This is a good place to pause and check off some important descriptions that will help moving forward. Let’s start with the room beyond the suspected murder door.
Picture the room that looks the most like the scene of a murder. Maybe picture stone, dungeon-y walls, a damp floor, bloodstains everywhere despite what looks to be the marks of hasty scrubbing, as if someone wanted to cover up their tracks but their heart just wasn’t in it. Picture iron shackles hanging from the walls where the victim spent their final, terrified moments begging for their life (spoiler alert: it didn’t work). Picture a grotesque collection of weapons, like a bloody knife with bits of gore still flecking the blade like bubbles in a crisp glass of champagne.
Or maybe picture an oldened house depicted in a dozen slightly different shades of storm-battered beige, a house where the floorboards rasp warnings with every step. Picture an interior that looks like an antique store where nothing is for sale and a cellar crammed with mildew and the failures of a marriage that came together fast so that it would have enough time to spend the next fifty years crumbling. Picture a wrinkled hand resting calm on the tarnished handle of a kitchen drawer in which hides an empty brown bottle that chokes around the cork stuffed hastily back into its mouth.
Or picture the backroom of a guardhouse, sterile and quiet in that edged sort of way, beaten back and restrained and silent as if the twitch of a lip would shatter the building’s very foundation. Picture tile and steel, a bloodied club. Paperwork. Hey—murder is murder, state-sanctioned or otherwise.
You can imagine any of these murder rooms, or a different one entirely—whatever suits your fancy and brings the room alive for you. Well, scratch that, not alive. Let me rephrase. Whatever brings the room adead for you.
Picture all of that and more. Got it? Now tie those imaginings to a sack of bricks and drop them in the Gob-ui because the room on the other side of the door, at this point in time, was actually quite nice, if a bit cramped and poorly ventilated. The air inside was practically a paste, stale and stagnant and deathly humid. It was locked in a heated argument with the outside air, which was unfortunate, because it was warm enough already. The two met on the sills of three windows, all cracked open to that perfect width that one could slip a finger in but never get it back out without the aid of a cooking lubricant. They hung high up on the walls to peek out from the basement level. Leafy plants crammed in around the windows on shelves and atop neatly stacked boxes or hanging from hooks. Larger pots sat on the floor and stretched to tickle the low ceiling. The small room was dominated by a desk of proportions that would turn no heads in a regular sized room, but here it looked unreasonable and clumsy. The surface of the desk was utterly clean and orderly, and though the rest of the room—reserved for storage and jungle space—was arranged precisely as well, it looked to be the monthly responsibility of a comatose housekeeper.
Wood, dust, plants. The whole place would light up like a paper mill with an oil leak.
Azriah stepped through the door first, ducking his head even though he didn’t quite need to. The first thing most wise onlookers took note of about the man was his sword, sheathed and asleep on his hip, as well as the pure confidence that made it immediately clear he knew how to use it in more ways than one. It is worth noting, however, that the wisdom needed to identify a skilled fighter and that which is needed to escape one have been long divorced and are not on speaking terms.
A length of red fabric wrapped his head to keep in check a head of kinky hair bound to submission in a sloppy ponytail. Matching umber scruff cloaked his chin and upper lip, the patchiness around his cheeks the only betrayal of his age. Most said he looked of an age to be married and toting half a dozen daughters off to school every morning, but in truth, he had lived only twenty-three years, none of them particularly enjoyable.
He took a seat in one of three mismatched chairs. The unfastened buckles of his dark grey gambeson clinked as the two sides clicked their parting words, splitting the outlined image of a rose embroidered over the heart.
Root followed him through the door. She cast one furtive glance back through the opening and into the dark street as she walked blind into the room. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t fear what might be lurking in this suspicious new territory, but more so that she had recently been blamed for wrecking a man’s tavern and threatened with removal from the city entirely. And, well, her face stuck out like a pale, scarred thumb, at least around these parts. More than half of the (human) inhabitants of Unn had a brown complexion similar to that of Vit the bartender or Low himself. Many others had skin that was dark and rich like Azriah’s—an indicator of their Ubado heritage, a land with a coast that drew closer than most to the ports of Unn. But Root had the pale skin and monolid eyes of her home way back in Zhaen-or-Daijia—traits less common on this continent. It didn’t help that scars not so different from those on the rest of her body had established their bureaucratic seat along her cheekbones, or that her simple clothes and muddy boots remembered their time on the farm quiet well, or that, though she’d been able to afford the occasional bath since coming to the city, she had a waxing suspicion that the stink of farm had permeated to somewhere deeper than her clothes and skin.
