Fortunately, they were only cornered at the end of a dead-end hallway in the basement of an abandoned building. Things could certainly have been worse. They could, for example, have realized they’d left their weapons upstairs. Or they could have just uncovered a traitor in their midst. But this was real life, and not bound by the twists and turns of narrative cliche.
And, after all, it would be quite hard for circumstance to disarm Root or Vit. Azriah’s sword, on the other hand, wanted nothing more than to be parted from him.
“We could wait here until they’re gone,” suggested Vit. They whispered—and crouched for some reason, as if in an effort to make their voice come out smaller.
Azriah shook his head. “And if they come down this way? We’re cornered.”
“We are cornered regardless,” said Beel.
“Yes, well, it’s possible to be less cornered.”
“I’m in favor of ‘less cornered,’” said Root.
Azriah drew his sword, slowly. “And we have the element of surprise. And there’s no saying they mean us any harm. It may just be some particularly bumpy wild spirit. Or perhaps the locals who use this basement as a canvas.”
“But you drew your sword,” said Vit with a nod to the weapon.
“Yeah, I’m being optimistic, not stupid.”
“Is there a difference?” moaned Beel.
Azriah took the lead; Root followed behind him, smoke curling off her fingertips. Vit tried to insist they’d guard from the back, but when Beel refused to move, they fell in third. Beel followed at a distance.
When they reached the last bend before the big room, they peeked around the corner. Something stirred there.
That something was a large, light blue spirit, wider than he was long and nearly tall enough to smack his head on the exposed beams of the low ceiling—if, that was, he had a head. He had no proper neck to speak of, much like Beel, but while Beel’s body sort of culminated in a face, making it easy enough to envision where his neck and head might have been, this spirit had more of a bump at the top of his body, like he had already hit his… upper portion… against the ceiling one too many times, and now a welt had formed. And grown a face.
The face, at least, was looking away from them.
He was built like a bear on which all the identifying features had been put on sideways. He had legs in the same way he had a neck, which was to say he didn’t, but he still had the bits that came after them. Four feet scuttled on the ground, all dressed in mismatched boots of varied sizes. A thick but short lizard-like tail swished over the floor, stirring up dust elephants and debris. Two muscular arms hung awkwardly at his sides. He muttered to himself as he scanned the floor.
He didn’t seem to be looking for them. And if he was, he was doing a poor enough job of it that he was unlikely to succeed.
“Excuse me…” said Azriah.
The spirit turned and narrowed his eyes. Already small and beady, the expression made them nearly vanish. Two cobalt slits remained.
“Who’s you?” rumbled his voice. With a start, he pointed, leveling one finger at Root. “Ah! And you! Two! Who is you?”
“Well this guy is definitely not an optimist,” said Beel from somewhere behind them—Root’s only proof he hadn’t turned back to cower in some dusty corner.
There was a spark of reassurance in the realization that this spirit had brain cells more mismatched than his footwear. There was, however, a distinct lack of reassurance in his position between them and the staircase back up out of the cellar.
The spirit lowered into a hunch—if such a posture was possible for his form—and ground his feet on the floor. Root didn’t have a lot of experience fighting, but she knew enough to identify a combat stance. Azriah raised his sword.
“Hey, hold on…”
The spirit, for his own part, did not hold on. He lumbered at them with the speed of an unsteady toddler but the force of a mudslide.
He didn’t get far.
Root only managed to get a half-formed blade amidst a cloud of smoke in her hands before the air behind the spirit shimmered and split. Golden glitter rimmed a widening tear in the very space itself that grew from floor to ceiling, at which point movement stirred the fuzzy space inside. A figure stepped out, and then another. Smoke dissipated in Root’s hands as she looked on in confusion.
The spirit, at least, had also taken a moment’s pause. He shuffled to the side to make room for the newcomers.
Both were spirits, and vaguely humanoid. The first was the height of an adolescent in the throes of a series of growth spurts that had left him oddly proportioned and awkward. His skin was a rich gold-orange color, shattered by veins just beneath the surface that pulsed black and hungry. Two dark grey horns curled off his head and pointed sharp at the floor; matching nails turned his hands into weapons, each finger a tiny dagger filed to a menacing point. He wore a uniform of silk woven from shadows, and boots that made up a matching pair, which apparently was not a given in such company.
The second spirit was a smaller, impish thing, the color of dead salmon or excessively processed meat. Big, bare feet plodded the floor, and oversized ears flopped around his head. It looked like he’d been shrunken down, but the ears hadn’t heard and the feet tripped over themselves on their way to join in. He wore a matching uniform adorned with a tiny little cloak that, in all honesty, was much too adorable for the rest of him, which looked like something you’d chase out of your cupboards with a broom. His eyes—white irises and cream-colored pupils—looked timidly throughout the room. They locked on Root’s and sent a shudder down her spine. He looked haunted.
