Covenant: an Abrahamic Fantasy

Pronouns
She/her
Covenant: an Abrahamic Fantasy

Preface


The stars wheel across the crystal dome of the Heavens, shining down on the flat disk of Earth. The sun and moon race through the aether overhead. This is the world of Covenant, the world created by the Almighty God out of the primordial waters, the world walked by the writers of the Holy Scriptures. It is the fifteenth century since the birth of Christ, but it is not our fifteenth century. Man does not walk the Earth alone; indeed, he shares it with multiple races both fantastic and bizarre. Here, angels, demons, and djinn are a fact of life, magic is commonplace, and miracles are mundane.

The ancients didn’t just believe in fantasy lands beyond the horizon; they lived in one.
 
the Professional Alchemist
Pronouns
She/her
Chapter 1: The Professional Alchemist

In 1492, Granada is the largest city in Europe. As the center of a trade network that spans the Mediterranean and North Africa, on the streets one can see Christians, Muslims, Jews, Berbers, Arabs, Spaniards, and even visiting merchants from Italy or Africa.

And those are only the humans.

Look here and you will see one of the Nephilim, the giants descended from fallen angels, a flock of sheep swirling around him like water parting around a rock. There you will see a line of djinni mounted on camels - each djinn is brightly-colored, with curved horns and flat, broad noses, floppy ears, and pads on the palms of their hands like a cat’s; at the head of the column is an Ifrit, a red-skinned Djinn with a halo of flames dancing above his head, looking down imperiously at the pedestrians. Skulking in alleyways you will see the ghouls who feed on the city’s refuse – grey-skinned, dog-headed creatures with cloven hooves, gaunt and cunning.

All of these people live in harmony, or at the very least in toleration, and for centuries Granada has been a place of art and science. Perhaps in another world the Christian kingdoms of Spain would have tried to reconquer Iberia from the Muslim states, but in this world the Emir of Granada’s best magicians and djinn mercenaries serve to hold them back, and so Grenada’s sun has not set, and the city remains a place of learning and innovation. Which brings us to our professional alchemist, or, to be more exact, her apprentice.

Every day the apprentice, Moishe ben David, is roused from his slumber by the call to prayer from the minaret of the Great Mosque of Granada atop the hill, but he does not mind it so much as he is actually rather grateful to be woken up at a regular time every day. The master alchemist likes her apprentice to be punctual.

On this particular day, in the room he rents above a rather nice tea shop at the foot of the hill, Moishe rises, washes himself, and puts on his prayer shawl and battered cap. His clothes smell of cleaning solutions and alchemical solvents. He ties on his apron and steps out into the street just as the sun is rising over Granada.

The ghouls that live beneath the city have vacated the streets in the predawn gloom, leaving the humans to go about their day. Aside from various citizens going about their labors, Moishe can see beggars taking up their usual places, shepherds driving their flocks to market, and the ever-ubiquitous packs of imps. One of the creatures, like a cross between a lizard and a monkey, looks up at him, a dead pigeon in its mouth, and scampers away.

Across the street, Rachael the handywoman is opening her shop and laying out her tools for the day. Moishe lets out a sigh and turns to set off down the street towards Sarai’s lab. He’s fairly sure Rachael’s father and brothers aren’t around, but he won’t take the change, as a mere apprentice doesn’t belong anywhere near a working professional like her.

So, Moishe heads to work for the day, taking care to step out of the way of a giant on the way to some errand, and stopping only briefly to drop some coins in a beggar’s hat.

“Hello again, Pedro,” he says. The one-legged beggar gathers up his crutches and smiles.

“Payday come again, Moishe? Such a generous lad.”

“Yes, though I’m afraid I might not have much to spare next month. Sarai says we’re going to start working on some big project.”

“All the beggars on this street know you well, Moishe, don’t bankrupt yourself on our account.”

Moishe has walked only a few doors down from Pedro’s usual spot when someone bumps into him.

“Excuse me,” he says.

“Not a problem,” she replies, “I’m Deborah.”

Then Moishe takes another look at her, and blushes. By her red skin, horns, and pointed tail she can only be a succubus – not an uncommon sight on the streets of Granada, or any other city for that matter, but an unusual one outside certain neighborhoods with less savory reputations than this one.

“I’m Moishe,” he says, falling into his courtesies by instinct, “I’m an apprentice alchemist-”

He shuts his mouth. It’s not that succubi are dangerous people, but they are impulsive and rather…flexible in their morals, and Moishe doesn’t want to give away too much information.

“How interesting. I’m a traveler, myself,” Deborah says, but Moishe is already pushing past her without a second glance.

“I really must be going, can’t be late for work!”

Moishe fusses with his clothes and carries on. As usual, Rabbi Eleazar is holding forth at the neighborhood well, no doubt expounding on some points of Jewish law with his students, while behind him, a golem of his own creation works at the pump by the well, sending water through the system of pipes which runs all through the neighborhood.

Moishe glances at the sun and notes with some regret that he doesn’t have enough time to stop and listen in – although he is not a proper student, Moishe always enjoys listening to the rabbi’s digressions on Jewish doctrine, and he especially likes the rabbi’s various hints about the mystic practices known as Kabbalah. If it wasn’t for his current path as a professional alchemist, perhaps he would have been drawn toward a career in mysticism, especially the “practical Kabbalah”, the so-called Jewish magics. Moishe still hopes that one day he can learn more.

Once again, Moishe hurries on, brooking no more interruptions as he makes for the home and laboratory of his teacher.

***

Sarai bat Binyamin is a professional alchemist who works out of an ancient two-story house in the Realejo, the Jewish Quarter of Granada, a place of narrow, winding streets. She is well respected by her community, all things considered, although she has had some arguments with the local rabbi over the utility of alchemy versus his own rabbinic magic. Alchemy has long been considered a respectable career for a woman – Miriam, the sister of Moses himself, was a great alchemist, after all – and Sarai provides many valuable services to the Jews of Granada, from medicines, healing tonics, and prescriptions, to cosmetic ointments and the occasional necessary potion for discrete young women. Sarai has an apprentice, and a laboratory that is typical of a professional alchemist, which is to say: messy.

Innumerable vials and flasks crowd the countertops, some stoppered and filled with fermenting liquid. Books and stacks of papers are arrayed in no particular system – her library is in another room, and the reading materials are simply for notes and occasional reference for some ongoing project. Crates and shelves of supplies are arranged wherever space can be found, and some have been turned into makeshift workstations. In one corner is a small furnace, for melting gold and other such soft metals. From the ceiling hand bundles of herbs, each bundle with a label dangling from it.

Sarai bat Binyamin is a short woman with curly hair, oft-restrained but never tamed. She has bright green eyes with lines around them, said to be the result of squinting at too many books by candlelight, and a quick smile. Her apprentice Moishe is an equally short, wholly unremarkable man, and if not for the stained apron he wears over his well-worn clothes he would never stand out from the crowd as an alchemists’ apprentice.

Today Sarai throws open the windows of her lab. It is always a good idea to work in a well-ventilated lab, and while Moishe has been heard to mutter that the building is already drafty enough, Sarai likes to work with the windows open so she can hear the sounds of the community as her people go about their day. Sarai looks down and sees her apprentice, threading through the crowd and pausing only to look wistfully at the crowd gathered about the rabbi.

She ties back her hair, then rushes downstairs and opens the door just as Moishe stands on the doorstep.

“You were almost late!” she says. He glances down and scuffs the dust from his shoes.

“Apologies, miss. It won’t happen again.”

She gives him a fierce grin and grabs an apron from a rack, tying it on.

“That’s a good lad. Now, leave the door open and get to work!”

The two of them pull on heavy leather gloves, and Sarai flips open a book. Moishe glances at a piece of slate hanging on the wall where Sarai usually writes her jobs.

“No orders today?”

“Not yet! I as up late finishing Nahum’s prescription, so there’s time to try out something big.”

Moishe looks on with interest as Sarai begins assembling some sort of device out of cloth and string, suspending an earthenware lamp in a sort of hammock below a canopy of silk.

An alchemist must at some times be a chemist, at others time a doctor, and, occasionally, it helps to be a bit of an engineer.

“What is this, miss?” Moishe asks, squatting down as Sarai places the device on the floor and lights the lantern. She holds her breath, willing the device to work.

“Did you speak with the rabbi today?” she asks.

“Afraid not, miss. He was by the pump golem, though.”

“He does love his golems,” Sarai muses, “But I’m afraid this little contraption is going to overshadow them a bit.”

Then, smoothly, steadily, the device rises from the ground. Teacher and student observe – Sarai wearing a look of triumph, Moishe one of awe – as it rapidly ascends, above their heads, past the rafters, bumping into the ceiling and hanging there like a strange lamp.

“Miss, what is this? Is this magic?” Moishe asks, astounded. He walks around the floor, peering at it from every angle to make sure that it truly has been lifted off the ground by an unseen force.

“This, my apprentice,” Sarai breathes, “Is a practical application of the tendency of heat to rise.” She pauses and rubs her chin. “Is that magic? A question for another time.”

She stands and places her hands on her hips, beaming as she watches the lantern-like device bob around above her head. Thoughts of Angels floating around the Earth are suppressed for their suggestion of pride.

“It is ingenious, of course,” Moishe says carefully, “But what purpose does it serve?”

Sarai looks at him, a fire growing in her eyes, her mind dancing with possibilities.

“Moishe, provide me with as much silk and wicker as you can find, and I will show you a sight that the world has never seen before!”
 
the Servant
Pronouns
She/her
Chapter 2: The Servant

For some time after that, the Realejo is abuzz with rumors of some great construction in the inner courtyard of Sarai bat Binyamin’s workshop. Every day Sarai has the honor of hosting some prominent member of the Jewish community, a merchant or elder craftsman, or even a gentile, a Muslim or Christian notable. Word quickly goes around of some kind of new alchemical device for which she seeks investment, which sets tongues to wagging. From beggars and ghouls, the word is passed ear to ear, until it reaches merchants and craftsmen, holy men and nobles, and by messages both mundane and magical it soon bounces all over Grenada.

Rumors begin to circulate of some sort of flying machine, but these are easily dismissed. There are already enough forms of magical flight, from broomsticks to flying carpets, that an alchemically-powered form of flight cannot be that much of a great curiosity.

And yet, the work continues. Wicker and silk and rope go in, and special diagrams for gears and pulleys go out, and Sarai and her apprentice continue to work at all hours of the day.

The curiosity lasts more than a week; indeed, it is a curiosity of a whole month. Crowds gather most days, attracting beggars and street merchants, and curious guards, and folk from outside the Realejo. Christian pilgrims and Muslim merchants, Djinn and a few curious succubi skulking around the edge of a crowd, drawn to the scent of a party.

Whenever Sarai or her apprentice produce themselves, they are bombarded with questions, to which Sarai responds with firm dismissals.

“It’s not ready yet,” she announces, hands on her hips, and the firm tone she takes brooks no further questions…until the next day, that is. Moishe, for his part, is more easily flustered by the crowds, and flees whenever questioned. He takes to sleeping in Sarai’s spare room, the one usually used for storing bottles and jars.

Curious magicians attempt to use methods of magical flight – ranging from a party of men on a flying carpet to one woman who transforms herself into a bird – to see into the inner courtyard, but a great awning has been spread over the construction, and the city guard eventually puts up a few flying Djinn to make sure there are no unauthorized gatherings in Grenada’s airspace. Other magicians’ attempts to scry on the inner workings of the alchemists’ lab are foiled – Sarai has spared no expense in warding off her laboratory.

So, the crowds continue to gather, and speculation on the streets and inns of Grenada intensify.

And then, one day, Sarai announces that she is looking to bind a djinn.

***

The djinn are a people of laws and order. Like humans, they eat, reproduce, and die (though they are extremely long-lived), and they are organized into tribes and kingdoms. However, djinn are stronger than humans and are capable of flight, shapeshifting, and a variety of other natural magics. Their only weakness is iron, which dampens their abilities, and has often been used by magicians to enslave them.

Since djinn may travel anywhere as they will, their kingdoms are not ones of territory but of communities who swear fealty to one of the Seven Djinn Kings. Djinn will come when called by their true names, and the Djinn Kings know the names of all their subjects. Some magicians, by inscribing the name of a djinn on a talisman or ring, can use that object to summon the djinn to their aid.

For since the dawn of civilization, human magicians have sought to bind djinn to their will and obtain access to their vast powers; King Solomon of Israel succeeded in enslaving many djinn, whose descendants became the marids, but the easiest way for more standard magicians is to petition one of the Djinn Kings to lend out the services of one of their subjects. Such contracts are easy for djinn to make; since their lifespans are greater than those of humans, they are willing to serve humans for a few years or even a human lifespan, and some djinn have become bound to entire family lines, with the understanding that one day their services will revert to their king.

When Sarai seeks assistance binding a djinn to her service, her associates in Granada’s magical community grant her a favor, in acknowledgement of their years of correspondence and mutual assistance. A Muslim magician working for the Emir copies a few pages of the relevant texts and sends them to her via djinn courier, and she and Moishe prepare to summon a djinn of their own.

“So, which Djinn King are we calling on?” Moishe asks as Sarai draws up the summoning circle. It is very late at night on a Tuesday, almost midnight, and Moishe is already tired from working on Sarai’s great project.

“Barqan. Each Djinn King rules a different day of the week, and his is Wednesday,” Sarai replies as she finishes the circle and steps inside it, “The Moon is in Virgo, and Mercury is auspicious tonight.”

Such resonances, astrological, calendrical, and numerological, are of course the bread and butter of magic.

“And we don’t need him for the journey?” Moishe asks. Sarai grabs him and pulls him into the circle.

“No, but he finds humans…curious, and may look in favor on our venture. It is one of travel, after all. We only need the name of one of his servants.”

Sarai looks at the pages and frowns.

“What’s wrong?” Moishe asks, peering over her shoulder.

“This isn’t the name,” she says, shaking the pages, “What is this? Some kind of a trick?”

Moishe chews on his lip and reads over Sarai’s shoulder.

“It says here that we need to decode it from the name Barqan…what are these numbers?”

Sarai pauses and narrows her eyes at Moishe.

“Alright, my apprentice, let’s see if you know your Arabic numerology.”

She hands Moishe the spell, and he begins to do the math in his head.

“Let’s see, in Arabic numerology the name Barqan comes out to 354, which means…and the missing value to this formula must be Mercury’s number…”

When the clock ticks over into midnight, Moishe begins to recite the incantation at the top of the page, and upon reaching the bottom, he speaks the true name of the Djinn King of Wednesday.

There is a pop of displaced air. To the surprise of the two alchemists, Barqan himself is not standing there. Instead, a jinniyah – a djinn woman – is standing outside the circle. Her skin is spotted like a leopard’s, her hair black and bound up with iron pins. She is wearing a long silk gown fringed with gold and sewn with carbuncles. She would look like any attractive human woman, save for the floppy ears like a dog’s or a donkey’s, the flat nose like a bull’s, the horns growing from her head, and the hands like cat paws.

For a moment, there is a pause. Moishe glances at the spell.

“Did I forget to carry something?” he asks. Sarai crosses her arms.

“You’re not King Barqan,” the alchemist points out.

“And you’re not someone I know,” the jinniyah says coolly, “But you were close to the mark. My name is Hurmiz, servant to the great Djinn King of Wednesday…who is busy at the moment, so I am here to take a message for him.”

“So, I got it right?” Moishe says, brightening up suddenly. Hurmiz chuckles.

“I suppose so, alchemist.”

“I’m sorry, King Barqan is busy?” Sarai asks, a little peeved at the spell not exactly working as advertised. Hurmiz spreads her arms.

“The King of Wednesday likes to travel among you humans, to learn and…sometimes to test you. He does find you to be such a fascinating race.”

She laughs to herself. The djinn, it must be said, were created before humans, and in some ways will never stop seeing them as their annoying younger siblings. Condescension is, on the balance, one of the better ways the djinn express this view.

“Well, if it’s all the same to you, we called on your king to humbly request the aid of one of your fellow servants,” Sarai says, beginning to find herself and remember her diplomatic courtesies. Hurmiz nods and clasps her hands.

“And what do you need? Control of the weather? Knowledge of tongues? Someone to make charms?”

“We need someone to power our ship,” Sarai states flatly. The jinniyah’s eyes twinkle.

“A ship? What kind of ship?”

“One that can fly.”