Beel came last, looking as though he was painfully aware that he might be advancing past his final opportunity to turn and run. Perhaps he should have.
Spaghetti the tumbleweed spirit closed the door behind them and rolled away into the corner to join the less-sentient vegetation in one of the many large planters.
One other door led out of the room, set on the left wall in a position that told Root it went somewhere deeper into the building—a poor escape route, then, as that would be like escaping the maw of a giant beast by sliding down the thing’s gullet. But nothing stood between the three of them and the door they’d entered through. For the moment (for the moment) they did not appear to be captives—at least not of anyone particularly competent.
The side door opened and a tall spirit woman entered. From the waist up, she looked similar to the way humans tend to look, minus the pond scum hue of her skin. From afar, and in dim light, and perhaps with a bit of squinting, one could almost mistake her skin for a shade near Azriah’s, but up close in the lamplight of the room it was clearly a deep shade of olive green. From the waist down, the woman’s body continued as a straight column as if she were a statue and the sculptor in charge of her lower half had called out sick. By around the knee region, amidst a notable lack of knees, the trunk of her body branched off again and again into smaller and smaller appendages like vines that had all come unwoven. They trailed behind her, weaving and unweaving, sometimes pulling her tail almost into the shape of a snake’s, other times leaving it so sprawled that to trace any one length would be an evening activity for a family of five. When she moved across the floor, it was with that tugging, sliding motion of a slug, with considerably more agility and speed and all the added horror of an octopus’s tentacley crawl. She moved to the chair behind the desk, smoothed her burlap smock, and took her seat.
“You were at the tavern,” said Root before the woman’s tentacles had even settled. She gazed across the desk; Root met her piercing brown eyes. There were no irises or pupils, only a steady, murky brown like stagnant water.
“Yes,” said Azriah nodding, “I remember seeing you there.”
“And I saw all of you. And I took an interest in you four.”
The door back out to the street opened again. Root turned.
Unlike Azriah, Vit did have to duck to pass through the squat doorway. They stepped inside and looked around as a second spirit—almost identical to Spaghetti aside from being a cilantro green color while Spaghetti was a shade more like coriander—closed the door and tumbled off into the shadows.
Root, Azriah, Beel, and the spirit woman occupied the only chairs in the room—and, for that matter, the only space in the room. Vit sidled around between Beel and the wall to where there was just enough real estate to stand. They looked about, moved to perch atop one of the boxes—which promptly dove inward, pushing Vit back to their feet—then cast an apologetic look in the spirit woman’s direction as they tried to right the box’s dented edges.
“Please, make yourself comfortable.”
“Right. Silly me.” Vit nudged the box back into shape with the toe of their boot and then stood straight with their hands clasped in front of them.
“So what is this?” asked Root. The words sounded snappier out loud than they had in her head, but it had been a long day, and frankly she had limited energy for mysterious summonses from a woman who couldn’t decide if she wanted to have one tail or one hundred. And she needed to reserve at least enough energy to make a run for it should “murder” come back into the picture.
The woman folded her hands and leaned on her forearms against the desk. “My name is Ophylla. I’m pleased that you recall seeing me in the tavern—it gives me confidence to know that I’ve got someone with a keen eye and a sharp wit. I was at Low’s looking for a party of adventurers, and I’m thrilled to have found one worth my time. I’ve been searching for a few weeks now for a group with the right qualifications and zest.”
“Well, I don’t think we’re—” started Vit.
“Yeah, we aren’t—” said Root.
“I certainly wouldn’t call us—” added Azriah.
“Friends,” finished Beel.
“Adventurers,” corrected Root, giving the spirit a look not unlike the sort she used to get from her mother after calling one of her sisters a brined and bottled pig’s anus.
Ophylla waved her hands. Her hair bobbed—more tentacle-like appendages formed a head of vine-thick hair similar to a loc style. A few strands unwound and then rewound themselves into new pairs of their own volition. It looked to be growing and retracting in a way that would drive a hairstylist to a career change. “I’ve seen what I needed to see,” she said. “You are the group I’ve been looking for. I’ve noted your competence.”
