Now, the first room down Halwlau the Gorger’s throat was a bit… different. The group didn’t have to go far to reach it, which was a relief to all of them. It helped that the walls and floor were not slimy, as they might have been, but rather clean, dry, carefully laid brick, just the same as the room before. If they had been slimy… well, I’m sure you can see why that would not have been preferable, for multiple reasons. But beyond the unorthodox doorway, it resembled in every way a regular old hallway.
And it was relatively short, as mentioned. Not too short; it still painted an aberrant picture of what the rest of Halwlau’s stony body might look like. It did not stretch to the extreme of a giraffe, but it went on a few steps longer than you could reasonably expect from a proportionally sized creature of a horselike build. And if she was meant to have a humanoid stature, the passage dove well into her gut before it opened into a room. Let’s call it the stomach.
(Those who were walking into it certainly did not refer to it by such terms.)
The room stood out like oysters and caviar on a silver platter amidst greasy hunks of unseasoned roast chicken turning on a spit over a campfire in the backwoods. By all accounts, every setting of the long path thus far had been dingy and frightening; dirty cave tunnels teeming with buzzing horrors, a doorway through an enormous mouth. It was as though they progressed through all the hallmarks of a haunted carnival walk, but instead of candy, the denizens harbored very real and very sharp intents to add more bloodstains to the attractions—through the most realistic means available. Even before entering the maze, their trek had taken them through dark woods and rundown villages and an old, abandoned manor. The last harbor of real, clean, lush civilization, and the last thing that could have been described as even remotely posh, was the archive building in Obobo, and even that was so saturated with dust that it tickled people to sneeze thirty-five miles away when a gust of wind blew just right.
And so it was quite a surprise to all four of them when they stepped into a pristine art gallery, perfectly manicured, pedicured, unguicured, and buccinicured. Polished white tiles made up the floor, so clean they looked like glacial ice. It was a long room, made longer by two of those funny little pointless walls you find in galleries, the ones that don’t stray far enough in any direction to enclose new rooms but rather just float in the center to maximize wall space. The pair partially bisected the room but for wide gaps at either end and a large open space in the center. Other offshoots broke from the main chamber here and there to give the room a more dynamic travel experience. Most notable among them was a circular chamber that connected to the main room by one of its corners, sitting aside like a tower that did not rise up to some strip of battlements or pointed guard post, but rather remained grounded and held more art only, this time on curved walls. Interesting in its own way, if somewhat disappointing.
The white plaster walls held painting after painting, each one in a frame of carved and polished wood or shining metal, a full circumference of images like windows into gorgeous landscapes, precisely arranged baskets of fruits, and the occasional odd goring.
At the very center of the room stood a thick pedestal cast of solid and immoveable iron. It bored down deep beneath the floor and into the mountain. Upon it was a strong contraption of iron arms and swiveling joints, and affixed to that was a tall mirror, the base of its silver frame so close to the floor that a mouse could stand before it to admire itself—if mice were preoccupied with shows of vanity and not the simple two-step cycle of “stay alive” and “reproduce” (or, in more concise and scientific terms, “flee” and “fuck”) that actually runs through their heads on constant loop.
Laced through the walls and tiles and ceiling of the room wound strands of pulsing, glowing gold, a web of light that converged like the tributaries of a river, stitching together and branching off as if wrapping the whole chamber in binds. They swirled about the floor around the mirror’s iron mounting, and one thick limb of it spiraled up and around the pedestal. Like veins pumping ichorous blood to every corner of the gallery, they cast the room in a yellowish light, faint but steady, so no corner was tucked away in shadow. It was quite nice, actually—ambient, calm.
Of course, Root’s first thought was that it gave the appearance that they were swimming through piss. Or bile, in a stomach. She almost thought the latter image, but caught herself just before she could think it, and then veered promptly back to piss. She refused to flow with the stomach metaphors. Bladder was fine.
“Whoa,” said Vit, stepping into the room and looking around. “Are these all originals, do you think?”
“Must be,” said Azriah. “I think I’d remember seeing this one printed in that book.” Root craned her neck to see past his wide shoulders; he stood before a painting of a naked, disemboweled body being dutifully stitched back together with crimson thread by a winged imp-like creature on a vibrant forest floor. It was almost serene.
“Or this one,” said Root, gesturing to another—something like a portrait, but of a figure that was more teeth and hair than anything else, which seemed to have traded off their proper places in many instances.
“Hm,” said Vit. “Maybe this is all the stuff no one ever wanted.”
“Or she thought she was keeping the best for herself.”
