Chapter 6

Motley Musings

Rin wasn’t the best at keeping time. He had never had to. Grandmother made sure everyone was on time for whatever, even if it wasn’t important. Out in the city itself there was Shima’s Market Tower, with gongs sounding every hour, directly on the hour, day or night.

So Rin wasn’t good at telling time to begin with. But deep within the Pyramid time seemed to move in a completely different way. He couldn’t tell if he’d been lost for days, hours, or only a few minutes.

He glanced back the way he’d come. The hallway was tall and wide and, more importantly, lit by bronze braziers along both sides.

Definitely longer than a few minutes, he judged. The white marble walls stretched behind him for a dozen paces since the last corner. The supporting golden pillars at the corners glittered in the reddish cast of the braziers.

The braziers were smaller than those Rin was used to, barely as big around as his middle. Nothing like a festival brazier, large enough to guide every lost spirit around. They weren’t nearly as tall either. These sat low to the ground, below Rin’s knees, on eight short, intricately tangled legs no longer than a hand each. Each had been masterfully worked into a unique, detailed flower shape. Lotuses were the most prevalent, but there were also passion flowers, orchids, bromeliads, elata blooms, and a handful of others Rin didn’t know but recognized from Mum’s garden.

The braziers were magic. Obviously. Rin wasn’t sure what kind of magic, but they were definitely magical. The main clue was that, despite the coals inside just barely flickering, they never seemed to actually burn out.

The light was just enough to illuminate the bottom half of the wall and surrounding floor, leaving a dim chunk in the middle where shadows eerily played. Rin’s light stone didn’t help too much, so he shoved it in his pocket.

Rin turned back around to look ahead. Another turn met his gaze, outlined by a golden archway. So far there had only been turns. No forks. No intersections. And certainly no doors. Just plain white walls broken only by vertical stripes of colorful geometric patterns spaced uniformly between the braziers.

He took another step forward.

The floor promptly vanished from beneath his foot

With a yelp and a flailing scramble Rin pitched backwards, away from the pit that had suddenly appeared. He sat down hard and gulped down a breath, listening as his yelp echoed around the large space.

Then he peeked over the edge.

He wasn’t entirely surprised to find long spikes set point up covering the bottom of the pit, an impossible depth below. Bones littered the bottom, one very human skull stared up at Rin, its cracked eye socket caught on the very tip of one spike.

That could’ve been really bad, Rin thought as he swallowed a compulsive shudder and gingerly backed away from the pit. He’d forgotten that illusion mana was just as common as darkness in the Pyramid. Really, really bad. He gave himself a stiff shake. I need to be careful. There’s so much more ambient mana here than outside.

Illusion, darkness, life and death, and water, he recited to himself as he edged along the spike pit, eyeing every patch of floor carefully.

The floor of the hall was a huge snareboard pattern: alternating pace-wide squares of dull pink marble and polished gray stone set with glittering blue gems. Gem-inset tiles surrounded the missing square.

Tentatively, making sure he was balanced away from the potential pit, Rin tapped his toes against a pink square. It vanished, revealing another spike laden pit filled with bones. Rin shuddered as insects swarmed over the not-quite-cleaned bones.

From there, he skirted the pits, easily slipping between the large, pink squares of illusion as he made his way down the hall. He peeked around the golden archway and froze.

There was a very different hallway on the other side.

The ceiling was higher, obscured by darkness through which Rin could barely make out animal carvings that jutted out here and there. The right wall was still white marble, but the decorations alternated between supporting columns and vertical, geometric patterns composed of tiny red, green, and yellow tiles. It was pretty, underneath all the dust and cobwebs, but not particularly interesting.

However, the left wall was one long continuous mosaic as far as Rin could see, stretching down the endless hall and extending up into the shadow shrouded ceiling. It was beautiful and intricate and fascinating.

Rin stepped closer, hopping over an illusionary square to reach the thick band of turquoise that ran along the wall. He swiped a hand over the mosaic, wiping away centuries of dust and a huge swath of cobwebs. The only tiled painting he knew of was the Founding of Shima in the governor’s palace. And that one only took up a single wall and ceiling of one room, and just showed the building of Shima’s Old Docks along the river.

This mosaic depicted so much more, and was all created from tiny colored tiles, each no bigger than Rin’s thumb nail. Jungles and a wide river Rin could only assume was the Inanishi. Creatures filled every space not taken up by a detailed leaf of lower. Insects buzzed through the canopy. A rainbow of fish swam beneath the river’s so-blue surface, while crocodiles lined the banks with mouths wide open for the tiny, plain ayudante birds. Pythons and jumping vipers twined through long, green branches, hunting the peccaries and pangolins that foraged below. And dotting everywhere else, colorful parrots glided through the air.

One parrot soared over the Inanishi on large, azure wings tipped with actual gold embedded among the tiles.