“Interesting,” said the first of the two spirits. “What’s this?”
Azriah kept his sword raised. He looked between the trio of spirits.
“Some, um, things, boss,” said the blue spirit, spitting out each word like he had to think them individually.
“Humans. Mostly.” He pointed to the spirit and then the stairway. “Block the exit.”
Those were particularly bad words. A burning smell filled the air. Root tugged at her collar and funneled the smoke back into her hand.
“What is this? Who are you?” asked Azriah. He lowered his sword. Root wanted to kick him.
“My name is Ajis,” said the leader of the trio. “But I should be asking that of you all. Who are you?”
Vit answered. “We just stumbled in here. Just looking around. We meant no harm to the place, and we’ll be swiftly on our way.”
“A terribly long name. Do you all share it?” Ajis’s expression was calm and leveled; cool, but with the force of a bonfire behind his eyes, shimmering black and red.
“Er, no, that was just… why we are here,” said Vit, stepping around Root.
“That wasn’t what I asked.”
“Right. I’m Vit.”
“My name is Azriah. This is Root, and Beel is somewhere back here…”
“I’m Kurg,” said the small spirit, a sudden enthusiasm at the opening to participate.
“Harnn,” grumbled the large spirit guarding their exit. “Like ‘harm’ but da M fella part.”
“That’s, uh, cute,” said Azriah. “But really, we were just on our way out—”
“You’re right, you were,” said Ajis. “And what, may I ask, were you doing before that?”
“Hooligan shit,” said Root. “We like vandalizing.”
“Now, that’s not—” started Azriah.
“Why would you say that?” asked Vit with a frown. “That’s not true. We could get in trouble. He might be a cop.”
“You think this guy’s a cop?”
“Would a cop say ‘block the exit’?” asked Beel from behind them.
“Yes,” said Root without hesitation and a bit of incredulous annoyance.
“I’m not a cop,” said Ajis, exasperated.
“See?” said Root. And then, in a mutter, added “I had it covered.”
“Yeah, I guess he’s kind of short for a cop,” said Vit.
“I’m not short,” said Ajis with a sudden heat in his words. “Spirits are too diverse in shape to be compared in such a way.”
“You are short, though,” said Root.
Azriah held up a hand. “Now, everyone just hold on for a second. What is going on? Did you follow us here or something?”
“I don fit through doors,” said Harnn. “Less I turn like dis ’n suck in.”
“Truthfully, I have no idea who any of you are,” said Ajis. “And now I hope you can tell me.”
“As, what, your prisoners?”
Ajis sighed. “Maybe we got off on the wrong foot here.” He pulled a mostly intact chair up off the floor and sat down. The creaking complaint hung loud in the room. He leaned one elbow on a crate beside him, and from his other hand he deposited a book onto the surface. It was a ratty thing, and looked right at home amidst the wreckage of the cellar. He kept one hand rested atop it; a ring of obsidian bulged from his finger like a tumor. Its gem glimmered in the dim light.
There were no other places to sit. Vit, in memory of their last such meeting no doubt, slung a few webs at the low ceiling beams, and a moment later they sat in a swinging hammock chair. Root and Azriah stayed standing. Beel still hung back by the corner.
“Please, put aside your weapon. Let’s just chat,” said Ajis, gesturing to Azriah’s sword. Azriah, in the face of the circumstances, didn’t budge.
Ajis cleared his throat. “Are you all locals?”
“No,” answered Root.
He nodded. “Come a long way to find this old place, then?”
“We just stumbled upon it. Apparently some painter lived here, thought we might find something cool to pawn.”
Ajis studied her. “Is that so?”
“Well—” started Vit.
“Yes,” said Root, louder, and with a threatening look at the threads that held Vit up off the floor.
Root looked around. In a fight, it was three against four—or against three and Beel, realistically. Ajis’s little guy didn’t look like he was capable of much, save maybe slapping them with his weird little ears. They looked like someone had taken all the cartilage out of them and then glued them back onto his head. The staircase was a long shot, still guarded by the veritable wall of a spirit. In a pinch they might be able to convince him he was meant to let them by, but not with Ajis still in the picture. And it was impossible to tell what he was capable of.
Hopefully that list didn’t include “homicide.”
He wasn’t all that big, and as far as Root could tell, he was unarmed. But for spirits, that didn’t often matter. For all she knew he might shrink them down with a snap and sit on them one by one until they popped. Spirits were too hard to predict.
“So you were seeking something?” said Ajis, continuing. “Anything in particular you had in mind? Any treasures you might have been on the lookout for?”
