The Astral Chronicle
Volume 1: Into Infinity
Part 1: Sunrise Over Infinity
A ship broke the calm waters, slicing through them and sending them churning in its wake. The warm summer winds carried it toward the bustling city of Cail and its ports, on the coast of a land known as Tamaril.
A woman sat on the pier, her legs hanging over the water's edge, a robe of brilliant crimson billowing around her in the breeze. Behind her the streets bustled with people coming and going from the markets in the city's lower end. The sun above caught the bright colours of their clothing and washed them against the white walls that surrounded them, casting the whole street as a technicolour ocean.
Far above the city's rooftops gave way to a castle, towers on its top reaching into the sky like white fingers trying to grasp the sun.
The woman watched the ship as it moved effortlessly toward her. It was an unassuming vessel, small compared to the trading ships and lacking the extravagance of a diplomatic voyage, but with the elegance only found in such simplicity. It didn't struggle against the winds, but seemed to lead and let them follow.
She waited until she could make out the words written on its hull. The Le-Pras.
Her grip tightened around her bag.
This is the one.
The ship docked and a lithe man leapt from its side. He began tying it in place as another man, this one muscular, began unloading boxes.
The woman closed her eyes momentarily, steadying herself.
I only get one chance at this.
She approached the man as put a crate down, pausing to wipe the sweat from his forehead. His skin was deeply tanned, a shade that might have been natural or the product of long years in the sun. His arms were covered despite the heat, dark sleeves ending in black gloves.
"This is a nice ship," the woman said.
He went for another box, ignoring her.
She followed him onboard, "Where are you headed to?"
He remained silent as he strained himself against another crate.
"Are you passing near Ascala by any chance?"
He put the box down and stared at her. His features were hard, as though they might crack if subject to anything resembling a smile.
"Look, miss," he said, somehow turning the title into an insult, "I'm a little busy right now, so if you don't mind bothering someone else . . ."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I'm looking for someone to take me to Ascala."
"Then you're bothering to the wrong person. The Captain handles all matters involving payment."
"Where's the Captain?"
"Right here," a voice said, its owner descending from the upper deck, "Who's asking?"
"This one," again said as though a vile curse, "Wants to buy passage to Ascala."
"Ascala?" the Captain walked toward them, "Why do you want to go there?"
"Family matters," she said, hoping her tone made it clear that was the only answer she was going to give.
"If you'll excuse me," the tanned man said, "I have a back to be breaking."
The Captain gave her a quizzical look. "You do know this isn't a pleasure vessel?"
"Meaning we don't take passengers. The Astral can be a dangerous place."
"I know, and I'm willing to pay you extra for the trouble."
He seemed to study her for a moment. "Why bother? There are many other ships that would be cheaper and more comfortable."
"Because they say you're the best. The Captain of the Le-Pras. The man without a name. They say you never leave a job unfinished. That you can get anything anywhere."
"Compliments and rumors aside, this ship isn't any place for a woman such as yourself."
"Please," she insisted. "I won't cause any trouble, you'll barely notice that I'm here!"
He scrutinized her again. Somehow she got the feeling he saw more of her than she was aware of. "Are you absolutely certain you want to come on this ship?"
She met his gaze. "Yes."
He sighed, "Fine. But you come at your own risk."
"Thank you. You don't know what this means to me."
He held up a hand to silence her, "Just remember, my crew has a lot to deal with, so stay out of everyone's way."
"I will," she nodded enthusiastically, the full brunt of relief beginning to hit her.
"As for payment, we will discuss that once you've been shown to your room. Adrian," he called. The lithe man reappeared. "Could you take our new passenger to one of the spare rooms?"
"Passenger?" Adrian eyed the woman. "I thought you weren't taking passengers anymore."
"She was rather . . ." he glanced at her, as though reading the last page in a book, "Insistent."
"But I was just about to pick up the supplies."
"You can do that after."
