A Crowded Airship

A mini-story from Tholgrin Stoneforge’s perspective.


Tholgrin stomped through the corridor of the airship, grumbling under his breath.  They had departed from the skydock not thirty minutes ago, and already he could feel his sanity slipping away from him.

Managing an organized guild of any size was a trying task;  trying to keep one in line as motley as Full Moon Fury was tantamount to herding wet tressym with bare hands.  Even as a paladin, a natural-born leader, he was grasping at his wit’s end.

As he approached the stateroom, which supported a fully-equipped bath house, a whimsical melody bounced and swereved its way into his ears:

It’s gettin’ hot in here,

So take off all your clothes

As compelling as the suggestion was, he ignored the request.  Loghainn Goldstrum, the guild’s only bard, was doing his best to keep things merry and lighthearted, and as usual, was going about it in completely the wrong way.  Worse yet, the dwarven barbarian, Uldwena Skyreaver, looked as though she were going to comply with the song’s wishes.

“Knock it off, Loghainn,” he growled.  While he didn’t think anything untoward would happen, considering the dire bear form of her brother, Uldwin, was splashing in the bath as well, it wouldn’t do to have a half-dressed, sopping wet female on a boat just full of rowdy dwarven men.  After all, he had to maintain some sense of propriety amongst this ragtag bunch.

Without skipping a beat, the melody shifted, and new lyrics rang out:

Everybody, alright, let’s do it

Shots, shots, shots shots-shots-shots

Tholgrin merely stood still, not turning around to face the singer, merely letting his annoyance be broadcast by the tension in the air until the lyrics changed a third time to something more tolerable.

Plodding down the stairs that led further into the ship, he stopped inside the tavern that had practically materialized overnight once the ship had been bought and paid for.  Given that the guild was almost entirely comprised of dwarves, he didn’t think too much about it at the time.  That was before their first lenghty “ship trip” as a guild, when the Sellsword’s Tavern became the epicenter of eighty percent of the intra-guild spats.

It wasn’t surprising at all to see a good chunk of his fellow brethren seated around various tables and in various degrees of inebriation.  Gorruk Bouldertongue, the guild’s primary axe-master (and, as much as he hated to admit it, the only one who could come close to giving Tholgrin himself a bit of a run with one) was easily five sheets to the wind in spite of his rather absurd tolerance levels;  he had to have been tossing back drinks long before they disembarked.  Seated with him, but thankfully not nearly as smashed, Orsyn Burr twiddled with his eerily-glowing rune arm and a set of tools between drinks, half-listening while Gorruk rambled on about the advantages of using cold iron whetstones over byeshk ones.

He almost didn’t see the guild’s foremost ranger, Walreign Aggron, even though he was sitting in a chair in the corner.  There was something disturbing about the way he could seem to just not be wherever he was;  not turning invisible so much as one’s eyes seemed to simply gloss over where he was without registering him.  While he wasn’t entirely certain why, the dwarf with the enormous bow (which he almost didn’t see, propped up in the corner) gave him the creeps.  It might have been because he spent more time talking to Repede, Uldwin’s wolf companion, than anyone else in the guild, that helped keep the odd sense of separation intact.  After all, there wasn’t a soul on board that wasn’t a pretty high-grade oddball, himself included.

The guild’s other ranger, a relative new-comer, was about as diametrically opposite from Wally as it could get.  “Cupcaque,” as he introduced himself – not Cupcake, as Tholgrin was corrected upon filling out the paperwork – was a half-orc, presently standing at the bar, double-fisting huge mugs of ale and whooping in support of the guild’s only halfling’s acrobatic display.  On a barstool.

Tholgrin shook his head.  Whong Fei-Hung, as did many halflings, simply defied the laws of physics with his agility.  Add in his monastic training, and the defied part of that sentiment became outright ignored.  Currently, he was vertically inverted, spinning on one knuckle on the top of a barstool while his feet twirled and made various shapes in mid-air.  Had it been anyone else in Full Moon Fury, he’d have already sent for one of their healers, but the odds of Fei-Hung getting so much as a bruise from this display were slim to none.

