Three blog posts in a day. A record for me. Anyway, crawled my way to 6000 before midnight. Still behind, but not more behind.
Mother preserve us. It wasn't bad as I had feared. It was worse. Worser. I don't even know where we are anymore. Poor, poor Hamund.
I'm in the tower again. It's dark outside and the wind is howling. The walls are shaking from the force of the wind and I can feel the floor shifting underfoot.
What happened? For one thing, Wensel was right about the Queen's ambition.
But I'll try to set it down in order.
The day started normally enough. Everyone was busy scurrying to and fro in aid of the Queen's festivities. Everyone except Wensel. He muttered something about last minute checks, and buried himself in the lower chambers. That's the lower chambers kept under lock and key, the haunted heart of the Ark, where no one ever goes. THOSE lower chambers. First he had me bring him the six jarred heads. After that, he had me running up and down playing fetch for him and checking the angle of the shadows in the courtyard, the temperature of the water from the endless fountain, the direction of the wind, and a dozen other measurements useless to any sane person.
But he's not a sane person. He's a wizard and an alchemist. Did I mention that? Yeah.
Whatever he was up to (with six pickled heads for company!), he didn't deign to share with me. I tried asking him once, but he poked his damn walking stick in my chest and told me to mind my own.
Maybe he felt sorry for it later, because half an hour before the Queen's ball, he came up to meet me in the tower's foyer, a bundle of cloth folded over his elbow.
"Here, Addy," he says. "I've been working you too hard. You deserve a bit of fun. Why don't you go to the ball tonight?"
My mouth drops open.
Wensel holds up a hand. "You have nothing to wear, I know. That's why I brought you these!"
He gestures like a magician, then unfolds the cloth into a sleek black and silver dress, with matching stockings, shoes, hairband, and plain white half-mask. He arranges it all on a wooden chair. "Now get yourself cleaned up. There's a small spell on the mask. So you don't frighten the natives."
I blink. My fingers are already brushing against the dress. It feels like real silk. "Oh. Wow."
Then I gingerly turn the mask over. The back is inscribed with lines of tiny black runes. I can only make out about half of them. Something about faces and harmony.
"It should last you the night. Have fun! See you later!" Wensel picks up his stick again and tip-taps his way back down the stairs. His voice drifts up to me, "'Thank you, sir.' 'Oh, my pleasure, my dear.' Don't just stand there gaping!"
I'm not gaping! I'm just trying to decide if the dress is me or not, and whether I know how to dance (not as far as I know), when I hear a hesitant knock on the door.
I open it to find the Queen's pasty-faced maid servant. "Hello, Caith."
"Um. Hello." She peers around me. "I bear a message from my lady to Wensel. Is he here?"
"He's downstairs." I move aside to let her in. I see her eyes move to the dress, a questioning look on her face. "What!"
She jerks her gaze away and gulps. It's rare that we ever venture into the other's domain, and I know Wensel makes her nervous. She wavers at the top of the stairs. "Sorry. He's in his lab?"
"In the lower chambers," I say. "The lower lower chambers."
Caith turns even paler. "Oh."
"What's the matter? You're not scared of a few haunts, are you?"
"No, of course not." But she doesn't move. She clutches her hands together. Probably praying to her pasty-faced foreign gods. What a goose.
Then I take pity on her. "Come on. I'll go with you."
I slip past her and start down the stairs. I can hear her following me a few seconds later.
The Ark grows colder the deeper you go. It's an unnatural chill, sucking the warmth from your blood. Past Wensel's lab and the lower storage rooms, the spiral tunnel extends farther than seems possible from the outside. Sound can't penetrate its darkness. A scream from down here can't be heard three paces away.
The truth is, the haunts down here /are/ terrifying. Each and every one of them died a violent death. And we of the Ark are responsible. These aren't the ghosts of people, but of monsters filled with hatred and anger for every living thing. Death hasn't changed their malignant temperaments. At least no new ones have been created in the past year, not since the Curse was broken.
But they seem stirred up tonight. Even the air feels stiff and hostile in my lungs. It's an effort to remember to breathe. I wait for Caith to catch up, then take her hand. It feels clammy against my skin, and she seems to be shivering. She whispers, "They want us to die..."
"Don't listen," I advise her. Then I conjure a psychic shield around us both. The pressure of the ghostly voices eases. The air clears and I can hear properly again. "Just a bit further."
One more door, propped open by one of Wensel's books, and we find the alchemist himself in the hemispherical black chamber at the heart of the Ark, the place he calls the "Change Engine." Wensel has five fat candles lit around him, lines chalked between to form a pentagram. He sits in the center with a sheaf of papers and the six jars arranged in a triangle in front of him.
I bang on the door. "Wensel? Sir? The Queen's sent Caith with a message."
Wensel scrambles around to face us. He growls, "What? Now?"
Caith edges forward. She bows, made awkward by sheer terror. "Yes, sorry, Master Wensel, but she says...she wants to know...that is..."
"Swallow it or spit it out, girl!"
Caith swallows visibly. "My lady says that this is the night, as agreed, and inquires into your readiness."
"Of course I'm ready, you little idiot. I'm not down here for my health, you know!" Wensel makes a shooing gesture with his hand. "Away with you!"
Caith manages another bow. Then she takes Wensel at his word and sprints back up the tunnel, the dignity of her office forgotten.
"Damn that woman," mutters Wensel. "I'd guess that came by way of a warning...ah well."
Then he seems to notice me. "You too! Off with you! Go! Scram!"
"Yes, sir." I don't run like Caith, but I don't exactly dawdle either.