1.13

Posted by cameron - 2022-05-18 09:00:14

Upon the cave’s threshold, the first part of this journey came to an end. In its stead, the second part was just beginning. There will be a third and a fourth and a fifth part and so on, but we will get to all of those in due time. By some metrics this is more of a second part of the first part—a part one and a half, you might say.

By this point, the group was closer to the end of their road than they realized… and yet, at the same time, the opposite could not have been more true. Regardless, they were in for a long night. A rest outside the tunnels would’ve done them good. But it was too late for that.

The tunnel wound steadily upwards, coiling this way and that like a river surging along its bed to the place where it doesn’t have to be a river anymore. Minus the uphill part, that is—though there is one Atnaterran river, the Accloll, which flows uphill. Fortunately the sea is fueled by many tributaries, or else the Accloll would quickly suck the whole body dry, whisking the water away up into the hills and funneling it deep into the ground where it vanishes in a sort of inverse spring—a fall, most call it, but not the sort you’re thinking of. There’s common misunderstanding on the matter. Some have taken to calling it an autumn instead.

Azriah led the way, carrying the torch. Vit came next, their ghastly spider limbs deployed, adding their own hue to the light. Root followed behind them, and Beel shambled along at the rear. Occasionally he sighed or made some other clicking noise of disapproval. Root ignored him.

The passageway was rounded like the inside of a pipe and crested near the tops of their heads. Vit had to duck during a few of the lower sections, but otherwise the trail was simple and straightforward, albeit slightly unsettling. What made this passage? Root couldn’t help but wonder, And where does it like to hang around these days?

Soon the slope leveled off, and that was where the landscape began to adopt some more fashionable traits.

The first fork gave them significant pause. They stood around for several minutes studying it, puzzling over what it might mean for their search. Eventually they shrugged and chalked it up to something one of the crypt’s builders must have left behind, a lost device of a lunch break in an age gone by, tucked away here out of the elements and thus preserved, tarnished and dusty and with a crust of ancient sauce beneath the tines.

It was the second fork that was just perplexing.

As they walked deeper, other peculiarities presented themselves. The first was a word scratched into the stone wall, a simple, single, foreboding word, with letters as tall as Beel was long: BEWARE. They stopped to look at it.

“Are we worried about this?” asked Vit.

“Only that it might mean someone was here first,” said Azriah.

“Could’ve been Affodell,” said Root. “Y’know, like, trying to ward people off.”

“She’s doing a bad job of it,” said Vit. “Who has ever taken the word ‘beware’ seriously?”

“Me,” said Beel.

“Everyone knows if you actually want people to turn around you have to provide a specific and detailed description of the threat.”

“And cite your sources,” said Root.

Just past the scrawl they came to their first branching of the tunnel.

Vit, Root, and Beel stood at the intersection while Azriah walked down each until it curved, then back. On his second return he looked worried.

“There’s nothing down either direction, just more tunnel and more curves beyond what I can see. And there are more branches—looks like a lot of them.”

“How do we want to take this?” asked Vit. “Hug one wall?”

“Do we have anything to leave on the ground?” asked Root.

They stood around thinking for several minutes. They had nothing to leave as a trail, save bits of food, which they vetoed twofold; one, because they wanted to eat it, and two, because they didn’t want to invite some hungry beast to a lengthy buffet with dessert at the end.

“I don’t think there’s any magical solution,” said Azriah at last. “We just walk until we find something.”

“And if we just keep wandering?” asked Root.

“We have provisions for another week. If things really start looking grim, we take Vit’s suggestion—hug one wall until we find one end or another. I just worry if we do that right off the bat, we’ll spend all our time walking up and down lengthy dead ends. Let’s see if we don’t get lucky.”

“Lucky,” muttered Beel as they started off down one passage. “I think we’re far downstream from ‘lucky.’”

(Of course, in Atnaterra, “downstream” can have different meanings depending on what stream you’re down.)

They took another tangle of turns, sometimes pausing for a note of discussion, other times just picking a path in unspoken decision. Only a brief flock of minutes passed before they came to another etching on the wall.

This one had no words, unless in some illegible overlapping cursive that Root couldn’t puzzle through. At first it looked like the work of some breed of stone-eating termites or cave art depicting a patch of brambles. Root was ready to pass it by when Vit let out a gasp.

“It’s a map.”

On closer inspection, it certainly could have been—but to Root, the idea that the image before her corresponded to the tunnels around her was horribly disheartening.

“Look,” said Vit, stepping in closer and holding up their spider limbs to illuminate the image better in their glow. They pointed to the lowest part of the squiggle. “Here’s the entrance, this long straight path… or maybe it’s this one over here…” they pointed to a similar offshoot on the left. “Or, uh, this one… Hmm. But see these little markings? An X here and here. Oh, and one here. And here. One of these has to be the crypt, right?”

