Black Gate Online Fiction: “The Highwater Harbor,” Part Three

Black Gate Online Fiction: “The Highwater Harbor,” Part Three

By Aaron Bradford Starr

This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Aaron Bradford Starr and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
Art by Aaron Bradford Starr

This is Part Three. Read Part Two here.

The Cipher and The Key

By the time our larger party had arrived by longboat, Gloren and Yr Neh had made preliminary survey of the sunken island, its surface paved with the sort of perfection attributed to the architects of Malduan: in flat, smooth tiles untouched by any but the heartiest of sea plants, and dusted by a layer of fine white ash which swirled around our feet as we sloshed through the sun-warmed water.

Armeline went to pace off the exact dimensions of the Harbor, Pelico following her, the two in quiet conversation. Fallon stood with a knot of his men, consulting in whispers, and casting hooded looks at Pelico and Gloren. I joined Gloren and Yr Neh as they examined one of the six box-like structures we’d spotted from the ship. Upon close inspection, they revealed writing incised deeply into the inner face of the stone blocks, four groups of symbols from one of Malduan’s lost alphabets. These were astride a large circular motif, a swirl of tightly wound lines and whorls. While Gloren ran his fingers along the ancient writing, Yr Neh, still on his shoulder, considered the large design, cocking his head this way and that, and propping himself against the stone with a single water-skinny foreleg in order to peer more closely.

“This is some sort of code,” Gloren said. “This writing doesn’t say anything; it’s just unrelated words.”

Yr Neh motioned to the main design with his free paw, bringing details to our attention. His fine analytical mind had discerned a pattern amid the apparent confusion, and he gestured at the whorls, tracing the paths that led from them to the center. His explanation showed the visual design of the pattern to be deceptive, and the actual placement of the whorls rested upon an unseen spiral radiating from the design’s center. At the cat’s direction, Gloren took out the Cipher Key, and fitted it to the circular center of the pattern, where it nested while held in place with finger or paw.

Looping the pendant’s chain over the cat’s shoulders, Gloren took out a sparse set of Taveral’s pages from the waterproof folio where they were stored, leafing through them so briskly it was clear he was merely skimming them. To my questions, he pointed to the first word of every page.

“These four pages are the edict establishing the Harbor, which outlines its charter,” he explained. He pointed to the inscription above the swirling design. “Each page begins with one of the four words written here. These words repeat on the page they begin, and only on that page. ‘Establishment’, for example, appears only once, as the first word of the opening page. ‘Officer’, beginning the second page, and appears a full twenty-six times on that page alone. This word, here, translates to ‘command’, and starts the third page. It appears twice. This next word, ‘border’, starts the last page, and appears there five times.”

Having said this, he handed the pages back to me, and took the pendant back from Yr Neh, turning it around so that the tiny buttons on its back were visible. To my surprise, they were all raised, glinting in the sudden sunlight that swept across the island. While on board the ship, each button had held only two positions: flush with the surface, and depressed into the case. There had been no sign of this third option. With a motion, Gloren opened and closed the locket, and the buttons reset themselves with a click.

“Twelve buttons,” Gloren mused. Yr Neh, whiskers quivering with his excitement, nosed the warm metal, explaining that the twelve were not to be depressed in just any order, but represented four groups of three. Gloren nodded, laughing as he counted on his fingers.

“This makes no sense to me,” I admitted.

“The words at each station,” Gloren explained after Yr Neh took over the calculations, “appear as the first word of each of the four pages of the Harbor’s founding charter, see?. This isn’t coincidence. Anyway, since you can divide twelve –the number of buttons on this key– by four, you get four groups of three buttons!”

“So?” Really, I had a love of obscure mathematics beyond those of most, but this reasoning was eluding me. “How can these words possibly relate to groups of buttons on the Cipher Key?”

“Well,” Gloren said, “a random combination of twelve buttons makes for an impossible number of choices, so we’re trying to simplify the solution.”

“And this is simple?” I asked. “Knowing you need four combinations is simple, while one is hard? You still need to know which combination each group must hold.”

“But we do! The numbers provided by the count of the indicated words, as I said: the first group needs one, the second needs twenty-six-“

“But each group only has three buttons!” I objected. “How can you indicate such a number with three buttons?”

The key to the riddle, Yr Neh explained to me, was the Officer result of twenty-six, from the charter’s second page. The new, raised, position of the buttons allowed each button to hold three positions, not two as we had thought. If, the cat went on, each button of the Cipher Key stood for a digit in a number, and each digit could only be a 0, a 1, or a 2, then such a counting system allowed for numbers as high as twenty-six to be reflected with the positions of just three buttons. And now they had four numbers, all within this range. Gloren placed the Cipher Key back into the center of the design, and held it while Yr Neh recited the sequence they’d worked out, the numbers translated into their new form: zero, zero, one. Two, one, two…

For each number, Gloren traced along the swirling design, working from the outside in toward the center, ignoring the visible design’s pattern, and spiraling inward from recessed whorl to whorl as Yr Neh had shown. At each call of one, he pressed firmly into the whorl with a finger, and twice for two, while allowing those whorls of zero to stay as they were. With each depression we could hear unseen workings within the Cipher Key, and tiny plates snapped out and in beneath it, one for every change. At last, completed, Gloren held up the Key, which had a plate open, a strange polygon cut from the razor-thin golden metal. At Yr Neh’s insistence, he opened and closed the Key. The pins reset, but the Key stayed as it was, the plate staying out, and in position. With a shout, the two rushed to the next embankment. I followed, shaking my head at their progress.

At the next structure they found that the words above the design reflected the sixth word on each page, and proceeded to count as before. A second plate joined the first. At each box-like tower they followed this procedure, using the towers to set the Cypher Key, each revealing an additional metal plate. The plates accumulated, and, when considered as a group, expressed an ever-more complex outline.

Our excitement was communicated to the others, and they came to stand close as we finished with the sixth and final structure, encoding the second word on each of the charter’s pages. With a subterranean shudder, the design ejected the Cypher Key flat into Gloren’s palm, fully configured. A moment later, the entire embankment began to move.

With shouts of surprise the group stood away, watching as the sides of the low building spread apart, mirrored by the other five around the perimeter of the Harbor grounds. Rising into the air from within came cylindrical towers, their smooth silver sides scribed with intricate tracks, which internal mechanisms used to advance them high into the air, rotating as they rose. From their apex, heated air gouted out, proving each to be a massive hollow pipe. This heat was visible as a rippling shimmer in the dusted air, forcing the ash aside as it rose. When they reached their highest position the towers revealed stout hinges at their bases, and from these each leaned slowly toward a common center. Beneath this central rendezvous a circular dais burst suddenly from the shallow water of the Harbor’s flat plaza. When the structures had nearly converged, silence descended over the Harbor once more. From the summit of the conical form of the towers vented visible heat like the chimneys of a forge. The gap that remained between the six pipes sent condensation pattering onto the steps of the central dais far below.

“Fantastic!” Armeline shouted, staring at the newly revealed structures. “Amazing!” She took the steps of the low dais blindly, her eyes never leaving the shimmering construct above her.

“And yet,” noted Pelico, “there are no ships here. Whyever this place was once called a Harbor, it certainly sheltered something other than ships!” I noted a touch of bitter disappointment in his voice, and wondered what his contract with Armeline and Taveral has specified. Fallon laughed.

“My men look forward to rest on the return journey,” he said, openly enjoying Pelico’s discomfiture. The ship’s Captain scowled at the secondary crew.

“Bah! Go back and begin it, then,” he said. “I’ve no need to endure the words of mere passengers on my boat.”

Fallon turned back to the captain, his anger visible. “We’re not aboard your ship right now,” he said. “I go as I please.”

There was a moment of tension, Pelico and his officers facing Fallon and his staff. On this island, Fallon had the greater force of arms, and this fact was acknowledged by Pelico with a glance. With exaggerated nonchalance, he turned away.

“Do as you please, oh Captain,” Pelico said, wandering toward where one of the towers leaned overhead. Fallon, with a jerk of his head, ordered his men back to the longboat. I turned as Gloren spoke.

“Go down into the hold with Yr Neh,” he said to me, watching Fallon over my shoulder. “We need to get the Ribbon, and quickly.” Dropping his voice to a whisper, he looked into my eyes at last. “Follow Fallon,” he whispered, “or we’ll never leave this island again. That’s the only ship here.” Yr Neh, looking from Gloren to me, announced he would accompany me, which filled me with relief.

