“You must choose the fate of all here,” the specter instructed, causing several of those present to stiffen in alarm. “Decide now whether you will go forward, or go back.”
“None of us have come all this way to turn tail at the first warning,” Lord Rhadid retorted.
“First warning?” Eric muttered incredulously.
“Retreat now, and you will not be expelled from the Manor,” said the specter. “The master’s house remains open to guests. Go back the way you came, choose a different path, and you may continue to explore these halls at your leisure. In the end, perhaps you will again come to the threshold of the innermost sanctum.”
Rhadid’s eyebrows lowered infinitesimally. “Perhaps?”
“Should you choose to go forward,” the guardian continued, “the way shall be opened for you, but know that you shall hold in your hand the destiny of the Manor itself, and all who are within.”
“This…ain’t the normal run o’ adventures in here, aye?” Billie said warily.
“Indeed, this is entirely without precedent,” Eric agreed. “If I may ask, what is it that makes the difference? Surely such a choice has never been placed before another visitor before.”
“These are interesting times. An unusual confluence of visitors has come to the master’s house: old friends, valued guests, would-be threats, agents of powers great and small. In their words and thoughts the master has seen portents of great things changing in the world beyond, things he deems it unwise to ignore.”
“I say,” Admestus breathed, “does that mean the old wizard himself is still—”
“Mr. Rafe,” Eric interrupted urgently, “whatever Manor Dire’s governing intelligence, it has never appreciated prying inquiries into its nature or business!”
“Curiosity is understandable, Admestus, but do please refrain from insulting our host, however indirectly,” Rhadid concurred, then turned back to the phantasmal figure. He hesitated, studying it; the specter wore robes of a style long associated with the wizards of old, and when it hadn’t shifted to resemble a skeleton or amorphous blur, clearly possessed an equally archetypal long beard. Right on the heels of Eric’s warning, though, would clearly have been a bad time to ask if they had the pleasure of addressing Archmage Diristaan himself, so the aristocrat shifted focus. “It is a heavy choice you lay before us, sir. I understand and respect the need to respond to changing events, but if I might ask, what have we done to earn this honor?”
“A suitable one has come,” the apparition said in its sepulchral voice. “The master has noted, among his visitors, a scion of long association with this house. One who has foreseen a great need, and come here of his own initiative to take action against the advance of fate. It is to this one among you that the question is direction—at this one’s feet is the choice laid. Know that if you press forward, it will be toward the end of this era. All wanderers in this house shall be called together, in competition to determine who shall have custody of this house’s future. Nor will the master yield easily to any passerby. If you choose the confrontation, you will be tested sorely, by every artifice of the Manor and against the ambitions of all who have come here.”
Rhadid half-turned to nod at Billie. “As we have previously established, Ms. Fallowstone, I have no ambition to take control of Manor Dire. I would, however, consider it a fair arrangement indeed to assist the Manor’s future custodians in earning that prerogative, so long as I was permitted to indulge my own smaller, very specific purpose here.”
“I’m beggin’ ya, just call me Billie,” she said with a sigh. “Can’t bloody stand havin’ that whole mouthful thrown around…”
“My apologies, Billie. I’ll make a note of it.”
She turned to her fellow gnomes. “What’d’ye think, lass an’ lads? This ‘ere’s pretty close to everything we coulda ‘oped, but I’m gettin’ a ‘too good t’be true’ vibe off the whole business.”
“A mite sudden, innit?” Sassafrass agreed. “Nothin’ makes me ears prickle like mysterious powers showin’ up ta offer me ‘eart’s desire outta the blue.”
“No reward without risk,” Woodsworth grunted. “You ain’t killed us yet, Billie, I’ll back yer call here.”
“It’s dicey, aye,” added Steinway. “Takin’ all the factors I can see, the deal appears worthwhile t’me.”
“Here’s our pitch,” Billie said, turning back to Rhadid. “Me kin an’ I mean ta preserve Manor Dire as it is, prickly spirit guardians an’ all. All we want is t’be able ta keep visitin’, explorin’ the dangers and earnin’ whatever reward the ‘ouse deems fair, an’ not ‘ave ta worry about the Empire or anybody else tellin’ us we can’t.”
