20

The Iron Whalefish

“Here-grab the ring,” cried Kerrick, splashing through the water, seizing one of the flotation rings that had bobbed to the surface. Moreen kicked over to him, gasping, teeth chattering, as she seized the flotation ring. Randall was nearby, clinging to a buoyant crate, looking around curiously as the deep sea swells lifted and dipped.

“Where’s Strongwind?” shouted the elf.

“Over there,” Moreen said, gesturing with a flailing hand. “I saw him a minute ago.”

Randall let go of his crate, swam toward the place where his king had disappeared. In the next instant Strongwind Whalebone surfaced with a great splash, treading water and gasping for breath. Kerrick saw that he had the hilt of his great weapon clutched in his hand.

“Almost lost my sword,” the king explained with a groan, gratefully slinging an arm over the crate Randall pushed to his side.

“What happened?” asked the chiefwoman. Her face was shockingly pale, her lips blue and trembling.

“We hit something. Cutter’s gone,” Kerrick replied, numb and disbelieving. Only then did the reality sink in: His beloved boat, all his gold, everything that mattered, was lost at the bottom of the sea. He sagged in the icy water, too weary to do anything but acknowledge defeat. The fatigue was insidious, a voice whispering in his ear. Just relax, sink back, descend into the inviting sea. It would be so easy to join his boat in the depths of these icy waters.

Vaguely he remembered the lockbox, still clutched in his hand. It startled him out of his lethargy. He remembered the powerful instinct that had driven him to dive after it, to rescue the ring, of all his possessions, from the fate of his doomed boat. He must have saved it for some reason.

“Something hit us, I’d say,” Randall corrected, kicking his feet, pushing closer to the others, with Strong-wind swimming behind. “I’d like to know what it was.”

“Does it matter?” Kerrick treaded water listlessly as the sea swell lifted and lowered him. “It has ruined our plans, sure as any ogre galley.” He looked at Moreen, wanting to say something to apologize. He wanted to express his sorrow, his guilt, but already the cold was suffusing his mind, thickening his thoughts, slowing his tongue.

He barely noticed Randall splash past, the berserker kicking with surprisingly strong strokes. Following him with his eyes, the elf noticed a round, smooth shape breaking the surface of the water. His first thought was that Cutter had rolled over, that he was looking at a section of hull, but vaguely he knew that wasn’t right. The thing was too smooth, shiny, and shaped somewhat differently.

“It’s metal!” cried Randall, who had reached the object and smacked it with his fist, producing a dull clang. He reached, trying to pull himself up, but couldn’t find a hold.

“That’s what sank our boat,” Strongwind declared, swimming awkwardly toward the round silver thing, for he still grasped his great sword.

Moreen barely had any strength left, so Kerrick grabbed the life ring that she clutched, and towed her with him, sidestroking toward the strange object. Randall and Strongwind found a set of rungs and used them to pull themselves free of the water. Randall stood up, while the king knelt and probed at the metallic surface with his sword. The elf pushed Moreen before him, and the two Highlanders pulled her to safety. He climbed after.

They were all soaked and shivering, drawing precious little heat from the summer sun, but at least they were out of the freezing water. The elf rolled up on his knees.

He heard a loud clang and looked up to see that some kind of trapdoor had abruptly flipped open from the center of the metal tube. A head, the face obscured by a bristly white beard, popped into view.

“Hey!” cried the stranger in an angry squawk. “Get off of my Whalefish!”

Kerrick stood in a dark compartment, shivering and dripping. Moreen was seated next to him, wrapped in a blanket that Randall had borrowed over the furious, sputtering protests of the same disgruntled gnome who had accused them of trespassing on his Whalefish. The irascible fellow had condemned them vociferously until Strongwind placed the tip of his long sword at his throat. The four castaways had pushed their way through the trapdoor and down into what seemed to be a very clammy and constricted metal tube. Kerrick had to bend his neck to stand, while the strapping king elected to squat uncomfortably, after banging his forehead on several obstacles.

An oil lantern cast a dim glow over the scene, illuminating an array of pipes and valves, as well as the furious expression of the gnome. He stood barely waist high to the elf and humans but was apparently fearless as he resumed barking at them.

“What kind of manners do you have? Barbarians, pirates-that’s what you are! Forcing your way into my Whalefish! Why, I have a good mind-”

“You’ll shut up, if you have any kind of a mind at all!” snapped Kerrick. “What do you mean by sinking my boat? You’re lucky I don’t tie an anchor to your feet and send you straight to the bottom of the sea!”

“I–I didn’t sink anything!” retorted the gnome. “If you can’t build a hull that will float, then it’s pretty foolish of you to go sailing about on these deep waters! I should think you’d count yourself lucky-”

Kerrick seized the gnome by his long beard and leaned close, staring into watery blue eyes.

