The early days of the journey were rather slow for Laurence, Yun and Louisa. They spent a few hours learning to deal with the turbulence and then the rest of the time either sleeping or working on some edifice of their cultivation that they understood less of than they should have. It helped both Laurence and Louisa to have Yun around because, while he was working towards becoming an immortal Creator, he was naturally gifted in the process of Physical Ascension. The fact that he could instruct Louisa and converse with Laurence meant that their days were often filled with relaxed esoteric chatter.
Eventually, despite his boundless thirst for learning, Laurence began to tire in listening to Yun and Louisa talk about things that were far above what he understood of the subject. So when they began discussing ‘The Shift’ he would explore the ship they were passengers in.
The ship’s insides were as wonderful to Laurence as on the outside, filled with interesting design choices and shapes that were beautiful in their simplicity. He spent hours just walking round the ship and looking at all the idiosyncrasies that made Rosie’s Demise the airship that Jonas loved so much, but even that was not enough to keep his attention permanently. The rest of the time he spent just sitting on the skydeck of the ship, feeling the wind blow through his air as they soared over the desolate land below.
One day, around a week into the journey, Laurence was sitting on the skydeck when a young woman came up to sit next to him. They both stared out into the distance for half an hour before the woman finally broke the silence. “I love the streams. Each slipstream that the airships run on has a different scent and feeling as we ride them. Some are fast, some are slow, some are even turbulent to the point of being dangerous”. Her voice was rapturous as she spoke of the pathways of wind that the ship flew on. “I’ve seen you walking round the ship before, but I never expected you to sit on the skydeck and appreciate the wind like I do. I’m Dunwu, but most of the people in the ship call me Sleepy if they want to keep their face intact. What’s your name?”
“I’m Laurence. Why do you have two names? And why will you attack people if they use the first name you told me? I don’t understand”. Laurence cocked his head.
“It’s because my half-brother is captain of the vessel and he introduced me as Dunwu when I first got on the ship. I’ve always hated that name, but he still introduces me to people that way to annoy me”. She leant back, allowing the wind to properly run through her long black hair. “People started calling me Sleepy when I took on the role of engineer. There was so much to fix on here originally, but that’s why my brother was able to buy it so cheaply. For a good three months I had next to no sleep because there was so much to fix, it was basically scrap. I ended up looking like a grumpy monster with huge bags under my eyes”. She laughed into the wind then lay spread eagle on the floor. “It was worth it though, to get all of this flying in the sky”.
“It was. Everything I’ve seen since getting on the ship was really well maintained. If the ship was a wreck when you got it then I’m impressed. All the workmanship has been flawless. If you fixed up this entire ship in three months then you are a gifted mechanic”. Laurence smiled, looking at the tanned woman beside him. He had already realised that she would be a perfect vessel for spreading the Book of Creation. Since he met Damascus he had began thinking about how to spread his book. He knew that there were likely next to no practitioners of the Book left in Babel because if there were, people would not treat him as such a commodity. Every so often he would come across people like Jake or Trevor, or now Sleepy who he felt like deserved to learn from the book. He could not tell if they had good character but when they had potential to become a practitioner of the book he would get a strange feeling in his gut and a couple of days later there would be a book for them to learn from right beside his own.
“I never said that I fixed everything in three months. In fact I still don’t think this ship is anywhere near finished. It just took me three months to realise I was doing worse work when I was sleep deprived than when I was well rested. If I was smarter I would have realised that sooner”. Standing up, she began to stretch her legs, letting her long, loose trousers roll back down over her calves and bare feet. “If you want I could show you round the ship. I could tell you how things work”. She held out her hand. “But in return you have to tell me why you’re such an odd child”.
Laurence grasped the hand without a second thought. The knowledge of how this ship worked would be helpful to him, but he would have taken the tour anyway. Telling the woman about himself took no effort on his part, and he felt like he had no reason to hide things from her. She would find out the one thing he needed to be hidden from people because of her brother anyway. “Deal”.
