The dark, rolling waves carried our ship across an expanse of miles, over unfathomable depths. Deacon finally adjusted to the constant, subtle swaying and rolling of the ship. Although he’d never be completely comfortable on a seafaring vessel, he was much more his normal self, and was eating decent portions of his evening meals again.
Dinner in the Captain’s quarters was by now thoroughly relaxed and unhesitatingly jovial. We dined on thick chunks of meaty fish in a tangy orange sauce, and bread covered in an airy corcuester spread. Towards the end of the meal, the Captain ordered five bottles of an exceptionally fine vintage brought out, as the Steward opened the first two he addressed me.
“My dear Miss Amber, it is unfortunate for you that your experiences and storytelling skills are so engaging, for now we couldn’t possibly bear to sit through anyone else’s mutterings. You are compelled to entertain us again tonight.”
A smooth tongue on a rugged man. An irresistible weakness for me. I smiled and sighed. The table applauded.
“I wouldn’t know what to choose or where to begin,” I said.
He stroked his beard in mock perplexion. “Ah, yes. Hmm. A dilemma to be sure.” He broke into a smile and his eyes twinkled as he looked at me. The cheeky bastard was flirting with me. “Why, I know. A woman and a Djingo crossing the world together,” he continued while I toyed with the thought of sleeping with him at some point during the voyage, “Few Djingos are ever spotted outside the High Disks…” Admittedly, the idea of spending a night in his cabin before the end of the trip gave me a zesty little tingle. “…I can only assume you met somewhere there.”
I reached over to the seat next to me and scritched Deacon playfully on his neck. Holding a wine glass in between his two front paws, he lifted it in a toast, and barked out a salutation. We all roared out a cheer in return, took a deep swig, and I cleared my throat.
A dirigible I’d booked passage on, difficultly I might add, crashed in the High Disks, stranding me and the other surviving passengers in the mountains there.
For those not familiar with the Far West, the High Disks are a series of twelve 30-90 mile wide disks suspended high above the ground. They carry a variety of mountainous topography atop them, some thickly wooded, and some snow capped and rocky.
They revolve very slowly, each at its own speed, and also just as slowly ascend and descend. They have numerous paths and roads that run to their edges, and which sometimes align and connect to other paths on adjacent disks based on rotation and height. However the rates of both the rotation and the ascension and dissension, while not noticeable living on them, are nevertheless not constant. In certain seasons at certain heights some speed up a bit and at other times slow down.
As you can imagine, navigating your way through the disks, from one to another, and finally out of the region entirely is a logistical nightmare that often requires a high proficiency at divination and mathematics.
I had only been in your world a few years. I was frightened a great deal more back then, and the death of so many people in the crash had me unnerved and near panic.
Although some survivors wandered off or set out on their own, the majority of us banded together in order to collectively cross through the mountains to whatever towns or outposts of civilization we could find.
Making our way through the winding landscape was slow going. Most of us were armed but few knew how to hunt and fewer had any clue which plants and other growths were edible or not. The mountains were littered with goat and elk, which could provide food and extra clothing, but you can’t very well walk up to them with a knife and start hacking away.
Still, we figured out how to use the narrow trails to our advantage when hunting, and how, as a group, to steer and herd the animals into bottlenecks where we could pick one or two off. I learned how to track, stalk, and kill swiftly and efficiently, as well as gut. The hunting skills I learned in these weeks were invaluable, and have served me well since. Two of us knew some charmwork, often used to reveal “true natures” and intentions, and these allowed us to work out groups of edible plants and vegetative growth.
At night, after the meat and foliage had been cooked and eaten, we would sit around the fire succumbing one by one to drowsiness beneath the stars. Sometimes one could hear what sounded like a high, faint music coming from the dark sky above. I felt perhaps the greatest peace I’ve known then, and when all this is over, I believe I shall return to the mountains there to live.
As we descended lower and lower, we reached thick forests and it was here that our numbers started to dwindle. We’d awake in the morning to find one of the men gone. No sign of trouble. It was as if they’d simply decided to run off. Also at night, tiny lights appeared in the forest, flickering and dancing.
We didn’t put things together until after a few days of the disappearances, when some of the men started remarking on the faint strains of music they would hear along with the lights. They claimed they felt eerie tugs and the desire in the middle of the night to get up and run into the forest after the lights.
None of the women had this problem, and we started to notice that as evening came, the men would grow a bit confused. Not terribly so, but they were more apt to be distracted, to not always remember what they were doing and let their sentences trail off unfinished.