“Makes sense,” said Azriah. “But where are we now?”

That question went unanswered for many, many minutes while Vit studied the image and then the corridors around them, and then back again, and once more through that cycle. They concluded the back and forth with a shrug. “No idea.”

But being lost with a map was better than being lost without, they all agreed, and so they sat down on the packed dirt of the tunnel floor to eat and rest while Vit copied the image down onto a blank page at the back of Ajis’s book.

The break was over all too quickly, and then they were back to walking. Root hadn’t realized until she sat down how tired she was, and that brief moment of respite reminded her eyes how to close. Her face felt hot and her legs were sore. It had been a long day, and it wasn’t over yet.

Vit twisted and turned the book around in their hands, now following along at the rear of the group as they passed through coils and intersections. Their position on the map remained a mystery, and so they continued to follow turns at random with only the occasional words of input from Vit. Those words, more often than not, started with the word “maybe” and ended with a question mark.

A scattering of bones was the next detail to give them pause.

“Something from Setoterra,” said Vit, looking down at the clean white remains. “Spirits don’t leave anything behind. Must have been some animal that wandered in here and couldn’t find its way back out.” It was an ominous landmark, but they wandered deeper still.

More scratches marred the walls, turning now to swipes like the scraping of claws or fingernails, the desperate etchings of something trying to escape. Root shuddered; she was long past the point of recalling the turns that would lead back to the exit, and until they made sense of the map, their navigation in either direction would be left up to guesswork and luck. Which was overwhelmingly and wholly not a reassuring thought.

Not for the first time that day, and certainly not for the first time since leaving Unn, Root was overcome by the fear that she had stepped into something far beyond the realm of her skill to manage, and more perilous than was responsible. She’d gone to Unn with a mission, clear and concrete, and now she was wandering in an expansive maze that wormed through the mountains of the spirit world like the innards of an anthill, clinging to a hope that around the next corner they would stumble upon some ancient crypt untouched. Everything about it was wrong. And what was to say that finding the crypt would be the end of it? In the stories, old places like that were always riddled with booby traps. They could survive the maze only to get skewered at the bottom of a needle-filled pit that opened up beneath their feet or get cloven in two by a colossal axe that swung down from the ceiling. There might be a river teeming with flesh-eating fish. There were always flesh-eating fish.

For fuck’s sake, she thought. I was just supposed to find a job, not the mirror of a dead painter.

What if they wandered the maze forever, never reaching the crypt or finding the exit again? They had food for a week, water for less, but what would happen when they ran out? Root would die in there within a few days—Azriah, too. Beel would just keep wandering until some event found him—pleasant or otherwise—and introduced him to a new fortune. What about Vit? Did Vit need to eat? And what happened if they died? Root hadn’t considered it before. Probably not the best time to ask.

If she died, no one back home would have any clue what had happened to her. Her dad would just keep sending letters and hear nothing in return.

Or, well, there was always Beel. In the end, she could send him to tell the tale of her final deeds crawling dehydrated and starving through rank tunnels in Atnaterra, right? Though he probably wasn’t the best messenger. And that was assuming he managed an eventual escape.

As they came around another corner, they were greeted by yet more cave writing. These letters, in an arch that wound from near the floor on their left, up and over their heads, all the way to a spot level with the beginning on their right, read: TURN BACK NOW.

“Impressive,” said Root, craning her neck as she followed the words across the ceiling. “They managed to get the start and end perfectly even without making the letters bigger or smaller as they got towards the end.”

“That’s hard to do,” said Vit.

They passed under the arch and continued down the hallway.

It came to a dead end after another fifty or so feet of winding tunnel. Contrary to expectation, the warning on the wall was one they should actually have heeded, since now they had nowhere to go but back.

But though the tunnel ended, it was not without some feature. The feature in question took the shape of a skeleton on the floor at the very end, grinning soullessly at them through empty sockets. A great mural of scratched words and glyphs marked the wall behind them like a board of clues in the office of an overtired detective. Vit took the lead down the final length of the tunnel.

The skeleton lay in a heap, pressed against the wall as if hoping to meld with the stone. At first Root thought that the finger bones were partially buried in clawed troughs cut into the dirt floor; the remains were positioned as though the figure was digging into the ground there. But as Azriah prodded one arm with the toe of his boot and the thin finger bones shifted, Root saw that they were scraped and worn, reduced to flattened nubs that nearly ate through the entirety of the first bone down to the knuckle. They were rough with the shards and scrapes that made them look as though they’d been ground forcefully against sandpaper or through the razor chinks of a metal grater. Root looked back up at the markings all across the walls. Bile and horror clawed up into her throat.

“This was a human,” said Vit, looking over the skeleton. “Why would a human come here?”

