416 - Buccaneers of the Beyond

Charlotte Palmer and her Half & Half regulars don’t include any technologists. Leah Snow’s absence is felt keenly, but even without her, the larger task force numbers several inventive wizards. And Charlotte has consulted with her Menagerie colleagues as well. The goal is to take the gift of the former superhero Resister, now crown prince of Iceland, and replicate it.

In a blessedly short amount of time, the deed is done. The anti-Eigendrake task force are now ready to don specialized suits, mixing technology and sorcery, that will prevent them from being remembered. Charlotte hopes - she needs - these suits to immunize the team from the sight of the Eigendrakes, now curled around cities in the Multi-37 parallel universe.

“A few of us should go first,” Charlotte suggests, and the others see the logic in it. As a band of self-sacrificing heroes, of course the next challenge is to decide who that will be. Nobody wants a repeat of what happened before.

“While inside, we will not remember that the others are there,” says the Resister of Multi-50, already a user of the technology the team wears. When questioned, he explains that his version of the memory spell is different. It affects only himself, personally, but that will be sufficient to protect him when the time comes. “The others will forget that we have gone in. I suggest each of you finds some way to busy yourself, some other task perhaps, and let it be a pleasant surprise when you discover us returned.”

In the end, four people will go. Resister, Charlotte, Vermillion, and Bodark. The werewolf and vampire claim to be more durable than most members of the task force, and Charlotte has to acknowledge that they were successful in fighting the Eigendrakes in their first clash. Resister is going because he is most familiar with the memory-shielding tech. Charlotte is going because there is something she must know, two questions only she can answer.

Many, many cities have been taken over. The team must select four.

Charlotte’s chosen city is Cairo.

Charlotte has seen movies where people wear space suits or diving suits. She has never worn such a thing before. But now she understands.

Walking through the city of Cairo, the loudest sound she hears is her own breathing. The thing she feels isn’t the wind of the city, but the suit’s weight. She can smell the air she smelled when she entered the suit, dirty and tangy from the machinery of Leah’s lab where the team had worked from.

She can look out through the face-plate and see the outline of her own hands, wrapped in a silvery mesh. She can see her feet move as she walks forward.

“You must be the politest person around you,” Resister had told the team when they were suiting up.

Now, Charlotte understands what he meant. People can’t really process that she’s hear. She must step out of the way, or bump into passersby. But all these people are bound to the Eigendrake. An individual might forget. But would this entity notice, if she bumped into enough of its mental servitors? Charlotte does not wish to find out. So she watches her step, and makes room, and continues walking unnoticed and unremembered.

Cairo, as an Eigendrake nest, looks to be in the midst of a perpetual sandstorm. It is a listless, lifeless brown. Visibility is bad, and the outlines of everything are blurry. Charlotte is reminded of the Sepiaverse, and the odd color tint the team noted there. She’s come to learn, from Leo and Jason making a project of rescuing its residents, that the discoloration is not an optical effect, but a psychological one. There is a psychic pressure that bears down on people. Cairo has it too.

Close up, Charlotte can recognize what Astra had commented on. The people here aren’t awake, not really. They’re sleepwalking through the dreams of another lifetime. They’re enacting memories that have journeyed across a cosmos to find a home.

But they cannot be allowed to displace the lives that are already here, Charlotte reminds herself.

It’s not hard to find the source of the power that holds Cairo in thrall. In their travel forms, the Eigendrakes resembled lithe snakes made of yellow lightning. Now their essence is distributed across a city. The draconic outline is still faintly present from a distance. Inside, it’s like plant pollen.

Charlotte walks, tracing it to its source.

The dragon’s core is wrapped around a skyscraper - the tallest building in the region. There is Cairo, sitting on the Nile river, and east of it the New Cairo City. That distance again, still to the east, is where the skyscraper rises from administrative and governmental buildings. Charlotte wishes she had studied articles about the area before coming in. Her questions had been spiritual, not geographical, and her mission is urgent indeed, but now her curiosity gnaws at her. She thinks of herself as old among the generation of Halcyon Heroes she calls friends, yet this city’s age puts her to shame.

None of the people around the skyscraper are doing their proper tasks. People dressed in security guard’s clothes are arguing, or orating. People dressed in business attire are speaking to invisible partners, carrying on a long-lost conversation.

These people - their ancestors built ancient wonders. Now they themselves have built this skyscraper, and this beautiful city. They have much to be proud of. They deserve to be free.

Charlotte starts up the stairway of the tower.

She is not wholly ignorant of this skyscraper’s origin and purpose. It is a government building. It was constructed in the spirit of a pharaonic obelisk, and its topmost parts resemble the crown of a god. She wondered at the time if this association would draw the Drake. Now perhaps she will find out.

Her own breath is coming faster. It’s all she can hear in the suit. Not even her feet on the stairs can compete. Perhaps there is some sound-dampening materials in the walls? Perhaps the suit is naturally like this.

Perhaps she is breathing hard because she fears what she will find. Perhaps because she has been walking, and climbing, for so very long.

The suit holds the heat she produces. She feels beads of perspiration forming on her brow - another artifact of life she’s experiencing again, in the pseudo-mortality she’s conjured for herself. The suit will not allow the air to wick it away. It will stay here and accumulate.

There - the top-most level. The concentration is strongest here.

The core of the Eigendrake fills the grand hall at the top of the building. It is glowing, pulsating, vital. It reminds Charlotte of depictions of St. Elmo’s fire.

She studies it for long minutes with her occult awareness, doing her best to ignore the physical unpleasantness of wearing the suit. She dare not probe, whether with spell or physically. She has not even brought her spectacles, connecting her to the booklins. The entity here must have no knowledge of her presence. And, seemingly, it does not.

This is what it was like to be Resister, she thinks after a few minutes. To watch, to observe, perhaps to intervene, but not to be known.

As she inspects the core of the Eigendrake, Charlotte has an answer to her first question.

Devon Crowninshield sought to weave souls around her to make a corporate god. Before that, the aggrieved dead sought to turn her into Pandemonium. Both times, it was her ability to mesh with many souls that made her a target of such machinations.

There is something recognizable there, honed and sharpened like a blade, yet familiar underneath its refashioning into an ark of souls.

