Warpt Factor – Installment 8

Previously on Warpt Factor:

Isabelle “Izzy” Warpt dreamt of becoming the greatest spaceship captain to ever graduate Spiral Reach Academy, the Milky Way’s most prestigious academy founded on a mission of spreading peace, prosperity, and good across the Universe. On her 18th birthday, thanks to a modest donation by Izzy’s Gammy Margaret, Jett Sketter–Spiral Reach’s most famous, most handsome Captain–made a special guest appearance to give Izzy the good news that she had been accepted to begin her first year as a cadet at Spiral Reach Academy.

Shortly after arriving at the Academy, through a curious incident involving her future self, some time travel, and a bad pun featuring two innocent dachshunds, Izzy found herself having gained the attention of Headmaster Archibald Cosgrove as well as High Chancellors Bennett Kadimova and Cecilia Amadeus Driscol.

Instead of facing punishment for potentially dismantling the fabric of space-time, Izzy was told the Academy needed someone of her enthusiasm and energy to help revive Spiral Reach. She’d been selected to be fast-tracked through the Captain’s program. High Chancellor Kadimova assured Izzy he would explain the details along a short walk.

The good news was that Izzy would be a Captain far sooner than expected. The bad news? She had to steal a ship to do so. Under Kadimova’s instruction, Izzy commandeered the Lofty Albatross, the only ship without a captain, and met her crew – First Officer Fontaine deCourville, a Cicardox with a chip on his four shoulders, and Professor Brannigan Everest, the ship’s mechanic. They had little time to get to know each other before they received a distress signal from Chief Medical Officer Melissa Carter.

Izzy, a Captain whose bravery knew no bounds, ordered the crew to chart a course for Rigel Six to answer the call for help. They arrived to find the Ruklan Liberation Army had launched a rebellion against the ruling Rigellians. Facing insurmountable odds, Izzy decided she needed to face the Ruklans in-person.

“Forgive me if I’m unfamiliar with all of the current approaches to Gamma Class crises,” CMO Carter said, the first to break the silence. “It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a classroom. Did you just suggest, perhaps, that we enter a hostile battlefield while vastly outnumbered?”

Izzy nodded. “Find their leader and talk it out with them,” she replied. “Oh, hey. Do we have any tea? Fruit baskets? It’s bad manners to show up without something. Makes you look cheap.”

CMO Carter arched her eyebrows. First Officer Fontaine chittered and clicked his mandibles, the secondary membranes on his eyes allowing him to look both concerned and furious at the same time.

“Captain Warpt has herself a bit of,” Professor Everest said, pausing to consider the rest of his thought. “She’s not the most orthodox in her approaches, but she’s got a good head on her shoulders that one.”

“Which will make it all the more troubling when we get court marshaled for letting her get it shot clean off in what is clearly,” Fontaine shouted, his voice increasing in volume with each word, “a suicide mission!”

Izzy shook her head. “I doubt we’d have anything too fancy in our rations,” she muttered. She noticed all eyes were on here.

“Oh wow, I’m so sorry,” Izzy added. “Spaced out for a second there. Deep in thought. Did I miss something important?”

“Captain Warpt, do you have a plan?” CMO Carter asked, her brow furrowed. It was an expression Izzy was used to seeing her mother wear when she’d discovered Izzy had come up with big ideas that could be misconstrued as minor crimes in the wrong light.

Izzy tapped a finger to her lips, her focus clearly nowhere in the room. “I remember some things I learned about the Ruklan people,” she said. “I’ll need you to follow my lead, though. No weapons.” She eyed Fontaine suspiciously.

“Give me one reason to not relieve her of her duty right this moment,” Fontaine snarled.

Professor Everest cracked his knuckles, his neck, and a number of other joints in rapid succession. Recordings used later for archival purposes picked up a sound not unlike the ancient wooden roller coasters of Earth.

“I’ve got two compelling reasons for you right here,” Professor Everest replied.

“And you, Chief Medical Officer Carter?” Izzy asked. “Are you packing heat? Got an omni-plasma bazooka you’re hiding?”

CMO Carter smiled. “I’m a medical officer,” she replied, a chuckle escaping as she spoke. “Not a single weapon on my person.”

“Good, good. But I’ve got my eye on you all the same!” Izzy replied. She waited patiently while both First Officer deCourville and Professor Everest disarmed.

Professor Everest set aside two sidearms, a matching pair of plasma knuckles, and a weapon with a barrel large enough Izzy could fit her head in it with the word “Persuasion” engraved on its handle.

First Officer deCourville produced one sidearm. He hesitated, then removed what looked to be a walking stick from his side. Izzy eyed it with no attempts at masking her curiosity.

