When we speak of the art of alchemy, we must divide it into physical and spiritual realms, which require the transmutation and combination of either material quantities or spiritual quantities. We must also divide it into intrinsic, and extrinsic processes. Intrinsic alchemy, of which the previous chapter was devoted, is the utilization of the inner properties either of matter, or spirits. To engage in extrinsic alchemy, it is necessary to use the influences of the suns and spheres against the background of fixed stars. There are 8 greater houses, each representing one of the 8 classes of matter or spirit, and there will be, from any sphere, 7 suns and 6 spheres, each in a house. Each sphere or sun will rule one of the 13 processes of alchemy (for matter this would be Calcination, Solution, Dissolution, Sublimation, Separation, Fermentation, Conjunction, Exaltation, Putrefaction, Multiplication, Congelation, Combustion, and Projection), and so we can declare that each of the 13 processes will have most affect on the class which is ruled by the house the proper body is in.
Thus if the body that rules purgation is in the Leopard, which is the element of fire, those materials or spirits of fire, can be properly subject to purgation. Thus, on each sphere there will be a unique combination of classes on which extrinsic alchemy may be performed. Since each soul is born, the element of the individual at birth, is the extrinsic alchemy that is performed on that soul. In this way the astrologer casts, by ascertaining the great extrinsic alchemy performed on the soul, at the moment of its joining with the material...
… and so it was for many centuries, that each alchemist attempted to gather the essence of each process for each class, which made for 104 essences, or elements. Since many of these have never been found or observed in any way, it was destined to failure, or at least success that has still eluded all efforts of all reputable alchemists. The dream was to have, of course, the philosopher's stone, and the universal aqua, which could be used to produce the correct essence for all, and so the great alchemists proceeded in their search. However, for the practical alchemists two great discoveries have led to the proliferation of the art. The first was the discovery that for most purposes, the four cardinal types could, indeed produce the 4 mediant types, and vice versa. This reduced the needed elements to 52. The second, of course, is that thaumaturgical influence could be used to create a flow of essence for any one of these 52. Hence, the production of the modern arcana, with four suits to match the four element types being used as bases, and the 13 processes. While not sufficient for all purposes, it allows the production of ordinary reactions anywhere in amounts sufficient for daily use. Gone are the centuries long accumulations of specific steps, to be combined only at specific times, save for those greater and more complex magicks that are far beyond what may be written in exoteric tomes...
Codex Magnus Al-Kim’s
For two days they had torn through space, pulled by their draconian steed, at a pace that was very deliberate for one of these beasts, but which was far faster and truer than humans could usually manage. Several times both the ship's master and the astrologer suspected that they had gone straighter than straight, or along a celestial equivalent of a faerie path that took them miles with every stride. Higar had been awake nearly every minute, subsisting on draughts brewed by the captain, tough he was haggard and looked a thin ruin of his former self. Morwethe, between rounds of tending to wounds, had spent every waking minute on her knees doing devotionals: sitting up, touching one hand to her forehead, bending to the deck, sitting up, touching her other hand to her forehead, and then bending again. Her lips were a constant wave of motion.
Below Albrecht was stretch out on a blanket and spent his hours sleeping and drawing, he had had four ribs smashed, and several punctures in his belly, and if they had been on some more fertile sphere, he would long have been taken by infectious influences. Here, however, where spontaneous generation was more tightly bound by some enchantment that none could quite understand, he seemed to be able to hold on to his life. He covered a single sheet of vellum with a lovingly rendered portrait of the princess standing at her full height, half turned looking backwards towards something that locked her gaze in both fascination and slight disgust. He would look into the scale that imprisoned her soul, and then back down to his rendering of her incarnation.
It hung before them as if they stood upon the surface of a sphere, and not the deck of a ship: Korana was shrouded in smudges of mist that hung around it like a shroud. The surface was clearly a dull gray, and it was difficult to demarcate the land from the waters. Near by, bright as a shining ruby, was its companion moon Kohepta, nearly as large as Korana now.
Niccolo shook his head.
“This is wrong. Kohepta has always been large, but this is larger than I remember her. She has grown, and far more quickly than anything in my experience or reading.”
Instead of confirmation, Jehanjir was busy measuring. “Tis an illusion, from Korana's darkness, and the companions brightness.”
This drew an appreciative whistle. “At least all is not madness.”
”All is not madness, nor is all lost.”
“We are, at least, here far before our rival fleet. Though I have oft looked in our wake, and seen tremors in the ether that indicate that we are pursued still by the flying pestilence of wyrms.”
“Undoubtedly, we are a pearl of great price.”
“Do you think the swordsman broken? I mean in more than body.”
“Young men and young women are bodies whose interactions are farther from me than the dallying of the spheres, and far less orderly. I have forgotten whatever I knew of it, which was little enough then.”
“She could never marry him, and I cannot believe he has not had his share of wenching in his travails. It makes no sense to me, save with bewitchment as an explaining force.”
“Not all bewitchings are of the magical sort, Captain Niccolo.”
To this the mariner nodded.
“He senses something, he keeps saying she is alive.”
“In this he is correct, she has not departed.”
“But of what use is that? Better she had.”
“The turns of kismet are even more complex than those of love. I do not know why he chose to stay with us, and I do not know why she chose not to depart when she had her chance?”
