Shaundar and Yathar stood with Sylria on Queenie’s Castle Deck, smoking cigars together. They’d stopped smoking pipes because it was just too time consuming to load and light, and a waste of perfectly good tobacco if they were suddenly called into action, which happened more and more frequently. The cigars were cheap and slightly sour – the best they could generally do on their Lieutenant’s pay – but Shaundar was becoming almost affectionately attached to them.
Supply lines were becoming more strained, too. Occasionally, the alu’quesst ration was being supplemented with the human creation of grog. Shaundar was not fond of it and generally chose not to have his allotted taut when that was what was available. But he didn’t complain. Nobody did. That was just what there was.
They were in orbit around the Karpri space station, along with the burnt-out hulks of a Scorpion and an Ogre Mammoth, and a Hammership that was technically a prize but would likely be pressed into Navy service, depriving them of their shares. The prisoners – survivors, is more like it, Shaundar thought privately – were few enough to be kept comfortably in the Hammership’s hold. They had been exceptionally meek. This was making the Matey jumpy, but Shaundar had no doubt that it was no act.
The Karpri station showed recent signs of battle to go with its ancient scars from when the illithid had destroyed it just after the First Unhuman War. Shaundar felt badly for it. The starfly plants that comprised it seemed deeply saddened. Or maybe he was just being maudlin. He was not sure what had possessed the scro to decide to take it. Surely they must have guessed that there would be a reason that the elves had not used it themselves, now that war had returned to Realmspace?
The Queen’s Dirk had been sent to stop them, and stop them they had, but by the time they had arrived, the enemy had already landed and all hands not actively manning the helm were forced to become a boarding party. Shaundar shook his head to banish yesterday’s images of screaming and blood from his mind. Ship battles could be brutal but they were rarely so personal. He wondered how Yathar managed it, being a marine.
Shaundar had killed his first sentient creature face-to-face yesterday. He remembered it clearly; shouting and chaos all around him, the smell of blood, a huge scro roaring, bearing down on him with an axe, close enough that Shaundar could smell his sweat. He had not even thought; he’d extended his hand and incanted the appropriate formula, and five green bolts of death had exploded in the scro’s face. He had actually flown backwards into his fellows, his charge completely arrested, and the agony in his eyes was not something Shaundar thought he would ever forget. They were blue, those eyes; blue like his own. Shaundar had seen the body later as they were cleaning up the mess of broken people, body parts, and blood; blood everywhere, blood on the floor in pools and dripping from the walls, the ceiling, even each other. It was hard to read orcish expressions because the tusks seemed to change the way their jaws moved, but he was reasonably certain that his foe’s last expression was one of horror.
They’d been outnumbered when they arrived, Queenie’s crew; but the base was not unmanned, contrary to Lionheart Command’s beliefs. After Shaundar had blasted the scro who had charged him, the fighting became too close for spells and he had drawn one of his short swords; but that’s when reinforcements had arrived. They were elves, but they were entirely transparent. They came out of the walls and the ceiling and the floor, and none of the blood stuck to them. They wore the uniforms of 400 years past and they looked pretty pissed off. They had turned the tide of the battle decisively in elven favour, and it was simply a slaughter after that, with the goblinoids and their commanders running and screaming like terrified children as the ghosts cut them down. But that was why Queenie’s crew were still in orbit and not inside the station.
They didn’t bother Shaundar the way they seemed to bother everyone else. Their presence did seem to chill the air around them slightly but they had not harmed any of the elves of their crew at all. A woman who resembled his grandmother slightly had smiled kindly at him before vanishing into vapour. He was sad for her, that she was still here when her physical body had obviously been gone for a long time. He wanted to go back over to the space station and speak with the elven spirits there; to ask them why they had chosen to remain, and to urge them to allow Sehanine to guide them on to Arvandor; but the Captain had forbidden it. So instead he stood on Queenie’s deck smoking, and thought about them.
There were seven new ghosts among the Karpri crew; at least, if the spirits of the dead stayed drawn here. Seven of their crewmates had been killed. That’s why they were loafing about on the deck; they’d just finished the funeral, just “committed their bodies to the Void, their spirits to be guided home to Arvandor by Sehanine; where they would hang their swords on the Tree of Swords and Jewels, and rest at last.” One of them, a gunner named Laranna, was a good friend of Tyelatae’s and Shaundar was not looking forward to the letter he was going to write to her about it. Two were Jasali and Lynes, and they were Marines. Laranna had died from a lucky shot to their fore-mounted ballista as they had made their screaming fast approach to the station, and the Marines had been killed in the initial assault, as they had fireballed their way into the barred doors of the station. The orcs had some kind of bombard on a rolling platform, and the stone or shell it had thrown had simply disintegrated the Marines leading the attack. Yathar had been covered in the blood and bits of his companions, only moments behind them, and only because he’d helped fireball the door open. That was the first and last shot the contraption managed to fire off; Yathar’s fury had made sure that its crew would never get another chance.
Tarna from the sail crew had been impaled by a goblin with a pike. So had Sylria, but her wound was not a fatal one; just an inconvenient hole in her shoulder which forced her to sling up her arm. Tishana had been squashed like an overripe pumpkin by an ogre’s warhammer. Shaundar had actually witnessed that one, and the thought of it was still making him shudder. The same thing had almost happened to Yathar, but his bladesinger’s reflexes had saved his life and ended with the ogre bleeding to death from a thousand cuts. The other two dead were brand new crewmates, elves whose names Shaundar didn’t even have time to learn.
He scratched absently at his war injury, an almost embarrassing stab wound in his upper thigh, courtesy of a sly kobold’s dagger. One inch lower and he would have bled out from his femoral artery. One inch higher and he would have been gelded. Magic missiles from Shaundar’s hand had ended the kobold’s life too.
Shaundar didn’t want to tell Yathar, but he had not slept much last night.
Karpri was a water world. Its beauty was so legendary that artists travelled from every imaginable port of call just to paint it. Shaundar thought privately that from up here, it looked like a giant aquamarine. The polar ice caps and the green of the equatorial region created a banding effect in the jewel, but you could still see the shadows of large astronomical bodies’ right through its luminescent translucence. The elven population of Karpri that the base had been created to protect hundreds of years ago were Alu’Tel’Quessir, sea elves, making their homes in the pure turquoise waters. Shaundar was touched by its transcendent beauty, made all the more poignant by the horror he had witnessed yesterday, and he sincerely hoped that the sacrifice was worth it.
– from A Few Good Elves (Toy Soldier Saga book 1).
Diane Morrison (Sable Aradia) is a non-fiction and speculative fiction author. Her first National Novel Writing Month project was the Spelljammer novel A Few Good Elves (self-published to e-book format 2012). Her related short story, “Survivor,” was published in the August 2013 issue of Separate Worlds magazine, and her first non-fiction book, The Witch’s Eight Paths of Power was published by Red Wheel / Weiser on Sept. 1. Catch up on her ongoing Spelljammer novel series, the Toy Soldier Saga, at her website.