As the heavy stone door swung slowly open, Root had ample time to be optimistic about what might be on the other side. A full art gallery lay behind her, so carefully and meticulously arranged that it looked as though someone had carved it from some bourgeois quarter of a grand city—plucked it from the halls of some pretentious museum that overcharged on both admission and an assortment of low-quality souvenirs that were doomed to be forgotten about in the back of a closet for a decade—and tossed it into the mountains (in a fate not unlike the museum souvenirs, as it were). This fleeting return to the atmosphere of civilization had spoiled her, clearly, as hopes and visions for the next room flooded her mind. Chief among them were thoughts of plush mattresses and crisp linens and a hundreds-of-years-old mint like an oyster’s pearl resting on the pillow—which, in turn, was chilled to perfection by the underground air.
Maybe that bed and breakfast idea had some merit.
The door ground open, revealing the chamber beyond. Root’s hopeful vision of the room was right in some ways, and wrong in others.
It was not a place to rest. It was, however, a resting place. (And, realistically, Root wasn’t in a position or mood to be too picky about what “a place to rest” should look like. There was a horizontal surface that wasn’t made of nails or glass shards or live, angry scorpions. At the moment, that checked all of her boxes.)
There was only one bed, and not in some cheesy romantic cliche type of way. It was of the death variety.
Most unfortunately of all, there was no mint, hundreds-of-years-old or otherwise. There was, however, a faint spiced smell in the air.
All things considered, it was the second best option. The bed might’ve been nice—no, would’ve, for certain, without a doubt—but the reality was a fair consolation.
Because, well… they’d done it, hadn’t they? They’d reached Affodell’s crypt.
Audible sighs of relief swept through the group, taking flight one after the other like dominoes toppling as the door opened wide enough for each of them to see. The loudest of the bunch came from Beel, who choked out a great heave of joy. They filed into the room.
It was smaller than the room before it—a size that would’ve been called a luxurious master bedroom by anyone back home in Root’s village, or a modest walk-in closet by anyone from a more insufferable tax bracket. The walls to either side of the door were recessed and lined with stone shelves holding a sparse collection of odds and ends and, notably, coins. Most of the space in the room was taken up by a flat-topped marble sarcophagus and a matching pedestal behind its head. The familiar yellow glow filled the room, courtesy of more of the same strange molten vines.
Vit leaned over the sarcophagus. “This is it,” they breathed, and traced a finger over the etched lettering: “Ybris Affodell” in big letters, followed by what looked to be a long poem in her honor, and then the dates of her birth and death. Sections of the writing lay obscured by coins here and there, placed at random across the top of the stone. Root picked one up and looked it over; dusty, tarnished, but legal tender just the same. She looked around.
“I’m not seeing a massive hoard of wealth.”
The others looked up from the sarcophagus and turned about the room, taking in what Root had already noticed. There were coins—and plenty of them—resting neatly atop any flat surface in the room (including a scant few on the floor), but not the mountains of gold that Root had envisioned. It was hard to make a proper assessment, but she wouldn’t have estimated there was more than twice her own down payment. Split four ways, that wasn’t anything worth choking on a drink over, and Ophylla’s contracted share meant that they would receive little—if anything at all.
There were other trinkets, at least—a handful of treasures that would surely fetch a worthwhile price at a museum or pawn shop. Perhaps the value of the room was higher than it appeared.
Azriah gave an exasperated sigh. “We’ll have to discuss—”
“You guys?” said Vit. Azriah paused as they all turned.
Vit stood before the pedestal; their frame blocked it from view. They hadn’t looked up from its top.
Root hurried over to investigate. It didn’t take her very long at all to get herself up to speed.
There was nothing atop the pedestal—not a coin, not an inscription, not a trinket or artifact. Only dust. Dust, and in other sections, not dust. The outline of the shape was not hard to discern: it was a mirror—small, oval, with a narrow handle that pointed towards the sarcophagus. Except there was no mirror there. At least not anymore.
“No… shit,” said Azriah, and he put a hand in his hair. “Look around. There’s got to be something…” He went quickly to one of the shelves, where he pushed aside trinkets and swept away coins and cobwebs. Metal clinked on metal as he went from shelf to shelf, scanning the few other items in the room.