“It was in both their horoscopes: a visitation from the ferryman, within that day more or less. If their souls are not in flight to that other realm, it is because something within them willed the hither rather than thither.”
“They are both made of very stern stuff, that I must give them both. Even though I have half a mind to take Albrecht to task.”
“We have some hours before we will reach the bow shock of Korana, thought we might wish to make a full swing around, and examine Kohepta first. It has always been a strange moon: none record her birth, and there has never been a solution to that conjunction could have led to her conception, and by which sun. The seven suns and seven sisters have never spoken of it, though that is not so strange, the do not speak of Lilith either, and her birth is well recorded and considered.”
“We still have to dispose of our steed.”
“Easy enough done, loose it and it will tear outwards, until its addled wits are healed.”
“Would you not slay it.”
“I still do not understand how we tamed it, and less how we would actually end its life. Dragon skulls are very hard, and I doubt even Higar and his maul, alone, would do the trick. Dragon slaying is almost as dangerous to have done, as to do.”
“Aye, that it is, infamy upon the wing is oft the reward.”
“So I advise we leave the affairs of dragons to dragons.”
“And what of the scale?”
“We should keep it safe, and perhaps find some solution, or let the swordsman mourn her passing, for such it in all...” He halted in his course.
It was said by a cat as it wound its way around the astrologer's legs. It was white and orange: a white belly, and two large patches of orange above. Jehanjir recognized it, from the drawing in Albrecht's hand that was next to where he had made his bed. The old man bent down, and looked into its eyes, one was green, the other blue.
“And where did you come from, my kitty cat?”
The cat looked up, stared as if giving the astrologer due and serious consideration, and then wound its way around his leg again, before running off and down the stairs to the lower deck.There were general stares, because it was inconceivable that a cat could have hidden from them for this long, though perhaps possible. Higar looked “Perhaps it is the princess' cat? She was the one doing all the counting.”
“Perhaps. Or more personally.”
It was at this point that Higar, Niccolo, and Jehanjir went down into the hold. They found the cat sitting on a drawing, straight up. Albrecht absently pet the cat's head a few times, and there was loud purring that rose and fell like the drawing of breath. The swordsman however, remained slouched out, and continued to draw, his beard was growing into a blonde stubble, and he had an unmistakable odor of wine about him.
This was finally too much to bear for the beleaguered mariner.
“Where have you been hiding the cat all this time, and who gave you permission to take it aboard.”
Albrecht looked up serenely, his long blonde hair, framing his long face and frighteningly blue eyes. “I never hid the cat. She came to me just now, though perhaps, ” he stared off to the left, “some of the squeaking I heard was her chasing mice. But no, I did not hide the cat. She came, ” he gestured to the drawing, “from that, I think.”
“What kind of a fool do you think I am!?”
“An old fool.”
Niccolo was entirely unused to such insubordination from someone who was either crew or ships complement, and had his rapier out.
“Stand and make account of yourself, you lying bastard.” The gust of anger had passed, and these words were a determined cold.
There was an almost pitying look of half vacant resignation from the floor, while Jehanjir put a hand on Niccolo's shoulder and tried to slow him down, but it was too late, he covered the gap in two strides and was just outside of measure. His nominal opponent put the papers aside and sighed, rolling slowly up to his feet. At the first moment that could possibly be declared not entirely disreputable, the captain took a step and lunge, but found his rapier caught in a cross block between the forte of his opponent's rapier and main-gauche.
“I did not hide the cat, captain.”
“You are drunk, and lying.”
“Well perhaps I am drunk, ” he twitched his face and blinked his eyes as he forced the pair in a circle, “but generally drunk men don't lie very well, and shouldn't even try. How do you know I am lying.”
“You drew that cat. I saw the drawing.”
“And so, you presume the drawing came after the cat?”
They pressed close, and the captain spat at Albrecht.
“Isn't that the way it usually is?”
“Which came first, the ship, or the drawings of the ship?”
“Touche, Niccolo.” This interjection from the astrologer was, however, ignored.
“Do you deny this is your cat?”
“I deny that I have ever known a cat to be owned by anyone, ever.”
“Do you deny, that this, is your cat?”
“It is not my cat.”
“Then how did you draw it, was it the princesses cat.”
There was some more jostling, but Niccolo's blade was firmly fixed and despite the strain on his muscles, Albrecht was not letting it go. Finally, in utter frustration, the broader man simply pushed him backwards into the bulkhead and took a two step lunge. However, this merely lead to the point of his sword being stuck in the wood. Albrecht ran his fingers up the sides of the blade looking at it, and then at the Captain.
“Captain, I admit I am drunk, but if you do not gain some sense here, I really will be forced to run you through. For the last time, it is not my cat. I have not seen this cat before. It is not the princess' cat either to my knowledge.”
“Please Captain, Niccolo, comrade in arms. Cease this. You can see he is in earnest.”
Higar nodded. “The blonde man is too arrogant to lie.”
A quick smirk rolled over Albrecht's thin lips. “Thank you, I think.”
Niccolo shrugged and pulled the blade out of the wood slowly, and sheathed it.
“So it isn't your cat? Your word of honor?”
