Let’s keep the list thing going. In case you were curious, here’s a non-exhaustive list of things that were not in this room.
One: a “Pocket Battering Ram,” iteration one or two. Not all that unfortunate, actually; for one thing, such a device wouldn’t have worked, and not just because the fwopnodget had a tendency to get caught on the scorpscrew, causing the whole thing to backfire. Azriah did a good number on that door with the pedestal, but the door showed no signs of damage. Some self-proclaimed “tech mogul” isn’t going to manage what good-old-fashioned awkward lifting can’t. Beyond its guaranteed failures, the Pocket Battering Ram’s absence also makes the room a notable deal safer. Root’s, Vit’s, Azriah’s, Beel’s, and Azriah’s future children’s lives are, in fact, owed to this very fortunate absence.
Two: opposite glue, or anything comparable. Opposite glue is not a particularly common substance, due in no small part to the difficulties associated with containing it; when all is said and done, even the difficulties have been deconstructed and reduced to a slew of vaguely troubling notions.
Three: a key. This room was not like the last, with a hidden key waiting somewhere in the background. No, there was no key, and no latch, and no secret password floating in potentiality. It was not a matter of just having to push the right brick or lift the right shelf just so. No, the room was certainly and properly locked.
Four: Affodell’s mirror. Such has been thoroughly and painfully noticed. The mirror was not lurking in some unsearched corner or compartment, and neither Root nor any one of her companions really expected that it was. They understood fully that the mirror was not there. Which brings us to our next item on the list.
Five: hope. An unfortunate truth. The final shred of it left Vit—the last one to foster it—as they drifted into a state of troubled half-lucidity.
Each of these absences they were all well aware of, of course, whether they recognized them or not. The Pocket Battering Ram, for instance—none of them had ever heard of such a thing, but if one was in the room, they would have been quite aware. Painfully aware. Painfully and, most likely, deceasedly aware.
But there’s one notable entry on this list that they were not aware of—and not aware that they were not aware of, for that matter. One that they perhaps should have been more aware of. But they were overtired, so cut them some slack.
Six: bodies. According to legend, Ybris Affodell enlisted the service of builders who would commit themselves to constructing her crypt and then making it their own as well, locking themselves within to preserve the secrecy of the burial place with their own deaths. Of course, those chosen figures would be human—not much worth all the trouble if they weren’t, you know? And humans leave remains, remains more permanent than a greasy splotch and an unfortunate stink.
There were no remains. And insofar as legends can be believed, there should’ve been, right?
(And the legend, of course, was true.)
Root’s eyes fluttered open. She hadn’t been out that long—she could tell by the way her eyes still stung and her head felt light. There was a sour, dusty taste in her mouth. She didn’t dare drink a swig of water.
The golden glow of the crypt’s veins sat thick and heavy in the room like sap. It made Root’s limbs feel like lead as she shifted her position, ignoring the numb, aching fizzle that rushed into the bits of her that had spent the last hour or so pressed against the unforgiving stone floor. Truly the rotting cherry on top of it all was that she couldn’t manage a restful sleep. The throbbing pain in her fingers didn’t help matters.
She stared up at the ceiling. It was low and rough and dim. Feels like a tomb, she thought.
She nearly groaned when she remembered that it was, in fact, a tomb. And soon to be mine as well!
Was it worth taking shallower breaths? They were far underground, far from the entrance to the caves. But there must have been ventilation shafts for the builders, right? Would they still be open and letting air down there into the depths? She couldn’t say. It wasn’t likely to matter much, anyhow. Whether it was suffocation or dehydration that got them in the end, it was just a matter of personal aesthetic preference, really. Just two different flavors of the same doom.
There was one last option. She’d refused to think about it, but it was there. Would she be willing to try? If it truly became the only way to save her own life, and Azriah’s and Vit’s, and Beel’s for whatever difference it made, would she try?
She didn’t have to ask herself in earnest. She knew the answer.
Could her flames even melt through solid stone? She had never tried anything even remotely similar. And in such close quarters, she was more likely to burn the others alive, or at least burn up all the air left for them to breathe. What an effective effort that would turn out to be.
The sound of someone shifting drew her attention. Vit was straightening out their legs in their sleep. Er, no, wait—they were awake. It was always so hard to tell; the four spider eyes had no lids and never closed, and from where Root was sitting, their human eye was just out of sight. But as she adjusted again, she could see that they, too, stared up at the ceiling.
Just as she was about to turn away and close her eyes once more, Vit moved again—a sudden, rigid motion as they sat up straighter. They were suddenly alert.
