The House on the Hill
Melia stretched, feeling her spine pop as she straightened. She swept the last slices of potato from the chopping board into the large cookpot and set her knife down.
Dawn’s first rays glittered through the narrow window, gilding the walls of the small room. Outside, the market was beginning to awaken, the sound of awnings being erected and the first calls of the circling gulls, but for a timeless moment the world was this room, the earthy smell of freshly-cut vegetables, and Jay’s gentle breathing.
She looked over at him, past the rough-woven baskets piled high and the stack of thin wooden bowls. His lips were parted slightly, face completely smooth in the innocence of sleep. His narrow futon was almost hidden behind the detritus of her preparation, the calm eye of the storm.
She reached over and gently stroked his cheek, drawing a lock of his hair away from where it had fallen over his eyes. Always in need of a cut, she mused. For now it would do. His eyes fluttered, moving under his eyelids, as she caressed him again.
“Come on, Jay,” she whispered. “The sun is awake; time you were.”
He tensed, drawing the thin blanket over himself more tightly, and her gentle stroke became a tickle that crept in under his jaw.
“Wakey-wakey, little one,” she said, grinning as he began to drowsily bat her hand away. She came in again, drawing him into wakefulness, until he sleepily raised his head from the hard pillow.
“I know we had a broken night, little one, but-“
I’m ‘wake, ma.” He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and looked around. “Is everything ok?”
“Seems to be,” she said, sitting back.
“Was there any damage? In the earthquake?”
“Not that I’ve found.”
“Did you get back to sleep, ma?”
“Of course,” she lied, smiling at him. “But I had to be up early to get things ready for the day.”
He looked at her suspiciously, a huge yawn breaking his stare.
“Well now. Time we opened up, little one,” she said, getting up. Her knees protested, but she pushed the ache away, picking up the first of many bowls. “Have a bread roll for breakfast, Jay, and then I need some water from the well, ok?”
“‘K, ma,” the boy said, sitting up and crossing his legs. Melia smiled at his dopey expression, then fumbled the door open and went out into the street.
Even in the earliest light of day the street was busy, mostly fisherfolk on their way back from a night’s catch. Melia snagged the edge of the wooden table that was leaning against her house and brought it down, pivoting it on one leg to make a storefront. Then she unfurled the canopy that would cover the cooking area and attached it to two long wooden poles, pegging them in place. By the time she had taken down the first of the large wooden boards that formed the front wall of their house, Jay had joined her outside with a pile of bowls.
“Water, Jay, come on,” she said, sliding the board she was holding into the house and stowing it out of the way. “Can’t get going for the day without it.”
“No buts, young man. You sleep in until the sun’s up, you go get the water.” She swatted his bottom playfully. “Go on. Off with you.”
He pulled a face, but went back into the house, emerging a moment later with two large buckets on a yoke. He slung the crossbar over his shoulders and trailed off down the dusty street in the direction of the well. She watched him go, his already-dirty feet the same colour as his thin shorts, despite his sandals. He was filling out, broadening - not even ten, but he was the spitting image of his father, and she felt an odd yearning as he turned the corner and moved out of sight.
Melia pulled the other wooden partition down to fully open the house up. It was odd, she mused, as she began to put a fire together in the brazier. With the wall down and the stall table set up outside, you could see straight into the one room of their house, but compared to the outside it seemed tiny - barely big enough for even one. It was so different in the quiet and cool of the night, big enough for them both with room to spare.
The other stalls were opening up. A few of the owners could afford to live in a house, their shops given over entirely to stock and room for sitting or browsing, but most lived in the same space they worked. The colourful storefronts began to appear up and down the street - the place that sold curried fish; the one where old Vara worked tirelessly to weave baskets; the sticky little shop that sold the leaf-wrapped candied treats that Jay loved so much; and, long after Jay had returned with water to boil, Mr Gryx arrived.
Melia nodded cordially to the giant beaver, his fat tail leaving a clean stripe down the middle of the street as he made his way to the next-door building and unlocked the big, square door. Melia closed her eyes as the smell of wood-shavings billowed out, smiling appreciatively.