Bajulo, Rin thought with wonder, staring up at the magnificent rendition. Like any child, he would recognize Shima’s patron spirit anywhere. He just hadn’t expected to see Him within the Pyramid.

In the mosaic, Bajulo flew high over the river, far from anything else, probably carrying a message from one spirit to another. Because that’s what Bajulo did. He traveled up and down the Inanishi River, carrying messages and gossip and gifts from every spirit He met. He was a blue macaw who mediated between the spirits and gave good luck to travelers.

A family shrine to Bajulo took pride of place in the entryway back home. It had been crafted by Rin’s great-grandfather, a refugee from farther east and the first of Dad’s merchant clan, Oztomecatl. The shrine was a lapis lazuli statue, two hands tall with sparkling blue gems for eyes. Since Dad was a merchant, incense had to be kept burning at all times. Grandmother was very strict about that. The task usually fell to Azti, as the eldest, but Rin had lit the tiny, packed cones in the bird’s beak a number of times. Usually whenever Grandmother thought he needed ‘spiritual oversight’.

It was always Aapo’s chore… And sometimes he had hoisted up much smaller boys to help him. Rin bit his lip, then shoved the memory down.

Rin trailed along the mosaic, neck craned and eyes searching. He picked out the spirits he knew and others he didn’t by the traces of metallic gold about their forms, glinting in the firelight.

“There’s Tulcu”, he whispered, wiping away some of the built up dirt hiding an orangutan with a gold beard. The old creature’s ancient eyes seemed to stare into Rin’s soul, weighing him for judgment.

Sneaking up behind the spirit of judgment was Cazetu, a trickster spirit and teller of tales. Her feathered crest was a multitude of colors, blended artistically into a rainbow, while Her body was a sinuous coil of gold.

Rin followed the river, just as he did in his daily life, letting it guide him farther down the hall. Gradually, the river widened, and people – actual people – emerged from the greenery. They built things. Houses. Terraced farms. Palaces. Taller people directed the majority, pointing with the long canes and billowy sleeves of sages.

As Rin trailed the story mosaic, the smaller people changed: they lost their clothes and shrunk even more. A long line of them bent over double to haul enormous stones behind them with huge ropes. The line led to a massive cleared space in the jungle where stacks of other stones – blocks, those are blocks – sat haphazardly along the river.

Rin stared at the imagery of the stacks of stone. All of a sudden, the haphazard piles reoriented in his mind into a triangular structure. That’s the Pyramid. He eagerly scrubbed at the tiles with a sleeve to better see. They’re building the Pyramid!

He excitedly scanned the tiled painting again, searching for the powerful mage that must be in charge. Danrya… A single sage stood atop the Pyramid, their – her? – red robes cascading down from raised arms. The sun, a disc of gold set into the blue sky. floated directly above the figure.

That must be her, Rin thought. The Grand Architect…builder of the Dungeons…

Like every child, he knew the tale of Danrya and her feat of building the Dungeons. Stories. Legends. Passed from mouth to mouth for ages before anyone even considered writing it. Before that time there was only her name, etched deep into the side of every single Dungeon, as any kind of written record that she had ever existed.

But here, right in front of him, was actual proof. She built the Pyramid! Or at least directed it?

Rin squinted over his shoulder at the long, long of mosaic workers. It had never occurred to him that anyone else might have been involved. He’d always imagined it as huge blocks of stone rising from the earth, called up by some powerful earth mage. Not… workers… painstakingly hauling blocks bigger than they were into place.

He wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that.

Another flash of gold amongst the kaleidoscope of color caught Rin’s eye. He squatted down to trace the lounging feline form watching the workers build from across the river.

“Kinzi,” he murmured reverently, then bit his lip as the soft whisper echoed strangely along the hall.

Kinzi was usually depicted as a nekhesa with a snarling face ringed with dozens of snakes. However, in the mosaic she was calm, with a golden body and jade snakes. Some lingering fear kept Rin from brushing that gold, for Her venom could kill a man in a moment. But a single lick of Her tongue could save him.

Kinzi represents the duality of the Pyramid itself, since both life and death mana coexist there in harmony,” whispered a memory from one of Grandmother’s lessons. Rin didn’t really understand that. But Kinzi was his patron spirit, and She had watched over him so far.

For as long as he could remember, there had always been a little shrine to Kinzi in the yard. It was a small woodcut on a stone bollard, nothing more, but still important. Mum gave small offerings of incense to it every day. Rin had given one just that morning, right before the entire family had piled into the wagon and headed out.

That was only this morning. Rin shifted uncomfortably. Early this morning. They’d had to leave before the sun had even risen. Unbidden, the image of the wagon, covered in waxed canvas to block out the worst of the rain, burst to the forefront of his mind. Dad stood at the head, whispering to the large hauling goats and hiding the tears that glinted in the candlelight.

