“Ophylla is using us.”
Vit looked startled. “Hang on, slow down…”
“How much more gradually would you have liked to learn this information?” asked Root.
“You could’ve at least eased us in,” grumbled Beel.
“Sorry, we’ll take a snack break at the halfway point next time.”
Vit looked back and forth between them. Their eyes settled on Root. “How do you…? What do you…?”
“Listen,” said Azriah, clearing his throat, “that’s sort of how it works. She didn’t want to get the mirror herself, but she had some money. She paid us to do it for her. It’s just a simple—”
“I understand how employment works,” snapped Root. “I mean she made us do this. She used one of these.” She waved the mirror in front of her.
“One of the mote periapts?” asked Vit, eyes widening. “How do you know?”
“I…” How did she know? Some pictures had danced around in the mirror, true, but what more was that than an old trinket putting on a little show?
She felt it; she knew it. That was the difference.
But those same feelings had been wrong before, hadn’t they? In the tunnels, in the false crypt…
No, this was different—felt different. The mirror wasn’t controlling her anymore, she was controlling it. She’d looked to it for answers and it had obliged. Its magic was hers now.
The back and forth left her dizzy—thoughts compounding, building atop one another, each more sure than the last. She shoved her way through the confusion and grabbed it by the neck like a gangly wild creature nipping at her flesh.
“I saw it in the mirror,” she said at last. “I don’t know how, exactly, but I did. Don’t look at me like that, it’s magic for fuck’s sake.” Azriah wiped away his skeptical expression and shrugged.
“What did you see?” asked Vit.
Root recounted the images: Ophylla using her amulet as they sat around discussing the job, Ajis using his ring, Ophylla again, exercising what must have been the power of the mote periapts united, strong enough to wipe away a whole host of spirits without blinking.
“So she already has one of them,” whispered Vit. “And she’s after another…”
“Let me see the mirror,” said Azriah. He reached for it where Root clutched it tight at her side.
Immediately she recoiled and brought the thing in close to her chest.
“Root…” started Vit.
“Root, give me the mirror.”
“I…” She hesitated—hesitated for just a moment too long. Vit’s worry deepened; Azriah’s jaw clenched. Root placed the mirror in Azriah’s palm where it waited like a stern parent on the verge of a curfew-related reprimand.
As soon as the mirror left her hand, a new feeling fell over Root—or, rather, a feeling left her, a feeling that had become so familiar it felt as though something was missing, a limb or a loved one or a particularly agitating belch. It was like she was mourning. It was like she was empty.
“I just… it’s so powerful. And dangerous,” said Root. Azriah nodded; his attention was focused on the mirror. But Vit continued to eye her in that irritating way they always did.
She’d lied, of course. She knew that now, in the wake of her parting with the mirror. She had wanted to keep it—wanted to hold onto that feeling forever and never feel its absence again. It had been in her possession for only a few minutes and in that time she’d become so attached to it. It terrified her beyond words.
She was never going to touch the thing again. She made up her mind on the matter as she watched Azriah’s face, the subtle twitches and the overwhelming feeling she knew swelled behind them. From her pack she produced a scrap of cloth; it’d previously been destined to serve as dressings for wounds in the worst of cases, but it seemed it had now earned a new purpose, more important but debatably even more grim.
Images moved in a whirlwind across the face of the mirror—images that, from Root’s vantage point, she couldn’t quite make out. A multicolored flash lit Azriah’s face. He lowered the mirror.
“Vit?” he said, offering the handle. Vit very nearly recoiled.
“I’m all set.”
Azriah looked to Beel.
“Hm. No thank you.”
Azriah shrugged and set the mirror down atop the sarcophagus. Gingerly, Root placed the cloth over it, and then lifted it to wrap it in the folds. Even through the layer of thick cotton cloth she could feel the mirror’s radiance, dulled and buzzing but still very much present in her mind and limbs. When it was bound tightly in the wad like a muzzle, she set it back upon the stone.