“They’re not mutually exclusive,” muttered Beel.
Root made her way farther into the room, joined by Beel and Azriah, and quickly found that Vit was the type to progress through museums at a snail’s pace, stopping at every painting, every display, every placard of information just to be sure they saw everything there was to see. Root was not that type; she stopped to look at the bits that caught her attention, but moved along at a pace that wouldn’t have any employees checking the time and worrying that she might not make it out on her own before close.
On the far wall, opposite the hallway from which they’d entered, she spied a second door—closed, hewn of stone, and laced with the same golden fibers that strung up the rest of the room like a holiday bird stuffed and ready for roasting. The veins encircled and converged on the door’s only features: a simple knob and a keyhole. But in the center of the room was the feature that caught Root’s attention and held it, and by his sudden silence, it seemed Azriah’s eyes had fallen on it in the same moment. They’d noticed the mirror.
“Is that… is that the mirror?” asked Root. Vit looked up from the painting before them—a work titled “Fisherwoman” of a squash-faced calico cat in some unnaturally contorted position. It looked like it was missing joints. It also looked like Affodell had never seen a house cat; its face was more reminiscent of a possum that had disguised itself in the interest of a warm bed and a steady flow of kibble.
“No, that can’t be it,” said Vit in an uncertain tone. “I told you, it’s the handheld type. The picture in the book shows what it looks like.”
“Does this lady just have a whole collection of special mirrors, then?” asked Root. “I mean, this thing sure looks like a magical mirror.”
“Let’s just say we’ve found it and get out of here,” suggested Beel.
“That’s not the mirror,” said Vit.
“Are you sure?” asked Azriah.
“Hm. All right.”
Azriah and Root looked the pedestal up and down as Vit turned back to the next painting, a sunrise landscape of a cranberry bog, beautiful and calm but for the faint faces of what could only be described as “cranberry children” lurking just beneath the berry-covered surface of the water.
Of course, whether it was their prize or not, Root couldn’t ignore the mirror before them now. It faced away from her, turned aside and slumped downwards as if asleep. She stepped up to it and grabbed it by the frame, swinging it around to look into its face.
The mechanism yelped as it pivoted. Root followed suit.
She couldn’t say how long it’d been since last she saw her own reflection. She couldn’t recall looking into a mirror in Yevel or Hack or Drooked. Had it been since Obobo? Unn? Had she never even caught a glimpse of herself in some clear water or a polished blade?
Her hair was a knot tied from a hundred smaller knots, the black waves streaked with mud, a pre-furnished home ready for any wayward critters to come along and sign the lease. And as far as she could tell, perhaps some already had. The scars and blemishes on her face had mustered more support, and now they marched up and down her neck and arms in far greater numbers than before. They’d never been hard to miss, but now it was damn near impossible except by someone who stood at several hundred paces or in a room without even a candle’s worth of light. On instinct she yanked the collar of her shirt up higher to hide as much of herself beneath it as possible. In the reflection, she watched as her fingers came back smudged. Only then did she notice the state of her clothes.
They were ragged and dirty, the way they’d often looked after a particularly hard day’s work on the farm. As she looked closer, she noticed something glowing on her pant leg. An ember. Her throat seized and she turned away in haste to brush it away.
But when she tore her gaze from the mirror and looked down at her clothes, there was no ember. There was dirt, certainly, but not the thick film of mud and manure like another layer of skin. Her arms, too, looked fine—the same as they had for days. How would she have gone without noticing fresh scars all over her arms, anyhow? She could see them, mirror or no.
She looked back up. The image was the same. More embers lay across her shoulders like dandruff, and thick coils of smoke poured off her body. A few times she looked back and forth between herself and the image in the mirror—no, that wasn’t her. That image was false.
Azriah stood beside her now, and through the smoke she could see his reflection. His gambeson hung like an oversized rain poncho off his frame—his thin, wiry frame, all bone and skin with none of the muscle she’d always known him to have. He looked almost sickly. He was shorter, too—shorter than Root’s image. His face looked startled. Afraid. His eyes glistened with tears.
He gasped as he stepped into view of the pane. With rigid swiftness he raised a hand and wiped at his eyes, but somehow it didn’t wick away the tears. Instead, they began to fall.
Root turned to look up at Azriah’s face. He looked, if anything, confused. There were no tears in his eyes, nor meekness on his brow.
“What is it?” asked Vit, turning away from the paintings at the sound of Root’s cry and Azriah’s gasp. They hurried over to join them.