“You’re joking.”

Moishe shrugs.

“I’m afraid she’s not,” he says, “Or at least, it’s supposed to fly. We haven’t, um, tested it yet.”

Hurmiz laughs to herself.

“How rich, alchemist! And how will this djinn servant of yours help? Do you want him to carry your ship on his shoulders?”

Sarai narrows her eyes.

“The ship flies on its own,” she snaps, “What we need the djinn for is to pedal it. I have…ugh, Moishe, the plans?”

“On the table to your left,” he says to the jinniyah. She leans over curiously and inspects the schematics as Sarai explains from within the circle.

“Those pedals turn gears, which turn the propeller, which pushes the ship through the air. The problem is, no human has the strength or endurance to power the ship. A djinn, on the other hand...”

Hurmiz’s eyes twinkle as she takes in the plan and begins to understand.

“Yes, I see! A marvelous invention, alchemist! Yes, I think King Barqan will approve…I think he would be very interested in seeing what sort of travels this contraption takes you on…assuming it will work.”

Sarai smiles triumphantly.

“Indeed? In that case, how long until the djinn can enter our service? The ship isn’t quite ready, but once it is…”

Hurmiz reaches into her sleeve and produces an iron ring.

“Right now. This djinn will serve you…until the end of your maiden voyage. Where are you going, by the way?”

She tosses the ring to Sarai, who catches it and looks at it in surprise. It is a simple band of iron, set with a carbuncle, inscribed with a short name.

“To…to the Kingdom of Prester John.”

“All the way to Ind! Marvelous. In that case, we’ll make it until your return. Wouldn’t want you to be stranded so far from home, after all. Until then, the contract is sealed.”

As Sarai continues to look at the ring, Hurmiz waves her fingers at Moishe, winks, and vanishes with a popping sound.

“So…what does it say?” Moishe asks, after a few moments have passed and he has deemed it safe to leave the summoning circle.

“Shabbar,” Sarai reads from the inscription on the band.

With another popping sound, another djinn appears in the laboratory with them. This one is a male, dressed in flowing silks, with a turban wrapped around his head. He has purple skin, and his horns are cut short and capped with iron. More iron bands encircle his wrists and ankles, and while his head is shaved, he has a brilliantly waxed moustache. He has gold rings in his floppy ears and another in his nose.

“You have summoned me! Tell me, what is thy bidding, my master?” Shabbar asks. It is the standard introduction for new djinn hires.

Sarai slips the ring onto her finger and straightens up.

“Shabbar, my name is Sarai bat Binyamin. I’m a professional alchemist. This is my apprentice, Moishe.”

“Hello,” Moishe says, waving. Shabbar looks at them both impassively, arms crossed over his broad chest.

“We are preparing for a great journey to the Kingdom of Prester John,” Sarai continues, “And we have obtained your assistance out of need of your great strength and endurance.”

Shabbar snorts.

“I have traveled far and wide across the Earth. What is new about this particular journey?”

Sarai smiles to herself, as if she is having a private joke.

“We are going to travel through the air.”
 
the Guide
Pronouns
She/her
Chapter 3: The Guide

Shabbar soon proves to be a stolid and tireless worker. With his help, construction on the flying ship progress speedily, although the djnn is not much one for words and mostly keeps to himself. Moishe does learn that Shabbar is a practicing Muslim; five times a day, he must stop to pray towards Mecca.

“And you don’t mind working for a Jew?” Sarai asks one day as they are working on the ship. Shabbar shrugs his broad shoulders.

“For some djinn, it is certainly helpful to be the same religion as your master. I understand that some of the Djinn Kings keep Christians on retainer for such an event. But for others, it is no great matter.”

Sarai winces.

“Please, don’t call me ‘master’. You’re not a slave.”

“No, indeed,” Shabbar replies, his moustache twitching as he smiles, “But I am bound to your service…Miss Sarai.”

“And you don’t mind working for humans at all?” Moishe asks.

“I work for you for a few weeks, a few moon’s turns. I work for others their entire lives. Eventually, my time bound to them always ends.”

“Except for your king,” Sarai points out.

“Except for my King Barqan, yes,” Shabbar admits, “Although even then, one day I may die, and pass from his service. Only to Allah, Glorious and Exalted is He, does my service never end.”

Such are Shabbar’s thoughts on entering the alchemist’s service.

One day, as construction on the ship draws to a close and the crowds grow ever curious, Moishe takes a break from testing the furnace of the ship and goes into the laboratory’s small kitchen to find a drink. He is rather shocked, then, to find a stranger already rifling through the stores.

“Ah, the apprentice alchemist, we meet again!”

The intruder has olive skin and short black hair, like any other Mediterranean, but the wings, tail, and horns mark him out as an incubus. Moishe is rather taken aback by the straightforward way he is addressed, and stares for a moment as the incubus helps himself to some dates.

“Wait…you met me on the street! Isn’t your name, um, Devorah?”

“Yeah?”

“Well, I was just expecting…”

Moishe trails off as the incubus glances down at himself and sighs.

There are many misconceptions regarding the topic of succubi. Despite popular belief, a succubus is not a demon, but a type of human. Descended as they are from Lilith, the first woman and Adam’s first wife, they cannot be demons, which are themselves fallen angels. There is some small amount of angelic blood in them, but that’s not important right now.

Succubi, then, are a fantastic tribe of humans, rather like the Nephilim or the Headless Men of Ind. Their culture is one of freedom, independence, and sensation. In fact, it must be said that succubi are a tribe of fierce individualists, and getting them to work together is like herding cats. Succubi are bad at long-term planning or organization, and prefer to insert themselves into human societies as artists, entertainers, or attendants of the rich and powerful.

There is a popular belief that “succubus” is the female of the tribe and “incubus” is the male, but in fact succubus is the neutral term, and in some ways is the default – but all succubi are capable of shapeshifting, and many find that changing their gender is as easy as changing clothes, and so “incubus” merely refers to a succubus when in male form (though it must be said that some succubi prefer one gender and some another – succubi are, as mentioned, highly individualist).

And so, you must forgive the confusion on Moishe’s part.

“Right, I forgot you humans get hung up about that. Yeah, I’m Devorah. You can call me something else if it helps.”

“…Barak?”

The incubus stares at him, evidently not getting the reference.

“How about ‘Dev’,” the incubus says dryly.

With introductions properly made, Moishe seems to catch his footing.

“Hello, Dev. What…exactly are you doing in our laboratory?”

Dev chuckles and sets aside the bowl of dates.

“I was curious, so I thought I’d take a look at this curiosity that’s got half the city outside your house.”

Moishe bristles.

“You broke in?”

Dev raises his hands.

“Easy, apprentice alchemist, I meant no harm. You understand, I just couldn’t stand the suspense anymore!”

“Moishe, who are you talking to? I need-”

Sarai enters the room behind Moishe, Shabbar close behind her, and the alchemist stops short when she sees the intruder.

“Shabbar!” she snaps. The djinn pushes his way between Moishe and the incubus, cracking his knuckles.

“Shall I remove this thief, Miss Sarai?” he growls. Dev raises his hands and spreads his wings.

“Wait! I have a proposition for you!”

Sarai narrows her eyes in suspicion, but she does put her hand on Shabbar’s wrist to stay him.

“You’re not a spy, are you? You’re not trying to steal my plans for the ship?”

“Oh, not at all my lady! I swear on Grandmother Lilith!”

“I know, uh, him, as it happens,” Moishe says, “Or at least, we met on the street a few weeks back, well-”

Before he can continue, Dev cuts in. He strikes a bow, giving Sarai a jaunty grin.

“What my friend Moishe here is saying is that I am Devorah the traveler…sometimes known as Dev. I am a succubus of great accomplishments! I am well-traveled, and being an individual who has experienced the world, seen its people and dangers and various lands up close, I thought an individual like yourself, who is…clearly an alchemist of great skill, could use the knowledge I have obtained in my many years of travel.”

Sarai shows no sign of being impressed by the speech.

“…So why did you break in to my laboratory?”

“I’m here to offer you my service as a guide,” Dev tells her flatly. Now, Sarai’s reaction is to smile.

“I can still remove him if you require, Miss Sarai,” Jabbar mutters, but Sarai waves him off.

“No, I still have some questions. What makes you think I have need of a guide?”

Dev waves his hand.

“Well, I don’t know what kind of magic you intend to cast on it, but I know that ship in your courtyard when I see it. What, does it run on some sort of alchemical fuel? What good is it going to do so far from the ocean, anyway?”

Sarai crosses her arms.

“You’re certainly clever, I’ll give you that. The ship flies through the air.”

“You’re pulling my leg,” Dev replies. Moishe gives the incubus a beleaguered look.

“Well, we haven’t tested it yet, but theoretically-”

“It’s supposed to fly,” Sarai snaps. She taps her foot impatiently. Finally, she sighs in resignation. “We could use a guide…”

Dev brightens up, and steps froward, hand extended, but Shabbar keeps himself planted firmly between Sarai and the incubus, and Dev instead checks his step and smoothly brushes his hair back.

“Ha! That’s great to hear!” he chuckles, “Where are you going, anyway?”

“The Kingdom of Prester John,” Moishe says. Dev rubs his chin thoughtfully.

“Really? Wow, I haven’t been there in…oh, a couple decades. Say, this’ll be a short trip, won’t it? Way shorter than the usual methods.”

“That’s right. And unlike flying carpets, my ship can carry an actual cargo. If we succeed, princes and merchants will be lining up to get a trade route to Asia that bypasses land and sea alike.”

Dev nods knowingly.

“Ever since the Ottomans took Constantinople, everyone’s been looking for a way around them to the Indies. I heard there’s some Genoese scam artist trying to convince the Emir that the Earth is round, and that he can sail west to Ind, if you can believe it. His name is…Colum…Columbo? I don’t recall.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Moishe says, “Everyone knows the Earth is flat.”

He is of course correct; explorers have traveled beyond Russia to the uttermost north, where tribes of fur-clad giants battle with the griffons that make their nests in the Encircling Mountains, and in ascending those peaks have discovered the point where the great dome of the Firmament meets the Earth. But that’s not important right now.

“In any case, I’ve never been myself,” Sarai admits, “And while Shabbar has…”

“We djinn prefer more direct methods.”

He finally steps to the side, confident that the incubus is no longer a threat to the alchemist. Dev steps forward, throwing his arm around Moishe’s shoulders and grinning.

“Then I will be your guide! Come with me, my good alchemist – and apprentice – and djinn…bodyguard…fellow – and I will show you what the world has to offer! To the Kingdom of Prester John, on the good ship…say, does ship of yours have a name?”

“I was thinking of calling it the Aliyah,” Sarai replies.

“The good ship Aliyah! The first of its kind!”

And so, the number of the crew is raised to four.
 
the Rabbi
Pronouns
She/her
Chapter 4: The Rabbi

Rabbi Eleazar is a stooped man, frail-looking and grey, with frizzy hair that has thinned greatly over the years. However, she still maintains sharp, deep-set eyes that glint from beneath bushy white eyebrows.

Moishe, for his part, still looks much the same as any man on the street. At least the rabbi lives humbly – simple robes, a living room crowded with shelves of dusty books and scrolls, a few useful implements strewn around on tables and so on. Moshe carefully eats the flatbread the rabbi has provided for him.

“So, Moishe,” Rabbi Eleazar says, “How are you feeling about this journey?”

Moishe coughs, spraying crumbs.

“How did you know about the journey?” he gasps, reaching for his cup. The rabbi chuckles.

“I had a dream about it,” he replies cryptically.

“Really?”

Rabbi Eleazar shrugs.

“Many figures in the holy scriptures, of all background, receive special knowledge through their dreams. They come from Hashem.”

“Why would Hashem want you to know I am leaving on a journey?”

The rabbi’s eyes sparkle.

“Why indeed? But still, tell me, how do you feel?”

Moishe pauses to collect his thoughts.

“I am trying to put a good face on things. There are many risks, so many dangers on the road, but when I brought them up with Miss Sarai, she just said they would each have to be accounted for.”

The rabbi nods sagely.

“Sarai was always confident in her art. Always thinking she could handle anything life threw at her. Such a typical mindset for an alchemist to have.”

“Well, she’s a very smart alchemist,” Moishe says. Even here, in the rabbi’s home, he cannot help but speak up a little bit for his teacher. Rabbi Eleazar wags his finger.

“Intelligence is no excuse for pride, Moishe. I can do many amazing things as well, but I still pray and show my devotion to Hashem.”

Moishe chews his flatbread and thinks on that. Eventually, he decides to tell the rabbi everything: about the Aliyah, the Kingdom of Prester John, even Shabbar and the succubus that have joined them. The rabbi nods as he takes it all in, showing nothing.

“So, Sarai thinks she can go to Ind in a flying ship,” he says, “Nothing wrong there! It would be quite a thing to see happen, I must say. As much as I admonish Sarai, I will concede that if anyone can make a contraption like that work, it would be her.”

“But the dangers…” Moishe begins. He can’t help but worry, especially considering he is being dragged along on the journey. The rabbi spreads his gnarled hands.

“So pray! And if that doesn’t work…” He reaches down next to his chair and pulls something up from a stack of long, thin packages. “Pray harder.”

He hands it to Moishe, who looks at it skeptically. It is a long, slender wooden tube. Moishe takes the cap off and slides out its contents gingerly – a long, gnarled wooden staff, four feet long and slightly crooked. It looks like a staff a shepherd might use, crossed with a well-worn walking stick.

“A walking stick. You know, we won’t be doing much of that. Hopefully,” Moishe says. The rabbi chuckles, then speaks a word in Hebrew.

Before Moishe can blink, he is holding a live cobra, which hisses and coils around his arm once, its head resting on the palm of his hand. Moishe can only just restrain himself from jumping out of his chair, instead holding the snake away from him at arm’s length and shifting as far away from it in his seat as possible. The rabbi watches, slightly bemused, before saying the word again. Before Moishe can blink, he is holding a staff again.

“What…was that?” Moishe asks, his heart pounding. He tenderly holds the staff in his hands, looking for a place to set it down, his eyes drifting back to the staff as if afraid it will turn back into a serpent. The rabbi leans over and puts a gnarled hand over Moishe’s keeping his grip on the staff firm.

“It is a holy man’s staff, Moishe my son. You should read your Torah more often.”

“You don’t mean…like Moses’ staff? Is this Moses’ staff?” he asks, suddenly holding the staff even more carefully. Rabbi Eleazar scoffs.

“No, not that old thing. I made this one, when I was a few decades younger. As I said, I can do many such things.”

“How?” Moishe asks. Suddenly each humble book on Rabbi Eleazar’s shelf seems like it could be an ancient tome of wisdom, every scroll like it could have been recovered from an ancient cave. The rabbi smiles and leans back in his chair.

“Moishe, do you know what Kabbalah is?”

“Jewish magic, right? The secret names of Hashem?”

Rabbi Eleazar’s eyes glint.

“What we call Kabbalah has several aspects. There is the contemplative Kabbalah, the mystic practices that allow us to understand and commune with the divine. There is, indeed, the gematria or numerological principles which some have used to decode the hidden names of Hashem. Finally, there is the practical Kabbalah, what indeed you call magic.” Rabbi Eleazar flicks his hand. “Some would call practical Kabbalah the lesser of the Kabbalistic practices.”

“Why me, though?”

“You seem…promising. A mind suited for learning Kabbalah.”

“Rabbi, I am already an apprentice alchemist,” says Moishe humbly. The rabbi smiles.

“Yes, and I am an old man, and would much rather spend my time studying the Torah and speaking to my students. And I think it is very important that a bright young man like such as you does not come to harm on your journey. I had hoped to wait a few more years before doing this, but it seems Hashem has his own sense of timing.”

“I cannot leave Sarai,” Moishe says firmly. For a moment he looks ready to put the staff down.

“Just consider the staff a gift, for now.”

Moishe sits back and considers his staff.

“This is a big decision to make, rabbi. And a lot to say just to give me a magic staff.”

“Holy staff,” Rabbi Eleazar mutters, “But that’s not important right now. The rest, I mean. You wouldn’t be starting today. To even begin studying Kabbalah requires an intricate grasp of the Torah and the Talmud, as well as fluency in Hebrew and Aramaic…but well, if you insist on fulfilling your apprenticeship first, then that may be for the best. And with my dream letting me know to give you the staff now, before you left, well, that made my decision for me.