"Fine," Adrian sighed and picked up the woman's bag. "I'll show you to your room."
"One last thing," the Captain said.
"What's your name?"
Adrian led Fiona through the ship's corridors, a row of lightorbs above providing a dim imitation of daylight. The wooden walls were plain, but clean, and clung to the scent of the sea. The hall itself was just large enough to avoid being cramped, although Fiona didn't want to imagine what it would be like in the middle of a storm.
"Have you ever been in the Astral before?" Adrian was asking. It seemed he preferred idle chatter over silence.
"No, I haven't."
"You're in for a treat."
"I don't know. I've heard stories about it."
"Just rumors," Adrian said dismissively. "Well, mostly rumors, there was this one time when . . ." He met Fiona's apprehensive gaze, "You know what? Forget I said anything."
They stopped in front of a narrow door, "This is your room." He opened it, "A bed, a desk, some space. Not much you could ask for on a ship."
She took the bag from his hand. "Is there anything else I should know?"
"Let me think, we don't normally have to explain this to people." He ran a hand through his sandy hair as he thought. He would have messed it up, if it was possible for it to be any messier than it already was. "Dinner's served in the galley at the end of the hall, the life rafts are in the cargo bay one deck below us and we'll be crossing over shortly before nightfall."
"Crossing over?" Fiona asked.
Adrian smiled, revealing a devious glint in his eyes. "You'll see."
The Captain walked to the helm, where Stark was going over a series of charts.
"I assume you saw that exchange," he said to the half-wolf.
Stark's keen eyes flickered to the Captain and then back to the page. "Yes."
"Good. I want you to keep your eyes and nose on her."
"You do not trust her?"
"Something about her is off. She has a reason for wanting to come on this particular ship, and I want you to find out what it is."
A rich aroma greeted Maria as she entered the galley, the comforting smell of baking and spice, the scent of home. The room was not large, nothing could afford to be on a ship, but it was small enough to be comfortable. A half dozen tables were scattered around the small space. It was far more than the crew ever used, but for some reason no one ever thought to remove the extra ones. The walls on either side were dotted with portholes that showed the ocean beyond and made the room feel more open than it actually was.
Maria scanned the rows of tables, subconsciously adjusting to the ship's motion as it sailed.
"Where is she?"
Adrian sat at a nearby table. "Where is who?"
"The passenger, who else would I be looking for?"
"You mean you're not looking for me? I'm hurt."
She crossed her arms and glared at him, "Where is she?"
"Table in the corner," he motioned to where Fiona sat, alone, by the wall.
Maria took the seat opposite her.
Fiona was a petite woman, understated both in stature and, guessing from the nervous smile she flashed, confidence. Her face betrayed a young age, while her eyes held an intensity Maria couldn't place. But there was something strange about her. Her skin was the warm ivory typical of those from Tamaril, but her hair was a long rose blonde. Most people from Tamaril had dark hair.
Perhaps this Fiona wasn't from Tamaril, or perhaps her lineage came from elsewhere. Either way, it wasn't really any of Maria's concern. Nor was it why she was there.
She extended her hand, "I'm Maria. Second in command and the ship's healer."
Fiona took her hand, if a bit timidly. "You're a mage?"
"Yes," Maria said, glad Fiona didn't seem overly worried by it. Some people were terrified around those who could do magic. "Have you met the rest of the crew?"
"I don't think so."
"Well, there's Adrian. The strong handsome one is Gehard."
"We've met," Gehard said acerbically. "Over a set of very heavy crates."
Maria rolled her eyes, "Just ignore him when he gets like this."
"I heard that," Gehard said.
She ignored him. "I assume you've met the Captain."
"The half-wolf, when you see him, is Stark, he's the navigator and helmsman."
Maria caught a hint of panic in Fiona's face. "H-half-wolf?"
"He's harmless. Really. He just doesn't look it. Then besides him and Gloria in the kitchen, that's it."
"But there's so few of you."
