Worth the Candle, Ch 86: Headwater

“Extra passenger,” I said, once I was back in our train car. “She had a guard with her that she wanted to come with.”

“Altering the terms so soon doesn’t bode well,” said Amaryllis. She was dressed in her full plate, ready for war, but that apparently hadn’t been needed. For now, it was just me and her; the others were stationed around the train, trying their best to be inconspicuous as they kept watch for something amiss. I’d passed both Fenn and Grak, who were sitting in the dimly lit dining car. They’d noted my change of clothes, I was sure, and maybe the way my hands were wet from the quick wash I’d given them using water from Sable, but I had been walking quickly, and gave them a nod. The bloodied clothes had gone into the glove, where they wouldn’t incriminate me, along with all the other tools I’d used. “It otherwise went smoothly?”

“Guards came after me,” I said. “Two of them, the ones that were on the first gangway. I’m not sure whether they managed to raise the alarm or not, but I don’t think so.”

“That’s not ideal,” said Amaryllis.

“One went over the side,” I said. “No message from the game saying he’d been defeated, and I don’t know what to make of that. The other one is laying drunk in the gangway, courtesy of Liar’s Cup. I don’t think he’ll be able to identify me, given the mask, but some of the entads I used were distinctive.”

Amaryllis sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Okay, that’s — also not ideal. Any that people would be able to cross-reference? Any that you’ve used while on this train?”

I held up my hand. “Sable, maybe. Fenn wears it out in public, which I think will have to stop for the time being. I was out of his sight when I used it though, and he got what I’m really hoping wasn’t a lethal dose of alcohol shortly afterward, enough to make him blackout. He saw the Anyblade, but that’s easy for me to hide wherever I want to. And the rope, naturally, will be staying in Sable for the time being.” I paused and cleared my throat. “There was no one in the hallways to identify me on the way back, or on the way there. I think I’m clean.”

“Okay,” breathed Amaryllis. “I’m confident in our ability to slip past an investigation, if there is one. The biggest risk is that the train is brought to a stop while they try to figure things out, but we’re close enough to Headwater now that I don’t think they would do that. They might seal the train once we get there, but they almost certainly wouldn’t ward against teleportation, given how unlikely it would be.” She shook her head. “I don’t know, it depends. It’s not good, but at least you’re not dead.”

“Thanks, I care about you too,” I said. “Should I let her out?”

Amaryllis nodded. “Leave the guard in.”

I held my hand forward and pushed Esuen out of the glove, trying to ensure that she would be oriented so that she was on her feet. She appeared with a slight pop, and pulled off her oxygen mask as she looked around. The place where the mask met her skin had left an impression that was slow to fade; I wondered what aspect of tuung physiology made that happen after only a few minutes.

“Thank you,” she said with a curtsey toward me. She took the hose from her mister tank and sprayed herself with it once, allowing the droplets of water to land on her skin.

“We weren’t expecting two,” I said.

“Where is he?” she asked.

I held up the glove. “What would you have done if I hadn’t been able to carry both of you?” I asked.

When she frowned, her wide, frog-like lips drooped down, more expressive than a human’s could possibly be. “I gave him my scent a week ago,” she said. “He is bonded to me. I don’t know that we have time enough for me to explain it.”

“We have time,” said Amaryllis. Her voice was gentle.

“Male tuung are dormant until they take a scent, with no interest in women beyond the academic,” said Esuen. “Afterward, they are in something like heat, filled with desperate need to mate. They have a month, by your calendars, until they die. Souno was the head of the security detail, and without his aid, I would have never been able to arrange this escape.” On hearing that, my guess was that he was the one who flicked the lights off, and probably also the one who had given her whatever passenger manifest she’d found us on. Maybe he’d even been the one to suggest us as guests to the party.

“You doomed him to death?” asked Amaryllis.

“Yes,” nodded Esuen. “The males accept this, once they’ve taken a scent, so long as they can breed.”

“But … they don’t accept it before they’ve taken a scent?” I asked.

“Some do,” said Esuen. “I know that by the common imperial standards, what I have done is abhorrent. It is abhorrent by tuung standards as well, though for different reasons.”

“You wanted him to come with you so that you could absolve yourself,” I said, suddenly understanding. “You plan to mate with him, to fulfill his need.”

