heavy scent of herbs and alcohol from the bandages, she could smell the coat from here, a mix of blood and sweat and who-knows-what else.
A solution came to mind. She could use that smell. With that, the rest of the revised plan snapped into place.
Memories checkered sleep, as was common these last few days.
The Low Raelins were a marvel, just as this island was. Untouched by human hands, a vast nature preserve in deep, isolated skies. Low was a correct moniker, as the islands were low in the skies, hot and dense with a curious mix of jungle species, some so ancient they no longer existed on the core continents. After the initial surveys and collection, their team put the island closest to parts of the Kural southern chains.
There was an explanation, one put forth by Ocara Raelin herself, the Kural explorer and researcher who first posited the islands’ existence. Something had moved the islands at some point in their history, and not in terms of typical isle-drift. The core of the southern Kural Leviathan traditions spoke of a titanic serpent coiling about a fallen, debauched city on an island and dragging it into the Down Below for their collective sins.
What if the World Serpent pulled the island out west instead of down?
It certainly explained the ruins they found on the innermost island on day four. And the human remains dated long before people were capable of crossing a fraction that distance. And the unnatural, jumbled-up arrangement of the islands themselves. Those finds alone were an astonishing discovery. The expedition was already in ‘legendary’ territory.
Then the storm hit and everything went straight to hell.
Verica awoke to a dim morning painted gray and blue by a cloak of mist. She shivered as she cast off her sleeping bag and rolled her shoulder, testing the wound. The updrafts must have tapered off overnight, returning Island Seven to its default, if not natural, state. The storm might be breaking up without the flow of energy from below. Today would serve as well as any other for a hunt. Might as well give it her all.
She opened her storage crate and dressed in her cleanest remaining clothes. Then she dug out two of the most important items from the deepest, driest part of the crate. The first was one of Nem’s custom tracking beacons, switched off to preserve its battery when the storm was at its worst and there clearly would be no attempt at rescue. Verica hefted the weighty box with its three-sided pyramidal antenna and switched the beacon on. A red light in a recessed eye started blinking every five seconds.
The second item was a packet of instant coffee, her last one. Verica filled a metal cup from her water cask and carefully mixed in the powder. Cold and awful, but better than nothing, which is what she now had aside from a few tea packets, saved for a special occasion and when she had the motivation to properly boil some water.
Carrying beacon and coffee outside the cave, Verica placed the first on a cradle of rock, pointing the antenna a few different directions before deciding it probably didn’t matter. Then she sipped her terrible coffee and examined the sky. The same seal of clouds hung over the island, though the formations were the sort that never drew notice otherwise. Her rational mind screamed for her to just sit and wait for the Wink and Smile. Icomb would believe her if she said there was a griffin here. They could hit the beast with the advantage of a full crew and flight.
But her rational mind was backed into a corner, a hungry and exhausted consultant at best. Her darker self, the one keeping her alive while taking too many risks, wanted to do this alone. She couldn’t draw more people into her obsessions. Not this time.
The storm, a freak tempest out of nowhere. The expedition’s main ship was pulled right off the island and smashed to pieces. They signaled for extraction via one of the support ships, both of which were grounded, damaged. They should have been fine while awaiting rescue. A shame the unearthed ruins exposed half of them to some maddening sickness. A shame the entire jungle rose up to attack them, birds and beasts out of nightmare, driven by unknowable rage. A shame Verica was forced to personally kill six afflicted members of the expedition while defending their camp against beast and man-turned-beast.
Doing this alone was unbelievably foolish. And it was Verica’s intent. She returned to the cave and pulled out one of her dwindling field ration packs.
In total, twenty-six members of the Low Raelins expedition died on the isles. Two more succumbed to their injuries and illnesses before they could fly back to Reaches. Two others were mentally ruined, confined to this day to sanitariums, their care paid for by the sponsoring family. The scion of said family survived, if without use of his legs.
Obligatory breakfast complete, Verica mechanically checked her rifle, clicks and clacks echoing through her cave. This was her demon to slay. A living expression of her own shame, burning low for so long, now stoked hot and furious.
Then there was Dr. Verica Chantil. The one whose research and promotion spawned the entire venture. The only one to make it through relatively untouched, whole in body and mind. A quiet sacrifice of her career and reputation in solidarity was the best they could do as punishment.
Fair. She deserved exile.
Call it madness or penance or partial redemption. There was too much blood on her hands from her obsessions already. She would complete this hunt alone.
A rifle shot once again broke the island’s morning calm. The fat grazer birds, it should be noted, did not learn that quickly. To their credit this was a different arena than before, one of the other vent clearings, further north than the first. Possibly a distinct herd of grazers.
