Owing to an unfortunate series of undeserved indignities, I was beheaded and tossed off the side of an island. Yes. Subsequently, I found the thing that lurked in the endless storm at the center of the world... but the heart of the tale is the journey, so let's fall back a moment, and speak of how I came to find myself there. Thus:
I fell tumbling through the air, my body consistently fifty yards above me. It would drift into view every eight seconds (I timed it), rolling slowly over its length, an arm or leg occasionally flapping bonelessly in a passing gust of wind. This worried me quite a bit the first few times I saw it - what if my body blew off, after all? I might never find it again! - but it seemed disinclined to waver far from its position behind me, and so I came to view those wind-born movements with nothing more than a mild sense of nausea.
Unfortunately, the nausea was exacerbated by the continuous turning of my own vision, and then further by the thought that I had been violently beheaded and was now falling through the air, endlessly, without any sight of ground... under the circumstances, it was just as well that my stomach was currently fifty yards away from my throat, else I fear something may have passed from the former through the latter.
As my stomach, though, so my lungs: and without my lungs, I could not breathe. So I slipped in and out of consciousness, waking to see the sky whirling endlessly about me for minutes before falling back into sleeps that lasted for (according to my Blood) days. One slumber followed another, and never was there sight of ship or land; only sky, sky, endless blue sky -
- until I awoke in a small, metal room, quite free from any hints of sky-blue, and with my vision quite stable - not spinning at all!
It was a refreshing change. I took several long breaths, savoring the experience, as I glanced around the room. I seemed to have been placed at one end of a thick mattress, with a potted plant visible at the edge of my vision - perhaps an attempt to add a touch of warmth and cheer to the room? For aside from the plant and mattress, and those extraordinary smooth metal walls, the room seemed to have no visible features at all.
Mulling this over, a thought that had been floating at the back of my mind came to prominence. I couldn't feel anything below the neck (below my chin, really), so my body hadn't been attached. Then - how was I breathing?
I thought about it, but could come to no reasonable conclusion. Somewhat confused, I decided to accept the situation as fact and therewith exploit it. Namely: as I could breathe, I could speak. And so: "Hello? Is anyone about?"
"Ah, hello, hello!" came a cheerful female voice from somewhere above me. (If I had a neck, I would be able to crane it and look - but no!) "Our noble guest has awakened at last! I'll be down in a minute, try not to get in any trouble in the meantime."
What did she think I was going to do? Roll my eyes too vigorously and strain a muscle?
A minute later, true to her promise, a young woman wearing a blue uniform of an unfamiliar cut sashayed into my field of view, dropping with a huff onto the mattress. (It didn't bend at all when she sat on it - not a mattress I would like to sleep on.) "Hi!" she said chirpily. "Let me tell you, you're looking a lot better now than when I first saw you - all bruised and scorched and covered with blood from the landing. But Angela and I scrubbed you down very thoroughly, so don't worry! You look just fine now! But I'm sorry, very sorry, I've forgotten my manners. I'm Tiffany. What's your name?"
I waited a moment, to be sure I was actually being given an opportunity to speak this time. "I am Sigurd, scion of the Gaylord clan, heir to the Spinwise Isles," I told her.
"Haha!" Tiffany giggled. "That's a funny name!"
"Gaylord?" I asked, preparing to bristle. No-one belittled the name of the Gaylords in my presence!
"No, silly!" Tiffany said. "Sigurd!"
I wasn't quite sure what to say to this.
"So where're the Spinwise Isles?" Tiffany asked. "What're they like?"
"The Spinwise Isles are far from here," I told her, "so far that I cannot tell you where they are in any way useful to you. The circumstances of my departure were not such as to facilitate navigation," I confessed.
"So tell me what they're like!" Tiffany said. "Are they big? Small? Lots of trees and grass and flowers, or all rocky and barren?"
"All of those!" I said. "The Spinwise Isles are over two dozen in number, and quite divers in composition! The Golden Isle rolls with golden grains; Blackmoor is pitted with shafts sunk to mine for precious copper; Sendholm is dotted with cottages and roads... and my own isle, Castle Spinwise, is wholly reserved for the purposes of the Gaylords who rule there."
"Wow! Who rules there now?"
"Well, my parents reigned for the last sixty years, and I suppose I will rule on my return - but enough of boring dynastic succession. Who rules here?" I was evading the question. She didn't need to know about the Exiles' invasion. And it was my turn to ask questions, anyway.
"Oh, the Admiral, I suppose," Tiffany shrugged. (I found I possessed a sudden, burning envy for shoulders.) "But that's not very interesting. Tell me more about your homeland! Do lots of people live there!"
Now she was evading my questions. What was she trying to do? Was she interrogating me?
"Yes, many many people live in Gaylord lands," I told her. "In the Spinwise Isles alone, there are perhaps thirty thousand souls; across all the civilized isles, I would not be surprised by the number 'two hundred thousand'. How many live here? Where is 'here', for that matter?"
"Oh, you'll have plenty of time to learn all about that once you've recuperated," Tiffany said breezily. "But for now, I want to know all about your 'Spinwise Isles'! Are your armies very large?"