Seeing that nothing was amiss – yet – in the tavern, Tholgrin turned to leave, only to nearly run straight into Whall, the aptly-named Favored Soul.  His eyes glowed and shifted in the way that only those angelic incarnations can manage, his bulky frame – broad even for a dwarf, hence the nickname – nearly filling the entrance.

“Joining the fun?” Whall asked, a twinkle of.. was that mirth?.. in his eyes, knowing full well that the leader would refuse.

“Just keeping an eye on things,” Tholgrin rumbled back, stepping aside to let the waddling mountain pass.  He was thankful the winged one was of a jovial nature;  the idea of needing to restrain him was not  pleasant.  Tholgrin had personally seen the dwarf take an assault ballista shot to the chest, get up, and laugh about how he had squealed on the way down.

Across the hall from the tavern, he steppd alongside one of the guild’s founding members, his good friend Mattok Shalefinder.  Even though he was as trustworthy, loyal, and benign as any dwarf he’d ever met, dedicated to his craft to the point the Silver Flame itself restored his sight after an accident (a gift which had the awkward effect of leaving his eyes blazing with the blue-white glow of the entity whenever they were open), Mat had the outward appearance of a second-in-command of a Shavarathian legion.  He had coal-black hair and crimson skin, dressed in obsidian armor adorned with skulls, claws, and demonic insignia.  One must know evil to fight evil, he’d once explained.

“Everything all right in there?” Tholgrin asked.

Across one of the staterooms was a glowing purple barrier, clearly summoned by the father-son team of arcanists on board, who were visible having a rather heated argument in complete silence on the other side.

“As far as I can tell, they’re just having one of their rows,” Mattok replied, his voice having been oddly split into two discordant harmonies, one here, the other there, ever since his “incident” with the Silver Flame.  “I’m just sticking around to make sure what happens in there stays in there.”

They stood side-by-side for a moment in silence, watching the oddities of family disturbances magnified tenfold by arcane powers and draconic blood.  The father, Kiljoen Lorebringer, was a sorcerer – no, that wasn’t giving the dwarf justice.  By all rights, he was the draconic incarnation of the Flamethrower of Fernia;  often shifting his very physical essence into pure fire, his seemingly never-ending supply of waves of incineration had been known to raze entire cities to ashes in seconds.  Until, that is, you kicked him in the chops.. which had been required to save their airship from ‘domestic disputes’ in the past.  Hence their magically sealed argument room.

The son, Varjek Lorebringer, was very clearly the by-product of the Shadow of Fame Syndrome.  The draconic fury that made arcane magic so natural and easy to his father was entirely absent in Varjek.  With his father gone for much of his childhood, he’d learned the arcane arts, as he put it, “the hard way,” by book, trial and error, and sheer brainpower.  Arguably one of the most brilliant members of the guild, when it came to his father, all of Varjek’s reasoning and Kiljoen’s unnaturally charming personality flew out the window in a heartbeat.  Odds were likely this particular spat had something to do with Varjek’s fascination with the necromantic powers of death and the undead and his father’s insistence that such paths led only to self-destruction.  Given the current state of the room, with what appeared to be an arch-lich yelling at a fire elemental and various colors of energy bursting amongst flames licking the walls, it seemed very much to be the case this time.

Tholgrin placed one hand on Mat’s shoulder and sighed.  “Let me know if it gets out of hand,” he said before continuing down the corridor.  At least this “argument” hadn’t resulted in a small army of wraiths battling a legion of efreet on the top deck.  The story that time had been that they were “playing life-size chess and it was just friendly.”  He didn’t buy it for a second, but had let it go, provided they “play nice” in their specially-sealed chamber from then on.

“Oh, come now, you can do better than that!” came a taunting cry from the next stateroom, one which had been set up as a makeshift dojo.  Peering around the corner, Tholgrin saw a wooden training dummy sitting in the center of the room.  The taunt had come from the guild’s only elf, a healer-turned-monk by the name of Immano of Llawriennal, who was looking up towards the rafters…

…from which a blur of black-and-grey cloth tumbled, ejecting three gleaming throwing stars seemingly out of nowhere, before landing in front of the elf as though he’d been standing there the entire time.

