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Daughters of Fate (Chapter 29)

For even the frozen heart of the wicked may melt if granted the power of love.   

Psalm of Peace

Chapter 29 (18th of Earonitan in the year 6199) 

“I appreciate,” Deran croaked out, “you putting in a good word for me with Lord Hedric.  But,” he hesitated even as he and Cassandra moved at a hurried pace down the corridors in the bowels of the palace.   

“You’ll do fine,” Cassandra encouraged him with a smile.   

“But Commodore of an attack fleet?”  He pulled at the collar of his shirt.  “I mean, I know about all the tactics and theories, but -”   

“It’s not that hard,” the Sub-general admonished him in the lightest tone she could manage.  “Trust me. You think I’m the sharpest sword in the rack?”   

“I don’t think I’m ready for command,” he continued to doubt.   

Cassandra rolled her eyes. “Look, I can teach you all the stuff you don’t already know.  We’ve got a lot of time.  These ships aren’t going to be ready overnight; you know.”   

“Yeah,” Ensign Herstone reiterated, “looking at about 8 months.  Won’t be able to launch until next spring. You think that we’re going to get what we need from that curt Lord Hedric keeps holed up down here?  Because I’ll be honest with you, the rigging and the sails just aren’t going to work.  And I don’t want to be on our Lord’s bad side.”   

Stopping at a closed door of notably thicker than normal construction, Cassandra raised her hand to knock.  “It’ll be fine.”  

Before her hand could move, everything shook with what sounded like an explosion from the other side.  Even the floor felt as if it shifted, and Cassandra stumbled back against the far wall, keeping her balance only with its assistance.  

Deran wasn’t so lucky. He found himself sprawled on his posterior on the floor as thick smoke began to billow out from the gap at the bottom of the door.  It engulfed the hallway in a choking, sulfurous stench, that forced both he and Cassandra to cover their mouths as the smell threatened to make them retch.  

Recovering with shaky steps, Cassandra kicked at the door, trying to get inside, but it didn’t budge.  She started pounding on the solid barrier.  “Cabbat!” she called out, followed by more pounding.  “Cabbat!  Open this door!”  

Deran was quick to her side, coughing and his eyes watering.  He checked the firmness of the door and came to a grim conclusion, “We’re not getting through this,” then he paused, “unless -.”  His hand went to the handle and the thumb activated latch for the lock.  It clicked as he pressed on it, “Well, I’ll be … unlocked!”  Then he shrugged.   

The door swung inward, releasing even more smoke and making it hard to see.  Cassandra’s lungs burned as they took in even more of the fumes and she surged inside.  Through the haze, she could make out what looked like sunlight beaming in and breaking up in the filthy air, but there were no windows in this room.   

“Cabbat!”  She continued to call, choking on her words.  “Cabbat!”   

There was still no answer as the smoke began to dissipate and the shambles of what had once been a laboratory became clear. Broken glass and charred wooden pieces laid about the room in haphazard heaps.  Only the largest and heaviest of all the items seemed none the worse for wear after whatever calamity had befallen this place.  

Cassandra walked among the debris with cautious steps, now able to see the source of the light was a large hole in the stonework of the far wall that had never been there before.  A glass vial cracked under her foot as she continued to survey the destruction.   Within seconds, the sole of Cassandra’s boot became hot, causing her to jump as it smoldered and fumed.  

“Damn!” she cursed, stomping her foot on the ground and then placing it into a small pile of wet sand.  “Cabbat, you and your stupid inventions,” she groaned, feeling the heat beginning to subside.   

Hoping on one foot to look at the bottom of her sole, she noticed the singe mark left by whatever had been in the vial.  it was then that a grunting sound caught her attention, accompanied by a short, squat form beginning to pull its way from underneath a broken table.  

“I heard that,” the dwarf with a mid-length beard said as he dusted himself off and pulled a pair of singed goggles from his face.  The rest of his face was covered with gray soot, but the area around his eyes was neat and clean.  He blinked at the chaos of what was left of his lab. “Well, that was unexpected,” he remarked.  

“This is exactly why Lord Hedric moved you down here,” Cassandra chastised him as she looked out the hole and into the garden beyond.  

“If Hedric wants progress,” the dwarf said, “then he’d better be willing to accept some setbacks.”   

“Leveling the palace is hardly what I would call a setback,” Deran added, spitting some of the soot in the air from his mouth. “Damn curts and their inventions.”   

Cabbat raised an eyebrow, “No need for the racial slurs, boy,” he growled.  “And just so you know, if I hadn’t traded my freedom for that of my daughter, I would have gladly leveled this place years ago,” he barked, righting a small stool and a table. “Who’s the young ass?” he asked.  

“This is Deran,” Cassandra said with a little more of a beam to her voice than was warranted for such a simple introduction. “He’s with the naval division. He and I are working on something important that I figured you might have the solution to.”   

Sitting in his now upright stool, the dwarf dumped the powdery contents of a small pouch onto the table. “I’ll bet the two of you are,” he said with a little bit of snark.  But before Cassandra could reply,  he added, “So, what’s this problem?”   

