‘Her Majesty Loses an Officer’ by Martin Livingston – Part Three of Three

If you missed the first two parts, catch up here:

Part One: https://aethernomads.wordpress.com/2015/08/05/her-majesty-loses-an-officer-by-martin-livingston-part-one-of-three/

Part Two: https://aethernomads.wordpress.com/2015/08/10/her-majesty-loses-an-officer-by-martin-livingston-part-two-of-three/?preview_id=91

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? »

LAU_PhotographyMadrid-CecilyCogsworth
Professor Cecily Cogsworth Photo courtesy of LAU_Photography, Madrid

« 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.
***

Epilogue
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.

‘Her Majesty Loses an Officer’ by Martin Livingston ~ Part Two of Three

Missed Part One? Catch up here: https://aethernomads.wordpress.com/2015/08/05/her-majesty-loses-an-officer-by-martin-livingston-part-one-of-three/

~ Chapter Two ~

The climbing Sun no longer illuminated the chamber beyond and the gloom had to be pushed back by their lamps. A few feet inside was a large pool of water, contained by knee-high blocks of obsidian. It was dark and impenetrable, rippling gently against the sides, presenting no obvious peril until they saw several disturbances break its surface and come towards the edge, as if the unseen fish of some macabre aquarium were coming to be fed by their keepers.
Being veterans of such circumstances as the Steam-Piranhas of Doctor Roberto and The Flailfish of Cowen Castle, the men took a precautionary step back from the poolside, as water splashed over the edge to spatter the dust at their feet. This was a fortunate move, as from the pool climbed, skittered, leapt and tiptoed a dozen or more dark shapes.
The men tensed, hands grabbing for (or in the case of the Archeologists, fumbling at), the grips of their weapons, as cat-sized replicas of the monster outside scurried past their feet, chittering and clicking to each other. They seemed agitated, but flowed around the party without pause. Some disappeared into the gloom, others into nearby cracks or up nearby pillars and the rest bustled their way up the steps, perhaps to the greater beast above.
« They seem bothered by us Sir, but not hostile. Scared perhaps Sir? »
« They’ve gone now Felps, let’s not worry overmuch about it. At least not until their larger cousins make an appearance eh? Maybe the daylight up top is keeping the big one quiet. Doubt they see much of it down here. You lot! Stop staring about like a bunch of drunken harlots and crack on with the task in hand! Now, where should we be looking? »
« Sir, it’s further in, northeast, » said the second Archeologist, checking his notepad. Sandsborough checked the Universal Compass Sphere on his wrist and took off without another word.
Felpisham felt a chill draught flowing into his face as they fell in behind their leader, stabbing their beams of light into the deepening shadow and leaving the pool behind them. The Engineer moved close to the Lieutenant and spoke in a low voice.
« Wish we still had those Redlight Goggles we had from that maker in Berlin. Fine pieces they were. Come in handy about now, Sir. »
« Possibly so Engineer, though we’ll never know how effective they’d be here. No sense in dwelling on what we do not have. »
« Certainly not Sir. Poor old Randal, silly beggar. »

The recent absence of Corporal Randal, brought about specifically by an absence of Randal’s left eye (and a significant part of his nose), was an ongoing contributor to the drag on Felpisham’s confidence of late, though of course not one he would show in front of the men and certainly not Sandsborough. Neither the Lord or the men had given any indication they blamed him for allowing the corporal to reconnoitre that narrow vent they found, in a cold large room of Castle Bavordablad and certainly the man had experience enough that he should have remembered for himself vampire-spawn would not be especially visible through the goggles. In spite of this, Felpisham felt he should have cautioned the corporal nonetheless. He’d seen them perched on the man’s unruly mop and had not given it a thought until the man had already wriggled several feet into the crawlspace, found behind a moth-eaten tapestry.
Still, Randal had survived his injuries and the be-fanged unnatural soon withered in a blast from ‘The Lamp’ and was finished off with a well-executed beheading by Felpisham and his Blessed Sabre.
The lieutenant had begun to wonder if he was losing his edge, if he should request Sandsborough end his service as second. Perhaps his personal exasperations with Sandsborough had been more pronounced of late due to this growing sense of guilt at his failures. Or the concern he may have worse failures in the future. Perhaps Sandsborough was too much to live up to, for any of them in the Haroos, given time.

Felpisham frowned, cursing himself for this self-indulgent moment of introspection, when he needed to be alert in the here and now. Such nonsense could only lead to resentment and poor decisions, neither of which had any place in the work of The Crown or facing the hazards of his duty.
Sandsborough, with uncanny timing, glanced back at Felpisham.
« With us Felpisham? Focus on the task at hand would you Lieutenant, I’m relying on you down here. »
Several minutes later they had to step (quite gingerly), through a moving line of the creatures, flowing across their path like a rushing stream of dirty yellow water and tumbling black stones, heading into the darkness in both directions on who-knew-what business. More than one of the men grimaced at the brush of tentacles and the poke of boney knees against their legs, the stab of clawed feet on their own. Sandsborough of course, waded through as if he were merely crossing a shallow river during a summer hike.
Emerging from the rush, they paused to take stock of their situation. Felpisham felt for his pocket watch and was dismayed to find only a broken length of chain.
« Most distressingly Sir, I cannot furnish you with the correct time, as my watch is gone. Rather unfortunate. My grandfather’s. »
« Tragic Felps old man, but you do not have permission to go fishing for it. God’s Teeth, there must be hundreds of the little blighters, thousands. Let’s avoid any unnecessary liasons shall we? And gentlemen, shall we proceed with a little less mucous despoiling Her Majesty’s uniforms? »