She tossed a few more vegetables into the pot, added a flourish of salt and gave it a stir, then got up to give Gryx a hand. He looked at her, furry face inscrutable as ever, and his long paw-digits flicked out a couple of signs.
“Good morning to you as well, Mr Gryx,” Melia said. “The smaller pieces out front, same as always?”
He nodded, blinking his glassy black eyes, and shuffled aside to let her through.
“Jay,” she called. “Come watch the pot, eh?”
“Be there in a minute,” the boy called back from somewhere in the shadows at the back of their house. “Busy.”
Melia waited a moment more, then shook her head. “You know, sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to do with that boy,” she said to Gryx. “Some days he can be the most helpful boy in the world. Others, he just seems to fight me every step of the way.”
Tell me about it, Gryx signed, shuffling around to a huge stack of carved wooden chairs. The wife and I have adopted a family of un-uplifted animals, and they’re running riot.
“I didn’t know you two were thinking of having a family,” Melia said, lifting a small box in both hands. “Congratulations!”
We won’t be able to uplift them all, at least not right away. But the eldest, he shows promise.
“Goodness, I don’t know what I’d do with more than one. Jay’s a handful. Still… he’s young yet. God only knows what I’ll do when he starts getting ideas about, well, things that a young man might be thinking about.”
Gryx snuffled out a laugh and together they began to set up his shop. The beaver, dextrous though he was, found it difficult to lay all of the smallest, most delicate objects out for sale. Small carved idols sat on a large blanket next to bowls with exquisite patterns, interspersed with more mundane items - handles for axes, clothes-pegs, spoons, all beautiful in their simplicity.
Gryx finished maneuvering a rocking chair into position and clicked his teeth.
Melia neatened the last of the wooden ornaments. “Did you have any damage from yesterday?”
Gryx shook his head. We were lucky on this side of the city. Some whole districts on the north side suffered a lot of damage.
“Strangest thing. Woke us both up, but once the shock of it was over, and everything was still standing… I guess the street’s built better than we thought, eh?”
He nodded, and waved a small, simple bowl at Melia and raised one eyebrow.
“No, I’m good for now, thanks. Got a big pile left. They’re thin, but they last forever.”
The beaver nodded and sat down on his haunches, arranging his long, flat tail in front of him. He drew out a stump of wood from a pile delivered earlier that morning and brought it to his mouth, beginning to whittle it down.
Melia bustled back over to the pot and gave it a stir before smelling it, nodding at the rich aroma. “Right. Bowls out, set up the moneybox, young man, and let’s get ready to greet some customers.” She lifted the wooden spoon back to her mouth, blew the steam off the mouthful of soup, and sipped at it. “And bring the pepper. And the cumin.” She smacked her lips. “Just a little bit, though.”
Jay scampered back out clutching the earthenware spice jars and Melia sprinkled a little of each in the large cookpot. She tasted it again, nodding. “Better.”
“Just in time,” a rasping voice said, a shadow falling over the pot. Melia looked up and smiled at the man stood outside the shopfront.
“Gray, good morning,” Melia said, picking up a bowl and spooning soup into it. “I was wondering whether you were working today. The mill?”
“Aye,” the man said. “Bit of a to-do yesterday night, eh? There’s scattered damage across the city, most of it the cheaper, newer buildings. Built of wood, see? So the mill’s workin’ double time to get more timber out there.”
“But if they build them out of wood again, and there’s another quake… won’t they fall down?”
“Aye, and the mill will make more wood, and make more money.” Gray shrugged. “It’s not right, no, but it’s honest work for me, at least.”
He handed her two small copper coins, and she passed them to Jay, handing the soup bowl to Gray. He breathed the steam in deeply and smiled appreciatively. “Ah, same as ever. Always good. Thanks, Melia.” He paused. “Y’know, you should charge more for this.”
“You want to pay more?”