“What could we do to stop Fallon?” I asked. Gloren shrugged, shaking his head.

“You’ll think of something,” he told me. A glance at the astonishing architecture Gloren and Yr Neh had just conjured, using just their wits, inspired me, and I nodded. If such feats of intellect could decipher ancient riddles such as had just been solved, surely ones so highly educated as the cat and I could put a halt to a mere naval insurrection!

So resolved, I followed Fallon and his men into the longboat, Yr Neh riding on my shoulder, claws digging deep for purchase. The secondary captain fixed me with a wry glance as we shoved away into the channel.

“Too bad about the flying ships, I guess,” he said as his men manned to oars. I looked past the ship, to where the Island of Ash loomed far to the south. I felt a strange aversion to looking into Fallon’s eyes, but my evasion, I fear, could hardly be mistaken for indifference. I was surrounded by armed soldiers, and I had to rally my courage to face their commander.

“Disappointment is second only to patience for a Gallery Hunter,” I said. To this Fallon laughed, accompanied by smirks from his men.

“Much like a military man,” he said, his voice wistful. “Disappointment and patience.” To this, I had no response, and we completed the brief journey in silence.

The Ribbon and The Amulet

When at last we arrived aboard, I was torn on how best to proceed. I followed behind Fallon, who, after a whispered conference with his officers, went below. To my alarm, his men dispersed around the deck. Yr Neh, at the mid-deck hatch, called for me to follow.

Below decks the lamps were lit in deference to the day’s dim light and hatches sealed against the fall of ash, which had resumed its former intensity. The cat’s main concern, as we walked toward the hold, seemed to be the ash and salt mixing in his wet fur, and I shook my head in disbelief, unable to find some way to sustain such a subject in light of our uncertain situation. But the cat sustained it quite well without me, a long soliloquy mourning the state of his tail’s wonderful plumage. Once we entered the hold, however, the cat revealed his monologue to be a charade of deceptive nonchalance, changing the subject at once to Pelico’s thinking in returning Fallon to his ship.

As the cat began working to free significant portions of the Ribbon’s colossal wound ball, he continued his thoughts. With most of Pelico’s command staff, and the Captain himself off the ship, Fallon was in a better position to take control of the ship than he’d ever be. And yet Captain Pelico had sent him back, heedless of the possibility. With a nervous look at the panel we’d revealed to be false, and recalling, no doubt, the sigils inscribed on the opposite side, sigils aimed, it appeared, at Yr Neh himself, the cat gestured with a paw, urging me to find out what I could in the short time remaining to us.

I left, hurrying to Fallon’s quarters, but these were empty. The small room he shared with three of his officers, was, if anything, even sparser than the berth Gloren, Yr Neh and I shared. The cots were up, but searching the thin mattresses took moments and revealed nothing. There was no writing desk, nor comfort of any kind, just bare walls painted a clean white and scribed with the runes common to the underworld of the ship’s interior. I pursed my lips, feeling valuable time slip away from me, an opportunity being squandered. Fallon had himself pilfered Taveral’s stateroom, and our most revealing find had been hidden there.

And the other room where Fallon had apparently been snooping about, of course, had been Pelico’s stateroom, where nobody save Armeline had ever entered alone. And he’d been unable to complete his search, interrupted, as he’d been, by Armeline, and soon after by the arrival of the rest of us. What had the man been looking for, there? My mind cast back to the first night of the voyage, and the argument I’d overheard between the two captains in that very room, awash with the strange glow from inside. Without further consideration, I rushed off, intent on discovering some evasive clue.

I hurried through the dim passages between the forward hold and the Captain’s quarters. Those few seamen whom I encountered were, to my relief, universally affiliated with Captain Pelico, and paid me no attention whatsoever. My arrival at the narrow double doors of the Captain’s spacious aft quarters caused me to consider, belatedly, what I might do if they were secured. Could I try my hand at impromptu lock picking, or take the step of battering down the doors? I could only imagine the first with haziness, and regarded the latter as uncouth. It was to my considerable relief, then, that the doors opened without any problem.

Closing myself inside the room, I organized my thoughts toward the purpose of quickly searching the entire room without ransacking it. Given I had little clue as to what I might be looking for, and mindful that three of us, working openly, had nearly failed to find the significant documents hidden in Taveral’s rooms when we’d searched it the day before, I resolved to begin at the door and work methodically around the room until a better plan came to me.

As I considered our search of Taveral’s room, however, a better course did indeed come to mind. Since Taveral had hidden documents in the place convenient to do so – behind the writing desk’s drawers – I imagined Pelico would be secure enough in these rooms that he’d take only minimal steps to hide anything. With that in mind, and with the papers we’d found in Taveral’s rooms as my inspiration, I went to the small writing desk in one corner. As my heart beat out the passing seconds, I wasted time in finding nothing more shocking than a crud-filled inkwell and sorely abused writing quills. I looked about the room, from the tiny fireplace to the Captain’s Board above the doorway, inscribed with Pelico’s name. Rising, I ran a quick hand over the worn wood of the Captain’s board, feeling the varnish slick and cool under my fingertips. The clever latches and secret buttons so evident of late were entirely lacking in this ornament, and I sighed with disappointment.

With a quick glance out the doorway, and an infusion of relief at its continued emptiness, I turned my attention to the low bunk, slung neatly against the wall to free up space during the day. Undoing the latches, I eased the bed down, and it moved without a squeak. Hadn’t the bunk been in this position when Lady Armeline had been found here yesterday? I considered other options than the obvious, and ran my hand along the scrollwork between the shallow drawers of the wall. Nothing. Only slightly deterred, I opened the lowest drawer and lifted out the neatly folded tunics. The bottom-most tunic covered a hole, through which a brass catch was visible when the drawer was fully opened. Taking up the ring with a finger, I tugged it, and felt resistance, coupled with a low click. As I released the latch, the decorative board beneath the drawer dropped open, revealing a narrow slot built into the wall. Replacing the tunics into their proper drawer, I hunched down to look into the shadows of the hidden space. This was more like it!

Reaching in, I drew out a short sword, a dagger, a leather-bound booklet, and a small, decorative chest, with the official seal of the West Rotthean Navy carved into it. The book drew my eyes first, having embossed on its cover a stylized image I nevertheless recognized as the very towers Gloren had just raised, the pyramidal structure picked out in gold leaf. Thumbing through the wafer-thin pages dense with handwriting, I could determine nothing more than the script was Pre-Rain Rotthean. With a surge of excitement I realized this was the very book Gloren had lost so long ago. But how would Pelico have gotten hold of it? I slid it gingerly into my waterproof folio.

I turned to the small chest, opening it slowly. The room filled with the orange glow I’d seen past the Captain on my first visit here. Nestled into a form-fitting depression lined with the plush black velvet of jeweler’s cloth was a crystal amulet, wound, as Taveral’s hidden document had depicted, with a mesh of fine golden wire. Drawing in a breath, I knew I’d found whatever it was that Taveral, Pelico, and perhaps Armeline, had tried so hard to hide. Taking the crystal into my hand, I lifted it free, letting the strange light bathe my face. But what was it?

“It’s a Binding Stone,” said a voice from behind me, as if reading my very thoughts. Startled, I turned, feeling a look of guilt cross my face as I did so. But the man who stood there was not Pelico, whose rooms I was currently raiding, but Fallon, whose men controlled the upper deck. Worse yet, Fallon had effectively filled the space between us with the length of his sword, which pointed unerringly at my neck. My glance fell desperately to the weapons on the bunk next to me, and Fallon snorted.

“Please, don’t embarrass us both,” he said.

“I wasn’t going to,” I objected, defensive and insulted in addition to being alarmed at the turn of events. “I was just making sure you didn’t think I was about to arm myself, and thus act hastily to defend yourself.”

Fallon barked out a laugh. “I suppose desperate wit must pass as your best defense, then. Give me the Stone.”

“Give the Stone to a pirate like you?” I asked, mustering believable outrage at the thought. Fallon harnessed what appeared to be very real outrage in his response, which was to rap me painfully alongside the head with the flat of his blade. I sat on the bunk with a grunt, holding up a hand, willing forbearance.

