If you missed the first two parts, catch up here:
The #ApeQuest Competition is now closed. We’d like to say a big Thankyou to Professor Elemental for allowing The Aether Nomads Project to be involved!
So, without further ado, here is the thrilling conclusion….
~ Chapter Three ~
Anjizar, greatest and wisest of the tribe’s Rhuk, (as far as he was concerned at least), felt a tremble through his very essence, like the tremble of a ghostly earthquake. It was not entirely unlike a Transition, as he felt dimensions of the Multiverse and all its possibilities ruffle his Trailing feathers, like a hand dangling from a gliding boat might feel the water swirl through the fingers. Not that Anjizar had ever been on a boat. That sensation was pleasant however, whereas this was disturbing.
He shook his great head so suddenly, several lines from his Capacitor snapped and Tilomabah’s Lightning Cage broke free from one side of it’s moorings.
He calmed quickly enough when his comrade tossed him a goat haunch, (along with a few admonishments), but the feeling did not entirely leave him.
He eyed the distant uniformed men with the firesticks and telescopes, who thought they were hidden, lounging amongst the further rocks, then swept his gaze across his Nomads. All seemed fine, though a few of the other Rhuk shuffled as uneasily as he.
Turning on his perch, he surveyed the ruins, searching his memory for it in other worlds or times. Finally he remembered it, only here but perhaps a long time ago, the small people calling it Garabdabakii or somethinglike. He was sure the Shadowspinners had not been there before. Nevermind, got goat to eat.
As unnerving as the arachnid-squid things may have been thus far, to each man staring into the vast lava-lit cavern beyond, they were somehow far, far worse a sight dead. The Bell of Cornelius was there a few feet away, a hard black silhouette against the fiery orange glow.
The sweet smell hung heavily about the doorway, a sickly miasma drifting on the chill flow of air.
All about the tall stone on which The Bell sat were corpse upon corpse, a dreadful carpet woven of thousands of the beasts.
The subterranean attrition was apparently ongoing. The men watched in dread fascination as another small creature dropped from a fissure to their left and scuttled its way behind The Bell. There was a crevasse splitting the great cave in two, some thirty feet or so across at this point, through which bubbled a flow of molten rock.
The Bell sat askew, no longer hung from its frame due to broken chains, on a large squared stone some ten feet from the lava flow, like a stunted lighthouse emerging from the sea of remains.
Sandsborough shook himself free of the shocked stupor.
« What’s that little blighter doing? There’s a lot of dead here and we need a reason before I let any of you gentlemen lay hands on The Bell. That includes you Chief Archeologist. »
Felpisham moved cautiously, climbing up the jumble of bodies, trying to see what the living creature was doing. In places it was up to three feet deep and he clenched his teeth as the long desiccated remains crumbled and collapsed beneath his feet. The expanse of deceased spread across the rough floor for at least fifty yards in each direction, though one anomaly drew his attention.
« Sir, I know we are dealing with a particularly unusual situation here, but here is another peculiarity. There is a sector of clear ground between The Bell and the lava-flow. »
« Where’s the creature gone? And any thoughts on why I feel so damned cold when I’m only fifteen yards from molten rock? »
As Felpisham circled The Bell, he saw the remains were progressively larger the lower down and closer to the artefact they were. The live creature, this one about the size of a Dalmatian, was at the edge of the crevasse, in the clear area of cavern floor before The Bell. It clicked and quivered in a manner that suggested to Felpisham the beast was in distress.
He scrambled down the crumbling collection of limbs and decay, until his boots met the bare rock floor and was immediately staggered by the blast of heat that struck him. Sweat began to trickle down his neck.
« Sir, this area is not only clear of corpses, but is also rather hot. I’d say somewhat more in fact, as you would expect in this environment. »
« Still bloody cold on this side. The creature man, what’s it doing? »
As Felpisham watched, the creature seemed to gather itself up and it’s clicking became rhythmical and somewhat like a grandfather clock. Then, to his astonishment, the beast (with almost a magician’s flourish of it’s tentacles), began spewing forth a ribbon of darkness. The Lieutenant could describe it in no other way. Thin ribbons of shadow, which began to fade at the edges as they poured forth only to be interwoven with others, until the creature took on the aspect of a weaver at their loom, building up a curtain of night at the edge of the crevasse.
