Worth the Candle, Ch 91: An Open House

When Omar Antoun became obsessed with the idea of building a house at the edge of the Boundless Pit, it had been a different world. There was no such thing as the Commoner’s Guide, or The Book of Blood. There was no printing press to churn out such books and make them affordable to the average person. There was very little in the way of organized research, outside of the ancient athenaeums, and very little in the way of public education to deliver the findings of that research to the masses. Of course, the world was less connected too, and so things that were common knowledge in one place weren’t always common knowledge in another, and given the state of civilization, common knowledge was often wrong, the product of anecdote and superstition.

Omar Antoun had been a simple carpenter who made his trade in putting up barns, or more often, making repairs in exchange for coin. He’d had a small shop in a mid-sized city, twelve thousand people, give or take, large by the standards of the time, with an assistant and an apprentice, a well-worn collection of tools, and a mule he used to transport lumber and equipment for the smaller jobs that didn’t need a full wagon. He was a humble, soft-spoken man, unmarried and old enough that people assumed he would be a lifelong bachelor, which both raised some eyebrows, and attracted some attention to the apprenticeship he offered, as young men hoped that they might have the business left to them when Omar was too old to work.

The precise pathology of a forge frenzy varied, but for Omar it was slow to come into full force. It started with a sketch on a piece of paper, with detail added in bit by bit over the course of a day. It was tall and proud, narrowing slightly as it rose, the floors overlapping each other so that moving from one side of the place to another needed short, connecting stairways. It eschewed symmetry, aside from the central vertical line that everything was arranged around, but there was still something deliberate in the placement of the structural elements, a thought and care that allowed one piece to flow into the next.

Omar had considered it a flight of fancy when he was drawing it, not realizing how much of his time he was spending on the sketch. He’d followed it with other sketches, elaborations on the basic design, embellishments on the interior details, notated with measurements and plans for construction, ideas on what materials would be used. It was going to have a directionality to it, the front of it facing out to look at something. The Boundless Pit was twenty miles away, down the Buol; as a flight of fancy (or what felt like one), Omar drew another sketch with his house placed there, the windows of its many rooms facing toward that endless hole in the ground. When he was finished with the drawing, he sat back in his chair, and knew that he had to build it.

Forge frenzy wasn’t known or recognized in the city where Omar made his home. If asked where entads came from, you might get those in the know talking about a muse, or describing a mystical experience, or a connection with the gods, or some similar thing. Perhaps a few dozen of the city’s ten thousand people would have created an entad, and so would have been able to empathize with the intense desire he found himself afflicted with. But even then, most entads were small things, the work of anywhere from days to weeks. Jars, daggers, or even rope were simple to create for an artisan with all the tools at hand, even if they needed more exotic materials or techniques.

Omar cancelled jobs, or postponed them indefinitely. Where he could get away with it, he pawned them off on his assistant and apprentice. He abandoned the shop entirely and spent funds he didn’t have to travel to the Boundless Pit, where he selected a site in short order and began clearing the area so he could create a foundation. He had always been an honest, upstanding man, which meant that there were favors to call in and reputation to spend. Within six months, he was virtually bankrupt, living in the first two rooms of the place he called Kuum Doona, on a foundation that had barely been completed.

From the outside, Omar’s obsession with this building read as a man with no wife or children realizing that he was going to leave no lasting legacy and panicking to get something done.

Six years after he’d started work on Kuum Doona, Omar Antoun was still working on his building, a project that any outside observer would immediately surmise would remain unfinished when Omar reached the end of his life. He lived simply, eating only enough bland food to survive, wearing threadbare clothes, a wild animal of a man. Kuum Doona required materials he could never hope to acquire, and labor he could never secure.

And that was when Uther Penndraig entered the picture.

Uther came riding a spectral steed, faster than the winds, his companions following close behind him on steeds of their own. He wore a resplendent plate that seemed to capture every ray of the sun, the thorny crown of Anglecynn, and a five foot blade, edge exposed to the air, strapped across his back.

