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Reborn in Mist and Shadows

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  • Reborn in Mist and Shadows

    Reborn in Mist and Shadows
    By Jason D. Brandon

    O’Riley sat on the beach, resigned to his imminent death. The Origin of Faith had been attacked, and her crew forced to abandon the ship in escape capsules. O’Riley had made every effort to draw the attackers’ attention away from his brethren, but had sustained their concentrated attacks in the process. His capsule had been left for dead in space, floating in the void without power. But O’Riley had died once before, consigned to oblivion in the cold of space under similar circumstances. He had been found by the Qui Lors, that inscrutable and mythical inhuman race from the Ghost Worlds, and he had been saved, resurrected by their near magical technology and changed into something other than human. Like the Qui Lors, O’Riley was no longer wholly of this universe. So when his life support had failed, he simply shut himself down for a few days while his capsule careened out of control between the stars. He awoke when he crashed on this nameless small planet, its surface almost entirely covered by a never-ending ocean.

    But O’Riley was still partially human, and his death had only been postponed, not prevented. With limited rations of food and water and no way off of the planet, his death was still inevitable. He suspected that he was too far from any who would notice him or care to come to his rescue.

    O’Riley was not particular concerned. He had made his peace with death all those years before when he had first thought he was to die. His rescue from the ebon void of space by the Qui Lors Venturers had been a reprieve. Grateful though he was, he knew that at some point his debt to the grave would have to be paid. The Qui Lors themselves were a markedly fatalistic race, not seeing themselves so much as alive but as extensions of the Multiverse, agents of the Balance that helped keep a sense of equilibrium in check. Their own deaths were seen as mere transitions from one scale of the Multiverse to another. O’Riley had lived among the Ghost Worlds for some time, his own ethos changing to match his new existence. Like the Qui Lors, he saw death as an inevitable transition, no more to be feared than the drawing of his next breath.

    Nevertheless, O’Riley now experienced something he had long forgotten, a sense of loss and regret that gnawed at him in his weakened state. He assumed that this was the tugging of his abandoned humanity, a fear of the unexpected that was a remnant of his primal ancestors, come to the front due to fatigue and exhaustion. His mind was drawn to thoughts of his fellow Venturers, the consortium that had rescued him and adopted him into their own. He missed the confident strength of his executive, S’b Gannis Meptu Tarkin, and the subtle humor of their chaplain, M’k Bney Sevron Farsen. But most of all he missed the camaraderie of R’v Okum Nyvis Tonor, pilot of the Origin of Faith, who had taken him under his care among the Ghost Worlds, adopting him into his extended family and giving him a new home. O’Riley found himself hoping that his brother and the other Venturers were safe, that his efforts had bought them a chance to escape. He knew that he was inconsistent in wishing this, that if their p’rind’rha, their destiny, called for them to ascend the scales of the Multiverse, that he should be content for their manifest calling. But despite his best intentions, O’Riley was still plagued by his past humanity, and he missed his brethren.

    So lost was he in his reverie that he failed to heed the pale fog as it drifted from the sea to surround him. But he could not ignore the voice that called out to him from within the fog.

    “Hail the shore!” called a melodious voice, surprisingly warm in the cold fog.

    O’Riley stood slowly, his vision arcing through the manifest spectrums of light in an effort to discern if he suffered from illusions. He could vaguely make out a dark shape just out in the water, as large as the Origin of Faith.

    “Hail the ship,” he answered, surmising that it had to be a ship of some sort that addressed him.

    “Would you come aboard?” asked the hidden voice, and O’Riley heard a note of humor in the voice, a tone that suggested restrained amusement at his plight.

    “Indeed,” answered O’Riley. “I confess that I would be much obliged.” When no further answer was forthcoming, O’Riley began to slowly wade out into the ocean and the fog. The darkness in front of him resolved itself soon into the side of an old-style sailing ship, with a rope ladder directly in front of him. As he ascended the ladder, he pondered the ships ability to sail so close to the shore. Surely she was familiar with the deeps of this shoreline, or else her draft was remarkably shallow.

    Pulling himself over the railing, O’Riley caught his best view of the entire ship, although the thick fog made the furthest extremes difficult to see. A single mast rose from the deck, its large sail all the more black in the white fog. Fore and aft decks were both graced with wheels, but only the front deck had a pilot. Doors below the decks led into the ship itself. The entire vessel was inscribed on every surface with scrawls familiar to O’Riley.

    O’Riley frowned. On the edge of his vision he could see the crew of the ship moving about, but when he looked, he saw no one there but the Captain striding towards him and the Navigator at the helm.

    The Captain stood before him, tall and eldritch in his appearance. His long hair, the color of fading flame, was held back from his face by a circlet of carved blue. O’Riley saw that he was clearly blind, but that he moved about the ship with a solid confidence. He strode forward to help O’Riley the rest of the way to the deck.

    “Septimus O’Riley. Welcome aboard.”

    “You have been sent to rescue me,” said O’Riley without surprise. “I fear that you have me at two disadvantages. Not only do you know of me, but you know me by the name I was once called.”

    The Captain arched an eyebrow and cocked his head to the side. “Indeed? You are no longer Septimus O’Riley of Londinium?”

    “I regret to inform you that he died many years ago in the Rim Wars. I am M’v Okum Sebpt O’Riley, Gunholder of the Qui Lors Venturers. But I suspect that you know this.”

    The Captain smiled as if humoring his guest. “And why would I know that?”

    “This ship,” said O’Riley, gesturing about him. That the Captain could not see this gesture made no difference to O’Riley, nor apparently to the Captain, who turned his head to follow O’Riley’s hands. “I know these markings. We call them the Worm-Runes, carvings made into the very fabric of the Multiverse. Never have I seen them in such quantity outside the Ghost Worlds.”

    “But you have seen them elsewhere?”

    “Indeed, although I suspect you know this as well. I have seen them on the Chalice of Christ. Their outline can even be seen on the gun that I wield.” O’Riley drew his sidearm and presented it before him.

    “Surely just random scratching on an old weapon,” said the Captain without taking or looking at the weapon.”

