The cavern smells of morning blooms by a long-forgotten oasis if a blade had been left to rust in the water. The scent of rust is strong. It permeates every surface of the cavern, and even feels like it’s dripping from my lips. Maybe it is.
Beads of iron water drip down the exposed surfaces of my skin, and my servant’s gown clings to the curves of my body. I grow suddenly aware of how naked I must look, but the toadmaster shows no signs of caring.
We are not alone in the cavern. Priests of Assurance walk calmly around shifting the tubes and snares of the sacred worms. The worms themselves glow as they shuttle across the roof of the cavern and down to the water’s surface. They move through a series of flexible organic tubes, and I can see some of them vomiting up a sort of bile which hardens to expand the network.
While the worms glow blue, the fluids from their mouths glow orange.
“Is that fluid an ingredient to dayglue?” I ask.
“No, though it shares some properties,” the toadmaster responds. “We use it for other adhesives and it can be fired with brass to create an alloy we’ve not yet found a good use for.”
“Every secretion these creatures make has some use,” he says. “We just haven’t found them all yet.”
“What do they eat?”
“The lights from below,” he points down into the water. “They catch them in their snares and pull them to the surface. The lights go out on contact, usually, but some of them shine all the way to the top.”
“What are they?”
“I’ve never isolated them,” he frowns. “Even severing a snare and pulling it to the top reveals nothing. The lights are nothing. It’s best to leave them be.”
“Have you found a way to go down and check?”
He gives me an unusual look then a smile. He holds up a hand and walks to a box writhing with lightly sedated rats. We feed those to tegu as treats. Nothing keeps a hound happy like a living meal that’s an easy catch.
He also scoops up a small, smooth rock which fit nicely in the palm of his hand. He walks to the edge of the iron water pool, and drops the stone. The placid, clear surface of the water ripples only lightly as the stone briefly stalls on its surface then sinks slowly deeper. Iron water is as clear as the streams which come down the mountains, and we watch the stone make its languid descent without issue.
Then Davor Zupan holds the rat over the pit. The eyes of the rat blink slowly as the master alchemist dangles it over the water.
“Say when,” his grin rings with mischief.
“When,” I can’t hide my nervousness.
The rat falls into the water not with a splash, but with a “sloop”. Iron water has more surface tension than regular water. It’s almost oily in the way it sticks to itself. Surprisingly, the rat plummets past the surface with minimal resistance.
It’s strange that iron water seems so thick and dense, but things fall through it so quickly.
Just as the rat passes ten strides down, red lights burst to life along the well below. A sound like a distant trumpet ripples up from the deep along with a wave of bubbles.
The lights go out and the trumpet sound stops. The bubbles cling to the surface, and when they finally burst, they smell of those autumn oasis-flowers again.
The rat is gone. The toadmaster is clapping.
“I could do that all day,” he hops a little joyous hop. “I want to know what they are SO MUCH!”
His excitement is both frightening and contagious.
“Okay!” I exclaim. “What was that?”
“Will they do that every time?”
“What if the rat is on a string?”
“The string is cut!”
“What if it’s a person?”
“Then they’re gone!”
That answer gives me pause. That’s someone dead, and I know General Rog’s soldiers fall in here sometimes.
I shouldn’t be getting excited about this, but it feels like I’m close to understanding something about how the world works. How... the iron water works.
“What about a stone?” I ask.
“Nothing,” the toadmaster replies. “Drop them in all day - all day - and nothing will happen. The well’s level doesn’t rise either.”
“Wait,” I can’t have heard that right. “So the iron water is bottomless?”
“Or the reservoir beneath is incalculably vast,” he nods his head. “Yes.”
I crane my neck to stare down, but I see nothing moving save for the brief flashes of orange light far below and the occasional dipping of a new snare from one of the sacred worms.
“What about when a worm dips in?” I ask.
“Most of the time,” he begins, “they don’t go deep enough to earn the attention of the red lights. I’ve seen them do it a few times, though, and the worms always flee - right to the cavern roof - and there they hide and wait.”