“I’m no adventurer,” said Root. “I’m from a farm; I’m just in the city looking for a job.”
Ophylla’s brown eyes gleamed; flecks of mica shimmered in the stirred silt. “No? But you’re a pyvrin, so clearly you have—”
“I’m not,” said Root, cutting her off. “I’m not a pyvrin.”
Ophylla’s gaze held for a long, calculating moment. “Could’ve fooled me with that smoke trick.”
“That’s all I can do. And really, I think anyone else would be better suited for this… this… for whatever it is you have in mind.”
“Put some trust in yourself, girl.” Ophylla raised her chin. “It’s just an errand. Wouldn’t you at least like to hear what I’m paying?”
Azriah leaned forward. “I’ll hear your offer at the very least,” he said.
From a drawer in the side of the desk came a sound that any coinless, hungry, possibly-on-the-run-from-the-law bastard can pick up from a mile and a half away, upwind, during a monsoon—the clink of coins in a pouch. A lot of coins. In quite a sizable pouch.
Ophylla deposited a twine-tied bundle onto the desk with a ka-clinkinkink. “I’m offering a down payment of sixty-five mantles.”
Root choked. Azriah raised his eyebrows. He began to tap his fingers as the numbers worked through his mind. “Split four ways that’s…”
Now it was Azriah’s turn to choke past the figures. Sixty-five mantles was more money than Root had ever had to her name. It could keep her lodged and fed in Unn for the better part of a year. It was more than her whole family had collectively these days; it wouldn’t rebuild the farm, but it could go a long way towards getting them back on their feet. And if that was only the down payment…
“What’s the gig?” asked Azriah.
“I’m in search of something. An old artifact. I have leads that will point you in the right direction, but you will need to continue the hunt from there on your own.”
“A treasure hunt?” asked Vit with a spark of intrigue.
“Hmm,” said Azriah. He pulled at the hair beneath his lower lip. “A payout like this indicates no small job. What’s the anticipated danger? Why not make the journey yourself?”
“Me? Oh, I’m not cut out for these things—especially not anymore,” said Ophylla with a chuckle. “It shouldn’t be dangerous, but I imagine it will be a bit tricky to track the thing down. Not to mention, this artifact is said to be in a crypt underground. I try not to venture too far from the sunlight. Makes my hair wilt.”
“I still think you are, uh, a tad mistaken,” said Vit. “We aren’t a treasure hunting party. We don’t even properly know each other.” They looked to Root and Azriah and Beel. “I’m sorry, but I’m realizing I never even got your names…”
“Well I’m not interested,” said Beel.
“Huh. Do you have a nickname?”
Ophylla flashed a smile as she addressed them collectively. “Now, I can assure you that I have made no mistake…”
“Maybe shortened to ‘Not’?”
“… I’d like to consider myself a good judge of character, and I made my selection very deliberately…”
“… So, in earnest, I extend this offer to the four of you.” She turned to Azriah. “You seem to have some experience in this line of work. You’ll take me up on my offer, then?”
“Yes, I intend to, once we run through a few more of the details.”
“My name is not ‘naughty.’”
“Certainly! Do you have questions in mind?”
“That rolls off the tongue even worse than the other one.”
Root watched Ophylla move as she spoke to Azriah. Her gestures were graceful—regal, even, though Root’s best experience with the term in action was a particularly snobby hog on a neighbor’s farm. She was like a thousand-year-old tree draped in a royal cloak of vines; stoic, intimidating, but something about her drew Root forward, something beyond her charm and beauty.
As she spoke, she brushed a hand over an amulet that hung around her neck—a jewel fit for more than a stuffy basement. Hanging from an elegant chain as fine as corn silk, two snakes made up the frame of the piece—the one above, pristine silver; the one below, rich gold. They chased one another in a ring, piercing eyes of obsidian locked ahead as they devoured each other tail first. Set in the center was a gem like a big, lime green marble, perfectly polished and perfectly round.
Root’s eyes darted back down to the bag of money on the table. Sixty-five mantles. That was over eight thousand radulas. Even if she pocketed half and sent the rest home, four thousand radulas would buy a whole flock of new worms with money left over to feed her dad and Malie for months. It could pay for a new outfit for Malie and enrollment at a good school in town. It could put them up in an inn and get them out of Aunt Gundis’s pantry-turned-bunk-for-two. Sixty-five mantles, and all she had to do was—
“The spirit world?”