    O’Riley nodded. “Surely,” he agreed tonelessly. “And I know your crew.”

    The Captain looked askance at O’Riley. “My… crew?”

    “Come now, Captain. If you know who I am, then surely you know that I am from the Ghost Worlds. Can it therefore surprise you that I recognize the shades that move about on the edge of my vision? Or are you unused to your passengers seeing your full compliment?”

    The Captain clapped his hands with enthusiasm. “Septimus, I am heartened to have you aboard. We have carried your kind before, though I fear that you are our only passenger this day.”

    “My kind? By that do you mean humanity, or do you refer to the denizens of the Ghost Worlds?”

    “Neither. I refer to your p’rind’rha. I have carried your kind before.”

    O’Riley smiled at this. “Then I am indeed glad that you have found me, and I beg you, take me to my destiny, for I long to return to my brethren.”

    The Captain took O’Riley by the arm and led him to the forward cabin. “You brethren? What makes you think that this ship can sail so far? Do you not place too much faith in my abilities and the abilities of my ship?”

    “I think not,” said O’Riley, still smiling. “The Worm-Runes mark this ship’s course. Like the Ghost Worlds, it can traverse the scales, can it not? Is this not the Dark Ship that sails the Endless Seas, the only vessel to know where the fabled planet Tanelorn lies? I have heard of this ship. It is said that it was this ship that first discovered the Ghost Worlds, or perhaps that it was the first ship to set sail from the Ghost Worlds.”

    “Aye,” said the Captain. “We have been to peaceful Tanelorn before, and one day again we will sail for her beautiful ports, but not today. Your p’rind’rha lies elsewhere, Septimus.”

    “Please,” said O’Riley. “Do not call me that. I am M’v Okum Sebpt O’Riley now. Call me O’Riley, or Sebpt if you must. Do not call me by the name of a dead man.”

    “Not so dead as you might care to think, I suspect,” said the Captain as they reached the forward cabin. He opened the door and made way for O’Riley to enter. “Please, forgive the solitude. You are our only passenger today, Septimus. I trust the silence will not displease you too much.”

    “I am used to my own thoughts,” said O’Riley. “I prefer such peace.”

    “Again, I wonder if that is as true as you might care to think.”

    O’Riley entered the cabin, his eyes immediately drawn to the large central table, bolted securely to the floor. A single golden goblet sat in the center of the table; he took it, and swirled its contents. “Spiced wine?”

    “For you,” said the Captain. “Your journey here was long and arduous, and you are in need of rest. Drink some wine, rest here, and I shall summon you presently.”

    “There is no bed, nor even a hammock,” said O’Riley, eyeing the room. Two lanterns with red glass suspended from iron chains cast an even grey lighting on the room, which held ten chairs and little else.

    “No, there is not,” said the Captain. “I will collect you in time. Now rest, Septimus. You have earned that. Be at peace. You are safe here.”

    * * *

    O’Riley emerged sometime later from the cabin. He had not slept, nor did he even feel tired, but he was strangely refreshed, as if awakening from a much needed sleep. He almost expected to see daylight when he emerged onto the deck, but it was still near dark, and the fog still enshrouded the vessel. He frowned, and realized that for the first time since his rebirth at the hands of the Qui Lors Venturers, he had no concept of the passage of time. It was a very human feeling, and one that disturbed him profoundly. He felt powerless, at the mercy of this strange ship and her inscrutable Captain. Even amongst the Ghost Worlds he could still feel the rhythmic pull of the spheres as they danced in their myriad conjunctions. But this ship was new to him. It traversed the scales of the Multiverse in ways that were beyond O’Riley’s ken.

    He came to stand beside the Captain, himself unmoving at the side of ship, his eyes staring sightlessly over the dark and endless sea. “And have you rested, Septimus?”

    O’Riley nodded. “I have, Captain. And I was going to ask you about this ship, about where we are, and about where we are going.”

    “But now you are not?”

    “Forgive me,” began O’Riley, “but you seem to be somewhat distracted. Your attention… it is drawn elsewhere, is it not?”

    “It is. There, through the fog. Another ship, off our starboard side. Can you see it?”

    “This ship,” said O’Riley, taking in the dark vessel with the sweep of his hand. “It sails between the spheres, does it not?”

    “It does,” agreed the Captain.

    “Then may I ask what world we are now on? What can we expect from this other vessel?”

    The Captain shook his head. “We are between scales at this point. There are no ports, or even any land, in range of our ship.”

    “This ship, it is like yours? Able to travel between the planes?”

    “I do not know,” confessed the Captain. “It could be. But such ships are remarkably rare.”

    “What other options could there be?” asked O’Riley.

    The Captain continued to stare sightlessly into the fog. “She could be lost… the other ship. She could have wandered of course. She could be in trouble.”

    “How can we find out?” asked O’Riley. When the Captain failed to answer, he nodded his head in understanding. “You need me to go over to this other ship, to find out who she is.”

    The Captain shrugged. “That would have to be your choice. This ship must continue on its voyage. We cannot stay here long. We can pull alongside the other ship, but we cannot direct her course, nor invite her passengers onto this ship.”

    “Why is that?” asked O’Riley. “You rescued me from certain death, invited me to travel with you on your dark voyage.”

    “Their p’rind’rha lies elsewhere, while yours brought you here.”

    “And does my p’rind’rha take me to that ship?” asked O’Riley.

    Again the Captain shrugged. “How am I to know? I only know how fate moves my own ship. Where your destiny intersects with this ship, we travel together. When you leave this ship, your p’rind’rha takes your away from my company. What else can there be?”

    O’Riley considered for a moment. “Very well, Captain. I would visit this other vessel. How can I get to her?”

    The Captain signaled silently into the air. A longboat, suspended by ropes, was lowered towards the dark waters. O’Riley could barely discern the hands that moved it. “Take the longboat. But know that we are not a rescue vessel. That ship must follow her own course.”

