1.06

Posted by cameron - 2022-01-12 09:00:06

(The city of Obobo was unimportant and unimpressive. Root and the others didn’t find what they were looking for there, and then they promptly left, making Obobo little more than a landmark along the road of their journey, like a particularly funny-looking downed tree that keeps you from walking the same path twice. So we’re not going to waste time talking about how the city was laid out like the pattern of an eight-year-old’s tie-dye or how it was buffeted so regularly by sandstorms that even the pudding was crunchy and “grains” was the title of two separate categories on the local food pyramid. Let’s just skip right to the part where they arrived at the archives and met with Archin Vulokus.)

(Oh. Hang on.)

(At this point they actually weren’t quite there yet. Uh, Vit was insisting Root and Azriah try something from one of the open-air food stalls on the side of the street. Root was equally insistent in her refusal. It was something made with mushrooms. She’ll have to get over that—mushrooms were an ingredient in sixty-eight percent of all traditional Atnaterran dishes.)

(Uh, anyway. While they dawdle, so will we.)

Obobo was laid out like the pattern of an eight-year-old’s tie-dye. The streets ran in whichever direction they pleased—sometimes north, sometimes south, sometimes east to left-east, sometimes up, down, or around in a loop. In fact, there is one neighborhood built along a street that forms a vague oval shape with no intersections, inlets, or outlets. That block has been fully isolated and self-sustained for over four hundred years. At one point, there was an effort made to reestablish contact with the community, but they had become so shrouded from the outside world that one rogue sneeze sent a plague tearing through the street. The death toll was astronomical—conservative estimates put the number around fourteen. The deadliest assessments say it might’ve even climbed as high as fifteen, but with no direct contact from those inside there was no way to tell for certain.

Obobo was also buffeted so regularly by sandstorms that even the pudding was crunchy, and “grains” was the title of two separate categories on the local food pyramid. In general, weather in Atnaterra was less extreme and less common than in Setoterra. The weather that did occur was the doing of some spirit or spirits, and the Obobo sandstorms were no exception. Just north of the city’s bounds dwelled a massive spirit prone to regular and intense sand baths, and when she shook the sand out of her fur it left a film across everything within a twenty-five mile radius. Over the years, efforts had been made by valiant local heroes to slay the spirit or drive her somewhere else, but none ever managed the deed. And so Obobo has always remained dusted with sand, and its residents learned long ago to accept the perpetual grittiness as a part of their way of life. Clean linens were gritty. Food had an extra crunch. And the record holder for the local chapter of the staring contest league boasted the (regionally) impressive time of eighteen seconds.

But otherwise, the location of the city was entirely unworthy of note. It was too far from the mountains to claim them as a local feature, there were no waterways that captured and reflected natural beauty in their ripples—even the forest ended before it had to come so close as to be associated with Obobo. The city sat on a flat stretch of land with nothing more interesting than a duck pond at the center of the city park.

Now, you may ask why anyone would found a city on such a forgettable stretch of land. And the answer is that it was never meant to be there at all.

Obobo was founded by a couple who set out to start a settlement of their own. As they traveled, they sat down at what would later become the heart of the city’s historic district and discussed where they each wanted to begin their new life. Each, in turn, passed the decision to the other, insisting that “It doesn’t matter to me—whatever you’d like, honey.” They both turned down the responsibility of choosing the spot so many times that eventually night fell, so they pitched their tent and went to bed. Morning came, and they resumed the back and forth. Their tent became a cottage, others came and turned it into a village, and Obobo grew around the couple as they sat together, night after night, insisting that the other should have the final say.

The modern Obobo congress honors this history with an annual vote on whether or not to move the city somewhere else. The vote is always unanimous: zero yeses, zero nos, thirty-six abstentions.

In fact, being spineless is a prerequisite for holding public office in Obobo. This is an easy requirement to meet for most spirits (though there is an ongoing debate as to whether being an arcanomaterial projection of the manifested concept of a will truly means one has a spine or not), but Setoterrans have a considerably harder time meeting this qualification. As a result, only one human has ever served on the Obobo congress, known colloquially by his nickname “Slumpy Daniel.”

