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Pazel whirled on Taliktrum. 'You vicious little fool. It's blane blane, isn't it? You shot them with blane.' blane.'
'We shot no one,' said Taliktrum. 'You drank it yourselves. All of you. In your water, over the last many days. A slow-acting variety; we had to make sure everyone aboard got a taste, before you saw what was happening.'
'Abandon masts! Abandon masts, you fools! Climb down before it hits you!'
It was Fiffengurt, hobbling aft at a near-run, and leaving a bloody footprint at every other step. His voice snapped the men out of their shock; they began to swarm downwards towards the deck.
Thasha was still looking at Taliktrum. 'You blary idiot idiot. We're sliding into the Vortex.'
'Get down,' said Taliktrum once again, 'we can't talk if you fall to your deaths.'
'What's there to talk about?' Neeps shouted. 'You've got to use your antidote, that's all. Otherwise we all go down together.'
'Damn you, giants! There is no more antidote! Dri stole the last of it for your little caper in Simja! But we're not butchering you, as you planned to do with us! It's a dilute formula. You'll all wake naturally, perfectly unharmed.'
'How soon?' asked Pazel.
Taliktrum was staring at the Vortex. 'Not very soon,' he said.
He let go of the rigging, teetering a moment in the wind. 'You can't judge me,' he said. 'This is war. I'm a general, and more than a general. I've been selected - yes, selected, chosen, to lead my people home. Don't deceive yourselves. If it was your family you'd have done exactly the same.'
The three friends were wide awake when they reached the topdeck, but scores of others were not so lucky. A man from Tressek Tarn had dropped from the mizzenmast and struck the rail; the fall killed him instantly. Fiffengurt was organizing men with safety lines to climb up and rescue those tangled in the rigging. Even as he did so another man vanished from the bowsprit into the sea.
Taliktrum had vanished; several Turach archers had fired arrows in his direction. What had he wanted to tell them? Pazel wondered desperately. Could it have been some clue as to how to beat the drug?
'I'm not sleepy,' said Neeps. 'Maybe they didn't manage to get it in everyone's water.'
'He sounded sure that they had,' said Pazel. 'Come to think of it, that was the only only thing he sounded sure of.' thing he sounded sure of.'
'They had this in mind all along, didn't they?' said Thasha. 'Ensyl and her friends knew about it - why else would they say the ixchel didn't need our protection? Which means Dri must have known too. Oh, how could she keep it from us? How could could she?' she?'
Pazel had no answer. All he felt certain of was that Taliktrum had unleashed forces beyond his control.
Fiffengurt came stumbling back their way, his wounded foot making a squilch squilch each time it touched the deck. 'Lord Rin, children, what now?' he cried. 'Sleeping sickness?' each time it touched the deck. 'Lord Rin, children, what now?' he cried. 'Sleeping sickness?'
'Not quite,' said Pazel. They told the quartermaster about the ixchel's drug. Fiffengurt pulled miserably at his whiskers.
'It's not too late,' he said. 'We're still thirty miles from the eye of the Vortex. Elkstem worked miracles with the lads he could muster, but the best they could do was hold us steady. To break out we need hands on deck now now. We can work the sails with safety lines, bring the lads down when they pass out, send others up in their places, but--Lo, there, midshipman! Don't lean over that blary shaft!'
A young man swayed away from the gunner's-pole hatch. The salute he tried to give Fiffengurt dissolved into a half-hearted wave. And when Pazel looked back at the quartermaster, he found to his shock that the man had sunk to his knees.
'Not too late,' he repeated, and collapsed.
Over the next quarter-hour, most of the ship's company joined him. The topdeck looked like a battlefield without victors, just a few shocked refugees wandering among the dead. Uskins snored upon a mound of dead rats. Bolutu lay curled by the No. 3 hatch, as if he had just managed to crawl into the open air before the sleep took hold. Elkstem dropped on the quarterdeck, hands clenched on a rope. He had apparently intended to lash the wheel (and hence the rudder) in a fixed position, but no one knew just what position, or what spread of sail might have accompanied it.
Neeps had begun to stumble and blink. 'Marila,' he said, again and again.
Supporting him, they ran down the No. 4 ladderway. There were bodies spread-eagled on the stairs; one man lay sleeping with a biscuit clenched in his teeth. The gun decks lay silent as a morgue. Lonely cries of Help! Help! and and Wake up! Wake up! echoed from the darkness. echoed from the darkness.
