This second season has dealt me some surprises, with episodes that I thought would be hard to write becoming some of the easiest, episodes that I thought would be easy to write becoming some of the hardest, and episodes that I thought were weak receiving some of the best reviews. After writing ten of the twelve episodes, I knew better than to make a guess on how the two part season finale was going to go. On the one hand, there was a lot going on, which would make it easy to come up with content to write, and there were major, obvious conflicts to give the characters opportunities to act. On the other hand, I worried that I had not adequately laid the groundwork for the Pifechans to show up, that they might seem overpowered, that this episode would have too much kinetic action and not enough story action.
I don’t know yet what you’ll think of it, but I do know that this episode was a lot of fun to write, that it came together remarkably quickly for being one of the longer episodes in the season, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for you to read. In large part, that’s because it features a lot of what I particularly enjoy in a story; highly competent characters who are leveraging their areas of competence to their utmost in conflict with an opponent of sufficient scale and competence to make that high level of competence look like it might not be sufficient. Doil and Kiluron still have their doubts, their struggles and fears that have made up a significant part of many of the episodes this season, but they’re not the focus, and they have a job to do that’s more important.
Unlike the first season’s finale, this one does not include as many answers to long-running mysteries, or revelations about Blood Magic, although I am hoping to work some answers to world history questions into the second part. It is what it is: a dynamic story with a little more plot than character. Not that there isn’t plenty of emotion and character development contained in this episode, especially with how this first part ends. Since I do have two parts to work with, I also took the time to do a little more development of side characters and plots than I otherwise would. Oh, and I apparently have a bad habit of leaving characters stuck on islands in dire straits at the end of books. Sorry about that.
It’s always a good sign when I’m excited to write the next episode. When I finished the first part of Contaminant, just about the last thing I wanted to do was write the second part, or more Blood Magic of any sort. Forcing myself to write through challenges like that, rather than switching to a different project, is part of why I decided to start publishing this series in the first place. Finishing this episode, I didn’t even want to take the time to write this release post before diving into writing part two, or pause to do revisions on the season one episodes that still need to be done.
Perhaps my greatest source of debate in writing this episode was whether or not I should include a Pifechan viewpoint character. It would certainly make the storytelling easier in a lot of ways, providing me a means to communicate the rationale for the Pifechan invasion, how their technology works, what their tactics are, and more. And I did include a Pifechan viewpoint in Strange Lands. In the end, I decided not to do the same here. I may add in a Pifechan viewpoint in the second part, but for this episode I thought it would detract from the story I was trying to tell. Strange Lands was as much about the Pifechans as it was about Merolate, but this episode is really using the Pifechans as a plot point, with the emphasis all on our core characters.
There are a lot of points where I worry that readers will think that I dropped threads or details or entire plot points. It would have been good to include more of what was happening with Vere, and the Blood Priests just sort of disappear, but to include those things would have upset the pacing, and I really wanted the pacing on this to deliver a strong, emotional punch. That was a storytelling decision that I will stand by, and many of the apparent dropped elements will be taken up again in the second part, when we conclude the second season.
Speaking of which, this is your official warning that this episode ends with a cliffhanger. Not the kind of contrived cliffhanger where you open the door at the end of the chapter and don’t find out who it is until the next one, but a cliffhanger nonetheless. If you’re the kind of person who can’t wait for the resolution to a cliffhanger, you might want to wait for part two to go live. Whenever you decide to read this, I really hope that you enjoy this episode. It was a lot of fun to write, and I think you’ll find it a lot of fun to read. I am very excited to present Pifecha, Part One.
Stormy weather swept across the tiny island and its tinier battlements, but that was expected for autumn. At least, it was autumn back in Merolate. On a speck of rock known only as “Outpost East,” it was just entering the storm season. Despite that, Guardsman Twiol was outside, his waxed raincloak doing little to keep him dry as he struggled with his two companions, Fulet and Grames, to unload the heavy, sealed packages from the ship docked behind the island, where there was some scant shelter from the raging storm. Even so, the captain was looking around with obvious apprehension and continually urging the guardsmen to hurry with the supplies.