(Ah, perfect. That’s enough of that.)

The sweet tang of whatever it was Root had just eaten stuck in her throat as she looked up at the archive building. It looked, without a doubt, like the most ridiculously flammable building she had ever seen. It was a building of wood and stone and could not have been less than half a millennium old. She could practically feel the dust in her nose just looking at the thing. Coupled with the fact that she knew it was stuffed full of books and scrolls and artifacts, the whole building was one spark away from lighting up like a torch. And judging by how close the neighboring buildings stood, it would probably take half the city with it.

Directly next to it stood the city museum, which had the same shape and facade, making the archive building look like it had been birthed by the much larger museum. It was a ridiculous design choice, and gave the two a terribly silly look, like a family painting complete with matching outfits and tight, forced smiles.

Azriah took the lead up the granite steps. The others followed behind as they filed through the door into the musty interior.

The only thing that looked older than the building itself were the people inside. Spirits didn’t age, and so they never looked wrinkled or frail, but somehow the ones inside the archive building managed it, and did quite well at that. There were several humans too, each one of them older than the last. Root guessed she stood at the geographic epicenter of dentures and narrow, outdated ideologies.

A quick exchange with the five-armed hound spirit working the circulation desk led the group to an open door into a private office adorned with a nameplate that read, in pretentious cursive, Archin Vulokus. Azriah had hardly raised a knuckle to knock before the man inside looked up.

“Oh! Hello,” he said and pushed away from his desk with enough force to make the things atop it rattle. He straightened his shirt and smoothed his hair as if he’d been caught in an act more scandalous than annotating.

“Are you Dr. Vulokus?”

“Yes, yes. Please, just Archin. What can I do for you kids?” He moved like a whirlwind of tweed and nerves. He was a human, and old in the way a carpet grows old, dusty and faded and threadbare with just enough fringe at the edges that makes you tread carefully, knowing one snag of a boot could send the whole thing unraveling in a heartbeat. He chewed the inside of his right cheek between speaking, and every change of facial expression came with such suddenness that it sent a jolt down the rest of his body.

“The woman at the desk downstairs directed us to you for questions about Ybris Affodell.”

Archin’s eyes came alight. “Yes, I am the chief historian specializing in the life and works of Affodell. Please, let’s walk—I’ll take you to the section where we have all of our materials on the subject.” With Archin in the lead, they started off down a side balcony that overlooked the ground floor below, a maze of towering shelves crammed with books and scrolls and tablets, documents in every form. Root spotted at least one napkin, etched with scrawl and tiny tears from a quill tip, now neatly preserved under a layer of glass alongside the smudged remains of something long since digested.

“What are your questions about Affodell?” asked Archin with a giddy grin. “And, if I may ask, what inspired this study into—in my own frank opinion—the greatest artistic mind the two worlds have ever seen?”

“At least this guy isn’t biased,” muttered Beel. If Archin overheard, he was undeterred.

“Let’s start broad, perhaps,” said Azriah. “Give us an overview. Whatever comes to mind.” Root noticed he had tactfully dodged the second question—whether withholding that information intentionally or simply picking the first half as a better way into the conversation, she couldn’t be sure. But Archin didn’t seem inclined to press the point; Azriah had opened the floodgates, and if Archin stopped talking before sunup it would be only under the force of an unfortunate ailment—likely of the permanent variety, as he seemed the type who prepared lectures for the local community college in his sleep.

“Well,” started Archin, sucking in a breath that foretold many words to come. “Ybris Affodell was born to a family that owned a sizable cranberry bog in the Setoterran town of Buxla near Unn. Like many children of affluent families, she was introduced early to the arts, and took most fiercely to painting. She painted her first museum-admitted work at only twelve years old, you know. She had an older brother, ah, Caffodell was his name—”

“Caffodell?” asked Root before she could stop herself.

“Yes.”

“Caffodell Affodell?”