“What did you see?” Vit asked Azriah.
“Mm. Thanks.” They turned to Root. “So what now?”
“I, ah, er…” Root found herself stumbling on her words; she’d reached for the confidence that she’d expected to be there, only to find that it wasn’t. It was wrapped up in a whole wad of bandages and obscuring the first stanza of a dead woman’s sarcophagus poem. That left Root muttering sounds that more resembled a schoolchild stringing together their first set of phonemes than the plan of someone plotting the fate of one of the most powerful magical artifacts in all of existence.
“We only have so many options, right?” Vit tapped their fingers on the sarcophagus. “For starters, either we take it or we leave it.”
“We take it,” said Root, though she wasn’t entirely sure why she said it. She feared the worst. “We know where it is, and we led her near enough. I mean, hell, she read the full page out of the book last time we saw her. She has the same clue that led us here. She’ll find it on her own.”
“But would she make it through? Maybe the guard spirits would get her, or the false crypt, or the puzzle in the gallery. Er, well, I guess we broke that last one. Or… or we could talk to Halwlau. Tell her not to let Ophylla—or anyone—inside.”
“Halwlau won’t take orders from us, her name is The-Fucking-Gorger. Her whole job is not to let anyone in, at least until they pay the price. But maybe the guard spirits or the puzzles…”
“Or we take it with us and hide it somewhere new. Somewhere better.”
Beel scoffed. “Are you forgetting what it took to get in here?”
“Hmm. Well, good point. Azriah? You’ve been quiet.”
Azriah looked between them all. He hadn’t spoken since putting down the mirror, save the single word.
“I don’t think that this is necessarily our problem.”
“What?” said Root.
Azriah put up his hands. “Listen, we’ve had this conversation. Ophylla hired us for a job, and we did it. All we have to do now is hand over the mirror and we’re free of all this for good. I don’t care what she wants that thing for. We got paid, and now there’s no reason for us to play any further part in these matters. Maybe she becomes whatever evil villain you both seem to expect from her, or maybe we’re all wrong. It’s not our business. And if she does turn into a villain, someone else can stand up and contest her. But I’m not a city guard or some kind of vigilante. I’m just hired muscle. And quite frankly, I’ve seen worse bosses.”
“But you’ve got your payment regardless,” said Root with a jab at the bag of loot. “Why not take the mirror too and disappear?”
“That’s not how these things work. Do you think we’re off the hook because we give her the slip? For starters, she’d come after us.”
“And she already turned up once uninvited,” said Beel.
“Not to mention the reputation we’d all end up with. These arrangements aren’t made nearly as deep into the shadows as you might think. The bosses who hire us little guys to protect themselves or their assets or shut someone up or find them some fun new toy, they’re basically a guild; they talk. We’d never find work again.”
“For me, this is a one-time thing,” said Root.
“But for me, it isn’t. This is what I do. I’d throw it all away if I tried to dupe Ophylla. And I mean it when I say try. Because there’s no way we’d get away with it. Like I said, these people have connections. They take care of each other—protect each other’s investments.”
“We could say it wasn’t here, then,” said Vit.
“She’d never buy it.”
“She’d ask us to show her the crypt.”
“So we show it to her—show her it’s empty,” said Root.
“And if she doesn’t believe you? If she catches on and meets you with force? You said yourself you suspect she has one of these ‘mote periapts,’ and that that means she’s powerful.”
“If she attacks with the power of one of these things, then we’ve got one of our own.”
“She’s a spirit. Killing her won’t stop her.”
“Well… fuck, then, we can’t just give it to her. Do you want her to have all of that power?”
“There are some things that are just bigger than us. Of course I don’t want her to have that power, but we can’t stop her from doing what she wants, we can only delay it, and turn ourselves into obstacles to be cut down along her path. She’ll just hire someone else to hunt it down and take it from us. And they’re not going to offer up a trade, unless it’s half a dozen arrows lodged in our corpses.”