But, promise me this, Moishe. I have a feeling that on your journey you will have the opportunity to learn a bit more about Kabbalah. Take that opportunity, and you can tell me what you think when your journey is over.”

“When you say you have a feeling, is that a hunch or do you know something I don’t?” Moishe asks. Rabbi Eleazar chuckles.

“I know a lot you don’t.”

“…are you sure about choosing me?”

“Don’t question the gift, Moishe. Do you think an ancient and powerful rabbi is wrong in his judgement about a young man’s character?”

“Well, no, I guess not,” Moishe admits, looking at the staff again, “So, what else can it do, besides turn into a snake?”

The rabbi chuckles and folds his hands across his chest.

“I told you, read your Torah.”
 
the Wizard-Knight
Pronouns
She/her
Chapter 4: The Wizard-Knight

When Moishe returns from his meeting with the rabbi, Sarai is in the middle of packing. She has a large alchemist’s traveling chest on the table, and is packing away a variety of reagents, from jars of snail slime to magic stones, vials of various fluids and bags of powdered herbs. Shabbar is just picking up another small chest of books – not the more basics texts, Sarai is already well-acquainted with their contents – to carry to the ship. Sitting nearby are some glass containers, beakers, and boilers, ready to be packed in straw alongside a small travelling cauldron.

“Moishe, there you are. We leave tomorrow, and I need you to be ready.”

“Of course, teacher,” he says tiredly. Sarai’s eyes narrow as she sees the staff in his hands.

“Did the rabbi give you that?” she asks coldly. Moishe looks down at it.

“Um, it was a gift. A walking stick,” he says nervously. Sarai picks up a jar of turpentine and considers it.

“You know, I wanted to be a rabbi when I was a little girl. But they don’t let girls become rabbis. They said alchemy was a much better profession for a woman. Well, as it turns out, they were right. Alchemy is a much better profession.” She puts the jar down in the traveling case, a little too forcefully.

“I understand, teacher,” Moishe says, then heads upstairs to pack his own things. Sarai watches him go, then sighs once he is gone.

“Trouble?” Devorah asks. Sarai practically jumps in her seat, having been unaware of the succubus behind her. Devorah has taken on the guise of a human woman, and is carrying a box of straw for packing glass containers into.

Sarai turns and glares, but the succubus puts on a face of innocence as she sets down the box. The alchemist sighs and drums her fingers on the table.

“Moishe is my apprentice. I don’t want the rabbi…stealing him away.”

Devorah nods.

“Ah yes, I’ve seen this once or twice in my time. You humans, always worried about being one thing or another.” She shapeshifts, her hair turning from black to yellow and her skin turning red. “You really should open your minds a bit. Besides, Moishe is going to be spending the next few weeks on a flying boat. Why are you so worried?”

The succubus turns and walks away, leaving Sarai to fiddle with her chest of equipment.

“Why, indeed?”

***

The next morning comes clear and still, with not a cloud in the sky and practically no breeze. While a great crowd has not gathered yet, some loiterers are hanging around aimlessly in the street in front of Sarai’s laboratory, and a couple street vendors are setting up as members of the city watch lounge nearby.

Then, Sarai opens the door, and the dozen people waiting outside turn to look at her. This is unexpected – hanging around waiting for “the Alchemist’s Curiosity” has become something of a local pastime, but many are beginning to think the great mystery would never be unveiled.

“Hello,” Sarai tells the street in general, “I just wanted you to know that soon I am going to be making an announcement.

Then, she closes the door. A few hours later, the crowd has grown sizable indeed.

Half the Realejo seems to have turned out, including the Rabbi Eleazar, while citizens and dignitaries from all over Grenada, both Muslim and Christian, have filtered in, along with djinn, succubi, giants, and ghouls, not to mention a collection of street vendors, beggars, cutpurses, guards, and some general curious travelers who aren’t sure what the big excitement is about but want in on it. All in all, the street outside is a great chaotic mess of people when Sarai opens the door again.

A great cheer goes up, followed by a wave of shushing and prodding as people direct their attention towards the alchemist who has captured the curiosity of the city lately. She clears her throat and speaks, her voice magically amplified.

“Hello, my friends, neighbors, and associates,” she begins, then pauses as another wave of cheers breaks out. Now most of the crowd is focused on her, with the exception of some guards who are busy trying to chase off a pickpocket, only to find that he has turned invisible.

“You are probably all wondering what this big project I’ve been working on is,” she continues.

“YES!” comes the cry from a few sharp wits in the crowd. Sarai waves them off, but secretly she is brimming with excitement.

“Well, since you’ve all been waiting patiently at my doorstep and don’t seem to want to leave unless I tell you-”

A pause for more cheers.

“Then that’s what I’ll have to do! Ladies and gentlemen…I have built…a ship of the air!”

Confusion wars with excitement, mirrored in the crowd by a babble of voices asking questions cut through by general cheers of good spirit.

“What did she say? A ship that flies? This must be some powerful magic!”

Sarai waves her arms, and the crowd subsides a bit. She is beginning to enjoy the attention, but she has to move it along – the others must be almost ready, she thinks.

“I have, through careful application of natural and alchemical laws, discovered a way to raise a ship, of my own special construction, into the air, and to move it about by simple mechanical means. Not magic, but pure alchemy and natural philosophy!”

More cheers. Now the crowd is growing quite unruly, messengers being sent off in every direction by the notables in the crowd as others push forward, hanging on every word. Even the pickpockets have stopped trying to take from the astonished crowd and are listening on with rapt attention.

“And with this ship!” announces Sarai, building to a finish, “I will fly across the breadth of the Earth – to the Kingdom of Prester John! Ladies and gentlemen – the Aliyah!

Something begins to rise from the courtyard of Sarai’s laboratory. A great round shape – a ponderous mass of fabric – a great sphere of silk! The gasbag rises above the roof of her laboratory, in full sight of the crowd, and they go absolutely wild as the rest of the ship appears.

A hull, ten feet long and woven of lightweight wicker, is suspended beneath a great silk gasbag. In the center of the ship, suspended in a scaffolding of copper bars, is a furnace, the shimmering of hot air rising from it to fill the gasbag. Two great sails extend not from the top but from the sides, like the canvas wings of a great bird, extended on arms that can be raised and lowered with the application of pulleys and cranks. Finally, at the back of the ship is a propeller, currently still but with a pedal system nearby.

Moishe tends the furnace, Shabbar stands by the railing with a rope ladder, and Devorah the succubus is perched on the prow with her wings extended, doing a passable imitation of a figurehead, save that she is grinning widely and waving to the crowd.

Sarai has concluded her speech, and now it is time to board the ship. Shabbar tosses the ladder over the side, and it hangs next to Sarai. She quickly locks the door of her laboratory, pockets the key, and steps up to the ladder, placing her foot on the lowest rung and holding on to it with one hand, the other waving at the crowd as she is pulled up towards the ship. She clambers in and nods to the others, dismissing the spell to amplify her voice.

“Right, let’s make everything clear,” she says, already turning away from the excitement of the ship’s reveal, “I’m the captain. Moishe is my apprentice, when it comes to the furnace, he is my second in command. Shabbar is in charge of everything else. Clear?”

“Aye aye, captain!” Devorah says, saluting. Sarai nods and puts her hands on her hips.

“In that case, let’s chart a course for Ind.”

So begins the maiden voyage of the Aliyah, and the excitement will not subside for quite a long time.

***

Devorah spreads out a map on the deck of the Aliyah.

“I would recommend going overland for most of the journey. Travel up along the Mediterranean coast through the south of France, then down the Italian peninsula.”

She traces the route with her finger, and Sarai nods.

“We’ll be making a few stops – it’s not like we’re inconspicuous up here, and we’ll need supplies. Any ideas on how quickly it will take?”

Devorah shrugged.

“I don’t really know how fast this thing can move, but I would say a couple hundred miles a day. If it takes over a month to get to the Kingdom of Prester John, it’ll be because of delays.”

“Well, I don’t want that to happen. Moishe?”

The apprentice alchemist is looking over the railing, at the city growing smaller below them, falling behind as Shabbar propels the ship northeast. Moishe looks back at Sarai, gripping his staff.

“Yes, miss?”

“I want you to watch that furnace. That’s an alchemical flame, and if it goes up, well, so does the whole ship.”

Moishe swallows.

“Um, that won’t…kill us, will it?”

“I can fly,” Devorah says from the front of the ship, “And so can Shabbar. He can probably carry you, right?”

Shabbar grunts and keeps pedaling.

“If we lose the ship, the venture is a wash, and we’ll have to turn back. But stick to the precautions we went over and we’ll get there fine,” Sarai insists. She rubs her hands together and glances at the city of Grenada, now vanishing into the distance. “Now, let’s get started.”

The countryside of the Iberian Peninsula passes by too fast for the crew to really appreciate – the hills and plains of the Emirate of Grenada with their villages, shepherds, and trade caravans, even the occasional tribe of Nephilim.

The ship stops for supplies at decently-sized trading towns, but avoids the largest cities; every time the ship lands in a populated area, Sarai and her crew are mobbed by curious peasants, magicians, merchants, and nobles, and she is hard-pressed to answer their questions without giving up the secrets of the airship. Still, she feels that by the time she returns from her journey, others will have begun putting their own prototypes in the air. The thought sends a shiver through her, but it also encourages her to press on, to be the first to the Kingdom of Prester John and back.

It is a race against time. Magical messages, sent by djinn courier, crystal ball, magic mirror, and even in dreams, are already being sent across Europe and North Africa; by the time she reaches Jerusalem, the news will have been there for over a week.

Still, that is in the future. For now, the ship lands in fields and open areas outside of towns, with Sarai and Shabbar doing most of the work buying fuel for the furnace (a special alchemical mixture that burns cleanly but produces a lot of hot air), food, and other minor supplies. Once or twice, Sarai orders the ship grounded due to strong winds, but mostly the wind provides a boost to their speed.

Upon reaching Valencia, the ship sticks near the coast, which necessitates passing by larger cities but which causes no problems – aside from visits by a few curious djinn or officials on flying carpets, there is no attempt by the grounded authorities to halt their progress. The ship eventually leaves Spain entirely and bypasses the Pyrenees, entering France, where the first real stop comes at the city of Avignon.

Avignon is home to an antipope, a state of affairs dating back to the 1300s when the Papacy was briefly relocated by the Kings of France to the city of Avignon. Perhaps in another world, the Avignon Papacy would have only lasted a short amount of time before the Papacy was moved back to Rome, but in a world of miracles and magic, the issue was a bit more confused, and the schism in the Catholic Church was never healed.

There is also a third antipope in Jerusalem, but that’s not important right now.

The ship lands outside the city, near one of the market towns which dots the vicinity. The Avignon Papacy has swelled the importance of the city, drawing merchants, financiers, musicians, and artists. The requisite crowd of curious locals is already forming as Sarai and Shabbar set off to the market, leaving Moishe and Devorah to watch the ship.

None of them notice a cloaked figure detach itself from the crowd and follow the alchemist into town.

Sarai locates an alchemist’s shop and begins speaking with the owner, a tall, elderly man in a peaked cap. Eventually the two finish their introductions and Sarai begins looking through the collected reagents. As she browses, Shabbar puts a hand on her arm and whispers to her.

“I think we’ve been followed, Miss Sarai.”

Sarai turns to see a cloaked figure enter the shop as well.

“Can I help you?” asks the owner, but the stranger ignores him and walks towards Sarai. She nods at Shabbar and steps forward, hands on her hips.

“Is that ship yours?” asks the stranger in French, throwing back his hood. His hair and skin are dirty, but under the grime he is not unattractive, his face a constellation of freckles. He is unshaved, and his hair and moustache are black.

“It’s mine. What’s that to you?” asks Sarai. She crinkles her nose; the man reeks of alcohol. He licks his lips.

“Wait. You’re a Jewess…” he mutters. Sarai glances at Shabbar, who steps forward, flexing his muscles.

“Is that a problem?” he rumbles. The man narrows his eyes.

“And you’re a Mohammedan…what a queer party. But no matter, any port in a storm,” he chuckles bitterly.

“What do you want?” Shabbar asks pointedly. The man licks his lips again and looks from Shabbar to Sarai.

“I need to leave town. Take me with you.”

“Is that a demand?” Shabbar asks.

“A request. Please,” the man says, desperation beginning to show in his eyes, “I need to be gone. I’m…I’m a wizard-knight.”

He looks between the two again, and Sarai narrows her eyes.

“What’s your name, wizard-knight?”

“Robert de Villiers.”

“What can you do? Make mana from Heaven? Can you speak in tongues?”

“No, but…I know magic, and I have my own gear. Including a sword and armor.”

Sarai glances at Shabbar.

“What do you think?”

“I don’t trust him,” the djinn grumbles.

Sarai taps her foot for a moment.

“Neither do I…but he is pathetic, isn’t he?”

Robert bristles, but he cannot dispute her observation. He is, after all, a drunk, unwashed, obviously fugitive knight.

“Hm, perhaps you are right,” Shabbar admits, “Though this one is more dangerous than he seems.”

“Oh, I can be perilous at need,” Robert says, “But I’ll swear my sword to you, if it will set you at ease. I do have…some honor.”

“That remains to be seen,” Sarai replies, “Where is your gear?”

Robert licks his lips.

“Not here. It’s in my room, at a tavern nearby.”

“Fetch them, then, and meet us at the ship.”

After Robert leaves, Sarai looks at Shabbar.

“Do you think you can take him?”

“We’ll find out,” the djinn grumbles, “I would not have allowed him to come with us.”

“No,” Sarai admits, “But we could use him. And in any case, perhaps it may be good to have a Christian among the crew, for reasons of diplomacy.”

Shabbar grunts, and the two return to their shopping.

***

Dev is sitting on the ship’s railing, kicking his legs back and forth. The few curious villagers have either kept their distance or wandered off; evidently, they have seen stranger sights in the vicinity of the headquarters of a Pope.

“So how do you…decide?” Moishe asks, leaning on the railing nearby. Dev shrugs.

“I don’t know. It’s just whatever I feel like. How do you decide what clothes to wear?”

“I don’t have many pairs of clothes.”

“And I don’t have many guises,” Dev laughs, “Wouldn’t you want to change every once in a while?”

Moishe chews on that for a moment.

“I guess I’ve never really thought about it.”

“Most humans don’t,” Dev admits, “Though fewer than you’d think.” He looks up, pursing his lips. “Is that the captain returning? Who’s that with them?”

Moishe glances up, and sees his teacher and her djinn manservant crossing the village green towards the ship, in the company of a strange man in a suit of armor and carrying a small traveling case. A sword hangs at his side, and his shield is slung over his back beneath his cloak.

Shabbar is carrying a package on his shoulder, which he casually loads into the ship, then offers Sarai a hand up onto the vessel. As Sarai clambers aboard, the djinn follows her, leaving Robert to haul himself and his luggage over the railing after them.

Sarai puts out a hand to stop him.

“Before you formally join the crew, I have one condition. Tell us why you need to leave France in such a hurry.”

Robert looks around, his face twisted in a look of indecision. Finally, he sighs and uncovers his shield, showing them the design: a red cross on white.

Dev whistles.

“A Knight of the Holy Sepulcher. I didn’t know there were any of your kind still around.”

“A Templar?” Moishe asks, “But I thought-”

“I didn’t know about that,” Robert says, “About Baphomet, or – or any of it.”

At the genuinely hurt look on Robert’s face, Moishe clears his throat and glances away, a little ashamed. When the highest levels of the Knights Templar were revealed to be subverted by a cult of the archdevil Baphomet, the order had been outlawed by the Avignon Papacy and their property seized by the King of France. Still, it seemed there were more than a few Templars floating around.

After a moment of consideration, Sarai nods and steps to the side.

“Right. This is Robert de Villiers,” she says as the knight pulls himself aboard, “He’ll be adding extra security and magical advice.”

“An honor,” the knight says coldly. He shakes out his cloak and look around the ship. “Intriguing vessel. I saw it come down and wondered how it worked.”

“Moishe and myself know its operation; he’s my apprentice, which means he’s second to me.”

Robert considers the young apprentice and shrugs.

“As you say.”

“And if you try anything, Shabbar will throw you off the ship,” Sarai says casually as she starts stoking the furnace. Robert turns to face Shabbar, who smirks as if daring Robert to give him an excuse.

“I’d like to see him try,” Robert muttered, one hand going to his sword hilt.