“Give me the Stone,” Fallon repeated, his voice surprisingly soft. The blade wavered, then dropped, replaced by his empty hand. “You’ve found my envestment papers, I know you have. Stolen by someone who pretended to love me, and corrupted by Taveral though they may be, they bind me to my duty. You know I’m an Admiral of the West Rotthean Navy. That stone in your hand binds me to my ship. ” His eyes moved around the room, but took in the entire vessel of which it was a part.

Your ship?” My mind, so overwhelmed, whirled. I looked at Fallon, who stood rooted, his gaze intent, as if wishing mightily to speak, but unable. I stared at his hand, and the lowered blade, letting my mind roam over the clues I’d gathered during our journey.

Here, hidden in Pelico’s chambers, was the keystone amulet shown with Fallon’s envestment documents. I thought of that first night aboard, hearing the two men argue in these very rooms. The amulet had been out then, its glow visible from the hallway. Fallon had known it was here and yet had been powerless to take it himself. Wouldn’t a pirate, a renegade Captain, be free to come in here at any time and claim it?

And yet the crystal amulet remained with Pelico. Fallon had been powerless to betray his oaths to his country, twisted as they’d been into loyalty to the crystal’s holder. I lifted the Stone, letting the glow wash over us, and handed it to Fallon.

With a grip that trembled, the man closed his fingers, the light making them gleam red in the dim cabin. With a wooden creak that drew the eye, the Captain’s Board over the door began to shift and twist. The name Pelico, so deeply etched, was twisted into illegibility, replaced in moments with Fallon’s own. Alarmed by the scent of burning parchment, I opened my leather folio, tumbling the few papers out onto the floor. They spun to the planks, and I saw Fallon’s stolen documents land apart from the others, the strange seals affixed to them jittering with a speed that sent them wandering along the floorboards with a rising hum, the feathers smoldering. After a few moments, and a startling snap, the seals burst apart, whatever power had formed them dispersed. Shouting with open glee, Captain Fallon swept them up once more.

“Free!” he shouted. “Free from the grip of the last pirate of the Circlet Sea!”

“Pirate?” I managed. “Pelico?” Fallon, sheathing his sword, laughed with the sort of righteous anger I usually associated with plagiarism, or poorly attributed footnotes.

“Indeed, Pelico,” he said. “I hunted him for three years, until he sent his right hand into my crew.” His voice became haunted. “A woman I couldn’t resist.”

I shook my head, feeling my preconceptions rearranging themselves violently inside my skull. “We’d thought you were plotting to steal the ship!”

“Pelico plotted to keep it. To keep it, and force me to pilot it home while he stole the ship of the Harbor. The legendary flying ship. As long as he held the crystal by which the Rotthean Navy bound its captains to their ships, I’d be able to do nothing.”

“Why would the navy do such a thing?” I asked, appalled.

“To assure that those who joined in the effort wouldn’t turn to profiteering, as had happened before, laying the seeds of the future piracy. We all volunteered for the task, knowing we’d never be tempted by that course. These papers giving me my rank as Admiral made me unable to turn against my country. But those papers were taken from me, and bound to that crystal. Whomever controlled this amulet could not be disobeyed. I couldn’t take the amulet for myself without breaking my oath, and thus breaking the ship as well. If that meant sacrificing myself and my remaining crew to bring down a shipload of criminals, so be it. But some of Pelico’s crew know nothing of his past. They are innocent of the man’s crimes.”

A dark thought occurred to me. “Soreil?” I asked. “Was she a part of Pelico’s pirate crew?” To my relief, Fallon shook his head once more, assuring me the navigator had spoken truly, being one of Pelico’s recent additions. He then pointed urgently to the deck above.

“We need proceed quickly,” he said. “My men will act as soon as I give the signal, and then violence is likely.”

“I need to warn Gloren and Yr Neh,” I said. “They must understand what is happening.” Captain Fallon nodded.

“Do that,” he said, “but be both quick and careful. Know who surrounds you, and be discreet.” With that he clapped me on the shoulder. “I shall not forget your service to me and my country, Master Penworthy,” he said. With a nod to hide my unexpected discomfiture, I bid him farewell, and, hurried back to the forward hold, where Yr Neh awaited my return.

I found the hold awash with sunlit dust sifting slowly down through the upper hatches, which had been thrown open. The vast ball of the Ribbon was in continual motion, tumbling within the confines of the hold, unwinding out the opening above, its silken material emitting an almost musical pitch as it flowed against the wooden framing around the portal above. Some unseen group tugged the Ribbon upward, drawing it smoothly out of the hold, and, if my ears told the story aright, transferring it across to the harbor. Yr Neh watched the activity from atop a low box, his face wrapped once more with the green scarf. Despite his protection, the cat was afflicted by sneezing.

Even so, he sensed my excitement instantly, and I tried to encapsulate my findings in as compact a form as possible.

“Fallon isn’t a pirate,” I began, keeping my voice low but intent. “Pelico is, and he stole this ship from Fallon years ago! Taveral was killed because he was creating and maintaining amulets for Pelico, which allowed him to keep Fallon at his beck and call. Fallon’s going to take back the ship at any moment.”

The cat, somewhat overwhelmed, narrowed his eyes, and I could sense his unseen ears flatten beneath his silk headgear. But mental agility was always among his attributes, and Yr Neh wasted no time in questioning the validity of my findings, since, upon consideration, they meshed so well with our shared experiences.

If my words were true, the cat told me in alarm, Gloren was on the Harbor Island with a crew of pirates intent on stealing away the Harbor Ship. Looking past the dancing, shrinking ball of the Ribbon, Yr Neh considered the now-hidden hatch on the wall of the Hold. But what of the secret panels in the Hold, he asked, his tail swishing with the effort the question required. What part of Pelico’s plan to steal the Harbor ship did they serve, if indeed hold Master Pamani was involved in the plot? Or were they unknown to Pelico, serving Fallon’s original mission of eliminating piracy from the high seas? If so, what part could they play in that goal?

“No part,” came a woman’s voice, and we turned as one to see the Hold Master enter from the below decks doorway. “But I’ll ask you both to stay out of our way, and let events unfold as they must.”

“Events?” I managed, disbelieving. “What part of a pirate’s scheme did you want to aid? How did Fallon’s enslavement benefit you?”

“I know nothing of these things,” the woman said. “But I cannot allow such considerations to deter us from our task, and I beg you to stand aside.”

Yr Neh demanded to know what task we were to let proceed, and the Hold Master fixed him with a stare of deep disdain. “A mission of mercy,” she snapped, her tone suddenly hard with dislike. “A mission to save those oppressed by the rise by your foul kind!”

As her words echoed around the chamber, the Ribbon continued up and away with a clatter of its metal insets, leaving its diminishing inner core to lurch about ever more wildly. Only a moment of silence followed, however, as a subtle grating filled the chamber, and, as one, dozens of wood-capped metal pegs popped free of their sockets on every wall, and clattered to the flooring, there to roll about with the ship’s motion. A moment later, false panels fell away on every side, revealing the entire hold to be lined floor to ceiling with the same tiny, latched compartments. Before Yr Neh or I could properly react, each of the hundreds of brass latches clicked from their secure position, freeing the doors to swing open.

From each, the tiny dark forms of rats tumbled, gathering into a squeaking carpet.

Yr Neh, staring with horrible fascination, let out a deep growl. As one, the living mass faced us. With high barks and squeaks of rodent rage, the rats charged forward toward this living symbol of feline oppression, and, by extension, toward me. Their path was complicated by the shifting panels of the false walls, and the dancing ball of the Ribbon, which rolled through their midst as the remainder of the silken length jumped its constraints.

I retreated atop the nearest crate, while Yr Neh climbed up my exterior, to stand, defiant, upon my shoulders, teeth bared, claws flexing for purchase, which he found at the level of unyielding bone. The wave of rats washed forward, up the sides of the boxes, relentlessly advancing. With a desperate leap I caught the last of the Ribbon as it traveled past, and hung, dangling, over the seething masses. The cord slid backward a moment before pulling taut. Whoever pulled the Ribbon resumed, and we slowly rose while the rats stood beneath us, standing stretched out tall on their hind legs, or climbing the crates to better leap at us. Pamani, walking through the mass of them, approached with a laugh.

