Transcript – Burning Bright

[The Pensive Tower theme plays]

Scroll & Dagger presents
The Pensive Tower
Episode Two: Burning Bright

[A click, and the strange whirring of the venoscribe begins]

This is the memory of Kornad Steiffel. Human, aged thirty-seven, identified as male. Memory regards the acquisition and possession of a strange artefact and was donated on the second of the month of Leafturn, in the year 718. Inscribed by Paxton Ferox on the ninth of Thresherstine, 729.

We Begin.

This is all that damned gamester’s fault. I know you’re going to say no one forced me to sit down at that table, no one made me play their game. I could have just kept on walking, ignored them and just kept walking.

But you weren’t there. You don’t understand, nobody does. I had no more choice than the reef feeders have when they’re snapped up by a barashark. I was prey, sure as anything. I just don’t understand what the point of it all was.

The strange part is, that was the only time I’d ever been to Hael Hara, the only time I’ve been to any city. That might just show how bad my luck is. If I had gone any other day, or just not gone at all, none of it would have happened. I must have the worst luck of anyone I know.

I come from a small village. It’s called Elwick but I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be able to find it on any map. It’s on the west bank of the River Eten. Most folk who live there are fishers, have been for as long as any can remember. Everyone’s lives revolve around the hake eels that live in the river, since that’s what the merchants who come through Elwick are always after. Apparently it sells really well in the towns they go to. I think hake eels only live in the Eten or something like that.

Anyway, one day this merchant arrives in town. Her name’s Galla Flourus, taurox woman, we know her quite well, she comes through regularly and generally gives us a fair deal.

She pays for some fresh and salted fish and while her team is loading the crates onto her wagons, she gets to talking with the village council. I was there too, lending a hand with the loading, putting the fresh fish into the ice boxes, that sort of thing. And I overhear Galla say that she’d be leaving early the next day and heading to the port city of Hael Hara.

Now, unlike most in the village, I’m not a fisherman. I make my money as a netmaker but recently, there hadn’t been as much call for my trade in the village and business was slow. I thought if I could make a contact in a nearby city, a port city, then that might give me the opportunity to expand my business.

Galla had no issue with it, providing I didn’t slow the wagons down so, at first light the next day we set off down the river path towards the city.

I don’t think I had ever gone more than five miles from Elwick. There’d never been any need. So, when we arrived at the signpost pointing to Hael Hara, ten miles away, I felt a swoop of excitement that remained until we came in sight of the city just after lunchtime.

Hael Hara was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. High whitewashed walls, buildings of pale stone, and then there was the Hara Sea. I’d lived beside the Eten all my life, I’d never seen more water in one place. I mean, when we went past the delta and I saw the river widening, I thought that was impressive. Then I saw the sea.

I’d heard about it, obviously, but it’s a different thing seeing it for yourself. Stretching from one end of the horizon to the other and nothing but pale blue stretching out before me until it met the sky. I didn’t know where the sea ended and the sky began. Galla told me it wasn’t even that big really. The Hara is an inland sea, surrounded by land on all sides. The Wind Sea over in the West is much bigger, she said.

I’m sure she knows what she’s talking about but looking at it then, it was hard to believe her.

Me and Galla went our separate ways then. She had to get to the market district and I wanted to explore the city. She gave me the name of a reliable wagon driver who could be trusted to take me home again and then she left.

I had no idea where to begin. I just started walking alongside the walls, just to see how long it would take me to get back to the main gate but then I turned up a street of shops and I had to stop at every front to look inside. Then I found a tavern, the White Dove, that served some of the best ale I’ve ever drunk in my life.

Every corner I turned I found something interesting and I all but forgot my original mission to find new customers. I think I was too overwhelmed by it all.

That last corner I turned, I thought I’d found just another curiosity. A small crowd gathered around a smaller table, some cheering, some laughing and one or two shouting angrily.

I was interested, of course, so I went over to look.

Sat at the table was one of the oddest people I’ve ever seen. I’ve heard stories about the g’strians, you know, those cat people who live south of the Sand Sea, and I thought that’s what they were at first. But they couldn’t have been. They were covered in reddish-brown fur, sure, but they had no stripes and all the stories say g’strians have stripes.

This got me interested so I got closer. I could see then that this… whatever they were, they were playing a dicing game with a fellow sat across the table. As I watched a bit longer, I realised they were playing Howl.

I know the game fairly well, it’s a favourite back in the tavern in Elwick so I watched with interest as the game went on.

