Chapter 33: The Haunting of the Empress
The province nearest the capital called Yeren had been in unrest for many years. They were a peaceable kingdom ruled by a Duke and Duchess, but they had the misfortune to be next door neighbors to the province of Castalan and its Holy City- Pala Moret. The taxes that the Empire was exacting from Yeren were exhausting the treasury and crippling their economy. Their daughter had been betrothed since her birth to the son of the prefect elect and it had been the hope that such an alliance would cement the two provinces into a relationship that went beyond crippling taxes. Unfortunately, the Incarnate Daughter fell hopelessly in love with a rogue that came from a faraway land. She began questioning the ways of their order and fell in with this scoundrel. One day, they disappeared from the world. No sign of them was ever seen again. Of course, each province blamed the other and that is how the fighting started.
When it was all over, the province of Yeren was laid waste. There were survivors of course that picked their way amongst the corpses, but it was decreed that the dead remained unburied and that the land remain forever cursed as a testament of what happens to those that find themselves in disfavor of the Empire. Only the bravest or stupidest of people have the stomach to cross its borders now. Most airship captains skirt the land in either fear of disease or demons or fear they may be forced to land in such an accursed land.
The first sign of trouble was brought directly to Daran’s attention.
“What do you mean we are heading over Yeren? Don’t your navigators know how to plot a course?”
“Of course they do, my liege. The ship just will not go any other way.”
The count yelled, “Bahh! Bring me a map and instruments!” The stewards complied and the instruments were handed over. Daran made careful measurements and then after a couple calculations declared “You are right. We are heading over Yeren. Helmsman twenty marks hard to starboard.” The helmsman complied. The ship started to move to the right, but as slowly as it drifted right, it drifted back again.
“I said starboard, not port, you miserable fool excuse for a helmsman!”
“I am going right, sir. The ship has other plans!” The vessel settled back along the one path no sane person from the inner provinces would ever dare to go.
“Again he barked. Forty marks. Tell the engineers to compensate with the propellers or they will get thirty lashes!”
“Aye captain.” However, in the end it did not matter. They fought with the ship for over an hour, trying a variety of ways to keep the ship from entering the accursed land, but it was no use. The ship had other plans and every one of the new crewmembers visibly held their breath as the ship slipped past the borders they knew to be cursed. They averted their eyes as they almost felt the ship pass the imaginary barrier into the land of demons.
The guard posted outside of Sydney’s quarters was starting to feel the effects of fatigue settling in. He had been on watch for three hours and the lights had been gradually dimmed to simulate night to aid in the sleep cycles for the newcomers. Daran had said not to disturb them as long as their requests didn’t interfere with the mission. After all, it was for the Sisters to decide their fate and as long as Daran was Captain, and as long as they cooperated, they would be treated as guests in their own ship.
The guard must have nodded off for a moment. He lifted his head and saw shadows run across the walls where there was nothing around to make shadows. Then he heard a scampering in the adjoining hallway.
“Halt! Who goes there?” he muttered, sounding like a cliché from an old movie. They were reasonably sure they had all the crew contained, but on a ship this large, it was anyone’s guess. The dimmed lights already gave him the creeps. It was unnatural and they didn’t seem to have any control over it. That, plus the alienness of the entire ship was doing wonders for the soldier’s nerves.
“Halt, I say.” But there was no answer. Just another shadow and now, the sound of someone dragging something like chains. The guard pulled up his cloak around him as an icy wind descended on him and breathed on his neck from behind. The guard cowered. Determined not to leave his post, he drew his sword and watched as it wavered in front of him.
“I’m not afraid of demons!” the guard yelled, apparently to no one. There was another cold wind. The guard could barely discern a cackling laugh over the foul breeze. The smell of Sulphur wafted up from his feet. He waved his sword at the air. More cackling and suddenly the sound of a whip being cracked behind him and a sharp stinging pain on the back of his neck finally unnerved the guard completely and he ran, screaming from his post, totally oblivious to the punishment awaiting him for dereliction of duty.