The rats spread away, letting her pass. Seeing she intended to yank me back down into the hold, I lashed out with a boot, catching her above her nose. Reeling back, blood and tears flowing from beneath her hand, the Hold Master screamed in pain, rats scurrying away from her stumbling footfalls. I took the opportunity to climb further, and Yr Neh hopped to the deck with a powerful shove of his claws into my neck and back.

“Kill him!” Pamani screeched from below, and I spared a final look back into the hold as I hung from the hatch’s raised rim. “Kill the servant of the oppressors!” The dark, living tide began flowing from the hold, spreading out into every level of the ship. I dragged myself to the deck, coughing from the ever-present ash falling from the sky, thicker than ever before, assisted not at all by Yr Neh’s attempts to help, gripping my shirt in his teeth and pulling with all his might. Dust-encrusted seamen, unaware of what had transpired in the dark space below, watched us emerge from the hold with amusement, and I sat at last on a deck filled with men staring out at the Harbor, unaware of the danger running through the ship beneath them. I struggled to muster my remaining strength.

Fallon appeared, and seeing my condition, lifted me to my feet with a signal to his officers, who began to shout and rush near and far, brandishing quickly-produced weapons. The maelstrom of activity across the ship made my attempts to gather Fallon’s attention fall on deaf ears, as he monitored the possible melee. But Pelico’s crew, surprised and disoriented, offered no resistance, and in moments the entire lot had been placed under armed scrutiny. The chaos was short-lived, and I found myself standing amid a knot of Fallon’s officers before my own breath had fully recovered, facing outward toward the clusters of overwhelmed crewmembers.

“Were you discovered?” Fallon asked me, and I shook my head, my eye caught by Soreil, who rushed down the risers from the command deck, trailed by the ever-present sand girl. Soriel’s eyes, frightened and confused, made clear she knew nothing of Pelico’s pervious hold on Fallon, nor the true character of the man she now accosted.

“What treachery is this?” she demanded. “Armed insurrection at sea! Have you lost your mind, Fallon?”

“Far from it, Lady. You have no historical tie to this crew, and thus you will not be held accountable for their crimes.”

“Crimes?” Soreil turned her hurt and angry gaze toward me, the sort of confused appraisal I wish to never be the subject of again. “This is little more than a mutiny! Stand down, Fallon! Your men were brought aboard under honest contract!”

The Captain stared at her, quite taken aback at the woman who confronted him, armed with only righteous indignation. I saw, then, an awakening in him of the kind of appreciation of her character that I had long held, and this spurred me to action, so that the danger of our true situation might defuse any inconvenient romantic triangulation. Stepping between them, I addressed both.

“Soreil, Fallon was enslaved by Pelico, and brought aboard under false pretenses. His actions here today are merely to reclaim his rightful place. Meanwhile, Captain Fallon, this ship has been stocked high with a vile infestation, and, as I’ve been longing to report, our lives might well be in danger!”

Fallon and Soreil, startled by my urgent and surprising revelations, turned to me as one, and, so situated, I clearly saw Sandy, standing behind Soreil as usual, shove a startled Yr Neh overboard with her foot. As Fallon turned at the cat’s surprised shriek, the girl produced from her clothes her long metal stylus, and this she slid smoothly between the Captain’s ribs.

My shout of horror masked Soreil’s gasp, and Fallon’s whispered words to the girl he towered over. In a moment the man dropped to his knees, the glowing crystal amulet falling from his fingers, to rattle across the decking, and slip between the rails. With a flicker of the ash-dulled sunlight, the amulet that had bound the Captain for so long, first to West Rotthe, and until recently to Captain Pelico, vanished from sight with a splash.

But whatever power that held the man in life gripped him still, for, as he fell to the planks with a final groan, the ship shook with the impact, the hull pressed downward where the Captain lay. The entire ship canted toward that spot, and Fallon’s men, stunned by these sudden terrible circumstances, failed to notice the black carpet that had begun to sweep from the holds and hatches. In a breath, the terrible silence after Fallon’s death erupted into shouts of horror and pain, as both crews were overwhelmed in a tide of biting and scratching rodents.

“Take them!” called a voice from the command deck, and Macey leaned far over the rail, urging on his tiny troops, his thinning hair waving in the ashen breeze, his voice stronger than I’d ever heard it. “Drive the servants of oppression from this vessel of freedom, and it’s onward to the Promised Land!”

As the human crewmembers fled, leaping overboard, or writhing, overcome, on the deck, the ship continued to tilt, canting over alarmingly, pressing down into the water as if a mighty finger hooked over the deck where Fallon lay, and pressed his lifeless body toward the deep, downward against all resistance. For a moment I could see the contingent of Pelico’s men, staring from the Harbor at the chaos on board the ship, which had, as the rigging groaned and masts shifted, caught their attention at last. The shouts and screams of stricken men filled the air as thickly as the ash that fell darker than ever.

Taking Soreil’s hand, I dashed toward the rail, intending to leap over, and thus evade the carpet of teeth and angry red eyes that swept toward us. But I had taken barely a step toward our goal when the wood all around Fallon’s body finally gave way, buckling under the colossal strain being applied from the watery depths, where the amulet must still have been falling toward the sea’s floor. A shuddering series of cracks, loud as thunder, roared through the hull, and the ship shuddered as Fallon’s body tore a path from the deck straight through every level, tearing a vertical gash right down the hull past the waterline, and it was into this furrow Soreil and I toppled.

It was our good fortune, I see now, that neither of us plunged close to the splintered edges of the hull’s planking, nor rebounded from the ragged wooden flooring of the levels below decks. With barely time to draw in a breath, we struck the debris-churned water, and struggled through a morass of wooden fragments to reach the surface once more. Treading the foaming surface of the water as well as our soaked clothing would allow, eyes stinging with salt, we gazed upward, through the levels of the ship above us, seeing the rats gathered on every surface, staring down at us. The water we treaded was beneath the boat’s lowest level, and brown, putrid water flowed from the bilge spaces around us.

The water suspending us, however, never rushed upwards into the stricken ship’s holds, or through the gap in the side planking of the hull, sending the vessel to the bottom as such damage surely demanded. Rather, to our amazement, the water where we struggled stayed beneath the level of the hull, and curved upward alongside the planking, keeping to the shape the hull had once followed. From my position both inside and outside the ship, I could see the rank upon rank of sigils against damage glowing softly, repelling the water, even from such a wound as this. Drawing in a breath, Soreil and I dove into the standing wall of seawater that wavered to one side, swimming out and upward to the natural surface level of the sea, and from there further away from the captured ship.

As we swam toward the Harbor’s edge, I saw the mass of rats spreading slowly over the lines and rigging of the ship, mainsails deploying as if of their own accord, worked by a crew too small to make out from any distance. As if a ghost ship, anchors started to be lifted, and preparations to sail were underway in all quarters. At the side rail, looking out at us, were the last three human figures aboard. Pamani and her husband Macey, faces aglow with pride, stood almost motionless, watching Pelico and his men rage from the Harbor’s edge. Sandy, though, stared down at Soreil and I, and, without a word, the girl cast her hourglass and shift-bell into the waves. She was a sand girl no longer. I heard Soreil’s muttered words, but beyond the shock of this betrayal, no meaning reached me.

When we reached the Harbor’s sides, Pelico was there to fume at close range. Dragging Soreil from the water, he railed at the two of us, watching as I hauled myself from the waves. Yr Neh, his orange and white fur drenching him into a much smaller cat, tried to help me how he could, gripping a surprising amount of my hair in his teeth and backing away from the water, drawing me to safety. Gloren reached the front of the crowd and helped Soreil to her feet.

“What happened?” he asked me, while Pelico bellowed a similar query. Taking the time to rise to my feet under my own power, since assistance was not forthcoming, I interposed myself between the red-faced Pelico and Soreil, who was momentarily overcome with the many shocks and revelations that had been heaped upon her in such rapid succession.

“See here, good Captain,” I said, using all of my oratorical skills to dominate the skirmish of words swirling around me. My assertive tone and delivery made the gabbling officers and crew stop to listen, and for this I was thankful as I continued, realizing how precarious the situation was for anyone not in Pelico’s inner circle. “Your ship has been overrun and taken from beneath us! The plot which you were so quick to dismiss has come to pass, and your ship is forfeit.”

“Impossible!” Pelico raged, his eyes bulging. “Fallon would never act against me in this way!”