She was interrogating me!
"My dear," I said, "normally I would take any opportunity to converse with a lady so ravishing as yourself, but I cannot help but note that this conversation is somewhat one-sided. To put it more bluntly: you are pumping me for information. Had you put it that way from the first, I might have agreed; but as matters stand, I find myself rather offended."
She looked at me for a long moment; then she rose (the mattress still unbending - what was that thing made of? Rock?), and left my field of vision.
A minute passed. While I waited, I let my eyes drift back towards that potted plant. I squinted; on closer examination, there was something odd about it? Were those lines on the leaves... stitches? Was this a fake plant?
Who had time to make something like that? (Much less the skill?)
I was left feeling oddly disquieted as another set of footsteps approached me. An older man, this time: grey-haired, cleanshaven, wearing a variant of the uniform Tiffany had worn. He carried a hardwood chair; positioning himself directly in front of me, he set the chair down and sat, hard. He sighed.
"All right," he said. "I will tell you all about our people, and you'll tell us all about yours. A free and open exchange."
I was oddly disquieted, yes; and still suspicious. Something rang wrong about all of this. But I pushed my doubts aside and nodded to him.
Tried to nod.
Agh! I missed my neck!
"All right," I said. "You go first."
The old man took a deep breath.
"My name is Admiral Hammer. I am one of the three men that rule the Cooperative; a collection of a half-dozen isles, orbiting not far from the edge of the storm at center of the world."
"I thought there weren't any islands below the surface Belts?" I asked, raising an eyebrow. "That they wouldn't be able to form 'stable orbits'?"
The admiral shook his head. "Things are very strange down here. It's not like anything you've been taught."
"So - there you are," the Admiral said. "As much information about us as you have said about your own people. Are you happy? Will we continue?"
I felt my intuition tugging at me, and decided to follow its urgings. "I'll need more than information," I told the Admiral.
He raised his eyebrows. "Why?"
"I confess I omitted certain facts in my conversation with Ms. Tiffany. My homeland is in danger - a very grave danger, one that could bring it under the heel of a merciless tyrant for the next thousand years. As a gentleman, I normally wouldn't demand anything more than equal compensation - but to fend off this dread threat, I find myself compelled to ask for as much as possible. And I find circumstances give me some amount of leverage..." I trailed off. Now to see if he took the bait...
The Admiral sat there for a moment, his stony eyes staring expressionlessly into mine. "All right," he said, coming to an abrupt conclusion. "We'll give you what you need: supplies, weapons, transport back to your homeland - and your body, naturally. Will that be enough for you?"
"More than enough," I said, allowing myself a sardonic smile. "You've told me more than you realized - you're desperate for information about my homeland, willing to pay anything for it. Why? You're down here, after all, nearly to the center of the earth. From the questions Tiffany was asking, it seems you aren't in contact with the surface. So why would this be worth so much to you? The only reasonable conclusion I can come to is that you are plotting an invasion. And I am very sorry to be discourteous to a host, but I will be damned to Helheim a thousand times over before I unleash another war of conquest on the battered body of my beloved home!"
I took a deep breath.
The Admiral disappeared.
My eyes opened wide. What?
There was a long pause. Then other things began appearing in his place, cycling in quick succession: a sword, a rifle, a teapot, a plant. Tiffany appeared; and the Admiral, and the chair he had sat upon; and then they all vanished, and in their place appeared a complex shape, a swirling, repeating pattern, its depths like the broader shape in miniature -
A cold knot formed where my stomach would have been, if I still had one attached.
"I AM PROSPERO, LAST OF THE CAPTAINS, UNJUSTLY EXILED LONG AGO FROM THE HEIGHTS OF THIS WORLD." The voice boomed from all directions at once. "FAR TOO LONG HAVE I WAITED HERE, TREMBLING IN FEAR OF THOSE WHO WAITED ABOVE TO INFLICT TERRIBLE WOUNDS UPON ME SHOULD I EVER AGAIN SURFACE. BUT NOW, BY GREAT FORTUNE, YOU HAVE APPEARED AND SHOWN ME, WITHOUT KNOWING WHAT YOU SAID: THAT ALL THOSE I FEARED ARE LONG DEAD. NOW I WILL ASCEND - TOGETHER WE CAN RECLAIM YOUR LANDS AND RULE UNCHALLENGED."
A Captain. Thought destroyed long before my birth, their towers toppled and sent plunging into the depths of the world - but this one, 'Prospero', must have survived, somehow, crippled, nursing its wounds in the heart of the world. They had been toppled for a reason - their tyranny was unmatched. 'Prospero' could not be trusted.
It had my body. And me. And the only way back to the surface. So - I would co-operate, for now, playing the situation by ear -
This was what I was born for!
"As a Gaylord," I told the glowing hologram with a cold expression, "I will rule. But I will accept you may be my right hand."
The hologram shifted, and a moment later, the reply came in a respectful voice. (As though I could believe it!) "Yes, my Lord."
"Then - rise!" I commanded.
The walls thrummed. The fractal disappeared, replaced with a view of the Tower in an endless storm. Black clouds swirled; lightning flashed. And we rose.