“That would be a wonderful idea,” Eric said fervently. “My lord, this may be the last chance, ever, to preserve this historical treasure in something like its original state! If the gnomes—”
“You needn’t convince me, Professor,” said Lord Rhadid. “It appears to me that our purposes coincide rather neatly, Billie. If you are amenable to formalizing the agreement we previously discussed?” He bent his knees, reaching down to offer her a hand.
“The scion must make the choice,” the spectral custodian said patiently.
“Well, seems like all our ducks are in a row!” Admestus pushed forward, planting his fists on his hips and raising his chin. “Very well, spooky manservant! I, Rafe, do hereby choose: we press forward! Onward to glory!”
“Rafe,” Rhadid said in a tone of strained patience, in the act of shaking Billie’s hand, “this is not the time. My apologies, guardian. My alchemist is quite brilliant, but rather excessively eccentric. I choose to embrace the risk, with complete confidence in my allies and my skills. We shall earn your master’s favor, never fear.”
“The choice is made,” the specter agreed, already beginning to fade from view. “If you have chosen ill, may you not live to regret it.”
“Is it just me or was that a lot more ominous than it needed to be?” Admestus asked. The ghost was fully gone before he finished speaking.
“Eh, spirit guardians in ancient an’ terribly haunted places,” Billie said lightly, waving one hand in a dismissive gesture. “There’s a certain etiquette to it all, aye? Rythms an’ formalities t’be observed. Y’get used to it.”
“So, ah…” Eric looked around, then shrugged. “To exactly what forward are we meant to go? This still appears to be something of a dead—oh, there it is.”
Among the floating bits of detritus in the astral void before them were several fragments of a staircase; these now ceased their aimless twirling and drifted closer together, a few matching chunks manifesting out of the ether among them, to form the patchy remnants of a way forward. It was no more a full set of stairs than a skeleton was a person, but looked theoretically climbable by someone willing to hop several wide gaps over an infinite abyss, and not think too much about what was holding the remaining steps up. They continued to bob subtly as if floating in water.
“Well, that looks a right frolic an’ no mistake,” Billie said cheerfully. “Off we go, then, lads!”
“Hadn’t you better—augh!” Eric broke off and covered his eyes as the gnome got a running start and launched herself bodily into space.
“Aw, were you that worried about li’l ol’ me?” Billie cooed at him from the nearest chunk of steps, which had wobbled slightly at her landing but not fallen or drifted out of place. “Yer sweet, fer a dwarf. Looks solid enough, lads! Shall we?”
“Quite, there is clearly no profit in lingering here,” said Rhadid, nimbly hopping up beside her, whereupon the gnome gathered herself to spring to the next (and smaller) bit of architecture. “Take it steadily and don’t rush, everyone.”
Eric swallowed so loudly they could all hear it. “Oh, my giddy aunt… I suppose this is an awkward time to reveal that I’m not at my best with heights.”
“Nobody who’s ever talked with a dwarf before is surprised,” said Steinway.
“Also,” Admestus added innocently, “Does it really count as heights if there’s no bottom?”
Eric groaned and covered his eyes again.
“Admestus, you are wearing on my patience,” Rhadid stated. “That I can forgive, but refrain from making this any harder for your fellows. All right, let’s take it one step at a time. Remember, haste leads to mistakes. We can afford to—”
The groaning of masonry made him cut off, a sound very reminiscent of their earliest mishaps in the lower halls after Tamara had attacked the undead servant. It was clearly coming from the hall behind them rather than the precarious bits of stair they had to climb, which was slightly reassuring for about two seconds. Then, with a tremendous crunch, the most distant patch of corridor visible to them collapsed into fragments of wood and masonry and tumbled away, to reveal another dizzying void behind it where the ballroom should have been.
They wasted a moment gaping back at this before another explosive dissolution of the architecture occurred, shortening the hallway still further. Now what had previously seemed like a solid stretch of corridor terminating in the void was clearly just hanging in it, unsupported, and now the abyss at its other end was drawing steadily closer, one yard of collapsing floor at a time.
“Never mind,” Rhadid said quickly. “Make haste and try not to fall. Let’s clear some room for them, Billie.”
“Way ahead of ya,” she said, which was the literal truth; the gnome was already three fragments of staircase forward from him. Her companions bounded nimbly onto the lowest piece the moment Rhadid cleared it.
“Here, drink this,” Admestus ordered, pressing a vial of what appeared to be swirling clouds into Eric’s hands and momentarily distracting the dwarf from his panicked muttering.
