© Zackery Arbela 2012

Celestial winds blow constantly from the Bittering, sweeping across the Empyrean in silent currents, carrying all before them. Different winds came at different times of the year and wise captains knew which and when. Sails filled with air, timbers creaking as their ships were driven through the emptiness. Crewmen stuck their heads out the windows to breath in deep the metallic tang of the Void Between Worlds, keeping their eyes on the lights in the distance, the bright points that of the Suns, the lesser ones of the worlds among them, what less sophisticated groundlings called stars.
If a ship were so inclined, she might turn towards the Celestial East, picking as a destination the pale red lamp floating in the void like a baleful eye watching the proceedings of history with obvious disapproval. She might catch one of several air streams flowing that way this late in the Common Year. East the crew might go, starting perhaps at Inveril, skirting the blue and gold warships of the Crannenaar and the priests curious as to why they had picked such a nefarious destination. Past the twin Sun's of Maraea and Fhirial, known collectively as the Bright Lands, verdant worlds that were home to the mysterious ilurei, those incomparable creatures of grace who would look upon the passage of the ship with blind incomprehension, proof yet again of humanity's incurable oddness. Across the aptly named Darkling Reach, where the light of the Sun's grew dim indeed in the vast emptiness, to the point that men were known to lose their minds. Aldor would pass on their right, the grieving Sun, its people suffering under the yoke of conquest and oppression. The cause of both would be ahead as the red Sun came ever closer, its worlds shining dully in the endless night. A sense of foreboding would sweep across the crew, the understanding that of all the bad destinations one could choose across the Universe, this was undoubtedly the worst.
At which point the captain might gain a sudden measure of wisdom and turn his ship about, heading back the way they came. But it would be too late; sweeping out from the dark worlds would be other ships, their hulls painted black as night, the prows decorated with figureheads of snarling beasts, the open gun ports shaped like the mouths of demons ready to spit hot iron and death. Escape would be impossible as companies of dark-armored soldiers crossed the gap and boarded the hapless voyager, locking the crew in irons and taking the ship for themselves.
Now bound below decks the crewmen, undoubtedly cursing whatever madness had caused them to make this journey, could only watch as world after world passed below. Dull brown plains, divided among plantations hundreds of miles long, worked by slaves and helots born into misery, living in sorrow and eagerly awaiting the blissful release of death. Mountain ranges scarred and broken by mines, forests and jungles disappearing under armies of woodcutters working under the whip. Walled cities, more fortresses than anything else, overseeing the sullen lands around. The sky above was dark with smoke from foundries and forges that burned day and night, feeding a beast whose hunger for all resources - life above all - was insatiable. This was the Hegemony. Many worlds circled this red Sun, but after millennia of harsh rule they all looked the same. All bound to their masters, to their greater purpose.
In time the ships would slow, headed towards one world in particular, a dark red orb that exuded a sense of infinite horror. Men crawled rat-like into the rigging, pulling in the sails, looking occasionally over their shoulders into the face of forever. In the meantime fires were stoked in the ascension lockers, hot coals burning brightly in iron ovens surrounded by clay and sand for protection. Officer's opened chests and removed lengths of crystal the size and thickness of a man's forearm, shining dully with reflected light. They placed the pieces in special iron cradles and slid them into the flames, pushing carefully until the runes engraved on the side of the ovens lit up with a blue-white glow, the vessels shuddering as power surged through them.
The procedure being done, the ships would begin their descent. The crystal in the flames kept the downward rate slow and leisurely, holding back the effects of gravity through the ineffable workings of the Aethyr. If they were in luck no storms or strong winds would interfere with the descent, and the prisoners would have ample time to marvel at the harsh contrast of terrains below, wide regions of murky swamp broken by tracts of stony wasteland, both dotted with black stone citadels around which there was a constant fume. The masses of slaves laboring below seemed even more rundown and terrified than their compatriots on other worlds, no doubt because of the battalions of soldiers drilling beside them, the numbers beyond counting. Ships of all sizes and every design blackened the skies above, the merest example of the sheer power this place commanded.