Root took the other unit of shelves and combed them just the same. Vit wound around and around the room, looking in every corner, up and down the sides of the sarcophagus, and on top of the high shelves none of the others could reach. Beel searched the insides of his eyelids, sitting in the corner with his face scrunched up and his hands on his temples. He didn’t seem to be having much luck there either.
“I knew this was all going to be for nothing,” he muttered over and over.
“It has to be in here,” said Azriah, turning away from the shelves Root had already searched. “How could it just be gone?”
“Someone could have beaten us here,” suggested Vit solemnly.
“But how? No one knew the location.”
“That we know of,” added Root.
Azriah went back to the pedestal and ran a finger through the dust.
“Is there anything in the book?” asked Root. It was a stretch, and she knew it. But the sinking, empty feeling in her stomach made her want to scream. All that way, and for what? She could’ve fled Unn with her down payment and come out just about even in the end—a handful fewer coins, maybe, assuming Ophylla would be willing to cut their collective losses and show a little compassion, and significantly less traumatized by the beating dealt out by Atnaterra. She could be somewhere safe and warm and aboveground in a bed right now.
“No, I’ve read it all,” said Vit. Nevertheless, they shrugged off their pack and dug around inside for a moment. Their brow furrowed.
“What?” asked Root reluctantly. She didn’t have the energy for more bad news.
“I… I don’t know where the book is.”
“What?” said Azriah sharply. He looked up from the pedestal.
“I put it in my backpack, I swear. But it’s not in here.” They rifled through the contents faster now, but it was not a particularly large pack, nor a particularly small tome, despite its notable shrinking over the years.
“Did you leave it somewhere?”
Vit’s eyes wandered in rapid thought. “No. No, I swear it was here.”
“Not even back at the carvings in the tunnel?” Azriah’s voice was hard and accusatory.
“I… I… No, I had it when we were running. I must have. I remember using the map.”
“Then maybe you dropped it.”
“I… suppose I could have.”
Root stepped between them. “Just drop it, for fuck’s sake.”
“Sounds like they already did,” said Beel.
“Shut up, Beel.”
Beel went back to whining in the corner.
“It wouldn’t do us any good now, anyway. Vit has read what’s left of the thing cover to cover—if there was something in there about… about anything, they’d know it whether we had the book or not.”
Vit hung their head. “Maybe there’s a secret compartment in here…?”
“There isn’t,” said Azriah. “We can see where the mirror was, and it’s gone. There’s hardly anything worthwhile in here at all.”
“Who cares about the mirror, anyway?” said Root. “It’s the money that was supposed to be ours. I don’t give a fuck if Ophylla gets her prize. I want mine.”
“That’s exactly why we need the mirror,” said Azriah. “You don’t get it. If Ophylla loses, we all lose. She’s not going to dish out the payment we deserve if she doesn’t at least get the one thing she paid us to find for her. The job wasn’t to find the crypt, it was to find the mirror, so as far as she’s concerned, the job’s not done. If we had the mirror, we’d have grounds to negotiate. Even if she wanted to be stubborn, there are avenues to take… But it doesn’t matter, because the gold is gone, and so is the mirror.”
“We could still sell the discovery to the museum,” suggested Vit.
“And maybe they’ll give us a chunk of change for our troubles and name a new exhibit hall after us,” said Azriah with a sarcastic wave. “They’re a nonprofit. That means if you work with them your reward is non profit.”
“I don’t think that’s what that—”
“Look, we’re done, okay? That’s it.”
Root stared at the floor. Just like that, then.
Damn it. Fuck.
“Let’s take what’s left and get out of here.”
Azriah took a heavy canvas bag from the depths of his pack, unfurled it, and began loading it up with the coins and scattered treasures of the room. Each new item fell to the bottom with a depressingly faint and hollow glinknk.
“So you think someone’s already been here,” said Root as she collected a handful of grimy coins and dropped them into the bag.
“Looks like it.”
“And they took the mirror and most of the coins and loot and stuff.”
“But not all?” asked Vit.
“Maybe they were in a rush. Could’ve had those guard spirits at their back.”
“Do you think it was Ajis?” asked Root.
“We could go after him. Get the mirror and the money.”
