Nell was ready to snap at Tilda, but frankly the effort would be exhausting. The Necromancer hovered at the side of her Captain’s chair, eyeing the bandages of her arm, clutching a pouch of painkillers. Harrow was at her post, diligent. Malorn stood at the windows, staring. A grim silence overlaid them, disquieting with the clear sky and bright noon sun over the ship.
“What was the thing that attacked you?” Nell said, when she couldn’t stand it anymore.
Malorn shrugged. “Vampire.”
“What did it want?”
“I don’t know.”
“It knew who you were!”
“I am not inconspicuous.”
Nell fumed internally, as much at the itching of her severed arm as Malorn’s unhelpful attitude.
“We’re losing height,” said The Herald, softly.
Harrow tapped her equipment.
“We are. Pushed the drive too hard, maybe.” She activated the intercom.
“Mr. Frisse, we’re losing speed and altitude.”
“Maybe he’s already working on it?” Tilda said, quietly.
“Maybe.” Said Nell, uncertain. “He could just say if we need to land to fix it.”
“Can’t really land here,” Harrow said. “Netherships aren’t designed to touch ground, for one thing. For another this isn’t safe territory.”
“But we’re past the Wood.”
Malorn shook his head. “She’s right, this isn’t safe. You can’t make out the fences at this elevation, but we’re over Ivarice’s menagerie.”
“More territorial madwomen?” Nell said.
“No. Her experimental monsters.”
Teeth gritted, Nell forced herself to her feet and made for the door. “I’ll ask Jonah what’s happening.”
Tilda caught her by the arm. “No!” She said, abrupt, then more evenly “No. You really need to rest.”
“I’m walking. It’s not strenuous. I’ve had broken bones before; this time there’s no useless limb to hurt and get in the way.”
“Come with me, if you’re so fucking worried.” Nell snapped, and made her way into the belly of the ship. Her footing was unsteady, balanced uncertain; but now she knew they were falling she could convince herself it was unsteady, failing flight rather than her own injuries. The engine room was the one part of the ship she’d had yet to visit. It seemed ridiculous that it even had one, considering the sails.
Nell was content to leave the details to the Magi and technicians, as long as she had a good answer about what was wrong and how quickly it could be fixed.
The ship was simpler, down here in the lower aft. Bare and undecorated wood, simple glowing bulbs at regular intervals. Not as brightly lit, which seemed counterproductive to Nell – if this is where people work on the things that make the ship run, surely you’d want to see them all clearly? But perhaps those mechanisms were tempermental things which worked better in low-light.
Nell paused at an intersection – corridor ahead, leading to a door, hatches on her left and right – to think on that. She’d seen one ghost just loose on the ship already, with Penny.
Tilda had been so quiet, Nell had forgotten her.
“Yeah. Fine. Just thinking.”
There was a definite vibration in the floor here, now that Nell had stopped. A chill in the air that made her shudder, a familiar sense of emptiness she had come to associate with The Celebrant’s jumps through the After. Suppressing her revulsion, she carried on through the door at the end of the gangway.
Beyond was Jonah and the engine. What was left of Jonah protruding from the engine.
Nell turned away and pressed a hand to the wall, little more than bile left to vomit. Tilda’s shriek was muted; the air did something strange to sound.
The room was unlit but for the engine itself – a six foot-square block of lead inlaid with purple stones, carefully cut and arranged, silver bones – or perhaps bones encased in silver – linked components in a complex pattern Nell couldn’t follow. The whole thing shone with something like light, something that seemed only to cast the darkness in individual shades rather than illuminate. It hurt the eyes to look at.
Worse, Jonah’s corpse – or at least, Nell sincerely hoped it was a corpse – was half-buried in the structure, limbs and torso protruding without obvious fracture or break; trying and failing to occupy the same space, waving like weeds in water, face contorted in a scream that tore the skin. A silvery wrench was clutched in one hand.
Nell slammed the door behind her and pressed herself into the wall, staring wide eyed at Tilda. Wiped her mouth on wrist.
“What the fuck, Tilda?”
“What fucking happened? What was that? Why…” Nell went from shouting to gasping, wishing she had more to throw up if only to stop from fainting.
“I don’t know! I think the Interface-”
“The… the mist, the barrier that protects the Wood from intruders. I think jumping so close to the Worldcap itself or passing through part of it during the jump interfered with the engine-”
“Interfered? Interfered? Did you see what it did to him?”
“I saw, I kno-”
“Is he suffering, Tilda?”
The Necromancer fell silent. Tried to avoid Nell’s furious gaze.
After a long moment, she shook her head. A single tear hit the deck.
“And he’s crashing the ship. Fix it.”
“Fix it! Use your Magic, exorcise him.” Nell said, struggling to keep her composure. Trying and failing to fold her arms with a frustrated snarl.
“I don’t know what that might do to the engine! I’ve got no idea how it works.” Tilda said, clenching her fists.
“Figure it out. Find a way to remove him, save him, whatever.”
Tilda squeezed her eyes shut.
“We can’t land, Tilda. We won’t make it to safety if you can’t fix this.” Said Nell, “if you can’t at least slow the breakdown, or whatever is happening here.”
“I’ll try.” Tilda said, almost a whisper. “I’ll try, but I can’t promise anything.”
