As it has been said already, adventures get damp. It’s the unglamorous and lesser-understood reality of adventures. Adventures can’t be all about cresting gorgeous hilltops over sunset wrapped landscapes that stretch for leagues down to the glittering caps of waves in the sea, or delving into the perilous depths of the underground in search of treasure long forgotten. Sometimes they are, and even this adventure will have its moments. But the reality is that adventures are also blistered feet and indigestion away from the amenities of modern plumbing and, above all, damp.
Save for the extreme example of, say, an adventurer traipsing through a beating desert during which the heroine wishes she were damp (with something other than sweat, of course, unless in the case of severe dehydration, at which point maybe even then), all adventures have their damp parts, the miserable parts you don’t really quite understand in the storybook or the bard’s tale later on. It’s the cold reality of adventure that breaks through the child’s fantasy of heroic quests and makes you question whether any of it was really worth it. For lack of a better term, it just puts a damper on things.
This is the damp part.
The group huddled at the base of a low rocky overhang deep in the woods. It was well into the night, and Root could feel the hour in her legs and hanging like sandbags from her eyelids. They had only just reached the point where exhaustion outweighed their fear of being followed.
As you know, the weather in Atnaterra was mild, generally, and more often than not the doing of some spirit or another. And so it wasn’t raining so much as the sky was spitting on them, like one of those enormous drooly dogs shaking its head. Which might have been a comparison with a modicum of literal and unfortunate truth.
Water dripped in a steady stream off the lip of the overhang and splashed muddy droplets onto Root’s ankles. They’d chosen the overhang as their campsite for the shelter it offered; the ground underneath was only deep, squelching mud as opposed to deeper squelching mud beneath two inches of stagnant puddle. On the bright side, the ground was soft enough to be reminiscent of a sticky, sour-smelling mattress.
Root’s soaked hair stuck to her face, and her drenched clothes clung tight against her skin. Everything chafed.
She rubbed her hands over her bare arms to warm them; the chill was fierce, and she didn’t have any clothes for colder weather. Her skin felt like it was made of tiny little flesh cobblestones, pricked and bumpy as she shivered.
“We really couldn’t have just gone back into town and spent the night in an inn?” asked Beel. He had it the worst of all; his stumpy legs left him practically swimming in the mud, so everything from his chin down along his underbelly was coated in a layer of muck.
“Didn’t seem wise,” said Azriah. His words were firm, but his tone was overflowing with despondency. He had gathered a pile of fallen branches and kindling and was struggling to dry them enough that they might be inclined to catch fire. Even the scraps of paper Root made off with from the manor cellar were soaked to a pulp. The only thing they had managed to keep somewhat dry was the book, which Vit held propped up on their knees as far back under the overhang as they could get, poring over the pages as they chewed some sort of dried meat.
After another minute of uselessly slicking water off the sticks with a waterlogged rag, Azriah continued. “That Ajis guy… I don’t know what his deal is, but he’s powerful. He blew apart that wall like it was nothing. And now we’ve made off with his book. I’d rather not get in his way again if we can manage it. We escaped him once, but I fear that was due mostly to luck.”
“Think he’ll come after the book?” asked Vit.
“And you don’t think he’s just going to ask us nicely to hand it over and then be off, I take it,” said Root.
Azriah exhaled in a way that was almost but not quite a laugh. “Seems unlikely.”
“Is that what you were trying to do?” asked Vit.
“Back there at the manor. In front of the fence. You turned back around with the book.”
“I… I’m not sure. Suddenly I felt like I should. I don’t know why.”
“That was a bad instinct,” said Azriah bluntly. Root scowled.
“Fuck you, I didn’t want to. Or… I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense in my head anymore. It’s like I wasn’t really thinking about it, it just happened. I don’t know, okay? Lay off.”
Azriah shook his head. “That was a dangerous situation. There’s no time to not know what to do. Turning around was stupid. You could’ve gotten yourself killed.”
“I said lay the fuck off, all right? Something wrong was going on, that’s all I know.”
Azriah eyed her for another moment but then shrugged and turned his attention away. He didn’t press the point further. Vit watched her for another few seconds with a look of concern before shifting their eyes back to the book.
