I need a weapon. The thought was clear. Obvious. Practical. Exactly what Mum would say. Even so, it took Rin a shameful amount of time to bring himself to look at the bodies of the spiders.
They were huge. Spiny. Spiders. And now they’re dead.
Rin shuddered, then winced as the action pulled at the acid-burned flesh of his shoulder. It wasn’t exactly painful. But the flesh stretched in an unfamiliar way. That it wasn’t painful just made it even more unsettling. It felt like what he imagined leather being stretched across a drum did.
Enough sap sucking, Rin berated himself. He couldn’t afford idle thoughts. Not if he wanted to get out of the Pyramid anytime soon.
Standing took a second try, but nothing hurt. He forced himself to look over at the accessible spider with a more focused eye, considering the sharp mandibles, the barbed legs, and the bulky abdomen each in turn.
The abdomen was solid looking, but very big. Which was a problem. As nice as it would be to have something to hide behind, Rin wasn’t nearly strong enough to drag it along with him. But maybe he could skin it like a peccary? He thought about that. It was hairy enough for a peccary. Then he shook his head. Not possible. Not unless he found a knife to skin it with.
He circled the creature to the front, judging the mandibles critically. One of those might make a nice knife. They weren’t what he’d consider balanced, so not throwable. And not nearly big enough for a hunting knife. But Rin could do a lot with any kind of knife. Mum had ensured that.
He squatted down and peered closer, covering his nose with a hand to block out the scent of burning hair. Getting it free might be tricky, though. Problem one: Rin didn’t have anything to pry the jaw away from the rest of the spider. Problem two: the gray-green foam still coating the jaws was like acid, able to eat away at stone and flesh alike.
He eyed the problematic foam. The viscous stuff was also the reason he wasn’t in any pain. Probably. He was no healer’s apprentice, so he didn’t actually know for sure. But he’d been hurting previously, had gotten hit by the foam, then no longer hurt. He experimentally flexed his left arm, testing muscles. Nothing feels numb. Just painless. But that didn’t mean it couldn’t freeze up later. Having an anesthetic could be very useful. Getting paralyzed… not so much. Better not chance it, he thought begrudgingly.
That left the legs. Which had already proven their usefulness in battle. They varied in length, but even the two short front legs were still a good eight to nine hands long. The back limbs were even longer, a pace or more. However, Rin didn’t look forward to removing them from their previous owner. But unlike the mandibles or the spider’s skin, he was fairly certain he could separate a few legs from the main body with no other equipment.
He glanced at the pit where the other spider had fallen… along with the half leg he’d snapped off. With a huff and a head shake, he turned back to the spider before him.
Rin circled the crumpled form of the spider monster. He eyed one of the longer back legs. It had several bulbous joints, like the knots on a sage’s staff. However some fiddling revealed that they could lock in position, giving some rigidity to it as a weapon.
There’s no good hand grips, though, he thought with a frown. Other than the leg itself. His frown deepened, and he wiped his hands against his pants. There’s only one way to do this.
With a shudder and two false starts, Rin wrapped both hands around the base of the spider’s leg. The hair was more bristle than actual hair. Stiffer. Nastier.
Rin yanked hard on the leg. Then he braced one bare foot on the body of the spider and yanked again. Then he wrenched it while twisting. The limb didn’t budge.
Okay, this isn’t working. He propped himself against the long leg and studied the joint where the leg met the abdomen. Brute force doesn’t work. How can I do this smarter? It felt odd, asking himself that question. Normally Azti did it. With a flick to his ear for good measure.
Rin gave the leg an experimental twist. It rotated cleanly, so he spun it around in its socket. The way the leg had crumpled and curled in on itself gave him some trouble maneuvering it, but otherwise it twisted with no problem. The spider had excellent range of motion in its legs.
Probably for making webs. Rin kept rotating the leg. Around and around he twisted it, trying to block out the sound the unnatural movement generated.