A few yards further on they could see the scattered pillars coalesce into an arcade fronting a raw-stone wall in which several deep, impenetrably black tunnels opened into the great chamber. To the right of this, the floor became chaotic with broken or unfinished paving, where toppled statuettes and carvings lay about, casting unpleasant monstrous shadows from their grotesque little forms. A smell, faint before, but stronger now, tickled their nostrils. The freakish creatures, in spite of Sandsborough’s jibes, smelled only faintly, like dust and dried fish, but this more powerful odour was sweet to the point of sickly.
« Good grief, it’s Aunt Tilda again! Reminds me of a perfume she wore. When I was a boy I thought she practically bathed in the damned stuff! »
« Somewhat like lavender Sir? Only more so.. »
Just beyond the debris of devilish and alien stones there were steps, ascending on one side, descending the other, wide enough for six men abreast.
On closer inspection they found the way upward blocked by a collapse, the upper steps shattered and cracked by the rockfall. One of the Archeologists muttered to the other, who made a noise of agreement.
« Sirs, we were expecting an opening here, not stairs. »
« And? »
« There’s nothing more to indicate where The Bell might be, but we might be close enough to use the S.R.D. Sir. »
Felpisham’s heart sank, even though it was a logical suggestion. He checked his goggles were still around his neck.
The last time the Sympathetic Resonance Device had been used, it had made his eyeballs ache. The goggles would not really stop this, but he found them reassuring. It had last been deployed to locate the concealed resting place of the Gauntlet of Ariast, in the haunted Heathly Manor.
The Gauntlet had emitted a response to the device and was recovered intact, but several other relics stored with it were less lucky, being found shattered to a thousand pieces. Unfortunate, but not of great concern to Sandsborough whose only concerns were the ancient Gauntlet and to avoid losing men to the insane mazes created by the still-unexplained presence (or presences), that reside at the Manor.
The experience in that crumbling, moss-soaked mist-enshrouded gothic mansion had put Felpisham off visiting Northumbria for the last year, in spite of having well-liked relatives living there. Whilst Sandsborough had been his usual phlegmatic self, Felpisham had found the wraiths, the barely-seens and the unseens of the supernatural ( or preternatural as the Ministry kept insisting, rather optimistically), distinctly frightening and upsetting to him. He had not been alone in this and the maddened dogs in local residence were, by comparison a reassuringly solid foe for the men to face.

Sandsborough took off his pith and thoughtfully scratched the back of his neck. He looked at the Archeologists and the Engineer.
« Any speculation on what may happen to the structure? Or how the creatures might respond? »
The Engineer sucked his teeth for a moment.
« I’d say Sir, the place is sound. It’s had these things running around it for who-knows-how-long and shows no recent signs of damage or collapse. That fall seems at least a hundred years old. I’d say we’re safe. »
The Chief Archeologist looked up from his notes.
« There’s nothing..er..delicate we know of in the immediate vicinity Sir. As for the creatures, who knows? »
They spent several moments listening to the distant clicks and susurration from the bustling throng behind them.
Felpisham felt as if their small circle of lamplight was shrinking and deliberately checked the action of his fire-pistol and the reservoir, then loosened his sabre in its sheath. However, contrary to his intention the sense of the light dimming persisted and a second later he realised the effect was not a psychological one.
The lamps were in fact, growing dimmer.
Almost immediately he became more aware of the cold air issuing from the stairway.
« Sir, the lamps are losing power. »
Sandsborough tugged at the chinstraps of his pith helmet, then reslung his weapon across his chest.
« Agreed. Felps old thing, take a cautious peek downstairs would you. Just as far as the next level, if there is one. I don’t want to use that infernal S.R.D. and find The Bell is just yards away beneath our feet. In the meantime gentlemen, get the thing ready. I really should have brought a currant bun or something. Blast. »
One of the Archeologists patted his pockets.
« I have a biscuit or two somewhere Sir, if you’d care for one. »
« Good man! For that, I’m promoting you to Sergeant. »
« Very honoured Lord Sandsborough and all that, but technically I’m a civilian Sir. »
« Won’t hold it against you. Now, a quick biscuit then we’ll make a move. How are the lamps Engineer? Are you carrying an alternative? »
« Something’s queer here Sir. Batteries seem sound, they were new not three weeks ago. The mechanism and bulbs are fine. Something odd’s going on, draining the battery quicker than it should. I do have a couple of flares and an oil lamp to hand, if it worsens. »
« Good. Kindly furnish the Lieutenant with a flare, no wait, the lamp would be better I think, less alarming in a tight space eh? Get to it Felps. »

The first few steps were cracked, but nothing gave way and Felpisham trod more confidently as the lower steps became increasingly pristine in appearance. When he came to the turn in the stairway, he first lowered the lamp over the edge of the steps and peering down into the darkness nearly dropped it when a dark tentacle tip came waving from underneath him. One brief touch to his wrist left an icy sensation, as if he had fallen into snow. He withdrew his hand and rubbed the wrist until some warmth returned to it. Gritting his teeth, Felpisham picked up his lamp from the step and carried on.
On the next flight of steps down, a more sizeable specimen squatted and quietly began to click, perhaps saying something to him, but it was impossible to tell. This one was the size of a small pony and seemed to be fresh from digging or some such, being covered in clods of earth and sand.
There was room for him to pass by, but they were hardly like two gentlemen passing on the stairway at Euston Station, with a polite tipping of the hat and a ‘good morning’.
In the end he decided to take a leaf out of Sandsborough’s book and simply walk by. The creature creaked, clicked and shuffled as he approached and he had to step smartly to avoid questing tentacles near his face, but the creature held its ground and Felpisham relaxed his grip on his sword.
Beyond the creature a chamber opened out, ten or more yards across, where several benighted portals yawned. Faced with a choice of direction, all on quick inspection turning out to be long, rough-hewn tunnels (all with chill air blowing from them), he decided to retrace his steps and report back. He realised with some regret, that they would have to use the Resonance Device, or be here far longer than planned. Who knew what was happening above, with the men, the Nomads or the beast, or for that matter how much longer Sandsborough would tolerate a lack of tea and biscuits.