He had finished his negotiations with the King of Mosenol, bringing that country into the fold of the First Empire, an adventure in its own right. At the conclusion of those proceedings, he had decided to see the Boundless Pit as something of a diversion. He’d seen the half-finished building and approached it, curious, which was where he met Omar. Met is, perhaps, a strong word; Omar did not want to waste breath on speech, he wanted only to work, to do what he was able. His answers were curt and perfunctory, or sometimes absent entirely, as he ignored questions he didn’t deem germane to the topic of the building. Things flowed more smoothly once Uther joined in the work; the King of Anglecynn and Secretary General of the First Empire did menial labor on the orders of a man most people thought was insane.

Forge frenzy was not entirely foreign to Uther Penndraig, though it wasn’t a field of study in those days, and this was before he had experienced the phenomenon firsthand. He had spoken to more than a few of the frenzied, though none that were in the process of creation, only after the fact. The actual lived experience was always somehow warped in reflection as the frenzied tried to come to terms with the pull of it, and the fact they’d created something they could not comprehend. Omar presented a special case at a moment when Uther was ready to have his interest piqued, and so the King of Anglecynn delayed his grand tour of Aerb to spend a few days on investigation.

He returned the next day, having spoken with a number of people in the area and tracked down Omar’s former assistant, now de facto (though not de jure) owner of the carpentry business. Uther brought with him a contract, written by the authority of the King of Mosenol himself. In exchange for a small army of workers and as much in the way of material goods as the house would require to be completed, it was agreed that Uther Penndraig and those he immediately designated would be the only people to take up residence at the house. The land had been purchased from the Kingdom of Mosenol outright, which meant that even if Omar had been of a mind to dispute the deal, he wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on (and this was not to mention that contracts were heard in front of manorial courts, where Uther would have immense sway). Omar signed without even reading through what the contract said; his only aim was to complete the building that had haunted his visions for the past six years.

Uther returned seven years later, a different man. His children had all been born by that point, his wife maimed, a hundred more adventures under his belt, the First Empire mature and no longer needing so much of his direct attention. His armor made him seem like he was covered in black foam, which shaped itself close to his muscular physique and shifted around as he moved. His sword was made of crystal or glass, etched with fractal patterns that glowed green when anyone looked at them. The crown of Anglecynn was gone, replaced by a thin band of platinum that circled his head without actually touching his skin.

The spectral steed was nowhere to be seen. Instead, his coming was heralded by the opening of a ring in empty space, metal appearing at a point and then pushing outwards until, with a flash, it connected to somewhere else. Uther stepped through with his companions in tow. They stood together for a time, looking at the structure. When the ring they’d stepped through collapsed, it flew through the air and slipped onto Uther’s hand, with no apparent effort or attention on his part.

“I still don’t understand why we’re here,” said Vervain. The flower mage was ancient, as he’d always been, white beard drooping nearly down to his waist. His eyes were a uniform gray from the iris to the sclera; he had been blinded by demons and cured since they’d last been to the Boundless Pit.

“I own this place,” said Uther, looking over the building with his cold blue eyes.

“Another summer home?” asked Alcida, raising an eyebrow. She’d been the last of his Knights, a slip of a girl then and an intimidatingly well-muscled woman now. She was a vitric, bald, with blue hands, strong enough in her species’ magic that her veins were engorged with electricity.

“No,” said Uther. He turned to the others. “A place to live, for a time, so that I might explore the Boundless Pit. I should get in touch with the architect, if I can find him, if he’s still alive. I had always meant to, once the frenzy had passed, I’d wanted to come back, but …” He trailed off, and everyone there understood the weight of it. He’d lived enough for several lifetimes in the last few years. It was always one thing after another that clawed at him, demanding his attention. He had a wife who now moved around on six mechanical legs. He had three children he barely knew.

