“Higar has made a remarkable recovery, it seemed almost certain that he was going to depart.”
“Well, my good Captain, he was still under the protection of a healing god.”
The two elder statesmen of the crew, Astrologer and Captain were standing over the unconscious figure of Higar, limbs splayed out, but very much whole. His wounds, both fresh and new, had closed over, and he looked like a child asleep on a bed, his face completely peaceful. The same could not be said for either of the two men watching him. The astrologer gazed outwards in every direction, looking for some hope. The captain unrolled a chart and glanced between the two wounded crew members, and a column of precise figures. He listened Jehanjir murmured calculations, and then stopped. “I do not know of any body whose influence we can use.”
With this both fell silent and looked over at Morwethe who was preparing her healing arrow. There was a looming tension, as no one else could bear to look. She planted the arrow on Albrecht's chest, and lifted it only enough to let it fly. There was a loud crack and an explosion of smoke, however, instead of Albrecht returning to normal, Morwethe was knocked backwards, and her bow was broken in two. There were rapid swirls and eddies in the smoke that seemed to be wrapped around an almost human shape, which was, itself, more visible in outline than in substance. From the center of this miniature maelstrom, came a grating tenor voice.
“What did you think you were doing?”
Morwethe blinked and stared directly into the shifting shape, as if she could see perfectly well the being there. She placed her hands on her hips, tilted her head and shot back.
“You asked me to do great deeds of healing in your name, and this one, “she gestured at Albrecht, “is as near to taking a trip with the ferryman as any.”
“Don't you know what he is?”
“No? How would I? You haven't told me, and our summoner has departed.”
“His soul was selected by an outer God, he's under the ban. The magicks of the inner gods, myself included, are worse than ineffectual against him.”
With mock respect she said “Thank you, my lord, for your pearl of wisdom.”
To other observers the outline seemed to grow more distinct, and there was what appeared to be a medium height very muscled human like shape, only with four arms, two of which were crossed over his chest, and the other two were holding what looked like a wound in his side. Bits of fire and soot danced about his head, though he wore a wreath of holly and oak. The facial expression was impossible to read, congealing and dissipating as it did, but it seemed to be a scowl.
“So why didn't you warn me?”
“I thought you would have noticed, it is blazingly obvious as seven suns in the same sky.”
“To you, my God and master, but not to your more pitiful servants.”
An arm reached out, and seized the broken bow from Morwethe's hands.
“I am going to have to repair this.”
Morwethe's faced strained and her chin muscles pulled taught for a moment in half panic, she then began casting about. “I need a mortar and pestle. Captain, captain, captain! I require a favor to borrow components for a healing salve.” She began running this and that way in bursts, looking for component stores. The astrologer rummaged about in his bag and came up with an herb box, mortar and pestle. Morwethe promptly bent over and began hurriedly mixing the somewhat stale herbs. It was clear she had somewhat less than adequate practice in this part of the alchemical art. Niccolo bent next to her and began sort and grinding for her, freeing her hands to apply a poultice that she formed out of a strip of her garment.
She focused on each wound in turn, her forehead tight with fear and her cheeks crimped from the pressure to be expeditious. She pressed the wounds one by one, and it appeared that the bleeding had halted.
Then, slowly the smoke faded, and the figure within faded as this was occurring - though faintly one last warning came from it. “You will need to hold Higar together while I repair, and there is little devotional energy here, so after taking care of the invalid, I want to hear your sweet murmured prayers.”
Morwethe had time to roll her eyes and then brutally press down on the gash in Albrecht's belly. She was on her knees already, and so she lost no time in starting her devotionals in hopes of pulling whatever scraps of spirit might be available.
“Poor battered soul. How are you feeling?”
These words were quiet, calm, and from a voice that the swordsman thought he knew, but could not quite place. He opened his eyes, sat up spryly and looked about. He could see his body lying below him, with Morwethe and Niccolo working on it. He could also see, running across the deck, a heavy broad red-figure, clad in ragged silk like a slave. The horns and four arms gave it away as a supernatural creature, but he did not know more than that. He scanned and found suspended in mid-air a pair of worn boots, this then caused hum to crane his neck backwards, until a man, sitting on a small skiff, came into view. He was wearing garments that were like a peasant: frayed pants, leggings, boots of a rude leather, a woolen cloak that was a rust brown, and a round hat. Not unlike, Albrecht noted, the Summoner's hat.