Back on the stairway the shadows seemed somehow deeper and to his surprise there was no sign of the creature, for which he was profoundly grateful. Upon returning to the party, he found them huddled around an increasingly small area of light, assembling a slender tripod on which perched the complex artefact.
The Resonance Device was classified as a Sanctioned Oddity, which meant it was filed in the Occult, Aetheric and Scientific archives, as it still defied analysis.
Its inventor, one Professor Brody Davidson, whilst officially an employee of The Crown in the Science Society, was also found (too late unfortunately), to have been dabbling in dubious occult doings from Darkest Africa via the West Indies. Needless to say, he had a dabble-too-far, resulting in a devastating accident on a steamship out of Port James. Fished from the Atlantic, survivors gave accounts of terrible incantations, strange apparatus and a ritual peculiar in it’s involvement of personal mutilation by Professor Davidson. Reports were unreliable and often contradictory, some claiming he burst apart with green fire, others claiming he cut off his own arm, hand or leg and so-on. Some details were common to all however: Professor Davidson had erected a complex device, a queer altar (with predictable candles) and appeared on deck wearing an outlandish costume and wielding a knife made from some form of crystal.
Shortly after, the steamship was struck, repeatedly and viciously by lightning, which though not necessarily devastating during a normal storm did, on this occasion, result in the boiler exploding. The vessel ruptured and burned, before sinking into the depths. There had been no storm on that night and the skies had been clear.
A small number of irredeemably hysterical survivors claimed ghostly figures could be seen dancing on the surface of the ocean, as if the lightning had summoned up the sea-dead of centuries.
Neither of the officers believed a word of this, both firmly convinced that whilst the damn fool had produced some unusual phenomena, his scientific track record suggested some breakthrough in the field of Aetherics, badly handled by his increasingly unbalanced mentality.
Whatever their opinion though, the Professor did produce a number of gadgets based on principles only vaguely followed by his fellows at the Society and replicated by none.
The object itself was similar in appearance to a gramophone with several trumpets and a large brass hoop which rotated about a fist-sized crystal of unknown type and origin. Tiny lights studded this hoop and various knobs, springs and levers adjusted the angle, speed and duration of the hoop’s movement. Many scales, descriptions, measures and formulae were engraved about the controls, which the Engineer (consulting both the Archeologists and a  thick copy of the machine’s operating notes), carefully set.
After reporting to Sandsborough, Felpisham edged away as far as he could, covering his retreat from the device with a show of inspecting the nearby arcade and was joined by the senior Archeologist.
« May I take advantage of the oil lamp Sir? These new things refuse to hold their charge, no matter how much we wind them. These inscriptions seem more…er… detailed than those above. »
Felpisham gave the man a sideways smile.
« Don’t like the gadget either then? I think we could spend a few minutes inspecting this area a little more. Come on, this section seems quite intact. »
Both men could instantly mark the moment the S.R.D. came to life. Their eyes ached in their sockets and Felpisham pulled on his goggles, whilst the Archeologist pushed his spectacles further up his nose and brushed more urgently at the dusty carving near his feet.

***
Above ground, the group of Aether Nomads had built a fire to brew coffee and roast a few pieces of goat as a small snack for the Rhuk, when the great birds began to call loudly to each other and beat their wings.
The alarmed Nomads kept well clear of this startling display, hurriedly pulling up scarves and masks against the ochre clouds of dust suddenly conjured up around their camp. Eyes watering, they spoke calming words and made soothing gestures to their agitated avian comrades, until one by one, each bird eased enough to be handled again and led to better perches.
Tilomabah was flat on his back, contemplating the infinite beauty of the sky, as a few faint wisps of cloud like bashful ghosts, flitted across the upper vaults of blue. He reached his hand up as if to brush these clouds.
Instead, his hand was grasped by that of a young woman, who hauled him to his feet.
« Zarina girl, you interrupted a moment of deep oneness with the world. »
« Tilomabah. My Uncle. My friend. Stop talking rubbish and get off your backside. Anjizar nearly broke your neck with his tail fan and you need to take him in hand. He’s becoming as daft as you. »
The smiling woman turned her warm brown-eyed gaze on Anjizar, who glared haughtily down at her and shook out his neck feathers.
« Anjizar, you’re going to be gentle now yes? Uncle Tilo is not as nimble as he once was. »
Tilomabah smiled at his niece whilst her head was turned then, straight-faced, sent her off to her own bird.
« Yes yes Zarina. Though come to think of it, is that Karina under those silks and bracelets? Your flying was poor enough today to be that of the Balloon-bound! Your Hassa will be needing your hands on him also. And tighten your right hand strap, your banking was sloppy today! »
« Yes Uncle, thankyou. Oh, what in the Spheres? »
The woman pushed aside her sleeve, revealing snaking coils of bracelets about her arm. One of these just above her wrist, held a row of tiny bells, each exquisitely made, a gift from her twin sister to celebrate the day she and Hassa flew alone for the first time.
Each bell was sounding without any movement from Zarina’s arm, their tiny ringing audible even when she covered them with her hand. After a few seconds this subsided, leaving both of them wide-eyed.
« Uncle, what are they doing down there? »
« There are things beneath these sands that do not belong and we are well rid of. I believe they might be looking for one such. »
« Like the beast down there? »
« No Niece. That does belong. Just not up here. »