Root’s mind was still groggy, and her voice was hoarse, and so when she made an inquiry it came out sounding something like: “Euht?”
Vit held up a finger. They squinted their sole squintable eye in thought.
Quickly, they climbed to their feet, and then made a slow survey of the room, scanning the walls first, then the ceiling, then the floor. They began to pace.
“What is it?” Root asked again, a bit firmer now.
“I can see that.”
Vit ran one hand over a portion of the wall. There was an energy in their movements that none of them had had for hours.
By the door, Azriah stirred. When his eyes opened, and he’d rubbed the sleep from his vision, he looked up at Vit.
“Give it a rest, Vit. There’s nothing.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do. We walked into a trap, and we’re going to die in here. I’ve seen it happen before.” He wiped one hand across his grimy face. “Should’ve been more careful…”
“You’ve seen people walk into locked crypts before… as a trap?” There was a strange prodding quality in Vit’s words that Root couldn’t place.
Azriah paused. “Maybe not a trap. But locked in a dungeon or a cave? Absolutely.”
“Hmm.” Vit turned again to the sarcophagus and the inscription.
“You’re not going to find anything,” said Azriah again, his words harsher this time. “We’re done. This is the end.”
“No, it might not be,” muttered Vit. “That’s just it, see?”
“Would you just elaborate?” said Root.
“What if this isn’t the crypt?” said Vit. “Or, I mean, what if this isn’t the last room?”
“What is it, then?”
At that, Azriah actually laughed. “You think…?” he started, but he never found whatever words he was looking for.
“Shut up for a minute.”
Azriah huffed another laugh, but said nothing. Vit drummed their thin fingers across the top of the sarcophagus for several long moments, deep in some intense thought. Finally, they looked up again, and launched into another bout of pacing, accompanied by erratic hand gestures.
“No, listen, it makes sense,” they said. “At least, I think so. I’m still trying to put everything together.”
“That is how puzzles work,” said Beel.
“Think about it. First there were the tunnel guard spirits. They were lured in by confidence, like they could smell it. Confidence, right? And then there was that weird feeling we all got in the tunnels, when we just somehow knew what direction to go, except it was always wrong. The whole place was playing tricks on us. Playing with our confidence.”
“Or maybe that was just something else the guard spirits were doing to us,” said Azriah. “Those things were certainly related.”
“Could be how they hunt,” admitted Root.
“But then we got here, we met Halwlau, and the price of entry was an insecurity, right? Which is rooted in, like, self-image… confidence, or pride. And then even after that we had to face it and show that we were courageous enough to do so. And, and then we got to the gallery—”
“Which just had a key,” said Root.
“No—well, yes—but… well, I guess we don’t know what we were supposed to do, because I doubt it was to break the mirror, but anyway…” They waved their hands through the air, dissipating the tangent where it hung. “What we do know is that the mirror in there showed us… different. It showed… I don’t know about you guys, but I think it showed us versions of ourselves that we hated, kind of in line with Halwlau’s toll. Or directly related. I don’t know what you all told her. Doesn’t matter. The point is—”
“This place really just wants us to hate ourselves?” said Root.
“No. Wait, wait no, yes, that is the point!”
“It’s all been about toying with our pride and confidence and courage this whole time. And now we’re here. In this room that has made us all feel like we made some mistake. Like we didn’t find the crypt fast enough, or we should’ve propped open the door, or not walked so recklessly in here, or… or like we aren’t strong enough to get out now.” They looked to Azriah. Azriah averted his gaze.
“That’s all very nice,” said Azriah. “But what’s the point? The broader point? That we’ve just been on some cartoonish journey of self-discovery this whole time? I appreciate the pep talk, Vit—really, I do. But all of that just sounds to me like the trials of a hunt like this. You feel good about it sometimes, bad about it others. That’s just life. Why would it suddenly mean something now?”
Vit looked to Root. Then they turned back. “Because of what it said in the book. The mirror is one of the mote periapts—magic talismans with power over emotions. And Affodell’s mirror has dominion over pride.”
Azriah’s face creased in confusion, which slowly morphed into a scowl. “What?”
“Remember, I mentioned that the book was about mote—”
“Yeah, I remember that. What I don’t remember is you telling us that other part.” Azriah was on his feet now, and staring down Vit from across the sarcophagus.
“I told Root,” said Vit defiantly. “Beel was there too, but he was asleep.”
“I wouldn’t have cared much anyway,” said Beel. “Mostly I’d just like to go. Which appears to be off the table.”
