After they’d escaped the prison, and the misadventure with Fallatehr had been concluded, Amaryllis and Fenn had spent some time trying to work out a better way of doing the arrow transportation trick, and how it might be altered for different circumstances. This was a combination of those scenarios, and some testing that they had done. An arrow fired from the sand bow would stay still with respect to Aerb, the same rules that the immobility plate worked on. This meant that in any scenario where we were already moving, we had a somewhat serious problem, which was that the arrow wouldn’t keep moving along with us.
The protocol for if the “telearrow” needed to be fired from something moving was that Amaryllis would load everyone into the glove, fire off the arrow, and then lock her immobility plate at the exact same instant that the arrow froze in place. If she were firing an arrow normally, this would leave the arrow out of her reach (she had tried this) so the protocol, such as it was, was that she would fire the arrow backwards, aiming it more or less over her shoulder, which would absolutely kill the distance, but at least allow her to enter into the glove inside the arrow, assuming that she’d first removed the vambrace and gauntlet from one of the arms of her armor.
(I hated the name telearrow, by the way. It had been coined by Fenn, but the ‘tele-’ prefix meant ‘far’, and all arrows, almost by definition, were already traveling across great distances, and further, the telearrow didn’t actually go any further than a normal arrow, and in fact, due to weight, balance, and worse aerodynamics, tended to go quite a bit less far. The proper term for it, if you wanted to smush ‘arrow’ and ‘teleport’ together into a portmanteau, would have been ‘arrowport’, which correctly conveyed what it was actually doing. Fenn thought that sounded too much like ‘airport’ though, and besides, she had already named and ‘invented’ it with Amaryllis’ help, and sternly refused to change it.)
Of course, Amaryllis was far worse at actually shooting a bow than Fenn was, especially with Fenn’s scars functional once again. Fenn wasn’t just a masterful archer, she was scarily strong, able to pull the bowstring back to the point where she thought that she could break a normal string from the draw alone. Entads were (generally speaking) made of sterner stuff, and in this particular case, we needed both the distance and the aim that Fenn could provide.
Luckily, the ship wasn’t moving too fast, and so when it came down to it, Fenn was able to take the shot, walk briskly to keep up with the arrow, hop on Amaryllis, who had made herself immobile, and then touch the exposed part of the glove for ten seconds.
Amaryllis had freed both her arms from the armor, while one hand rested gentle fingers on the glove, feeling its magic, the other held a pocketwatch, which was counting down the seconds. Her eyes moved between the watch and Taft, occasionally flickering toward where Kuum Doona was on the horizon. For his part, Taft was simply standing at the edge of the Down and Out, which suffered another cannon hit as she watched. With three seconds left, and the ship far enough away that it would be very hard for Taft to do anything, Amaryllis entered the glove.
There was a totally different protocol for using the telearrow to strike a target high up. The use case, as Amaryllis had seen it, was that we might want to get to the top of something in a hurry, and flying us all in an arrow could do the trick, which would save us minutes if not hours of climbing. She had climbed up Sorian’s Castle, back in Silmar City, and one of the ways that Amaryllis operated was that she usually put thought into past situations to see how she could tackle them if she ran into them again. The inherent problem with firing an arrow up at something like a cliff-face or a tall building was that arrows were built to pierce, and most static structures were designed not to be pierced, even if only incidentally; an arrow fired against glass, metal, or stone, would be too likely to bounce off, which at best would end up with us exiting the telearrow back on ground level where we started, or worse, someplace dangerous to exit from.
Amaryllis had tried a number of different solutions to get an arrow to stick, or at least come to a stop, but eventually settled on something very similar to a ‘crumple zone’ on a car; the tip was fragile, designed to break on impact, which would slow down the glove-carrying shaft of the arrow. A fast-bonding adhesive would then be carefully applied to the arrow before it was fired, and ideally it would stick to a wall, which would allow Amaryllis to get out of the glove, stick herself in place with the immobility plate, retrieve the arrow, and then either fall or climb to somewhere safe enough that the rest of us could get out. In testing (sans glove), the arrow stuck about one out of every three times.
While the “enter the arrow” part of the plan worked fine, the “exit the arrow” part didn’t really work at all.
