A Dirty Job
rating: +9+x

“You want… dirt?” said Craiga, incredulous.

“Not dirt!,” cried the disheveled creature before her. “Soil! I need soil!”

Craiga’s eyes narrowed, “You wouldn’t be one of them wee mushroom people, would ye? Cause I don’t let none of those crazies on my ship.” She’d in fact shoot the Nihl if she could after what they’d done to her first mate, but that would probably be unwise with all the Withstanders here in Last Light’s port.

“No!” said the creature, his hood flying back as he emphatically shook his head. He seemed to be human, and young, maybe late 20s, but there was something… off about him. And there was ivy growing up his neck, complete with a couple white flowers perched on his head. Calming, he looked at her again, tension still shining in his bright green eyes as he continued, “They tried to kill me when I first arrived. There seems to be something about me they inherently dislike.”

Craiga snorted, “That don’t take much with them-” a floral scent struck her nostrils, like yeld brew mixed with honeysuckle, “Though the smell from those flowers might certainly have set them off. It ain’t exactly the rotting odor they usually prefer.”

“Oh,” he replied, turning pink, “Sorry… It happens when I get stressed.” Then, as she watched. The flowers on the ivy closed, the buds blending in almost perfectly with his dark hair.

A mage then, Craiga thought to herself. She raised an eyebrow, “Well, if they hate ye, that’s at least reason enough to hear ye out. Come aboard and we’ll talk.”

So, hefting the parts crate she was carrying, Craiga walked down the plank to her ship, hip aching a bit where it met her prosthetic. She was still grateful to the Foundry for it, even after all these years, but damned if it wasn’t a pain sometimes.

It was a temporary pain though, one that faded the moment she set foot on the ship. She breathed a sigh of relief as the ship’s core strengthened her leg’s magic. Caprunner was always good to her and, even if she was a bit rusted out in places, Craiga wouldn’t trade the old girl for anything.

Her engineer Crawlie met her at the deck, extending the furry forelimbs of his yellow, spider-like body to take the box from her. Then with a hollow, whistling sound he was off toward the engine room. Nodding politely to them both as he scuttled away, he gave a small sneeze as he passed by Wilk, long fangs flashing unintentionally with the motion. The kid flinched.

Amused but understanding, she directed him to the main cabin. It wasn’t exactly what could be called ‘clean’, but he was also the one coming to her, and he didn’t smell of money. Pushing a pile of charts aside, she gestured, and they sat at the metal table.

“Now, what’s your name and explain to me this grand ole’ quest for dirt of yours,” she said, rather delighting the in the look of restrained exasperation he gave her. Exasperation was much more useful than panic anyway.

Taking a deep breath and speaking in slow, measured tones, he said, “My name is Wilk and I’m seeking soil for personal reasons of my own. Reasons that are essential to the survival of my people. I cannot say more without putting them at risk.”

“So you need to grow some kind of magic plant to help your people somehow, got it,” she replied, pulling a canteen filled with cold yeld from her hip. She could already tell she was going to need it.

He started, “How do you know that?”

She gave him a level stare, “You’re on my ship kid, I ask the questions. Plus, yer practically half plant. Wasn’t much of a leap. I take it this ain’t a’ air plant like most of the stuff here?”

Sighing, he shook his head, “No, it can’t just capture moisture from the clouds, it can’t grow in the gravely dirt, and it can’t just grow on magic either. I need proper soil, and I need it quickly.” He finally looked her in the eye, “Some of the other refugees told me you help people get around sometimes. Name your price. I’ll do what I need to.”

For a moment, she simply stared at him. With what she was thinking, there was a distinct possibility she could lose another leg out of this. Then again, she was old and gray now and, if she was honest, didn’t really regret that adventure either. Finally, she sighed and said, “Ah, mist it. I might know a place that has what ye need, but it’s risky.”

“Where?” he said, his entire attention focused in that single word.

“She’s called the Green Lady. Can you do your plant mumbojumbo on things other than your own vines?” she said, gesturing to the greenery currently embellishing his ear like some sort of earthen accessory.

He glanced away for a moment, looking slightly nervous again, before steeling himself and saying, “Yes… if necessary.”

“Oh, it will most certainly be necessary.” She held up a finger, “Now, listen here lad. The only reason I’m agreeing to this at all is because ye might be the only one that could actually do it. And I’ma only asking for one thing.”