Now Vit’s reflection came into view, tall and unfamiliar. The swath of their face usually marked by the teal skin and spider eyes of their spirit half had grown, spreading like a blight. It now covered the entirety of their face and reached with tendrils down their neck. The human ear on the right side of their head was gone, and the many silver piercings that adorned it were now buried in spirit flesh. Their lone human eye sat on an island of brown skin, but that skin, too, had changed; it was wrinkled, as if in old age, creased and blotchy. Vit’s eyes widened. They clenched their jaw.
“This isn’t the mirror we’re after,” said Vit. “Let’s leave it be.” They took the frame in one firm hand and pushed it away. The metal squealed as it spun. It came to a shuddering stop around the side where Beel stood. He looked up at it.
“Hm,” he said, brow creasing. “I do believe my nose has gotten just a smidge bigger. What a shame.”
“You try the door yet?” asked Vit, turning away with a forced casuality.
“No, I figured we’d get there when you were done getting the most out of your day pass,” said Root. Vit looked back at her, hurt.
“I… Sorry. I’m sorry,” said Root.
Vit went to the door then and tried the knob. It was, to nobody’s surprise, locked.
“Think she left the key around here somewhere?” asked Root.
“Realistically?” said Azriah. “Actually, yes.”
“What do you mean?” asked Vit.
“This feels like some sort of puzzle.”
“So, what, she stashed the key under the mat or something?” asked Root.
“Was there a mat?” asked Vit, turning to scan the floor.
“No, what I mean is… well, there’s got to be some way to get inside.”
“But I thought she didn’t want this place opened ever again,” said Root.
“She didn’t,” said Vit. “Hence the whole ‘lock the builders inside to die with the secrets’ thing.”
“She’s doing a poor job of it, then. Would it really be that hard to dump molten metal through the whole place and let it harden into a solid iron tomb?”
“Goes against the code,” said Beel.
The others turned to him. “What?”
“There was an old decree or something that said tombs and vaults and ancient cursed treasures could no longer be dealt with in those… final manners. You could only put them behind riddles and puzzles and booby traps. That sort of thing.”
Root scowled. “Why?”
“It makes for bad stories if treasure hunts are always about drilling through a huge block of iron.”
“So there’s gotta be something,” said Azriah.
“What do we do, then?” asked Root.
“Look around, I suppose.”
And so, much to Vit’s glee, they turned their attention back to the paintings and other features of the room.
Root started with the painting just to the right of the door. It was in a simple wooden frame, and the canvas was painted in the print of a stone brick wall. The only other feature of the artwork was what appeared to be a metal hook hammered into the stone, but it held nothing. For torture, Root assumed, or sex. It was untitled. Certainly if you spend your whole life making art you’re bound to run out of ideas sooner or later, and Ybris Affodell was no exception.
Root continued her search alongside the others, a desperate and exhausted hunt like sifting through the silt in the creek beds with her sisters back home in hopes of finding a grain of gold. There was a frustrated tightness in her that she just couldn’t shake. She was getting more and more irritable as the hours wore on.
They studied every painting and every corner. Beel waddled the perimeter of the room smacking each brick with a soft but rhythmic pat, pat, pat, pat. Halwlau had claimed Affodell wouldn’t make use of such tricks, but they’d be foolish not to try anyway. Vit tried stepping on the floor tiles in various patterns, but even that yielded nothing.
The paintings, it seemed, were bolted to the wall. No attempts at pushing them, pulling them, prying them, twisting them, bopping them, speaking to them, or even, in Beel’s case, giving them the silent treatment, made them budge at all. In fact, one of the frames had been ever so slightly unlevel, and when Root twisted it, she managed only to even it out, and then it would not move again no matter how hard she tried. She’d hoped this was a clue, but eventually lost faith in such a notion when the painting provided nothing more than an intimate look at a spirit woman’s many, many bare breasts. What a spirit needed breasts for, Root couldn’t say. Certainly spirits weren’t mammals. But what were they? She’d ended up dwelling on the question for longer than intended, standing there before the wall, when Beel snapped her from her stupor with a particularly crisp pat and a grumbling sigh. Ah, right—annoying. That was it.
“This is stupid,” said Root at last. The others turned as she went back to the locked door and jiggled the handle again. She knelt and peered through the keyhole. It was dark.
“We don’t really have any other options,” said Vit.
“Yeah we do.” Root straightened up and braced her stance. She pressed her palm against the keyhole.
“I’ll be way over there,” said Beel and made his way to the far corner.
Root pulled a gathering cloud of smoke into her hand. She pushed just a small tendril into the keyhole at first, then more, then more still. If she could pick the thing, fantastic. If it exploded like the padlocks in the manor, even better as far as she was concerned.