Amaryllis popped out of the void seconds after she’d entered it, trusting in her pocketwatch and a rough guess about how long it would take the arrow to cross the distance. It was a jarring transition, to go from standing immobile a few dozen feet away from a brightly lit ship, to being inside the black void with only a hand of flame, and finally, standing so that she was looking out at the ship, turned around in the dark, with a ruined arrow spinning in front of her, illuminated by the flame of her blood, both of them falling.
She snatched the arrow from mid-air, then used the armor to bring herself to a halt. With the helmet of the immobility plate having been taken off, she could move around just enough that she could see the endlessly sloping rock wall behind her, and below that, visible only from the corner of her eye, Kuum Doona, which fired off a blindingly bright strike of lightning that left an abstract blue shape in her peripheral vision. She looked down at the arrow, trying to do a cursory analysis; at a first guess, the air had been too wet, which had negatively affected the adhesive. Another strained glance back at the rock face gave her a best-guess of twenty feet away from it. The crevice that Kuum Doona was nestled in was another fifty feet below. It wasn’t clear where, exactly, the lightning was coming from, but she had to assume that she was at risk if she was noticed. She’d snuffed out the blood flame the moment she’d grabbed the arrow, leaving her in near-total darkness, mostly lit by the residual light from the Down and Out.
Amaryllis unscrewed the arrow, extracted the glove, carefully pried the sticky arrow shaft from her hand and threw it down into the Pit, then put the glove on. So long as the lightning didn’t come her way, she had all the tools she needed to get within the wards of Kuum Doona, and once she was inside, there would be the matter of ensuring the house didn’t wish them harm, as it had, apparently, killed dozens of others.
The first step was to get to the rock wall. For that, Amaryllis had specialized tools, not just ropes, pitons, and a harness, all things she’d bought way back in Barren Jewel for the assault on Caer Laga, but a wound crossbow that she loaded with a heavy arrow, the end of which was attached to a length of thin, elven-made rope that had been purchased at great expense.
Turning around to actually face the Pit wall was tricky. Her arms were free, which meant that she could generate some amount of angular momentum. She would hold one arm out to the side, with the other across her breastplate, then swing them as fast as she could to the side. Partway through, she would stop the immobility from her armor, lock her arms so that the momentum was transferred to her body as efficiently as possible, and then make the armor immobile again before she could drop too far. It cost height, which was the resource she was most attempting to conserve, but she managed to get the job done.
The steel-tipped arrow was fired from its specialized crossbow, hurled across the relatively short distance separating them, then broke off part of the wall where it struck and fell limply down, trailing rope behind it until Amaryllis grabbed the end and began pulling it back up to reload it. All she needed was something that she could pull on, something that she could get some tension against, which would allow her to rapidly cycle the immobility plate on and off, and so long as her acceleration toward the rope was faster than gravity, she would make it over without losing too much height.
On the second shot, the arrow broke off more of the rock face, and this time when she reeled it back in, the tip was missing, snapped off by a bad hit. She stayed frozen in the air, looking at it for a moment, then sent it back into the glove and re-evaluated her position. The cannonfire from down below had stopped, as had the lightning strikes. The Down and Out was visible below her, spinning and on fire, the magic of the entad having finally failed. The fortress was taking no action against her. Did it not see her? Did it recognize her lineage at this range? Was it operating on some different set of protocols now that a threat was closer?
It was tempting to simply use the teleportation key and nope the fuck out. They could regroup at the hotel room in Headwater and be back in this exact same position in two hours’ time, having talked the situation over in detail and taken time to recover from the battle. The risk, naturally, was that when they returned, Kuum Doona would no longer be there.
Amaryllis got a thirty-pound weight out from the glove, which was attached to a length of thin mithral chain. She began swinging it around, and once it got up to speed, she carefully timed the release of her plate’s immobility so that it pulled her in the direction she wanted to go. In theory, she could have used this method to climb through the air, but in practice, it took a lot of effort to get the weight up to speed. By the time she made her way to the wall, she was soaked through with sweat, even though her arms were cold from nighttime in the damp Pit.