“Well we may as well start with the skydeck, seeing as we are on it”. She swept her hand in front of her. “Welcome to the main access port of Rosie’s Demise. From this point on I will be conducting a detailed tour of the ship we are standing on”. They both laughed at Sleepy’s feigned seriousness. “I really like the skydeck, mainly because there is a set of Array Markers at key points round the floor that make the wind less powerful up here. It obviously can’t stop storms or tornadoes, but for things like the winds we make while we travel it quashes them”.
“What’s an array marker? And what’s a quash?” Interrupted Laurence. Reading the Book had given him an incredible vocabulary, especially in fields of creative learning; but it was not perfect.
“Quash is a word that means to suppress, or to flatten. As for an array marker, they are items that dictate a range or location for an array. There are markers all over the ship that correspond to a specific array in the engine room, but I’ll show you that later. You know about the entry hatch that we take to get out here, but you see this depression in the floor?” She pointed at an area about a meter away from where Laurence sat. He nodded after having a quick look. “That is the second array up here. The depression only occurs when it’s deactivated, but when it’s active you can step on it and it will swap your space with the space that is currently inhabiting the matching array point in the brig”.
“Can you activate it now?” Laurence’s eyes glittered as he thought about the concept of instant transpiration. He had tried to work out the concept of how a set of symbols that he repeated could pull an item into a special dimension but a key concept had avoided him. Giving his most winning smile he said, “I really want to know how this works”.
“Aren’t you a cute one,” said Sleepy. “Unfortunately I can’t. We literally cannot turn it on while the ship is in movement. If we did then you might end up inside a crate or something”. She frowned, “I’m not sure about the specifics because we’ve never tried it, but that could happen if we were moving quick enough.
“Either way, that’s basically everything up here. Do you want to see the bridge?”
“The bridge? Why do you have a river on a ship?”
Laurence and Sleepy spent the next few hours exploring the ins-and-outs of the ship. The more Laurence saw of the vessel, the more impressed he was. It was a marvellous feat of magic, the universal laws and craftsmanship were beyond anything Laurence had seen below Heaven tier in his book. It was full to the brim with array markers, many of which were for ideas that the boy had never come across before. He thought that he knew everything there was to know about any form of creation, but the more he learned the more he realised how wrong he was.
Over the time he spent with Sleepy he begun to feel pages turn within his mind, as if some of the concepts he had learned from within the Book of Creation were slowly being unlocked by the time he was spending looking at the ship. Before long the information settled and he reviewed it, noting that he had read through it, but for whatever reason his memories of it all had been locked away by some great seal. In the Book of Creation there were eighteen arrays, and a section on the fundamentals of array crafting. Of the eighteen, six were for combat and the other twelve were utility based. These eighteen arrays were useful beyond a doubt, and Laurence recognised that he would have been able to create the box he gave Jonas far more easily with them. By the time he and Sleepy had explored half the ship he had seen over a hundred utility arrays he had never come across, and only three he knew. He was happy there was so much to learn, but this was the first time Laurence had ever found the Book lacking.
When night fell the two were already firm friends. Sleepy was about to show Laurence the engine room when her brother caught up with them both.
“Dunwu, could you go to the bridge? Yannis smashed one of the markers when we encountered that patch of turbulence earlier. He fell right on it”.
“Again? I swear he breaks them on purpose. We lose at least one every trip because of him”. Sleepy muttered. “Well, he’s called Zoo for a reason. The man is clumsier than a damn elephant and he wonders why I reject the flowers he gets me every time we arrive at port. I’ll come up now. Do you want to wait for me, Laurence? I’ll only be half hour”.
“Nah, It’s okay,” said Laurence. “I need to catch up on my training for today, but I would love to see the engine tomorrow”. His eyes shone with a light of reverence. Sleepy could be very hard on herself, but she was good company and not engaged in things Laurence could not understand half the time. “I will call on you once I finish my morning studies, if that’s alright with you?”
“Sure, but I might not be awake”.
With that they parted ways. Sleepy moved off to the bridge with her brother, and Laurence returned to the room he was sharing with Yun and Louisa. He was almost knocked over by a shock wave when he opened the door, as Louisa sat on the floor and glowed with the light of mana flooding her skin and bones.