“Seems like there’s more than usual, this time,” Fulet remarked, hugging another crate to his chest and staggering back down the gangplank with it.
“Oof, and this one’s heavy,” Grames grunted, staggering after Fulet and disappearing into the structure that served as their home on the island, half cave and half fortress. Its stone were still newly hewn, though the stormy season would change that quickly.
Captain Dwimber shrugged. Normally, the ships would stay a night and take a meal or two with the guardsmen before going on their way, but the storm had almost been too severe for the captain to make his landing at all. Twiol suspected that if the supplies hadn’t already been delayed twice, the man would have tried to wave off and approach under better conditions – it was always easier to ride out a storm at sea if there were no well-secured harbors in range. “Don’t ask me what’s in there, but I will tell you that the Guardcaptain seemed mighty excited about something. Personally came and oversaw the loading.”
“Huh.” Twiol, returning for another load, peered more closely at the crate he had lifted. “Well, maybe it’ll be enough to keep us entertained out here. Sure won’t be swimming for a while, I figure.”
During the summer, the area around the tiny outcropping where they lived had been a veritable paradise, with crystalline waters, warm, tranquil breezes, a reefs all around to swim over. Those reefs were murderous to any ship approaching without a detailed map, but they were perfect for swimming. Still, Twiol wished that he were leaving with the captain to return to Merolate. It was alright for the other two youngsters on the island with him; they didn’t have families waiting for them back home.
“Looks like that’s the last one,” Fulet observed, pointing to Grames lugging a crate almost as large as he was down the gangplank and into the fort. “Thanks for the supplies, Captain. Say hello to the folks back home for us.”
“Yes, thank you,” Twiol agreed, clasping the captain’s weathered hand. “And if you could see that this makes it back to my family…” he pressed a letter, sealed and waxed, into the same hand.
A flash of lightning illuminated the captain’s wet smile. “I’ll see it done. Safe harbors and fair seas, boys.”
“Travel well, Captain,” Twiol replied. Together, the three guardsmen walked down the gangplank. The captain’s crew withdrew the plank, and with long poles shoved their way clear of the island, nosing out into the sea. Those poles would be used again and again to navigate them around the reefs until they reached the open waters of the Aprina Sea. With the rain washing down like a second ocean dumping out of the sky, the ship was soon lost from sight, and the three guardsmen at Outpost East were again alone at the edge of the world.
Fulet grumbled. “Why are we all still standing out here in the rain? Aren’t we drenched enough? Come on, I’m going in and getting warm and dry.”
“I like the rain,” Grames retorted, but he followed Fulet inside readily enough. Twiol stayed outside for a little longer before he too retreated to the relative sanctuary of their hastily constructed fort.
Morning brought grey, sunless light, but the storm was reduced to a light drizzle. Awakening before the other two, Twiol stoked the hearth in what constituted their kitchen, and made himself an omelet. Fresh food was a rare thing on their outpost, and would only last a few days even if they didn’t eat it all, so there was little point in saving it. Once his breakfast was gone, he took himself up to the battlements with a steaming mug of tea, and looked out to the east. In theory, there was always supposed to be at least one of them on watch, but no ship would dare approach the island in a storm like last night’s, so there had seemed no point.
Sure enough, there were no ships sitting out in the waters on the eastern side of the island, and if any had passed by, they wouldn’t have been able to see them, anyway. It was enough to make Twiol wonder if their presence on the easternmost extreme was worthwhile, but he dismissed the thought quickly. That was for people like Guardcaptain Vere to decide, not him. He would do his duty as best he could, and that would be enough.
When he grew tired of standing in the rain, he wandered back towards the other side of the island. A small spire, three times his height and only a little wider that him, was the highest point on the tiny island, and the top had been lopped off flat to provide a platform for a signal fire. There were lightweight skims kept just above the waterline, too, but the guardsmen all knew their best chance of getting a warning out was the signal fire. Heavy, waxed clothes were kept over the wood at all times, and canisters of oil, torches, and sparkers were kept ready to set the whole pile ablaze. Either the light or the smoke, the theory went, would be seen by the next outpost or by a friendly ship, and then word passed on back to Merolate.