For the last little bit of movement, she used the Anyblade, extended into something resembling a polearm, then firmly wedged into the nearest crack in the rock. She pulled herself in by inches, cycling the armor’s ability so she wouldn’t fall too much, taking breaks when her muscles grew weak from the effort. A single marzipan fairy, taken from the glove and wolfed down quickly, cured the worst of her physical exhaustion, once she was close enough to touch the rock face and begin her descent.
Amaryllis was good at climbing. The Athenaeum of Quills and Blood was built high up on a plateau, and climbing was part of the school’s tradition, a sport taken to the extremes that magic would allow. There were paths on the school’s climbing walls that could only be taken if you were skilled in blood magic, capable of flinging yourself to the timing of your pulse from one hold to another. There were competitions, and clans of climbers; it was one of the school’s primary extracurriculars. Amaryllis had only been at the athenaeum for three years, which was long enough to have learned a little, but not so long that she had considered herself a blood mage. Climbing had been one of the things she’d pushed herself into, partly for the social access it allowed to upperclassmen, and partly because it allowed her some solitude. (Most of the climbing faces had velocity wards beneath them, layered so that you would be slowed by degrees as you passed through them and hit the ground no harder than if you’d tripped over your own feet on ground level, which meant there was no need for spotters or someone to belay her.)
She made her way down being as careful as she could, Anyblade in one hand as a claw-like device that could form itself precisely to any handhold and dig itself into nooks and crannies on her command. It was pitch black, which meant climbing was a thing done more by feel than by sight; she worried that the light would attract the attention of Kuum Doona, or the tuung, if they were out there, though she was certain that to a warder she would be radiant with magic. The rock face was a persistent underhang of varying degrees, one of the worst surfaces to climb on, which meant that each new position was a matter of bracing and clinging as tightly as possible.
She could feel herself passing through the wards, and sighed in silent relief. Whatever else was going on with Kuum Doona, the wards were still keyed to her lineage, following her erstwhile branch of the family tree.
She reached Kuum Doona proper not two minutes later, finally putting hands on it. She had seen only a little of the place thus far, and now felt the structure of the building, odd pieces of metal and loops of metal, which she gradually realized were interlocking in the same way that chainmail does, each chain as wide as a coin, sheets of it beneath the metal plates, and wood or stone beneath those. Her fingers took a moment to trace it, trying to make sense of it. Someone had clad this building in both plate and chainmail, or perhaps it had been built that way during the forge frenzy. It made the descent go faster, which she was grateful for. She passed windows, each of them a different size and shape, some of them broken, leaving only shattered glass like teeth around the edges.
When her feet touched solid ground, she tested it carefully, putting more and more weight on it until she was standing fully on it, without the use of handholds. She ate another fairy, to take the edge off of physical exhaustion, waited until her breathing and heartrate had returned to their baseline levels, and only then risked producing a flame to look at where she was, ready to move at any moment.
The skin of Kuum Doona was an odd thing, with pieces of metal in vast, curved, expanses, welds and rivets running through them at places of symmetry, most of them scarred or pitted from hits they’d taken. In the places where the metal didn’t cover, there was chainmail, links of metal as large around as a wedding band, joined together and stretching over it. Where there wasn’t chainmail or plate, there was wood, grey and cracked, damp from the mist, or stone, irregular bricks that meshed together like puzzle pieces instead of sitting in regular, ordered rows. The rooms were oddly shaped, and didn’t make up a flat wall, but Kuum Doona didn’t give off the impression of being a ramshackle place put together of disparate elements, it seemed as though there was purpose in how the rooms had been arranged, if not any strict symmetry.
The main entrance to Kuum Doona was a set of double doors, some exotic, dark wood carved with a mural. This Amaryllis recognized; the left was a farmer tending to his farm, while the right was a king in his castle. Variations on this theme were common through Anglecynn; it was part of the mythologizing of Uther Penndraig, the boy who had grown up a farmer to claim his place as king. Here, the mural was cracked and chipped, scarred from battle.
In front of the door was a small walkway, made of stone and broken off after ten feet. This was what Amaryllis stood on, looking at the fortress that was hers by claim-in-fact. The fortress was still and silent. It didn’t shoot a bolt of lightning at her, nor did the cannons turn to fire by whatever mechanism allowed that. Amaryllis stayed where she was, making her best effort at being steely calm (and no one did steely calm like Amaryllis).
