“You’re an avatar of the house,” said Amaryllis. She had her arm on Fenn’s, holding the bow down in a position where Fenn couldn’t take the shot. From the way that Fenn tried to struggle, the immobility plate was doing the bulk of the work in making sure that Fenn didn’t shoot.
“Avatar carries specific connotations,” said Tiff. “I would prefer icon.” Hearing her voice sent a chill down my spine. The cadence was the same, the tone, everything as I’d remembered it. It was jarring though; there was none of the sadness that I’d grown accustomed to from her, that undercurrent of depression, and even before that, when she’d been happy, she’d never been so … imperious. I glanced down at her ankle; there was no tattoo there. It should have been a sigil that Arthur had made for one of our longer campaigns, a stylized cross at an angle, but it was missing.
“Can I ask what everyone else is seeing?” I asked.
“Young girl, my age, improbably clean, wearing a t-shirt that says ‘Kansas Swim’,” said Amaryllis.
“Your type, I’m guessing,” said Fenn with a pronounced frown. I wasn’t sure that I had ever described Tiff to her, but maybe she had made the connection anyway, given the t-shirt.
“Magic,” said Grak. “Entad magic. No skin, bone, or blood.”
“I’m looking at four adventurers in the classic mold,” said Tiff. She raised a finger and pointed at each of us in turn. “Warder, archer, brute, and muscle. How did I do?” I was apparently the muscle, while Amaryllis was the brute.
“I’m a multi-disciplinary mage,” I said. “Among other things.”
“Mary is the manager,” said Fenn. “I’ll give you a two out of four, that’s not half bad.”
“Manager isn’t one of the archetypal roles,” said Tiff.
“I’m not a manager,” said Amaryllis.
“Well, there you go,” said Tiff. She picked up one of the shot glasses, inspected it, and then put it back down. “Are you here on business or pleasure?”
“Your shirt,” I said. “It says ‘Kansas’ on it.”
“Yes,” Tiff nodded. There was no recognition in her eyes when she looked at me. There was something off about her, aside from the fact of where she was. It wasn’t just the tattoo that she was missing, there were other details that didn’t match up with how I remembered her. Her bottom teeth had been slightly crooked, not enough to justify braces, but enough that she’d mentioned it to me once as something she didn’t like about herself. This -- apparition, for lack of a better word, wasn’t quite right on that score. I tried looking for other details, and again found the simulacrum wanting. I’d loved Tiff intensely; on the nights we’d spent together, I had made a study of her.
This wasn’t Tiff, it was just meant to look like her, for whatever reason.
“We’re here on business,” said Amaryllis. “You’ve overheard as much, I’m sure. There’s supposed to be a time chamber somewhere in Kuum Doona --”
“I don’t like that name,” said Tiff.
“My apologies,” said Amaryllis. “Is there a name you’d prefer?”
“Zona, if you please,” said the avatar of the house, wearing Tiff’s form. I recognized the name, after a few seconds of it tickling my brain. Zona had been the name of Uther Penndraig’s wife. I was guessing that the pseudonym wasn’t a coincidence. As to the connotations though, that was harder to guess. He’d left his wife to go adventuring, cheated on her, if the stories were to be believed, either with or without her blessing. Loved her, maybe. I wasn’t sure what applied, if she’d taken her name from Uther’s wife. Or maybe by some strange magic, she was Uther’s wife.
“Sorry,” I said. “That form, are you stuck in it, or can you change it?” I noticed Amaryllis beside me stiffen slightly at the question.
“Why?” asked Zona, arching an eyebrow.
“It’s,” I shook my head. “Complicated. Distracting.” Tiff, here in the flesh, wasn’t something that I needed at the moment. It was overwhelming me at a time when I was least capable of handling it.
“It bothers you?” asked Zona, raising an eyebrow. “Would you cut your hair if I said it looked stupid?”
“Uh, yes?” I asked. “I probably would.”
