From an Aurora Award-winning author comes the second book in a gripping portal fantasy series in which one woman’s powers open the way to a labyrinth of new dimensions.
Shawna Keys has fled the world she only recently discovered she Shaped, narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Adversary who seized control of it…and losing her only guide, Karl Yatsar, in the process.
Now she finds herself alone in some other Shaper’s world, where, in her first two hours, she’s rescued from a disintegrating island by an improbable flying machine she recognizes from Jules Verne’s Robur the Conqueror, then seized from it by raiders flying tiny personal helicopters, and finally taken to a submarine that bears a strong resemblance to Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. Oh, and accused of being both a spy and a witch.
Shawna expects–hopes!–Karl Yatsar will eventually follow her into this new steampunky realm, but exactly where and when he’ll show up, she hasn’t a clue.
In the meantime, she has to navigate a world where two factions fanatically devoted to their respective leaders are locked in perpetual combat, figure out who the Shaper of the world is, find him or her, and obtain the secret knowledge of this world’s Shaping. Then she has to somehow reconnect with Karl Yatsar, and escape to the next Shaped world in the Labyrinth…through a Portal she has no idea how to open.
Master of the World
Buffeted by swirling winds, I clung to the rope ladder lifting me from the mysterious—and rapidly disintegrating—island in the ocean below toward the giant flying ship in the sky above, and reflected on what a lousy week I was having…
(Several paragraphs redacted to avoid giving spoilers for Worldshaper!)
…which was how I had found myself on the almost-vanished island below, alone, only to be hauled aloft by a sailor hanging onto a rope ladder dangling from a giant flying ship both held aloft and propelled by…well, propellers.
In the bow, the strange craft flew a black flag with a golden sun in the center, one I’d recognized instantly, because I had gone through a Jules Verne kick when I was little girl (at least, that’s how I remember it, although what in my past is real and what contrived, I can’t tell): the flag of Robur the Conqueror, from the novel of the same name, which meant this impossible vessel had to be…yes, there it was, on the dark-blue bow in glistening gold script: Albatross.
The Albatross’s hull might have come straight from a sailing ship, except for the absence of a keel—and except for the stubby biplane wings extending to port and starboard. These I presumed were primarily for steering purposes, not to provide lift, since the thing was currently hovering. What held it aloft were seventy-four whirling helicopter rotors, two on each of thirty-seven masts. The downdraft buffeted me as the man in an old-fashioned sailor’s uniform who had pulled me onto the lowest rungs of the ladder looked down at me, jerked his thumb upward, then started to climb. For the first time, I saw he wore earplugs.
There is a knack to climbing a rope ladder, which I apparently didn’t have: the thing swayed and bounced as I struggled upward, until I thought I’d either fall off or throw up; but eventually, panting, I reached the top. My rescuer, with the help of another man in an equally old-fashioned sailor’s uniform—honestly, they looked like they’d stepped straight out of a community-theater production of HMS Pinafore—hauled me onto the deck, through an opening in the wire trellis that ringed it in lieu of bulwarks, leaving me sprawled on my stomach. This gave me an unexpected opportunity to closely examine the deck. It wasn’t made of wood; it was a smooth, unbroken expanse of dark-blue…something.
What was the Albatross made of? It had been nearly twenty years since I’d read Robur the Conqueror. For some reason “paper” came to mind, but that couldn’t be right, could it…?
The sailors—or maybe “aeronauts” was a better term—grabbed my arms and pulled me to my feet. I tried to tug free, but their grips tightened. They half-dragged me aft, beneath the howling rotors—making me wish I had earplugs, too—toward the cabins at the back. Atop the stern-most stood the helmsman, as Pinaforeishly clad as the rest of the crew, inside a glass wheelhouse. Behind him, as at the bow, hung two much larger propellers, vertical rather than horizontal, though only idling at the moment.