Slowly and deliberately, she began to bring us back out of the glove.
“Are we safe?” asked Fenn as she looked over the structure. She was staying close to Amaryllis, within arm’s reach, which was probably wise; Amaryllis had both the immobility plate and the teleportation key. The glove was back on Fenn’s hand though, the deal we’d made early on still honored. The Anyblade had also returned to its standard position as a bladed ring on my finger.
“We haven’t been attacked yet,” said Amaryllis. “That implies some level of safety. You can go stand in front of one of the cannons if you’d like to test it.”
“They aren’t cannons,” said Grak, pointing up to something that I couldn’t see by the light of my flashlight, even when I pointed it where he was indicating. “They’re pistols set in large housings. Disguised.” Sometimes he seemed to chew on words, like he’d been searching for the perfect one and wanted to savor what he’d found. “I’ve seen a few of them adjusting.”
“Pistols that shoot cannonballs?” asked Fenn with a frown.
“I don’t know,” said Grak.
“Oh,” I said. “Uh, that was from a campaign, a, uh, pirate campaign we did.” Not actually a pirate campaign per se, an Age of Enlightenment campaign that turned into a pirate campaign despite my better efforts. “Three times per day, with a misfire on a critical failure, the pistol would shoot cannonballs. Not automated, as I’d envisioned it, and not part of a building.”
Amaryllis frowned. “An adaptation.”
“Maybe,” I said. I looked over Kuum Doona. “I don’t really understand this place. It seems like it’s lacking a — huh, central theme?” I wasn’t sure whether that made any sense, or whether I was too out of it to get across what I was thinking. It felt like I’d been doing whatever the mental equivalent of treading water was.
“The prison didn’t have a central theme,” said Fenn. “Brass and mud people.”
“It was different things at different times, overlapping each other in the present,” said Amaryllis. She was staring at the door, and the beaten-down mural there. “In the meta-sense, it was about identity, I think, to tie in with what was going on with Fallatehr. There were golems using flower magic, that bit was thematically about connection.”
“You’re giving him too much credit,” I replied. “The Dungeon Master, I mean.”
“I’m pretty sure that she’s not giving the all-powerful god too much credit,” said Fenn. “But sure, keep bad-mouthing the Dungeon Master, I’ll just make a point of not standing too close to you.”
“So what’s the theme here then?” I asked.
“No idea,” said Amaryllis. She was still looking at the mural, or maybe just at the door.
“It’s a person,” said Grak.
“A person wearing plate and mail?” asked Amaryllis, shining her flashlight to the metal exterior. I could kind of see it, once Grak pointed it out.
Grak nodded. “Not in form. But it is likely sentient.”
“If this were a person, it would be a hot mess,” said Fenn, pointing a toe down at a bit of broken stone, not quite kicking at it.
One of the two doors, the side with the castle on it, creaked open. We all stared at it.
“That’s not to say that we don’t all have our flaws,” said Fenn, putting on a cheerful smile. “Myself, I have plenty. I’m a convicted felon on the run from the law, killed a hundred people about half an hour ago, I’m –”
“We should go in,” I said.
Amaryllis raised her flashlight and pointed it in through the open door. “There are bodies inside,” she said. I looked to where she was pointing and saw the dark shapes there, with the occasional glint of metal. “Old,” she said, echoing my thoughts.
“Other teams that came here, the ones looking for treasure?” I asked.
Amaryllis waved the flashlight from side to side, then gave a curt nod. She frowned slightly, narrowing her eyes. “There were others, imperial forces trying to bring this place under control. According to rumor, anyway.”
“Yeah,” said Fenn. “Didn’t seem to have worked out for them, did it?”
“We should go in,” I said again. “The open door is an invitation.”
“Feel free to lead the way,” said Amaryllis, deadpan.
I stepped forward, flashlight held in front of me. It was an Earth flashlight, the beam brighter and better-focused than anything you could get on Aerb short of using magic. I crossed the threshold, trying not to think too much about it, which was easy with the mental exhaustion of the gem magic still in full effect. If this place wanted us dead, I was pretty sure that we would be dead, and standing at the door wasn’t doing us any favors.