“Maybe we’re obstacles, then,” said Vit. “Maybe some things are worth delaying, even if you can’t stop them.”
Azriah tugged at the hair beneath his lower lip. “This is ridiculous, we don’t even know for certain what she wants with this thing. And we definitely don’t know what they all truly do. We still know so little about any of this. Would you really take such a strong stance on something when you don’t even have the facts?”
“I know what I believe,” said Vit, “and I know what my gut tells me. I’ve suspected there was something off about this since Obobo, since our conversation with Archin.”
“And you’d die for it?”
Vit’s expression hardened. “I…”
“It’s not about dying—not yet,” said Root. “Right now, it’s about taking the mirror or leaving it. Then it’s about giving it to Ophylla or not. We don’t have to come up with our whole plan now, just the first step.”
“We take it,” said Azriah.
“We take it,” said Root.
“I suppose we take it,” said Vit, “even if it’s only to find a new place to hide it. The bottom of the sea, perhaps. Or we just destroy it.”
“I just want to get out of here,” said Beel.
“As do I,” agreed Azriah. “We’ve spent too long amongst the dead.”
“That settles it, then,” said Root. “Grab your things and let’s get out of here.”
It took a good deal of coordinating to get everything (and, in Beel’s case, everyone) back up the ladder. Azriah now had a much heavier and, as it were, more awkward bag of loot, and that alone took a good deal of two-person hoisting, with one above pulling it up after them and another below assisting with a second hand. Then there was Beel, who was not so much heavy or awkward (at least in the pseudo-heavy manner of speaking), more so just wiggly and overflowing with complaints like a boiling pot of rice forgotten over the fire. Lastly there was the torch, which, abandoned for the sake of the other burdens, meant that every trip up and down meant climbing up to or retreating back to a room plunged into blackness. The added presence of the dusty corpses made this doubly thrilling. But eventually they got everything back up the ladder.
The false crypt was, as mentioned, now dark. Like the room below, the web of golden veins no longer pulsed or glowed, but rather lay dormant like ivy hibernating and frosted in the winter. The light from the torch cast long shadows about the room as the group took up their things and crossed the tiny chamber.
The heavy stone door into the room, strong and immovable in their time of need, was unlatched and swung open with an excessively average push. It felt almost like mockery.
Beyond, the gallery too was empty and dark. The whole complex felt still and silent, like a nest vacated by its inhabitants. There was something missing that had been there before, even beyond the glow.
But Root could still feel it, now humming through its gag and stuffed in her pack. Its influence leeched through the layers and into her mind like blood soaking through a wad of bandages. The confidence it bestowed was there once more, weaker, as though reaching out to her from farther away, but still there. Still clutching her.
Through the gallery and down the tunnel on the opposite end they went, until they arrived at a wall—the interior of Halwlau’s mouth, closed again behind them after they’d passed through. Vit paused, looked it up and down, then rapped two knuckles against the stone.
“Um, excuse me, Ms. The Gorger?”
“Mm?” came a response that sounded like cheese made from stone running across a grater also made from stone. The wall shifted and then lowered, revealing the chamber beyond. The four of them hurried over the threshold, none of them faster than Beel.
“Thank you,” said Vit as they passed through the guardian’s mouth.
“Welcome back,” said Halwlau, looking them up and down and inside-out with her three eyes. Her attention lingered longer on Root’s backpack.
“G-ugh,” croaked a tinny voice from the corner. Azriah picked up his sword and slid it back into his sheath.
“Thank you for your, uh, hospitality,” said Vit. “It was wonderful to meet you.”
“And you all as well. An exciting change of pace. You are off now, I presume?”
“Mm. Yes, very well. I have only a few words of parting. Do be careful. Wherever you are off to now, make sure you prepare for it. And whatever you are off to now, may it prepare for you. You have had but a foretaste of what is to come.”
“Sorry, were we that bad?” asked Root. “We haven’t had a proper bath in a good while.”