The whole flying monstrosity was impossible…or was it? Verne had based his flights of fancy on what the engineers and scientists of his time knew, or thought they knew. He’d certainly thought something like this was at least theoretically possible. And from what Karl had told me, the Shaper of this World could actually have altered the laws of physics enough to allow something like this to fly.
I’ll ask the Shaper when I see him, I thought, as I stumbled toward the stern cabins (there were others at the bow) between my taciturn escorts, deafened and windblown. Maybe I’m about to. Clearly whomever had Shaped this world had fancied himself master of it, and since this was the Albatross, the airship of Robur the Conqueror, a.k.a. Master of the World (the title of the second novel in which he’d appeared), he had surely set himself up as that Verneian character—supervillain, or superhero, depending (like his better-known counterpart, Captain Nemo) on your point of view.
In a way, I was thrilled to be inside a world clearly modeled after Jules Verne’s inventive tales. In another, I was terrified. Karl had not come through the Portal with me. I was alone, and while I knew in a generalway what I was supposed to do to fulfil the quest I’d been unwillingly given—find the Shaper and get him/her to somehow give me his/her hokhmah, so that if/when the Adversary arrived, he could not steal that hokhmah, kill the Shaper, and then reShape this world into another copy of his preferred totalitarian “utopia”—there was one tiny little detail of that process Karl had never spelled out for me: exactly how one took the hokhmah of another Shaper, even if it were freely offered.
We reached the only door in the starboard side of the stern cabins. The aeronaut who had first hauled me onto the rope ladder pulled it open; the other propelled me through it.
I found myself in a short hallway, its walls the same strange, dark not-wood of the deck, with doors to left and right and another at the far end that presumably led to the port side of the vessel. Just past the right-hand door, stairs led up, probably to the glass wheelhouse over our heads; a little farther down the hall, stairs led down, beneath and parallel to those climbing up.
The noise had dropped precipitously: very impressive soundproofing had clearly been built into this version of the Albatross. As I recalled, it hadn’t been needed in the book version—the whirling of the blades had been soundless (Verne never having heard a real helicopter in action). Apparently, if the Shaper had bent the laws of physics, he hadn’t bent them that much.
The man who had first grabbed me nodded to his companion. “Back to your post, Dardentor. I’ll present her to the captain.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” said Dardentor. To my surprise, he actually tipped his cap to me. “Ma’am.” He didn’t go back out onto the deck: instead, he went to the staircase and down. Makes sense, I thought. The best way to get around the ship has to be below-deck, where you don’t have to fight the rotor wash. “Very polite,” I said out loud. “Now that we can hear ourselves talk, who are you?”
Apparently, politeness was limited to the lesser ranks. My guard ignored me, instead tugging me to the center of the corridor and tapping on the door that presumably led into the aft-most cabin.
“Enter,” said a deep voice. My guard slid the door open, stepped back, and indicated I should go through. I took a deep breath, clenched hands suddenly inclined to tremble, and strode firmly around the corner and into the cabin beyond.
It looked…well, exactly like you might imagine the captain’s cabin on one of Verne’s science-fictional vessels should look: luxurious-late-19th-century-ship’s-cabinish, with comfortable couches and chairs, hooded electric lamps illuminating sculptures and paintings (one of which looked like the Mona Lisa—how did that work, exactly?) and a sizable collection of leather-bound books in a floor-to-ceiling bookcase, which took up most of the bulkhead through which I’d entered. Four portholes, two to port and two to starboard, and big panes of glass in the windowed stern poured natural light into the cabin. The aft windows also showed a view of the sea—no land in sight, I noted—and the inner halves of the idling stern propellers.
The captain of the Albatross sat at a desk made of the same dark not-wood as the deck, the bright sea-reflected light streaming through the windows behind him turning him into a featureless silhouette. He stood as I hesitantly approached, and I abruptly revised my estimate of his size: the man was huge, easily as big as the guy Michelangelo’s David had crushed back in my world, less than an hour ago by my inner clock. At least it appeared to be roughly the same time of day here as it had been on the island I’d just left, so maybe I’d be spared jet…er, Portal lag. Which totally had to be a thing.