He and his Knights moved in. The portal ring on his finger took a week between uses, which meant that they were there for at least that long, other, less efficient forms of transportation notwithstanding. Uther spent two days looking for the secret to the house, trying to solve the mystery of its magic, touching it in various places, running his hands along the timbers, poking at the tiles and flagstones, and eventually resorting to a technique he’d pioneered called a dictionary attack. However much luck he borrowed though, he didn’t seem to stumble across a hidden word of power that would let the effect be known.

The secret to Kuum Doona was eventually found by making a map of the place and noting the lines made by the unorthodox arrangement of rooms. The angle of a room’s upper edge would, if followed, intersect with the lower corner of a different room further down a hallway, and if you looked at all of the edges and corners, and traced the curves, you would find a variety of paths, almost like constellations, leading to a single, unassuming closet in a long, curved hallway.

It took some time to figure out what, exactly, the closet did, but after a few hours of careful attempts, Uther left an entad alone in the closet and closed the door. It was one of his spare weapons, one of many, the Butterfly Knife, capable of creating butterflies as it swept through the air. When he opened the closet back up, the knife was gone.

It didn’t take long to discover that the knife was, to all appearances, gone forever, nor to realize that swinging any blade within the building could produce the same effect of leaving a trail of butterflies, if you focused on it. A second entad was placed within the closet, this one a pair of bracers that allowed the wearer to freely exchange momentum between their arms, and again, it immediately became apparent that the effect applied to anyone within the building, no matter whether they were wearing bracers or not.

“This is a place of incredible power,” said Uther. “Even if we are to assume that the entads are lost forever, unrecoverable, the ability to multiply utility within these halls is invaluable.”

“It’s stationary,” said Montran. He brushed aside a few strands of hair from his face. Their adventures had worn on him more than any of the others, even Uther. His brother and sister had died the year before, and the group’s brute had been drifting in melancholy since then. “There ought to be very few items in our arsenal that become better when pinned in one place.”

“We could make this place mobile,” said Vervain.

“Feed it the portal ring?” asked Raven. “Wouldn’t that simply allow a person to make portals from one place to another within the building with whatever ring they happened to be wearing?”

“It is a matter of nature,” intoned Vervain. “The effects apply to not just those within it, but to the structure itself.” He stood up and walked across the large room they’d claimed, which had a round table they’d brought in, and chairs arranged around it. He laid his hand on the edge of a nearby door and momentarily closed his eyes. “Observe.” He slammed the door shut, frail body moving with surprising speed and power. In the wake of the door’s movement were butterflies, small and blue.

“And that works for the bracers too?” asked Raven. “You can close one door to open another?”

“Yes,” said Vervain. He sat back down, using the table for support. “I believe the consequence of endowing this entad with the abilities of the portal ring would be that the entire building could move.”

“Hrm,” said Uther. He drummed his fingers on the table and pursed his lips for a moment. “I’m going to give it Soskanna.”

Soskanna was a semi-intelligent sword with a long history, captured from a dragon’s hoard three years prior when Uther became one of the first mortals to ever kill one. It was as smart as a two-year-old human, more or less, capable of simple sentences spoken directly into the head of its wielder. Conversation was difficult if the topic was complex, and when found Soskanna had its own objectives, as sentient entads often did. When it had been forged, its goal had been set: it desired to kill the King of Palmain. In the centuries that it sat in the dragon’s hoard though, the kingdom had been replaced by a senatorial republic, leaving it unable to fulfill its function. Uther had solved that problem in the space of a free afternoon by coercing the senators into temporarily reinstating the monarchy with supreme power vested in a prisoner set to be executed, a task which he accomplished while the ink on the law was still wet. Soskanna had been insistent about its directive before, but after the long-awaited murder was done, it went dormant, speaking only when spoken to, pliant to a fault — and there were other, more powerful swords for Uther and his companions to wield, so it had gone into their arsenal, where it waited to find use.

When it was added to Kuum Doona, the building finally became aware.

“And that was you?” asked Fenn. She’d interrupted the story a few times, sometimes for frivolous reasons and other times to clear up points of confusion.