We discussed what to do. Suggestions included tying the men to trees at bedtime, keeping a couple women on watch through the night, and plugging their eyes and ears when they slept.
We started by assigning two guards, of which I was one. That night, a few hours after our general bedtime, one of the men sat up and stared deep into the forest at a little hovering light. We ran over and shook him to his senses, but as he snapped out of it, one of the other men on the far side of the fire got up and took off into the brush. I swore under my breath and went after him.
Stumbling through the darkness, branches snapping at my head, bushes and roots snagging around my legs and ankles, I tried to keep up with him, occasionally tripping on uneven ground and almost sprawling face first onto the forest floor. He ran effortlessly, unhurried, with a casual ease towards the whisp that beckoned him. I kept up though, and was even closing in. Another minute and I might have tackled him, but we reached the edge of the Disk. Without hesitation, he simply leapt off, falling and falling not down, but forward into the night, towards the singing star that called to him.
I stood at the edge and watched him fade into the sky.
I look up at the midnight sky even now and think of the man I chased then, still falling across the night, endlessly towards the little light untold miles away.
Now, of course, I had a new problem. I had no idea where I was or how to return to camp in the dark. I tried calling out again and again, but no one answered. Attempting to find my way back proved useless, and by dawn I was well and truly lost. Giving up hope of rejoining my comrades and afraid of wandering in circles for days or even weeks, I made my way back to the Disk’s edge and resolved to walk around the perimeter until I came to one of the roads or paths that ran to the end, and could lead me back to some sign of civilization.
Each night now I would hear the stars sound out long, high, distant notes; vast, slow harmonies ringing through the dark, empty sky. It was wondrous, lonely, and comforting. But I began to become aware of a tone that came not from the space beyond, but from one of the hills to the North. Having no better options, I resolved to follow it back to its source.
The next day I spied an observatory nestled atop a hill, and made my way up to it.
The doors were immense, three times my height, and I lifted a thick rock high above my head and used it to bang against them.
After several minutes wait, they slowly creaked open a sliver and a mousy woman with large glasses, lenses the size of saucers, and dark black hair pulled back behind her head answered. She had a cute, tiny nose, and wore a quill tucked behind her right ear. Upon opening the mighty front door, she peered curiously at me, leaning right into me as she looked me up and down.
Her name was Matea and she took me in. Holed up alone in her observatory for years, her social skills were at first awkward at best, but she gradually became grateful for the company. I was fascinated by the observatory, the telescope, and her work, and she took to tutoring me as she went about her business, although I might add her teaching skills were near nonexistent, and required exceptional dedication from the student’s part.
I stayed for eight weeks, while she showed me her work, taught me to map traveling routes using the stars, and how to traverse the High Disks using a combination of divination and mathematics.
She had moved into the observatory years ago, after its previous occupant, an old professor of hers, had mysteriously vanished. She had initially concentrated on astronomy and the mathematical frequency mapping of the various tones the stars produced. But gradually, and with some assistance from discarded notes the old professor had left, she turned towards the actual manipulation of the tones.
Specifically, she found that each tone has a unique attraction, and by using these tones as well as creating additional balancing frequencies from the observatory, you could manipulate objects in space. This opened up the possibility for sailboats that cruise through the velvet night sky, sails billowed by frequencies sung by the stars. Trips through the cosmos could be mapped out by cosmic symphonies, the Captains of the ships, Conductors.
Recently she had begun to explore the potential of using specific sequences, melodic keys if you will, to unlock inter-dimensional doorways, but progress had been slow.
She taught me a great amount, but most importantly, she gave me the skills necessary to pinpoint myself, and map out a careful route across the Disks to the White Mountains on the Western edge of the 3rd Disk, where in 9 months time, a trail would be aligned for two weeks that would take me from the High Disks down into the GlassLands where my journey could resume.
Three months later I arrived at the foothills of the White Mountains, just in time for winter. The town was a small outpost where fur traders and gem diggers came to barter, trade and get themselves a warm bed and some simple comforts. The buildings had snow on them even at the height of summer.
I had collected an impressive assortment of precious gems on my journey from the observatory, using techniques Mateo had taught me. The gems, as conductors of light, had specific tonal personalities that would answer to the right frequencies. If you sounded out the right tone and listened carefully, they would call you right to them. A few days here and there spent in some caverns along the way, had yielded rich results. For the first time I was finally sitting on some modest wealth, a wealth that could aid me greatly.
Stranded in a tiny town during a brutal winter however, the main use of my new finances ended up being the provision of six months worth of shelter and alcohol.
