The horror of what I witnessed that day will stay with me as long as I live, and I hope I never have to venture into such regions of dark depravity again. If I ever doubted the justness of Captain Skullbaiter and the crew of the Rainseeker’s mission, such reservations were banished when I saw the sumpwood stockade of the tallow-hats.
As soon as the captain had ordered his men to their battle-stations, I had taken up a position on the foredeck, behind one of the ironwood gunwales, with a spy-hatch that afforded me an excellent view of the sky ahead. My companions, Gart and Kultuft, had taken the captain’s advice and sought the safety of the quartermaster’s cabin below decks, but I’m afraid to say, I’d allowed my curiosity to get the better of me with my decision to stay on deck.
That curiosity was satisfied all too soon as the Rainseeker entered a region of towering escarpments and deep, shadow-filled ravines. With great skill and whispered commands, Captain Skullbaiter navigated a course ever deeper into these gloomy canyons, whose sides were verdant with lush vegetation – great cascading curtains of moss, shelves of mouldtrees and sporeblooms, and mottled lichen the size of trees. The further we went, the darker it became, a dank, cloying mist cutting out the daylight and giving our surroundings a nightmarish, deathly grey aspect.
‘Ready the phraxcannons,’ came the whispered order and, squinting through my spy-hatch, I saw a great, jagged form loom up before us.
As the Rainseeker drew nearer, I discerned pin-points of light moving to and fro along the walkways and gantries of an immense timber fortress. The stockade hung in mid-air in the dark recesses of a canyon, its buoyant sumpwood construction allowing it to float in the dismal air on the end of a lattice of ropes, like some vast rockspider at the centre of a monstrous web. Beneath the stockade were huge bunches of tar-black pods hanging from slimy tendrils in clusters that disappeared down into the gloom.
‘Fire!’ roared Captain Skullbaiter from the helm and, on either side of me, and from all parts of the sky galleon, the Rainseeker’s phraxcannon erupted into life. Their barrels blazing, they poured a fusilade of phraxshells into the walkways and gantries of the sumpwood stockade, which splintered and shattered and burst into flames.
As if in answer, like termites whose nest had been disturbed, the battlements of the stockade lit up with a swarm of flickering lights - but no phraxfire was returned as the Rainseeker turned about and its crew feverishly re-loaded. Instead, a terrible hissing sound erupted from the shadows beneath the floating fortress as a thousand glowing eyes opened and trained their gaze upon the Rainseeker.
‘Steady, lads!’ came Captain Skullbaiter’s voice. ‘Phraxpistols and deck-scythes at the ready. Don’t let them get their claws into the hull!’
His words filled me with misgiving, but that was nothing compared to the panic that gripped me when I looked out once more through the spy-hatch. The sumpwood fortress was ablaze in places, and in the firelight I could make out clusters of savage-looking individuals in funnel hats topped with lighted tallow candles, hacking away burning wreckage and dousing the flames with bucketfuls of sodden earth. But this is not what sent the shudder of panic coursing down my spine. Instead, it was the sight of what was emerging from among the clusters of pods beneath the stockade.
It was an immense, ragged horde of glowing-eyed rotsuckers, their tendril snouts dripping with strands of bile and their scimitar-sharp claws quivering. A thousand strong, these bat-like monstrosities closed in on the Rainseeker with a cacophony of wheezing hisses…