I didn’t understand why she looked like that. The obvious answer was Arthur, but that brought up all sorts of unpleasant thoughts. Kuum Doona had been his, five hundred years ago, and I had been hoping that I would get some insight into what had happened to him, or who he had been on Aerb, something more than the history books could tell me. But this … Tiff, as the avatar of Arthur’s home, or icon, in her words, said nothing good, and all the innocent explanations I could come up with rang hollow.
“There’s a time chamber somewhere here, isn’t there?” asked Amaryllis. “We have urgent need of it.”
“I’m not going to negotiate with you,” said Zona. She slumped in her chair and put her feet up on the table, just like Tiff used to do. “Her,” she said, pointing at Fenn. “She likes running her mouth, I think I’ll talk with her.”
“Um,” said Fenn. “Mary is, more or less, the talker.”
“Talker, manager, brute,” said Zona with a nod. She pointed a slender finger to me. “Your eyes keep going to him though. Juniper, like the tree.”
“He’s, ah,” Fenn’s eyes went to me. “My boyfriend.”
“With all due respect, the reason we need the time chamber,” began Amaryllis.
“No,” said Zona. “You,” pointing at Fenn.
“Do you need to know why we need it?” asked Fenn.
“Yes,” said Zona.
“And if I don’t tell you, you’ll … ?” Fenn trailed off.
Zona tapped the table with a finger, looking between us. “Kill you all.”
Fenn nodded at that, as though that was the answer she’d expected. “I should say that I don’t really do well with being threatened. Like, burn this fucking place to the ground, that kind of don’t do well.”
Zona laughed; it echoed in from the room’s open doors, rather than coming from her mouth. “You think people haven’t tried that?”
“If I can just --” began Amaryllis.
Lightning crackled between Zona’s fingertips, and she gave them a look of idle curiosity. An arc went between thumb and forefinger twice in quick succession, making a sound that lingered in the air. “So,” she said, “this one,” pointing to Fenn, “doesn’t take to being threatened, and this one,” she said, pointing to Amaryllis, “doesn’t take to being given direction. I’m curious to see what your other faults are, as a group.”
Amaryllis’ mouth was set in a thin line.
“Amaryllis is pregnant,” I said. “It’s important that the baby is born within the next few days. And, I guess, ideally spends a few years growing up, maybe.”
“Oh,” said Zona, frowning. It really was a remarkable resemblance, but the ways that it didn’t quite match raised a lot of questions about how it had been created. Maybe if it had been perfect, I would have just accepted it as something pulled from Arthur’s mind by a magic he couldn’t control, but I didn’t think that he would have gotten Tiff’s frown wrong. “Why?”
“The child is going to be the last druid for the last surviving locus,” I said. I looked over and saw Amaryllis biting her lip hard. Too much information too fast, I was guessing.
“What happened to the loci?” asked Zona, frowning. Her eyes stayed focused on me.
“Uh,” I said. “The Second Empire wiped them out.”
“Hum,” said Zona, “I’d always thought them kindred spirits, of a sort.”
“This child is the best chance we have at saving the last of them,” said Amaryllis, touching her stomach, which was covered in plated armor. She was laying it on too thick, but that was just my perspective, and she was a better judge of character than I was ever going to be. She removed her helmet, the better to present as non-threatening; if the house could shoot lightning indoors, which seemed to be the threat, it wasn’t like the helmet was really going to help.
“Praytell, what is a Dungeon Master?” asked Zona, shifting the conversation.
I glanced at Amaryllis. She was keeping her mouth shut. When I glanced at Fenn, she was looking at me. Grak didn’t seem to be focused that much on the conversation; he was looking at things that I couldn’t see, trying to solve some mystery of magic that remained, for the moment, invisible.
“You knew Arthur?” I asked.
Zona watched me for a moment, with Tiff’s eyes, searching. “Arthur?” she asked.
“Arthur Isaac Blum,” I said.
“No,” said Tiff, shaking her head, swishing her ponytail behind her. “He’s the Dungeon Master? And you ... think that I know him?”
