Root started awake when someone moved on top of her. She’d been out for only twenty-two seconds, but what a glorious twenty-two seconds they’d been, free of winding tunnels and swarming spirits and confusing maps and dried-up skeletons and stupid mirrors and aching legs and blistered feet and burning lungs and heavy eyes and bloody fingers.
Fuck. Her fingers hurt so fucking bad.
It took her many moments to realize her eyes were open now; the room was still mostly dark, and the last territories of light were making major strides towards secession. As Root stared up at the stone ceiling, the green glow faded, leaving only the orange light of the dying torch.
“Vit?” came Azriah’s voice from somewhere partially on top of Root.
“Yeah?” Vit’s response was off to her left—not on top of her, unlike everyone else. They must have been the one she felt stirring.
“Can you two have a coherent conversation, please?” muttered Root, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands. “It’s not helping.”
“Just making sure they didn’t… die. The light…”
“I’m too tired,” said Vit. “Just had to rest. I spent too much energy filling up the hole.”
“Heard that before,” said Root.
“If we have to keep our thoughts lucid, then so do you,” they said.
“It was a sex joke.”
In all Root’s life, she’d never been a morning person. She’d spent all her years on a farm, prying herself out of bed before even the sun had lifted an eyelid, more often than not hiding from the new day and the grating words of her older sister beneath her coarse blankets until she took a pillow repeatedly to the back of the head. She’d gotten up for school in time to be early enough to make it through those years without flunking out but late enough to garner a reputation. And school had never called her to wake all that much later than farm work, for whatever reason. She’d hated every day of it all, and still the sunrise filled her with murderous dread.
But never had she had a harder time rising than in that moment there on the cold and dirty stone floor. For the moment she could blame it on the two additional bodies atop her own.
Azriah pulled himself off of Root’s legs with the sound of a man standing up. The wavering light shuddered as he lifted the torch, then swelled as he worked to rekindle it. Beel rolled onto his back with the shrill kinkunk of his rings striking the stone. Now without excuse, Root propped herself up on her elbows.
Azriah held down a hand, and she took it, climbing to her feet amidst loud protest from every corner of her mind and body.
Root and Vit each lit a candle from the torch and then turned to examine the room. They were in a long, wide chamber—at least in comparison to the tunnels behind them. The walls and floor bore clear resemblance to the tunnels, though something was different about their makeup that Root couldn’t quite put a finger on. It felt somehow more deliberate, while the tunnels had felt much more natural and happenstantial.
The far end of the room met a staircase—wide, spanning the full distance between the walls on the right and left, and rising a dozen steps to a landing. A carved arch loomed just beyond like a single open eye, black with the shadows of a new tunnel. Root groaned, loudly.
Aside from more stones, there was nothing else in the room.
“We could stop here for the night,” suggested Vit. The proposal hung in the air like a carnival pastry from a string; no one wanted to turn down such an enticing offer, and yet they could not ignore the suspicion of some new scheme. A gloom waited to be addressed—a faint hum at the back of their minds that made their spirits dwindle (the morale kind). Or perhaps that was the lingering sound of the guards on the other side of the wall.
“We have to see what’s down that way,” said Azriah at last, though he didn’t sound happy about being the one who had to say it. “We may still be in the thick of it—we don’t know that it’s safe here. And if…” his words tapered off, as if voicing any hopefulness might kill their chances faster than a city guard does a well-trained dog.
“If we’ve found the crypt, we might as well know it,” said Root, fearing no superstition. The very thought let an ounce of energy drip back into her muscles.
They took to the stairs, and then in single file, they entered the tunnel. Much to Root’s relief, it didn’t go far—only a dozen paces before opening into another room.
Stepping over the threshold, they left the monotony and—with any luck—the endless endless tunnels behind. The walls were even and squared and laid in neat brick of hewn stone, which also constructed the arched door of this new room. Tiles zigzagged across the floor, decorating it in a smooth albeit dusty web of diamonds. The opposite wall was made up of the same brick, though they stopped at the bounds of an enormous circular stone carving of a spirit’s face. Its eyes were shut—three, each with three eyelids that looked to close in a puckered triangular pattern, and with lashes that Root could only imagine got stuck about one another on an hourly basis. The two level eyes were higher on the face, while the centermore one was set below them, just above the height of Vit’s head. Below the flared nostrils and some other facial feature Root could only describe as the mystery orifice (it was the groob, of course), was a large mouth, carved in a grimace and pierced by two tusks that jutted forth from the wall like pikes. No other entryway led beyond the room.