Not doubting the truth of this, and not allowing time for Soreil to give any part of what facts she’d gathered before Fallon’s death, I plunged on, hoping Soreil would, by virtue of her wit, take note of the distortions I supplied him, and know that my methods followed some logic borne of necessity. “The treachery,” I said, “came from your new Hold Master and her husband, Sigil Master Macey. Fallon fell defending the ship, as did his men.”

Pelico turned, watching as the ship that had until so recently been his began to slide away to the west, driven by the full sail suspended from every mast, worked by an unseen crew. “They were masters of the Mysteries,” he whispered. “I’ve lost my ship to a pirate crew of three people. It’s madness to run full sail in these waters. No man or woman alive could navigate these seas at speed, not even those of the Enkelori.”

“True enough,” Soreil whispered, but she said no more. We watched as the vessel moved away, leaving us stranded on the barren landing of the Highwater Harbor. Soon it had moved far enough aside that the Island of Ash was revealed beyond it, far to the south. Gloren pointed, drawing our attention to the distant peak, which was giving vent to a solid column of black cloud. Even from this great distance, rumbles and reverberations were audible, and my eyes seemed to detect a reddish glow on the slopes, as if the color and light made an impression on my senses that was shielded from direct observation by virtue of being a fleeting and distant phenomenon. But, to those who looked upon it, the Island of Ash had changed in some subtle and disturbing fashion.

“We’re doomed,” Soreil said. Gloren grunted assent as he crouched to place an ash-crusted Yr Neh onto his shoulder.

“We are if we can’t get off of this island,” he said. “Of course, legend tells of a flying ship here.” We turned to him as one, and I felt a flutter of hope.

“It’s probably just a legend, though,” Gloren said, turning away, a study in nonchalance, and walking back toward the center of the Harbor, where the towers vented boiling vapor into the air, and the Ribbon lay in a neatly arranged pile. With a glance to each other, Soreil and I rushed to catch up, Armeline following a moment after.

“What happened on board that ship, Aven?” Gloren asked, his voice low. His cool demeanor was a façade, I saw, and he ran his fingers through wet, ash-muddied hair with a frustrated anger I’d never seen in him before. I shook my head, rueful.

“It’s all so obvious, in retrospect,” I told him. “Our good Captain Pelico is actually an infamous pirate, and the man we’d spent the entire journey mistrusting was the true captain. Taveral had been maintaining the amulets that had bound Fallon, which was why he was eliminated as soon as possible. Meanwhile the Hold Master and Sigil Master had been plotting to take the ship for a while now, by force if necessary.”

“And this is obvious?” Armeline asked, incredulous.

“I said in retrospect. But before Fallon could retake his own ship, he was murdered by the sand girl.”

Armeline simply stared, mute, while Gloren ground his teeth in belated understanding, so I continued. “The sigils keeping Yr Neh away from the tiny latched doors in the hold were put there intentionally by Macey, because he and his family are some sort of pro-rat activists, or something of that nature. They released the rats, and took over the ship, in order to sail it to some paradise for rats.” I looked to where the sails gleamed in the dull light, and realized how dust-choked the air was becoming. As I watched, the ship executed a turn of such sharpness I would have declared it impossible a heartbeat before. In a moment, it performed another, and continued away past some unseen obstruction.

“So now” I concluded, “we’ve lost our ship to rats and a family whose ancestors have sailed for all of known history, while we stay here with the command staff of a known pirate of the Circlet Sea.”

“We’ve got to leave Pelico and the others behind,” Gloren said, his voice grim. Soreil gasped.

“That’s murder!” she protested, and then lowered her voice, glancing back at the knot of men that stood on the Harbor’s wave-lapped edge. “We can’t do that.”

“It’s actually just marooning someone,” Armeline said. “That’s not murder.”

Soreil cast the other woman a look of amazement. “Leaving someone in a situation that’s certain death counts as murder, to my lights.”

Armeline rolled her eyes. “This, from a woman who’s been sailing with a pirate for a few months and never suspected a thing? I think I’ll do my own moral navigation, thank you very much.”

Soreil, perhaps thinking more of Sandy than Pelico, fell silent, and we came beneath the towers enveloped in an uncomfortable pall. We stepped over the sodden Ribbon, which had been organized into long loops on the water-covered ground, ready for whatever use it was to be put to. Gloren took a deep breath, banishing his anger and frustration. He took out the Cipher Key and glanced about, idly spinning the golden pendant on the end of its chain.

“Do you have any good ideas?” Armeline asked him. Gloren shook his head.

“They’ll come,” he replied, his eyes casting about, perhaps for some source of inspiration. At that exact moment, however, a thunderous rumble built from the south, and we all turned to see a tremendous red column rising from the Island of Ash, and the southern sky began to glow a baleful orange. At first I thought my eyes deceived me, but there was no doubting the changes as the distant mountain split in two, one half seeming to sink into the churning seas. The core, revealed as brilliant flowing fire, shone with a heat I swear I could feel on my exposed skin. The sight of such titanic forces at work, even at such a great remove, filled me with a sense of terror and awe.

“How about now?” Armeline asked Gloren. “Are those ideas coming yet?”

The Ship Sails

Gloren looked up to where the towers had converged overhead, their column of heated air visible from below as a roiling shimmer in the ashen air. Following the length of these downward to where they entered the blockhouses we’d first seen, Gloren ran over to one, scanning the very lowest portions of the metallic columns, revealed just as they had started to lean inward towards one another. Yr Neh’s shout announced the words inscribed on it, visible only after the tower had fully risen. The cat leapt back into the shallow water, splashing over to the next. Gloren turned to me once more, his manner brisk.

“Give me Taveral’s papers,” he said, and I complied, thankful that the folio I carried was fully as waterproof as the riven hull of the ship had proven. Leafing quickly past the pages of this very account, and leaving unopened the harbor journal I had recovered from Pelico’s quarters, I passed over to him Taveral’s last work of translation. Gloren called out numbers to Yr Neh, who responded with strings of smaller numbers, according to the same pattern they’d established before. The Cipher Key, once mastered, proved itself quickly as Gloren put it into place and worked the swirling pattern as Yr Neh directed. At the last, there was an audible thump from somewhere below our feet, but no further sign of accomplishment.

As he began the second tower’s new code, Gloren sent me forward to where Yr Neh waited at the third, declaring that there was no time to waste. With a glance at where the Island of Ash disintegrated in the distance, I complied, while Armeline stayed with Gloren. As I arrived to where the cat awaited me, however, I found his attention focused toward the menace on the horizon. The shouts of Pelico’s crew drew me further toward the border of our small island, but I could hear Yr Neh’s growl from where I stood. With Soreil beside me, I watched the sea draining at once from the shallow surface of the harbor’s plateau, then continue, falling away from the edge of the Harbor, in moments beginning to reveal all manner of formations, walls, and towers previously hidden in the depths.

In my initial shock, I imagined I was seeing the rising of the landscape, a return to the mountainous heights this place had once commanded. But the sense of solidity of the stone beneath my feet gave lie to this. Before our eyes, the sea was falling away, as if swallowed by the crumbling Island of Ash, a tremendous trough of water like that our ship had once passed through, but many hundreds of times larger. Water poured around the mesa from the north, rushing toward where the Island of Ash continued its slow collapse.

“What’s happening?” I asked Soreil, my mental search for explanations falling short of a theory. Soreil stared at the wondrous landscape revealed, as the distant Sea of Streets continued to rise above the departing water, the sea becoming, at last, a series of narrow water-filled channels between high walls of worked stone, ancient tile, and rough, raw seabed.

“As we’ve seen before,” she said, her voice filled with dread, “the sea will return, and with a vengeance. When that happens, we must be far, far from here.” This pronouncement acting as catalyst, I turned, and, returning to Yr Neh, attempted to instill a greater sense of urgency in him. But dire pronouncements were unnecessary, as he ran in impatient circles awaiting my arrival, his ears visibly flattened beneath his silken head covering. Quickly, he called back the decoded sequence to Gloren, and we rushed to the last of the tower bases. As he ran I felt Gloren complete his work, the subterranean thump giving me some small sense of accomplishment. As I counted the words at the last tower, riffling the pages of Taveral’s work, Yr Neh translated the results into the Cipher’s code, and was ready to give the sequence to Gloren when he caught up with us.

