Storytelling works up a thirst, so Peter paused to slake his with a mug of spindrift-lager. 

During the interlude, Aaron Nimbus held up his palm and closed his eyes so his view of the real world did not distract him from the imagined world he saw with his mind’s eye. “So, friend Peter, if I understand correctly,” Aaron said, “the bottom layer of the machine was roaring madly, spouting steam, and turning its gears, but doing no work because its gears were idling. The middle layer was driven by magic to spin a brass whirligig at the axis, and rotate a parade of cherubic celestial figurines carrying replicas of stars, around the axis. Meanwhile, the top layer did not move, but instead cast a rock-steady ray of eldritch light at a particular, but otherwise empty, patch of sky. Does that about sum it up?”

Peter lowered his mug of lager, thought for a moment, then said, “Aye, that’s about it.”

Aaron’s eyes, hands, and mouth flew open. “Why! What purpose was all that machinery if it did nothing?”

Master Galwynn smiled sympathetically at Aaron’s frustration, but he didn’t interrupt his and Peter’s exchange.

“Beats me, sir,” said Peter, hiking his shoulders. “I’m just a shepherd who kept his eyes open, and his wits about him. I don’t for a moment pretend to understand all that I saw. That’s for folk with more book learning than me,” he said, glancing at Galwynn. 

Kevin remained silent and kept his eyes half-closed, but he could not help smiling like a cat dreaming of catching mice. 

“But I can tell you this, sir,” said Peter, “everything that happened until that moment was just preparation for what was to come.”

“‘What was to come’?” Aaron said, skeptically.

Peter put down his empty mug, wiped the lager foam off his thin lips, and said, “You’d best sit back and gird your courage, sir. What happened next is beyond my ken—and perhaps beyond the ken of any mortal folk.”

The man from Land was apparently finished with his preparations. All he could do then was sit on his stool and fidget. As the hours and minutes of the night passed by, so too did a steady procession of stars pass by that particular coordinate in the sky where the haggard man’s gazing stones were trained, and a wan ray of eldritch light pointed. 

Periodically, the haggard man checked his notebook, then his pocket fob; then either the disc in front of him, or whatever he was looking for through his gazing crystals; and then he repeated the cycle. “It was clear he was waiting for something,” said Peter. “Something that made him anxious. Something that made him hopeful. And at the same time, I think, something that made him…fearful.”

Peter took a breath. “Suddenly, the human checked his pocket fob and leapt up off his stool. He was clearly flustered by the time. He glanced at the disc in front of him, then hunched behind his gazing crystals to stare at the sky long and hard.”

To both Aaron’s and Peter’s surprise, Master Galwynn opened his brown eyes, sat up, and asked, “Did you happen to notice what the man from Land was looking at; either in the replica on the disc, or in the sky itself?”

“Aye, m’lord, now that you mention it,” said Peter. “When you’re a shepherd, you keep an eye on how the sky changes without even thinking about it. The human was watching the Twelve Dancing Sisters.”

Kevin raised a puzzled eyebrow and glanced at Aaron. Realizing Kevin’s unfamiliarity with cultural names, Aaron explained. “The Twelve Dancing Sisters is a celestial village—that is, what you Landfolk call a ‘constellation’—of stars. Much lore surrounds the ‘Sisters: They’re unimaginably beautiful, eternally kind, endlessly hopeful, and forever offering inspiration to artists, musicians, and lovers. We Skyfolk call them the Twelve Dancing Sisters, but I think you Landfolk have a different name for them. You call them…what is it?…oh yes, the constellation, ‘Vystra.’”

Kevin Galwynn’s already sharp attention was honed to a razor’s edge at the mention of Vystra. The Mistress of Stargazers had said that constellation was central to the current crisis.

“Aye,” Peter reiterated. But he winced abruptly, fell silent, and let his awareness of the world around him give way to a troubling memory. “Hmm,” he grunted sourly. “You’re right. The man was looking at the ‘Dancing Sisters when he began to mouth his foul magic. Necromancy, it was, I’d wager.”

Peter’s sudden change in attitude made Kevin concerned for him. Galwynn surmised the old shepherd had recalled something both painful and fearsome. “‘Foul magic?’ What are you talking about, Peter?” 

The shepherd’s mood was dead serious. “The man was looking at the patch of sky where that wee ray of light was pointing. The ray wasn’t moving, you see, but the stars kept promenading past its tip, one by one. On my oath the man was keeping his eye on that patch of sky as closely as I keep my eye on the horizon looking for sky-wolves stalking my sheep. That’s what confounded me at first: that patch of sky was bare.” But throughout the night, a succession of stars moved toward, above or below, and then past the stationary tip of the ray. Until at the right time, the right azimuth, and the right declination, the constellation Vystra aligned perfectly with the ray. 

“When the Twelve Dancing Sisters touched that wee ray of light, the light suddenly blazed as bright as dawn. And when one particular Sister danced into the light, the Twelve stopped moving altogether.” Peter was still confounded by the spectacle he had seen. The shepherd professed, “It was as if that ray of light pinned the stars in place in the sky!” 

Kevin asked Peter firmly, but softly so as not to upset him further, “Do you happen to know which star was held immobile?”

“Aye,” said Peter. “When you’re a shepherd, you’re wont to know the names of all the bright stars. And the star he was gazing at was the brightest Sister, the one in the middle, the one named ‘Alta.’” 

Peter fell silent again, lost in reverie, but Kevin noticed his hand began to tremble. Kevin leaned close and gently said, “You’re with friends, Peter. You’re safe. What happened next, my friend?” 

Peter came back to himself straight away, although his eyes remained haunted. “Then the man began to chant a magic spell,” Peter said. “I don’t know what the words meant, but I could hear them clearly from far away. He kept repeating them louder and louder, over and over, ‘Veni ad me. Veni ad me. Veni ad me….’

“What does that mean?” Aaron wondered aloud. It was at times like this when Lt. Nimbus wished he had paid more attention learning the basics of spell casting from the court magician instead of flirting with the magician’s apprentice witch.

“It means, ‘Come to me’,” Kevin explained in a flat tone of voice. “The haggard man was imploring something…or someone…to come to him.”

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