The wind was pushing us on, filling the sail of the small cutter well. Ahead of us, craggy rocks of rusty red poked just above the foaming waves. I was holding on to the railing and casting nervous glances forwards.
“Do not worry, architect,” Beredalion had come to my side without me noticing. “Yohannon is an excellent pilot, I fully trust him.”
I tried to take this as a source of confidence, but I could not help but notice that Beredalion himself was digging his own claws into the wood of the railing. I averted my eyes and turned back forward. To evade a shallow reef, the ship leaned starboard into an arc, the mast tilted over with a worrying speed, but the crolachan youth held on to the very top with ease, using only rope loops hanging as holds for feet and hand. He looked out over the sea ahead and shouted instructions to the helmsman.
The ship leaned port, away from a spot where I saw a single wave curl and foam just moments before we passed it by. A dark spot beneath the water told me, that it would have been an ugly encounter for all of us.
The dark cone of Mount Proxilus came barely any closer as we zigzagged between shallow reefs, craggy rocks and bubbling spots. Off in the distance I saw a sudden water spout explode upwards. Beredalion noticed my interest. “That must have been a crusher.” While looking to the water slowly raining back onto the surface. “Sometimes, bulges or reefs simply collapse inward. It creates a suction like pushing an empty bowl into a bucket of water. If you’re not sucked in and crushed by the water masses pouring down from all sides, you’re most likely capsized by the spout and backwash.”
“How does the lookout recognize them?”
“He doesn't. It’s a matter of knowing. The rocks that collapse inwards often rise fairly quickly, we call them shoots. If you don’t know where the latest shoots are, you might just as well head for the reefs. Or you have a soothsinger with you who is in good standing with the elemental spirits that swarm around here like sparks around a fire.”
The Professor had joined our little chat at the railing and decided to turn it into a lecture. “Ah yes, the crushers. They form when hot magma keeps pushing upwards from the sea floor only to then loose pressure again. The liquid rock below sinks back down and leaves the cold outer shell hollow.”
Beredalion nodded. “I heard that before, but to be honest, of it doesn’t help me find them, it might as well be pixies that create them for all I care.”
The Professor was not yet done gracing us with his knowledge. “Normally, no fissure could stay open and bubbling as long as the furrow of flames does, but then again, it is just one link in a chain of most unusual natural phenomena. The opportunity to get closer to these fissures through a possibly empty volcano is a once in a lifetime occurrence, Havellan. We are going to make history in that mountain.”
I tried sharing the Professor’s enthusiasm, but matter how much the Professor and Beredalion tried to assuage my fears, I could not shake the feeling that we could not see the real danger just yet. It was maybe my service under Major Colonel Corbula that had taught me to be aware of danger I could not yet think of. While Beredalion showed the Professor the different signs of volcanic activity, I walked over to the ship’s portside railing. There stood Anne-Liese, who still honoured me with little attention. She too looked over the sea, watching the plumes of smoke from the surface, where hot magma had pushed its way free through rock and water, just above the surface.
I decided it was time to get to know my now colleagues. “What made you come along this journey?”
Anne-Liese turned her head to me only slowly. “My uncle?!” She raised a cynic eyebrow.
“Well, I can imagine, but what is it you do here? What did he hire you for?”
A sigh preceded an answer given only barely willingly. “I will analyse the rock, the air and the remnants of volcanic activity. The Professor wants to know everything there is to know, I am here to assist him in that.” It sounded recited, barely present.
“You went on expeditions with him before?”
Anne-Liese nodded. “Yes.” A pause. “I suppose I am acquainted with his demands and expectations. It makes working with him much easier. I recommend you get acquainted with them as well. Uncle's plans and ambitions can get the better of you quickly.”
“I hope I can do that. It sounds hard.”
Anne-Liese nodded. “It gets less hard, but it never gets easy.” She silently stared into the distance and I decided to leave her to it.
The cutter flitted on, making many course corrections on mere moments' notice from the lookout. Although the area around Mount Proxilus was inactive for the time being, to get there we had to cross some of the most dangerous miles in the entire furrow.
As time neared noon, we sat down on our crate and had a ration of food for lunch, salted pork and hardtack soaked in water to wash it down. We had just put our canteens away when the lookout sounded especially panicked from up above.
I stood up and looked ahead. On our starboard side I saw a hint of steam rising from the water’s surface in a line, that would soon intersect our path. Yohannon corrected course port, again putting the slopes of Mount Proxilus further and further away from where the ship was actually heading towards. As we came closer, I too could see the faint dark spot beneath the water and the thin swaths of steam that covered an area at least a hundred feet in width and reached far beyond what I could see in the distance. Occasional black tips of this reef poked through the turbulent water, small puffs of smoke or steam occasionally rose.
I watched the ridge-like reef accompany our ship’s side for almost and entire mile until I saw a sliver of bright yellow shine through the blue. I looked closer and indeed, a slab of black, steaming rock momentarily rose above the water, then sank back below with a spout of steam. The phenomenon repeated many times and grew further into a sputtering, faster still until it had become a deep rumbling sound.