“Don't worry, no one else can hear us, and we have all the time you need.”
“Need for what? And who are you?”
“Well, you thought me like a summoner, and so I am, I am the summoner who gather's all to him in this cosmos, as small as it is.”
“You're the ferryman.” With this Alberect noted that he had a heavy money pouch at his side, and was wearing rather different clothes: black riding leathers, with a velvet jacket, four-cornered hat, and slits on the sleeves that revealed a rich vermillion silk below.
“For here, for you, I am.”
“So it is my time to go?”
“If you want. As with orbits, lives have moments where they may go one way or another. This is one such for you. Would you come?”
Albrecht was about to ask where, and at what price, but he stopped.
“I have more to do, don't I?”
“If you feel so, but that is not the matter between you and I.”
“What then, are my choices?”
The ferryman dropped down on the deck, and stood only slightly taller than Albrecht.
“Your first choice is to go back to life, and carry on until your next time.”
“And I suppose you can't say what that is.”
“No, I cannot. I can say that your wounds are quite grievous, and will never truly heal.”
“What is the cause of that?”
The ferryman looked about conspiratorially.
“Confidentially, you are a bit of an oddity.”
“Tell me more, if you would.”
“There is a before, a preter-life, for souls. Most are insensate, like acorns on the floor of a wood doing their small tasks as spirits with rather little mind. From time to time a dietetic being will pick one, and attempt to have it incarnate.”
“Others have more important jobs, pushing and pulling the cosmos in its course. But they too can be incarnated.”
“So how am I different?”
“Well I am not permitted to go into too many details, but you were chosen by an outer God.”
“Outer of what?”
“Outer of this cosmos.”
“There are many?”
“That's not for me to say. Suffice that your soul was supposed to be born in a very powerful body.”
“And instead I was given this one.”
“Not all struggles go well, even for Gods.”
“So what does this have to do with me now?”
“You may have noticed in your life that others have a certain, ill fortune, shall I say, when they are about you.”
Albrecht sighed. “And I am always under a cloud.”
“No, the universe is merely fair to you, where as most make their way by enlisting the aid of minor godlings, or even larger ones. Like the priestess, for example.”
“None of that applies to you. The magicks of gods, mostly, fall flat on you. It isn't absolute, and I would advise against gratuitous disrespect of deitic spirits.”
“So I am going to go back and be wounded. What is my next choice?”
“Your next is to become one of the unquiet undead, haunt the place of your death, or move as you would through the world. But I would advise against this.”
“And why is that?”
“Without divine aid, the existence of such an afterlife is pressed on all sides, and you are likely to be eaten by a dragon.”
“So my third choice is to ride with you.”
“Well there are two versions of that, one to a place where souls congregate, the other back to the spirit that incarnated you. At which point you will have to answer for your choices.”
“I've been warned many times not to pay you before the journey.”
“You will not have to, there is no sister or son nearby to hinder you. The requirement for a coin of spiritual gold is not absolute, and I make exceptions.”
“They hinder souls?”
“Yes, they would rather you make your afterlife at play near them, in glades and grottos within them.”
“This gains them?”
“After a manner of speaking, but that touches on matters you would really rather not know of.”
“Why is that? Isn't it always better to know than not know?”
“It is, but it is not always better to know in the wrong order.”
“I see.” He took a moment to glance around. He could see through the hold of the ship, and saw that the princess was the only person not attending to the deck. He could not quite make out what she was doing, however.
“So four choices. Live, haunt, frolic, or settle accounts.”
The swordsman looked around, because he could sense that scent of flowers again.
“Well, I do not think I am done, so, ” this with a deep sigh, “I think it best you return me to whatever is left of my body for whatever is left of my time.”
“You can do that any time.” With this the ferryman placed a hand to the tip of his brim, and in a smooth motion used his stick to vault back on to the skiff, and pushed off, slowly fading into the dark. It seemed to take a very long time, until finally he vanished. A fog rolled in, and Albrecht found himself falling backwards as if into a soft bed, and then slowly opening his physical eyes. There was an immediate and distinct difference, in that the back of his eyes hurt, and he could feel stabbing pains in several places. He reflected that this might not have been the most comfortable of choices.
It took some effort to tilt his head one way and then another. His insides felt gashed out, and in the normal course of wounds in battle, his experience was that these were more than enough to be fatal. He then realized that they had been, but he had chosen to live. However, one constant remained: the essence of lilac hung in the air, but from whence it came, he knew not where.