Rin’s breath caught in his throat at the thoughts of home. His eyes burned. With a huff, he abruptly stood back up and began walking once more. He still followed the elaborate mosaic – better than weaving his way across a floor riddled with illusions – but he tried to avoid getting so lost in it.

He wasn’t there to look at pretty pictures.

It wasn’t until his stomach rumbled that Rin realized he was hungry. He hadn’t eaten anything since that morning. He distinctly remembered breakfast. Mami Kaira had made eggs and beans with fried plantains as his birthday treat. He hadn’t been able to eat them, his stomach had been so twisted up. He also distinctly remembered the dark offering room, where he’d chucked up what little he’d managed to get down.

His stomach grumbled again. There’s nothing to eat, he told it, face scrunched up in a scowl. The response was an aching pain in his abdomen that did nothing for his bruised side. He ignored it for a time. But another grumbling ache saw him doubled over against the mosaic wall holding his stomach.

Rin saw his future: starvation. Or maybe dehydration would kick in first. He wasn’t actually sure which could kill faster. Stop it! he snapped at himself. He’d just have to move quicker to get out.

Was he any closer to the exit? Or the third ring? He had to be, he’d been walking for so long!

But maybe he’d only run around in circles. No, not circles. He hadn’t seen anything recognizable. But maybe he was moving away from the exit.

His heart stopped, and panic strangled his throat. He struggled to suck down a single breath. Then another.

I’ll get out, he whispered to himself. He’d promised Nika he’d come back. And he’d never broken a promise to his brother.

Not yet, at least, whispered that dark, doubting voice. The exit could be leagues away.

Rin bit his lip and forced himself to consider that.

He’d have to find something to eat then. Did the Pyramid even have food in it? Could he catch something? Maybe a bird? But then he’d need to cook it. Which generally involved fire. So, spark rocks. He’d need to find those too. He really should have scrounged around those skeletons for any supplies. He didn’t even have a knife to clean anything he might catch.

Rin glanced back down the hall, even though the gold trap room was hours behind him at that point. He’d come so far. But maybe one of them had spark rocks. Which didn’t solve his problem. Not entirely. But it could later on. If he could catch something.

Mum had taken him hunting a grand total of three times, two dry season hunts and one wet hunt. She taught him how to track curassow and chachalaca and coati and peccaries, all on month-long hunts deep into the jungle. Far from home. Rin could do it. But he wasn’t the best. He hadn’t even been on his own solo hunt yet.

Rin would rather fish; he enjoyed fishing. Fishing was easy and only involved a short walk down to the river. It required patience more than anything else. You just had to sit at the bank and wait. And keep an eye out for crocodiles.

Was there somewhere he could fish in the Pyramid? Why would a Dungeon even have a river?

These questions weren’t exactly useful to his current problem, but they at least let him ignore his rumbling belly. And the darker fear that flitted at the edges of his mind.

A chittering sound pulled Rin from his thoughts, and he glanced up.

A large, many-limbed, bulbous creature hung suspended from the shadowed ceiling by a lumpy, white rope. A collection of glittering black eyes focused intently on Rin, and two sets of mandibles glistened with a viscous gray-green substance. The creature’s huge abdomen quivered in the dim, dancing light as its impossibly long legs curled and creaked with the motion.

With a high-pitched screech, the creature skittered down the wall and charged Rin.

Rin took one step back, then lunged for the nearest brazier. Heart in his throat and heedless of the heat, he flung it at the creature.

The long legs careened under it, but the monster still veered easily around the bronze implement. However, it didn’t avoid the flaming coals sent flying across its rotund abdomen. It screeched again, high and jarring, as red hot sparks clung to its bristly body and sizzled unpleasantly. The acrid scent of burning hair clawed into Rin’s nose, building acidic bile in his throat.

Rin dodged around the flailing legs and ran down the hall. He sped around the next corner, where he skidded to a halt. Another giant creature loomed in front of a pile of rubble from a collapsed pillar and part of the ceiling. It blocked the hall with its bulky body. Sticky spider silk draped between its front legs and dripped to the floor.

Rin leapt back, but the rapid tip-tapping of clawed legs on the stone floor behind him brought him up short. Blood and bone!

He grabbed the nearest weapon available: another brazier. He tossed the contents at the spinning spider monster, setting silken strands aflame as well, then spun on his heel as the other spider came around the corner. His brazier hit it in its mandibles, and the creature crumpled to the floor. Rin followed it down with another smash of the brazier to its face.

Then a leg like a barbed branch struck him in his side. Rin rebounded off the nearby wall with a thud. He shook his head and staggered to his feet, blinking to clear the spots clouding his vision. Move! Keep moving!

Another leg slammed into his sore side and threw him to the ground. Dull ache exploded into dizzying agony, and a raw scream tore from Rin’s throat. Blood dampened his shirt, and immediate tears blinded him.