He smiled. “No, but I want you to get the recognition you deserve. You always sell out, right? You could really make something of it. Start a business.”
She sighed, a wistful smile on her face. “With what? Yes, I sell out each day, but I make enough to keep us comfortable. If I charged even a copper more, I’m charging half again as much.”
“Not exactly much,” Gray said, but the certainty was gone from his voice.
“Compared, it sounds worse. People would be unhappy. But… I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to open another shop somewhere, to know that I’m bringing a bit of home into people’s lives across the city.” She shrugged. “A dream, nothing else.”
“Maybe one day, Melia.”
“You go careful now,” she said. “Bowl back, if you can, please!”
He waved at her, already moving off. Before he’d even had time to take a sip of the soup, two more customers were in line, and Melia bent to the morning’s work.
“So what’s the adventure today?”
Jay shrugged. “Dunno.” He stacked another few coppers to one side of the money box, rattling the coins that were already sorted.
“Only, I see Pab and Chad over there, and it kind of looks like they might be waiting for you.”
Jay shrugged again, but she could see his hooded eyes looking over at the street corner were the two boys were waiting. They had been making unsubtle come-on gestures for nearly quarter of an hour before Melia had forced the issue.
“The quake,” Jay said. “Met Pab at the well this morning and he said there’s lots of stuff going on ‘cause of the quake. Buildings being built. Stuff to see.”
“Stuff, huh,” Melia said. She tutted in mock seriousness. “Well, there’s a lot of clearing up to do here. I mean, the pot’s going to need to be scraped, and everything cleaned and swept…”
Jay turned wide eyes on her, pleading silently.
“Bu-ut… I suppose I could do some of that myself,” she said. He was up as though on springs, almost knocking the pot over in his hurry to be out of the shop. “Back by nightfall, mind,” she said to his retreating back. “And don’t you go into any of the buildings that were damaged. They might fall on you. You hear me?”
“Yeah, gotcha, ma,” he called back, barely turning his head. “See you later!”
He seemed to come alive as he bounded over to his friends and they disappeared down a side alley in a heartbeat. Melia watched the place where he had been for a moment, then sighed.
A shadow fell across her table, its owner blotting out the afternoon sun. She looked up into the small dark eyes of a man whose bulk strained at the seams of his cheap robes.
“They grow up fast, don’t they.”
“Good afternoon, Kayo,” Melia said, keeping her expression carefully neutral. “I was just thinking I hadn’t seen you yet.”
“Been busy.” Kayo pulled a silk handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his dripping face, then rapped his knuckles on the table. “Plenty of places hit in the quake last night, needed help cleaning up.”
“Needed money, more like.”
He shrugged. “If it helps, yes.” His fist, still clenched around the damp handkerchief, still lay on the table, and he gently opened it, raising one eyebrow at her.
Melia counted ten silver coins out of the day’s takings and dropped them in his huge hand. He closed his fingers and pocketed the coins.
“Always a pleasure, Melia,” Kayo said. “You’re far more regular than some I’ve helped in the past. Good to see business is booming for you. And your son, growing so fast.”
“Goodbye, Kayo,” Melia said firmly, picking her soup pot up in both hands.
“See you tomorrow.” The fat man swaggered away. Melia watched him go and sighed. “I swear,” she muttered. “You won’t have this debt hanging over you, Jay.”
She hauled the cookpot into the back of the house for cleaning. The lunchtime rush over, the soup gone, the afternoon stretched ahead of her. She scrubbed the pot with a heavy cloth, rinsing it with the last of the water from the well, and set it to one side to dry. The pile of used bowls were next - another three missing, and she sighed. In the rush, someone always walked off with one, but Mr Gryx was good about replacements, at least. A trip to the well, heavy buckets straining at her shoulders, but at least this gave her enough for the rest of the day. She lit a lantern against the oncoming evening, and set to work. There were a hundred small jobs to do - clothes to wash, the floor to sweep - but as she put the last bowl to one side she found her gaze irresistably drawn to the small cupboard on the right-hand wall, far out of Jay’s reach. Moving almost against her own volition, Melia opened it just wide enough to admit her slender hand, then fished out what lay within. A small, leaf-wrapped candy lay on her palm, and she unwrapped it reverently, then placed it on her tongue. She closed her eyes, letting the sickly-sweet rush overwhelm her.
