The hooded figure waved frantically for Curian to swim towards the strange island. She had no other options, and so she did so with more than a hint of reluctance in her heart and a worried feeling gnawing at her gut. As she reached the thin line of shore that surrounded the domed building, the hooded figure reached down and helped her out of the water and to her feet.
“Inside, quickly,” the hooded figure said. She turned and walked towards the smooth stone wall, no features offering any clue as to how exactly they would get inside. Curian shrugged, trying to will away the cold of being in soaking wet clothing. She clenched her arms at her sides as she walked, and felt the familiar warmth in her hand. Hazarding a glance, she confirmed the piece of the trinket–the Prognosticarium, as the awful creature had called it–was still there. She closed her fingers around it and returned her attention to the hooded figure and the building.
“Closer, please. It will make this less of a nuisance, I assure you.”
Curian stepped closer. The figure motioned again, and she complied despite her reservations, until she was only a pace away. She could see the face beneath the hood. She was clearly of Elven descent, her features giving away no hints to her age. Curian’s eyes met the hooded figure’s for a moment before she looked away, warmth spreading at her cheeks. Gods damn it, she thought. Her one weakness, and she was already inviting her into her house.
“You’ll want to brace yourself,” the hooded figure said, her tone difficult to read in its matter-of-factness. “This can be a bit jarring.”
“What?” Curian managed to say as the hooded figure placed a hand against a part of the wall that looked like every inch around it. Slim fingers flexed against the stone, and lines of light snaked out from around them before moving to the floor.
Suddenly, Curian found herself standing over nothing but open air. She fell into the newly-opened space, landing gently on a curved chute that seemed to spiral downwards endlessly. She clenched her fists at her sides, holding onto the piece of the trinket for dear life as she flew downwards at speeds she would’ve reserved for nights of drunken horseback riding only. Before she could force her eyes to stay shut long enough to not fully experience the constant downward movement, there was a bright light ahead. It grew rapidly until it consumed her vision, and suddenly Curian found herself falling through open air.
She screamed reflexively as she landed on a heavily cushioned surface, bounced gently to her feet, lost her balance, and fell on her face.
“Apologies, but I did warn you.”
Curian leapt to her feet, immediately adopting a defensive stance with her fists raised. The hooded figure raised hands, palms forward.
“I have no quarrel with you,” she said. “Only questions. First, I would think a change of clothes and a warm meal may do well to foster some good will, perhaps?”
Curian lowered her fists. The dome was enormous from the outside, but it seemed impossibly far above them from the inside. The chamber was deep beneath the ground, and a number of floors were visible around the outer walls. Arched doorways opened into outer rooms at spaced intervals, and an infinite number of books lined shelves between the openings.
A chill from still being in soaking wet clothing brought Curian back to the current moment. “Suppose that’d be a good start,” she replied. “Before we go any further, I’d like a name to go with that hidden face of yours.”
The hooded figure nodded. Reaching up with both hands, she lowered her hood. What looked to be long, silver hair snaked around the top of her head in an elaborate braid, interrupted by two long horns that looked like small networks of tree branches. Eyes greener than the world on a clear spring morning gazed back at Curian, filled with visible curiosity and perhaps a hint of apprehension. Thin lips curled into a tentative smile.
“Sophia,” she answered. “And I you are?”
“Sophia,” Curian repeated. “That’s a new one for me.” Sophia, the once-hooded Elven woman, raised an eyebrow.
“Ah. Sorry. Curian. My name’s Curian,” she added. She shivered again. “Now, what was that you had mentioned about dry clothes again?”
Sophia chuckled. “Follow along closely now, or you’ll get lost,” she said as she walked towards one of the arched doorways. Curian did as she was told, and found herself walking into complete darkness. There was a flash of light, and when Curian’s vision cleared she saw a small flame dancing above Sophia’s extended hand.
“Fancy,” Curian muttered.
Sophia laughed again. “You’re rather forward, aren’t you?” she said more than asked. “Not much of a barrier between what you’re thinking and what you choose to say?”
Curian was used to her approach to speaking her mind being referred to as a number of things, but she’d never heard it put quite so eloquently before. “Something like that, I guess,” she said. “Lying’s never done me many favors, so I figure if I’m just honest all the time it won’t kill me. The people it makes angry, on the other hand…” She trailed off.
The corridor, lined with even more bookshelves, sloped gently downwards. Doorways interrupted the shelves at measured intervals, just as they did in the larger chamber, and nothing was visible beyond the doorways–even with the light of the fire Sophia had conjured. An arched doorway ahead opened into a small chamber, a doorway at each of its other three walls.
Sophia gestured to a doorway on the wall to their left. “You’ll find something in there to change into,” she said. “Nothing quite as colorful as what you’re wearing, I’m afraid, but you’ll find yourself feeling warmer before long.”
Curian shrugged. “I’m no fish, so dry and plain suit me just fine for now,” she replied before she made her way to the indicated room. It was furnished simply. A small bed occupied the far wall, and a simple wooden wardrobe stood tall against another. Curian approached the wardrobe, opening its doors with care. There were a number of identical dull green tunics, each paired with similarly dull green pants. Beneath each outfit rested a pair of leather boots, all well-worn but reasonably maintained.