“Why are we here?” asked Azriah. He knelt and pushed the skeleton aside to withdraw the belongings that lay below it. Time had not been kind to them, and now little remained but stained fabric and leather that fell to bits in his hand and brittle pieces of wood and metal—tools and supplies once, maybe, though they looked shredded, like they’d been chewed by a meat grinder. He let the debris fall, clattering and then coming to rest within the cavity of the ribcage. The sounds of collision were repulsively melodic.

“What’s all this?” asked Root, turning to the wall etchings in an attempt to direct her attention anywhere other than the skeleton and its nubbed fingers. Unsurprisingly, the stained wall wasn’t much better.

“There’s a lot,” said Vit, looking it up and down.

“I can see that. What’s it say?” Numerous scripts overlapped and crossed through one another, some parts nearly legible to Root in the language and letters familiar to her, but more than half of it was in the runic spirit alphabet. Even the words she could almost read felt off somehow, and others were too faded or covered up to discern.

“I’m not sure,” said Vit, looking closer. “It’s all very archaic. There are weird spellings and stuff. It’s going to take me a while to puzzle it all out.”

“Is it important?” asked Azriah.

“Could be,” said Vit with a shrug. “But I’d like to study it for a bit to find out.”

“It looks pretty important,” said Root. “This guy clearly wanted to get it out no matter the cost.”

“Hmm. Well, we might as well stop here for the night,” said Azriah after a moment. “That’ll give you time to work through it.” Root’s shoulders sagged at the mention of rest.

Vit lit a candle from Azriah’s torch, then flipped to a blank page at the back of the book and began taking notes. Root and Azriah slung off their packs and deposited them on the floor.

“I’m going to go have a look down the neighboring tunnels,” said Azriah.

“You really think there’s going to be anything but more rock and dirt?” asked Root.

“No, but if we’re staying put in this spot for the next several hours, I’d like to confirm that it’s just rocks and dirt. And better not to go alone, I’d wager.”

“I’ll go,” offered Root, much to the dismay of her feet and her eyes and her legs and her back and her knees and her head which was beginning to throb with the monotony of the tunnels. Anything to spend a bit of time looking at walls that weren’t plastered with some dead guy’s finger-painted will.

They turned and set off back down the tunnel. As they reached its mouth, Root was surprised to hear three sets of footfalls traveling in their group.

“You want to join the ‘make sure there’s nothing dangerous nearby’ excursion?” asked Root.

“No,” said Beel. “I want to be where the most living people are. This is an unfortunate additional circumstance.”

Azriah scraped an X into the thin layer of dirt at the tunnel’s entrance with the heel of his boot and then turned right. The mark was hardly visible, but better than nothing.

They went slow, and they didn’t go far—only to the next fork, which they were beginning to ignore simply out of increasing normalcy in their frequent presence, and then to the first intersection beyond. They were careful, making sure they knew the way back with certainty; the last thing they needed now was to get separated.

“Doesn’t all of this seem like a bit much?” asked Root after a while.

“What do you mean?”

“Like… well, I know we still don’t know if the mirror is special or anything, but I don’t care if it’s the most coveted piece of junk in the worlds. This,” she waved to the tunnels all around them, “seems like a bit much. I mean, putting your tomb in a maze of tunnels in a remote corner of the wilderness? Locking the people who built it inside so they die alongside you and can never reveal the location? And she wasn’t even that famous, right? She was just a somewhat-notable painter and aristocrat with a seemingly inconsequential artifact. That’s… I don’t know, but it sounds fucking crazy to me. Really just batshit unhinged.”

“Listen, I’ve explained my philosophy before, it’s just better if you—”

“Yeah, yeah—if you don’t ask questions, just do the job and get paid. Never mind, forget I brought it up.”

They poked around another turn and then backtracked in silence.

“I’m sorry,” said Azriah after several minutes. “I mean… yeah. You’re right.”

“That it’s weird?”

“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”

“Oh, so you can think the questions, but you can’t talk about them with your friends?” Azriah gave her a look. “Er, colleagues, or whatever.”

He sighed. “I didn’t expect any of the obstacles we’ve come to. Least of all Ajis. And this maze of tunnels, too… it’s certainly more than Ophylla made it out to be. It does seem to me that there’s something important she didn’t let on. But of course she would cut a few corners and try to get the best deal—anyone would. It’s just a higher-profile job than we were led to believe, and there’s competition. If the payout from the crypt isn’t sufficient, we’ll see if we can negotiate better terms when we get back.”

“But it is weird?”

“It’s certainly weird.”

Root nodded. “As long as we’re on the same page.”

“Well I just want to be done with this whole mess and get out of here,” said Beel.

“Believe me, those words are on that page as well.”

They checked another two corners. Everything looked sufficiently noteunworthy.

“I’d call us friends,” said Azriah after another stretch of silence.

Root was saved from the awkward execution of a sentimental response by a growing buzzing noise echoing down one of the passageways. Azriah held up a hand. They all froze to listen.

