Prelude Part 1
The heat of summer is stifling, even on the Cimmaron River. As the Serendipity paddles up-stream on her way back to Seventh Creek, Captain Malthus brings her alongside a small jetty and takes on board several fare-paying passengers. Normally this would be a lot of people for one stop, but the annual ball is coming up (the high society event of the year) and there are lots of people heading into the city to enjoy the party atmosphere, or to earn some coin off the revelers. Midday The Serendipity slows and eases up to the jetty and the boat's engineer attaches the tow-line.
STOP… Sergeant Bollez (pronounced bol-ez) is a Hispanic man in his 50s, his pock-marked skin the result of too many Civil Defense patrols under the punishing Wilderlands skies. His whole body moves stiffly - it's not just his skin that has suffered. Now retired, he has taken his mechanical skills to the boat of a young captain, Malthus. He's the boat's engineer, plus weaponsmith and armorer when needed. A man of few words, Bollez isn't without a sense of humor. He's a good man who likes Malthus and is happy to work for only a little pay because of that… and he likes the freedom of being out of the city on the water. The boat's captain thanks him and steps off to gather payment from his would-be passengers.
STOP… Malthus (pronounced mal-thoos) is a lay preacher of the Church of Trinity and proud owner of the Serendipity, a 15m gas-powered paddle steamer. As captain of the boat, Malthus moves cargo and passengers along the Cimmaron rivers, doing good where he can, aided by his engineer Bollez, an aging former Sergeant of Seventh Creek Civil Defense. Inessa is at the head of the jetty, sitting on a well-made travel case full of medical supplies and other essentials.
STOP… Inessa Gamillon is the daughter of the minor line of House Gamillon, trained as a doctor and blessed with supernatural awareness of her environment and situation. She has a frosty relationship with the matriarch of her side of the House, so is glad to visit clinics from outlying communities that are supported by House Gammilon (rather than stay in the city under the matriarch's disapproving stare). Next is a man dressed in simple robes. Not the robes of the Shōten Monastery, but in the same style.
STOP… Dana is a wannabe Shōten monk who carries a tattered copy of Matsuo Bashō's Record of a Travel-Worn Satchel, one of the Shōten's most sacred texts. He dreams of being accepted as an official monk and traveling the countryside inspiring people, just like Bashō did hundreds of years before. Standing next in line is a group of five dour individuals dressed in very similar black clothes and each carrying a satchel. Their leader pays for them all and they head to the very back of the main deck, away from as many people as possible. Next is an unassuming man with a small patch of mushrooms growing out of the side of his face - unusual, even for the Wilderlands.
STOP… Poison is the husband of a well-loved Seventh Creek hero (recently deceased), and collector of fascinating fungal infections, parasites, and accumulated pathogens that have created a unique ecosystem within his body.
Lastly Malthus takes payment from Reave, the only Wildlands Ranger currently in Seventh Creek lands. Reave is in his mid-20s and carries himself with an air of quiet confidence, openly showing a gun belt with a pistol in the holster. Reave travels with Boy, the ten-year-old son of his murdered sister. He lifts his broad-rimmed leather hat, wipes the sweat off his bald head, and thanks Malthus before helping Boy on board. They head to the front of the boat to be cooled by the passing air as the boat travels up-river.
After casting off, everybody settles into the journey. The sun will be low on the horizon before the Serendipity moors up at Seventh Creek, but meanwhile everybody takes advantage of the shade offered by a series of canvas awnings that stretch fore and aft of the wheelhouse, from which the captain steers the ship. The wheelhouse also has the main ladder down to below decks, where Bollez goes to check on the engine.
Dana approaches the group in black and smiles broadly, commenting on how wonderful the day is. The three women and two men all move very similarly, dress similarly, and have the same stern expression - could they be from some religious group Dana's not heard of? The group's leader says, "That's nice," and then points out that there's plenty of seating on the bench either side of the wheelhouse.