If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine he was back home making jam with Azti. Except there was no sweet heat to the air from boiling pulped fruit. Only the scent of scorched bug, and the grating vibration of grinding exoskeleton against his palms. The taut resistance of jellied tendons only added to his distaste. Occasionally something within the leg snapped with an audible pop and a distinct gush of fluids that sent full-body shudders through Rin.
Once it sounded juicy enough, he gave the leg another sharp yank. With a sickening squelch and copious stringy pulp hanging on, the leg wrenched free of the spider’s corpse.
Expecting more resistance, Rin stumbled back with a yelp. He tripped over his own feet and flung out a hand to catch himself as he went down. Instead of stone floor, his fingers smacked against the warm metal of a brazier and curled around it as he fell backwards. Metal scraped across stone as he dragged it down with him. The wall connected with his spine, then abruptly vanished as he and the brazier pitched back and down.
Rin blinked the bright spots from his vision and slowly pieced together the sight of the ceiling above him. The dullest of aches echoed from his tailbone up along his spine to the base of his skull. He shifted and felt the squishiness of fresh bruises without the blossom of pain that usually accompanied them. Sitting up, he gingerly rubbed the tender spot on his neck, more out of habit than anything else.
An archway rose up before him. It curved up into a sharp point, peaked with a bouquet of geometric flowers of tiny red, green and blue tiles. On the other side still rested the spider’s corpse, dribbly bits slowly oozing from the hole where its leg once connected.
Rin’s eyes bounded from the new archway to the brazier in his hand to the sigil etched tile the brazier had rested on. A secret door?!
He surged up, and the world spun around him for a moment. He caught himself on a handy wall, blinked to clear the dancing lights, then took in the new room he found himself in.
It wasn’t much, if he was being honest. Tiny, barely eight hands square, with a single torch set into the back wall to illuminate it. The remnants of a wooden chair rested under the torch. And that was it.
Why even hide this? he thought, taking a step back into the hall. That’s just confusing. He peered down the hall at the dozens of braziers lining the walls. Are there more?
Clutching his hard-won spider leg in one hand, he ran to the nearest brazier. With a yank, he pulled it away. The sigils on the floor flared briefly, and the wall slid down, revealing another tiny room. He ran to the next brazier. And the next. And the next.
Not every brazier activated a door. Some rooms were bigger than others, and so took up more space behind the wall. But there were still a lot.
Most of the rooms were surprisingly small, all the same size as the first room. They were sparsely furnished, if at all, and undecorated. Most had a single wooden chair in some state of decay. Some had a small wooden desk next to the chair. Other rooms had the florgust-eaten remnants of what might have been bed rolls at a point in the distant past. A few rooms had a low wooden shelf in place of the desk.
Rin slowly spun in place, surveying another room. He carefully stepped around the crumpled heap of wood and woven reeds on the stone floor. What’s this supposed to be? Was it another puzzle? If so, what was he supposed to do? And if not… What is this place? He caught sight of the spirit mosaic through the archway.
Mum had never mentioned anything like the spirit mosaic. Rooms hidden by magic brazier switches were also suspiciously absent from her story. Rin wrestled down the spike of panic. I’ll find our path again. I will. I have to.
From the corner of his eye, he spotted a small black beetle – the very first normal living creature he’d seen within the Pyramid – scurry into an ancient tube of parchment. The tube was one of many resting along a low shelf.
Rin was the son of a merchant, maybe not the wealthiest merchant since Dad dealt mostly in cloth, but a merchant nonetheless. Thus, his family was fortunate enough to possess a small library. It was two rows of shelves, most of them for Nika’s studies. So Rin wasn’t a stranger to written knowledge.
But he had never seen so many thick rolls of parchment in one place before. Parchment didn’t keep well in the rainforest.
So what are these doing here? Beetle forgotten, his fingers barely skimmed the bone dry edge of one scroll. With a rustling like leaves and a crackling that hurt Rin’s soul, the parchment crumbled apart. The beetle scurried along the innermost curl to another hiding place as the dust fell into place. Rin yanked his hand back and resolved to do no more touching.
But that didn’t exclude looking. Standing on tiptoe, Rin leaned in close and peered into the broken shards of the ruined scroll. Squinting, he barely made out some kind of geometric design. Inked hexagons pressed side-to-side like a honeycomb. It was difficult to determine anything else.
