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Tuesday 13 April 2021

Locks and Boxes

Estimated read time: 11 minutes
     "You know what She'll do if She catches--"
     "She won't catch us, Arta." Medea muttered a curse and steadied herself against a bookshelf as the library tilted to one side. She glanced out through the window on reflex, but it was impossible to get any bearings. The shifting, purple-wisped world outside could've been flowing in either direction, if anything was even moving at all.
     She sighed and turned back to the arcane library while Arta anxiously wrung her hands behind her. The room was poorly-lit, which, Medea noted with a purse to her lips, made no sense at all, and what little light there was was caught and scattered by a thousand jangling keys swinging across the wall beside her. They offered nothing at all but confusion - and the smell didn't help. It was the sweet, subtle, tantalising smell of a promise she didn't want fulfilled; belladonna, monkshood, hemlock, mandrake, and other plants so poisonous they could probably kill in a glance, all hung dried across a rail or sat in pots, growing bitterly in the dark.
     She swallowed slowly while her fingers traced absently down her throat.
     With a moment of effort, she shook it off, strode decisively towards the far wall, the coarse disciple's robe shifting about her legs, and began rummaging through the shelves, drawers and clutter. The owner would probably have said there was a method in the madness, but she couldn't see it for the life of her.
     A small, nervous noise behind snatched her attention briefly over her shoulder. "You don't need to be here, Arta."
     "It's a bit late for that now," she said tightly, pulling her wide eyes onto her from the door. "Just exactly what is it you're looking for? You know what She'll do--"
     "She won't catch us," Medea repeated, turning back to her frenzied search. "And I'm looking for a key."
     "...Have you looked behind you?"
     She shook her tanned head as she caught a toppling candlestick and stood it haphazardly back on the desk. "It's none of those. It's in a box."
     "A box?"
     "Yes, a box." She ignored the empty candlestick as it fell again. "Small, about the size of a book, red, with the thing etched onto it, that thing, the round thing--"
     "The strophalos?!" Arta hissed; Medea winced. "What are you--"
     "Shh! Stop panicking! Either leave or help me look!" She didn't glance back to watch Arta's indecision. She continued shoving, lifting and tossing things aside while the younger disciple hesitated behind her, until she heard her tut, mutter, then move up alongside to rummage through the neighbouring cabinet.
     For the thousand keys adorning that back wall, Medea knew hers wasn't among them. Not one of those was a key of consequence - nor indeed were any of them the Key of Consequence. But that one was a prize for another time.
     Whatever the case, nothing so important would be left so easily accessible, if such a term could be used in this strange, ever-moving place; they'd all be locked away themselves, behind even more complex systems. But she had a means of breaking through this one. She'd researched it. She'd experimented. And, if all else failed, she had allies. She just needed the box.
     ''Just need the box'. As if it's that easy... Ugh. One step at a time, lass. One step at a time.'
     She hadn't thought this through as well as she'd have liked, and she was big enough to admit that; just what she'd do once she'd gotten into Tartarus and found what she was after, she still wasn't sure. But she would work it out. She had to. Because, for all the necessity driving her - and never mind what the others might say - even she wasn't unaware of the danger.
     The thought of what the goddess of boundaries, ghosts and witchcraft really would do if She caught her sent a shiver over her skin and a numb dread through her muscles.
     She steeled herself and moved along to another cabinet. But she couldn't help sending the nervous, rummaging girl beside her a brief glance. She really shouldn't have stayed. In fact, she should probably make her leave...
     But: four eyes were better than two.
     Medea shrugged it off, then a lurch in her stomach told her the library had sped up along the ethereal tracks.
     "It's not like you to get travel-sick," Arta said as Medea heaved.
     She waved her away while she fought to settle herself, and steadied against the wood with another weary curse as the library tilted again. "I wish She'd stop this bloody thing once in a while," she muttered.
     "What was that?"
     "Nothing at all." Medea dug her way through boxes and trinkets into the dark of the unnaturally deep cabinet, where the smell of  musk tickled her nose and sent a spinning jolt through precisely one third of her head. She recoiled immediately, then squealed in disorientated fright as a polecat leapt out from the black. She narrowed her eyes at it as it bounced and squeaked its little war dance around her knees, until she batted the angry little menace aside. It soon scurried away to find somewhere else to sleep - and undoubtedly somewhere else she'd end up disturbing it.
     "That was unlike Gale," Arta frowned. "She usually loves you."
     "She must be coming into heat," Medea grunted through the curl of her lip, then returned her attention to the search. Between the two of them, they'd be done all the sooner.
     For a library, there was an awful lot of junk. Tomes lined the walls, certainly - and, in some cases, constructed the cabinets themselves - and inkstained leaves were scattered over most surfaces. But beyond the books, the keys and the plants were seashells of glistening turquoise and deepest black, skrimshaw bones, and shards of black glass that looked remarkably like fragments of brain. There were skeins of hair, dried animal feet, small vials of life fluids; there were golden things, platinum things and one or two tools made from whole pieces of opal. And there were other, stranger things she couldn't place the use of: rods, rings, wires, tongs and calipers, some imbued with so much power that they physically hummed when her hand passed near. And, of course, there were boxes: green ones, black ones, oak; some bare of carvings and others absolutely overrun with them.