After the rain, Twiol wanted to check that the wood was still dry beneath its clothes; there was a store of mostly dry fuel – as dry as anything could be on their half a rock in the middle of the ocean – kept below in the storage chambers, and if the wood was too wet to be lit easily the guardsmen would need to build a new signal fire that morning. Twiol was relieved to find that wood was still dry, and he returned to his contemplation of the unbroken eastern horizon.
Unbroken was no exaggeration: there was nothing out there for as far as the eye could see, even on a clear day. Sometimes, on those clear, summer days, Twiol liked to imagine that he could see straight around the world and peer at the back of his own head, however much he knew that to be impossible. On rainy days, it seemed there was nothing save for themselves in all the world, like Lufilna and the rest of the Aprina Basin had just drifted away and left them alone, a speck in endless nothingness. Regardless, there was never anything to the east, though it was the east they were to watch. What Guardcaptain Vere thought might be coming over that distant, monotonous horizon, Twiol could not imagine. There were rumors about strange people with strange powers who had come from the far east, but Twiol had not understood all that had been said. It seemed preposterous to him, this idea that there was a whole different continent half a world away.
“Moping about already?” Fulet’s voice interrupted Twiol’s thoughts. “Seems awfully early for that, if you ask me. You don’t really think anything’s going to come over that horizon, do you?”
Twiol shrugged. “I guess not, but that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Doesn’t hurt to be careful.”
“Personally, I’d be glad to meet these strange easterners we’re supposed to be watching for,” Fulet mused. “I hear that they have ships that belch fire like a dragon. That would be something to see.”
“There’s no such thing as dragons,” Twiol retorted. They needed a different topic. “Come on. Let’s go wake Grames and find out what’s in those extra crates we got with last night’s shipment.”
In the moist daylight and the supplemental torchlight, several of the crates were clearly marked separate from the rest. Grames dragged these over to a pile by themselves, and looked to the other two Guardsmen. “Which one should we open first?” he asked.
“That one,” Fulet decided before Twiol could speak, pointing to a long, thick crate.
Taking up a lever and mallet, Grames approached the crate, and pried off the top with a few blows. Then he dropped the tools and lifted something long and narrow out of the crate. He turned around and held it up to Twiol and Fulet like a prize.
“What is it?” Twiol asked.
“Spear!” Grames replied, jabbing the air with the pointed end. “They sent us a whole crate of giant spears!”
“Looks more like a crossbow bolt,” Twiol countered. “A really, really big crossbow bolt.”
Fulet frowned. “I think I have to agree with you, Twiol. That’s not just a big spear.” He pointed at the bottom, where there were four narrow, metal protrusions from the main shaft, which was itself thicker than a traditional spear. “These look a lot like fletching on an arrow, and it looks like there’s a notch down here, too, for it to fit onto a string. Although a notch that big suggests that ‘string’ might not be the right word.”
“You think these other crates are full of components to build a giant crossbow?” Twiol asked. “One that can fire a bolt that big?”
Fulet picked up the mallet and lever, and handed them to Grames. “One way to find out.”
Applying himself to the next crate, Grames grumbled. “You know what I think these giant bolts are good for? Really big spits. Just think of the size of the boar you could roast on something like this. Could put a whole blummox on it.”
The lid of the next crate thudded in the small space as it hit the stone ground, revealing a long, narrow piece of wood with a metal channel carved into it. Ignoring Grames, Fulet peered at the component. “Definitely looks like a piece of an oversized crossbow. Let’s get the rest of these crates opened and figure out how to put it together.”
There was no protest from Twiol, so Grames went around and methodically pried open all of the crates. Tacked to one of the lids was a piece of paper, which Twiol snatched and began to read aloud. “’As a result of some recent, and unrelated events in the Union, experiments were undertaken to develop robust weapons capable of penetrating substantial armor and affecting large objects. The most successful and transportable of these experiments is contained, deconstructed, in the crates around you. Instructions for the proper assembly of the weapon are included on the reverse of this scroll. It is based upon similar principles to the crossbow, and can propel the included bolts a distance of some five hundred paces, although accuracy diminishes rapidly as the distance increases past two hundred paces. At a distance of two hundred paces, the bolt, when launched from a fully wound assembly, can penetrate a plate of metal one thumb thick, and can be aimed with sufficient accuracy to hit a target the size of a man. It is our hope that this weapon will improve your ability to mount a defense against whatever forces should threaten the Union. Know that your service is of the greatest importance…’”
“Blah blah blah,” Fulet interrupted. “Tell me who it’s from, and then let’s get this thing put together and test it out. I want to see if those numbers hold up under field conditions.”