“We should be able to ride out the return swell from the sea, but only if we’re already on open water,” he told us as he quickly tapped the design as Yr Neh directed, working the mechanism of the tower. “If there’s a ship here, we need to get it crewed long before the return swell arrives.” His words, while reaffirming Soreil’s predictions, gave me a measure of comfort, as his prognosis sounded far less calamitous. At the least, I mused, I was with well-informed companions, which, most will doubtless agree, are the type one should hope for in circumstances such as these.

With the last of his efforts completed, the thumping below our feet became a sustained vibration. Without further warning the central dais where Armeline had stood began to rise. As we watched, the dais showed itself to be the top of a hexagonal column of worked wood and metal, which rose majestically upward. Each of its six sides supported broad stairways, which lifted from the plaza as the column continued upward, joining the level ground, where we stood, to the rising summit. When directly beneath the peak of the metallic steam pipes, this newest addition halted at last, having lifted to ten or more times our own height. Projections rose from within, each dividing into two parts, covering the pipes on either side and creating a continuous circular ledge around the boiling peak, now supported from below by the stout tower in the center. The island was now dominated by a looming hexagonal structure, formed of sea-wet stairways and polished metal pipes, the violent plume of steam at its peak an echo of the distant Island of Ash.

I stared, and would likely have gaped openly had the continuous fall of ash not forbid it. Gloren and Yr Neh stood as the Harbor opened, faces aglow with the sensation only the most highly educated become familiar with: pure intellectual fulfillment. The small possibility of escaping onrushing doom may also have contributed to their satisfaction. Pelico and the remainder of his officers and crew had scrambled away from the rising surfaces as they splashed clear of the Harbor’s tiled floor.

“Is it high enough to ride out the coming wave?” Gloren asked Soreil, his voice raised against the sudden gusting wind. She shook her head. With a curse, he dashed for the nearest stairway to the top of the tower. Pelico, accompanied by his First Mate, approached, drawn at last from gazing in disbelief at the sea to staring with incredulity at the structure that had assembled itself behind him. His crewmen gawked silently .

We reached the top, and stepped out onto the circular parapet that ringed the transformed Harbor. The group of metal pipes rested just above the tower’s top, nearly fifteen paces across in diameter. The six outlets vented a steady mass of powerfully hot air, and kept anyone from venturing onto this upper surface, whose etched lines ran with steaming water. From our new vantage point I stared wistfully at the distant ship we’d arrived on, under full sail and travelling to destinations unknown to any save hopeful vermin and those who served them.

“I believe you mentioned a flying ship, when this began?” Pelico asked, his voice strained.

“Forget the ship!” Gloren snapped, running his hand along the pattern incised into the black stone of the tower’s edge. “There was never a ship! This isn’t even a harbor. That’s just a name and a legend!”

“So what is all this?” Pelico asked in disbelief, his gesture encompassing the entire island. His crew stared apprehensively out to sea, the vantage given by the tower reinforcing the alien vista all around the island. Gloren shrugged.

“If we live through this, maybe I’ll come back here and study it. But for now, we’ll need help with the Ribbon,” Gloren told them, and, without need of further orders, the crewmen dashed down the stairs to retrieve the end of it, Yr Neh following to supervise. Gloren turned to Armeline, Soreil, Pelico, the First Mate, and me. “Look for some distinguishing mark, or pattern,” he said. “Each of you take one side.”

With this in mind, we encircled the tower. The surfaces of were quite hot, and I found myself ducking behind the low wall on my side, driven down from the raised edge to avoid the boiling air billowing from each of the six tilted columns, driven in my direction by the wind. From where I lay, inspecting the detailed designs around the wall’s edge, I could see ash flakes falling toward me, only to turn aside, driven off course by the uprush of heated air. Turning my attention to the designs themselves, I immediately saw the sort of formation Gloren might have been referring to. Each of the tower’s six sides had small circular indentations like those of the towers, where a finger could be placed to depress a hidden button, but the center of my side had a spout-like opening, within which I could see a shiny metal clasp. Above this was another button similar to the others along the wall. I called out to Gloren, who was thrilled at the discovery, and he summoned the crewmen who were hauling the Ribbon up the structure’s other side. In a moment, Yr Neh had joined us, and he declared, to everyone’s consternation, that the metal clasp we looked at would only fit the other side of the Ribbon. So the crewmen pulled the length of the Ribbon over the structure and down the other side, arranging it hurriedly on the wet paving tiles of the Harbor as they might arrange a long line on a wharf. Yr Neh and the rest of us waited for the length of it to pass by, until the opposite end reach us, accompanied by Pelico, whose aspect had grown grim.

“We need to make greater haste,” he said, and, over his shoulder, I saw the bulk of the Island of Ash leap up, driven into the sky by a solid column of fire. I gaped for a moment, missing Gloren’s response, but the belated concussion drove all speech from us. When we’d recovered a wit between us, Yr Neh shouted to attach the Ribbon. Inserting the end of the silken cord into the slot, Gloren clicked the metal eyelet through the latch, and, careful to remove his fingers, depressed the button above the outlet. With a hiss, the Ribbon was drawn rapidly inward, stopping at the next metal eyelet. Gloren depressed the button above the hole once more, but to no effect.

“Everyone take a side,” he insisted. “No! Two people per side! Everyone take just a few buttons! Find the one that’s raised, and push it!” Soreil crouched beside me, and Armeline past her alongside Pelico, while his commanders spread around the rest of the circumference. One man called out, having found the raised button around the perimeter, and the Ribbon was pulled past me, further into the structure. Another man called out, and the Ribbon continued inward. Gloren, a few steps down, watching the progress of the Ribbon up the stairs, shouted for me to see what was happening, and I peeked over the low wall, feeling the scalding air close by my cheeks. But the Ribbon was now visible stretched across the diameter of the large ring atop the tower, and, as another button was found, I watched as the exposed portion rotated around the circle, joined by a second section at an angle. The Ribbon seemed entirely unaffected by the boiling heat it passed through as it moved. As the process continued, I saw an eyelet emerge engaged with some manner of clip, and when it found the closest eyelet in the exposed design, the clip engaged with it. After this, the buttons reeled out onto the Ribbon a startling golden surface that shone in the wan sunlight, a cloth like spun brass finer than spiderwebs. The heated air, trapped finally beneath a solid portion of this cloth, boiled around all the edges, driving us all down for cover, putting an end to our fascinated stares.

From this protected vantage we worked the buttons as they rose, hearing the Ribbon continue being wound into its mysterious pattern. When next I looked, aware of a lessoning of the terrible heat, I gasped to see the golden dome of taut fabric overhead, bound on the inside with a lattice of stout Ribbon, and held firm by the pressure the hot air exerted on it from within. As I watched, another section was completed, and the dome jolted slightly upwards. Yr Neh, climbing the steps, was laughing and shouting excitedly about parabolic volumes and other mathematical arcana. Gloren, gazing worriedly at the southern sky, which had become a solid wall of darkness, brushed a hand over his short new beard and considered our progress.

“We need to go faster!” he shouted, and at that moment I heard the Ribbon twang, pulled taut, not advancing, and looked down the steps I rested atop of to see the mass of it tangled on the ground at the base of the stairs.

Sailors scrambled around it, and I could hear them trying to work out the snarl. With a shout I alerted Yr Neh, who leapt back down the steep stairs three at a time, followed by Gloren and me. To the cat’s horror, the Ribbon was caught on one of the very few flaws in the Harbor’s Pre-Rain architecture, a groove cut into the bottom-most stair, its size and depth so perfectly matching the Ribbon it had ensnared that I looked for Armeline for some explanation. But the architect stood atop the stairs with Pelico and the others. Worse yet, the snag had pulled tight a snarl in the Ribbon itself, and a team of sailors was gripping the Ribbon, tugging with all their might to get the trapped eyelet free. Until they did so, the snarl could not begin to be resolved. Cursing, Gloren rushed to the base of the stairs, throwing himself down onto the wet stone to work on altering the alignment of the eyelet. Yr Neh, flat on his belly, peered at close range, calling careful instructions to Gloren, who tugged and twisted the Ribbon as much as the slight slack made by the crewmen would allow. As another man joined him in this effort, the Ribbon was freed at last, but the unfortunate man who’d made the final difference found his wrist grabbed tight by a rapidly constricting loop, tugged upwards as the Ribbon continued its upwards advance.

