“We think this was originally built by gnomes,” Grelda told us, as we made our way along the platform. A dizzying span over the spire-ridden darkness was bridged by a wide wooden gangplank. Ghostly bluish-white lights flickered behind distant windows, from doorways. She further explained that it was not precisely wood that we walked upon, but specially treated planks and timbers of giant mushrooms that grew wild in the further reaches of the cavern.
“Like the forests in the surface lands,” she said. “Why, the caps would surely reach to the bottoms of these platforms, some even higher.” She paused, pointing with her walking stick. “That hut there, the entire roof is a treated mushroom cap.”
“It’s like in the fairy stories,” Sera said. “There are legends in my lands o the littlest folk, who lived in homes made of mushrooms, in the dark and secret places in the woods. When something went missing, it was said to be their work.”
“And here we are, walking amidst a fairy story of our own,” Demarra said with a chuckle. She began ticking off on her fingers. “Two princesses, evil witches and warlocks. Perhaps the kiss of a prince will release our princesses from their spell sooner?”
“Don’t look at me,” Varis said. “I’m about as far from nobility as a man can get.”
“The mood and lighting is all wrong,” Gilliam said.
“Why am I not surprised that you don’t even bat an eye when it comes to kissing the helpless?” Ana said.
Gilliam shrugged. “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”
The cleric’s blush looked somewhat purplish, in the oddly flickering ghostlight carried by the halfling girl ahead of us.
* * * * *
The kitchens and main hall sat off to one side, well away from the rest of the lofted settlement. A dozen barrels lined one wall of the kitchens, each joined to another by a network of brass piping, which snaked along another wall and emptied into one of several stone basins. Several wide nozzles hung from the room’s low ceiling, directly above the stone hearths and dark metal ovens.
“That’s gnomish, all right,” Gilliam said, batting at one of the pull-chains dangling from the nozzles. A fine line of bluish light swung back and forth against the far wall.
It struck me, then, what was different about the lamp’s light. Where our shadows should have danced on the walls, they gave off the flickering blueish light… A sort of… reverse shadow. Holding my hand up to one of the sides of the lantern, I saw the fluttering, glowing imprint paint the wall behind me. The flame gave off no heat, but felt like the cool air of an autumn’s night. I gave a shiver, and felt a tremor of alarm through the bracelet.
The girl Lylian added tinder and wood the hearthfire, coaxing the coals back to life below a kettle nearly as tall as she was. I noticed that she had to add more than the usual amount of fuel, even as hungrily as the flames licked at the treated wood, and the warmth did seem to reach much further than the edges of the hearth stones.
Grelda met my eyes, and we held each other’s gaze for a long moment. There was steel, there, and I wondered, briefly, if I could summon enough druidic flame to counter the effect of the shadowlight. She masked her power quite effectively, though, and I had no wish to begin a contest I would not be able to win. I gave her the smallest of nods as I took a seat along one of the benches. She turned, and fetched several clay bowls from a high shelf.
“Thorn?” Sera asked. It felt as if she set a hand on my shoulder, though her hands were clasped in her lap.
I shook my head, and began to wonder if we wouldn’t have been better off brought before the dwarves’ Karrnath in chains.
* * * * *
Ana was able to lift the twins’ paralysis with a few murmured prayers, and they moved as close to the fire as they could get. I moved over to join them, welcoming the natural warmth of the cook fire.
A flickering reddish image of a cube floated in the air above one of the stones on Aurora’s bracer, strange runes in brilliant orange dancing on each face. She tapped at one or another, turning the cube with a swipe of a finger, frowning at some of what she was reading there.
“I have seen some of this script in the Vault of the Ancients,” I said to her.
She edged away from me. “Not too close. I am still contaminated. Look.” She pointed to one of the faces of the cube, which showed three wavy lines across the bottom.
I shook my head. “I saw the runes, I did not say I could read any of them.”
Silva leaned over my shoulder. “Betron-Z,” she said, tracing the middle line. “Higher than 10,000 parts per million.” She pointed to the top line. “Gamron particle output, 50,000 units per tic.” She frowned at her sister. “It still has too much hot.”
“And where do you propose we find a nitrate pool, sister mine? I will be fine. The stones are repairing the tissue damage.”
Silva gave the glowing cube a spin, and pointed to another pictograph of more wavy lines, these angling downward, where the others had all been climbing.
“Core thermal shielding at 29 percent.”
“I am fine!” the shrike insisted.
“You burn too brightly. Do not change again.”
“You were in danger,” Aurora hissed. “It is my sworn duty to—“
“Do not change again,” Silva repeated, her voice colder than the blackflames flickering across the room. “As your Imperial Princess, I do so order it.” Her posture relaxed. “And I ask it of you as your sister. If you burn out, what am I to do?”
“There are still plenty more of us,” Aurora said. “We are expendable. Replaceable.”
“You are not—“
“Look!” Aurora said. Her fingers fluttered, and the reddish cube folded in upon itself, revealing another set of displays, runics writing themselves across the different faces.
Silva frowned, her eyes darting back and forth as she read all six panes at once. “It is correct?”
“My core thermal dampers are damaged, not my sensory arrays,” Aurora sniffed.
The cube’s information looked like so many squiggles, lines and swirls to me, even the line that Silva pointed to on the top panel, rotating it so I could see.
“Pheton particles and Kezron fumes at a thousand times trace amounts,” she read.
I had no idea what either of those things were, and could only shrug.
“Those are both indicators that a Well of Souls is active in the vicinity,” Aurora said, slowly.
“As it was in Urzud again,” Silva said.