The doors led into a grand foyer with two staircases coming off it at different angles, as well as another three doors, one of which was missing, another slightly off its hinges, and only the last firmly in place — boarded shut. Where there was carpeting on the stairs, it was frayed and rotted. Where there was wood, it was cracked and warped. The floor was black and white tile in a pattern that ran at a skewed angle from the room. That pattern made the problems all the more noticeable, places where it was cracked or missing tile.
There were eight bodies, if I was counting them right. None of them were fresh; the places where there was skin were blackened, the faces with pits for the mouth and eyes. It was hard to tell what had happened to them so long after the fact, but the picture it painted was certainly gruesome. A chandelier must have hung in the foyer at some point, because it was on the ground now, with a body beneath it. On one of the walls was a patch of red so dark it was almost black, marking a blast of something foul that might have come out of the body crumpled at the base of the stain. Another of the bodies was missing its torso; it was laid out flat, with the legs and arms still in position, head rolled off to one side, and a dark trail leading away from it, thinning out by the time it reached the open door.
“Sorry I called you a hot mess!” said Fenn through the door. “You’re really quite lovely!”
“Is that really an idiom here?” I asked. “Hot mess?”
“Watch what you say,” replied Amaryllis. She’d had her helmet off, letting herself cool and giving her sweat a chance to dry, but she replaced it as she looked in through the door. Sometimes it seemed like she went around armored more often than not, closed off from the world.
“We spoke of much outside the doors,” said Grak.
“Yes, we did,” said Amaryllis. “This place wasn’t supposed to be intelligent. Not enough to understand speech. My great-grandfather said it was, at best, doglike, not –” She stopped and cleared her throat. “I am Amaryllis Penndraig, tenth of my name, Princess of the Kingdom of Anglecynn, most direct living descendant of Uther Penndraig, and keeper of Kuum Doona by claim-in-fact.” She said it as a proclamation, but without raising her voice.
There was no response from the fortress.
“Okay,” said Fenn, after some time had passed. “So do we take the creepy boarded up door on the left, the creepy door with the blood trail on the right, or one of the stairways, or what?”
“We could each take a different path,” I said. “Cover more ground that way.”
A silence settled around us.
“That was a joke,” I said.
“Not very funny,” said Fenn.
A hollow laugh echoed out from inside, coming from the right door, the one that a dismembered torso had likely been dragged through.
“Alright, I’m just going to be the one to say it,” said Fenn. “We could chalk all this up to a long, painful misadventure and get the hell out right now.”
“One of the wards is a teleportation ward,” said Grak. His eyes swiveled, taking in information that I couldn’t see. “We would have to drop.”
“We didn’t come this far for nothing,” said Amaryllis. She had been standing outside, and finally crossed the threshold to stand with me at the entrance to the foyer.
“Sounds like the sunk cost fallacy to me,” I said.
“No,” said Amaryllis. “The cost is sunk, but that means that the marginal cost to complete a search of this place and get to the time chamber is low. We’ll stay together, search room by room, and it shouldn’t take us more than a day to find it. The cost is practically nothing, assuming that Kuum Doona doesn’t want to kill us, which I don’t believe it does.”
“On what grounds?” asked Fenn. “The fact that it hasn’t? I used to have a cat that would spend hours murdering mice, if I let her. She’d toss them around, injure them, run them down, and only dismember them when they’d stopped being entertaining.”
Amaryllis gave a little “mmm” sound as acknowledgement; it was a possibility.
“Either way, we should double tap those bodies,” I said. I held out a hand toward Fenn, and she tossed me a void pistol. She still hadn’t stepped inside Kuum Doona.
I walked toward the bodies, trying to push away the emotions that were encroaching on me. My least favorite thing about gem magic was that the feeling of mental exhaustion seemed to be fixed at percents, rather than at static intervals, meaning that being down in the bottom fourth of points, as presented by the meter in my HUD, gave me that dissociative, drifting feeling that I’d previously associated with either depression or not getting enough sleep. I was more sensitive to the world around me, more easily drawn toward memories and feelings than usual, not enough that I was a liability, but enough to be annoying.