With the inexorable advance of the Ribbon, the man was hauled up the stone stairs, the center of a knot of men fighting to free him. Gloren called up to the crew atop the tower, but his words made no difference, as those up top strove to advance the Ribbon as fast as they could. Above them, the golden balloon rose further. Gloren dashed up the stairs, demanding a pause, while I joined Soreil in trying to free the unfortunate’s wrist as he was dragged up the stairs. As we were tugged closer, I clearly heard Pelico calling for those up top to continue their work. I looked up in time to see the Captain regarding us, his eyes cold, thumbs hooked through his swordbelt.

Working furiously, we loosened the loops of silk, and Soreil tugged free the man’s trapped hand. As the crew gathered around their stricken companion, Yr Neh called loudly for aid in disentangling the remainder of the Ribbon. Soreil dashed to assist, while I ran back up to where Gloren accosted Pelico.

“And what would you have done?” Gloren was shouting as I arrived. “Cut off his hand?” Pelico glared.

“Better a single hand left behind than the entirety of our bodies,” he said.

“And if you’d fouled the mechanism with knotted cord and tiny wrist bones?” Gloren asked. “What of your pragmatism then?”

Pelico gripped the hilt of his saber, glaring. “His bones would never have reached that hole,” he said. “You can believe that.”

Gloren shot a look past me, to where the Ribbon was being simultaneously drawn upwards while Yr Neh and Soreil struggled alongside a few crew members to unsnarl the remainder of the cord.

“Oh, I believe that well enough,” Gloren said. “But we need to be smart, from here on, if we hope to survive this.” Just then, tremendous flakes of ash began to filter down through the air, giving the entire scene the aspect of a sudden blizzard. A foul, sharp odor filled the air, stinging and ghastly to breathe. We reached, each of us, to tighten our headgear, and I heard, through the layers of cloth wound about his nose and mouth, Yr Neh exclaim in relief as the Ribbon resumed its steady progress. Looking down the steps, I saw the ash-coated cat dashing down the stairs once more, straightening the untangled lengths of silk that trailed behind him. The light deepened further, and the island descended into early dusk.

The golden oblong balloon rose upward as the Ribbon played into the apparatus in longer sections. Finally, the balloon hovered over the venting outlets that formed the tower’s edges, the heated air continuing to flow into the gap on the underside of the hollow shape. With a jolt, the entire ring upon which we crouched was lifted, but the six pipes running through it prevented its escape. As the remainder of the Ribbon disappeared into the mechanism, these six massive tubes stopped their venting with a reverberant mechanical rattle. Without further warning, they spread apart once more, slipping from the upper ring structure, which lifted clear as they ceased to hold it down. Those of us on the rising ring grabbed the low wall which defined the inner circumference. The mass of the central tower was suspended below us, lifting slowly away from the Harbor, and guided in its upward trajectory by the stairways that still contained it.

Pelico’s men surged forward, diving for the rising edge of the ring that surmounted the now-rising tower, and I had but a moment to note the view revealed by the retreating heat-vents before the plight of the dangling crewmen demanded attention and aid. The upper surface of the tower had folded away, showing the tower to be more of a thick-walled tube, suspended upright beneath the golden orb. Surrounding this central shaft, a set of six hatches had propped themselves open somewhat, offering a way into the craft. But even with the chaos all around me, my gaze was drawn down the central shaft, where a tremendous jewel, cut into intricate facets and boiling with a terrible inner heat, was drawn upwards by stout cables, coming to rest just under the opening of the balloon. The empty space it had vacated was a gap leading directly down through the hull, and I could see the retreating ground through the narrow shaft.

Soreil moved carefully over the low side wall to inspect the hatches. Pelico laughed as we continued slowly upward, having seen the last of his men securely aboard. As Gloren looked frantically for some line to throw to Yr Neh, who wailed plaintively from below, Pelico gripped his tunic.

“Thank you for my new ship!” Pelico shouted. So saying, he shoved Gloren backwards off the ring. With a shout of surprise, and twisting in the air, Gloren landed almost on his feet at the top of the empty Harbor’s stairway, near where Yr Neh had stood, staring upwards as we’d lifted away. The drop had been just over twice his own height, but Gloren’s motion carried him onward, and I saw him slip, tumbling down the steep stairs.

Before I could respond to this outrage, Armeline had treated me similarly, and I went over the edge with a cry that is better forgotten. But I landed well, perhaps not quite as surprised as Gloren had been, and stopped myself after the first terrible impact. As I write this, I recall Fallon’s bitter words relating that he’d never suspected the woman Pelico had set into his midst. Now I think I know of whom he’d spoken, and can understand his oversight. For all of our suspicions, we’d never turned our attention fully enough on Armeline herself!

Gathering my wits, I rushed down the stairs toward where Gloren was struggling to rise with Yr Neh’s meager assistance. Hindered by the dangerously slick layer of ash, and distracted by the wondrous sight of the flying ship as it continued to slowly rise behind me, I made my way to the ground, where Gloren was regaining his feet. I turned, fearing to see Soreil cast overboard as well, and as moments passed without this occurrence, I admit to entertaining a brief welling of anger toward her, certain we’d misjudged her as certainly as we had Lady Armeline.

Gloren put a hand on my shoulder for support, leaning close to be heard over the rumbling from the Island of Ash. He extended his other hand toward the departing craft in a fist, wound round with delicate golden chain from which the Cipher Key swung. He gave an angry laugh.

“Good luck to them in piloting the ship without this!” he shouted. “They are at the mercy of the winds, and there is no known land to the north!”

Together the three of us stared for a moment at the gleaming apparition, the shining surface of the metallic balloon reflecting the dim sunlight, the reflected glow of the massive burning gemstone holding my gaze. The cylindrical body of the ship hung below from lengths of the Ribbon looping back and forth, a flying tower taller than ten men, but dwarfed by the curving shape of the balloon overhead. The hollow center of the tower held the slender length of the gemstone, its faceted base protruding just below the ship’s lower rim. Shimmering with heat, the gem glowed with dull radiance. Heat, then, drove the ship’s flight, first from the metal towers of the Harbor itself, and now from the depths of the mysterious gemstone.

While nested in the Harbor, the gemstone had been cradled in a metal framework that, once emptied, became an intricately wrought cage, held in place above the dark depths of the empty berth by metal slabs that slid from the walls of the shaft, extending to meet it. The cage’s side nearest to us was hinged in such a way as to be clearly a door; the chains and gears taut below it, extending into the darkness, showed it to be some conveyance into the empty slip, only available when a ship wasn’t present and filling the space.

As we watched, speechless, the ship rose past the last of the steep stairways that had contained it and continued upward into the ash-streaked air, leaving beneath it an empty chasm in the plaza floor. A grating rumble vibrated through our feet, smooth metal slabs emerging from recessed slots on all sides of this smooth-walled pit, ponderously working to seal the empty Harbor berth. The steam-venting towers began to lower, and the stairs to the pinnacle started to sink back into the level plaza.

Staring at the crawling portals, we saw the first burning pellets fall from the sky, to strike the wet tiles with a hiss, or drop silently into the abyss of the Harbor’s still-gaping berth. With nary a word, we dashed across the harrow bridge, and into the cage, which was easily large enough to hold us, though the floor’s center sported a large gap, where the long tail of the gemstone had hung through. The mesh walls provided no relief from the swirling ash, but shielded us from the occasional glowing bit, which pinged off the metal before streaking into the darkness below. Gloren pointed out levers mounted in each of the four corners of the cage, and these we worked as best we could, desperate to reach shelter from the rain of embers. But there were four levers, and just three of us. Yr Neh, with an effort beyond any I’d thought the cat capable of, gripped his lever after a short jump, to hang supported only by his back feet, toes thrust between the cage’s wire mesh. After a few fruitless moments, we ceased to reconsider. The squeeze-handled levers would defy any simple pull with a rope, even if we’d had one readily at hand. The cage would require a fourth to operate.

Smoke-trailing cinders began to sift down out of the dark sky in greater numbers, rebounding off the tiles of the Harbor, and bouncing off the glimmering form of the departing balloon with hollow metallic retorts. Yr Neh’s growl brought our eyes back to the sky, and the balloon-ship that still drifted ever higher.

