Light flared and Liam felt the arms that held him suddenly tense then fall away. He couldn’t see a thing but he had committed the ship’s deck to memory. Five steps forward, three to the left to avoid a pile of crates, duck under some hanging ropes, then a clean sprint to the door that led downstairs into the bowels of the vessel. Fumbling blindly, he found the handle and swung the door open, slamming it shut just as the light began to die away.
The steps were a shabby collection of wooden planks that ranged in height from baby strides to sudden drops. If it wasn’t for Liam’s attunement to the gloom then he would have stumbled more than once. Scant lanterns provided a dirty light which struggled to pierce through the soot stained glass that surrounded the flames.
Liam felt something scurry up his leg then Pux appeared upon his shoulder. “Do you have any idea on the layout of a giant land ship?” Liam shook his head. “As a tree dweller the size of an acorn, neither do I. I do however know that to take down something bigger than you, you need to take out its feet. In this case, we should destroy some of the wheels.”
“What about the controls?” offered Liam. “That was what lost us the carrier after all.”
Pux nodded slowly. “Yes. That would work. We would need to find them though. I didn’t see any external controls when I flew over the ship. They must be in one of the rooms above.” He made a series of clicking sounds with his tongue. A moment later more clicks responded from all around them. “This place is swarming with rats. Luckily for us they know this ship well. They tell me that we can get to several of the engine rooms from here but they are all guarded.”
“We need to get around them where possible. I doubt we’ll avoid them all though. I’ll need a weapon,” Liam said. He continued down the passageway cautiously, pausing with every crack and groan that came from the vessel.
Under the rats’ squeaked directions, Pux led them through the garbled maze of shanty corridors and cluttered storerooms. Three times Liam had to hastily hide when Flesh Eroders swept through in search of him. More times than he could count he’d had to avoid rooms entirely or sneak like a shadow past muttering men and women.
“The rats are saying that the room up ahead to the right is filled with metal death. That means weapons of some kind,” explained Pux.
“What do they say?” Liam asked out of the blue. “Rats, creatures hated by man yet never far apart. Hated because they survive. We call them vermin when really they only mirror us.”
Pux laughed lowly, almost bitterly. “A human who can think past himself? Your race is always so full of surprises. I was brought up to view humans as egotistical tyrants willing to destroy anything for their own gain. While I’ve seen too many examples of this to dismiss it, you, Trey and the others really are on a whole different level.”
“The rats don’t care about how they are viewed. As you stated, they survive. That is what matters to them. However much they are hunted, the more humans grow, the more they will,” Pux finished. “This door here,” he added.
Liam eased the door open and Pux darted in to check for life. It was clear so Liam entered. There was no light inside but with the door open he could just make out a row of chests against the back wall and an array of various crude looking cudgels and mallets hanging from the walls.
Pux climbed up to the lock on the first chest and set to work unlocking it with his sword. Liam inspected the weapons around him and couldn’t help but shudder. These weapons were designed to break bones. No armour offered protection from blunt force trauma.
The lock clicked, snapping Liam away from his dark thoughts. He heaved the chest open to reveal a pile of hundreds of knives and daggers thrown together without care. Their varied sizes and designs suggested that they were taken from cultures all across the world. That was unusual for a remote desert tribe.
Liam started to search through the knives for something he felt comfortable with while Pux made a start on the next chest when there was a sharp hiss behind them. Liam whipped around just in time to avoid a thrown dagger aimed at his head. It thunked into a wooden beam behind him. Opposite him was a wild haired woman wrapped in loose furs.
The woman readied a hatchet. As she advanced she began to scream at the top of her lungs. She was going to bring the entire tribe down upon them. Still screeching, the woman charged at Liam. He grabbed her wrists and held her in place. He had no weapon but needed to silence her. Unthinkingly he tossed the hatchet to the side and grabbed her head. He twisted. There was a sharp snap, then silence.
Liam watched the woman slide to the floor. Her fierce blue eyes stared up at him unblinkingly. Only now did he see that she was a scant few years older than himself. By most standards she would have been attractive, but Liam couldn’t force his eyes away from those glassy orbs that stared into his soul.
What was death? What defined that fleeting moment between a living, moving, thinking being and a corpse? What gave him the power to decide who should cease to exist? One person had to die but why should it have been her? He had killed her with his bare hands, looked into her eyes as he removed her from the world.
It was only when Liam felt a slight pressure on his leg that he realised that he was shaking. He looked down to see Pux placing a reassuring hand on his ankle. “You did what you had to.” He chortled to himself. “You said that nothing affects you. Things feel so different when you cannot escape it, don’t they? Holding a body in your arms shows things as they are, not like seeing death at a distance.”
“Would you have been so impassive had you been forced to do this?” Pux asked, indicating the body.
Liam reached out an unsteady hand and gently closed the girl’s eyes. Without a word he stood and grabbed a cudgel from the wall.
“If my life cost that girl hers, then it would be an insult to get myself killed now. I wonder how far through life a person can go, stacking up the deaths they have created in return for their own survival?”
“Ask any soldier. Any man with a soul who kills has to come to terms with it. Come, we still have a job to do.”
Liam took one last look at the dead girl then followed Pux out of the room. The corridors beyond were clustered with Flesh Eroder warriors who had been drawn to the scream. They were searching every room one by one. It was only when Pux snuck into a different room and started to knock items over that Liam was able to slip past into the next level down.
The noise here was much louder than above. Liam didn’t need Pux’s directions to find his way to the closest engine room. A warrior stood guard but after turning to stare at Pux, Liam smacked him in the head. Liam hoped that he had managed to keep him alive but he had little time to make sure. He dragged the man inside and shut the door behind him.
Two more men were inside the room but neither had anything more than a knife. Liam and Pux took care of them in short order and heaped their bodies in one corner.
In the centre of the room was the top quarter of a giant wheel that was turning at a constant steady rate. Steam filled the room and a large furnace burned. A wide pile of coal sat beside the furnace while huge barrels of saltwater lined the walls. Rusted pipes connected everything together creating a bramble like thicket of metal.
Liam eased his way through the pipes to stand beside the mammoth wheel. The furnace heated the water to steam that created pressure that turned the wheel. Liam had to admit that it was a clever setup.
After a quick scan, he selected the joint where the wheel was connected to a large box that the pipes fed into. From under his shirt he unfastened a flat, flask like metal shape. To any inspection for weapons it would have felt like nothing more than a drinking flask or at the most an armoured plate. The soft rattling of powder within told a different story though. It contained far less powder than a usual boomball and its design made it less effective as a weapon. He placed the explosive container into a nook and lit the fuse with a small steel and flint device.
He made a hasty retreat and was halfway down the hall before a peal of thunder rang out and the sand fortress lurched and shuddered. The colossal ship continued to move though.
“They’ll be on to us now,” said Pux, once again taking to Liam’s shoulder. “The engine rooms will be under heavy guard in a few minutes.”
Liam shrugged. “Well then we’ll just have to move fast.” He broke into a run. “If we take down two more of the wheels then move to the control room that should be enough to bring this ship down.”
“Shame about the other two giant ships really,” muttered Pux. He sighed. “I only hope that we’re quick enough to save the others.”