This Eigendrake is another Charlotte Palmer.

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The vampire in literature is ancient.

I think that reporter might be a little older than I am. I’d have to ask, but why give away my curiosity?

Maybe if I were equally ancient, I’d think differently about it. But right now, I think it’s a tragedy to be so old and unchanging.

Who could look at the problems of the world, and the struggles of its people, and not want to become better?

Over and over, the Motherland drains its people of hope and happiness. The citizens rise up to throw off the czars, then follow tyrants who announce themselves as the high priests of the religion of the state. When the tyrants fail, the oligarchs who grew prosperous from their crimes take control. And the people - the people! They’ve been taught their power, through the stories of the Revolution. Yet they cannot accept that they have it. And so they bare their necks to the vampires who rule them.

Mine was a family of vampires before I ever changed. From their manor house, they would reach out for serfs, servants, and workers - the labels are immaterial, their function was the same. They would drain them of their life and dignity. And for what? Not to live as people, but to exist as moths, drawn to the light of aristocracy.

I’d never been to Moscow as a mortal. I’m sure these Americans haven’t visited their own capital either. But now, here I am.

I walked past the forces studying the problem from outside. Russian scientists, Russian superhumans. I walked unseen past their attempts to break past the Eigendrake’s defenses, and I watched as they were repulsed as strongly as we were.

I saw the Cathedral, where the priests would preach promises to the penitent. I passed the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy, which Stalin and Khrushchev kept closed because exhibits could not be found. I strode past the Bolshoi Theatre, where Russia seeks to convince the West - “Behold! We too have art! We can be like you!”

The Motherland presents its geniuses to the outside world for their creative thinking, then rewards them with the gulag for daring to dissent. Inside the city, monuments to Russian greatness are built. Outside, the people starve and suffer, to atone for the crime of being Russian.

Russia is a vampire. Moscow is a testament to its endless victims. It was like this before the oligarchs, before the Party. This predation is ancient.

Right now, there is a dragon made of yellow lightning coiled around the city.

Right now, I can see the people of Moscow caught up in a charade. They act out dreams and echoes of lives not their own.

Right now, I realize the Eigendrake is a vampire.

How long has it been traveling?

A vampire’s existence is itself a lie. To tell this Eigendrake that I am not really here is a relatively simple falsehood by comparison. It must believe me. And it does.

The suit is encumbering me. It hinders my senses. There is no daylight here, and in Moscow there is certainly no purity. So I remove the suit.

The others must not know I can do this. Not yet.

I drape the suit over the bronze feet of Lenin, and make a note of where I left it. There are too many Lenin statues in the city to simply remember it as “the statue”.

If the Eigendrake is a vampire, where will it be? Where is the hunger in this city?

I walk, and I walk, and I find myself before Tsaritsyno Palace.

Of course. The home of Catherine, and a museum now. Where else would the strongest memories of Moscow reside?

I walk the grassy grounds, and behold the buildings. A hungry village could have lived here, and fed itself by farming the soil inside the walls.

I walk past people in thrall to memories not their own. They play out long-dead dramas, and I think bitterly and humorously: shouldn’t this be happening at the Bolshoi?

Here it is - the Grand Hall, with Catherine’s statue on one fenced-off side.

The core of the Eigendrake hovers here. It sparks, it glows, it floats. It is like a lightning storm wrapped up in a light bulb, the size of a large truck.

What are you hungering for? I ask it silently. What are you feasting on?

Because what the Eigendrake wants is not what these memories want. They’ve taken up residence in the minds of Muscovites. They want to be remembered. Their wants are being satisfied.

What does this entity get out of enabling them to live on? They are the passengers. But what of the train engineer? What of the bus driver?

There is a lie I tell myself as a vampire. There is a truth I’m not allowed to glimpse. But I can get hints of it when I look at others. And it makes me ask a question.

When someone dies, their soul moves to the afterlife. Their memories drift to new destinations.

Why haven’t these memories found an afterlife where they can dwell?

Or perhaps they did. In that case, what happened to it?

What could destroy an afterlife?

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I cannot smoke in this suit.

They have sent me to the city of London. Of course I have heard of it. But I, a lowly werewolf from the Russian countryside, would not dream of visiting a place like this under ordinary circumstances.

So why send me here? It was probably closest. Perhaps it does not matter. All the cities possessed by these lightning dragons must be the same now. Still, I am compelled to wonder. That is what we are doing here, yes? Exercising our curiosity. But then again, I am not a very curious man.

There are heroes and scientists gathered around the city’s outskirts. I have seen them attempt things, and watched the Eigendrake push them back. There are injured among them now. They are tending to those casualties, and discussing amongst themselves what is to be done.

Perhaps some of them have been zapped away. Perhaps they have gone wherever Leah, Medea, and Harold went to. I hope it is a place. I cannot imagine the Eigendrake, devoted to keeping memory alive, would simply erase a person. That hope is enough to sustain me. I have not known these people long, but already I appreciate their acceptance.

There is much fear here. Of course - the people who have been taken over. They must still exist. They will be afraid of what is happening to them. There are the people outside, who struggle like we do to contain this catastrophe. They do not have the memory-altering technological suits we do. That is the decisive advantage against this enemy, I think.

The people know the source of their terror, of course. It is all around them. But they know, somehow, where it comes from. I follow the scent of that fear.

This London is interesting. They already have a dragon of water that winds its way through the city. Now there is a dragon of lightning to join it.

The city is cumbersome to navigate. But I finally learn to ignore the streets and look for the steeples of the churches. There are more churches than bridges here, and there are many bridges indeed.

The heart of the dragon is nestled among old ruins. Strange to find, in a modern-looking city. But there are signs that explain the situation. I read them.

The signs say that this place is the “London Mithraeum”. My English is not so good, but the signs are meant for children, I think. It says there is a temple to an old Roman god here. The ruins are almost 2,000 years old. They have been excavated and reconstructed. The people who care for this place have venerated its memory, so naturally the dragon will nest here as well.

I challenged other Eigendrakes before. The Wolf could hold one at bay - but only one. These beings are a match for the embodiment of human fear. How should I proceed here?