I felt my heart sink. She was supposed to have the answers; the name was supposed to be a key that opened her up, the point of commonality, a secret that I shouldn’t possibly have known. It was a piece of information that I’d been saving in my back pocket for something like this, for someone who had known him intimately.
“No,” I said. “I thought that maybe … if you had known him, I would have been able to explain it better. A Dungeon Master is like a god, I guess. Like, um, Skaduwee?”
“I know my gods, thank you,” replied Tiff. No, Zona, not Tiff. It was hard to keep that straight when talking to her, listening to her voice, looking at her, it was just close enough to how she’d actually been that my mind was filling in the gaps, ignoring the places where it wasn’t right. She turned to Amaryllis. “You want to live in me.” She switched topics like she had an itinerary she was going through. Maybe she’d been listening in for long enough that she actually did have a list of the things that had caught her attention. It felt jarring though, as important topics were set to the side.
Amaryllis hesitated. “May I speak?” she asked.
Zona waved a lazy hand.
“We have need of a base of operations,” said Amaryllis. “We came here for the time chamber, and if we can leave, having used it, that will be enough that I would consider the trip well worth our time and resources. Our secondary reason was to gather the equipment that my ancestors left here for dire circumstances --”
“All of it gone,” said Zona.
Amaryllis nodded, not missing a beat, not pressing the point or asking the obvious follow-ups (gone to where? gone how?). “But our third criterion is to have somewhere that is well and truly secure from outside intrusion. This place is battle-hardened, with more in the way of capabilities than anyone seems to know, it has ancient, powerful wards, and, apparently, a governing intelligence that can manage all manner of issues that might arise, if you so choose. We haven’t gotten off to a great start, but I think that given some time to talk, we could find some common ground.”
Zona let out a puff of air. When I watched closely, I could see that she wasn’t actually breathing, which raised some questions about how she was actually making sounds. Magic, probably.
“I suppose,” said Zona. She looked at me for a moment, and it was just like Tiff used to look at me when she was trying to tease meaning out of me just by examining my face. Or maybe Zona was just giving me a look that was close enough for my addled brain to make the connection.
Zona gestured toward the shot glasses. “Here, this is the antidote.”
“Ah,” said Grak. “That’s what’s in the air. Poison.”
“Poison?” asked Fenn. “Are you shitting me?”
“You’ll be shitting yourself in about,” Zona looked down at her wrist. There was no watch there; that had been one of Tiff’s favorite jokes, looking at her bare wrist to pretend to check the time. “Twenty minutes, if you don’t drink up.”
“You can see it?” Amaryllis asked Grak.
“Yes,” said Grak. “Latent magic, infusing the water vapor. It was difficult to spot. I didn’t know what it was.”
“That ‘antidote’ might just be more poison,” said Fenn, pointing at the glasses. “I’m not the only one that gets that, right?”
Zona sighed. “I used to enjoy this,” she said.
“You enjoyed ... poisoning people?” I asked.
“Yes,” she nodded. She looked at the shot glasses. “Some I would kill on the approach, some I would let beat against the wards, some I would let inside, fool their warders into thinking that they’d pierced my defenses, and then …” She trailed off and tapped her fingers on the table.
“Rolling heads, creaking doors,” said Fenn. “Creepy laughter.”
“I apologize,” said Zona. “I gave you a half-hearted effort. If I’d been invested, one of you would probably have died while you were walking toward me. Something gruesome, maybe, or if not, then silent and unknowable, a throat slit for no apparent reason, by no apparent cause. It’s easier with bigger groups, killing one to make a point doesn’t weaken them enough that their will breaks entirely. That’s the worst, when they just spend their time here cowering and waiting for the end.”
“And that’s, ah, what you’ve been up to for the last few hundred years?” I asked. I was trying to keep the distaste from showing on my face. The bodies we’d seen in the hallways had been her handiwork, which I had already figured, but the way she put it was revolting.
“Do you find my behavior unbecoming?” asked Zona with a raised eyebrow. She looked to Fenn. “Your girlfriend was being quite the braggart about having killed hundreds of the tuung.”
