They didn’t make their way down the ladder until after they had made completely, totally, extra-absolutely sure that the way wasn’t going to close behind them—or at least until they’d done their best to prop it open. But with very little in the way of loose objects, this really only meant gathering up the larger bits of the marble pedestal and wedging them against the edge of the sarcophagus in a way that might buy them a couple of seconds if the massive block started to shift back into its original place. It looked very solid and content in its new position in a way that the hinged stone door leading into their current room and predicament never had, but they’d been fooled once, and they weren’t going to let it happen again.
They did take a moment to check the status of the door as well. It was still locked, or jammed, or stubbornly pretending it couldn’t feel them trying to shove it open. It was a disheartening find, and planted the seeds of the next season’s crop of doubt and panic, but it was also very much a later problem now that they had a new avenue to explore. For all they knew, the ladder descended to a new set of passageways that would lead them back out into freedom, which was actually preferable, most things considered, given the still-stuck door and the presently-ignored guard spirits that still haunted the tunnels out beyond Halwlau’s chamber. “Most,” of course, because never going back the way they’d come would mean an unfortunate parting from Orne Tyn, still waiting for them outside the guardian’s door (or, mouth). Although, in this case, “unfortunate” would not be the unanimous conclusion.
Alongside the meager efforts at piecing together a doorstop for a magical moving sarcophagus, there was a brief discussion of perhaps leaving someone up above as an added measure of protection against locked-door-related threats. These considerations did not go far—for one, because no one wanted to stay behind for good-old-fashioned curiosity’s sake, save for Beel, but he was no longer keen on the idea when it became apparent he would be waiting there alone. And in all honesty, what good was Beel meant to do against an encroaching sarcophagus blockade? Sigh at it?
All in all, it seemed better that they stay together and get locked in one room. In all accounts but one, it’s twice as hard to break out of two rooms than one. The exception to this is a locale in the Atnaterran city of Glumbul—one of those “escape room” type venues where patrons pay money to make-believe they are trapped for an hour at which they offer a long-running two for the price of one and eight-ninths deal.
With all things set, they took to the ladder; Vit descended first.
“I’m no good at climbing,” said Beel, peering down through the hole.
“Hm. How are you at falling?” asked Root.
“Super. You’re in luck, then.”
In the end, Azriah ended up carrying Beel to the bottom under one arm while climbing with the other. Beel was not thrilled with this arrangement, but he preferred it over falling. Or, to be more specific, he preferred it over hitting the ground.
The ladder did not go far, and deposited them in a narrow alcove that opened promptly into a new but familiar room.
It was a second crypt, nearly identical to the first in size and shape and decoration; the same shelf recesses flanked the entryway, a sarcophagus took up the center of the room with a design matching the first (right down to the poem etched into the stone slab top), and a pedestal stood at the head. There were only three differences. The first was the half-dozen narrow but long alcoves that stretched off the main room like the fingers of a glove, raised like bunks and bearing in each the withered remains of a body. The second was a greater abundance of coins. And the third, seated atop the pedestal like a ruler on a throne, was a mirror.
“Thank fuck,” said Root, and though the words were pointy and crass, they were packed with emotion that made her voice quiver and sprung tears into her eyes.
“Incredible,” said Azriah, hardly more than a whisper.
“What, like none of you believed me?” said Vit. Their grin was unfaltering. “I know you did. That was sort of the point.”
They filed through the room, taking it all in. As if drawn to it by some unseen tether, Root stepped up to the pedestal.
It looked much the same as the one before—silver-white marble built into the floor, though unlike the other, this one was wrapped with the glowing golden veins that pulsed in the walls and ceiling and floor. Several of the tendrils wound right up to the base, then coiled in a thickening, unifying corkscrew up the cylinder until they reached the top, where four strands dove into a slot at the pedestal’s center. The mirror sat within it, the handle inserted loosely in the stone, the face standing aloft and slightly cocked back like a flower reclining to let the sun bathe its features.
Except it was deep, deep beneath the earth. And this was Atnaterra besides. Root doubted the trinket had felt the sun in generations—if it even ever had.
With cupped hands, Root cradled the mirror between her palms and lifted it from its slot in the pedestal. A great swelling feeling began to expand inside her chest.
“Wait—” started Vit, but the word was more to chide than warn, it seemed, since Root already had it in her hands before Vit spoke at all.
Root paused. “What?”
“I don’t know,” said Vit, looking around. “When you pick something up off a pedestal aren’t you supposed to, like, put something else in its place? To trick the booby traps into not doing… whatever they do.”
“Trapping, usually,” said Beel.
“Nah, usually just killing,” said Azriah. “More efficient. But it looks like you got off the hook.”
And then the light in the room began to fade.