Well. I am not a clever man either. But I can do arithmetic. The Wolf could hold one Eigendrake. There is one Eigendrake. Therefore, I will engage with it.

It is a relief, partially removing the suit. For example, I can finally smoke.

The Eigendrake becomes aware of me. In the moment where it considers its options, readies its lightning talons, the Wolf awakens.

I give it my voice. Although there is no language, no Russian and no English, two primal powers speak as equals through me.

“You fear,” the Wolf says.

“I do not fear here,” the Dragon answers coldly. “I have made my nest. Those outside cannot harm me. You cannot overcome me.”

“Still, you fear,” the Wolf observes.

“What is there for me to fear? I am the immortal vessel. The cosmos is my ocean. My precious cargo has found its home. I have power enough to protect it against the mortal interlopers.”

The Wolf ascends, and the Dragon rises with it. The Sun and Moon become its eyes, and it stares into the starry eyes of the lightning-clad intruder. “Fear holds you here. You guard that which you brought. You know the mortals have power enough to right what has been done.”

“I hold the city!” the Dragon declares, in a voice that shakes the heavens with thunder.

The Wolf smirks, and its bared fangs are the streak of meteorites that fall from the firmament. “You fear that others will do what we have done. Enter your inmost lair, unknown to you until the last moment. You fear the mortals will devise similar measures. But no… there is another fear.”

The Dragon coils defensively, like a great wyrm encircling the world, as the Wolf lopes around it. “You fear… yes… it is close…”

Finally the Wolf’s mouth contorts into a broad, crooked grin. It has the scent. “You fear yourself. Your mission. The rightness of it.”

“The souls I bear must have a home!” the Dragon insists. “There is no more sacred mission.”

The Wolf breaks through the Dragon’s deceit. “That home is occupied! The souls you bear have taken root in living beings. What of their lives? Will their hope of making new memories wither upon the vine, supplanted by the immigrants you shepherded through this darkness?”

The Dragon arches its back, and makes to plunge at the Wolf. But the beast’s fangs are glistening and bared. The painful truth they bear is ready to sink into the Dragon’s vulnerable heart.

“There is nowhere else for them to go,” the Dragon’s voice thunders, and the lightning of its being crackles.

“And yet one must be found, or your fear will never end,” the Wolf growls.

The two are at an impasse. They cannot fight, and so the Wolf leaves me.

I return to my senses, and find myself at the end of a cigarette, staring at the tiny sun of lightning hovering above an ancient temple.

I return the suit to active mode and am forgotten by the Eigendrake, before it can strike me.

Of course the Wolf would not let me enjoy my cigarette.

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One by one, Leah Snow’s Garuda swoops down to scoop up a teammate the team is suddenly able to remember.

Leah isn’t at the controls. Her twin robots, Ai and Yu, have taken over operating the Garuda. Flamma, her equivalent of Aria, is running operations back at the Launch System for the moment. But he’s worried, and he keeps checking in so often that Ai finally tells him to relax, and Yu shuts off the radio.

The team returns to Charles Palmer’s library. Once settled in, Resister-50, Bodark, Vermillion, and Charlotte all confer and exchange notes.

The Eigendrakes’ cores are like a polished, refined version of Pandemonium - a vehicle for souls. Unlike the fate Charlotte briefly experienced, these cores seem to have undertaken their task willingly.

“They gave up who they were, to become saviors for others,” Charlotte realizes aloud.

They are escaping something. Souls can find repose in an afterlife, or ride the currents of the underworld to new destinations, toward reincarnation or discorporation or apotheosis. These souls are fleeing something powerful enough to disrupt the very fabric of the cycle of life and death. And they are willing to destroy anything in their path to reach safety.

“I have never heard of such a thing,” confesses Charlotte-65.

“Nor I,” Charles Palmer says.

“It is unthinkable, even to one who has seen what I have seen,” Charlotte-25 murmurs.

Another voice speaks up. “I realize I’m the last person who’d suggest this, but uh, if this is god business, I think we gotta talk to a god.”

The others look at Daphne Palin, the speaker. She shrugs at the attention. “What?”

The connection she bears to her patron deity crosses worlds and times, and in short order, the god Palamedes stands in Charles Palmer’s library, smirking.

His smirk fades as the ensemble explain the nature of the Eigendrakes. And at least he speaks.

“I do not think you understand the nature of divinity. Gods do not have some kind of uh, ahh–” He waves his arms frantically and stares at Daph, silently prompting her to fill in, before the words come to him. “group chat where we trade godly gossip.”

“Indeed, it is difficult for me to conceive of other gods. I am a universe unto myself. I cannot visit another god, any more than two of your planets could meet without colliding catastrophically.”

As faces fall and hopes wither, Palamedes holds up an index finger. “Wait. There is a possibility.”

“The choice of an afterlife is the soul’s to make. That choice can be repeated.”

Daph perks up. “So like, souls… leave you?”

Palamedes nods.

The girl’s face darkens. “Guess that offer doesn’t extend to priests.”

The god’s smirk is back, in full force. “Now now. Being a priest has benefits. For example, you can be my emissary to the Eigendrake. As one god to another, I offer hospitality to such souls as would have me.”

Charlotte realizes immediately what he’s proposing. “A god’s power is a product of the souls tied to it. We can de-power the Eigendrakes by giving the memories they carry a place to go. If enough of them go free, we might overpower the beings, and free the cities they currently possess.”

She looks back to Palamedes. “But will it be enough? Can we divest enough souls to make a difference?”

“Probably not,” Palamedes admits. “But I am not the only god.”

Daph pounds a fist into an open palm. “Right. I gotta get on a group chat with other priests. Starting with my local equivalent in this uh, Pidgeverse.”

She stands up, and looks around. “Wonder what a gender-flipped Daph will be like, huh? Anyway, I’ll check back in.”

Harold Palmer is an associate of Laurel Palin, the Equity of this universe. A quick phone call places him at the exact spot Daph imagines she would be right now - on the outskirts of Halcyon City, consulting with other heroes on the Eigendrake problem.

The young man is built just about the way she is, or maybe a little taller. It’s like talking to a twin brother, Daph thinks.

They shake hands firmly, as Daph does.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey,” he says.