“Cutter was built by my father, and carried me along the coast of Ansalon and across the Courrain Ocean. She was going to take me home again, too-and she would have, if your god-cursed Whalefish hadn’t rammed her and cut her in two!”

The gnome spluttered something else but couldn’t articulate his words because Kerrick was pulling his beard upward, lifting the little fellow a few inches off the deck.

“Who are you anyway? What is this strange thing?” Moreen’s voice, calm and forceful, cut through the commotion. Shaking his head, Kerrick relaxed his grip. The gnome pulled away, darting behind a small table. He regarded the trio with wide, accusing eyes.

“This is my Whalefish,” he finally said, with an unmistakable pride. “A submersible boat of my own invention, powered by steam, and unique in the annals of Krynn’s seafarers-as far as I know-though it is my sincere hope that, someday, undersea travel inspired by my design will be commonplace across the oceans and seas of our world. I am her master, Captain Pneumatic-operationspressurefitterandchydraulicmakerwelderex-traordinairephilosoph-”

“We will call you Captain Pneumo,” Kerrick interrupted quickly, having had enough experience with gnome appellations to realize that the recitation of the name would likely have continued through the better part of the next three days. “Are you claiming that you didn’t sink my sailboat intentionally?”

“Well, yes, I am… that is, if you’re certain I did sink it!”

“Quite certain,” Randall said. “I spotted that sliver blade on the bow of your, er, submersible. It swam through the water, then cut right through our boat. Sent her straight down, more’s the pity.” He looked at Kerrick with genuine sympathy. “She was a beautiful vessel, she was,” he declared.

“I assure you, that was not my intent!” Pneumo declared, coming out from behind the galley table. “You see, there are still a few, not exactly flaws but, well, unexpected wrinkles in Whalefish’s design. Such as, it’s rather difficult for me to see where I’m going. But I can always get there at very high speed!” he added.

Kerrick glanced around the narrow, tube-shaped hull. There were compartments fore and aft, both secured behind metal hatches. The air was surprisingly warm and very humid, smelling faintly of coal smoke and steam. A dull roar of sound emerged from-he guessed it was the stern, though he couldn’t really be certain-somewhere.

“Do you operate this… thing:”-Kerrick couldn’t think of it as a boat-“by yourself?”

“No! I have a crew. Steady loyal sailors, both of them. Divid! Terac!” called the gnome, his voice a piercing screech.

A hatch opened, revealing a narrow compartment in the direction Kerrick guessed was the stern. A billow of black smoke emerged, followed by two rotund figures who tumbled through the hatch, then scrambled to stand at attention.

“Close the hatch!” demanded the gnome, and one of the sailors immediately lunged back through the passageway while the other slammed the door shut, turning to rub a grimy fist against his soot-covered eyes.

“This is Divid,” explained the captain, drawing a deep breath as the other crewman came back through the hatch, releasing another cloud of smoke before he shut the door behind him. “And Terac.”

The two small figures stood in the shadows. At first Kerrick thought they were more gnomes, but as his eyes adjusted he noted the weak chins, barely covered with peachfuzz beards, and wide, staring eyes. Terac’s jaw hung slackly, allowing a trickle of drool to dribble from his mouth, while Divid had a finger buried past the first knuckle within a great beak of a nose.

“Gully dwarves? Your crew is gully dwarves?”

“They work very hard, mostly, and they come cheap,” Pneumo declared proudly.

Before Kerrick could say anything else, Whalefish suddenly angled sharply downward. A great stream of icy water spilled through the still-open hatch atop the hull, and the elf had the sickening sensation, once again, of a deck dropping away beneath him, starting a plunge that seemed likely to carry them all to the bottom of the sea.

“The elf is coming! For all we know, he’s here already! We have to be prepared, guard against…” Grimwar stalked around the great hall of Dracoheim Castle, bellowing wildly in alarm. Only when he heard the echo of his voice coming back to him did he realize he didn’t know what to say, what the real danger was.

“Guard against what?” testily demanded Stariz, who was still out of breath after the hasty climb up from the harbor. Goldwing had arrived in port barely a half hour ago. She stomped over to the hearth, held her hands out to soak up the warmth from the glowing embers. “We managed to beat him here. What do you think he can do against all your soldiers?”

“Yes, my son. What exactly are you worried about?” Hanna’s voice was maddeningly calm, but the fact that she echoed his wife’s irritating question was like a second knife in Grimwar Bane’s guts. He leaned back and roared his frustration at the vaulted ceiling, while the two ogresses waited with infuriating patience for him to regain his composure.

“Reports! I need reports, from all around the island! These are still the days of the midnight sun. He cannot bring that boat into shore under the cover of darkness. When there is fog I want guards standing shoulder to shoulder, every place he could land! I need trusted ogres watching every inch of our shoreline, alert for any sign of that cursed boat.”

