Right, brain, it was afternoon? Or…was it morning? Or, brain, are you merely getting caught up in the finer details that don’t affect the way you really felt?
Anyway, brain, the sun was up there somewhere when you crested a hill into a full blast of wind. You glanced at Aukai, but he seemed fine. More fine than the rest of this trip; nervous the entire walk and tossing the entire night.
“That’s a pretty big palace,” Bone-builder said, so you finally glanced ahead of you.
It…was a big palace. You thought. Of course, you’d never seen a palace before. All white plaster in the distance and indistinguishable wood statues and stone walls peeping through the peeling plaster. It was also a gigantic cube. At least, from where the three of you stood.
“It looks so boring,” Aukai said, tugging on the backpack straps. It was his day to carry it, but your shoulders still ached from the day before.
Bone-builder snorted. “That’s a palace for you. Usually pretty big, always terribly boring.”
“Well,” you said, hands on hips. “How about we hurry up and get done with the palace part?”
“Great,” Aukai agreed, trekking down the hill. He was leaning forward into the wind, and still barely moving.
“But…the only part of this is the palace part,” Bone-builder said to you.
You glanced at him, buffeted by wind. “What about all the walking?”
“The walking to and from the palace?” he asked.
“Hurry up slowpokes!” Aukai called, interrupting both of you.
You sighed, shaking your head. “Sure.” Then sprinted down the hill through a patch of yellow wildflowers.
The door guard is still unconscious when we return, which is halfway surprising. I step out the door, look for the sun, and discover it has hardly moved. I guess stumbling around in the dark makes time pass much more slowly.
Rattle-bones comes outside too, dragging the guard by the wrist. “I figured he could use some fresh air,” he says to my questioning glance.
We both sit down on the road, and I trace a spiraling bird wing–I decide the spiral is a bird wing–in the pale stone.
“So much for quickly finding where to deposit an egg,” Rattle-bones comments, leaning against the palace wall.
“Oh?” I reply. “Is that what we were doing?”
He snorts. “Either that, or touring a dark, empty palace.”
“I thought we were here to learn about history,” I answer.
The door guard’s groaning silences us. Moments later, something thumps to the stone. Rattle-bones and I both turn around, worried, but the thumping was just the door guard falling over from his seated position.
“Ouch,” Rattle-bones winces. “Maybe they should’ve given him a helmet.”
“Not sure that would’ve helped much,” I say, push myself from the ground and walk back to him. He does have a uniform on, although it seems pretty flimsy. Hardly more than a thin gray coat and some animal skin boots. “What’s this?” I ask Rattle-bones, hefting the guard up and pointing to the round symbol on the center of his chest.
Rattle-bones scoots across the ground rather than standing. He squints at it. “Symbol of the current rulers, I’d reckon. Some sort of marine mammal, although it’s hardly drawn with accuracy in mind. I’d still guess–”
“I think he’s waking up,” I interrupt him. Rattle-bones goes silent, and we both stare at the door guard. “Never mind,” I say, leaning him back against the wall. “Didn’t he groan just barely?”
“He groaned when he fell over. He also hit his head. Probably knocked him out cold again.”
I sigh, standing up all the way. “So we have to wait even longer then.”
“Unless you’d rather walk through the palace tunnels?” Rattle-bones suggests, still sitting with his legs splayed.
“No thanks,” I reply. “I think I’ve had enough of palace tunnels.”
Okay, brain, that is technically only half true. The first palace you went to didn’t have tunnels. More like hallways of impossible geometric angles forming tangled prisms in places where squares should have sufficed. You still can’t comprehend it, can you brain?
Well, Aukai and Bone-builder certainly couldn’t either. The three of you left the backpack with all your supplies in a windbent shrub. The only things you had were Bone-builder’s bone arm, the memorized route to the burial chamber, and a knife for prying the lid open.
The first thing to fail was the bone arm. You had shut your eyes and were making your way forward with a hand on the wall, because looking at the shimmering walls–there was no floor, or ceiling–made you want to vomit. You heard something clatter behind you, a distraction from the mental map of the hallways, and at first disregarded it as Aukai or Bone-builder stumbling.
“What was that?” Aukai asked.
Bone-builder responded by heaving his meal onto the wall. You resisted opening your eyes to look, since you were certain the seaweed biscuits you’d eaten before would join his if you did.
“It’s on my shoe,” Bone-builder said weakly.
“Only one?” Aukai forcibly asked from further left. Or maybe back.
“Yeah. My left one’s on a different surface.”
Well, that made sense. You were pretty sure your left foot was on the same wall as your hand; at least, the fuzziness through your boot seemed the same. The texture under your right boot was something like chiseled rock.
“I think we’re getting close,” you said.
“I think I lost my arm,” Bone-builder said.
“I think this palace was better when it was boring,” Aukai said.
Bone-builder laughed, which somehow morphed into a wet gag, and then more vomiting. You started walking faster.
“I feel almost sorry for whoever cleans these hallways,” Aukai muttered, footsteps coming closer to you.
“I’m pretty sure the burial chamber is right around this corner,” you said. “And by corner, I mean–” you’re left foot hit nothing, and then you were falling. Your right foot never moved, you thought.
You opened your eyes by instinct to discover a spinning, translucent hallway of too many dimensions, and then realized it was spinning because you were going down, or you thought it was down, but then you were going back up, and then you were standing again. You looked down to try and stop the spinning of your head, and could see Aukai’s bootsoles through the translucent, shimmering…floor. You lifted a boot. It was definitely a floor.
“Aukai!” you called. He jumped and stared towards his boots, eyes open. You waved, but nothing registered in his face. “Aukai, I’m below you!” you called.
Bone-builder came into view, face sort of greenish, a skeleton arm dangling from his flesh hand. Something dripped off it and you flinched, but it fell to Bone-builder’s side. You looked away sharply.