“Are you kidding me?” asked Root aloud, looking around. Either the others couldn’t hide their crestfallen expressions, or they simply didn’t bother to.
“I said—” Root looked up. “Oh fucking hell.”
The great stone face was moving.
Beel let out a yelp and retreated back into the hallway. Azriah drew his sword. All of them took a few hasty steps back, at least until they were well out of tusk range (they hoped).
“Um, hi there,” said Vit.
The stone eyes fluttered open with a sound like a child taking their pet rock for a walk down a cobbled street. The eyes beneath the freakish lids were cut from polished gemstones, with quartz whites and obsidian pupils. Each was rimmed with an iris of a different color—one of glittering pyrite, one of grey-green aventurine, and one of bloodied garnet. They focused one by one on the four of them.
“Oh, interesting,” spoke the wall with a voice like shoveling gravel. “You’re not guard spirits.”
“No,” answered Vit.
“Some of you aren’t spirits at all.”
“That is correct.”
“So you’ve mentioned,” said Root. “We’re here for the crypt. Are we in the right place?”
Azriah gave her a look.
“Yes, I must say you are.”
There was a palpable wave of relief that washed through the room. Root felt a great tension leave her shoulders. It reminded her once again how badly she wanted to be sleeping.
“Who are you?” asked Vit, taking a step closer to the face in the wall.
“I am called Halwlau the Gorger. I am the guardian of this place,” said the wall.
“It is nice to meet you, Ms. Gorger.”
“Ms. The Gorger, if you please.”
“Of course. I am Vit, and these are my companions: Azriah, Root, and Beel.”
“Mm. Welcome. It is good to see things. I don’t see things very often, and when I do, they are those same little guard folks. They’re like gnats in my ears when they come around during my naps. But they don’t often come. Busy they are, yes, busy in their own doings down here.”
“We’ve, uh, closed the door behind us,” said Vit. “They won’t be bothering you for a bit.”
The pyrite eye pulsed with a golden glow for hardly a second. “Yes, I can see that you have.” Root looked back the way they’d come; the stopped-up hole was well out of sight.
“Excuse me,” said Root, and the guardian turned to look at her. “I hope this isn’t, er, rude, but what… are you?”
There was a moment of pause during which Root had ample time to reflect on her recent actions. Perhaps a question that had to be preceded by “I hope this isn’t rude” shouldn’t be asked of something nicknamed “the Gorger.” Root was about to launch into her best attempt at smoothing things over when the guardian’s lips turned up in a smile—an awkward expression around her tusks.
“I’m a spirit,” said the guardian.
“Are you, um, part of… this?” Root gestured to the walls and ceiling.
“I am now.”
Vit’s brow furrowed. “How does that work, exactly?”
The three gemstone eyes studied them for another moment before the guardian answered. “Spirits can be bound to objects. Oftentimes against their will. Possession, it is called. When a spirit is slain, their essence may be united with something artificial through great magical force, taking on that construct as their new physical form rather than returning to Yg Balta. My essence was put into the stonework here.”
“Oh, of course,” said Azriah. “I know something of this.” He lifted his sword higher so that the frog’s head on the crossguard was visible to the guardian.
“Riiiii,” said Orne Tyn.
“So you’re trapped here?” asked Vit to the guardian.
“In a sense. Though I have come to terms with my duty here over the years. But nothing is eternal; one day the wind and the weather of the world will wear this mountain down to nothing and expose my face to Enyn’s light. Through a great force of destruction I may be severed from this form and allowed to return to Yg Balta and rejoin the worlds beyond.”
“If I had the means, I would set you free, my lady,” said Vit.
“Grib. Where has this sentiment been?” asked Orne Tyn.