“Gentlemen, let’s not pull out our swords in public,” Dev sighs. Robert turns and glares at the incubus, noticing him for the first time.

“An incubus? This adventure gets stranger and stranger.”

“My name is Dev,” the incubus says wryly, “But I also go by Devorah, on occasion.”

“I see how it is. You better keep your distance, incubus. I won’t have you ensnaring me with your sensuous ways.”

Dev looks the knight up and down.

“Hmm…no, I think I’ll pass.”
 
On Magic
Pronouns
She/her
Chapter 6: On Magic

A flash of lighting splits the sky in twain. The Aliyah has been caught on a sudden storm over the Ligurian Sea, between France and Italy, and it is being tossed about by strong winds. Shabbar is groaning as he brings in the sail, fighting against the wind.

“Robert! Do something about this storm!” Sarai yells over the wind. Another flash of lightning forks across their path, the thunder deafening. The ship has too much metal on it for Sarai’s liking.

“Do you know how hard it is to cast in this weather?” Robert yells back, his ears ringing. His cloak billows as he tries to use it to cover magic circle drawn on the deck in front of him, and the rain is washing it away almost as fast as he can draw it.

“Are you a wizard-knight or aren’t you!? Just do something!”

Robert glares at her and reaches into his traveling chest.

“Does this ship have white thorn in it?”

“What?”

“White thorn, the white thorn bush! It has magical properties!”

“No, of course not!”

He pulls out a sprig of some thorny plant and begins making his way towards the front of the ship. He passes Moishe, who is clinging to the railing, and his staff, and trying to think about how the prophets would get out of this one. For some terrible reason, he can only think of Jonah, and isn’t sure whether he wants to be saved by a great fish swallowing him or not.

The ship heaves, and Robert shouts as he is thrown against the railing. Below, he cannot even see the stormy sea. He grits his teeth and leans forward to tie the thorn branch to the railing. Devorah grabs his cloak as the ship heaves again, Shabbar shouting something over another boom of thunder, this one further away.

“What are you doing!?” Devorah yells. Robert finishes tying the sprig to the bow and allows himself to be pulled back. He huffs, water spraying from his moustache.

“White thorn,” he repeats, “It has magical properties – including protection from lightning strikes. It was used to make Jesus’ the crown of thorns. That probably explains why you didn’t think of it before.”

He brushes back his lank, wet hair. Already the wind is dying down, and Shabbar finishes pulling in the sails.

“Well, you’ve already earned your keep, Robert,” Sarai says, trying to steady herself and get the ship in hand, “Well done!”

Moishe gets to his feet. The rain has grown lighter, and Robert grabs his traveling case, now sliding around the deck, and begins packing his things away, a little too forcefully.

“Would it have worked if one of us did it? You’re the only Christian here,” Moishe says.

“You don’t have to be Christian for it to work!” Robert insists. Shabbar glances towards the branch now tied to the bowsprit.

“Is it magic because it is the same type of plant used in Jesus’ crown of thorns, or was it always magic?”

“I don’t – I don’t know! It’s just associated with Jesus Christ, and it’s magic.”

“Maybe it was used in the crown of thorns because it was magic,” Devorah suggests. Robert glares at her.

“I think Robert is on to something,” Shabbar says, “After all, we are told that Isa was a prophet, he was obviously a very holy man.”

“And the son of God,” Robert insists.

“That’s it, change of subject,” Sarai says, “Just hope that charm holds until this storm passes or we can make it to shore – whichever is soonest.”

Moishe considers his staff, then looks at Sarai.

“But what is magic?” he asks. Sarai doesn’t even look back over her shoulder as she continues tending the furnace.

“Magic is a natural process, one that people can tap into. It is a part of the mechanical workings of creation.”

Shabbar nods as he coils a length of rope.

“The philosopher Al-Kindi agrees. He believed that creation was sustained by stellar emanations, and that magic was the result of humans – or djinn – manipulating those stellar rays. Allah, Glorious and Exalted is He, is of course the ultimate source of all creation, but it is filtered through the stellar bodies – or the angels, as it may be.”

Moishe rubs his chin.

“The emanations of Hashem? That sounds…familiar.”

“Allow me to offer an alternative hypothesis,” Robert says, rummaging through his traveling chest, “All magic is prayer. When we cast spells, we invoke the names of God, or the angels, or the saints. This is true of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The rituals are merely a framework to strengthen the prayer, and our faith is rewarded by God’s actions.”

He stands up and hands Moishe a book. The apprentice alchemist reads the cover.

The Grimoire of Pope Honorius?

“Standard-issue spellbook for Catholics. Everything from warding your livestock against disease to protection from bullets. But the very first entry…” he opens the book, “Is performing a Catholic mass.”

“So…magic and miracles are the same thing?” Moishe asks as Robert takes the book back and places it back in his traveling chest before locking it.

“More or less,” Robert says. Devorah leans over him, smirking.

“So, you’re saying Jesus was a very great magician.” Robert and Shabbar glare at her, and she raises her hands defensively. “Kidding!”

Moishe leans on the railing and looks down at the ocean contemplatively. It is still overcast, and the surface of the waters is a smoky grey, and choppy from the wind.

Is all creation sustained by the will of God, with humans able to alter it through their free will? Or is God actively intervening in events for the sake of his worshipers? And is there, ultimately, a difference?

Moishe sighs, not having any answers. Then, he looks at the water again.

“What on Earth is that!?” he yells. Two lights can be seen below the water, growing brighter and larger. Two luminous circles, like…

“Those are eyes!” Shabbar gasps. Devorah grabs Moishe’s shoulder and jumps up on the railing holding on to a rope for balance.

“It’s the Leviathan! It’s Leviathan!” she shouts, and the largest creature to ever swim in the sea breaches the surface.

Even from the height of the Aliyah, the creature’s size is obvious. It is hundreds of feet long, greater than any whale, or any ship; its brazen scales shine as if they were truly made of metal, and as it cuts through the water it leaves white foam in its wake. The crew almost feel that it is looking up at the ship, and as it flexes its great length and raises its head, its jaws open and they see a glimpse of its rows of teeth and armored throat.

Then, it breathes a gout of fire that leaps a hundred feet in the air, and though falling short of the Aliyah the blast of hot air causes it to bob like a lantern.

“Flames stream out of its mouth, sparks of fire shoot forth,” Robert quotes, his voice full of awe.

“Incredible,” Sarai breathes, “What are the odds of us seeing it?”

“Look, there!” Shabbar says, pointing at its neck. Just behind the creature’s head is a band of some kind of metal, possibly bronze, encircling the creature’s neck. It is like a collar, of the kind one would put on a household pet.

“One of the three Great Creatures,” Devorah murmurs, “Created to humble man.”

The Leviathan gives a flick of its mighty tail, churns the waters to foam, and dives again. The crew watches in awe until the waters cover all sign of its passage.
 
the Inventor
Pronouns
She/her
Chapter 7: The Inventor

For decades the Italian Wars have been raging across Italy, as foreign powers do battle on Italian soil. Even the Papal States are not spared the bloodshed, despite the efforts of the Pope’s best holy mages. The Italian city-states are forced to take sides, and Florence is no exception. Right now, they are with the Germans against the Spanish, but before they had been with the French against the Venetians, and tomorrow, who knows?

But the war dragged on, and court alchemists and magicians alike are being tapped for new ways of winning the war. Spells to protect men from blades and bullets are cast as often as humanly possible, invisibility is conferred on assassins, magic is used to scout and send messages across the battlefield. And in the workshops of Florence, an inventor labors to produce weapons he believes will change the war.

Perhaps in a different world, Leonard da Vinci would have been a great artist and sculptor, worthy of the title of “Renaissance man”. But in a world of magic and alchemy, his forays into the fields of engineering and science have yielded more…profitable fruits.

Now, he labors over schematics for the latest of his machines of war. A man in his forties with long hair and a flowing beard, he is surrounded by half-finished art projects, bits and pieces of clockwork machinery, and bubbling alchemical solutions. Human and animal specimens float in jars of preservatives, notes are piled on every surface, and in one corner a live salamander sits in a cage. Flames lick along the lizard’s back as it hisses like a boiling cauldron, and Leonardo scoffs and rolls up his plans.

“Oh, hush,” he says to the creature, “I’ll feed you if that’s what you want, but you aren’t leaving until the dinner party! I have a point I want to make.” At a knock, he looks up at his door. “Enter!”

His assistant Giovanni, a combination of apprentice and manservant, opens the door and clears his throat.

“Signore, we have weird news from the west!”

Leonardo strokes his beard and rummages around in a drawer until he finds a small magic mirror.

“The west you say? This wouldn’t happen to come from one of our outposts, would it?”

“That’s right, this comes direct from them. Your magic mirror network is certainly showing its usefulness, it is a miracle.”

“But a pricey one,” Leonardo mutters, staring into the mirror, “Tell me, what have they seen?”

“A flying ship, Signore.”

“Hmph! Not like one of my ornithopters, I hope!”

“No Signore, it’s much different. It seems to be some sort of, hmm, hull suspended beneath a fabric envelope.”

“Ah? Well, that is interesting…is it hostile? Flying the colors of our rivals?”

Leonardo’s eyebrows furrow as he absentmindedly begins sketching out some plans. How did the ship stay aloft and move under its own power? He desperately wanted to find out.

“No, it seems to be a private vessel.”

“Hm, very well, send up one of our helicopters to intercept it. I want to speak with the captain – and, hopefully, the inventor – of that vessel and find out more.”

“As you say, Signore.”

As Giovanni leaves, Leonardo da Vinci looks into his magic mirror, a smile spreading across his face as he searches for this mysterious flying ship.

“Show me your secrets, my friends, I would love to meet a mind as inventive as my own...”

***

Sarai bat Binyamin swears loudly as the helicopter rises into view alongside them. A small carriage, large enough to hold two people, forms the bulk of the machine, with an odd, corkscrew-shaped sail spinning above them, providing lift. Of the two operators, one is pedaling furiously in the driver’s seat, the movement turning the rotor above them, while the other crewman holds a musket and sits near some curious instruments. Both have some kind of bulky but lightweight-looking backpacks, as well as protective goggles and thick coats.

“Language!” Moishe gasps, but Sarai turns to look at Shabbar.

“More speed! I don’t know what that thing is, but I don’t want it getting any closer. Robert, can you do anything about that?”

Robert de Villiers shrugs.

“I don’t have any skill in ranged weapons, uh, my lady.”

Sarai scoffs and starts cranking a pulley. Sails billow, but the helicopter keeps pace.

“Perhaps it was too much to think we were the first to invent powered flight,” Moishe says. Sarai scoffs again, more loudly.

“Well, it’s not as if it’s the size of the Aliyah. Only two crewmen!”

Moishe rolls his eyes.

“Attention, strange vessel! This is Florentine airspace! Land and identify yourselves!” calls a voice from the helicopter, magically amplified. Sarai bites her lip.

“Any options?” Sarai asks the crew. Devorah shrugs.

“I don’t fancy them shooting at us.”

“Can’t you cast protection from bullets?” the alchemists asks Robert. The wizard-knight is already flipping through his spellbook.

“On us? Certainly…with a bit of time. On the ship though, I don’t think I have a spell powerful enough.”

“Well, do your best,” Sarai orders.

“I think we should land,” Moishe says, “This is their territory, after all. And we have Shabbar and Robert if they try and take us.”

“That’s right,” Robert says, closing his book and putting a hand on his sword hilt, “I haven’t fought…whatever that thing is, but I can think of a couple ways to take it down.”

Sarai hums to herself thoughtfully before finally waving her hand.

“Fine. Crew, let’s bring her down!”

The Aliyah begins to descend, sails furling as air is released from the gasbag. Moishe turns some valves, cutting off the flow of hot air from the furnace to the gasbag. Soon Shabbar stops pedaling and, when the ship is only a few feet from the ground, jumps out and begins tethering the ship to the ground.

The helicopter descends as well, hovering just above the ground before coming to an admittedly bumpy landing alongside them. The two crewmen get out and remove their goggles, looking at the airship appraisingly.

“Impressive!” one of them says, “How does it work?”

“Hot air,” Sarai replies dryly. She crosses her arms and looks down at them from the railing of the Aliyah.

“Thank you for landing,” the pilot says, “I promise you we have only peaceful intentions.”

“Our boss is Leonardo da Vinci, the great inventor,” says the gunman, “And he would dearly like to meet with you!”

“How did he know we were coming?” Robert asks, joining Sarai at the rail. The gunman chuckles and produces a small crystal ball from the rack of instruments.

“We told him ourselves!”

Sarai considers the helicopter.

“I’ll admit, I didn’t know other inventors were working on forms of mechanical flight. I suppose your boss would be interested in my airship…”

“Oh, Signore Leonardo is the greatest mind of his age…well, so many say,” the pilot replies as the gunman starts reporting in through his crystal ball, “You really should meet him and judge that for yourself.”

Sarai glances at Moishe.

“I think we will be the judge of that.”

***

The Aliyah is allowed to fly under her own power to Florence proper. The helicopter, it is learned, is not as good at long distances, but another flying machine soon appears to escort the Aliyah the rest of the way – an ornithopter, a glider with wings that move up and down like a bird’s, powered by the pulleys attached to the pilot’s feet.

The ornithopter drifts and glides lazily along air currents, flapping its wings only occasionally for added lift or to execute some kind of midair maneuver. Sarai watches it with a mix of envy and begrudging admiration.

“In terms of pure volume, I think the Aliyah has these inventions beat,” she says, “But they do seem far more maneuverable than us.”

“It’s not a competition,” Moishe insists, “You and this…Leonardo da Vinci seem like you have approached the problem of mechanical flight in different ways. Surely you’re not jealous?”

Sarai laughs, a little too forcefully.

“Jealousy would imply he has achieved something I have not!”

Moishe rolls his eyes again.

As the ship travels over the countryside, they see other marvels created by this mysterious inventor of Florence. A strange rolling contraption trundles across the countryside below them at the head of a column of troops, and only when it reaches a stream and unfolds into a bridge does its function become apparent; once the troops have crossed, the bridge is folded back up and rolled along behind them.

They see wheels turned by wind and water, possibly powering mills, lifts, or other machinery hidden inside buildings, though from some emerge columns of smoke or the clanking of metal, while others have workers and supplies going in and out of them in a steady stream.

Once, they see a rather worrying sight; a round construction with a conical roof sheathed in bronze, rolling across the fields like some sort of mobile fortress, the muzzles of guns protruding from portholes all around its circumference.

“A war machine,” Robert says, “And one I wouldn’t want to face in battle.”

“Maybe it’s good da Vinci and I aren’t so alike,” Sarai mutters.

***

“Hello, I am Giovanni. I will take you to see Signore Leonardo.”

The inventor’s assistant greets them on a stretch of open ground outside the city walls of Florence.

“It’s a bit off-putting to have everyone warned of your arrival ahead of time,” Robert says to Moishe under his breath.

Sarai looks at the crew.

“I think we should split up,” she says, “Someone needs to stay with the ship.”

“I assure you, that won’t be necessary,” Giovanni says, “The city guard will ensure nobody touches your ship without your express approval – or that of Signore Leonardo.”

Sarai doesn’t like the sound of that last part.

“All the same, I’ll leave Shabbar with the ship,” she says, waving at their djinn, “Robert, I want you to go into town and…prepare those charms we talked about.”

“Ah, yes. I understand, my lady,” the knight says. Sarai turns to face Moishe and Devorah.

“You two can help me gather more information. Devorah, you come with Moishe and I. I may need your...abilities.”

Giovanni chuckles.

“If you’re hoping to seduce the inventor, you are going about it all wrong. I’m afraid you are…not his type.”

Devorah blinks.

“Oh, I understand.”

The succubus shapeshifts into a handsome, muscular young man with short, curly dark hair.

Giovanni raises his eyebrows, then clears his throat and turns his back to the crew.

“If you are done making your…arrangements, please come with me.”

“Do you really think that will work?” Sarai asks. Dev winks at her.

“It never hurts to try,” he says.

***

Leonardo da Vinci rises from his desk as the trio enters his study.

“Ah, the much-anticipated guests!” he says, spreading his arms. He walks around his desk and bows over Sarai’s hand. “Please, tell me you are the mind behind this wondrous vessel, my lady, I am desperate to speak with her creator.”