Rin wandered into yet another tiny room, absently swinging his spider leg, and stopped short. A bolt of faded blue cloth draped over a rickety desk. A brush and ink stone, long since dried out, sat atop it. The brush stuck to the cloth by a glob of dried ink, as if dropped mid-stroke and never returned to. Everything was doused in a fine layer of dust.
Stepping close, Rin kept his hands to himself as he studied the scene. A single black line squiggled leftwards across the top of the fabric before it stretched two hands down the cloth, thickening as it fell. Another squiggly line branched from the thicker on and drew up and right.
A tree? Rin cocked his head and peered closer. A few more squiggles marked out clouds and birds floating around the top branch, while several dots denoted berries or fruit. An incomplete figure reached up to the tree. Its cloak or dress trailed down in tatters to where the brush lay.
“Huh.” Rin rubbed his chin and considered the painting. Definitely art. Though why someone would paint in the middle of the Pyramid was beyond him. He shrugged and left the room, pulling up another brazier at random.
The wall slid down to reveal yet another small room. Rin blinked in surprise at the large stone chest sitting in the center. Nothing else. Just a chest. But it was old if the layer of grime coating it said anything.
Rin gingerly ran his fingertips over the top of the chest. They came away nearly black, trailing little particles. But underneath were etchings chiseled deep into the lid. Reminiscent of the honeycomb art he’d glimpsed earlier, but it was an otherwise unfamiliar blocky script.
Who carved this? Rin wondered. Was it magic? Was it someone’s name? Was it for someone special?
And can I open it?
The thought of the golden pedestals flitted across Rin’s mind. Was this another trick? His fingers drew reluctantly away.
Maybe. Maybe not.
“You’ll find chests inside, with something to protect yourself,” echoed the memory of Mum’s voice from the night before. She had taken her bow down from the wall and ran a hand lovingly over the ebony wood. “I found this in one.” She’d grimaced before continuing. “And a giant ooze in another.”
Rin stared at the stone lid and chewed his lip. It was several hands longer than his arm. And it looked heavy. Probably can’t just shove it off and roll out of the way.
He should leave. Yes, Nika’s voice agreed. He should try another door, one that actually went somewhere.
Rin bent over the lid, trying to gauge its dimensions and possible weight.
It’s probably empty anyway, his older brother continued. Anything inside likely rotted away ages ago. His mental Nika nodded along.
Rin set his hands against the lip of the chest and gave it an experimental shove. It shifted, but was heavy. Heavier than he had thought. He bent to examine where the lid met the chest. It was near seamless with the dirt, but he blew into the crack.
Dust erupted from the chest, coating Rin’s face and hair. He gagged and coughed until the air cleared. Then he peered at the seam again.
It’s sitting in a groove. If he could shove the lid enough to get it out of that groove, the rest would be easy.
I could shove it from the side. In his mind, he could see Nika shaking his head. This is a bad idea, his older brother cautioned.
Rin ignored the voice and circled the chest, leaning the spider-staff against the wall. He braced his hands against the side of the lid and shoved.
The chest shook, but the lid didn’t budge.
Rin squatted down and shoved again, upwards as well as outwards this time.
Stone scraped across stone, so he shoved again quickly.
The grime cementing the lid to the chest finally cracked and crumbled away with a hiss of escaping air. Another hard shove, and the lid slid across the chest and down the other side, slamming to the floor in a cloud of dust.
Rin scurried back, waving away the horrendous amount of dust that plumed up. He coughed and inhaled the sweet scent of dried flowers.
Flowers? Still trying to clear his throat, Rin peered into the chest.
A bundle of fabric sat in the chest, filling the stone interior. It was surprisingly vibrant – with a pretty yellow, swirling design – for having sat in a stone chest for as long as it looked like it had.
Rin cautiously reached out and flicked open the fabric. An earthy smell mingled with a heady floral aroma. The fabric itself was a silky soft gauze that caught on the rough edges of Rin’s fingers. A single dried, purple petal drifted up before settling back into the bundle.