“You get to see the worlds,” said Azriah.
“From your belt.”
“I thank you,” said the guardian to Vit, “but some places in this world should be guarded. I have a job to do here. And imminently, it would appear.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” said Vit. “We are seeking the crypt of Ybris Affodell. How do we…?” they looked around, again studying the doorless room around them. “Is there a brick we should push?”
Again the guardian smiled. Root tried to ignore how menacing it looked when the spirit bared her teeth. The Gorger.
“No, Ybris knew the old ways. She wasn’t one to take those paths, tried and true though they might be. I will open the way for you, once you have paid the price.”
In the hallway, Beel whimpered. “Oh, it’s sacrifice, I knew it was going to be sacrifice.”
“Anyone who wishes to pass and step inside Ybris Affodell’s burial chamber must look deep within themself and share that which makes them feel the greatest shame—their chiefest insecurity. Then you must face it. This is the price to pass through my door.”
“That’s it?” asked Root.
The guardian’s eyes roved slowly to look at her. “That’s it.”
Azriah scratched at the back of his head. “So how do we want to do this? Come in here one at a time?”
Vit shrugged. “Sure. I can go first.”
Azriah nodded. “We will be out there.” His gaze flicked across the guardian’s face with a fleeting look of unease. He gave Vit a hard look. Vit returned the gesture with a barely perceptible nod.
They wouldn’t go far. They’d be within earshot.
Root wanted to like Halwlau—she seemed nice enough, if a bit tragic. But she couldn’t help but be a bit skeptical of “the Gorger.”
But she was made of stone, and her face alone was nearly twice as tall as any one of them. If she was plotting a bit of gorging, why split up her courses?
Root, Azriah, and Beel retreated down the hallway and into the larger chamber beyond. There they settled into the comfiest spots they could find on the stone steps and waited. Hardly more than five minutes passed before Vit rejoined them, looking vaguely unsettled but distinctly whole. Azriah stood and went off without a word as Vit took a seat near Root.
“How was it?” she asked.
Farther down the steps, Beel laid on his back, snoring softly. He had the right idea. Root nodded and closed her eyes, leaning back against the uneven stone wall. She knew better than to pry.
There was a good bit of shuffling as Vit shrugged off their pack and set it on the stair behind them.
“Er, I’ve been meaning to tell you… well, y’know, there just hasn’t been a good time with all the running and… yeah. Uh, so, the words scratched into the wall back there, the ones by the… remains. I got to read a decent bit of them. Not all, but some. Not enough, but…” Root opened her eyes and waited patiently, if somewhat confusedly, as Vit worked their way to the point. They went on. “Between what it said there and everything in the book,” they gestured over their shoulder to their pack, “I’ve sort of put some pieces together.”
Root leaned forward. “How many pieces? What are we talking?”
“Like, two pieces that match up, or the whole outside bit? You know? All of the edge pieces. So you know the size.”
“Uh, I don’t know, maybe the whole edge?”
She nodded. “Let’s hear it.”
“There was more about ‘mote periapts.’”
“Like the rock.”
“Right, and like the mirror.”
“Do we know what that means, though?”
“I didn’t. I was getting suspicions, but the writing confirmed it. The mote periapts are… they’re like a group of magical artifacts I guess. So the mirror is magic.”
“We suspected as much. Can’t say I’m surprised. Any idea what it does?”
“Well, so, that’s what the writing in the tunnel really started to get at. Apparently each of the mote periapts has some control over a specific emotion. The mirror’s jurisdiction is pride.”
“So Ophylla just has really really low self-esteem or something?”
“Maybe. But supposedly these things are really powerful. And more so the more of them you have.”
“Hm.” Root lowered her eyes in consideration; despite her best efforts to concentrate, her thoughts were flowing like a polluted river. Wisps of sleep kept batting at her thoughts and sending her mind around in loops, working through the same words over and over.
“I’m worried about what Ophylla wants with such a thing,” said Vit after a moment.
“So you’re not buying the story that she’s just embarrassed about her eyebrows?”
Vit thought for a second. “Does she have eyebrows?”
“No. Exactly my point.”