Root looked up. Azriah’s eyebrows looked like they were trying to retreat up under his head wrap. Ophylla raised a hand.
“Yes… is that of some concern?” she asked.
“You might’ve started off with that detail.”
Vit turned away from some side conversation with Beel that Root greatly hoped did not still center on what he should be called. “Annoying” had always suited him fine as far as she was concerned.
“What’s going on?” they asked, leaning over Azriah’s shoulder to reenter the conversation.
“This crypt is supposedly somewhere in the spirit world.”
Vit’s eyes lit up—figuratively, it’s worth noting, given that they were capable of doing the same in a much more literal manner as Root had seen already. “It’s in Atnaterra?”
“That is where the crypt is rumored to be, yes,” said Ophylla with a clipped tone.
“I know little of Atnaterra; I’ve never crossed into the realm. I know how to hold my own in the jungles of this world, but Atnaterra…”
“I know Atnaterra,” offered Vit. “I lived there for years, down in the southeast near Egogbin at the edge of the Shundrens.”
“And you know the wilds there? The flora, the fauna, the… other?”
“Most certainly do.”
Azriah scratched his chin. “I see. Well, I was prepared to take the job alone—given that you all seemed uninterested, that is—but perhaps if you know the region and if you change your mind…”
“Hey,” said Vit with an exaggerated shrug. “I’m kind of on the job market now. I could use the money.”
“I do typically work alone, but this might work well,” muttered Azriah. He looked back up to Ophylla. “You said this is a down payment. What is the full sum?”
“That I can’t say for certain,” said Ophylla. “In addition to the artifact I seek, the crypt is said to hold the wealth of its occupant. The exact amount is unclear, but it’s estimated to be around a hundred helixes or more. My offer states that I receive five percent or the price of your down payments—whichever is higher—and the rest will be split amongst you four. Or two.” Her eyes lingered on Root as she amended her statement.
“Only five?” asked Vit. Azriah put a hand on their arm and leveled a look that made a perfect approximation of the words: “What are you doing? Stop that. If she wants to take such a small portion of the payout, that’s more for us. This is a good deal. Now shut up.”
It was a remarkably wordy glare.
“My only interest is the artifact. Of course, I have bills of my own, but the wealth of the crypt is your reward.”
“What is this artifact?” asked Vit.
Ophylla tilted her head. “Do you accept the job?”
“It’s a trick,” moaned Beel. “She’s tricking you. We’ll all die.”
“If you died, it would put me out two hundred and sixty mantles, and I would have no artifact to show for it.”
“She’s got a point,” offered Azriah.
“And let it be a testament to my faith in those I have selected to send on this errand.” Another glance at Root.
“I’ll accept the job,” said Azriah.
“Yeah, I guess I’m in,” agreed Vit.
“Good.” Ophylla reached within her desk and withdrew a second coin pouch, which she set beside the first.
“I’m in.” Root froze. Why in the worlds had she said that?
Ophylla smiled a brilliant smile. Root couldn’t help but blush.
“Oh, why would you do that?” sighed Beel. “I knew you were going to do that. Now we really will all die.”
“No one said you have to go,” countered Azriah.
“What else am I supposed to do?”
“Four yeses, then?” asked Ophylla. When she heard no objection, she took out two more coin pouches. Root’s objection had stalled on her tongue with a case of stage fright, but slunk back down her windpipe at the sight of the money.
From another compartment in the desk—one unlocked with a key that Ophylla pulled from her pocket, which Root noted with some curiosity hadn’t been the case for the drawer containing a modest year’s salary (and modest it was; Root had done some research into what one could make for a slutty year’s salary, and it was quite an impressive deal more)—the spirit woman produced a single leaf of paper and placed it on the desk in front of Azriah. He pulled the paper an inch closer and looked it over.
Root craned her neck to see the scrap of parchment on the desk. It was well worn, stained, bent at the corners. Flammable. A dramatic rip cut off one side with an abruptness that looked anything but precise. Faded scrawl spilled off the torn edge.
“Affodell’s mirror,” said Azriah thoughtfully. “This page only gives us half the story. We can’t even read the whole thing.” He traced a finger along the words to where they had been disemboweled along the lost edge.
