The gate loomed. An ordinary wooden gate with barely any ornamentation. Surrounded by a couple of pale leafless trees. Under a tall tower, unhuman whimsy caught in stone. On a street still full of people. It could not have been more mundane. It could not have been more ominous.
Lynn dragged her feet after the butcher and his wheelbarrow. She felt like she was voluntarily walking to her own execution. The Beast waited for her behind that gate, and for the last week she’s done everything in her power to get in. She was out of her mind and out of her depth, she grew more certain of that with every step. It wasn’t too late yet to turn and run. They had reached the fencing. She could just bolt. They’ve walked in. Lynn looked around desperately, searching for a way out. Instead, she saw Josh out on the street, winking at her.
Lynn hadn’t expected to see him there, not after she has gone off at him this morning. She had noticed a jar in his pocket and simply exploded. Everything she had said was true. Slime was poison, and taking it was the stupidest thing one could do. Everything she had said was useless. Josh knew all that, as did she when she took it. It wasn’t any good telling people they were being stupid. There had to have been a better way to go about it. Lynn just couldn’t see it, but couldn’t watch Josh poison himself further either. She didn’t like that maybe she had yelled at him so that she wouldn’t have to.
Or maybe because Josh had passed on a message from Azary, “Two days,” and asked what that meant. Lynn panicked, and the first thing that came to her mind was outrage. Neither of those maybies was a good way to treat a friend, perhaps the only friend she had left. He’d just listened to her yell, then walked off. Seeing him now reassured Lynn she hadn’t driven him away just yet.
The door opened quietly, and all thoughts drained from Lynn. A man stood inside, gold embroidered on a black vest. Lynn finally forced herself to look up to his face, only to find him looking right back. Lynn examined mold on her food with the same expression. But it wasn’t the marquis, so she could actually breathe again.
“What’s this?” the man said.
“She, uh, works for me,” the butcher replied sheepishly.
The man gave a barely perceptible shrug and stepped aside. The butcher was twice as wide as him, and half a head taller. His entire body expressed how sorry he was about this fact as he squeezed past the man in the black vest and into the tower. From inside, he glared back at Lynn and gestured with his head. She rushed in after him, leaving the wheelbarrow with food behind.
Her tower consisted of nothing more than emptiness and stairs. This one had a wall separating the rest of the floor from the stairs and the entrance. Nothing sinister was in sight – except for the dark man. He stood to the side silently, without moving his eyes off of Lynn.
The butcher (she really ought to have learned his name, Lynn knew, but it was way too late to ask) bent down to open a trapdoor opposite the stairs, revealing same spiraling stairs going downwards. He’s clearly done this before, as he reached up without a pause to pull on a large mirror. The butcher adjusted it until it reflected the light from the daylight crystal streaming into the open door, shining it down into the basement. All the while, he kept his back to their host, hiding from the piercing stare. With the mirror angled, he turned to Lynn.
“I’ll carry supplies here, and you’ll be taking them below. Stairs disagree with my knee. There’s a cold storage room there, you won’t miss it. Just stock everything on the shelves. Girl!”
Lynn nearly jumped. She had been looking at the host from the corner of her eye, each time finding him look directly at her and averting her eyes. Turning to the butcher, she nodded dutifully.
The butcher once again did his best to shrink as he passed the host, and returned with a whole pig’s leg. He thrust it into Lynn’s arms. The girl took hold of it, trying not to bring the still soft flesh too close to her body. The view inside the butchery hadn’t bothered her too much, but holding a part of another being’s body, raw and recognizable, was different. She was no longer an observer, she was taking part in the slaughter.
Below, the Shadow ruled. It railed against the intrusion of sunlight, mounting counter-offensives at the luminous shaft. The stairs led to a circular area in the middle of the basement. Four equidistant doors stood in the round wall, and a postament rose in the centre of the room. On it was a bright crystal-like mirror which Lynn recognized as being similar to the ones in Isabel’s home. Light fell directly on it from above, and dispersed in all directions. It engaged the Shadow, carving swathes of the world back into existence. It wasn’t nearly enough to light up the basement.
One of the doors stood open, retreating Shadow having left behind shelves of supplies. Lynn entered the room cautiously, waiting for something to scuttle out of the darkness. Cold air crept across her skin. There was a chest on the far side of the room, glowing softly. It stood on one of the shelves just below Lynn’s face level. Chill radiated from it, and surrounding food items were covered in a thin layer of frost.
Cool mist coiled together with the Shadow, a dance of serpents around Lynn’s arm as she reached out to the chest. She came here to find something out of the ordinary, something that would incriminate the marquis as the Beast. Whatever this chest was, whatever it contained, it wasn’t anything she’d seen before.
Her fingers brushed the stone lid, but slid right off without finding purchase. Lynn took another tentative step forward, coming face to face with the thing. With both hands, she grasped the lid on either side. Pushing her fingers into the smooth surface as hard as she could, Lynn tried to open the chest, to no avail. She examined it closer, looking for a keyhole, and found none. Instead, she discovered a small recess at the front of the chest, just under the lid. It appeared to be a perfect size for a narrow object to slip in. Out went Lynn’s knife, and into the recess. Lynn had intended to lodge it in there and push on it as a lever, but as it went deeper, the lid simply opened with a popping sound.
A white-blue flame tongue lashed out, right at the girl’s face. Lynn yelped and jumped back, the lid slamming shut, the knife tumbling to the floor. She had seen the chest’s contents, even if she didn’t recognize it: a lump of some white, glowing mineral, perhaps ice. Ice burning with a cold flame which kept the entire room cold. Which had caught a lock of her hair, Lynn now realized. She pulled on the whitened strands to see them better, and they snapped off, crumbling in her hand.