“That’s -- that’s how she copes,” I said. “It’s not sport.”
“‘Sport’?” asked Zona. She frowned slightly, then turned to the shot glasses. Her finger touched the rim of one and she pushed, tipping it just to the point where the liquid inside threatened to spill onto the table. “I suppose so.” She took her finger away, and the shot glass fell back down, sloshing the liquid back and forth. “You should drink, not much time left until you start showing symptoms, and after that point, the antidote won’t undo the damage.”
I stepped forward and picked one of the glasses up, took a half-second to look at it, then downed it in a single gulp. It tasted like tonic water, with the same acidity to it, but none of the bubbles. I set the glass back down on the table, and gave Zona a nod.
“I’m fine playing guinea pig,” I said to the others.
“I don’t believe I’m familiar with the term,” said Zona. She was watching me closely.
“Oh, I’m dream-skewered,” I said. “I come from a place called Earth.”
“Juniper,” said Amaryllis. I could hear the pain in her voice. “Can we please just --”
“I’m acquainted with the phenomenon,” said Zona. She was watching me closely, and though I thought that was probably dangerous, I was also happy to capture her attention. She had answers that I desperately wanted, starting with why and how she looked like Tiff. “And yet a mage, for all that? One of many disciplines?”
“Joon, scenario?” asked Amaryllis.
“Still zero,” I answered, before turning back to Tiff. “I’m willing to talk if you are. From my understanding, we’ll have some time to kill while Amaryllis uses the time chamber. There are some things that I’m hoping you know.”
“Uther,” said Zona. The word came out leaden, tinged with a small note of hostility, though I couldn’t tell whether it was toward him or me.
“Yes, Uther,” I said. I felt Amaryllis put her hand on my elbow, warning me, but despite the muddled feeling that came with combat fatigue, mental exhaustion, the way I kept having trouble not seeing her as Tiff, and whatever else was going on, this felt like the right path to me. I hated deception, having to keep track of who was supposed to know what, phrasing things in just the right way as to deliver two different messages to two different people. It was exhausting, and prone to failure.
“Tell your friends to drink up,” said Zona.
Amaryllis was the first to step forward. She downed the antidote, if that’s what it really was, without so much as a trace of emotion or reaction. I hoped that whatever the poison was, it wouldn’t fuck up the pregnancy, and same for the antidote, which would hopefully be without side effects. Grak was next, wincing slightly at either the taste or the chance that he was being given a second poison. When I looked at Fenn, she folded her arms across her chest, then relented after a moment.
“I’m going to start making a list of complaints,” said Fenn. She strode forward and downed her shot in a single swift motion. “Just so that when we have an annual review, I can go through them one by one.”
“Annual review?” asked Grak.
“It’s an Earth thing,” said Fenn as she inspected the shot glass. I’m not sure what she was hoping to find, ‘you have been poisoned’ etched on the bottom? I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised by that; Arthur had given each of the group one of a set of glasses for Christmas, two years ago. Fenn set the glass back down without comment.
“We have annual reviews,” said Amaryllis. “I used to give them for my staff.” She turned to Zona. “We’re ready to go.”
“Only very rarely was it all poison,” said Zona as we walked down a long hallway filled with doors. We were still using the flashlights, though she didn’t seem to need them, sometimes stepping around exposed nails before I could see them. “Sometimes it was only one of the cups, sometimes it was all but one, sometimes it was a mix. On occasion, none of them were poison, or I had elected not to put any poison in the air.”
“You can choose not to?” I asked. “Meaning that you were planning on killing us?”
“It seemed so rote,” said Zona. “You spoke of inhabiting me, which no one has considered an option for centuries. I thought perhaps my time of solitude punctuated by excitement had finally come to a close.”
“That I’m the most direct living descendant of Uther Penndraig had nothing to do with it?” asked Amaryllis.
