Piece Five – Seaside Symphony, and the Journey Ahead

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.

“Go!”

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.”

Piece Four – The World's Eye at the Heart of the Sea

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 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.

Piece Three – Foes or Friends to Be Found

Curian stood at the base of the stairway, her eyes fixed on the trinket as it floated above the tower in the distance. She looked around again, an uneasy feeling bubbling up in the pit of her stomach. This looked nothing like anywhere near Rivenbrook, nor the Shaded Weald near its edges. Curian had heard rumors of forgotten castles once lorded over by mighty kings and queens, all well beyond the Luminous Gates that surrounded the Westenvale Kingdoms, but they were just that–rumors. Ghost stories to tell greenhorn adventurers to keep them on their toes when venturing into the badlands beyond the kingdoms’ walls.

This looked like none of the places Curian had ever seen or heard of, and she couldn’t help but wonder how far she’d traveled.

“May as well retrieve the damned thing before I get my bearings,” Curian muttered to herself. She took a cautious first step, allowing only her toes to touch the stone first. She shifted more of her weight to her foot until finally she had fully stepped onto the first stair. There was a deafening silence as nothing out of the ordinary happened, and Curian breathed a sigh of relief.

The trinket glimmered in the air far ahead and above, bright even against the clear daytime sky. Curian gathered up her nerve and pressed onward, her goal visible and waiting for her arrival.

The castle ruins were interesting in that they didn’t seem to belong to one castle, but several. Obsidian stonework abruptly gave way to slate before shifting without warning to sections carefully crafted with clay and straw. The craftsmanship of each section was amazing, and Curian couldn’t help but admire it as she walked along. She found herself wondering who lived here that they decided to sample so many styles of building.

Curian almost missed the first royal crest, or at least what was left of it. A charred outline of a shield was all that remained, the thick layer of ash a severe contrast to the surrounding limestone. She wondered how many such things she had missed as she walked along, but her curiosity was not so great as to reverse her progress. She made a mental note and continued onward. It was, she reasoned, not uncommon for a dragon to destroy the markings of the rulers of a castle it razed. Perhaps that was the fate that had befallen this unusual place, she wondered, and her thoughts quickly turned to hurrying to the trinket in hopes that it would take her from this broken husk of what once was and back home, or at least somewhere a little more inviting.

The stairway sloped downwards, evening out until it became a pathway through a spacious courtyard. A fountain towered at its center, and its statue depicting a hero wielding a sword and shield was noteworthy for not having a head. Stagnant water sloshed gently over the lip of the fountain’s base with each breeze, a sickly green dense with plant growth. The gardens were overgrown with wild, grasping vines covered in thorns so long and sharp they could be used as daggers in a pinch. Curian followed the path along to where it forked around the fountain’s base. She felt a chill run up her spine that stopped her dead in her tracks.

Curian looked around. There was a second level overlooking the courtyard. Remnants of the floor jutted out with broken balconies extending further still. Beyond the stretch of floor, however, was darkness. The roof, or what was left of it, allowed for nothing to be seen beyond a certain point despite the sun shining through in a number of places.

A glint of deep purple was visible in the shadows for only a minute, and then it disappeared.

“Nope,” Curian muttered. “Absolutely not.” She turned on her heels and started walking faster. She reached the next portion of the stairs, which climbed along the side of a smaller tower, winding out of sight ahead. She could feel the hair standing up on the back of her neck as whatever she saw, she feared, watched her as she continued her progress towards the trinket. She walked faster still.

Her foot met the next stair, which gave like wet paper beneath her weight. She stumbled forward, grabbing hold of battered stone of the next stair. Three stairs behind her gave way, leaving her hanging on above the void. She clambered up onto the newly formed ledge, cursing the whole way, and once she was safely on part of the stairs she felt was secure and safe, Curian allowed herself a glance downwards. She immediately regretted it. Nothing was visible beneath where the stairs had broken away, or at least nothing was visible aside from the seemingly bottomless chasm that had opened up.

Curian breathed a sigh of relief before carefully getting to her feet. The stairs opened up to a small bridge that spanned between the tower she was on and the massive tower at the ruins’ heart. The trinket looked far closer now than before. Not willing to tempt fate, Curian picked up a large stone and threw it to the center of the bridge. It clicked and clacked along the stones of the floor, throwing off small sparks. The bridge held fast, not showing signs of being any less sturdy than the day it had been built.

“One easy step after another,” Curian reassured herself. “How difficult can it be? Almost there.” She stepped onto the bridge, each muscle moving into each step charged and ready for a mad dash to the other side should the bridge choose this to be its final moments. She reached the bridge’s center, and her fear began to give way to hope as the trinket seemed well within reach.

“How curious,” rumbled a voice from ahead, though Curian could not see who had spoken. More shadows had pooled just at the edge of the bridge, blocking the path to the final stair ascending the tower above which the trinket floated.

“Curious indeed,” Curian replied, a ghost of a tremor in her voice threatening to betray the coy tone she was trying to put on. “And with whom do I have the honor of speaking? The master of the castle?”

There was a horrible sound like millstones grinding to a sudden halt. Curian could feel it deep in her bones, and it took a moment to realize what she had just heard was laughter.

“It has been some time since anyone has come here,” the voice said. “I am not used to guests. I would ask you to forgive the state of things, but it appears you are passing through and not terribly interested.”

Curian tensed. If the trinket was her way home she couldn’t risk whoever–or whatever–she was now staring down taking interest in making it theirs.

“Just a student of the architectural arts passing through, admiring the many varied facets and facades of this magnificent castle,” she replied. “Very interested in the journey. No destination in mind just yet.”

There was a sudden rush of cold around Curian’s neck, along her shoulders. She could feel a presence only a few paces behind her, and the air around it was cold as the worst of winter. She could not muster the nerve to look.

“By all means, admire,” the voice said. There was an edge of something to it that Curian couldn’t quite pin down, but it left her feeling a very strong urge to get the hell away as quickly as possible.