Thumps, bangs and bruises would announce the landing of the ships on the field. Light would flood the hold as the cargo doors opened. The prisoners, by now reduced to quivering states of fear as they contemplated their fates, would be herded out to the sound of whips and angry shouts in a harsh language with far too many z's and g's working in combination. Dragged onto the landing field, they would be divided up, some to the fields beyond where they would live out what remained of their days at hard labor, others to the cities with their forges and machines that spat out an endless supply of weaponry. But some would be pointed to another final destination, a tall citadel in the horizon, greater than any other, ancient black stone pitted with the age of centuries. And when they arrived, they would learn that all the fear they felt on the journey here was nothing compared to the horror awaiting them within those walls.

Flames burned in golden lamps hanging by chains from the ceiling, lighting the tall chamber and filling the air with the sweet smell of incense, a necessity, considering the work that took place here.
The hall was a long narrow place, the black granite walls decorated with images of war and conquest and the domination of lesser beings. At the southern end was a large door, shaped like the mouth of some beast that looked a cross between a bear and a shark with bits from other creatures thrown in for good measure. On the opposite side high on the wall was the image of a Sun, the red Sun in fact, picked out in gold and gemstones of incalculable expense, a pale reflection of the real thing hanging in the sky outside, watching this world as it watched all others, ever vigilant. Rexag, the Renegade Sun.
The altar sat on the floor below, a solid block of black crystal polished smooth from centuries of use. Flanking it on either side were two statues of white marble shaped like hooded figures, the faces beneath the cowls masks of cold serenity. Behind it was a real person in a black robe, the cowl pulled over the face, hands clasped on the belly. The fingernails were long, four inches at least, and painted a blood red. Kneeling on the floor before the altar were men in black armor and cloaks, their faces also hidden by hoods, for in this place, in this moment no head could be exposed, no face seen. Why exactly no one could quite explain, but that was no reason to change a hallowed tradition.
The one officiating the proceedings made a gesture with a right hand. Somewhere to the right a door opened and two burly attendants hauled out a whimpering, gibbering slave, clad only in a loincloth. They ignored his feeble struggles as a dog would a kitten, hauling him up on the altar and binding him hand and foot to iron rings planted in the floor, pulling tight on the ropes so that his limbs were forced down, his chest pushed up.
The slave called out for mercy, lips moving in prayer to whatever delusions he worshiped. The one behind the altar flicked its fingers, tracing the nails along the slave's abdomen, pressing down just above the groin and whispering soothing words that only he could hear. It didn't help, the man began to weep, tears trickling back down his face.
The hands drifted back above his heart, suddenly bending into the shape of claws. The man screamed, mouth opening in a cry of soul-burning agony that echoed off the walls. Shards of light rose from his ten, then a dozen, then more than could be counted, a stream of life energy drawn from the body, forming into a ball between the hands of the hooded one. The slave gasped one last time, staring with horrified eyes as the last pieces of his soul were pulled away, his head falling back, his body withering before the eyes of those who watched, the skin turning an ashen gray.
A hiss emerged from under the hood, the clawed hands rising up and pulling apart, stretching the ball of soul-stuff between them like a lump of clay. The chamber filled with an eerie flickering light, drawing all eyes. Long-nailed fingers flexed and from within the depths of the soul appeared an image of a golden medallion, ancient and pitted, a grimacing face with ruby eyes embedded within the center, surrounded by lines of script that twisted and turned in ways no finger could accomplish.
"Seek." The voice from under the hood spoke in a bare whisper, just barely above a breath, yet it carried to every corner. "Bring it here."
"Where is it?" asked one of the men, staring at the image intently.
"Fingers flexed again. The image shimmered away, replaced by another, the wavering picture of a yellow Sun so very different from the one whose cruel light bore down on this world. "Doran," came the whisper. "Somewhere around Doran."