“So it isn't your cat? Your word of honor?”
“Whatever that is worth, yes.”
“And it isn't the princess' cat?”
From behind him the astrologer broke in, “Perhaps it is the princess.”
With that, the captain raised his eyebrows.
“Tell me more.”
“Her soul did not depart, and perhaps it has been incarnated as the cat. Such things, I think, are possible.”
Higar broke in. “The Summoner's soul is still here, and it is a magic vessel.”
“My apologies, Albrecht, I think the strain has gotten to me.”
“Tis not the princess.”
“How do you know.”
“First off, it is a boy, not a girl.” He took too steps over and scooped up the cat, which lazily allowed itself to hang from his hands. Albrecht turned the cat around and showed everyone.
“See? That means boy.” He dropped the cat who returned to the corner, this time to curl up on the heap of a blanket.
“That isn't an impediment.”
“Second, it is not her scent.”
“What do you mean, Albrecht?” This question came from the astrologer, whose eyebrow piqued in interest.
With a sigh, the swordsman walked over to the dragon scale, and carried it over to the three men. “Smell this, if you will.”
Jehanjir shook his head.
“My nose is too many times broken.” Came the excuse from Higar. “And I should go and watch the dragon anyway.” He trudged back up.
“Send down Morwethe.”
And indeed moments later she gingerly descended, her ample hips flouncing as she took careful steps down.
“Smell this, please, lady priestess.”
Morwethe bent closely, and took an deep inhalation.
“Now smell the cat please, good priestess.”
She bent down and coaxed the cat to her with gestures and blinks. It was somewhat dubious at first, but came to her. She picked it up and allowed it to clamber over her shoulders. The cat, smelled of cat, with a strong dose of mouse.
“It smells like a cat.”
“I will tell you the sorceress has an air about her. Her soul is still in the scale.”
“So the cat just, appeared?” The captain was still dubious.
“Where do you think the mice came from?”
Jehanjir again raised an eyebrow. “You drew mice in the plans?”
“A bit later, but on the same sheets. And the flies.”
“Flies can be spontaneous.”
“Only if there is meat for them.”
“True, and we have none about. This theory intrigues me. You say that there is a magic that summons things into being?”
“Why do you think I drew the princess?”
“It seems a very vain hope.”
“Better than no hope. Now may I ask, good gentles all, that we return to our work.”
“Does that include you, draughtsman?”
“Does that include you, draughtsman?”
“I suppose it should.” With that, he went over and hung the scale and his drawing of the princess next to each other, and set himself to cleaning up and organizing. It was clear he was still quite injured, and his range of motion was limited, but he found ways of moving around it. The cat, meanwhile, would follow around first one person, and then another, watching them work, before wandering off to sleep. Occasionally the cat would be no where to be found, until it would arrive with a mouse, often a live mouse.
Once he dropped it at the feet of Morwethe, who startled when she looked down, and then picked the mouse up by the tail and did an elaborate bow. “Why thank you Don Gato, for this marvelous gift.” The mouse wrestled, but clearly was not long for this world. So she walked over to Niccolo dropped the mouse with half a shiver, and said “Kill it!”
This elicited a chuckle, and the mouse was rapidly dispatched. “You could have done it your self, I think.”
A wink came back, with a reply. “Perhaps but it would hinder the devotional energy, and I pray that we will have the full force of my God's favor soon upon us.”
At this, Niccolo nodded, but noted that she did not return to where she was, but stood close to him, and then seated herself, taking to mending some of her vestments with a needle and thread.
“It would not be wise to be too engaged in that, we will have to change course soon.”
“Always time to take care of the little details, Captain.”
“That there is, that there always is.” With this he nudged the wheel slightly and called to Higar at the reins. Before them were sheets of dark and swirling mist, that seemed to spiral off of Korana. The turning of its orb was perceptible now, and she was the size of a fist held at arms length. The cold light of the winter sun reflected off the oceans and ice, and was swallowed by the lands.
Afore stood a cold and lonely figure, who had aged, again, in the last few days. His shoulders had taken on a certain slouch. He was weary, and lined eyelids drooped from fatigue. The bell's magic would not carry him forever, he had to reach Korana, and enter, to discern what fate had befallen the inhabitants. The loss of both the Summoner, and Princess Chang was a sore defeat, in that they both had powers of perception through their magicks that he longed to have the aid of here, before landing. He, of course, used what tools he had with him, but these read in a confused and clotted way. Perhaps the others would find the same, but it would be hope, even in the labyrinth.
He took slow breaths as he examined the growing orb, but, as yet, saw nothing. He went below to sleep a while before the next important shifting of course that would be required. His head was heavy with an ache, there was a howling inside his mind that had been pressing upon him, as if the roar of the ether was welling up from within him. He drifted and looked at the ceiling, with its ornate depiction of the seven suns, he was unsure whether he was awake, or dreaming, as he thought he saw the spheres move in their orbits. He turned to look over for the drafting table, where he had been working on a way to control the dragon by a mechanical yoke, so that the wheel, rather than Higar's brute strength, could be used to make most maneuvers. There would be limits, of course, but it would be an improvement. He could barely force that last word through his mind, and he lolled his head from side to side to sweep in the scene past his vision.