At its centre, the curtain was densest night, impenetrable, but as it expanded to nearly ten yards in diameter the outer edges became thinner, the lava and cave visible beyond it.
Felpisham felt a slight lessening of the heat, but it was still quite present. From the other side of The Bell he heard a ‘Blimey!’ from the Engineer. He also became aware of a slight dizziness coming over him and climbed back onto the mound of remains in search of cooler air. To his surprise this was not to be found, the heat following him. He looked back at the creature and watched with a certain amount of horror as it began to pale, slowly taking on the pallor common to its deceased relatives.
It began to falter, the flow of black ribbons slowing, then ceasing altogether as it visibly sagged. Weakly, the beast crawled to the slope of bodies, attempting to return the way it came, before collapsing only a few feet from Felpisham, all sign of animation gone.
« The creature appears to have passed on Sir. »
« Not a good sign old boy, not good at all. »
« I concur. I admit to feeling under the weather myself Sir… »
Sandsborough and the Engineer bounded across the grisly tide, with the Archeologist only a stride behind, as Felpisham toppled over in a dead faint.
Once they had manhandled his unconscious form back to the entryway, they looked back with consternation as the shadowy curtain fell apart like smoke before a breeze and the peculiar contrary chill began to return to the air.
« Anything to add Chief Archeologist? At this point I’m willing to entertain even the suggestion that we should tip the damn thing into the lava. Also, do you have any more biscuits about your person? »
« Regretfully not Lord Sandsborough, though I could hazard a few guesses and one in particular. »
« Well man, spit it out, we need to wake Felps up from his beauty sleep. »
« When that lizardman, Thomas Sheleskik… »
« Who’ll be dog-meat and handbags when I finally get permission to hunt him down, the epoch-hopping, interfering bag of unhinged pus… »
« Quite so Sir, erm but as I was er saying, when he commisioned and helped design the artefact from Cornelius Asgrafell… »
« That jumped-up little Leprechaun… »
At which point Felpisham came to and interjected,
« Goblin Sir, Goblin not Leprechaun. They do so despise each other Sir. »
« Goblin then. He’s going to get his comeuppance…ah! Felps old man, glad you’ve pulled yourself together. Now what was it you were saying Chief Archeologist? »
« If the felon Sheleskik wanted to steal the artefact from the Goblin Cornelius, to avoid paying The Crown for his time (and possibly answering any further questions about it), bu..er..also, in understanding the nature of its required ‘sustenance’, wanted a place both concealed from us but..er..providing conditions acceptable to The Bell… »
« Personally Sir, I’ve never understood why The Crown has trusted Goblins within their engineering project for all these years. I realise they aren’t all necessarily evil in the strictest sense, but they do seem to inject a dash of havoc and anarchy into everything they work on. »
« Quite right Felps. Clever blighters, but no sense of decorum. Those bloody Ghostbots were their idea I believe. Never agreed with that myself. So anyway, to recap…ten years ago on completion of The Bell, that insane fool Sheleskik stabs Cornelius in the back (dashed bad form), steals it and fearing retaliation from the like of us, makes off with it to foreign lands. Here in fact. »
The Archeologist nodded.
« Yes Sir. Where it has lain concealed but still erm, I suppose the word is ‘operational’. »
« Right. Whatever that snake made it for, he’s long since gone and we have a vast number of dead, undefined creatures in a cave with an unnatural state of chilliness surrounding our goal. Also, Felps here has fainted like a courtier in summer. »
« Thankyou Sir, yes. In lieu of daylight, the lizardman must have thought this lava flow would substitute, is that it Archeologist? »
« That would be my guess Sir. But from what notes we recovered from Cornelius, amongst these of Sheleskik that mentioned this site, my interpretaion would be that it is less than ideal, if not..er..potentially unwise, especially if Ley-lines come into play. »
Sandsborough had the Engineer with him, near but not yet touching The Bell, as he inspected its broken chains, a frown creasing his face.