She was five or six, at her uncle’s. It was a big place, the floors cool stone, the corridors long. Her best friend Liza was there, her large eyes dark, her dress ankle-length. He had kept them company while their fathers met another man, someone to do with work. When no-one was looking, her uncle’s hand slipped into the pocket of his robe and back out, pressing one of the little syrupy candies into each of their hands. He winked at her, and lifted her up onto his shoulders-
Melia’s eyes snapped open at Jay’s call, and she hurriedly swallowed the last of the sweet. Jay sprinted across the road, Pab and Chad behind him, and immediately she knew something was wrong. He was breathing heavily, his eyes wide enough to see the whites all the way around, and a fine sweat was making his thin shirt stick to his chest.
“Jay, what is it,” she said, opening her arms for him. He slammed into her, wrapping her in a fearsome hug, and she held his trembling body tightly.
“Are you ok? Are you hurt?”
“No, no - “ He pulled back, shaking his head, and looked over at his friends. They had stopped awkwardly at the threshold, but Melia beckoned them in. They were in the same state, and she put her hands on Jay’s shoulders, putting him at arm’s length.
“What happened? Tell me everything.”
The story came out in a tumble, from all three of them.
“We went to the house-“
“The one up on the hill! It’s all dark-“
“The ghost house!”
“And there was a big hole in the floor-“
“The quake- shush, I’m telling this bit!”
Melia clapped her hands, and all three boys fell back a little. She pointed to Jay.
“You went to the house on the hill - you mean the big mansion?” She put her hands on her hips, frowning. “What have I told you about going in there? It’s been abandoned for decades, probably rotten through and dangerous, young man.”
“Ma!” Jay looked at his friends, his cheeks flushing, and Melia sighed.
“Go on. Then what happened?”
Jay frowned, but sat down cross-legged on some cushions. “We don’t go in there much.”
“Oh, not the first time, then?”
He scowled. “There’s a gap in the fence, it’s pretty tight, but you can get in. I only went in because Chad dared me to, and then I dared him back to come with me, and Pab didn’t want to be left on his own. So we all went in.
“There was this big tear in the floor, through the floorboards. The quake last night must have opened it up. You know how people sometimes say there’s a glow in the house? Or voices coming from it?”
Melia raised an eyebrow. “Those stories have been doing the rounds since I was your age.”
“Well, there really was light coming from the crack, and a voice… like a lady’s voice, but like a monster lady. She shouted at us, told us to go away - that it was forbidden.”
“So you came straight here?”
Jay writhed under her stare. “Well, no. We went to the edge of the crack, and looked down. There was… it was a monster, right?” The other two nodded. “Made of light! All these wavy bits, and a huge mouth, bigger than me.”
She considered her son for a moment. He was showing none of the telltale signs of a joke gone too far - in fact, his brown eyes were wide and sincere. She looked at his friends, and sighed.
“Right. You two, home. And I mean straight home. Your mothers are probably worried about you as well. No dallying, you hear me?”
The two boys nodded and scampered off. Melia got up, trying not to look at Jay, and began to move the wall-boards back into place, and after a moment Jay stood and began to help her.
“I’m sorry, ma,” he said quietly. “We shouldn’t have gone in there. It was silly.”
They lifted the board into place and Melia slotted the bolts back into place. She waited long enough to let him stew for a moment before facing him. “Yes, I can’t deny it; it was silly.” He winced as she spoke, ducking his head slightly. “But… when I was your age, I did some pretty stupid things too. Now, that doesn’t excuse it, but you should learn from this.”
“I’ll try, ma.”
“Now you listen to me. I’m going to go and… and have a look at what’s up there,” she said. “Can’t have stories about monsters getting around. I’ll probably just ask the city watch to check in on it, anyway. And you’re going to stay here. It’s past time you were getting ready to sleep, anyway.”