“You have my thanks,” Curian said. “But also my apologies, as I don’t believe I’ve gotten your name.”

More laughter, accompanied by another blast of frigid breath. “No, I don’t think you did,” the voice mused. “A discussion for another time, perhaps, as I must tend to other matters at present.”

The oppressive presence behind Curian disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, and the base of the stairway was once again bathed in sunlight.

“To the seven Hells with that,” Curian blurted out, breaking into a full sprint. She took each step along the stairway winding around the tower with great care, though each step touched the stones only as long as necessary. With one last leaping step, Curian stumbled forward onto the circular platform at the tower’s zenith. She gasped for breath, hunched over but her eyes still locked on the trinket.

“I’ve got,” Curian said between deep, gasped breaths. “Even more. Questions for you, damn it.” She straightened up and took a step towards the center of the platform. The trinket, almost as if in response to Curian’s approach, drifted downwards until it was only a couple feet above the floor.

A newly familiar, horrid laugh issued from behind Curian, causing her to flinch.

“The Prognosticarium, here and ready to be taken,” the voice rumbled. “How convenient. And I suspect I owe you the thanks for bringing it to me, so unwittingly and carefree?”

Curian spun on her heels, fists raised. “Listen, you,” she snapped, ready to teach this king among creeps a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget. The next words she had meant to say hitched just behind her teeth when she saw who had been following her. The figure depicted by the statue.

He was tall, dressed in an outfit that screamed nobility. A wine red cape fluttered around the deep purple regalia. The silver of his gauntlets shined in the light of the trinket. He smiled at Curian, his purple eyes locked with hers. His head was tucked neatly in the crook of his right elbow, his neck topped instead by a thorny crown of jagged interwoven metal bands.

“What are you?” was all Curian managed to ask.

“Hardly your concern, child,” the creature said. “Step aside. You have no idea with what you are trifling. Once I have made use of the Prognosticarium, however, I assure you that you will be…” He paused, a dreadful smile creeping across cracked lips.

“Rewarded,” he added. The suggestion his tone gave the word did little to put Curian at ease.

She took a step closer to the trinket–the thing he was calling some strange, long, important-sounding name–and raised a hand towards it.

“You don’t know me,” Curian said. “I’m not terribly good at listening. Definitely lousy at taking orders.” She leaned closer to the trinket, her fingers hovering around it.

The creature recoiled ever so slightly, eyes narrowed. “That would be…” he said. “Unwise.”

Curian let out a laugh. “Good thing, then,” she said. “I’m not always the wisest, or so I’m told. Let’s see what happens if I do this.”

The creature let out a terrible, roaring shout as Curian’s fingers closed around the trinket. It was both burning hot and painfully cold to the touch. A burst of light emanated from it, rushing over the platform and spilling out far across the open air beyond the castle ruins. She could feel it shifting in her grasp, but this time it seemed to be growing in size.

Curian could feel parts of the trinket opening up as it moved in her palm until she could hold on no longer and was forced to let go. A number of pieces orbited a core of radiance and warmth, spinning faster and faster, some having changed direction and going opposite of the other pieces. Suddenly, the pieces stopped.

Before either the creature or Curian could say anything, the pieces rocketed off across the open air one by one, until the final piece was left.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Curian muttered as she reached out into the final piece’s path as it screeched through the air. Her fingers locked around it, and before Curian could process what had happened she was lifted off of the platform and into the air. The world below rushed by rapidly, and Curian felt her stomach turn. She shut her eyes, clenched her jaw, and offered a short prayer to any Gods she hadn’t recently blasphemed.

She hit the water just as a wave crested, the cold salt water forcing its way up her nose. The shock of the impact caused her to gasp, and she immediately regretted it. Curian bobbed at the water’s surface, only to sink into its inky depths. She clawed at the water around her with one hand while flailing her fist–still clenched tight around the piece of the trinket she’d grabbed–until she broke the surface.

Curian gasped for air, her eyes darting around madly. There was nothing but ocean for miles in each direction, it seemed, but before she could resign herself to her clear fate she heard a voice from behind her.

“Swim this way! Hurry, or the storm will claim you as its own!”

Curian turned and spotted a robed figure, hood obscuring its face, standing on what looked to be the edge of an island taken up by one squat, dome-shaped building.

With few other options, Curian swam towards the safety of shore.

Piece Two – A Puzzling World

Curian stared intently at the curious trinket on the table before her. She had seen something very similar, if not entirely identical, to it, but so long ago it may as well have been a previous lifetime. She wondered what it could be, or what could be hidden within the trinket, and so with a deep breath and a gentle touch she picked the trinket up and began turning it over in her hands. She listened closely for any sounds, but there were none to be heard.

“All right, you go ahead and be difficult,” Curian muttered. “I’ll figure you out before long.” She picked at one of the small switches only to discover it refused to move, as if it were locked in place. She turned the trinket over in her hands and found another only to be met with the same results. She set it down on the table and sighed. She stepped away from the table, her feet leading her to a small shelf.

She retrieved a stoppered bottle of rum for which she’d traded a story and a fresh baked loaf of bread. The traveler, who had only stayed at her modest cottage for a night, insisted it was one of the finest rums she would ever drink as it had been stolen from the lost temple of some God-King whose name had been forgotten over time and lack of worship, and so it was only to be imbibed under very serious or auspicious circumstances.

Once the stopper was removed the smell hit her like a falling boulder. It was far from subtle, and stunk of very old bananas and spices. Curian tried wafting the aroma to see if that would lessen its punch. It didn’t–if anything, the potency and pungency of the rum’s funk only seemed more intense.

Curian took the small bottle of rum back to the table and set it next to the curious trinket.

“If I have to, and only if I have to, I suppose it’s worth a try,” Curian said to herself, eyeing the drink. She wrinkled her nose. “Not just yet.”

She picked up the trinket again, turning it over in her hands. A dial near Curian’s right thumb felt like it jutted out a little further than the surrounding metal. First, a turn clockwise which seemed to do nothing. She turned it back, then counter-clockwise until there was a soft clicking sound. Curian nearly dropped the trinket, excitement washing over her in a wave at the possibility of progress. She let go of the dial to explore the rest of the trinket, and the dial snapped back into its original position.