***
Lord Sandsborough tapped Felpisham on the shoulder.
« I’m sure that’s fascinating as illegible writing goes old man, but we do have a job to do and now a bearing to follow. Assist the Engineer with the S.R.D. if you would. Says he had a ‘good response’ from one direction. It’ll take the two of you to get the gadget set on the next floor down. Just to get a confirmation eh? Crack on! »
After they had the Device set on the stand again, in the chamber of frigid tunnel openings downstairs, they once more set it to work.
This time, not only did various gauges on the machine reveal a response, but their own ears detected a faint, deep tone, as if Big Ben had tolled a moment before and still reverberated across Westminster.
Once they stilled their machine, the response faded with it.
« Down that way Sirs, not more than fifty yards. »
« Thankyou Engineer. You and the other Archeologist can box it now. The rest of us will fetch The Bell, without I hope, any further hinderance. We shall see you back here in approximately ten minutes. »
After confirming the time on their timepieces, the party divided and set about their tasks.
Their chosen tunnel was dark in a way reluctant to depart, even with the oil lamp to hand. Abruptly the tunnel dog-legged, then plunged down steep, narrow steps hewn from the living rock, where it ended in a wall carved to resemble a huge head.
A faint glow lit the nostrils, mouth and eyes, the visage sculpted in the act of bellowing, expression fierce and mouth open to reveal pointed teeth, the dark maroon stone taking on an appearance of hellish demonic skin.
Sandsborough halted on the last step to take a cautious look around with the electric lamp, before stepping up to the face, whereupon the lamp dimmed and went out. It would not be revived by any amount of winding, shaking or indeed swearing.
« Dash it all Felps, I’ve cocked-up here. Forgot to bring one of the Engineer’s flares. Pass the lantern would you old boy? »
« There you go Sir. That Stygian blast is coming from beneath the face Sir. »
The Archeologist muttered something about ‘cold feet’ and sniggered quietly to himself, before cursing in turn, as his lamp also died, leaving them in the oil lamp’s small circle of yellow.

In the deepening shadow, the furious giant face bore down upon them, as if seeking their submission to its brutal will and Felpisham was unashamedly unsettled. Both he and the Archeologist took a step back. Their leader, of course, took a belligerent step forward and poked it in the eye.
Some sort of glass in here, smoked though. Pity. Should like to have had a peek first, but there we are. »
He crouched, one hand holding his pith in place as he peered beneath the chin.
« Yes indeed Lieutenant, the air is blowing through here. There’s a half-inch gap at the base and I can see illumination of some kind, possibly fire but steady. »
« How curious Sir. One might have expected suction of cool air, or the exhalation of warmth if there were fire through there. Any sign of a catch? »
The Archeologist cleared his throat and brought an open journal into the light. The three of them knelt to look at the entry of diagrams and formulae with annotations.
« Sirs, there are required conditions for The Bell, not merely to operate but in every fundamental way, to actually continue it’s existence. »
« Very interesting, but get to the point man, my tea gauge is reading ‘Hazardously Empty’, not to mention my increasing need for the unmentionable which, I’m sure we’ll all agree, is best not done in an ancient ruin. »
« Yes, well…erm… »
Felpisham was not a scientist by any means, but had been well educated, not least by his current profession and a few salient points jumped off the page at him.
« I see, something about ‘primal sources’ and energy concepts I’m unfamiliar with. Am I correct to say this text implies The Bell ideally requires sunlight for all to be well? »
« Indeed Lieutenant, it was created with an above-ground existence in mind. I’m not of the correct speciality to comment much more on this, but it simply cannot be stable whilst residing down here. Who knows what could happen to it? »
« Look you two, that is not daylight beyond, we established there were no shafts or such before blasting the door to kingdom-come. What’s kept The Bell intact up to this point? A fireplace? »
The Archeologist turned from Felpisham to look squarely at Sandsborough.
« Unlikely Sir, even using magics, or a running fuel like erm…an oil reservoir. Not er… fundamental enough Sir…er… I struggle to find the correct elemental expression, but er…ancient, I think, goes some way… »
Felpisham closed the journal and passed it back to the Archeologist.
« I believe your average fire certainly would not do. Why that maniac ever brought it here I can’t think. »
« Well chaps, it all boils down to looking doesn’t it? Now, let’s get this disagreeable blighter out of the way. Ideas? »
« Not to be overly-clever Sir, but have you tried pushing it? »
 » At this point I’m all for the methodical application of force Felps. Shoulders to it gentlemen. »
Some minutes later they discovered that by first sliding the great stone a few inches to the left, then pulling down on it, they could push the face inwards. What lay beyond left even Sandsborough momentarily shaken.

~ To Be Continued ~

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The Aether Nomads Project are thrilled to be part of #ApeQuest, Professor Elemental’s latest project. As part of the run up, the dear Prof is running a competition whereby folk can submit their artistic impressions of where the rogue time-travelling orang-utan butler has been spotted. Full details here: http://www.professorelemental.com/apequest-the-search-for-geoffery

Needless to say, the Nomads are keeping an eye out for him too and collecting reports in an attempt to intercept him at the correct prophetically-calculated point in space-time. The more images we receive, the better the chance of restoring him to Elemental Manor, where and when he belongs!

‘Her Majesty Loses an Officer’ by Martin Livingston – Part One of Three

The Aether Nomads Project are thrilled to be part of #ApeQuest, Professor Elemental’s latest project. As part of the run up, the dear Prof is running a competition whereby folk can submit their artistic impressions of where the rogue time-travelling orang-utan butler has been spotted. Full details here: http://www.professorelemental.com/apequest-the-search-for-geoffery

Needless to say, the Nomads are keeping an eye out for him too and collecting reports in an attempt to intercept him at the correct prophetically-calculated point in space-time. The more images we receive, the better the chance of restoring him to Elemental Manor, where and when he belongs!

So follows a very fantastical Steampunk tale, with a fleeting report of the adventurous ape hidden somewhere in its telling. Settle down with a cuppa and enjoy.