“Do you think he is looking for the crypt too?” asked Vit.
“He had the other half of the same clue we did,” said Root. “And he went looking for something in the same place. I think it’s likely.”
“Probably a treasure hunter, then,” said Azriah. “Good news is, we have a lead now, and he doesn’t.”
“He has us,” said Vit.
“He’ll have to find us. He’ll try, if the pursuit is worth it to him, and if he was willing to threaten to kill us in a basement, I’m sure it will be. We’ll keep our heads low if we go into any towns, we’ll keep a watch during the night, and we’ll travel carefully.”
“He didn’t really threaten to kill us,” said Vit.
“More of an allusion towards unpleasant ends,” muttered Beel.
Beel went back to whimpering in the cold, wet mud.
Another several minutes were wasted by Azriah as he piled the wood into a cone and struck at the damp papers and twigs with his flint. Sparks died in the mush. He let out an exasperated grunt.
“Root, can you… even a tiny flame, just enough to get this burning?”
Root ground her teeth. “I can’t.”
“You’re a pyvrin, Root, I don’t know what your deal is but we’re freezing out here, and soaked!” The words cracked alongside his temper; the dampness was putting them all in a mood. That’s what being damp does. It’s the second worst condition, only a slight hop behind “dead.”
“I’m not a pyvrin, I’ve told you that.”
“What’s a pyvrin?” asked Vit.
“Someone with the ability to create and control fire,” said Azriah. “One of the few types of magic users among humans. And powerful, at that. They can summon a column of fire like that.” He snapped. “Totally impervious to flames and burns. They could also make smoke if they really wanted to, for whatever reason.”
“And you’re not that?” asked Vit, turning to Root.
“You can make smoke but not fire?”
“N—” Root faltered. “Y— right.”
Vit stared at this statement for just long enough that it made Root’s temper rise. A wisp of smoke curled off the nape of her neck, leaving that one spot with a fleeting and valuable moment of being not damp.
“Would be nice to have a fire,” muttered Beel.
Root reached her hand into the cone of sticks Azriah had propped up and snapped her fingers several times, eliciting nothing and then small sparks. She grimaced, blew a bit of smoke across the papers, and tried again. There was a quick flash of flame that sputtered out immediately. Another couple snaps gave life to a tiny candle-sized burn. Azriah carried it from there. The fire spread.
Vit watched her curiously from across the fire. “That wasn’t… a pyvrin thing?”
They nodded and said no more.
Azriah laid out the rest of their wood to dry beside the fire, and they huddled close for warmth and to let their clothes dry in the heat. The mud caked to Beel’s chin hardened and cracked like brittle bone. Root kept her distance—which was minimal, in the interest of staying both under the relatively dry but not that dry overhang and within the small oasis of heat produced by their fire—and faced away from her companions. Or, as she was presently referring to them in her mind, her “colleagues in travel.”
When they’d all eaten and the time came to post a watch, Root volunteered. The others were soon asleep, leaving her alone to her thoughts—which is, for most people, (especially those prone to the same sort of anxiousness as Root) a particularly unfortunate place to be in the late hours of the night.
She kept the fire burning, though it made her feel more exposed than if she were strapped head to toe in cowbells and sent to run circles around funeral proceedings. It conjured up images of eyes in the dim (but not unusually so, of course) forest all around them, hiding behind tree trunks and peering down over the lip of the overhang. She hugged her knees in tighter.
So far, things had not shaped up the way she’d expected when the concept of “treasure hunting quest” first landed in her mind. Sure, they’d hit a stroke of luck, but that luck came like a drop of honey from a hive. They had bees to deal with now. Really big bees that could blow up walls.
It had become very dangerous very quickly. They’d stepped into the midst of something where larger and more powerful forces were already at play. Had Ophylla known it? Azriah might not be willing to ask that question, but that wouldn’t stop Root from turning it over in her mind.
Whatever the case, she had to be prepared for new dangers ahead—prepared to take action if need called upon her. What was she willing to do when it all came down to it? If her life was in danger—or Vit’s, or Azriah’s, or Beel’s—could she trust herself to do what she had to and save them?