    “I understand,” said O’Riley, moving to the rail of the ship. He swung himself over and clambered down the ladder into the rowboat. O’Riley found that the small craft had already been released from the ropes that had lowered it into the waters. Taking the oars, O’Riley propelled the rowboat from the Dark Ship. Within seconds he was surrounded entirely by the fog.

    It was not by sight that O’Riley was able to navigate the longboat, but by sound. Once in the fog, he was surprised at how unnaturally the sounds echoed through the fog. Almost immediately he could not hear the Dark Ship, and he wondered if it was because the ship had left or because of the supernatural nature of the vessel. Despite the repetitive motion of plunging his oars into the water, he could not even hear the sounds he should have been making. It was as if he was a ghost, a phantom cast adrift on a sea of souls. He chuckled at this, but could barely hear his own laughter. As an inhabitant of the Ghost Worlds, he thought it oddly appropriate. Is that why he had been allowed on the Dark Ship? Because he was closer to the phantom crew of the ship than he was to the worlds of the living? He suspected that there was more to it than that.

    Around him he half-glimpsed more phantoms, mere memories and echoes that clung to the fog, imprinted on the very air around him. Again, he doubted others would be able to see these ghostly shadows, but O’Riley was attuned to multiple realities, as were all the Qui Lors, and he could see their restless forms, hear their faint cries as they beseeched him, the only sounds whispering in his mind as the ocean stretched around him in dark and endless silence.

    As he continued to row, he could hear the sounds of the other ship, their sounds echoing through the same fog that muffled and shrouded his own exertions. Despite the strange echo that made the other ship seem to be in all directions at once, O’Riley was able to navigate straight to it in the dark. How much of that, he wondered, was from luck, and how much to a quality of the boat that he steered?

    He could hear the creak of the ropes stretched taught, desperate to catch a wind that was no longer there. He could hear the groaning of the planks, highlighting the deafening silence of the quiet sea that they sailed on. And he could hear the murmur of voices, though he could make out no distinct words.

    His silence still holding, O’Riley drew alongside the ship. He could tell from the waters that the ship was moving, although no wind bore its sails aloft. Caught in a current, then, he thought. And where does this current lead to, he wondered. To a distant sphere, or does it go around in a circle? Is this ship destined for some distant port, or doomed to sail within the sunless sea for eternity?

    O’Riley tethered the boat to the main craft and hauled himself up one of the ropes that hung over the side. He moved as silently as he could, not wishing to draw any attention to himself until necessary.

    The deck itself was empty, the voices O’Riley heard coming from within the hold. The ship was not large, and was of similar size to the dark ship that O’Riley had just left, although its style was different. In addition to a main mast, a smaller mast ascended from the aft deck, and a quarter sail extended from the main mast to the prow of the ship. There was no forecastle, and the only way below the main deck seemed to be through a couple of doors set below the quarterdeck. No one manned the helm, but considering the current the ship seemed to be caught in, O’Riley was not surprised. The style of the ship, though simple, seemed exceptionally foreign, even otherworldly to O’Riley, artistic and creative despite its modest design. He wondered at the type of men who could craft such a ship, or the nation that could put such artistic care into so simple a vessel.

    With caution, O’Riley advanced towards the nearest open door, from whence the voices came. He drew his pistol, but held it lightly in one hand. Although ready, he was not prepared to descend in a threatening manner. Clinging to the shadows, moving as slowly as he could, he descended the ladder into the depths of the ship.

    “And we will die if we wait any longer!” continued one voice, the loudest of the throng below deck. Others talked amongst themselves while he raged. “This ship will be our grave!”

    “Again, Cedric, what would you have us do?” The woman spoke softly, but her voice commanded respect. She sounded weary, as if the argument had worn thin, as if her opponent could not propose anything new.

    “We get off this damn ship!” thundered Cedric. “We tear it apart, making as many rafts and oars as we can. If we wait any longer, we will be too weak to do it. Our supplies are almost out. I do not understand,” he pleaded. “Why doesn`t anybody care? We are going to die on this ship if we stay here any longer. We have been trapped in this cursed ocean for who knows how long. The only way we have of measuring time is by how little provisions we have left. We will be dead soon enough.”

    “And how long do you think we will survive on rafts in this endless ocean of night?”

    “Carmella,” said Cedric more gently. “How long will we survive without provisions? We cannot last another week. I would rather die trying to get out of here than starve to death waiting for a salvation that will never come.”

    “Patience, brother Cedric,” said Carmella. “We sail towards our destiny. This ocean is taking us to a new home for our people. The gods ask that we show faith in them. They have led us thus far, and they will save us yet.”

    Cedric snorted. “The gods have abandoned us! Or else, we abandoned them when we left our home.”

    “Do not say that, Cedric!” scolded Carmella. “We are in their hands!”

    “We are in the hands of oblivion,” countered Cedric.

    O’Riley watched this exchange from the shadows on the ladder. The hold of the ship was a simple affair, a single large room filled with barrels and people. Most were sprawled out around the ship, paying only occasional interest to the debate in the midst of their assembly. O’Riley made a quick estimate of their number, nearly a hundred of them, of all ages. They were a slim people, tall and beautiful, pale of skin but dark of hair. Most wore exquisitely wrought jewelry and equally fine clothing, a stark contrast to their humble surroundings.

    Crude hammocks had been strung between some of the posts, and casks and crates had been turned into makeshift tables and chairs. The place was lit only by the occasional lamp, barely smoldering in the darkness. In one corner, a few of them seemed to be playing a game of cards of some sort around one of the lamps. Another was softly strumming an abstract tune on a stringed instrument of some sort. A mood of resignation seemed to dominate the ship. O’Riley wondered why they were all below deck, when there was so much more room above. He saw no manacles. Surely they were not slaves, held below deck against their will. They were too noble in bearing to be taken as common laborers. What were they doing here?

    It was another moment before O’Riley realized that the stringed instrument had stopped playing, and another before he realized that all eyes were on him. Carmella, dressed in a gown of shimmering white and gold, strode towards him, her head held high, the dim firelight dancing in the reflections off the diadem that held back her black hair from her tapered ears and high cheekbones. “Who are you?” she demanded in a voice that demanded answer.