Now it was Wilk’s turn to look suspicious, eyebrow raised, “And that would be?”

She smiled wickedly. It seemed he wasn’t as stupid as she’d thought. “Salvage rights,” she replied. “There’s nothing more valuable in ma line of work than an untouched site, and people have been tryin’ to crack the Green Lady’s bonnet since I started salvaging. I want first choice of anything we find in there.”

Wilk looked at her, then nodded, “That’s acceptable, so long as it doesn’t do anything to jeopardize the soil there.”

Standing up, possibly a bit too quickly for her hip, Craiga clapped him on the shoulder, “Then it sounds like we have a deal! Pack your things, we leave in a week.” Not that day or night meant a big difference here, considering it was simply whether the Holders were walking or kneeling. While the night could see the mist wandering the streets, it seemed to more be that people just needed the rhythm.

Wilk shook his head, appearing resolute for the first time since she’d met him, before looking her in the eye. “I can’t wait that long. If you want me on board, it needs to be sooner.”

Craiga paused. Normally, she’d snap at someone for talking to her like that on her own ship, but something in his eyes made her change her mind. Instead, she said quietly, “Tomorrow then, best I can do.”

He nodded.


To Craiga’s mind, flying her ship was as close as possible to being free in the last world. Tied into Caprunner’s core, she could feel every gust of wind as it caressed the sails, the clouds a cool spray against the hull as they flew through the gray, hazy sky above the mist. There truly were few things Craiga loved as much as flying.

At least when she wasn’t trying to outrun a Nihl ship filled with cultists that wanted to kill her.

She’d first sensed them about a day after they’d left port. The rot worshipers had been subtle at first, especially closer to the city, but they’d grown bolder the further she’d flown. When she’d asked the kid about them, he’d claimed he had no idea and, stupidly, she’d believed him.

Up to this point, she’d been able to avoid a direct confrontation by sticking to the Withstander watchposts. The small floating fortresses offered protection from any overt threat, and more importantly, information. With the Holders always changing location relative to one another, Last Light relied on the watchposts to keep track of the shifting resources, and sometimes its own districts.

It was after they’d left the third outpost, when she’d finally learned of a recent sighting of the Green Lady, that the Nihl’s demeanor had shifted. The moment the outpost was out of sight, they were on her.

“Kid, get up here. Crawlie, get ready to do your thing,” She said gruffly over the ship’s comm. “Our company seems to have decided to pay us a visit.”

When Wilk showed up in the cockpit, she didn’t look at him, keeping focused on the ship, buying Crawlie time to get in position. There was even only a little threat in her voice as she said, “Okay, I bought yer line of Holder droppings when they were just following us, but now they’re probably goin’ ta catch us in spite of ma best attempts to shake’m. These aren’t no normal spore spawn. So, I’ll ask ye again before they try and slit our throats; what in the shattered worlds did you do to piss them off?”

“Nothing!” he pleaded, his ever-present hood still up. “I just came through the grove and they attacked me!”

She blinked, glancing at his quivering form off to the side, “A grove? You didn’t come through the city arch?” That was how the majority of residents found Last Light. It was the most common gate people came through when fleeing a dying world.

He shook his head, the smell from his ivy filling the room, “No, it was a ring surrounded by air plants and a lily pond.” He was quivering, “Then, before I could get my bearings, they were on me. I yelled and-”

BOOM!

The ship shook, a rending, screeching sound filling the air. Craiga held tight to her seat, nails digging in to avoid getting thrown, gritting her teeth as she felt the grapple line pierce the hull. Wilk was less lucky. She watched as he slammed into the hull with a thud. A moment later he sat up with gasp, desperate for air, the wind knocked from his lungs.

Something was wrong though. The Nihl had been to port, but the line had hit them from the other side. Leaving one standing order for the core, Craiga dashed to the deck as fast as her old limbs would carry her. This was not going according to plan.

A spray of water hit her face as she reached topside. They were in a cloud bank. Whatever had hit them must have been hiding there before it speared her ship. reeling them in like salvage floating through the air. Then she saw it; there was an island in the sky.

They happened sometimes, fragments of a world falling through and not quite following the normal rules of physics, not that they really applied here anyway. You couldn’t know how long they'd ignore them though, before you took a rather precipitous drop into the mists. No one sane would choose to live on them, unless the prospect of an imminent yet unknown end excited you, which is probably exactly why the Nihl had set up the compound that was currently reeling them in.

