Amber Veins arrived at what was once Chelsea’s mansion to find it a splendid picture of a crime scene. The house itself was surrounded by a vast hedge maze, which in turn was surrounded by screaming blue chains to warn trespassers away. These were standard issue in Malfeas for cordoning off areas for official investigation. Chelsea herself had been a little more hospitable, it seemed. A recently-uprooted sign by the entrance of the maze said “Maze open to the public; please enjoy it! (house accessible by invitation only)”.
A naneke was leading the initial investigation, and he approached Amber, eager to report even the most meager findings. “Greetings, Favored One! You are here to inspect the manse proper?” He spoke quietly, as most people with any sense did if they conversed with Scourges. Amber had not put himself off loud noises just yet, but he never bothered to correct anyone. It would make things easier later.
“I am. Anything useful in the maze?” he asked.
The naneke hung his head. “We have sent three teams and none have found the way through. Those who can fly say there is an exit on the inside, near the door to the manse, but none have reached it through the maze itself. By all accounts no one is even able to get quite halfway through. We have only discovered others who trapped themselves inside long ago…some of them, months ago.”
“Hmm,” Amber mused. “Have you tried sending anyone outwards from the inside?”
The naneke nodded. “That was team number three. They have the same problem, in reverse. We even sent a couple teodozjia in, one from each side; they have not found each other, nor mapped the entire place. And those who can fly have not mapped it from above. They all lose track of the details of the maze, lose sight of those traveling below.”
A device Amber was wearing on his ear buzzed. “So the maze is unmappable; big deal,” Xeroclea’s voice said from inside it. “It’s not exactly the only place in Malfeas people get hopelessly lost.” This little gadget was, ironically, one of Chelsea’s inventions: it contained a piece of a teodozjia’s brain and was paired with an identical device Xeroclea was wearing. She’d managed to maintain the hive-mind link between the two, allowing the wearers to communicate. It was incredibly convenient, though it felt unsettlingly like having an extra Coadjutor.
Amber gestured to a nearby agata, who knelt to let him climb on. They flew straight towards the house together, bypassing the maze entirely. Sure enough, the maze was impossible to map from the air. As soon as he looked closely at any section, a higher level of detail became apparent, and he realized it was more intricate than it appeared. And yet, if he focused on looking for moving objects, he could follow the occupants’ motions quite well. No doubt the unsolvable maze was really a trap, and the only way out would be to get airlifted into a chalcanth distillery.
A few minutes with a lockpicking kit got him through the front door. Then came a surprise: the hearth room of the manse was only just beyond the main entrance foyer. Not only that, the hearthstone was still in place.
…No, not in place. It was not on the little altar where it had formed, but was socketed into a panel on the wall, in the center of an intricate branching design that glowed faintly. He considered taking it, then realized it would be unwise to change anything about the manse before investigating further. Returning to the main foyer, he found one hallway running to the left and one to the right. On a whim, he turned left and headed down the hall.
He relayed his findings to Xeroclea, who reacted with some confusion. “Hadn’t you seen this place before?” she asked.
“No. When we used ‘her place’, that meant her workshop. I don’t know who was ever in here.”
Near the foyer, he found several rooms that he would have expected. There was a large dining room, whose tables seemed to be foldable so that the floor could be cleared as a ballroom. There were a few comfortable parlors, and a cozy, lavishly decorated master bedroom.
Regrettable, he thought. As “her place”s go, this is a nice one.
Further searching turned up a bathroom, a study with a large desk (meticulously organized…Defilers were always so particular about that) and a little reading nook that overlooked the garden in the middle of the house. From there, he could see that the mansion was crescent-shaped, and he was about a quarter of the way around as one started from the center.
And then things began to get strange. As he returned to the main hallway he realized it was longer than it had appeared before. He continued down it, and found another bedroom, similar to the first, but with the furniture somewhat rearranged. Other rooms, like the dining rooms and bathrooms, began to repeat themselves as well, and the decor morphed farther and farther as he continued.
When Amber next found a room with a good view of the inside of the crescent, he went to the balcony and looked out, only to find that he was in fact overlooking a completely separate side courtyard. The main one was some way around to the right, and appeared larger than it had before, with some branched-out wings of the manse in between them. This small courtyard hadn’t even been visible earlier.
Luckily, the pattern in the floor tiles pointed back to the foyer, so it was easy to retrace his steps back to the center. Having seen the layout of the house, or at least the first hint of it, he went to the control panel and pulled the hearthstone from its socket. The lines around the socket went dark, and Amber went to re-investigate the hallways.
The house was still crescent-shaped, but now it contained only a single instance of each room, arranged methodically in a simple finite space. Then, outside, he began to hear noises of jubilation. Running to a window, he found a crowd of demons assembled by the exit of the maze, all expressing joy in their myriad ways that they had finally found their way out. The maze itself was simpler-looking than it had been, too; if Amber looked closely at it, its level of detail did not shift.
He pondered these odd surroundings for a minute. “I don’t know how this works,” he murmured, “but if you plug the manse’s hearthstone back into the manse, it copies all the rooms. I can’t even tell how many times; it might go on forever.”
“What?” Xeroclea asked.
“The maze must work the same way. The copies make it so huge that no one can find the way out.” Amber confirmed his suspicions by re-socketing the hearthstone and checking the hallways; sure enough, the passages re-extended themselves into infinity, lining themselves with chambers as they went.
“Well what good is that, besides housing armies of guests that she never seemed to have? Why would anyone blow a hearthstone on that?” Xeroclea fumed. “Is there anything useful in there?”
Amber shook his head before remembering that the communicator required speech to work. “No. She keeps all her plans and blueprints in that book she carries everywhere, and she never let me see its pages.”
“Unfortunate. One last thing though, Amber.”
“You’re the fastest runner I know,” Xeroclea said, “but despite Chelsea having to limp back into Malfeas with a sprained ankle, as reports say, you still couldn’t chase her down before she got out and broke the Gate behind her. What happened?”
Amber put as much innocent-victim into his voice as he could manage. “She shoved me through a window! Have you ever tried to run with shards of vitriol-glass embedded in your skin?”
Xeroclea’s voice was cold. “Maybe you should practice that for a while, so you can improve.”
Amber rolled his eyes and retrieved the hearthstone. Perhaps some other more reliable Defiler could make sense of how this place actually worked.
* * *
(Meanwhile, just after Chelsea and Sam’s first trip through the shadowland manse…)
Chelsea sat on the deck of the Crimson Gale, rapidly noting everything she had seen so far into her notebook. This done, she clasped it shut and spent a minute gazing at the dark, roiling hearthstone she had retrieved.
Seems you were playing to an old theme.
“Not quite,” Chelsea answered silently. “Kalinda and I have very different approaches. But it does remind me of home. Home-that-was. But this is home-that-was too. It was hers…the Dragonbloods have this place under tight scrutiny, but I wonder if it can be mine again.”
* * *
Author’s Note: Amber is half right. Another Defiler might at least recognize the significance of the floor plan.