Deep in the Atnaterran southeast there was a mountain, hale but wind-battered, wrapped in a shawl of woodland about its lower slopes but rising tall beyond it, face bared to the clouds sewn together into storms by the old spirit who had long dwelled about the neighboring peaks. The mountain’s cap was left naked, the greyed skin of the whorey old mount—
Ah, er, no, that was the correct spelling. Best not to pose questions at risk of sounding a little judgy. Mountains have their tendencies, and that’s not for any of us younger things to denounce.
So there was a mountain. It was called Fovevjellvjell by those who have the care to learn the names of the heres and theres of the world. Very few called it by that name, or any name at all, including those who lived relatively nearby. Names of mountains are one of those things that don’t come up much in conversation except among those who walk up and back down them for fun. Among the general population, a simple “that mountain over there” accompanied by a gesture if the speaker wants to add a little flourish is more than sufficient.
Inside of this mountain was a web of tunnels that bored and pitched and dove deep into the rock like veins through a body, pumping blood and nursing it. Or perhaps they could be likened to nerves, sensing every corner of the mountain, inside and out: the great nervous system of the earth. Inside of these tunnels were a number of things, most notably a small cluster of creatures. All of them were running. And at quite an impressive pace, too.
Certainly each of them was a nervous system in their own way. One of them was a downright panicked system. There was a faint buzzing in this corner of the jumble of tunnels, just loud enough that it continued to find the fleeing ears as they ran.
Beel was in the lead as the three of them hightailed it back to where they’d left Vit and their things. Try as they might, Root and Azriah simply couldn’t keep pace with him, despite his legs being five times shorter than their own. Perhaps he owed thanks for the speed to having four legs while they boasted only two each, but even still, that would amount to his having just shy of one of their legs, and Root was fairly confident she would still struggle to keep ahead of Beel’s wake of dust if she hopped along on one.
A mystery it would remain, then.
Root was behind him, but not by much, and Azriah was just behind her. They didn’t have far to go, and before too long they came to the mouth of the dead-end tunnel. As she scattered the dirt around it, Root was struck briefly by just how silly Azriah’s X on the floor really was. The whole arched entry to the tunnel was scored with the words TURN BACK NOW. They’d see and remember those marks much more easily than a little scratched X. Perhaps he’d been worried he might take the advice the second time.
She didn’t have long to dwell on it before her mind was overwhelmed with the blaring warning that precedes any stupid action that flirts with the possibility of dire consequences. They were running into a dead end to put distance between themselves and some yet-unclear-but-probably-malicious-because-why-wouldn’t-they-be-malicious spirits. The remains at the end of the tunnel were like a badge proving it had already lived up to the term once; they didn’t need to run their own personal tests.
Vit came into view ahead, back turned, scribbling on the pages of the book in their hands. “Hey, uh, all this writing actually seems super important,” they said after only a half-glance behind them. “We’re definitely in the right place—there’s more about ‘mote periapts,’ some information about the mirror, and—”
“No time, we’re running,” said Root, stating what she thought should be the obvious. She scooped up her discarded pack from the floor. Azriah did the same.
“Huh? Hang on, let me—”
“No time,” said Azriah. He grabbed Vit by the elbow and began to pull them down the tunnel. Root had never seen him so shaken; it didn’t help the sensation that still rippled up and down her spine.
“Wait no, there’s another thing…” They were running now too, all of them, back towards the entrance to the dead-end tunnel. Beel was no longer taking the lead.
(Which is not to say he wasn’t still moving quite fast.)
The end of the tunnel appeared before them; the passageway beyond turned left or right. Right was no longer an option they had any desire to go, which left only the path on the left, backtracking the same way they’d come. Perhaps they could find some far corner of the tunnels away from those horrid little—
Leading the way, Azriah ground to a halt just as the three spirits flew into view. They hovered at the tunnel’s entrance a dozen feet ahead of them, pausing in their flight. Slowly, they turned, their bodies pivoting in the air, as they set their hollow eyes on the group. Azriah drew his sword.