It sounded like the hum of insects, but less organic somehow. Azriah stalked forwards and peeked around the nearest corner. Root followed a pace behind.

In the hall beyond moved three forms—spirits, Root assumed, though rarely had she seen multiple spirits so uniform in appearance. Each one looked like a lump of black clay with golden appendages stuck in where their shapeless shoulders might have been imagined to be like toothpicks in a child’s monstrous art project. The golden limbs sprouted like wings, branching off in likeness to the framing of a bat’s leathery forelimbs, but there was no skin or webbing across the gaps. Nevertheless, they beat the wings against the air and the air complied, holding them aloft. Matching golden hands with sickle-shaped claws hung off the lower part of the body, stumpy, attached not so much to an arm as a wrist only. Tails dangled below them, black fading to deep purple and swishing sporadically through the air like an agitated cat. Their eyes were hollow holes, the pits of deep thumbprints in the claylike bodies. They seemed to be sniffing.

Looking at the three creatures instilled a sudden pang of terror that tore into Root and bore through her bones, stripping her of every ounce of confidence she’d had in an instant. She froze.

Azriah retreated behind the corner, then pulled Root after him. Clearly he felt it too.

“Did it look friendly?” asked Beel in a wavering whisper.

“Depends. Friendly to whom?” asked Root.

Us.”

“Ah. Unfortunately the answer is no.”

The buzzing grew louder. The strange spirits were drawing nearer.

“Are they coming closer?” moaned Beel.

“No, they’re just yelling louder as they run off the other way.”

“Maybe we should do that too.”

“The running, yes,” said Azriah, steering them quickly back the way they’d come. “The yelling, no.”

 

The cave ahead was veiled in thick shadow. Ercc peered into the opening.

“Outta the way,” said Fsool. The spirit blinked once and suddenly the darkness came alight with the vibrancy of a Setoterran day. His eyeball glowed magnificently like a ball of molten metal, searing through the black with a beam that made Ercc shield his own eyes.

“You think there’s treasure in here?” asked Ercc as they walked along, Fsool first to light the way, Ercc behind him. The marching order worked out well—Ercc was tall enough that he could see over the top of Fsool’s heads without issue. His own hard scalp scraped against the low roof of the tunnel, however, which wasn’t quite comfortable, mostly for the tunnel.

“Definitely,” said Fsool. “Probably old dungeons filled with gold and old rotting horses.”

“Horses?”

“Yeah, those Setoterran shits with the legs.”

“Why would they be in here?”

“Don’t you know anything about dungeons and adventurers?” asked Fsool with a cocky edge to his tone that made Ercc grumble and bite his tongue. “Adventurers go looking for loot so they lead their horses into the caves and then the horses die, but they can’t drag the horse back out so they leave ‘em. Read about it once.”

“Oh.”

“Ya.”

Fsool continued to lead the way through the tunnels, taking turns without pause. A mood of giddy abandon settled on his stout shoulders as he paced faster and faster.

“Man, how far do you think these go?” he asked after a while.

“Dunno. Much farther you think? There have been a couple turns we never explored…”

“I know that, idiot,” said Fsool. “Those weren’t the right way. This is. I can feel it, see? Adventurer’s gut.”

“Oh, okay.”

Fsool flicked out a claw and dragged it along the rough wall as they walked, cutting a long stripe into the stone.

“This just keeps winding all round and ‘bout,” said Fsool, coming to a sudden halt.

“Maybe we should head back?”

“No way. You’re not scared, are you?”

“No,” Ercc lied.

“Good.” Fsool pivoted to face the wall. “These tunnels are a real jumble, though. They started out all easy-like…” He scraped his claw up the wall, making a straight vertical line. “But then they got we-ird.” He veered his line sharply to the left, and then the right, etching the wall with a growing jumble of intersecting scribbles. “And then they went like this, and like this. And up ahead I bet they go… like this!” He scratched furiously now, marring the wall with the peak-career artwork of a human toddler or a design for the worst city layout imaginable.

Ercc chuckled as Fsool scribbled; the laughter egged him on. Now he threw off offshoots from the design and cut through the whole coiled mess with jagged bolts.

“Then there’s treasure, of course. Here…” he marked an X, “and here, and here…”

“Prob-ly does look like that,” said Ercc, looking up and down the tunnel at the many paths branching off. “Someone could get real lost in here.”

“But not us.”

“No way.”

“Do you think this is gonna really mess someone up one day?” asked Fsool with a grin, stepping back to admire his artwork.

“What do you mean?”

“Like if they think it’s a real map.”

“Oh. Maybe.” Ercc paused. “You hear that?”

“Sounds like bees.”

“Could be bees.”

“Good thing we aren’t afraid of bees.”

“Yah, good thing.”

 

 

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