"That's because this is an Avandran ship," she tapped on the wall proudly. "It practically runs itself. Wait . . . have you ever been in the Astral before?"
"I already asked her that," Adrian said.
"Great Adrian," she scowled at him, "You steal my job. Thanks."
"I only wanted to save you the trouble."
"Is there something going on between the two of you?" Fiona asked.
"No," Maria chuckled, "We're always like this. You'll get used to it, eventually. So, have you?"
Fiona seemed confused, "Have I?"
"Been in the Astral?"
"Oh, no, I haven't."
"It's spectacular, especially the first time you see it." She glanced out the porthole, "We should be there in an hour or so."
"Looking forward to it."
Maria stood, "I'll leave you to your galesh. Gloria will be angry with me if it goes cold."
The crew was gathered on deck, preparing to make the crossing. Fiona walked among them, out of place amongst the world of rigging and water. She found a quiet spot along the bow and sat, waiting as night began to fall.
The upper deck was by far the most open place on the ship. Two masts cut upwards form its surface and into the sky, while a high railing ran around its edge to keep people from falling off. The wood around her was dark in contrast to the ornate sky above, lit up with ribbons of coloured fire descending from the heavens. The sky felt closer than normal, more immediate.
She distracted herself by watching the others go about their work, all preparing for the journey ahead. Lines were tied and retied. Sails shifted. Orders shouted. There was a feel of ordered chaos to it all: that although Fiona didn't understand what was going on, everyone else did perfectly. She sat at the center of a storm of activity, untouched and mystified by its winds.
In particular she watched the Captain. He stood at the ship's helm, watching over his crew. He was the eye of the storm. When she arrived on the ship Fiona had thought it strange he went only by Captain, but after watching the man for a time, that seemed the least peculiar thing about him.
There was an air to him. Subtle but unmistakable. An authority that needed no assurance. An unnatural ease in the way he moved, as if the entire world belonged to him and it simply didn't know it yet. The Captain pointed out a new direction to Stark, revealing a glint of the sword hidden beneath his black cloak.
What a strange creature, Fiona thought as Stark adjusted the wheel. So human, yet so animal.
Fiona had heard of half animals before, few hadn't in a city as large as Cail, but had never imagined meeting one herself. They had always been something exotic to her. Something from the other side of Creation.
Still, she couldn't help but feel unnerved by Stark's presence. Feel she was being stalked by him in some subtle way. Sized up for weaknesses and morsels. It was as if some god had taken a wolf and fitted it over a human frame, giving the resulting creature the capabilities of the second, but the mannerisms of the first.
Fiona watched as Maria climbed the stairs to the helm and talked with the Captain. She couldn't guess what they were saying, but it didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary for either of them.
Maria was unusually tall for a woman, standing almost level with the Captain. Her hair was long and as dark than the night sky. She had a strength of presence to her that Fiona would have no doubt found intimidating, if not for the friendly smile she always seemed to be wearing. Somehow Maria seemed to anchor the unearthly Captain and predatory Stark back in the realm of possibility.
Fiona shivered slightly as a cold breeze caught her. She turned her attention from the helm and back toward the sky. This time she was certain it had grown nearer.
She propped herself up on the ship's railing and watched as it seemed to move closer still.
"Disorienting, isn't it?"
Fiona turned and found Adrian behind her, his frame a thin shadow against the sky.
Adrian had always struck Fiona as being unbalanced. It was as though his legs and arms were attached at slightly the wrong angle to his body. As a result, she had observed, his actions always appeared awkward and inept, yet at the same time, graceful.
"It's like the sky's getting closer," she said.
"That's because it is."
"How is that possible?"
"Because the Astral lies beyond the sky, so you have to pass through the sky first to get there." He met Fiona's confused stare, "It'll make sense when you see it."
She returned her gaze to the sunset and its glistening reflection.
"Yeah," he leaned against the railing, "Sunset crossings are always the best."