“Oh, okay, so you’re caught up, then,” said Vit, noting the spirits.
“Are we?” asked Root incredulously as she formed her weapon in her hand.
“There was stuff on the wall back there about these guys—tunnel guards. It said they’re drawn to, uh, I didn’t finish making out the rune… confidence?”
“Well at least they won’t come after me,” said Beel.
All three spirits shifted in unison so that their eyes were angled to lock on Beel.
“You sure about that?” asked Vit.
“It appears I was.”
“They kill?” asked Azriah.
“Oh definitely. Look at those claws,” answered Vit. They tucked the book under their arm and held up their hands. Their glowing spider limbs clasped each hand and wound a mass of webbing around the wrists and knuckles until both were wrapped tightly. Vit flexed their fingers and then balled their fists. “Gonna have to fight through this one.”
The spirits shifted their voidful gaze to Vit now.
“Level your blades,” said Vit. Root extended her sword into a polearm and did so without question. Azriah furrowed his brow but grasped the hilt of his sword in both hands and pointed it towards the nearest spirit.
The guard spirits advanced with all the shuddering momentum of a wheezing horse’s cart, a buzzing, zagging path that still left no uncertainty about the destination at which they aimed. They clicked their scythe-like claws, hungry and cold.
The light pouring from Vit’s eyes flashed brighter for an instant as they threw their arms forward. A strand of webbing leapt from each hand. One grabbed the spirit on the left by the wing; the other stuck fast to the right spirit’s claw and face. With a shriek of confusion, both spirits swerved and tried to recoil.
But Vit held them tight, and as the guards struggled, they yanked hard on the webs. Together the spirits careened towards them, bumping against one another in their struggles. Root’s eyes widened; she braced her stance and adjusted the angle of her polearm.
The guard spirit on the left flew sideways onto the tip of her blade. Root’s boots ground in the dirt and her arms buckled. For an instant, the weapon’s grip hummed in her hands, and the jerking nearly wrenched it from her grasp. Then a wind buffeted her face and an odor sought her nose. The skewered spirit died. Its body dripped as sludge to the dry dirt of the floor.
Azriah held a matching kebab as the other ensnared spirit writhed on the end of his sword. Vit’s aim had been less true with the second of the two, and the blow, though deep, had not been lethal. Azriah yanked his sword free, and with a second strike, the spirit died. Tiny glittering gales whisked off down the corridor beyond.
But there was a third spirit, and it was not at all deterred by the staking of its companions. It raced ahead toward Vit.
Azriah raised his sword. Root raised her polearm. They took aim and swung.
And their weapons collided.
There was no clang, because Root’s weapon wasn’t one for dramatic clangs, being made of smoke and all. But they felt a clang, each of them, deep in the sinews of their arms and into their shoulders as together they stalled both strikes aimed for the last of the three guards, which was making quick albeit serrated progress towards Vit’s throat. It darted easily around the blockade of blades and dove for Vit.
Vit slipped right to dodge the cut of the spirit’s claw. The spirit, missing its target, sailed past Vit’s head and into their waiting arms which hung about their shoulders in sinister anticipation. Two seized the spirit, one by the wing and the other by the tail. Vit’s eyes flashed again, and suddenly a pair of needlelike fangs, glowing green and translucent to match their extra arms, adorned their face like a mask.
They moved with inhuman speed, snapping at the spirit and burying their fangs into its side. Immediately it slowed, its jarring movements becoming sluggish. Vit released it; it hovered low and then crumpled to the floor where it continued to heave as if taking labored breaths.
Root stared at the pulsing shape. “Was that… lethal?”
“It’s poisoned, so yes. It will die momentar—”
The stench of a killed spirit flushed through the tunnel.
“Ah, that was fast. It’s dead.” Vit’s fangs retracted.