Then he thought he saw the floral decorations begin to sway and move, slowly, as if stirred by a wind. They seemed to be greener, and the columns more like the trunks of palm trees. He stirred his head and looked outwards, and the sides of the hull seemed to be merging into vegetation, and he could look out beyond on to rolling dunes of sand. He turned towards the center of the ship, and instead of the setting of the model, he saw a small cool oasis pool, its water greenish with algae. He crawled the few feet over to it, and looked down. He thought he could see the summoner, far below, laid as if for burial or cremation, his hands crossed over his chest.
He resisted touching the water, feeling that either it would disrupt the dream, or risk some enchantment to be loosed upon himself. He looked as carefully as he could in the dim light, some of which seemed to be coming from green and blue points in the water. It was difficult to tell the source, but then one moved as if alive, twisting like a fish. In the inner oceans of many worlds, the ocean between the outer and inner surfaces, there were such creatures, that made their own light. They would be churned up from time to time, with enormous sharp jaws that would snap at anything. Many would explode from within soon after, or turn themselves inside out. From his vantage, he thought he could see several swimming in circles around the bottom, their tails lashing like whips. Occasionally they seemed to pass above or below the figure that was lying in repose. It was at this point that he could tell he had been staring down for some time.
After this he roused himself and looked around, weighing in his mind the benefit of calling out, or waiting, lest his cries be heard by unintended listeners. He also tried to wake himself, as if this were a dream, but there was no effect. He felt neither steady and conscious, nor floating and enshrouded in reverie. So he moved carefully out to the edge of the oasis, which had now completely transformed the ship, and looked outwards over the sands, he could distantly see the tips of some large stone edifices, but did not know how far they were, but they had to be enormously tall to stand over the dunes. He searched the area, and found nothing. This convinced him that he was almost certainly dreaming.
There was a rustle of leaves, and he startled and turned. He noted that one small cluster of broad leafed flowers was not moving the same way as the other plants, but, instead, in a different pattern, with a slight jiggle that made the light reflect off of droplets of water, also different, because the other plants were dry. His heart started to beat faster, and fear pulsed through his body. He took a ginger step forward, and then moved to the side hiding behind the trunk of a palm. There he waited, listening, straining to listen, reaching his senses outward. But he could not hear anything but the rustle of leaves, and the occasional dollop of a fish breaking the surface of the oasis pool. During this time he stared at each leave, and noted that their movements came in very precise increments, as if driven by gears and ratchets rather than growing organically. He looked up in the night sky, too see if he could divine where he was, and there too, the stars seemed to turn like small gears, rather than twinkling by ordinary light.
Finally he looked around the edge of the trunk and saw.
What he saw was a figure of a woman, clad in a single long white dress that had no seems, and hugged the hills and valleys of her shape body, with rises and falls that were both prominent and smooth, rich and yet resilient. Her face was broad and she had a broad nose, with dark creamy skin, that made his eyes ache just to look at it. He startled in recognition, that she looked like Morwethe, only as the priestess might have been younger: full of face, full of lips, full of figure, but firm and toned in all of her parts.
A full fertile radiance pressed upon his face, and coursed through the capillaries of his body. The flush rippled over his face like a fast cloud over the sun, leaving behind beads of sweat. He focused on her eyes, and with a practiced movement, he bowed. It allowed him to gather his thoughts, but they scrambled away from him as soon as he stood straight up again. It was impossible not to want to simply embrace her, smile and fall into her body. It is a dream, came his sense, and so he dreamt it.
When he awoke it was with a startle, he looked left and then right. He was covered with a blanket, and near by he could see Morwethe from behind as she was doing devotions, but she stopped as soon as he looked at her round body. She turned around on her knees and smiled at him. Petting his forehead.
“You were ill and needed some healing.” There was a tinge or edge of coyness to her voice.
“What was it?”
“Nothing that could not easily be cured.” She stood up, brushed herself off, and looked at him. “With your permission captain, I have other duties to attend to as well.”
He simply nodded, looked down at his physique, and tried to feel his body. He was relaxed, but realized he needed a drag behind the ship to scour off an acrid scent that loomed around him. He strode up the stairs, and was about to gather a lashing so to scour himself, when he heard a churning of gears and an exchange of cries from the astrologer and Higar. He looked down and saw that Jehanjir was on his back legs out from under the port mast mounts. He was helping out commands, and Higar was replying with adjustments.
A few moments later, Jehanjir pulled out and looked up.
“Captain! I though you would still be asleep.”
Niccolo's brow furrowed.
“We are rigging up the yoke you designed.”
Niccolo's brow furrowed.
The old man put down a pair of pliers and rolled to his feet, walked over to the table where designs were, and pointed to the bow and cantilever design in Niccolo's sketch hand.
“Ah. I had forgotten I had done that.” He paused, and realized he had been thinking of it, for some reason, just before he went to sleep.
“Hrum. I was thinking of some improvements of the design, but this will still be oft better than how it is now. He looked upwards at the bloated orb of Korana, half veiled by the black filaments of darkness. She weighed over them oppressively, taking up nearly a fifth of the sky. Kohepta was just forming a crescent beyond her, and he knew that he wanted to swing half way around, and try entry then. It would not be long.
“Astrologer, did you have time to work the angles for our landing? I left...”