“Damn you,” Curian muttered. “That wasn’t very helpful.” She eyed the rum again. She sighed, somewhat resigned, and hoped that the traveler hadn’t been lying.

“Bottom’s up,” Curian said, pinching her nose with her fingers as she upended the bottle into her mouth. It tasted like warmth, first and foremost, followed by a powerful mix of cinnamon, bananas, and porridge. It far more dense than she had expected, but still went down smoothly and left a lingering tingling feeling dancing about her tongue and around her teeth. She set the bottle down as steadily as she could, the spirits already doing their work.

“Forgotten God-King, let’s hope your fancy swill was worth it,” Curian said as she picked the trinket back up. She turned it over in her hands, her eyes probing and poking at every inch of its surface. The dials, it seemed, as well as the buttons and switches all seemed to be at set intervals, grouped in small trios–one of each. They all looked identical, or close enough to identical at a glance, but Curian remembered the dial she had found that seemed to be recessed into the metal. She turned the trinket over in her hands again, feeling around it until she located the dial she sought. Again, she turned it counter clockwise until there was a soft click. This time, however, she held it in place. Gently, she set the trinket down on the table and held the dial with one hand while testing the button with her free hand. It moved into the trinket with a soft pop, and a silver door shut over where it had been.

Cautious, but driven by greater curiosity still, Curian attempted to engage the switch. She nudged it with her thumb, and with little effort on her part the switch moved upwards until it jutted out slightly from the trinket’s surface.

“Finally getting somewhere,” Curian murmured to the trinket only for the stench of banana funk on her breath to hit her nose. She thumbed at the switch again and it snapped downwards into the trinket. A thin line of ruby appeared where the switch was, and before Curian could react the dial slipped from her grasp and disappeared into the trinket to be covered by a small image of the sun.

That’s when Curian heard the ticking sound begin. Something had started to whir gently within the trinket, ticking not entirely like a clock and not entirely like a bomb. It had an urgency to it, and Curian could feel her breath catch as she waited. The trinket grew white hot in a flash, previously feeling cool to the touch. She dropped it to the table, and it rolled and spun gently for a moment before it stopped.

“What…” Curian said before she was cut off. The trinket spun rapidly on the table, the other dials and switches and buttons activating seemingly of their own accord. A gentle chime issued from the trinket as each set of interfaces disappeared beneath its metal surface. By the time the last one disappeared, it glowed like a coal in the fireplace. The ruby lines seemed to crawl along the trinket’s surface as the trinket continued to spin wildly. It snapped to a sudden stop, the image of the sun facing Curian.

The sun had a little face etched into its surface, and Curian was certain the face winked at her.

The trinket exploded outwards into the room in a brilliant flash of light.

“Oh, shit,” Curian managed to say as she was enveloped in the warm, brilliant bloom. Everything was suddenly dark, save for points of light that hurtled past Curian at extraordinary speeds.

Everything stopped.

Curian found herself standing at the base of a long, winding stone stairway that snaked its way through what must have been a wondrous castle at one point, though it was but an echo of its former self. To call it ruins would be generous, with parapets that sloped abruptly into courtyards and towers whose rooms were open to the air on most sides. Amidst the ruined castle loomed a tower higher than the others. The stairway wrapped and wound its way from where Curian stood to the top of the tower.

And in the air above the tower, glowing more brilliantly than a bonfire in the dead of a winter’s night, floated the curious trinket.

Piece One – The Curious Trinket

Curian hurried along the stone streets of Rivenbrook, hands stuffed firmly in her pockets and her eyes focused on a point in the distance. She was, after all, on a mission of great importance. The ring she had acquired–no, liberated–from a gang of Dunbrough Goblins had to be worth at least enough to put dinner on the table for the next month if not longer, she reasoned. Ahead, not but a few blocks in the distance, stood Alistair’s Awe-Inspiring Antiquities and Curiosities, its doors illuminated by lanterns that contained never held a flame.

The door swung open for Curian, as it had every time she arrived there to do business. On previous trips this might have made her flinch or jump a little, but the trickery was familiar now. Perhaps even a little underwhelming on days like this, when Curian’s mind was sharply focused. A labyrinth of uneven, catawampus shelves stood just beyond the doorway, their contents only fully visible when looked at directly and a blur of color and shape when not.

“You’re very nearly late, you know,” echoed the imperious, insufferable tones of Alistair’s nasal voice. He was a wood elf, displaced by tragedy but not removed from his haughty demeanor, and his sense of his place in the world was never more apparent than when he spoke to someone he saw as beneath him. Someone like Curian.

Curian cursed under her breath. She scanned the shelves, following one path to the next. A left at the intersection of stacked umbrella stands containing old and forgotten swords, followed by a sharp right at the colossal aquarium occupied by tropical fish far from their natural home, and then one long straightaway until she reached the great gilded desk.

Alistair peered over his glasses, down his long, gently sloping nose, to Curian. His eyes drifted about her, and Curian could see the mental notes forming. The grime on her face from having fled the remaining Goblins through the Untermire. The thick mud caked on her boots, and the scratching vines still clinging to her aged and battered olive-colored tunic. Sands blown from the dunes just north of Rivenbrook, blown southwards by the ever-more-violent storms that had blown in recently clung to the sweat on her terracotta skin.

“Childling, you look simply dreadful,” Curian said, her words emphasized by her exaggerated scowl.

Alistair wagged a finger. “There will be no business, childling, with you behaving as such,” he shot back. Curian pursed her lips, but did nothing more. Alistair’s curiosity as to where his acquisitions came from only went so far, but the rules of decorum in his shop were immutable. He stared at Curian for a moment longer before holding out an immaculate palm. Long, pointed, recently manicured nails stabbed at the air between her and his hand like daggers.