But he had no time to think about that. A sharp hook of a claw latched onto his ankle, barbs digging into flesh, and yanked. Rin slid across the floor, hands grasping for something, anything, to hold on to. He kicked out blindly with his free foot. Once. Twice. Three times in quick succession. A chittering scream echoed down the hall as he felt a fuzzy leg finally bend under his foot. He twisted, yanking his trapped ankle, and kicked again.

With another screech, the spider released him. It scuttled awkwardly backwards, keeping weight off its now crooked leg. Rearing up, it towered to a tremendous height over Rin. Gray-green foam dripped from its mandibles, hissing and bubbling where it hit the stone floor.

Blood rushing in his ears, Rin launched himself at the spider, seizing its injured leg. Fiery pain streaked across his left shoulder as he dashed directly under the frothing mandibles.

His right foot hit the floor, and he twisted with his momentum, bringing his left leg up in a swirling arc and down across the crooked joint in a heel strike.

The leg snapped audibly and separated with a sickening squelch.

Unbalanced, the spider lurched and stumbled against the wall. Rin darted back and struck the bulging abdomen with the severed spider leg, barbs digging into the spinneret.

The spider screamed again and struggled to get enough legs under itself to stand. Its limbs scrambled wildly. Rin dodged two swings, but a third whipped his legs out from under him. He hit the ground hard.

The floor at his elbow vanished.

The spider righted itself and stamped around, trying to pierce Rin underfoot. Rin rolled and lurched sideways away from the illusory floor, gasping for breath around the heart in his throat. His hands grasped frantically for something, some kind of weapon, and hit warm metal.

Brazier! Rin had the stand in his grip before the thought fully formed. He slammed it down on the spider’s back.

It spun unsteadily to face him as Rin chucked the last remaining embers into the spider’s eyes. The spider flinched back, and its rear legs slipped into the revealed pit. The front limb scrambled forward, reaching and clawing at stone. Rin slammed the now empty brazier into its face, shoving it backwards just enough.

Chittering, the monster fell into the pit.

Rin flinched at the sound of a dozen spikes crunching through the tough outer shell to puncture the soft flesh beneath. The drip and splatter of gooey bits followed.

The thrum of his heart drowned out the faint crackle of flames. The scent of blood mingled with burnt hair and cooking flesh and brought up the taste of acid once more. Rin’s breath came in ragged gasps and heaves as he fell to his knees.

The mangled brazier slid from his shaking hands to the stone floor with a clang that he barely heard. Wide eyes stared at the mosaic, but couldn’t make out any details. He scrubbed his palms against his pants, but couldn’t get the squelching sound out of his head.

I’m alive. The thought was disconnected. Not really real. But, slowly, the feeling settled over Rin. I’m alive. A shaky huff of laughter escaped, and he sagged against the wall, trembling from the encounter. I’m alive!

I killed two giant spiders. Part of him felt tiredly pleased. Another part felt vaguely horrified. Pleased won out when Mum’s proud smile floated across his mind.

Still shaking, the lingering effects of adrenaline slow to drip away, Rin pushed himself to unsteady feet. He staggered away from the partially crushed and crumpled form of one giant spider, shuddering compulsively.

The shudder tore a flash of pain from his shoulder. With a panicked shriek, Rin struggled out of his shirt and threw it to the ground. A still-sizzling hole resided at the shoulder seam.

Stupid! Rin berated himself as he tore the acid marked sleeve from the rest of his shirt. Like his boots, the shirt had been new yesterday.

He used a clean bit of the sleeve to gingerly wipe away the gray-green foam. Underneath it, a bubbling gash sliced across his shoulder. It looked like it should hurt. A lot. But, excluding sudden movements, it didn’t.

In fact, Rin’s side didn’t hurt either. He risked a glimpse down at it. Blood oozed from a row of five punctures running across his side with the spider’s barbs had clipped him. They were shallow and didn’t look too serious. But they didn’t hurt. Even the pain from his fall all those hours ago seemed to have vanished.

That can’t be good, Rin thought grimly. He tore what little remained of his sleeve into strips and used them to wrap his wounds.

He could already hear Mami Kaira berating him for not cleaning the gash or punctures. There’s no water, he snipped back at the voice. He eyed the bloodless gash again. Without cleaning it, he was risking an infection. But there’s no water. He bit his lip. There had been water way back in that cavern area. But that was where the nekhesa slept. And maybe he could handle a couple of giant spiders, but he wasn’t dumb enough to equate that with a nekhesa. Spiders were just big bugs. Nekhesas were masters of the jungle.

If I find water, I’ll clean up, he thought. And if not… well, then he better find the exit sooner rather than later.

Something a wee bit spooky to welcome in Spook-tober? 😀

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