“No, unfortunately you cannot,” admitted Ophylla, “but you can read much of it, or so it appears. You will have to fill in the gaps. I would start in the archives at the museum in Obobo—there are researchers there who specialize in the life and legacy of Ybris Affodell. Perhaps they know some clue pointing to the whereabouts of the crypt.”
“So nobody knows where this lady is buried?” asked Vit.
“Not yet,” answered Ophylla with a gleam in her eye. “Now, if that’s all…?”
“Yes, yes, of course.” Azriah tucked the page gently into a pocket on the inside of his gambeson and stood. The others followed—minus Vit, who had never gotten the chance to sit at all. They each took a coin pouch from the stack; Root pulled it open and made a quick count of the contents by lamplight.
Ophylla bade them good luck as Spaghetti—or was it the other one?—opened the door, and the four of them filed out. Root waited until they got to the bend in the alley to open her mouth.
“How did she…”
“Kinda strange, won’t lie,” agreed Vit before Root even managed to think a coherent question, let alone put it into words.
Azriah shook his head. “It wasn’t all that out of the ordinary. Not for what it was.”
“Listen,” said Azriah as he paused—paused in a shadowy city alley like a man who hadn’t just been handed a large sum of money under moderately suspicious circumstances. “First rule of this work is that you don’t ask questions.” He held up his coin pouch between thumb and forefinger and bounced it a few times. A sound like a dog whistle for thieves jingled in the dim light. “We got paid. There’s the promise of more—a lot more. Questions lose you gigs. Questions lose you money. We know what we need to know and nothing more, and that’s for the best.”
Vit shrugged. “She seemed nice.”
“I thought she was going to eat us,” said Beel.
“Really?” Vit considered this for a moment. “I was getting vegetarian vibes.”
“Wouldn’t that be, like, cannibalism or something?” asked Root.
“Is it cannibalism when you eat meat?”
“Depends on the meat.”
“Guys, look,” cut in Azriah. “I don’t usually work with other people… and honestly, if you aren’t interested in coming along, you should probably just duck out now with your down payment and skip town. I’m more than happy to take this alone. Might be for the best.”
“I was thinking the same,” said Beel.
Vit shook their head. “I’m going along. You said you’d need a guide. And hey, it does sound kind of fun.”
They all looked to Root.
“I’m going,” she said. “Anything’s better than cadaver colons.”
“Who said anything about—”
“Fine,” said Azriah. “But we leave first thing tomorrow morning. The south gate, the one on the mountain road. Sunrise. If you’re not there, I’ll assume you’re out.”
“See you there,” said Vit with a grin.
Root only nodded.
When they reached the end of the alley, they parted ways for the night without another word.
(Though Vit couldn’t help an enthusiastic wave).
For the first time in over three weeks, Root could afford to trade her nightly lumpy mattresses for a mattress that was only half lumpy. Fortunately, she had so much experience sleeping in cramped quarters that she was practically a professional at compacting her body into two-thirds its required space, and so she had no problem keeping herself on the left half of the bed so that a full inch lay between her and the lumps, as if they were two awkward lovers post-fuck—which was nearly the situation she’d landed herself in that night anyhow.
She’d splurged on a room in a half-decent inn—a step up from what she was accustomed to, but two steps down from what she might have afforded if she wanted true luxury (which she did, but it was more important that she send as much of her payment back home as possible), and a few steps to the left of the first inn she’d gone to, where the musical duo performing in the lower level made her more inclined to pay not to stay there.
Beel snored in the corner where he lay on his back atop a large circular cushion—not a dog bed, she’d reassured him, despite ten minutes prior approaching the housekeeper with the words “one dog bed, please.” If he had a problem with it, she’d said, he could purchase his own room.
As he slept, she thumbed through a stack of papers by candlelight. It was the wad of letters she’d received from her father since coming to Unn, one every few days, each detailing life back home in the most mundane string of words possible.
Had a mango for breakfast today.
Malie found a mouse in Aunt Gundis’s shed.
The Suzans’ dog died today.
She didn’t miss it. But those letters made her come the closest.
On a blank piece of paper, she scrawled out a quick letter back.
