Sophia lead the way through the Astrarium, back to the main chamber. From there, they entered another arched doorway which opened to a winding spiral staircase that extended both upwards and deeper into the lower levels. They took the stairs upwards, Sophia continuing at a steady pace as Curian tried to keep up.
“Not to be an inconvenience, but could I offer a friendly reminder my legs aren’t exactly built for this?” Curian asked as they reached a landing.
Sophia paused, turning to face Curian. “Ah,” she said, looking somewhat sheepish. “My apologies. We’re almost there. You’re in for a treat, I should say, as this is the first time an outsider has been allowed into the Eye of the Sea.”
Curian offered a thumbs-up. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind so long as my legs don’t fall off before we get there,” she replied. The stairs ahead stopped in a circular chamber, and Curian realized that the room seemed smaller than the previous ones. The ceiling was directly above, domed as it had appeared from the outside, and the walls were covered with shelves packed with yet more books.
“I should warn you, I suppose,” Sophia said as Curian stepped further into the room.
Her warning, however, was too late. Curian glanced down, and saw clear down to the chamber she had first arrived in. She leapt back to the edge of the stairs in a flash.
“Glass floor,” Sophia added. “It allows us to see everything going on in the lower levels should there be an emergency. It’s dragonbreath glass, so rest assured it will not break under something as gentle as our footfalls.”
Curian eyed the transparent floor suspiciously. “What is it you needed up here again?” she asked. “You keep saying ‘we’, by the way, but I’ve still only seen you. Where are the others?”
Sophia sighed. “I suppose I do owe you that answer,” she said. “Do you recall when you first arrived how I mentioned a storm?”
Curian cocked her head, thinking back beyond the sudden landing in the cold waves. “There weren’t any clouds around and I saw no sign of rain, so it struck me as odd,” she said. “Mind, I was also a bit distracted at the time. Focused on not drowning.”
“Understandably so,” Sophia said. “The storm I was referring to is a collection of Sirens who have besieged the Astrarium in recent days. It’s unusual for them to hunt in packs, but their behavior suggested they weren’t hunting.”
Curian raised an eyebrow. “Apologies, but all of that leaves me with more questions,” she said. “When you say Sirens you’re talking about fishy-folk who sing at sailors, who stupidly follow their songs to their deaths? Those Sirens?”
Sophia nodded, a hint of a smirk. “That’s certainly a way of putting it, yes,” she replied.
“And they managed to get everyone else here outside except you?” Curian asked.
Sophia shrugged. “Their songs didn’t quite reach me,” she replied. “I was unaffected by their wiles and so I did not succumb to their lure.”
Curian scoffed, and Sophia raised an eyebrow. “Passing thought not worth sharing,” Curian said. “Think they may still be out there? I’d like to give those fishfaces a piece of my mind or two.”
“That may not be the best idea,” Sophia said. “However, if you can get even some clues as to the well-being of the other Astrarium Keepers…I would be most appreciative.”
Curian nodded. “A deal, then,” she said. “You find what books and scrolls and…” She trailed off gesturing towards the variety of texts along the walls.
“The things you were going to look into regarding the piece you still have,” Curian continued. “And I’ll do what I can about your Siren troubles. Fair?”
“That’s most agreeable, I should say,” Sophia said. “Although I would be remiss to not admit your chances are concerning.”
Curian shrugged lazily. “Dwarven resilience has served me well so far,” she said. “Don’t suppose there’s a way out onto the island that won’t leave me falling on my face, is there?”
Sophia crossed the floor to the opposite curve of the dome’s wall. She held out a hand, but hesitated. “If it’s all the same, I’d prefer you be ready to step outside first,” she said. “If they are waiting, they could very well enter and that is not a risk I’d like to take.”
Curian furrowed her brow. “Sure, I guess I can accept that,” she said.” She shut her eyes and sprinted across the floor that appeared to not be there at all, skidding to a stop with hopes that she wouldn’t collide with the wall, Sophia, or any of the books–likely worth more gold than Curian would see in a dozen lifetimes–along the shelves. She opened her eyes and cursed, having stopped short. Points of magicked torchlight flickered at each floor giving Curian the feeling she was staring up into the sky from a crowded city–not much to see, and not much she wanted to see.
She inhaled deeply, fixed her eyes ahead, and walked the remainder of the way to Sophia.
“Wasn’t so bad, was it?” Sophia asked, offering a polite smile.
“My honest answer would likely harm our chances at friendship beyond necessity,” Curian answered flatly. “Let’s get this over with, please.”
Sophia pressed her hand against the wall, her fingers tightly together this time. Lines of blue, white, and silver light spiderwebbed from her touch outwards, and a portion of wall slid away.
Curian leapt forward onto the nearly nonexistent shoreline that wreathed the Astrarium, and the door snapped shut behind her. The sun had almost completely set since her arrival. Shades of deep red, purple, and hints of night’s black had settled on the ocean’s surface ahead, though her life beneath the mountains allowed her to see enough to detect two figures lurking not far from shore. They had not yet, however, noticed Curian.