     But not one of them was red, and not one bore the strophalos.
     With every failing moment, Medea's patience thinned. She barely managed to bite back the foetid curse when the library lurched again and cast her forehead into the edge of the concealed cupboard she'd moved on to. Books rained down on her head.
     "We're slowing down..." Arta turned wide eyes onto her. "Medea--"
     "I know; keep looking." She grit her teeth and ignored the throb in her skull, but despite the panic clawing its way up her own back, she didn't slow down. Even when the latent magic of the place tugged and shifted around her, and the mind-bending, lung-bursting traps she'd thought she'd muffled her presence against began at last to react.
     She managed to keep her heart behind her ribs and warded against them as subtly as she could. A brief glance towards Arta revealed she hadn't noticed. She was still searching shoulder-deep in a bejewelled chest with an expression torn between terror and determination.
     Medea didn't let herself breathe her relief. And, as it turned out, she'd have had no chance to finish even if she'd started.
     A presence spun her towards the door at the back, the movement startling a squeak out of Arta, just as the handle turned and a dog-headed figure burst in. His eyes were wild, jowls lifted, bone-crushing teeth bared and two savage-looking daggers in his hands. But he didn't attack, and Medea didn't move.
     "Disciples," he rumbled as ferocity passed to surprise in his eyes. "What are you doing in here?"
     Medea spun quickly back to the library and resumed her rummaging. "There was a thief," she replied hurriedly. "Overrode the traps, somehow, and vanished through the wall." She turned a brief look over her shoulder. "Go! Catch them! Quickly! Or it'll be all of our heads! Or worse!"
     He'd already started through for the wall she'd nodded towards. "What did they take?!"
     "I don't know! But it's best we get it back before She finds out! Go, we'll tidy up in here - hopefully She won't notice..."
     The dog-headed guardian ran, shimmered, and passed through the wall and on into the next wandering room.
     "What are you doing?!" Arta hissed from close beside her.
     "If you want to call him back and tell him the truth, be my guest." She cast her a look as the girl bit her lip, then shortly disregarded her. But the moment she reached to move aside the inexplicable stone-cut ladel, a charge and flash of light leapt from it and hit her hand away. And while she cursed and attempted to disarm this next trap, the sand and shale amphora beside it picked itself up and shifted away. She blinked at it. Then watched the smoking blackwood bell beside it equally skitter out of her reach.
     In that moment, the entire cabinet seemed to come to life.
     The bitter curse broke through her lips this time, and she watched in a panic as the contents scrambled blindly over one another and the dreadful thought coalesced like a thundercloud in her mind: what if she'd already come past it, and it had already run away from her?
     She cursed again, draining the blood from Arta's face with her imagination. Then, as if she'd spoken some obscure magic word, she spotted it: the book-sized, red, wooden box with the labyrinthine strophalos engraved on the lid, running mindlessly into the corner over and over and over again.
     She wasted no moment to think on her luck; she snatched for it and all but glued her fingers to the grain with her grip. Just as the magic around them changed again.
     This time, for one long, chilling moment, she had no control at all over her response. Terror gripped her tightly and wiped her mind clean. It was chance alone that she noticed the change in her skin: all colour and plump of life vanished, leaving her arm thin, grey and familiar.
     The spell was wearing off.
     She quickly tugged her sleeve down and pulled the box from the cabinet, wrapping it up in her robes. But when she turned towards Arta to tell her to flee, she found the girl staring at her in confusion instead.
     "Medea, your skin, your eyes, you're--"
     She watched Arta's expression slacken slowly in understanding, her gaze drop from her own pure-white eyes to her grey, almost inhuman face, then to the bony arms that shielded the box and prepared, if they had to, to weave another spell.
     "You're not Medea..."
     She had no chance to reply. The library screeched and tilted over the rails as it sped up through the realm again, and the baying of nearby hounds froze the both of them in place. Then, slowly, a red cast bled its way into the room.
     "No..." Arta trembled where she stood. "No, no, no..."
     Hekate was coming.
     The unmasked realm-walker cursed again and forced life back into her body. She had no choice. Arta shouldn't have been there. She should've made an excuse, sent the girl away. But she hadn't. Because she'd grown fond of her over the last week. And for that, the girl would pay. And it was her fault.
     No. She had no choice at all.
     The door flew open with a breath-snatching burst of wind. Thunder cracked, lightning flashed, leaves swirled in and every sentient item fell from its shelf and crawled forwards as if called by its master.
     The realm-walker clenched her small teeth, snatched Arta's wrist, and the pair vanished with the box before Hekate could step inside through the storm of fury incarnate.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock


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