Brambles cluttered the grounds around the back of the inn like a mustering army camp. “Mustering against what” was the question. “Root’s legs” was the answer. Their blades were sharp, but Root bested them in the end.
Spaghetti was chattier than he had been the last time he led them all down a mysterious path to meet with Ophylla. He had been a nonstop jumble of words since they reunited.
“… And I’m terribly sorry, coming ‘round the back like this and tapping on your window. Mistress’s orders. I said to her, I said: ‘Why not go in the front? Why not knock on the door?’ And she said back: ‘That’s just not how things are done. That’s not how you meet up with adventurer types. You must use the window.’ Well, I won’t go around pushing against custom, if custom it is, and when the mistress gets all up in her ideas… there’s just no convincing her otherwise. I do hate to crawl through the thicket.”
“Really?” asked Vit. “I’d expect it might feel nice and homey for… someone like you.”
“No, not at all! It’s actually quite disturbing. Gets hard to tell what’s me and what isn’t. Kicks off a bit of an identity crisis, you know? Really makes you start wondering at the big questions.”
“I’d’ve avoided it, just as I said, see, but the mistress…” He sighed.
They approached an old barn just outside the village. It was an ugly thing, and the only feature on the hillside, like a wart on a bald head. Strange spirits flocked on what remained of the roof, bird-like or perhaps better likened to bats, though instead of roosting upside down they hung sideways from the eaves and exposed joists as if unaffected by the lusting call of gravity. A few leaped from their perches and took to the sky. They did this sideways as well, and when they opened their little sawtoothed mouths to call back to the rest of their clan it was with a distinctly horizontal-sounding cry.
From afar the barn looked to have been subjected to a colorful bout of vandalism, but up closer it was clear the only one vandalizing it was nature. Colorful fungi and lichen and fuzzy bits that looked like caterpillars (because they were caterpillars) covered the sides and turned it into a mosaic of life and death and structural unintegrity.
The large doors hung slightly ajar—or rather they leaned slightly ajar, as they no longer hung from their hinges. Truly it was a wonder they were even still standing upright rather than slumping in the middle like an Obobo politician under the weight of crippling rot. What remained of the entryway greeted them like puckered lips, stiff and greasy. Inside, the room was dark, lit only by the light that made its way in through the abundant holes in the ceiling.
Ophylla clearly had a knack for picking meeting locations that looked from the outside like crime scenes.
“She’s inside,” said Spaghetti, who stepped (er, tumbled) to the side and waved them in with a flick of his tail. Azriah led the way through the doors; before entering, Vit stepped aside and crouched close to Spaghetti.
“You know, I’m around if you’d ever like to talk about it…?”
Root followed Azriah into the barn.
The inside delivered on the promise made by the outside, which was more dilapidation, a hearty stench, and very little else. Straw and sawdust blanketed the muddy floor—one large, long room open down the middle and sectioned off into stalls along the sides. Some of the stalls were surprisingly large, and others were startlingly small. It took Root a moment to realize that this was because she was in Atnaterra, and they weren’t all for horses or cattle. Obviously. Idiot.
She followed Azriah into the center of the room. There was no sound but the patter of tiny feet on the roof and in the shadowy rafters.
An ill feeling washed over Root and she raised her guard in an instant. The smell of smoke mingled with the earthy odor of the barn.
Movement stirred the darkness in one of the stalls and Root turned; Ophylla stepped calmly from the shadows.
“Relax, girl, we can’t have you bursting into flame in here—you’ll bring the old roof down on top of us.”
“Where are your companions…? Ah, perfect.” Vit and Beel entered as she spoke.
“You wanted to see us?” said Azriah.
“Yes, yes. I was just hoping for a little… council with my team. An update on your progress.” She was unbearably cheery—an odd shift from the cool and mysterious disposition of their last encounter.
“Oh, don’t call it a council,” said Root.
“Councils go on for ages.”
Ophylla cocked her head. “A meeting, then.”
“Meetings can be long too,” said Vit.
“What sort of interaction would you all like this to be?”
“A conference?” offered Azriah.
Root shook her head. “Stuffy and formal.”
“Reunion?” suggested Vit.
“Really? An affair with ‘the mistress’? Why not call it a gangbang at that point?”
“Guess that rules out ‘tryst’ then.”
Ophylla waved her hand. “Let’s just have a talk.”
Root shrugged. “If you’d like it to sound like we’re in trouble, then,” she muttered.