“I think you’ll be please with this,” Curian said as she retrieved the object from her pocket. She placed it in Alistair’s hand gently and quickly, making sure not to not allow her hand to touch his. It had happened once, and that was enough for him to bar her entry to the shop for well over a month. Though he would not admit to it, Alistair’s disdain for Mountain Dwarves came into play with Curian whenever he saw her even though she had explained she was only half Dwarven, and that there was no reason to be such an asshole about it. Such remarks, naturally, had earned her a week of no entry to the shop.

Alistair’s fingers snapped shut and he pulled his hand close to his face. He opened his perfect, pristine fist and eyed the ring in his palm with much curiosity. It was a simple, silver band, inlaid with subtle runes that only showed when the light struck them just right. A small piece of unpolished jasper glittered in its setting on one side of the ring.

Curian leaned closer, but not too close to the desk, eagerly waiting.

“A trinket like this is a copper a dozen,” Alistair said at last, an eyebrow raised. “What is it you expect me to pay you for this?”

Anger bit at the back of Curian’s neck and around her ears. The heat of her rage crept towards her cheeks and up around her eyes. She took a deep breath, held it a moment, and exhaled.

“That’s no shoddy workmanship and you know that just as well as I do,” Curian replied, her tone as even-keel as a ship approaching stormy waters. “Runes for protection on one side, but when worn inverted they become runes of devastation. Whosoever wears this ring could raze cities or raise cities.”

Alistair nodded along, a hint of approval flashing across his face for less than the blink of an eye. “Well observed, childling, but wisdom like that does nothing to pad my pockets,” he replied. “I’ll give you ten silver and three copper, and not a coin more.”

Curian opened her mouth, fists clenched tightly at her sides, but snapped her teeth shut to keep the words she’d wanted to say locked up tight in their current cage. She would have to release them later, perhaps in the smoky, dark familiarity of the Backwater Bog Inn.

“Fine,” she said at last, holding her hand out.

Alistair retrieved a coin purse from among the heaps of things on his desk and slowly, deliberately began to count out the payment. It wasn’t nearly enough, Curian thought, but it had to do. She couldn’t bring herself to watch him count out such a pitiful sum, and so her eyes began to wander.

Something round and glittering caught her attention. She’d stood in that exact spot a million or so times, she knew, and she had not once ever noticed such a thing. She turned without fully meaning to, and there it was. A perfect sphere, copper in color with accents of silver and veins of ruby. Small dials and buttons jutted out at odd intervals. The longer Curian looked at the object, the more certain she felt it was calling to her. Only when her hand closed around it did she even realize she had reached for the curious trinket.

“Hm? Oh, that old thing,” Alistair said, clearly unable to hide his amusement. “Take it. I’ll keep the copper pieces and one silver from your payment as compensation.”

“Keep it all,” Curian muttered as she turned the trinket over in her hands, her eyes dancing along its surface as she did.

Alistair arched his slim, perfectly trimmed wisps of eyebrows. “Excuse me?”

“Keep your silvers,” Curian repeated. She pocketed the trinket. “Until next time,” she added, turning on her heels. She walked at first, moving out of Alistair’s sight as quickly as she could. Once he could no longer see her, she broke into a run.

There was something about this thing worth investigating, Curian decided, and so she exited the shop and ran down the hillside, weaving through the small crowds of people moving about the streets with little to no interest in her. She continued to run as the streets gave way to the fields beyond Rivenbrook, and before long she stood outside of her humble cottage just at the edge of the shaded copse. She threw the door open and leapt to the only seat at her table.

“All right, then,” Curian said. She removed the trinket from her pocket and placed it on the table, curiosity bordering onto madness in her eyes. “What are you? Tell me your secrets.”

Follow the Ashes: Put on a Happy Face part 2

“Put on a Happy Face, Part 2: New Reasons to Smile”

              Cas was surrounded, an island amidst a sea of menacing emoticons. Some of the helmets even depicted knives, guns, and other weapons likely intended for her. One displayed, in minimal detail, a guillotine cleaving the head from a stick-person’s body. Cas glanced around frantically inside the helmet, trying to trigger something, anything, that would act as a saving grace.

              A hand closed around her wrist, and she heard only one word.

              “Run.”

              Without other options present, Cas found herself being pulled through the crowd seconds before it converged on her. She and the person who had rescued her, who Cas noted was shrouded in a number of layered, gray scarves and cloaks, moved through the crowd with improbable ease.

              Cas started to glance back at the commotion over her shoulder, now what felt like a safe distance away.

              “Don’t,” commanded her rescuer without bothering to look back. Cas was forced to run faster as their pace quickened. They were no longer in the town’s center, and they rapidly approached its outskirts. The huts were sparse now, farther apart and interrupted by increasing stretches of barren field. A collection of fallen rock rested, gathered almost as if with purpose at the edge of a cliff.

              Cas realized, as their pace increased yet again, there were only two possible destinations. A sudden stop or along drop.

              “This is some sort of trick,” Cas said, though she was met with no response. She tried to dig her feet into the dry soil, but found no purchase.

              “I said,” Cas began to repeat, only to be hushed. Whoever had saved her from the crowd was hurtling forward at absurd speeds, Cas still in tow. In a fluid motion, only so few paces away from certain doom, the mysterious collection of scarves and cloaks reached down with their free hand and dislodged a rock the size of a grapefruit from the dirt, all while maintaining speed. A deafening crack split the air. A boulder situated at the center of the heap split down the middle. Its halves shifted inwards, revealing a dark doorway. As they passed through it, stone moved outwards past them and closed back in place. Only then did they stop running.

              The darkness was absolute, and Cas’ attempts to catch her breath were the only sound to be heard. A harsh red light pierced the darkness, moving swiftly from the ceiling to the floor. Something shuddered beneath the ground as the light went out, and the room was filled with a dull, white glow as lighting fixtures built into the walls sprang to life. There were a number of metal surfaces bolted to the walls, each adorned with a number of tools and displays in various states of disuse.

