Time passed, and we abandoned our meals after paying for them and slid back off towards the Academy.
In the light of the morning sun, the entire building gleamed with purpose. Monolithic walls were covered in unfurled flags and paintings, murals to break up the image so it wasn’t quite as blocky. Students mingled and drifted, setting up hammocks and nesting in strange locations, all wearing the conventional robes of the Navigator. A few had their amber orbs out, and almost against my will, I let my fingers drift down to rub across the surface of the one that still rested in my pocket. Still no reaction, not that I could tell. It remained a warm lump against my thigh.
Thyn shook his head as we passed. “They’re like slugs, stretched out like this.”
“Is it a day off?” I asked.
“No,” Thyn said. “The school just spoils them. That’s the benefit of nearly guaranteed positions when they’re out of here. They don’t have to work as hard.” He shook his head again. “If I’d been like that…”
“You were at the Nav school?” I asked.
“No,” Thyn said. “I was at another school. Don’t worry about it. Let’s just get the Captain and see if she’s done… with whatever she’s doing.”
We managed to not find Maurice, thankfully, since I couldn’t even begin to know how I’d handle that, and ducked back into the more familiar halls, next to the rooms we’d slept in. I guided Thyn the rest of the way to Jess’s office, and knocked at the door.
Jess came and opened the door for me. Her four eyes flicked across my robes. “Charm, right?”
“And Thyn,” he said.
“And her pet thief,” Jess said, her voice flatter.
“I believe you were her pet navigator for a time,” Thyn recalled.
Jess’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t talk about things you don’t understand, porcupine, and you’ll be far better off as a person.”
Thyn shrugged bonelessly. “Alright, you’re touchy about it. I’ll keep that in mind.”
The owl’s eyes settled back on me. “Your captain’s busy talking with your newest guest. In the breakroom. Thief, if you’ll go there and leave me with Charm?”
“Will do.” Thyn patted me on my shoulder. “Good luck with the owl.”
He slid off and away, leaving me at the mouth of the office. “Come on,” Jess said. It wasn’t a request.
I slid inside the white polished marble, with the book shelves, and realized that some of them had been rearranged. A few books were scattered across the desk, and a gleaming amber ball floated over top of them, shedding light over their pages.
I stared at it long enough I almost forgot the owl waiting to the side of it. “Your Captain has requested I teach you a bit of the basics on being a Navigator.”
“I don’t know how much we’ll be able to learn,” I said. “There’s a college for this, after all.”
“The very very bare bone basics are something I can teach in an afternoon,” Jess said. “The more exotic techniques are still being refined and take a life time of practice. Do you have your Heart with you?”
After a moment of not responding, she gestured at the floating orb. Oh.
I lifted the old Navigator’s orb out of my pocket. “I have this one.”
She snatched it and dragged me forward by the chain, and I gurgled.
“And the Captain just saw fit to let you walk around with a dead man’s orb?” She sighed, her beak clicking. “She has no respect for anything at all.”
“Gurk,” I said, intelligently, until she snapped the cord around my neck with a flick of her hand. “Ow,” I rubbed my neck.
“This,” Jess said, the orb tightly gripped in her hand. “Belonged to Oliver. I expect you to return it, when you get the chance.”
“When?” I asked.
“When,” She said, severely. “I expect you to throw it into the mists of the dead, the next time you’re in.”
“And if I don’t,” I said, feeling drifting back into my neck.
“I will pluck out your eyes and add them to my own,” The Owl said.
All four eyes were narrowed, and she looked less like an intelligent creature and far more like something I might see in the mists, or just underneath of the surf, or in my dreams. “Is that- are you being serious?”
Her glare continued, and she handed the orb back to me. “You haven’t earned this Heart. Let me take you to the one you’ll be using.”
The Owl sauntered away from her desk, her robes fluttering in a non existent wind, and left through the office door. I held the dead man’s Heart in my hand and followed after her. Jess was turning around the corner, so I raced to keep up with her.
“A Navigator,” Jess said, once I was at her side. “Is someone who has decided, in the very depths of their soul, that they’ll never be lost again. And it’s this wish that the Heart’s replies.”
“And I’m one of those?” I asked.
“You are very lost,” Jess said. She paused, her eyes scanning over me like a fishmonger searching for a speck of rot. “Very very lost,” She determined. She pulled a key out of the depths of her robe and opened the door next to her and gestured me inside. “But Catastrophe is right, you have a speck of the talent inside of you.”
The room was dark. Not a flicker of light touched it, not even from the open window. On the otherside of the room, the sky was dark as the night itself, and not even the Venturing Owl kept its light.
“Here, at the Academy, we accept all sorts of tempest tossed folks. Orphans, widows, divorcees, traitors, shipwrecked sailors…” She trailed on. All I could see was the red of her eyes in the darkness.
She lit a match, and the room sparkled with a hidden power that tasted heavy. She let the little speck of light drift into the heart of a lantern. “The haunted and the driven, and those who know there’s more to life than stability and happenstance. The seekers and the dreamers. All those sorts can have the spark inside of them.”