The soul flexed and twisted among the fingers, shredding apart into wisps of blue light. A faint wail sounded as the last pieces faded from sight, the hands falling away, resting gently on the corpse bound to the altar. "Find it," came the command. "No matter the cost. "
The men bowed their heads in respect. They had their orders.

When the alarm bells clanged, Gaebrel Harrn knew something was wrong.
He kicked away the blankets from his bunk, slipping feet into shoes parked below in anticipation of moments like this. Life could be seen as series of Incidents, as Father liked to call them. Honest men would describe them as Getaways, Escapes, or Exiting Under Extreme Duress, all fancy ways of describe leaving some locale in a hurry to the sound of gunfire and demands for bloody punishment. He left the cabin, pausing a moment to grab the bandolier lying on a table bolted to the deck. Too large for his fifteen years but in time he would grow into it, and besides there was nothing else that fitted. The four pistols tucked into the loops were loaded, he'd made sure of that the night before. An old habit, one he'd assiduously cultivated for the last three years since Father had come literally out of nowhere, snatching him from Mothers funeral to carry him across the Universe.
Inquisitive minds would have wondered at this point why a fifteen year old boy would have felt the need to sleep with a small arsenal tucked next to his bed every night. Gaebrel wondered how any man in this fallen universe could do without it, the comforting sense of cold steel and hot lead within a hands reach, ready for any emergency. From the looks of things, that's exactly what they faced right now.
He emerged on deck, blinking under the bright Sun and shaking away the last vestiges of sleep. Crewmen rushed past, flinging themselves into the rigging and climbing for dear life. Others were busying themselves hauling barrels of powder and pulling open the doors to the shot locker, yet another bad sign. He looked to the left and saw much the same activity on the ship parked next to the Laparon, as well as on the ship to the right. In fact, every vessel on the landing field was undergoing some variation of readying for action, only some making half-hearted attempts to hide it.
He found Father at his accustomed place, up by the bow conferring quietly with two of his officers. Both of them looked exceedingly upset for some reason, an all too familiar sight to Gaebrel's eyes. One of Ifrick Harrn's schemes had gone sideways again, he knew this as he knew how to breathe. One of the few constants in Gaebrel's life, something he could mark regular as his heart beat. Dear old Father, a man of wild dreams and grandiose ambitions which always disintegrated in truly spectacular ways. The first time it had seemed uproarious, fleeing some exotic place with cannon fire in their wake was a grand adventure to a young boy. Now it only made his teeth clench.
"Gaebrel!" Ifrick waved his son over. Tall for his age, his youthful frame filling out. Brown hair from his father's side, green eyes like his mother's. Ifrick still thought of her on occasion. A son any man would be proud of. Ifrick put on a big smile, readying the necessary words.
"What happened now, Father?" Gaebrel crossed his arms.
"Er...nothing, son. Just a minor indiscretion, a few palms that, neglected to grease. Nothing important at all...."
"Clear the way!" Two crewmen hustled past, carrying a pannier loaded with powder charges. Gaebrel watched as sailors grabbed the cloth bags while the men passed by the cannons, stuffing them down the tubes and jabbing prick-spikes into the touch holes.
"Nothing important?"
"I assure you, this will be cleared up within an hour...provided the right words can be placed in the right ears."
"What did you steal, Father?"
"Gaebrel, that is no way to speak to your Father..."
"Soldiers!" A lookout pointed to the east, where a battalion of Tiazhaadi infantry was deploying. Customs officials in their distinctive red robes were directing them, pointing at the ships with obvious intent.
"Bugger me backwards." Ifrick spat over the railing. "Look, here it is. I knew a fellow who swore on both his grandmothers graves that he could get me a ton of rizata silk, that shimmery stuff the highborns here wrap themselves in and wipe their arses with for all I know. Free and clear, no questions asked. Worth a fortune to the right buyers. Only he wasn't telling the whole how said goods were pilfered from the personal storehouse of the city governor."