              “Thank you for getting me out of there,” Cas said. Before she could say anything else, her rescuer raised a hand to silence Cas before removing the helmet. Her rescuer was a young woman, eyes the color of a sunset moments before night blanketed the land.

              “Don’t thank me yet,” the woman said, her voice carrying a practiced coldness. “You owe me. Before we continue this conversation, I’d like you to take your helmet off so I’m certain I haven’t made a mistake in saving you.”

              Cas placed her hands on the helmet, hesitating. “How will you know you’ve made a mistake?” she asked.

              “This isn’t a good start,” the woman replied.

              Cas removed the helmet, tucking it into the crook of her left arm. “My name’s Cas. I’m sure you can tell I’m not from around here,” she explained.

              “Kaye,” the woman who rescued Cas, Kaye, responded. “Clearly you aren’t or you would’ve known better than to use outdated tech. The Speaker would’ve had you thrown from the airlock.”

              “The Speaker?” Cas asked.

              Kaye shook her head, the short shock of silver hair adorning her scalp swishing gently. “This used to be a bustling farming community,” she said. “Worked out nicely until the air filters started to fail. The short of it?” She pointed to the helmet Cas held.

              “Someone from on high in mission command sent a huge shipment of the things,” Kaye continued. “Easier to display something than go through the trouble of speaking, burning up valuable oxygen. The Speaker stood out as someone everyone could follow.”

              Kaye frowned for only a moment, the sadness sudden but fleeting. “That’s enough of a history lesson,” Kaye said.

              A panel in the wall between two of the tables slid open. An old man, bald and hunched, stepped into the room. He let loose a long, wet series of course, punctuated by clearing his throat and spitting. He looked up, his gaze meeting Cas’s.

              “Brought home a stray, did you? We’ve barely got enough air in here for us, and certainly not enough food,” the man snarled.

              “She’s not staying long, Rel,” Kaye said. “Have you finished what I asked of you?”

              Rel narrowed his eyes at Cas, then shifted his focus to Kaye. “You sure you want to be talking about that so freely?”

              Kaye shot a glare over her shoulder. “The Speaker set a mob on her,” she replied. “The last person who had that happen still lives here.”

              Rel furrowed his brow. “I pull my weight,” he snapped back. “And if you’re so inconvenienced by my being here, you can always kick me out. Leave me to the mobs.”

              “That’s not what I said in the least,” Kaye shot back.

              Cas cleared her throat, and found herself on the receiving end of two severe looks. “Excuse me, but I fear it rude to not share my name as I know both of yours,” she said. “I go by Cas.”

              Rel raised an eyebrow, an amused smirk revealing yellowed, crooked teeth. “Go by?” he probed.

              Cas nodded. “I have a number of questions I need answered,” she explained. “I happened upon this place by accident, but it now almost feels like providence. If I can do something to help with this Speaker, perhaps?”

              Kaye smiled, looking back to Rel for a moment. She pointed, again, at Cas’s helmet. “That’s an older model, and it doesn’t properly interface with the current network,” she explained. “The Speaker depends on everyone being on the current network.”

              “We’ve worked on one such helmet we managed to acquire,” Rel added, continuing, “In doing so, we managed to make a helmet on the network that can potentially override the Speaker’s command over the others.”

              “That sounds simple enough,” Cas conceded.

              Kaye shook her head. “It’s not that simple,” she said. “It’s a battle of wills. Whoever takes up the helmet against the Speaker. He’s been in everyone’s head for so long it will be difficult.”

              Cas stroked her chin, lost in thought. “What do you think will happen if I succeed?” she asked. “Or if I fail? What would I need to do to best this Speaker?”

              Rel and Kaye exchanged glances, the small measure of hope on their faces gone abruptly.

              “Truthfully, we don’t know,” Rel conceded.

              “We’ve been holed up in this facility for years,” Kaye added. “The oxygen supplies are steadily running down, and we’re known by the Speaker. We had to come up with something to make living in the open safe again.”

              Cas clapped her hands together, causing Rel to jump. “If you have the means, I’ll find the way,” Cas said. “I feel like there is a wrong here that I must right.” She felt a fog at the edge of her thoughts. Where the fog only began to obscure the clarity Cas needed was a sense of guilt, as if there was something in this situation she should know more about. Something she was in some way, directly or indirectly, responsible for righting.

              Rel turned and disappeared back into the room he’d entered from, the panel sliding shut behind him. Kaye stood, not speaking, her eyes shut as if meditating. The panel opened again, and Rel returned to the room with a helmet in his hands similar to the one Cas had. The visor’s display was crisper, clearer, and devoid of the cracks and scratches the other helmets all seemed to be marred by.

              “I’ll trade you,” Rel said, a command more than a request. Cas offered up the helmet she’d tucked under her arm and accepted the one Rel had brought in. She lifted it to put it on, but was stopped by Kaye.

              “Don’t,” Kaye ordered. “Not until you’re leaving. The second you’re on the network, you’ll be visible to the Speaker, and he’ll be able to pinpoint your exact location. Leading the mobs right to us.”

              Cas nodded. “Any words of wisdom before I depart?” she asked.

              “Don’t die,” Rel offered, his words met with a sharp glare from Kaye.

              “I don’t have anything I think will be terribly helpful,” Kaye conceded. “Don’t let the Speaker in, no matter what he tries to convince you. Fight him, and fight him with all you have.”

              Cas smiled. “I’ll see you both soon enough, I hope,” she said. She turned and walked back the way she and Kaye had entered. A small, red bank of lights adorned the wall by the door in the false boulders she had come through earlier. She pressed the solitary button on the panel, and the doors slid open.

              As Cas stepped out into the field, she placed the helmet on her head. At first, its interior was completely dark. A thin beam of light shifted left to right across Cas’s field of vision, scanning across her eyes. She blinked away the pain, waiting patiently.

              The interior of the helmet illuminated fully, and the field outside came into view. A small, silver globe rotated in the upper left corner of Cas’s vision. It blinked several times, and a frown appeared superimposed over the globe for a fraction of a second. The town’s center was visible, but only barely, in the distance, and so Cas started the long walk towards her destination. She had no exact plan, but wondered if reasoning with this Speaker was an option. Failing, she considered, and being jettisoned from the airlock was not an appealing outcome.