« Did we not do a Ley-line survey here? No? Blast it all gentlemen, that’s basic! Oh never mind. If this thing is somehow feeding off the lava, we need to crack on with a plan to move it quickly through the underground and back to daylight. Wouldn’t want the damn thing disintegrating on us before taking it back to Her Majesty, now would we? »
« I’d also remind you Sir, we have been advised by the Society to avoid letting it ring in any way. »
« Does anyone remember why? I think I was coughing on some poached herring at the time. »
« Something ‘multidimensional’ Sir. I recall quite distinctly that most alarming of phrases, ‘..could be fairly random’. »
As they talked, another creature scurried from the shadows and began crossing the deathly shale. They watched it repeat almost exactly the actions of its unlucky cousin, concluding with a similarly played out demise atop the other bodies.
« Well Sir, I would guess these creatures have a dislike of the artefact as well. I’d guess they are somehow seeking to block off its access to the lava. I also think it’s safe to assume The Bell or whatever processes it utilises is inimical to them, to the point of deadly in fact. »
« So to boil down the blather Felps, I suggest the quicker we get this thing onto the packhorses and away, the better the world will be for all concerned. Certainly for you lot, if I’m in danger of missing lunch. »
Without further ado, the party set about carefully righting The Bell. It was an unpleasant experience.
The Bell itself gave off the pungent sweet odour, like flowers left to rot in a cupboard somewhere unseen and this, combined with its surprising weight and any (possibly poisonous), emanations it was giving off, made carrying it down the unstable slope of remains decidedly tricky.
A wooziness soon overcame all of them and they lowered it to the slabs before the door, whereupon they recovered quickly but were reluctant to lay hands on it again. They managed to muffle its clanger and lower edge with some strategically placed coats, but even so The Bell would give off faint notes when touched.
These promoted queer sensations of floating and disconnection in its bearers and the more substantial note it sounded upon meeting the floor caused a distinctly hallucinogenic effect.
Above the artefact had appeared a vision, shimmering about its ragged edges as if in sympathy with the vibration of The Bell (which technically speaking, it was), of an alien view.
Though only a foot or so across, the men had seen what looked very much like the valley above their heads, but this one devoid of ruins. As the note had faded, so had the vision.
« Well, there you go Felps old man. Multidimensional cock-up waiting to happen right in our hands. Bloody Goblins. Still, we don’t have time for a big song and dance about it. Let’s get it up the stairs where the air is fresher and hope the mules aren’t easily spooked. »
« Perhaps a makeshift litter or stretcher might benefit us Sir? »
« Indeed, splendid idea! Do have one to hand? »
The Engineer cleared his throat.
« We have a sturdy one Sir. Used it to carry our detonation equipment to site, Sir. It’ll take the weight. »
Felps, kindly nip upstairs with the Engineer and fetch it back would you? Oh, and bring some biscuits with you, there’s a good man. »
The Lieutenant mustered a reluctant grin, despite his continued state of unsteadiness.
« Yes Sir. Bourbon or Digestive Sir? »
« Oh I think I’ll stick to those delicious Standard Rations for now Lieutenant, with weevils if you can. Take the lantern, the lava is enough light for us. »
« Certainly Sir. »
With the Engineer in tow, Felpisham double-timed it back, through the flow of creatures, past the midnight pool and up the stairway to the surface.
« See there Zarina, I told you they were still alive yes? That kind, they may lack some of our talents yes, but their pig-headedness can sometimes armour them against forces that we cannot abide. »
« Uncle, they seem unwell. »
« To encounter what lies below would kill us girl, or at least strip us of our Planar skills. Once they have the poisonous thing removed, we should invite them back to camp yes? See if we can cleanse their spirits and feed their bodies yes? »
« Certainly Uncle. Karina will be delighted. Ever since she encountered them at the trading post…oh such silliness from my so-sensible sister! »
« Mercy on us all. Tonight. We should harness up and head for their camp, after we have signalled ours to expect guests. Come girl! »
« I am twenty five summers Uncle. When will you… »
« Never, beloved Niece, never. »
When the Lieutenant and the Engineer returned with the litter, they found Sandsborough down on one knee, whilst the Archeologist balanced precariously on his broad shoulders, inspecting a band of carvings above the doorway.