In other places throughout the ship, men were seeing things. Objects were floating through the air and they heard strange sounds and saw movements out of the corners of their eyes. Of course, no one dared to report these. No one could bear to have the mark of “coward” stamped on their official papers. It would be chalked up to it just being on an unfamiliar ship or the unease of flying over Yeren. It was, of course, an embarrassing black mark to lose an entire province so close to the Capitol. It was never lost on anyone that took duty on an airship that the scored and blackened lands they passed by every time they entered the capital of Castalan was one of the most stunning low points in the history of the Empire. It would be said of anyone that spoke of demons or ghosts during such a journey that maybe they didn’t have the stomach to be part of the High Casteen Guard and they would be court-martialed or silently disposed of in some other way, so the men assigned to Count Daran Harnor were not, by nature, cowards. However, there was only so much a man could take.
The soldiers assigned to engineering were hearing and seeing things too. There were the shadows playing out in inaccessible areas that danced on the walls and machinery. Abruptly, the sounds of chains were in direct conflict with the normal humming and clanking of machinery. A soldier gestured to one of the engineers, indicating the sounds and the shadows. At first the engineer merely shrugged then a voice spoke a word in his head. He smiled and looked up at the guard in a creepy kind of way and muttered the Nilori word Fantismish. The guards all looked at each other and drew markedly closer together, drawing on each other for comfort and support. It was disconcerting that the ship had slowed to a crawl. They were still a good twenty hours from the capital.
Even though no one would admit to seeing or hearing anything, alarms were being raised all over the ship. Of course, they all came to Daran’s attention. At first, he shrugged it off as an overworked imagination on an unfamiliar ship. Daran was exploring the splendid view from the Forward Observation Lounge when one of his guards came forward with news.
“Yes, what is it? Can’t you see I am busy?” said Daran in an irritated tone of voice.
The Sergeant gulped, “Yes sir, it’s just something you should see for yourself. We found it on the wall leading to the medical bay.”
“Very well. Lead the way, Sergeant.” Daran, his Grommon interpreter and a couple of other guards left with the soldier. They went up a couple of flights of stairs and rounded a corner.
The female Grommon Leora remarked, “I still can’t get over how large this ship is, sir.”
“Yes, a fine prize for the Empire! I can’t believe my brother was so stupid for delivering it right into my hands. Not even a fight. What a pity.”
Leora said, “Didn’t you say he was your older brother? How curious…” Her voice trailed off as she looked at some of the designs along the wall. She continued, “I can’t get over the workmanship and the materials as well. We have nothing like this. Where did it come from?”
“Obviously, there are provinces we have not discovered yet- probably across the far sea.”
“Yeah, obviously.” The diminutive Grommon female stopped short as they rounded another corner. The guards snapped to attention at her master’s approach. They were all staring at letters apparently burned into the wall that looked like Ancient Castalan, a language that hadn’t been used in a four hundred years. “What does it say?”
“Never mind!” Daran snapped. “Guards, cover this up and spread out and look for signs of a saboteur! Someone must have slipped past us.” However, Daran’s inner voice had betrayed him. The Grommon smiled as she mulled the words over in her head. Roughly translated “Casteen Pigs Must Die!” That was the best news she had heard all day! Suddenly she was visibly startled. While the largelings were occupied with all their flutter and fluster, new words appeared at her eye level, burning right into the wall as she watched. She looked around for a source but saw nothing. She was not one to believe in witchcraft, but there was undeniable proof, playing out in words obviously meant for her alone. Being written in a script known only to the Grommon, it was kind of a guild language. The small letters were being inscribed below the chair rail. It meant she alone would see it. Even if they did, they would have no idea what it said.
“BE READY, WE ARE COMING…”
Who was coming? She ran ideas around in her mind, but still came up mystified.
“Are you coming, Grommon?” said Daran impatiently.
The spell was broken. “Yes… of course.” Leora gathered herself together and caught up with the newly commissioned Count.
“You look like you saw a ghost.”
“Grommon do not believe in ghosts, sir.”
“The better for you. I can’t tolerate that talk myself. Ghosts… bah... I’m a new century, man. We have no time for old spinster’s tales.”
“Yes, sir.” Leora knew better than to disagree. As a species, the Grommon very much believed in ghosts and spirits. Ancestors were always there to guide the willing to better paths of fame and glory. She just knew what to say and what not to say after six years of service to this man. Ready? Ready for what, I wonder? She tucked these thoughts away to keep from advertising them to her Casteen master. She often forgot about being a captive slave, then she was usually reminded when she was being beaten for one infraction or another. Ready? Leora was ready for anything.