“It was a family name. In any case, Caffodell inherited the family farm after the untimely death of their father. Actually, Caffodell died young as well, at which point their youngest brother took over the farm since Ybris had already uprooted and moved to the town of Sundraw here in Atnaterra to start a family. She married but never had any children, interestingly. Her old manor still stands on the edge of that town, though it has long been abandoned. Such a shame, a real shame—I have tried to prompt the museum to purchase and restore it on numerous occasions, but they just won’t spend the money. They say Affodell wasn’t notable enough. Ha! But anywho, anywho. Her art—her art became greater and greater as her life went on, though she produced fewer paintings in her later years. Such bold visions, the confidence with which she painted is simply marvelous… it grips you just from looking at her strokes. Here we are, then—see?”

They had stopped in an alleyway of shelves that ended in a high, paned window overlooking a lush courtyard. Three segments of shelves were marked with handwritten tags that read “Ybris Affodell.” Archin slid a book from one of the shelves and let it flap open; the pages depicted prints of every painting in Affodell’s collection—a Setoterran landscape, a snowcapped mountain backed by a burning sky, a grim depiction of what looked like two wild boars engaging in a mutual act of cannibalism. Archin stopped on the last of these and cleared his throat. “This was from her, er, more experimental years.” He kept turning pages.

As the paintings went on and the years passed, Root could see what Archin meant—the brushstrokes got heavier, the images grew more abstract. She caught a glimpse of one painting that just depicted a wall upon which hung a framed version of another Affodell painting she recognized from a few pages back. Many of the later works were of what must have been her manor as well as more self-portraits than any old woman needed.

“Some people think she descended into an insomnia-fueled madness around this point,” said Archin. Few pages remained. Root had to look away from several of the scenes. The whole book needed to be burned.

“Fascinating,” said Vit in a hushed voice. “May I?” They reached for the book; Archin handed it over.

“Yes, those are quite intriguing,” said Azriah. “What about her death?”

Archin’s expression went from cheery and cherubic to apprehensive in an instant. His wrinkles deepened; his eyes aged. It was like he had suddenly remembered that he was, in fact, quite old.

“Ah,” he said.

“Excuse me?” asked Azriah.

Archin looked to each of them in turn as if sizing them up anew. “I might’ve guessed. Foolish of me.”

“Is… there an issue?”

“No, no, no issue. Affodell is buried in Atnaterra, though she kept her final resting place a secret from all, even her closest friends. Even the builders she hired to construct her crypt were locked within to die alongside her. They knew, of course—they went willingly. She was no monster.”

“Just paranoid by the sound of it,” said Beel.

“Now, is that all? I’m sure that’s answer enough on the matter.”

“Well, uh… Azriah paused. “I’m just curious, I suppose. That seems like great lengths for a burial. What, was she worried someone might steal her paints?” Azriah cracked a grin. It elicited nothing from Archin. An awkwardness descended between them with enough force to bludgeon a bull.

Azriah moved swiftly past his falter and into a recovery. “As a historian and a scholar in all things Affodell, I’m sure you’ve wondered about her burial place. Surely you’ve searched for clues. This could be a monumental discovery in your field.”

“Perhaps. But it’s better the crypt remain undiscovered.”

“Why?” asked Vit, looking up from the book of paintings.

“I’ve met plenty of folks in search of Affodell’s crypt. But treasure hunters only want to loot it and pay no respect to the cultural and historical significance of such a site.” He didn’t speak the words as a statement, but instead with the edge of accusation. Root lowered her eyes.

It was a fair assertion, of course.

Azriah put up a hand. “Look, we aren’t—”

“Treasure hunters?” asked Archin. His gaze was a challenge. “There’s no need to lie, I’ve met many folks in your line of work. I should’ve picked up on the signs the moment I met you outside my office, but perhaps it is an off day for me. Of course I can tell. Hell, I wanted to be a treasure hunter when I was a boy as well. What do you think drove me into the study of history?”

“We’re not exactly… well…” Azriah grappled for a response. Root jumped in instead.

“What if we found the site and then turned it over to you and the museum?”

“Oh, well. Uh—” Now it was Archin’s turn to struggle for words. Root’s interjection gave Azriah the opening he needed to compose himself.

“A great suggestion,” he said, nodding to Root. “With your assistance, we could work as an arm of the museum. We would be happy to do the job as hired hunters and work within the museum’s sanctions, that or sell the findings to you afterwards. You could even come along, if you’d like.”