She was about to answer when she realized that a contingent of her men, palace guards, had now formed at the hole blown in the exterior wall of the palace, standing there slack-jawed.  “Sub-general Nightwing?” one of them asked, “is everyone alright in there?”   

“Everything’s fine!” Cabbat crowed.  “Go stick your heads in a well or something!”   

“It’s fine,” Cassandra reiterated, seeing her men befuddled by the yawning chasm in the outer stonework.  “Go see if you can find someone to take a look at that and get it fixed!”   

“Worried I’ll run away?” Cabbat scoffed.  “A bargain is a bargain.”   

“Ah, dwarven honor,” Cassandra shook her head.   

“I don’t expect you virtue deprived humans to understand,” Cabbat sifted through the powder with his dirty fingers. “All that matters is that Lord Hedric kept his part of the bargain.  Therefore, I am bound to uphold mine.  What do I care if you humans kill each other?  This new invention of mine should prove to Lord Hedric’s liking.”   

“And this new invention would be?” Cassandra asked.   

Dropping from the stool, the dwarf approached where Cassandra stood.  “Something my uncle discovered years ago.  But neither he nor his notes survived.”  Cabbat pointed out into the garden, past the lingering guards, and Cassandra followed with her eyes.  She noticed the large iron pot resting soundly in the upper branches of a large tree still waiting for its spring leaves to sprout.  “That kettle used to be where we’re standing right now.” Bending down, Cabbat scraped up some powder that remained on the ground.  “This is a very explosive compound when properly used.”   

“And how does hurling kettles at our enemy help our cause?” Deran chimed in.   

Cabbat snorted in disgust, “Your boyfriend here isn’t too sharp.”   

Cassandra blushed, avoiding that comment.  “I think it’s a fair point,” she said after clearing her throat.   

“Not kettles,” the dwarf corrected.  “I have some ideas, but more testing is needed.”  Then he started rummaging around through some of the debris until he found the wooden handle of one contraption in general.  “This is one of the better ones. At least, I think so.” Dusting it off, he handed it to Cassandra who pondered the item.    

The body had the shape like a small crossbow. There was even a trigger, but everything except the handle was made entirely of metal. There were no limbs or a string, much less anywhere to put an arrow.  Where the table groove would have normally been was just a long hollow tube that she stared down.   

Cassandra turned the mysterious item about, looking it over.  “How does it work?”   

Seeing her carelessness, Cabbat quickly snatched the item away sensing that she would pose a greater threat to herself than any enemy.  “Be careful!  It’s a very dangerous prototype.”  He turned the weapon around and placed the handle firmly into her hand. “Just like a crossbow.  All you do is point and fire.”   

“Fire what?” she asked. “Where’s the bolt?”   

“Doesn’t use them,” Cabbat snorted.  “It uses an explosive charge to create a buildup of pressure.  That pressure then accelerates a slug of metal towards a target.  I’ve been working on refining the model for the past fifty years, but I couldn’t get the powder to explode before today.”   

Cassandra stared at him, her eyes glazed over.  “I really have very little clue what you’re talking about.”   

“That makes two of us,” Deran threw in his two coppers.   

Cabbat lifted her hand up and aimed her towards a suit of plate armor across the laboratory that had managed to survive the explosion that blew out the wall and hurled the kettle across the courtyard.  “As I said,” he reiterated to her, “just point and fire.  You’ll see.”     

Cassandra tried to point the weapon as he had encouraged her, but the weight of it caused the end of the barrel to dip.  In the end, she had to place both hands on the grip to steady it.     

“Just be careful,” Cabbat warned, “I’m not sure if the powder mixture is right so there might be a mighty -”   

A click and then thunderous roar cut him off as Cassandra pulled back the trigger.  The recoil sent the weapon back over her head and Cassandra flying backward onto her rear end.  Cabbat covered his ears, but it was too late.   

“- kick,” he completed as he heard the suit of armor topple over.   

“Damn it!” Deran screamed, his ears ringing.  “I can’t hear anything!”   

“What?” Cassandra replied, the deafening sound also rattling around in her own ears.  The immediate aftersmell of sulfur once more filled the air and Cassandra covered her nose.  “That smell alone would be enough to kill the enemy!”  She coughed as she stood.   

“What?” Deran called back, still unable to hear.   

Cabbat ignored them, as well as the sound of Cassandra vomiting on the smell.  He crashed through the demolished lab to where the armor had fallen.  Picking it up, he brought it back over to her before displaying the hole of shredded metal for her to examine. He emphasized the results with, “Remarkable – no?”   

Cassandra was trying to clear the ringing from her ears but was able to hear him faintly over the din.  “An understatement to say the least,” she shouted, in awe as she moved to find and retrieve the weapon.  It took her a little effort to reach where it now lay.   

“I may be using a little too much powder for such a small device,” Cabbat conceded as he dropped the now useless armor with a clang.  “But, as I said, it’s only a prototype.”   

“Just think what an arsenal of these could do,”  Deran marveled as Cassandra bent down and reclaimed the weapon.  She spent a few short moments admiring it, then Cassandra pointed it at another chosen object on the far wall and prepared for another shot.   