Alarmed, the girl took a step back. This ice box was dangerous. Dangerous, but contained, she concluded. And while unusual, there didn’t seem to be anything particularly beastly about it. She’ll have to keep looking. Lynn placed the pig leg on a nearby shelf, and hurried back up.
Looking straight ahead at the butcher who was straining to do the same, Lynn grabbed the next item from him, a bundle of thankfully less identifiable pieces of meat. Feeling the other man’s gaze bore through her, she rushed back down again.
In the next few trips, Lynn had learned there was nothing else of interest in the cold room, and all the other doors were locked. She was half way through the wheelbarrow, and had nothing to show for it. Had the past week been for naught? Had this trip into the lair of the Beast been worthless?
She’d have time to fret about it later. She could maybe, just maybe, pick a lock. She had seen others do it, and had a couple of thin nails with her for such an eventuality. But which door? Lynn spun around the postament, looking at them. Three closed doors, only enough time for one. Suddenly, she imagined a princess behind one, and a tiger behind another, an old memory coming to the surface. A nursery rhyme, or a tale someone used to tell her. The girl couldn’t remember who it was, and couldn’t care at this moment. She shook her head, trying to banish the phantoms.
Instead, the imagined princess and the tiger began jumping effortlessly through the unseen walls separating the rooms, stopping briefly behind one door or another to look at Lynn. Fine, she thought. Once the phantom princess came to a halt again, Lynn moved towards her. This seemed like a safer choice of the two, the better ending to the tale. The princess grinned hungrily, then turned into a tiger. The tiger didn’t turn into anything, but grinned nonetheless. Her hand already on the handle, Lynn gulped, then rushed to the third, vacant locked door.
She got the nails into the lock and had rummaged within fruitlessly over the next two trips. The wheelbarrow can’t have had much more in it. Finally something gave inside the lock, and the door came open with a deafening creak. Lynn froze, then scrambled to grasp it to stop the noise. She held her breath for several seconds, striving to hear the footsteps over her beating heart, but the dark man hadn’t come rushing down from above to investigate. Centimeter by centimeter, Lynn released the door, wincing at every sound it made.
Inside, the floor was cluttered with assorted trinkets and… bones? It was as if the unknowable refuse of the unknowable marquis’ life was simply being dumped here. Dented goblets and cobwebs, rib bones and rotted shawls, a cracked chandelier and a cow skull. The Shadow lurked within this treasure trove of rubbish.
The whole place felt wrong. Why would there be so many once-valuable items here, and why the bones? Were there human bones here? Would she be able to tell? Lynn moved forward, carefully stepping over the piles on the floor. No, this didn’t feel like just dumping ground. It felt like a sacrifice. Like the things were deliberately smashed, bones deliberately left here, for the Shadow to gnaw on. As if their ruination was the offering. One she has unwittingly delved into.
This must be what the rest of the world is like, Lynn suddenly thought. Ruins and broken things and bones, presided over by the Shadow.
This was it, her one chance for a proof. She began searching blindly through the piles, feeling for something identifiably human, elbow deep in the Shadow. All she got was cuts. Out and in again, she was growing desperate. She only had a couple of trips left. Lynn was surrounded by proof she needed, and had no way to find it. She had made a small pile of bones that could have belonged to someone, but they could just as easily have belonged to a pig. Lynn couldn’t smuggle them all out.
“That’s the last of it,” said the butcher handing her a package, something bird-like. Everything she had brought down has been meat, Lynn realized. An awful lot of meat. How many people lived here, and just how hungry were they?
Another pointless question. She was out of time. She’ll take what looked like a hip bone, Lynn decided, and try very hard not to think of where it came from. The girl stood at the threshold of the refuse room for one last second, looking around for anything she might have missed. Her gaze stopped at a candlestick. Ebb and flow of the Shadow has revealed it, standing on the floor, without a blemish. It might even be gold, Lynn mused, it certainly shone in the light. She moved past it to her pile of bones, then stopped.
She had nothing to show for her efforts. The hip bone was a long shot, the entire endeavor had been a long shot. The candlestick wasn’t. It was right there, gleaming. Azary wanted her to bring something, and here it was. Could she take both? Lynn picked up the candlestick, twirled it in her hands. Three demonic figures, ugly and gleeful, held up their arms for the missing candles, their tails entwined together in the middle, holding them together. It wasn’t a pleasant thing, but it looked like it was really valuable.
Perhaps more importantly, it was slender enough to slip under her clothes, to have it hang at her hip with its base hooked on the skirt. The metal chilled her skin, but almost didn’t protrude. Lynn has hidden it before consciously coming to a decision. And once she did, she knew she wouldn’t give it up. There’d be another chance to look for more evidence. Something more tangible. Something she could actually use, like she can use the candlestick. She needed it, Lynn finally convinced herself. She needed to play it safe, with Azary and with the dark man at the exit. She still had to get past him.
Lynn kicked the pile of bones she had assembled, sending it into the darkness, and hurried back up. She almost made it out.
“Took your time,” the man in the black vest said, standing in the doorway. Lynn stumbled and felt the candlestick tug on her skirt, sliding lower.
“It’s dark there,” Lynn mumbled.
“So dark you’ve missed the open door? I could hear you scratching down there. Scratch-scratch. Like a mouse.”
“Sorry. The door’s creaky. Cold room door. I’ll be quieter next time. You won’t hear me. Sorry.”
Words poured out of Lynn’s mouth. The man kept looking at her, and, despite her every urge, Lynn looked right back at him. She kept his gaze, freeing her arms to correct the position of the candlestick, unseen. The sharp edges of the cold metal cut into her thigh, leaving angry groves in their wake. She’d wince, if she was not so preoccupied with fear.
“Run along, little mouse,” said the man in the black vest, finally stepping out of her way, and grinned hungrily.