“I have indeed, they were quite simple, though I have some concerns.”
“What kind of concerns.”
“We have not had any time to observe these strange strangling clouds of black, and I fear that this must have more than some small influence on how we are to approach.”
The captain looked up, pondered, and thought.
“So you would advise?”
“Could we approach the plan of some of them, so that we might see how they and the ship interact?”
This elicited a sharp breath of tension.
“That depends on how long you feel we can keep hold on our serpentine steed.”
“That too is a risk, I must confess.”
“Caught between the tendrils that are strangling a world, and the whip that can crush our lives, I know.”
“I am hoping to counsel some prudence.”
“There are times when prudence becomes imprudence, perhaps we can work a course, that should we need to loose the dragon, there is still some hope of spiraling in, rather than leaving us to careen from perigee to apogee.”
The astrologer nodded.
“It might be possible to have a conic section that would do so.”
“If we skim the bowshock on each close pass, it would give us the chance of using what is left of our sail to retard our motion.”
The frown from Jehanjir was hard enough to almost reach a scowl, but his eyes brightened at the challenge.
“Let me see if I can use some divination to locate the ethercline more exactly than by eye.”
Niccolo nodded. “I will do so as well, so that we can compare our figures for greater exactitude.”
“You seem to do a little of everything, good Captain.”
“I have a grain of sand from every beach on the spheres, but an ocean of none of them.”
A shrug came as the reply.
“I know you must often feel overshadowed, but none other would have been capable of holding this journey in the palm of his hand.”
“The great skill of a captain, is to employ skills greater than himself. It is a lesson I stive to employ, though often falling short of the humility required.”
“You do as well as any man could.”
“That is very kind of you, ” placing his hand on the older man's shoulder, “but utterly untrue. I have come to doubt my selection over others that were there. What was it you saw in the horoscope that made you so certain of your choice?”
“Oh that's simple captain, of all of them, yours was the one that clashed the least with the others.”
“A shadow then.”
“A gear that fit all the others best.”
“Such I suppose is my place in the cosmos.”
“Better the gear in the clock, than the worm in the apple. Your fate is easier than the princess, or the summoner's already.”
“Or our dragon, who must be consigned to some ages of torment in the mind for what we have done to him.”
“Pray let me retire to this task you have in mind.”
The captain nodded, and walked forward to Higar, there to find the state of the giant's mind and health.
He looked up again, and shivered at the mottled face of Korana, wondering what foul force was at work there, and how they would escape to convey word of it. He returned to a rolling gait and strolled fore again.
However, before he was all the way there, he heard a vast bellow of anguish and then the sound of a fist pounding against a bulk head.
“No. No. No. No. No.”
With this he turned and saw that Morwethe was already clambering down the steps.
“Carry on Higar, I think we should stay topside.”
The giant nodded. “The last thing many men see, is the first time it was seen.”
“Wise man, giant.”
“I am smarter than I act, Captain.”
With this Niccolo went to the steps and knelt down, pulling out a pistol and holding it at the ready.
He saw a figure walking, though not walking. His mind clashed: on one hand, it moved like one of the mechanical figures that were built to haul the sails and so on. But it was taller, and it was not walking on any track, but, instead, up the stairs. Gradually light hit its face, which was a pretty, but clearly artificial, rendering of the face of Princess Chang, a smile on her face, with articulated eyes, but the rest as if cast in enamel or molded of porcelain. She was dressed in the garb of a harlequin, with checkered black and white on one side, and white and red diamonds on the other. On her feet were shows of pink silk and satin. On her back, she wore the dragon scale like a shield might be strapped over a traveling gendarme's pack. She reached the top of the stairs, turned precisely half a circle, turned, and gave an exacting curtsey to the Captain.
Chasing after her below was Albrecht, his face twisted in anguish and horror, with even the sound squeezed out so that his lips were like a hole in his face, from which only a rasping cough came. Behind him was Morwethe, a hand on his shoulder in an ineffectual gesture of condolence.
He pulled his face together and marched upwards, the whizzing whirr of mechanical parts from the moving doll attracted the attention of Jehanjir, who turned away from his telescope and his pendulum to stare at the commotion. He puzzled his head and furrowed his brow, trying to decide if there was, in fact, something amiss. It was only on second glance that his face lit up, but with a disgusted amazement that resulted in the pulling back of the muscles of his jaw and the raising of his eyebrows.
“This might be worse than it looks.” Higar's voice made the understatement almost comical.
Albrecht was nearly crying. “Worse that it looks?” His face was visibly reddened and his cheeks puffed.
“You were playing with magicks you didn't understand, swordsman, ” Niccolo shot back, “and this is the sad result.”
From below Morwethe interjected, “That seems to harsh. She sacrificed herself to save all of us. And even without this we would be faced with the quandary of what to do.”
“Sometimes it is better that souls depart.” Snapped Niccolo.
With a glare, Albrecht shot back, “And how many times have you had to choose?”
“A few, swordsman, a few.”
“So you aren't one to talk. Nor is our astrologer friend who turned cards with the ferryman, before there were cards that is.”
“You think that anything we know here is not brought forward from the before? And, I played with death, not the ferryman, a terrible and important difference.”