“You told Root but not me? Why? I thought we were in this job together, I thought—”
“Hey, first of all, I was going to tell you, but I hadn’t gotten a chance. And second of all, why do you suddenly care? I thought you were all about not asking questions and just getting paid. We even speculated about what the mirror might do, and you shut the whole conversation down because you said it didn’t matter.”
“Yeah, that was before we knew the fucking answer. Or was it? How long have you known? And what else are you keeping a secret from us? Or is it just from me?”
“I didn’t figure it out until the writing in that dead-end tunnel, and if you recall, I tried to tell you all right after you got back, but we were sort of busy running for our lives. And I haven’t kept anything else from you. Any of you. But now you know, so what’s it matter?”
“What’s it matter? You’re out here trying to make me look like a fool on my own job!”
Vit opened their mouth to respond, but the words stalled there, puttering to nothing. They snapped their mouth shut, and once more their face took on the scrunch of deep thought. Their eyes came alight.
“What?” asked Azriah, exasperated.
“No, hang on. Why do you think you’d look like a fool?”
“What part do you think would make you look like a fool? Why would you look like a fool?”
“I…” Azriah started. His lips moved, but his words didn’t. He fought for an answer. “I would look like a fool because I wouldn’t know what was going on.”
“To whom? Ophylla? That’s hardly pressing. We aren’t due to see her for days, if we do at all. And the information isn’t relevant to the job anyhow—you’ve said so yourself.”
“No, just… just in general. Would you quit being such an—”
“See?” said Vit. “You can’t explain the feeling because you aren’t feeling it—not really. It’s not yours. It’s like the feeling we all got in the tunnel again. We’re being influenced by the crypt. You wouldn’t look like a fool, but your pride is being sapped.” Vit turned and took in the whole room, cramped though it was. “That’s exactly it, see? This isn’t the last room. It’s another puzzle to overcome.”
“Shit,” said Root.
“We’ve all taken hits to our pride and our confidence in this room,” said Vit. “We all gave in to feeling hopeless. I think we have to overcome that. That’s our next test.”
“And then what’s supposed to happen?” asked Root. “Some guy busts in here telling us we won? Hands us the mirror and escorts us out? Maybe knights us as a little added bonus?”
“I’m sorry, Vit, but it does sound desperately optimistic. I’m still mad, whether that’s genuine or not, and I’ll buy that it’s the work of whatever magic is in this place. But finding yourself in a dead end this… well, deadly, I imagine it could be scary. But denial won’t change anything.”
“Do you actually believe this?” asked Root.
Vit paused. “Honestly, I don’t know. But I think that’s the point. We have to believe it. That’s how we move on. That’s how we get out. And Azriah?”
“What do you have to lose?”
“Don’t you dare say ‘looking like a fool’ again. If you think believing in something is going to make you look foolish, then so be it, but there are two options that can come of it: either you end up being right, or the only people around to witness your mistake made the same one, and we all die here together.”
“What about Beel?”
“You think Beel is in any position to judge your emotional response to potentially dying in a tiny stone box under a mountain?” asked Root.
“Hey,” muttered Beel with a frown.
“Try,” said Vit.
“I will,” said Root.
“Is it really the only way out?” whined Beel.
“For you? No.”
“But I don’t like the other way.”
“Then sit and be confident in something for once in your miserable little life.”
“Fine.” Beel plunked down in the corner and began muttering to himself. Root and Vit both looked to Azriah.
“It’s the only way out,” said Vit.
“You don’t know that it’s a way out at all.”
Vit smiled. “No,” they said. “No, I don’t.”
“You’re off to a bad start,” said Beel.
Vit and Azriah held each other’s gaze for a long moment.
“All right,” said Azriah. “What do I do?”
“Reject the way the room is trying to make you feel. Find pride in how far we’ve all come. Be confident that there’s more—another room, or something beyond this. Anything.”
“You imagine it could be scary,” muttered Root to Azriah.
“You said before that you imagine that being trapped in a dead end and believing you’ll die could be scary. As if you aren’t also in that same situation.”
“Death isn’t the worst thing that can find you.”
“Maybe so. But I’m not trying to chastise you, even if it was incredibly condescending. Keep that confidence.”
Azriah’s lips twitched into a slight smile. Then he and Root turned away from one another and began to think.
Root felt absolutely ridiculous. This was the most asinine task she had ever had the displeasure of doing: convincing herself of something she didn’t believe—that no one believed—in pursuit of the tiniest shred of hope that it would maybe help them to not die. They’d already knocked on every brick, kicked every tile, all in search of some hollow sound that might alert them to a hidden compartment. But apparently believing in themselves was suddenly going to save the day and unlock the fucking door. It was like some ridiculous tale out of her family’s child-friendly storybook. Once Root had graduated beyond age five, she’d learned that real adventurers died in the forgotten temples and tombs, or else they cut some vestigial organ out of their own body and sacrificed it. Would they each have to make a donation, or would one do?