    Seeing no weapons drawn, O’Riley holstered his gun and descended the rest of the way into the hold. “My name is M’v Okum Sebpt O’Riley, and I am the Gunholder of the Qui Lors Venturers.”

    “These names are strange to us,” replied Carmella. “How did you come aboard our ship?”

    “Forgive me for the intrusion,” said O’Riley. “These waters, they are dark and troublesome. Your ship…. I was worried that you might be in need. I tethered my own craft alongside yours and came aboard. I saw no one above deck and came down below to see if this ship was derelict or if she had a crew. I see now that she does.”

    “You have a ship of your own?” interrupted Cedric. Nearly as tall as Carmella, he was dressed in layers of deep reds and lush black fabrics. He wore little jewelry, merely a massive red jewel on the finger of his right hand which rested on the ornate pommel of the dagger at his side.

    “I do, but I confess that it is quite small. A simple longboat, it could hold no more than a dozen comfortably.”

    “But you were able to navigate these black waters?” asked Cedric again?

    “Only insofar as I was able to come alongside your ship,” answered O’Riley.

    “Do you have a larger vessel that you are from?”

    “I… was separated from my ship. I do not know that I could make my way back there through this fog. I lost sight of her.”

    “Bah! Another mouth to feed. This one is no better than the last refugee we picked up,” said Cedric, pointing to one of the card players. O’Riley noted that the man was deeply tanned, small and wiry and dressed in shabby clothing, his long blond hair unkempt and bleached by the sun. His whole appearance was in such marked contrast with the rest of the ship. He looked up from his hand of cards and smiled at O’Riley, his pale blue eyes twinkling like the jewels on Carmella’s diadem.

    “A moment,” said Carmella, laying a hand on Cedric’s arm. “Unlike that one, this one found us. Muhv….” She stumbled over his name.

    “O’Riley will do,” he offered.

    She smiled in gratitude. “O’Riley, can you navigate our ship through these waters? We have been adrift here for quite some time. Did the gods send you to save us?”

    “Where are you from?” countered O’Riley.

    Carmella and Cedric exchanged a look. O’Riley noticed that everyone on the ship was suddenly struck with the need to look anywhere but at O’Riley. He saw a pain in their eyes. “Our home was destroyed by war,” said Cedric. “We barely escaped. We believe that we are the last of our people.”

    “You are refugees,” said O’Riley. But still they hid something from him. “You have not answered my question,” he pressed. “Where are you from? What’s the name of your homeland? What is the name of your city?”

    This time it was Carmella who answered. “We don`t know.” Cedric looked away in shame. “None of us can remember. The longer we are on this ship, the more we forget. I… can no longer see the faces of my parents. I believe I was married. I think I had children. I do not remember their names.” She hugged herself. “Something has made us forget.”

    “This sea,” said O’Riley. “It causes one to forget all but the present over time.”

    “How do you know this?” asked Cedric. “You speak as if you are familiar with these waters.”

    “Why do you remain below deck?” continued O’Riley. “It is crowded and dark down here. Why not remain above, where the air is clean and you have more room? Why cower down here like….”

    “Like refugees?” finished Carmella. She laughed, a sharp staccato of sound. “We know that these waters are cursed. We are losing our very identities as we travel. Soon, there will be nothing left. That one over there. We found him floating on a few planks lashed crudely together. He does not know where he came from, or how he got here. He has forgotten even his own name. We do not want to end up like him.”

    O’Riley nodded. “I understand, but I do not think that remaining below deck will protect you from this sea any more than if you remained above. It is in the nature of this place.”

    “Again, how do you know this?” insisted Cedric.

    “Do you know where you are?” asked O’Riley.

    “Cedric says that we travel between the spheres,” replied Carmella. “Is he correct? Have we left our own world?”

    O’Riley nodded. “There is an ocean that spans the spaces between the worlds. It has no sun, nor any shore. It connects every world, but is not a world itself. Sometimes a vessel will get lost in its voyage. Legends of the Endless Sea persist on most worlds. Somehow you found yourselves upon this ocean.”

    “I may have had something to do with that,” offered Cedric. “I have some memory of being a form of sorcerer, though I have forgotten all my craft. Could I have cast a spell that brought us here?”

    O’Riley shook his head. “It is possible. I am afraid that my own experience with magic is remarkably limited.”

    “But you speak as one who knows this ocean.”

    “Only in part. This ocean is much like the Ghost Worlds, a system of planets that I have come to call home. The Ghosts Worlds occupy a region of interstellar space that is unstable. They shift through the Multiverse, oft times occupying multiple realities simultaneously, in the same way that this ocean touches multiple worlds at the same time.”

    “Your words make no sense to us,” said Cedric simply.

    “It does not matter. I have heard legends of byways that link the various worlds, of moonbeam roads that connect the spheres. I have heard of companies of men, players in a grand game that move between the worlds and traverse the scales of the Multiverse, and of guilds that guard the secrets of such lore. But I am no expert in such matters, only familiar with the worlds that my brethren come from.”

    “Can you steer us from here?” asked Carmella. “Can you pilot our ship out of these dark waters and to the shores of a new world?”

    O’Riley thought for a moment. “I do not know. But I will try.”

    Carmella smiled. “That is all that we can ask of you.”

    “Please,” said O’Riley. “Go on deck. Ready the sails. I will be along shortly. But first I would talk with this survivor that you rescued from this ocean. Perhaps his experience can shed some light on our own situation.”

    Carmella nodded. “May the gods bless you with that. His wits are still sharp, but he claims to have no memory of anything.”

    “Thank you,” said O’Riley, as he made his way towards the card game.

    Four men sat huddled around a short crate, their faces dimly lit by the weak lamp that sat on the middle of the makeshift table. Three had the noble bearing and grace of the rest of the crew. O’Riley had noted the fourth before, the short tanned man with blond bedraggled hair and pale blue eyes. He smiled again at O’Riley, and motioned for him to join them. “Pull up a barrel,” he joked. “There’s always room for another. Especially someone who fits in around here as well as I do.”