“What in blazes—”
“Featherweight potion,” the alchemist explained. “No offense, but you don’t look too awfully nimble in a hopping-across-the-sky sense. Come on, down the hatch! Time’s a-wasting, and so’s the floor.”
Eric squeezed his eyes shut again, but plucked the stopper and threw the entire contents of the vial down his throat in one gulp.
“That’s the spirit!” Admestus cheered. “C’mon, now, you can do it!”
Leaping onto the floating fragments of masonry was very much like hopping onto an anchored buoy; they shifted and bobbed with the impact but did not move far enough out of place to risk throwing them off. Eric was indeed able to leap farther than his stubby legs and significant weight ordinarily allowed, though he fumbled the first landing, unfamiliar with his newfound lightness. He ended up face-first on the stairs, clutching them with both hands.
Admestus had consigned himself to the rear to encourage Eric forward, but at that leaped up right on top of him, and not a moment too soon; the last pieces of hallway on which they had been standing collapsed into the void right behind him. Now the entire group was stretched across several hovering fragments of wood and stone, surrounded by a gaping abyss of stars in all directions.
“Oy, you all right back there?” Billie called from up ahead. “I don’t recommend dithering! Best we keep a move on ‘fore the house decides t’give us another little poke in the bum!”
“We’re fine,” Admestus called back, waving. “Just a minor case of…dwarf. Come on, ol’ boy, I realize you’re out of your element but she’s right. No time to rest on our laurels.”
“I am quite certain no one here has received anything that could be described as a ‘laurel,’” Eric groaned, but he had already clambered unsteadily back to his feet and gathered himself for the next leap.
He impeded their pace significantly; the rest of the group consisted of gnomes, a half-elf, and a human in the prime of physical fitness, and as such were able to ascend the shattered stairs with good speed. A dwarf, even one dosed with featherweight potion, was simply not built for jumping and climbing. The group grew more stretched out, with Rhadid quickly reaching the front as he was the least inclined to wait, but even the nobleman did not press enough to leave Eric behind entirely. Admestus remained at the back to monitor his progress, and the gnomes shouted encouragement—and, in Billie’s case, threw a rope. Slow as the going was, it seemed that the Manor (or whatever term described this endless nothingness through which they now climbed) wasn’t inclined to nip at their heels as long as they kept moving.
“Any insight where this infernal climb is leading?” Eric asked plaintively, clutching a handy fragment of banister to steady himself while the stairs beneath him ceased rocking from his leap.
“Let’s see…” Admestus leaned past him to peer at the group ahead. “Uh, the short answer is ‘up.’”
“I was afraid of that.”
“House is keepin’ us in suspense,” Sassafrass said from the island just above and ahead of them. “She does that. I reckon our next steps’ll come to us in due time, pardon the pun.”
At that moment, a passing wooden door suddenly opened, revealing a cluster of Imperial soldiers herded together in it. Since the door was tilted at about a forty-five degree angle relative to the group on the stairs, the sight was somewhat disorienting, and not just for them.
“What in Omnu’s name is going on here?!” barked the lieutenant who had gotten short with them previously. Her eyes fell on Rhadid and narrowed to slits. “This is your doing.”
“I don’t know how you could possibly assume that, Lieutenant,” he replied across the emptiness with impressive calm.
“Happens to be true, though, isn’t it?” Admestus called.
“Coincidentally, yes, but there is no realistic way she could know it.”
“What the hell did you do?” shouted another of the soldiers. “The whole house is collapsing! Where in fuck’s name are we?”
“I’ve got half a mind to place the lot of you under arrest!” the lieutenant snarled.
“Oh?” Rhadid mockingly raised an eyebrow. “And how, in your mind, would that scenario play out?”
More pieces of floating architecture had been moving while they argued, and by that point a general shape had begun to form. Half a hallway had appeared in segments, jagged fragments of floorboard attached to sections of wall. It would make for a narrow, wall-hugging crossing with several gaps to jump, complicated by the fact that the broken corridor wound slightly back and forth where its pieces were separated, but it would be very doable in single-file. Disconcertingly, it arced upward at an angle that had it meet the same spot as the newly-formed top of their staircase, which put the two groups on a course to meet at one point with gravity orienting them in two different directions.