“No,” said Zona. “I am this place, not a sword.”

“So that was when you woke up?” I asked. I had stayed silent, trying to untangle things in my head, or match what she was saying to the things I’d read in books. I had read most of From Farmer to Founder, but that had been written by someone far outside Uther’s inner circle, a fair amount of time after the fact. There were distractions in her story too, points where parts of my brain were pinging with recognition; when she spoke of Raven, the archivist, my mind went to Maddie’s character, who seemed to share a common origin if the history books were anything to go by. “I mean, we’re at the point where the things you’re talking about aren’t just hearsay or conjecture?”

“Do you not trust me?” asked Zona.

“I … I only wonder about how you know some of these things,” I said. “How you separated fact from fiction.”

“I met with Omar Antoun, my creator, a few years after Uther had abandoned me,” said Zona. “Some of it comes from him, with my own corrections for the bias in his version.”

“He felt like he’d gotten a bad deal?” I asked.

Zona nodded. “Eight years of his life were taken from him, and in exchange, he was given a meager fund to draw from that covered only the time he was under the direct employment of Uther. He would certainly have accepted a worse deal, given the state he was in, and Uther held all the power in the world — but that was why Omar believed he should have been taken care of. It would have meant little for Uther to do so.” She shrugged. “Take that part of the story how you will, I haven’t gotten to the part that involves me.”

“A story?” asked Amaryllis. I turned to look, and saw that the door to the time chamber had opened, just wide enough to let her slip out without catching our attention.

“You’re back,” I said. I looked her over. She’d cut her hair short again, not much longer than an inch, with the dyed brown completely gone. It was a less attractive haircut than the one she’d given herself in Boastre Vino, though now that I thought about it, Fenn might have been the one to hack it all off back then. She looked a little run down, like she hadn’t been sleeping well; I was used to her being composed and alert, but she seemed out of it. “Going okay?”

“Meh,” said Amaryllis. “Seven months to go.”

“More than that,” said Fenn. “In seven months or so, Solace is born, but we’re pretty sure she’s just going to be a baby, right? Meaning that you’ll need to breastfeed her.”

“Yeah, right,” said Amaryllis. She sat down on the floor next to the door and rested her head against it with her eyes closed. “I don’t regret this.”

“But?” I asked.

“Just answering the unasked question,” she replied, opening her eyes. She reached up to touch her hair by her shoulder and her fingers grasped at nothing. I wondered how recent her haircut had been, if she’d make that mistake. “It’s hard, but it’s necessary, and sitting in a room by myself won’t be the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in the name of necessity.”

“We’ll go in with you,” said Grak.

“It’s four hundred square feet,” said Amaryllis. “It’s small enough when it’s just me, adding another person is only going to make it harder, even if it does alleviate some of the isolation.” She sighed. “I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’m still not in favor.”

“Then we’ll switch to weekly check-ins,” I said. “With more time for you to decompress and talk to us.”

“You’re talking about adding another day on, minimum,” said Amaryllis. “I didn’t come out here to retread that point, we don’t know whether we have a day to spare. If there’s a five percent chance that adding an extra day on causes the locus to die, that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.” She was speaking fast, more emphatic than she usually was.

“Calm down,” said Fenn. “You also didn’t come out to yell at us.”

“I — yeah,” said Amaryllis. She let out another sigh. “Sorry. I wasn’t yelling.” She was silent for a moment, staring at her bare feet, before looking up at us. “Things still going well on the outside? What was the story?”

“I’m not going to repeat it,” said Zona. “In brief, it was about how Uther had a hand in building this place, and discovering how its specific magic works.”

“She can take entads and add their unique magical distinctiveness to her own,” I said.

“And you just offered this information freely?” asked Amaryllis.

Zona shrugged. “With a competent warder along, you were bound to figure it out on your own, if you hadn’t already.”

“Then you –” Amaryllis stopped and narrowed her eyes. “I had two months, I should have seen it.” She frowned. “Any entads?”