I thought about the thunk of the void rifle when Amaryllis had executed Poul at the mechanic’s back in Comfort, the cold, mechanical way she’d done it, mirroring the detached way that I was moving. I thought about wry amusement at the game table as, once again, corpses and statues were desecrated so that they couldn’t come to life and hurt anyone, a task that Craig and Reimer had always approached with unbounded creativity. I thought about my grandfather in his casket, skin showing too much of his bones after a long battle with cancer, and the seven days we’d spent in South Dakota, waiting for him to die. The smell in the foyer was mercifully muted, with only a slightly hamster-smell of mildew coming through, and that called me back to my first real pet.
I wasn’t even sure that shooting the corpses would do anything. If I’d been Reimer, I probably would have taken the time to break the corpses apart, separate the important bones from each other. Looking back on it, the work seemed kind of pointless, but no one had stopped me, they’d just had hushed conversations with each other
“You okay?” asked Fenn, as I was finishing up. Her hand touched my elbow.
“Yeah,” I said. “Overdid it on the gem magic. Not my best self right now.” I stopped. The question was slow to come to me. “Why? Acting weird?”
“A little bit,” said Fenn. “Combat fatigue, I was thinking.”
“Ah,” I said. “Plausible.” I idly wondered whether I would get a status update on that or not. It seemed like a textbook affliction, if it was one that I had.
“We just need to keep moving,” said Amaryllis. I hated when the helmet obscured her face. Maybe we would find a magic item that would make her helmet invisible. I put in a mental request to the Dungeon Master for that. “Find the time chamber, get me into it, that’s our only objective for the time being. Any left-behind heirlooms come second, and making this a permanent, secure base of operations comes third.”
“We should follow the blood,” I said, pointing to the trail that led away from the dismembered arms and legs. “That was done after he died, deliberately, moved to somewhere important.”
“It was hopefully done after he died,” said Fenn. “Aren’t you the one always talking about worst case scenarios?”
“Yeah,” I said. “True.”
“There would be more blood,” said Grak, who had finally joined us. I turned my flashlight toward him, so I could see him, and noticed something disquieting.
“Did you close the door?” I asked.
He turned to face the door, along with Fenn and Amaryllis. It was firmly closed. “No,” he said.
“No theatrical slamming shut, trapping us in here?” asked Fenn. “I’m almost a little disappointed.”
“We should try to open it,” said Amaryllis.
“On the off-chance that would actually work,” I replied.
Grak moved forward and tested the door. It swung open freely, without any resistance, to reveal a wall of smooth rock.
“We’ve moved,” said Grak.
“Without feeling it?” I asked.
“Seems like,” said Fenn. “Meaning, if I understand you right, that we’re now trapped here unless we can find another way out?”
“Yes,” said Grak. “I might be able to negate the ward if we can find a seam. The exterior seam is blocked off to us. Normally there would be a defensible room on the inside, entrance and exit.”
“Well, I’ve got a bad feeling about — fuck!” Fenn had her bow in hand, with an arrow coming from the glove shortly after it, and she had loosed an arrow before I could even see what she was looking at.
When I looked over, I saw that the decapitated head had rolled a few feet. An arrow pierced it through the eye socket, pinning it to the ground.
“It moved,” said Fenn. “It was rolling.”
“Rolling away from us?” asked Amaryllis.
“Yeah,” said Fenn. She walked over to the head, stepping carefully across the tile, and planted a foot on it before withdrawing her arrow. It was coated in black ichor; she tossed it to the side. When she lifted her foot up off the head, it stayed where it was, then began rolling again, toward the open door, following the path that had been marked by the trail of blood the torso had left.
“Are — are we expected to follow that?” asked Fenn. “Like, this house legitimately expects us to follow after a rolling head?”
Another ghostly laugh echoed from down the hallway.
“We may be dumb, but we’re not that dumb,” said Fenn.
“I say we follow it,” I said.
“I agree,” said Amaryllis. “It’s a communication with this place, if an unconventional one. If we’re fighting against it, I’m not sure that we can achieve our goals here, especially not making this place into a lasting, fully secure stronghold.”
“You are insane if you think I’m spending the night here,” said Fenn. “Even one night, let alone actual downtime.”
