“That does present a problem,” Sophia repeated for what must have, Curian thought, been the hundredth or so time. She paused, tapping a finger against her chin. “I don’t suppose you’re familiar with where the pieces of the Prognosticarium landed, are you?”
Curian raised her gaze to meet Sophia, fingers still pressed hard against her temples.
“I caught glimpses of where the pieces landed,” Curian said, jaw clenched. “I don’t know the name of any of the places, and I didn’t see much of what was around.”
“Giving Dullahan a clear advantage, certainly,” Sophia replied. She nodded along to her thoughts for a moment, mouthing words too quickly for Curian to follow the internal conversation.
“Aha!” Sophia cried out, snapping her fingers for emphasis.
Curian raised an eyebrow. “Care to share your breakthrough?”
“The Soothsayer! He’ll be able to help!” Sophia replied. Before Curian could respond, Sophia grabbed her by the arm and lead her to the door. She stopped at the edge of the beach and stared skywards, a hand held up to the stars. She took off sprinting again, disappearing from view as she ran around the Astrarium.
“I’ll just wait here,” Curian said, sitting down in the sand. She stared out at the inky blackness of the ocean, its gentle waves distorting the night sky’s reflection. There was a brief flash of something just beneath the surface, but it vanished as quickly as it appeared. The brief, unclear vision was enough to make Curian leap to her feet and step back closer to the Astrarium.
After several moments of only the soft notes of the ocean and the occasional seabird’s caw from high overhead as her company, Curian heard something being dragged along the sand. She looked toward the direction of the sound and spotted Sophia dragging a small wooden boat along the beach.
Sophia paused, hunched over briefly before offering Curian a polite smile. “Could you help?” she asked. “It’s heavier than it looks.”
“Oh Gods,” Curian said, warmth spreading around her cheeks. She hurried over and grabbed hold of the length of rope Sophia was using to pull the boat. They made it to the water’s edge and stopped. Sophia looked around the night sky once again before returning her attention to Curian.
“The Soothsayer is the only source of wisdom greater than the Astrarium,” she explained. “Some say he’s as old as the day before the world was born. With some luck and what you can recall of where the pieces landed we may get an edge over Dullahan in collecting them.”
Curian nodded along as she listened. “If Dullahan gets all of the pieces…” she said, pausing. “Bad things happen?”
Sophia pursed her lips. “I don’t have the entire answer,” she conceded. “Nothing I’ve read indicated a particularly cheerful outcome if you must know.” She sighed, shaking away whatever thoughts had crept in, and forced a smile.
“Ready to set sail?”
Curian shrugged. “I don’t suppose there’s any other way?” she asked, helping push the modest vessel into the sea.
“I see you know the answer,” Sophia replied, stepping aboard. Curian did the same, and gently pushed the boat away from the shore. The water parted gently around the small boat, ripples displacing mirrored images of the starry sky above.
Sophia focused on the stars, occasionally shifting the boat’s rudder with a mechanism at the helm. Curian fixed her gaze first on the horizon, and when that proved to be too difficult she then raised her eyes to the sky. There were so many stars, and if she watched long enough she caught one as it streaked across the blackness and out of sight.
“Beautiful,” Curian muttered.
“It is, isn’t it?” Sophia replied, still focused on guiding the boat. “Only rarely do I get chances to leave the Astrarium.”
Curian glanced at Sophia, who returned her gaze briefly. “Let’s make the best of this trip. For you.”
Sophia chuckled. “Very kind of you,” she said. “I suspect there will be many trials along the way, however.”
Curian frowned. Dullahan crept into her thoughts again, and she found herself wondering about the eel she promised to deal with eventually. She was no hero, only a lowly thief who happened to occasionally come into a few silvers here and there.
“Sure,” Curian replied absentmindedly.
A wide, long wisp of a cloud glided swiftly overhead, briefly blotting out a vast swath of night where it roamed. Curian shivered, pulling her cloak tighter around herself. She opened her mouth to speak again, but stopped short as something appeared on the horizon. It was small at first, very easy to miss against the backdrop of inky black sea and star-riddled sky.
A quaint cottage on a sprawling island, surrounded by trees.
“Our destination,” Sophia confirmed, offering Curian a smile.
The boat gently glided from sea to sand, and then it stopped. Another wide, vast cloud blotted out the night, moving opposite the previous one. Sophia tensed visibly.
“We appear to have been followed,” Sophia murmured so quietly Curian could barely hear. “We need to walk swiftly, but not run, along the path. Do as I do.”
Sophia moved along, melting into the shadows of the many trees flanking the path. This was, of course, something Curian excelled at, and so she followed suit. A sudden rush of air from above struck the ground, throwing sand up from the path. Curian shielded her eyes for a moment, and that was all it took to lose sight of Sophia.
“Gods damn it,” Curian muttered. She stared into the shadows ahead, but even with her acute Dwarven vision she still couldn’t spot Sophia.
The hair stood up on the back of Curian’s neck. Something was most certainly watching her. Another rush of air–this one hot, and right behind her. Curian hazarded a glance over her shoulder. Her face reflected in the one colossal crimson eye housed in a head easily twice her size, a gigantic, sharp beak passing by her left side.
Before Curian could react, a hand wrapped around hers. She heard a familiar voice command her to run, and before she could process what was going on she had taken off in a sprint towards the cottage. Sophia held her hand tightly, pulling her along.
Another swift burst of air followed immediately by a world-shaking caw was more than enough to let Curian know the bird had taken to the sky.
“Gods, my legs could fall off” Sophia cursed under her breath as she pulled Curian along. The door was a short distance ahead, and as Curian felt the dread giving way to a feeling of relief her foot found a root that had emerged at just the right angle. Her speed was enough to both stop her sprint and take her down hard, her hand slipping from Sophia’s as she fell to the ground. Curian threw her arms up in enough time to shield herself, and felt the warm sting of fresh woulds where the stones on the path had cleaved through her sleeves.
“Key! Give us the key!” the gigantic bird called out as it swooped downwards. Sophia grabbed hold of both of Curian’s hands and hauled her to her feet. They ran, not a word exchanged between them as the deafening roar of wings crashed through the air behind them.
The door to the cottage opened abruptly, a frail old man backlit by lanternlight suddenly visible. He held a gnarled tree branch straight ahead of himself, one eye shut and the other eye being used to line up the end of the branch with something.
Sophia shoved Curian to the side, leaping the opposite way. A jet of painfully bright light issued forth from the branch and met its mark. The great bird reeled, its course disrupted. It sneered, shrieking something older than words and twice as foul as any curse Curian had ever heard, and then suddenly, with a thunderous flap of its mighty wings, the creature shot upwards and out of sight.
Sophia reached the doorway and old man first, stopping to catch her breath.
“You have our endless thanks, kindly sir,” she said.
“Thanks nothin’,” the old man spat. “My bones had said you would be getting her sooner. They’re never wrong.”
Curian smiled. “You must be the Soothsayer,” she said.
“And you’re a regular world-wrecker,” the Soothsayer replied. “Get your asses inside before Badb circles back or my bones will have been way off. Can’t very well have that now.”
Curian and Sophia did as instructed. As the door shut, Curian was sure she heard the beating of immense wings growing closer again.