“We have watchmen out now,” Hanna said, “regular patrols around the whole island. We can increase the number, but my son, he is one elf, with only a few companions. It would have been good if you captured him at sea, but I don’t see how he represents a serious threat.”

Grimwar growled. His mother was right, of course. What could one elf and a few of his friends do? Still, he had a gut feeling that something was amiss.

There was a staccato rap on the heavy door.

“Who is it?” demanded the king, spinning on his heel to glare at the entryway.

The door was already open, and the Alchemist was halfway across the great hall. In another second he had reached the trio and was bowing to the king.

Grimwar blinked, nonplussed by the fellow’s surprising quickness. Even as he was standing still he seemed to be quivering, ready to bolt in any direction.

“I came to report on the status of the orb,” the Alchemist stated quickly, barely drawing breath. “The components will be assembled and purified by the end of the day-and by tomorrow morning I will have them inside the orb, and I will be ready to melt the bead of gold around the rim, to seal it. After that, it will be ready for use.”

The king nodded, as though distracted, whereas the newcomer had actually helped to focus his thoughts. He pointed at the Alchemist and spoke to the two ogresses.

“He is coming here to stop the Alchemist,” Grimwar Bane declared firmly. He waited tensely, half-expecting his wife or his mother to mock his statement. To his surprise, they looked at each other, eyes widening in understanding.

“Oh, you are right,” said Stariz in a genuinely awed voice. “Your insight is keen, my lord. Indeed, that is the only explanation that makes sense.” She looked at the slight, trembling figure and nodded in appraisal. “He seeks to stop you-kill or cripple or capture you, somehow.”

“But I don’t understand,” declared the now twice as jittery Alchemist. “Why would this person you speak of try to do that? Why should I fear him? What is this all about?”

“You should fear him,” Grimwar Bane said in cold triumph, utterly certain now. “Because he, too, is an elf!”

“The hatch!” cried Kerrick, lunging past the flailing gnome. He clawed his way up the small ladder, fighting the force of rushing water until he found the handle on the inside of the trapdoor. He wrenched it down, and the water pressure helped slam it shut, though the elf was knocked down the ladder and sent sprawling on the metal deck.

Captain Pneumo rushed past him, scrambling up the ladder to turn a metal valve that apparently cinched the hatch in place. Water ceased to spill down the hatchway, but the deck was still angled steeply downward. Something barreled into Kerrick, sending him sprawling into a tangle of metal pipes, and he realized that one of the gully dwarves-Terac, it looked like-had bowled into him.

Light flared as Pneumo adjusted the flame on a wildly swinging lantern. Kerrick coughed, breathing steamy fumes, then blinked as he saw the gully dwarf dive headfirst into the water churning in the downward-pointed bow.

“More fire!” cried the gnome. “Feed the boilers! Scoop the gold! Plunge the ballast! Strike the vanes-no, strike the ballast and plunge the vanes!” The bearded captain seized a great hammer and raced away from Kerrick, pulling open the constricted hatchway leading into the stern. The other gully dwarf, Divid, remained amidships, spinning some of the bewildering array of valves. If the little fellow knew what he was doing, his frantic gestures gave no clue.

Kerrick raced after Pneumo, using his hands to pull himself up the steeply canted deck. He cast a glance behind, saw there was no sign of Terac in the water churning in the bow. Strongwind had found a rope from somewhere and was headed in that direction, Moreen at his side. Randall, his expression almost bemused, trailed the elf.

Cracking his head on a low bulkhead, Kerrick cursed, then reached for a handhold that turned out to be a scalding hot pipe. Only Randall’s strong hands against his back prevented him from falling, but quickly the elf recovered his balance and continued to move upward, scrambling toward the rear of the seemingly plummeting Whalefish.

He found Pneumo in a large chamber that was illuminated by red light spilling from the open door of a boiler. The gnome was frantically pitching chunks of coal into the furnace, releasing thick smoke that brought tears to Kerrick’s eyes. He blinked, saw familiar brightness shining among the sooty black, and realized that there were nuggets of pure gold mingled with the fuel.

“That valve!” shrieked the gnome captain, pointing to a great, spoked wheel as the elf drew near. “Turn it-we need more pressure!”

“Which way?” Kerrick asked, taking the metal rim in his hands. The surface was warm, slick, and oily, but he felt it budge under the pressure of his grip.

“How should I know?” demanded the gnome, still pitching gold-laced coal into his boiler. “Just turn it!”

Kerrick gave the valve a hard twist, and immediately a gout of steam exploded from an unseen vent. The eruption blasted Pneumo away from the boiler, sent him tumbling across the narrow, cylindrical chamber.

“Not that way!” shrieked the gnome.