Suppressing his annoyance in favor of his own curiosity, Twiol complied. “It’s signed by Admiral Ferl and Advisor Doil, on behalf of Prime Kiluron.”
“Not sure if that makes it more or less legitimate,” Fulet muttered. “Alright, so we know this must be the main channel out of which the bolt will be propelled.” He moved to peer into several of the other creates. “It looks like there must be more than just the one crosspiece, like there would be in a crossbow, because there are four of what could be the arms.”
Twiol waved the instructions at him. “I think the instructions cover what we need and which parts are which.”
Dismissing the notion, Fulet continued his inventory. “This funky thing must be the trigger assembly, and over here are a few cables – that’s pretty obvious. Assorted fasteners, some big pieces that must be the base or a frame of some kind…this doesn’t seem like it will be too hard. Let’s get started.”
He bent down to take out one of the pieces he thought to be part of the base, but Twiol forestalled him. “At least let’s bring the pieces outside? I don’t think this weapon will be useful inside of our storage room, and it looks like it will be too big to get out once it’s assembled.”
For a breath, Fulet seemed about to argue with this suggestion, but then he jerked his head in acknowledgement of Twiol’s advice, and had Grames start hauling the opened crates up to the battlements. It was still drizzling, and the sky was as grey as the sea, so they laid the lids back across the crates to keep out the worst of the weather.
By noon, or at least their stomachs said it was close to noon, since the sun had refused to work that day, Fulet had assembled the base, and placed the main launcher channel upon it. That had taken the first half of the morning, and the second half had been taken up with trying various arrangements of the arms, none of which had so far been quite right. Twiol’s occasional suggestion that they reference the instructions that had been included with the shipment were ignored.
“Maybe they didn’t send us the right pieces,” Fulet whined, trying and failing again to affix the arms to the launcher channel. There were little cutouts where it seemed they should fit, but he couldn’t get them in with the pegs he had selected for the task. “I could whittle these down to the right size.”
“I really don’t think we should go altering any piece of this weapon,” Twiol insisted. “Please, can we try putting it together the other way, like the instructions say?”
Fulet held up one of the launcher arms. “That way looked ridiculous. How could they maintain enough stability to put adequate tension into the cable? They’d just get cranked right back into the shaft itself and be useless.”
“Not if the winch is arranged like this,” Twiol argued, pointing at another diagram on the scroll, although it was blotchy from the rain.
Just as Fulet was about to make another retort, Grames interrupted both of them. “What’s that out there?” He was staring off at the eastern horizon, holding one hand up to keep the rain out of his squinting eyes. “Is that actually a ship? I didn’t think we had any ships that went that far east.”
“We don’t,” Fulet snapped. “It’s probably just some dolphins or something. Can we please concentrate on putting this thing together? I really want to see it work.”
Following Grames’ pointing, Twiol frowned. “I don’t think that it’s just dolphins out there. Seems like it’s moving too straight, for one thing. And too big.”
“Will you please stop arguing with every single thing I say?” Fulet demanded. “It’s too far away to see anything. If you’re that worried, go and swim out there, for all I care. Maybe if you don’t annoy them too much, the dolphins will carry you back to this unbalanced rock.”
Angry now, Twiol threw the instructions into one the now emptied crates. “Fine, maybe I’ll do just that.” He stormed down into the fortress, feeling cold, wet, lonely, and profoundly far from home. Shaking his head to clear it, he went to their living quarters, dried himself off, and changed into drier clothes. They wouldn’t stay dry, but at least they weren’t yet clammy on his skin. He wrapped two waxed cloaks over himself, took a day pouch full of salted meat and a waterskin from the storage room, and headed down to where the skims were stored.
