Burn the Graveyard

Talon scrambled out of the darkened hold. “This isn’t going to work.”

“Nope.” Matt spun more of the fuse from the spool he carried.

“We’re doomed to stay down here forever.”

“Pretty much.”

“Except when they catch us, they’re going to throw us down there.” Talon peered over the rail to the endless abyss.

“That’s what I reckon.”

“I wonder what it’s like, starving to death in a fall that never ends?”

Matt grunted, “Get to the next ship. We need to get this done before they throw Alathea over.”

“How do you know it’s not too late?”

“I don’t.” Matt wrinkled his nose and shook a fist to the darkness above. “Stupid sky with no sun!”

“You’re talking to the sky. The sky under the world. Beyond the edge of creation. Like, the anti-sky. Or the under-sky. Or something stupid like that. And you’re talking to it.”

“Are you going to get to the next boat on your own, or am I going to throw you?”

They moved from ship to ship, connected each one with a line of fuse. Matt took care to leave enough leeway so the shuddering vessels wouldn’t snap the line. On each boat, they gathered material around the fuse – sails, or old barrels, or discarded rags. Something that would keep a fire burning a little longer, until the deck-planking caught.

“Well, you think that’s enough?”

Talon poked the empty spool. “If not, we’re not going to get another chance.”

Matt nodded. “All right, then. Get to the other end. I’ll wait ten minutes and take care of my side.”

“I thought you couldn’t tell time without the sun?”

Matt glared at him.

Talon dashed off, flitting from one ship to the next.

Matt counted the time, his eyes on a boat far in the distant fog of the Graveyard. Boats kept clattering against each other. This entire time, they had seen no one. They were all there for Alathea’s trial.

And her useless god wouldn’t save her, of course.

She’d say some water-soaked thing like, “He already saved me.”

Matt spat.

Time’s up. He lit his end of the fuse and ran.

The sparks caught sail they had draped nearby. Soon the entire deck was aflame. The sparks followed the fuse to the next boat. And to the next.

Soon an entire line of boats burned. They shuddered into nearby ships, spreading the flames. The inferno grew.

Matt chuckled as he sped on his way. “Well, the Graveyard’s not going to make it past tonight, one way or another.”

So continues The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.

With No Sign to Save

They would have flung their torches and let the ship’s deck light around her as a pyre had Jaraeden not strode to her side.

The crowd, the residents of the Graveyard, shouted at her.

“Burn our homes?”

“False paladin!”

“Insane!”

Yet there were some in the crowd. The ones who had seen her light. They didn’t scream for her blood, but they didn’t protect her, either. They merely watched, morose.

Jaraeden held his arms up for silence. “Let her god save her if he can.” He prodded her toward the rail.

“You’re going to make me walk the plank?”

She felt rather than saw him nod.

The crowds on the decks booed and cheered and laughed and cried over their lost hope.

“I checked your calculations last night. You’re right; another few boats, and the buoyancy caused by the rising mists will be lost. It can only push up so much. But if you burn enough ships all at once, the force will push the remaining boats up like a cork.”

Jaraeden set is hands on her wrists as he marched her to the side of the ship. “You didn’t need your god to save us.”

“He’s the one who blessed me with the intellect to figure out your scrawling.”

“They’re screaming for your blood. They wanted a miracle.” He shoved her, gently, against the rail.

“My God doesn’t need miracles to save you. He just needs fire.”

The crowd’s screams grew.

Jaraeden muttered, “There isn’t enough buoyancy to keep you up once you go over.”

“Doesn’t matter. I don’t matter. God’ll raise up another.” She pressed her lips together to hide the quiver in her voice.

He will. He promised. He won’t leave the world without a light. I don’t matter.

She clenched her jaw.

Father, you created me. Brother, you cleansed me. Spirit, you claimed me. Keep those I leave behind.

“Why’d you tell me?”

“Because even if I die, I don’t want to see the rest of you die.”

“If you perform a sign, I might be able to save you from the crowd.”

“I told you, I can’t do signs. My God uses me, not the other way around.” She closed her eyes. Father, do as you will.

“Get up on the rail. If your god won’t save you, if you’re that worthless to him, I can’t help you.”