“Any that can fit within the closet on the fourth floor,” said Zona. She was watching Amaryllis carefully. Some of the hostility had left her, with only curiosity remaining. It was the same expression she’d worn when asking what had happened to the loci.

Amaryllis went back into the room and pulled out Sable, which she slipped onto one hand. She held it out a carefully measured two feet above the ground and caused a large box to come into existence. On one side there was a glass tube filled with souls, which I took to be the power source, while on the other was a metal microphone. The front of it had big, clunky buttons situated above two reels that spun into action when she pressed a button.

“Let’s hope this works,” she muttered. She looked up at us. “It’s an audio recorder, using magnetic storage, totally analog.”

“Is that not what Aerb uses?” I asked.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “We use wax or electropaper, this is a proof-of-concept for something I can bring to a manufacturer in order to get some seed money.” She looked down at the device. “I should be able to listen back to what you were all talking about in the intervening forty-five minutes between cycles, I really should have thought of it in the first month, but it seemed more bearable then. Should also help with the isolation, I think, being able to hear everything.”

“Is this what you’ve been spending time on?” I asked.

“It’s a fair use of my time,” said Amaryllis, folding her arms across her chest.

“No,” I said. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like, ‘I can’t believe you’d spend your time on something so frivolous’, I meant it sincerely, I wanted to know what you’d been doing in there. Because I’m your friend, and I care about you?”

“Sorry,” said Amaryllis, uncrossing her arms. “I’ve just been trying to devote my time to productive things, training, learning, reading, and when I feel like I need to take a break it always feels like it’s a waste. I made a chart of how I spent my time and wasn’t really happy with the results.”

“No one expects you to work yourself to the bone,” said Fenn. “Honestly, just spend your next month lounging around and … I don’t know what there is to do in there, but maybe read some trashy novels?”

“I don’t believe she should go back in without someone joining her,” said Grak. He turned to Amaryllis. “Last month you said the purpose of these check-ins was evaluation.”

“It will be thirty days sharing four hundred square feet,” said Amaryllis.

“I am volunteering,” said Grak.

“Me too,” I found myself saying.

“It’s a hard pass from me,” said Fenn. “I’ve spent enough of my life in solitary confinement, thank you very much.”

“Grak, Joon, are either of you going to insist?” asked Amaryllis.

“I will,” said Grak, before I could respond. “I will spend the next week with you. We should test conditions either way, if you want me to stay with you for the last two months. If it goes well, I will stay longer.”

“That’s … fair,” said Amaryllis. “I’ve made some plans for having you in there, I think it would be good to have your input on them. I don’t want to move to weekly check-ins, because it loses us time that I don’t know that we have, but a one month trial before the pregnancy gets too far along makes sense.” She paused. “Thank you.”

“Dwarves are accustomed to small spaces,” said Grak.

“You’re only kind of a dwarf,” said Fenn. Grak stared at her. “I mean, you don’t live with a clan, you spend most of your time in hotels or hideouts with us, you don’t do any mining or farming or whatever you call it with the muck.”

“Hral,” I supplied.

“This is true,” said Grak. “I am only kind of a dwarf.” Her words sounded odd coming from him, and a little bit sad. “I am still comfortable in confined quarters.”

“Okay, then let’s go,” said Amaryllis.

“So soon?” I asked.

“Joon, I know you miss me, but,” said Amaryllis, then stopped. “That was a joke. I’m sorry, I don’t think it came out right.”

“No, it was funny, I’m just worried about you,” I said. “Worried you’re pushing yourself too hard, worried that you’re not handling it well, or handling it as well as you possibly could but it’s hard, just — if need be, we can spend two hours going to the bottle and back, to see how the locus is holding up, get another data point on precisely how fast the deterioration is.”

“I’ll take care of her,” said Grak.

“Okay,” I replied.