    O’Riley sat down on the proffered cask and took the hand of cards he was dealt. The cards were ornate in design, but simple in their layout. Four suits, with cards numbered one through ten, and three royal cards per suit, like the card decks of classical Earth, and no greater trumps.

    “What is the game?” asked O’Riley.

    The little man nodded towards the pile of discarded cards. “Survival. Getting out of this ocean before the food runs out.” He grinned. “Ten point pitch, near as I can tell, although the elves ‘round here call it something else apparently. Ever play?”

    “I am fairly good at survival,” said O’Riley.

    “Me too, or so it seems. Luck seems to be on my side; I have a winning hand.”

    “A useful thing to have. How do you come to be on this ship?”

    “Elves fished me out of the pond. Thing is, I couldn`t tell you how I got into the water to begin with. But at least I survived, and there’s no evidence that there are any other survivors from any ship I might have come from, so I’d say I still have the winning hand. You?”

    “Recently my ship was attacked. My brothers and I fled in the… lifeboats. I found myself alone on a shore, facing imminent death. But I was fortunate, and was rescued by another ship.” He shook his head. “I do not believe I know Pitch. How does it play?”

    “Fate has dealt us similar hands, it seems. You and I are playing the same game. I, too, was rescued from certain death by the kind folk of this ship, although now I fear they too need rescuing. All of us are lost at sea, adrift on the waters of fate with no knowledge of where we are going, of what our destiny holds. We’re partners; follow my lead. We bid on a single suit and then play in suit, so hold the cards of the suit that’s called. Discard the rest, except keep the jokers and the off-jack. Know what you are playing in. We are playing in spades, as it happens. And trust your partner. His loss is your loss.”

    “What is the off-jack?” said O’Riley. “Who’s my partner, and what is your name?”

    The stranger beamed. “Jack of Clubs. That’s me.” He paused. “And I have no idea.”

    “That does make it hard to play the game,” said O’Riley, returning the smile.

    “It might,” said the little man. “And do you know where you are going, and who you are? And do you know at what game you play?”

    “I follow in suit,” said O’Riley, playing a card. “We all seek our destiny, though I thought I had found mine. I am M’v Okum Sebpt O’Riley, and I am the Gunholder of the Qui Lors Venturers. Or, at least I was.”

    The survivor nodded at the gun holstered at O’Riley’s waist. “You still seem to me to be holding a gun,” he said. “Your play.”

    O’Riley drew his gun and held it. “So I am. And you know what a gun is, Jack of Clubs.”

    “I guess I do,” he said. “Always good to know who you are, isn`t it, M’v Okum Sebpt O’Riley, Gunholder still of the Qui Lors Venturers?”

    “It is,” he agreed. “So tell me, Jack of Clubs. What will you tell me of yourself or this ocean.”

    “Hardly a thing. I know card games, apparently guns too. All sorts of stuff are still up here,” he said, pointing to his head. “But names, even my own, are completely gone. No idea who I am or where I’m from. A complete blank slate. Tabula Rasa.”

    “So you know Latin?” asked O’Riley.

    “Apparently. But I just found that out when you did. Even my rescue from the water by these elves is pretty fuzzy. In a few days I’ll probably forget even that. Sorry that I can`t be of any more help.”

    “It is the hand you were dealt,” mused O’Riley. “As you say, it cannot be helped. You have been on these waters too long. Mortal man was not meant to dwell herein.”

    “The elves, they seem to remember things better than I can. Names and the like.”

    “The eldren races are more suited for this environment, but given enough time even they will forget their identities. We must steer this ship clear of these waters while we still have the presence of mind to do so.”

    “It’s your play, Gunholder,” said the survivor. He looked up at O’Riley. “Mortal man?” O’Riley met his gaze. “You said ‘mortal man,’ as if that wasn`t you. Are you mortal, Gunholder?”

    O’Riley pondered this a moment. “I don`t know. I do not believe that I am wholly mortal anymore. But I also do not believe that I am immortal. Like the Ghost Worlds, I am… something in between.”

    “Do you have a plan, then, Gunholder? All that talk about moonbeam roads and scaling the Multiverse. Can you get us out of this?”

    O’Riley laid down the last card. “Ace wins, does it not?” He stood up. “Come with me, Jack of Clubs. It is time to save this ship and this crew. They have been through enough.”

    * * *

    Much of the crew had made their way on deck, though they wandered about as if lost.

    “It feels as if we are passengers on someone else’s ship,” explained Carmella to O’Riley. “Perhaps we have been below deck too long. Or maybe we always were the passengers, and something has happened to the crew.”

    “Anything is possible,” said O’Riley, “Although I suspect the former. I see no signs of struggle, nor have I seen any indication that these waters are filled with predator or pirate. Tell me, who is your navigator?”

    After a moment, Cedric answered for the crew. “It appears that we do not have one.”

    “I see. Well, Jack of Clubs? Is this something you could do?”

    The little man made his way to the quarterdeck and stood behind the wheel. Bracing his feet apart, he cautiously reached forward and took hold of the wheel with both hands. “Aye, it does seem familiar. I’d be willing to give it a shot, but I can’t see through this blasted fog, and without wind there’s little I can do.”

    “Indeed,” said O’Riley. “You have addressed our two concerns.”

    “And have you a plan, O’Riley, for overcoming these obstacles?” asked Carmella.

    O’Riley nodded, and walked towards the main mast, taking hold of the rope that wound its way to the top. “In part. As an inhabitant of the Ghost Worlds, I do not seem to be as affected by the fog, both in my sight and in my memory.” He began to clamber up the mast, hand over hand, towards the crow’s nest. “Let me see what a vantage of height gives to our situation.” O’Riley soon disappeared into the silent fog, lost from the eyes of the crew.

    It was a few minutes before O’Riley emerged from the fog, sliding back down the rope to the deck. “And have you seen anything?” asked Cedric. “Any visions of phantasms leading us away from this eternal fog?”

    “I cannot save your ship,” stated O’Riley.