This poor soul was not having much luck with his rolls and his pool wasn’t doing him any favours either. In the time I watched the game, he wasn’t able to lose any of the dice from his cup while his strange looking opponent dropped die after die into the discard cup, all the while never losing the smug smile that touched the corner of their mouth.

Eventually the game came to an end. The poor fool hadn’t been able to drop any of his dice and so had to pay the full gamble. He spat in disgust as he rose from the table and stormed away.

The stranger giggled and scooped their winnings into a small bag before looking around for their next challenger. Their eyes alighted on me.

“What about you?” they seemed to purr, as if they truly were a cat. But I had noticed their ears were much too long and their jaw too narrow to be any kind of cat-person. Their look was much more… vulpine than feline, but that made even less sense. Everyone knows that none of the twelve peoples look like foxes.

“You look like you might give more of a challenge,” they went on. Their voice was soft as silk but there was also a hoarseness to it. For some reason, I knew that sitting at that table and taking the wager would be a bad idea, not least because I’d be wagering the only money I had, which was to pay for my ride home.

But for some reason, I couldn’t help myself. It was like their eyes held me in some kind of trance. I sat down and picked up the dice cup. The gamester smiled and did likewise, loading it with all eight of their dice.

I will say I wasn’t taken in entirely, I did remember myself enough to check the dice before dropping them into the cup, to make sure none of them were weighted.

Then came the time to place wagers. I let the gamester go first. I wasn’t willing to show just how much money I had until I knew what the stakes were.

I could tell that they’d been playing for a while so I assumed they’d be pulling out a decent sized coin pouch. In fact, I half hoped they would since I could then say I wouldn’t be able to match their wager, which would allow me to withdraw from the table with my dignity.

So, you can imagine my surprise when instead of money, the gamester placed a clear glass ornament on the table. It was quite small, about the size and shape of my middle finger, flat at one end and pointed at the other. It had this spiral design running down it like the maker had taken the straight piece of glass and twisted it.

I probably should have hidden that I didn’t know what the thing was but I’ve never been much of a gambler. I play for fun with the other lads in the tavern but I’d never done anything like this before.

I was pretty sure the gamester knew that I didn’t know what it was anyway, their smile had grown even more unnerving, so I figured I might as well just be honest about it.

I asked how much they wanted against the thing.

“As much as you like,” they replied, smooth and sweet as honey which set me right on edge. I thought I should be smart so I put up three silver shillings. It was as much as I could afford to lose and still be sure of getting a ride home.

I expected the gamester to curse me for a cheapskate and tell me to leave so they could find opponents with deeper pockets but, again I was surprised because if anything their smile grew wider.

“That will do,” they said and picked up their dice cup.

I was thoroughly confused by now but I followed their example. We made our first rolls and separated out the three dice that would be used for the pool. And then we began to play.

I think that was the tensest game of Howl I’ve ever played in my life, which is daft, I know, because the stakes weren’t exactly high. Three shillings isn’t exactly pocket change but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t afford to lose and I didn’t even want the glass thing that the gamester had put up.

My rolls were quite a bit better than the chap who went before me. I hardly needed to use my pool. The odd thing was my opponent seemed to grow more and more excited with every die I dropped.

I remember thinking at the time how odd it was that they seemed to want me to win. Knowing what I do now, I think I know the reason why.

The game finally ended. I won. I scooped my coins back up and extended a hand to shake my opponent’s. Instead of taking it, they placed the glass thing into my hand.

“A pleasure doing business,” was all they said. Then they stood, turned and vanished into the crowd. And I don’t mean that as an expression. I swear to you, one second they were there, the next they were just gone. And I was left with the strange glass thing.

I was a bit confused but I decided that was enough adventure for a day and it was time to head home.

And the next thing I knew, I was there.

I don’t know how it happened. I was suddenly just standing in my family’s house, in my bedroom. I looked down and that’s when I saw it. The glass thing I had won. It had changed. It was now shorter by, maybe, half an inch. And at the pointed end there burned a small white flame.

Suddenly disappearing and reappearing somewhere else and now this? I don’t know how long I just stood there staring at the thing. It was glass! It should not have been burning. But, there it was, I could see it. A small flame burning but not being fed by any fuel.

I knew what must have happened then. It was magic. Like what those sorcerers in the Hidden Universities do. I got scared then. Anyone who touches magic risks their soul, you know? That’s why everyone knows to be wary of those sorcerers, them who make deals with the Faceless One for power.