“Oy! Here, fishy fishy!” Curian called out. The two figures stopped swimming. She watched as they both jerked their heads to face her, light glinting off of an overabundance of knife-sharp teeth.
The slighter, more feminine one spoke first, gliding closer to the island. “Only a cur would use such an awful slur to speak to ones so divine,” she sang in a lilting alto.
“To suffer the presence of such a knave,” sang the other, his voice a resounding baritone, “we should drag her beneath the waves.”
“So far down she’ll never see the light of another day,” they sang in unison, stopping at the edge of the shore.
Curian pursed her lips, her brow furrowed. “Catchy, I’ll admit, but a little lazy on the rhyming,” she replied. “Can’t drown me if I won’t get near enough.”
The two Sirens exchanged curious glances. Their skin was a light blue, giving of a soft light of its own. They wore tattered remnants of clothing strung together with woven ropes of seaweed accentuated with shells and hints of treasure.
“You should be fumbling our way, drooling and in a stupor,” said the lady Siren. She looked back to her partner. “You didn’t quite hit your high notes as well as you normally do,” she added.
The man Siren recoiled. “Oh, is that so?” he snapped back. “Your notes were flatter than a flounder!”
The two began exchanging barbs, both verbally and by swiping at each other with the clawed fins along their fingers. Curian plopped down in the sand, sitting with her legs folded beneath her, and watched the two Sirens bicker as she waited for them to remember she was there. After a few long moments of increasingly pointed remarks, she cleared her throat and the two stopped.
“Let’s start over. I’m Curian, and my friend inside,” she said, jerking a thumb towards the Astrarium, “says you’ve taken away all of the others who live her. Watchers? Scholars?”
The lady Siren sighed. “Keepers, darling,” she replied in a sing-song tone. “The word your pawing for is Keepers.”
Curian snapped her fingers. “That’s the word, yes,” she said. “You must be the brains of the operation.”
The lady siren smiled. At this distance, it was very clear she possessed more than one row of sparkling, white, incredibly sharp teeth. Curian considered her lack of weapons at this particular moment, and then realized she had not done anything to indicate where the door had been.
“A discerning eye,” the lady Siren replied. “How refreshing for someone of the land to see the worth of the sea.” The man Siren huffed loudly.
“What’s it to you, anyway?” he asked.
“What good are they to you?” Curian replied. “Have you eaten them? Drowned them?”
The two shook their heads. “Nothing so barbaric,” they both replied.
Curian smiled. “So you kept them alive, then?” she said. “What for?”
There was a measured silence, as the Sirens exchanged glances. There was something close to worry that kept crossing their features, but it was a slippery thing to catch. Gone in an instant, but Curian had seen enough to know there was more to this than a simple matter of Sirens acting as a group.
“You didn’t take them for yourselves, did you?” Curian asked.
The man Siren let out a shrill yelp, quickly clasping his hands over his mouth.
“Oh, very good,” Curian said. “I’m getting warmer. That someone must scare you, too, for that to be the response.”
The lady Siren visibly shifted while the man Siren refused to look at Curian. Curian leaned forward, eyebrows arched.
“What is it that would scare some of the most frightening dwellers of the deep?” she asked pointedly. “Turn you sharks into guppies?”
In a flash of scales and teeth, the lady Siren was inches away from Curian’s face, mouth agape to reveal a seemingly endless number of fangs. Long, pointed claws were poised at each side of Curian’s face, ready to strike.
Yet Curian remained still. The lady Siren’s eyes darted around Curian’s face as she tried to read the dwarf’s expression. After a tense, oppressive silence, she retreated.
“Struck a nerve?” Curian asked. The lady Siren sighed, and the man Siren began to weep.
“We lured them away because we had no choice,” the lady Siren said, and she began to sing. “Not to feed upon nor drown, not out of need of our own.”
Between tears, the man Siren added, “For this great, ghastly eel we’ve found, has laid a claim upon where we roam.”
“It demands we pay it tribute, but that tribute must be alive,” the lady Siren added.
“For you see it feeds on fear, and on their fear it will always thrive,” the man Siren added.
Curian whistled. “Sounds like a real charmer,” she said. “What if I were to offer you and your ilk safety? Could you release the Keepers?”
The Sirens gasped at the suggestion.
“You must be out of your mind!” the man Siren said.
“Or foolish beyond compare,” the lady Siren added.
Curian held her hands out as if weighing the comments. “A bit of both, or so I’ve been told,” she replied. She paused, and against her better judgment added, “Let me sweeten up the deal, and offer to hunt a certain eel?”
Both Sirens gagged.
“That was just vile,” the lady Siren said.
“Not a hint of finesse,” the man Siren said.
They looked at one another again, the flashes of worry now far more abundantly clear. Curian got to her feet and walked to the dome, gently knocking on its wall with her fist. Sophia appeared in a small opening at eye level, but no door opened.
“Oh, thank the Gods you’re still alive,” she said. Her cheeks grew red as soon as the words left her mouth. “Not that I didn’t have the greatest faith in your ability to navigate these curious waters, as it were.”