But farther down there were signs of life. On the orlop, men shouted and lanterns blazed. Turachs were dragging sleepers into cabins with sturdy doors. Far below, Pazel could still make out the howling of the rats.
They descended the narrow ladderway to the mercy deck, and hurried to the central compartment. Just inside the doorway they met Hercol and Chadfallow. The doctor spoke with quiet urgency. 'Get to the stateroom, you three! The fight here is lost!'
Lost? Pazel looked past the doctor. Sailors and Turachs filled the deck; the only rats in sight were dead ones. But of the hundreds of men, only a few dozen remained on their feet, and most of these were clustered about the tonnage hatch, staring into the hold, weapons in hand. The voices of the rats issued up from this darkness, cursing and insulting the men.
Even as Pazel looked, one of the men on guard began to sway. At once another sailor came forwards and and took his spear, pushing him away from the hatch.
'Rose and Haddismal are doing their best to keep up appearances,' said Hercol. 'The rats do not yet suspect what is happening. They They are not affected: the ixchel did not bother to poison whatever slime or sludge they find to drink.' are not affected: the ixchel did not bother to poison whatever slime or sludge they find to drink.'
'How many rats are left alive?' said Thasha.
'Too many,' said Hercol. 'A hundred, perhaps more. They are thick about both hatches, and both ladderways, yet hiding from our archers. We can kill no more without an assault on the hold, and there are not enough of us for that. I doubt, in fact, that we could stop the creatures, if they attack in force. Only their ignorance protects us now.'
Captain Rose walked the perimeter of the compartment, issuing calm orders as though nothing were amiss. Haddismal was peering down side passages, signalling his Turachs, pulling in every last man.
'There is another threat,' said Chadfallow. He leaned closer to the youths, and sniffed. 'Oil,' he whispered. 'Can you smell it? The ship's lamp oil is stored in the hold, and it has been spilt. Maybe the rats simply ruptured a barrel or two by accident. But we have seen them running with mouthfuls of rags and straw. And caught glimpses of firelight as well.'
'What's happening?' said Pazel. 'When they attacked in the hold they were like a pack of mad dogs. No plan, no clear thinking, except for Mugstur.'
'That has changed,' said Hercol. 'You can hear that they are screeching less. Bolutu thinks that Master Mugstur is calming them, giving them a way to understand the terror of their altered minds. If so they will become more dangerous by the hour.'
'Breathe not a word of this,' added Chadfallow. 'The men's spirits are low enough already.'
At the hatch, another man staggered away from his post. Seething, Captain Rose watched him fall. Then he turned and stumped towards the group at the doorway. His eyes were fixed on the youths.
'This is crawly work? You admit as much?'
A pause. Then Hercol said, 'Yes captain, it was done by ixchel.'
For a moment Pazel thought Rose would strike him. But just then Mr Alyash ran up to them, bearing a bright fengas lamp.
'The barricades are ready, Captain,' he said. 'They'll not be able to swarm up the ladderways again. Provided we have men left to seal them, after our retreat.'
Rose nodded. 'That is something. But not much. We must poison them, by the Night Gods, we must drop sulphur into the hold. You have found no way to seal the hatches against them?'
Alyash huffed. 'Without men to stand guard? There is is no way, sir. They've shown us how fast they can chew through sailcloth and oil skins. We could cannibalise planks from the upper decks and nail 'em across the hatches, but that job would take half a day - even if we lost no more men.' no way, sir. They've shown us how fast they can chew through sailcloth and oil skins. We could cannibalise planks from the upper decks and nail 'em across the hatches, but that job would take half a day - even if we lost no more men.'
Pazel felt Neeps' hand squeeze his arm. The small boy was just barely awake.
'A drug,' he murmured.
'Yes, Neeps, it's a drug,' said Pazel.
Neeps gave his head a drunkard's shake. 'Find . . . . . another drug.' . another drug.'
'An antidote, you mean? No chance, didn't you hear Taliktrum? They never had very much, and it's all gone now. And even if he's lying, we'd never find--'
Neeps slapped a clumsy hand over Pazel's mouth. 'Another drug,' he said heavily. 'Something else. Delay it. Delay.' drug,' he said heavily. 'Something else. Delay it. Delay.'
With that he was gone. Pazel caught him and lowered him to the deck.
Chadfallow was looking at him with wonder. 'This drug they use, this blane blane,' he said. 'Is it magical?'
'Who knows?' said Pazel.
'I do,' said Thasha, 'and it's not. Blane Blane is just brilliant medicine. In fact the ixchel know more about human bodies than we know ourselves. They've experimented on us, over the years, just as we have on them.' is just brilliant medicine. In fact the ixchel know more about human bodies than we know ourselves. They've experimented on us, over the years, just as we have on them.'