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Her Majesty Loses An Officer

by Martin Livingston

~ Chapter One ~

The sky was crossing that special moment, when the stars are the faintest ghost of themselves, the air itself silvered before there came the burning glow of a sandy dawn of cinnamon and rose.
« I say Felps old man, reminds me of Aunt Tilda’s Teas! Takes me right back to Blighty! »
Felpisham sighed inwardly, whilst maintaining a neutral expression. He had a measure of respect for his commanding officer. On some occasions, a small measure, but a measure nonetheless.
« Sorry Lord Sandsborough, but I fear you’ve lost me again. »
« Always liked her flowers…but more importantly, the old girl was obsessed with steamed treacle pudding. Blast, I’m making myself positively ravenous. When’s Cook bringing out breakfast? »
By reputation, Sandsborough was a man driven by two passions: soldiering on behalf of The Crown (preferably in exotic foreign lands) and food, (Breakfast, Morning Tea, Luncheon, Afternoon Tea, Dinner, and Supper and when duty demanded it, a Midnight Snack) this second passion for fine sustenance ostensibly to fuel the first.
Felpisham had never really faulted this aspect of his Lord’s character, regretting moreso and in greater part his seeming inability to see the world through any other lens than his mission objectives. In short there was as yet no sign, as the saying goes, of one romantic bone in his body.
For others within a similar start of society, upon hearing such (well publicised) comments on Lord Sandsborough’s character, could in part be forgiven for expecting to meet a charmless, brusque and fat old fool in a dress uniform hung with too many medals of no consequence. Indeed Felpisham had been one such himself until one afternoon, five years previously, he had met the Lord outside Horseguards to discuss a future position.
Contrary to expectation, he found a man, yes of some girth admittedly, but far from soft and certainly not a foolish brute. The man was neat in that way some men have, that infers any moment now they were prepared not to be. With thick waving fair hair, blue-eyed and with bristling moustache on a craggy face, Sandsborough was an officer whose men willingly followed him to the strangest of climes, often into the strangest of perils, all on behalf of The Crown.
What Felpisham (thus far) had also found remarkable of the fellow, was his habit for bringing his men (well the better part at least) back home alive and more or less intact from their dangerous forays in the outer borders of The Empire.
However, it continued to baffle Felpisham how a man, who could be judged quintessentially romantic at heart in his desire to visit strange lands, continued to this day to give no outward indication of being unduly interested in them, beyond his mission of the moment. And yet, by luck, fate, or genuine insight (Felpisham could not decide), he seemed blessed with a career of successful decisions and a deeply loyal unit of men.

« Well Sir, as the light is coming on, shall I give the order to the Engineers? »
Sandsborough smoothed his great moustache, then with a frown rubbed his now rumbling belly. He searched the pockets of his greatcoat for a handkerchief, pulled forth a green paisley and wiped the eyepiece of his bespoke Tri-ocular Heat and Light Amplifying Multi-projector (known rather dryly by the men as ‘The Lamp’) and raised it to his shoulder.
He squinted towards the jumble of red and ochre rock below them in the valley, only barely discernable as a ruin, whilst busily clicking various adjustment levers and twisting assorted lenses into focus on the site.
As the light grew brighter, the Sun sent bright fingers amongst the tumbled ruins. Sharp shadows revealed glimpses of pictorials and oddly twisted symbols carved upon the more intact blocks, strange and alien enough to send an unexpected chill through the heart of even the most well-travelled Englishman.
Second Officer of Her Majesty’s Hazardous Artefacts and Antiquities Recovery Unit, Lieutenant Victor Rupert Felpisham, did not like this place.
He, Sandsborough and their two-score hand-picked men were all veterans of one sort or another. None of them were strangers to the peculiar, the unusual, the supernatural or for that matter, the damnably dangerous. Over the course of their years together they had travelled countless thousands of miles on ship, on foot, mule and horse, steam-wagon, locomotive, balloon and dirigible.
Sandsborough even claimed (quite without unseemly fuss or embellishment) to have handled one of the last of the legendary Atlantean Cuttlefish Chariots, in spite of being ‘no sort of a sailor’. From the mouth of any other officer present, such a claim might have seemed especially outrageous hogwash.
They had hunted down (rumour said captured – there would be no comment on this), the last of the Styxian Harpies, recovered rare and dangerous gemstones from the ocean lair of the Albino Kraken somewhere beneath The Canaries, routed out unco-operative Vampire clans at home and abroad, recovered prized objects stolen from the British Museum by the Atheneans and in turn had stolen from them the Elgan Marbles. This last whilst seeming a petty use of their capacities, on direct ‘request’ from Her Majesty, leading to all manner of speculation as to their real nature and value beyond the obvious.
The ‘Haroos’ as they were known, were of course the soul of discretion. Not one even modestly classified fact about their activities had ever slipped from their lips, regardless of drunkeness, bravado, the egotistical posturing common between proud regiments, provocation, manipulation and even on one dastardly occasion villainous coercion by torture, resulting in a death beneath the streets of Paris – avenged with interest.
All of them, from the Engineers, Soldiers, Navigators, Linguists, to the Archeologists and Officers, had seen as much strangeness as any Egyptian gravedigger and escaped peril more often than the average Vampire Hunter.
This said, more than one fellow had, in an unusual (not to mention alarmingly ‘colonial’) outburst, declared this stoney place ‘accursed’ and not solely for the dust and heat.