It started with the veins around the pedestal. The pumping glow slunk down, dimming until the tubes looked like unilluminated stained glass. The light continued to recede along the veins like water retreating through a straw, plunging them steadily into darkness.
“Whoa!” said Azriah as he hurriedly rekindled their torch, which he had since smothered alongside Root’s and Vit’s discarded candles when the natural light of the rooms had proven sufficient. After a moment in tense blackness, the light of the flame filled the room.
“Think that was important?” asked Vit, looking around at the dull and lifeless veins.
“I think it was just the magic from the mirror,” said Azriah. They all turned to look at the artifact in Root’s hands.
There were many features that set it apart from the typical mirror, the most notable being that it was not, in fact, a mirror. It looked just as the drawing in the book had depicted it, and how Root imagined a hand mirror owned by some rich old woman might look: a golden metal frame, perfectly polished and ornately designed. The handle was cast to look like the entwined stems of a bouquet of flowers. One bloom—a daffodil—was centered and front-facing; the wide oval frame sat atop the blooms. In the forward-facing daffodil’s center, breaching through the metal on the front and back alike, was a single yellow gem, round and smooth and unfaceted like a marble inlaid in the gold. And yet, within the frame—where, in typical construction, one might put the reflective surface characteristic of the common mirror—there was nothing. The rim looked straight through into nothing; Root studied the floor beyond.
But… there was something in her—a sensation, the same one that had gripped her from the moment she took hold of the mirror. It was thrilling. It was resolute. It was overpowering. And it was still growing.
It crashed over her now like a tsunami breaking against a coastal town and scrubbing its memory from the earth. It lashed at her like the howling winds in the temples of the Rimnang peaks. It piled on top of her like a continent braced against her shoulders, stomping her down, down into the dirt, grinding her under its crags as it bored into the bedrock using her as the razor tip at its fore until it breached the fire below and called it to spew forth, consuming her in its dazzling radiance. She couldn’t feel the crypt and she couldn’t hear Azriah or Vit or Beel. She was not there; she was arcing through the margins of existence.
Slowly, over the course of what felt like hours sliding by like syrup, the sensation fizzled into something tangible and solid—intelligible. Familiar. All the same power was still there, but it had taken a modest bow and retreated to roost in the wings, alert but granting something more refined a chance to sit the same throne, like the sun deferring to its own shadow. Now, it was something Root could comprehend—something she could touch.
Pride. Unfettered, unwavering pride, deeper and more steadfast than Root had ever felt before—than any feeling Root had ever felt before. She had done it. She had succeeded. She took a gamble, a strange, reckless gamble on a job she had never had any business doing, and she’d done it. She had money to send home, enough to rebuild their house, their farm—no, fuck the farm, she could build her family a palace, a life, something bigger and grander than anything any of them had ever had. A whole new life.
And who had delivered it? Who had made it all happen? Not her parents. Not Eshra—no, Eshra could never have done what she had done. It was her. Root fucking Hashells. Her.
As she let herself swim in her body, she felt the currents of the room around her. There was something missing, now; the air around them was no longer so… crackly. It took her a moment to place it, but then she realized that the same mystical presence she had felt about them since entering the mouth of the cave and wandering the tunnels, the feeling that had only grown since passing through Halwlau’s chamber and entering the gallery, the same force that had sat upon their chests in the room above, crumpling their ribs and suckling every drop of pride and confidence from their carcasses, was no longer swirling about her, but in her, in the mirror. It was the same feeling, yet different somehow… yes, different, and at her call. That tremendous force was hers to command.
She shuddered as she grounded herself back in her body. Azriah was still studying the mirror; Vit was curiously eyeing her.
“Think she’ll care that it’s broken?” asked Root. She waved the mirror so the others could plainly see the lack of mirror-part.
“Maybe it’s supposed to be like that?” suggested Vit.
“Kind of useless, though.” Root held it up higher as if admiring herself in the nothingness within.
There was a golden shimmer, and then an image materialized there. Root jumped and nearly dropped the thing. The image was her own face, reflected back at her the way mirrors do, though glowing faintly. But the space around her did not show in the mirror’s picture; around the image of her face, she could still see the far wall of the crypt, as well as the decrepit and horrendously out-of-fashion shoes hanging off the bony ankles of a builder’s corpse.
“Weird,” said Root, and the apparition’s mouth moved in tandem.
“Cool,” said Vit.
“Leave it to some rich old bag to come up with a more complicated and less functional version of a tool that regular working people perfected centuries before,” said Azriah.
Vit looked at him. “Might not want to talk about her like that when you’re in her crypt. Good way to get haunted.”
Azriah waved at the mirror. “It’s inefficient and vain.”
“Oh, without a doubt.”