“I’m not tired,” Jay said.
“Well, either way you’re staying here. Now go and fetch me one of those big torches from out back, and fill one of the waterskins, ok? And that fancy Johallandish flint and steel thing, I think it’s in the palmwood box.”
Jay hesitated only a moment before following her instructions. As soon as his back was turned, she grabbed her chopping knife off the nearby table and wrapped it in a piece of fabric. By the time he was back she had secured the knife inside her shirt.
She took the torch, a sturdy piece of wood with an oil-soaked rag tied tightly around it, and the lighter, slinging the waterskin over one shoulder. She ruffled his hair and summoned a smile that she didn’t feel. “I’ll be back, but it’ll be late. Put yourself to bed, ok? Don’t you dare be awake when I get back.”
He took hold of her hand. “Don’t go.”
“It’ll be fine,” Melia said, moving towards the door. “Stay put.”
As soon as the door closed behind her, Melia set off through the darkened streets. The day’s burning heat had become a comfortable evening, and as she moved through the city she could feel the captured warmth radiating off the stone walls. There were few other people, and she was able to give free voice to her fear.
“What are you doing, Melia,” she muttered, punishing the sandy cobbles with every footstep. “When was the last time you snuck into the ghost house?”
It was when Liza dared you to, her memory supplied.
“Yes, well, it was a stupid idea then and it’s even more stupid now.” A man she passed in the street looked at her sharply, and she flashed a disarming smile at him, increasing her pace.
You have a weapon. You’re armed. This is silly. Go and get Gryx. Go and get anyone. Tell someone-
“Tell them what? That my son got spooked? That something similar happened to me when I was little, that there’s something in there? No. I’m going to sort this, once and for all.”
And what are you going to do? Beat whatever it is down with the logic of being an adult? Stab it? You sell soup for a living. You’re not a hero.
Melia looked up. The city washed around the small hill, leaving it starkly outlined in shadow against last light of day. Bare apart from the dark shadow of the old house, the hill had never been built on despite the sprawl of the suburbs. It loomed, and the house crouched atop it. The back of her neck prickled, and Melia tightened her grip on the torch’s thick wood. She looked back. Was that a flicker of movement in the shadows?
“Melia Rin, get ahold of yourself. There’s nothing there. And up at the mansion? It’s some homeless person. Someone with a fire.”
She started along the path that wound up and along the rise of the hill, towards the mansion. It was made mostly of dark wood, something that wasn’t produced locally. Most of the buildings in the city were made of the soft sandstone that was everywhere, easy to shape, light. It had once had expensive glass windows, long ago, the frames now hollow and whistling as the wind caught them. The wood had dried, mummified, rather than rotted. It was never wet enough for rot, but as she came closer to the shoulder-high fence that surrounded the property, she could see that grains of sand were in every wrinkle of the wood, every groove.
“Not the torch, not yet,” she muttered, beginning move around the fence. “When you’re inside.” She squinted in the darkness, seeking the gap that Jay had talked about, running her hands over the wood until she found it - a gap almost too small to fit through.
She bent down and began to squeeze her way through, tossing the waterskin and torch through first, and, after a moment’s thought, the knife. Her body screamed its displeasure, joints aching, as she crushed into the gap.
Melia was halfway through when she heard the sound.
Her stomach dropped and she clenched everything as the sound whispered out of the house on the wind.
“Forbidden… cannot… corrupt…”
Panic overtook her and she threw new energy into getting free of the hole, pulling and tearing, and with a snapping sound part of the fence came away. The force of her effort threw Melia onto the ground, and she rolled over, scrambling to her feet and grabbing at the torch. She held it like a club, not even trying to hide how much her hand was shaking.
The words were interspersed with a sort of furry sound, she realised, like the sound of screwing up paper, or rubbing dry pieces of stiff fabric together. It was a woman’s voice, no doubt, but distorted, as though she was speaking into the big soup cookpot.