My heart was pounding but I wasn’t going to let this giant, whose face I couldn’t even see, put me on the defensive. “You must be Robur,” I said, as boldly as I could manage.
“I am not,” the man said, his voice a reasonable approximation of James Earl Jones’s in Darth Vader mode. “But I know who you are.”
“You do?” My heart leaped. Karl got through after all!
I realized that was impossible even before the captain of the Albatross dashed my momentary hope with his next words. “Your foolish assumption I am Robur proves my suspicion.”
“It…does?” This doesn’t sound good.
“You are a spy for Prince Dakkar,” the captain said, voice cold and hard as iron in January, “and you will answer my questions truthfully—or I’ll have you tossed over the side to feed the sharks.”
I blinked. “Prince who?” Although, to be honest, the name sounded vaguely familiar. Was he another Verneian character? It really had been a long time since I’d read the books…
“Do not play the fool with me,” the captain said. “There is not a person alive who has not heard of Prince Dakkar, or his constant and evil machinations against the great Robur.”
“Robur the Conqueror?”
His eyes narrowed. “Your own mouth betrays your guilt. Only the deluded followers of Dakkar call our Master by that slanderous name. Robur has conquered nothing. The lands under his sway welcome his benign rule, for he provides staunch protection from the vile depredations of your dark lord.”
Dark lord. So, it’s that kind of world. I felt like I’d just picked up a square in what was likely to be a rather large bingo card featuring Shaper stereotypes.
“Look,” I said, “I know it’s hard for you to believe, but I really don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m…a stranger. From…from far away.” Farther than you can imagine. Farther than I can imagine.“I’m…looking for someone.”
And until two minutes ago, I’d thought I knew who that someone had to be: Robur, who, even if he didn’t want to be called “Conqueror,” I was betting would answer to “Shaper.”
The trouble was, this “Prince Dakkar” seemed an equal-and-opposite force. I was willing to bet his followers saw Robur as the “dark lord” from whose “vile depredations” they needed to be protected. Could he be the Shaper, and Robur the Shaped adversary? (I flinched at my own choice of words: The Adversary who had chased me from my own world put any fictional dark lord to shame.)
Although “Prince Dakkar” would seem an odd persona for the Shaper to assume. The fact I couldn’t remember a character by that name would seem to indicate he hadn’t been a major figure in Verne’s books. (The fact I couldn’t simply pull out my phone and run an Internet search on the name was downright infuriating.) Why would a Shaper clearly enamored of all things Verne choose to play someone minor?
On the other hand, if he’d been completely enamored of Verne, everyone would be speaking French…
Maybe they are, a voice suggested. Maybe there’s a kind of universal translator at work…a TARDIS/Star Trek kind of thing.
Dammit, you’re my conscience, not the Doctor, I told myself. Shut up.
I realized the captain had asked me a question, mainly because his eyes narrowed and he snapped, “I asked you question!”
“Um…could you repeat it?”
What was wrong with me, anyway? My mind was scattered, my thoughts buzzing around like flies disturbed from a dung heap, and that was a lovely metaphor, wasn’t it, although probably appropriate considering how deep I seemed to be in sh…
“Who. Are. You. Looking. For.”
The captain was clearly losing patience with me, and the side over which I could be hurled to the sharks—not that I’d survive the fall, so there was a small mercy—was not far away. I swallowed and tried to focus.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It could be Robur. It could be Dakkar.” Or it could be someone else entirely, I added silently. But I didn’t think so. Karl had said there must be a very powerful Shaper in this world, since his Shaping had leaked into my world and mingled with my Shaping to form the mysterious island…oh, hell, this was a Verneian world, let’s capitalize it…the Mysterious Island as they had. And unlike me, the Shaper in this world would know he was the Shaper and would not only know how to use his power, but enjoy using it. An all-powerful someone in a world of his own creation was highly unlikely to role-play as, say, a blacksmith. Unless he really liked hammering things, and had a fondness for sparks…
The captain studied me for a moment. “Sit down,” he finally said.