              She trudged through the field, her eyes stopping on the broken, dried and dead remains of what looked to be more than just tall grass. Specters of cornstalks still stood in perfect rows, their color and life long gone from them. Spiraling vines lay blackening on another mound of soil. The land itself did not appear dry or brittle. Cas found herself wondering what the field had looked like before.

              A small image of a book blinked into her field of vision, its pages opening to reveal fleeting images of vibrant farms surrounding modest huts. A stream carving its way through the farm-town, disappearing beneath the cobblestones before emerging from the top of a fountain in the heart of the village. A gentle breeze swept through, drifting ever higher until it reached the clouds and beyond. For a brief moment, fans were visible in the metal ceiling above the colony.

              The fans shuddered to a stop, and with that the view returned to the current field. Cas furrowed her brow, quick to return to a neutral expression when she realized her visor mirrored the expression.

              “Curious,” Cas muttered. “I wonder.” Her vision was temporarily obscured by the interior of her visor displaying a series of images rapidly, starting and ending with a sad face. Cas shook her head, blinking against the after-image of what had been shown to her.

              “Best keep moving,” Cas reminded herself.

              A crowd had formed at the edge of the village, flanking the main throughway. All eyes were on Cas, who hesitated at the edge of the road. A cursor appeared superimposed on the scenery within Cas’s visor. It flashed a few times before something spoke through text.

              Enter, and present yourself, the words read.

              Cas blinked, but maintained a neutral expression. “Are you the Speaker?”

              The cursor blinked again. The name you speak of is a familiar one, but not one I have given myself, the Speaker said. I have many names. Come to me, and I shall share my names and so much more.

              Cas felt herself compelled forward, each step reluctant but seemingly inevitable.  She found herself approaching the dais in the center of the village, atop which the Speaker waited on an imposing throne-like seat.

              Join us, won’t you? Join our happy village and be free from the difficult existence that is your rebelliousness. All it takes is just letting go.

              The inside of Cas’s helmet flashed and indicated to her the visor was displaying a smile.

              “No,” Cas spat back.

              The villagers moved in, surrounding the dais as Cas felt herself compelled to step up and join the Speaker, the smile still present on her visor.

              My family, my children, we have added one more to our ranks on this day, the Speaker said, now clearly addressing everyone present. The smile on Cas’s visor grew into a manic grin, and she felt the sides of her mouth tug themselves into a matching expression of glee.

              “No!” Cas shouted, her voice seemingly muffled by the helmet.

              Take this newcomer in and teach her our ways, commanded the Speaker. Give her lodging and shelter, so she may never need nor want anything else ever again. She is one of our own now.

              A blackness crept into the corners of Cas’s vision. She continued to smile. She felt a warmth roll over her, and with it an inexplicable sense of peace. She was, she began to realize, where she belonged. She was home.

              Home, she thought again as her vision darkened further. Something flashed before her eyes as if a light in the darkness, and Cas snapped back to her senses. Her visor displayed a smile, but the mouth changed to an ‘x’. Villagers looked to the Speaker, then to Cas, their expressions suddenly a mix of confusion and rage as they attempted to process this.

              Fret not, my children, the Speaker said. Even without a voice, his words seemed to come across as slick as oil.

              The faces turned placid again, and Cas’s vision grew darker still. She felt a wave of panic hit her, followed by another forced wave of joy. Peace.

              No, she thought. This is wrong, she told herself.

              If she couldn’t convince them to see the truth in a face, she thought, perhaps something else. Cas thought for a moment, before her thoughts drifted back to the images she’d seen earlier. She picked one and focused.

              There was a series of confused looks exchanged among the crowd when a fan appeared, still and unmoving, on Cas’s visor. Others mirrored the image accompanied by a question mark.

              Dismiss such thoughts, demanded the Speaker. They serve no purpose beyond distraction from the peace and freedom I offer.

              The Speakers words seemed to fall flat, however, as the image continued to spread throughout the crowd. The Speaker’s helmet switched from its peaceful expressionl to one of rage in an instant. It flickered briefly, static marring its form.

              Suddenly, without warning, there was a rumble that shook the world around the village. It had started high up, and spread slowly to the ground. Another followed, and then another still.

              No! Stop this at once, the Speaker commanded. I… forb…id it!

              “You fear it,” Cas replied.

              You…do not know what…you have d-on3…… The Speaker’s visor became a blur of static, the face intermittently popping back into existence before dissipating just as quickly. The helmet sputtered and sparked before giving off a loud popping sound. A plume of smoke poured forth from just beneath where the Speaker’s helmet covered his face.

              And a gentle breeze blew the smoke away.

              One by one, the other helmets deactivated. The villagers stood in silence as if awaiting their next command.

              Cas inhaled deeply, holding her breath as she removed her helmet. The air didn’t sting her lungs as she had feared it might. There was no foul odor to the air, save for faint stench of burned out electronic components, and she felt no pain as she finally drew breath.

              “It’s safe now, I suspect,” Cas said. “Take off your helmets. Breathe.”

              One by one, the villagers listened. Immediately in front of her, a young woman with deep red hair appeared from beneath a blackened visor. Then a boy with vibrant blue eyes. Each person looked at their neighbors like they were seeing them for the first time, smiling pleasantly all the same.

              “I told you I wasn’t making a mistake,” said a familiar voice. Cas turned and spotted Kaye trotting towards the dais with Rel in tow.

              “You got lucky,” Rel barked back. “Admit it.”

              Kaye leapt up onto the dais and offered Cas a crisp salute. “I knew you could do it,” she said. Cas felt a chill up her spine. More familiarity, and another sudden bout of pain just behind her eyes to push down any recognition she may have had for the moment.

              “Thank you for your faith in me,” Cas managed to say in response. “But now what? What about him? This place?”

