Chapter 22 - Tide of Shadow

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"I have a tool that will help you," said Michael, reaching into his coat. "A gift from Grandmother Yatokya."

Jaylina looked into his hands while he unwrapped an old astrolabe, then gazed up at the alien sky. Back in their world, it would be the time of Gemini, and she would have recognized the patterns of that sky immediately. Her essence quieted while her eyes assimilated this new information and let it begin to arrange itself in her brain. Stars formed clusters, just like in her world. Clusters formed super-clusters. There were galaxies. She could tell immediately the physics of this strange universe played differently than her own by the movement of its matter and energy and their interaction with neighboring bodies. She saw patterns but none she had ever seen or imagined before.

All around them floated gigantic beings that looked like man-o'-wars with immense polyps spread like sails along their ridges. These fins caught the ether currents, propelling them along. Beneath each such creature trailed tentacles so long they extended beyond sight into the black. Ether condensed along the sides of their pulsating bodies and the shimmering fluids fell like waterfalls off their sides. Jaylina stared in awe. Any one of them was large enough to be its own island. A cold shiver through her heart told her what they were.

"Soul catchers," echoed Bellamy. Michael warily navigated between them.

"These stars don't move like the ones in our world," she announced.

"That's because they're made of souls," replied Bellamy.

"Souls? Each one of those lights is a soul?"

It was a reflexive question since Jaylina was beyond disbelieving anything she had seen since this journey began or anything she would ever see in the future. She answered her question even as she formed it. Souls, not hydrogen. The movement of these stars was too complex to be those of bodies held by gravity. These stars were mobile, and more unpredictable than those of her world. Sometimes they moved like water, others like gas, so fluid was the energy in this universe. The voids between stars were smaller here and they were interconnected by filaments, as if each star, and each galaxy of stars, like the jellyfish she had seen before, was reaching out to its neighbors to connect.

"More like each star is the nucleus of where souls come together," she said aloud. "They gravitate toward each other. Sustain each other. They move to tidal rhythms influenced by each individual, their passions and energy, their . . . their harmonies."

She calculated their motions and realized something was missing. Energy was missing. Mass was missing. Souls were missing. It was as if a great hand had reached out and torn out a piece of this universe.

Jaylina recalled something Michael had said earlier. "Souls from the same star are all from the same tribe?"

"Yes."

"Our souls from our star, all from one tribe. We're linked by our own energy." Something is wrong here, though. The patterns reveal that much is lacking, depleted. "This universe is draining its energy, losing its tribes. I don't understand."

"If you say so," Michael said. "I need a heading. Do you see a path to the Underworld?"

"I'm still not sure what I'm looking for. How will I know the path?"

Bellamy spoke. "The Shadow Queen steals what souls she can capture. Why she does it no one knows. It is said the paths to the Underworld all pass through an ancient citadel built before our universe ever existed. A floating citadel standing next to a City of Light."

"The Isle of the Dead." Jaylina calculated. If the Shadow Queen was conveying souls to the Underworld, and if souls truly had mass and energy, then perhaps she could see the pattern of these motions. She remembered an old story about the lights of the Milky Way galaxy being the campfires of the dead as they made their way to the Underworld. If souls were being taken there by force, she could perhaps find a path of energy moving against the grain of motion compared with the rest of this universe. Such a pattern should stand out with the right calculation.

She held out her hand, still looking into the sky. Michael placed the astrolabe in it. Jaylina held it up and peered through it. She frowned, and then her face turned white.

"What is it?" said Michael.

"They're here," she whisper-cried.

The minions of darkness came in waves, dashing against the airship, tearing its fragile sails and rocking it madly back and forth in their raging surge.

Michael fought them bravely, the Sword of the Sun a rail of flame in his hand, annihilating hundreds of shadows, leaving a wake of black vapor behind them as the ship rolled through the onslaught. In Otherworld, the shadows had corporal forms and like wild beasts they attacked.

Jaylina defended herself as best she could. She kicked away a shadow sniffing at her silver cord and pulled another off of Bellamy after it had knocked the boy's essence to the deck. Two of the beasts grabbed her arm in their jaws, and she cried out while a third went for her throat. She smacked it with the astrolabe. The force of the blow knocked it out of her hand and it slid across the deck. Her essence burned with taint.

She may be a ghost in this world, but they could still harm her, she concluded.

The ship careened under the sheer mass of the creatures, and with no one at the helm to guide her, she struck one of the floating island creatures. Jaylina watched as the jolt shot the astrolabe over the side.

"No!" she said and ran to the side of the airship. The astrolabe lay on the gray flesh of the soul catcher not far from the edge, just out of reach.

She heard Michael cry out in rage and turned to find him covered in Darkness. Shadows, shades, demons, and indescribable dark things dog-piled on him in a massive effort to extinguish his light. Jaylina saw that underneath it all, Michael's aura had begun to glow, and he radiated with impossible energy in reaction to this assault.

Michael's spiritual response to Darkness was kinetic in nature, she noted. A roar of sound filled Jaylina's ears.

Bellamy grabbed hold of one of the thick masts of the airship. "Hold on," she watched his lips say.

"Jaylina," Michael shouted over the din, "get away from me. Now!"

Jaylina turned to dive below deck, but it was too late.

A thunderous explosion of white light burned Jaylina's essence, and she winced at the physical pain. The power of Michael's light reaction lifted her off the deck and shot her through the ether. All around her shadows vaporized.

When she opened her eyes, she found herself on the edge of the catcher, holding on for dear life. She panicked.

Wait, I'm a ghost, she thought. And with a thought she gently lifted herself up. As she stood, she saw the airship reeling away, plumes of ozone streaming from it.

"Michael!"

She saw him holding on, trying to make his way back to the helm of the wounded ship, but if he could hear her, she could not tell. She could see Bellamy still holding the mast, his eyes wide, shouting something to Michael and pointing in her direction.

Below her, the ship sank into the misty darkness, a trail of black vapor billowing like smoke as the vessel listed, broken, to one side. Then it disappeared, taking Michael and Bellamy with it.

Jaylina, Astral Navigator to the Left Hand of Light, was marooned alone in Otherworld.

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