“We are progressing swiftly,” said Azriah, making the statement twice as true. “We’ve uncovered some new clues and narrowed down the crypt’s location to only a handful of possibilities.”
“Excellent,” said Ophylla, and her eyes gleamed. “Not too far, I hope?”
“No, none more than a few days’ walk from here in Yevel.”
“Perfect. Then you will be off soon, I’d imagine.”
“Yes,” said Azriah. The word was hesitant. Root could see him thinking. Clearly Ophylla saw the same.
“Is something the matter?”
“Oh, no… er, only that we have been met with some unexpected… obstacles. Nothing we can’t handle.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Beel.
“Obstacles? Tell me.”
“Some fucking cu—” started Root. Azriah shot her a stern glare.
“We started our search at the archives, as you suggested, but learned little aside from the location of Affodell’s manor, which we paid a visit to. While we were there, we had an encounter with a group of others who seemed to be searching for the crypt as well. They attempted to bar our exit from the manor in the interest of keeping us there so they might find the crypt first.”
“Yeah, keeping us there as corpses,” said Root.
“But you bested them, so it cannot have been too great an obstacle.”
“He blew up a wall.”
“Hmm. And who is ‘he’?”
“Said his name was Ajis.”
The name sat in the air; Ophylla looked it up and down.
“And does Ajis know a handful of possible locations for the crypt?”
“No, it seems not,” said Azriah. “He was looking for clues at the manor as well, or such is my guess, but he left with nothing.” He cleared his throat. “Though, well, Root is right—we found ourselves in a bit of a pinch there against Ajis and his companions. I asked you about danger at our last… uh…”
“Huddle?” suggested Beel.
Root snapped her fingers. “There it is!”
“Yes. I asked about the expected danger during our last huddle before we set out and you assured us there shouldn’t be much associated risk—”
“Well, of course I could not have foreseen this.”
“Yes, of course. Well, I think I speak for all of us when I say that such an encounter was a bit more than we expected, and now it’s quite likely we are being pursued. I think it is within our rights to negotiate an increase in compensation.”
Ophylla cracked a thin smile. “An increase? My dear, I thought the terms were clear—you get the riches of the crypt, a yet unknown sum, though it is known to be sizable.”
“And if it isn’t?” asked Root.
“We can discuss it further in the context of your successful return. I sincerely hope that you discover the payout, whatever the amount should be, to be more than sufficient. But I understand your concerns, and I will weigh them as you finish the remainder of the job. You still have to return with the mirror, of course.”
“That’s all we ask,” said Azriah.
Not really, thought Root, but she left it unsaid.
“Now, what’s this about Ajis pursuing you? Did you really make that grand of an impression?”
“Well we are, theoretically, going in the same direction,” said Root. “But we also robbed him, so that might be a factor.”
“We didn’t rob him,” said Vit hastily. “We just… took something that belonged to him.”
“Do we need to play the synonyms game again?” asked Beel.
“He deserved it, though.”
Azriah turned back to Ophylla. “While we were escaping his detainment, we happened to pick up something that belonged to him. It has actually been remarkably useful. It’s the only reason we now have a lead and he doesn’t.”
Ophylla leaned in closer. “What is it that you’ve taken from him?”
Azriah gestured to Vit, who produced the book. “It doesn’t look like much, but it turned out to be an astonishing stroke of luck. See, this book is where that page you gave us was torn from.”
“Let me see,” said Ophylla, grasping for the book with a sudden surge of intrigue. As she leaned in closer, the light glinted off the amulet around her neck, the one Root had admired during their huddle back in Unn. A lime green gleam flashed in Root’s vision.
Ophylla took the book and sifted through the pages.
“Where did you find the page?” asked Vit. Azriah made a vague gesture in their direction. His meaning was not stalled by the ambiguity.
“I suppose you might say it was a similarly astonishing stroke of luck to the circumstances that have now brought the remainder into our possession.” She said nothing more on the matter. To Azriah’s clear approval, neither did Vit. “In any case, I’m terribly sorry to hear that you’ve encountered such troubles. I did expect this would be a more… straightforward task, if a hunt of this profile can be referred to in such a way. Only that it might’ve been more a challenge of the mental faculties than a fight, you see. Unwinding clues. But you seem to have done both flawlessly, and met the unexpected challenges as they emerged. I continue to place my full faith in your abilities.” She kept her eyes on the book as she spoke, flipping through pages. Root swore she saw Ophylla’s amulet reflect strangely in the light again.