              Kaye reached over towards the speaker and tugged at his helmet. There was a dreadful cracking sound, followed by a pungent stench as it separated from the Speaker’s protective suit and ornate robes. Two hollow eye sockets stared from a largely bare skull, its jaw slack in a rictus grin.

              “Whatever was in this,” Kaye said, “Whoever. I reckon they’re still out there. This poor soul may have been smiling, but not with anything behind it I fear.”

              Cas frowned. “I’ll have to find them, then, and learn why they did what they have here,” she said. “More answers to seek.” She sighed.

              The villagers had begun to mill about, talking with one another. The conversations were reluctant and awkward, but gradually grew less so.

              Kaye clapped a hand on Cas’s shoulder. “Walk with me for a moment or two,” she said, her tone more of a request than a demand. Cas nodded, following along. They left the village behind, following a faint, dusted-over stone pathway. It wound along, going over foothills and dipping into shallow valleys that Cas had missed previously. It ended at a sheer cliff, which seemed to stretch upwards endlessly. Cas reached out and touched the stone, and the stone’s image wavered beneath her hand to reveal a plain metal surface. A solitary door rested at its center, adorned with red text reading “Emergency Exit: Authorized Personnel Only”.

              “There’s not likely much more for you here, Cas,” Kaye said. “In time, perhaps, there may be, but I reckon you’d best be on your way now.”

              Cas felt a brief pang of sadness and wondered why, but as quickly as it occurred it seemed to drift off.

              “I suppose you’re right,” Cas replied. She offered Kaye a crisp salute, which Kaye returned. Without another word, unable to find the right thing to say, Cas turned and opened the door. It swung open with a rapidity she expected, and she spun back in time for the door to snap shut behind her.

              The room she had entered was plain, save for a bank of monitors along the righthand wall. A small bank of consoles sat beneath them, their keyboards closed off beneath protective glass locked in place. Another door, similar to the one Cas just passed through, adorned the opposite wall, and on it was a smudge of gray.

              Cas sighed, a battle between uncertainty and certainty that she was continuing along the right path as she approached the door.

              “Suppose all I can do for now,” Cas instructed herself, “is continue to follow the ashes.”

Follow The Ashes: Put on a Happy Face…

“Put on a Happy Face, Part One: No Frowns in This Town”

The door swung open with only a gentle shove, giving way to a long, gunmetal hallway lined with windows. It offered nowhere to hide, which Cas considered both a blessing and a curse. No one could sneak up on her, but she would be spotted easily by anyone near the windows. She looked back to the artificial lake. The shore she had climbed onto was the only land she could see. Sheer metal walls flanked the water, and there were no visible doors.

Cas stepped across the threshold and into the hallway. The door at the opposite end was translucent gray, betraying nothing of what stood beyond it. Cas crouched down and made her way to the first set of windows. Slowly, with calculated speed and caution, she stood up and glanced out the window. The grass was sparse and patchy, islands of dull green amidst a sea of dry, cracked soil. The occasional tree slumped sadly. Their trunks were a uniform gray, giving them more the look of stone than wood.

It was the first slice of nature Cas felt certain wasn’t a trick of technology.

Cas saw no other signs of life outside and decided to continue. She crossed the hallway at a brisk pace, still wary someone could be watching her. The translucent gray door revealed little detail of what was beyond it. There was a row of doors visible on the opposite wall, each one with a light set at the top of its frame.

Smudges of ashes at the door’s edges compelled Cas to press on. She placed a hand against the door’s cold, metal surface and gave a gentle push. It swung inwards slowly, its hinges groaning as rust flaked away. Save for one, the lights above the doors were off. The solitary bulb that was lit shined a soft green.

Without a second thought, Cas crossed the small room and prepared to open another door.

“Stop! What are you doing?” demanded a raspy voice from behind Cas. She spun around, fists raised and wishing she still had the knife she’d taken from Maeve. An old man stood there, an alarmed look in his eyes. He held his hands out as if to show he wasn’t a threat.

“You can’t go out there without protective gear on,” the old man continued. “You got some kind of death-wish, lady? Two breaths of the air out there will leave you deader than a doornail.”

Cas breathe a sigh of relief. “Excuse me,” she said.

The old man shook his head. “Been longer than I can remember since we had a new arrival,” he muttered. He eyed Cas for a moment. His gaze seemed to be free of judgment and apprehension. He turned and shuffled to the wall next to the door Cas had entered. Several lockers lined the wall, each marked with a numeric code. The old man considered each of them before selecting one. He tinkered with its combination lock, then stepped back as the door popped open. A dull gray uniform, much like the one Cas was wearing albeit much dryer, sat folded on a shelf in the locker. A gray spacesuit was held above the clothes by a hanger. It was slightly less plain, bearing a small insignia on its chest that looked like a flame. Bands of red fabric circled the elbow and knee joints, with two parallel rings around the suit’s midsection.

The old man picked up the clothes, shuffled back over to Cas, and handed them to her. He waved to the other side of the boxish room. “Privacy curtain over there,” he said. “You’ll catch your death if you stay in those soaked rags.”

“Thank you,” Cas said. She took the clothes from the old man and stepped behind the privacy curtain.

“I’m sorry,” Cas added. “I don’t believe I asked your name.” She changed out of her soaking clothes and into the ones she had been given, appreciating the warmth they held.

“Not to worry,” the old man said. “I’m a second-generation Epsilon colonist, so I was given a number. Long. Not easy to remember. The youngsters call me Old Grim when they think I’m not listening, so I think that will do just fine.”

“It’s nice to make your acquaintance, Old Grim,” Cas said. “I go by Cas.” She stepped out from behind the curtain, pleased to have found the outfit fit her well.

Old Grim had returned to the locker and was shuffling back towards her with the spacesuit. “Cas, hm?” he said. “I knew a nice young lady named Jocasta. You look a little like her. She had some dense curls on her head, though, and I think you’re a little taller.” He considered Cas for a moment before shrugging the thought off.