Everyone stared at her. It was another of those mystifying certainties Pazel had begun to expect from Thasha. But was she right? He shuddered, remembering the clock.
'Delay it,' said Thasha. 'Is that possible? Even if there's no antidote, couldn't we take something to hold off the sleep? Long enough to build those hatch covers, anyway?'
'A counteragent?' mused the doctor. 'Theoretically, yes. But I know nothing of this blane blane! To find the right compound would take days of testing.' He glanced at Rose, and something in the captain's face made him add, 'Unless I got very lucky.'
Rose seized the doctor's arm and turned him bodily towards the ladderway. 'Get lucky doctor,' he said, 'that's an order.'
He needed help, Chadfallow said, and Pazel and Thasha promised to give it. Hercol, however, lifted Neeps and tossed the small boy over his shoulder. 'I will bear him to the stateroom, and meet you three at sickbay,' he said, and was gone.
It was sickbay and not the surgery that housed the Great Ship's medicines. Chadfallow and the youths raced upward again, taking three steps at a time. The middle decks were now completely silent. On the ladderway they passed just one conscious man - a Turach, stumbling on his feet, eyes half-closed. As Thasha passed he embraced her suddenly.
'Lady Thasha,' he slurred. 'Love you, love you. Goin' t'inherit a farm, see? Make you happy. Lots of kids--'
'Oh good gods.' Thasha pushed him away.
They reached the lower gun deck, and dashed along the short passage to sickbay. There to Chadfallow's delight (and Thasha's, Pazel noted) they found Greysan Fulbreech, wide awake, tending a ward full of sleeping men.
'Doctor!' he cried, 'I have lost three patients! The rats came down the Holy Stair from the main deck. They broke the latch on the door. If the Turachs had not come, everyone here would have been killed.'
'Including you,' Pazel heard himself say. Fulbreech did not even look at him. But Thasha did, reproachfully.
'Clear a table!' shouted Chadfallow, storming in. 'Listen, all of you. We are going to behave like potion-peddlars on the streets of Sorhn. I will hand you something; you will go out and find men on the verge of sleep - not uttterly lost, but failing. Make them take what I give. Tell them whatever you like. Watch them, see if they grow more alert. Then rush back and tell me. And meanwhile send anyone else you can find to me directly. Ah, sheepsgaul! Put this in some water, Greysan.'
Moments later they were out the door. Thasha had a vial of white chilli oil, Pazel a yellow pill the doctor called Moonglow. They ran straight to the topdeck; it was closer than the mercy, and the only other place they knew of where men were still awake in any numbers.
Or had been. Pazel gazed over the deck and felt his heart sink. He had hoped that he would find men still battling the sails, keeping the Chathrand Chathrand from gliding faster towards the Vortex. But there were simply not enough of them. From where he stood, Pazel counted nineteen - make that eighteen, there went another to his knees - largely unoccupied sailors, wandering among the sleepers, shouting out prayers, making the sign of the Tree. Some kicked their shipmates in despair, begging them to wake. Pazel squeezed the pill in his hand. 'This had better work,' he said. from gliding faster towards the Vortex. But there were simply not enough of them. From where he stood, Pazel counted nineteen - make that eighteen, there went another to his knees - largely unoccupied sailors, wandering among the sleepers, shouting out prayers, making the sign of the Tree. Some kicked their shipmates in despair, begging them to wake. Pazel squeezed the pill in his hand. 'This had better work,' he said.
Not two minutes later he had convinced a blinking, frightened man to swallow the pill. 'It's from Chadfallow, it'll keep you awake,' he declared shamelessly. The man gulped it eagerly, then gave him a triumphant smile. He raised both fists above his head. "I feel it!' he said, and collapsed.
The others fared no better: Thasha's victim cried himself to sleep, having swallowed enough chilli oil to make a fire-eater beg for drink. The man Fulbreech approached vomited on the deck.
None of these fiascos dissuaded the remaining men from following the youths back to sickbay. They had lost hope. Chadfallow was offering a last straw to clutch at, and clutch they did. They waved to their shipmates, this way, this way! The doctor's workin' on a cure!
Of the fourteen men who set off for sickbay, just eight reached it. Among them were Mr Fegin, Byrd the gunner - and, Pazel saw with outrage, Dastu. The elder tarboy's feet dragged; he was fast succumbing. But as the others shuffled into sickbay he held back, wary eyes on Pazel and Thasha.