She grabbed up a complete outfit and approached the bed. As she had hoped, she spotted a simple bedside table she could set the piece of the trinket down upon while she changed. Each piece of her outfit hit the floor sounding like a fish flopping about on deck, each replaced by the borrowed clothing. Sophia’s words rang true–it was most certainly plain, but it was warm and comfortable, and fit remarkably well. She found a spot to hang her wet clothing to dry, retrieved the trinket piece, and returned to the chamber to find a table set up. Sophia sat at one side with a free chair at the other. A bowl sat at each place-setting, each with gentle curls of steam rolling up from the contents within, and each was flanked by an ornate drinking glass.
“You have questions, I’m sure,” Sophia said, breaking the silence. “As do I. Sit. Eat. We can get to that before long.”
Curian plunked down in the seat, surprised by how deceptively comfortable it was. “Not to spoil all of this kindness you’re offering, but I’ve had some questionable encounters so far,” she said.
Sophia arched her eyebrows. “You suspect the possibility of me poisoning you?”
“Sounds about right, if you’ll forgive the concern,” Curian replied. “And even if you don’t forgive it, I still suspect the possibility is there.”
Sophia shook her head. “Very well,” she said. First, she lifted a spoonful of the bowl’s contents–a hearty stew from the looks of it, with no shortage of meat and thickly cut vegetables–and raised it to her lips. “Or perhaps this wouldn’t be sufficient.” She returned the spoon before picking up her bowl and Curian’s, and swapping them. She took a bite, chewed, and swallowed, before taking a drip from the glass.
“You’ll find I’m both quite alive and not poisoned, if that helps,” Sophia added, mischief dancing at the corners of her eyes and the edges of her smile. She replaced the spoon, and gestured to Curian to try hers. Warmth filled her from head to toe as she took the first bite, and it tasted better than anything she’d ever managed with what money she could scrape together.
“You don’t seem to be from around here,” Sophia said. “Might I ask where you’re from?”
Curian took a sip from her glass. Gentle notes of peppermint and lemon, followed by just a touch of honey. She hated tea, but begrudgingly found herself enjoying this particular one.
“Rivenbrook,” Curian replied in between bites of the stew. “Out-of-the-way little village near the southern wall of the Westenvale Kingdoms.”
Sophia furrowed her brow. “I recall no such kingdoms nor any village by that name,” she said. Her expression brightened. “Most interesting indeed.”
Curian shrugged. “Not so much, but I guess maybe a little?” she conceded. “What is this place?” She gestured broadly with her spoon.
“An easy question,” Sophia replied. “You sit in the lower reaches of the Eye of the World. This is the seat of all of the world’s history, and a repository of much of its knowledge. I am one of many charged with its upkeep.”
“Many?” Curian asked. “I didn’t see anyone else. I mean, sure, this place makes some castles look like a peasant’s hut, but I figure I would’ve seen at least one other person here by now.”
Sophia nodded. “Astute of you, but I believe it’s my turn to ask a question,” she said. Curian opened her mouth to protest but stopping shy of saying anything.
“Go on,” Curian said, taking another sip of her tea.
“How did you end up so far out at sea?” Sophia asked. “I saw no vessel nor wreckage. I was tending to the fishing nets, and looked up in time to see you crash down into the waters.”
Curian smiled. “Lucky thing, too, since I’m not the best swimmer around,” she said. She considered the trinket piece in her hand. Sophia had been most welcoming, and had been disarmingly charming in ways that bordered onto bothersome for Curian, and yet…
She placed the trinket piece on the table. “This thing, whatever it is, brought me out here,” Curian explained. “Before that, it brought me to some old castle ruins.”
Sophia glanced at the thing, her curiosity evident in her prying eyes. “May I?” she asked, pointing to the trinket piece.
“I’d be careful,” Curian said. “Last two times I touched that I ended up in different places from when I started, and we seem to be awfully deep in the ground.”
“I’ll take that risk,” Sophia said, picking the trinket piece up between her thumb and forefinger. She turned it over slowly, taking in its every inch. “This is part of something bigger, yes? I can’t help but feel it looks familiar somehow.”
“Huh,” Curian said. “You’d be right. I got it from someone I do business with here and there. I tinkered with it for a bit, and then I wound up at the castle I mentioned. Found it there, floating up in the sky. Some creepy critter there seemed awfully interested in it, too.”
Sophia’s attention returned to Curian, an eyebrow raised. “Creepy critter?” she asked.
“Some knightly-looking monster. Or man,” Curian explained. “He had the creepiest purple eyes and he kept moving around in the shadows.” She paused, dwelling on her encounter with the creature. She felt a wave of unease wash over her, as if she were suddenly in his gaze again.
Curian snapped her fingers. “Right,” she said. “Almost forgot, but he was also holding his head under his arm.”
Sophia stifled a gasp, her eyes suddenly wide. She finished the remainder of her food and drink. “That’s very concerning indeed,” she said. “We’ll need to continue this conversation in the Astrarium, I think, so we can both get better answers.”
Before Curian could respond, Sophia was on her feet with a flame in one hand and the trinket piece in the other, walking towards the door they’d first come through. Curian leapt up from the seat, grabbed her glass, and followed quickly after.