She tried not to listen.

The crowd cried out for her blood. Men spat at her.

Her hands took the rail, worn smooth with age. Her knees creaked a little as she climbed up on it, taking a line from the rigging to steady herself. She breathed. Another breath.

Fine.

Your will be done.

She dove face-first into the abyss below the Graveyard. She embraced whatever awaited below with one last bitter laugh.

Thus continues the Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.

A Choice of Truth or Salvation

Across the clatter of hulls ramming each other, the patter of feet on decks wafted through the night. So many bare feet, dirty toes, ragged boots, sandals worn smooth with time, they slipped across the distance between ships. They gathered around Jaraeden’s boat, watching, waiting.

They had heard the promise: a paladin whose god had not abandoned her.

Now came the test they awaited. Soon, they would leave. Soon they would go to a land where a great light shone in the sky. A place without the constant wetness. A fabled city.

Through the night, Alathea prayed. She read all of Jaraeden’s calculations, catching what he had missed. She planned. She prayed more. She itched for her Scriptures, but they were left back with the captain who had carried her here.

Were they safe back on that boat?

She didn’t matter, she reminded herself. Her God promised that if she died, another would rise up to take her place. It freed her to fail.

It chained her as well.

It didn’t matter. As long as the shard was returned to the glass princess.

She prayed for her kingdom, too. So many enemies… had the wars already started?

She absently ticked the boats off. Each model on Jaraeden’s table had a name. She memorized them. She prayed she had the pronunciations right.

These people were used to fakes. But enough had seen her God work through her. They thought she was like any other paladin. And that meant they would listen if she spoke their language.

But it would make her God seem like one of their fake gods.

But it would bring them all home.

If she didn’t speak their language, they wouldn’t listen. She’d fail. She’d be killed. They’d all still be marooned down here, including Matt and Talon. And the shard.

What was more important: To do the right thing by her God, or by these people?

Her mentor had told her once: The most difficult thing is not to decide between right and wrong. That decision is always easy. The hardest decision is to decide between right and right.

And what was most right here?

The door swung open. Jaraeden stepped in. He gestured to the door, both eyebrows up.

“Do you want to go home?” Alathea’s voice trembled. It always did when she lacked sleep. Of course she’d seem weak when she had to be strong. Why should she be surprised? She should have slept.

Jaraeden nodded.

“What do you value more: Truth or going home?” Stupid tremor.

Jaraeden shook his head. “If it takes us home, it is the truth.”

Fine then. The truth it is. She won’t demand the sacrifice. They’ll balk. What god would give anything without payment? And they’ll stay down here.

Alathea stepped out onto the misty deck. This deck stood clear; she and Jaraeden alone occupied its space. But people crowded the raised decks to either side, illuminated by countless torches. The surrounding ships likewise appeared crammed with many men and women. Whispers shot through them. Some took to their knees as Alathea appeared.

Jaraeden strode to the center of the deck and gestured to Alathea. He bowed at the waist and stepped away from her.

Well. Show time.

“People of the Graveyard, I didn’t know what I’d find when I came here.” Speak louder! How could they hear her? Stupid voice! Behave! “But my God has not abandoned me. He has not abandoned you, though you didn’t know it. I can tell you this: No payment will ever be enough to free you. He demands no sacrifice from you. He chose himself to become the sacrifice you needed.” She licked her lips.

The people glanced at each other. Whispers muttered through the assembly.

“She’s a fraud.”

“She can’t do it.”

“Her god’s useless!”

“If he won’t be paid, he’ll never help us. Forget it!”

She shouted over the clamor. “But if you would rise from this graveyard, you will burn these ships.” Yes. Burn your homes. For some of you, all you’ve ever known. “They weigh you down. Burn these ships, and you will return to the place you fell from. For you to go home, let the Graveyard burn.”

And so continues The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.

A Suitable Sacrifice

“Whatever sacrifice your god demands, you will have. We have the ark full of gold and powerful artifacts. You saw what we have. Your god does not care about the phase of the moon; else you would have not had light in the ark, since we have no moon. If your god demands blood, I have twenty-one fathers willing to sacrifice their lives so their children may know the sun. If your god demands children’s blood, I can procure newborn infants. Does he need a certain kind of plant? I’ve stockpiled large amounts of dried food. Whatever he demands, we will provide it.” Jaraeden smiled grimly and waited.