Azriah laughed—a single, biting note. “I’m not messing with that guy. There are other jobs. I’m cutting my losses and moving on.” He swept the last of the coins into the bag and tugged it shut with a ratty drawstring. He pushed against the door.
The door didn’t open.
Again, he tried the door, harder this time. It wasn’t persuaded to change its mind.
A third time, Azriah tried the door, this time with the full force of his shoulder driven against the stone. And still, it didn’t budge.
“Damn it!” he yelled, and dropped the bag. “Look for a latch or something!”
“Noooo, no,” whined Beel and slumped against the wall. “I told you all we shouldn’t have taken this job.”
“Shut up, Beel!”
Root and Vit each went to one of the sets of shelves while Azriah ran his hands around the doorframe, prodding at the cracks and minuscule ledges and every nook within the carved stonework. Root inspected every inch of the alcove, poking at anything, pushing and pulling on the stone shelves despite the throbbing, trembling of her ruined fingers. The scabbed and clotted wounds reopened with her scrambling. They streaked the stone with blood.
“Try the pedestal,” said Azriah. Vit did; they shoved, lifted, tugged, pushed, slapped, knocked, spun, caressed, rubbed, and shook it. It didn’t change their predicament—at least not for the better. It certainly fueled the inflating sense of dire panic.
“Halwlau!” shouted Root.
“She prefers ‘Ms. The Gorger,’” said Vit.
“And I prefer not being locked in a tomb. Halwlau!”
There was no answer. Root hadn’t truly expected one, but it was worth a try. It was worth a frantic, desperate try.
“Maybe she fell asleep,” said Vit.
“Maybe she fell asleep and that locked the doors. And now she can’t hear us.”
“I don’t know, I mean, she was asleep when we got here. Could be narcolepsy or something.”
“No,” said Azriah, and his voice was as steadfast as the door before them. “The door just locked. We should have propped it open or… or something.” He rested a hand against the stone for a tense moment. Then he kicked the door. “Damn it!”
“We’ll get out of here,” said Vit. They turned back to the wall and felt along the same mortar lines they’d prodded thrice already.
Azriah stared at the floor.
Vit left the shelves and wound around the sarcophagus to stand near the foot. They brushed some dust off the top as they read the words again, silently. Root leaned back against the wall and slid down to sit at its base. She rested her head on her knees and closed her eyes.
They might actually die in there. What would her father think? All he would know was that she sent a parcel of money home with a cryptic note about a new job outside the city and then never wrote again. How many letters would he send? Would he sail to Unn to look for her? And would he even find any answers there? Likely not. No one but Ophylla and her assistants knew where Root had gone off to—present company excluded, of course—and even she didn’t know exactly where they’d gone after Yevel, only that they were heading off into the woods. And she probably wouldn’t be too likely to spill her guts to Root’s dad even if he ran into her somewhere. She didn’t seem like the type to let on knowing more than half of what was churning about in her head.
Her poor father. First his wife, and now his daughters, picked off one by one. Fate really had it out for the Hashell women. What ridiculous demise awaited Malie?
There was a rocking, grating sound somewhere in the room that caught Root’s attention and reeled her in from the cusp of troubled sleep. She pried open one eye with a force that might’ve worked wonders on the door if her eyelids had had, like, tiny eyelid hands or something.
Azriah was moving the marble pedestal; it rocked back and forth under his pushing and pulling. With a ghurr-hrunk, the stone scraped free of its slot flush amidst the floor tiles. He made a few clumsy hoisting motions and then heaved the thing into his arms.
It was heavy—immensely so, as Root could tell by the strain on Azriah’s face and the way his arms shook. Except, as a universal rule, no burden carried by a man is called “heavy,” only “awkward.” And so, of course, as a correction, the pedestal was not heavy. Merely awkward.
Azriah lumbered up to the door, crouching under the awkwardness, pedestal in both hands. He widened his stance and began to swing the pedestal back and forth like a pendulum, gaining momentum.
“Are you sure…?” began Vit, but the words tapered off, probably as they realized their list of options was getting concerningly short.
Three more swings, stronger and stronger, and then with a grunt Azriah slammed the pedestal against the door. The room shook, and a rumbling blast filled the room. Root shielded her eyes as dust filled the air and rubble pelted her.