I rented a room on the 3rd floor of a garish hotel adorned in tattered red and black velvet just off the Main Street, and I spent most of my waking hours in the Zodiac Saloon several doors down. Outside a never ending blizzard raged continuously.
It was in the Zodiac Saloon that I learned how to properly drink, another skill that has proven very useful, although at the time I was on the verge of remaining there forever; the bottom of a bottle in a snow blown world being a strangely comforting place to live out one’s days. I learned how to take a shot of harsh, strong whiskey without grimacing, seduce an endless succession of free drinks out of drunken men without actually putting out and them grateful to be buying, and how to throw a knife into the dead center of a target board after 8 shots of Sulpherian Rum.
I lost track of the weeks. I left my claws and backpack lying in my room, which I used mainly for passing out. My only responsibility was to set myself up with a guide to get me through the mountains come the Thaw, and despite that my resolve to continue was wavering severely, eventually a tracker named ‘Crimson John’ barreled through the door, with a Djingo named Deacon he had bought from a fur slaver on the 8th Disk.
I hired him to guide me, but we still had over two months of blizzards to wait out, so I’d see them nightly at the Saloon.
‘Crimson John’ was a brute of a man, high tempered, uncouth, and exasperatingly rude. He was also devoid of fear, and when in good spirits, an uproarious drinking partner. He disgusted me, but when hammered that disgust could turn into a sleazy attraction, so I found myself sleeping with him on occasion.
One night, about 2 weeks before we were due to leave, the Saloon was having a particularly lively night. The candlabras bathed the room in a warm glow, most of the town had drifted in, and three musicians had brought in their instruments and were going through their collective repertoires of bouncy ditties. People were dancing, and the air was lively for a change.
A new arrival stumbled in, a younger man with a well trimmed beard, long, tussled hair, and soft, intelligent eyes. He unhooked his snow shoes, and with a smile at the room that snagged me then and there, made his way to the bar.
I had been sitting with Deacon getting to know each other as had become our routine over the last several nights. He was indentured to Crimson John for the next four years, but hoped afterwards to see as much of the world away from the High Disks as possible. As Deacon stumbled outside to relieve himself, the new guy saddled up to order a drink beside me, and I struck up a conversation. The boy’s name was Jordan, and he was a budding gem-hunter who was also engaged in an extensive topographic mapping of the Disks.
He was the most intelligent man I had met in over a year. His wit made me laugh with a giggle as opposed to the drunken bark I had adopted, his manners made me feel almost half cultured, and his eyes simply made me melt.
We chatted and flirted all evening. Late into the night, as the Saloon’s energy was peaking, the two of us were dancing around the room in a frenzied waltz. Jordan suddenly stopped and looked at me with a wild, confused stare. I didn’t know what to make of it, and returned a quizzical face, when he simply fell over in front of me, a knife sticking out of the back of his head.
Across the room stood Crimson John, with a dark, jealous look in his eyes. He began to cross the room in order to retrieve his knife.
I froze. I watched him walk over, pull his knife out of Jordan’s skull, give me a dark stare, gaze around in challenge at the hushed bar, turn and walk out.
I reached over, picked up a glass, broke it on the table, and with a growing shriek began walking towards to the door, speeding into a run.
Arms grabbed me, holding me back from what would have been suicide, and I shrieked and fought them until my anger turned into unbearable sadness, and I wept uncontrollably, going limp, becoming helpless, and falling utterly apart.
Deacon carried me home and stayed with me for the next three days while I remained in bed.
We left a week later, Crimson John, Deacon, and I. John was still the only guide around who could get me out, and our window of opportunity was short.
But the winter was long that year, and the Thaw never came. Instead another blizzard caught us high in the mountains, and in a flash avalanche, we lost our camp and our rations. Stranded in the bitter snowstorm, we had one backpack left, with 1 sleeping bag, a tarp, some clothes, some fire enchantments and no food. We were five days from the trail that led off the disk. We sat huddled together, the three of us, snow blowing fiercely around our shivering bodies, hunger gnawing at our stomachs. Crimson John looked at me.
“Gotta eat,” he said. “We’ll have to kill the Djingo.”
“I’ll take care of it,” I told him. I rolled up my coat sleeves and shook my blades free. “Deacon,” I said, standing and nodding at him, “you know how it is.”
Deacon leapt and I swung at the same instant.
His teeth sunk into Crimson John’s neck, and my blades hacked into John’s arms, crippling him. I watched Deacon drain the neck slowly for a few minutes, John’s wild eyes glaring in hate, his mouth gurgling attempted curses. Then I ran the bastard through.
He fed us for a week, and we made the pass in time. We’ve traveled together ever since.