« We really should send some more missions here Sirs, there is so much of interest here. The place looks to be thousands of years old, at least matching Egypt. I believe they used this flow to heat the city at night and its water. Very erm…sophisticated. »
« Well that’s enough of that. We can mention it when we get back eh? Down you come. »
As the Archeologist climbed down, he continued to enthuse.
« I wonder if the lizardman knew of the city through past experience, perhaps even seeing it briefly in his random travels through time? If we ever crossed paths again Sir, I’d very much like to ask him a few questions on the subject. »
« Perhaps. If I haven’t gutted the snake first. Let’s get this thing back to camp. I’m starving. »
They managed to avoid anymore mishaps, until they reached the flowing lines of beasts. As they pushed through the bustling creatures, most gave them a wide berth and all seemed well, until one stumbled against Felpisham’s leg and tripped him.
The Bell slid from the tipping litter and struck the ground with a muffled but still substantial clang, disturbing the air and setting each man on his backside as if struck.
Above the artefact, reality shuddered and shifted once more. Again the valley was there, recognisable but different, with the view being from a greater elevation. There were intact but architecturally different buildings, made from finer-cut stone, but plain and bereft of carvings. There were tables out in a street where a small number of people passed by, dressed in simple tunics and robes not unlike the desert locals of this dimension.
What surprised them the most, however, was not the conjuring of this peaceful scene, but who happened to look up, clearly startled and also clearly seeing them.
The image faded with the note of The Bell.
« Felpisham. Lieutenant. »
« Yes Sir? »
« Did I, or did I not just see a well-dressed Orang-utan drinking tea outside a cafe? »
« Certainly seemed so Sir. At a guess I’d say English, certainly British. I’d say he affords rather good cloth. »
« Right. Was that a mechanical eye in his socket? »
« Seemed to be so Sir, but I didn’t recognise the pattern. Fine enough work though, spotted us straight away. »
« Yes. Extraordinary trousers it was wearing eh? I’d fancy a pair myself, if I was younger mind. »
« Yes Sir. Perhaps back in Britain you might find someone… »
« Never mind now, let’s go! »
They needed to rest several times before finally emerging into the sunlight, but they felt quite flushed with success, especially when they heard a distant cheer from the men stationed on the hillside. Unfortunately, The Bell had another way of bidding farewell to its ruinous resting place.
As it emerged into the sunshine, it began to glow.
Not brightly at first, but enough to catch the eye.
Then it glowed brightly enough to show through the coats wrapping its girth, a surging golden light, mirroring the Sun.
This display gave off no heat or hazard to the men, beyond making them shield their eyes with their arms, but it seemed too much for the great beast still squatting over the ruined arcade. With an extraordinary hiss like the burst of steam from a locomotive, the creature stumbled in an alarmed fashion and the weathered, crumbling pillars gave way and it tumbled down upon the party.
Circumstances rapidly worsened, as at least one of the snipers mistook this for an attack on their leaders and opened fire on the monster.
Beneath its stamping tree-like limbs, Felpisham and the rest scattered like mice, dodging great toes and flailing tentacles, half-deafened by the ear-blasting hiss of the creature above. The Lieutenant was gouged down his side, with distressing results for his uniform (not to mention his ribs) and scrambled for the cover of a low wall.
There was no time to regroup. As the creature took several rifle rounds, it turned towards the offenders and poured darkness from between its wriggling tentacles. Great ribbons of shadow lashed the hillside, blotting out the sunshine for a moment. One of the men surged from his distant hiding place, flapping ineffectually at a shadow wrapping his head only to plunge, sickeningly, off the high ledge with a shriek.
Sandsborough swore and swung ‘The Lamp’ towards the beast.
