Weal or Woe (Book Excerpt)

Shaundar trained his glass on the approaching vessels; and then he saw something that froze his blood in his veins.  He uttered a curse that would have blistered paint.  “Bring ‘er about!  Get us out of here!   Max tactical!” he howled, limping over to the mainsail to begin tacking.  “Dammit, Trevan!  Grimmauld!  Help me!”

Trevan just stared at him for a few long moments.  “Have you gone completely insane?!” he exploded at last.  “How are we going to get rescued if we run away?”

“That’s no rescuer,” he moaned.  “They’re flying the flag of the illithid.  Mind flayers!”

“Damn,” murmured the dwarf with a stricken look; then he started lending Shaundar a hand with the mainsail.  Yathar shot the Dragonfly into reverse and began the turn.  Shaundar could hear him swearing in a steady streak of vitriol, though he couldn’t precisely make out the words.

It was too late.  The illithid-occupied ship gained on them rapidly, and when they finally got turned around, a warning shot was released from their catapults across the little Dragonfly’s bow.  They had no weapons to return fire with and the message was unmistakeable.

All the strength left Shaundar’s legs and he sank to the deck.  There was nothing else to be done.  “Stand down,” he commanded.  “All hands stand down.  Sylria, run up the white flag.”

She looked at him with eyes utterly devoid of hope.  “Av, quessir,” she whispered, and she pulled down the distress flags and ran the white cloth into the sky.

“What are illithid?” asked Marina quietly.

“Squid-faced aliens who think all demihumans look like slaves or dinner,” Grimmauld groaned bluntly.

As the two ships closed the distance, Shaundar could now see that there were purplish and maroon-coloured, cephalopod-headed aliens in robes moving among the humans on the Squidship.  Well, he supposed they might have been half-elves too; their heights and builds were about human-sized.  As directed by signal flags, the Dragonfly came up on the Squidship’s starboard side and moored up.  The mind flayers waggled their tentacles greedily.

Two of the illithid boarded the Dragonfly while their human servants looked on with glassy, stunned expressions.  One of them squinted and then Trevan staggered backwards clutching his skull.  It reached for him eagerly and grasped his head with its tentacles.

Shaundar began chanting to summon magic missiles, but before he could complete the evocation, the other mind flayer flexed its tentacles and it felt roughly as though someone had tried to crush his head with a sledgehammer.  He reeled and fell on his rump.  Then he felt, for a moment, the loveliest sensation; as though if he just let go, all of his problems would go away and someone else would take responsibility for all of this.  It was like he was floating away gently on a cloud.  He shook it off, knowing that it couldn’t be at all good in this situation, and the illithid seemed to draw back from him a moment, as though in surprise.

Trevan produced one of the sharp kitchen knives from somewhere.  Shaundar supposed that he had picked it up for insurance, just as he had.  Trevan thrust it viciously into the torso of the illithid attacking him, but it did him no good.  Purplish blood stained the front of its robe, but the mind flayer already had its tentacles firmly around Trevan’s skull and two of them began to borrow into his temples and it literally sucked Trevan’s brain out and into its lamprey-like maw.  Trevan screamed in agony.  Someone on the Dragonfly shrieked with him.  Shaundar looked away.

“You are a wizard?” asked the illithid in a mind-voice that sounded watery and strange.  It seemed to Shaundar like it was in Espruar but he didn’t think it actually was.

Avavaen,” he replied.

“We need wizards”, it informed him.  “You will come with us and pilot this ship’s helm.”

“No,” said Shaundar.

He could swear that the illithid looked surprised.  Its eyebrow ridges raised and its pale white eyes seemed to widen.  “No?” it repeated in a telepathic echo.

“That’s right,” Shaundar confirmed.  “No, I won’t help you.  I have no reason to help you.”

“Your life is a good reason to help us,” it pointed out smugly.

Shaundar grinned in a manner that was more like bearing his teeth.  “Not enough,” he growled.  “You just randomly killed one of my crew.  I have no assurance that you won’t just do the same to the rest of us, especially once we get you wherever you’re going.”

“We could force you to obey with our psi,” it reasoned.

“I don’t believe you,” Shaundar denied waspishly.  “I think you just tried that, and failed.”

“We could kill you now,” its companion suggested.  Trevan’s body lay on the deck with a look of stunned horror frozen on his face.

“Then get on with it,” Shaundar snapped.  “I have nothing to lose.”

“Are any of the rest of you wizards?” the first illithid inquired of the crew of the Dragonfly.

“Yes,” Sylria confessed, “but we won’t help you either without his say-so.”  She folded her toothpick-thin arms and glared at them angrily.  Before long the illithid were confronted with a sea of stony faces.

“What do you want?” demanded the mind flayers at last.

Shaundar knew that he had won the stand-off.  “You can’t eat any of my crew,” he told them firmly.  “You let them go free at the first free port we reach, and in return I, Sylria and Yathar will pilot you wherever you need to go.”

“Cap’n, what are you doing?” whispered Grimmauld; but Sylria was just nodding grimly.

“Furthermore,” he added, “no mind control or I swear that as soon as I get my mind back I will blast everything that I see and then trash the helm entirely.  Beside the point,” he smirked, “that’s not in your best interests anyway.  If I don’t have full control of my faculties, I won’t be able to pilot properly.”  He folded his arms and waited for them to decide.  He determined that if they did not agree, he was ready to find out what Arvandor was like for himself.