Well, I had no intention of meeting the Faceless One before my time so I tried to put the flame out. I tried a lot. A tried blowing it out, smothering it with my fingers and then a cup. I even tried dropping it in a bucket of water. Nothing worked. That small white flame kept burning.

In the end, I found a small dish and dropped the thing in there. It landed with a soft tink, and stood there balanced perfectly in the dish, on its flat end, pointing straight up like a candle, that white flame flickering at the top.

I didn’t know what to do. I should have told someone, obviously. I don’t know why I didn’t. I suppose I just got the feeling that if I did then something bad would happen. Stupid, I know. I don’t even know what I thought would happen. I just knew I didn’t want it to happen to me and to make sure of that, I had to keep the glass thing a secret.

I put it under my bed in the end. I thought if it was out of sight then it wouldn’t bother or hurt anyone and I could take my time and figure out what to do with it. And it worked. For a while. Until the day that the Squire came for the rent money.

Squire Damidd does not live in Elwick. He had a nice manor estate a couple miles down the river, but he owns pretty much all of Elwick and, at the end of every month, he comes through to collect the rents.

Since I hadn’t found any new buyers in Hael Hara, I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t earned enough to pay what I owed that month. So, the night before the squire was supposed to arrive, I was feeling pretty panicked. The squire isn’t unreasonable and I knew he might be willing to give me an extension, but there was always the chance that he would just evict me right then and there.

I went to bed wishing that I had the money to cover my rent. And then, in the morning, I did.

I woke up, turned over and saw a small pile of gold. I jumped up and ran to it and counted it out. fifteen dollars, exactly what I needed for my rent. I couldn’t believe it. Had someone from the village taken pity on me and left it in the night?

I had forgotten about the glass thing but as I turned from the gold, I saw the small white light, still flickering under the bed. I reached underneath and pulled it out. It had been more than a week since I’d last really looked at the thing but it still burned. And it had gotten shorter again. Not as much as it had when it had taken me home from the city but it was definitely shorter.

That’s when I realised. Every time I used the thing, that’s when it burned away. So, if I used the power then eventually the thing would be used up and it would be gone and I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.

My mind began racing, trying to imagine what I could do that would use the cursed magic as fast as possible without drawing attention to myself.

Then I saw the gold and remembered why I’d needed it in the first place. I grabbed a bag and scooped all the coins into it. In spite of the magic at work, I couldn’t help but smile knowing that I wouldn’t have to worry about rent for another month.

I was about to head off when my eyes landed on the glass thing. I was suddenly seized by the idea of taking it with me, to put it in my pocket and go. It wouldn’t be a problem; the white flame wasn’t hot and it didn’t burn anything it touched, I’d found out. It was an insane thing to do, but I did it. I stuck the thing in my pocket, went downstairs and opened my front door out into the morning sun.

The day starts early in a fishing town. Before you even get close to the water, there’s equipment to check over and repairs to make. And with the squire coming, I could see more than a few tense faces milling about.

We didn’t have to wait long. The squire is nothing if not a punctual man and he always arrives early. He rode into Elwick, flanked by his houseguards.

He’s always cut an impressive figure, the Squire. A tall man, he is, with dark hair to his shoulders and bright green eyes that makes all the village women sigh. And a fair few of the men too, myself included if I’m being honest.

Him and his soldiers were all wearing green silk coats, though the soldiers wore breastplates over theirs and carried muskets with side-swords hanging on their hips. The Squire didn’t wear any armour. His coat was covered with embroidery and he wore a fair bit of lace at his collar and cuffs. The only weapon he carried was his duelling sabre. He also wore a broad brimmed hat with a long Belarel feather poking out of the band.

The village council went to greet the squire. They chatted pleasantly while the houseguards set about collecting the money. Everyone came forward and handed over what they owed. Everyone knows the routine.

I handed over my fifteen and turned to head to the river, content that I was in the clear. But then I heard something that made me turn around.

Sermana, she’s my neighbour, Sermana FinBajor. She and her family moved from up north a few years back. I mean way up north, from Gelland. So obviously, some of the village were a bit wary of ’em at first. It’s weird seeing humans with that pale skin, you know? But, her and her husband always worked hard on the river and never caused trouble so no one has any problem with them. Truth be told, I’ve grown to quite like them.

Anyway, Sermana’s husband, Kran, he died last year. Very sad time and everyone’s helped as they can but Sermana wasn’t able to get the gold together and she’d just been told she was going to be evicted.