Verica hurried through the set-up. She left her coat in her first position within the trees, laid out in a similar position as before, though the blind was hastily done. Drag the carcass nearer to the vent on the far side of her planned actual perch. Quick cut. Terrible but understandable smell. With the grazer’s entrails staining stone below and air above, she hurried away from the tree line and toward the bluffs.
A narrow natural switchback led up to a flat-topped bluff, a fine overlook of the vent clearing and associated boundary between stone and soil. It even came complete with a short covering boulder for her to crouch behind. At her back, the pointed and tangled crags rambled toward the lake to the west. Ravines and gullies lay in shadowed depths between the short peaks and plateaus, the gentler keening of vents and fissures singing out from unseen places.
Verica set her rifle and settled in to watch the clearing below, jaw clenched against the cooling winds. Her knees quickly started to complain about the stone below as she waited behind her gnarled barrier of stone. Not quite as pleasant as a warm, shaded woodland.
This time around she didn’t have to wait long, though as before the blackbirds rapidly found the carcass and started up their cacophonous revelry.
Stones clattered in the gully below and behind her. Verica rounded in time to see the griffin nimbly clambering up the slope, eyes fixed on her. It fully extended its intact wing, black and blue feathers quivering as cried out in challenge, the sound half a roar, half an eagle’s screech, and entirely uncanny and unnerving.
Of course you’d look here first.
Verica turned in place and lined up a shot from a kneeling position. She had enough room for one shot. She let muscle memory guide her, fears and hungers and ill memories falling back to a pinpoint in her head.
The griffin bounded toward her.
Crack. Stone exploded at the griffin’s, causing the beast to falter and leapt away in alarm. It resumed its charged.
Verica vaulted over her would-be cover, wincing at the hard landing on the narrow switchback trail below. Barely keeping her balance, she skid down the slope, leaping down the winding bands when possible, and was on the flats in short order.
Risking a glace back, she saw the griffin at the edge of the bluff, body stooped low either trying to conceal itself or simply in a natural prowl. Verica stopped, turned in place, knelt and lined up a second shot. Her hands and the days of stress and terrible diet betrayed her focus. Crack. The second shot missed, striking wide to the right.
The woods. Now.
Plan B then. She turned and ran toward the cover of the woodland, now seeming so far away. Her wound had split open without her noticing, probably on the scrabble. Blood trickled down her shoulder and spread in a sticking patch of clothes against skin. She shouldered her rifle against the stain, wincing against the stinging touch.
Rocks crunched behind her. A shadow descended behind as the griffin leapt from the bluff and overtook her. In that moment, she felt like a mouse awaiting the killing blow. She also drew her pistol and spun, hoping for a wild kill as it crashed into her. The lethal impact didn’t arrive and Verica managed to duck as the griffin overshot her, gliding past in an awkward course. It did, however, land directly between her and the woods. It scrabbled in place, talons tearing furrows in the soil, wing madly slicing out against the grass.
A stay of execution, but her retreat was cut off.
Verica leveled the pistol and fired, now calmer in the face of mythical death. Blooms of bright red splashed against the ground and the griffin twisted from two hits. Roaring in rage, it faced her, wing spread gloriously. Verica’s breath caught as she stared into the creature’s fixed gaze. Wounded multiple times and missing a wing, it was nonetheless an incredible sight of freakish hybrid physiology, harmonized into elusive, swift death.
The spell broke in a moment and Verica backpedaled toward the vent, her only option. She tried to steady her aim. Two more shots went wide. If she could strike the head or heart or…
The griffin charged, swift and silent and inevitable. The very image of death on an uncharted island with nothing but a serial number for a name.
One final idea.
Verica stopped at the edge of the vent and waited through two strides, eyes fixed on the griffin in challenge. Talons crunched against stone, the monster’s feline legs leaping into a pounce. At the right moment Verica jumped back and fell into the vent hole. Near darkness surrounded her, air rushing by, though a touch slower on account of the weakened updrafts. A shadow filled the air above and the griffin, whether on account of momentum or rage, followed through its pounce and tumbled down right behind her.
Down they went, the beast flailing about with its claws and wing, sending out bursts of broken stone and cries of rage that split the air. The griffin forgot about her completely, though a pair of incidental blows smashed Verica toward the wall. She caught herself, shoving against the stone and rebounding with minimal scrapping, though she lost her grip on the pistol.
Feeling oddly calm and accepting, Verica fought through her dozen pains and twisted the activation knob on her lifering. The device flared to life, a charge surging through the loop within her belt, her skin tingling from the proximity. Then she nearly had the breath knocked out of her as she decelerated out of her fall, as if a firm harness was now tied about her hips.