Figuring it would be harder for someone to grab me, haul me out of the cabin, and throw me over the side if I had a chair to hold onto, I gladly complied, sinking onto the plush red cushion of the nearest. (It was wicker, clearly a nod toward saving weight, although considering all those books in the bulkhead behind me, there were limits to how much weight the captain felt obliged to save.) My legs felt a bit wobbly, anyway.
The captain rounded his desk, pausing at a glass-fronted cabinet to pull out a crystal decanter containing a yellow liquid, and two rather large glasses. He sat down in the other chair that faced his desk, turned it so it faced me, put the glasses on the desk, pulled the stopper out of the decanter with his teeth, sloshed a sizable portion of liquid into each glass, reinserted the stopper with his teeth, took one glass, nodded at the other, and then sat back in his chair and studied me as he sipped from it.
I took mine with a hand that shook only a little—just enough to make the liquid break into tiny waves, echoing the waves of the ocean however many hundreds of feet below us, into which the captain had so recently threatened to throw me—sat back, and studied him in my turn, as I took a sip of…
Holy hell, what is this stuff? It had a million different herbal flavors, all tucked inside one god-almighty envelope of alcohol. I’d never tasted anything like it.
But did I mention the alcohol? That was what I really wanted at that particular moment, and the fact the drink burned as it went down was only proof (about eighty-proof, by my estimation) it contained that all-important ingredient.
I coughed only a very little, daintily putting the back of my hand to my lips as I did so, and kept looking at the captain. Like the crewmen, he wore an old-fashioned naval uniform, though of course his was dark blue and featured gold braid and even those shoulder-pad things with tassels on them, whatever they’re called. The fact he was dark-skinned and wore a rather large gold loop in each ear-lobe rather undercut the HMS Pinafore thing, though. All he needed was an eyepatch and he would have made a great extra in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
“Thank you,” I said. “What is it?”
“Strega,” he said. “The witch, some call it.”
Sounds Italian, I thought. How does that work, exactly, in a Shaped world like this? I took another sip, coughed a little more. “I can see why.”
“I am wondering if that is what you are.”
I carefully set the glass down. Much as I’d enjoyed my first couple of sips, much as I would have liked to drain it, it had suddenly occurred to me that keeping my wits about me was probably a better idea than getting pleasantly tipsy. Was “witch” better than “spy” in this world? That seemed an important thing to know. “Why would you wonder that?”
“We were ordered here by Robur to investigate the Mysterious Island…” (in his voice, I could hear the capital letters I had likewise decided to apply to the strange landmass) “…after ships reported its existence. We had barely arrived when it began to crumble—suspiciously fortunate for you.
“This part of the ocean is claimed by Dakkar. My theory was thatbDakkar knew the Mysterious Island would attract us. Perhaps he knew it would disintegrate. Perhaps, using some infernal engine, he even caused it to disintegrate. Detecting our approach, he seized the opportunity to place you on the island, in the hope we would ‘rescue’ you and bring you aboard the Albatross. We know he has great interest in investigating this vessel, since no machine of his can match it. But you say you are not a spy, and, having spoken to you, I am now inclined to believe you. That being the case, what else could you be but a witch?”
Oh, there must be some other possibilities, I thought, but the truth was, I couldn’t bring any to mind. “Shaper of the next world over” didn’t seem likely to contribute anything useful to the conversation.
“Why…are you inclined to think I am not a spy? Not that I am,” I added hastily, “but I’m not sure why you so abruptly changed your mind.”
The captain took a sip of his own liqueur. “If you are a spy,” he said as he lowered the glass, “you are the worst spy in history. You had no cover story prepared other than that you are a stranger from far away—as if that would explain your ignorance of the great war between Raj, evil domain of Prince Dakkar, and the free people led by the glorious Robur, Master of the World. There is no corner of this world where that conflict is not known, for the world is entirely shaped by it.”