“Oh, well, yes, that would be me,” Sarai stammers. Leonardo brightens and leads Sarai around his laboratory.

“Excellent, excellent! It is a pleasure to meet you! Please, come and sit, and we shall discuss matters of intellect.”

“He’s a charmer,” Dev mutters under his breath to Moishe, who purses his lips as he watches Leonardo lead Sarai to his desk. His teacher is obviously flattered.

“So, I am the famous Leonardo da Vinci, and you must be...?”

“Sarai bat Binyamin,” the alchemist replies, “And this is my apprentice Moishe.”

“Ah, an alchemist! And who is your handsome young companion?”

Dev smiles dashingly and smooths back his hair.

“You may call me Dev, Signore. A pleasure to meet you, I’ve heard much of you in my travels.”

“Yes, my reputation does proceed me. Now, tell me alchemist, what do you know of the qualities of quicksilver?”

Sarai raises her eyebrow.

“Quicksilver is the seed of all metals, is it not? It can be transmuted into most of the baser metals; I’ve run those experiments myself, though I do not have the resources to truly delve into transmutation. Although my talents certainly lend themselves to the working of metals.”

“Indeed, I can tell! As you can see, I am not without resources myself due to my position here – and I have dabbled in alchemy, along with many other fields. I’ve actually been looking into various applications of quicksilver, perhaps you could assist me?”

“Hmm, as a research partner?” Sarai muses, looking around at the well-stocked laboratory. Moishe clears his throat, causing Leonardo to turn his sharp gaze on the apprentice.

“Oh, and the apprentice! Tell me, have you been instructing him properly?”

Sarai looks at Moishe sternly.

“I should hope so. Moishe, what is the ultimate goal of all alchemy?”

Moishe sits up straight in his chair and recalls his earliest lessons.

“The ultimate goal of alchemy is purification. As we purify the baser metals into gold, so we purify ourselves and the world around us.”

Leonardo nods.

“A true statement for the more esoteric side of the field, though I myself have more interest in, hmm, practical applications.”

Sarai raises an eyebrow.

“Well, surely you agree that truth and purity are noble goals.”

“Yes…within reason. It wouldn’t do the alchemist much good if he – or she! Spent all their time in a tower surrounded by wafting alchemical fumes,” he chuckles, “No, the alchemists’ best work is done out in the world.”

“Well, yes, we agree there, but-”

“Tell me, why don’t you allow my assistant Giovanni to show your apprentice around our facilities? He can observe the sort of work we do, while you and I discuss matters of alchemy in greater depth.”

“I suppose you’d like me to stay and…discuss things as well?” Dev asks, giving the Italian inventor a gleaming white smile.

“Oh yes, your…charming servant may stay as well, Miss Sarai.”

Leaving a thoughtful teacher and a preening incubus, Moishe allows himself to be led out of the room by Giovanni – all three of them missing the look that passes between Leonardo and his assistant.

***

Moishe is led through the main workshop. It is full of the noise of men, tools, and clanging metal, its floor strewn with different vehicles being assembled, from tanks and ornithopters to a mysterious apparatus like a chariot fixed with whirling scythes.

“Is this another sort of war machine?” Moishe asks, crouching down to get a closer look at the device. He shudders at the thought.

“No, it’s a device for harvesting grain, actually,” Giovanni replies. Moishe has found the apprentice to be rather reserved and quiet, mostly leaving Moishe to look around for himself and ask the occasional question.

Moishe’s eyes grow wide as he imagines the implications.

“Oh, I see! This device could do the work of twenty men in a fraction of the time! You know, Giovanni, I feel that this sort of thing could be more revolutionary than all the rest of your inventions put together.”

Giovanni smiles.

“I see you are no shallow thinker as well! Always the great men of Florence are asking for this or that weapon which can win the war, but this device will free up so many men from farming, and will allow for a tenfold increase in grain – so Leonardo has been saying.”

Moishe stands up again, furrowing his brow.

“Yes, it is a great shame that such a mind is being wasted on weapons of war and destruction.”

Giovanni nods in agreement.

“I think so as well. Now, this airship of yours – come, let us discuss this somewhere quieter.”

“Yes, good idea,” Moishe replies as the two leave the workshop.

Giovanni directs Moishe up a spiral staircase, and the apprentice alchemist goes first, using his staff to help him ascend the steps.

“What is that staff you carry? It is a bit strange to be carrying around so, inside a castle.”

“It’s a…gift from my rabbi.”

“Ah, it must be very important, then.”

Moishe frowns.

“Yes, and no doubt it was meant to teach me a valuable lesson, though I’m not sure what that is, yet.”

Any further conversation is cut off as the two reach the top of the staircase. Moishe finds himself standing on a wide landing with windows on either side.

“Quite the view, isn’t it? Look, you can see your ship from here,” Giovanni points out. Moishe looks out the window and nods.

“Indeed, it is…say, what are those men out there doing? Giovanni, are those soldiers!?”

With his back turned, Moishe does not notice Giovanni reaching for a rack of weapons.

***

“Now let us discuss the matter of your brilliant airship,” Leonardo says, clearing off a space on his desk so that he can lean forward, chin resting on his hand.

Sarai narrows her eyes.

“What exactly do you want to discuss about my ship?” Sarai asks sharply. Leonardo waves his hand placatingly.

“Oh, I’m simply interested in how it works!”

“Well…you’re not the first person to ask,” Sarai replies vaguely, “But I’m afraid that’s a secret.”

“No doubt, no doubt…which is why I want you to stay here.”

Sarai and Dev glance at each other, then at Leonardo da Vinci. Dev speaks first.

“You mean…here in Florence?”

“Oh, yes! I assure you, you would be treated like…well, like honored guests! Or at the very least as close associates of mine.”

Sarai raises an eyebrow.

“I don’t understand.”

Leonardo gestures at his laboratory.

“As you can see, I have significant resources to draw on thanks to my partnership with the city of Florence. I have many rich patrons who are eager to utilize my inventions. As my associates, you would have access to those resources as well! Not to mention the liberty to research, oh, whatever you like. Transmutation of metals, say. Or even improving on your airship.”

Sarai glances at Dev before looking back at Leonardo skeptically.

“And what’s in it for you?”

Leonardo smiles broadly.

“Why, I would have the pleasure of collaborating with another brilliant mind! Surely you can see how this would benefit everyone.”

Dev leans over.

“Miss Sarai, we have our journey to complete, don’t we? Not to mention…”

The incubus glances around the room pointedly. Sarai folds her hand in her lap, face blank as she considers Leonardo’s offer.

“And we would be making weapons of war, would we?” she asks. Leonardo chuckles.

“Oh, no! Purely whatever you desire to study. Maybe with our combined intelligence we can even research some magnum opus.”

For a moment, Sarai is silent. A magnum opus – one of the great projects every alchemist dreams of producing. Only the court alchemists in the employ of the richest kingdoms can afford to research. Brazen heads which can answer any question. Philosopher’s stones. Universal solvents. What alchemist doesn’t dream of obtaining the coveted position of court alchemist?

Cautiously, she glances at Dev.

“I think my…servant is right. We do have other obligations. So, I’m afraid we must decline.”

Leonardo sighs wearily. He carefully reaches for a book, placing it on his desk in front of him, closed, and playing with the bookmark of red silk.

“I was afraid you’d say that,” the inventor says, seeming genuinely disappointed.

Sarai stands up, crossing her arms.

“In fact, we really should be going.”

“No, I’m afraid you won’t,” Leonardo says firmly.

Sarai goes stock-still, and Dev rises to his feet.

“You can’t stop us from leaving-” Dev begins.

“Oh, but I can,” Leonardo says, “In fact, my men are already in position.”

Dev looks at Sarai.

“We need to get back to the ship!”

Leonardo yanks on the silk bookmark, and the book explodes.

Or, more specifically, the gun hidden in the hollowed-out book fires, as Leonardo pulls on the bookmark which is tied to the trigger. Shredded paper flies everywhere, along with a small cloud of smoke.

Sarai gasps in shock and is flung backwards, and Dev screams and rushes to her side.

“Sarai!” the incubus screams, but the alchemist coughs and sits up, and Dev does not find any hint of the blood that should be coating her front.

“I’m alright,” she gasps, “Robert cast a spell on me-”

She coughs, waving away the smoke as Dev opens her coat and confirms that she is unharmed, though he suspects she will have a spectacular bruise.

“Oh, thank God,” Dev says, “And I mean that sincerely!”

Sarai shoos the incubus away and points at Leonardo.

“Don’t worry about me, he’s getting away!”

In the confusion, Leonardo da Vinci has thrown open the window and thrown on some sort of backpack. As he steps up onto the windowsill, he turns and smiles.

“Well, my good alchemist, I’m glad you weren’t hurt, truly! But I’m afraid you’ll have to be just as lucky if you want to escape this castle – not to mention, do so with all your friends!”

With that, Leonardo throws himself out the window – only to pull the cord connected to his backpack, causing two wings of canvas and wire to extend, allowing him to glide harmlessly across the courtyard. Dev rushes to the window and watches him soar, then notices the guards rushing about down below.

“Sarai, we need to get down there, now!”

The alchemist joins Dev at the window.

“We don’t have time to go down through the castle. But the good inventor there just gave me an idea.”

She looks at Dev, who swallows nervously.

***

Shabbar sighs.

“It is deeply unfortunate that it has come to this,” he says, before tossing the soldier halfway across the courtyard, “But I cannot allow any of you near the ship!

The other soldiers back away nervously, some of them helping their dazed companion to his feet. A few of them run away to get help, but Shabbar crosses his arms and plants himself firmly in front of the Aliyah.

“Shabbar!” yells a voice. The djinn glances up and sees Sarai, and grunts as he sees her being carried into the courtyard by Dev; the incubus is struggling to stay aloft as he holds tightly to Sarai’s wrists, bobbing and gliding downwards.

“Miss Sarai! Shall we cast off?”

“As soon as the others get here!” Sarai yells, just before she and Dev land in a heap at Shabbar’s side. The djinn helps them both up, and the three hurry to man the Aliyah.

“Where are the others?” Shabbar asks as Sarai stokes the furnace and begins turning valves.

“Moishe is somewhere in the workshop, and Robert – I think he’s still in town!”

“I see,” Shabbar grunts. He unmoors the ship, and Sarai yelps as it begins to rise. Shabbar takes his seat and begins pedaling, and Sarai turns on him.

“What are you doing!?” she screams.

“It would be easier for us to go them, than for them to reach us,” he says, pointing at the soldiers now swarming into the courtyard.

***

“I really am sorry about this,” says Giovanni, pointing a repeating crossbow at Moishe, “But we cannot allow you to leave. Even if your comrades escape, surely you know something about the workings of the ship that we can use…”

Moishe gulps and raises his staff. The thing is beginning to feel like just a weight of dead wood, he hasn’t gotten a single spell – or miracle – out of it since Rabbi Eleazar gifted it to him.

He glances at the window behind Giovanni, and his jaw drops. Giovanni notices his look and turns around.

“Is that-” Giovanni begins, but Moishe swings his staff with his entire body weight behind it, knocking the crossbow out of Giovanni’s hands and causing him to shout in pain. Moishe deals the other apprentice another whack with his walking stick, flooring him, then he rushes to the window and throws it open. The Aliyah is rising into the air, just clearing the walls. It is a mere fifteen feet away, but that may as well be an impossible distance.

“Here! Over here!” he yells. Giovanni is groaning as he recovers, so Moishe does the only thing he can think of. He jumps.

Oh please, let the Angels catch me, or something, I need a miracle here, he thinks, he prays, but instead a rope lashes him in the face and he flails wildly, somehow grabbing onto it. He screams as the rope burns his hands, but he hangs on, and he comes swinging to a halt beneath the Aliyah as it rises further into the air.

Maybe he has just experienced a miracle, he thinks as Shabbar begins to haul on the rope that Dev threw to him, pulling Moishe up towards the ship.

***

Robert comes to a halt as he sees the tank trundle its way into the street.

“And it was turning out to be such a nice day,” he mutters as the clattering, clicking, grumbling machine rolls to a halt. He hears shouting from within, and the snout of a six-pounder gun emerges from one of the portholes, pointed directly at him.

Robert almost drops the bag of magical components he has been carrying, but he manages to hang onto it as he turns and runs.

The cannon fires, and Robert screams as the shot goes wide, gouging a furrow in the field next to him and throwing up a gout of earth.

“Oh, God,” he moans, “And I mean that sincerely!”

There is more shouting and the sound of the cannon being reloaded, and the clattering sound of the tank rolling forward, powered by whatever mechanism turns the wheels within. The cannon fires again, and Robert throws himself to the ground.

“Saint Joan protect me!” he yells. There hasn’t been a spell yet made that can protect from cannons.

He looks up and sees the Aliyah hove into view, and jumps up and down, still hanging onto the bag of components with one hand as he shakes his fist at the sky.

“Hey! Don’t leave me! What in God’s name are you-?”

“Need some help?” asks Shabbar behind him. Robert jumps a foot in the air, spinning around to see Shabbar, standing on the road, arms crossed.

“Shabbar, quick, we have to get out of here!” Robert yells, pointing at the tank, which is still moving forward slowly, but indomitably. “There’s no way we can take that thing on, and the ship is leaving without us! …wait.”

Robert looks up at the ship, then back at Shabbar.

Shabbar smirks, then grabs the wizard-knight by the arm, and there is a pop of displaced air as they find themselves standing on the deck of the Aliyah.

“Thank you, Shabbar, I was wondering where my knight had gotten to,” Sarai tells the djinn. Shabbar continues to smirk at Robert as he takes his place back at the pedals.

“Did you know he could do that?” Robert asks, slightly disoriented.

Sarai snaps her fingers in Robert’s face.

“Robert, focus. Did you get the charm I asked for?”

Robert blinks to clear his head, then nods, producing from his bag a length of canvas, sewn with a complex charm of protection from bullets.

“I’m not sure how well it will protect the gasbag – this has never been tested – but I think it’s our best chance.”

“Good!” Dev yells from the prow, “Because we’ve got company!”

The whirring of the helicopter’s propeller precedes its arrival, hovering into view alongside the Aliyah. The gunman aboard the flying machine fires his gun, but Robert doesn’t even flinch as the bullet pings harmlessly off his magically-reinforced armor.

“Incubus!” he yells, handing the charm to Dev, “Attach this to the gasbag!”

Dev gulps, but takes the charm and spreads his wing. As the gunman reloads, Dev flies up and grabs onto the netting around the gasbag, his tail lashing back and forth as he tries to keep his balance.

The gunman finishes reloading and takes aim at Dev…and misses. Dev screams as the bullet impacts the gasbag next to him…and bounces off, as if it had no more force than a thrown grape behind it. Dev sighs with relief and looks at the charm, now tied firmly to the gasbag, outstretched between two lengths of rope.

“I did it!” Dev calls down to the crew. Sarai sighs in relief.

“Great! Now, let’s get out of here before they realize we’re not all warded!” Robert says. As if on cue, a bullet whizzes by Moishe’s head, and he yelps and flattens himself against the deck.

“We still don’t have a way of taking out that flying machine!” Sarai yells, but Moishe looks at where her traveling chest is secured. He crawls forward as the gunman fires again, almost hitting Shabbar, only for the bullet to be deflected by Robert’s shield.

“I can’t keep this up forever!” the wizard-knight growls. Moishe opens Sarai’s chest and begins mixing things – a very simple concoction, one every apprentice alchemist messes around with for fun at least once…

He waits for the gunman to fire again, and ignores the resulting screams as he pops up, hefting a small incendiary concoction, lobbing it with all his strength at the helicopter. It collides perfectly with the canvas propeller, which goes up like a torch. The two crewmen scream in horror and, to Moishe’s shock, undo their restraints and immediately throw themselves from the ship.

He leans over the railing in horror, expecting to see them hurtling towards the ground – but instead, parachutes blossom from their backpacks, and they drift in the wind, gently floating downwards. The helicopter spirals out of control before dropping like a stone a short distance away, but as the Aliyah flies into the distance it seems like everyone – even the Florentine soldiers – has escaped unharmed.

***

From the walls of Florence, Leonardo and Giovanni watch the ship disappear into the distance.

“Should we send messages ahead and try to cut them off again?” Giovanni asks.

“Hmm…no. I think they’ve outwitted us fair and square this time, Giovanni,” Leonardo muses. Giovanni shrugs.