She came to a stop in the middle of the updraft shaft and watched the griffin tumble down below her. Down it fell, the one intact wing flailing and failing to give the creature enough lift to arrest the descent. No such luck. The griffin’s screeching cries reverberated up the shaft, turning from rage to panic. Its claws lashed out at the walls but never found enough purchase. In a few heartbeats it dwindled to an enigmatic shape against the distant cloud floor, then winked away in a crosswind below the island, a myth disappearing into the vast uncaring skies.
Certain mysteries must have an innate self of self-preservation.
A wash of dust from the creature’s futile struggles pattered against her face, acting like a splash of cold water and waking her from detached observation. With all the grace of being nearly folded over at the waist, Verica waggled over toward the shaft’s walls and found a reassuring grip on the stone, a palm-sized knob worn smooth from the winds. Looking up at the climb above, she let out a sigh constricted by the lifering’s vice-like binding. She flicked away a trail of blood from her hand and then cautiously, ever-so-careful, she drew her utility knife into a deathgrip.
Parallels. Then to Now. Adrift and alone, awaiting rescue that might not come.
Clink. The knife found a seam and she pulled herself upward. Then another handhold.
Ideas and obsessions. Well-reasoned? Yes. Ultimately disasters? Yes.
Clink. Another. Her arms quivered from the compounded strains and stress built up over her unplanned days on this island.
I suppose all beings have their niche. This is mine.
Clink. Her breath came in ragged gasps. Blood slowly spread across her back. The knife found another seam. Another.
Verica pulled herself over the edge of the vent. She tossed the knife ahead and half-slid half crawled away from the drop. Rolling onto her back, she fumbled with her lifering, the early deactivation process three steps of tiny contact points and recessed switches. Its grip vanished and she slumped down, finally able to catch her breath.
Staring up at the sky, she saw a tenuous window of clear blue. It disappeared in a blink, but it was all she needed to see. The storm was over.
I suppose this is how they became half myth, this uncanny ability to leave no trace after an encounter. I’ve been accused of embellishing my tales (please, call it narrative liberty!), or being a complete fictional construct myself (perish the thought!). I don’t…
Verica closed the notebook and set it aside. No sense in souring the evening with KZ Springvale’s specific brand of braggadocio.
The storm was over and the night had turned wonderfully warm, the island’s weather remaining erratic. Her campfire smoldered down to glowing embers and ashen remnants. She could see peeks of starlight though the clouds, and the storm’s subtle pressure was gone. Perhaps even the whole of the Ferron upwell storm was fading, or at least reduced in size. She hadn’t seen conditions like this since they crossed the storm walls and a sense of normalcy reigned across this rewritten stretch of skies.
Verica was bare but for the bandages on her shoulder and her last set of clean undergarments, miserly preserved with a pair of socks and a fresh shirt at the very bottom of her storage case. The rationing extended to everything. She spent too much water scraping away the last week of blood and sweat and dirt, discovering a fair number of additional minor scrapes and bruises in the process.
She sipped her cooling tea, fully intent on relaxing for a spell, a final bout of defiance in the face of Island Seven, flaunting a false, naked vulnerability. She conquered the challenge and this sense of peace could be attributed to the hybrid of success and failure with the griffin. Another mythical creature right before her eyes only to once again slip away into the clouds with only her own accounts and spurious physical evidence to show for it.
After the Raelins, she was left with nothing. Even if she saw Leviathan, a creature of myth splitting the storm and diving into the Churn. Its body was an island unto itself, flexing coils of metallic and crystalline scales shimmering with all the colors of the raging tempest. It had slumbered within the hollow core of the largest of the Low Raelins until the human expedition disturbed its sleep and drew its wrath.
Verica wanted to deny it. Wanted to think the storm and the legend’s awakening was a coincidence. That the sickness and madness of her companions was the result of a jungle-borne virus. But there were too many unknowns. Too many observations lost in the chaos. Not enough time, too many questions unanswered.
Some myths would remain myths.
To her left lay an array of salvaged griffin feathers and the single talon. Dubious proof that will be viewed as clever fakes. As always. Once again Verica was left with nothing solid. But this time she could accept it. She couldn’t precisely state the difference aside from the gulf of years between the two events. She certainly wasn’t surrendering, that much was certain. Perhaps confronting a version of the past and running through a parallel hell helped her let go. If only too an extent.
Besides, there was more out there, greater mysteries and wonders lurking within the to-be revealed depths of the Ferron Expanse. Other past mistakes and legacies to confront. Other myths to dispel.
Over on its cradle of rock, the signal beacon started blinking faster.
(End of Episode Fifteen: Huntress)
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2018