(Author's Note: This piece is chronologically preceded by the work "What Lies Beneath".)
"She's awake, I think."
"Good," a brusque voice said. "Make sure that the bindings are tight, scholar."
Amalthea opened her eyes, and almost immediately a sensation of pain flooded her thoughts. She could see an incandescent circle of orange light before her, a blurred image that slowly came into focus the longer she stared at it.
It was a fireplace, she noticed. Long licks of flame whipped at their stray embers, which were bright with the dust of old wood. Forgotten cobwebs and stale air alike melted before the heat, although the shadows of the room seemed to enjoy the attention as they flickered across her robes.
"They should be tight enough," said the reed-thin man standing nearest to her. He looked pale and sick by the firelight, although his garments implied a certain degree of affluence. Amalthea noticed an unkempt nest of scrolls and writings nearby; It wasn't too much of a stretch to figure that they belonged to him.
"If you say so," the man with the brusque voice said, but there was the sound of drawn metal nevertheless. "You must permit me my own safeguards, however."
Amalthea shifted, feeling the cloth bite into her wrists.
The brusque man approached, and this time she could see him clearly. He was a stocky man of middle age, weathered and scarred by the seasons and bearing mismatched armor of the same nature. The dagger he held in one hand was lacquered and carved in wood and soft metals, which sharply contrasted with the set of his jaw and the angle of his broken nose.
"Er..." Amalthea said, "I don't have any money, you know."
The brusque man gave her a strange look. "We're not after your money," he said.
"My supplies are outside," Amalthea said. "I hid them in a place that even the scavengers aren't likely to find."
"We've got enough supplies," the brusque man said, "but thanks all the same."
"Then... what do you want?" Amalthea asked, an entirely unwelcome possibility forming in her mind.
"Not what you're thinking," the brusque man said, sticking the dagger point-first into the space between two floor tiles.
The scholar cleared his throat. "I was... I was just wondering what you were doing here, good lady."
Amalthea raised a suspicious eyebrow. "Here?" she asked. "Where's 'here'?"
"Spare me the theatrics," the brusque man said. "You know you're in Thorngarde. We know we're in Thorngarde. These days, there's only one reason why any of us could possibly be in this thrice-cursed place."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You don't stumble onto this place by accident, girl. You either have a lot of maps at your disposal, or you're luckier than a three-legged hare."
"We've been circling this floor for a couple of days," the reed-thin scholar explained. "So far we've been able to avoid most of the traps with the maps I've acquired, but the one I have for this floor is incomplete."
The brusque man scowled. "Incomplete, nothing. You ran out of maps."
"If it wasn't in the Centuran archives, Sir Candor, then it doesn't exist."
"No," Amalthea said. She could feel the cloth unraveling before her fingers. "It just means that the floors haven't been explored yet."
Both of them glared at her for a second, just before the scholar spoke. "She does have a point," he conceded.
The brusque man muttered something under his breath, then picked up the dagger and twirled it in one hand. "So we're at the point of no return, then."
"You might say that," the scholar said. He looked more nervous by the second.
"You'd better pay me when this is all over," the brusque man said, just before he turned to Amalthea. "Can we trust you?" he asked her.
Slowly, as though performing a conjurer's trick, Amalthea slipped smoothly out of her bonds and presented the wrinkled cloth to her two hosts.
The brusque man raised an eyebrow. "I guess not," he said. "Who are you, and what business do you have here?"
"My name is Amalthea," Amalthea said. After a moment's thought, she added, "I'm a Metrian."
"A mage," the scholar said in a curious tone.
"That doesn't do wonders for your trustworthiness," the brusque man mused.
Amalthea held up both hands. "I'm certain that we're here for the same reasons. We don't have to compete with each other, my lords. We can work together."
"That strikes me as a fine idea, Sir Candor," the scholar said. "I was about to suggest it myself."
"That," Candor pointed out, "is why you're the scholar and why I'm getting paid to haul you around."
Amalthea straightened. "I can hold my own," she said. "You wouldn't have to worry about me."
"Now what would a mage like you possibly want with a scholar and his hired dog? You don't see much in the way of money or sorcery in dusty old keeps."
"Whatever you're looking for, I'll help you find it."
"We're looking for a way out," Candor said.
The scholar looked surprised. "We're not looking for a way out," he said.
"You're walking into the bowels of an abandoned stronghold full of deadly traps without so much as an idea as to where you're going, and you're not looking for a way out?"
The scholar suddenly looked nervous in the face of Candor's glare. "Er... no," he finally said.
"I can get you out of here," Amalthea interjected. It was a stretch, but it would have to do.
"I have to admit that the Metrian has more sense than you do, Lord Phineas," Candor gestured.
"But we've only just started! This is where the work truly begins!"
"I'll do it on one condition, though."
"Name it," Candor said, "and the scholar will pay it."
"I'll get you out of here," Amalthea said, "...if you'll take me inside with you."
This time the silence was deafening.
"You're crazy," Candor finally said.
"You're already here," Amalthea pointed out. "What's the harm in looking around for a while?"
"I'd like to leave with my own skin still attached. I know a few suicidal scholars already," Candor said, glancing at Phineas. "I don't need a suicidal mage on top of that."
"We have an agreement, Sir Candor," Phineas complained.
"It didn't cover death and dismemberment. That costs double."
"Triple," Candor said quickly. "For the insurance."
The scholar considered this for a moment. Candor continued to glare at him, as though expecting a thorough response. Amalthea simply waited.
"Very well," Phineas said. "Triple the rate, once we return to Hadrian."
Candor folded his arms. "You're crazy," he said.
"Is that a deal?"
"There's a fine line between risking your neck and living to tell about it," Candor said.
"Yes, but do we have a deal?"
"Done, you thrice-cursed bookworm. Done!"
Phineas gave a long sigh. When he turned, he seemed to notice Amalthea all over again.
"And you?" he asked in a weary tone of voice. "What sort of payment would you want?"
"Oh, I'm fine," Amalthea said. "Just... lead on."