“Well, we’ve got it now. And our payout.” He gestured to the rest of the room’s contents.
Root lowered the mirror. Right, her treasure.
When they all began to sort through it, it became clear that the hoard of (familiar) currency wasn’t actually as grand as it had looked. There was more than the previous room, surely—several times over, in fact. There were stacks of mantles, and enough helixes that Root lost count, and a whole slew of smaller coins besides, but it was not the mountain of treasure that had lived in her mind. Perhaps she’d been spoiled by expectation; even split four ways she’d be making off with enough to pay in full for a mid-sized family home—which was, of course, her aim—with a good bit left over. So the palace fantasies were out, perhaps, but back in reality she would be living comfortably. Really, what more could she hope for?
That was, however, only the amount in (familiar) coins. The room’s shelves had many more treasures: another potential fortune in trinkets and heirlooms. None had a price tag slapped on the side, but they weren’t shoddy pieces, save for one shelf which was taken up entirely by rows of regular old river stones painted haphazardly with messy strokes (some faces and some more… abstract), bits of crusty, dried-out clay that had been sculpted from lumps into slightly more intentional lumps, and a stained and crinkled envelope stuffed with pages upon pages of child’s scrawl saying nothing more affecting than “I LoVE YOo UNtY.” In most instances, several of the letters were written backwards and about twelve branches came off every E. But not all treasures are worth something to future grave robbers; sometimes they’re merely sentimental.
Still, the arrangement was uncomfortable to think about. One of the smiling rocks eyed Root judgmentally. She stuck out her pinky finger and flipped it around. There was a grumpy face on the back, which she hid promptly beneath the envelope.
It’s much easier to loot a dead woman’s crypt when her juvenile loved ones aren’t tutting at you through shitty rock art.
“Any of you recognize these?” asked Azriah, holding up a coin. “Is it an Atnaterran thing, maybe?”
Vit took it and turned it over in their hands. “Not anything I recognize. And the currency standardization happened well before Affodell’s time. Could be something really old…”
“But they don’t look that old,” said Azriah, holding up another. Root peered at it.
They were larger than any coin she’d seen before—just big enough that any religion requiring one be placed in the mouth after death would be a culture rife with scalpel-happy morticians and unsettlingly-happy corpses, but just small enough that it wasn’t in danger of finding itself airborne at a local community college’s next track and field meet. They were gold and embossed with a large C on one side.
“It’s definitely nothing standard,” said Azriah. “And I can’t even tell what it’s made of.”
“But it’s big,” said Root. “Bigger than a helix, even. And bigger coins are worth more.”
“Not always,” said Vit.
“What about the goo?”
Root paused. “Doesn’t count.”
(Quite a tangent that backstory could turn into. Later, perhaps.)
“We’ll have to take them somewhere back in the city and get them appraised,” said Azriah. “Or perhaps Ophylla will know.”
Ophylla. In all the excitement, Root had forgotten about her. A sensation rippled through her now, one that took her several seconds to place. Was it… doubt? Yes, yes it must have been. It tugged at her stomach in a way that felt strange… foreign. It was as though she could hardly remember ever feeling it at all. She rubbed her thumb over the cool metal of the mirror’s handle.
The sensations that joined her pang of uncertainty had all but subsided, but her thoughts were alert now. They still didn’t know what Ophylla really wanted—what her true motives were. And now that Root had the mirror—now that she felt the power it held…
Ophylla wanted the mirror, but why? Vit had pieced together some frightening theories, but they understood little. They knew next to nothing about “mote periapts” and what they could do, and even less about Ophylla, their mysterious employer.
“What if…” started Root, jumping into what she knew she had to say and finding her words as she went. “What if Ophylla wants the mirror for something… bad?”
Vit held Root’s gaze for a few seconds. They nodded. “I’ve worried about it too. I don’t know.”
Azriah shook his head. “You know what I think, I’ve said it before. We don’t ask questions. We’re here for the money, and we’ve got it now.” He swept the last of the treasure into the bag, heavy now with coins and other loot.
“Right,” said Root, but it alleviated nothing—not that the same sentiment ever had before. But she just couldn’t shake the sinking suspicions; she felt so close to knowing something, but all she had were pieces and no way to know how they all fit together.
She looked down at the mirror in her hand, twisting it this way and that. Perhaps it really wasn’t that big of a deal. Vit’s understanding and theories were that the magic was powerful alone, sure, but only truly frightening when united with others of its kind. What could Ophylla even do with just the mirror?
As Root turned the frame, a shimmer danced across it. Root lifted it higher to look inside.
There were images moving in its face now—not a reflection, but something else, like a painting come alive, or a window into some faraway place. They were only vague shapes at first, like the world through the clouds of eyes freshly waking, but then they sharpened, and Root recognized the scene.