It was some minutes before Melia was able to gather enough of herself together to move towards the house proper. She pulled out the small firelighter and fumbled with it. It was self-contained, a small lever on springs that created sparks, and she made a mental note to thank Gryx for it. Something he’d brought back from his last business trip to Johalland, he’d said, useless to him.
The torch flared into life on the first try and she held it over her head, trying not to look at it for fear of ruining her night vision. If anything, the torch made things worse, creating deep shadows that danced and played, but she clung onto it anyway. She stowed the knife back inside her shirt, but not before loosening the fabric she had wrapped around it.
The front entrance had a pair of ornately-carved doors, one of them ajar, and Melia slowly eased it open. The words had gone quiet, replaced by the distant noises of the city’s nightlife. Someone close by was playing a drum, the deep rhythmic pulses supplemented by voices raised in indistinct song.
Melia pushed the door open and moved carefully into the darkness beyond.
The house was as ruined inside as out, the floors thick with dust. A set of dusty footprints led into one of the back rooms, but Melia hesitated before following them, looking around at the interior.
She hadn’t been here since she was small, but it had changed so little. There were frames up on the wall where pictures had perhaps once hung, but the canvas within them was long gone. Some of them had glass in them still, somehow. There were the remains of furniture, pieces of fabric in a pattern far too worn to see mingling with shards of wood, and everywhere small pieces of what appeared to be clay. Dust clung to everything, more akin to the snow that fell in the winter months than to anything you could clean with a cloth. Gently, she picked up a piece of the clay, but it was light - more like resin, or seashell.
“This is… a spoon,” she whispered, turning it this way and that. It was more angular than the ones she used, lighter, but unmistakably a spoon. Even as she handled it, though, pieces of it were flaking off, falling like powder to mingle with the dust on the floor.
She jumped as the voice boomed again, louder now she was inside, somewhere close.
Melia spun around, torch out again, the heat of its flame too close to her face. “Who’s there?”
There was a hitch in the voice, a pause longer than any of the others, and then it started to repeat the same things again.
Trying not to make the boards under her feet creak too much, Melia edged towards where the voice was coming from. There was a light, she realised, a greenish-blue glow that flickered out of an open doorway ahead. She pressed herself against the wall, her breath coming in small pants as she crept closer until she could see into the room.
A beam from the ceiling had fallen through, taking some of the boards with it, and the light shone out of the crack in the floor like a solid object. She could see particles of dust spinning lazily through the light, a blue-whiteness that put her torch to shame. She moved to the edge and looked down.
“Hello,” she called. “Anyone there?”
Again, the voice paused, and she heard something whirring, skittering. She bent down to get a better look, and there, in the centre of a circular room, was the figure.
It was feminine, most of the time, but it warped and bent, extending like an oil spill over water. Its face was benevolent one moment, eyes staring sightlessly ahead, lips moving silently, and then it stretched to incredible lengths, filling the room. Its eye filled the hole in the floor, too large, too close, and Melia leapt back, letting the torch fall into the crack. She scrabbled at her shirt, desperately seeking the knife’s wooden handle.
The wooden stave rattled to the stone ground below, and Melia crouched as still as possible, hardly daring to breath. She held the knife out in front of her, both hands squeezing it tightly. She could hear the sussurating sound again, gentle now, like waves over the rocks. Slowly, she relaxed her grip on the knife, and, keeping it in one hand, she crept back to the edge.
The torch was burning on the stone floor below. The thing, whatever it was, had paid it no heed as it had bounced off a small pile of rubble, and Melia caught her breath. The rubble looked close enough to lower herself onto, and she looked to where the figure of light was standing in the centre again, its lips moving.
“I’m coming down,” Melia called, putting more confidence into the words than she felt. Her heart pounded as she forced the words out. “I… I have a knife. I’m armed. Don’t do anything stupid.”
Her own words echoed back to her, mocking, but she slid her legs over the edge and gingerly lowered herself down into the hole. As soon as she had something solid under her feet, she held the knife out again towards the figure.