Not a moment had passed before a new sound filled the air. Or rather, not a new sound, but the same sound of now-familiar buzzing which had been absent for twenty-two seconds, just enough time for it to be “new” again when it returned. It came from the tunnel to the left.
“How many of these things are there?” asked Azriah, his face paling.
“No idea, the wall didn’t say,” said Vit. “Sounds like a lot, though.”
“Time for more running?” asked Beel.
“If you fancy it,” said Root.
“Is there an alternative?”
“Yeah,” said Azriah, and scuffed a bit of dust into the pools of rapidly retreating goo along the floor.
They broke into a run like it was a banker’s engorged safe and they were a ragtag team saddled with enormous debt. Vit took the lead now, with Beel close behind, then Root, and then Azriah at the rear, sword still drawn. Vit held the book in their spider arms, open to the page where they’d copied down the map. Every few turns they twisted it around, holding it at a new angle.
Root didn’t take many glances behind her on the principle that doing so was terrible for morale, and too many were detrimental to bodily steering in a twisty and uneven tunnel besides (and worse should she come to an abrupt and unpleasant stop)—but she did sneak a few, on the footnote principle that it was quite healthy and beneficial to speed, to which she appreciated any hairline boost no matter the side effects. Terror makes a magnificent motivator, after all.
It was hard to tell how many guard spirits there were; the bends in the passageways hid their pursuers from view in all but the straightest segments of tunnel, but if the buzzing was any indicator, they had a growing swarm no more than fifty paces behind them.
Vit kept them on a straight path, taking slight rights and lefts when they presented themselves, but generally steering clear of any hard choices. They passed a handful of offshoots with no more than a glance down the branched halls.
“Any luck there, Vit?” Root called up as Vit rotated the map again.
“I just can’t figure out which way to hold it!” They turned it again—a couple dozen degrees to the left, then back to the right, craning their neck as they did so. “I’m still not sure where on here we are.”
“The map might be a lost cause,” shouted Azriah. “Make your best guess and take the paths that are the least likely to drop us into a dead end!”
“Uh, that’s not how mazes work!”
Root looked ahead to the branching tunnels. Shit. Fuck. They were leaving it all to luck now? They were going to die in there for sure.
Another crossroads lay just ahead: a left or a straight-right. Root looked from one to the other—two unmarked, ordinary tunnels, neither any more or less dooming than the other. Vit would pick one at random, and the others would be led either to their graves or… well, realistically, a different place for their graves.
Pick one yourself, then, thought Root. But how was she supposed to do better than a blind guess?
A feeling overwhelmed her at once. The left. Take the left. For fuck’s sake, go left. She couldn’t say where the notion came from, only that it screamed in her ears with the force of a battle cry, a grieving wail, left. The crypt was just there down the path on the left, she felt it, knew it like she knew how to draw breath.
“Go left!” she called to Vit. They responded with the nodding, shrugging gesture of someone agreeing to a proposition simply because they have no better suggestion to bring to the table. They closed in on the turn and then entered the left passage.
Almost immediately they scruhked to a halt. Root would’ve crashed into their back if her reflexes had been a half-second slower, but she managed to dart to the side and so only knocked her forehead against one of their translucent spider limbs, which didn’t hurt nearly as much as she might’ve expected. She didn’t have to ask why they’d stopped. The path ended in a dead end only twenty feet ahead.
For a third of a half of a quarter of a second Root hesitated—her heart dove for her stomach, her eyes widened. But her feet didn’t even have time to react.
Her conviction recovered from the flutter and now it was stronger than ever. She could feel it, she knew it. The crypt was there.
“Root!” called Vit, but still she didn’t slow. The stone wall at the end of the tunnel raced to meet her.
“It’s here!” she yelled. Of course it was. Somehow she knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt.
But where? Behind the wall? Or was there even a wall there, truly?
She put out her arms, palms up, and charged. She clamped her eyes shut in a grimace and turned her head.
But she never felt the wa—
Never mind. She hit the wall. Hard.