You didn’t last time. You didn’t when it was Eshra’s life at stake. You didn’t save her and you didn’t save the farm, the house. You didn’t act then.
And look what had come of it; she hadn’t acted then and now she was in the middle of the wilderness in fucking Atnaterra, seeking some ancient artifact… damp, for fucks sake.
No, she couldn’t—she wouldn’t.
Nerves twitched in her fingers. She picked at a scab near her elbow.
I miss home, spoke a fleeting thought. I miss dad.
The rest of her watch passed much the same, accompanied by the steady intensification of that hot feeling that creeps into your face as you grow more and more overtired; the late hours of night ended and the early hours of morning began, which is not a shift that occurs at midnight but rather sometime around three or four in the morning. The eyes in the shadows kept up their game of watching Root while her gaze was focused elsewhere and then instantly retreating the moment she snapped her attention around to peer at them. Or at least she thought they did. Only one thought managed to assuage her, and that was the reminder that Ajis did not strike her as the type for rogueish sneaking about. He struck her as the type for, well, striking. Blunt and hard. If he came upon them, he wouldn’t sit and spy, and realistically he wouldn’t be able to get his henchmen to wrap their minds around such a concept anyway. They’d made it quite clear that they’d be hard-pressed to wrap their minds around the circumference of a sewing needle. Harnn, at least, she’d hear from two miles off.
The thought she quite avoided remembering at all costs was that Ajis, through some means, had the ability to open glitter-rimmed portals out of thin air to come and go as he pleased. That thought certainly would not have helped put her at ease, and so she decisively agreed with herself that she would not think it at all.
When the time came—or so she guessed, since she still hadn’t picked up Atnaterran time-telling in the slightest—she prodded Azriah awake. He took up her spot, erect and conscious, and she gratefully took his, supine and very much not.
She dreamed she was back home.
Night shrouded the modest family farm: a small farmhouse, one story plus a loft just wide enough to stuff two narrow mattresses and a battered wooden chest; an old barn, big enough that the house could fit snugly inside like a set of the egg-shaped wooden dolls that the finer toy stores in the large nearby town sometimes carried, imported from up north; a garden plot out back beyond the kitchen door, hearty with veggies and herbs; rows and rows of worm beds, an entire field of them stretching up the gentle incline of the hill towards the stars. The night brought with it a darkness like none Root had felt for many days now, ever since coming to Atnaterra.
A wind whipped hot through the trees like a dry monsoon, like the breath of a beast. It ripped at her hair and her clothes.
Someone cried out for her. Her dad stood at the doorway of the house, face contorted in horror. He pointed. Root turned.
A huge, hulking spirit the size of their house crouched in the field, tearing gashes in the earth with its enormous claws and kicking dirt into the air. It drew out fistfuls of their spirit worms—each one a foot and a half in length, wriggling and chirping in terror—and stuffed them greedily into its maw.
It moved from bed to bed. Root stood immobile and watched.
Her dad shouted again. She couldn’t make out his words, but she knew what he said.
The spirit finished digging trenches through their field. It raised its attention to the farmhouse and stalked forward.
Her hands smoked.
She did nothing.
She was on her knees in the cellar of Affodell’s manor; something was beneath her.
She had her palms pressed against something—a face. It was a body beneath her, and she sat on its chest. His chest. Azriah.
He spat and wrenched at his limbs but she kept him pinned, knees against his sides, palms on his face. Smoke coiled up from her hands, more and more of it until the air grew hazy. Flames sputtered to life between her fingers, timid at first but then growing as they took hold. They ate at Azriah’s skin.
His hair went up first. The flames took hold there and his hair burned away in the way hair does—crinkling and writhing about like a trapped snake, knitting together as it turned blacker and lost its sheen. As the fire spread in a wave it left behind the brittle strands that crumbled to dust as Azriah shook his head in agony.
The flesh of his cheeks went next, soft and easy, and left matching cavities on either side of his face, baring teeth in a snarl, a grimace, stifling shouts and moans of pain. Root pushed harder. The flames burned hotter.