“This makes sense,” said Vit, half to themself as they stood over the sarcophagus. They nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, I really think this is it.”
“That’s great,” said Root flatly. “When you get out, maybe come back with a team of miners.”
“Come on, think about it. All the obstacles so far, the mirror controlling pride.”
“I sure am thinking about it.” She picked at a scab on her arm. This wasn’t going to work.
No, no, you have to stop thinking like that. Do you want to die in here?
Probably not going to get a choice in the matter.
Optimism had never been one of Root’s specialties. And that had never felt more depressingly apparent.
“And remember when Azriah lost his cool right after we realized the door was locked? Have you ever seen Azriah lose his cool? Even for a second?”
“Stop talking,” said Azriah.
Why was this so easy for Vit? Even unprompted they had come to this realization. Now the others had their help, and all of them were still struggling.
“Hey—are you talking?”
Root leaned her forehead against the wall. She kept her eyes squeezed shut. Was she going about this whole thing wrong? How did someone just convince themself of something?
And how embarrassing would it be if she died because she couldn’t do it? If she died because she couldn’t put her feelings aside and feel proud of herself for once, feel confident that something might be right—that she hadn’t failed, and there might be hope still that she could earn enough money on this stupid fucking job to rebuild her family’s life, the life she let go up in flames. (Er, or… well, you know.) What if she just kept making sarcastic comments in her head until it killed her?
Well, realistically, it wouldn’t be all that embarrassing, because no one would ever know.
No one would know that she failed—that they all failed—but nor would they know how maddeningly close they’d come. Maybe Affodell’s crypt was right on the other side of one of those walls, holding treasures sought but never found by any other throughout the ages. Sure, her father had wanted her to work as some… store clerk or something—or worse, in a bank—but would he be proud of what she’d done instead? Would he be proud of how far she’d managed to go? She wasn’t Eshra, and she wasn’t their mother, but she’d done it all in her own way—her own job, in her own way. And fuck it, she’d done pretty damn good.
But he was never going to know, was he?
“Do you think it’s the mirror’s influence that’s affecting us?” asked Vit, apparently talking again. “It could be some magic imbued into this place, but maybe it’s all coming from the mirror. Which means it’s still here.”
“If it’s as powerful as you make it sound, I’d bet that it is,” said Azriah. “I still can’t shake the feeling, but I can tell what’s me and what’s the echoes of this place now. Yeah, I think it might just still be in here somewhere.”
Fuck, both of them now? Always Root, lagging behind—always Root, the weak link.
Well, except for Beel. Honestly, if they were all going to die, it would probably be his fault.
How was she supposed to force herself to believe something? How? It all still felt so hopeless; no matter how she contorted herself to look at it, no matter what angle—over, under, side profile, head-on, upside-down—she couldn’t see all of this ending in anything but her bones on the tile floor. Yet somehow, Vit believed there was more waiting for them. Vit had never let her down—or any of them—and she couldn’t even return the favor.
Unless… that was just it, wasn’t it? Perhaps it didn’t matter if she believed in some miraculous exit that would pop open just in the nick of time. Maybe it was enough to believe in Vit.
Yeah, that she could do.
She drew a long, deep inhale. It doesn’t matter what comes next. Vit will get us out of here. And Azriah, too.
It’s not like Vit wants to die in here either, right?
“All right,” breathed Root. “I think you’re right about this.” And she meant it.
“Beel?” said Vit.
“Just a minute,” said Beel as if someone had just knocked on the door of the public restroom he was inhabiting.
“Come on, Beel,” said Root with none of the understanding and compassion that might be offered by someone who had graduated from the same position only seconds prior.
“We’re going to die in here,” muttered Beel.
“No the fuck we aren’t, do you hear me?”
“It’s just the room,” said Vit. “It’s sucking up all of your confidence. You have to fight back.”
“I feel just the same as always, thank you very much.”
“Well stop doing that,” said Root.
“Listen, Beel.” Vit knelt beside him. “You’ve got to focus, and think—”
“I’m thinking. I’m thinking that I sure wouldn’t like to be in here anymore!”
“Right. But it’s not about wanting it, it’s about really believing there’s more. We’re getting out of here. Did we let you die in that alley in Unn?”
“Did we let you die at the manor?”
“Did we leave you to be killed by the guard spirits in the tunnels?”