She turned pages with performative nonchalance. Performative, at least, was Root’s name for the way her hands moved as if another couple torn pages made little difference, while her eyes swept back and forth over each line as if parsing the words of a long-distance lover confessing in detail to a passionate affair. There was a hunger there, subtle yet hurried, eating while it could.
Ophylla closed the book with the sound of a snapping spine, like a small game animal in her hands, soft and limp. “This is a fascinating development. I’m going to hold onto this book.”
Vit furrowed their brows. To Root’s surprise, it was Azriah who spoke up.
“No, we need it back. That book is the kernel at the heart of our journey now—it’s what we are using to inform our entire search. We will need it in order to find the mirror.” He held out one hand before him, awaiting the return of the book. Ophylla looked at him.
“Of course, silly me. I suppose I just got too caught up in the mystery of the united page. I’d still very much like to look at it more closely when you return. In fact, it shall be turned over to me after all is said and done. The page, of course, belongs to me, and seeing as the rest of this old thing is part of it, I’d like it returned as a whole.” She held up the book in front of her. “Or, I suppose, given the circumstances, returned as as much of a whole as it remains these days.” She laughed at her own joke. “Hold onto it now in the meantime, then. It makes little difference.”
Azriah took it and handed it back to Vit, who cradled it close alongside the stack of maps.
“We can discuss the matter of the book when we return as well,” he said. “It seems we may have much to deliberate. Unfortunately, our next meeting may be a bit lengthier than a huddle.”
Ophylla raised an eyebrow. “And what discussion might this be?”
“We found the book. There was no condition in our contract stating that anything discovered over the course of the job must be turned over to you. Vit has become quite fond of the thing. They’ve kept it under their pillow most nights. If they’ve been willing to risk an infection of the lungs or eyes for the book, I think they have a claim to it. But we can discuss it further when the time comes.”
“And I have a lot of eyes,” said Vit.
“As do I.”
“Well, I will gladly purchase it from you. I can’t have you all thinking me cheap and ungrateful. And I would certainly give you a fair price.”
Azriah shrugged. “I’m sure it could be arranged.”
“Excellent.” She turned to Root. “I hope that wasn’t too lengthy of a council.”
Root shrugged. “You know how it can be in these sorts of things. There’s always a council and it always drags on for hours.”
“That’s true,” said Vit. They looked up at the sky through the broken roof slats. “And we’ve made good time, then.”
“If that’s all, we should be getting back to finish our final preparations,” said Azriah.
Ophylla waved them towards the door. “Yes, that is all. I look forward to your return.”
“As do I. If all goes well, we will return to Yevel with the mirror within a week.”
“How exciting,” said Ophylla with a grin. The light shifted and Enyn’s silver glow cast a green shimmer about her.
After a round of final farewells, they passed single file through the broken door, leaving Ophylla there in the barn.
Ophylla watched the four of them go in silence, until the sounds of their voices and footfalls faded and they’d left the slope of the hill behind. There was a rustle and a wavering of the shadows cast about the floor of the old barn as two small shapes crawled up to her sides.
“They are gone, missus,” said one.
“Yes. Not far. They will spend another night in their inn here in the village, then continue their journey in the morning.”
“What orders do you have?”
Ophylla stood in thought for several moments, staring at the crack of light coming in through the sagging door, still ajar. She brushed one hand across her amulet where it hung about her neck. The gem was cool under her fingers, perfect and smooth. It set her at ease, a relief like a draw of smoke that swam in her chest and head.
Remarkable that they had come so far—not that she’d doubted they would. They were an investment—a significant investment—and she’d made sure to select the best crew she could find. But still she could not lightly brush aside the fact that they’d taken not yet two weeks to do what no other had done in hundreds of years. All thanks to a chance encounter and a mysterious old book.
Of course, every good treasure hunt had to have an old book involved somewhere. That was one of the basic elements of a treasure hunt, right up there alongside some sort of looking glass, the generally useless side character who happens to know a piece of niche trivia, and a killer puzzle.
The book—what a strange curio. Ophylla couldn’t tell what surprised her more—its existence, or the fact that her team had stumbled upon it. Sheer luck, it seemed. But sometimes even a bit of luck was too lucky to be believed. What forces were at play here?
A name floated through her mind: Ajis.
Another moment passed before she reluctantly pulled her fingers away from her amulet and sighed.
“Keep following them,” she said, inclining her head to one side to address one of the two spirits while keeping her gaze focused ahead. “Continue to stay out of sight. Seize that book at your earliest opportunity—as soon as they are finished with it, but no sooner. Protect it at all costs. It’s even more important than the mirror.”