“Don’t even think about touching that,” Fontaine said. “I’ll know. And now, Captain, I must ask how you expect an audience with the Ruklan leader.”

Izzy rolled her eyes, huffing for emphasis. “First we need to get transported down to the surface,” she explained. “Each of you has an emergency return, yeah?”

One by one, the others nodded.

“Good. Cool. So only use them if we absolutely have to, but otherwise we zip down to the surface and immediately surrender,” Izzy said.

CMO Carter blinked. “I’m very sorry, I don’t wish to come across as insubordinate,” she replied. “Did you say surrender? I must’ve had something stuck in my ear.”

“That she did, I believe,” Professor Everest said. “Clever enough plan, too.”

Fontaine started to speak, but was quickly hushed by Izzy. “On my mark, we teleport to the surface of Rigel Six. Middle of the fray. Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” CMO Carter replied.

“Let’s get diplomatic!” Professor Everest responded.

First Officer deCourville sighed. “At least I’ve ensured my family is well taken care of,” he huffed.

The world shimmered and stretched around the four of them as their synchronized transports initiated. In a flash of blue light they all landed softly on the soft red sand that made up much of Rigel Six’s coastal landscape–the planet’s landmasses consisting of a handful of islands largely covered in resorts that, at a glance, looked to have been converted into expensive-looking fortresses. Several Ruklan soldiers stormed past without giving Izzy or her crew a second look. They towered over all of them save for Professor Everest, their normally sparsely-clothed bodies covered in some of the best armor on the market.

Izzy watched the soldiers charge past in small packs, each one armed well enough to act as an entire militia. She spotted one who looked to be moving a little slower with a bit more calculation to their movement, took a deep breath, and stepped in front of the soldier.

The soldier clearly had not planned for this, attempting to stop so as to not bowl down the sudden intruder in its field of vision. The terrain did not lend itself well to a sudden shift in momentum. The soldier stumbled forward awkwardly before it planted face-first into the sand. It leapt to its feet, weapon at the ready–it pointed a long, two-pronged pole at Izzy, jagged arcs of starlight jolting between the prongs.

“We’d like to offer our conditional surrender,” Izzy said cheerfully, hands in the air.

The Ruklan soldier cocked its head, its facial features hidden by the helmet’s visor. It replied in a series of guttural growls and grunts, pausing periodically as if waiting for a response. Izzy offered a polite shrug, at which point the soldier tapped on a circular interface on the chest plate of its armor. It pointed to its helmet around where its mouth would be, then pointed to Izzy and her crew.

“Talk? You’re in luck,” Izzy said. “I could do that all day long if I have to, or if I want to even.”

The interface flashed a dull, white light with each word Izzy spoke, settling on a steady pulse after she’d stopped speaking.

“Calibration complete,” spoke a robotic voice from the armor. The Ruklan soldier pointed to Izzy, then to where its mouth likely was beneath the helmet again.

“Right, sorry,” Izzy said. Behind her, Fontaine began to step forward but was stopped short by Professor Everest. One hand was enough to stop Fontaine from continuing forward and the other covered his mandibles completely.

“Conditional surrender,” Izzy repeated, smiling. “Old movies used to have aliens say something like take me to your leader, I think. Do that, please?”

Wanted Adventurers – A Story to Tell

Dark magics drifted visibly through the air of the crypt, tendrils of miasma grasping blindly for something they couldn’t quite locate. It was a vast space, its ornate design a reminder it wasn’t a crypt meant for burial so much as it was for ceremony. At the center of the domed chamber, above the surrounding floor, floated a fragmented dais.

Above the dais, as is the case with many such crypts, an Arch Lich hovered with a practiced indifference to his unspeakable, nearly unmatched power. In life he had been known as Karaxis Illwill, but upon completing his unholy transformation he took on the name Karaxis the Endless Dread.

Karaxis’s many followers bowed below, to the best of their ability as they were all tied up or shackled to one another. This was a somewhat new development, and the display of fealty to their master was all the clumsier because of it. He considered them for a moment before returning his attention to the two figures suspended in the air mere feet beyond the edge of his dais.

“When I had heard the Adventurer’s Guild had put a bounty out on my head, I had expected a little, oh, I don’t know,” Karaxis mused. “More impressive perhaps. A battalion of elite soldiers, perhaps. Or an entire army. Certainly not disgraced highborne royalty, a peasant orc, and…” Karaxis absentmindedly clicked a finger against his jawbone, the deep crimson flames in his eye sockets scanning the room.

“There was a third to your perilously stupid party, was there not?” Karaxis asked. “Well? Lightfoot?”