“Three flips, three stars,” came the voice of Khail Ironfist, devotee of the Shintao discipline of unarmed combat and Immano’s mentor in the monastic arts.  He turned to the training dummy, nodded when he saw his shuriken had landed in what would have been the target’s eyes and throat, before the stars fizzled and returned to nothingness.  “Still room for improvement.”

Tholgrin smirked in spite of himself and moved on towards the engine room.  Those two could train for days on end, evolving the simple act of “throwing a shuriken at a target” into “making the impossible look effortless” for no reason other than perfection of their craft and unification of their mind and spirit and broccoli… or some such.  The whole “balancing of ki” concept escaped him.

Running down a mental checklist and counting on his fingers absently, he counted down the remaining members of the crew that were supposed to be on-board as he crossed into the engine room.  Instead of being bathed in the bluish-white elemental glow of the primary core as he expected, there were several swirls of purple in it…

“Madfinger!!” he bellowed, his voice amplified with the commanding power of his presence.

The slightly batty dwarf poked his head out from behind a panel near the top of the core, suspended from the ceiling by a spider-like wooden contraption that barely looked stable enough to rest a teacup on.  Through his goggles, the artificer’s eyes looked five times bigger than they should have.

“Something the matter, boss?” he asked, as though nothing was wrong.

“How many times have I told you to not tinker with the engine core while we’re in-flight?”

“We left the skydock?” Madfinger asked, lifting one of the modular goggles, which had the effect of looking at him through a House Phiarlan Hall of Mirrors.

“Almost forty-five minutes ago,” Tholgrin grumbled.  “You didn’t notice the slight increase in power consumption from the core you have your head buried in?”

“Well that explains the unexpected alpha-wave spike on the arcanospectrometer,” he said, letting go of the unidentifiable tool (which the spider-harness-contraption scrambled to catch) and scratching idly at one of his mutton chops.  “And the diversion of celestiokinetic pulses through the..” he trailed off into further incoherent rambling while closing up the panel he had been dabbling in.  There was no denying “Madfinger” Runewarden’s immeasurable genius as an inventor and technician, but he was a touch.. scatterbrained, to be polite about it.  Truth be told, he barely qualified as “sane” any longer, which was part of how he had acquired the nickname over the years – he was a touch too trigger-happy and loved watching things explode more than anyone should.

I cautioned him against such behavior,” came a mechanical voice off to the side.  Felldar, a Bladeforged, stood with Madfinger’s iron defender Fritz next to him.  “And I informed him of our impending departure five minutes prior.

“Ohh, pish-posh,” said Madfinger, finally setting his feet on the ground as his spider-like harness contraption contorted itself into a ladder and then into.. an abacus?  “That was just a few moments ago.”

Forty-nine minutes and sixteen seconds,” Felldar corrected.  While Felldar also tinkered with mechanics, he found more of his calling as a holy warrior, much like Tholgrin himself.  Although to say Felldar was more.. rigid.. about rules, formality, and order was a grand understatement.

“Go tune your rune arm!”  Madfinger retorted, snapping his fingers to call his mecha-doggy and find something else to (hopefully) not blow up on board.

Felldar watched the engineer leave, his neck turning to an angle that would likely have killed most demihumans, before snapping his unwavering gaze back to Tholgrin.  “I remained in the engine room to ensure nothing was altered that would risk our flight stability,” the construct explained.

“Yeah, well, that didn’t exactly stop him from messing with the engine, now, did it?”  he glowered.

Potential collateral damage simulations suggested a forceful removal of Mister Runewarden from his project at the time of departure had a 74% chance of causing catastrophic engine failure.  I deemed maintaining strict observation to be the lesser of two evils.

Tholgrin blinked rapidly several times.  “Right.  Well, then.  Good, er, job?  Next time, though, consider making him wrap things up before liftoff, rather than just warning him?”