The crafty bastards, thought Craiga. That other ship hadn’t been chasing her, she realized. It had been herding her. She could see a group of the moss-skinned blighters gathering on the walls.

It was just then that Wilk caught up to her. There was panic in his voice at the sight of the fortress, “How do we fight that?”

She laughed, “Oh we sure as mist don’t.” She then answered his incredulous sound, “Our job is to keep’em talking and under no circumstances leave this ship, ye understand?” She pulled her pistol from her coat.

Wilk sounded even more scared at the sight of the gun, “If we’re just talking, w-why do we need that?”

Craiga flashed him one of her wolfish smiles, “Sometimes shouting is necessary.” With that she leaned over the side, taking potshots at the would-be boarding party. They scattered, though she was pretty sure she caught one in the leg before they ducked behind cover.

They returned fire a moment later, but their angle was bad with the ship still above them. Wilk ducked behind a crate of supplies on deck as they were drawn level. Craiga then joined him as one of the cultist’s shouted, “Well that seemed a bit uncalled for, though I still might be prepared to let you go. If you give us that greenling abomination.”

“What do you even want with the wee little shrub?” she called back curiously. “He’s just a man, and a pretty young and stupid one at that.” Next to her, Wilk flashed Craiga an irritated look, his fear subsiding a little, replace with indignation. So predictable. Just a little bit longer…

“His time is over, like everyone coming through the grove gates. The verdant green’s reign ended with the dying of the worlds. How are they ever to be reborn? Unless its followers die, and rot is given its rightful crown.”

“So you just kill them soon as they walk through, that it?” she said.

“Oh don’t worry heathen,” he replied, a wicked smile creeping into his voice. “Rot lets nothing go to waste. It is only natural that their corpses fertilize our groves. He was simply one that got away.”

Surprisingly, it was Wilk who replied. He laughed, a chuckle that went on well past reason, devolving into something more akin to a cackle, its edged tinged with madness. “I didn’t escape anything, you idiot priest. Neither did my people. My body rots even as I stand here. Even the good captain’s term 'young' was nothing more than a kindness now, I’m sure.”

With surprise, Craiga realized he was right. She hadn’t gotten more than a glance of his face since he’d first come on board because of that tattered hood. Next to her now though, she saw a much older being. His eyes were more sunken, lines marring his face that surely hadn’t been there before. When she’d met him, he couldn’t have looked older than 25. Now, he resembled a man on the late side of 40.

“Well, if that’s the case, then why not simply join us?” cooed the priest. “You practically sound like one of the order already.”

There was a clang as the grapple hook fell free, Crawlie’s task complete. The core revved up as it responded to Craiga’s standing order to get them the hell out of there.

“Because you’re wrong about one thing,” Wilk replied, shouting over the din as they took off. “There’s still some things worth fighting for.”

The ship sprung forward, cultists shouting as they pulled away. Then she heard it, another bang as a second grapple line shot for them, sitting ducks with the ship on autopilot.

Wilk saw it too it seemed. Hood flying back, he screamed the word “No!” his hand outstretched. From his body sprouted a coiling mass of vines, each sporting crystal leaves. They flew away from the ship, slamming full force against the grapple line as they deflected it.

“Holders balls…” Craiga said in shock. She watched as the vines withered in Wilk’s hands, pieces trailing behind them as they shot into the sky.


The kid was in a bad way. After his stunt with the grapple line, he’d nearly collapsed the minute they were skyward again. Even as he claimed he was okay, Craiga knew a bluff when she saw it. He was aging faster too; seemed closer to her own age now, and she considered herself nearing the end of her run.

Still, the encounter with the sporelings seemed to have changed something in him. When she asked about turning back, all he did was give her a wry smile and say, “At this point, we either finish this or I die for nothing, and I’d imagine you still want your salvage.”

Craiga had to admit she’d lost her taste for treasure, but found she couldn’t say no. Still, she kept glancing over to the chair she’d given him in the cockpit, even as she continued trying to avoid the wee fungus ship still chasing them.

At least now she knew where she was going as she flew through the eternal twilight, searching for a glimpse of green amidst the haze. The hours passed, the clouds and shadows playing tricks with her mind. Her eyes blinked, struggling to keep open, but she wasn’t going to stop. This was a job she was going to see to the end. Then finally she saw it; a shape among the mist that could only be the goddess green.