She summoned more and more smoke, pumping it into the narrow slit. Sweat beaded on her brow; the sheer effort tapped into her depleting reserves of strength, and the smoke itself made the room hot and acrid. Runaway coils leaked back into the room around them, weaving a lazy canopy across the ceiling. It stung her raw and bloodied fingertips as it wafted around them.
Still, the lock didn’t give.
When it became excruciatingly clear that nothing was happening, she stopped and stepped away.
“I really hoped that would work.”
“I think we have to do this the way it’s meant to be done,” said Vit.
“Yeah, well, probably what we’re meant to do involves that damn mirror.”
Vit’s shoulders slumped. Azriah pursed his lips. There was no denying that what she’d said was true—they all knew it, they’d just been holding onto some reckless, selfish hope that it wasn’t.
Vit returned to the mirror first, though they approached it the way a small child approaches someone in a haunting costume, wide-eyed and resistant, yet resigned to the parent’s grip on their shoulder steering them forward. They tugged the frame around and looked inside.
They stood there for several moments unmoving. Then, slowly, they began to turn it, walking along in front of the face to inspect the other corners of the room. It grated along with a sustained screeching noise, broken up by the occasional hitch as the pieces of the old metal joints reminded each other how to cooperate.
ReeeeeeeEh eh eeeeeeee Ehceeeeeee.
With a sigh, Root stepped over to join them. She steeled herself as she looked into the mirror; it showed the same image as before, as far as she could tell, though she made a conscious effort not to look into her own eyes—or face, or at her arms or clothes or the smoke and embers smoldering off of her. She kept her gaze locked on the room around her, the paintings and bricks, looking for anything that might be enough of a clue that they could step away from the image to ponder it in peace.
EeeeeeEeeeeeeeee eheh reeee.
When they turned it to face the locked door, Root leaned in closer. Surely that was where they’d see their clue; words emblazoned on the door, perhaps, or a quick montage with step-by-step instructions on how to open it, with helpful visuals. But the door looked the same inside the reflection as it did outside of it: closed, locked, a thin trail of smoke rising from the keyhole like a discarded cigar. Vit kept swiveling the mirror.
“There, look.” Root leaned in closer and pointed to the image. Immediately, her own head blocked it.
“Shit, hold on.” She ducked and cocked her head to the side. “See, there. The painting by the door.”
Vit did a couple of swift head turns, looking into the mirror, then the painting, then the mirror, then the painting again. It was the frame that hung just beside the door, the painting of the brick wall and empty hook. Except in the mirror’s reflection, the hook wasn’t empty. There was a key hanging from it, painted in quick, broad strokes of dingy grey-brown.
“Well, we know where we’re looking now,” said Vit and pushed the mirror aside.
Root inspected the painting now with renewed interest. A hidden panel behind it, perhaps? Or a compartment in the frame? She ran her fingers along the edges, ignoring the pain and the flakes of dried blood and dirt she sprinkled across it. Vit did the same just beside her, and then Azriah was there too, peering at the line where the frame met the brick wall.
Gingerly, Vit prodded at the canvas itself, first poking at various points in search of some cavity beneath the sheet, but then rapping against it with two knuckles and listening closely to the way the sound resonated. But their efforts turned up nothing.
As did Root’s. And Azriah’s.
They all took a step back from the painting to peer at it in disappointment and disgust, like a gaggle of kids frustrated that their poking and prodding hadn’t sparked life back into the limbs of a dead mole.
“Maybe we need to look at it from upside-down?” suggested Vit.
Root turned. “What’s that going to do?”
Azriah grabbed the frame again and yanked. It didn’t move.
Root pulled out a small knife and ran a hand along the canvas’s edge. There, parallel to the frame, she cut a long incision. When it was done, she stuck a finger under the flap and peeled it back to peek underneath.
She shook her head in answer to the expectant expressions of the others. “Whatever the answer is to this puzzle, it’s stupid. And really, really boring.”
“Maybe there’s something we didn’t see…?” started Vit. They stepped towards the mirror, then slowed, then trudged the final few feet. They swiveled it around and looked into the reflection.
Root joined them, even though she really, really didn’t want to. As if the image wasn’t bad enough, it made her eyebrows look uneven. And now it was taunting them with the picture of a key they couldn’t reach. She hated that fucking thing.