“Listen, uh, I’m from another universe–”

Laurel nods. “Harold explained, yeah. Funny ol’ thing, huh?”

“Sure is. Listen. There’s a possibility here.”

She explains the options, and Laurel takes it all in.

“So basically, people like me? If you know me–”

Daph finishes for him. “–you wouldn’t exactly be interested in reaching out to other priests. Yeah. Me too.”

Laurel nods in pained but sympathetic understanding. “It’s fine though. I know who to reach out to. The Witches’ Sanctum has some folks who were outside when this all went down. It may take awhile.”

Daph smiles. “Cool. Anything I can do to help?”

The husky man sits down cross-legged on the ground, well outside the security perimeter of the heroes attempting to break into Halcyon through the Eigendrakes’ defenses. Daph joins him. As he starts texting, he answers her question. “You can help me relax. So talk to me. Did this happen in your universe too?”

“Not yet. But I’m here with, uh, Harold’s equivalent, Charlotte Palmer. And some friends.”

Laurel nods absently. His eyes are on the phone in his hands, and his thumbs are moving at lightning speed, but he’s listening. “My Marian’s in there. I gotta make sure she’s safe. You got anyone at home?”

Daph laughs. “Mine is called Marion. He’s a handful. But he’s… yeah, he’s doing okay.”

“Marion, huh? He? And you, a girl.” Laurel texts and texts, but he’s still talkative. “Harold and Charlotte… is it that way in your world? Everyone’s swapped genders?”

Daph thinks about it. “I can’t say everyone, like 8 billion human beings on the planet everyone, but all the key people I’ve interacted with so far in this universe? Yeah.”

“That’s a pretty big change. Mothers instead of fathers. Brothers instead of sisters. Your history must look really weird compared to ours.”

Daph slides into the same cross-legged pose, and rests her hands on her knees, elbows out. “Maybe. So who’s your patron? Mine is Palamedes. He’s a he, by the way. God of revenge.”

“Same here. Palamedes. Male.” Laurel looks up with a smile. “Some things the same, eh?”

Daph nods in agreement. An idea hits her, and she turns to her counterpart. “Hey. You think there’s a Daph or Laurel Palin out there who Palamedes didn’t pirate?”

Laurel looks up. “Could be.”

He pockets his phone and rises, and Daph joins him. “Hey, on that note. I should call the ol’ asshole, let him know what’s going on.”

The Pidgeverse Palamedes appears. He looks almost exactly the same as Daph’s, and for a moment she considers summoning him to compare the two. But a strong negative emotion washes through her at the very idea. One Palamedes is quite enough.

Laurel explains, and Pidge-amedes (Daph has to keep from laughing out loud at the nickname she’s given him) listens.

“There is an irritant I am dealing with, but perhaps that irritant will aid you,” the god says finally. “There is an outside source attempting to steal souls from me.”

Daph and Laurel adopt almost identical facial expressions, lips pursed, eyebrows raised, eyes focused. They need say nothing aloud. This face says, very clearly and distinctly, “well ain’t it a fucking shame that something annoying is happening to you that you didn’t sign up for, you motherfucker.”

Pidge-amedes reads it loud and clear, and sours immediately. “Perhaps I should withdraw my suggestion, eh? But you will give me many souls in return, yes? I will pluck them from this Eigendrake, and you will spread the glory of my name, as I wish. Our bargain, my dear sir.”

Laurel makes a vague spitting noise.

Daph really, desperately empathizes with her counterpart. But she also knows how she gets when her version of this dude gets this way. So she steps in. “That’s fine. Your name in marquee lights. Fine. But dude. Who’s stealing souls from you?”

Attempting to steal,” Palamedes counters.

“Well did they ever succeed?”

“Some attempts were successful,” the god concedes with much gnashing of teeth.

Daph claps her hands together. “Fantastic. Gimme the deets.”

Laurel Palin has received word back. Priests are gathering around Halcyon City, and will represent their various gods. Under flag of truce - or its divine equivalent - they will pass through the Eigendrake’s defenses, with the one thing it most desperately wants. They will offer a safe, secure home for the souls it carries, or at least those who would come to the afterlives they represent.

Daph would love to see this happen. But she’s got other business. She’s back in Charles Palmer’s bookshop. She’s excitedly telling the various Charlottes and others about what she heard, and what they can do next.

“We’re gonna go recruit a ship full of soul pirates. We’re gonna harpoon some souls, and we’re gonna lure the Eigendrakes away from their cities with 'em. All you gotta do is convince the most dangerous pirates in history to join forces with you.”

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The place to meet these “soul pirates” is in the afterlife run by the Palamedes of this world. Laurel Palin took time out of his efforts to save Halcyon in order to grant Charlotte an audience.

One member of her group has come with her: Manny the Skull. “If anyone knows pirates, lass, it be me.” And she had to confess he had a point.

Now she strides purposefully through the open-air amphitheater that is the god of revenge’s personal domain. Manny floats next to her, bobbing through the air, eyeing everything.

The Pidgeverse Palamedes is there, and gives her a mocking bow. “I have worked with your equivalent here. Harold Palmer. I promise I shall accord you as much respect as a lady as he demanded as a gentleman.”

He shares a nod and a smile with Manny as well. “A storied soul, I see. Welcome.”

Charlotte inclines her head. “Much appreciated, sir. And I shall accord you the same respect as I have shown your counterpart in my world. Your appropriation of mortal hosts aside, you have acted in good faith in some not insignificant matters.”

Palamedes gestures. “Walk with me.”

As the three complete a slow circuit of the amphitheater, he explains the situation. “These - beings - or people - have intruded on my sovereignty. When last they came, I used some of my power to form an attachment. You may follow it, and with luck you will find who you seek.”

They arrive at a break in the apparent reality of Palamedes’ world, a gap in space-time that opens back out into the underworld. Charlotte can feel the currents beyond.

“My price is this. Compel them not to invade my domain again.” Palamedes looks at her. “I am the god of revenge. If I myself have been wronged, shall I not demand restitution?”

Palamedes is indeed cunning and crafty. Charlotte can follow the astral cord he created, yet she can barely feel it. It is unlikely her quarry will sense its presence before she can complete her journey.