Dana assumes they're being friendly and moves to sit next to Inessa, introducing himself as Dana and asking what brings her this boat trip. Inessa mentions that she's heading back for a family party - her name's Inessa Gammilon. Like all Seventh Creekers, Dana instantly knows that means she's a member of one of the four most powerful families in the city entire state. She'll probably be one of the guests invited to the annual ball itself, rather than partying with the regular people in the plazas and bars of the city. She asks Dana what he's doing on the boat. He's out to make the world a better place, living the life of a traveling monk. A follower of Bushiddha? Yes, Dana follows their principles. Inessa notices that he doesn't even have a sword, but doesn't question it out of politeness.
The Serendipity sails on… 2pm Bollez comes on deck to have a smoke, leaning against the boat's near Inessa and Dana's bench. He scans the horizon, looking for bad weather (a constant and very real danger in this part of the world). The skies look clear so he finishes his smoke and turns back to the wheelhouse, pausing for a second to take in the group at the back of the boat, by the paddle wheel. He strokes his beard as he considers them, the look on his face suggesting he isn't happy with what he sees, then goes back inside.
The hair on Inessa's neck stands up. She thinks that the men at the back are probably the cause, but can't be certain. She suggests to Dana that they go near the front where the air is moving. It's an excuse to get some distance and cover. Clutching her parasol, a sturdy and practical item, she picks up her equally sturdy and practical travel case and heads forward. Dana follows continuing his stream of pleasant conversation all the way.
Inside the wheelhouse, Bollez tells his captain that the group at the back are bad news. His years at the C.D. trained him to spot things, like the fact that those five passengers have each got weapons concealed in their clothes. Malthus pulls Ermintrude from a storage compartment and places her on the instrument panel while Bollez heads below decks to get his shotgun. Just in case. Ermintrude is a large-caliber revolver that Bollez has made some modifications to in his spare time. Just like his shotgun, she's kept in the wheelhouse for those "just in case" moments.
Inessa notices the man with the hat and the boy, sitting quietly on the fore-deck bench. She approaches him, giving him the heads-up about the possible trouble ahead. Inessa says there could be trouble, but she isn't sure. The man confirms that he's a lawman, a Wildlands Ranger no less, and invites Inessa to take his seat next to his boy while he goes to stretch his legs… to the back of the boat, perhaps. Passing Poison on his way down the boat, Reave suggests Poison move to the front of the ship, which he's happy to do. Next Reave stops at the wheelhouse and talks to the Captain. Once he's happy that everyone's prepared for the worst the Ranger heads to the back of the vessel.
Poison comes to the front and asks why he was recommended the front of the boat. Inessa notices that he has one lilac eyeball, suggesting a rare infection - she offers to give him an injection to help with that, but he turns it down because he has an eco-system of organisms fighting each other. If one dies others will take over. Boy says nothing but shift up the bench, closer to Inessa and away from Poison. Dana's intrigued and offers magical healing. Again, Poison prefers not to risk it. Maybe another time. At the same time Reave has been talking with the leader of the black-clad group. He soon returns to the wheelhouse and updates Malthus: they're definitely armed, twitchy, and don't want anyone near their satchels. Reave doesn't want them anywhere near Seventh Creek at the time of the annual ball. Instead, he asks that the boat goes to an old farmstead jetty that's coming up on their right, and drop off the five people in black. Maybe they're fine and it's all a misunderstanding, but nobody really thinks that's true on board the Serendipity.
Malthus grudgingly agrees and heads for the jetty while Reave warns the people at the front. When the ship approaches the next jetty, the leader of the black-clad group gets shifty and anxious. Malthus tries to talk them off the ship and refund them their fare. The leader wants to talk in the wheelhouse, just the Captain and him, but wisely Malthus refuses. The leader says that isn't acceptable. That he won't leave. Bollez takes up position along the rail, just where he was having his smoke earlier, shotgun in hand. Reave is on the opposite rail, the other side of the wheelhouse, hand on his pistol, ready to draw. Malthus has Ermintrude tucked into the back of his belt. The leader takes in the situation and likes the odds, five against three, and grunts, "Now!" through gritted teeth. He and his people draw pistols, Bollez raises the shotgun to his shoulder, and Malthus reaches for Ermintrude.
