Priestess Atalia returned to the cool courtyard with a tray of fruits and cheeses and a clay pitcher of some kind of juice. She placed it on the ground and motioned for them to be seated around it.
They obeyed and sat down.
“Please eat and refresh yourselves,” Atalia said with an elegant wave of her hand.
She didn’t recognize the brightly colored green and purple fruit but she took a piece anyways. It was delicious. One bite and the juice filled her mouth.
“You have traveled far from strange lands and you’ve come here seeking aid. What may I do for you?” Atalia asked.
David cleared his throat.
“We need information,” he said. “We’re looking for a man and a woman.”
“A human man with a woman that is a goddess. She might be in disguise,” Gretchen added.
“Can you describe them?” The Priestess asked.
“The man is middle age, has a beard. Maybe glasses. The woman, we’ve never seen but she is a goddess named, Hecate.”
“Ah! Yes, I remember Hecate. People used to dream of her a great deal. Her and a man came through a few days ago. They stopped by and asked a few questions and left,” Atalia said.
“What did they ask about?” David asked.
“They asked about the road to Dar-Ishtani.”
This dreamworld was vast, vast as all human dreams combined. Dar-Ishtani, probably a city, could be hundreds or thousands of miles away. It could be on a different world entirely.
“Where is Dar-Ishtani?” Gretchen asked.
“It’s across the ocean to the west, across a vast plain and in the dagger mountains,” Atalia said.
“Wait…um…how far is that?” Beth asked.
“Many days,” Atalia said.
“That’s very specific,” Beth said.
“So, we have to find a ship to cross the ocean?” David asked.
“Looks like it,” Gretchen said.
“What did this Hecate look like?” Gretchen asked.
“She is tall, raven hair and eyes as dark as deep space.”
“Wait, guys,” Beth said, holding up her hands. “I’m still wondering about the ship. We have no money.”
“I can give you passage,” Atalia said. Her eyes darted to each one of them.
“Why would you do that?” David asked.
“That’s why you came here, yes? For aid? That’s the reason this temple exists, to aid the travelers.”
“Lovely!” David said.
They spent the night there sleeping on reclining couches and listening to the trickling of the fountain.
David and Beth kept asking for more information about this world but she didn’t know anything more. This hadn’t been an area of specialization in her research.
She wished she remembered how this worked. Did time stop while they were dreaming or just flow very slow? Perhaps father had been right about something; she should have studied more.
Gretchen lay awake staring up into the strange night sky.
Things weren’t supposed to be like this. She wasn’t supposed to have ended up here. This was outside the scope of the Esoteric Order of Dagon. The dreamworld, which was very real, simply hadn’t mattered.
She cast a quick spell and created a tiny ball of light. At least her magic still worked. David had a gun and she still had her magic. But what exactly did Beth have? She was some kind of manifestation of her shadow demons: what she feared the most. David was back in the wary where he first saw Nylarthotep. And then she was a fish monster, what she feared the most. Her people turned into Deep Ones and went back into the ocean. She did not want that.
But now she was stuck here, in this dreamworld and just as lost as David and Beth.
A fish out of water. Isn’t that what she really was?
In the morning they walked down to the harbor with a purse full of gold coins. She had a backpack full of dried bread and meat. Provisions for a long journey.
If the streets were busy then the harbor was “Crazy” as David would put it. There were long ships with stripped sails and short fat ones with triangle sails. Everywhere people were loading and unloading boxes and barrels.
“I’ll go ask around and see if I can find a ship that’s heading across the ocean,” Beth said.
“Wait, are you sure?” David asked.
“Sure about what?”
He waved his hand up and down her body.
“You don’t exactly look like a local,” David said.
“No one seems to notice. Besides. What did Descartes say? I am what I am?”
“That was Popeye,” David said.
“Both of you go. I’ll wait here,” Gretchen said.
She watched them walk off. She didn’t want to talk to a bunch of strangers at the moment. She didn’t really want to speak to anyone.
Gretchen wanted out of this dream world and back to her real body.
An hour later they came back. David had found passage on a trader ship.
“What’s the price?” Gretchen asked.
“Free,” David said.
“So, what’s the real price?” She asked.
“We have to defend against pirates.”
“Pirates? So, we can sail for free, but we must fight pirates if they come for us. What are the odds that will happen?” Gretchen asked.
“Have no idea.”
The ship they took her to was a large, fat thing with two triangular sails. The paint on the hull was peeling and the wood was stained dark from age and possibly mold. She hoped it wasn’t the latter.
The men loading cargo onto the ship were muscular with dark tans and bright scarves and bandanas. Many of them carried curved swords. She wondered if they had to use them often.
They walked up the boarding plank onto the deck. The ship smelled of something rotten that she couldn’t identify.
One of the sailors showed them to their cabin, a cramped room with one small circular window and a bunk bed.
“Two beds,” Beth said.
“We’ll make the best of it,” David said.
“I don’t see how we really have a choice,” Gretchen said.
They settled in with Beth crawling up on the top bunk and David sitting down on the bottom one. She crawled in and sat down next to him.
“I never really imagined I’d find myself in this kind of situation,” David said.
“I’m accustomed to strange dealings, but this was beyond my level of expectation,” Gretchen said.
The small, smelly cabin fell silent and eventually she heard quiet snoring coming from the top bunk.
“Not much to do but take a nap,” David said. “Sleeping in a dream.”
“This isn’t a dream. It’s as real as the world we left behind.”
“When we get back we’re watching the Matrix and Inception.”
“Are those movies?”
“Yes. Yes they are.”