“I am not a subject of Anglecynn,” said Zona. “I do not bow to its princes or princesses.” She turned left without warning, and I followed after her, trying my best to be unafraid. I was a little bit off-balance, mentally speaking, but fear was definitely making itself known, and it was hard to wipe away the sweat on my palms because the armor didn’t really help. I wore Ropey around my waist, but he was sentient too, and had saved my life back on the Down and Out, and I didn’t want him to suffer the indignity of me wiping my sweaty hands on him.
“Whatever historical animosity there is,” began Amaryllis.
Zona whirled around, forcing me to come to a stop. “I do not like you,” she said. “Your type was always the least likeable, of those who have made this place their graves. You pretend at being in control. You assert yourself. Sometimes this behavior is a facade, put on for the purposes of morale or social dominance, and sometimes it is simply the truth of a person, but either way I don’t find it becoming.” She turned back to the direction she’d been walking, but didn’t start moving. “There is no love lost between myself and the various Penndraig lines, but I will do my best not to hold that against you, so long as you don’t pretend you hold any special sway over me.” She started walking again, again without a word of warning, and I hurried to keep up as we passed through a bedroom with a rotted four-poster and went up a spiral staircase with flagstones that had been worn down in the middle.
“You should have mentioned how she’s too pretty,” said Fenn.
“That too,” said Zona with a laugh that came from everywhere at once.
“No bullying,” said Grak as he walked up the stairs. When I looked back at him, I was momentarily shocked to see that he was missing a hand; with everything that we’d gone through, I’d managed to forget.
“If anything, that was a compliment,” said Fenn.
We came out into a large room with two heavy doors set against one wall, and a few other passageways leading off from it. My eyes were drawn to the doors though, and the pillars of sand on either side of them. Set into one pillar was an hourglass, each bulb the size of my head, and all the sand at the top, pressed up away from the neck of it as though gravity were pushing it the opposite direction.
“Oh, thank the gods,” sighed Amaryllis as she reached the top of the stairs.
“You didn’t trust me?” asked Zona.
“I worried that it wouldn’t be charged, that you would have used it, or --” Amaryllis stopped, shaking her head.
“I have never wanted for time,” said Zona, deadpan. She stepped forward and touched the upper bulb, caressing the glass. “That aside, it has no effect on me, as I contain it. Things inside, when it’s running, move too fast for me to follow.” She gave the glass a tap with her finger. “Two hundred years stored up, ready for use.” She looked at us. “With conditions.”
Fenn swore under her breath.
“What conditions?” I asked, after Amaryllis had no response.
“I will be taking a full survey of your entads, including those within the glove,” said Zona. “From them, I will select three for myself, with some consideration to their utility and sentimental value to you.”
“Many of them are tied to our bloodlines,” said Amaryllis.
“I am aware,” replied Zona. She gestured at Amaryllis’ armor. “The Still Plate was commonly worn by Uther, during his time exploring the Boundless Pit. Is its value to you sentimental or practical? Mostly the latter, I would expect, given how you used it during your climb down to me.”
“It’s seen me through many trials,” said Amaryllis. She glanced at the rest of us, briefly taking stock of the entads that we had available to us, and which we might be able to afford losing, then back to Zona. “Such a survey would need to wait until after the most urgent of our business was concluded, and any negotiations as to which entads we’d gift you would get my full attention then.”
“Mary, come on, this is blackmail,” said Fenn. “You can’t honestly be thinking of bowing down.”
“As I see it, a gift is only fair,” said Amaryllis. “We’re speaking about a sentient creature making accommodations for us, allowing us to use its resources, and entering into partnership.” I couldn’t tell whether Fenn was serving as a devil’s advocate here, and the two of them were playing both sides, or whether Amaryllis was just making the best of Fenn’s objection. It did seem like Amaryllis was displaying a soft streak, and had been since Zona had made herself known. I had no real idea how much of that was an act.
“You call it a gift,” said Zona. “Curious, as that was not the word I used.”