Pain lanced through her arms like crackling bolts of lightning; her body shuddered at the sudden stop, dazed, but it passed like the fog of an exhale on a windy night.
“Root, get out of—” started Vit.
“No, she’s right,” said Azriah, staring down the passage in confusion and shock. “The crypt is there… can’t you feel it?”
But Azriah was jogging to catch up with her now. Root shook away the pain of her collision and refocused on the tunnel around her, looking about wildly. There—beneath the floor! She fell to her knees and raked her fingers against the dirt.
Azriah scrambled up next to her, a wild look on his face now. He dug his fingers into the hard-packed earth beside her. Dust covered them as he dislodged stones and dirt; they came up bloody.
But he didn’t pause, and neither did Root as scratches split the calloused skin of her hands, summoning forth rich beads of red blood to feed the parched ground. She tore at the dirt, pulling up as much of it as she could with each swipe, but it was hard and her fingers were raw.
“You guys! What are you doing?” yelled Vit, panicked now.
“It’s here, the crypt is here,” yelled Root. Blood tanged in her throat, her voice suddenly hoarse as she sucked in dust-riddled breaths.
She dug her fingers in again. Hard stones pried at her fingernails, bending them back and splitting the thin carapaces. The rigid ground shredded her skin, and when she went in for another gouging cut, the marks in the floor were streaked with blood. Her vision swam.
There was a commotion at the far end of the tunnel. Root didn’t pause to look up—she couldn’t have ripped her eyes away from the dirt beneath her fingers if she’d tried—but a guttural noise split the air and then a familiar rancid smell. Another followed, and then a third.
Something splattered across her back—sticky, uncomfortably warm. It was the first thing to give her notable pause, and she blinked. Then something yanked her hard, drawing her back several feet.
“No!” she began to scream, but the word was knocked from her mouth as she landed hard on her butt. Azriah hit the ground next to her. She twisted.
Vit had grabbed each of them in a web and was now hauling them backwards. A spike of fury drove up hot from within Root’s chest, and she pooled smoke into her hand as her weapon took shape. Then her eyes fell on Beel, cowering beside Vit’s legs. Root looked back up and met Vit’s panic-stricken, teary gaze. Something melted from her mind and she fell untensed.
“We have to go,” she said, jumping at once to her feet. Whatever had just left her was replaced twice-over with adrenaline. She pushed Azriah up, smearing blood across the back of his gambeson. Pain shrieked in her hands, but she winced and bore it.
“Wha—” started Azriah, who looked at her confused.
“Run, you idiot!”
Beel looked up at her in offense. “You’re the one who was being an idiot first!”
“Save it,” said Azriah. He drew his sword again. “Go!”
They took off down the other passage, which was thankfully much more expansive. A great web of offshoots stretched before them.
The guards were closer now, buzzing at their backs, gaining ground amidst the chaos. They ran hard in a desperate attempt to shake them.
But more choices lay just ahead, no easier than the last. One wrong turn would mean disaster—it had nearly doomed them already, and Root still wasn’t sure what to make of the whole ordeal. She resolved to ponder it if she made it out of the tunnels alive; after all, if she didn’t, it wasn’t worth dwelling on. It would scarcely matter while she was cooling.
A five-way split loomed only another couple seconds before them, their tunnel meeting another which cut through it at an angle and sprouting a new one from their union. As Root looked upon it, a familiar feeling wrapped around her throat like a noose, a panic that took the reins but knew exactly what to do.
It told her to go right.
She reached the split first. “It’s the rightmost path!” she said. “I can feel it!”
Azriah clamped a hand on her wrist. “It’s straight.” Root wrenched herself free.
“How do you know?” she spat.
“I just know!” he said. There was a wild look about him once more.
“No, wait,” said Vit, slowing. “It’s this one on the left. I can… I don’t know how, I just know that it is.”
Root glanced left. Several more guards were approaching rapidly from the far end of the tunnel.
