8 October 1683
“I was in with His Majesty’s Royal Navy at that time, you know. I hadn’t yet had my own ship, but I was doing alright for myself. We’d finished cleaning up from that Cromwell mess,” the captain said, spitting at the name of the Lord Protector, “some years earlier, and now we were worrying ourselves with things like pirates and heretics of state. I was one of them, which of course my captain suspected, but I was damn fine at my job and he was willing to let a little papism slide in exchange for an orderly ship. You know the sort, I’m sure.” Benedict and Akshainie did not, in fact, know the sort, but didn’t bother telling him that.
“So we was on shore leave, rounding the north looking for some rest from trouble, and made land at Kirkwall up in Orkney thereabouts. So I was having my fun in the tavern there and met me a beautiful young maiden calling herself Ingrid. Well she could’ve called herself or me damn near anything she wanted, the name would’ve tasted sweet as honey as long as it belonged to her and I’d answer to anything provided it rolled off her tongue. We had us a wild run through the docks that first day, and ended it out a-looking over the sea.
It was there that I looked into her eyes and knew as sure as I knew myself, that she already had a love in her life. As she swayed to the beat of the waves, and the song of the wind, I knew in my best days I’d be second to the sea in her heart. So I spoke to her of the sea, and my own love for her, and how I felt more at home on a ship than I did in the mess the English had made of Eire. And she listened, and told me of the rush of swimming through the waters, and the way the sun looks just as it sets the waves ablaze with light, and how she was cut off from her home, as well. We took comfort in each other and in our shared mistress until well after dark.
Ah, those were the best days I ever had on land, and I was sore afraid that when we set sail again I’d have to leave her behind with no promise she’d be there if I ever managed to return. The way those grey eyes would light up at the mere sight of the ocean, the way her yellow hair caught the sun, the soft touch of hands that never knew work but had surely known the salty air as she ran her fingers over mine. I tell you, I could have lived a lifetime in those couple days, and it would have been enough. But then it was coming time for me to leave. I knew it was fast approaching, and thanked the Lord for a storm that trapped us ashore for another day. But that storm would do far more than keep me off the ship for a night.
The small rowboat left the dock near midnight, noiselessly cutting through the black water. It passed through a couple physical vessels as it went, but the two pirates paid no mind to anything but their rowing as they made a straight line away from shore. Benedict and Akshainie said nothing as they went, watching for any sign of betrayal or distress. They saw nothing of the sort.
The ship they approached was a moderately-sized three mast ship, of the type common during the heyday of piracy. It waved no flag, its sails were shreds, and there was very little light on deck. The exception was a bank of windows on the aft edge, which shone with an intense but flickering glow.
Benedict and Akshainie were welcomed on board and immediately shuffled along the deck to the captain’s quarters, a relatively large room which had been the source of light from outside. Inside the room was a desk secured to the floor, and a table between them and the desk. The table had a map pinned to it, which stretched from the eastern edge of the Florida keys to a little past Bermuda, south to just include Puerto Rico and north as far as the southern edge of Virginia. The Bermuda Triangle was marked in bold lines, and there were details of the sea floor but the land was completely empty of markings, save for a handful of ports. A man stood behind the desk, staring at them as they entered, wearing a distinctly large hat and an assortment of patched clothes that seemed to be aimed at looking regal as a set, but rang as a sloppy and mismatched vintage to the new arrivals.
“I’ve been hearing you’re seeking passage,” he said, leaning forward on the desk and flicking his eyes between Benedict and Akshainie. Her hands hovered near her swords, but none of the three moved.
“That we have,” she said, “and I hope you have good news for us.” The man smiled.
“That I do, if you can return the favor.”
“What’s your price?” Benedict asked.
“Work. If we’re leaving my waters, it’s first to make a stop in the Orkneys. There you can repay me for the passage, and then we’ll be along to wherever it is you’re needing to go.”
“The Orkneys are a good way off track.”
“Depends on your track, now don’t it? My track goes there before it goes anywhere else.” He stood upright and ran his finger along the back of his chair. “Why? You got a better offer? Something more direct?”
“Not yet,” Akshainie said, “but—”
“But you didn’t ask around about a relay. But you won’t find that, not with him abouts,” the man said, pointing at Benedict. “He’s a curse.”
“And you’re not afraid of curses?” Benedict asked. The man laughed.
“Boy, I been cursed for long enough. You can’t do no worse to me than the sea has.”
“I’ve heard that one before.”