“It’s reciprocity,” said Amaryllis. “But we need to use the time chamber first, and once the child has been born, at least one of us will need to leave and make our way back to the locus. The survey can take place in the interim, while the most pressing business with the locus is concluded. Obviously two or three of us staying here would allay any concerns you might have about us leaving without giving you your due.”
Zona frowned, then nodded slightly. “You’re too crafty by half.”
“And yet still less crafty than the world seems to demand of me,” replied Amaryllis.
Zona stepped over to the twin doors that led the way to the time chamber and opened them up. The interior was smaller than I thought; where I had pictured something like a gymnasium, this was more like a living room, and a somewhat small one at that, not much more than twenty feet by twenty feet across. It was curiously nondescript, and in much better repair than the other parts of Kuum Doona, with white walls, a white ceiling, and hardwood floors. Taken by itself, you might have been able to mistake it for being a room somewhere in middle America.
“I should give you warning: nine months spent in this small space will be a form of torture,” said Zona. “And of course, I presume that you’ve brought your own sources of food, water, air, and waste elimination, as well as ways of providing for your personal hygiene.”
“We have,” said Amaryllis. She was staring at the space, the small chamber where she’d be spending a significant fraction of her life. We hadn’t really had a discussion about who would be in there with us; I’d been assuming that we would all be in there together, but I’d also been thinking that the time chamber would be larger. “Time to cycle up and down?” asked Amaryllis.
“Five minutes and ten minutes, respectively,” said Zona.
“And the maximum rate it can attain?” asked Amaryllis, still looking at the chamber.
“One day every minute,” said Zona.
“Alright,” said Amaryllis. “That’s five hours for the pregnancy then. Weekly check-ins would add on another ten hours, approximately, and I’m not sure how much utility they would provide us. We’ll do them ad hoc then, or monthly, which ever comes first, that means two hours of cycling up and down, plus perhaps another hour if I need more assistance than I expect.”
“Hold the phone,” said Fenn. “Were you planning on being in there all alone?”
“Fenn, I’ve lived with you for long enough to know that I would literally kill you if I had to spend more than a week stuck in a small room with you,” said Amaryllis.
“You could try to kill me,” said Fenn. “I mean, the image of a pregnant woman attempting to waddle over and put a knife in my guts is pretty funny.”
“I have some experience as a midwife,” said Grak. “I would like to be in with you for the final two months. For the final month only, if you anticipate that I would grate on you.”
“You were a midwife?” asked Fenn. “But like, for dwarves, right?”
“One of my duties was attending births,” said Grak. “I participated in more than one hundred. I was not a midwife myself, only an assistant.”
“But … for dwarves, right?” I asked. “Anatomically …” I trailed off, because I didn’t know enough about dwarves to dispute it (and frankly, I was also pretty out of my depth when it came to human women).
“Do dwarves not lay eggs?” asked Fenn. “I could have sworn I read that somewhere.”
“We do not,” said Grak. “The primary role of the midwife is support. I can provide that in spite of anatomical differences.”
“For the last two months,” said Amaryllis. “You can be sure that I’ll do some reading on the subject, and provide relevant literature to Grak so that we can cover our bases.”
“Literature?” asked Zona.
“It means books,” replied Fenn.
Zona laughed, a booming laugh that echoed from all parts of the house. “I meant to express incredulity at the four of you figuring out the birthing process from books alone.”
“Fenn, I’m going to need the glove,” said Amaryllis.
Fenn sighed and slipped off Sable, then rested it reverently on Amaryllis out-stretched hand. “You know, it’s my glove, we agreed to that way back when. Seems kind of unfair for you to take it for nine months.”
“I’m sure that somehow you’ll manage to survive,” replied Amaryllis.
She strode forward, into the chamber, seemingly unconcerned about her fate. Maybe she was happy to have some time to herself; I knew that her Grand Scheme for Modernizing Aerb would take shape in the time she spent in there, maybe even in another forty-five minutes, when a subjective month had passed for her.
As she turned to close the doors, she gave us one last look. “See you in a month,” she said.
And then she closed the doors, sealing herself off from us.