“It’s right,” said Root, and she didn’t wait to finish the debate. If they wanted to die in this maze, so be it. She was getting out of there alive.
She sprinted down the right-hand path. Vit went left, charging at the guards. Azriah continued straight.
A new buzzing sound joined the fray, different than before yet still familiar from somewhere. Root didn’t bother to turn—not until something bothered to turn her.
Something wrapped her ankles and she careened to the floor, catching herself only narrowly on her bloodied hands and elbows. She kicked against it but there was no give; she looked behind her even as it began to drag her backwards with very little courtesy.
Beel stood at the center of the intersection, uttering a terrified cry that would be spelled with many Es. All three of his gold rings were missing—one bound Root’s legs, and she could venture a solid guess as to where the other two had gone off to.
As Root watched, a guard reached the intersection and dove towards Beel. With terror in his eyes, he whirled and opened his mouth wide—wider than she thought possible for his small pill body, and certainly wider than she had ever wanted to see. Like a hound snapping up a scrap tossed its way by a trainer, he flicked his head to the side and gnashed the guard’s body with his rather unsharp and herbivorous-looking teeth. It died instantly.
Beel spat out a mouthful of dead spirit goo as his whole body heaved in a gag. “If I’m dying here, you all are dying here too!” he yelled. “You people dragged me here in the first place!”
He continued to reel them in, and Root was quite disgruntled as she realized he meant to drag them the whole way back to the intersection, bound and bumping across the hard tunnel floors. He ran a nervous circle in place. Root, against her will in more ways than one, jerked about as he moved. Her whole body bashed against the tunnel wall. Regrettably, she found there was no comfortable position to adopt while being dragged by one’s ankles.
But Beel’s tugging efforts were slow, burdened as he was by the three of them like horse-drawn carts relieved of their wheels. The guards were closing in.
“Beel!” Root shouted, “Release us!”
“Fine! But if you run again, I’ll leave you!” The rings clicked and widened, then zipped back to Beel.
Root pulled herself up. Vit and Azriah did the same. They all seemed to have mastered themselves.
The swarm of guards was nearing, the bulk of the horde now no more than ten seconds from reaching them, and the fastest of the bunch even less. They had to move.
“Down there,” said Root, pointing to the tunnel none of them had tried and pushing them to start. Vit and Azriah looked at her incredulously.
“And why would we trust you?” asked Azriah. His tone was biting. He began to eye the straight path again.
“Because none of us wanted to take it!”
“So? Come up with something better, then!” she gave Azriah a hard shove and then took off down the unchosen path.
Clearly, Azriah didn’t have any better solution, because he followed a second behind her, as did the others. Even as Root took her first steps down the new tunnel, something screamed in her to stop and turn back. She fought to push it down. Something was wrong—something had come over them, and if nothing else, she was going to spite it.
The tunnel wound left and right, up an incline and then down a steeper one. The walls widened slightly, making room for two to run abreast. Vit fell in step beside Root, once again wildly scanning the curves of the map. Behind them the guards drew ever nearer to Azriah’s back as he served stoically as their rearguard; they were beginning to overtake him, and he parried their swipes and slew their fastest fliers as he ran. Still more surged forwards like a wall, a mass so thick they would never come out the other side as anything but a belch.
Fear gripped Root’s heart—they were going to die there, really and truly. She hoped her father had put those sixty mantles to good use, because that was the last she’d be sending.
They rounded another bend. Ahead, the tunnel floor was washed out, creating a narrow gully in its path that sunk into some unknown depths beneath the right wall. They’d have to jump it, and if any of them tripped that would be the last unfortunate action they’d ever take.
Or they could dive down into it and take cover in its depths.
Root held up the thought in her mind, peering at it from every angle and in every light, trying to be sure it came from some rational—albeit, resigned to ill advice—part of her mind. It sounded like a thought of her own thinking.
That was as much reassurance as she was going to get.
“There!” she wheezed, her breath coming in tight bursts as her lungs struggled to keep pace with her terrified feet. Vit looked on with a grim expression, but they gave no protest.