They tilted the mirror up and down, putting their faces as close to the surface as possible without obstructing their view of the key painting, desperately scanning it for any other clue—any sign of a latch or door or anything. Root brushed her cheek against the cool, glassy surface. She hated this puzzle—despised it. She was tired, and her hands hurt—everything hurt—and she just wanted to get the stupid fucking mirror and leave.
She adjusted her angle again. The wretched image of herself was hardly a hand’s breadth away, staring at her. She could practically feel it breathing on her, hot and putrid.
“Fucking damn it,” she yelled as she recoiled from the image and stamped her boot hard against the tiles. “I’ve had it with this stupid fucking puzzle.”
She wasn’t proud of what she did—at least not in the instant that followed, when the shards of the mirror rained down upon the floor like icicles batted off the windowsills after a rare, spirit-induced snowfall back home. She was, in fact, very unproud of what she did—ashamed, even. But she didn’t have much time to worry about it, because suddenly her hand (which already hurt a great deal) hurt even more than it had before.
She struck the reflection, and the mirror shattered.
Vit leaped back with a hand over their mouth. Azriah watched the outburst from where he stood by the wall. Beel only sighed.
“Root…” started Vit.
She looked down at the pieces. Shit. She’d just ruined everything.
Carefully, with all the caution of someone handling broken glass, yet hastily, with all the speed of someone clinging to a last-ditch hope that they hadn’t just ended a two-week long hunt and chance at unimaginable riches with one punch, Root scooped up one of the larger shards and carried it over to the painting. She held it up before the canvas and… yes, the image of the key was still there. She could see it clearly now. Maybe if she could just…
“What do we do now?” Vit asked Azriah.
“I believe pickaxes and dynamite were mentioned.”
Root angled the shard of the mirror so that the reflection faced the ceiling. Already, the image of the key was fading. She scraped it upwards across the surface of the canvas…
… And something poked against her palm, bulging out against the backside of the mirror shard. Root grabbed hold of it as she moved the shard up higher, flicked the protruding bit outwards as if unhooking a ring from a hook, and drew it forth.
She held a key, apparently made of canvas and paint, but very much material and very much in her hand.
“Or we can just unlock the door,” said Root, and the others turned. They stared at her unblinking for several moments.
Vit frowned. “I don’t think that was the proper solution.”
Root stuck the key in the lock. It was flimsy, but it slid inside, and when she turned it there was a click as the door began to open.
“You can stay here, then, if you’d like,” she said with a grin.
(Now, Vit, as a matter of fact, was correct—that wasn’t the proper solution. But most puzzles have more than one solution, as any veteran puzzle architect will tell you. There is the proper solution—the intended one—and then there is the alternative solution. Sometimes, but very rarely, the alternative is discovered by someone particularly bright and cunning, who is able to conceive of the puzzle in a way that even the architect did not intend and thus outsmart the maker while working within the puzzle’s bounds. But most of the time, the one who finds the alternative solution is not out-puzzling the puzzle master. Most of the time, the alternative solution is discovered by someone who does something rather stupid.)
(That is because stupidity, in most cases, is an even stronger tool against a well-crafted puzzle than wit.)
Orne Tyn leaned against the wall. Curse that damn boy for propping him there upside-down.
“Fascinating companions you have,” said Halwlau the Gorger.
“Grib. I wouldn’t call them that.”
“Ah. Confined to your construct against your will, then?”
“As if any of us are any different.”
Halwlau gave a knowing frown—no wait, a smile. Right. He was upside-down.
“I suppose I came here against my will,” said Halwlau. “But it has not been so terrible, all things considered.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Oh, mm, what year did she die? Let me think… it must have been… was it the year of the Great Pickling? No, no, the year after.”
Orne Tyn raised his brows. (Raised? Lowered? Damn the boy.) “That’s many years.”
“Yes. And you?”
“Oh, must’ve been just before the eighty-year ringing began. I do remember when it started I was quite metallic already.”
“Oh my, much longer, then.”
“These companions are quite new to you, as far as bearers go.”
“I wouldn’t call them that.”
“Are they being digested down there?”
“Down your throat. Are they being dissolved in acid?”
“No. They’re making me quite ticklish, though. One of them is walking around and… for lack of a better way to put it, smacking his little hands against my insides.”
“I hate that one. He’s my least favorite.”
“Is that so? He did not seem to be the least agreeable of the bunch.”
“It’s a four-way tie.”
“I’m sure it could be worse.”
“Could be better.”
“As I said—they’re fascinating, at least. You are mobile, and you get to use your abilities to—”
“I do nothing to aid them.”
Halwlau smiled—frowned. “I see.”
They sat in silence for a very short while, by spirit standards.
“Is acid on the table at all?”