He watched on in shock while her body began shifting, changing so that the woman lost her features that made her noticeably one of the Vermilion clan. Her feathers and beak shifted into hair and a human face, ears grew and her wings became arms. At the end of the bizarre transformation there was a young woman left sitting on the floor with short blue hair, falcon-like eyes and pale skin. One would not describe her as beautiful, but rather striking or stunning. She stood up with bird-like grace and began laughing. “I succeeded!” She yelled. “I actually became a Saint of Physical Ascension. I can’t believe it”. She choked out as she began to cry. “I can’t believe it”.
Dancing round the room, the light footed woman yelled in joy at her new form. She lay down on Yun’s bed and beamed with happiness until she felt a creeping realisation that she was no longer covered by the feathers that kept her warm and covered her modesty. Her face turned beet-red and she quickly covered her body with the duvet Yun had been given.
“Can someone get me some clothes? I don’t have any”.
“I could find Sleepy, she might have some?” said Laurence, not really understanding why the woman was so frantic to cover herself. Both Laurence and Yun had seen her with no clothes on before, so he could not work out why it bothered her so much now.
“Who’s Sleepy, brother?” Said Yun.
“She’s the engineer of the ship, Jonas is her brother. I met her today and she gave me the full tour of the ship; it was really interesting”.
“The girl who looks like an exotic dancer? I’m not going to fit into any of her clothes, I’m proportioned all wrong for it”. She sighed and then grinned mischievously. Fluttering her eyelashes she said, “Yun, will you make some clothes for me? Don’t you think I deserve a prize?”
The wolf boy growled and looked at his brother, pleading for his help. “I could give you a couple of bolts of cloth if you would like. Blue or Green?” said Laurence, quickly pulling out two large rolls of low quality silk. Yun looked at Laurence then Louisa and sighed, grabbing the bolts of cloth and beginning work.
“So how does Physical Ascension even work? I can understand the process of the tower, tempering you with the mana of the tower until your body and spirit are eternal, and invulnerable to time and entropy. I have to know the books, strengthening you through knowledge and through skill. I don’t get how your path works at all,” said Laurence. “How did you change a ‘divine skill’ into a path to immortality?”
“It was difficult, but because divine animals take a step in the path every time they reach a stage of immortality my family worked out they might be able to copy those steps. First to change the form, then the pigment, third the spirit, and finally the memory”.
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“So how does that work? Does your soul take a shape like mine and Yun’s? Do you have to reach maximum understanding to keep going? Why those steps?” Laurence bubbled.
“Calm down, Laurence. My soul does take shape. It takes the shape of my current body, and is how I can shift into anything I want but never lose my form amongst those shifts. As for understanding, I originally thought it was about that. It turns out I was wrong though. Physical ascension is the ability to change everything about yourself, so to progress you need to learn control over your entire body”. Louisa stared at Yun for a moment while he began cutting out her clothing, a wily smile stretched across her face as she burrowed deeper into Yun’s duvet. “If you can gain control over your shape you take the first step, then the second step is gaining control over your cells to the point where you can change their colour to change the way the pigment in your skin or hair looks. If you achieve that then supposedly it is possible to change the cells so breathing through the mouth is unnecessary and eating just becomes standing in the sun for fifteen minutes.
“If you can get to the third stage, then you gain complete control over your spirit, or aura, and can change that as well. At that point you become the ultimate spy, undetectable through anything other than skill tests. Even that becomes useless at the fourth stage. At the fourth stage you can control the causal ties between you and another person as long as that person is not stronger than you spiritually. If Physical Ascension Immortals are considered the greatest spies, then Physical Ascendant Immortals are considered far and away the most insidious life invaders. They can come and go while you choose to let them in and forget they were ever there. You could be fighting them to the death one second and be their best friend the next. Truly, the only way to stop a Ascendant Immortal of my clan is to have a stronger spirit. I guess luckily for you the Ascension path that we take means that our strongest cannot compare to even a single Immortal from one of the Book clans. Whether it be for will or inner strength, your crucible is far more rigorous than ours”.
“That sounds incredible!” said Laurence, his eyes as wide as saucers. They continued to discuss the comparative nature of their chosen paths while Yun sewed, talking well into the night. As Yun finished sewing the beautiful dress that was more reminiscent of the sea than the sky, an array marker crackled into life and Jonas’ voice came out. The sound was as if he was in the room, so clear that all three of the room’s occupants turned to the door and expected to see him there.