The room…above you? The room you stood in was bright, a perfect cube, and the sides were made of some kind of shimmering gemstone. Hovering in the very center was a stone box that could only be for burying a dead body. You grinned, elated. “Come down here,” you called. “It’s the burial chamber.”
The door guard groans again just as I am standing to stretch out my numb legs. I rub my sore backside and turn to study him. I think he’s blinking, even though his eyelids are shut.
Rattle-bones pushes himself to his feet too, leaning heavily on the walking stick.
“Oh I am so dead,” are the first words the guard utters when he opens his eyes.
I barely manage not to laugh.
“Listen, kid,” Rattle-bones says, popping his neck loudly. “All we want to know is where to put a royal avian egg.”
The door guard’s face goes shockingly pale at the words royal avian egg. Nearly the color of the stone he’s sitting on. “HELP!” he shouts. “Help they’re going to kill me–”
Rattle-bones jabs his walking stick at the guard’s nose, who freezes, cross-eyed, mouth hanging halfway open. “Literally nobody lives here,” Rattle-bones says, lowering the stick. “And just between the two of us, you should stop mentioning death.” He glances pointedly at me, and I glare back. I wasn’t exactly trying to broadcast the fact that I’m a death mage to the entire population of this city.
The door guard glances between us, eyebrows furrowed. He looks slightly less pale. More toned like a clump of gray mud. “I…don’t follow,” he says, clenching his fists to his side.
“That’s good,” I mutter. “Listen, we found one. An egg. All we’re trying to do is return it.”
He rubs his eyes, squints at me. I manage not to glance down at myself. “You’ve got an oddly low-pitched voice for a wonderful lady,” he says.
I glare daggers before I register feeling shocked. Rattle-bones ends up hacking a few times. “That’s the first thing you say to me? That?” He goes pale again. “I know plenty of people who’ve got it worse. Take, for example, one woman in my sewing club. Spoke like those singing whales do, only terribly out of tune. Scared everyone out of the sewing club, including the other whales. And this one door guard I met. Why, he sounded like a complete fool. Didn’t know a question from an insulting death wish.” I take the slightest step towards him and he flinches.
Rattle-bones is actually smiling. I glare at him too, but only because I’ve got enough of it left over.
“I–I’m sorry, uh, m–”
Rattle-bones cuts him off with another jab at the nose. “Now,” he says pleasantly, “would you be willing to show us through the palace?”
“Of course, old–I mean–”
“Just get up and walk,” Rattle-bones says. Who actually is far from the most rattled one here.
The second thing to fail, brain of mine, was not the knife. It was the mental map of how to get to the burial chamber. Aukai “fell” into the hole and practically bumped into you, staring down as Bone-builder stepped in after him. “I hate this place,” Bone-builder muttered, bumping into Aukai. “Where was this room at?”
You pointed down. “You were both standing on the other side of this. Except down was up for you, so your boots were right there.”
“I told you I hate this place,” Bone-builder muttered again, but he stuck the skeleton arm back in place by his shoulder and it stayed there.
“I’ll get the body,” Aukai said, approaching the dark box hovering in the middle of the room. He stabbed the knife into the gray pigment sealing the lid shut and sawed his way down the side. Bone-builder and you merely watched.
After he finished, Aukai handed you the knife. You studied it, suddenly realizing the blade was almost identical to the walls there. “Huh,” you said. And were interrupted by the lid screeching open.
Bone-builder dashed to help, and the two of them were able to push the lid halfway up. You crept over to peer inside. “Wait, where’s the book?” you asked, reaching a hand inside. All that was in the black box was an old, yellowish skeleton. An old baby skeleton, for that matter.
“It’s not in there?” Aukai grunted, and the lid shifted.
“Yes! Or, no, it’s not!” you exclaimed, stepping back. “It’s a baby’s skeleton!”
Aukai and Bone-builder stepped back and the thick slab crashed shut. “Well, now wha–” Bone-builder began. He finished with an “oomph!” since Aukai tackled both of you two the ground as yellow, glimmering flames burst from the walls.
Which is when you found out the knife could fail, as you vainly attempted to stab a hole in the floor. The diamond blade barely chipped the surface.
“What are you doing?” Bone-builder cried.
“Trying to escape!” you exclaimed.
“You’ll never dig a hole with a knife!”
“Well it cut through the lid pretty fast!”
“I think we’re safe down here,” Aukai calmly interrupted the two of you.
Which, you realized, was true, otherwise you would have been incinerated by that point. You rolled onto your back, staring up at the almost translucent wall of flames. “Is it…trapping us here?” you asked quietly.
“Sure looks like it,” Aukai muttered back.
Bone-builder started to rise, but Aukai grabbed his shoulder. “Now’s not a good time to go pyro on us,” he said harshly.
Bone-builder pushed Aukai’s hand away, staying on his knees. “Don’t you ever see it?” he asked, staring upward. “People in the flames?”
Aukai opened his mouth, but you cut him off before he could say something about being crazy.
“You see people in the flames?”
Bone-builder glanced at you. “Yeah. Dead people.”
You angled your head on the floor to look at Aukai. That was certainly in the realm of possibility. You were, after all, death mages in a hyper-dimensional palace looking for a book a doctor wrote about human anatomy and blood. A doctor who’d died and unfortunately been buried in a floating box with said book.
“Except there’s nothing in this one,” Bone-builder said quietly. “It’s just yellow flickers and shimmering shapes.”
“Well what’s that mean?” Aukai asked, also sitting up.
Bone-builder reached his skeleton arm into the fire wall. You flinched, expecting the arm to combust, but the flames parted around it. “I didn’t think a dimensional mage could create fire,” he said, pleased. He rose to his feet.