Higar spoke. “Is this helping anyone?”
With this the mechanical princess placed her index finger under her chin and curtseyed to Higar.
Niccolo shook his head. “No.”
“I might suggest we examine Niccolo's drawings of your sketches captain, and your sketches as well.” Morwethe called up.
“Then I appoint you a board of inquiry, ” with this Niccolo tossed down a key, “ That will give you access to all of my sketches and notes, they are in the case aft of the ship to the port side. Meanwhile Jehanjir must complete his calculations, and Higar and I will see through the preparations for whatever deviltry our good astrogator imagines for us.”
Below Albrecht showed his meticulous and fine handed final ink versions of Niccolo's sketches. Beside both of them stood the mechanical princess, who put her hand down on one place. The hand had no articulation of the fingers or other joints beyond the wrist, meant as it was for adjusting a wire that balanced the twist of the sails. Without question, the marionette figure that was meant to do the roll was drawn from the princess, with the pointed heart shape of her face, and willowy proportions clearly in evidence. Here eyelids rose and fell with a counterweighted fluidity as she bobbed her face up to the swordsman's face. He could see the enrapturement of the gracile curves that were perfect echo of the twist in his original ink.
“I put all of us in the final drawings, but they were, I swear, at least hinted at in the sketches.” Albrecht turned to both of them. “There, as the bow cantilever is Higar, there as the figurehead is Morwethe. There I am trimming the mainsail, there is Niccolo adjusting the tillers over the lanterns. But there are others, I even have Bartine – as the bilge pump, to be sure.”
They searched through the sketches that Niccolo had made, and unrolled the section that corresponded. Niccolo's hand was broad, quick, and in pencil, he clearly was skilled, but no artist. They looked carefully for the figure, checking back several times. It was hard to tell, but it seemed as if the figure was, at least, the same general size and shape, feminine in its contours, though without exaggerated curves or florid voluptuousness. They looked more closely, and each began to feel that it was possible that even if Albrecht had modeled his figure too closely on the Princess from the Kingdom of the Jade Throne, that the suggestion was clearly present in Niccolo's pencil. Then, in each place that Albrecht had encased a portrait in mechanism, they searched the originals, and in each case, it was, at least arguable that Niccolo had had the same idea first: the locks of Albrecht, his own stern visage, the curves that Morwethe was lavished with. Each were, in embryo, there.
Morwethe nodded at each point, gathered up the scrolls.
“I will have a word with the Captain, because as I think we can all tell, this is a personal grudge between you and he.”
“It still doesn't tell us what we need to do about Si-yeona.”
Morwethe simply called back as she mounted the stairs.
“What to do about the princess is a matter of magick, and troublesome, but what to do about Si-yeona is going to be a matter of the heart, and I would say more troublesome still.”
She walked smoothly across the deck and tapped Niccolo on the shoulder.
“I would have a word with you, Captain.”
“Aye, my lady.”
“We have looked at the materials, and found clear sign that Albrecht's drawing of Si-yeona is not at fault, because we are all there, and in your originals.”
Niccolo thought. “If it was so, it was not my intent.”
“Mayhaps, mayhaps not. But that is not at the root of all of this.”
“Speak your mind, priestess.”
“The conflict between you and Albrecht is festering sore, plain to the eye, and is a danger. You are a better man than this.”
Niccolo merely set his jaw.
“Is that your finding?”
“That is my finding.”
“I will take it to counsel, and thank you for your diligence.”
He turned back to his tasks, and she simply stood there.
“I am not that easy to dismiss.”
Niccolo turned around and faced her again. He looked at her, suspicion in his eyes. But he sighed. “What am I to do? He's a cannon broken from its lashings, a shower ripped from its place on the calendar, a comet. I cannot be plainer: he toys with great forces, and leaves behind smoke and smoldering ruins. He is touchpaper in a powder store.”
Morwethe listened to the edged rant patiently, her eyes soft and forgiving, finally his energy petered out into a numb anger. She took his hand into both of hers that she crossed in front of her chest.
“Then you have to have better aim.”
He sighed again. “I will try to do better.”
“For me?” Her eyes probing?
He slowly let the breath drain out of his lungs.
“After, after the voyage, let us speak of this.”
She smiled let his hand dropped and gave a saucy tilt of her hips as she wandered off.
Niccolo was left to wonder what he was getting himself into. The cat wound itself around his feet and purred. He stooped down, absently gave it a pat, and wondered whose soul was that cat, or wether some soul had been born into it. In his bones, he could feel a kind of creeping dread, the way ivy chokes a tree, and wished he knew in whose sorcery they were were imprisoned.
He continued to watch as she went down into the hold, remembering that not all bewitchments are magick.
Meanwhile Morwethe continued to head downstairs into the hold, there she saw the mechanical princess and Albrecht doing some court dance in high style, he was patiently teaching her the steps, they would bob left, bob right, touch hands together and come around in a circle, left, and then right. She tilted her head back left and right, with each pass, but could not do more than clasp and unclasp the claws that the design gave her.
Then Albrecht and Morwethe both startled and turned, the princess continued a full step before realizing that Albrecht had been distracted by something. That something was a sharp acrid scent that came on a deep green-gray smoke. They both surveyed to look. Albrecht called out “Smoke in the hold.”