“It scares them?”
“Yes,” he shakes his head. “I wish I could ask them, but they are worms. No one can speak to them.”
Nothing so exciting happens for the rest of my day with the toadmaster. He’s odd, but not unpleasant - beyond the smell - and he shows a love of his work that few people as old as he can manage.
He shows me how to get the raw nectar from where the worms excrete it. It’s not useful for much; it requires a great deal of preparation to become the Nectar that we are used to.
He gives me some brief, vague lessons about the history of the Nectar itself. It used to be no good for disease, even toxic in a way. It was as though the disease was healed as much as the person, rejuvenating the infection and imbalancing the humors. Patients had to be well before being given the tonic.
This is part of why the old wars were so fatal. Wounds - rather than healing - would fester whenever someone imbibed Nectar. A wound even like the one on my hand would be a death sentence if Nectar were applied too soon.
As the sun lowers in the sky overhead, the light coming down the well turns an unwelcome red. Mixed with the blue glow of the sacred worms, the whole of the caverns are bathed in a sickening crimson.
“Come back,” Master Alchemist Davor Zupan says.
I can’t tolerate calling him “toadmaster” anymore. He’s been kind and energetic in a way I could never have expected.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“You’re the Heir of Service,” he smiles. “I’m sure you have influence over where you are assigned for each of your days. I have much more to teach you. And...”
“You delight me,” he demures. “You ask the right questions. No one asks the right questions. With you as my apprentice, we could unlock the secrets of the wells and their immortals.”
The caverns only hold three of them - faceless statues which watch over the pool - but they make an impression. They are blocky, iron statues of ambiguous sex. All their features are flattened and simplified, but they are clearly ten-stride-tall human figures with their arms crossed. While they appear iron, they do not corrode. They are too heavy to lift. Their surface cannot be cut or marred.
There is at least one at every iron well on the whole continent of Promise. No one knows who made them. They are from a time before our ancestors arrived from Origin.
“You think you know what they are made from?” I ask.
“No,” he says, “but I think I know what can make them change. There is one in the University which has a face. It did not have the face even a decade ago. I want very much to see it and observe as it changes.”
“I’d like to see that,” I smile.
“You can.” His eyes sparkle with the same excitement he showed when tossing the rat into the well.
His attention makes me uncomfortable. It’s not that I don’t like attention; it’s the way he’s looking at me. I know my clothes are still clinging to my every curve. Were it anyone else, I’d expect his eyes to wander down, but Davor’s eyes stare unflinching at my own. It’s too intense.
I look away.
“I’d like that,” I nod towards the light coming down the well, “I must be going.”
“Come back,” he says. “After.”
I look back up into his eyes. They have not moved. I feel like he’s standing closer now.
“Come back after going to the House of Service,” his voice shakes with uncertainty. “I have so much to show you. Things to taste. To touch. Wines from beyond the desert. Rare animals. Concoctions no one has seen.”
I’m scared now. He says “taste” and “touch” and makes excuses that he means exotic things. I know in the back of my mind what it is that he wants touched. The Servant’s Bliss whispers at the edge of my mind. It tells me to agree. Always agree.
Be an obedient servant.
Davor grasps my hand.
“Tell me you’ll come back tonight,” he says. “Tell me. Promise.”
I tear my hand away. It takes more force than I expect. I feel like I’m pulling away from a vice, but I see that my hand barely moves away from his light grip. It must be the influence of the mask. I have to get out of here.
“I must go,” I say as I turn away.
My legs are shaking as I run out into the corridor and close the door behind me.
I look at my hand, my scarred hand, it’s red and irritated where his gloved hands touched it. I should be careful near the toads, they have something corrosive on them.
I need to thank General Rog. She did not take advantage of me while I wore the mask. It must be tempting - when you want a thing - to simply have it without asking.
When you can demand anything, the noble are responsible for what they take.