“Yes. But then no. Is it important to remind me how many times I’ve nearly died since meeting you all?”
“Yes, actually. Because you haven’t. You’ve come a long way. You were the only one who was unaffected by the madness in the tunnels. Root, Azriah, and I would all have died without you. We would’ve given in to the way the tunnels were trying to split us up and lead us to our deaths, but you withstood that same feeling and saved us. You’re strong, Beel, and you’ll get out of this too. Because there’s more—this isn’t the end. And we’re going to see it together.”
From somewhere in the stone, with a faint but conclusive sound that Root felt like a shock through her body, came a click.
“What was that?” asked Beel, but he didn’t have to wait long to learn the answer. A rumble tore through the still and stagnant air as the sarcophagus began to move, sliding across the floor to reveal beneath its head an open hatch and a ladder leading down.
“That,” said Vit, “is our way out.”
Beel eyed the hole. “And how do you know that doesn’t just lead into another room we’re going to get locked in?”
Vit grinned. “I don’t.”
Lyndol Hapshenplantzer strode dutifully up to the sturdy doors—not the doors he was used to, the simple double door always left ajar to let more light into the airy study, but heavier doors, carved and set at the end of the long hallway. The footman stepped aside and gestured.
“She is expecting you,” said the squat little man. His proportionally-tiny little goatee quivered like an emaciated snake experiencing withdrawals when he spoke.
“Is she unwell?” asked Lyndol, eyeing the imposing bedroom door again.
“She is… aging, certainly.”
“It has been only a week…”
“Best not to keep her waiting, Mr. Hapshenplantzer.”
“Right, of course.” Lyndol smoothed his floral blouse and then opened the door.
It was a large room to accommodate a large bed to accommodate a small woman—not small like the footman, who was small like krill in the sea are small, but small like—well, to continue with the ocean imagery, like a pearl. A very wrinkly old pearl.
“Mrs. Affodell,” said Lyndol. “You sent for me?”
“Yes,” said the frail little figure, shuddering like a child’s doll made from twigs and leather where she lay nestled in a wad of blankets twice as large. A great poof of silver frizz stuck to her head like lint on discarded gum. “Did you receive my last letter?”
“And? You will incorporate those designs?” As she spoke, her gaze flitted to her night table, where rested a long, flat wooden box, like a carved piece for jewelry. There was a frightful look about her as her eyes lanced across it that faded as soon as she turned her gaze back aside.
“Er, yes, ma’am, we are looking into it…” Lyndol cleared his throat. “I did have a few concerns, however.”
“I thought you might. That’s why I summoned you here. Tell me—what is the issue? Can you not get them?”
“Er, no, I do expect we should be able to… ‘get’ them. And by ‘them’ I do expect you mean the, ah…”
“The sharks, of course.”
“Yes. You can get them?”
“They come free and dead to those who are mighty and rash, and free and living to those with the same qualities, though less blood when all’s said and done.”
“But you can get them?”
“Yes, strictly speaking. But that isn’t the part that arose my concern, ma’am.”
“Oh? You don’t like the pit of sharks?” Again, her eyes raced to the box at her bedside, as if making sure it was still there.
“No, no, of course I do. A tried-and-true security system. It’s only… well, er, the plans you sent over were very detailed, of course. The perilous walkway over the tank is a magnificent touch. But I could not help but wonder—how do you expect that they should be fed?”
“Why, foolish adventurers falling to their doom, of course.”
“Right, but in the meantime? Adventurers may come along every—oh, let’s give a liberal estimate and say once every few months. That’s hardly a nibble for… let me see, what was it…?” Lyndol withdrew a stack of folded papers from his coat pocket and read. “Ah, yes. Thirty-eight. Forty sharks, then.”
“Not forty, only thirty-eight.”
“Right, of course. Just a bit of rounding.”
“Well, thirty-eight sharks are a nice bit easier to feed than forty.”
“Of course, my mistake. Thirty-eight, then.”
“I’m not sure if I quite see the problem, Mr. Hapshenplantzer.”
“Picture about thirty-eight starved sharks floating in a pool, all with their bones showing through.” Then, in a contemplative mutter, he added: “Um, sharks do have bones, yes?”
“I should certainly think so. What else might they have?”
“I’m not sure, ma’am.”
“Right. Well, do you have an obstacle that will prove to be an even more efficient line of defense?”
“I do believe I have come up with something, ma’am, yes.”
“And what might that be?”
Lyndol licked his lips. He wiped his sweating palms on his trousers.
“Perhaps, ma’am—and hear me out, as this is where it gets a little bit… unorthodox—you might simply put in two crypts.”