As his Lordship muttered to himself and peered down the weapon-sights to the dark recess of interest to them, Felpisham noticed movement in the sky above.
« Sir, locals again. »
« Which ones Felps? I am somewhat busy here. Be precise man! »
« The flying locals, Sir. The Aether Nomads. Rhuk-gliders, but no balloons that I can see. »
Sandsborough placed the butt of ‘The Lamp’ on the ground and fished his brass whistle from a waist pocket.
« I’m sure they have many more fascinating tales to tell you Felps old boy, but the mission eh? The day’s not getting any younger and we aren’t even sure the thing is in here yet »
« Quite so Sir. I do however feel compelled to point out they are spiralling down towards us with what appears to be a certain degree of intent. »
« Just let the Engineers know they should be ready for my whistle, though it wouldn’t do any harm if you had a quiet word with some of our covering snipers. Did they take an Aether-set with them? »
« No Sir, too heavy they said. It’s a clear enough morning Sir, I’ll just Heliograph them. »
« Good. » He glanced at his pocket watch.
« Be ready in…seven minutes time. The door should be in full light at that point if I have my calculations correct. »
« Yes Sir! »
The younger man turned and double-timed his way across the broken edge of the slope, sending small avalanches of shimmering dark flints and rust-red gravel down amongst the boulders. Somewhat lower down, he found the pile of great rocks where two Engineering officers huddled amongst the sand and their boxes of gadgets. One nodded at his signal and grasped with gloved hands the handle of a knife switch mounted on a metal box, whilst his companion checked the wires trailing from its side. The man, as if conducting some priestly ritual, began murmuring some litany of a checklist from a Manual.
All being readied, Felpisham stood on one of the boulders and signalled to the snipers securing the area from cover on the opposite slope. Satisfied with the flashed reply, he spent a moment gazing upward, admiring the grace of the giant birds above and feeling just a hint of envy. The people strapped to their bellies were not quite visible yet, though he could see the glitter and flash of their harness. Weapons also perhaps? He indulged in another internal sigh.
Felpisham liked the Aether Nomads he’d met, even if they did positively reek of incense and bird sweat and he felt no desire to initiate conflict with them. Orders were orders however and no natives, flying with giant raptors or otherwise, could be allowed to interfere with the business of The Crown.
« Lieutenant Sir, I’d get down if I were you, time being near ‘n’ all. »
« Ah yes, you never know. »
Felpisham’s boots had barely touched sand before the sharp whistle pierced the air above them.
The Engineer threw the switch and there was an alarmingly bright flash and shower of sparks. In the rubble below there came a low rumble, then silence. One the Archeologists ensconced in other rocks nearby, was heard to mutter something about ‘bloody fool’s got his mixture wrong again’ one moment before a terrific boom set the hidden man on his backside and rattled the teeth in Felpisham’s head.

The Engineers looked at each other sheepishly, before calmly beginning to dismantle their equipment.
Felpisham raised his MkIII Fieldglasses and peered into the billowing dust that now obscured most of the ruins. It was at times like this he increasingly questioned his position. Once a passionate student of history, archeology, literature, with an enthusiasm for travel amongst the famous (and less famous) places of Europe, North Africa and the Orient, he felt as if his activities of late increasingly involved as much destruction of antiquities as the study of them. Granted, on this occasion it was fair to say unintended destruction, but still.
His older brother Richard, who had often shared his youthly travels, would have been physically ill at the disruption to such an untouched site and thank God his Father would never hear of this! Felpisham grimaced. His Father was the Head Archivist at the Natural History Museum and would most likely have disowned him at this point.
He wiped sweat and dust from his dark curls.
« Well Felps? Alive are we? »
Even Sandsborough was coated in a fine layer of dust, but he seemed remarkably calm in the face of this potential cock-up.
« I do hope we haven’t upset the Nomads too much Sir. Birds can be skittish. »
« Damn the Nomads Felps, what about our doorway? »
« Can’t see as yet Sir. Too much dust. »
He turned a meaningful look on the Engineers, who dutifully came and stood to attention.
Nearby, a coughing Archeologist could be heard cursing all Engineers and makers of explosions.
« Well chaps anything to report? »
« Best guess Sir, a build up of gases behind the gateway, Sir. No way to tell beforehand, not without drilling deeper. »
« And we didn’t because…? »
« Not got a long enough drill-bit Sir, none to be had in these parts, no time to get them in, Sir. »
« Well, at least we’re all still alive, that’s something I suppose. Carry on Chief Engineer. »
Lord Sandsborough came and stood beside him, shaking the powder from his pith and replacing it on his head. They watched as the sunlight began to pierce the swirling gloom below.
Felpisham raised his binoculars again and frowned. What was that?
He struggled to focus on an illusive flicker of movement in the jumble below, a darker swirling amongst the trails of dust, slowly coalescing into something solid and waving.
« Sir, I don’t like to raise a panic… »
« Felps, Her Majesty’s Haroos are not in the business of panic. Spit it out man, I’m keen to get done before lunch. I’m not fond of all this digging about at the best of times. »
« We didn’t find any inscriptions making mention of it Sir, but the ruins appear to have a resident. »
Whatever it was once named, in ancient times by other peoples ( or in other worlds), the epithet that sprang to Felpisham’s mind was along the lines of ‘Giant Arachnid-Squid of Bilious Yellow and Obsidian’ and possibly, ‘From Hell’.
Of all the strange beasts they had encountered in the wide world, this was certainly not the largest, nor had the most teeth or sharpest claws, but it was possessed of a manic energy unfamiliar in a creature so large. It scuttled, clicked and writhed it’s bulk up from the hole now gaping in the ancient wall, until it crouched on top of the fallen masonry: the stunted remains of a long arcade of red pillars.
« Interesting. Felps, which way would you say it is facing? Is it looking this way? »
« I couldn’t say in all honesty Sir. It has appendages in all directions. I can’t make out any eyes, or for that matter a mouth. Most curious. »
« Oh God, we’re not looking at another witchdoctor job are we? I’d really rather crack on. Signal the snipers to be ready and we’ll go have a look shall we? »
« Could I suggest some of the steadier lads accompany you Sir? Besides myself that is. »
« Just get those snivelling khaki-wearing Archeologists moving would you and bring an Engineer to check the tunnel is still fit for use. The beast’s barely forty feet across for godsake, nothing the snipers or old ‘Lamp’ here can’t handle. I’m more concerned the smell of the beast is going to put me off my lunch. »
On returning to his commander’s side, Felpisham asked if they shouldn’t just eliminate the monster now and was surprised by Sandsborough yet again.
« Oh I think readiness will do, I’m not a savage you know. No need to harm it unless it tries to stop us eh? Not in the brief et cetera eh? Besides, it might smell worse dead. »
Later on Felpisham would ponder this moment, unable (yet again), to fathom the character of this decision, which would turn out to have been another sound one but for a twist of fate.
As their small group struggled down the slope, with much slipping and waving of arms, so that at times they resembled a gaggle of fussing geese (or flustered chickens in the case of the Archeologists), they became aware that the Nomads had finished their descent and settled on an adjacent slope. Felpisham waved to them and a few appeared to wave back. They seemed quite content to remain where they were. Some of the Nomads were unstrapping themselves from the belly of their birds, stretching or leaning casually against boulders to watch the English foreigners as they made their own less dignified descent.
Through his field glasses, he thought he recognised a few of their number, somewhat perplexed at how relaxed they seemed as they observed his party’s progress. There was that rather striking young lady he’d met at the trading post several days ago, one of twin sisters, her huge dark eyes glancing up to the giant Rhuk at her side, a veil-hidden smile evident in their twinkle as she said something to the animal or perhaps her fellow Nomads, whilst adjusting the golden silks about her head. There too, was that old weather-beaten mass of creases and beard belonging to Tilomabah, who seemed to feel his gaze and stare quite calmly back at him.