Working carefully, Rin unwrapped the bundle. Inside was a collection of dried flowers. Violet orchids, white lilies, and some tiny blue flowers Rin didn’t recognize. It was a small bundle for such a deep chest. Rin removed the ancient bouquet and found two more fabric bundles beneath it, sitting atop a slab of white wood.
The first bundle was a heavy white cotton, tied closed with a length of rough twine. It was yellowed with age, but Rin suspected it might have been pure white at one point. He grimaced and hesitated to touch it. White was for funerals.
Holding his breath. Rin lifted the cloth up, letting it unroll itself. A sari? Not quite. It was a length of fabric with a neckhole and no other seam. Maybe it’s one of those Solian dresses. The neck bore the only ornamentation: a rather crude and simple geometric pattern embroidered in green thread.
That’s horrendous, Azti’s voice colored the thought. It looks like yours.
Rin huffed. It does not! He hefted the collar up to the light and scowled at the stitches. Okay… maybe it does. But only a little! Then he winced. If Mum – or worse, Grandmother – ever found out he’d learned an artisan’s craft, he’d be stuck doing basic forms or dishes for months. Or both. He shuddered and shoved the cloth away.
The second bundle was similar: a length of yellow cotton with a collar tied with a pale blue ribbon. Somehow, the embroidery around the neck was more uneven than on the previous garment. The pattern wasn’t as uniform, and the embroiderer had clearly started with no idea how much thread they needed, as evidenced by the obvious knots tying on extra thread.
A little confused, but enjoying the tranquility and moment of rest, Rin re-rolled the mystery garments and set them aside.
The slab of wood underneath turned out to not be a slab at all. It was a large, square wooden case no deeper than the width of three of Rin’s fingers. It was smooth, polished even, with a close, even grain. Belying its size, Rin could heft the box in one hand.
Flipping it over, he found more of that blocky script brushed onto the underside of the wood. It wasn’t as even as the etchings on the chest lid. The hexagons wobbled a bit, and the text curved towards one corner.
On one of the long, narrow sides, Rin found a simple metal catch that latched the box shut. The catch was tightly fitted, but it gave at Rin’s insistence. Inside were several narrow rolls of ruby red fabric, each a little over a hand long.
Rin’s fingers ghosted over the thin cloth. It was smooth, like silk, but with a strange rigidity that withstood gentle pressure. Selecting a roll at random, he carefully unrolled the oddly stiff fabric. It cracked once, but ultimately survived to display its contents.
A painting? Rin cocked his head and studied the cloth’s surface in earnest.
The same hexagon script, a bit more fluid when applied with a brush, had been painted in black across the red fabric. While the lid etching had been one short, horizontal line, the cloth scrolls had branches of characters sprouting from several central nodes, all connected to each other by one of six sides. Honeycomb once more came to Rin’s mind.
Twisting the fabric this way, then that, Rin asked the obvious first question: How do you read this?
Maybe… each comb is a sentence… or an idea. Rin rested the open roll against the side of the chest to free up one hand. Careful not to scrape the ink with his nail, he traced over the top cluster. The center character looked like a stylized goat. Three other characters – runes? – branched from the goat. Then those branching characters branched again. The bottommost character touched the topmost character of the next cluster, which had several branches of its own, all stemming from a different central character. And so it continued down the narrow piece of cloth over three paces long.
Puzzled but fascinated in the written language, Rin reached for another roll of cloth. The second cloth was much closer to the line on the chest’s top. Row after horizontal row of hexagons stretched down the semi-silk. After a bit of study, Rin found that several segments repeated along the cloth. Like proverbs?
Grandmother sometimes had her grandchildren rewrite proverbs over and over again to teach them something. That Rin couldn’t immediately recall anything more specific was a testament to how well the style worked.
The third cloth scroll cracked three times in quick succession as he unrolled it, and he found a large piece of solid paint torn from the cloth. A lattice of hexagonal blocks squished together. It lacked the rigid structure of the previous two cloths. Messier too, Rin thought. As if the painter had been in a rush.