“Good to see you, too,” Curian said. “Listen. I’ve got a bit of an odd question for you, but I don’t suppose there would be room for a few tanks of water down below.”
Sophia looked thoroughly confused. “We keep vast stores of salt water so as to keep our recent fishing catches alive until we are ready to make use of them,” she replied. “Does that answer your question?”
Curian nodded. “Any chance some of those could be cleared out for, say,” she replied. “A number of Sirens? A storm of Sirens, I think you called them.”
“And why would I do such a thing?” Sophia snapped back.
Curian smirked. “The other Keepers could keep them company?”
Sophia gasped. “They’re alive?” she asked. “They’re alive!” she repeated.
“Sure are, and I think we can get them back safe and sound as long as we are willing to do a little for the Sirens,” Curian said. “What say you?”
Sophia nodded. “We can work out the specifics, but only once I see the others are truly alive and well,” she said.
Curian turned and walked back to the shore’s edge. “You have my word we can keep you safe from this eel that’s been troubling you so long as you return the Keepers,” she said.
“You’re in luck,” the lady Siren said. “The eel was due to return on the night of the full moon for its first offering. You’re a day early.” She hesitated.
“Do you truly promise our safety?”
There was something in the way the Siren asked the question that resonated with Curian. It was the sound of trust trying to creep in where it had been broken far too many times before. Without considering the possibility of not keeping all of her fingers, Curian reached out and placed a hand on the lady Siren’s shoulder.
“On my life, I will not let that damn eel harm any of you,” Curian said. She blinked, uncertain as to what came over her in that moment. They were her words, but spoken with greater confidence than she had expected.
The Sirens exchanged remarks in a language Curian couldn’t identify. It was soft and pleasant, but punctuated by guttural growls. They disappeared beneath the water’s surface, leaving Curian to wait patiently.
Just as Curian found herself fearful she had made a mistake, the first bubble broke the surface. It was impossible to miss, as it was larger than she was. Three figures, all unconscious, drifted within the bubble.
Another bubble surfaced, followed by several others. Each had three creatures from all walks of life–elves, dwarfs, lizardfolk, and orcs, just to name but a few–who were all in a similar sleep-like state. A host of Sirens appeared between each bubble, and the two who had first shown themselves to Curian moved to the shore.
“I hope your word is as good as it sounds,” the lady Siren said.
“Curian,” Curian said. “My name is Curian, and you better believe it will be.”
“Rhapsody,” the lady Siren, called Rhapsody, said pointing to herself.
“Bolero,” said the man Siren called Bolero.
Curian chuckled. “I’m detecting a theme,” she muttered. “What do we need to do now?”
Bolero and Rhapsody signaled to the other Sirens, who dug their claws into the bubbles. Each one popped, and their occupants gently landed in the water. One by one, the Keepers bobbed to the surface, each on looking shocked and confused. Curian helped them all ashore. It took some effort, and a little persuasion by way of careful word-choice, but Curian managed to explain why they had been lured away and what the Sirens had done at great expense to themselves.
One of the Keepers, a mountain of an Orc covered in tattoos, approached Curian. He crossed his arms over his chest and bowed–something no Orc had ever done in Curian’s presence much less to her, offering a salute of such high regard.
“I, uh. Same to you,” Curian offered.
“I, Keeper Lord Vorghan, offer you our endless thanks for saving us,” he said. “Not a drop of blood had to be spilled, but through quick wit and wisdom was the day saved.”
Curian shifted on the spot. “Quick wit and wisdom,” she said. “That’s me. Listen, not to be in a hurry but could you please work with the others to sort this out? I have to get back to Sophia. She was looking for answers for me.”
Vorghan saluted again. “If it’s answers you seek, Sophia will surely be able to find them for you,” he replied.
Curian returned to the dome to find a door waiting for her this time. Sophia sat on the floor, a number of books open around her. She waved Curian over without looking up from the tome on her lap, her eyes rolling slowly along the page.
“Sit,” Sophia insisted. “I fear the situation you have found yourself in is a dire one indeed.”
Curian moved books aside, then sat down in front of Sophia. “Ominous,” she said. “Please explain.”
Sophia held up the book, her finger just above a painted image of the creature she had seen at the castle ruins. In the painting, however, he was riding an enormous black stallion, which had reared up on its hind legs. Jets of terrible black flames issued from the horse’s eyes and mouth. The horseman held an obsidian long sword aloft in one hand. His head was held in the other, tucked beneath his arm as when Curian had met the creature. Just the sight of him made her reflexively tense.
“You are certain this is who you saw?” Sophia asked, the fear in her voice both clear and contagious.
Curian nodded. “Hard to mistake that for someone else, I hate to say,” she said. “Just who is it? Have I angered a King?”
Sophia shook her head. “I was hoping you would say this wasn’t who you saw,” she replied, massaging her temples.
“Worse than a King, then,” Curian said.
Sophia looked up, her eyes locked with Curian’s. “Far worse,” she replied. “You’ve captured the attention of Dullahan, He Who Brings Death to All Worlds.”
“Ah,” Curian said. “Gods damn it.”