Alathea shook her head and paced his cabin, circling the table with the models of the ships. “Now you talk, and you talk nonsense.”

Jaraeden answered with a slow nod.

“My God demands nothing. You know that.”

He nodded again.

“And you know I don’t control him. He isn’t some petty little demon a paladin can boss around.”

Jaraeden shrugged.

“All these people.” She gestured out the large dark windows. “They’re all waiting now. You gave them hope. And I can share the true God with them, but I can’t promise them release from the Graveyard.”

“Then your god is useless to us all.” Jaraeden gestured. “You will be kept in my cabin tonight. Tell the guards whatever you want, and you shall have it. Pray. And tomorrow either your God saves us all, or you die.” He spun and exited the room.

Alathea breathed deeply as the stained wood door swung shut behind him. She clenched her hands; unclenched them.

Behind her, she heard a scratching at the window. The dark glass swung inward. A form tumbled into the room.

“Talon,” Alathea acknowledged.

“I thought he’d never go. All right, we got what we come for. We’ve got a little window before they notice me and Matt are gone. Let’s get back to the ship.”

“I can’t,” Alathea answered without turning from the door.

“What? They’re going to kill you. I’ve seen the way your god operates. He doesn’t care enough about you to lift all these people out.”

Alathea spun and snapped a hand back to slap him, but lowered it slowly instead. “He cares. More than you realize.”

“Sure. I’ve never seen evidence of it.” Talon shrugged. “Either way, you gotta go. Come on. Let’s get back to the ship. We gotta figure out how to use the shard to get out of here.”

“The shard won’t help us.” Alathea shook her head. “I assume you didn’t find anything else?”

“Nope. Secret compartment, right where you said to look. Jaraeden’s looting never found it. Shard was nestled in some fancy fabric. I don’t know what kind. Expensive. I’ll sell it for some amount back home. You did good. Your god tell you where to look?”

Alathea chuckled. “No. A librarian did. Listen, you and Matt get back to the boat. I’ll get us home.”

“By staying here?”

“Yeah.” Alathea sighed.

“Because your god told you how to get us all home?”

“Nope. Jaraeden did. He hasn’t put it all together yet, but I know how to get everyone home.” She smiled, and then dropped the smile. “It just means I have to lie to them. It just means I have to speak the language of the enemy of my God to save everyone.”

The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World rushes toward a conclusion… 

A Dance Before the Storm

They skittered across the graveyard, dashing from rocking boat to shuddering ship toward the beacons of burning hulls. They heard the rumors. In torn rags that once were clothes, the sailors that reached the edge of the world and beyond rushed for the chance to get home. Passengers and adventurers that had forgotten the feel of the sun stumbled toward the promise of light. They all sped toward the whisper: there was a god that reached beyond the edges of creation. There was a god who might yet save them.

If only they knew how to please him.

Alathea didn’t know. She didn’t care. She sat at a table on the deck of Jaraeden’s ship.

Jaraeden smirked in the light of the flames. He’d had another ship pushed adrift and lit. He raised an eyebrow and a bottle of wine.

Alathea consented.

Matt and Talon watched from the rail, their backs to the flames. Talon elbowed Matt. Matt scowled at Talon.

The crew that Jaraeden kept moved about their business.

Jaraeden snapped his fingers. A fiddler appeared and began a reel. The notes tripped along, sang of joy and abandon. The fiddler smiled as he bent into the music.

Jaraeden tapped his fingers to the beat against the wood of the table. He nodded along with a faint smile. The tall man stood and offered his hand to the paladin. Alathea stood and allowed her hand to be taken.

His soft but strong fingers gripped hers. He pulled her close with a faint smile. His knees bent in time to the music – five, six, seven, eight!

Jaraeden whirled her out. She flung her arm out at the end of the whirl. Jaraeden pulled her back. Spun her. His feet hit the deck in time.

Alathea laughed.

Someone took up a drumbeat. A pipe joined in.