“Hey kid,” she said as she pointed to the outline through the bridge window. “Think that’ll do for ye?”

Wilk roused with difficulty, and then stared in wonder.

She rose before them like a world unto herself; her jade skin dancing in a thousand hues. Where Last Light’s Holders were bent low, their dwindling numbers crushed by the burden they carried upon their backs, the Green Lady stood tall, her burden balanced perfectly atop her head. It stood like a headdress, a bowl of gleaming gold as wide as a mountain, sailing smoothly through the air as the goddess walked through the mist. At the rim swayed a gleaming mass of emerald vines, each as thick as a skyship and rising higher than any could fly, weaving back and forth as they protected their mistress’ bounty from the hungry mists swirling at her feet.

“That… should be enough,” he said weakly, a tired a smile touching his lips. Age etched in new lines around his eyes.

Craiga looked at him, hesitating with the next words. Finally, she said with uncharacteristic softness, “You’re up, kid. Getting us through them vines is gonna have to be you.”

He glanced at her silently, then nodded. Rising shakily, Wilk stumbling toward the deck. He looked back as he reached the doorway, leaning heavily against it as he said, “There will be more than enough payment there, I’m sure. But please… Whatever happens. Make sure I’m buried.”

She nodded, eyes shining with what was surely greed for the salvage she was about to obtain; definitely not with anything resembling a soft spot for the kid.

Craiga watched through the eyes of the ship as Wilk made his way topside. His facade fell once he thought she wasn’t looking, tears streaming down his face. Yet he never lost his smile, even as he walked toward the bow.

Then he began singing.

It wasn’t words, exactly. No, the tones and half-melodies flowed like the rustling of the trees in the wind. They swayed, like the dancing of seaweed on the tide or brush rolling through the desert. As she watched, the flowers in his hair opened again, spreading pollen through air. The motes drifted and danced with the rhythm of his song, wrapping the ship in a cocoon of gold that couldn’t be blown away by the wind.

They didn’t stop the vines as they circled the ship, so much as make them change their minds. They'd pause when touching the pollen, before taking on a sway in time to the song. The ship sailed through like there was no barrier at all, glowing gold all the while. Craiga watched Wilk smile at the forest that appeared below them, the last note fading as he collapsed upon the deck.


No matter how pretty the ending, it didn’t change the dirty work of the aftermath, Craiga mused. That didn’t stop her from doing it though, her shovel patting down the mound. She’d landed Caprunner in a small field among the trees, working steadily in the ship’s shadow. Craiga had even waved off Crawlie’s help for this. It was just as well. He was a sneezing mess from all the pollen still covering the ship anyways, and she wouldn’t let him clean it off until they left.

Didn’t stop her hip screaming at her as she looked down at her handiwork though. She leaned to take the weight off it. “Well kid, seems ye hustled me good. There wasn’t exactly the reward ye promised. Maybe I can find some fruit or something to take back. Either way, I hope yer at peace in that dirt- err soil- that ye wanted so bad,” she said sadly.

As she watched though, the ground began trembling. Then, in the very center of the mound, a sapling sprouted. It grew, spreading its alabaster branches toward the sky as crystal leaves blossomed upon its branches. The gray twilight glowed around them, refracting in a riot of color that spread across the ground. She watched as the trunk lengthened, then winced as it pushed the prow of the ship to the side with resonant shriek of protesting metal.

“Hey! Ye darn driftwood! Watch my ship!” she yelled.

It paid her no heed, stretching into a massive tree that dwarfed the trunks around it. When it finally stopped, the canopy covered the clearing, bathing it in a rainbow glow.

Her anger forgotten, Craiga whistled as she looked at the trunk, the sound cutting off abruptly as she recognized what she was seeing. The colors on the trunk weren’t simply random patterns, they were… images. Thousands of overlapping pictures danced before her; singing and dancing, joy and sorrow, millions of moments moving and shining within every leaf.

“Well, I’ll be misted,” she said breathlessly. “They’re… memories.” And they didn’t seem to just be Wilk’s memories either. They were too varied, too numerous, to simply be his.

“Something worth fighting for, eh?” Craiga said to no one in particular. She smiled as the image of a young Wilk drifted by, his face covered entirely in food. There were no vines upon him, and what could only be siblings crowded around him as they tried to clean him up. “Yeah,” she chuckled. “I can see why ye might want to save that.”

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