Root lunged the final few feet, swinging herself into the hole like a roughhousing child down a slide. She almost couldn’t bear to look on; if the hole was shallow, it would amount to only a grave. Which, somehow, was the tiniest sliver of comfort in the face of the alternative—lying dead and exposed in the middle of the tunnel floor until the end of time.
She slid down a narrow chute and then onto the level ground of some wider chamber. Vit crashed against her before she could manage to stand, pinning her on her side. Beel followed, and then Azriah.
Just as Azriah cleared the mouth of the hole, Vit was in motion. They slung a great mass of web across the opening, layering it thicker and thicker. Looking frantically about, they spotted loose stones scattered near the walls, skull-sized or near to it. These they snapped up with their webs, launching them into the hole, stopping it up with as much debris as they could. Their eyes glowed brighter and brighter. A single guard wriggled through the mess just as Vit sealed off the last of the hole. They continued to layer webs across the entirety of the corner.
Propped up on one elbow, Azriah swung his sword. It cut clean through the guard. Its remains splattered the floor.
There was a rhythmic thudding against the other side of the blockade, and a muffled buzzing that persisted and grew to more and more desperate notes with every knock against the stone. The four of them lay there in a heap, gasping for breath, their ears ringing in the sudden stillness. Azriah’s torch had been nearly extinguished as he fell into the room, and Vit had long ago abandoned their candle, leaving only the dim green light of Vit’s arms and eyes and the dying flicker of the torch to illuminate the space around them. The light pulsed with the thrumming of the guards against the wall and the thudding of Root’s heart. She closed her eyes.
She was just going to rest her eyes for a moment. For fuck’s sake, she deserved it.
Zzrktz flitted nervously to and fro in the tunnel outside the school doors, watching the other guard students leave the campus in pairs and throuples and quouples and quouples-but-five. There were a few septouples, but no sextouples. That would be mightily indecent, and lead to immediate suspension no doubt. Or, perhaps it wasn’t so much “suspension” these days—rumor had it the gallows were dealing with a rope shortage, and therefore resorting to less spiritane means.
He kept his eyes on the doors, but in a way that tried to hide that he was waiting. A very casual anxious watch.
Then he spotted her—there. Zur?zkz. Oh, she was a dream. She flapped her wings as she passed through the doors, and Zzrktz got a perfect snapshot of her in motion. Her eyes were so deep, so hollow. Her golden claws were perfectly sharp. And… well, her tail was just the perfect shade of dark royal purple.
A flush flamed through Zzrktz’s face. He shouldn’t be looking at her like that! It was horribly lewd, and so offensively objectifying besides. But those thoughts had been passing through his head more and more. He was going through some… changes.
Beside Zur?zkz flew her friends, Zy~zyt and Zz(z)z. Just behind them, looming like a shadow—a very tall, very strong, oh so handsome and dense as mud shadow—was Zzuzykzkz. Ugh.
Zur?zkz passed him by, and Zzrktz knew his time to act was now—now or never. He started forwards.
“Zhey Zur?zkz,” he said.
She turned. “Zoh, zhey.”
“Zum, Zi zjust zwanted zto zask zyou zsomething… zuh…” Oh, why was he so nervous? She was just so beautiful, and smelled so nice, like dust and rocks…
“Zwould zyou zlike zto… zmaybe… zgo zto zthe zbig zdance zwith zme?”
“Zi’m zsorry,” she said, and Zzrktz’s heart sank. “Zi zjust… Zi’m znot zreally zdrawn zto zyou.”
“Zright. Zof zcourse.”
“Zbut zwe zcan zstill zbe zfriends.”
With a wave of her claw, Zur?zkz left, her friends giggling at her side. Zzrktz clacked his claws together, his whole body wracked with anxiety.
Maybe if I wasn’t so nervous all the time, thought Zzrktz. That’s why she likes Zzuzykzkz. He’s always so confident.