Each of the three skims was identical; no one had even bothered to name them. They were low, wide boats that looked barely seaworthy, small and light enough to be operated easily by one person. The skin seemed so thin that the slightest snag would tear right through it, made of some kind of bark, and there was minimal room for the pilot, much less supplies. Two oars in modified oarlocks served as the propulsion, with no sail and only a minimal keel. They were designed for nothing but speed. Very carefully, Twiol took one of them down to the water, stowed his minimal supplies, and shoved away from the island. It probably really was just some animals out there, but at least he could get away from the island’s confines, and his fellow guardsmen, for a little while.
Once he had navigated past the reefs and was away from the island, the waves became erratic, and Twiol was no sailor. He found himself swinging wide, away from both the island and the sighting he was ostensibly investigating. By the time he had closed maybe a quarter of the distance to whatever Grames had seen, he was half as far abreast. Squinting against the salty spray that was relentlessly crusting on his eyelashes, he tried to get a better look through the waves at what was out there. It had been cutting an oddly straight line across the sea, moving due west…
An aberrant wave lifted him a little higher above the rest of the ocean for a moment, and he caught a clear glimpse of what was making its way west. They were ships, or at least Twiol thought they were ships, though they looked nothing like any ship he had ever seen, and they seemed to be belching out their own clouds to join those hanging low in the sky. Despite their bulk, they were moving with remarkable speed across the sea, and there were at least two dozen of them.
“Blood and Balance!” Twiol swore, though he was not usually prone to cussing. He hauled on the right oar and pushed on the left with such force that he nearly capsized the skim and strained his own shoulders, but the lightweight craft responded readily enough after a moment, and he whirled around to face west in that single stroke. Then he set to rowing with all of his strength, though he held little hope of outpacing the ships back to his island fortress. Soon, he was out of breath and his muscles were trembling, his skim was nearly as full of spray as his boots, and he knew he would need to stop and bail soon, but he couldn’t stop, not with those ships behind him.
With the lead he had, he thought there might be a chance, but he’d forgotten how wide he had been borne by the waves on his way out from the island. He was still a lot of hard rowing from the dock when he saw the ships slow down and encircle the island. Fighting against the waves, he came to a relative stop, and watched, wondering what he could do.
A voice, inhumanly loud, boomed across the water, and almost sent Twiol tumbling out of his boat in shock. “Attention! Attention!” the voice roared like the orator of a giant. “This region is now under the protection and authority of Pifecha. Prepare for processing.”
There was no indication of what preparations might be necessary for this processing, though in Twiol’s mind he thought the most appropriate preparation involved a sword and whatever that new weapon was that had been shipped to them from Merolate; he only hoped that Fulet had managed to finish assembling it. When he saw flames flare to life at the fortress’s pinnacle, he felt a flush of relief.
Then light flared from the end of a long tube mounted on the front of one of the metal ships encircling the island, there was a peal of thunder, and the signal fire exploded, showering burning brands all over the top of the fortress and into the water. Half a moment later, the water on the other side of the island spouted up in a great fountain and sent waves far enough to rock Twiol in his little boat.
For a long moment, Twiol stared at the empty signal platform, before his brain began to function again. No giant crossbow shots were forthcoming from the island, so he could only assume that Fulet and Grames had not finished assembling it. Without that weapon, he could imagine nothing that would save them from the monstrosities now surrounding them. Certainly no acts of courage on his part would be of any use, and besides, their training was clear. They were not to fight – they were to provide warning. The message had to get through, get back to Merolate.
If Fulet and Grames followed protocol, they would already be making for their own skims, but Twiol did not think much of their chances of escaping the perimeter of ships encircling Outpost East. He was already out at sea, and as far as he could tell, the Pifechans had not noticed him in his tiny skim. Guilt sitting heavy upon his chest, he turned his boat away from the island, and began to row west. He went slowly at first, so as not to leave a wake that would be visible to the Pifechans, but he knew his duty. The message had to get through, and he might be the only one who could bring it. If all else failed, somehow, he had to warn Merolate. The Pifechans had come to Outpost East.
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