Interval XVIII: Avast, Me Hearties

Fog lay thick upon the surface of the Atrament, shrouding the dark mirror of the inky sea from sight. Through the swirling mist, lit intermittently by ghostly lights that danced from the surface of the ink, a vessel moved. It scythed through the dark water and pale fog, long and lean and predatory in aspect. From its sides, rows upon rows of oars moved with unnatural precision, scooping at the ink so carefully as to barely disturb its surface. It moved rapidly across the ink, with a surety of direction and purpose that would have seemed entirely suicidal, to barrel through the fog at such a clip.

As it slid from one gloaming fogbank into another, the ship was briefly visible in all its gruesome detail. Between the pale and yellowed plates, ribs and spars of bone that formed the superstructure, dark, dead meat glistened wetly, and the long oars that touched the water were as pale skeletal fingers, or the legs of some enormous water-skating insect. Within the ship, crusted and leathery hearts beat like great drums as dead oarsmen, in various stages of decay, sat in the rowing benches, moving with an uncannily mechanical precision. Above the ship, small flocks of dead crows flew, scattering feathers slowly as they wheeled about, gazing every which way, dried and decaying eyes piercing the fog to provide lookout to the macabre ship below. On the deck, carved from scrimshawed bones, dead crew worked, moved about and sometimes mimed at pointless actions such as scrubbing the deck with neither brush nor water – a grim parody of a living crew.

At the prow of this dead boat, this galleon of graves, a figure stood, brow furrowed in concentration, lambent eyes fixed upon a horizon invisible through the fog the boat rocketed through. Wind kicked up his cape, and would have chilled him to the bone if he had sensation. He stood stock-still, hands outstretched ahead of him, fingers twitching as if he was conducting an orchestra no-one else could see. At his behest, the hearts beneath his feet beat, the sinews contracted, and the boat continued to move, the strings of his puppets clutched in the hands of his mind’s eye. To an observer who could see the flows of magic through the boat, dark threads of necromantic power coiled through the boat’s beams and spars, through the bodies of the oarsmen, through the literal skeleton crew that moved listlessly about the deck.

It had taken Syrk the Deathless a few days to construct the boat. First of all, one needed to build one’s tools, servitors that could then build more servitors, gather raw materials from the local populace, etcetera, and thus the process expanded geometrically, as each ‘generation’ of servitors could build more and more, and work together to construct a vessel worthy of travelling the Atrament. The whole thing had come together fairly smoothly – it took a village to raise a barn, or however the aphorism went, after all. And now, finally, he was heading towards a truly sublime destination. He’d come so tantalisingly close, back in the Arboretum, but sometimes it was just the chase that make it better. Either way, his listening stations had heard faint fragments of the Song Of Endings in the resonance of the False Axiom, back at Babliothèque, and this strange power and the Material that held it, well, they were getting ever more interesting. Sitting the Material person down and having a nice, long chat would of course be the best way of getting such information, but he didn’t get the feeling that the Material woman or her companions would be particularly apt to answer his questions – the red person who bore some outward signs of being a Material themself was an associate of dearest Gyran, so they’d probably try to kill him on sight.

He sighed happily to himself, thinking about how fun it would be, and then turned his attention back to the matters of sailing. His eyes flickered and dimmed, his sight receding until the only thing left was his mind’s eye, with which he scanned the horizon. Beneath him, the winding threads that he bound his boat together with hummed, dark shapes that were somehow distinct from the darkness, moving in an enormous macabre magical mechanism, clicking and grinding and churning ever onward. Ahead and around, occasional flashes, impressions of magic that drifted through his sensorium appeared suddenly and disappeared just as quickly. The signal, the impression, the pneumatic echo he was looking for was further than any of these, and he reached out with his thoughts, unhindered by planetary details such as horizons – the Library wasn’t a planet, after all, it had no curvature.

Yes, there. A gathering knot of peril and darkness, a canker on the flesh of the Real, something similar to but so very distinct from his beloved Spine. It thrummed with power, even disguised, strange resonances from the great Tower, hungry darkness and other, more mysterious things.  A few motions of his hands, the subtle shifting of the boat beneath his feet, and he’d adjusted the heading and picked up a bit of speed. The sheer taste, the acrid horror of something that did not belong prickled in the back of his head, left afterimages in his second sight. It sent delightful shivers up his spine, and he grinned to think of what awaited him when he caught his prey.

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