“Can you imagine if she did? All her hair is vines and it moves around like worms. They would get really annoying.” She put her hands up to her forehead and pointed her fingers outward, wiggling them.
Vit waved their hand. “I just mean—well, I know Azriah…”
“Won’t talk about it?”
“Right. He won’t ask these questions. But what if Ophylla isn’t just after some old artifact or heirloom after all. It’s powerful. What if she is planning to do something with it?”
“What happens when you have multiple of these things?” asked Root. “What if you have them all?”
“I’m not totally sure,” said Vit. “But clearly something big.”
“You’re not totally sure,” said Root.
“You said you aren’t totally sure. And before you said you’d had suspicions for a while about everything else. What do you think?”
Vit looked at the floor. They chewed their lip. “Honestly?”
“I think they’d give you more and more control over your mind… or someone else’s. Until, well…”
Vit fell silent as Azriah returned with impeccable dramatic timing. Like Vit, he looked somewhat off-put, but he had all his arms and legs and other bits that might be worth gorging upon. He cleared his throat and gestured to the door.
Beel shook himself awake at the sound and blinked up. He and Root made eye contact.
“I suppose I will go,” he said and padded up the stairs. “Come save me if I yell.”
“Of course,” said Azriah, and then Beel left the room.
Most of the minutes of Beel’s turn passed in silence, and there were many of them. Root began to worry around what she guessed to be the ten-minute mark.
“Should we check on him?”
Azriah pursed his lips and shook his head without looking up from his lap. He had been silent since he sat down.
Root turned instead to Vit, who only shrugged. But in the minutes that followed, they joined Root in casting fleeting, worried glances at the archway.
A few more minutes passed and then Beel returned, looking… entirely unchanged. He moped, and he looked frightened, but those were not new conditions—in fact, for a short while when she was first getting to know him, Root had thought they were part of the basic structure of his face; it had been the short, sweet period between realizing he always looked that way and him growing comfortable enough with her to use her ear as a place to whine about his feet hurting (they always did) and that the world around him was too loud/bright/smelly/crowded/dark/sharp/damp/loose/hostile (it always was). It had been a relaxing couple of minutes.
Root stood and took up her candle. Vit gave her an encouraging nod before she passed down the hallway.
In the dim candlelight, Halwlau’s features deepened, casting darker shadows in the recesses and better illuminating the bits that jutted out—none more so than her razor tusks. Her gemstone eyes reflected back the approaching glow. Root stopped in the center of the room.
The great stone face did not move.
“Hi,” said Root after a tense moment. She regretted instantly how small the word sounded, how curt and informal. But what was she meant to say? ‘Most honored greetings, O great Gorging One’? Idiot.
“Ah, I thought we’d concluded opening pleasantries,” said the guardian, moving suddenly and then stopping again. It was a remarkable process, the guardian’s movements; one moment the carving looked as still as—well, stone—and the next it moved as fluidly as flesh with all the animation of a traveling theater troupe, collectively. Then as soon as the face stilled again, it was as though you couldn’t possibly imagine it moving at all—it looked as strong and immobile as a hill.
“Oh,” said Root. “Well, we did, but then I went off for a while, and now I’m back.”
“I suppose you did. You must understand that your absence was but a blink of my eyes,” said the guardian, closing and reopening her eyes with that chilling spiral-like motion of her triple eyelids as if to emphasize the point. “Though an interesting blink.”
Root nodded and scuffed the ground.
“You know why you’re here. You have already proclaimed the ease of my task. Speak.”
“Right, my greatest insecurity… or whatever,” said Root, and straightened up a bit. A flush crept into her cheeks. “Uh, well… it’s my scars, see? On my face and my arms—you can’t see but they’re on my legs too, and all over, really. Er, but mostly here on my face. Some of the other kids at school used to make fun of me. I have them because—”
“No,” said the guardian, and then nothing more.
“Uhm, excuse me?”
“That is not the answer.”
Root’s face burned. “How should you know?”
“I know.” The word rumbled like an avalanche, made Root’s ribs quiver and her heart stumble. “You must give the honest answer or you will go no farther; I need not open the door for you.”