The highborne elf glowered. “Swiftstep. Monty Swiftstep. I’m no royalty, though, and you know that you damn stupid bag of bones. You holding up all right, Aranza?”

The orc suspended near Monty blinked several times, her forest green eyes focused again. “You say something, Mont?” she asked. “You know how I can’t stand rambled speeches.”

Archlich Karaxis leaned forward, his skull easily dwarfing both adventurers in size. “This doesn’t have to be slow and painful, you know,” Karaxis said. “I could kill you with as little effort as you might pick a pocket. You just need to tell me where your third is.”

Aranza sneered, her lower tusks jutting out. “The paladin? She clearly only cared for saving her own hide,” she spat. “Smug little dwarf with a messiah complex.”

“She got us this far,” Monty snapped back. Sweat trickled down his face, the light from Karaxis’ eyes casting sickly shadows on his fair, lavender colored skin. The long, jagged scar across Monty’s left eye looked darker despite the light being so close.

Aranza turned her head as far as she could, restrained by the miasma, to look Monty in the eye. The miasma loosened, allowing Aranza to move just enough.

“We would’ve never even known Miss Holier-than-Thou existed if you weren’t why we got caught!” Aranza yelled over the roar of Karaxis’ laughter.

Monty covered a gasp, eyes wide. “You blame me? Me?” he barked back. “If that isn’t the most heaping hill of horseshit I’ve ever heard in my life. If you had just let me kill the guards instead of knocking them out we would be free and rich. Think about that for a second.”

Karaxis continued to roar with laughter, the horrible sound reverberating throughout the crypt and echoing back in on itself creating a cacophonous din.

“As much as I love this, and I certainly do, I suppose I should just kill you both now,” Karaxis said with the plainness of someone suggesting they might take an afternoon nap. “Free up my afternoon to find and torture your friend into telling me what you three were doing here.” The flames in Karaxis’ eye sockets grew brighter, and terrible, ancient, best-forgotten words oozed from between the Archlich’s jagged fangs like great, glowing serpents ready to strike.

There was a great, resonating sound, impossible to miss even over the dread incantation. Karaxis hesitated, losing his place in the spell that was slowly sapping the life from Aranza and Monty. He started over, chanting faster to accelerate the spells.

Another sharp sound rang throughout the crypt, once again stealing Karaxis’ attention.

“What in the Hells is it now?” Karaxis demanded, looking towards the source of the noise.

The paladin stood at the top of the stairs, framed by a doorway of a once well-hidden door that lead farther into the crypt. A long, coal black braid hung to the left side of her face and her smirk tilted slightly to the right. The likeness of a solitary raven taking flight was the only identifying feature on her armor, standing out against the inner glow her silver plate armor seemed gave off.

“Glad you could join us,” Aranza said. “And right on time.”

“On time nothing,” Monty snipped back. “What took you so damn long, Tempy? It’s not like he had any look-outs left.” The paladin cringed at the nickname.

She raised her colossal warhammer high and brought it down against the floor hard enough that sparks and stone fragments issued forth from where the hammer struck.

“Excellent,” Karaxis said. “I can kill all three of you now and free up my schedule. And, I suppose, I could free up my acolytes. Who were careless enough that you managed to restrain them all.” Karaxis lacked the lungs needed to heave a proper sigh, but the noise he let loose was an impressive attempt nonetheless.

“You should reconsider,” the paladin commanded.

Karaxis cackled. “And why is that? Who dares tell me what I, Karaxis the Endless Dread, should do?”

“I am Temperance, Paladin of the House Ravencroft,” Temperance said. “Though that may mean little, I believe this will.” She glanced downwards, shifting her warhammer to position it over something. Karaxis followed Temperance’s gaze and gasped.

“My phylactery!” Karaxis howled. “How did you find it? And so quickly? I hid it using magics more complex and powerful than any mere mortal could possibly understand!”

Temperance shook her head. “This isn’t the part where you get to ask questions, I’m afraid,” she said. “First you need to listen.”

The archlich cocked its skull to the side. “Listen?” he asked. “To what, exactly?”

Temperance narrowed her eyes, lowering the warhammer’s head slowly and deliberately. The blessed metal making up the weapon caused sparks of fel magic to spark and hiss where it met the surface of the phylactery.

“The lady said it’s not the time for questions,” Aranza taunted. “You got dirt in your ears?”

“Fine,” Karaxis said. He waved a clawed hand through the air at Temperance. “You have my undivided attention.”

Temperance nodded. “Perfect,” she said. “I’m sure you’re wondering what we’re doing here. It’s a long tale, and it all began with those two would-be burglars and an attempt to rob the Adventurer’s Guild’s coffers.”