“I don’t know, a paintbrush maybe?” said Root. “Fanatics will go for anything. A scoop of bath water could’ve put us all in comfortable retirement.”
Ajis chuckled. “And you hoped to find that here? This house has been abandoned for ages. Bold to expect it hadn’t been picked clean.”
“This house was ‘bandoned for you, boss?” said Harnn.
“What?” Ajis looked back over his shoulder.
“You said… um… I don’t umember.”
“Just sit over there and don’t speak again.”
Ajis turned back. “As I was saying…”
“And what did you come here for?” asked Azriah.
“Ah. Well maybe I was looking for something too.”
“Paintbrushes?” asked Vit.
“I thought it was foolish to think the house hadn’t been picked clean,” said Root. “Because it’s been abandoned for ages.”
“Shut your mouth, Harnn!”
“I wasn’t looking for paintbrushes, and I know you lot weren’t either. If you looked the part of a local gang breaking into abandoned buildings to carve your names in the wall, maybe I’d buy it, but I’m no fool. I’ve been in this game for a long time. You knew the name Affodell before you crawled in here and you have your sights set higher than a pawn shop in the next town over.”
“So what if we are looking for her crypt, then?” said Azriah. “It’s said to hold a fortune. I presume you’re some sort of treasure hunter? I don’t often go for this sort of job, but I know there’s a code…”
Ajis raised a hand to swat away the end of Azriah’s sentence. “Perhaps it does hold a fortune. But Affodell only had one notable treasure.”
“I don’t know, that boar painting was really something,” said Root.
“‘Notable,’ certainly. ‘Treasure,’ hard to say,” said Beel.
“The mirror,” said Ajis, his voice growing in frustration. “You must be after the mirror.”
“What of it?” asked Root. This guy was terrible at interrogations. Or perhaps the four of them were just bad at being interrogated. The longer he talked, the more certain she was of her footing.
Though she had to admit, this situation struck her as odd. Another group hunting the same strange artifact as them? Ophylla might have wanted the thing for sentimental reasons—she could have been a collector, or a fan of Affodell’s work, or had any other motive. In the words of Azriah, it just didn’t matter. But what were the odds someone else was looking for the same thing, hunting in tandem with them like some treasure hunting race?
Though she felt more firm in her standing before Ajis, she couldn’t shake the nagging worry of who, exactly, he was. How bad did he want this mirror? And what was he willing to do for it? His competition was standing right in front of him, trapped in a cellar by his meat shield of a companion.
But then again, what was she willing to do for it? She didn’t care about some old mirror, but there was a mighty sum in it for her.
She flexed her fingers and let a lance of smoke dance over her knuckles.
“What of it?” Ajis asked in imitation, cocking his head. “What do you want with such a thing? You obviously haven’t got any of the others.”
“We thought we’d pawn it and make some money,” said Root, studying her hand with a nonchalance that spiked Ajis’s temper in a way she could sense from halfway across the room.
“What do you know of it? Its history?”
“Well, mirrors are typically used for admiring oneself,” said Root. “Perhaps while applying a bit of makeup.”
“Or cutting your hair,” added Vit.
“Not sure who invented them, though.”
“Someone vain,” said Vit.
“Or horribly insecure.”
“I think ‘a barber’ might be a fair guess as well,” said Azriah.
From behind Ajis, Kurg piped up. “Or, um, maybe someone who made one of those… crazy carnival buildings… with the wiggly mirrors.”
Root pointed to the contribution and turned to the others. “Or that. Great point.” Kurg beamed.
“Stop that,” hissed Ajis. He directed the words at Kurg, who shrunk back. “Obviously my question was about this mirror in particular.”
“Is it special or something?” asked Root. She said the words as part of her running bit, but there was an underlying sincerity to the question.
Ajis held her gaze for a long, calculating moment.
“Do you think you can toy with me?”
“Listen, buddy, we just want to be on our way. We don’t need any trouble.”
A smile split Ajis’s face. “You don’t want trouble, eh? And yet…” he chuckled. “What are you up to? Really?”
“I don’t think you get it,” said Vit. “We aren’t looking for trouble. We are just on a job. Just trying to make a bit of money, that’s all.”
“A job? I see. Who are you working for?”
“That’s private information,” said Azriah before any of his companions could say something stupid.
“Ah, of course. Silly me.” Ajis stood and looked them up and down. “You don’t look like you’re with the Children of Endkiu… none of the insignias. Freelancers?”
“With all due respect,” said Vit, “we have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Which isn’t a great amount of respect,” said Root. “I think we’ve had enough of this. We’ll be going now.”
Ajis scratched his chin. “You really don’t seem to know what you’re talking about. Very well, then.”
“Great,” said Root.