It ignored her, and she peered closer at it. One of its limbs, spasming crazily to many times its length, lashed out to the side, and even as she tensed, ready to run, she saw it pass through a wall.
Slowly, she reached down and picked up a small piece fallen ceiling.
“Catch,” she said, and threw it underarm towards the figure.
It passed through, making no mark, and flew into a shadow. She waited to hear it hit the ground.
“Ow!” The shadow shifted, rolling to the side, and Melia’s fear spiked as she saw who it was.
Keeping a wide berth of the insubstantial glowing figure, Melia swept her torch up off the floor and ran around the chamber. Her son was on the floor, dust smearing his face, rubbing his bare leg. He looked up at her and smiled weakly.
She grabbed his shoulders. “What in the name of God are you doing here? I left you at home!” His bottom lip trembled, and she drew him close, hugging him. “Silly, silly boy.”
“I didn’t want you to get hurt,” he said, words muffled by her clothes. “I followed you. You almost saw me a couple of times, but I’m good at sneaking…”
“Oh, Jay, Jay…”
Worry and relief flooded through her, warring over control of her, but she held him tightly in the darkness of the chamber.
At last, she stepped back and wiped her cheeks dry.
“When we get home, you and I are going to have words about this,” she said. “How did you even get down here?”
He pointed to a long beam that penetrated down along the back wall of the chamber. “It’s easier, I think… I’m sorry I disobeyed you, ma.” He brightened as he pointed to the glowing figure. “But look. It can’t touch anything. That stone went right through it, and it’s… ignoring us.”
“Whatever it is, it’s not dangerous. At least, not yet.” Melia caught Jay’s arm as he started to move towards the warping and bending figure. “Careful, though.”
He nodded, and they looked around the room. Several pillars surrounded the central space, each one wide enough that her arms wouldn’t stretch around it. The stone floor was smooth and regular, with no joins at all. Her eyes roamed over the rest of the chamber, but the walls were featureless, made of some finely-made metal that thrummed slightly under her fingers with a cold vibration. The only other thing in the room was a small pedestal, on the other side of the room. Keeping the pillars between her and the spasming figure in the centre, Melia made her way around towards the pedestal.
It was no taller than Jay’s chest, made of the same metal as the walls, and she ran her fingers up its fluted sides. Her fingers came away grey with dust. The thin tracks her fingers left shone with a dull light. The top surface was thickly coated with the same grey dust, but small mounds revealed several small objects stranded within it. Melia gently swept the grime of years away, uncovering several perfectly spherical stones, each about an inch across. Jay gently pulled one out to inspect it in the torchlight.
It was a marble, made of a clear diamond-like material, and it sparkled in the light. Her breath caught in her throat as she peered closer. Veins of gold glittered, wending through its structure, and at the centre was a tiny pellet of yellowdust.
“That looks expensive,” she whispered. “Put it back.”
“There are more. Look.” Carefully, Jay swept the rest of the dust off the top of the pedestal, revealing five more of the marbles, each in a small depression carved out of the metal, arranged in a circle. One of them was empty.
“Seven spaces, but only six of these… whatever they are,” Melia said. “Perhaps it’s-“
“Found it,” Jay said, bending down and digging in the drift of dust by the foot of the pedestal. “And I guess it just goes in here.”
Before Melia could do anything, he’d picked up the marble and placed it on the empty depression on the pedestal.
The effect was immediate. The figure in the centre of the room disappeared, and both mother and son clapped their hands to their ears as a rising tone echoed through the chamber. It rose quickly in pitch before snapping off, leaving them in stunned silence.
The figure reappeared, whole and stable, standing in the exact centre of the room. The light its body gave off was ghostly, an aura that reached beyond the outline of its body. It looked around the room, its eyes settling on Melia and Jay, and it smiled.
“Welcome,” it said.
Slowly, Melia removed her hands from her ears and gave it a slow wave. The figure was a shapely woman dressed in some sort of skintight clothing, lights moving up and down it. She was smiling, her long hair drifting about and fanning out around her face as though she was underwater.