Archin laughed at that. Root knew it had been a hollow suggestion, but it wasn’t meant to be earnest—it was meant to give merit to their offer.

“I am in no shape to go gallivanting outside the city. I appreciate the offer—both for the adventure and the partnership—but I… well, I can’t act with the authority of the institution. You’d have to go and talk to the board… yes, and you’d need to sign some things, many things. And the museum already has existing partnerships of the sort. As for selling the discovery after the fact, no—there’s no certainty that the museum would buy, and if they didn’t, the whole site could be compromised before another buyer comes in. And who knows what their motives might be! Developers will stick their noses anywhere, you know. Might turn it all into housing.”

Root was beginning to find herself fed up with this man. Azriah was smart—trying to turn one job into two with no extra effort involved—but they didn’t need to get roped into a partnership with some stuffy historians and they didn’t need to play museum bureaucrats. If Archin didn’t want to help them, they’d find what they needed themselves. He had already led them into what was effectively his entire base of knowledge.

“Look, we aren’t here to find some cute little cave to vandalize,” said Root. “We will be happy to send a letter back here with the location of the crypt when we find it, and we will leave it more or less untouched. We are on a job for a woman in Unn—she asked us to find the site. We’ll take the cut of the coins we were promised, but you’re more than welcome to go in and marvel at, I don’t know, the damned bricks or whatever. So do you have any idea where it might be or not?”

“I don’t,” said Archin. “No one does.”

“No one and not a single one of these books?”

“I’ve read them all. It’s a mystery lost to time.”

“Poetic.”

“We have this page with some clues, perhaps,” said Azriah as he drew the single leaf of paper from beneath his gambeson. “See, down here there’s a mention of a monument—”

Archin’s face had drained of color; he looked like someone had just informed him that a toddler had pressed their face to the canvas of an original Affodell painting in the museum, and now the gored flank of one of the boars was smudged with tiny fingerprints and a crust of snot. “The mirror?” he asked. His voice had adopted an odd quality that set Root on edge. “You’re seeking the mirror?”

“Er, ah, yes,” said Azriah cautiously.

Archin shook his head and took one backwards step. “Why are you seeking Affodell’s mirror? What do you want that for?”

“We don’t really want it for anything,” said Vit with a casual shrug. “As Root said, we were hired to find the crypt—the mirror, actually—by a woman in Unn. But that’s all we are after, honest. You can have most of my cut of the coin if you want. I don’t need much.”

Again, Archin shook his head. He still looked pale; his eyes drifted up and down the alcove between the shelves. “And what does she want it for?”

“We don’t know. We don’t ask that sort of thing,” said Azriah. “She offered employment and we took it.”

“What is your true goal?”

“Our…?”

“What?” asked Root.

“Oh, please,” Archin’s voice was hardly more than a hiss. “What do you want with it? Honestly?”

“We told you,” said Root. “We were hired to find it. What does it matter? It’s some dead lady’s mirror.”

Archin scanned her face, and when he didn’t seem to find whatever he sought, he scoured Azriah’s, then Vit’s, and even Beel’s, who had taken up a spot near the entrance to the row of shelves, peering down through the bars of the railing to the floor below. He paid no attention to the conversation going on behind him which, in Root’s own view of the situation, had turned into a confusing back and forth that sounded more and more like two completely separate conversations occurring simultaneously.

A silent moment stretched into two, tense and out of place despite it being a library, more or less, and as far as Root was aware that was sort of the expectation in libraries. She didn’t quite know—she never went to libraries. Too much paper.

Finally, Archin spoke again, barely louder than a whisper now. “You shouldn’t trifle in these matters. Some things should stay lost, for everyone’s good. It may seem like we humans have something to gain, but it’s just… unnatural.”

“Fucking what?” said Root. This man had lost his mind while standing right in front of them. He was senile. He had come down with the worlds’ first case of instantaneous-onset delirium.

But Archin was already moving out from the row and onto the balcony, walking at a pace that Root could only assume was faster than he had moved since before she was born. “Don’t seek the crypt,” he said without meeting their confused expressions, and then he hurried away out of sight. Root moved to the end of the row just in time to watch as he retreated the last several feet down the balcony and vanished into his office. The door closed with a swift thud.