“Thank you, and farewell,” said Azriah, and bowed his head to the guardian. He gestured to the others, and then they filed out of the room.
Vit was once more at the head of the group, and turning their head all about to scan the floor and corners of each new room they came to. When they reached the stairs, they took a more prolonged pause as they swept the room, looking in every shadowy nook and dusty cranny. But the room was just as they’d left it—or more specifically, they’d left nothing in the room. Vit looked more and more puzzled as their search went on, but eventually they shrugged as the rest of them turned their attention to the room’s only exit.
The blockade still held, a massive plug of rubble and sticky spiderwebs like the earwax of a giant mountain spirit. They stared at it in loud, wordless discussion.
When last they’d seen the tunnels on the opposite side, they had been teeming with dozens of guard spirits—if not more. They hadn’t paused to spend the time counting. There was no muffled buzzing and thumping on the other side now as there had been before, but that was only a minor reassurance. The question of what, exactly, they were meant to do next still hung in the air like a scythe poised for its downward arc.
“There’s no other way out,” said Vit at last.
“No there isn’t,” said Azriah.
Beel pressed his stubby little hands over his eyes. “Oh, we’re cornered.”
“Vit, how are you feeling? Got some energy back?”
Vit rolled their shoulders, and then, for the first time since their arrival in that room many hours before, their eyes came alight and their four glowing spider limbs sprouted from their back. “Enough,” they replied, but there was a note of weariness in their voice.
“You really think we can cut through hundreds of those fuckers?” asked Root.
“Ideally we don’t have to,” said Azriah. “Not hundreds, at least. Fighting shouldn’t be our first plan; fleeing gives us a better chance, assuming those things won’t pursue us too far outside the cave. We make it through the tunnels as fast as possible, and we fight only the ones we have to. Other than that… well, we don’t really have any other options. So yeah, if it comes down to it, it’s fight a hundred or die trying.”
“This sucks,” said Root. “I thought after you got the magic artifact you were supposed to get out scot-free.”
Vit frowned. “No, I think it’s the opposite. Once you have the magic artifact, things get dicier.”
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a bit of a scuffle on the other side, however,” said Azriah. “We drew a lot of them into the area. Sounds like most have cleared out, at least, but who knows how far they’ve gone, and it can’t have been all of them. Be ready.” He drew his sword.
“I’m going to go wait upstairs,” said Beel.
“No the fuck you’re not,” said Root and sidestepped to block his path.
“Oh, but why?”
“You can make gold ring things and you can, like, unhinge your jaw and bite stuff. What other fighting skills are you hiding from us?”
“Those were the only two.”
“Either way, you can hold your own just fine.” Root pointed back to the blocked door as way of issuing a command.
“This is why I didn’t tell you. Now I’m expected to fight,” grumbled Beel as he turned and waddled back up to the door. “It’s like the desert all over again.”
Vit took hold of the webs in their four spider arms. “Ready?” they asked over their shoulder.
Root summoned a haze of smoke and spun it into her sword. “Ready.”
“Ready,” said Azriah, tightening his grip on Orne Tyn.
Vit made quick work cutting through the webs. Strands slipped to the floor alongside the ka-dunk of stones, sometimes muffled if they were still clothed in spider silk. They peeled away one section first, creating a hole just wide enough to peer out through.
Nothing moved on the other side.
They tore the hole wide enough for a head and shoulders. Azriah stepped forwards and poked his head out.
“It’s clear out here. There’s nothing. Yet.”
Given the all-clear, Vit pulled down the rest of the web. They climbed up the steep slope and back into the tunnels.
They wasted no time in setting out; the quicker they moved, the closer they could be to the exit before something took notice of them, and the more likely they’d be to survive the encounter. The memories of their last trek through the passageways did not escape them as they walked. They’d barely survived it at all.
Except, there was one issue. None of them had any clue where, exactly, the exit was.