They were making their way back up to the observation lounge when Daran stopped short. Honestly, Leora had not been looking ahead as she was secretly looking for more messages written into the walls. She did notice some other symbols, unfamiliar to her, marked under the railing- that appeared to be scrawled by someone and not part of the original structure. She would have to investigate that later if she ever had a chance. She assumed the markings were not meant for her if she couldn’t understand their meaning.
Daran was just standing and staring down the hallway. They had taken a different path back. Either Daran was determined to see the entire ship before they reached the Capitol or he had taken a wrong turn- not that he would have admitted it of course. Daran was the proudest Nilori she had ever met. Explicitly proud to a fault.
The sounds of rattling chains permeated the air. Suddenly the temperature dropped abruptly, chilling the air and filling the immediate area with that cold, dank air that smelled like a bog where things went to die. A dark, shadowy form flitted at the far end of the hallway. It appeared to be floating and not solid like a real person. If it were possible, an even colder wind was blowing from the vicinity of the figure. Daran just stood there and gaped as his two guards drew their swords and shook in their boots in an apparent attempt to guard their superior officer.
The translucent being slowly began to move towards them in a menacing fashion. Suddenly it was brandishing its own sword that burst into flames. It was moving faster now. It was close enough that they could see its mouth open like a maw. Teeth formed, ready to tear them limb from limb and threaten to pull them into the abyss where this demon was apparently conjured from. Not wanting to seem the coward in front of his crew, Daran stood his ground. He addressed the demon.
“You will not threaten me, foul creature! I cast you out in the name of the Sisters!” He tugged at the chain around his neck that bore the sanctified symbol of his order. His hand shook and he pulled so hard that the chain broke. He gripped the talisman firmly in his hand and pushed it in front of him. Again, he chanted in the ancient language of the Saints and brandished the symbol of his order. “Be gone unclean spirit! I cast you out!”
The spirit spoke back in the ancient language. That was all the guards needed. Swords clattered to the ground. The smell of urine permeated the air and Daran and Leora were left very much alone with the creature. The smell of Sulfur now overpowered the soiled smell that was there before. Both Daran and Leora were visibly shaking. “BEGONE, YOU MISERABLE FILTHY CASTEEN DOG. MOLOTH COMMANDS!” That was enough. At that moment, the ship visibly shook, first one way then another. Shaking like a dog, determined to rid itself of a flea or tick.
From every orifice of the ship, troops were running headlong in panic back to their own crafts. It was total chaos. No marshaling or regrouping- just panic. Daran and Leora darted back the way they came, determined to find another way to the surface and off this crazy ghost ship. Leora lost her footing as the hallway bucked under her and threw her to the wall. The entire world went fuzzy and her head filled with ringing voices. She vaguely saw that the spirit was still coming. That was it. Her last thought before passing out was “I hope the bastard gets his first- I’d like to watch.” Of course, Daran had completely forgotten about his translator in the mad dash to exit the demon-infested ship.
Forgetting was exactly what Telami, Captain Grumm and Doctor Weaver were counting on. Kyton’s brother would be miles away before anyone discovered it was a trick, if they ever did. If not, they would assume that Leora succumbed to the demons controlling the ghost ship. They had waited until the ship was deep into this territory where no one seemed to want to go. It was obvious too. Jules could count over forty other airships in their tactical airspace. All of them skirted around these badlands and would not enter them. It was also worth noting that the ones who seemed to be aware of their presence had skirted the province also. Of course, Artie couldn’t blame them. If he saw any ship in the sky as large as the Empress, he would be trying to avoid it as well.
Of course, they also had waited until Artemis was awake and checked out by Doctor Weaver. In fact, they woke up everyone to watch. They would have passed out popcorn if they had had any. Telami and Jules cooked up the imagery. Telami had pulled it right out of Nilori folklore. Combined with the jitters that flying over this allegedly cursed land and the slightly hallucinogenic gas that they pumped through the corridors that was based on hydrogen sulfide, they gave a masterful performance.
The light show was courtesy of Jules and his holographic projectors. He had been designed to entertain passengers and crew and he did not disappoint! Even the writing on the wall was easily constructed by the very same lasers, charring their way through the veneer on the hallway walls. They would never cut their way through the Aerolon walls, of course, but scorching the wallpaper veneer was easy.