“CRUSHER!” the lookout's cry sounded desperate, afraid even.
I saw the steaming slab of rock, indeed the entire ridge, rise a last time from the waters, higher than before, cooling, steam rising from its surface.
Then it cracked and fell inwards. A gaping mouth the size of a building opened to our starboard side, swallowing volumes of water greater than the harbour of Port Consolido.
The cutter tilted starboard, I had to stem my feet against the railing to withstand the pull. I heard all scream, the Professor, Beredalion, Anne-Liese, Yohannon, the deckhand and even the lookout.
“PORT! PORT! PORT!” the youngster atop the mast screamed over and over again. He had lost hold of the ropes and was dangling from his ankles caught in the loops.
I felt powerless and tried to think of something. A spell, a formula, a hint to what could help us in this moment, but my brain failed me. Worse still, without focus or flux, I could not cast any meaningful spells anyway, but such thoughts escaped my head back then too. Roaring water and screams filled my tiny world to the brim.
The ship tilted further into the vertical and by then I was half-lying, half-standing on the railing. The soaked wood granted me barely any hold and it finally happened that one of my feet slipped of the railing.
As I fell, I shot my arms forward, attempting to catch my own fall. Luck and reflex were the only reason that when I hit the railing, I did so on my arms, not my groin. But still, the slippery wood offered me little hold and I tilted over to the outside. A panicked scream escaped my throat. My inner leg and my hands holding on to the rail were the only thing as I dangled almost upside down from the railing, closest to the waters that foamed and gushed, threatening to swallow us whole.
I looked up and saw there the Professor standing on the railing entirely, right in front of the mast, with sure foot and flaming gaze, his right pointing his staff to the craggy rocks in the water, his left fist clenched around the powder; sparks of iridescent blue danced around him for the blink of an eye.
A word thundered over the sound of water, rock and fire. The Professor was flung back, hitting the mast and being pressed against it with great force, but still he somehow withstood it. The ship seemed to be pushed off something, slowly rising back into the horizontal by its mast and hanging loosely above the plummeting torrent.
Beredalion, whose claws had already carved deep grooves into the wood of the railing, soon realized the less dire situation and opened his eyes just in time to see the backwash of the torrent hit itself.
I had to get his attention. “BERED-! BEREDEL-! HELP!”
He saw me and pulled himself towards me, but the spout already tilted the ship to the other side. For a moment, all was in the air, we were falling freely, my body without weight, the solid floor without consequence. I looked into Beredalion’s eyes. I saw there no panic, but effort. Effort to help somehow.
Neither the tilt completely over the other side came, nor the tilt back. The violent rocking was dampened by another force, like a gentle hand. The ship was back in the water and the rudder turned us around. We escaped away from the maw as it spat out maelstroms and vortices. Beredalion’s clawed fingers grabbed hold of my wrist and I grabbed back. He managed to pull me up, an extraordinary feat if one was to compare our weight. Foaming saltwater from the spout came raining down on us and drenched the entire deck.
“Is everyone unharmed?” Yohannon asked aloud.
“HELP! HELP ME!” the lookout was still dangling from his ankles. Beredalion climbed the mast with agility and speed only seen in squirrels, then helped the youngster back down.
We took our time, check everyone’s health and make sure nothing important was lost. All seemed well except for bruises or scratches.
After I had gotten back up on my feet, I looked around the ocean around us and noticed a stark absence of steam and bubbles. We had entered the extinct zone around Mount Proxilus.
With the lookout having received heavy bruises around his ankles, Beredalion climbed the mast and took his position looking out for reefs and other dangers that sill lurked without fire below. We made good way towards the mountain and when we were in range, Yohannon brought first us, then our cargo ashore with a small rowboat.
We thanked the crew of the small vessel and the Professor handed out the payment. With that, our only means of escape made its way back through the treacherous waters. I looked after them until the Professor spoke up with a confident voice.
“Now then, let us get our cargo up and running.”
I wanted to ask him what he meant, but he had already tapped the lid of the crate with his staff, popping it off as if pushed out from the inside. Now I could finally see what I had dragged behind me like a stubborn hound.
In the crate, packed tightly with wood shavings, was the armour or statue I had seen in the Professor’s study. He had brought it with him. I wanted to ask him for what reason, but he had taken the rune-engraved crystal from his staff, then flipped open what could be considered the helmet’s faceplate. Behind it, the Professor inserted the crystal in a perfectly fit receptacle. Before I could ask anything, the massive statue rose from the crate like an awakening giant. Clumps of wood shavings fell off it like the moss off a boulder buried in the soil for a hundred years.
With heavy arms, the golem stemmed itself upright, standing above us all. Beredalion and I, we needed a moment and remained in awe of this moving construct, Anne-Liese remained unimpressed. The Professor, however, looked to be ready for just about anything fate could still throw at us.