Chapter 30: Teg, Vaun, Deim, and Navkin scout a stone fort in the hills. A flower girl walks nearby, singing. Deim tries to greet her, but the child pulls a knife on him. Deim’s strength is not enough to keep the point of the blade from seeking his eye. Teg shoots, then subdues the child.
The raiders take Jaren and the other living captives before Sulaiman, a local judge and chief over the Freehold fort. Jaren confronts the judge about the abduction of his crew. Sulaiman replies cryptically, but before he can explain, Jaren’s would-be rescuers burst in, led by Ydahl, the child from before.
Gibeah searches the Exodus for a treasure that may give him the upper hand in the wars between the lords of the Nine Circles.
On the Geek Gab podcast, Brian Niemeier has repeatedly said that his inspirations aren’t the classics of science fiction literature, but movies, games, comics, and other media. Ydahl is a clear example of this. Her description as a young orphaned flower girl from the Mithgar slums –complete with brown hair- lines up with that of Aerith Gainsborough of the Playstation video game Final Fantasy VII. Well, at least until Ydhal draws her knife. This isn’t the only nod to Final Fantasy VII. Navkin’s summoned beast shares the lion-wolf appearance of Red XIII, another player character in the game. Both game and book share a similar synthesis of magic and high technology. And in both Final Fantasy 7 and Nethereal, we follow the adventures of a group of freedom fighters struggling against a multinational corporation headquartered in the capital of Mithgar that holds a monopoly on a source of energy that drains the vitality out of the world. But inspiration is not mere copying; Ydahl is an unrepentant serial killer in the vein of Jack the Ripper and Sweeny Todd, and not the mischievous magical girlfriend that Aerith is.
Gibeah is not one of the beings that created the soul-trap that is Hell. Instead, he is an elemental of the Fire Stratum whose fall from splendor has seen him fall Stratum by Stratum towards the void. Demons, rather than gods, rule the Nine Circles. By demon, I mean the fallen angels of the Christian worldview. Even the Stratum of Gibeah’s origin reflects this demonic lordship, as the scholars of the Middle Ages assigned angels to the Sphere of Fire when they plotted out the organized hierarchy of beings known as the Scala Natura. This is further reinforced by a scala for the Nethereal universe seen in the gods-demons-humans hierarchy Vaun described as well as the alchemical organization of the Strata on the universe. The realms of light, fire, the middle stratum (presumably of air and water), stone, and darkness echo the ordering of alchemical elements in the medieval scala. Nethereal assigns the divine to the stratum of light, the angelic to the stratum of fire, and humanity to the middle stratum of water and wind. At this point, the damned appear to be in the stratum of stone, which might explain the presence of so many beasts in hell as both beasts and stone occupy levels lower in the hierarchy than those assigned to man.
Chapter 31: Ydahl accompanies Jaren, Navkin, and Teg as they are escorted through the fort. Teg asks the child questions that only the Byport Gouger could answer. Jaren interrupts and inquires about Sulaiman. Ydahl reveals that the man is one of the living, able to shape prana, and came up from the lower circles. Jaren returns to his crew, and announces his intent to barter for freedom by offering safe passage out of Hell to Sulaiman and his followers. That is, if they will help him reclaim the Exodus. But when it comes time to make the deal, Sulaiman names Stochman as the rightful captain of the Exodus and negotiates passage with the Navy officer. He then offers Jaren and his crew a place among his followers. Later, to calm the protests of his crew, Jaren informs them of his intent to double-cross both Stochman and Sulaiman.
To no real surprise, Vaun is confirmed by Sulaiman to be a necromancer. The priest warns of the extreme methods those practitioners use in their search to understand the force of Teth.
At first glance, Jaren and his crew have acted more like smugglers than pirates throughout Nethereal. While in the Middle Stratum, his salvage and courier operations leaned more towards the adventures of Captains Solo and Reynolds than Captains Sparrow or Kidd, complete with an emphasis on flight over fight. In Hell, however, his adventures have been pure Pirate Movie in scope. Jaren and his crew are forced to work with the navy to crew the biggest and fastest warship known in existence on a voyage into uncharted waters. A rival power attacks him in port. During the escape with the ship, captain and crew are blown off course, which only makes the distrust between pirates and sailors grow worse. A landing party is driven off a wooden island/world by natives. The ship has to dead reckon its way through a violent hurricane while the souls of the damned float past. On the far side of the storm, Jaren has to repel boarders who are in search of a treasure hidden in the ship's hold. The surviving pirates and sailors are marooned on a desert island/world where they scheme to regain the ship from their enemies -and each other. Even the blaster and vibroblade arms translate into the sword and cutlass of the pirate age. All Nethereal lacks is the salt, the rum, and a stowaway...
The desert world, complete with stone forts, evokes films like Beau Geste and Lawrence of Arabia.
Chapter 32: Ydhal asked Navkin about prana shaping and piloting spacecraft. Navkin shows off by shaping a silk ribbon for the girl. Ydahl refuses, as kindnesses in Hell inevitably turn into hurts. When offered a chance to leave for the living world, the girl refuses, since she would bring hell with her if she left. Meanwhile, Sulaiman, Stochman, and Jaren scout a white pyramid citadel that is Gibeah’s fortess and plan their attack. After a confrontation between the necromancer Vaun and the priest Sulaiman, the crew of the Exodus attacks. Gibeah sends out a storm as well as his hosts, leaving the Exodus unguarded. Seizing the opportunity, Navkin teleports into the ship.