“And if you don’t like my next answer, or the one after that? How am I supposed to know what answer you’ll think is correct?”
“Because it will be the true one.”
“Say I don’t know the depths of my own mind well enough to figure it out. If you know so well, why don’t you just tell me?”
Root scowled. “I’m only trying to figure out how this stupid game works.”
The guardian arched an eyebrow. “Is it somewhat more difficult than you expected?”
But the guardian’s face did not move again; it remained frozen in that smirk that made Root’s blood boil.
It seemed she was low on options. She’d come all this way—across Atnaterra, into and back out of the clutches of Ajis, through tunnels swarming with things that could gut her in an instant, and now at last to the doorstep of the fortune her family needed. Would she turn back now just because of a tough question? The others had all paid the price. They’d go on without her if she refused to do the same.
And it didn’t seem wise to try to muscle her way past the face of the mountain itself—especially if that face was renowned for its masticating abilities.
What are you willing to do when it comes down to it?
This wasn’t the situation she’d ever envisioned. Maybe a horde of Ajises, or something even more terrifying. She didn’t think the demanding circumstance would be a fucking password.
She sighed. Nerves gripped her, and a shiver raced down her spine. Fine, then, but only this once. Just so she could get on with it.
She looked over her shoulder, back down the hall. The light was faint from Azriah’s torch and Vit’s candle, and all of them were out of sight. Root stepped to the side, angling herself farther out of view. Then she blew out her candle and let it fall to the floor. The room plunged to blackness.
She stood alone in the shadows for a moment as she steeled herself. She felt like she was going to throw up.
The features of the room returned; a glow washed over Halwlau’s face, faint, no more than a candle’s flame. It burned steady and still without a draft to disturb it. Root held her breath burning in her lungs; her legs shook and her mind trembled but her hand held perfectly still, outstretched towards the guardian, cupping the tiny flame on her palm. It wicked away the sweat beneath its warmth, but it did not burn her. She said nothing.
“Yes,” said the guardian. “This brings you great shame.”
Still, Root was silent. She kept her eyes lowered.
“The price of entry is twofold; I must know your mind, but also test it.” Root raised her gaze then, just as she felt the beginnings of an itch at the back of her head. And then the guardian’s garnet eye flashed just as the pyrite one had before, filling the room with a sinister red light that choked Root’s vision.
Root blinked away her stupor. She had stumbled and braced herself against the wall, and now she used it to push herself unsteadily back to her feet. On the other side of the room, the guardian’s face was silent and unmoving. Root turned away from it and ran down the hall.
Vit jumped up to stand as Root entered. They looked worried.
“Root…?” they started.
Root thrust her arms forward and a column of flame burst forth like a monstrous serpent. Vit’s eyes widened as it slammed into them, cascading across their features, consuming as it burned with searing heat. Root held the fire for only a moment, and when she let it fall, Vit’s body had been incinerated. Only dust remained.
Azriah gave a shout as he went for his sword, but now Root was in a panic. He’s going to kill me. She did the only thing she could think to do.
Watching Azriah burn was familiar this time. His flesh roasted off his bones and then his bones cracked and splintered in the terrifying blaze. As his hand slackened, he released Orne Tyn—but the sword did not hit the ground, at least not with the clang Root expected. What little remained of it spattered the ground as shimmering rain, tiny silver stones that mingled with bone and ash.
She whirled then, and struck at Beel as he cowered in the corner. A whip of flame erupted from her fingertips and snapped across him, slicing through his body. In a burst of wind and goo, he was gone.
Root staggered forwards; the room swam beneath the layer of tears that clouded her eyes. A wail bubbled up from somewhere deep within her, guttural and raw. She fell to her knees.
And kept falling.
She was home. Wind clawed at the trees; her father stood in the door of their house, shouting to her. The enormous spirit was there, ripping through their worm beds. Now it rounded its attention on the house. It stalked forward.
Root did nothing.
The spirit’s beady eyes flicked across the small building until they landed on Root’s father in the doorway. Its tongue danced across its lips.
Root did nothing.