« Damn this place! That’s enough of that behaviour! »
Before he could pull the trigger and incinerate the nearest body-part (a shin in this case), it ceased vomiting darkness and staggered back.
As it cleared the men, they saw plunging claws and great wings beating the air, only to rush away the next second, to be replaced by others.
They picked up The Bell (now somewhat dimmer), and hurried clear. Once amongst the rocks they watched as the Nomads and their great birds dove at the creature and harried it until the beast found itself at the opening, whereupon it turned and squeezed itself through, disappearing back into the depths.
The Rhuk circled calmly for a while, until from one of them a small canister dropped, bouncing to a halt at the head of the stairs. There was a sudden flash like lightning, that connected in an instant with the object, then an almighty explosion that once more covered the ruins in roiling dust clouds.
As the Nomads wheeled above, one yelled to another.
« Got the mixture wrong again Uncle! »
« The birds wheeled a few moments more, as the settling dust revealed the entrance demolished and sealed, then another voice was heard.
« No girl, I did not. »
« Jolly nice of you fellows to have us over for dinner. Lord Sandsborough was a little reluctant, but once the artefact we came to recover was sent on its way to the port, he became more receptive to the idea. He and the remaining men could certainly do with a spot of civilised company and refreshment. »
Tilomabah poked gently at Felpisham’s shoulder.
« And you, yes? Lieutenant, you are injured. »
« My pride perhaps, my good sir. »
« Bah! Pride, well it has it’s place and time perhaps, but not here. My Niece has a steadier hand than I, though I cannot tell her so, she’d be insufferable. She will gladly stitch your side, good and clean before it gets infected, yes? »
« My thanks, Tilomabah. That would be most welcome. »
Around them where they sat on stretched-canvas benches, other people lounged on similar seats, or across stuffed rugs and cushions rich with embroidery and their own men mingled freely with their Aether Nomad hosts.
This camp was a small piece of the Nomad Great Cloud Caravan, that roamed the skies of this world and (if reputation and rumour were true), others. Here in a natural stone basin carved by the wind over millennia and home to a small spring, a couple of hundred Nomads and five balloons had set camp.
In burnt umber and strokes of orange, the evening glowed and the camp readied itself for a peaceful dinner under the stars. The five Rhuk with them cawed quietly to each other on the opposite side of the camp, whilst a handful of Nomads finished hammering home the anchor-lines that also served as the moorings of their suspended tents. These hung like shimmering silk tapestries from beneath the great baskets of their balloons, which reputedly never met the ground.
Zarina came and to Felpisham’s embarrassment insisted he lie down whilst she stripped away his torn tunic. As she bathed his wound with various aromatic medicines, then turned away to thread the needle by firelight, she smiled.
« Ah, welcome my friend. Do you come to dine with us? »
« Why my dear, it’s always a pleasure! » a woman’s voice replied. « Your Uncle may be up to something I think. This is the third time in as many weeks he has sent me an invitation to dine. People will begin to talk. Besides that, I’ve heard a little of this young man’s forays into the local underworld and was curious. »
The owner of the voice, sounding very Home Counties and properly educated, but with just a hint of accents foreign, came and crouched by Felpisham’s shoulder. Head covered by a sensible khaki safari hat, the elegant and dignified lady (as dignified as one could be, knelt at the shoulder of a half-naked man in a desert), reached a gloved hand towards his.
« Professor Cecily Cogsworth, Miskatonic, follower of the curious and interesting. How do you do? »
« Lieutenant Victor Felpisham, madam. I am well. Yourself? »
« Well also Lieutenant Felpisham. Allow me to distract you from the needle of my dear Zarina. »
« You strike me, madam, as a well-travelled person. I’m sure you have many fascinating tales of your own. »
« Certainly. Perhaps we could share our tales of the more unusual? »
« To a point madam, as I’m sure you’d understand. »
« Oh quite so, young sir, quite so. »
As they conversed, the stars brightened in the darkened sky and the rich smell of spiced meats and vegetables, sweet tea and wine filled the air. Gentle music began to play from various quarters.