The clatter of the graveyard dimmed as the music grew.

The crew leaped into the dance. Laughing, cheering, spinning, singing! The flickering flames lit flickering forms joined in triple time.

Jaraeden lifted Alathea off the ground in an easy toss. He caught her, leaned in on her. Smiled.

Alathea felt his muscles through the soft cloth shirt.

Off again, another spin, another run of staccato feet on wooden deck, another laughing twirl.

She caressed his face as he spun her in again.

A voice hailed them. The music stopped.

“You’ll not hide her form us, Jaraeden!” a great basso voice boomed.

Jaraeden removed Alathea’s hand from his face, kissed the palm lightly, and turned to stride to the rail. He presented himself in the fire’s light.

The basso voice boomed again: “We’ve heard! You have a paladin whose god didn’t abandon her! Send her here! We’ll be the first ones home!”

Jaraeden’s lips tightened. “We all go home. Her god reigns even here. Either her god brings us all home, or we’ll know we’ve found yet another fake.”

Alathea stumbled. Her lips parted. “What?”

Jaraden barked a laugh, unheedful of her sudden confusion. “But for now, celebrate with us. Tonight, we dance. Tomorrow, she takes us all home. Or she dies.”

Thus continues The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.

The Fateful Shard

Alathea recognized the marks of greatness that shone among the horde of treasures.

Half-covered among a deluge of gold coins, a harp with seven green strings and one red one. The Lyre of Serpent of Many Hands, won from its venomous grasp by Tarin, servant of the Lord. She reached her hand toward it. She ran a finger up one of the green wires, feeling it tingle and strain to sing.

Peeking out from under a clutch of opal eggs, a silver dish polished so well Alathea saw her reflection. But not her reflection; she was young there, wearing a simple tunic. She had scars on her wrists.

Alathea flung her head away. That’s what she was. The old was gone; the new had come.

They descended deeper into the treasured keep. Jaraeden followed her. He allowed her to linger.

Alathea spoke not a word, though her fingers stretched here and there toward this fabled treasure or that hallowed object. She cast not an eye on the gold, and she disdained the jewels. But those objects that carried stories attracted her like none other.

The Clockwork Hydra.

The Crossbow of Yellow Mist.

The Goblet of Endless Laughter.

She saw and catalogued them all in her heart. The cup she hefted. It felt as heavy as sorrow, but the inside glowed with mirth. She ran her fingers along the outside of the goblet, remembering those who had touched it before.

Finally, she whispered, “How do you not stay here all the time?”

Jaraeden shrugged. “The past does not matter if you have no future.”

Alathea sighed as she set the goblet down. “I’ve told you, I do not know my God’s plans for you. But if I can, I will help you and all the people trapped here escape.” She set her hand on his shoulder.

He offered a sad smile and gestured on.

Down into the deep hold of the ark. Down ladders into rooms ever more radiant in past glory. Past so many stories.

Bread that never molded but could never be eaten.

A staff that flowered with almond blossoms.

A throne for a child made of glowing white stone.

At last, Jaraeden indicated a pile of glass shards heaped up in a corner of a room. Alathea crouched before it. The golden light of her magical orb scattered in the pile.

She slipped on leather gloves from her pouch and sifted through, examining each, letting the light run through it, even smelling them.

Jaraeden watched with detached curiosity. He seated himself on a throne made of ancient leather.

“How many people are down here?” Alathea asked as she set aside a piece of pale green glass.

“Hard to say. The Graveyard circles all creation, and most go mad and fling themselves into the abyss before long. I know of at least three hundred who still survive, though.”

“How do you find food?”

“Ship’s stores. We are able to grow some food by starlight. Not much, but enough.”

Alathea shoved aside several shards too large for her purposes. “I saw a lot of calculations.”

“The Graveyard remains because here the water falling from above finally turns to mist and returns to creation. Here there’s a balance point; the water returning buoys up the Graveyard. But if we ever become too heavy for it…” Jaraeden shrugged. “That’s why I direct the burning of ships. If they serve no purpose, why should they weigh the rest of us down?”