And there was Eshra, Root’s older sister, shoving past their father as she ran from the home with a dusty old spear in her white-knuckled hands. Her eyes widened and she froze as she looked up at the form towering before her. But her expression turned to steely resolve and she wrung her hands tighter around the splintering wooden shaft. And she ran towards it.
And Root did nothing.
Eshra—damn her, Root hated to admit it—Eshra managed a wild, valiant swing against the spirit, and she made purchase with the soft underside of its stunted neck. It howled in pain. And then it reared back, and in one tremendous gnash of its horrible maw, it devoured Eshra.
The spirit turned its sights back on the house, on her father.
And Root did nothing.
There was a cry of unfathomable pain as Root’s father watched his oldest daughter murdered before his eyes. But it passed before Root had the wits to register it, and then he was running, his youngest daughter clutched in his arms as she sobbed and grabbed at his grubby shirt. He seized Root by the arm and pulled her in the direction of the jungle’s cover. The spirit’s eyes followed them.
Finally, Root acted. She threw out her arms and smoke poured forth. She fought against the wind just to keep hold of it, keep it around herself as she wove a cloud to shroud them. Even before they were fully concealed, the spirit turned away, locking onto the easier target. As the smoke closed out the world, Root watched as the spirit raised one great limb and battered the home to splinters.
The smoke grew denser and denser until Root couldn’t even see her father standing next to her or Malie in his arms. Darker and darker it grew until she stood completely alone in the suffocating blackness.
A faint orange light faded into view, illuminating the hardly perceptible shapes of the bricks in the walls and two sharp protrusions in front of her. Root blinked through the darkness.
Her breaths came fast and pained as though her lungs were filled with smoke and embers. For a long, long minute she stood there in the dark and steadied herself, blinking back the tears that fought their way to the fore.
Her eyes adjusted and the shape of the room came back to her. The archway into the hall was just behind her and to the left. The faint light came from beyond it.
She scooped up her candle, discarded and cold, and made her way slowly back down the passageway. The others sat around in drained silence. Vit looked up as Root reentered the room.
“We ready to move on?” they asked with a smile. It was gentle—understanding. She could imagine she looked much the same as they had.
“We should be,” said Root. “And if Halwlau tries to say otherwise, I’m leaving here and coming back with a pickaxe and as much dynamite as I can carry.”
They gathered their things and made their way back into the guardian’s chamber. Vit relit Root’s candle from their own as they filed in.
Azriah cleared his throat. “We’ve paid for our entry into the crypt as you asked. Now we wish to pass.”
“Mm, yes you have, and well. One of you even left a generous tip—a lengthy list of answers beyond the single one I required. But there is still one among you who has yet to face me.”
“What?” said Vit, looking confused. “But we all took our turns.” The guardian turned her gaze to Azriah’s hip.
“Oh,” said Azriah as he drew Orne Tyn from his sheath. “Hurry up, then.”
“Absolutely not,” said Orne Tyn, and added a croak for good measure.
“You have to,” said Vit. “It’s the rule of this place, the only way we can proceed.”
“Who said I want to go inside?”
“Come on,” said Root, turning to the guardian. “He doesn’t even c—”
She stalled the words before she could speak them, realizing her impending folly and thinking better of it just in time to correct her course. Surely Halwlau would not hear such an argument, given her similar… predicament.
“Just cooperate, would you?” said Azriah to the sword. Orne Tyn let out a long, low croak and said nothing. “Fine, suit yourself.” He propped the sword in the corner, tip in the grout between the tiles, pommel against the brick. He looked to the guardian. “He’ll stay out here, and I’ll retrieve him when we pass back through.”
“Fair enough by my standards,” said the guardian. “Very well. Now you may enter the crypt of Ybris Affodell.”
Halwlau opened her mouth wide. Her upper jaw rose high, and her lower jaw dipped until it was nothing but a low step at the threshold of the tunnel, the tusks standing to either side like sentinels before a treasury door. A dozen paces down the tunnel, the narrow passage widened into a room beyond.
With a round of resigned nods, the group stepped forward, Azriah at the lead. And then they entered the mouth of the Gorger.
Oh, absolutely not, thought Beel.