Chapter 37: Stochman broods at the edge of the frozen battlefield, blaming Jaren for the losses leading to the wretched state of his command. The thin man in black appears, slaps him for insolence, and offers to restore Stochman’s command over the Exodus.
Teg has Elena help out in the armory, while Deim protests. Teg teases the couple, but before Deim can avenge his savaged prude, Jaren interrupts and drags both men to a senior crew meeting outside the ship. At the meeting, Navkin opens the gate to the Fifth Circle.
Vaun slinks through the ship, accessing hidden compartments that he compelled the shipwrights to build while he was hiding on Caelia Station. Inside one, where preserved bodies of the dead are mounted, the thin man in black, Fallon, greets him with a warning. Fallon will attack the ship to restore it to Mithgarder command. Vaun can help or stay out of the way.
As a fan of Ecclesiastes, I was delighted to see the imagery of the silver cord as a representation of a man’s life (see Ecclesiastes 12:6). However, this is not the first time the imagery is mentioned, as Navkin mentions a silver chord in Chapter 4 in the context of manipulating prana. This will become more relevant as the mysteries in Nethereal are revealed. Here, though, it also serves to illustrate two points. Fallon is no longer among the living, and he draws upon another power source than prana. Unless a new power is revealed later, this other source must be the soul-corrupting Teth. In fact, Fallon is revealed to be a deathless kost later in this chapter, which marks another example of the Koschei the Deathless myth appearing in Puppy works. (John C. Wright and Larry Correia have both used the myth.)
Fallon remarks that the Souldancer was supposed to sleep until the end of the voyage. Even more Thera imagery collects around Elena. Also of interest is a group known as the Occult Divines, or the Black Well Friars, which suggests that there might be a Teth-centered version of the Arcana Divines.
Chapter 38: Jaren and his crew trudge through a desert toward the river. At Sulaiman’s behest, they make camp at nightfall. Teg worries that the local fauna is hunting them. Sulaiman worries instead about Gibeah’s death curse.
A Guild courier from the Exodus lands near Stochman’s camp. His sailors board the ship and fly it to the Exodus. Fallon greets them, telling them to capture Elena and kill everyone else on the crew. Stochman proceeds through the empty halls, haunted by his fear and the flickering lights. They find a pirate mechanic unplugging cables from Elena and kill him, but not before the last cable is freed from the screaming girl.
Chapter 39: Stochman has seized control of the Exodua, although his command is crippled by Elena’s unplugging. To assuage his nerves, he orders the butchering of the pirate crew, dismembering each man before dumping the parts on the ice below. During this war crime, the crew captures Elena. Perceiving that she might be the key to restoring the proper functioning of the ship, he attempts to befriend the girl, but his frustrations compel him to turn to the lash instead. Mordechai stops the beating as the masked necromancer wishes to talk to Elena. She tells Mordechai that she has no answers for him. Mordechai continues to ask questions about her being half-souled. Instead, Elena tells him that she is a composite-soul, built out of the fragments of many living souls, including Mordechai’s. The necromancer understands Elena’s purpose, as composite-souls are created to retrieve a soul from the Nexus.
Teg climbs a tower by the river to light a beacon for the ferryman. On the way, his greed triggers a water trap when he takes a medallion from a treasure horde.
The Nexus is where souls went before the Nine Circles was built, as mentioned in Chapter 25. Once again, Nethereal doesn’t reward careful reading so much as demands it.
Stochman reveals himself to be a materialist and a rationalist. His worldview is fundamentally unable to grasp the spiritual struggles around him in Hell. Thus his fear continues to grow, only to be assuaged by cruelty as that is the last thing he can directly control. I am waiting for Stochman’s impending and inevitable punishment for the war crimes of his command. Every part of his butchery of the pirates was calculated to increase suffering.
Elena’s stoicism and past as a living science experiment places her firmly in the Rei Ayanami character mold. Just how old is our mystery girl? She has been described as a late teenager, but her soul contains part of Vaun’s, and, from earlier, whatever the Guild did to extract that piece from Vaun was done at least five generations in the past.
Vaun is now Mordechai again. This transformation has been teased for a few chapters now, and portends future cruelties worse than Stochman’s butchery.
Chapter 40: Teg escapes the water trap, only to be mauled by shadow beasts when he lights the beacon. He awakens in the care of Navkin as the ferryman arrives. Each person pays the toll, except from Deim, whose Thera zealotry causes him to try to force his way past. The ferryman refuses to yield. To break the deadlock, Teg pays a second price.