"Suns and Spirits." Gaebrel closed his eyes. "The city governor. The younger brother of their Emperor."
"Should have been more careful, now that I think on it."
Orders were shouted at the far end of the field. The soldiers marched on the ships, demanding entry so they could be searched for contraband. They were going down the line, one by one, vessel by vessel. "If they find that stuff here," Gaebrel said, "we'll lose our heads."
"That might happen."
"I just got to Cunerin! I don't want to die here!"
"And you won't!" Ifrick's smile seemed desperate now. "The goods aren't on the ship! I have them hidden in the countryside, safe in a place no one would look. I was going to get them once the locals calmed down, but now we have to leave.” Angry shouts drifted from further on down the field, as the soldiers argued with the crew of a nearby trader. “Without the Field Master's say-so, there'll be a dozen cutters following after us. I need your help, son!"
"What can I do?"
"Go down to my cabin. You'll find a red leather pouch on my desk, that has everything we need to get out of this mess. Then go to the Field Master's house. The clerk there is a friend, he's in on the scam. Give him the pouch, he'll take care of the rest."
"I don't speak the local lingo."
That doesn't matter. The clerk knows half a dozen trade tongues. Will you do this, Gaebrel? For your Father?"
Gaebrel was silent for the longest moment, staring at his father, weighing his options. He nodded once. “Aye."
"Bless you, boy! Now hurry!"
Gaebrel went back below decks. Time passed. Ifrick paced back forth, glancing occasionally at the line of soldiers slowly coming closer as they searched ships further on down in their methodical way. "Where is that boy?"
The younger Harrn reemerged on the deck, a leather bag slung over his shoulder. "Got the letter?" Ifrick asked.
Gaebrel thumped the bag. "Right here."
"What's the bag for?"
"Don't want to attract attention. Best keep it out of sight."
"Good lad. Now hurry!"
Ifrick watched his son swing his legs over the side, taking hold of a rope. "Gaebrel!" he then called out.
"I do appreciate this...and everything else about you."
"Right. As you say." Shaking his head, Gaebrel slid down to the ground.
Ifrick took a deep breath and let it out slowly, hands clenching and unclenching. "And that's that," he muttered.
"You don't have to do this," said the first mate, astonished at yet another example of the Captain's complete lack of morals and decency.
"He's a smart lad, he'll be fine."
“But, your son..."
"His Mother had plenty of friends, if you know what I mean. She swore he was mine and he does have my look, but sometimes a man will wonder. “
“What's done is done. Fire up the oven, if you please, and break out the rexite."
"Aye, Captain."

The press of the crowd in the narrow alleyways of the fieldside market slowed Gaebrel's pace to a slow walk. He edged his way through knots of people, using his greater height and bulk to gently ease locals aside. None of them took any offense, looking at this strange offworlder with dark eyes that hid more than they showed. Their language sounded much like the chiming of bells mixed in with the twittering of birds, with the odd gargle thrown in for good measure. It would take an outsider a lifetime to learn how to speak it, and that was just the local dialect. Gaebrel's pleas for passage went by unremarked; this being a busy port town foreign tongues were as common as lice.
Two months voyaging, skirting the twin Suns of the Bright Lands and then across a wide expanse of open Empyrean, home only to the odd trader and hermit, headed to the warm yellow Sun tucked away in a corner of the Celestial West. Doran, open territory as far as Father was concerned, a place where their names were unknown, where fortune might yet again smile on him. The Laperon circled through the system, avoiding the major lanes and the various pirates and brigands who infested them, preying on fat merchant ships like wolves trailing after a herd of deer, perfecting their knowledge of the local trade tongues. They made for Cunerin, the richest world in the system, making landfall in the heart of the richest realm on that planet. Tiazhaad, that's what it was impressive empire by any measure, spanning one of the three continents. Supposedly its rulers were worshiped as gods by the locals, a fact confirmed by the pictures hanging in the heart of the many temples dotting this land like mushrooms after a heavy rain, showing a heavyset fellow with a fearsome brow and eyes that seemed to follow every person below with stern disapproval. Large stretches of land passing below the ship as she headed for the chosen port were overgrown with weeds and uninhabited, evidence of the civil war only recently concluded, a fearsome conflict that consumed a quarter of the population. Those who remained still outnumbered any other realm on this world and both its moons besides.