In fact, the lieutenant took the initiative in hopping from the floating doorway to the nearest piece of hall, which conveniently began with a wide spot to make landing easier, complete with an upright segment of wall against which she steadied herself before moving forward to make room for her troops. Both she and Rhadid had turned their attention to the place ahead of and above them where the fragmented stairs and broken corridor intersected.
Their destination was assembling itself right before their eyes. Pieces of wood had drifted into union like some crazy jigsaw puzzle to form a jagged but fairly regular area several yards square. More chunks of masonry were floating toward it, coalescing into a decorative stone edifice in the center of the floor. At the same time, visible to them due to the weird angle at which it intersected both their access routes, a stretch of wall folded up at the rear edge of the platform, with a heavy oaken door set in the middle of it.
The last bits of stone slotted into place, forming, of all things, a large decorative fountain. More confusingly still, as soon as it was complete it began to spray water, its basin rapidly filled by the playful streams it shot upward.
And then, from around the frame of the door behind it, a golden glow rose.
“Hey, guys!” Admestus called, pointing. “Nobody quote me on this, but I think that’s where we’re going!”
The last of the Imperial soldiers had landed on their access hall, and now they turned to stare across the yawning gap at the gnomes and remainder of Rhadid’s group strewn along the staircase.
The lieutenant ran a hand unconsciously along her battlestaff and shifted it halfway toward a firing position.
“Don’t even think about it!” Billie ordered, pointing at her. “And don’t you think about it either!” she added, turning her accusing finger on Rhadid, who had unholstered his wand.
“May I remind you, Billie,” he said patiently without taking his eyes off the soldiers, “that this group is very specifically in competition with you?”
“Aye, an’ I’m not a hundred percent averse ta shootin’ somebody into an infinite void o’ stars, but fer th’record I don’t consider ‘bein’ in competition’ a good enough reason, clear?”
“What the hell is all this about competition?” the officer demanded. “What did you do?!”
“For pity’s sake!” Eric bellowed. “There’s plenty of room! Can we all agree to discuss this after we reach something passing for solid ground?”
“The dwarf’s right, LT,” a man wearing a sergeant’s insignia added. “This is nuts enough without having a firefight on top of it.”
She let out her breath in an angry hiss through her teeth, but returned her gaze to Rhadid. “Fine. A truce?”
“Truce implies that we were on violent terms, Lieutenant,” he replied. “Unless you were planning some manner of unlawful assault, I see no reason we need to clarify that point.” With that, he turned and resumed climbing the fragmentary staircase, somewhat faster than before. The officer gritted her teeth, but set off along her own pathway without another word.
Both Rhadid and the lieutenant set an almost unwisely quick pace for the remainder of the trip to the platform. Their slightly bending corridor was an easier trek by far, but the group on the stairs had a significant head start. The more it looked like the two groups were going to reach their destination at about the same time, the faster each of them pushed their pace, until even the soldiers had stopped bothering trying to keep up. The nobleman and the officer arrived alongside the fountain within seconds of each other, whereupon she glared furiously at him with her weapon in hand and he ignored her, turning back to watch the rest of his party members catch up over the next few minutes.
Eric only wasn’t the last to arrive because Admestus kept at the back with him to make sure he didn’t fall, aided by a lifeline Billie had thrown them and some of his own alchemical work. Several of the gaps, including the last one, were enough to make the dwarf balk at jumping, featherweight potion or no. At these, Admestus tipped a solution from a jar he produced from his belt of holding into midair, where it formed into cute little puffy clouds which were not only solid, but squeaked disarmingly when stepped upon. Eric did not seem to find this as amusing as the half-elf did.
He picked up the pace, though, when the lower end of the staircase began to fall apart behind them.
And then they were all there at the fountain, eyes locked and with far too many weapons in hand.
“Explain,” the lieutenant grated. “Now.”
“Since it seems we are going to be traveling together,” Rhadid said politely, “perhaps a belated introduction—”
“I have had enough of your bullshit!” she barked, raising her staff to point right at his face from far too close at hand. “You know what’s going on here, and you’ve as much as admitted you did it. You either give me a solid explanation or I give you a dose of voltage!”
“Do you really think that would hold up at your court martial?” he asked in a mild tone.
“Oh, fer fuck’s sake, ye great knob, don’t goad somebody holdin’ a weapon on ye!” Billie exclaimed. “What is it with nobles an’ havin’ ta be th’big man in charge all the time?”