Then a booming deep voice, which both recognized as emanating from Morwethe's patron deity, towards the aft. “Bleat not! 'Tis I.”
Morwethe turned and saw first the outline of the horned figure of her god in the middle of the ball of smoke. He was seated, and using two of his arms to smoke a nargileh, or waterpipe, which was producing the deep hashish smoke that was rolling along the deck. It was of a fragrant mixture that was called charas. It was mixed with wax and oil of honey to separate it, and thus there was a sweet tang to the smoke as well.
Morwethe did a quick, almost perfunctorily quick, devotional greeting bow, but was then standing again, hands on her hips.
“My Lord, of whom none are party to your government, bright fortune be upon all of us in your presence.” The sarcasm slathered so think that it was dripping from the ends of her phrases.
For a moment features seemed to coalesce into a scowling face, and then a mirthful grimace as the echoes of a laugh came out.
“You will be more respectful when I have the bow repaired.”
“All urgent prayers are for your lordship's might hands to fashion it a new and better than before.”
“That will be some time, I have decided to abide with thee for a while, since I feel your...”
Interrupting his statement there was a loud series of thumps on the starboard side of the hull, and almost instantly there was a complete change in the outline in the smoke from arrogantly cross-legged sitting to prostrate on the ground before Morwethe.
“Hide me. They are coming!” This followed by several sobs that were most unbecoming anyone, let alone a deitic creature with aspirations to greatness.
Morwethe looked and puzzled at this turn of events, but managed to ask: “Who, who are coming?”
“There is a purge of all the middle godlings, or at least many of them. And I am sure they come for me.”
“They who?” Inserted Niccolo, who had ducked his head above.
“The muscaedes. The etheral flies. They unravel the preter-living and deitic at the will of the Gods and Goddesses. Usually there is no agreement, so only the most egregious of violations are punished.”
“What happens if they catch you?”
“The legend among us is that you unravel into other preter-born souls. But other say you become woven into physical matter, and there are tormented by the swarms of daemons, spirits, and homunculi. However, it is too terrible a fate to contemplate.”
Niccolo's face was impassive.
“Flies, even etheral ones, do not bump on the side of the hull.”
“I've seen them descend on two others as myself, competitors, we were soliciting worship in a dream, when a black haze descended on the others, and tore them to pieces.”
“And you fled.”
It was Niccolo's turn to sigh. “What is another divine enemy more or less. As Captain, I grant you safety of this ship, such as it is.”
There was a pause.
“I would appreciate a grovel, it isn't every day a mortal gets a god grovel.”
The figure in the smoke slavishly complied, Morwethe looked down and simply shook her head.
Albrecht quizzically turned and looked. “So what were the bumps?”
“Higar pounding a board back into place.”
It was 6 hours later that they were at the top of the arc that the astrologer had calculated as the appropriate moment to attempt to swoop down, and close to one of the spiraling planes of darkness. During that time there had been increasingly frenzied preparations, as various springs, gears, and other workings had to be reset or replaced. With every bump and twist of the increasingly turbulent ether, it seemed as if one part or another of their overly rigged mechanisms strained and ground together to a halt. Niccolo was seemingly everywhere, oiling, adjusting, loosening.
During this time the princess came upon the cat playing with a mouse, batting it back and forth, she pulled it away, and found it to be the most mauled creature imaginable: missing all its legs, one ear, one eye, and most of its tail. She tiled her head, and carried it away by the tail, going to the side of the ship, and tossing it out into the void. The cat followed her each step of the way, and sat watching as she hurled it at surprising velocity to be consumed by the dark. It was barely able to manage a squeak.
With every hour the orb of Korana grew, until finally it had become the sky and hung over them. Gradually the ship had turned over a quarter turn, so that it seemed as if the sphere was to their right and above them, a vast weight, bearing down. Below was what seemed to be a black land, gradually growing in detail, filled with its own geography of valleys and rills, brutal chasms and sheer cliffs. The mechanical princess looked down fixing her gaze at one point, following it, and then shifting to another just in front of the ship. Behind her was Albrecht, who watched her carefully, and stood close, but was afraid to touch her. He then bowed and went to his station. He looked back over his shoulder, but she had vanished to someplace else. He was concerned, but did not have time to wonder.
Higar of course was manning the reigns themselves, while Niccolo was at the wheel. Morwethe was tending the lanterns, while Jehanjir was watching closely the contraption that they had rigged to balance the forces on the two masts that stayed the straps to the dragon. None knew how much longer the dragon's own dazzle would last, leaving him tractable to the commands of the bit, but so far, it seemed as if they still worked. But with each pull and turn, Niccolo's chest muscles flinched, half expecting the beast to turn on them and attack.
The rise and fall below them of the dark lands seemed to rush towards and away from them, as if any moment it would charge and overwhelm them. To stare down was to be overcome by a dizzying vertigo. Niccolo slowed their progress as the course had planned, giving Jehanjir the chance to examine the terrain more closely. The ship shimmied from side to side, burning off momentum, throwing off small clouds of daemons and homunculi, that went wailing down into the abyssal shadow lands below.