Monty cleared his throat loudly. “Maybe we could skip some of those details? Focus on the important parts?”

Karaxis raised a single, pointed finger and a haze of miasma clouded over Monty’s mouth. “Quiet,” he said. “Now I’m certainly curious as to how this tale plays out. Do go on. I do so hope there is danger and intrigue in this tale.”

“Thank you,” Temperance replied. “Now, where was I? Ah, yes. The night of the heist.”

Follow The Ashes: The Betweenways

Cas stepped beyond the door and winced. The air was stale and cold, the path ahead obscured in darkness. There was a subtle, familiar dull hum, barely audible. Cas hesitated, uncertain of her next step.

Behind her, the door swung shut and clicked loudly. She turned and tried to open the door again, only barely surprised to discover it had locked.

“Only one way to go, I suppose,” Cas muttered to herself. Dim lights flickered to life as she turned back to face the room.

“More walkways,” Cas said to herself. The path she stood on forked into two staircases leading upwards where it met the wall. The twin staircases reached landings, then turned back towards the catwalk she stood on. They gradually, Cas saw, seemed to spiral upwards to a latticework of walkways. Beyond that, however, was too dark to see in the low light.

Both staircases looked identical, and so Cas chose one and started her ascent. As she made it to the landing, she caught a glimpse of something on the opposite landing. Motes of dust suspended in the air, she thought, or perhaps a trick of the light. She continued up the stairs, pausing on the next landing for a moment. Nothing above was visible yet, but she could hear faint noises drifting downwards. Cas tensed. It sounded almost like conversation to her. She continued upwards, slowly and ready to make a run for it if the need arose. Unfamiliar but not unpleasant scents made their way to Cas, further piquing her interest.

At the next landing, Cas could see flickering lights up ahead. She could hear the conversation clearer now, and it was punctuated with moments of laughter and warmth. In an instant, Cas let her guard down as she found herself entering a collection of makeshift tents and huts suspended over the catwalk intersections. People milled about, some pausing to exchange pleasantries with each other from time to time as others entered and exited the various makeshift dwellings. Some wore similar uniforms to the ones she’d seen earlier while others wore things ranging from simple outfits to ones showing off quite a bit of color and flair.

No one seemed to give Cas so much as a second glance, which put her further at ease. Allowing her curiosity to get the better of her, Cas approached a small tent. A series of levitating steps bobbed gently in front of the entrance. She pulled aside the flap covering the entrance – an old solar sail, Cas thought, from the feel of it – and entered. The first thing she noticed was that the tent seemed to be larger on the inside. Had she been her a day ago, she pondered, this may have seemed remarkable, or perhaps even shocking, but it seemed almost familiar.

The woman on the opposite side of the tent sat with her legs crossed beneath her. She was remarkably tall, her eyes meeting Cas’s gaze without having to look up despite being seated. She held a long, wooden pipe between thin, spindly fingers. A series of elaborate tattoos formed a mural from just above her eyebrows all the way along the top of her head disappearing along her neck. A series of eyebrow rings glimmered in the simulated candlelight.

She inhaled deeply, exhaling smoke that spun and twirled like distant galaxies.

Cas cleared her throat, unsure what to say. “Hello,” she ventured.

The woman smiled. “Expected you hours ago, darlin’,” the woman said. “But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Strange shadows passing over the visions these days. Everything’s thrown off by the sudden, new light.”

“Excuse me?” Cas asked.

The woman pointed with her pipe at a small cushion opposite her on the floor. “You’ve got questions,” she stated in a way one would observe the weather. Cas nodded, sitting down in a way that mirrored the woman.

“I’ve got answers,” the woman continued. “Well, I don’t, but…” She trailed off as she reached in between layers of her flowing robes. She produced three metal cubes, each one held between her fingers. Gingerly, she set them down between Cas and her.

Cas looked at the cubes for a moment. They were smooth, devoid of any noteworthy features, and looked to be made from solid metal. She glanced up at the woman and frowned briefly. “I’m sorry, but do I know you?”

The woman smiled, but said nothing.

“What is this place?” Cas asked.

The woman smiled again. “You’ve made it to the Betweenways,” she said. “Or perhaps you’ve returned.” She offered a sly wink, and Cas felt a touch of heat at the back of her neck and around her ears. These weren’t answers so much as they seemed like coy riddles.

“I want you to think long and hard, darlin’,” the woman instructed. “Then ask the Oracle Cubes the first big, scary question that comes to mind.”

“What is this place?” Cas asked immediately.