When she looked up, there was a good deal of broken stone all across the floor, a mess of pieces sharp and white. The pedestal was in ruins. The door looked entirely unaffected. Root stared in sinking, sickening disbelief. There wasn’t a scratch on it.
Azriah looked down at it all, breathing heavy, silent in the way of a charred forest the dawn after being ravaged by flame: ruminating, mourning, and angry.
With the toe of his boot, Azriah swept away the rubble and then sat down with his back against the door.
“We’ll get out of here,” said Vit.
Azriah shook his head.
“How much water do we have left?”
“Enough for two days,” he said, and now his eyes were closed, head leaning back against the door. “Maybe three if we ration it.”
“Hm.” Vit nodded. They were silent for a minute, then spoke again.
“Maybe Ophylla will come looking for us.”
Again, Azriah shook his head. From the corner where he huddled, Beel whimpered.
“There’s nothing we can do, especially while we’re so exhausted,” said Root. “Get some sleep. Maybe tomorrow has a bit of luck for us.”
With a solemn look and a quiet nod, Vit stepped away from the sarcophagus and sank down to the floor.
Root turned her face away and closed her eyes—because she was tired, certainly, but in that moment, even more pressing was her need to conceal the tears that welled in her eyes. Only after she had her face once again buried behind her arms and knees did she let them fall.
A Mostly-Comprehensive List of Possible Ways to Escape a Particularly Sticky Dungeon; compiled by Sir Dr. Gargo of Blingo, Sr., Esq., PhD, PhD #2, CEO, honorific, escapee-extraordinaire, and inventor of the Pocket Battering Ram (patent pending).
1. The Pocket Battering Ram (patent pending), invented by Sir Dr. Gargo of Blingo, Sr., Esq., PhD, PhD #2, CEO, honorific, escapee-extraordinaire, and inventor of the Pocket Battering Ram (patent pending). This is a great first step for any novice or veteran dungeon-explorer alike. The Pocket Battering Ram is guaranteed to open the stuckest doors or the lockedest cage-that-descends-from-the-ceiling in seconds! Legal note: The name of this product is merely a reference to its compact, theoretically pocketable size. Please refrain from keeping the Pocket Battering Ram inside your pocket. This should be done only in circumstances of tremendous, daredevilous feats or, for humans, as an effective method of sterilization. Sir Dr. Gargo of Blingo, Sr., Esq., PhD, PhD #2, CEO, honorific, escapee-extraordinaire, and inventor of the Pocket Battering Ram (patent pending) is not liable for any injury resulting from noncompliance with this notice.
2. Opposite glue. This is the perfect remedy for a sticky dungeon, and a great next step in the event that the Pocket Battering Ram has proven ineffective, which would never happen. Opposite glue will get any door dismantled or unstuck. (Note: Please use caution not to get any opposite glue on your fingers during application, if you are at all attached to them, or you no longer will be.) If you do not have opposite glue, any other sexual lubricant will work as a substitute.
3. Pray to the deity of your choice. Deities love adventurers trapped in sticky situations (or, if the opposite glue has already been tried, unsticky situations). This, in fact, is why deities never have time to save dying children or answer the pleas of young, starving mothers struggling to scrape together enough money to buy bread for their children. They are too busy gleefully moving adventurers into and out of peril like pieces on a game board, which is simply much higher in entertainment value. Why watch a toddler’s hunger pains when you can place bets with your godly buddies on which limb gets lopped off by the huge swinging axe?
4. A key. If this is a dungeon of the evil castle sort, there’s always a key around somewhere. To find this, locate the nearest sleeping guard. The key is hanging just above their left shoulder or dangling loosely from their belt. Have no fear—despite their inopportune stirring, they will not awaken until after you have unlocked yours and your companions’ cells.
5. Have another go with the Pocket Battering Ram (patent pending). Sometimes the mechanisms don’t all work themselves out the right way, but another try will do the trick for sure. These issues will be ironed out in the Pocket Battering Ram 2: Now With Better Battering!
6. If all else should fail, have your assistant sneakily unlock the dungeon doors so that your reputation as an escape artist is untainted.