Then David began to shift position on the tiny bunk and he began to stretch out to sleep. She started to crawl off the bed but he stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.
“Hold on. You can sleep here. There’s enough room.”
“Don’t worry about it. We do what we got to do.”
Normally there’d be no way she’d share a bed with a man, but these were different circumstances. And she liked him. She actually wanted to be near him.
So, instead of protesting, she laid down beside him. The bunk had them crammed together which, to her surprise, she didn’t mind at all. In fact, she rather enjoyed it.
David went to sleep with Gretchen beside him. It was a little awkward to have her looking like a human shark with those large black eyes, sharp teeth and webbed claws. But he knew it was an illusion. He knew the girl underneath.
For a week they sailed over empty ocean with terrible hard bread to eat and sweaty sailors cursing and working around them. They mostly stayed in their cabin with the windows open.
They talked about their lives and places they’ve been. Gretchen mostly listened. She didn’t like to talk about her family but seemed content to listen. Somehow it became an uspoken rule that Gretchen slept next to him and Beth got the top bunk. He was surprised that she had agreed and equally surprised how comfortable she seemed to be with him; almost like it was natural.
Then one day just after noon the captain opened their door. He was a clean shaven man with cold eyes with large bags under them.
“We need you three on deck,” the captain said in his scratchy, deep voice.
“Pirates?” Beth asked.
“A ship. Don’t know yet,” the captain said.
David grabbed his Saw and his backpack of spare drums and followed the tall captain out onto the deck. The pirates were running around grabbing swords and musket pistols.
A man stood at the rail with a brass telescope.
“What you see, Narak?” The captain asked.
“Don’t know yet, captain. It’s a ship. Dark sails. Maybe pirates, don’t know.”
“They heading for us, yes?”
“Then we get ready to repel a boarding.”
“We’re going to fight?” Beth asked.
“Looks like it,” David said.
Gretchen scowled and her claws began to fidget.
He watched as the sleek, dark ship grew closer. Just from looking at it he could feel the animosity from it. It wasn’t there to be friendly and he loaded up the ammo chain and charged the bolt.
“What am I supposed to do?” Beth asked.
“What can you do?” Gretchen asked.
“I can go like a ghost; walk through things,” Beth said.
“We’ll think of something you can do,” David said.
As the dark ship approached he tried to think of a strategy. The problem was that he knew nothing of what to expect.
He only saw one or two people on the approaching ship. It smelled of them hiding for an attack. So he rested the SAW on the railings and got ready.
“Gretchen, find cover and prepare a spell. Beth, go ghosty so you don’t get hurt and go aboard their ship and set fire to something,” David said, making it all up as he went along.
“Set fire to something? I like that.”
“Thought you would.”
“I’ll be in the doorway,” Gretchen said and then trotted over to the door that led to the interior cabins. She crouched down and began mumbling something he hoped was some awesome death spell.
The captain began yelling orders to his men and they all began loading their muskets.
He hated this feeling before a battle. The fear that built up calculating every bad thing that could happen.
Then the dark ship came up, sailing parallel to them. The wind was blowing the sails and the water was spraying on his face. The crew of the ship jumped out from their hiding places.
These pirates didn’t look like what he was expecting. They had shaved heads with scars running all over their bodies. Tattoos of dark, unholy runes decorated their skin. Some had recent wounds that were still oozing blood. They all wore red and black and their weapons had cruel, serrated edges. Their captain was the only one fully clothed and he looked more like a twisted priest than a pirate. He had thick black robes covered in red runes. In on hand he held a book and in the other he was gesturing while chanting something that was probably horrible.
David didn’t want to find out what it was so he opened fire. The SAW bucked and he fought to keep it under control as he began etching a ling of led across the deck of the pirate vessel.
As hot brass was flying out and spilling across the deck he realized that this was an insane situation. He was shooting at pirates with a machinegun while his best friend shot magic bolts at them.
Maybe Gretchen should have came with a warning label.
The pirates ducked down as they saw a wall of death tearing other pirates and deck apart.
One of them popped up and fired a pistol. There was a puff of white smoke and David heard the ball whizz past his head.
Then what looked like black lightning shot out from somewhere behind him and blasted the railing of the pirate ship. Splinters of burned wood flew into the air and several pirates were knocked back with fire erupting from where they’d been hit. The magic blast from Gretchen had only lasted a second but it had set a part of the ship on fire.
He turned around to see Gretchen on all fours, breathing heavily. He looked around but didn’t see Beth.
Something struck him in the belly, on the plate of his armor. It pushed him back but he corrected and kept upright. He had just been shot. But a SAPI plate was designed to stop a whole lot more than a musket ball.
David took aim and fired another burst, spraying the enemy deck like he was putting out a fire. The constant kicking of the SAW was familiar to him as was the smell of the gunpowder.
A burst of black light exploded in the middle of a group of pirates and sent them flying: one of Gretchen’s spells.
A couple of muskets went off and the balls tore into a group of sailors beside him. They went down and other sailors began yelling and cursing. If he hadn’t been there with the SAW, these sailors would have been outnumbered and outgunned.
Then he saw flames erupt from one of the windows below deck. That was probably Beth at work. As smoke and flames began filling the windows the pirates took notice. They began running around and rushing below decks.
Beth appeared beside him. It was hard to tell but it looked like she was grinning.
The captain ordered for their ship to pull away from the smoking pirate ship. By the time they were out of musket range, flames were licking up on the deck.
“Think we earned our keep?” David asked.
“I think so,” Gretchen said, out of breath.
“It was fun,” Beth said.