Vit’s map had never been any help, and it was a surer lack of assistance now given that they had no idea where it had gotten off to, despite Vit’s careful surveying of the ground as they walked. But they’d taken a good many turns during their walk (and later, run) through the maze, many of them against their own wills. And every tunnel looked remarkably similar to every other tunnel.
They took half a dozen turns through intersections filled with “ums” and “hms” and what must have looked to an outsider like a competitive head-scratching tournament. The only relief came in the form of complete and utter silence all around them. It was as if the guard spirits had just up and abandoned the place. But none of them offered any complaint except—surprisingly, and yet unsurprisingly—Beel.
“Where are they? I hate being chased, but at least when you’re being chased you know the bad guys are behind you.”
“Just appreciate the lull,” said Azriah, turning to peer down two new passageways. “At least it gives us more time to orient ourselves.”
“None of this looks familiar,” said Root.
“No?” said Vit. “I think it does. I believe we were here ten minutes ago.”
“We’re going in circles?”
“More of a blobby scalene triangle.”
“Well which way did we go before?”
“Hm. I, uh… I don’t remember.”
“Great.” Root turned to Azriah. “Which way now?”
“Dunno. Any chance the mirror has directions inscribed on it?”
Root scoffed, but she withdrew the mirror’s bundle anyway. They had no better ideas.
The wrappings fell away and the mirror’s open face emerged. Root held it carefully in the cloth, avoiding the kiss of the cold metal. She turned it around in her hand.
“I’m not seeing anything that says ‘in one hundred feet…”
“Any… I don’t know, arrows? Or—”
“Wait, hang on.” Through the mirror’s frame, Root had caught a glimpse of… something. She didn’t want to be too hopeful, but…
She lifted the mirror higher and turned. Yes, there. On the floor of one of the tunnels ran a thin thread of gold like a tiny rivulet of molten metal. It led off down the passage and then turned right. When she lowered the mirror, the tunnel floor was unchanged; she raised it again and watched the thread. It was only visible through the open face of the mirror.
“This way!” said Root, and she took off down the tunnel. The others followed close behind.
“You sure?” asked Azriah from behind her. His hesitancy was clear; they’d all watched Root run confidently through the tunnels before, and it had nearly spelled disaster then. With the guard spirits nowhere to be seen, it was less likely to result in such dire consequences now, but it might still spell “detour” or even “yet another blister.” Root clenched her jaw at the indignity, but it was a fair question. She held up the mirror over her shoulder.
“Look.” Azriah did.
“All right, I’m convinced.”
They followed the mirror’s guidance through twists and turns, speeding through the halls faster now that they didn’t have to do the laborious and time-consuming task of thinking for themselves. After what must have been a quarter-hour of walking, they came to a feature they recognized.
“The map!” said Vit, looking at the scrawl on the wall. “That means the exit is just ahead that way.”
And sure enough, it was. Root had never been so glad to see the comparatively low light of the Atnaterran sky peeking through the narrow crag in the mountainside.
At long last, they stepped out under the open sky and breathed the fresh air, free of the age-old dust and smells of musty spirit dung.
“Oh we’re free,” sighed Beel, pressing his face into the sparse grass of the mountain dell.
“From the tunnels, yes,” said Root. “But now we have to decide where to go from here.”
“Yevel is we— left-east,” said Azriah, pointing.
“And not-Yevel is anywhere but,” said Root.
“Uh, guys,” said Vit, and the rest of them turned. They looked up the slope to the edge of the dell. “I don’t think it’s going to matter.”
Root followed their gaze. At the crest of the hill, framed beneath the boughs of one of the rare mountain trees, was a lone figure, so well camouflaged they had missed her at first glance. Her green tentacles crept through the grass like fingers reaching down towards them; her hair writhed and bobbed atop her head; her muddy eyes gleamed as they held fixed to the mirror in Root’s hand, but gleaming even brighter was the green jewel dangling from her neck. She smiled warmly.
Ah, thought Beel. Third time’s the charm.
At long last, the clock had struck Beeootah time.