Now buried in fabric, Rin sat back and considered the box of silky scrolls. Something important enough to brush down formally, even repeated like a… a lesson… or a moral maybe… and… maybe a story?
Still musing, he began the arduous process of re-rolling the scrolls, taking great care not to crack anymore of the paint. I wonder what they brushed.
Grandmother enjoyed having Rin write out morals whenever he did something fun. Like climb trees. Or run through Market Square. Or scare her dumb bird.
Maybe the scrolls contained old knowledge on the nature of magic. Maybe they were someone’s collection of cooking recipes. Or maybe a set of old spirit tales. Rin smoothed out an errant crease and wondered if any of the tales would be ones he knew. If I could understand it.
But he didn’t. And, as far as surviving the Pyramid, a box full of painted silk wasn’t very useful. The case went next to the clothing.
Another bundle of dried flowers sat atop another two not-saris, each with progressively worse embroidery that made Rin wince in sympathy for the would-be artisan. Cushioned between the garments was a much smaller bundle wrapped in faded pink silk.
As he unwrapped it, Rin discovered embroidered segments on the cloth. A lopsided diamond here, a misshapen flower there. A stitch cloth, he realized, recalling his own, hopefully still hidden inside his pillow. Somewhere to practice before the embroiderer was allowed to set their stitches to clothing.
Then the pink silk fell away to reveal its contents.
The tiny humanoid figure was a hand tall, at most. It wasn’t of wood, but dull pink stone, and a dark fuzz was all that was left of its hair, but Rin recognized the shape of a child’s doll. His little sister Meggi had one. Rin had spent a lot of time picking it off the ground for her when she was still a baby.
The inks making up the doll’s delicate face were faint and scuffed in places, but still there. Except the right eye. It had been scraped away, leaving an empty lash line behind.
Rin gently pressed his thumb over that empty eye. The roughness of the patch was a strange contrast to the rest of the face, which was smooth and cool. What are you doing here? he wondered, staring at the painted face. A single black eye stared back at him from above a tiny brown nose and red lips quirked up in a knowing smile.
Rin turned to gaze down at the old clothes and case of scrolls. This all belonged to someone once, came the realization. It wasn’t just a chest for weapons or traps. But someone’s belongings.
He glanced at the chest. It was heavy. He glanced at the floor, where the stone tiles had been shaped around the chest, creating a stylistic depression specifically for it.
The memory of the interrupted painting of the figure and tree floated up before him.
Slowly, a very strange idea came over Rin as his attention returned to the delicate doll in his hands.
Someone lived here.
Someone had all this stuff.
And they lived here.
The stone doll slid from limp fingers. The harsh crack of stone connecting with stone resounded faintly.
Why? ran laps through Rin’s mind. Why live in the Pyramid? It was a place of danger. Of monsters and traps and magic. Who in their right mind would live in the Pyramid?
Was it… different… back then? Rin blinked at the thought, then his eyes narrowed.
The Pyramid had always been there, at least, to Rin’s knowledge. He had grown up hearing stories of what dwelt inside. Stories of the mages that came out of it, and the one mage that had built it. He’d even seen the creation mosaic.
But it had never occurred to him that someone, ages back, might have called the Pyramid home.
Or, at the very least, a storage place. Rin considered the doll and garments.
Azti had packed away her own dolls and old clothes last year, when she’d turned thirteen years old. Dad had taken the baskets to the Chol family across town, who had four little girls, the eldest of which was only ten years old.
Rin wiped his thumb across the missing eye of the doll again. Packed away, he thought. Wrapped, safe and sound, and packed away.
Azti had cried that day. Not until Dad had left. And not until Grandmother was busy with Nika’s studies. But she had cried. Rin knew because he’d been her replacement doll that afternoon.
On impulse, Rin hugged the doll tight to his chest. I hope you had a brother, he whispered fiercely to that long-gone girl, who’d had to pack away her doll. I hope you had a brother and that he hugged you and let you braid his hair and cry all over him.
I hope you were loved.
And that’s chapter 7 done!