They turned towards each other and waggled their tentacles.  Shaundar had the impression that they were silently discussing the situation and his demands.  “Oh, one more thing,” added Shaundar, almost as an afterthought.  The aliens turned their octopus gazes in his direction.  “You have to include all of my crew in proper food and water rations for humanoids.”  He recalled someone – it might have been Uncle Madrimlian – cautioning him that illithid would hold to the precise letter of any agreement, so if he had to negotiate with them, be sure he clarified everything.  “In return, they will work just like any other crew member.  But no mind control, not on them.”

“You are very demanding for someone in your position,” one of them remarked sourly.

“Like I said,” Shaundar sneered, “I have nothing to lose.”

“All right,” the other one assented.  “We agree to your terms, elf.  Now come aboard.”

And they did.  The damaged Dragonfly was abandoned but it was stripped for supplies first.  Mostly they just took the water, the gunpowder and the ammunition.

Shaundar had wondered why in the world mind flayers needed mages.  As far as he understood it, they had their own helms, designed by the mysterious Arcane, which took advantage of their innate psionic talents.  But the answer was soon evident.  Apparently, there had been a clash between the Nautiloid belonging to the illithid and the Squidship that had belonged to the human slaves.  Who had started it was unclear, though Shaundar guessed it was likely the mind flayers, looking for food.  The Nautiloid had not been badly damaged in the conflict but a lucky shot had taken out its psionic helm.  The Squidship and its helm were still functional, but the illithid had no mages, or clerics, for that matter, and therefore, they had no ability to pilot it.

There was one spelljammer still alive from the original crew, and when Shaundar came down to relieve her, he could see that she was falling-down exhausted.  She was a human woman with long coppery hair who might have been attractive, were she not as thin as an elf and glassy-eyed with the blank stare of someone who was sleepwalking.  “The cavalry has arrived,” he joked; and he was reasonably certain that his Common Tongue was correct, even with his elven accent, but she did not even look at him.

Shaundar pinched his mouth in a thin line.  He turned to the illithid who had followed him.  “You’re going to have to stop the ship and direct her to stand down the helm before I can take over,” he informed his new captor.  “I can do a moving transfer but not if the other pilot can’t.”

It looked with its strange pale, pupiless eyes at the woman.  She jolted as if shocked.  Then the ship slowed to a halt and she stood up jerkily from the helm, as though she were a construct.

Shaundar clasped the woman’s shoulder with one hand as he took the helm, but she did not respond at all.  Immediately he felt the aching pains and bruises of the Squidship.  Its most serious damage felt like broken ribs, which likely represented significant damage to the starboard hull, so he was reasonably sure that the illithid were aware of that.  But once he had taken the helm, he met the mind flayer’s alien gaze steadily and did not move.

“What?” it demanded.  The woman stood at his side, not patiently, but more like a wind-up toy waiting for someone to turn the key.  Shaundar saw with revulsion that she was drooling.

“First, we eat,” he informed the mind flayer firmly.  “Then we fly.”  He began to rustle through the papers scattered over the spelljammer’s table.  Ah, star charts of the sphere, written in Common.  He could read Common.  He fished one out and studied it.  Well, based on the markers that indicated their current position, it looked like it was, indeed, Ironpiece that they had been chasing, and that they were steering for the right heading after all.  They were off maybe four hours from Sylria’s calculations.  Not that it mattered now.

Shaundar felt that floating-balloon sensation in his head again.  In a rage he slammed his hand down on the spelljammer’s table hard enough to smash it into three pieces that clattered when they hit the floor.  Star charts flew like oversized leaves.  “No!” he roared.  “We have an agreement.  Do that to me and I’ll be useless – like her.”  He nodded in the direction of the living zombie who had once been a human woman.  “And if you don’t get us some food imminently,” he added in rough, but controlled, tones, “I am likely to pass out at the helm and then you’ll have a real problem.”  It was true.  He could feel his consciousness ebbing into black spots with the effort of this exertion.

The illithid left the helm room.  And a few moments later a glazed-looking human boy who had to be about Shaundar’s equivalent age brought a pot of steaming hot soup and bowls.

Shaundar never did know what was in that soup.  He didn’t dare to ask.  But frankly, he would not have cared at that moment in time if it had been cream of elf ear.  He smelled it coming from outside the door.  He started to drool as helplessly as the pilot he had replaced.  His hand shook so badly when he was handed the first bowl that he dumped about half of it onto his lap before he was able to get it to his mouth.  It burned his legs and his tongue but he didn’t care.  Tears ran freely from his eyes as he dipped his bowl in the pot for a second helping.  His former crew were all gathered around him drinking soup themselves and weeping helplessly.  “Thank you, Shaundar,” whispered Marina; and a chorus of thanks ensued.  Shaundar wasn’t really sure what they were thanking him for.

When the soup was gone, Shaundar turned to the illithid and asked, “All right, what’s my heading?”

The mind flayer told him.  Shaundar requested the charts that he had spilled to the floor and examined them, and with Sylria’s aid he triangulated their position and the coordinates he had been given.  His eyes widened.  He had heard of their destination.

– from A Few Good Elves (Toy Soldier Saga book 1).

Diane MorrisonDiane 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.

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