The lantern’s light set the room ablaze. Mirrors and fanciful things twinkled in the dim twilight of a world without a sun, and the Owl’s pristine white feathers looked more like a mirror than anything that needed to exist in this world.
“You’re one of those,” Jess said, drifting across a small table. “And the Captain, bless her heart, has need of you as a Navigator. She needs a bit of guidance in these times.”
“What is this?” I asked, gesturing at the room.
“The original Navigators had to journey to a ruin far to the north. After His Majesty insulted the sirens, we lost that option,” Jess said. “So we built our own from memory. This is that room. Only a few of the teachers are allowed in here. Give me your dominant hand.”
I gave her my right. She took it in her talons, and abruptly there was a knife in her left hand. It gleamed in the dim flickering light of the lantern, like a twinkling fairy was trapped behind the glass, dull and dulcimer.
Her eyes gleamed brighter. “So tell me, Charm. Are you sure you’re up for this?”
I stared at her until my eyes settled between both of her pairs, and the light of her beak wasn’t quite as frightening.
“This’ll change you,” The Owl warned. “There are many things in the sea that’ll take notice of you, and there are many things in the sea that you thought couldn’t be real.”
I closed my eyes. When I opened them, her hands hadn’t moved. The knife was a cruel thing, with jagged lines and blood letting inlets. It looked less like something that had come from a forge and more something that had grown straight out of nature itself. “I-”
The Knife dropped on the table. “Have you ever looked out at the sea and wondered why it worked?” The owl asked. “Have you ever looked at the stars and thought they were dancing? Did it ever tangle up inside of you, a foul smoke from the wretched heart of the universe, where the gods are still singing with their throats cut?”
I could smell something burning. I stared at her, my eyes growing wide.
“Because we’re all burning out here on the living seas. We’re candle wicks, and our smoke guides the reapers straight to our petty souls.” Her eyes narrowed. “But you know all about that, reaperkin.”
On the obsidian rock, in the mists, where the stone had shredded my shoes and I’d barely managed to make a safe place in the flotsam and driftwood of the ship, I’d seen them flying. Vaguely, idly, and watching, they hovered just outside of my reach. Waiting like vultures.
“And we can smell it, if we try hard enough, and we can taste that dismal rot at the heart of the world,” The owl continued. “Are you sure you’re up for acknowledging that?”
I thought of the serpent at the edge of the world, the things that scurried in the amber mists. I thought of the ghost ship and the reapers that had stolen her soul.
“I see that,” I said. “I-”
And I wanted to know how it all worked, and it was all a complicated set of gears and treasure hunts and politics, and it all ran together like soup.
If I ever wanted to go home, I’d have to do this.
“Cut me,” I said.
The knife flashed down and the Owl kept a firm hold of my wrist. It didn’t cut into my palm, it slid through it. It didn’t part the skin, but it sank in nonetheless. Her fingertips drifted across the cracks and crevices in the folds of my hand, and her beak moved.
“I see in your future,” she murmured, her feathers moving on her body in the wind from the window out into the void. “The death of the sun. Someone great and powerful will die, and it will be your fault. The questing raven. You’ll be part of a grand hunt. The end of time. An era will end. The Venturing Owl. You’ll go far, but not far enough. And I see a traitor’s heart. Throbbing, throbbing, blood falling from its crevasses, a great black thing in the grease trap of the universe, a single eye looking up up up through the mortal hosts it wears like fine coats.” The knife slipped deeper and deeper until her hand plunged into my arm and my skin rippled like water, and then my eyes glazed over.
And then I could see what she was talking about. The sun outside, flickering out. A raven, flying, forever, searching for its nest. The stars freezing in the heavens, rippling like slow silk. The Moon, the moon, the glorious moon, like a silvered hunk of metal, hovering, imperious, ever watching, and a thing in the darkness, hunting, craving, a great black hole that would consume all eventually. A great worm at the center of the universe, whose multifaceted eyes spread in seven-symmetry, whose crystalline agents wiped away the meta dimensions of thought, forever chewing on endless hypothetical strands, each as real as the one before it.
A single strand wound its way up through the ocean, distant, questing.
And then the knife stopped, catching on something in my chest, just behind the ribcage, like a pick trapped in ice, and then it tugged forth, through the bones and sinnew and vessels, and the mortal husk I was trapped inside and then it dragged forth and out. The Owl’s hands never shook and then there was a sensation of bones moving out of the way and my own essence being rearranged and abruptly there was a second light in the room.
“There,” The Owl said, and she grabbed my other hand and pushed the amber sphere into my palm. It was warm, skin warm, and pulse to the beat of my heart.
Then the lights flickered on in the room. The sun remembered to exist in the window that led out to the void, and then there was just the two of us in a dim room. The knife had already been squirreled back away.
“What the fuck was that?”
“I read your palm,” The Owl said. “Fairly advanced. You’re welcome, by the way,” Jess said, haughtily.