As they watched the airships depart to a safe distance, Artie wondered how they were going to free Kyton. The airship carrying the prisoner had left hours before they had started their trek across Yeren and had a formidable head start.
“It’s funny,” said Captain Grumm, looking at their new companion still knocked cold from double exposure to the gas, “every time I start to concoct a plan, it starts with we’ll wait until it gets dark!”
“Yeah, I keep doing that too,” said Ethan on the other end of the communications link. “Old habits are very hard to break.”
“Especially ones that are so ingrained in us,” replied Marcus. He looked down. Their new friend was starting to stir. He turned back to the screen. “You’re up Telami.”
“What does he mean ‘You’re up’?” Telami was dragged to the screen. They positioned it so that he could see the stirring Leora on the floor. “Oh...”
Leora was suddenly aware of the crowd around her and bolted up and into a defensive stance. Be ready the message had said. She was as ready as she would ever be. She stared at the people around her. All Nilori and a confusing jumble of voices in her inner voice. Someone was shoving a square at her. She moved to swat it out of the way until she saw the picture move. It was another Grommon. A merchant by the look of his ears. He had been a slave too by the look of the notches. She absent-mindedly put a hand up to her own ear.
“Leora. That is your name right?” Telami spoke soothingly but firmly.
She nodded, not yet finding her voice.
“It’s okay to trust these people. I promise on the Mother no harm will come to you.”
Leora looked around suspiciously and swallowed. Her throat was very dry. What about the demons? was the first thing she could think of? She was not yet reading people around her, but talking directly to Telami.
“There are no demons, Leora.”
But I saw them with my own eyes!
“You saw a trick made of light and sound. These people are travelers from a great distance. I haven’t completely figured them out myself yet, but they are well-meaning and peaceful people. Not at all like the Castalan. These people are from far enough away that they have never even heard of our Empire! I even had to tell them the story of Yeren” She looked around with very wide eyes. It was at that moment that she realized she was talking only to a box. She grabbed it in both of her small hands.
Where are you? How is any of this possible?
“I don’t know how it is possible yet. I am starting to have ideas and the people I am with are very helpful. This might yet be a very profitable endeavor.” Telami said that with a smile for her benefit. He knew that if he was back to thinking about profits, it would show her that he was very relaxed around his new friends. “I am in another ship nearby. This boxy-talk is their way of communicating. You know like the boxy-talk that the Casteen use, theirs just does pictures as well as voice. In fact, they can show you images of anything and anywhere you want!”
“Can they show me my family back in Noket?” These were the first words she said out loud. She was referring to the Grommon’s second largest city-state in their home province.”
“They just got here, I’m willing to bet they would be capable of showing you even that, given enough time. Trust them.”
“How do I know I can trust you?” Leora asked.
“Because I am Grommon too and we were both slaves to the Davici House. We share a common bond. I also believe all these people want to do is get home.”
“Where is there home?”
“That, I do not know. They claim to come from beyond the Abyss. I don’t know. I haven’t even seen this marvelous ship they keep talking about. Is it truly a marvel?”
“Truly and extraordinarily splendid, Yes.”
“Well, trust them. They are friends.” Telami addressed Tricia, “Now that we got the vermin out of your ship, do you think you can find her something to eat?” Telami looked back to Leora, “I assume you are hungry?”
“Then go with them, they are going to find you a meal.”
“Thank you, Telami, by the way, it’s Nache Remora Leora.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Nach Imori Telami,” indicating himself.
“Oh! I know you!” she exclaimed, “or at least I know your name. You are not safe in the inner provinces. I heard a talkie broadcast a few days ago about your escape. It is all over the provinces. They claim you stole from the Davici treasury?”
The others could hear the concern in her voice and wondered what was transpiring.
“Lies! I stole nothing! But, I saw who did, and that makes me even more dangerous! It’s perfectly okay, Leora, I think I am safe with these people.”
“Durm! Please stay safe. I don’t want to gain a friend just to lose him again.”
“It’s fine. It truly is. Now, go get something to eat, please!” He addressed the others “She is fine. Just find her something to eat and maybe you can find her something decent to wear?”
“We’re on it. Thanks for helping out.”
“No, thank you for helping me find a new friend…”
The rest of the crew of the Empress came out of hiding.