She was crying and pleading with the houseguards, talking about her children and begging the Squire for more time. The Squire was shaking his head, saying he was sorry but there was nothing he could do and the houseguards began moving towards her home to begin the eviction.

I wanted to help, of course I did. But my house isn’t exactly big, there wasn’t enough room for all of them and looking around I could tell everyone was thinking the same as me. That didn’t stop me wishing I could stop it happening, especially when I saw Sermana’s desperate face.

That’s when I noticed the warmth in my pocket.

It all happened in a second. The Squire and his guards burst into flames. Not regular flames either, no these were pure white flames that looked all too familiar. But unlike the flame on the glass thing, the fire that engulfed the squire and his men clearly hurt.

They were screaming. The houseguards’ armour straps snapped and the metal fell to the ground, cherry red. The Squire fell from his horse and rolled around on the ground, trying to put the fire out. Some folks rans forward, trying to help, they threw buckets of water over them or tried smothering them with blankets but the white fire was too hot and in the end they could only give up, back away and watch with the rest of us as the three men were consumed. By the end, there wasn’t even ash.

I ran. I wasn’t the only one, but I was the only one who wasn’t just running out of fear. I ran back to my home, closed the door and bolted it.

Then I pulled out the twisted piece of glass. The white flame, the miniature of what had burned away everything of the squire and his guards, flickered and danced innocently but… I swear I could now hear the screams of the Squire and the guards in that flame. What’s more, the twisted shape had grown longer. It was now slightly longer than it had been when I won it from the gamester.

It was me. I killed the squire and those soldiers. I’d just wanted to stop them evicting Sermana and the twisted glass killed them to make my wish happen. I had to get rid of the thing!

But how? I couldn’t just throw it away, what if someone else found it and made the same mistake as I had. And I couldn’t just hide it. At any moment I might think some random thought that would activate the thing again. And maybe next time it would be worse. What if I burned down the whole village?

I did consider going back to Hael Hara, to find the gamester who’d given it to me, make them take it back. But I knew that was unlikely, probably impossible.

In the end, I did the best I could.

I used some of the thin rope I used for my netting to tie it to a heavy stone, took my friend’s dinghy out onto the river and dropped the thing in. That white flame never stopped burning. I watched it sink lower and lower until finally it was gone from sight but it never stopped burning.

I didn’t see it again, I’m glad to say. I moved away from Elwick not long after, came here, got myself a job as a clerk in the council building. It’s not as free as living in the country but at least it’s safe. I try not to think about what happened but I suppose when you’ve touched magic, it’s hard to escape it.

Final Notes. Not often I hear a reference to my father’s homeland. Gelland is so far removed from the Federation that very few Gells end up featuring in donated memories.

With regards to this memory, I feel there are a few things that need clarifying. First, the obvious. This glass object wasn’t magic. I can see how it would appear that way to the uneducated, and I know those who live out in the countryside aren’t as familiar with alkismos as those of us who live in the cities. But that’s all it was. A kismotic item, very much like the mnimigraph I am inscribing this memory onto. Only, while a mnimigraph stores sound, a Glass Candle, for that’s what Mr. Steiffel described, works, in essence, as a battery of potential. They store raw power which can then be directed at will in a specific form, according to the type of Candle that it happens to be; green Candles give out illumination, red Candles produce fire, black Candles can be used for Travelling and so on. They are rare and thus expensive, but certainly well documented. And that leads me to what is truly the odd thing about this memory.

As I mentioned, a Glass Candle produces an effect based on it’s colour, and these effects are specific to the colour of the glass. You could not use a red Candle to, say, create a loaf of bread. And all colours of Glass Candle are well documented. However, the Candle mentioned by Mr. Steiffel seemed to have been capable of multiple functions, and I have never heard of a Candle regenerating itself. Normally once the glass is used up, the Candle has run out of power and is then useless. And I have certainly never heard of a clear Glass Candle. It might be worth reaching out to the Etterean University, see if anyone there can shed some light on this.

[Paxton sighs]

There’s not much more to say on this matter. We were able to track down Mr. Steiffel, who still works here in Elalton, and he stands by his memory as authentic. The Dulcerean estate refused all requests for an interview, unsurprisingly, though I do have here a record of a search carried out apparently under the authority of the Hael Hara council. A dredging of the River Eten, with particular attention given to the Elwick area. There is no record of anything being found, certainly not a clear Glass Candle, though I suppose that doesn’t mean it’s not still down there.

Inscription Complete.

[The venoscribe clicks, and the whirring stops.]

[The end theme plays and the Announcer recites the credits.]