Nell studied her face for a few heartbeats longer, her trembling lip and creased forehead, and walked away with heavy, unbalanced steps.
Nell knew a guilty face. Tilda was keeping something from her.
She’d find out what later. If the Necromancer wanted to live as much as the rest of them, she’d play along. An outright betrayal seemed unlikely.
Harrow was alone on the bridge when Nell returned.
“Can we make it past the… menagerie?” She asked, sitting down.
“Bit of a stretch, Captain. Jonah reckons it’s going down, then?”
“Jonah’s… Not in a good place.”
Harrow peered back over her shoulder.
“A weird accident with the jumps. Trapped in the engine.”
“Right.” Harrow said. “Right, so we’re definitely going down, then. I’ll try and float us out of here, but the best we might be able to manage is the fence. It’ll be warded but…”
Better than nothing, Nell thought.
“In his cabin, I suppose.”
Nell drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair.
“Nothing left but to wait, then…”
They drifted ever lower across the plain in silence. In the distance, illuminated by the sun at their back, was Kaiden Spire; the air traffic around it like glittering gems where the light caught them.
“No distress beacon,” Harrow said. “We wouldn’t be far from rescue, but this was a pirate’s ship?”
“It was,” Nell admitted.
“I take it there wasn’t much time for paperwork or refitting?” Harrow didn’t sound unkind.
“No.” It wasn’t a complete lie.
“Lifetime’s luck all used up in one go there, then.”
“Charmed life, Harrow?”
“Definitely better than risking death over a pit of monsters, but nothing guaranteed, eh?”
“You’re taking this well, all things considered.”
Harrow tapped the side of her head.
“Spent some savings on rewiring. I don’t get scared like other people, now.”
Nell leaned forward, a touch of disgust to her curiosity.
Harrow nodded. “Too much time in the air, Cap’n? There’s psychosurgeons out there who are willing to make improvements rather than wipe out the time your girlfriend crossed the line.” She said, casually.
Nell thought for a moment.
“Not just fear, hm?”
Harrow shook her head. “A couple of other little changes, but it was actually the man who gave me the surgeon’s name who had that one done. Do you speak any other languages, Cap’n?”
Nell bit her lip.
“No? Shame. Tradestongue is terrible for personal conversations.” She paused. “Actually, not bad if you want to dirty-talk Yrvanim.”
“You’ve lost me again.”
“More of Malorn’s cousins. I don’t blame you for not trading with Scions in the past. But when money is tight…”
“What’s it like? The rewiring?”
“Trades’ doesn’t really have the words, Cap’n.”
Nell was about to ask you can’t have words for something when the ship rocked. The intercom flickered into life so they could hear Tilda babbling “I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m…”
Harrow grunted, struggling to keep the ship under control as it pitched and rolled, throwing Nell to the deck, braced against the navigator’s console. Tilda’s babbling was drowned out by wailing voices, and a scream that became deep, bone-shaking hum. Nell fancied it had been Jonah’s voice, the little she’d heard of it.
It was getting colder, the light fading as if night was already falling. Harrow managed to pull the prow up, and Nell stumbled to her feet, leaning on the desk, to see only darkness through the windows. No, not only darkness. A mirror and dead, glassy eyes reflected into hers. An island on a dark sea.
But the light and head flooded back somewhere just after the ship crashed, and Nell half-buried in dark earth.
Harrow dug her way to the hatch first, finding Nell pressed against the back wall nearby, arm and face sticking from the scattered grass and churned soil. The air was still suffused with an unnatural chill, and the lights of the bridge seemed to burn with a bluer cast. The sunlight was dim, once the door opened.
“I’ll get help,” Harrow said, and left Nell to stare at the feeble light. But at least they were in the real world.
Malorn’s face appeared, stared, and vanished.
I’m hallucinating, Nell decided, before a burning blade pierced the wood in front of her and left a glowing rail in its wake, cutting a chunk of the wall away. Tilda’s cat-thing dug her out, four ticking hands making quick work of pulling her out. The ship was buried nose-first in the ground, surrounded by dead grass, the light weak up to the borders of the crash-site. So well defined it had to be Magic.
Tilda’s voice echoed strangely from her pet, startling Nell where she sat on the forecastle wall.
“It’s been pulled into The World Without Sun. Not completely, but enough…”
“What happened to you?” Nell asked.
“Phylactery triggered.” She said, monotone. “Better than dying, I thought…”
Nell was reminded of Harrow’s surgery.
“Well, Captain?” Malorn said. bloodstains and scorch-marks mingling on his clothes and armour. A wide hole had been punched through his vest’s belly, and the clothes underneath, but his flesh was pristine. Of all of them, he seemed utterly unhurt, but Harrow cradled her wrist with a pained expression, a rifle slung across her back. Malorn hopped from the ship, out of sight.
Nell clutched her stump, staring at the horizon. It was too cold. She was numb. She bit her lip and tasted the hot blood, then turned to Malorn with furrowed and aching brow.
“Scout ahead, Malorn. Find a safe path and kill anything that might stop you. Harrow, if you can still hold a gun, cover us. And then…”
The Tilda-golem made a noise that grated on her nerves and sent a shiver up her spine.
“We walk,” it said, without emotion. The sound was a giggle.