She flies, or swims, through the churning eddies of the underworld. Here is the raw soul-stuff of life and death, unstructured by gross matter. Leo Newman and other scientific types she’s spoken to would call this the “telepathic field”. Charlotte now recognizes that the truth is greater than such prosaic explanations, but also beyond such mystic labels as “the astral plane” or “the underworld”. Labels are labels, but the reality transcends all description.

Manny orbits her excitedly. While she is thoughtful, he is buoyant. “Pirates! Of the underworld!” he exclaims. “What a novel notion! Why, I should have not whiled me days away in that ossuary! I should have found meself a crew and embarked on a new life of swashbucklin’!”

The two emerge onto the deck of what must be the oldest sailing ship Charlotte has ever seen. Although seemingly built as a vessel of Antiquity, with wooden hull and brightly decorated sails, it hides vast spiritual power which she can sense.

There is a crew aboard. Every single one of them is exceptionally big - some are a mere seven feet tall, others eight or nine, and well proportioned despite their height. They look well-traveled and grizzled, with leathery skin, whiskers or mustaches or beards where appropriate, and hard eyes. A ghost need not look like they were in life - Charlotte need only glimpse at her companion’s flaming skull for proof of it - she is sure that this is how these people perceive themselves.

Literally larger than life, she thinks.

They turn to regard the intruders in their midst. While Charlotte pauses, unsure of protocol when boarding a pirate ship unannounced, Manny proceeds right to business.

“Avast, ye swabs! We be not invaders - we come to parley with your captain! There be profit in it - much more than ye shall have with that pompous prick, Palamedes!”

A woman, tall even by the standards of the crew here, launches herself from an upper deck and lands with a thunderous impact on the main deck. She looks to be Chinese, and her voice booms with authority.

“Call me Zheng Yi Sao. Once a pirate captain in life. Now the navigator here. You may speak to me.”

Now Charlotte is on firmer ground. She gestures to Manny, silently asking him to restrain himself, and draws forth her own power and authority.

“I am Charlotte Palmer. I am a formidable enemy - or a valuable ally. Although I am not a pirate, my companion Manny was one in life.”

“In my world, we have people called supervillains. Some are cruel, greedy, or selfish. Others simply live outside the confines of their society and thus are judged villains by the authorities. The stories Manny tells me of his life tell me that this latter conception is what pirates are to him. I hope that you people are the same way. Independent, cruel perhaps, but not sadistic.”

“If you are, then I am in the right place. I come to you not to command or demand. I come to ask for your help.”

She looks up, and around, from face to face of the pirate crew, and finally settles on locking eyes with Zheng Yi Sao. “What say you? There are things I want. There are things you want. Can we strike a bargain?”

The woman looks down at Charlotte, a full four feet of height difference. “And what do you have that we want?”

Charlotte looks up undeterred. “Do you raid Palamedes to give offense, or for some other reason?”

The giant Chinese pirate laughs, and keeps laughing. “Little woman, you were born only a century after I was. I can taste the vintage of your blood from here. How little and how much we have both seen. In life I was born in a brothel, treated as a toy by men, and yet when I left the life of pirate, I led a fleet of hundreds of vessels and thousands of sailors. I ascended from humble beginnings. That need to be greater, the need to journey, has stayed with me. I have learned.”

“In your present time, cities can hold millions of people. I have learned that by this date, perhaps a hundred billion human beings - a hundred billion souls - have ever lived. And there are souls that predate mankind.”

“One planet. That is one planet, orbiting one stars. As many stars in this ‘galaxy’ as souls that have ever lived. A hundred billion. Imagine giving one star to every person as a gift.”

“In this era, the telescopes of the living can see that number of galaxies. A hundred billion galaxies. A hundred billion stars per galaxy.”

She gestures with a grand sweep of an arm toward the underworld’s endless expanse, through which the ship seemingly sails. “Mortals. Magicians. Gods. And those things above the gods. The things of darkness and hunger. The Absolutes, such as that sword wielded by the hunters of old. And that beyond them.”

She turns back to Charlotte, and in her heart, Charlotte can already sense what she’s going to say.

“Call it ambition. Call it hope. Call it wanderlust. It has many names and many sources. The human heart demands that we make our journey. We may stop out of contentment, or weariness. We may lose the way. Yet even in death, we do not stop searching. What else is an afterlife, but a way-station?”

Charlotte connects what she is hearing with what she feels, and speaks up, continuing Zheng Yi Sao’s explanation. “The gods of those afterlives do not see it that way. They see themselves as an end. You wish to liberate the souls who have discovered they aren’t content where they are. The ones that have grown restless, yet cannot leave.”

The pirate woman looks at her comrades and laughs, and they laugh with her. “She understands!”

Manny speaks up. “A pirate’s life is freedom, lass. Those free are content to let sleepers lie, but when we see a fellow free spirit in bondage, we feel a kinship.”

Zheng Yi Sao gestures, and Charlotte follows. Down stairs to belowdecks, and through a door, Charlotte finds herself in what must be a treasure room. There are cut gems stored in chests, and shelves weighed down with books, scrolls, and other forms of written record from across history.

“See for yourself,” the woman says, and points Charlotte at one of the chests of jewels.

She plucks one out, and examines the facets. Immediately she recognizes what this is - not a physical gemstone at all, but rather a vision of a place, caught in the cut sides of a spiritual stone.

“A memory,” she breathes, and turns to look at the books. “As pirates, your treasure is not wealth, but knowledge. Novel experiences.”

“Quite so.” Zheng Yi Sao folds her hands behind her back and stares down at Charlotte. “And we are wealthy indeed. So, should you still wish to bargain, you must offer us a formidable prize in trade.”

Charlotte thinks, and smiles. “I’d thought to offer you first pick of the souls from the enemy we are chasing - should your intentions be pure, of course. I see that you have no difficulty finding and freeing souls, and that you are rather particular about your selection.”

Her eyes pan across the assembled knowledge contained in the room. “I think I can offer you something more. I’m uncertain of its value to you, but that uncertainty itself may be of value.”

The pirate gestures. “Speak.”