 

Felldar cocked his head slightly.  “I have adjusted my logic protocols to incorporate this new directive.  Thank you for the correction, Guild Leader Stoneforge.

Tholgrin shook his head as he made his way towards the ladder to the cargo hold.  He’d told the Bladeforged time and again that titles, in such a barely-organized guild as theirs, were far more formal than necessary.  Still, Felldar insisted on using them.  As one who had been relatively recently “converted” into the Bladeforged status of constructs, he had yet to fully adapt to working with organics.  Most constructs adopted mannerisms, expressions, and behavior patterns to make them seem more incorporated with the living beings they worked with;  Felldar had not yet taken up such behaviors, considering them to be an “unproductive” use of his time.  As it was, it had the effect of making him seem very, very alien to the rest of the guild.

This was made even more apparent during sparring sessions, when his augmented precision as a construct lent him an almost unnatural speed and grace with his weaponry.  Mimicking the “highly versatile and efficient combat style” first introduced to the guild by Orsyn,  who backed his dabbling with arcane technology with a far more potent axe imbued with the divine energy of the Sovereign Host, Felldar had rapidly copied, refined, tuned, and improved it until it was an art form of its own.  The pair of them on a battlefield could engage seemingly dozens of hostiles simultaneously between gadgets, repeaters, melee combat, and arcane blasts from their rune arms.. and leave their opponents wondering just what in Khyber had just happened when it was all over.

To Tholgrin, it all seemed like an excessive amount of work, and required a great deal more than he did, armed with the only thing he needed:  his trusty holy, icy, and wickedly lacerating great axe, “Betty.”

As he plodded his way down into the cargo hold, he immediately smelled where at least one of his remaining crew members was.  Set up next to a large, ancient-looking stone device was a makeshift wooden table, upon which rest an impossibly large honey-roasted ham.

“You know you’re not supposed to have ham, Uncle Tubbs,” he said as he approached the table.  “It puts you out of sorts for days.”

Broltub Larrod, known to almost everyone as “Tubbho Lard,” or simply Uncle Tubbs to those closest to him, grinned.  “It’s not for me, you see,” he pointed at the stone device.  “This is to convert the ham into oil so that Aapex here can, er, eat it, since he’s never, ahh, had ham before.”

Tholgrin felt his one remaining eyebrow shoot up.  Tubbs, as his nickname suggested, was a rather portly dwarf, particularly so considering his dedication to monastic arts.  In fact, watching the rotund monk fight typically had the effect of bending one’s brain as the physics simply did not add up;  there was simply no way a dwarf that heavy should be able to execute corkscrewing spin-kicks at all, let alone with the speed and grace he did.  He was a trusted companion, however, in spite of his tendency to overindulge on forbidden meat – In order to keep the body pure, one must never ingest the flesh of another living creature, he said – and then be useless afterwards.  Over the years they had spent in the guild, Uncle Tubbs had worked his way up to be what Tholgrin considered his right-hand man.

He glanced over at what he considered his left-hand man, a Bladeforged paladin assigned the name Aapex Predator at creation.  While more personable than his fellow construct Felldar, Aapex more than lived up to his name and had proven to be a darn-near indestructible death machine on many occasions.  Nobody on board cracked jokes about his name.  Ever.

“So how do you.. er.. use this ham oil that’s supposed to come out of the press?”

Ingestion, of course,” came the mechanical reply.  Tholgrin glanced at the tangled, inter-weaving matrix of blades extending from Aapex’ cheeks, chin, shoulders, and forehead, and left that one alone.  Perhaps Uncle Tubbs had brought a straw..?  He’d leave them to figuring out that mystery on their own.

“Very well, then… carry on, I suppose.”

And with that, he turned and climbed up the series of ladders which led to the outer deck.  After the goings-on below deck in differing degrees of chaos, the bitterly cold wind whipping across the upper deck seemed almost like a sanctuary.