“H-hello,” Melia said.
“Checking the time.” The figure flickered for a moment, and then its eyebrows shot up. “Goodness. Quite some time has passed since I was last awake.” It looked around the chamber, towards the pedestal. “It seems that damage to the control unit caused some of my storage units to become unseated, but you have solved the problem. Thank you.”
“You’re… welcome,” Melia said.
Jay was standing behind her, his hand clutching at her shirt, and she put an arm around his shoulder. He went up on tiptoes and whispered in her ear. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered back. “Shush. It’s rude to whisper.” She cleared her throat and looked back up at the figure, patiently waiting. “What… are you?”
“I am the personal assistant to Aloysius Tern, whose home you are now stood in,” the figure said. “I am a repository for all of the information he collected in his life.” It cocked its head to one side, then smiled. “I am a library.”
“There’s a library in the city,” Melia said. “It’s a building filled with books that are chained to the shelves.”
The glowing woman’s features wrinkled into a frown, then smoothed. “Interesting. How can I put this in terms that you would understand… This house was once filled with books, and works of great art. Images that moved. Things that you would deem magical in nature.” The figure smiled again, and it was a kind smile. “Each of the spheres on the pedestal contains more knowledge than you can learn in your lifetime.”
Jay squeezed Melia a little tighter. “Are you… alive?”
“Not in any sense that you would understand,” the figure said. It brought its hand up, and it was holding a small urn with see-through sides. The urn was nearly empty, its contents red and flickering. “This is a representation of my life - how long I can survive for. The more full it is, the longer I can remain online.” The figure looked down, as though noticing it for the first time, and the frown was back on its face for an instant.
And then the figure was gone.
Melia stared at the empty air where the figure had been stood. The only light was now coming from the torch, and she held it up high.
The word echoed into the darkness, the only sound the hiss of the torch’s flame.
Jay looked at his mother, eyes wide in the darkness. “Did you understand anything it said?”
“Very little,” she murmured.
His hand slipped into hers, and she clutched it tightly.
“Did it really happen like that, father?”
Jay looked down at his daughter and smiled. “Just like that. Your grandmamma and I, we climbed out of the hole in the floor, and we went home.”
“That’s a boring end to the story.” The little girl shook her head in childish crossness. “I don’t think it’s a real story.”
“Well…” Jay smiled. “I might have something that would convince you it was real. But you have to keep it a secret.” He got up and moved to the door. “Stay right there, in bed. I’ll be back in a moment.”
He went into the small office space. Melia, her eyes still shining although her body was bent, looked up from the paperwork on the desk. She smiled. “Everything ok?”
“Just a bedtime story,” Jay said. He moved to the small safe set into the wall and fished a key out of his pocket. “How is the business?”
“Fine. We took on another kitchen on the south side.”
“We should charge more for the soup. That recipe is worth its weight in gold.”
“We don’t need gold,” Melia said, leaning back in her chair. “I’d rather bring people happiness.”
“It’s amazing, isn’t it,” Jay said, reaching into the safe. He brought out a cloth bag. “Things will be so different for her than they were for me. For you.”
“They’ll be like they were for my father and his brother.” She looked round as he undid the drawstring on the bag. “There’s only one left,” she said. “Go careful with it.”
“The others went to a good cause,” Jay said. “Paid a debt, and enough left for comfort. I think this one will too. It’s her legacy, after all. Perhaps she’ll find out how they work… or what they’re for.” He tipped the bag up, letting the diamond marble fall into his hand, then held it up to the light, watching the scintillating sparks dance and flicker over the room. He nodded in satisfaction and went back in to his daughter.
Melia got up stiffly from the desk and went to the window. She leaned heavily on the frame, looking out over the city. From here, from the mansion on top of the hill, she could see the whole city laid out before her like a map.
She closed her eyes. From the room next door, she heard her grand-daughter’s gasp of delight, and Melia smiled.