Quickly, the rest of his face succumbed to the blaze. Lips blistered and popped and parted into a sooty grin. Cheekbones breached like whales. Root closed her eyes until she felt only bone beneath her fingers.
She looked down as the fire died out. Azriah’s face had burned away to nothing, leaving behind only a stark white skull stained with greasy flakes of charred flesh. Blood dripped from what remained of his ears and the flesh that cradled the sides and back of his head. Glistening red burns gripped his neck like strangling fingers. He had stopped protesting some time ago. Eventually, he had given in.
Smoke rose off his cooling corpse. Root looked down into the dark sockets of his skull.
Flames came alight in his empty eyes.
She awoke breathing heavy and fast. Mud smeared her hands. It looked like blood.
Words in the air vanished under the sound of her heart pounding in her ears. Had she said something?
“I said are you all right?”
Root turned. Azriah sat with his back against the rock wall. The light from the fire danced across his face.
“The dreams have been keeping me up, too.” He looked up at the treetops and the sky. “This is a peculiar place. It’ll be a relief when we have the mirror and get back to Unn at last.”
“Get some more sleep. You’ve hardly been out.”
For just over a week, they made their way southeast, heading more often than not in the right direction, but also heading more often than none in the wrong direction.
They stayed one night at an inn in a small city called Drooked, which is not said in the way you might think. If you rhymed it with “looked,” you are unfortunately incorrect. If you rhymed it with “spooked,” you are unfortunately incorrect. If you rhymed it with “crooked,” you are unfortunately correct. The inn was nothing nice, but it wasn’t muddy and it wasn’t the ground and it came with a roof for a small upcharge. “Nothing nice,” however, might as well have been their tagline. Root fell out of her bed twice during the night due to the regrettable condition of its frame, which was, as it were, noticeably drooked.
For some reason, however, it was damp. The whole city. Every surface. Root never figured out why.
Another night they spent in a town called Hack. They made sure to get in and out as quickly as possible and without the misfortune of learning how it got its name.
In both instances of their visits to civilization, they kept their heads low and their presence quiet. Aside from their stays in the inns and two stops for supplies, they kept to the woods and the road. The week passed with no appearance or sign of Ajis nor any of his underlings.
The destination for this leg of their walk was the village of Yevel, a small settlement in the northern foothills of the Shundren Mountains, which they arrived at just after midnight one night. They found lodging on the edge of the village and slipped into the town unseen by the eyes of all save the innkeeper, two drunkards (one of whom had no fewer than a dozen eyes), a particularly rigid old tomcat (also with an extra eye or two), and something that didn’t appear to be anything but eye. Which didn’t bode well for their goal of staying out of sight, but it did strike Root as a misplaced emphasis; in the hall leading up to their room, they passed a spirit who looked quite mole-like, and though she didn’t have any eyes (as far as Root could tell), she certainly smelled them. Granted, this was also not a terribly difficult feat, given their week-long trek through the woods.
The latch clicked behind them as they settled into the dual comforts of a room with beds and a deadbolt.
It was a long room with four brass-framed beds and a rickety desk that didn’t appear to have gotten many opportunities to serve its intended purpose, as it looked to have been written on more than it had been written on. There were two windows on the far wall and a cold fireplace on one side. To Root’s relief, all of the beds were reasonably yevel. They were also, however, enthusiastically squeaky. Root might’ve been more worried about it if she’d purchased the room on a different occasion. With any luck, their neighbors were also closer to the “mysterious treasure hunting quest” end of that spectrum, assuming their amenities were in comparable condition.
Over the course of their walk, they had had ample time to pinpoint the most likely locations of the crypt. Yevel was the last isle of civilization before only wilderness stretched ahead of them, and for that reason they meant to make the town a temporary—and, hopefully, brief—base of operations, a place to rest up, replenish their supplies, and make their final preparations before striking out into the unknown.
But most pressing, given the late hour, was the first of these, and so they promptly dropped like corpses into their beds (which was quite an audible ordeal) and hoped to wake up by the terms of any other simile.
The next morning they awoke the way they did. No analogical language about it.