“Yes,” nodded Esuen. “There are other, practical considerations,” she said. “It was easier not to lie to him, and if we had left him behind, he would have talked about things I spoke of to him, matters that it was necessary to inform him of in order to secure my escape. You asked what I would have done if you had been unable or unwilling to take him? I would have killed him, if I could bring myself to do it.” She looked at me. “It is a matter of the future of my species.”

“We understand,” said Amaryllis, speaking for me. I didn’t agree with her, even when I tried to reframe it in Earth terms. “The train will arrive in Headwater tomorrow. I’m fairly confident in our ability to escape if things get complicated, and if they don’t get complicated, we’ll find somewhere for you to lay low. Remember that we’re offering aid in exchange for information and assistance on your part, so we can both get what we want. We have business in the Boundless Pit.”

“You mentioned,” nodded Esuen. “I would prefer we discuss the matter after we have some amount of safety. If you could give me some forewarning about what the matter is though?”

“There’s a stronghold, three miles down the Boundless Pit,” I said. “Kuum Doona. We intend to take it.”

“It moves,” said Esuen. Her eyes moved between me and Amaryllis. “It appears on one section of the rock face one day, then another the day after, sometimes staying for periods of time, sometimes moving rapidly. I can give you what I know about it, the defenses it possesses, what knowledge there is about how it works, but I won’t be able to guide you. The tuung have tunnels in the walls, equivalent to roads, but they would be heavily guarded.”

“I didn’t expect much more,” said Amaryllis with a nod. “I’d like to have a discussion about your political goals and how we might help you achieve them.”

“I would like for Souno to be taken from wherever he is now,” said Esuen, giving another curtsey in my direction. “We will have much to discuss, but the hour is late.” She looked around the small room. “May I ask about accommodations?”

“We’re staying on the train for the time being. I’ll be keeping guard,” said Amaryllis  “I spent most of this day resting so that I would be fresh through the night. You and Souno can sleep in these beds. There won’t be much in the way of privacy until after we’ve got a secure place in Headwater.”

I held out Sable and popped out the guard she’d brought, Souno. His sword was in his hand the moment he appeared in the car with us, and he spun once to look around before releasing it back into the aether. He gave me a bow, then gave Amaryllis her own.

“You said that you were not representatives of any formal organization,” said Esuen. From how she said it, I got the sense that she had been waiting on Souno to appear before she spoke on this particular matter. “Yet I have no proper explanation for who you are, or what your own interests are.”

“We’re travelers,” said Amaryllis. “Independently wealthy adventurers. Kuum Doona has riches that we’re hoping to exploit, if we can get past the tuung and the innate defenses of the fortress. That’s not the entirety of why we’re helping you though.” She glanced at me. “It’s our opinion that being held against your will is tantamount to slavery, and that’s not something that should be tolerated within the Empire, even if that’s how the Empire has come down on the matter.”

Esuen nodded, but it was a hesitant nod. “I will have to think on the ramifications of that.”

“You’ll probably need bigger guns,” said Amaryllis. “Someone who can give you suitable land to make your own, and some kind of military or economic authority to make sure that no one comes after you or bosses you around. If not that, then someone who you can act as vassal to, or who will work in your interests in a more close manner.”

“Yes,” Esuen nodded, more confidently. “And you have those connections?”

Through this all, Souno hadn’t said a word. His hands rested on Esuen’s shoulders, and he stood behind her as though he felt the need to be ready to protect her. He had misted himself from her tank once, but that was it.

“Connections are complicated,” said Amaryllis. “I know some people fairly high up in the Empire, maybe even some who could help you, but I’m not sure this is a fight the Empire is willing to pick, given the non-intervention compacts. If they helped you in direct defiance of the tuung of the Boundless Pit, it wouldn’t just be the other tuung that got up in arms, it would be dozens if not hundreds of other minor kingdoms that have refused to join for one reason or another, all of them feeling threatened. No one wants another counter-Empire. And either way, the Empire’s budget for that kind of thing is miniscule, given how much area they cover, not to mention the inability of the member nations to properly cooperate on almost anything.”

Esuen bulged one of her eyes, in what I was fairly sure was the tuung equivalent of incredulity, given that they didn’t have eyebrows. “Simple adventurers?” she asked.

“I know the lay of the land well enough to get by,” said Amaryllis. To her credit, she sold the lie well enough that I would almost certainly have believed it if I didn’t know better. “We’ll talk more later, once you’re safe, about both issues.” She looked over to me. “I think I have it from here.”