“Attention all, this is the captain speaking,” he began. “Are you sure this is going to work, Sis? What do you mean they can still hear me? Oh! Yes. Umm, ignore that. Just announcing to the ship that we are about to be slipping out of the current stream and through free air for a few days. It should be fine, but there will be some turbulence while Sleepy shifts over from the gliding array to the propulsion array. Captain out”. Jonas paused for a second before continuing, “Glad that’s over. I don’t understand half the arrays you’ve installed on the ship, but they work well. They won’t do much good if a maelstrom snake shows up though. That’s the only thing I worry about in free air. If they are going to show up, it will be there”. There was another pause. “What do you mean I shouldn’t be continuing to hold the array marker? It doesn’t make sound unless… Oh shi-“.
Silence rolled over the ship as everyone processed what they had accidentally heard. Some worried, some cried, some even prayed to any god that would take them. Laurence laughed at the chance to come across the creature that put fear into the hearts of so many men. The night trembled on as the airship drove twenty-three men and women to their fates.
At around four the following afternoon, the ship ran into a cloud bank. Seemingly coming from nowhere the cloud quickly covered the entirety of the vessel, effectively blinding them. They drove their vessel for several hours through the fog until the meagre light that was coming through finally dimmed into nothing.
It was not unheard of for cloud banks like this to come into fruition quickly, but amongst the crew there was that nagging feeling that perhaps the cloud bank was a maelstrom snake trapping them and preparing to strike. It was said the snakes killed purely for fun and as a show of power to potential mates. This was just hearsay, as there were very few people who survived a maelstrom snake attack, but it did not stop everyone from spreading old wives tales about the kings of this sky.
Laurence ignored all of it once he began hearing contradictory statements, he just focused on what he could know – the arrays. From the moment he woke up to the moment he went to bed he studied the arrays on the ship, learning more and more. As he looked at each of the arrays he began to realise there were parts of their construction that linked seemingly unrelated arrays together.
He delved more into the study of arrays while looking at the Book of Creation and slowly came to the realisation that the eighteen arrays written inside were the foundations for making any modern array. Combining the basic array networks in different ways always gave a result, but it varied on the order Laurence placed the arrays and which he gave the most access to the battery. He realised that, depending on his upper limit on how many arrays that he used on a single item, there was possibly billions and billions of different arrays. Discovering this made him more excited than almost any other thing he had come across in his journey so far.
In the blink of an eye, three fog covered days went by, without Laurence’s notice. Normally he would be training or looking at something in his Book, but instead he studied, asked questions of Sleepy, and recorded his discoveries in the Absolution Codex. Finally, on the fourth day, he stopped analysing arrays. He had gained a thorough understanding of the most basic arrays and came to realise that for every single array possible there were at least eight variants depending on the battery used, multiplying the potential amount of arrays possible.
He was elated at the learning he had made during the time he had spent inside the engine of the ship, but when he finally left it he realised that he was the only person who felt that way. There was a sense of trepidation at the fact that they had been traveling for four days through this cloud and there was no end in sight. The navigation array told the crew that they were still going in the right direction but they could not see it. It also told them that they weren’t alone in the fog. It was getting closer every day, and no one knew what to make of it. There was a chance that it could just be another ship, but the chance was slim. Just in case, Sleepy had been situated within the engine, ready to add another battery to the propulsion array if they needed to get out at speed.
Jonas tried to lighten the mood with the occasional broadcast of what had been going on in the ship that day, but it was not helping as much as he might like. There was something out in the clouds with the crew, and they knew it was coming for them. The days ticked by and the little blip on the navigation panel continued to get closer. It was like whatever it was knew exactly how fast the ship was going and was flying just faster, so it would catch up, but not in any hurry. This lethargic stalking made the crew of sky pilots more and more erratic. They were not yet at each other’s throats, but the ship was split into three distinct factions. They either believed the captain made the right choice, the wrong choice, or that everyone was going to die and it was pointless to argue. The crew would often argue over it, but it was soon clear that less and less of them supported the captain.