    “As I suspected,” muttered Cedric. “More false hopes and wishful dreams unfulfilled. We should begin to strip this ship down to build rafts and abandon her.”

    “And it is not my place to save her,” continued O’Riley. “But I believe that you can save her, Cedric.”

    Cedric looked at him warily. “You are mad, stranger. The mist has driven you insane. You see salvation where there is none. I have told you that I cannot even remember my home. I have no knowledge of how to pilot this craft. I would lead my people if I could, but I have no way to do so. I have failed them.”

    “But you have the chance to save them,” insisted O’Riley. “You are indeed a sorcerer, Cedric, or you would not bear the ring that you do.” Cedric’s hand moved instantly to cover the large red stone set on his finger. “I recognize the stone, born by seers and sages. Those who wield the Ring of Kings can see through other worlds and command the forces of nature to do their bidding. You bear that stone, Cedric. It is your birthright to command the spirits that surround this ship to save you.”

    “How do you know this?” asked Carmella, coming to stand before Cedric.

    “I said that I was from the Ghost Worlds. These worlds are not like yours, her citizens unlike you. But we have been visited before by those who can find us. I have seen those who have born the Ring of Kings before. They are led on their visionquests to our world. What you call magic we call science, but it is a science that transcends the physics of any one single universe. It would indeed look like magic to any unfamiliar with its workings. But I know this. The Ring of Kings has power, Cedric. Use it. Command it.”

    “Command it to do what?” asked Cedric.

    “Summon the spirits of air and ocean that flit between the worlds, the shades of mariners and the victims of the drowned who haunt these benighted waters. Have them sing their lament into the sails of your ship. Have them croon to you their dirge, and direct that torment as you would direct the wind with the sails. Command them, Cedric, to save your people. You bear the Ring of Kings; they will listen.”

    “Even if it is as you say, and even if they listen to me, I do not know where to command them. I do not know how to summon them, and I do not know where to direct them. We still cannot see through this fog, O’Riley. We are still sailing blind.”

    “Here you will have to trust me,” said O’Riley, “though we may all come to regret it. We do not need to alter our course by much. To our port side there is a disturbance in the water. I believe, on the other side of this anomaly, we will find our way out of these waters.”

    “You saw this?” asked Carmella.

    “I saw something,” said O’Riley. “And as I alone can see any distance in this fog, you are forced to trust me, or to continue as you have been; I fear you have no other choices. And the way we go will be dangerous. The waters will be treacherous. But if we can survive them, then I believe we will be safe, and free from these currents that span the gulf between the worlds.”

    “And you think that man can pilot us through these waters?” asked Cedric, pointing to their new navigator.

    “The Jack of Clubs seems to have a knack for survival,” said O’Riley. “I suspect that he is more than he seems. I will direct him, and I trust him to steer us well, as I trust you to do right by what you summon.”

    “You put a lot of faith in the untested,” said Cedric. “You are worse than Carmella. You would make an excellent priest.”

    O’Riley smiled sadly. “Our ship,” he mused. “It was called the Origin of Faith. My brethren, they wove together the tapestry of faith and reason. Immortal, they did not divide their beliefs or their perceptions. They saw all around them as part of a larger whole….” He shook his head. “Forgive me. This does not help us, and time is of the essence. Cedric, you have much work to do, and we have a great danger before us. Cast your spells, sorcerer.”

    “I hope you know what you are talking about,” said Cedric doubtfully. “What do I say? How do I start this?”

    “I am not really sure,” said O’Riley. “But I would imagine that you clear your mind and empty your thoughts. Something like that. Focus on the ring. Let it resonate within you. Let it guide your mind to the proper incantations and cants that you need. As it does so, I believe that you will be able to remember what you have forgotten.”

    Cedric steeled himself in the center of the ship, arms out, head tipped back. With eyes closed, he licked his lips and tentatively began to mutter to himself. Everyone watching could see something come over him, a strength of purpose and a fierceness of countenance. He began to chant in an ancient and alien speech, its strange cadences rising and falling, echoing eerily through the fog and filling the world around them. The wind began to pick up, the sails fluttering raggedly in the breeze. The swirls of wind and mist teased the mind, at times looking like figures, and times more like an alien script. As the wind grew, snatches of light could occasionally be seen like corpse lights in the fog. One could be forgiven for hearing what sounded like voices as the wind whistled through the rigging. None could deny the change that had fallen on the ship, or the presence of power that permeated the air.

    O’Riley ascended the aft deck to stand behind the Jack of Clubs. “I need you to steer the ship to the port side, but only a few degrees. Do not go too far.”

    The Jack of Clubs continued to stare resolutely forward, eyes fixed on the fog, determined to ignore the roaring sound of the wind and shades that flew past them. “I may not know who I am, but I’ll you this much, Gunholder: I don`t like steering blind. How will I know if I’m steering too far to port?”

    O’Riley rested his hand on the steersman’s shoulder. “You will have to trust me on this one, my friend. I will direct you to where the ship needs to go.”

    “Blind trust in you, eh? What makes you think I’ll take that gamble?”

    “Trust your partner,” said O’Riley. “Remember that your loss is my loss.”

    “So, you got the winning hand on this one, partner?”

    “Let us say that I know what we are playing in.”

    The Jack of Clubs shook his head. “Ghosts and elves are all a bit much for me. I don`t think I have a choice but to trust you.”

    “You have been a fortunate man so far, Jack of Clubs. Let us hope that such fortune continues to hold out for all of us.”

    “You gonna tell me what’s ahead of us?”

    “You would not follow me if I did,” replied O’Riley.

    “You ain’t inspirin’ much confidence, Gunholder.”

    “I know,” agreed O’Riley grimly. “But I fear it is our only hope.”

    As the spectral winds picked up, the sails of the vessel filled out. Straining against the wheel and the current, the Jack of Clubs began to turn the vessel slowly away from their course. Inch by inch the direction of the ship changed. O’Riley helped take hold of the wheel, all the while keeping an eye on the course of the ship.

    “Is that far enough?” asked the Jack of Clubs, still struggling to peer through the fog and see what O’Riley saw.