“I wanted to know about the passenger manifest,” I said, turning to Souno. “Who’s seen it, who knows about the discrepancy, and how much do we have to worry?”

“I was under Esuen’s sway when I took it from the rail company,” said Souno. “I am the only one who knows of your malfeasance.” His voice was deeper than I’d expected, and his Anglish was much better than any of the other guards I’d talked to. “It has been destroyed as part of our escape.”

“Okay,” I said with a nod. Works for me. I gave Esuen as deep a bow as the confined space would allow, mostly because I would have felt weird shaking her damp hand. “I hope things work out.”

“As do we,” said Esuen. Her hand went up to Souno’s, which was resting on her shoulder.

Despite my fears, the train didn’t make any sudden stops in the middle of the night, and though we watched some of the tuung guards moving up and down the train from our vantage point in the dining car the next morning, they didn’t give us much of a second look. Fenn and I sat on one side, while Val and Grak took the other.

“What do you suppose that’s all about?” asked Fenn, eyes twinkling as she watched the tuung.

I was chewing the inside of my lip. “Probably just getting ready for Headwater,” I said.

“You know, next time we should all get side-by-side compartments,” said Fenn. “I didn’t really like being spread out.”

“It was what they had available,” said Grak.

“Well it worked out for you,” said Fenn with a smile. “Still thinking that it’s a temporary thing, or are we going to get a traveling buddy?”

“It’s temporary,” said Grak. He snorted slightly and began eating his eggs with more studied intensity than he had been before.

“You shouldn’t bully him,” said Val. She hadn’t ordered anything for breakfast, and had instead opted to read while the rest of us ate. I was a little bit anxious, and the book from Earth sitting out in the open wasn’t helping, nor was the fact that we were sitting in the dining car together. So far as anyone knew, we had reason to be together, if Val was supposed to be my sister and Fenn was my fake wife. If Grak was questioned, he could just say that he’d met us at the princess’ party. I was just on edge though, and the book became the focus of that. The UPC on the back was the biggest giveaway, and the first few pages would be full of unfamiliar places and legal jargon to anyone who looked at it.

“It’s not bullying,” said Fenn, rolling her eyes.

“It is,” said Val, looking up from her book. “And that’s not okay.”

“It’s gentle-natured ribbing,” I said. “Not bullying.”

“What’s the difference?” asked Val, scrunching her nose slightly.

“It’s a fine line,” I said. “Most of the difference is in the fact that Grak knows that Fenn cares deeply about him. Some of it is tone. Mostly if it’s your friends doing it, you shouldn’t immediately think that they’re being mean, you should think that they’re just teasing. Like, if I told you that you’re a dork for reading Harry Potter, you should understand that it’s meant affectionately, even if I don’t get the tone quite right.”

Loyalty Increased: Valencia the Red lvl 20!

Companion Passive Unlocked: Soul Capture!

“Update,” I said, closing my eyes.

Soul Capture: If Valencia has access to a soul, the anima exa, she can imbibe it in order to take whatever power it possesses, similar to the Essentialist practice of Soul Scaphism, but with more breadth and depth. Duration depends largely on how intensively she uses the soul in question.

I opened my eyes. Everyone was looking at me. “It applies to souls now,” I said, voice low. “Drinking them, I guess.”

“Oh,” said Val. She was paused in the middle of the book with her thumb in between the pages. “I don’t think I like the idea of that.”

“It does seem a little bit outright evil,” nodded Fenn. “Not that I’m an expert or anything. Second Empire stuff.”

“We don’t need to do anything with it,” I said. “I think the use cases are probably … I don’t know, using someone’s heirlooms as though you had their bloodline? Being able to do some types of magic, if we carefully label all the souls we collect?”

“I don’t want to do it,” said Val, shaking her head. “I’m not a dementor.”

“What’s that?” asked Grak.

“You should read these books,” said Val, pointing down to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

“Guys, we should have a book club,” said Fenn. “Wouldn’t that be great?”

The conversation moved on from Valencia’s new (and largely unwanted) ability, partly through force of will, since no one wanted to talk about it. I was left there with a knot in my chest, not feeling particularly less anxious about my life, such as it was.

I wanted the game to come back. If I’d said that out loud, Grak probably would have rightly chided me for complaining that the voice of all creation wasn’t talking into my ear as much as it had been before, especially given that I’d outright said that was what I wanted. It was unnerving to not have any notifications at all about the quest with Esuen, and no indication that she was a companion. The whole thing stunk of being a setup by the Dungeon Master of some kind, like he’d made a nudge or two somewhere to get me on the train with the handmaid, but I was left flying blind.