On the eighth day the pilot saw their stalker for the first time. It was about a meter and a half wide, light blue and at least twenty meters long. He could not see it clearly but knew one thing without a doubt. This stalker was fast.
The nine men and women of the ‘kill it’ faction clamoured at the information they had been given by the pilot. At less than two meters in width meant that if one of the two cannon arrays on the ship hit the beast, then it would be torn in half. That was assuming the beast was either less powerful than a Saint or that they could hit it. There was a third concern that no one was voicing, that this beast did not fit the descriptions of the maelstrom snake. The dreaded ruler of the sky in this floor was well known to bring storms, lightning and high winds, not clouds and fog.
If no one knew what kind of creature it was, then there was no way for anyone to tell how the beast would react if they tried to shoot at it. If they failed to kill it then they could cause more harm to their lifeline than the creature originally would have. It was for that reason alone that the neutrals began to swing back around to joining the captain’s side. The neutrals belief that they were going to die did not mean they were suicidal, but rather that they had no faith that either of the options was the better course. They had sat on the fence since the day the navigators had first seen the beast, but now they had begun slowly shifting their support back to Jonas.
The only reason the division had even happened was because Yannis, the first mate of the ship, had directly opposed the choice. He had opposed Jonas’ choice so vehemently that he had formed the faction dedicated to killing the beast. People muttered about him having other motives to being such a dissident, but no one would ever directly say anything. He was a strong man, even if his battle scars had made him less than beautiful.
Jonas’ support swelled with the addition of the former neutrals and generally speaking the ship settled down, but there was still a level of distrust between the two groups. It was a miasma that filed the inside of the ship and made it as hard to function as the fog on the outside. Neither side would willingly back down, but the captain being on the larger side kept things civil.
All was well until two days after the neutrals joined Jonas. The creature had increased in its passes of the ship, still not touching it, but coming close several times. Each pass would rattle the airship and the crew inside, then they would feel nothing for the next few hours. It was like the creature was playing with the lives of the crew, and Yannis’ faction became both increasingly distressed and increasingly desperate. As the moon rose, and the sky darkened, dissent was truly in the air.
Laurence hit the deck. He had been sitting with Sleepy and chatting about craftsmanship when the fighting began. The mutiny had come out of nowhere, one moment people were chatting aimlessly while working within the ship, the next swords were drawn and fights were breaking out all around the bridge.
As the pilot fought a mutineer the ship rolled and bucked uncontrollably, twisting too and fro in the air currents when it switched between its three flight modes. The crew were tossed like ragdolls as Rosie writhed, but eventually the ship settled into a steady ascent.
The moment the ship began ascending Sleepy picked herself off the floor and quickly moved towards the heart of the ship. If she could get control of the engine then she could find out what the issue was. Quickly donning her jacket, she moved off to her target with Laurence in tow and saw the ship in disarray.
There was a flashing red light that blinked through the hallway as the two of them ran through the ship. It put an ominous tone to the sounds of shouting and metal hitting metal above the two of them, but they still had no idea what had caused the sounds. Normally the ship was quiet thanks to a sound dampening array that covered its body, mainly to block out the sound of the wind that whipped by outside the vessel. Today, however, it was alive with the sounds of shouting and crashes.
Sleepy’s bare feet slapping against the hardwood surface was the only constant or clear sound that the pair could hear as they ran. Both of them could tell something was wrong, but not knowing what just lead to the two of them being more cautious than reckless. Had they known about the situation in the bridge they would have likely run there instead of the engine.
“So why are we going to the Engine?” Said Laurence. He floated along beside Sleepy as she ran, easily keeping up with her while barely touching the floor. A small amount of force would allow Laurence to push ahead quickly and simply glide for a few seconds while keeping up with his friend.
“I can find out what’s wrong with the ship there and fix it. Most people don’t realise, or care enough to know that engine controls the arrays on the entire ship. In fact the ship itself is basically excess weight that the arrays in the engine have to deal with”. Sleepy would not tell anyone, but she was immensely proud of the engine of the vessel. It had been a complete mess when her brother had first got the ship, and only through painstaking effort over two years had she fixed all the arrays back to the way they were when the ship had been created.