From where they're watching at the front of the boat, the others react. Dana is already running forward in an attempt to broker peace but when weapons are drawn it means he's ready to charge in and lend support in the fight. Inessa opens her medical case and takes out a gun. Poison talks with the boy and then puts a knife in his teeth and dives in the water. This isn't his first gunfight, and Boy knows to hunker down in cover.
Malthus fires at the group's leader, just a few paces in front of him. A fraction of a second later Inessa shoots through the wheelhouse, the bullet shattering glass front and back and then hitting the left-most member of the black-clad group in the head. House Gammilon's self-defense trainer would be very proud of her for that shot.
Reave draw his pistol and fires in one motion, but misses as his target moves sideways to engage the charging monk in melee. Dana tries a double punch just the way he imagines a martial arts monk would do it and fails to connect, but his flailing arms thoroughly confuse the woman he's fighting.
The other members of the black-clad group open fire and Reave takes a flesh wound to his gun arm. Their leader fires at Malthus and hits him in the gut, doubling the captain over in pain. Luckily, the bullet misses all the major organs and exits cleanly. In return Malthus fires, the sound of Ermintrude like a cannon firing. The shot misses, but it distracts the leader just the same.
Bollez steps forward, getting a better angle that won't have Malthus in the way, and looks into the eyes of the nearest enemy. Firmly he says to the woman, "It isn't worth it. Put it down," but she doesn't listen. As she's raising her own weapon, Bollez squeezes the trigger and the huge shotgun slug cleanly kills her.
Inessa moves forward for a better line of sight on the remaining enemies. As she gets level with Malthus, he fires at the leader but the pain from his wound makes his hand shaky, and a big girl like Ermintrude needs a steady hand. The shot goes wide once more, but this time the leader takes it in his stride, firing back and grazing the captain.
That's when Poison, who has been swimming under the boat and clambering up on the slowly-turning paddle wheel behind the enemy, jumps down and transfers the knife from his teeth to his hand.
Dana's flailing fists continue to confuse his opponent and stop her counterattacking effectively. Their fight goes on while everybody else turns their attention to the leader. Bullets fly, but it's Poison's stab between the shoulder blades that ends his life.
No longer under fire, Malthus pulls himself up and retreats to the wheelhouse.
Slipping on the boards that Poison made wet as he came out of the water, Dana falls backwards and is knocked unconscious. His opponent looks around for a second, realizes that she's the only one left alive from her group, and calls out her surrender.
These are zealots though, willing to die for their cause. In the moment that everybody starts to relax, she grabs for her satchel, reaching for the bomb-like device inside. Poison reacts fastest, hurling his knife with perfect precision. The blade impales the woman's hand as she's reaching into the bag. The bag falls to the ground, but fortunately the device doesn't go off.
Inessa also reacts with cat-like reflexes, and launches herself at the woman to subdue her. Unfortunately, cat-like grace escapes her as she stumbles on the prone form of Dana, accidentally pushing the woman into the still-churning paddle wheel. Blood flies everywhere as she's sliced to pieces between the wheel and the back boards of the boat. The gators will feast well today.
Inessa goes back to get her medical bag and lets the boy know that the enemies are dead. He sits back on the bench and patiently waits for Reave to finish searching the bodies for clues and securing the five satchels.
Smelling salts get administered on the monk to wake him up, and Inessa stitches up Malthus' wound - a good, tidy job.
Reave explains to Malthus that he's needed on Ranger business elsewhere, first thing the next morning. Is Malthus willing to sail further upriver the next day and find a man called Garford Messenger at the Southlands farmstead, to give Messenger the letter that Reave found on the leader? The Wildland Rangers will pay his expenses and Messenger will know what to do.
Malthus agrees, but first they finish their journey to Seventh Creek.