They busied themselves that first day with maps—local maps, purchased from local cartographers, detailing the local landmarks. The merchants were happy and somewhat perplexed at the sudden business. As it turned out, making maps of some backwater corner of wooded mountain foothills was not the most lucrative model for a mapmaking business. As is the case with anyone who adopts the title of “entrepreneur” faster than a child does a litter of fresh kittens, they’d claim their idea was groundbreaking. Groundbreaking, however, is never a term that tells the full story. There’s a world of difference between breaking ground over a gold mine and a sewage pipe.
In any case, the group made off with a whole stack of maps at what they regarded as a steal, given the circumstances, and the sellers considered highway robbery, given that they didn’t know the circumstances. They picked up another map from a local pawn shop and yet another as a lucky find from a stable sale. They even came into possession of a shoddily scrawled account of the region from one shopkeeper who was all too enthusiastic to put his hometown knowledge to good use when a couple of foreigners stopped in asking for maps, which he didn’t have in stock (yet). This, they shuffled into the stack with the rest, though they hoped not to find themselves desperate enough to need it.
Back in their room, they hauled the desk into the middle of the space, pushed the beds to the corners, and got to work.
The small room became the epicenter of an investigation—cross-checking maps, investigating the slightest differences, marking up the margins and circling every point that just might be the resting place of a hoard of riches, an old mirror, and at least a couple of corpses if Archin’s folktale about the imprisoned builders was to be believed.
That carried them into the evening of that first day. They spent another night there.
On the second morning, it struck Root how silly it was to be feeling so much comfort and relief at the idea of being behind a locked door. She’d watched Ajis blast apart a brick wall like it was instead made of honeycomb and spit and decorative tissue paper (and maybe a slight drizzle of glue just to keep things together around the edges). And their door didn’t even quite touch the floor—exposing, like pants that aren’t long enough to cover the ankles. They might as well have left it ajar and stuck Beel outside like a guard dog.
The second day was much like the first, though Azriah went out to purchase supplies—food and candles and other odds and ends. They didn’t know where this next leg of the journey would take them, nor how long they would be away from civilization. Meanwhile, Root, Vit, and for what he was worth, Beel, continued to make sense of their collection of maps, checking them against the words in Ajis’s book, which Vit pored over night and day, beyond just the page about the mirror. Together alongside a few carefully extricated comments from the people of the village gathered through the same slow, calculating movements as someone overturning logs and stones in search of critters in the forest, they put the pieces together.
They identified five possible locations of the meadow and accompanying monument, all within a day’s walk of one another. It was the best they could do, given the limited information they had. They’d just have to check each spot until they found what they were looking for.
But it was far from nothing, and a much better lead than they’d had even a few days prior. They agreed to spend one last night in the inn and then set out the following morning, making for the first of the potential monument locations.
It was as they were packing up their many, many maps—which now covered the floor and beds and one whole wall like a particularly niche wallpaper design—that they heard a tapping on their window.
It made Root jump more than it should’ve. She was on edge—and understandably so—but if Ajis came to their window she expected a bit more than a knock, unless he was afflicted by some ailment of misjudged strength and that situation at the manor had really only been him knocking forlornly on the window as he willed Root and the others to come back.
“Shh—get down.” Azriah drew his sword and crept silently to the window. Taking up a stance along the wall, he reached slowly over and then pulled the curtain aside.
On the other side was a long green vine like the tail of a paralyzed snake sticking straight up in the air.
“Huh?” Vit poked their head up higher over the top of the bed they’d taken cover behind.
The vine knocked again. Azriah looked closer.
“Oh.” He unlatched the window and swung it open.
“Thanks,” said Spaghetti from just out of sight on the ground beneath the windowsill. “I’m here on behalf of the mistress. She’d like to see you all.”
It was no less foreboding the second time.
Beel climbed out the window alongside the others to join the tumbleweed spirit on the other side. Root nudged it closed and then they all followed the tiny rolling spirit out of the thicket, around the side of the building, and down a dirt path leading farther out of the village.
She regrets not taking her chance the first time, thought Beel with an inner monologue sigh, which were louder and more passionate than his audible sighs. She regrets not eating us. Now it’s Beeootah time.