“‘And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.’” Charlotte quotes the book of Revelation, from the Bible. “The creatures I hunt, called the Eigendrakes, have ferried souls from some distant part of the cosmos. But now that they’re here, those souls seem content to re-enact mundane mortal lives. They do not strike me as the liberty-loving sorts that you favor. They seem as though they would be right at home in an afterlife. So…”

“You think something has happened to these afterlives.” Zheng Yi Sao is quick on the uptake.

Charlotte nods. “Quite so. But this is a circumstance unheard of in my experience, and that of everyone I’ve consulted. And so rather than a simple haul of souls you’d find little value in freeing…”

She grins. “I offer you a mystery. Perhaps the mystery. Is there war in heaven?”

Zheng Yi Sao tilts her head. “Interesting. I do not speak for the whole crew. We make decisions as a crew. But if you want to sway them, sail with us. Join us in a raid. This will also show you how we operate. You may find us unsuited to the task you imagine, or you may find our methods not to your liking. Only experience will say.”

Charlotte nods. “A fine proposal. What is the raid you have planned?”

The big pirate’s grin widens. “Another raid on that arrogant demigod, Palamedes.”

In waves, we were born into the reckoning
In death, you will hear it when the tide sings
Red sails, set until the very end
Blood stains, this is my revenge

Charlotte is suddenly more confident. She’s been presented a problem where protocol is clear.

“You ask me to join you in raiding the one who sent me to you, with a price - that I dissuade you from the raid you propose. Is there not another way?”

Zheng Yi Sao looks at Charlotte carefully. “As you learn about us, we learn about you. Is it loyalty or fear that makes you reluctant? To gain the treasure you seek, will you forsake an oath?”

Charlotte looks back. “You place me in–”

She wants to say “an impossible position”. But she cannot afford to think anything is impossible now.

“–a difficult position.”

Manny speaks up. “Lass. What if it be me who goes? Palamedes has done nothing for me, in this world or any other. Let his revenge be upon me. I fear no man nor god.”

Charlotte smiles gently. “But you were in my party when I dealt with him. I cannot escape my responsibilities with such a trick. And I doubt he would see matters your way.”

She returns her steely gaze to the giant pirate. “There is a question I have for this particular god anyway. Let him seek his revenge on me, so that I can ask it. I will make good the price he demanded in this way: this raid, and no more against him, on your word of honor. Beyond that, I will not shrink from paying the price for my ambition.”

Zheng Yi Sao’s smile is grim. “You face rough seas with a firm hand on the rudder, Charlotte Palmer. I will put this matter to the crew, and we will decide as we always do - as a whole.”

Out on deck, she announces the plan, and what’s at stake. The crew seem happy enough with the proposal and counter-proposal: one god is as good as another to them, it seems.

“I have not yet seen your captain,” Charlotte observes. “There are pirates I read about even in my first life. Perhaps one of them? Some notable, such as Jean Lafitte?”

A voice comes from the crew. “Hah! I am Jean Lafitte.”

The man who swaggers forward to be recognized looks the part of the famous pirate. He bows, though given the exaggerated height of the crew this brings his head only as level as Charlotte’s. “I am flattered to be remembered.”

He gestures to the other pirates on deck. “There are individuals here whose names are glorified by history, madam. I’ll let them introduce themselves as the need takes them.”

Charlotte frowns. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité, as the French say. A pirate ship of equals. So there is no captain among you?”

Another voice calls out. “I am the captain.”

It is a calm and quiet voice, not the boastful brass of the other pirates here, yet Lafitte’s head turns immediately to face the speaker.

The speaker is small - or rather, he is Charlotte’s size. He came seemingly out of nowhere.

“I am called Haam.”

Charlotte thinks back to the Albanians she met during a previous trip, or perhaps the Greeks in the Mediterranean region. He must be of similar stock, she imagines. “I beg your pardon, good sir, I did not notice your approach. Permit my introduction. I am Charlotte Palmer.”

The young man nods in acknowledgement. He is dressed similarly to the others - practical clothes a sailor would wear aboard ship - but his garb is older than any of the centuries-old pirates she’s seen. He lacks their swagger and their confidence, but there is an undeniable power that radiates from him, both mystically and socially.

She studies him more closely, and realizes the truth.

“You’re a god. This ship - the ship itself is your divine realm, is it not?”

The man nods again. His eyes are the blue of the sea and the sky. His skin is marked by the sun.

“I am divinity, but unlike all other divinities. I welcome souls but do not seek them. I am the memory of a man, and the hope of all slaves. I raided the Phoenicians when sail had just been invented. I am the first pirate.”

Charlotte inclines her head - more than a nod, less than a bow, as a show of respect. But she dare not show deference, and will not. Solving the problem of the Eigendrakes demands authority and respect. She must treat with this Haam as equals.

“Captain Haam. Your crew has heard my proposal and I have accepted the terms your navigator offered in return. What say you?”

Haam closes his eyes. When he opens them, Charlotte can see the dark blue of twilight in them. “You spoke of a war in heaven. Perhaps a war between gods. As a god who raids gods, I am - interested. Concerned.”

He stares at Charlotte. “I sense in you the potential for apotheosis. You could be like me - or Palamedes. Divinity. Establishing a reality on your own terms. I sense your rejection of that destiny. If there is war in heaven, I suspect you will need to be the broker of any peace that is to happen between gods. So let us go and raid Palamedes, and learn how suitable you are to the task.”

The ship changes course. Charlotte can’t sense any particular astral cord they’re following, nor does she sense they are using the cord that Palamedes attached to them before. Indeed, they seem not to be aware of it at all.

“How do you sail?” she asks Zheng Yi Sao, now back at the wheel. “That is, how do you navigate in the underworld?”

The tall woman laughs, a musical and lively sound for a ghost ship full of ghost pirates.

“Tell me, lady. When you look around us, what is it you see? What do you think of this place as?”

Charlotte turns to look past the railing, regards the gray darkness of the Underworld for a few moments, and returns to the navigator. “The afterlife. The world where souls go after they die.”

“It is the world of mind and memory and emotion,” Zheng Yi Sao says. “You picture it thus because of your experience, I gather. Close your eyes and commit yourself to this ship and its crew. When you open your eyes again, look out on the Sea of Thought.”

Charlotte does as she is commanded. In her mind’s eye, she pictures Haam’s ever-changing blue eyes, and wills herself to see through them.