I was still feeling that tight anxiousness when the train began its approach into Headwater, the city that sat above the Boundless Pit. The curve of the rail was such that we had a decent view of the descent down into the geographical depression that housed the pit. It was dozens of miles wide, mostly dark gray stone forming crags and slabs, with green mosses and grasses growing up where they could. A river ran down into the basin, thick and quickly flowing, and it had been there long enough to carve a little valley for itself. It wasn’t some mere stream; this was the Buol, a river that drained most of a continent to the east of Pit that made up that edge of the Lion’s Mane. The Buol was more than a mile thick as it passed Headwater and dumped over the edge of the Boundless Pit. (Per legend, the Boundless Pit had been carved by the Buol’s might, which no mere ocean could have contained, but I was fairly sure that whatever the hell was going on geologically or hydrologically, it wasn’t that. It smacked of being more mythological than Aerb usually tended to be.)

Headwater itself was no metropolis, nothing like Cranberry Bay or even Silmar City, though it was large enough that a few prominent buildings gave the suggestion of a skyline. It was perched to one side of the Buol, most of the bigger buildings closer to the edge of the Pit, and the city as a whole gave the feeling of being clumped up and tightly packed, despite the wide open basin around it.

I was prepared for almost anything when we pulled into the train station, but all our scenario planning turned out to have been for nothing when the doors were opened up for us and we were free to go. Amaryllis had joined us just as the train was coming to a stop, having put the handmaid and her guard into the glove as the very final step of our preparation. As some of the very few people without any luggage, we could move a little more freely, and it wasn’t too long before we were out of the station altogether. Amaryllis was still in her armor, which drew some fleeting attention, but plate armor wasn’t illegal, and while it was unusual, it wasn’t so unusual that we thought anyone would stop us.

Headwater was lousy with hotels, since the city’s two primary functions were tourism and diplomacy, both of which had a fair amount of demand for temporary housing. We picked the biggest of the hotels, then purchased a family room on the seventh floor; three beds would leave us a little short, but it would serve as a base of operations for the time being. Per our agreement, Grak picked out and paid for a much smaller suite for the tuung on the same floor, having come in separately. Our cover story on the train had been that he didn’t know us, and that seemed like a useful fiction to work under for the time being.

The biggest complication was that we didn’t want our temporary guests to know about the teleportation key, which really limited how and where we could move around.

Not much more than a half hour after we’d gotten off the train, Fenn slipped on the glove and popped Esuen and Souno out into the family suite. They took a moment to look around, and Souno checked the perimeter of the room, stopping briefly to feel at places he thought were conspicuously good for hiding whatever his enemies might have hidden. Grak had already made the same tour, looking with eyes that could literally see magic, but we didn’t mention that.

“Thank you,” breathed Eseun. She walked over to the windows and looked out at the view, which was one of the reasons that this hotel even existed. “We are still in the shadow of the beast, but the most difficult part of the escape is over.” She looked at Fenn, then Grak, then Valencia. “I don’t know if you want to make introductions, or whether you’ve withheld names by intent,” she said.

“By intent,” said Amaryllis. “The less you know about us, the better. If it weren’t horrifically inconvenient, I might have even wanted to keep you from seeing all our faces.”

“Operational security,” nodded Souno.

“We’re under a time crunch at the moment,” said Amaryllis. “There’s a time chamber within Kuum Doona that we need access to within a matter of days, rather than weeks or months. For that reason, the debrief has to be somewhat compressed. Ideally, we’ll be leaving for Kuum Doona tonight.”

“That’s very soon,” said Esuen, frowning slightly. “Too soon for me to make arrangements with anyone for my safety and security. What happens to me if you don’t return?”

“We’ll leave you with a sizable sum of money and equipment,” said Amaryllis. “Whatever we can do to help secure you an escape by train or car, we will do, so long as it can be done within the next few hours. And it’s imperative that we leave soon.” She paused. “Please, whatever you can tell us.”

Esuen looked between the five of us, fiddled with the mister at her side and allowed it to wet her skin, then let out a breath. “We call it the Meandering Mansion,” said Esuen. “It’s a place of great magic, more than could be expected of a forge-frenzied place, even one that was once owned by Penndraig himself. There are defenses around it that make it nearly impossible to crack. Hundreds of tuung soldiers have lost their lives in the attempt, and double that number of outsiders. As rumor has it, the Penndraig line lost control of it even before the agreement with the Empire was reached, leaving a fortress’ worth of treasure available for whoever could take it.”