Every story about hell eventually turns to the deeds of the damned and whether their punishments are just. Unlike in the Inferno, where none of the imprisoned takes responsibility for their deeds, Ydhal admits her crimes and the rightness of her imprisonment in the Nine Circles. The only sorrow she shows, however, is that she was not reunited with her parents, not her murderous ways.
Chapter 33: Navkin reappears in the hangar of the Exodus. She discovers that the airlift console was ruined in the demonic boarding from before, unable to retrieve the crew from the surface below. Meanwhile, the battle turns against Sulaiman and the Exodus’s crew. Stochman draws his weapon on Jaren and demands that Navkin lift him to the ship, or else he will execute what’s left of the living. Navkin and Jaren talk telepathically, and the repaired airlift transports Jaren, Deim, and Sulaiman to the Exodus. Navkin seeks out the Wheel, fighting for possession of it with a Steersman in the service of Gibeah. He grabs hold of the Wheel, only to have his internal organs drawn out of his mouth and into a singularity. Meanwhile, Jaren, Deim, and Sulaiman confront Gibeah, who maintains the upper hand until Teg arrives and overwhelms the baal, who vanishes.
The Exodus collects a number of strange descriptions amidst the firefights, a cursed ark, the Wheel rejecting a steersman, a multitude crying in anguish, a cage… It has long been stated that the Arcana Divines used strange mysteries in the construction of the ship. Looks like the stage is being set for revelations of exactly what those mysteries are.
Chapter 34: Jaren and Teg search a vault hidden between decks of the Exodus. It is empty, with only a strange grid of squares lining the walls. On a whim, Jaren pries loose a square, which is actually one of the strange cubes he had salvaged for the Arcana Divines.
Gibeah is killed when an emissary of Mephisto floods his hiding place with acid.
Jaren and Teg pursue Deim, who is trying to prevent Sulaiman from reaching another secret. They discover a hall filled with shades. Before Sulaiman can open the hatch at the far end, Vaun oozes out from the Shadows. Inside the hatch, they find Elena Braun, daughter of the Exodus’s engineer, floating naked in a fetal ball with cables tapped into her head.
A hidden treasure and a stowaway. Captain Jack Sparrow would approve.
Elena’s description matches that of the tattoo on Deim’s back. Except for her hair color, she also resembles Thera, and by extension, Navkin and Zebel. To be honest, I was expecting a Rei Ayanami clone here for Elena's appearance, as that pale quiet girl has mothered an entire archetype of pale young women with scientific secrets and hidden tormented pasts. Instead, Elena physically resembles Asuka from the same series as Rei, Neon Genesis Evangelion. (Eva is a highly recommended anime series, offering a similar flavor of psychological, technological, and spiritual horror to that seen in Nethereal.) I doubt that Elena will share Asuka's brash personality; typically characters tied to machines, like Elena, run to the reserved and the painfully shy.
Chapter 35: Sulaiman and Jaren survey the battlefield. Gibeah’s death curse has frozen the battlefield, entombing both armies in ice. Sulaiman suggests talking to the lord of the Fifth Circle, Despenser, as that baal stands apart from all the warring factions. The priest warns that entering the next Circle requires crossing the river by ferry, which requires a steep price.
Teg follows a rope of cables to Deim's room. Elena is sleeping in Deim's bed, while the Steersman sleeps at its foot. However, the girl is not breathing. Navkin examines Elena in the medical bay and asks about the chords plugged into the girl's back. The lights dim as she unplugs a cable from Elena. Vaun appears and, despite Navkin's protests, point out that the chords on Elena's back are arranged at points that correspond to the soul. This arrangement also has connections to prana nodes and Thera. He moves to examine Elena further, but Navkin drive Vaun away with workings.
Sulaiman's river crossing and ferryman shares elements of the mythological River Styx and the river of the same name in the Inferno. Let's discuss both in more depth in a future post.
Gibeah's death curse, complete entombment in ice, matches the punishment for traitors to their lords in Inferno.
The pattern on Elena's back evokes the Sepirot, a diagram that maps the spiritual forces that shape a man's soul. It further cements ties to Eva, which used the Sepirot as a frame for its monster of the week mecha fights and its occult horror. This does not bode well for what we will learn of the girl's history or her future.
Chapter 36: Jaren consults his senior crew. Rather than fight through the remaining Circles, he wants to bargain for safe passage. When talk turned to Elena as a bargaining chip, Navkin protests, saying that the girl is key to the continued working of the Exodus's experimental systems. Later, Jaren attempts to dictate a new deal for passage to Sulaiman, cutting out the Mithgarders from the deal. Sulaiman protests with physical fire. After a well-matched fight where neither the pirate rogue or the prana mage can get the upper hand, a new agreement between the two men is formed.
In Babylon 5, the race known as the Shadows use a living being as a computer core for their vessels. We see indications that Elena might serve a similar purpose for the Exodus, although it is not certain to what extent.
Navkin's protective instinct towards Elena will be interesting to follow. A girl resembling Thera, bearing the mark of Thera on her back, is protected by a woman resembling classical depictions of Thera, but who also resembles the demon Zebel. What Navkin's nature is revealed to be -divine, infernal or otherwise- will be critical in how future events might unfold.
36 chapters in, and we've just reached the half-way point in page count. 30 chapters remain.