“Were you mean to him?” asked Beel looking up, puzzled.

“No.”

“Are you sure? Sometimes you have a tone…”

“I wasn’t fucking rude.”

“Hm.”

“That was…” started Vit.

“Odd,” finished Azriah. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Are we still going to go looking for the crypt?” asked Vit. They scratched at their head with one clawed arm—at some point they had unspun their left arm into two spider limbs, now holding a book on either side and using the second claw to flip pages. “I mean, he brought up some good points…”

“Yes we are still going to find the crypt,” said Azriah. “Or, I am still going to find it. You don’t have to come.”

“I’m going,” said Root.

“Think any of these books have what we are after?”

“Not so far,” said Vit and snapped another one closed. The spine crinkled and a few pages came loose. “Oops.”

“I don’t think we’ll find what we need here,” admitted Root. “Archin made absolutely nothing clear, except that he doesn’t want us to go looking for this place and ruin it. If there were clues in any of the books, I’m sure he would have pulled them from the shelves already.”

“Good point,” said Vit.

“Do you have a better idea?” asked Azriah.

“Yeah. We go pay this old manor a visit and hope we aren’t wasting our time.”

“Seems like a long shot,” said Azriah.

“Sundraw is only a day east of here.” Vit tilted one of the books so they could see; a map sprawled over the pages, spilling into the binding at its center. They tapped the location of the town.

“If that’s Affodell’s town, there may be others there with some knowledge on the matter,” said Root. “And maybe they aren’t fucking crazy.”

“Maybe we should heed his warning,” suggested Beel.

“It’s a mirror,” said Root. “There’s nothing scary about mirrors. He just wants it in the hands of the museum, but by the sound of it they won’t fund him. That’s his angle.”

“Mirrors can be scary. When you look at them in the dark.”

“If it’s dark, wouldn’t you not be able to see anything at all?” asked Vit.

“No, I mean when it’s sort of dark but not all the way dark.”

“I suppose it’s worth a shot,” said Azriah, ignoring them and addressing Root. “I don’t have a better plan.”

“How dark does it have to be, then?”

“Tomorrow, then.”

“Like, is a lantern too much?”

Azriah sighed. “Tomorrow.”

“What about a candle?”

 

Archin knocked twice on the door. The sound of shuffling papers came from within, and then an answer.

“Come in.”

Timidly, Archin opened the door just wide enough to squeeze through, and then pressed it shut again behind him. It latched with a click.

“Ah, Dr. Vulokus. What can I do for you?”

“I’m sorry to bother you, Dr. Olino. It’s just… well, I’ve, er, just had a conversation. A group of adventurers. They were asking questions about Affodell. They’re seeking the mirror.”

“Another one?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Hm. Well, there’s little we can do about it.”

Archin wrung his hands. He’d expected that answer.

“Well, yes, I’m sure that might be the case. But in recent years they have only been coming with more and more regularity. And these are only the ones who pass through my office. I think it might be best to at least entertain the idea—”

“We can’t, Archin. I agree with you, you know that. Hell, we’ve tried to send our people out. We can’t find it.”

“But it would be safer here. Secure, down in a special vault beneath the museum. Guards.”

“It might. I wish that were a possibility—it would set my own mind at rest just the same as it would yours, I imagine. But we would have to find the crypt first. And we haven’t the slightest clue where to look.”

“No…” agreed Archin. If anyone would know how to find Affodell’s crypt, it would be him, and he just couldn’t piece it together. Affodell had been thorough. She’d had to be.

“Look at it this way,” said Dr. Olino. He pushed up his glasses and laid down the papers in his hands. “This hiding place has held up for a quarter of a millennium. Whatever protections she laid on the place are obviously far superior to anything we could manage in a vault of our own. The mirror is probably safer there than it would be here.”

“You make a good point.”

Dr. Olino nodded. “Good. I’m glad we agree. And if we are being honest, let’s face it—none of the individuals who have come here asking so far have succeeded. There’s no way this group will be any different.”

Archin sighed. “That’s true,” he said. “Yes. Very true.”

 

 

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