A yokel fresh off the farm might have stared with awe at the sights around him. Gaebrel barely gave any of it a second look. He'd spent half his life on the Empyrean. After a while all the places blended together, one world much like another. Though the spicy smells from the food stalls did tickle his nostrils and make his mouth rumble, he'd make sure to have a taste of that before leaving, the cook on the Laperon knew only bland, blander and utterly tasteless.
The Field Masters 'office' was actually a large building a hundred yards from the edge of the landing field. The stone walls were painted a brilliant vermillion color, the doors and windows picked out in sky blue. A banner depicting some mythical beast with far too many heads and wings flew from a corner, which according to local custom showed that the inhabitants were connected to officialdom in a highly meaningful way. No guards stood at the door and he stepped in without any questions asked. Inside was a wide foyer with a long polished wooden counter along the right side and a bank of shelves on the left, packed with tightly bound scrolls. A single clerk sat behind the counter, spinning a brass coin on the top, letting out wide mouthed yawn.
Gaebrel took the red leather pouch out of the bag. "This is for you," he said in Haleric, the widest known trade tongue in all the Universe, spoken around every Sun and on every world...but apparently not by the clerk, who merely gaped at him. Gaebrel repeated the words in five other trade languages, dialects and argots, trying his best to remember the ones specific to the region around Doran. None of them seemed to work, the clerk merely looking irritated at having his day interrupted by a gibberish spewing foreigner.
Gritting his teeth, Gaebrel thrust the pouch at the clerk, who took it after a momentary hesitation. The Tiazhaadi opened the top and pulled out two sheets of paper. The first he stared at with confusion, but the second was evidently written in a language he understood. His eyes flicked up at Gaebrel, narrowing slightly. A bad sign, in retrospect. He held up the first sheet and gave it back to Gaebrel, uttering a string of words that sounded all the more ominous for being incomprehensible.
Gaebrel's eyes followed the lines of script with growing shock, the words written in his fathers blunt hand.
If you're reading this, then by now you've figured out the clerk doesn't speak any language but his own. Nor did he have any part in my recent venture on this world. That was a necessary lie to get you off the ship. I had an inkling this deal was about to go fall apart and needed a just-in-case plan, which I am sorry to say involves you.
Now, there are two things you need to know. First, I apologize for doing this, leaving you behind does tear me up inside in a way you cannot understand. But I love my freedom more. If I don't do this, than both of us will likely end up with our heads on the chopping block. This way, at least one of the Harrn men will live to fight another day. If you think about it for a moment, I'm sure you will understand.
Second, Tiazhaadi clerks are never armed. If our mutual friend has any sense, he'll call for help from the local garrison. Given that the other letter accuses you of all manner of crimes, including the theft of the silk, and provides ample evidence to prove it, they'll likely send every man they can spare. Which will buy me enough time to get airborne and Empyrean-bound, and hopefully give you enough of a head start to escape...
Gaebrel looked up. Where the clerk had been was now only an empty space of air, the second letter lying flat on the counter top, the glyphs written in vertical columns staring up at him like an accusatory mob. He heard shouts from outside, saw the clerk running into the market, waving his hands above his head and yelling for all he was worth.
Other doors opened, more clerks poked their heads out, wondering what the commotion was about. Gaebrel looked at them, at those curious Tiazhaadi faces, and could only think of one thing to say.
"Bugger me backwards!" He ran out the door, turned left and headed back towards the landing field. Then he skidded to a halt. Soldiers were coming the other way, pushing and shoving their way through the crowd. The clerk was leading them, pointing at the Field Masters office. Pointing at him.