I found a job outside the city. I leave tomorrow. I may not be able to write again for a while, but I will when I can. It pays really well. I asked for my first few weeks of pay in advance so I could send it home before I go. Don’t spend it all on the farm… buy something nice for you and Malie. Tell her I say hello, and tell Aunt Gundis I say hello too.
Endure. I love you.
She signed the letter in the same way he had signed each of his since she left home—since everything that had happened to their family. Then she folded the letter and stuffed it into a crumpled envelope that practically gasped for air as she dug it out of the depths of her bag and smoothed its creases. From her coin pouch, she withdrew four mantles and her change received after purchasing her room with a fifth. Sixty mantles remained, and those she packaged up nice and tight, wrapped thrice in thick cloth and bound with twine, then affixed her letter to the top. She addressed it and set it on her bedside table. Tomorrow, before leaving the city, she would mail it home to her father.
Whatever part of her it was that still wanted to play the role of perfect daughter had been whispering suggestions in her ear for the past hour, a meek voice that proposed returning home and delivering the money in person, just as Azriah told her she should. She was no adventurer—no dungeon-delving treasure hunter. She was here to get a job, not run off chasing what might amount to nothing but fables.
It was the cowardly part. That’s what part of her told her to go home. Possibly also the rational part, but definitely the cowardly part.
Maybe also the part that didn’t want to go tramping through the wilderness of another dimension in search of some dead lady’s grave. But there was another part of her that thought that idea sounded cool, and that part of her was her eight-year-old self whose eyes would’ve alighted with the sparks of a wildfire at this opportunity, and the two were locked in a matched battle that more or less canceled each other out. Any adventure loses its edge of excitement when you confront the idea of getting very, very damp.
But at least for the moment, Root was tucked in a dry, warm (well, warm enough) bed. And she intended to enjoy it while it lasted.
Naiho sat comfortable by a low peat fire—eyes closed, hands clasped in his lap, mind swimming but snapped back in an instant at the sound of his youngest daughter’s voice. He was just resting his eyes, of course, in that way every father does after supper is through but before the time has yet arrived to go and have a proper eye-rest in bed.
Malie entered the room with a parcel in her hands. She was a strong girl—raised her whole six years on a farm, at least until recently—but the bundle was heavier than it looked; he could tell by the way she carried it. The muffled clink it made with every step provided a second clue.
She deposited the parcel into his outstretched hand as he rubbed his very conscious eyes with the other.
“It’s from Root!” she said, pointing at the letter attached to the top of the package. The floorboards creaked under her bare feet as she bounced on her toes. “Open it!”
Naiho removed the letter and tucked it to the side, knowing full well that no card could hold the attention of a small child whose every sentence is followed by an exclamation point. She wanted to see what was in the package.
Twine and cloth fell away to reveal a leather coin pouch within. Naiho pulled the drawstring and tipped the contents out into his lap.
Malie watched with eyes wide. The look she brought up to meet her father’s gaze was one of tentative excitement, still waiting for the stamp of confirmation. “Is that a lot?”
It took Naiho a moment, and then another, and then half of a third before he had the wits to count them all. Sixty. Sixty mantles.
“Yes,” he responded at last. It was hardly more than a whisper.
Malie took no note of the lingering confusion on her father’s face, because it didn’t matter. This was a lot. And a lot was good. It was what they needed. She beamed.
“Can I go tell Aunt Gundis?”
Malie turned and ran off, though she did not go far. Gundis’s house was not a large one, and beyond the long room that served as kitchen and living space, there was only one other proper room, a single bedroom where Gundis sat in bed doing her sewing.
With trembling fingers, Naiho freed Root’s letter from the envelope and read. He read it through, and then read it again, then he read each word individually as if parsing the contents to engage with each word on its own. None had anything more to say than what they had said already, twice.
Confusion gave way to sense, and for a moment he felt his heart well up. Tears prickled somewhere in consideration. Sixty mantles. He took the first breath of relief that he had had in months.
But relief is fleeting when it sits side by side with a father’s worry. A job outside the city? What could that mean? And not that he put little faith in his daughter’s skills and worth, but how had Root found something that would pay so well? Up until now, she had sent home only meager savings—more than pocket change, but not by much. This was a chunk of a salary.
He was relieved, of course—he was overjoyed—but that didn’t shake the feeling at the back of his mind.
What had Root gotten herself into?