Mere moments after they spoke, the two of them arrived at the engine. Laurence pushed open the door and saw the hundreds of brightly shining array batteries, many of them pulsing with use. Sleepy pushed three glass beads near the entrance and two screens formed from water flowed into being.
“What I’m doing,” She began, “is checking that the arrays are working by looking at the path of energy from all the batteries,” She pointed at the left screen, “and looking at the other screen to see if there is any physical da-“. She trailed off. On one of the images fluttering in the liquid screens was the bridge of the ship. It was cut to bits and covered with blood as the nine people within the vessel fought. There were bodies in the floor but it was impossible to tell whether they were alive or dead. The only thing that could be easily seen was that Jonas’ side was losing.
Laurence stood back and watched as Sleepy swung her fist through the screen. It simply split and reformed after her fist passed through it impotently, only adding to her frustration. She turned round and surveyed the room in front of her looking for something, anything, that could get her brother out of this mess he was in.
“I need to help him… I need to…” She muttered, more to herself than to anyone else. She ran around the room looking for anything at all that could save get brother from harm. “Laurence! You’re smart and… and I’m panicking. Please help me save my brother. Please. I need help”. Tears began to well up in her eyes as she saw another person from Jonas’ side cut down. It was now four versus two, with the majority of the crew stuck behind a barricaded door into the bridge.
Laurence frowned. He did not understand why Sleepy wanted to save her brother so much, but his father had often said always try to help your friends when they are in times of need. After a few more seconds he said, “Find out what Yannis wants and agree to it. If I can’t get to your brother in time that is going to be the only way of saving his life”.
“Okay,” Sleepy replied, “what are you going to do?”
“Deal with the problem by cutting out the rotten part”. With that Laurence turned and ran out of the room. He was in an odd predicament where he needed to run as fast as he could, but if he actually did that then he would slow himself down by making his footing far more unstable. Instead he performed that strange gliding skip that he had used to keep up with Sleepy. He would push off from the ground and propel himself forwards at high speeds, slowly slipping closer to the ground before pushing off again.
The moment Laurence left the room the intercom crackled to life on the ship. Sleepy’s voice flowed through the ship like sweet molasses as she said, “Yannis, this is Sleepy. Why are you fighting my brother?”
He paused a moment, letting one of his men smash into Jonas’ final ally. The man crumpled once his chin came into contact with the end of his enemy’s metal pole. It was now one versus three. He picked up the stone he had seen Jonas use earlier on in the day and spoke. “Dunwu,” He said, “I am tired of treating a clown like a leader. I am tired of stepping round him when something violent needs to be done. If we kill the creature out there then we are free to take your friend and his half-breed nanny wherever they want, but the man leading all of us is a failure. Fire at the beast”.
“Why would I fire at the creature? it’s not like I can fire from here”.
“Rubbish. I know you control all the arrays in the ship from your little room. Do it now or your brother dies”.
Sleepy saw Yannis’ cutlass swing towards her brother, slowly and purposefully. She scanned the other images on the screen but could not see Laurence. With less than a second to go before her brother died she grabbed the bead to fire the lightning cannon on the bow.
As the cannon swivelled and lined up it’s shot Laurence reached the final hallway. People instinctively moved out of the way of the door as he arrived because of the force he was running with. He summoned Jormugand, igniting the hammer, and slammed through the door as the first salvo fired off.
The blade continued to edge closer as the cannons rocked the ship, never wavering, continuing to approach Jonas’ neck. Even after the barricade behind the three standing members of the ‘kill it’ faction exploded, it continued its uninhibited path towards the death of the captain. It only stopped when it was forced upwards by Laurence. Disregarding everything else in the room, Laurence rolled through the debris, severed Zoo’s arm at the elbow and cleaved his hammer. The arc picked up all three men and the moment he has them in his control he just hammered them into the floor.
Yannis was in extreme pain, but the moment he heard Sleepy’s voice crackle over the intercom he focused his thoughts. “Target hit”. She said, a bitterness permeating her voice that was unmissable. The fog began to dissipate and the sky cleared. It was beautiful to be able to see the sun again. After everything that had happened, Yannis felt that he was right. He began to laugh. He had won.
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