'Come on, mate,' jeered Pazel savagely. 'Don't be shy. For you we'll find something extra extra strong.' strong.'
Dastu gave Pazel a heavy-lidded stare. 'Think you're better than me, don't you, Muketch? After all the Empire's done for peasants like you. All the doors its opened, all the helping hands.'
Something inside Pazel came apart. He crossed the floor to Dastu and with a cunning he never knew he possessed, made as if to draw Isiq's sword. But as Dastu's eyes snapped to his sword-hand, he struck the older boy's chin as hard as he could with the other. Dastu's head jerked sideways. Then he fell.
'How courageous,' said Fulbreech. 'You've just knocked out a sleepwalker. And taken someone from us who could have tried a remedy.'
Pazel shut his eyes. Bastard. Cretin. When he opened his eyes he saw Thasha watching him, shaking her head.
'Next!' shouted Chadfallow, pounding his fist on a table. 'Who's nearest to sleep? Raise your heads, look me in the eye!'
An assortment of oddities lay spread before him. Pills, potions, creams, a jar of blue seeds, a dry and blackened lungfish. The men raised weary hands. One man swallowed seeds, and dropped in mid-chew. Another bit off part of the lungfish, chewed with great concentration, and dropped to the floor. Fegin drank something from a green flask. He groaned and turned rather green himself, then lowered himself to the wall. 'I'd like to . . . apologise,' he said, as his head lolled forwards.
Chadfallow's speed increased. He popped items into waiting mouths. 'Swamp myrtle,' he said. 'Bodendel marshfly. Endolithic spore.' But the men continued to drop. In frustration Chadfallow swept all the failed substances to the floor. He tore at his hair. 'All right, damn it: Thermopile Red - that should keep a man working for a week! Drink it, Byrd ! Drain the cup! Don't shut your blary eyes!'
When Byrd fell, unrevived by Thermopile Red, the doctor let himself sink into a chair. Only he, Thasha, Pazel and Fulbreech remained. He looked at them and sighed. But before the sigh ended it had become a yawn.
That yawn frightened Pazel immensely. At the same time he felt a cloudiness descend on his brain, and a weight in his limbs, and knew his time was close.
He staggered forwards and shook the doctor. 'Fight it, Ignus! Think! We're counting on you!'
'Don't,' muttered Chadfallow.
'None of these are strong enough,' said Thasha. 'What have you got that's stronger stronger?'
'Nothing,' said the doctor, shaking his head. 'No use . . . too late.'
'The Chadfallow I know would never talk that way, while life remained in him,' said a voice from the passage.
It was Hercol, supporting himself with a hand on the doorframe. He lurched into sickbay, jaw clenched and eyes heavy, as though staving off the blane blane through sheer force of will. 'What's left?' he said. 'No - don't answer. What is dangerous, ludicrously dangerous? What is against your ethics to try?' through sheer force of will. 'What's left?' he said. 'No - don't answer. What is dangerous, ludicrously dangerous? What is against your ethics to try?'
At the sight of his old friend the doctor opened his eyes a little wider. He looked sceptically at the items before him, understanding Hercol's challenge, and appalled by it. He fumbled through the items, knocking several irritably aside. Suddenly he stopped, and looked at Pazel in wonder.
'A cocktail,' he said. 'A blary three-part heathen cocktail. Fulbreech! The key, my desk, the black bottle. Hurry, run!'
Fulbreech ran across the ward. The doctor, meanwhile, lifted a tiny, round metal box, with a painting of a blue dragon on the lid. 'Break the seal,' he said, passing it to Pazel. 'My hand shakes too much; I will spill it, and there is precious little.'
'What is it?' asked Hercol.
'Thundersnuff. A stimulant, putrid, exceptional. Part of a mad Quezan cocktail, they use it as punishment for sloth. If only I can remember the third ingredient. Something very common, it was . . . cloves, or horseradish . . . .'
Fulbreech returned with a bottle, black and unmarked. 'There's some mistake, sir, this is grebel.'
Grebel! Pazel nearly dropped the little box. It was the nightmare liquor, the madness drink. He'd had it forced on him as punishment, by certain sadistic men on other ships. Fear, panic, hallucinations - these were all he recalled of the experiences. Except-- 'I didn't sleep,' he said. 'I didn't sleep for days! But that was just because of the fear, wasn't it?'
'Salt!' said the doctor, ignoring him and surging to his feet. 'The third ingredient is salt! I have gypsum salt, it will do, we can chew it - here!'