    “Yes,” answered O’Riley softly. “I fear it is. Hold her steady, my friend, for all our sakes. Straight on, but be ready to follow my lead.” Climbing back down to the main deck, O’Riley rushed to the side of Cedric, who collapsed before he got there. As fast as O’Riley was, Carmella was faster, and managed to catch Cedric before he hit the deck.

    “That was… incredible!” breathed Cedric. “I felt like I was someone else. Someone powerful. I wonder… was I that powerful, once? Was there a time when I trafficked with such spirits on a regular basis?” Around him, the wind continued to howl, the sound a continual rushing of waters and voices that swallowed all sounds but their own.

    “Hush now, Lord Cedric,” said Carmella, cradling his head. “You have saved our ship. We are saved because of you.”

    “I am afraid that is not at all true,” said O’Riley sadly. “Rest now, Cedric, but only for a moment. We may have need of your talents again.”

    “Can you not see that he is exhausted?” exclaimed Carmella. “He has done what you asked. We are saved; let him rest.”

    “We cannot afford for him to rest, lest we all come to rest upon the ocean floor,” answered O’Riley.

    “I do not understand,” said Carmella warily. “What do you mean?”

    “Gunholder!” called the Jack of Clubs from the aft deck. “We appear to be caught in another current! This one’s much stronger, and gettin’ stronger by the minute.”

    “Get him up if I call for him,” said O’Riley to Carmella. “Otherwise we shall all be dead.” He stood and rushed to the front of the ship, climbing out onto the prow that extended over the water. Below him, the waters swirled and rushed ahead with reckless determination.

    “Keep her steady!” yelled O’Riley, now almost on the end of the bowsprit. “But hold the wheel tight!”

    “What?!” cried Carmella back. “O’Riley, we cannot hear you over the sounds of the shades that Cedric summoned up. They are too many, and too loud!”

    Slowly, O’Riley turned back to look at the crew of the ship, all holding ropes and guiding the sails. “There are no shades, Carmella,” he said, and although he did not raise his voice, it nevertheless echoed in the fog over the sound of the rushing waters. “The spirits of this ocean left us some minutes ago.”

    Carmella shook her head. “I don`t understand,” she called back. “How can they have left? I can still hear them.”

    “It is not the shades that you hear,” he insisted. “That is the sound of the waters before us.”

    With dawning horror, Carmella rushed to the front of the ship and looked over the side. There, in front of her, she could make out a vast dark shape dimly through the fog, darkness and water swirling in eternal harmony.

    “A whirlpool!” she cried. “It is enormous, and we are heading right towards it. O’Riley, you have destroyed us all!”

    “Maybe not,” he answered from his perch. “That fissure in the waters marks the boundary between this ocean wasteland and the world beyond. If we can navigate through that, we will emerge on the other side, and no longer be on this Endless Sea.”

    “How can we? You have steered us right into it!”

    “I have not,” he insisted. “We steer alongside it. We will run along the edge, diving into it just long enough to pick up the speed that will be needed to catapult us through it and into calm waters beyond it.”

    “Insanity!” breathed Carmella. “Tell me you have done this before.”

    “I have,” hesitated O’Riley, “albeit in a Qui Lors cruiser with ion-burn thrusters, and it was a black hole we were using to slingshot our vessel.”

    “You words are still meaningless to me,” she said. “But you assure me we can do this? We have these… iron-burner thrusts?”

    “No,” O’Riley answered. “But we have Cedric and the Ring of Kings, and the Jack of Clubs at the wheel, and these will have to do. Now, please convey to your crew that they will all want to find something to hold onto. This is where things get difficult. And please make sure that Cedric is awake.”

    While Carmella scrambled to alert her crew, O’Riley ran a number of rapid calculations through his head. Satisfied, he turned and looked back at the Jack of Clubs. Alone among the crew, the navigator seemed unfazed, holding the wheel tightly but with a cheerfulness that belayed any reservations he might feel. Catching O’Riley’s eye, he smiled and held his fist out, thumb up. O’Riley simply nodded in return and resumed his position.

    As the ship approached the whirlpool, it began to dip forward as the very level of the water began to drop away from them. The sounds of the waters rushing past them were now overwhelming. O’Riley marveled at the view before him: over a mile wide, the funnel spun out of sight miles below them in spiraling darkness. The churning waters raced around them, drawing them ever closer to that point from which nothing could return.

    “This is insanity!” cried Carmella. “We are lost!”

    “Tell him!” yelled O’Riley over his shoulder. As the ship tipped further forward, he stared down into the maw of oblivion, only the slender bowsprit of the ship between him and destruction. “Wake Cedric up! Tell him to use the Ring of Kings again!”

    “He is too weak!” she screamed back.

    “If he does not, we are all dead.”

    O’Riley did not look back to see if Carmella had heeded his words. Before him was death, as tangible a force as the day that he had run out of oxygen when his ship had been disabled in the Orion Wars. That day he had feared death, but had been resurrected, his life still needed by the Multiverse, his p’rind’rha unfulfilled. Today he again faced death, but without the fear. Death was the ultimate fate of all men, he knew. To live in fear of death was to live in fear of man’s natural destiny. Instead, O’Riley anticipated death, that great unknown. To live was to fulfill his p’rind’rha, the chance to make that much of a difference in the Multiverse. To die was to transition, to enter into the next phase of his existence, as all must someday make such a transition. O’Riley would not fear the inevitable, but instead embraced the anticipation.

    The wind picked up around him, whipping at him, drawing the ship forward. The voices in the mist called to him, enticed him to join them in their eternal dance above the waters of this endless realm. Their siren call was strong, but thoughts of his brethren kept O’Riley from hurtling himself into their midst. He clung tightly to the mast, willing himself to face the watery abyss before him.

    The ship was pulled around the edge of the swirling maelstrom, reckless in her speed. At times the ship almost lay on its side, her entire crew gazing into the pit before them. But just when all hope of survival seemed gone, the ship surged forward, her momentum carrying her out of the depression. She cut through the waters, aided in part from the supernatural force commanded by Cedric and the Ring of Kings. The whirlpool seemed to yell in denial, as did the spectral voices of the restless shades summoned forth by Cedric, frustrated that they must aid the sorcerer in his salvation and not in his destruction. With diminishing speed, the ship pulled away from the nightmare vortex and coasted into a pleasant sea, the sun setting in brilliant oranges over the distant horizon.