Reversing the direction of spin, Kerrick opened the valve, feeling a thrum of power as steam somehow hissed through the system of pipes. Randall, meanwhile, slammed the door of the boiler shut, leaving the room in an eerie darkness split by the crimson glow of several glass panels around the boiler. The Highlander pulled the sputtering gnome to his feet and brushed him off.

“You lost a little hair, fella, but you’ll be okay,” he said.

“The vanes! We have to turn the vanes!” cried Pneumo, breaking away, racing back the way he had come, down the steeply tilted deck.

“Vanes?” Kerrick repeated, trying unsuccessfully to imagine what the gnome was talking about.

“I’ll tend the fire here,” Randall offered. “See if you can help.”

The elf lunged after Pneumo, sliding down the sloping passage, ducking under the bulkhead to find himself back in the Whalefish’s lamp-lit central compartment. Despite his initial impression of a tightly cramped space, after the hellish confines of the boiler room this now seemed to Kerrick like a spacious cabin.

Water still sloshed in the forward section of the submersible, and he spotted Moreen and Strongwind, holding their rope, staring futilely into the murky liquid. The chiefwoman caught his eye when he entered and shook her head.

“No sign of the other little one,” she said grimly.

Pneumo, meanwhile, had seized a crank mounted high on the bulkhead and was kicking and straining to try to turn it. The mechanism, so far at least, seemed unyielding. Kerrick suspected this was one of the “vanes” that must be turned, and as he advanced to help he spotted a similar apparatus on the opposite side. He went to that one and gave the handle a pull.

He got it down a few inches, against tremendous pressure, but found it would move no farther. Pneumo was jumping up and down, tugging on the handle but having no visible success with the crank.

“What do the vanes do?” Kerrick asked, shouting, then wincing in surprise as his voice boomed and echoed though the narrow hull.

“Point us up-or down!” shrilled the gnome. “Now, they’re steering us to the bottom!”

Frantically the elf tugged at the mechanism, but he couldn’t get the crank to move much. When he loosened his hold to adjust his grip, the pressure on the vane spun the handle back to its starting position.

“More power!” screamed the gnome, bouncing up and down as he tried, still without success, to rotate his own handle. “Feed the boilers! Drive the propeller!”

Kerrick suddenly halted, went to the gnome, and wrenched him away. He shook Pneumo by the shoulders, kneeling to stare the captain in his wide, watery eyes.

“You say the vanes are steering us downward?” he demanded.

The gnome gave a frantic affirmative nod.

“Then why do you want more power?” cried the elf. “Won’t that drive us down-faster?”

Pneumo opened his mouth, beard bristling, eyes bulging. Abruptly he clamped his lips together and nodded. “Right,” he said. He shouted toward the stern. “Less power! Starve the boilers! Stop the propeller!”

Leaving the gnome, Kerrick scrambled back to the boiler room to find Randall awaiting him expectantly. The elf went to the large valve he had opened scarce minutes earlier and quickly wheeled it shut. The plunging momentum of the boat slowed perceptibly.

Back in the control room, Moreen and Strongwind were hauling a blue-faced Terac up from the flooded bow section. The gully dwarf spewed a great lungful of water, coughed, and retched but looked as if he would be all right.

Only then did Kerrick notice the water spilling along the deck, draining from the bow as the boat, recovering from its headlong dive, gradually leveled out. Slowly they floated upward. A pair of thick crystal panels revealed the increasing illumination of the water as they ascended through indigo, blue, and soft emerald depths. The light continued to grow until, long minutes later, the Whalefish popped to the surface, and the glass panel brightened with the almost forgotten light of the wonderful sun.

“We need more gold,” Pneumo announced, after he had inspected his metal watercraft. “That’s the only thing that will power the boilers enough to get us out to sea.”

“Gold? You burn gold?” asked the elf, incredulous.

“Yup. Otherwise, the smoke infects the fish, and we can’t eat any, and we all die,” the gnome explained.

“Even gully dwarves, who can eat just about anything.” He lowered his voice to a whisper, leaning away from Divid and Terac, who were gobbling some vile porridge at the galley table. “They’re my third crew. The first two pairs, well, let’s just say that it wasn’t pleasant.”

“Where did you get them?” Kerrick asked.

“Why, Dracoheim, naturally. There’s lots of ’em living under the mountain there, and they make good, loyal crewmen.” Pneumo lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper. “Dumb as two lumps of bricks, of course.”

“You’ve been to Dracoheim?” Kerrick should his head in amazement. He had a hard time believing this was all happening, but his bruises and burns-and the memory of his beloved sailboat’s loss-convinced him that the experience was real. “And gold? You burn gold in your engine? How do you get that?” he demanded.

Pneumo looked at him as if he was a stubborn student who simply refused to learn. “Why, where else would you go if you needed gold? Dracoheim, of course!”

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