His head lolled to the side.
“Thank you fair priestess and good captain.” He smiled for only a moment before he dropped into a dreamless sleep.
“I think he will pull through, captain.” She stood up and began checking other wounds, ending with her own bruises, some of which seemed quite substantial. The captain looked around for the princess, and could not find her, until nearly running over her as he turned around.
“My lord captain, shall we call a council of war to decide on our course of action?” She looked straight up, directly into his eyes with a direct earnestness, and waited for a reply.
“Aye. We should and shall, but there is work to do on the vessel first, and some observations to make.”
With a tilt of her head for acknowledgement, she turned quietly and went back down into the hold. There was a coldness to her movements, but not a single grumble escaped her lips.
Jehanjir followed her progress out, merely raising a bushy white eyebrow. He too was clearly captivated by something in her movements, stirred by a firmity of flesh that he had not felt in centuries, but this is not what drove his concern. He went to the Captain's side and took out his miniature orrery and stood closer to the taller man.
“It makes me uneasy, to feel the growing conflict between the two of you. I would like to make peace if I can?”
“Conflict? I do not feel any conflict, this is my ship, but I have, however, gone to every length to be accommodating to the views of others.”
“She a high princess, and expects greater deference.”
“That is fortunate that I have such an even disposition, she nearly brought catastrophe on us all by calling the wyrms. By rights she should be confined.”
“From her perspective she saved us all. And on one in particular that she is fond of.”
“Albrecht, specifically, she spends a great deal of time staring at the drawings he made.”
“Well that is not my concern.”
“The green star is a poor one to guide this ship by.”
“Are you accusing me of...”
“She has a strange attraction, and every man on this ship is under its influence. Imagine that I, or Morwethe or Higar or Albrecht defied your authority. It would seem to me, that the result would be definitely different.”
The captain nodded.
“You think she is charming us, using a spell?”
“I doubt in any malicious way, or perhaps not even in any way enhanced by aid of magic, but she is a creature of a very inbred court, and has made her way here for reasons that we do not understand, but which certainly required enormous powers of persuasion. She is the political animal on this ship, and has us dancing even without overt planning.”
“So you advise...”
“Perhaps something more specific is in order, Jehanjir.”
“She suggested a council of war, and you put her off. Perhaps that might be less than the best course, because now she is, with your blessing, free to do what she wishes.”
The captain nodded. “'Tis true I am not a creature of marble floors, and gilded ceilings. Pomp and circumstance are not my strong point. Your advice does seem to have a great deal of merit.”
“Astrology the science is how the court of the heavens enacts its dance. As with the seven suns and seven spheres, so with the mortals who spin round within their reach.”
The captain, again, smiled.
“You have a bit of the poet, Jehanjir.”
“A few volumes here and there, but rather dry in style, I never attained the touch of more contemporary tastes.”
Deciding not to speculate, the on which event of antiquity demarcated “contemporary” in his companion's estimation, the captain instead turned to the more looming topic that was on everyone's mind.
“We must create some plan for escaping this section of the void. While we are not far from Eowilonwey, the influence here is weak, and the ether is almost stagnant. You can feel the reek of dead air coming off the lanterns.”
“Becalmed is always a terror, and we have little enough supplies I know.”
“This leaves aside how to make up the lost time against Bartine, and the lurking dragons, and our minor irridentia in accounts with Eo herself. What was it with the Summoner?”
“As far as I am able to determine, Eo was determined not to let him leave. He had great spiritual energy stored, and she was bound to have it under her control.”
“Is this so important?”
“Well it is in the nature of things that Gods receive worship.”
“But by the terms of their imprisonment, I believe Sarukosian was the first to write this based on mis measurements of ether flow, that the suns and the spheres do not receive the direct benefits.”
“How did he know it was imposed?”
“There are statements to this in several of the old codexes, and hints in the epics.”
“So even if they are worshipped, they get no power?”
“No direct power, but they can, shall we say, influence others.”
“I am not clear, the intricacies of metaphysics are something I left to others, the practicality was my interest.”
“Others attain spiritual power: godlings, mortals, spirits. Within their reach, this infuses all material things. The sphere, and all within it, are physical things.”
“So the sisters control the sphere, which soaks up the strength.”
“That is correct, or nearly so.”
“And thus when a powerful being with a great deal of spiritual energy leaves a sphere, it is a loss for the sister.”