It was her—and there was Azriah, and Beel, and Vit. They sat (or in Vit’s case, stood) before Ophylla’s desk, and the spirit woman was there across from them. She spoke, but Root couldn’t hear her words, though she didn’t need to—she remembered the discussion well, how timid and uncertain she felt at the idea of taking some treasure-hunting job. But then, strangely, not so uncertain anymore. She’d agreed to the job on a whim, on some desire that came to her out of nowhere…
In the image, Ophylla ran a hand over her amulet. And then the scene took on a new hue.
Rays of vibrant green squirmed under the desk and lashed at the four of them like striking snakes. And then the tiny mirror-Root threw her lot in with the others.
The whole image shimmered, and then there was a new face there: Ajis. He stood amidst the crumbling ruins of the manor, his eyes on Root, his finger pointing straight into her heart. His ring pulsed.
A javelin of teal light arced from his finger and pierced Root. And then she turned in shame to return his stolen book.
Again the image changed, and Ophylla returned. Gone was the cool, pensive facade; she was monstrous and fierce, with a grin that could bite through steel and eyes that dove into Root’s very soul. Her vinelike tentacles writhed all around her. One held the mirror; another wore Ajis’s ring. A third held… well, it just looked like a rock. And around her neck was the amulet.
The mote periapts flashed in a rainbow of colors: gold, teal, green, and… er, rock-color. But there were more, somewhere unseen. A host of spirits stood before Ophylla as the rays crashed against them, and then all were incinerated. They left behind no tornado of glitter. They were gone.
The image faded, and no other took its place. The mirror was still, but Root’s mind was not.
Ophylla already had another of the mote periapts—or perhaps more. She had used it to coax Root and the others into this. And she was after the rest of them—after a horrible power that she would use for ill.
Root stared down at the mirror. The yellow gem at the handle’s crest pulsed faintly, like an eye winking up at her.
Any trace of doubt had left her now. She understood—she knew. And she had made up her mind.
She would never give the mirror to Ophylla.
Regarding the goo, and the common system of currency as a whole:
Vit made an excellent point that bigger coins are not always worth more, such as in the instance of the goo. Root, however, made an equally excellent point in declaring that the goo doesn’t count. We will get to the goo, but for starters, a bit of background information.
The standardized currency system between Setoterra and Atnaterra used a common six coins. The base of this was the shell, a small coin valued at one. One what, no one really knew, but if you had one of something, that was better than having none of it, and so following in this logic, two was twice as good, and having three was even better. Things sort of took off from there.
Next came the radula. There were nineteen shells in a radula. Fourteen radulas made up one whorl, one whorl made up one goo, nine goos were in a mantle, and twelve mantles equaled one helix. When all was said and done, it would take twenty-eight thousand, seven hundred and twenty-eight shells to make one helix.
Of course, the coin in question was the goo, which had been targeted for the fact that it was the only exception to the “larger coins are worth more” rule. The goo was the smallest coin, smaller even than a shell, and yet theoretically equal to the value of two hundred and sixty-six shells. Theoretically, that is.
See, the currency standardization occurred as a response to a particularly wily scheme carried out by a band of spirits and four generations of humans known as the Kubergada which, in short, resulted in the gang (or, as they called themselves, “investment club”) accruing the maximum amount of money over the course of those two hundred years through a complex series of precisely-timed conversions across thirty-six different currencies worldswide. And it was, in fact, the maximum amount of money; prior to their scheme, neither the top economists in the worlds nor the Kubergada themselves were aware that there was a maximum amount of wealth. But one day, the group made their final conversion, and in the next instant they owned every cent in the worlds, bringing commerce everywhere to a halt not so much characterized by a screech but rather a confused muttering sound. Experts never could unravel just how they did it.
But, of course, every last bit of money was suddenly owned by the Kubergada, so the governments of the worlds got together and made new money—common to all, so there were no strange conversions, and somehow unconvertable into the “pastcies” (the new term coined for the old currencies, of which everyone was effectively bankrupt). The secret to why it is unconvertable is kept under lock and key as it is, quite literally, priceless.
But the goo—see, when these new coins were introduced, there was a bit of a learning curve associated. Being the smallest of the coins, many understood the goo to be worth less than the shell; even those who knew its worth were unable to use it as tender when the shopkeeper across the counter wouldn’t accept it at its proper value. This made the value of the goo plummet. In response, no new goos were minted for many years. Seizing on this new opportunity, the goo became sought-after by collectors, causing the value to rise, and eventually match its intended two hundred and sixty-six shell value. Yet after its history of volatility, most felt a nagging wariness towards the goo.
(This, as you might imagine, caused an unfortunate but perhaps not undeserved pitch in value, which in turn…)