Darkness deeper than anyone aboard had ever seen surrounded the ship. Boke Kin had a hard time telling the sky from the water for a while as his eyes slowly adjusted. Meihi paced the deck pouting. Gradually stars became visible, but they were not bright or vibrant like the night sky everyone was expecting. In fact, the sailors started to become nervous and whisper amongst themselves. These were not the stars of the world they knew. â€œWhatâ€™s going on?â€ Kin asked no one in particular.
â€œWe must have sailed into the lands of the dead,â€ the captain responded quietly. He wasnâ€™t trying to hide the truth from his crew, it simply felt wrong to speak loudly on the seas of the underworld. Far behind near the horizon the city of Thorns was barely visible. Not knowing the stars of the dead to navigate by, the captain ordered that the ship change heading to follow the coastline.
â€œHey Meihi,â€ Kin asked the pacing, pouting, green-haired woman, â€œdoes the air... taste stale to you? I canâ€™t think of a better way to describe it.â€ She nodded. â€œIf this is the lands of death, how do we get back to the living?â€
â€œI have no idea,â€ she returned to her pout.
â€œLetâ€™s just get to Chiaroscuro,â€ the captain said. â€œWe have plenty of supplies to make the trip. We can figure out what to do when we get there.â€ To Kinâ€™s experienced socialite ear, the captain was perhaps even more unsettled than his crew. He simply wasnâ€™t showing it openly, to help stave off the loss of morale.
Kin decided to help in that endeavor. He walked to the bow and looked out over the black water of the underworld ocean. With one dramatic motion he ripped off the tattered gown to reveal his finely made noble robes underneath. Then he tossed the shredded dress one-handed off the side of the ship and raised his golden sword defiantly toward the darkness. That show of confidence from a being of demonstrated power did seem to inspire the crew. They got back to work more vigorously, turning toward the coastline.
Below the ship a spirit swam. Its mind twisted with plans of vengeance. Though it recognized the essence of those sailing above it, they were of no concern. â€œI will see the end of the gods,â€ it thought, â€œeven though they strike the life from me, I persist. If they feared me so then perhaps I have the power necessary to bring their own demise. Yes, I do have the power. All will see the downfall of the petty and cruel deities of the living world and despair...â€ It watched the tattered remains of a dress sink down past it. â€œBut for now, to darker depths. I must find allies far worse than the surface of death can afford.â€ The spirit swam down into the lightless depths, called by bleak hatred to those of similar intent.
All the available men went to the oars of the ship. The captain ordered rowing to speed travel, not wanting to count entirely on the winds of the dead. Wanting to spend as little time as possible away from living lands, the crew gladly set to work picking up speed. They rowed through the night and for as long as they could once the pale sun of the underworld had risen. Rotating shifts kept the ship moving at a considerable pace.
Two weeks passed. Dry and lifeless land passed by, populated by pale or sickly green spirits that took little notice of the passing ship. Boke Kin spent the day wandering the deck, feeling very out of place in a way those not enlightened to essence could understand. Meihi lay flopped down on her back on the top deck, staring at the washed-out gray sky. Each day had seemed grayer than the last during their journey. â€œSo bored...â€ she muttered. The mortal crew was beginning to look fairly wan despite having enough food and drink to maintain themselves. The dour underworld was having its effect.
Finally, a crewman high in the rigging called out, â€œChiaroscuro! I see the glass towers!â€ The captain called for a quickened pace and the crew obliged. Kin turned toward the bow and looked out. He saw the ashen underworld coastline give way to a massive city. At its center were tall towers of glass that looked drab in the gray light. Surrounding them was a sprawling city of adobe and glass houses sprinkled with sad looking palm trees. Past the city was dry savanna that no farmer could possibly scratch a living from.
â€œAt least itâ€™s a city, and land,â€ Kin commented, disappointed by the dull appearance of what he had always been told was a wondrous city. The ship pulled up to an open dock. An older looking man in black silk clothing talked with the captain. Before long they found an agreement and everyone disembarked. â€œI didnâ€™t see you give him any money to dock here,â€ Kin said.
â€œThatâ€™s because I gave him the ship in exchange for directions and allowing us to disembark,â€ the captain replied, â€œUnless we can find another passage into the land of the living out to sea, the boatâ€™s stuck here anyway.â€ He shrugged, â€œoh well. At least he told me how we can get back to the living side of things, follow me.â€
Everyone walked along with the captain, who lead them through the rough glass streets of the city. Hundreds of people, all presumably dead, passed by them as they made their way. Each was darker skinned than Kin, but they still had a look of being more pallid than they had been in life. Everything was in shades of black, gray and white. Occasionally a hint of red was visible as embellishment on noble looking clothing. The group walked across a good portion of the city before reaching a street where a line of guards stood watch.
â€œFwoosh crackle crackle snap fwoosh,â€ one of the dead guards said.
â€œWhat was that?â€ Kin asked.
â€œFiretongue,â€ the captain answered. â€œDonâ€™t worry, I understood.â€ He spoke with the guards for a while, most likely explaining their situation. The guards parted. â€œTheyâ€™ve agreed to let us through, because itâ€™s daytime. Weâ€™re to walk about twenty paces past them, and then turn around and walk back. That will lead us out of the underworld.â€ A general â€˜hurrahâ€™ came from the sailors. â€œLetâ€™s go.â€
And so the group walked past the dark-gray armored guards into what looked like a deserted portion of the city strewn with glass debris and populated mainly with shattered towers. They did as instructed, walking twenty steps past the guards. Then they came about and walked back toward them. Suddenly, as they walked, each person saw the guards fade from view. Kin and Meihi walked side by side, and at the same moment they felt vital life force in the air once again. The gray pallor of the sky gave way to vibrant blue. A dull white sun shone brilliant gold.
Scents of spices and smoked herbs filled the noses of all present, followed by the bittersweet smell of dates. After so long in the dead land, the sensations of life were somewhat overwhelming. Kin looked around in awe at the glittering crystalline towers of the city, the true Sunâ€™s light glinting off their many facets as he had heard. â€œWeâ€™re back!â€ a sailor cheered.
â€œHold it right there!â€ a voice commanded. The assembled sailors turned with Kin and Meihi. A pair of living guards, bearing the typical armor and weapons of the Realmâ€™s legions, stood just past a carved line of thick white salt in the road. â€œWait,â€ the other guard said to the first, â€œthey canâ€™t be hungry dead... the sun is up. And those two donâ€™t look dead at all.â€ He pointed toward Meihi and Kin. â€œOh right. No problem,â€ the first guard said with a nod, â€œsorry about that folks, been a bit jumpy with the Anathema business early today. Welcome to Chiaroscuro then. We ask that you do not throw stones while you are here.â€
â€œThank you,â€ Kin bowed. â€œThough tell me, what do you mean by Anathema business?â€
â€œOh, the Imperial garrison captured one this morning. Been hunting him for a while.â€
â€œI see,â€ Kin said, â€œweâ€™ll be on our way then.â€ He and the others walked into the living version of the city. The sailors made their way quickly toward the nearest tavern. Kin whispered to Meihi, â€œI doubt that can be coincidence. We need to save him.â€
She laughed and checked that all her daggers were accounted for. â€œYou think?â€