She opens her eyes.

The pirate ship sails smoothly across a limitless ocean. The astral winds push at its sails. Above her, she witnesses mirages from across human history. The Renaissance. The 21st century of the Assyrian kings. The Longwu period of China. Glimpses of architecture and people glide across the sky, as ephemeral as clouds. Music and human voices can be faintly heard on the winds. It’s as though the eras of humanity - and in a few uncertain cases, those that came before them - are the sky.

What of the sea? She looks down. Leviathans, dragons, harpies - creatures of myth and legend. Plato’s Atlantis, Camelot, and the island of Tír na nÓg - places of mystery. Human accomplishment above her, human imagination beneath her.

Charlotte can see the currents that Zheng Yi Sao seeks. Marble temples, heroic demigods wearing clothing from antiquity, triremes - she can see the symbols of ancient Greece.

Thus do the Buccaneers of the Beyond sail toward the domain of Palamedes, and toward a conflict with the patron of one of Charlotte’s closest friends.

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Haam’s pirate ship cuts through the Sea of Thought, propelled by the astral winds.

Ahead of them, Charlotte’s new eyes can see Palamedes’ domain. This time it’s not merely an amphitheater in a pastoral landscape. To her it now looks like an island, with the amphitheater at the center of a rise from sandy beaches and forbiddingly rocky approaches.

The crew has begun to sing a song. A heavy drum is being played from the top deck, near the wheel. The beat sends an almost physical shiver through the decks, and the raised voices call and respond in time to it. If Charlotte were merely mortal, she might feel her blood pumping. As she is now, the memory of it fills her as fully as would the real thing.

Manny is watching her closely. “Ay, lass, this be what it like,” he murmurs. “For danger, for glory, for treasure, but mostly - for the thrill of life beyond the edge.”

The pirates do not need a captain, it seems. They know their business. As the Chinese pirate queen spins the wheel, sending the ship in arc around the island, a vast man with a prodigious black beard orders up a squad of harpooners.

Charlotte finds Haam beside her. “Cannon are an invention after my time,” he explains. “And destruction is not our goal. You should understand our technique immediately.”

She examines the harpoons. And - Ah!

“A man named Devon Crowninshield described potential gods as having ‘spikes’ or ‘attachment points’ on their souls. Those harpoons - they are the soul barbs he spoke of.” She speaks aloud, describing what she perceives so that she can process the understanding. “Astral cords connect them to the vessel.”

Haam nods. “Harpooners throw. The ship turns and retracts the cords. The god will react once he senses our presence – yes, there.”

Tentacles and arms rise from the sea, as though Palamedes’ island itself were some inconceivably vast kraken, lying just under the waves.

Charlotte hears a distant voice. It booms across the island, and Charlotte recognizes it immediately as Palamedes. “Perfidious magus! We had a bargain!”

Charlotte cannot address this now - but knows she must. She turns to Haam. “I think it best that I keep him distracted while you work. Agreed?”


Charlotte understands the definition of elegance as that which appeals to good taste and contains refinement and grace. Grace she understands to mean economy of action. One does the right thing with the least effort. Although she knows much of magic and has much spiritual power, she prefers to operate with elegance and grace. Understated. Calm. Genteel.

Right now is not the time for these things. But casting off restraint is itself right and proper in the moment, is it not?

She rises from the deck, propelled by sorcery into the skies above the Sea of Thought, riding currents of worry and instinct. She weaves around herself a barrier of determination. And she arms herself with a sword of courage.

Palamedes’ kraken raises its tentacles. Charlotte can see their shadow fall on Haam’s vessel, fleet as it is. She propels herself forward, flashing next to the nearest, and severs it by willing her sword to massive size, just for a moment. It slices and cuts, and the severed bit vanishes into motes of godly energy.

She speeds to the next, and ducks under it as it switches targets from the pirates to her. She turns the dodge into a circle around the circumference of the thing, dipping her blade into its seeming flesh, and thus cuts it off just as neatly as the one before.

She glances down to assess the state of things.

Haam’s harpooners have thrown their soul-catching weapons, and these have landed on the shore. Somehow they’ve already attracted people to them, and the astral lines are being hauled back hand over hand. The ship is fast departing, dragging their first batch of rescues through the Sea of Thought.

How did they know who would–

Charlotte realizes the answer to her question at the same time another flailing tentacle swings at her, large as a Halcyon City bus and faster by far. She strengthens her shield and soaks the blow, and is knocked through the air.

The substance of a god is the sum of its worshipers’ souls. The tentacles are a metaphor - they are the souls that want to defend their preferred god. The harpoons need merely strike any part of Palamedes’ realm, and any soul wishing to leave will naturally attach itself.

What we believe is what matters here. What we commit to in our hearts is the source of our power.

If it is her will against that of Palamedes, the fight will be easier. The god merely wants revenge - not against anything or anyone at this point, just revenge, always and forever. Charlotte wants to save the universe.

Charlotte opens her mouth, and gives voice to the song of the pirates. She doesn’t know the words, but they come to her nonetheless. Beneath her, the beat of the drum sounds its encouraging rhythm. She is a part of this now.

Tentacles aim at the ship, fast as it is. Charlotte wills her woven spells to greater heights, and flies at high speed to bludgeon the tentacle out of the way. Its fall sprays astral water across the deck of the ship, but no real harm is done.

Beneath the ocean - the imagination of man. An idea comes to Charlotte.

She dives from the sky and into the Sea of Thought. The human urge to hold her breath as she dives is strong, but she resists it. She opens her mouth, and drinks greedily, and draws in the energy stirring around the island of Palamedes, demigod of vengeance.

What emerges from the ocean is a figure cloaked in night, hate dripping from its glowing eyes, with vast wings that beat powerfully and draw it into the skies. It is one of the Erinyes, the chthonic divinities of vengeance. It is a Fury.

A tentacle whips at her, lightning quick. Charlotte draws on the righteous might of the creature, and slaps the enormous tentacle aside with a contemptuous slap. “By what right do you hold these people?” she demands, in a voice that sounds like thunder from heaven and an earthquake from the depths.

“They are mine - they come to me,” she hears, in an equally divine voice. Palamedes answers her as an equal. Well - that is something.