“We may not have a choice,” said Grak, looking back to the door that opened onto stone.
We made our way down the hallway, slowly. I took the lead, because I could more easily take a hit, and Grak was just behind me, because he could see magic.
“This place has more magic in it than anything I’ve seen before,” said Grak. “Layered magic. Diverse. I think Juniper is right.”
“Right about what?” I asked with a frown.
“There is a thin thread of commonality running between the magic,” said Grak. “More thin than I would expect.”
“You’re talking about central themes?” I asked.
“No,” said Grak. He snorted slightly. “Yes. The magi would not like that interpretation.”
“Well I’m really not enjoying my time here so far,” said Fenn. “And this talk isn’t making me a whole lot happier about wandering around.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” said Amaryllis. “If we had known the house was a thinking entity, maybe –” she stopped and started again. “I need to know more, to understand why it got like this.”
“And why your ancestors lied to you?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “This place was listed in the family ledger as mothballed, closed down because of expenses, not a rogue entity. My great-grandfather has confirmed as much. It always seemed like more trouble than it was worth, not just to me, but to the others as well. At some point a link in the chain of custody broke. Or … was tampered with.”
“So we’ve got a family mystery added on top of that?” asked Fenn. “Yeah, really not helping. Mostly it’s the fact that we’re following a frickin’ rolling head around in pitch black darkness nine miles underground, maybe that’s what’s got my goat.”
The head kept rolling. When we paused, usually so Grak could check something, it came to a stop and waited for us. Heads didn’t roll terribly well, as it turned out, given that they weren’t spherical, and so the movement of the head was interrupted sometimes when it caught on the eaten-away nose, or flipped over an ear, or got in a bad position on the warped boards. It had been scary when it had rolled away of its own volition, but there gradually came to be something comical about it. I wondered if that was by intent, or whether it was an attempt at being spooky that was falling flat.
We passed by doors and windows, most of them closed. By mutual agreement, we didn’t go through any doors, but we did shine our flashlights into the rooms, illuminating scenes of death and decay. Sometimes there were decayed bodies draped over the furniture, other times only stains. Dismemberment and mutilation seemed to be a running theme; someone’s finger had been cut off, or a hand was missing, or the eyes taken from their skull. I kept thinking that this fortress was basically a Superfund site, and even if the controlling intelligence of it could be brought to heel, or convinced to cooperate, it would take us months to clear it out and make it livable, not to mention the millions of obols it would probably take to replace warped or rotted boards, carpet, furniture, et cetera. It brought to mind cleaning out my aunt’s house after she’d passed, finding things that were ancient and shrunken. This place was littered with the dead, and something would have to be done about them. That was beyond all the work of adding in conveniences like electric lights and running water, neither of which I saw any sign of. That wasn’t too much of a surprise, given how old this place was.
The head rolled into a large room and came to a stop when it hit the leg of a dining table. Our flashlights moved around, taking the room in. The table was long and solidly built, able to seat at least a dozen, and while it dominated the place, there was also a bar along one wall, and a rotted couch and armchair sitting next to a fireplace. Above the mantle was a dusty tooth, big enough that I’d have probably had trouble picking it up.
Four shot glasses sat on the table, each filled with a clear liquid. We’d paused on them, wordlessly, for just a bit, then continued looking around to see what else the room had in store, or why we might have been brought here. I moved my light away from the table, pointing it to the rows of dusty bottles going twenty feet up to the ceiling, and the ladder you’d have to climb to get the stuff on the top shelf. When my flashlight swung back, crossing the table, there was a girl seated there.
It took me some time to recognize her, as the others shouted in surprise and moved into action. She was sixteen or seventeen years old, with long brown hair that was tied back in a ponytail; I had always liked the way it swished back and forth when she shook her head. She had a small mouth with thick lips; I could instantly remember what it was like to kiss her. It was cold in the house, and slightly damp, but she wore a t-shirt and short shorts, just like she’d worn every day in the summertime. She even had flip-flops on. As if to underscore it, the shirt was one that I’d known, “Kansas Swim” written on it, with a stylized icon of a woman swimming, caught mid-stroke. She’d been on the swim team, the shirt had been free, from a conference or organization or something.