The woman clicked her tongue. “Give it a little more thought than that,” she said. She took another long pull from her pipe and exhaled. In a fluid motion, beautiful as a well-choreographed dance, she turned her pipe over and tapped it against her free palm. Replacing the pipe between her teeth, she rubbed her hands together, causing a fine dusting of ash to drift to the floor.

Cas raised an eyebrow. “I’m lost, I think,” Cas said.

The woman smiled. “We’re all a little lost, darlin’,” she replied. “Go on.”

“The only reason I’ve made it this far is by following something I saw when I first woke up,” Cas continued. “So…I guess my question, then, is where do I follow the ashes to next?”

It started subtly enough. Fine lines moved along the surface of the cubes, beginning on one and ending on another. Faint lights emanated from within the metal, glowing in gentle hues of green and blue before giving way to deep purples and vibrant silvers.

The center cube jostled, followed by the one to its right rolling from one side to another and another. A humming sound began to build, and with a sharp snap the three cubes came together to form a short tower. Vibrant silver lines navigated the cubes’ exteriors, and upon a closer look Cas could see places where the lines vanished into the cubes.

The woman smiled once again. “The journey ahead of you will be long and not without its challenges,” she said. “And at its end, who is to say what you will find? Perhaps you will discover the truth? Or perhaps you will create your own truth.”

Cas considered this a moment. “That leaves a lot to interpretation,” she said at last, and the woman burst into laughter.

“The Oracle Cubes’ wisdom is one of databases and algorithmic predictions, darlin’,” the woman said. “But you’ll want to take those. That map should get you to where you need to be.”

Cas reached out to take the cubes. She flinched when the three cubes jostled suddenly, gradually combining and shifting until a thin, flat layer remained. Faint outlines now surrounded the original silver lines. Cas picked up the map and looked it over.

“I still don’t know where I really am,” she admitted, an edge of defeat to her voice. “Or what it is I should be doing. I’m just running from people.”

The woman produced a small satchel from in her robes, untying it with one hand while she moved her pipe into position with the other. She tamped down its contents with her thumb, a thoughtful expression the whole time. There was a soft popping sound from the pipe followed by a slow, serpentine curling of smoke. The woman inhaled, then puffed out a thin silver wisp that spiraled around her. The smoke snaked its way to, and then around, Cas before sharply changing directions and passing through the tent wall behind the woman.

Cas watched as the smoke didn’t seem to dissipate, lingering improbably.

“Speaking of running, perhaps you should resume doing so,” the woman said, her eyes darting to the back wall and then to Cas. “Right now.”

Cas became very aware of the sound of approaching footsteps. They were measured and deliberate, producing a crisp sound against the metal of the catwalks outside.

“Thank you for your help,” Cas said, leaping to her feet. She paused just before exiting. “I hope.” She pulled aside the tent’s wall and exited.

The woman’s focus, however, remained on the front of the tent. A single, glowing eye appeared in the dim light.

“Come to get your fortune told, darlin’?” the woman asked, smirking.

As Cas stepped out of the tent, her feet landed softly. Storm clouds rumbled in the distance as they drifted further away, the grass beneath Cas’ feet flattened from the rain. She glanced back to discover the tent, the catwalks, and the Betweenways were gone. Or, she considered, perhaps she had gone from that space. Pulling out the map, she tried to regain her sense of direction.

A small, blue-green dot blipped to life on the map’s surface. Cas took a step forward, and the dot mirrored her movement.

“It’s a start, I suppose,” Cas muttered to herself. “All right, then. Off I go.”

Stories ahead

It’s the start of a new week with a new month just days away, so I wanted to start something new as well. No, I’m not just talking about the EVO planner I caved and bought.

(I’m an Oracle, by the way – we’ll see how well this Oracle utilizes this planner, I guess.)

However!

In the spirit of new months and trying new things, I wanted to announce the beginnings of Fantasy Fridays and Sci-Fi Saturdays! This Friday kicks things off with the next installment of A Puzzling New World. As for Saturday? Next Friday and Saturday?

Those are surprises.

I promise they’ll be worth it, though.

And! Most amazing of all, so long as I keep with it, is there will be a regular schedule.

I’m very excited, and I hope those of you who have been kind enough to follow along (and maybe some more folks, I hope) will enjoy where these stories are going.

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.”

2020 Goals (and so on)

Prior to turning 32, a year of no particular consequence by any means, I decided my thirty-second year of life would be one of reinvention, reinvigoration, and rebirth. In short, I would rise from the ashes of 31 and the trials it entailed.

I had a post in mind for this. I stashed it neatly in my thoughts, where it waited. And waited. And then quietly packed its things before leaving. So it goes.

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