Interesting choice of words, I thought. “But…how do you go from that to ‘witch’?”
“Witches,” he said, “live in caves, away from all men. Everyone knows that. They dance naked around fires and engage in…unnatural acts…with each other and with the beasts who are their familiars.”
Well, that’s a nasty little piece of folklore, I thought. Whoever shaped this world, Dakkar or Robur, I was beginning to take a serious dislike to them.
“I am not naked,” I said, pointing out the obvious, “I do not have a familiar, and I was not in a cave.”
“Not when we found you, true,” he said. “But where else could you have come from? We had flown over the entire island, several times, and seen no one. All of a sudden, between one pass and another, you appeared, and the island began to vanish immediately thereafter. It looked like magic. You were there, and you are female. You must be a witch.”
“You thought I was a spy at first,” I said.
“I had to rule out the possibility,” the captain said. “Also, I have orders telling me what to do about spies. I have no orders telling me what to do with witches.”
Is that good or bad? I wondered, then wondered why I was asking myself, since I had no clue. “Is that good or bad?” I repeated out loud.
“It is good in that I have not been told to kill witches, whereas, if I believed you to be a spy, I would, as I stated, have you thrown over the side the moment I finished my interrogation.” He shrugged. “Nothing personal, just orders.”
“Despite leaving me with the impression you would not do that as long as I answered your questions?”
“Of course,” he said. “It is permissible to lie to a spy, who by definition is himself…or herself…a liar.”
My dislike of the as-yet-unmet Shaper of this world deepened further.
“And is it bad in any way, this lack of orders concerning witches? For me, I mean? Not that I’m a witch,” I quickly added. “I’m not.” Don’t want him to think I’m confessing…
“Not immediately,” he said. “Drink more.”
I looked at the strega, hesitated, then sighed and set down the glass, even though it was half-full. “No, thank you.”
He shrugged and took another sip from his own. “Because I do not have orders concerning you, I will simply keep you prisoner and take you to Robur to do with as he wills. You will be safe until then.”
“Gee,” I said. “Thanks.” I said it sarcastically, but I really was feeling hopeful. If Robur, and not Dakkar, were the Shaper, this captain would take me exactly where I needed to be…
…to do exactly what, I didn’t know, since Karl Yatsar hadn’t told me. But with luck, it would take us a considerable amount of time to get to wherever Robur might be. With more luck, Karl would enter this world before then. He was able to sense Shapers. He’d go to wherever the Shaper was…
Which would be great if it was Robur. But if it wasn’t, it would leave me at the mercy of some power-hungry conqueror type while Karl searched fruitlessly for me in the court of Prince Dakkar—if even he were the Shaper, since, though I thought it unlikely, it was still possible the real Shaper was making shoes in a small village somewhere…
…or throwing pots, I thought, and felt a wave of homesickness, for Eagle River, for my shop, for the Human Bean, for my boyfriend, Brent, for my Mom in Appleville, for my best friend, Aesha.
Who was dead, or perhaps had never existed. Mom, I had Shaped to forget me. Brent, the Adversary had Shaped to forget me (or else he’d been too cowardly to acknowledge knowing me when I’d called, in which case, good riddance).
“You can’t go home again,” the old saying has it. In my case, it was literally true. There was no going back, there was only going forward, and if I didn’t have Karl to guide me, which for the moment I didn’t, then all I could do was plunge forward myself, however blindly, in the hope of somehow getting closer to my goal. My head swam and I felt a little sick, and I didn’t think it was from my two swallows of strega.
“You will be treated well,” the captain said. “Though perhaps it would be best if you told none of the crew that you are being held as a suspected witch. Better they think you are a spy, perhaps one who has turned against her masters and has valuable information to share with Robur—that will explain why I have not executed you. If they think you are a witch, some of the more superstitious of the men might decide to throw you over the side, just to get you off the ship. It’s bad enough you are a woman.”