“I’ll admit, Signore, I’m glad we didn’t have to hurt any of them,” he says.

“No indeed, my assistant, it would have been a shame to damage the ship or its inventor. In a way, I’m sad to see them go…especially that handsome incubus of hers.”

Giovanni huffs, and Leonardo chuckles and pats him on the back.

“Still, it’s also a shame that we didn’t manage to learn anything about the ship,” the apprentice says after a moment.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that, Giovanni…while we didn’t get an exact plan of the ship down, I did make enough observations from that I think we can begin some…tests.”

Leonardo da Vinci begins to chuckle, then throw his head back and let out a full-throated laugh.
 
Shaitan
Pronouns
She/her
Chapter 8: Shaitan

The Aliyah does not stop as it travels down the length of the Italian peninsula. Even once they reach Rome, the crew agrees to do no more than watch the city pass – besides, the only Christian among the crew is Robert, and he does not believe he will be welcome in the seat of the Roman Catholic Church.

“You know, one of ours got into the Vatican,” says Devorah. Robert glares at her.

“Is this some joke?”

“No! During the time of Pope…Sylvester II, that’s right. He was a very accomplished wizard; he created a brazen head, introduced Arabic numerals to Christendom. And he had a succubus consort, Meridiana. She taught him everything he knew, in exchange for him remaining faithful to her. It’s very romantic, when you think about it.”

“What happened?”

“She prophesied that he’d die if he ever gave a sermon in Jerusalem, and, well…”

“There was also a woman Pope, you know,” Sarai adds smugly, “Pope Joan.”

Pope Joan, of course, disguised herself as a man, so successfully that she was able to rise to the position of pope, and to everyone’s embarrassment proved to be extremely good at the job.

“I’m familiar,” Robert says peevishly. Moishe leans forward, grinning.

And there was a Jewish pope, Pope Andreas.”

Robert furrows his brows.

“I’ve heard of Pope Andreas, but…was he Jewish?”

“He’s a legend among Spanish Jews. He was a crypto-Jew, who was so convincing he became cardinal and then pope.”

Robert clears his throat.

“I’ve never heard that story.”

“Well, I suppose you wouldn’t,” Sarai says, “Especially because he robbed the Vatican’s vaults.”

“He what?”

“The menorah – the menorah, from the Temple – was carried back to Rome after the sack of Jerusalem in 77 AD, along with some other artifacts, and eventually fell into the keeping of the Vatican. Pope Andreas thought that…well, that the Jews should have them.”

“So, do you?” Robert asks, “Not you specifically, but…”

Moishe shrugs.

“No one knows. He, um, never told anyone where he hid them. There’s supposed to be some clues, but nobody’s deciphered them.”

Devorah rubs her chin thoughtfully and looks at where Rome sits in the difference.

“I bet you could have a pretty great adventure, trying to find them…sneaking into the Vatican, investigating the clues Pope Andreas left behind…”

“But not an adventure we’re going to have today,” Sarai says, putting her hand on the controls.

And so, the Aliyah passes uneventfully through Italy and crossed the Mediterranean Sea without incident. It is only when they reach the coast of North Africa when another incident occurs.

The Aliyah lands in a small port situated on the coast, in a rocky, sheltered bay. A collection of buildings under the shadow of the cliffs speak to a settlement, and upon further investigation they find a Djinnistan – a settlement of the Djinn, specifically one that seems to cater to travelers.

“Do you know anything about these djinni?” Sarai asks Shabbar. He shakes his head.

“There are many types of djinni, but they are more like different cultures than different races. Most of them are jann, such as myself. Others are marids, which are descended from the slaves of King Solomon. The ifrits are imperious and sometimes cruel, and associated with fire. Then there are the nansa, the half-djinn.”

“What, like the children of a djinn and a human?” asks Sarai.

Shabbar shakes his head.

“No, they are literally half a djinn. One eye, one arm, one leg...then there are the suli, who are all jinniyah – female djinn, skilled shapeshifters, very, ah, mischievous.”

“My people know them well,” Dev says mysteriously.

“I’ve heard there are evil djinn,” Robert adds. Shabbar nods reluctantly.

“There are the shaitan, yes. The servants of Iblis, who was once king in Irem of the Pillars before the creation of men. They hate humanity, and are said to worship demons.”

“Well, these ones seem pretty friendly to travelers, so I think we can relax,” Sarai responds as the djinni emerge from the largest of the buildings. They are led by a jinniyah with golden skin covered in swirling henna tattoos. She smiles at the visitors as her servants come forward to take their bags.

“Greetings, travelers, I am Haraja. Welcome to our humble port, where we invite all travelers to rest and recover from their weary journeys.”

Her eyes move over the ship, twinkling.

“We won’t be staying long,” Sarai says cautiously.

“We have hot and cold baths, as well as food and drink, and salves and ointments to sooth your limbs after your…long journey.”

“Oh yes, hot baths!” Dev says, pushing forwards. Moishe and Shabbar follow him, and Sarai glances at Robert, shrugs, and they follow the others inside.

***

Dev sighs and slips lower into the steaming water.

“This is the life,” he says. Shabbar leans back as well.

“Are you going to join, Moishe?” Shabbar asks. Moishe pauses, glancing at Dev, then shrugs, drops his robe, and quickly scrambles into the water.

“Oh wow, it’s been a while since I had a hot bath,” Moishe says as he feels his muscles relax, the warmth drawing out all weariness. Shabbar smirks.

“Djinn invented bathing you know. And plumbing.”

“Well, you were around before us,” Moishe points out. He sluices water over his head and glances around. “This place is nice. Do they really just make money off travelers?”

“Apparently they also sell alchemical products,” Dev says. The incubus’ long, dark hair is floating in the water around him.

“I see. Sarai will probably want to see them. Where’s Robert?”

“He didn’t feel like joining us,” Shabbar says with a bit of amusement. Dev rolls his eyes.

“Well, his loss,” Moishe says, relaxing.

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so quick to say that,” says Haraja as she enters, flanked by several djinn guards, “In fact you might envy him very soon.”

The three travelers shout in surprise, Moishe covering himself, Dev spinning around to face the jinniyah and her followers, and Shabbar rising to his feet, dripping water onto the tiles.

“What are you doing here?” he asks as the guards fan out to surround the three travelers. Haraja laughs.

“We have a little sideline here in…well, let’s just say we make money off travelers in more ways than one.”

“Slavers,” Shabbar growls.

“Worse than that,” Haraja says, eyes glinting dangerously.

“Shabbar, can’t you do something?” Dev asks as the guards lower their bronze-tipped spears and motion for the captives to come forward. Shabbar glances nervously at the spears hovering close to his throat.

“Not while I’m bound. As long as I’m wearing iron and they’re not, they’ll be stronger than me. Plus, we’re outnumbered.”

Dev looks at Moishe apologetically.

“I think we should do as they say. The others can find us…assuming they haven’t been captured as well.”

Haraja sends nothing, barking a command to her servants, who come forward with ropes and bags to put over their heads.

“This is very unfair, jumping a man while he’s taking a bath,” Moishe says glumly as he’s hauled out of the bath. He hopes that, wherever they are, Sarai and Robert are alright.

***

“Not taking advantage of the amenities?” Sarai asks as she walks into the room where Robert is sitting, sharpening his sword.

“I thought it would be best to stay with the luggage,” Robert says gruffly, “What about you?”

“I wanted to look at their wares. It’s…curious. They must have an extensive alchemical laboratory somewhere here; I wonder how they built up this kind of knowledge. Someone among them must be an experienced alchemist.”

She pauses and looks at Moishe’s staff, lying on a table. Robert grunts and sheathes his sword, rising to his feet.

“Well, we’ll be leaving first thing in the morning, which is all for the best. I don’t trust these djinni.”

Sarai hums thoughtfully.

“You don’t trust anyone much, do you?”

“You shouldn’t,” whispers a female voice. Robert and Sarai turn around and see a seemingly normal section of wall swing open; a hidden door! They glance at each other as a jinniyah steps out cautiously; she is beautiful for a djinn, with short yellow-blonde hair and long, floppy ears. She is very tall, so tall that she has to bend over to pass through the secret door.

“I am Aicha. You…are in grave danger, please, come with me.”

Robert puts his hand on his sword hilt and glares.

“If we’re in danger, why should we trust you?” he asks. Sarai puts her hand on his wrist.

“Are Haraja and the others going to harm us?”

Aicha pauses.

“They will try. Your friends are already captured.”

“What!? Where have they been taken?” Sarai asks. Aicha waves her hand into the passageway.

“I will show you – if we hurry, there may be time to save them.”

“Save them from what?” Robert asks.

“You mean you haven’t figured it out yet? These are shaitan.”

Robert goes pale, and looks at Sarai.

“Devil worshipers. I don’t trust this – jinniyah. She may in league with them. It may be a trap.”

He narrows his eyes, glancing at Aicha suspiciously. Sarai puts her hands on her hips and walks up to the jinniyah.

“Who are you? I mean, why are you trying to help us?”

“I am a guardian of the desert tribes…but I do lend aid to luckless travelers as well,” she says, with a thin smile.

Sarai and Robert glance at each other, then they hear shouts and pounding feet in the hall outside.

“Time to choose,” Sarai murmurs, then nods at the luggage. Robert sighs and grabs his traveling chest, handing Sarai her alchemist’s kit. Sarai takes a step towards the secret door, then pauses, and on a whim, she turns around and grabs Moishe’s walking stick off the table. Robert gives the door one more glare before following the alchemist.

“This better not be a trap,” he murmurs as he and Sarai crowd into the passageway behind Aicha. She swings the secret door shut behind them and giggles.

“No, it’s not a trap. But you will have to face a great evil if you want to get your friends back.”

***

Aicha leads the two travelers out into the desert, miles inland. Around them is a barren expanse of sand and rock, broken by scraggly desert plants. Sarai blinks in the sunlight, having been through miles of tunnels with only Robert’s lightstone to guide her. Robert extinguishes the magical glowing rock and stores it among his robes, squinting up at the sky.

“I’d hoped not to go riding around desert places in armor again,” he mutters, then produces his spellbook and begins reciting a spell of protection from the sun. Aicha shrugs.

“The lair of the shaitan lies in the desert, that way,” she says, pointing, “You will find no tracks, though. The shaitan forced your friends to pilot your ship there.”

Sarai hisses in anguish.

“Well, that’s the second person who’s tried to steal our ship,” she says, “Only this time they took my apprentice, too. And you can’t help us track them?”

She turns around, but Aicha has already vanished into the tunnel – or perhaps into the desert.

“That’s alright,” Robert says, putting away his spellbook and digging through his traveling chest, “I can track them with a bit of magic…do we have anything of theirs?”

Sarai glances down at the walking stick she grabbed, then offers it to Robert.

“I’m not sure why I grabbed this,” she says, “But it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”

Robert grunts as he takes the staff and draws a magic circle in the sand with it.

“Lucky us.”

He plants the staff in the center of the circle, standing upright, then produces a string with a weight on the end. He lets the weight swing back and forth over the circle, waiting…then, the weight begins to swing off towards the south, defying gravity as if pulled by some stronger force in the direction of the staff’s owner. Robert smiles triumphantly and nods to Sarai, who takes the staff and looks off into the desert.

“Well done, wizard-knight. I knew I hired you for a reason.”

***

The sun bakes the earth below, and Sarai and Robert cross the shifting sands, following their magical guide. The weight on the end of its string does not stray in the slightest, keeping the two on a straight course south by southwest.

“We’re being followed,” Robert says suddenly after an hour or so of endless walking. Despite the spell he cast on himself to ward off the sun, sweat still runs down his face and beneath his armor. Sarai stops and turns around suddenly.

“Who? How can you tell?”

Robert looks at the dunes around them.

“Demons. I can sense them.”

Sarai shivers despite the heat and raises Moishe’s staff.

“Will they hurt us?”

Robert shakes his head.

“These are the weaker kind. They can cast illusions, tempt us with false rewards, try and tell us hidden knowledge…but they can’t come any closer. I have this-” he pulls a crucifix on a silver chain from his belt and wraps it around his wrist, “And you have…that.”

He nods at the staff, and Sarai looks at it cautiously.

“This? It’s just a walking stick that Moishe’s…rabbi…gave him…”

She looks at with rather more consideration, and Robert nods.

“Right, that’ll do it. I know a holy item when I see one. It may have been made under a different name of God than my crucifix, but it’ll work alright.”

Sarai looks around the barren dunes.

“Are they out there now? Watching us?”

Robert nods.

“They exist in the spiritual world, most of the time. They voices are like…birds copying human speech, rather than actual language. I don’t think they have minds like we do.”

“You know a lot about demons, then?”

“I do. Did. I was a Templar, after all.” He sighs. “There are the lesser demons, the shedim, like this one. They have number beyond count, and are responsible for all sorts of ills. Disease, possession, inclement weather. Then there are the greater demons, the Archdevils who masquerade as false gods, encourage the worship of idols…and grant all sorts of powers.”

“Like Baphomet.”

Robert sighs.

“Yes, like…that thing. I don’t know how or why the heads of the Knights Templar first began to consort with him. Maybe they thought to bind his powers for good – Wise King Solomon bound the Archdevil Asmodeus, once upon a time. Pride, of course, is a demon’s favorite sin. The blasphemous rites they did…I’m sure at first, they justified them, placating some lesser evil to strengthen a righteous cause, but eventually even our order couldn’t keep it a secret. When that happened, when I found out, it...”

Robert trails off staring at the sand dunes. Sarai listens, and thinks she can hear a sound like a distant babble of voices, like a great crowd all talking over one another.

Robert clears his throat and looks down at the magical guide.

“We should keep going. They grow stronger at night.”

***

In a great cave lit by torches, the beating of drums echoes from the stones and fills the vast open space with a sound like thunder. Moishe lies bound before an altar of roughly-hewn stone – thankfully wearing clothes again, even if they are just a shift and sandals. Shabbar is being held between two shaitan with muscles – and horns – like bulls. Dev lies bound to the altar.

“I’m warning you, if you’re looking for a virgin’s blood you’re going to be let down,” the incubus mutters.

“O-oh yeah, I’m not a virgin either!” Moishe adds, unconvincingly. Haraja kicks him.

“Quiet,” she mutters moving around the altar. Around her, the other shaitan have begun to dance and play cymbals and tambourines. Moishe notices the passageway behind her, concealed by a flowing silk curtain.

“Don’t worry, Moishe, we’ll get out of this,” Dev murmurs as Haraja raises her arms.

“The Creator would have asked us to prostrate ourselves by bowing to these wretched things, these children of Adam, made of dirt!”

“Hey, I’m a child of Lilith!” Dev protests, but Haraja continues.

“We will shed their blood to feed the one who we call on – Berith, Great Duke of Hell!”

The curtain behind her ripples.

“Why are you doing this?” Moishe screams, “Why serve an Archdevil?”

“Quiet!” Haraja shrieks, drawing a knife, “God is not worth serving! Why would He create a broken world like this, where people suffer and die far from his light? He asks for servitude and gives nothing! He does not care about you crawling things! The Archdevil is here, and the price of his blessing is one we are willing to give – your blood!”

***

“They seem cheery,” Sarai mutters. She and Robert are crouching outside the mouth of the cave, hidden by the deep shadows of the falling night. The desert air is cold, and the heat of the torches within does little to push back the chill.

“We need to get in there,” Robert hisses, as Haraja’s speech rises to a crescendo. He points at Shabbar.

“Can’t you do something to help him?”

Sarai looks at the djinn, held tightly, his wrists bound with iron bracers. She glances down at the ring with his name bound on it, still sitting on her finger.

“I can! I have the ring!”

Robert looks confused.

“You can’t make him stronger, can you?” he asks. Sarai bites her lip.

“Not so long as he’s my servant…”

She takes the ring off and looks through her alchemist’s kit, producing a stone bowl and a flask of acid. Sighing, she pours the acid into the bowl and holds the ring, hesitating.

“What will happen if you do that?” Robert asks.

“I don’t know what he’ll do once we get out of this…but we need to unbind him or we won’t get out of here at all.”

She drops the ring into the acid, then swirls the bowl around as the iron dissolves.

***

Shabbar grunts in surprise as the iron bracers unclasp themselves and clatter to the floor of the cave. His nose rings and earrings follow, and for a moment he massages his wrists, surprised at the sensation which he hasn’t felt in many years...