I glanced at Amaryllis. “I hadn’t heard those rumors,” she said. She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. “From what I was told, it was mothballed due to the expenses associated with it, expenses which largely had to do with the difficulties imposed by the tuung.”

Most of our information had come from either the books that her father had left behind, or what the ghost of her great-grandfather had been able to tell her when she’d communed with him. Both of them post-dated the mothballing (or, possibly, abandonment) of Kuum Doona.

“Does it have wards anchored to it?” asked Grak.

“I believe so,” said Esuen. “Most people don’t get close enough to find out. It has caused no small amount of problems for the tuung. On occasion, it will appear in a crucial place, blocking off a path of travel between our holdings or preventing a harvest. It assaulted one of our cities for a solid month once, firing off cannonballs from the opposite side of the pit wall at regular intervals.”

“It’s … sapient?” asked Amaryllis.

“If not, then sentient,” said Esuen. “There are persistent rumors that someone still lives within it and guides it. Some even say that it’s the Lost King.” She shrugged. “I don’t know how you plan to get there, especially without knowing exactly where it is, and on such short notice. This is your first time coming to the Boundless Pit?” With the way she looked from one of us to the other, I could see the questions on her face. We were going into this half-cocked, that much had to be clear by our lines of inquiry. What this situation really called for was a solid month of research chasing down first-hand accounts and digging through archives; we weren’t really under the impression that we could spare that time.

“It’s our first time, yes,” said Amaryllis. She rolled her shoulders. “I’m confident in our ability to handle ourselves.”

“Flight down into the Pit is restricted,” said Esuen. “The Imperial Army will stop anyone they think they reasonably can, and the tuung are, per imperial law, unrestrained from using force against anyone who violates their sovereignty by going through the Pitmouth.” She paused looking at us, and my eyes followed hers, trying to see what she saw. Fenn, arms crossed, one eyebrow slightly raised, Grak frowning and adjusting the braids of his beard, Amaryllis smooth and calm … and Valencia, straight-backed with her hands clasped behind her back, the very picture of a stoic, well-trained soldier who had heard dire warnings before and gone into the shit anyway. I thought that was probably a devil’s skills at deception.

“So how would you recommend that we approach?” asked Amaryllis.

“Can you fly?” she asked.

“No,” said Amaryllis.

“Not yet,” said Fenn.

Not anymore, I thought but didn’t say. It would be good to have Solace back, but that was the whole point of us doing this, aside from the supposed riches that had been locked away for hundreds of years.

Esuen looked between us again. “There is an entad vehicle, used largely for observation,” she finally said. “The tuung allow it to go by, so long as it stays far from the walls of the Pit, and those aboard are cleared of magic by their warders and given a Fool’s Choker by their tattoo mages.” Yikes. “The owners have a good working relationship with the matriarchs.”

“Tourism?” asked Amaryllis.

“Yes,” said Esuen. “Sometimes the Empire will buy tickets, for the purposes of long-range observation. The waiting list is long.”

“We have money,” said Fenn. “Lots of money.”

“Then you are left with only the problem of commandeering the vehicle and making an approach toward a hostile, sapient fortress,” said Esuen.

“You’re skeptical,” said Amaryllis. “I understand that. There are some factors in play that I can’t reveal to you at this point. You’ll only have to trust that we know what we’re doing.” I was pretty sure that the other factor was her heritage, which would theoretically allow us to make a safe approach, as well as to pass through any wards that it might have around it. The vague assurance didn’t seem to do much to mollify Esuen’s concerns. Amaryllis placed a hand on Valencia’s shoulder. “We’ll leave V behind. She’s the most capable of us, and if things don’t go as planned, she’ll be able to get you to safety, beyond the reach of the other tuung. Either we’ll be back within a week, or she’ll be more than capable of taking care of you, especially given the resources that we plan to leave you with.”

Valencia nodded once as Amaryllis spoke, and gave no other indication that she objected. I could see at least some of the background logic. Valencia would be revealed if a warder looked at her, given that her skin didn’t have any latent magic, and a skin mage, especially one trying to put a tattoo on her, would figure out what she was as well. I tried to mull it over as Esuen gave us more details on the Boundless Pit, most of which I already knew.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 86: Headwater

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