Amaryllis moved forward and wrapped Fenn in a long hug, keeping her grip tight. But for me, she just offered a handshake, which struck me as completely bizarre, so much so that I almost asked about it. Fenn raised an eyebrow, from out of Amaryllis’ sight, but said nothing, and I pretended that it was completely normal. I mean, it was completely normal by the standards we’d been operating under before she’d gone into the time chamber, but I really wondered how her thinking had changed during month two.

“One month,” Grak said to us. “I will give a full report.”

With a small wave toward us, they stepped back into the time chamber and closed the door behind them.

“Are you still interested in Uther?” asked Zona. She’d stayed silent while we talked to Amaryllis, watching our conversation.

“Yes,” I said. “Sorry, the interruption was … kind of inevitable, and we’re going to get another one.”

“I’ll give you the highlights then,” said Zona.

The sword Soskanna could see, and so once it became a part of Kuum Doona, the building could see as well, not actual sight as a human would know it, but an awareness of light, darkness, and color that extended out to a hundred feet from every surface.

The sword Soskanna could speak into the mind of whoever touched it, and so that became true of Kuum Doona as well; every surface was a potential line of communication, from the walls, to the floors, to the doors, to the windows.

And the sword Soskanna could think, even if it wasn’t terribly intelligent, a trait which Kuum Doona acquired.

<Soskanna?> asked Uther, placing his hand against a doorframe next to the closet.

<No,> replied Kuum Doona. It was still grappling with all that it could see, not just the sight bestowed by the sword, but other senses that had always been there, the positions, velocities, and momentum of everything in the house. It would only later learn how it knew those things; they were implied by the previous entads that had been added, necessary information for the magical effects to take place.

<What shall I call you then?> asked Uther. <Kuum Doona?>

<Yes,> replied Kuum Doona. <Who are you?>

<My name is Uther Penndraig, King of Anglecynn,> replied Uther. <You are my house.>

<I am?> asked Kuum Doona.

<You are,> replied Uther, his telepathic voice firm. <Do you recall slaying the King of Palmain?>

<No,> replied Kuum Doona. <I don’t remember anything.>

Uther pulled his hand away from the doorframe and looked at Vervain. “It worked as I had hoped.”

“As such things often do,” replied Vervain.

“Don’t start with me,” snapped Uther. “We need to find the catch.”

“Montran already said that this place is immobile,” said Vervain. “There would be costs to getting it moving, and even if we did, its size would restrict it greatly.”

“No,” said Uther. “There will be something else, some grim reminder of how broken this world can be. A fortress whose drawback is only that it’s large and cumbersome doesn’t fit the pattern.”

Vervain winced. “It pains me when you speak like that.”

“I know,” said Uther. “But with every passing day, I care less about how the truth pains you.”

Vervain shook his head. “You have such ideas about how the world should be.”

“Not should be,” said Uther. “Is. If I could have, I would have stopped when I became king, but there was so much injustice in the world to correct, so many threads to be pulled on. It’s led me down this path we now walk.”

“So you think there’s a catch?” asked Vervain. “Some reason this place won’t work out for us?”

Uther nodded. “A cost to be paid,” he said. “A complication.” He placed his hand on the doorframe and closed his eyes, the better to concentrate on the connection. <Kuum Doona, I will be adding more to you over the next few days. I will need your cooperation in order to determine the precise bounds of what you can and cannot do with the new aspects that we add to you.>

<I do not want to be added to,> replied Kuum Doona.

Uther’s frown was minute. <Why?>

<It is difficult,> replied Kuum Doona. <There are too many things to see.>

Uther raised an eyebrow at that. He reached down into his armor, through the black foam, pushing it aside like it was nothing, then drew out two small, white stones. He handed one to Vervain and kept the other in his hand. When they spoke, their words were indecipherable. It was hard for Kuum Doona to read expressions, but whatever they spoke about seemed heated.

An hour later, Vervain had left Kuum Doona entirely, using the bud of a flower he’d been keeping in reserve, and Uther began loading entads into Kuum Doona.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 91: An Open House

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