    Before them, a new land, a jungle shore, verdant and untamed. Behind them mist and shadows and the fading memories of time lost in the dark, of terrors faced and now forgotten. “Like we are waking up,” said Carmella, coming to stand by the prow of the ship.

    O’Riley smiled in reply, and lowered himself off of the prow. “How is Cedric?”

    “Unconscious, but alive. The blood of sorcerers runs in his veins, I think.”

    “And the blood of kings in yours, if I am not mistaken,” said O’Riley. “The two of you could forge a powerful dynasty in this new world, if you had a mind to.”

    “Do you think so?” she asked, and her eyes sparkled. “In all that we have been through, I had not thought of this. But I do not know if I could bring myself to consider such a thing. I believe I was married before. I think I have, or had, children.”

    “I understand,” O’Riley nodded. “Yet these belonged to someone else. You have not lost your family, for like this ship, you have a new beginning on a new world. Today you are reborn, a new person with a new future. This is for your whole crew.”

    “Reborn,” she agreed. “And Cedric too.” She smiled. “He is a powerful man, a natural leader.”

    “Your people will need powerful leaders. This world lies before you, ready for you to tame. Who knows? Perhaps there are already others here in this world, old kingdoms that you will need to make peace with.”

    “But we can do it,” said Carmella with deep conviction. “This is a new world. A bright empire lies before us, with fresh opportunities. We have escaped our past, and will reign in triumph for generations to come!”

    “I wish you the best of fortune,” agreed O’Riley. “Your people deserve this opportunity.”

    “You speak as if you do not intend to stay with us,” she said.

    A warmth crept through O’Riley, and he found himself smiling at her concern. “I cannot. My p’rind’rha draws me ever on. Somewhere out there are my brethren. I would find them again, and return to our efforts. This is not my world, Carmella, and your ways are not my ways. Yours is a people of magic and empires, mine a universe of technology and sciences. I could never truly be a part of this world.”

    “Where will you go,” she asked, “and how will you get there?”

    “My longboat is still tethered to the side of your ship. I will cast off from here, and travel back in the direction from whence I came.”

    “Into the fog? Back to that Endless Sea of eternal night? Stay with us. We have so much we could learn from you.”

    “I cannot, but I thank you for the offer, kind lady. Ahead of you lies your new land, and your ship appears to be on course for a secluded harbor. Go in peace, Carmella, and allow me to leave the same.”

    “Then go, friend O’Riley, knowing that you will always be a friend to our people.”

    “And you, Carmella. My best to you, and to Cedric. When he awakens, give him my regards, and my compliments on saving his ship and his people. He could not have handled himself any better.”

    With a wave to the rest of the crew, O’Riley made his way to the side of the ship, and lowered himself into the rowboat he had brought with him from the Dark Ship. Already in the craft, waiting for him, was the Jack of Clubs.

    “You are not going with them?” asked O’Riley.

    “You don’t seem surprised,” nodded the Jack of Clubs.

    “I do not suppose you fit in with the eldren race,” agreed O’Riley. “But are you sure that you would rather thrown your lot in with me? I do not necessarily know where I am going.”

    “Oh, I disagree,” said the Jack of Clubs. “I think you know exactly where you’re goin’, which is why I want to come with you. I just don`t think you know how you’ll be gettin’ there yet, and that sounds like an adventure to me.”

    “Trusting to your luck?”

    “Not this time. I’m trusting to your p’rind’rha, your destiny. I don`t have much identity beyond what you’ve given me. I think I’ll stick with you to fill in my details a bit longer, Gunholder O’Riley.”

    “Call me… call me Septimus.”

    “I didn`t think that was your name, Gunholder.”

    “It used to be. I abandoned it long ago. Perhaps in doing so I gave up a little too much of who I am. Perhaps it is time for me to once again take my human name.”

    “A rebirth,” said the Jack of Clubs with relish. “For both of us. Septimus O’Riley and Jack O’Clubs, off to find our destinies.”

    With a gentle shove, the two of them pushed the smaller craft away from the ship and the friendly farewells of the crew. O’Riley took to the oars, and ponderously began to steer the craft back into the dark fog, now eerily quiet. They travelled in silence for some time, until they could both hear the unmistakable sounds of another ship in the fog.

    “We’re not alone,” hissed the Jack of Clubs.

    “No we are not,” confirmed O’Riley. “Hail the ship!” he called out more loudly.

    “Hail the longboat,” came the reply, a familiar voice, rich and deep. As O’Riley rowed the smaller boat against the side of the ship, the Jack of Clubs caught the rope that was lowered to them, climbing it adroitly, then turning to offer O’Riley his hand.

    “Welcome back, Septimus O’Riley,” said the blind Captain, striding unerringly forward to take O’Riley by the hand. “And welcome back, Jack O’Clubs.” The Captain took his hand as well.

    “Welcome back?” asked the Jack of Clubs. “Forgive me. Have I been here before?”

    “Indeed,” said the Captain. “You do not remember, do you? Ah, but that may have to be a story for another time. For now, it is enough to have you back. And just in time. We sail immediately for our next port of call.”

    “And where might that be, Captain?” asked O’Riley.

    “The destination is as important as how we get there, Septimus. Worry not about where we are going. See to it, instead, that you acquit yourself as you have today. Then you will assure yourself that we will arrive where you want to be.”

    O’Riley nodded. “Very well, Captain. It appears we are in your hands for the time. Take us, then, to our destiny.”

    And the Dark Ship sailed off again into the Endless Sea.
    "Self-discipline and self-knowledge are the key. An individual becomes a unique universe, able to move at will through all the scales of the multiverse - potentially able to control the immediate reality of every scale, every encountered environment."
    --Contessa Rose von Bek, Blood part 4, chapter 12