Rhuk Gliders by Martin Livingston
Rhuk Gliders by Martin Livingston

« What are they doing Felps? Any sign of a problem man? »
« They’re not giving much away Sir. Perhaps we should take a detour to enquire…? »
« Blast them all Felps! If they have something to say, they can bally-well come down here and say it! I’m not having us slog up another damned rockpile just to hear them tell us they are merely waiting to collect our boots and leftovers. »
« But Sir… »
« They’ve known what we’re about for the last week. It’s a bit late for them to give us their pearls of wisdom now don’t you think? This is probably the most entertainment they’ve had out here in weeks. Let’s get on with it. »
Lord Sandsborough, stopping only once to knock red sand from his boot, led the party on through the tumbled buildings. Here and there the paper tags and wooden pegs left by their Archeologists the previous day, could still be seen on various carved stones and friezes or wedged between paving slabs, considerably more dust-coated than on their previous visit. As they neared the arcade where the beast squatted, one of the Archeologists at the rear suddenly exclaimed and then finding all eyes suddenly fixed upon him, mumbled an apology.
« Er… my tape measure you know…right..er.. here, left it at Sample Sixteen…been looking everywhere…erm..yes, good…relief that… »
Once the Engineer had furnished him with a few sound, if rather blunt words of advice, commensurate with keeping quiet at a time like this, but with rather more lower-class language, culminating in the words ‘…and keep yer cake-ole shut’, they all marched onwards.
The Lieutenant wondered, as they came within twenty feet of the monster, if the Aether Nomads had simply no idea the thing had been in here, or if they did indeed know and had come to enjoy the spectacle of these mad foreigners being eaten or otherwise molested.
Lord Sandsborough, though wisely holding ‘The Lamp’ at the ready, kept his eyes firmly fixed on the tunnel entrance now revealed by the Sun’s rays, the very picture of nonchalance. The last of the dust cleared from their view of the blasted portal. As the Sun climbed slowly, more of its light crept down this stoney throat, revealing a wide flight of steps descending beyond view.
The beast clicked and creaked like an old wooden ship at berth, but made no further move as they gathered at the head of the stairway, their long shadows jagged before them on the steps. A little higher and the light struck something below that glittered and flashed.
Felpisham knelt on one knee to steady his binoculars, pushing his holstered  fire-pistol to one side as it dug, inconveniently, into his ribs.
« Can you see anything Lieutenant Sir? » asked the Engineer.
« Water, well liquid at least, some kind of enclosure. Perhaps an old fountain or pool of sorts. Sound like the right spot Sir? »
Sandsborough turned from his inspection of the wildlife crouched behind them and nodded.
« Right let’s get down there. Eyes and ears gentlemen, eyes and ears. »
As they followed their shadows downward into the the sepulchral depths, scurryings and scratchings could be heard in the walls and ceiling. Once in a while a faint clicking could be heard amongst the cracks and fissures, echoing from behind alien symbols and patterns, or more alarmingly, close above their heads.
« Engineer? »
« Solid enough Sir, I think we’re safe, from the stonework at least. »
The Archeologists and the Engineer both carried brand-new clockworked electric lamps, which they shone down off-shooting passageways and the larger fissures in the stonework, or illuminated carvings that caught their eye. The Archeologists were especially excited and made frantic scribbled notes as they trailed after the rest of the group. Their leader showed no desire to pause however, trotting at a steady pace down towards the chamber below.
Soon they could make out the faint sound of lapping water and see a large stone archway opening on a wide space, paved with many colours of stone or tile.