“Aye, I’m sure you have, globetrotter that you are. You in, or are you getting the hell off my boat?”
“What’s this job?” The man shrugged.
“Nothing to bad for a pair of landlocked spirits like yourselves. Walk onto the island, find me a fur coat, and return it.”
“It isn’t just a fur coat, is it?” Akshainie asked. The man’s demeanor dropped.
“It is not. But it ain’t dangerous, not to you.” The pair looked at each other for a moment, then back to the man.
“We’ll accept,” Benedict said, “but we want to know what we’re walking into.”
“I suppose we got time to tell a tale or two on the way,” the man said, walking past them. He threw the door of the cabin open and yelled out to the crew that it was time to set sail, and the deck was suddenly alive with activity as men scurried to their posts and prepared the ship to move. The man turned back to the pair. “I don’t suppose either of you thought to bring rum?”
The problem wasn’t finding spirit vessels. In a hub of activity like Miami, there’s always some spirit or another ferrying something across the sea, for some price. There are so many that even humans with no sense for the magical occasionally stumble upon one, making some deal they don’t fully understand and suffering the consequences after their journey is over, if they’re lucky. Some ships were run by ghosts, others by spirits of wind or wave, still others by crews of assorted creatures. The taverns that housed spirits here were packed with crews of all sorts, wandering spirits who lost their homes to genocide getting into bar fights with the ghosts of pirates while naiads served mysterious liquors and water elementals watched.
The first hurdle to get over was finding a ship willing to go halfway around the world. Most of the activity in Miami centered on the Caribbean, going maybe as far as Panama or Brazil but never venturing out into the greater Atlantic. This shaved a good 70% of the available ships off their list, though Akshainie was willing to keep them in mind if needed. If they couldn’t find a ship to take them all the way, after all, it would have to be acceptable to take one as far as it would go and search for another when they got there. Best not to anger the locals, not least because they had not yet exhausted their usefulness.
The second hurdle was Benedict himself. Akshainie had an affinity for water, but she wasn’t a water spirit, not really. But even the human ghosts on these vessels had been so deeply connected to water for so long that they certainly seemed to be water spirits; and water spirits, it turns out, know a fire spirit at a glance. They had a variety of ways to say no. Some did so with insults in any number of languages, others expressed concern about his rage burning the ship, some noted that it was an ill omen to take a demon on the water (or, in one short-lived instance, that it was bad luck to take a woman. Akshainie left that captain with a permanent reminder that it was bad luck to anger a woman on land, as well), still others simply wouldn’t even talk to or about him. Akshainie tried to book passage without him, hoping to smuggle him along, but by the time that idea occurred to her it was too late. Everyone knew the naga was traveling with a demon, and no one was going to pretend ignorance even to steal her currency.
Benedict was considering resigning himself to taking the River Network when two pirates approached Akshainie. They were visibly uncomfortable with Benedict, but they had come with an offer from their captain. He was aware they were looking for passage, and who they were, but he was willing to talk. The catch was, he couldn’t come on land. If they wanted to talk, they had to do it on his boat. Akshainie accepted their offer and arranged a time to meet the pair at the dock to row out to the ship, but as soon as the pirates were gone Benedict expressed concerns. They had yet to meet anyone here they could actually trust, he noted, and now they were just walking right into something that could very easily be a trap. She smiled at that.
“Did you think we were practicing how to fight just to play nice all the time?” she asked. He sighed.
“That doesn’t mean we have to go looking for unnecessary fights.”
“Who said this is unnecessary, or a fight? We’re just seeing what his offer is. And, I would remind you, we have no other options on the table.” He didn’t really want to, but he accepted that answer, and they prepared to go meet this Captain Tidh Connelly. Of course, part of that preparation included getting what information they could on the man, and what they got was sporadic at best. The spirits of Miami were less interested in talking about Connelly than they had been about Benedict. From what little they could gather, Connelly was cursed in some way, and encountering him on the water usually spelled the end of that ship.
Benedict and Akshainie made sure they were in fighting shape before they met the pirates at the dock.
23 July 2006
On leaving the church service and discussing the role of the Roman Catholic Church on Benedict’s life, Akshainie insisted that he see a bit more of what she was fighting to protect. It only seemed natural, she argued, that he understand her as well as she was beginning to understand him. When he pointed out that he had already been to Iravati, and met some naga close to her, she reminded him that his view of the place was as something of a prisoner, and it was about time he get the chance to really know it. He agreed, on those terms, and they began to make their way south.