Alathea nodded. “Well. We won’t weigh you down much longer. The shard I search for isn’t here. The Glass Princess shall remain incomplete. My home faces war.” She stood. “Our entire reason for coming here, for searching the Griffon out, is pointless. I’ve brought my people here for nothing.”

Thus continues The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.

The Wonder of the Ark

Alathea reached her hand to the rail. Her fingers hovered over the ancient wood. She breathed deeply of the earthy scent that seemed to emanate from the hull. Her fingers finally settled on the rough grain. She sighed. Looking up, she noted, “None of the other ships are crashing into this one.”

Jaraeden nodded, a contented smile on his face.

“Why not?”

He shrugged. “Respect?”

“This place is what I’m thinking, isn’t it?”

He repeated the shrugged with a slight nod.

“Wow.” She paced the deck, absorbing every sensation. “I want to just lay down and take it all in. This isn’t just history. I’ve been to so many of the places on my travels. I’ve stood where prophets stood. I’ve seen the hills they saw. But this!” She shook her head. She stopped. She looked at Jaraeden. “And you use it for a treasure depot.”

He raised a single finger and gestured with the other hand toward a closed hatch.

Alathea reached toward it and found it unfastened. She slid back the wood planking and peered into the darkness. “My sense of wonder doesn’t extend to things I can’t see, I’m afraid. Well, at least not things the Scriptures don’t tell me about.” She grinned.

Jaraeden gestured to her hands, his fingers popping open.

“Oh. I can’t just bring light on command. At least, I don’t control when it happens.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“Look, I’m not like other paladins. They can ‘order’ their gods around because their gods are fakes. They can be bribed and bought, and the price is always too high. My God? He can’t be bribed. He does what he wants. I can’t pay him to have my way, no matter the price. But he gives what he gives freely. On his time.”

Jaraeden rolled his eyes.

“I thought you knew my God?”

The tall man pursed his lips before answering, “I know that whoever your god is, he answers prayers even here, beyond the edges of creation. No other paladin has done what you did. And now I find your god is, well.” He didn’t finish his statement. “Any god worth the worship would be able to light our way.”

“And he can. He chooses not to.” Alathea shrugged. “He’s bigger than my head. And I like it that way. If I could understand the way he worked, he’d be a pretty lousy god.”

“Other paladins don’t seem to mind.”

“Well. I’m not content for mediocre gods.” Alathea crouched beside the yawning pit. “I can’t smell whatever used to be in here. It’s just oils and metal now, isn’t it?”

Jaraeden shrugged.

“All right. I’m going in. How far down is the drop?”

“About two paces.”

“Easy.” She slipped in and landed in a crouch, peering into the darkness. Her feet landed on sturdy wood planking. Her hands brushed the floor. “They walked here,” she murmured. She stood, extended her hands to either side. One step. Two steps. She counted off until she reached a wall – forty steps. Nothing on the floor here she could detect with her feet. Her fingers brushed no walls until she nearly ran into this one with her nose.

Jaraeden lowered himself down behind her, his feet making soft scuffing sounds on the wood.

“This is the quietest place in the entire graveyard,” Alathea said as she felt the wall before her. More of the same dried out, ancient wood.

She felt more than heard Jaraeden nod.

“You must like it.”

She felt the nod again.

“Most people just get used to the clatter. Not you, though. You’re sick of the noise.”

Again the nod.

“Would it be better if I was quiet?”

He didn’t answer.

Alathea huffed a small giggle. “Well, let’s see here. A door somewhere?” She traced the wall with her fingertips, pacing the darkness. At last she found an opening. “And no torches in here at all?”

“The place is reserved for the paladin whose god does not need torches.”

“Well, my God doesn’t need torches. Or treasure. I’m not him, tough. I’m just me, and I still need light.” Alathea reached out into the black. “And I don’t have the power to light the darkness. That’s his job.” She wrinkled her nose. She looked up.

She closed her eyes and prayed.

An spark swelled to an orb of yellow light.

She looked over her shoulder. “Oh. And my God answers prayer, too. But notice? No payment needed. He gives what he gives.”

“Then your God is a fool to get nothing from you.”

Alathea shrugged. “Either that, or he’s better than every fake out there. Now, you have a glass shard for me to inspect?”

Thus continues The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.