Cas took the suit and stepped in. As she pulled it on, it seemed far too large for her. It seemed to adjust, however, as Cas zipped the suit up. She paused, glancing towards the doors. “Are you the only one here?” she asked. “Forgive my ignorance.”

Old Grim shrugged. “Best you see for yourself,” he said, frowning. “This used to be a state-of-the-art habitation unit, back when I first got here.” He returned to the lockers, opening another one. He shuffled back to Cas with a helmet in hand.

“This one’s outdated, no doubt,” Old Grim said. He held the helmet out to Cas, and she took it. It fit loosely on her. The visor, she noted, allowed no light through. She could see nothing.

“There’s a small power button situated around where the helmet covers your left ear,” Old Grim said. “Press it.”

Cas placed her hand against the helmet and slowly guider her fingers to the area Old Grim had mentioned. She found a small, round depression, and pressed at it gently. The inside of the helmet flashed to life, full of brilliant color. A progress bar appeared momentarily, sped to 100%, then disappeared. The helmet’s interior display then switched to showing the world around Cas. Faint outlines of icons were overlaid on the world. Cas shifted her focus to one—a smiley face—and it gained clarity.

Old Grim offered a thumbs-up. “Looks to be working well enough,” he said. “Try looking at another.” Cas complied, shifting her gaze from the smiley face. It dulled, again a faint impression against the helmet’s visualization of the world around Cas. She shifted her gaze to the right, stopping on another dulled icon that turned out to be a frown.

“Excellent,” Old Grim said. “I think that should do it. I should explain the point of this little exercise, I suspect.”

Cas nodded, suddenly aware the gesture didn’t necessarily register with the helmet and spacesuit on. She offered, instead, a thumbs-up.

“The habitat’s atmospheric cycling hasn’t been working right for years, but this habitation zone has been deemed a failure,” Old Grim explained. “No help from above, so to speak. These suits, previously a novelty item, became our only hope. You communicate by way of guiding your eyes to an icon. It presents on the helmet’s outer display.”

Cas nodded. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to have it so you can simply speak to one another?” she asked.

Old Grim shook his head. “You’ll want to be cautious with questions like that out there,” he said. “Nowhere to go but forward at this point, and I suspect you’ve got plenty of forward-moving to do.”

Cas considered Old Grim’s words. “Thank you,” she said. “Why are you helping me?”

“I think you’ll end up helping us,” Old Grim replied. “First visitor shows up fifty years to the day from when this habitation zone was established? Maybe I’m just foolin’ myself. You stay safe out there, now. Not everyone you encounter is going to be so welcoming.”

“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” Cas said.

Old Grim gestured towards the solitary door with a green light above it. “Out that way,” he said. “Follow the dirt path along a ways and you’ll find yourself at the edge of town.”

Cas nodded. She placed a hand against the door and prepared to push, only to pause. “Will you be safe if I open this?” she asked. She turned her attention back to Old Grim. He had shuffled back to the lockers and was holding what looked to be a breathing mask to his face. He nodded to Cas, who nodded in return. She turned back to the door and pressed.

There was a soft popping sound as the seal broke, and the door swung open. The sunlight’s warmth, though artificial, made its way through the spacesuit. It was strong, but not unpleasantly so. Sickly flowers swayed, drooped over, in the few patches of surviving grass. Cas closed the door behind herself and stepped forward. The trail stood out, despite being a dirt path in a landscape dominated by dried earth.

Cas followed the path along its few small hills and valleys. She took in the scenery as she walked, finding herself wondering what this placed had looked like in its early years. How beautiful, she thought, it must have been.

Small cottages became visible in the distance. Cas walked faster, spurred on by her curiosity. As she reduced the distance between her and the buildings, she saw the paint on their exteriors was cracked and worn, stained by dust and soot. She could see people here and there in the distance, each wearing a spacesuit identical to hers. Something, however, seemed different. She noticed how they all looked down as they shuffled about, clearly avoiding meeting one another’s gaze. She continued along the road, careful to imitate the shuffling gait and downward gaze of the locals.

The path grew into a street, then a cobblestone road as it continued. Cas hazarded a glance upwards. The cottages were closer, forming a manmade wall circling what looked to be the town’s center. Fragmented remains of a marble fountain stood at odd angles. What was once a man and woman pouring water from ornate pottery had been reduced to a collection of shattered limbs and leaking pipes. To the statue’s left, off-center by comparison, was a small, circular stage. Stone steps, pristine compared to the statue and the surrounding cobblestones, wound around the stage from the ground to its plateau.

There was a loud, tinny sound, unpleasant and jarring. Cas took a moment to identify what it was—an old recording of a bell ringing.

The townsfolk appeared one or two at a time at first. Then groups of four or so. The town center filled quickly, Cas suddenly stuck amidst the crowd. She focused her gaze downwards still, hoping to continue to blend in until she had time to observe more. The crowd parted, but Cas couldn’t see why. Gradually, two large figures carried a platform, its handles straddled on their shoulders as one walked ahead of the other.

There was a smaller person atop the platform. Diminutive, Cas thought. Perhaps even withered. The person’s limbs seemed loose within the confines of the same suit that fit snugly on everyone else

Without a word, the two carried the figure to the top of the stage, set the platform down at its center, and stepped away. Even the slight breeze seemed to fall silent.

The screen on the small figure’s helmet lit up bright green, then was replaced by a banana-yellow smiley face. There was a soft clicking sound all around Cas. She looked around and saw images cycling on the other helmets until, one by one, they all mirrored the figure on the stage. Thinking quickly, Cas shifted her gaze to the corresponding symbol on her helmet’s internal screen. The smiley face came into view as internal processes caused her helmet to hum and chirp. There was a sudden snapping sound, and the internal display flickered. The world around Cas had become pixelated.

On the stage, the withered figure’s helmet switched to a look of puzzlement surrounded by question marks. Others in the crowd had shifted their focus to Cas, their helmets displaying a variety of expressions from quizzical to concerned to, to Cas’s dismay as she found herself surrounded, anger. She looked frantically for a way out as the crowd began to close in around her.