“But why our summoner in particular?”
“One thing I found out rather late is that he had a rather important preter-life, he was some high spirit, married to an etheral fiend. I have not had time to look up the duties that his preter-life had, but they were significant. What I do know is that in this life, he was often involved in finding ways to allow the unquiet dead to depart for some more final afterlife.”
“And you think Eo had some problem with this?”
“His life was allowing souls to depart, all of them were still connected to him, even if slightly.”
“So she wanted his afterlife within her, and through him, to all of the others.”
“She wanted him alive within her as long as possible, because once he departs she might be able to hinder the ferryman, but not thwart that dread spirit in his appointed task.”
“So the Summoner hit upon the plan of binding himself to this ship.”
“That is my belief, yes. Originally I mistook this for my not being on it. However, that is merely because I discounted the influence of a star.”
“This one, the one we are standing on, the star in waiting that is the Summoner's soul when it reaches the fixed sphere.”
“Will it be bright?”
“Not notably so, but it is right here with us, and for the time being, it is not fixed.”
“Is this unusual, to have an unfixed star?”
“Not in such a way, but usually fixed stars depart rapidly, flashing in the sky. Often in showers when the grip of the sister weakens.”
“Ah yes, I remember this, we call them falling stars, but in many cases they are fleeing stars.”
“So what is unusual is that his influence is rogue for so long.”
“Though hardly unprecedented. I should have seen it, it is something that occurs, well at least once every decade or so.”
“I think you can be forgiven your trespasses.”
“This is not a circumstance where the foibles of an aging mind are an excuse.”
“Which returns us to our problem: until we can return to the vortices of the influence that are the engine of motion, we are in very grave circumstances.”
“We have a rogue star, is there any way to parlay that into some advantage?”
Jehanjir turned aside and motioned over his shoulder with one hand for the Captain to follow him. He went to the fore, where he had mounted a telescope, and turned it outwards.”
“Our being a rogue star, or on one, is more a disadvantage than you suspect.”
His hand turned the telescope outwards and pointed it carefully. He waited while Niccolo looked through it. What the captain saw was a long whip like body of a dragon, not a large one, but large enough, slithering through space on bat like wings.
“They are waiting for us to die, so that they might consumer the summoner's soul. A rogue star is quite a catch.
“I count seven.”
“Even one is enough, and two a surplus.”
At this moment both men were startled, because the princess had stolen up upon them, certainly noiselessly, and seemingly invisibly as well.
“Excuse me fine captain and great astrologer, I overheard your conversation and deliberations, and had some thoughts that I would like to offer for your consideration.”
He tone was extremely formal, and there was an elongation of many of the vowels that gave this impression a double weight.
“As you may know, ” doubling the “O” very distinctly, “our beloved giant says he is a teamster. We could, I fain, yoke one of your beasts to the ship, and have it take us hither, at least as far as the ether again. Perhaps farther.”
“Yoke? The giant is strong, but not so strong as this.”
“His maul is a godling incarnate, and will not be broken by any force a mortal will master against it. Even such a mortal as a dragon of the ether.”
“And his strength? No man can overcome a dragon's strength, at least none since epic times.”
“This too I know.” She allowed a certain offense to creep into her voice, but only just.
“But the strength is to be harnessed to the ship, our good giant Higar need only guide, not enchain, the creature.”
About to make a hot retort, the captain held his tongue, but Jehanjir clenched a hand on his shoulder tightly, feigning weakness.
Niccolo took a deep breath and relaxed, and modulated his voice.
“And your plan for luring it here and accepting our bonds?”
“Perhaps you have noticed that I have some minor attainments in beckoning to mortal souls, and amplifying the powers of persuasion over them.”
Her words were met with a stony face, and stony silence, but after a moment the Captain made a deep frown.
“It seems madness to me, but then this entire venture is madness. Let us lay plans to make it affected.”
The astrologer could feel the influence peeling off the princess' skin, and the sorcery almost soaked the air around her. He was not, however, sure, whether she had used it to weaken their wills. It was, disturbing, to think that this young leaf of a woman might well be holding their leashes. But he could think of nought else, and so acceded to the working through a plan to ensnare a dragon. He also spent some time collecting bits of the dragon glow that clung here and there about the ship. Perhaps he would get a chance to examine it more closely, later. Or put it to use, though he did not think there would be nearly enough to move the ship.