Pelico and his men had retreated from the ash through the doors I noted so briefly. Lights appeared past small windows spaced down the hull, and Yr Neh called our attention to the bottom of the construct, near where the heat gem’s shaft was visible. To my surprise, we saw a figure suspended there, dangling from a line too thin to see. Forms from a nearby hatch menaced the suspended person, and as we watched, the hanging figure’s rope was cut, and it plunged into the ash-choked waters below, just barely missing dashing against the Harbor’s northernmost edge.

A momentary exchange of glances weighed venturing out of the cage into the fiery hail. I dashed out first, I’m proud to note, driven by a sudden hope the others didn’t have reason to share.

We ran to the Harbor’s edge, our boots crunching on glowing embers that crackled on the wet stones, feeling small burning particles and soot extinguish itself on our sodden shoulders. Arriving at the drop-off to the new, lower level of the seawater, we peered over the edge, seeing Soreil treading water desperately, gazing up at us as cinders hissed into the water around her. Gloren, casting a frantic glance at Yr Neh and me, demanded our head-covering, which we surrendered quickly enough. Yr Neh began to immediately sneeze and gasp, and I grabbed the cat and shoved him beneath my tunic. His outraged protests, however, were testimony to his ability to breathe anew, and he kept the use of his claws to a bare minimum. My own vision, meanwhile, was cloudy, and I gagged, taking shallow, heaving breaths. Gloren swatted at my arm to get my attention, and together we dangled the end of the long composite cord down over the edge, where Soreil gripped it hopefully.

“Careful!” Gloren shouted, and I became aware of a growing, thunderous noise from behind us. The momentary glance I spared to the south took my breath away, and I turned back toward our task with a fatalism unknown to me before that. For behind me, at some unguessable distance, and moving at some unknowable speed, was a towering bulge of water, a sloping rise stretching straight across the southern horizon, white-topped and looming, blotting out the red-stained smear where the Island of Ash had once stood.

Soreil fought up the edge, straining to ascend, slowed by the terribly slight cord she held with a grip of iron. As we watched, however, the water rose around her once more, immersing her, and then lifting her, and my relief at this development turned to horror as I pulled her over the edge at last and we turned back to the center of the Harbor, and the wrought-iron cage. The mountain of water rolled ever closer, the mere foothills of which were already reaching us. As we stood, rooted, distant rock formations, made tiny against the backdrop of water, vanished one after another into the wave’s forward edge. The sloping surface tilted ever more toward vertical even as it scaled upwards. Through the rolling surface of the peak I could see the glow of the remains of the Island of Ash through the dark water. That unsettled peak was no more.

“Run to the berth!” Gloren shouted. I ran, against my every instinct, across the plaza, and toward the tremendous wave that bore down upon us from the sea. Gripping Yr Neh with one hand as he peeked out from the neck of my tunic, and Soreil with the other, I followed Gloren across the metal plate that bridged the gap from the plaza’s floor and the iron cage. Through the woven metal bands that formed the floor, I could gaze down the deep socket that had held the vertical hull of the flying ship. With the briefest of instructions to Soreil, we took our places in each corner of the cage, gripping the levers and pulling as one.

As the water loomed in a cliff above us, and a frothing wash poured in over the level Harbor plaza, the cage dropped with a roar of chains. Clinging to my lever, I heard Gloren’s shouts, but could make out no words. Through the retreating opening above, fiery trails cut the air above the wave, which seemed to hover against the red-tinted sky. Even as we dropped away, I could sense the power of that collapsing wall of water through the vibrations of the cage around us. As we watched, the view was eclipsed by panels sliding into the remaining gaps in the opening, occluding our view as the wave struck at last. The force of the entire sea thundered down above us, but the architecture of the lost Kingdom of Malduan held it at bay, the portals slicing shut through a white rush that seemed to fill the tunnel overhead. Even that amount dashed the four of us to the floor with the force of its arrival, and the cage jerked taut, coming to a halt as we were cast from the levers. In moments the water drained through the cage’s mesh flooring, and we lay, gasping, struggling to our feet.

Only when we revived sufficiently did we continue onward, stopping at the first of what has since been revealed to be the many levels of a vast military structure, and, after finding sources of illumination, venturing further. And venture we have done, to make a discovery equally as grand as that of the Flying Ship of the Highwater Harbor.

But I get ahead of myself.

daughters-dowry-cropAaron’s first published story was “Mortal Star” in Black Gate 8. The tale of a warrior woman who leads her desperate people across the plains, pursued by hordes of mindless monsters — and something far worse — “Mortal Star” won praise far and wide. In her SF Site review Sherwood Smith called it “A very fine story that is impossible to predict.”

“The Highwater Harbor” is the fourth story featuring Gallery Hunter Gloren Avericci and Yr Neh. The first, in which the two seek a legendary treasure in a sunken tower, was “The Daughter’s Dowry,” published here on October 14.

Cyd Athens at Tangent Online described it this way:

A tale… that has the feel of being told around the fireplace in a fantasy setting. The protagonist, Gloren Avericci, is a freelance Gallery Hunter. This may be code for thief, but to hear Gloren tell it, he is an adventurer in true fantasy style. Even after knowing the story, it is debatable whether his cat, Yr Neh, is a familiar or a travelling companion, though said cat is presented as former royalty and sentient.

That very little is resolved in this tale is part of its charm… This was a fast and pleasant read. A story such as this deserves a world of its own and more adventures from its hero.

“The Daughter’s Dowry” is a complete 9,000-word novelette of heroic fantasy offered at no cost, with original art by Aaron Bradford Starr. Read the complete story here.

tea-makers-task2The second tale, “The Tea-Maker’s Task,” published here on December 30, 2012, saw Gloren Avericci and Yr Neh accept a dangerous commission to investigate a deadly island.

Here’s Louis West at Tangent Online:

Aaron Bradford Starr’s “The Tea-Maker’s Task” is an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek fantasy about Gallery Hunters Gloren and his cat companion, Yr Neh. Their adventures take them from the rancid food of Burrow Deep Lane in the city of Ravanon to the workshop of a Tea-Making master then through the forests of Candelon, wherein lurks the Walker of the Woods, until they finally reach the ruined city of Vandelon.

All the while, Gloren and the cat engage in constant, silent banter, much like two brothers or war buddies… I wanted more.

The complete review is here.

“The Tea-Maker’s Task” is a complete 9,000-word novelette of heroic fantasy with original art by Aaron Bradford Starr. Read the complete story here.

“The Sealord’s Successor,” the third tale of Gloren and his cat companion Yr Neh, was a novella of fantasy mystery in which the two Gallery Hunters find themselves drawn into a deadly conspiracy involving a powerful kingdom, ancient secrets… and a very peculiar painting.

The Sealord's Successor Part One-smallLouis West called the story “a gripping tale of fantasy, mystery, murder and intrigue. A must read.” Here’s part of his review:

A deliciously complicated tale. Once again we follow the adventures of Gallery Hunter Gloren Avericci and his ever-present feline companion, Lord Yr Neh… Rich with quirky and mysterious characters, rife with political intrigue, Yr Neh silently laughing at all human folly and Aven tripping over himself trying to appear self-important, [this was] an exceptional tapestry I just could not put down.

The Lordship succession of the Otrock Line is in question. However, this ancient island kingdom has a unique rite of selection by which a new Lord is chosen, one which has always prevented bloodshed. All with a claim to the title gather for a viewing of The Painting, an ancient, arcane creation of the greatest practitioner of the Hundred Visible Mysteries, Dhend Attren Aon. Somehow this painting conveys its choice to the viewers with such certainty that the decision for the throne has always been immediately accepted by all…

Chases thru the twisty, dangerous walkways of the cities of Landing Port and Rockface, constantly shifting allegiances, escape from imprisonment thru the deep passages of the mysterious, ancient Pre-Rain Underhold, revelations about who Velice and her Countess really are, all lead to a final encounter… A gripping tale of fantasy, mystery, murder and intrigue. A must read.

The complete review is here.

“The Sealord’s Successor” is a complete complete 35,000-word novella presented in two parts, with original art by Aaron Bradford Starr. Read the complete story here.

aaron-starrAaron Bradford Starr currently maintains an underground base of operations in a volcano under Cleveland, Ohio. Within it, he monitors the progress of two young apprentices with his enigmatic and intriguing wife. A single nonhuman creature resides alongside them.

Aaron’s first published story was “Mortal Star” in Black Gate 8. Author photo by Idit Zehavi.


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