Cabbat interjected himself, pushing the barrel down as he saw what she was planning to do. “Please, not again.  It’s not a toy,” Cabbat scolded.  “And I don’t think our ears could handle another round.  However,” he offered, “you may keep it if you like.  It could stand some field testing.  But please, don’t go brandishing it around the castle.  Especially to Lord Hedric.  He has a habit of becoming far too demanding, and I don’t need the distractions.  A more advanced model is still months, possibly years away.” Cabbat reached into his pocket and pulled out five small brass cylinders with lead balls embedded in one end.   Placing them into her hand, “Take these.”   

“What are they?”  Cassandra asked.   

Cabbat took the device from her hand, made sure the hammer was secure by pulling a small latch over it and then showed her.  “It’s very simple,” he said, opening the chamber near the handle and removing a still smoking cylinder without the attached lead ball.  “It only holds three shots, but as you can see, one is all you’ll need.”  He placed a new cartridge into the chamber and closed it.  “Now, you’re all ready to go.  Just remove this latch and she’s all ready,” he pointed to the arm that held the hammer down.  “I would recommend that you keep that safety on until you’re going to use it.  An accidental discharge could prove less than inconvenient.”   

Cassandra accepted the five remaining slugs and tucked the weapon into her belt.  “With weapons like this, we should have no trouble with rebels in the future.”   

Cabbat snorted again and returned to his stool.  “So, what did you want again?”  He produced a small ceramic bowl and transferred some of his powder into it.   

“Yes,” Cassandra had to get her mind back into the proper mindset after being distracted, “well, we figured you might be able to help us out with a little problem.”   

“No such thing as problems,” Cabbat griped. “Only questions to which a solution has yet to be found.”  

“We need a way to propel some new ships I’m designing,” Deran offered up.  “Really large ships.”   

“Sails,” Cabbat chuckled.  “Really big sails.”   

Deran scowled, “I told you, he wasn’t going to be able to help us.”   

Cassandra motioned to Deran to relax for a minute.  Then she told the dwarf, “Sails won’t work. Deran’s been trying to design a system that is workable, but nothing is.  What we need is something new.  Something different.”  Cabbat snorted at her and Cassandra stroked his ego a little bit by adding, “Something that only a brilliant dwarven mind like yours could think up?”   

With those words, Cabbat immediately stopped what he was doing with his powder.  “I am rather brilliant,” his hand started to stroke his beard.  “Aren’t I?”   

“Smartest dwarf I know,” Cassandra gushed at him.   

Another snort from Cabbat.  “I’m the only dwarf you know.”   

“So,” Deran half demanded, “do you have an idea or not?”   

“Calm your jets, loverboy,” Cabbat poked fun at him.  “Your girlfriend here and I are talking.”  His beard stroking continued.  “I might actually have the beginnings of an idea. Come with me.”   

Cabbat plopped down off his stool and started to head towards the hole in the outside wall.  Cassandra and Deran followed, picking their way through even more debris.  The dwarf pushed his way past several soldiers continuing to hang around outside the opening, and Cassandra took a second to turn around, noticing that the damage to the outside was even worse than on the inside.   

The three marched out to where a metal contraption stood next to one of the palace’s many fountains.  The construct was a large copper bowl sitting on a pedestal around which was the charred remains of firewood.  In the center of the bowl was a delicate pinwheel of copper with three arms sitting on a pole.  On the end of each arm smaller bowls, their openings all facing the same direction.  

Deran laughed as the dwarf began to fetch some wood from a stack nearby.  “Looks like a birdbath.”   

“Maybe,” Cabbat shot back, “to a bird-brained, ass of a boy like you.  Just watch and observe.  Maybe make yourself useful and fetch some water from the fountain and put it in the bowl?  Think you can handle that?  Sailor Boy?”   

At Cassandra’s silent urging, Deran did what he was asked to.  She then asked, “So, what is this?”   

“An idea,” Cabbat replied.  “Just watch.”   

As Cabbat finished with piling wood, and Deran added some water to the bowl with a nearby bucket, the dwarf placed a small piece of bulging paper into the not yet lit fire.  Producing a striker, he clicked it, ignited the paper in a miniature flash, and flames began to consume the wood.   

“Now,” he said, “we wait.”   

“For what?” Cassandra asked, but Cabbat did not reply immediately.   

After a couple of minutes, he pointed to the pinwheel that was starting to rock and sway.  “That,” he said as it started to rotate slowly at first, but then beginning to pick up speed.  “The fire heats the water, the water turns to steam, the cups on the end of each arm catch the steam and they turn.  We build it on a larger scale.  One that can turn a propeller that pushes the ship through the water.  Like the manually wound docking propellers ships use to maneuver in port, only bigger.”   

Cabbat stepped back and placed his hands in his pockets as he allowed the stunned silence to linger.  He enjoyed listening to the silent sound of their minds absorbing what he had shown to them.   

After some time of watching the pinwheel gain speed, Cassandra stepped forward to observe it more closely from multiple angles.  “Ingenius,” was the only response she could manage. 

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