“But what was that?!” I asked, again. “Was that my future?”
“Some of it,” she said. “What’s important is…” she lifted my left hand, where the orb sat. It was Mine.
I didn’t even know what that meant, but it had come from me, and it was mine. At that thought, the sphere pulsed with a heavier light.
“This is your heart,” The Owl said. “Keep track of it.”
I clutched it tighter until the light stopped. When I looked up, Jess had a small cord of leather and offered me it. “You might want to wrap it up.”
“Why didn’t Oliver take his with him?”
“Oliver was old enough to have a few hearts,” Jess said. “I myself have four.”
I blinked a few more times, my fingers already wrapping the sphere as tight as I could. My chest felt half hollow and empty, but when I put the sphere next to my chest the feeling subsided. “How-”
“As one grows older,” Jess said. “Their heart tends to change. Each time it does, you can make another one. You’ll find that your hearts will grow weaker over time as you grow as a person.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
“Am I going a bit fast?” The bird offered. “I know this might be a bit much, but surely you…”
I took a few breaths and squeezed the orb between my fingers until the light was there again, trickling between the cracks like quicksilver. “Okay. So this is…”
“A bit of your soul,” The owl offered. “But just a bit. Souls crystallize if the reapers don’t get to them first.”
“Oh,” I said. “And the palm reading was…”
“A possibility of your future,” the owl said. “Nothing definite. It’s tradition to do a reading of a new Navigator’s palm when they’re getting their first soul. We write them down in a book, and when they graduate, we give them a copy of it and then mostly nothing comes of it.”
“And the predictions then, they are…”
“You’re going on a great hunt already,” The owl listed off. “Great people die all the time, and fault could mean anything really, and we are due for an era changing, and that might show up even if you’re not a part of it.”
“And the worm?”
“The end of worms,” The owl said. “The Worm devours all things, in the end. Ideas, hopes, lights, dreams, stories. He is kept at bay by our legends, and our thoughts, and our hypothetical worlds, but one day, there will be no more of those things to eat, and he will plunge down upon our world and consume it in the same way he ate your dreams from last night.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. “So-”
“-All palm readings end that way,” The owl cut in, curtly. “All stories have their end after all, and even the bard finds his audience tires of requesting encores. So even the stories of our lives fall victim to the Worm.”
I swallowed a few times.
“Are there any… better gods?” I asked.
“The Worm is hardly a god.” The Owl clicked her beak. “He is an ending. There are others out there. Pray you don’t fall in any of their sights,” The owl said. “They find navigators, and Captains, especially, quite the fine toys.”
My head felt light from lack of breath and I finally remembered to breath, like a weight had been tugged out of my chest.
“With that over with,” Jess said, reaching into her robes and pulling out her own heart. “The first, and most important lesson is how to find another Heart.”
“You’re just going to go right into that?”
She quirked her head to the side. “You have been travelling with the Captain, have you not? Has she remained just as I used to know her, and swan dived directly into every ephemera and manifestation on the living sea?”
I instantly thought of the ghost ship and blushed slightly.
“I have carved out many hearts. It is one of my specialties. If I were to treat everything as reverently as I once might’ve, I would go utterly insane,” The Owl bowed her head, then gestured at her heart, leaking amber light between the tight grip of her fingers. “Now. Close your eyes.”
I did so.
After a moment, all I could feel was the steady beat of the amber orb clutched in my hands, despite the leather cord wrapped around it.
“Feel your heart throb,” The Owl said.
“I am,” I replied.
“Now feel through it.”
“Like another hand,” The Owl said. “Or a third set of eyes. Or perhaps another set of ears.”
Eyes didn’t work, and I couldn’t feel anything, so I stayed in the darkness of my eyes for a while longer until I could, just faintly, ever so faintly, hear the fluttering of another heart.
“I think… I think I can hear you.”
The fluttering heart moved around the room. “Where am I?”
She was silent apart from that heart, her feathers well suited to masking her presence. I pointed four o’clock, where I heard the fluttering.
“There we go,” Jess said, bowing her broad head.
“Is that it?” I asked.
“When you are lost in the mists rimming this world, or you are trapped far underground, or you swallowed in an illusion of the dead, follow your heart,” The Owl said. “It’ll guide you to someone who isn’t trapped.”
I opened my eyes, then jumped backward, pitching out of the chair. Her face was directly in front of mine, all four eyes of it. She lunged forward and caught the chair, setting it back in place.
“Try not to destroy my furniture, Charm.”
“Is… Is that all there is to it?” I asked.
“I tore out your heart and gave it to you as a necklace,” The Owl said, flatly. “Do you really want me to do more to you today?”
I swallowed. “N-no. No thank you.”
“I assume you’ve noticed that you can make it glow by willing it,” Jess said. “Try not to forget about that. Not everyone gets a lantern they can carry about.”
“Alright,” I whispered.
“And stop looking so shaken,” The owl tsked. “I did a good deed for you today.”