“I’d figured you’d be up here within an hour,” chuckled the figure standing on the railing with his hands clasped behind his back, seemingly impervious to the wind which blew his hair in every direction.

“How’d you know it was me?”  Tholgrin asked, leaning his elbows on the railing next to his younger brother’s foot.  Even though four years separated their ages, they might as well have been twins.  The Forces that Be felt it would even be a bit of ironic divine comedy to see to it that both of them lost their right eyes in combat.

“You should take off that armor, sometime  The noise you make clomping about is like a drunken ox.”

Tholgrin chuckled.  “I’d hate to see what you think of Whall, then.”

“He’s more of an irate hezrou.”

Bholgrin stepped backward and let himself glide through gravity as casually as though he chose whether to fall or not.   While twins in appearance, their paths had diverged somewhat;  Bholgrin had branched off from his calling as a divine warrior to study the monastic ways under Khail Ironfist’s tutelage, and had dabbled in some shady, rogue-ish circles before returning back to his divine roots, bringing back with him all of the strengths of each.

“You’ll never take that armor off, though, will you?” his little brother asked.  The question wasn’t meant in its literal sense;  of course, he took his heavy plate armor off.  It was only on right now as they had just left town and he’d not yet finished his rounds checking on the guild.

“Perhaps someday, when things are more peaceful.”

“You and I both know that will never happen.  Not in our lifetimes.”  Bholgrin’s gaze flicked to the horizon briefly before returning to his brother’s face.  “Perhaps not in several lifetimes.  It’s not healthy to keep it locked inside.”

Tholgrin turned to look eye-to-eye with his sibling, literally.  It took a bit more of a turn than most required, well, most that had both eyes, anyway.  A pained smirk framed his mouth.  “You know, moments like these are why I always thought I’d work alone.”

Bholgrin chuckled.  “And yet, look at you now, taking quite probably one of the most insane crews on yet-another guaranteed-suicide mission to keep the good folks of Xen’drik sleeping warmly in their beds tonight.  As long as Madfinger doesn’t burn out our engine core along the way.  Again.”

“I already yelled at him about that,” he laughed.  “And you’re right.  But it’s the memory that keeps me going.  I don’t know if I can keep up this conviction if I let it go the way you did.”

His brother nodded and glanced up to the clouds streaking past them.  “You know, for a holy warrior, you sure do need to have a little faith every now and then.  Hasn’t it occurred to you that this whole crazy trip – you, me, starting the guild all those years ago, us catching back up with each other, the ever-growing assembly of persons of questionable sanity below decks..”

“What are you getting at?”

“Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that your entire purpose of existence right now is your ultimate test of faith?”

He let his jaw work soundlessly for a few moments, unsure of how to respond to that.  As it often did when sparring with his brother, the blow that stunned him had come clear out of left field.  And as it so often did when sparring with his brother, he would triumph through sheer force of will and tenacity.

“I admit I hadn’t thought of it like that, no.”  He scratched his cheek a little, more out of habit than anything else.  “It’s certainly an interesting theory.  When did you get all wise on me, kiddo?”  He playfully tossed a punch out to his sibling’s shoulder.

“I did spend a decade in a monastery, nimrod.  Ah, well.. enough life-altering revelations for the moment.  I have to go see if Uncle Tubbs’ ham oil experiment worked.”

“You knew about that?”

“Of course.  Everyone did.”  And with a wink, Bholgrin stepped off the edge of the upper deck, letting the wind carry him lazily across the deck until his feet touched down at the door to the lower decks.

Tholgrin watched as his brother disappeared, idly wondering if spending ten years as a monk would be worth it just for some of the tricks his associates had.  Turning his gaze to the horizon, he chuckled to himself.

As if the horrors plaguing the world would let him be for ten years, or even ten days, at that.  And he didn’t trust anyone else to keep this rag-tag bunch of borderline lunatics in check but himself.

No, it was another day of business as usual for Full Moon Fury.  As the endless ocean streaked past, far below him, he couldn’t help but hope this particular task kept the whole “dabbling with extraplanar deities” thing to a minimum.

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