“Hey-” grumbles the djinn holding his right shoulder as he notices the movement.

Shabbar grabs the shaitan and throws him overhand, roaring mightily. The guard lands on top of Haraja, but she pushes the stunned shaitan to the side and jumps to her feet.

“Get him!”

Shabbar spins and punches the other guard in the face, flooring him. He notices the other shaitan dropping their instruments and charging forwards, but then he sees a flash of bright steel at the entrance of the cave.

Robert de Villiers, clad from head to toe in shining armor, draws his sword.

“Have a kiss of iron, devil-worshipers!” he shouts, throwing himself into the crowd of shaitan, who panic and begin to rush about the cave, as Shabbar and Robert together begin venting their fury on the evil djinn.

“Ha! I knew they’d find us!” Dev says, slipping his bonds. He helps Moishe to untie himself, then jumps from the altar as Haraja comes at him, wielding her knife. Moishe staggers to his feet, then sees his teacher coming through the melee.

“Moishe, catch!” she shouts, tossing him his staff. He catches it and turns around, trying to see through the confusion. Dev is dancing away from Haraja, the knife-wielding shaitan screeching in rage. Robert and Shabbar are wreaking havoc on the other djinn, Shabbar throwing them around with sweeps of his mighty arms while Robert’s sword flashes again and again, shedding droplets of blood that glisten in the torchlight. It seems that the shaitan are in full retreat, being more used to ambushing travelers than holding their own in a stand-up fight. Moishe swallows and turns to face the curtain, staff gripped tightly in his hands.

He pushes the curtain aside and passes through the mouth of the passageway, and immediately darkness falls, and the sound of the battle behind him fade. He has no idea why he’s doing this, but he feels the need to confront whatever lies behind this doorway.

He isn’t sure what he expects to find at the end of the passageway; it could be anything, from a monster made of disparate parts of horrible creatures, to nothing at all. To his surprise, he finds a man, tall and muscular, with red skin and the legs of a goat.

No, Moishe thinks, Horse’s legs, his hooves aren’t cloven.

The Archdevil is wearing the red uniform of a soldier and a red crown.

“Berith,” Moishe says.

“Moishe ben David,” the Archdevil replies in a clear, conversational tone. Again, not quite what Moishe expected. He looks around the cavern, finding only bare stone, and marvels at how brightly-lit the cave is. The light, he realizes, is coming from Berith.

“You don’t belong here,” Moise says, wielding his staff. The devil hesitates.

“I have great knowledge of alchemy, Moishe ben David, alchemist’s apprentice. Would you like to know the secret of transmuting all metals into gold?”

Moishe pauses. Can this devil truly teach him that? If so, why have generations of alchemists each struggled to discover the secret on their own? Why have they not simply…asked?

Then he remembers the altar outside, and the dark stains that were covered when Dev was tied down on it.

“The price is too high for me,” Moishe says simply, and Berith shrugs.

“Many have said that, but there is always a price.”

“Why is there a price at all? Do you just want us to suffer?”

Berith tilts his head thoughtfully.

“Why indeed? I don’t make the rules, so I can’t say. I just come when I am called.”

“So, you’re saying it’s in your nature. That…that Hashem created you this way?”

“I wouldn’t know. I cannot hear the voice of Hashem.”

Berith almost looks sad.

“Well, I don’t see why something as evil as you would be part of Hashem’s creation,” Moishe insists, but hesitation creeps into his voice. Berith rubs his chin.

“A great conundrum, I know, but that’s not my field. If you want some devils who can teach you logic and philosophy, I have a few names I could give you...”

“I’ll pass,” Moishe says, “I’ve heard enough of your lies. Begone, demon! You are not wanted here!”

Moishe thrusts his staff at the Archdevil. Berith is already fading, becoming jerky, his figure blurred, like a charcoal drawing that has been rubbed over. The light flickers. The devil raises his hands.

“Wait, don’t send me out! I’ll teach you anything you want, just give me the-”

“Go!”

Berith vanishes, plunging Moishe into darkness. He stands in silence, with only the sound of his breathing to keep him company. He holds his staff close. He finally managed to use it…and to banish a demon!

“Moishe?”

He turns at the sound of Sarai’s voice, and quickly goes to her. The cave is empty aside from a few shaitan who weren’t fast enough to escape Robert and Shabbar. Haraja is nowhere to be seen, but nobody seems to be harmed.

“What were you doing in there?” Robert asks, and pushes past Moishe, shield raised in front of him and crucifix in his other hand. After a moment he returns, shaking his head. “It’s gone.”

“I, uh, banished him.”

Robert turns to him in shock, then nods, looking over Moishe as if in a new light.

“Well done, Moishe.”

He claps the apprentice alchemist on the shoulder and goes to join Sarai, who, to Moishe’s surprise, hugs him.

“I’m glad you’re okay!” she gasps, before holding him at arm’s length. “I knew that rabbi would cause trouble! What sort of ideas is he giving you, that you feel the need to run off after demons! I have half a mind…”

Shabbar clears his throat, and Sarai trails off. She sighs and turns to face the djinn, who spreads his arms – bare of any sort of iron bonds – and smiles.

“So, are we getting a move on?” the djinn asks. Sarai blinks in surprise.

“You mean…you’re still with us?”

Shabbar laughs.

“I am no longer bound by contract, it is true…but, that only means that I can choose to go where I will. And I think…I would like to see this venture through to the end.”

“Won’t your master be upset? Barqan?”

Shabbar frowns.

“Well…he may be. But if he is, we shall learn of it soon. In the meantime, I think you’ll be needing me to get out of here, won’t you?”

He offers his hand to Sarai. The alchemist laughs and takes his hand.

“As a matter of fact, I will. Come on everyone, I’ve had enough of this place! We’ve got a schedule to meet!”
 
the Pyramids
Pronouns
She/her
Chapter 9: The Pyramids

“So, what did Hajara mean? I didn’t really understand what she was yelling at us about,” Moishe asks. The ship has traveled the width of North Africa and has now reached Egypt. Night has fallen over the Nile, and the crew watches from the ship as the silhouettes of the Great Pyramids make a stark contrast against the light of the rising Moon.

Shabbar gives him a pained look.

“When Allah created Adam, he ordered the djinn to bow before the first man. Iblis, who was king in Irem of the Pillars, refused. He rebelled against Allah, and those that followed him in rebellion become the shaitan. The angels destroyed Irem of the Pillars, and ever since the shaitan have hated humanity, and wish to destroy you.”

“Why would Iblis rebel against Hashem?”

Shabbar shrugs uncomfortably.

“Some would say he refused to bow to anyone but Allah himself. In that sense, his sin was one of pride, that he refused to subjugate himself to what he saw as a weaker, younger race. Or perhaps he thought none but Allah was worthy of submission, in which case his sin, while founded in misguided loyalty, was merely one of believing he knew better than Allah’s own will. But whatever nobility was once in him or his followers is long gone.”

“And…what of the demons? What are they?” Moishe asks.

“Demons are fallen angels, are they not?” Devorah asks, “They rebelled against God, like your shaitan.”

“But angels don’t have free will,” Shabbar says, “So how can an angel rebel against Allah?”

Robert frowns.

“Is that the case? Surely Satan caused the War in Heaven-”

“No, it is written in the noble Quran that angels obey Allah in all things. This was communicated by the Prophet Muhammed, Peace Be Upon Him.”

Moishe scratches his chin thoughtfully.

“Well…I don’t see why he would be wrong about that…”

“It is likely that Muhammed spoke with Gabriel,” Robert admits grudgingly, “Even if we do not acknowledge that he was a prophet.”

“That is alright,” Shabbar replies, “You are both still People of the Book, and may be forgiven your ignorance.”

Robert looks at Shabbar sharply, but the djinn’s smile takes the edge off his words. Moishe leans forward.

“That doesn’t really answer my question, though. What do demons want? Do they just want to make us suffer, to tempt us away from the commands of Hashem?”

“The Archdevils desire worship and sacrifice – idolatry, in other words. They wish to be considered gods themselves,” Robert says.

“Well, it’s not like Hashem made them that way…did He?” Moishe asks.

“I don’t really think there is a Devil,” Devorah muses, “In the Old Testament, there’s only the figure of ha-Satan; the Adversary, literally, but it seems like any number of angels can serve as adversaries – figures meant to test mankind, like a job description. Samael, the Angel of Death, he’s a satan.” The others give her odd looks. “What? I’ve read your holy books, too.”

Moishe throws his staff down on the deck of the ship.

“I’ve almost had it with this thing! The one time it’s actually useful and I banish a demon, I’m just left with more questions!”

Devorah picks up the staff and puts it back in Moishe’s hands, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“Maybe you’ll find your answers in Jerusalem.”

Sarai pokes her head up from behind the furnace.

“What have I told you all about theological debates?” Sarai asks as she wipes her hands off with a dirty rag, “In any case, we will be in Jerusalem soon. You should all get some rest; we’ll arrive in the next day or so.”

Dawn comes, and the sun rises above the eastern rim of the world, beginning its ascent. It is now directly in front of them; Jerusalem lies at the exact center of the flat disk of Earth, the literal center of the universe, and all the crew are now bent towards it. Moishe hopes to find answers to his questions about demons, magic, and the nature of Kabbalah. Robert and Shabbar hope to make pilgrimage to the greatest holy sites in their respective religions. Devorah hopes to see the Succubus Quarter, a riot of people and sensations, one of the greatest assemblies of her people in the world.

Sarai…

The alchemist clears her throat and stands before them.

“Everyone, when we reach Jerusalem, we’ll be staying with Fahrettin Bey. He’s a Turkish merchant, one of my investors.”

“Investors?” Moishe asks sharply. Sarai glares at him.

“Don’t give me that look. This was an expensive project; I needed funding, and the only way to do that was to take loans. Loans that, frankly, were very likely to be paid back.”

“Wait, what?” Moishe asks. Sarai plants her hands on her hips.

“I explained the risks! Even if the venture didn’t fail, we were unlikely to turn an actual profit. Not on the first voyage. Fahrettin Bey thinks in the long term, he understands that. I’m just not so sure the others really understood that.”

“You took loans you knew you couldn’t repay?” Robert asks.

“This ship…this means so much to me. I was willing to accept the risks. If my other investors come after us, asking after their money…Fahrettin Bey will take care of them.”

“I don’t like the sound of this,” Shabbar grumbles. The others nod in agreement.

“We’ve been through so much together,” Sarai continues, “I know we can see this out, we’re more than halfway there already. The Kingdom of Prester John awaits…”

She trails off, suddenly uncertain. It’s true, there was risk involved…but at the time, all she could think was that the ship was finally close to completion, that once it was in the air all would be solved and she would be…

Respected? Admired? The thought may have been proud, but Sarai had only wanted...well, never mind that, now. As she looks at her crew, she thinks about the tests they have endured, Leonardo da Vinci’s offer of a partnership, their capture by the shaitan which convinced her to release Shabbar from her service…thankfully, not to the detriment of the venture. There are, of course, things more important than fame.

Sarai is shaken out of her thoughts as Devorah suddenly leaps up on the bow of the ship and pointing.

“Everyone, look! We have reached Jerusalem!”
 

MagnificentLilyWitch

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Ah theological minutia. One of my favourite things. Moishe really should treat his sacred staff better, if for no other reason then it can turn into a venomous snake. Jerusalem in this world of magic and religion should be very cool to see.
 
Jerusalem
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She/her
Chapter 10: Jerusalem

Jerusalem! City of God! Located at the exact center of the flat disk of Earth, at noon the towers of Jerusalem cast no shadow. Home to one million souls, it is the most populated city on Earth, and the most diverse. Aside from Christians, Muslims, and Jews, there are priests, prophets, wise men, and mad men of every imaginable sect and heresy, from Druze to Assassins, Cathars to Samaritans, Franciscans to Dominicans. It is said that every race and creed is represented here; Arabs, Turks, Syrians, Greeks, Persians, Armenians, Georgians, Africans, Indians, Europeans…and as for the nation of Israel, there are not only Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Sephardi Jews from around the Mediterranean, but Jews from the Khazar Khanate, black-skinned Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews from the Kingdom of Prester John, and even travelers and pilgrims from the Ten Tribes beyond the River Sambation.

At any time one can find the streets crowded with immigrants, emigrants, pilgrims, refugees, musicians, magicians, merchants, saints, princes, beggars, thieves, and whores. Humans are not along in Jerusalem, for there are succubi, djinn, ghouls, giants, and even the strange and fantastic tribes of the Kingdom of Prester John living alongside the descendants of Adam.

From Fahrettin Bey’s manor, the crew can see the city – specifically, the Penitent Way, with its shrines and chapels seemingly every twenty feet – laid out beneath them. The Turkish merchant is bedecked in rich silks, and rings glint on every one of his fingers. While Fahrettin Bey may be too round about the middle to go travelling these days, he was a great adventurer and swashbuckler in his youth, and he is thrilled by the prospect of Sarai’s flying ship.

“Yes, here is the City of God,” Fahrettin Bey says as the crew turns away from the lovely view and back to the small dinner party their host is putting on for them. “If there is a greater city on this Earth, I have not seen it. And I have seen a few cities in my day! Now come, I have a wonderful dinner, and while I have also eaten a few dinners in my day, my own table is surely worth a look!”

He slaps his round belly ironically as Sarai follows him to the side tables, talking in hushed tones about the venture. The crew look at each other for a moment.

“It’s so…vibrant,” Robert says, humbled, “This city has history baked into its very bricks.”

Devorah rubs her hands together.

“I know! So many people, so little time!”

“We can allow ourselves one small indulgence of a dinner party,” Shabbar says, twirling his moustache as he heads for the food. Moishe shrugs as the others split up, lingering by the window. He can see the sun setting near the Temple Mount, where the Wailing Wall sits beneath the Dome of the Rock, and into which are dug Solomon’s Stables. Truly, history piled on history…

“Hello, a fellow member of the Tribe of Israel?” says a voice as another man joins him at the window. Moishe takes a moment to realize what he’s just heard, for it is a sensation he has only experienced once or twice: someone talking to him in Tongues.

It is a curious spell, or some would say miracle; though he knows the noises he hears and the movements of the other person’s lips do not match the words themselves, he still understands them as if they popped into his head without the need to go through his ears.

“Yes, from Sepharad. I’m Moishe ben David,” he says automatically, before shaking his head and taking another look at the stranger.

The man is broad and hairy – very hairy, with a long, bushy black beard that covers the lower half of his face, long curled hair. Even his arms are covered in coarse black hair. He smiles amicably, though, and Moishe relaxes.

“Avraham Ashkenaz, but my friends call me Avi.”

“Ashkenaz? Where in Europe are your family from?”

“Romania,” Avi says shortly, “But of late I am from here in Jerusalem, since my family fled the country.”

Moishe nods grimly. For many years now Vlad Dracula, the Vampire King of Wallachia, has ruled the country with absolute terror, and his threat is so great that Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Poland, and the Ottoman Empire put aside their difference to draw up an alliance against him. But that’s not important right now.

“Well, Avi, this is my first visit to Jerusalem – I was hoping for someone local to show me around. Tell me, do you know where I can find some teachers of the law? My rabbi back in Grenada asked me to look into something while I was here...”

***

Robert surreptitiously produces a flask from among his clothing and drinks from it.

“Not a Mohammedan, I take it?” asks a gentle feminine voice. Robert brightens as he notices the petite young woman at his side, dressed in a simple but familiar gown.

“I did not expect to hear French spoken so far from home!” he says. The Frenchwoman smiles prettily and leans forward.

“Indeed, nor did I! I unfortunately had to immigrate here – tell me, what are your feelings towards the Avignon Papacy?”

Robert looks grim.

“Unfortunately, we have had a…bit of a falling out.”

The woman smiles.

“How coincidental, it is the same with me! My name is Mary.”

“Robert de Villiers. What is the nature of your quarrel with Avignon?”

She seems surprised by the question.

“Well, as you know, they have declared us Good Christians heretics. This despite the fact that they insist on sinful materialism, when they should realize that all things flesh and material are the creations of the Demiurge!”

Robert immediately realizes what is going on. “Good Christians” is the term the Cathars use amongst themselves. A Gnostic sect, they have indeed been declared heretics by both European Popes, but Robert was a good Avignon rite Catholic himself before the fall of the Templars.

“How…interesting,” he mutters, but Mary the Cathar seems to ignore him as she warms to the topic.