"How many times have you done this?"
He shook his head, "Too many to count. I've been working for the Captain a long time."
Fiona was silent as she traced her eyes across the encroaching canvas of colour.
"About the crossing?"
"I know how that feels. I was terrified my first time. But there's really nothing to worry about, it's as natural as walking outside, except with a much better view."
"Prepare to cross," The Captain's voice sounded behind them.
"I have to go," Adrian said as he slipped away.
Fiona watched the rapidly approaching sky, now a vertical wall rising from the water's surface. It neared until she thought she could reach out and touch it, when she realized she actually could.
Her fingertips passed effortlessly through it.
The tip of the ship's bow plunged through the sky. Fiona found herself surrounded on all sides by a blanket of fog, so thick she couldn't make out the deck below.
"Steady," the Captain called, his voice muted by the oppressive vapor.
It was like passing through a dream, an impossible world of clouds and shadows, only to emerge on the other side in waking life. To think that only hours ago she was waiting on a dock, and now she was sailing through the sky.
Fiona saw the cloud thin ahead and a strange darkness beyond. Without warning the fog cleared, sweeping back along the ship as if pulled by a strong wind. It formed a towering wall behind the ship, curving slightly to match the contours of the sky within.
She turned her gaze to her new surroundings and was struck breathless.
The sky above had been replaced by empty space. Sheer vastness surrounded her: impossible distances that staggered the mind's eye. Amid the impossible space were strung brilliant clouds. Their colours made the streets of Cail she had just left seem dull by comparison. Drifts of brilliant sapphire, verdant emerald and burning ruby had replaced the clouds and sun. It was like they were flying through the night sky, only the night sky had never been this awe inspiring.
Fiona went to the edge of the ship and peered down. Her heart nearly stopped beating when she saw the ocean below them had disappeared. She found herself staring down into an empty infinity of darkness. Fiona braced herself for the ship to begin falling, then she realized it wasn't. The ship was sailing forwards as though nothing had happened.
"How is this possible?" she muttered to herself.
"Because it's the Astral," Adrian said from behind her. "Impossible doesn't mean much out here."
"But . . . how?" was all she could think to say.
Adrian shrugged. "I don't know. Ships float, people sink, it's just the way things work in the Astral." The Captain called for him and Adrian ran back across the deck, leaving Fiona alone with the impossibility.
She tightened her grip on the railing and stole another glance down below the ship. There was nothing but open space as far as she could see, and darkness beyond that.
A smile flashed crossed Fiona's lips.
That was easier than I thought it would be.
Frederick had just finishing sweeping his inn when the soldiers walked in.
"I'm sorry boys," he said, as he was accustomed to doing, "Bar's closed for the night. Come back tomorrow."
"We're not looking to buy any drinks. We'd like to ask you a few questions."
Frederick looked them over. The taller of the two, who stood behind his comrade, had the stern look of a commander. There was a trim of gold to his white and blue uniform, clearly signifying a greater rank. The man ran his hand over a neatly trimmed beard, studying the man who was studying him.
Not the Duke's men, wrong colours.
The shorter of the two, who was rapidly growing impatient, wore his red hair in a warrior's braid. He had the look of a fighter about him, and clearly possessed the patience of one.
"Who's soldiers are you?" Frederick asked.
"We are not soldiers," the tall one replied indignantly. "We are Guardians. Protectors of the Astral."
"In that case," Frederick pulled up a chair, "What would you like to know?"
The red-haired one spoke, "Has a woman calling herself Fiona been staying at your inn?"
"Yes," Frederick said, "But she left this morning."
The tall one scowled, clearly not getting the answer he was hoping for. "Do you know where she went?"
Frederick ran through the last few days in his mind. He had a very good memory for clients, always had. "No, she didn't mention it. Although she was talking with someone a few nights ago about a ship. The Lapres, or something. Is that helpful?"
The faintest trace of a smile crossed the man's lips, "Very."