“Oh, no, I can’t let you leave just yet. I’m not looking for competition, and I’ll thin the field when the opportunity arises. Even if I am the best equipped regardless.” He gave a gentle, hardly noticeable pat to the disintegrating tome on the crate beside him. Root eyed it curiously. “Though if you are only employees in the matter, that’s an interesting predicament. Let me go discuss this briefly. You all can remain here.”
“Oh, can we?” muttered Beel. “Thanks for the offer.”
“Kurg, Harnn, keep an eye on them.” Ajis turned and strode into the middle of the room. As he approached, the air shimmered and split again as before, and Ajis stepped through the opening. On the other side, Root just caught the silhouette of a long, slender body, gleaming in the light, and then the opening vanished.
Kurg climbed awkwardly into the chair vacated by Ajis, and then onto the crate to sit cross-legged beside the old book. He tapped his fingers absently on the wood, testing the integrity of the old thing and finding, surely, that it was quite unsturdy. It didn’t take an inspector or even someone with eyes to notice as much. The way the thing creaked and shuddered as Kurg settled in atop it would’ve alerted Root’s cataract-ridden grandmother of the wood’s condition from forty paces. And the old woman was dead.
Vit leaned down from their suspended seat and scooped a handful of papers off the floor, which they scanned, one by one, and then let each one fall back to the ground.
“What are you doing?” whispered Root, keeping her voice low and hoping Kurg’s large ears didn’t grant him super hearing. Harnn, on the other hand, could not have been less of a concern. Even if he overheard every word she said, she wasn’t convinced he would be able to make sense of them before morning.
“Just looking through what’s here. Figure we might as well make use of this time.”
“It won’t matter when he comes back to kill us,” moaned Beel.
“He’s not going to kill us,” said Azriah. “Probably. Well…”
“Certainly didn’t sound like he’d taken the option off the table,” said Root. “So we might want to get out of here while we have an advantage.”
Vit let the last of the papers fall back to the floor. “Oh, yeah, that’s a better use of our time actually. Are we trying for the stairs?”
“We could,” said Root. “But there’s also the window.”
All three of them looked at once to the sole unboarded window out of the basement, and the only source of light in the dim space besides Vit’s glowing spider arms.
“Cool, all of you looking at once isn’t suspicious at all, actually.”
In unison, all three averted their eyes in haste.
“It’s small,” said Azriah.
“It might stick,” added Vit.
“I can’t climb that high,” whined Beel.
“And it’s unguarded,” said Root. “One quick distraction and we can be out of here without a fight.”
Azriah thought this over, then shrugged. “All right,” he said. “So what’s your plan?”
Root put up her hands. “Hey! I came up with the window thing. I thought that was pretty good.”
“Right, my bad,” said Azriah. “I just didn’t see it before. ‘Root’s very comprehensive plan: the window.’ Perfect.”
“Hey, quit being an ass and help come up with something, then.”
“We just need a distraction, right?” asked Vit. “I think I have an idea.”
Jep crept through the bushes, crouching low, his voice even lower as he whispered to Pypell. “Over here. Come on. No, this way.”
Only one other time had Jep made this treacherous journey, one night after his parents had gone to bed and he was out with his older brother’s friends, kicking up dirt around the town as they did and wishing they were off somewhere—anywhere—else. Anywhere was better than Sundraw, they all said.
Tagging along with the older boys, Jep had learned the way into their secret hideout—the cellar in one of the abandoned houses on the outskirts of town. They’d passed a bottle of liquor around and pretended to take deep swigs while drawing only tiny sips through their lips, and then struggling to keep that from painting a grotesque expression across their faces. They’d carved and painted funny slogans and pictures into the walls. One of the boys drew a huge penis. Drawing penises on walls was timeless, classic fun.
Now he knew the way in, and he was going to show it to his buddy, Pypell. Pypell was a spirit, but they got on all right. Jep found it hard to make friends his age, so it made it easier to make friends who had no age at all. At least not one they could properly remember.
He pressed himself close against the wall as he inched towards the window that had been stripped of its boards, hidden from view by the overgrowth, their secret way in and out. At the window, he crouched down and poked his head around the edge.
He shot back around the corner in a flash and pushed his back harder against the ivy-covered wall. His heart thundered. There were people inside. And not his brother’s crew.
“What is it?” asked Pypell.
“There are people in there.”
“Lemme see.” Pypell practically crawled over him just to look inside. “Whoa, who do you think they are?”
“Dude, dude, shut up. Shut the fuck up. Get out of the window.”
“They didn’t see me.”
Jep took another quick peek. “I think that one guy might be a cop. The spirit with the horns.”
Pypell looked again. “No way. He’s too short to be a cop.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
They crept out of the shrubs and made a mad dash across the grounds to the fence around the perimeter. They’d just have to go draw penises somewhere else.