Felpisham winced at the last tug of the stitches being tied off and thanked Zarina, who smiled again.
« Think nothing of it. I’m sure my Uncle would have seen to you, if he wasn’t so busy planning and plotting in the tent of the Aethermaticians. »
« Oh dear Zarina, you might be a competent flyer, but you are a marvellous Metaphysician. There’s no need to be so modest, really. »
« You are always too flattering of me, Professor Cogsworth. Uncle certainly would not approve. Anyway, Lieutenant all should be well if you can keep it clean yes? »
« It feels better already Zarina, thank you. »
« I see my sister has taken a shine to your Lord Sandsborough. And perhaps he to her? »
« Well, I don’t know about that. »
« I must bring you our finest tea and chocolate for ridding this place of that evil artefact. My Uncle says it caused much harm to the lifeblood of this world. He actually believes you should destroy it entirely. »
Professor Cogsworth, sipping from a finely enamelled cup, narrowed her eyes at this.
« Oh yes? Why on earth. I understood it could cause disruption to dimensional stability, which could be hazardous for the Nomad navigations. I also understood it was unhealthy to be in close proximity to it. However, these gentlemen are sending it well away from you, I suspect to reside in some museum’s neglected rooftop conservatory. Am I near the mark Lieutenant? »
« In all honesty, I have no idea, nor any further involvement Professor. »
« Uncle is concerned it will prematurely age the Sun itself. Very prematurely. He could be wrong though and he isn’t sure. Ah yes! My sister, she dances for us! »
Zarina clapped her hands with pleasure, as the music took on a twisting, conversational tone and her sister began her Vibrancer warm-up.
As Karina moved seamlessly from the formalised ritual into the story of this latest dance, Felpisham looked across to where Sandsborough sat, a forgotten glass of wine half-way to his mouth.
Professor Cogsworth touched his arm.
« Lieutenant, do you have any thoughts on the opinion of Tilomabah on your artefact? It sounds a terrible thing. »
« I agree. The Goblins have often been responsible for terrible things, as have plenty of men, but of course this is all academic. The Crown will decide it’s fate, not I. »
« Yes, of course, but still… »
Felpisham was however, no longer listening to the lady, or to the music.
Nor was he tasting the tea at his lips.
His heart had sunk to his boots and a mild terror, like a javelin in his stomach, had come with a dawning realisation.
As he watched Sandsborough, utterly transfixed by Karina the CloudDancer, he saw in the man’s face a thing that shocked him to the core and shook him far more than any hazard they had recently faced. He knew now, that in the all-too-near future, he himself would become the commanding officer of the Haroos, whether he was ready or not. He knew The Crown was about to lose an officer.
He knew it with a suppressed dread, for as he stared almost unable to believe his senses, Felpisham saw it written, as clear as the Queen’s English, in the man’s face. In his whole demeanour in fact.
Lord Sandsborough was In Love.
In a variety of increasingly pointed communications between H.Q. and Her Majesty’s Haroos, several events became clear (well actually also unclear, but we digress) :
Three days after mission success, at the retrieval of The Bell of Cornelius, said artefact along with several others retrieved previously, reached the port.
Somehow, through an unexplained mix-up (floggings due for someone), The Bell was sent as separate cargo from the rest.
Whilst the main force of the Haroos, along with the majority of their finds travelled home on the steamship ‘Maria’, The Bell had been loaded onto the ‘Avian Tempest’, scheduled half a day behind. This would not have presented a problem except that the ‘Avian Tempest’ suffered a minor explosion, was holed and sank (fortunately with no loss of life) somewhat less than half-way on its journey.
Deep in the dark ocean depths, by now no doubt discorporated and destroyed, The Bell of Cornelius met its cold, dark end.
~ The End ~
© Martin Livingston 2015
Written for The Aether Nomads Project
Edited by Sally-Ann Livingston
Thanks to Cecily Cogsworth of the Aether Nomads group for her help in including a member cameo!
Thanks also to Mr. Alborough for approving the Geoffery cameo.