“Tell me, if God is good, why would He create a flawed and sinful world? The only true good things are the spiritual ones, the soul, the Angels, and God himself. Jesus came to free us of this material world through baptism, which is why-”

Robert’s jaw tightens, but as he looks around for the other members of the crew in the hopes, she presses on.

***

Shabbar is also approached as he piles a platter high with food.

“I had not expected to find you here,” says the stranger.

Shabbar almost dismisses the man, so unremarkable in appearance save only for his black hair and his all-black clothing, but Shabbar gives him a second glance. He is of indeterminate age, that strange look that may be old or young all at once, and more importantly, he is too unremarkable, like someone trying very hard not to be noticed.

“My lord Barqan!” Shabbar blurts out, almost dropping his food in shock. Barqan, Djinn King of Wednesday, laughs and catches the plate, setting it on the table. A few people turn to look, but quickly go back to their business.

“Relax, Shabbar, I simply want to speak to you about recent events.”

Shabbar bows at the waist.

“Of course, my lord Barqan. I…I admit, I have grown fond of the others.”

Barqan seems surprised by that. He looks around the dinner party thoughtfully.

“Yes, and after reviewing the events of your contract severance, I must admit Sarai bat Binyamin had good reason to break your binds in such a way. I have no more love for Iblis’ court than any of my colleagues, so it was all in all a good deed.”

“Truly, you are indeed known for your justice,” Shabbar says, still bowed forward.

“Yes, well, extenuating circumstances aside, there is the topic of your service to me, which hasn’t concluded yet. We’ll need to bind you with a new ring and all that, I’ll have to send Hurmiz to take care of that…hmm, that is the question, isn’t it?”

Shabbar is completely still, waiting for Barqan’s judgement. While his king is consistent on matters of justice, he can be…mercurial on other matters, especially those of timing. He is the only one of the Djinn Kings who keeps a palace but never uses it.

Barqan, Djinn King of Wednesday, runs his fingers through his beard, glaring intently at Shabbar as he makes up his mind.

“Let’s just say that when your journey is finished, we’ll renegotiate,” Barqan says, patting Shabbar’s shoulder.

“M-my lord Barqan?” Shabbar stammers.

“Well, my intent on sending you to Sarai bat Binyamin was to ensure that her venture succeeded, and she needs you for that, soooo...”

Shabbar struggles to form words.

“Again, I thank you, my lord Barqan, truly you are known for your justice!”

“Yes, yes, I know. Just don’t let it happen again. Now, are those puff pastries I see?”

***

The next day, Avi leads Moishe up the steps of some great building atop one of Jerusalem’s seven hills. He waves Moishe forward.

“You can go in on your own, I’ll stay out here, uh, just in case.”

“What is this place?” Moishe asks, gathering up his staff.

“Jerusalem’s great hall of debate. Today the rabbis have it, but sometimes you can find, oh, men of all faiths and heresies arguing about the nature of God. I’ve never been one for it, but you might.”

“I know something of that,” Moishe admits. He takes a deep breath and enters the hall.

There are indeed many rabbis sitting around a semicircle of tiered steps. The center of the room is bare, as if they are waiting for someone to step forward to speak first. There are men of all sorts, in all manner of dress (though all immaculately in accordance with Jewish law). Moishe sees a black-skinned Ethiopian rabbi next to a rabbi with Central Asian features, and others besides.

The eldest of the rabbis elbows his neighbor and gestures to Moishe’s staff. The others stop their murmured arguments and look at him.

“Well, that’s one of Rabbi Eleazar’s staves if my eyes haven’t failed me,” says the Ethiopian rabbi, the Rabbi Yacob, “You must be this pupil he’s told us of.”

The eldest rabbi, the Rabbi Shlomo, leans forward.

“Come now, tell us your name.”

Moishe clears his throat and steps forward.

“I am Moishe ben David of the city of Grenada. I am an apprentice alchemist, although yes, the Rabbi Eleazar has said that I would make a good apprentice.”

“He’ll need to attend the proper schooling,” says the Rabbi Yitzhak of Khazaria, “And I bet he’ll need to learn Aramaic as well.”

“Let him speak,” says the Rabbi Joseph of Cochin in the Kingdom of Prester John.

“Well, yes, I do have a lot to learn. But, the Rabbi Eleazar instructed me to learn what I could of the Kabbalah-”

This is met by a few nods, some muttered words, and a few men talking over each other until the Rabbi Shlomo restores order.

“And so, you came to us, in Jerusalem the Great. Very good, very good. Where to begin?”

“Where to begin?” Moishe echoes, “I know that Kabbalah is – well, it’s a mystic practice, I know, but what is it about?”

“A difficult question,” says the Rabbi David of Amsterdam.

“Difficult to say,” echoes the Rabbi Yacob.

“Ah, I know!” says the Rabbi Joseph, “The sefirot!”

Some nods of agreement; the Rabbi Shlomo picks up the thread.

“Imagine, if you will, that Hashem is an infinite ocean. He cannot interact with the world directly because, well, there must be things other than Hashem.”

“The world exists in an absence of the divine,” Rabbi Joseph notes “Imagine creation as an act of tzimtzum¸ divine contraction.”

“Of course, this is a simplification,” says the Rabbi David.

“More of an analogy,” adds the Rabbi Yacob.

The Rabbi Shlomo continues.

“Yes, yes, I’m simplifying for the boy. So, now the question is how Hashem can allow His divinity to reach us in a manageable amount. So, he builds…a series of vessels. Each smaller than the last, with funnels to channel the water into smaller and smaller quantities, until finally it reaches us, in this world.”

“These vessels are the sefirot,” the Rabbi Yacob says, “The emanations of Hashem.”

“But,” the Rabbi Shlomo says, “The vessels…let’s say they broke, washing pieces of themselves down the stream, where they clogged up the channels. The whole cosmic order is misaligned!”

Moishe speaks up.

“So…so that’s why there’s evil in the world? These sefirot, the…the divine rays, instead of reaching us as they should, they’ve become all clouded and disrupted!”

Rabbi Shlomo brightens.

“You’re beginning to understand!”

“Somewhat,” the Rabbi Yitzchak mumbles.

“It’s a good start,” the Rabbi David admits.

Rabbi Joseph leans forward.

“That’s what Kabbalah is – the realignment of the divine emanations. The goal of Kabbalah is perfection – first, self-fulfillment, then perfection of the world, then perfection of the upper world.”

“Wait…so the sefiot can be fixed?” Moishe asks.

Rabbi Yitzchak clears his throat.

“That’s a complicated question – you can learn about all that later. But basically, yes, human action can affect the divine order.”

“I see…” Moishe says slowly, “So…wait, what about angels and demons? Because, if the Angels are creations of Hashem, does that mean that demons are like…are like Angels that are broken? Like, they’re cut off from Hashem due to the misalignment of the sefirot?”

“Well…” begins the Rabbi Yacob.

“That is…” starts the Rabbi Joseph.

“It’s certainly one way of looking at it,” says the Rabbi David, “Indeed, perfection of the upper world is supposed to include perfection of the divine hosts.”

Rabb Yitzchak speaks up.

“Yes, and if you consider the Rabbi Isaac’s Treatise on the Emanations of the Left Hand-

“We’re all familiar with Rabbi Isaac’s Treatise of the Emanations of the Left Hand,” gripes the Rabbi Shlomo.

“Oy vey,” someone mutters.

“So, we could realign them with the divine, too?” Moishe asks.

“It’s probable,” admits the Rabbi Shlomo.

“Very possible,” adds the Rabbi Yacob.

Moishe looks at the assembled rabbis, a bit disappointed.

“Well, this is all very interesting, and tells me a lot…but I’m not sure how much I can use until I learn more.”

The Rabbi Shlomo scoffs.

“Oh, I’m sure there are plenty of valuable lessons to be had!”

“Tell me, if the sefirot are misaligned, what does that tell us?” asks the Rabbi David.

“That creation is incomplete,” answers Moishe.

“Just so. And if human action can affect the divine, what does that tell us?” asks the Rabbi Yitzchak.

“That it is our task to complete it!”

“Quite right. And if demons are the result of separation from Hashem?” asks the Rabbi Joseph

“Then we should seek to reunite them with the divine?”

“In a sense. And if the goal of Kabbalah is perfection, first of the self, then of the world?” Asks the Rabbi Yacob.

“Then…then it is not so different from alchemy! We also seek to purify and-” Moishe slaps his forehead, “Oh, that’s why the Rabbi Eleazar wanted me to finish my apprenticeship!”

The Rabbi Shlomo smiles.

“I think you’ve learned well! I understand your desire to know more. Your journey will take you to Baghdad, correct?”

“I think so.”

“In that case, seek an audience with the Exilarch. I will give you a letter of recommendation, he is a very skilled Kabbalist, and a friend of mine. He will tell you a bit more, hopefully enough to help.”

Moishe bows.

“Thank you, teachers. I am honored to have been taught by you, I promise I will use your knowledge to do good.”

“I’m sure you will,” says the Rabbi Shlomo, “The Rabbi Eleazar is also a good friend of mine, and he is a good judge of character. And I can tell you have the makings of a great wise man.”

It is at that moment that Avi comes running into the debate hall.

“Moishe, come quick! Your friends are in trouble!”
 

MagnificentLilyWitch

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Lol poor Robert running into a Gnostic when he's so *very* much a Avingon Catholic.

I'm glad Shabbar gets more time in freedom. Hopefully he will at least have a better negotiating position by the end of this.

I'd be lying is I said that the thought of the Vampire King of Wallachia fighting the Airship fleet of Florence didn't excite me.

So I wonder if the trouble is from Robert's meeting with Mary the Cathar or if Dev and/or Sarai have maanaged to get themselves into their own trouble?
 
the Boss of Little Ind New
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Chapter 11: the Boss of Little Indica

Menander falls into a roll and comes up to his knees, catching the juggling balls and holding them out in his hands. His ears, each one hanging down to his knees, flap about his face like stage curtains.

The Panotii catches his breath after his tumbling act has concluded, smiling at the cheering crowd. He makes sure to tip a friendly nod towards the children in the front row. As his audience filters out, his admissions clerk gives him a thumbs up. Menander lets out a relieved breath, then picks himself up and steps backstage, dropping his juggling balls in a bucket on his way inside.

From there, the star of Little Ind's most popular sideshow grabs a wet cloth and wipes the makeup from his face. He throws it over his shoulder and walks through the halls of the building that his little stage fronts onto. To most, this is just another nondescript building, but to a select few this is known as the building from which Little Ind, and indeed a healthy portion of Jerusalem's underground economy, is guided.

Menander whistles, pushing his huge, floppy ears back over his shoulders. Panotii are known for their ears, and outside their homeland they are often sought out as jesters and tumblers. In their homeland of Ind, their reputation is less unassuming.

There are many strange and fantastic tribes from the Kingdom of Prester John – the Panotii, the Monopods, the dog-headed Cynocephali, the Blemmyae or Headless Men – and in Jerusalem, all may be found in the neighborhood of Little Ind.

Menander enters a smoky room dominated by a long wooden table. Behind the chair at the head of the table (empty) is a gilded icon of Saint Thomas, patron of all Ind, and another of Saint Christopher, a Cynocephalid himself. Several other members of Jerusalem's Indian immigrant races are waiting around the table, however. A Cynocephalid leans his canine head in the palms of his hands, while across from him a Blemmyae sits heavily in his armchair like a corpulent toad. He puts the mouthpiece of a hookah to his lips and takes a pull, then lets out a cloud of the aromatic smoke that already hovers around the ceiling of the chamber. The Blemmyae of Jersualem are descended from prisoners of war carted back to the city by Al-Iskandar the Great, so long ago, and from their new home in the city the neighborhood of Little Ind had sprung up, attracting immigrants from the Kingdom of Prester John over the next thousand years.

Menander coughs politely and sits next to the dog-headed man. Others are joining the meeting - a few more Panotii, a human, and finally the boss himself. Scylax is a Panotii, an aged member of his race, with wrinkled ears that hung down to his knees and a chest covered in curly white hair showing through an open blouse. At his right hand sits an elderly man in a wheeled chair, not a human but a Davalpa, a race with long serpentine tendrils in place of legs. Davalpas are themselves known for keeping these appendages tucked under their bodies, at which point they appear to be mere legless humans. This particular specimen was Antiochus, who it is said has his ears open to every beggar in Jerusalem, though this is doubtless an exaggeration.

"To business," Scylax says, waving his hand in front of his face. Save for the massive ears, he looks like any other elderly man - smooth, wrinkled skin, white curly hair, but his eyes are keep and sharp, and dark. Combined with those ears, they call to mind the wise face of an elephant. "Marcus, how's the next race look?"

The human clears his throat and fingers the silver chain around his neck, hung with a crucifix, a hamsa, and various other magic charms.

"I buried the curse tablet under the Armenian's horse, she's guaranteed to lose," the wizard says with a sour look. Scylax nods and looks at Antiochus.

"Now, what news of this ship?"

"Er, which ship is this?" interrupts the Blemmyae across the table slowly. Scylax has many fingers in many pies, and his organization has contacts in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf trades. Menander is no stranger to ships sunk, cargoes lost, or dockworkers' palms greased.

"The flying ship you lump!" Scylax barks, "It's not as if it's fucking inconspicuous, is it?"

"Indeed," comes the whine of Antiochus, "Everyone in Jerusalem must have seen the thing when it came in. But it's in the house of Fahrettin Bey, now."

"And what about it?" the Blemmyae asks.

"Fahrettin Bey is a friend of ours," Menander points out coolly. The Blemmyae gives him a blank stare, peering through the haze of his own smoke.

The Cynocephalid makes a comment to Menander regarding the Blemmyae's wits using sign language, and he is forced to bite his knuckle furtively so as to not laugh.

"Fahrettin Bey thinks this ship will open up trade with Prester John like never before," says Scylax, ignoring the back and forth.

"He's not thinking of going over our heads, is he?" Menander asks. Scylax gives him a curious smile.

"Quite. Now, I don't pretend to understand the alchemy - I have men like Marcus for that. But I do know a money-making opportunity when I hear it, and I want a cut."

Antiochus nods.

"My friends in the gutter say there are others who want to start making cuts of their own. Oh, they are sharpening their knives in the Armenian Quarter!"

The dog-headed man signs something again and gives a barking laugh. Scylax bares his teeth, brown and crooked like a row of tiny bricks. Menander thinks that the expression on his bosses' face could be something like a smile, perhaps in different lighting.

"An idea like this, you can't hope for it to go away. No putting the djinn back into the bottle, pardon the expression. No, something like this you want to catch a ride on and see how far it can take you..."

Menander tips his boss a wink and a nod.

"Ah, I hear you, boss, we want some of that money in our pockets. Maybe get a few ships of our own one day, yeah?"

"You're a cunning one, Menander," grumbles the Blemmyae, evidently deciding to contribute to the conversation again. Menander's smile turns sickly-sweet.

"Learned from the best."

"Which is why you're perfect for the job," adds Scylax.

Menander's face doesn't change, except perhaps that his smile grows a little tighter and his ears twitch imperceptibly.

"Well. I'm honored boss, but-"

"But nothing. Fahrettin Bey, well, like you said he's a friend of ours, and so he won't object to a little extra security, and we are known for providing security."

There were no commands now, only statements of fact. And when Scylax said something was true, it was true for good and all, in Menander's experience. On the rare occasions when he was wrong, then inevitably turned out to be because someone else had done something wrong.

"Yes, boss. Very cunning, boss," Menander said through his teeth, "And here I am wishing I knew more about the Old Country. I barely even speak the language."

"You'll learn soon enough. Everyone is dismissed. Menander, attend me."

The Blemmyae stands up heavily and slings his hookah over his back, striding out of the room. The dog-headed man signs something halfway apologetic at Menander before following the others as they filter out. Antiochus is last to go, wheeling his chair along with quick movements from his appendages.

Menander walks to Scylax's side. The boss of Little Indica is kneeling before the icon of Saint Thomas, lighting a candle before folding his hands in prayer.

"Menander?"

"Yes uncle?"

"You'll make me proud."

Another statement of fact. Menander folds his hands and bows his head, his ears falling around his face like curtains.

"Yes, uncle."
 

MagnificentLilyWitch

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and now the Mob is gettign a piece of the action.

Have to admit I'm not to familier with the mythology at play here but you paint he picture very well so I'm not confused about who is who.
 
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