In the Inferno, the River Styx is the Fifth Circle, surrounding the City of Dis. To cross it, Dante and Virgil are ferried across by Phegyas. Here, the river is used as a boundary between the Fourth and Fifth Circles, which requires a ferryman to transport one across for a price. Navkin offers two coins, a traditional fare offered in Greek mythology that echoes to this day in pennies on a dead man’s eyes, but the ferryman refuses. Each must give up something dear, except for Jaren, whose Gen ancestors have paid a price in advance. Sulaiman gives up his prosthetic, Navkin, her Steersman’s robe, and Teg, a pistol so impressive that it would make Jayne Cobb weep to part with. Deim refuses to pay. As in the Greek myth, without payment, the ferrymen will not transport him across the river. Teg offers a medallion of sentimental value in Deim’s place so that Deim will not be left behind.
Jaren’s price is of special interest as we have yet to see the Gen or any of their allied races in Hell. The damned have all been men, even though many of the souls met hail from a time where the other races still lived in the Middle Stratum.
Chapter 41: The ferry takes Jaren’s crew past flotsam islands overwhelmed by drowning men to a stone castle on the other side of the river. Dead men then usher Jaren into the presence of a stout man dissecting a walrus, Despenser, the lord of the Fifth Circle. The baal greets Jaren’s crew with who each of them are, their motives, and their bargaining chips. He announces that he is allied with Baal Mephistophilis and cannot accept Jaren’s payment as the treasure aboard the Exodus belongs to Mephistophilis. To ensure prompt delivery of that treasure, Despenser offers safe passage through and out of Hell in exchange for an oath. The pirates swear the vow, and Despenser offers his assistance in recovering the Exodus.
The drowning men fighting over flotsam is reminiscent of the wrathful in the Inferno’s Fifth Circle who fight each other on the surface of the Stygian marsh. Navkin never looks deep into the water, so we never see if the sullen are choking at the bottom of the sea. Resonances with the Inferno have been selective. Whenever the depiction of hell fits with the tropes of pirate adventures, the depiction appears in Nethereal. Thus Jaren and his crew brave the jungle vestibule with angry natives, the fierce storm with windblown souls of the Second Circle, and the river Styx boundary filled with a Sargasso Sea of flotsam and shipwrecks. But where Dante and Virgil confer with philosophers, listen to whiny adulterers, or wallow in a blizzard of slush, Nethereal replaces these sections with deserts, lakes of fire, and attacks on stone fortresses.
Teg is revealed to be poisoned by the shadow beasts’ bites. Despenser offers treatment, if Teg will remain but for a few moments after Jaren’s departure. As the shadow beasts are another manifestation of Gibeah’s death curse, Chapter 38’s conversation between Teg and Sulaiman was a slick piece of foreshadowing.
Fallon is revealed to be equivalent to a lord of the Second Circle in power.
Chapter 42: Using envenomed fangs, Fallon hunts down demons and devours them.
Despenser teleports Jaren and his crew, minus Teg, back to a secret compartment aboard the Exodus. There, they run into Vaun, who walks out of a freezer filled with the bodies of Jaren’s men. Jaren demands a reason not to kill the necromancer. Vaun points out that, for the moment, his goals align with Jaren’s, and he will help Jaren retake the Exodus and kill Stochman. Jaren relents and agrees to the help.
Jaren, Navkin, and Deim creep through the ship towards the bridge. A loud commotion distracts them. At the center of the noise, they find Teg, who is now in Sulaiman’s body, complete with a restored arm and curses towards the demons who will inevitably betray any deal made. They continue to the bridge, where they use glamers and Workings to set the sailors against each other. During the fight, Jaren storms toward Stochman, eviscerating the officer before shadows consume the Mithgarder’s soul.
Fallon’s fangs are similar to Navkin’s. Could Navkin be a kost? Also, as Teg now has a second body, is he now dead?
Vaun is back, as if that name is a mask worn for the public, only to be dropped when the Teth adept's plans and cruelty are laid bare.
The competition between Navkin and Vaun over who gets to be Elena’s parental figure starts in this chapter. Both have unique (and sinister) connections to Elena, Vaun through a shared soul and Navkin through her shared resemblance to Thera and Zebel.