“Bad enough…?” I blinked, then remembered something I’d read. “Crap. Sailors used to think women are bad luck on ships. Is that what you mean?”
“It is well-known.”
“It is complete nonsense.”
“So a woman…and a witch…would say.” The captain tossed back the last of his strega. I looked longingly at what was left of mine, but womanfully refrained from finishing it off. “I will have you locked in one of the empty cabins,” he continued, placing the empty glass bottom-up on the desk. It had the appearance of some kind of ritual or tradition. “You will be comfortable enough. You would not enjoy the deck, anyway, as we gain altitude and increase speed. We can fly at one hundred and twenty miles per hour. Between the rush of wind from our forward progress and the downburst of air from our airscrews, the deck is traversable only with the help of a stout tether. In general, in flight, the crew remains below decks.”
“I’ll be fine in a cabin,” I said. “Thank you.” Then I thought of something else. “Will there be…food? Soon?”
“I will arrange it,” the captain said. He stood. “I will talk to you again, but I must inspect the vessel before we begin our return voyage. There were strange winds buffeting us as the island collapsed. I do not think we suffered damage, but it is even more important in a flying ship to be certain all things are in working order than it is in an ordinary ship.”
I heartily agreed with that. I stood, too. “What is your name, captain?”
“Captain Nebuchadnezzar Harding-Smith, at your service,” he said. He actually bowed his head and clicked his heels as an accompaniment to the introduction.
Nebuchadnezzar? Neb, the freed slave who was the faithful servant of Cyrus Harding in Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island? (Come to think of it, that island also crumbled into the sea, although in its case it was due to a massive volcanic eruption.) I remembered the character Neb well, but this man was clearly not a servant. Also, where did that “Smith” come from? Oh, Internet, how I miss you.
“Do you know a man named Cyrus?” I ventured.
His eyes narrowed. “My foster father’s name is Cyrus,” he said. “Commodore Cyrus Harding-Smith, an aeronaut of some note himself, now retired. He introduced me to the Aeronautical Corps, and I am proud to be following in his footsteps in the service of the great Robur. But how could you know that?”
“A wild guess,” I said.
“Or witchcraft.” His frown deepened. “I warn you again, say nothing to the crew that might cause them to think of you in that way. Speak as little as possible, until you see Robur. Then speak the truth, in detail…if you wish to live.”
“Most definitely,” I said.
Captain Harding-Smith went to the door of the cabin, opened it, and spoke in a low voice to the man who had brought me there. Then the captain turned to me. “Mr. Pencroff, my first mate, will show you to your quarters.” He indicated the open door with a sweep of his arm. I took a deep breath, found I was gripping the back of the wicker chair so tightly the weave was impressing itself into my palm, forced myself to release it, and strode with what I hoped was an air of confidence to the door.
This time, Mr. Pencroff did not take me out onto the deck. Instead, he took me to the end of the hall, to the downward-leading steps. He indicated I should descend, so descend I did, to find myself in a hallway running fore and aft, with sliding doors every few feet. To my left—aft—the corridor ran, I guessed, about a third the length of the hull, ending in another door that presumably led to the hold.
Pencroff pointed to the right, however—fore—and so fore I went, toward the bow and the door at that end of the hall. “Passenger cabin,” Pencroff said. He slid open the door. “Lucky for you it’s empty. Otherwise you’d be locked in a storeroom.”
“That’s me,” I said. “Lucky as they come.” I pushed past him into the space beyond. Less than half the size of the captain’s cabin overhead, it shared with it large glass windows aft. There were also portholes to port and starboard, with a cot beneath each. A table and two wicker chairs graced the space directly in front of the window. An ornately woven oval rug of red, blue, and gold covered the middle of the floor. Electric lamps, currently unilluminated, hung next to each of the portholes.
I turned to say “thank you” to Pencroff, but he was already sliding the door closed. It clicked shut, clicked again as he locked it…and then I was alone.