From a distance it seemed to be a barren country, however, as they grew closer, the shapes seemed to congeal into flora and fauna of bizarre and grotesque shapes, monsters with massive jaws slithered close to the ground, while gargantuan insects crawled and flew. The vegetation was similarly afflicted with a bloated elephantine character, with massive boughs atop tiny trunks, and vast leaves in misshapen asymmetries. Some seemed to have animal parts, feet, arms, jaws, lips that grew where flowers might have been, enormous pairs of buttocks. Over the ground oozed black fogs or volcanic fumes.
They seemed to crawl and loop over each other, consuming one another and then excreting out an even more deformed version of the creature moments later. Unhinged maws would bite into the sides of plants, and gulp down the insides, leaving behind a desiccated husk behind. Then, abruptly the withered tendrils would wrap themselves around an unfortunate beast, and suck it dry until its skin or carapace clung to its bones or structure, leaving it to wander off in search of moisture of its own.
As they grew closer they began to hear the trumpets and howls that produced a terrible din, a roaring cacophony of misery, shrieks of agony, yowls of pain, brief cries of triumph. Jehanjir and Niccolo turned to each other, both realized that these were not purely bestial cries, but had behind them a conviction that produced a shiver sympathy in the nerves, that wince one soul feels, at the terror and torment of another.
“Seen enough, sage?”
“Not enough, and far too much. Enough to know that it is a peril we would not survive.”
“I want to take the course that would land us.”
It took only a nod from the astrologer to have Niccolo yelping out to the others.
“Prepare to descend to Korana's air.”
With this the he spun the wheel hard, and the cantilever began to strain under the torsion as gears ticked and then held under ratchet. The twisting crept up the straps, turn by turn, tightening around the dragon's neck. Each revolution added only a small amount to the pressure, but gradually it began to chaff and wriggle. The dragon, in response, continued to spin faster and faster, sending twists down the bounds that held him, tightening them beyond taut. Below the delicate gearing that ran through the central spring of the yoke began tightening as well, its spindly ratchets clawing into the teeth of the gear, as the spring absorbed more and more of the energy. The coils of the spring pressed in against each other, and began squeezing, then they started to jostle, clearly becoming unstable.
The mechanical doll that held the princesses soul observed this, and seemed to stand utterly still.
Then slowly from a start she took two steps forward, and removed her own left hand. Beneath this was a large rectangular peg with a staying knob, she pressed this directly into a gear key that ran off the main spring, and pushed it down into place. It began bleeding off the winding of the mainspring, there being a rapid nasal whinging of the gears, first in her arm, then in her shoulder, then in her chest, as each of her won smaller springs in turn absorbed the energy. She seemed to grow stiffer and straighter as the mechanisms within her tightened and pulled taut. She went from standing to scrunched in a fetal position, the other arm being pressed against the beam of the ship's hull to wedge herself in place.
Above the dragon continued to twirl, generating more and more force with each turn, until finally it began turning against the tightening, making it peel to the left with enough etheral lift to pull not only its own body, but the ship behind it as well. The vessel, itself, began dragging behind it, veering towards Korana's sphere, which did not yet feel “down” to the voyagers, but instead appeared above them, a slice of shining distant curve between two slabs of the black lands. They began to ascend up towards it, and the walls of the two reaches began to grow up beside them, enclosing them as if they were in a dark chasm, with the only hope above them. They could see the haze of the true atmosphere along the limb of the sphere and the turbulence of the ether like a white veil between them and the sphere. While the churning white was a threatening gashing foam, it was the most hopeful thin in Niccolo's eyes, because it meant, at least in some way, that the engine of the ether was still working here.
Beneath the princess could feel herself unwinding, as the dragon's counter turns slowly reduced the force on the mainspring, and on each of hers as well. The free motion returned to her limbs, and she finally could lift the bleed gear away, and restore the claw-like appendage to its proper place at the end of her wrist. Of course, she could show no emotion through all of this, her face being painted into an artificial smile.
The black walls clasped in around them like hands, and the astrologer walked up beside him, watching a pendulum swing too and fro. When the sphere had them, it would begin to tilt towards it.
“This is an unusual approach.”
“I want the gap before my eyes, before we are truly committed to running it.”
“Have you ever done something like this?”
“From time to time there are shards of crystal or foams of surf in the ether, and it is necessary to weave between them. It is, I hope, something like this.”
Jehanjir nodded and returned to his post as they grew deeper into the black. The sides revealed themselves has having knotted fluted eddies, like globular trees pressed together, or the pipes of an organ fit for a toad to play. Or perhaps a thousand arms reaching up to encompass them. Niccolo looked towards the sphere, and he began to suspect that the gap between the black lands was narrowing. He looked back and could then see how thin black arms were reaching out between the two, and closing the gap, he looked in front, and saw the same steadily growing web of joins. He thought for a moment to hazard it, drive them through the gap and hope to fly through, but he reasoned that if there were filaments that he could see from here, then there might be even more gossamer ones that would shred them.
With reluctance he spun the wheel and turned the vessel back upwards, hoping that their escape was not closed up. He spun the wheel deliberately, turn by turn binding the lashes, forcing the dragon to turn over and leading the ship on a corkscrew turn. Four times he rolled the ship over, until the dragon pulled them like a sleigh up, out and back towards the dome of the fixed stars.