Then his eyes turned upwards towards the sky. Ships were rising from the landing field, making for open air and the Empyrean that lay beyond. Outlined against the blue, the image sharp as a fresh painting was the Laperon. Father's ship, making its bid for freedom. Leaving him behind.
Under different circumstances, a boy finding himself in this particular predicament might be forgiven for falling to his knees and weeping. Tears were perfectly understandable, feelings of betrayal cutting like a knife more than justified. But all Gaebrel could summon, all he could make himself feel at being abandoned by his Father was a sense of bitter disappointment. Four years on that ship and the old fool never changed. Always seeking the easy path in the end, no matter the wreckage.
"Bastard," he muttered.
Shouts from nearby pulled him back to the present. The soldiers were getting closer. One of hem unlimbered a musket, ready to take a shot even under these crowded conditions.
Gaebrel acted quickly. A hot food vendor was up ahead, some fellow selling spiced nuts fried in a oil-filled dish above an open flame. The man watched the approaching soldiers with obvious shock, attention drawn away from the cooking oil for a moment. Gaebrel drew a pistol, and with one smooth motion cocked the hammer, took aim and squeezed the trigger. Cries of alarm came from the crowd as the gun fired, many diving for cover. The vendor squawked as the ball struck the metal dish, knocking it off the cart and casting the bubbling contents across the ground. A spark must have fallen along with the oil, for a moment a later the whole mess lit up with a whoosh, laying a line of fire across the narrow street.
The soldiers stumbled to a halt as local vendors and shopkeepers rushed in, beating back flames that threatened to spread to other stalls and stands. The officer in command screamed at his men to advance even as they backed away from the fire, the thick smoke mixed with the stench of day-old cooking oil. Sparks rose up, threatening the wide expanse of canvas and cloth awnings that was the market with additional chaos.
Gaebrel grinned, gave a mocking bow and ran the other way. Left, right, left, right, he made as many turns as he could, ducking down alleyways and side streets, not caring where he went as long as it was far away. An hour passed, perhaps, the sound of commotion and pursuit fading behind him, yet he kept going, letting nothing get in his way.
Some time later he ended up in a narrow alcove far from the landing field. This looked to be a metalworkers district, judging from the various bangs and bongs coming from windows and doors. He leaned back against a wall, nose wrinkling at the faint smell of cat piss that permeated the place. He'd have to find a place to bathe, else they'd track him by the stink alone. But he needed a moments rest.
Time to catch his breath, to bury his head in his hands for some necessary reflection and pondering.
Father left him behind. Gaebrel wished he felt some measure of surprise, but could summon nothing stronger than dull resentment. Such was the nature of Ifrick Harrn. Something like this was bound to happen in the end, Father leaving him, Gaebrel leaving Father, or both leaving at the same time. Better it was done now. No tears to shed, wasn't worth the effort. He let out a long sigh and with it any fragments of grief he might have felt.
He opened the bag, rummaging about until his fingers felt the cloth purse tucked in a side pocket, felt the reassuring clink of the gold coins. A smile crossed his face. Father was a creature of habit, chief among them being a well-justified distrust of his crew. During an extended stay in port a few years back, he'd arranged for a particularly skilled carpenter to construct a secret compartment below his bunk, completely hidden from view unless one knew what to look for. Over the following months and years, Ifrick salted away a small fortune under there, skimming the profits of every venture that went right. He thought it a secret, safely kept from his crew, and it was, but not from his son. Gaebrel kept the knowledge to himself in the sure expectation that one day he'd have use for it.
He could only imagine the look on Father's face when he looked into the empty space where all the gold had been. "A just-in-case plan," Gaebrel said with a grin. "You weren't the only one, Father!"
Gaebrel got back to his feet, headed down street, further into the city. He'd find a place to spend the night and in the morning head west, see what else Cunerin had to offer. The grin on his face only grew wider at the prospect of what lay over the horizon. At what the future might bring.