The idea was simple, really. Instead of traveling straight there, they would make a trip through some of the areas he had encountered the Brood of Nachash before, and they would take a look for any evidence of another hidden chamber or dread god like the one in Ohio. Once they reached the shore, they could seek passage to Iravati in a manner that wouldn’t force Benedict to get thrown through the River Network. Now that she understood his distaste for it, of course. It had seemed odd before that he would have a problem with water; now that she knew he was a being of fire, it all made sense. And, on the way, they had the opportunity to talk more. Benedict told her more of his story, she told him more of hers, and they took the occasional opportunity to spar and learn how to fight better together. The need to use these skills rarely came up. The Brood had either been properly eradicated in the areas they checked, or had become much better at hiding. The most hassle they ran into on the way, in fact, was when Benedict checked in with his superiors who were annoyed at the length of time it had been since his last message.
But now they were in Miami. They ran out of places with a known former Brood presence a couple states earlier, but by the time they hit the Georgia line they just kept going. Miami was the end of the line. They could go no further without a vessel of some sort, and it was the sort of place to have plenty of options. Benedict assumed they would take a plane, or some kind of mundane ship to get to Asia, but Akshainie reminded him that her identification was not entirely legal. They debated options for a couple hours, but in the end, she won out. They began looking for a spirit ship who would go as close to Iravati as possible. Finding one, however, proved harder than they expected.
It was, at first, a slight surprise to the ravens to realize how rarely anyone seemed to notice them. Sure, they made no overt attempts to be seen, but they somewhat expected humans to look around more, take in their environments more, bother to care about what was happening around them. They should have known better, and they very quickly did, but that first time warranted some excitable discussion between them.
The one made some sense, at least. He looked normal, if a bit large; but his companion had a distinct blue tint to her, flowing strips of faintly glowing color just barely perceptible among the black feathers. If nothing else, the idea that people could glance right past a bird with an otherworldly, shifting glow, and never seem to notice was a testament to something buried deep in the minds of mankind.
They were always together, just out of sight. On the night when a single woman first uttered the name of Hekate and a goddess was born, the ravens were there to greet her. When Father Josef Klappenger went scurrying down the side of Hörselberg hill clutching an infant, they were in a tree that he leaned on to catch his breath and resist the urge to look back. When Jackie Veracruz and John Matteson first stood on the fire escape of an apartment in Chicago, the ravens rested on a roof directly ahead of the humans, among a flock resting on its way south. When Father Benedict de Monte walked silently away from the fire outside of Southport, North Carolina, thinking himself the only living soul to know how the blaze began, the ravens were turning their attention to another form moving through the water.
That is not to say they were never seen. The annals of human history record them, sometimes in a manner that would reflect on the species as a whole, sometimes as a singular or dual part of the supernatural world. They were not the archetypes of ravens; whatever ensured that ravens would exist seemed to take little notice of them. But they were the Ravens, the mold by which much of human thought on ravens would be fashioned. As mankind found less and less reason to know every living thing observing them, the ancient witnesses drifted further into the background. Eventually, they were lost to even the most observant eyes, becoming little more than ambiance. The ravens did not seem to mind. They continued to watch, selecting their entertainment with no apparent system or guide that any human would be able to detect. It would be a long time before anything changed much for them. But change was coming, and they had known it for some time.
It was part of the long night in Norway. The ravens were preening when a cleft opened in the side of a mountain and three figures stumbled out into the snow. Benedict and Daniel were on either side of Matteson, his arms over their shoulders and his left eye bleeding. The black raven turned away. The other leaned over to him.
“It’s nearly time,” she whispered. Voices carry in this place, she knew, and it was not suitable for the humans, or near-humans, to hear her now. “Are you ready for this?” There was a long pause.
“Yes.” Benedict, Daniel, and Matteson passed under the ravens and managed to find the car they had left waiting. Benedict was urgently explaining the dangers Matteson faced with his wound exposed to this weather. Daniel was trying to offer comfort. Matteson didn't seem to hear either of them.
“You don’t seem ready,” she said as the car started and then drove away.
“I…I’ll be fine. It’s just hard.”
“We aren't trapped in this flow yet. We can go somewhere else for a while if you need.”
“No. It’s nearly time. We move forward.”
“You mean I move forward.”
“I'm with you a little while longer, yet.” As the car vanished into the long night, she sighed.
“To the next moment, then.” The birds took to the air, and then vanished.