The steps ended about six feet before the portal and here Sandsborough halted with a grunt of surprise.
« Is it me Felps, or is there a hint of the Sicilian about these fellows? »
He gestured at some grotesque, not-quite-human, grimacing faces carved into the inner face of the archway, depicted with closed eyelids. Rather than an off-the-cuff racial slur against Mediterraneans, he was in fact referring to one of their previous endeavours, where the extermination of yet another ridiculous cult of Cthulu worshippers (Cthuloons, as his Lordship always put it), had led to a bit of impromptu tomb-raiding.
They had found amongst the paraphernalia due to be handed over to the Occult Department, a map of the local catacombs the troublemakers had occupied. This had made mention of a few antiquities and objects thought lost (but apparently stolen by the deceased cultists), the retrieval of which had proven dangerous and downright inconvenient to their teatime.
« Could be Sir. Shall I have the rest of the chaps have a look? »
« If you can tear their attention away from that damned wall for a moment Felpisham, yes. »
Both the Engineer and the Archeologists agreed that there was a resemblance to a section of the Sicilian catacombs and Felpisham cautiously confirmed this by forcing open one of the eyelids of the nearest face, to reveal a faintly luminous gemstone behind the silver-coated cover.
The Engineer crouched and blew aside some of the fine sand covering the threshold and found the anticipated slots in the paving and the edge of the pressure-sensitive slab before them. He shone his lamp on the area.
« You can just make out the leading edge of the blades Sir. Just like Sicily, well spotted Sir. »
Sandsborough took off his pith and handed ‘The Lamp’ to Felpisham, who in turn handed him one of their ‘acquired’ gadgets (acquired in a cellar in Soho at bayonet-point), from the Engineer’s backpack. It resembled a tea-kettle upon which a forward-facing, flared muzzle had been fitted along with several brass, steel and copper cylinders positioned around it’s girth. Set on top, an elaborate handle entwined in fine brass wire and boasting a wire-caged jewel of icy-blue, carried a switch connected to the jumble of mechanisms at the rear.
« Remember Sir, arm’s length if you can. »
« Can’t stand all this fussing about Felps old chap. No life for a soldier, but The Crown expects and all that. »
« Agreed Sir. Just hope these are the same kind of Bloodseeing Stones as Sicily, or you may lose your moustache! »
« Thankyou Felps, that’s quite enough of that. »
Sandsborough then stepped quite deliberately upon the pressure plate before the archway, raising the gadget as he did so.
The portal was suddenly bathed in a  sickly yellow glow as the eyelids of each stone face flew open, their malevolent glare sending a shudder through the assembled men. There was a sensation of static electricity, the sudden grinding of gears and in the same instant Sandsborough flicked the switch on the device.
There was a momentary wheezing, bubbling inhalation, like an old man with a touch of London fog in his lungs, then a blast of white, cold foam sprayed from it’s muzzle. The officer quickly directed this icy blast into the ghoulish faces above and about him, covering them all in a winter-like blanket of white frost and snow.
There was a sudden quiet, broken only by a last few drips of moisture from the device to the floor, as the rumble of ancient cogs ceased and they held a collective breath.
Felpisham waved a hand at a frosted face.
« I believe that’s done it Sir. »
« If that’s the case Felps, step on through here and take this bloody contraption off me. My hands are going numb. »

~ To Be Continued ~

Read Part Two here: https://aethernomads.wordpress.com/2015/08/10/her-majesty-loses-an-officer-by-martin-livingston-part-two-of-three/

©Martin Livingston 2015 for The Aether Nomads Project

Introduction (in English)

The Aether Nomads Project
AetherNomadJG
~ What is it all about?
It is an international art project centered around the idea of  Tribal Steampunk. There is a core concept, a framework describing a specific fictitious tribe. This includes tribe structure, key characters and some background.

Project members may wish to contribute in a number of ways, by:

• Creating a character to play at Steampunk gatherings and/ or appropriate Live Roleplay   events.
• Creating costume for personal use or for sale
• 2D or 3D artwork for exhibitions and /or for sale
• Organising events / performances
• Writing short stories, novels, graphic novels
• Writing and performing music
• Making items for sale (via Etsy.com is highly recommended)

All creations will remain the intellectual property of each individual creator and if items are created for sale, all related finances are the responsibility of the creator. The Aether Nomads Project is a social, supportive entertainment group and not run for profit but you will benefit from other group members sharing your social media posts, links and pictures***

~How did The Aether Nomads Project begin?

It grew out of a jewellery range that Sally-Ann is currently developing for her Etsy shop (TheNavigatrix).

« As I make pieces, my imagination often provides a little snippet of story to go with it and this ends up in the item description. The story of the Aether Nomads grew until I realised that it was similar to a Character Type in a role-play game!

Having noticed a few Neo-Bedouins and other arabesque looking characters on the Steampunk scene, I decided to offer a coherent fictitious tribe which, through their propensity to travel through dimensions and even time, would fit subtly or blatantly into any setting, whether leaning more to the historical or wildly fantastical extremes of Steampunk. » 

The crux of the concept of the Aether Nomad is the blending of art and science and the opportunity to share a visually and, dare I say it, spiritually interesting experience.

Sally-Ann has been joined in this venture by fellow admins Naós Al Kymaris of France and the model Catherine Moon of The Netherlands.

« Al Kymaris and I have co-authored the beginning of the story, Tales of The Navigatrix, which you can find at www.thenavigatrixonetsy.wordpress.com and this will continue to grow. »

~How do I join?
We are organised as a Private Facebook group, which holds the main documents, links to important references such as the Pinterest board for visual design inspiration and allows members to showcase their works in progress, finished pieces or to help develop their ideas.

Because of the way Facebook works, you need to ‘Friend’ one of the admin and send a request to be added to the group. You will then be able to get started!

Contact:

You can reach the admin by leaving a comment here, emailing aether.nomads@gmail.com or by finding them on Facebook:
Sally-Ann Livingston
Naós Al Kymaris
Catherine Moon

https://www.facebook.com/AetherNomadsProject – Public page
Search and post using  #ANProject and #AetherNomads

This dedicated blog is run by the group administrators and will showcase work from the various group members, news and updates.

This post published by Sally-Ann

Lady of the Aether Nomads main image by Jennie Gyllblad