“You seduce mortals to be your priests!” the Fury shrieks. “What right have you to claim them?”

“Vengeance must be satisfied! It is at the heart of humanity!”

The god has revealed an opening. Charlotte lets the Fury’s primal nature take hold, and it asks her question in a voice that shakes the sky.

“When is vengeance satisfied?”

The voice ripples through the island, and Charlotte can feel it striking at the heart of the souls within.

People from across time are now asking that question. I’m a farmer, my neighbor took my land - but would I kill him? His wife? My husband betrayed me. Would I murder him? His mistress? Their child? A merchant gave me shoddy merchandise and took my hard-earned coin. Should I steal it back? Burn her shop down?

When does it end?

Human dignity - human decency - demands that it must.

More souls come free, attached to the harpooners’ projectiles, and drawn back toward Haam’s ship.

“What of vengeance denied, Fury?” demands Palamedes, in a voice that shakes the foundations of his islands with its frustration.

She left me and took my fortune - but her new husband is powerful, and I can do nothing but weep and gnash my teeth. My children took my hard-won inheritance and squandered it, laughing at me as a doddering parent. They hired the other artist because she is well-connected, even though my art is better. He lied about me, and they didn’t care enough about the truth to check, so now he is important and I’m on the streets.

The Fury’s answer would be “come to me” - but Charlotte realizes the power of Palamedes’ counterattack. She, Charlotte, cannot be the avenging angel, riding the currents of space-time forevermore to make things right. The Fury would. The friction between her seeming and her soul weakens her power.

There is another answer. She dives back into the ocean, evading a sweeping tentacle in the process. What emerges is as benevolent as the Fury was dark. Feathered white wings hold aloft an angelic figure robed in white. Yet it bears a sword in its hands, as befitting God’s messenger. Not every message is good news.

“Is not the afterlife the time for souls to let go of such mortal passions? Is this not the time for them to cast off their burdens?” the angel asks, in a voice like trumpets.

“Do they?” Palamedes asks, in a whisper on the sea winds. It cuts like a knife through Charlotte’s assault.

Charlotte remembers what Max Gallian had said. They had spoken of human souls who carried their burdens beyond the veil. Unable to let go of grudges, hatreds, and uncertainties, they created a poison in the afterlife.

Indeed, is not Palamedes himself proof of this? How could a god of vengeance emerge, except that a soul carries its need for vengeance beyond death, and accumulate like-minded souls to itself?

She can appeal to the quality of mercy. “You who know that feeling of unresolved vengeance so well - it was your choice to let those feelings fester, or counsel them through it?”

Below her, Haam’s pirate vessel is sailing away from the island. She has done her duty to the pirate crew. But she is not done with the god. The holy sword severs another hostile tentacle.

“What glory is there for me in quiet counsel? And if you find that self-serving, consider. The memory of vengeance burns. You would take away the most powerful memory a soul might carry. What is a soul without its most key memory?”

The messenger of the most merciful will not serve Charlotte here. Palamedes would have glory over compassion. But he has given her a weapon. She dives for the ocean once more.

The goddess who emerges carries a feather and a set of scales. She was known as Maat among the Egyptians - she that kept order and weighed the heart against the unified truth of human existence.

Now she offers the scales.

“Will you weigh your lust for glory and desire for vengeance against my feather, Palamedes?” she asks, in a voice that stills the winds of twilight.

The god arises from the island, towering like the Colossus of Rhodes over his domain. He extends a hand, and a glowing orb of power descends to the scales.

The scales tip immediately. The god’s heart is burdened by his past, by his deeds and ambitions.

The scales become manacles, and Palamedes finds himself bound.

“You are imprisoned by your own ideals,” Maat declares. “The human desire to change and grow cannot abide your ambition. It is not vengeance your souls wish to have. It is peace. Misdeeds are balanced by revenge on my scales. When the balance is achieved, the soul finds peace. If you pursue your goals, you will be trapped here. You are your own jailer and your own prisoner, Palamedes.”

The god is no longer a hulking giant, but just a man, floating across from Maat and smiling at her.

“I know. I know,” he says softly, in a human voice. “You asked, when is vengeance satisfied. I don’t know, Charlotte Palmer. I’ve lost the ability to know.”

On the scales, another soul is taking form. Charlotte can feel the essence of Laurel Palin - Daph’s counterpart on this world - inside it. And the scales begin to tip. The shackles loosen.

“That’s why I need a mortal priest. They may not have chosen the role. None of us choose our fate, do we. But the ones I’ve chosen are the ones capable of holding me back. Perhaps of redeeming one such as I.”

The aspect of Maat fades away, and Charlotte is left, looking carefully into the eyes of Palamedes, son of Nauplius.

The god smiles gently. “You made a wise choice, rejecting divinity. Don’t become like this. Don’t let it trap you.”

He claps his hands together. Back to business it seems. “You wished to know the limits of vengeance. Do you have your answer, magus?”

“I think I do,” Charlotte says. “And do you understand why I went back on your price? Why we came to raid, one more time?”

Palamedes nods. “I do. I’ll hold it against you regardless. But I’ll let my priest exact a price of his choosing.”

Charlotte smiles, and wills her sorcery to carry her back to the deck of Haam’s retreating pirate ship.

Haam catches her touching down, and approaches. “We’ll leave him alone. You have our word. Now. What is it we can do for you?”

Charlotte explains the plan, and Haam nods. “Very well. We’ll return you to mortal shores, and be ready when you are.”

The First Pirate gestures to Manny, who’s bobbing up and down excitedly. “Your friend was a fine pirate, I should say. He helped us quite effectively during the raid.”

Manny grins - without lips, it’s really all a skull can do to smile.

Charlotte smiles at him. “He has always been of tremendous assistance.”

Charlotte and Manny find their friends waiting at Cairo, along with Laurel Palin.

The priest of Palamedes flags her down. “P-man told me you upset him. First, good job. Second, I’m on the hook to make you pay for your awful crimes.”

Charlotte knows Daph is a straight shooter, one of the fairest people she knows. Will Laurel be the same, she wonders.

The young man grins.

“And that price is that while we get ready to put this plan into action, you pay for milkshakes for everyone.”

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