“That’s pretty much exactly what it is with nobles,” one of the soldiers said in a much more equable tone than his commanding officer’s. “That’s all they are, from top to bottom.”
“This isn’t Lord Rhadid’s fault,” Eric said, a little breathlessly. He had stumbled forward as far from the edge as he could get, to lean on the side of the fountain, but now straightened up and directed himself toward the soldiers. “We found ourselves in a position to…well, I think we created a sort of tipping point, but this is the Manor’s doing. Or Diristaan’s, maybe, it was rather vague. A spectral servant of the house told us the Manor doesn’t like what it’s been seeing of the outside world that visitors have brought here, and has decided to make a change.”
“What kind of change?” the lieutenant asked, her eyes still narrowed. She did, at least, shift her staff to point away from Rhadid.
“It was my impression that the house will make that determination based upon the outcome of whatever happens here,” Rhadid replied.
“Yeah, you mentioned a competition.”
“Basically,” said Billie, “it looks like Manor Dire’s decided to pick a side. Y’know, like your people an’ mine ‘ave been tryin’ ta get it to do fer years now, with no result.”
“Hnh,” she grunted. “Seems like I’d be better off having my men just shoot you all, then.”
“If that were the case, d’ye think I’d’ve stopped ‘is Lordship from zappin’ you one?” the gnome retorted, raising an eyebrow. “C’mon, lady, you ain’t been killed yet; that means you know how this house thinks. It’s never gonna be about brawls t’the death. Ye win the game based on ‘ow ye play it.”
“Intriguing,” Rhadid mused. “Yes, you do have a point, the Manor does seem to rather disapprove of needless violence, does it not? At least, that which it does not cause. Whatever test lies ahead, it is likely to demand careful patience rather than brute force. Imagine, a contest one wins not by eliminating one’s competitors, but by refusing to do so.”
She finally straightened up her battlestaff, resting its butt against the floor. “Then it follows the house’s whole gambit will be trying to set us against each other, and see who cracks first.”
“So,” said Billie, “we win this thing by all agreein’ up front not to go at each other like stray cats in a sack an’ whoever best sticks t’that gets the prize, aye?”
“I feel I should perhaps restate, for the sake of our new arrivals,” Rhadid added, “that my companions and I are not after the prize in question. We only wish to make a brief use of the alchemy laboratory.”
“What makes you think you’ll even get to see that?” the soldier demanded.
“The servant did indicate that this…uh, rather unsettling path was leading us to the innermost sanctum,” Eric offered. “The library, enchanting and alchemy labs, Diristaan’s personal ritual chamber… You know, the ultimate goal of many who have come to this Manor over the years. I had the impression his intention was to push all of us together at that spot to…see what unfolded.”
“Aye, point of order about that,” Billie chimed in. “Didn’t you say y’met Arachne Tellwyrn in here?”
One of the soldiers cursed.
“The servant did say he was gathering everyone,” Rhadid agreed, slowly panning his gaze around at the nothingness beyond their platform. Their approach paths had drifted away, leaving them no avenue of escape save the still-glowing door. “I don’t see her here, however. She may have already left the grounds; a person like this isn’t likely to be constrained by the designs of others.”
The lieutenant drew in a deep breath, then at last nodded curtly. “Roscoe. Lt. Jane Roscoe of her Majesty’s 8th Corps.”
“A pleasure,” Rhadid said courteously. “Well! Shall we proceed, then?”
“We’ll scout through ahead of you,” Roscoe said, taking a step toward the door.
“Now hold on just a second!” Billie said imperiously. “Who said you get t’go first?”
“Perhaps I ought to take the vanguard,” Rhadid offered in a mild tone. “As the neutral party, here. You can each earn credit toward the house’s favor by not shooting me in the back.”
“Hey, yeah!” Admestus added brightly. “The way this’s all panned out, it seems like us and our noble are sorta the arbiters of this here contest! In fact, correct me if I’m wrong, guys, but didn’t the ghostly boy pretty specifically say that?”
The silence which fell was both tense and grim, which did not diminish his beaming smile in the slightest.
“Upon consideration,” Roscoe said tightly, “I think your Lordship is correct. After you.”
Rhadid gave her a smile which was only subtly mocking and, with no further ado, stepped forward and opened the door onto a blaze of light.