This is an excerpt from Moth & Cobweb Book 6, Tithe to Tartarus, Castalia House’s newest release. The entire Moth & Cobweb series, beginning with Swan Knight’s Son, is now available via Kindle and Kindle Unlimited.
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Yumiko was unwilling to step onto the catwalk because she could not see why a winged man would use one to reach a door four stories in the air. Instead, she swung gracefully in and used her glider wings to break her speed just enough that she could drive two knives, one in each hand, into the plywood boards covering the windows. Weighing less than a pound, she could hang from one hand or flip herself up and balance on her boot toes on the knife hilts. The dizzying drop to the empty factory floor was below her. The railing was next to her, as was the odd, archaic door.
She had seen such a door in the magic shop where Winged Vengeance left his tuxedo. It was similar in shape, but it was not the same wood, the same size, or clasped with the same ornate hinges. The knob was sapphire, not ruby. But it was clearly a brother to that other door.
She looked down. The brown mat had letters on it. They spelled out GO AWAY.
Yumiko put on boot on the catwalk handrail and reached out with her hand.
The glass doorknob turned. The door was unlocked.
A thrill of suspicion trickled up her spine to her neck. What sort of vigilante left the secret door to his hidden sanctum unlocked?
Warily, Yumiko drove another knife into the plywood further away and perched on it. With her back to the plywood, she expanded her bowstaff, extended to twice its normal length, and used the far tip to prod the door open.
She waited warily for an explosion or an attack by poisonous asps. Neither came.
Closer she crept again, clinging weightlessly to the plywood, and peered around the doorjamb.
At that moment, the flare was exhausted. The light fluttered and failed.
Darkness closed in. Yumiko drew her flashlight. In its beam she saw the eight-sided chamber beyond the strange door, paneled in dark wood, dark beneath a high, octagonal dome.
Weightlessly, she swooped into the chamber, landing in a crouch with no more noise than a falling cherry blossom petal. Here on a table in the middle of the carpet was the same phone on the same table she had seen before.
She waited, wondering whether it would ring.
The phone remained silent. She sent the flashlight beam left and right to inspect the eight walls.
Last time, the arched door had opened, not onto a catwalk inside a deserted factory uptown, but onto a brick wall. Last time, the arched door had been opposite three windows in three walls looking out on the churchyard of a deserted church downtown. The three walls were there, but now two of them were pierced by narrow doors. The wall between them was a niche holding a photographic portrait draped in black. To either side of the photograph were flowers in vases and twigs of incense in holders.
Yumiko shined her beam on the picture. Her sob caught in the throat, heavy with emotion, before her brain consciously recognized the clear features, green eyes, raven-black hair. It was her mother. Stepping nearer, she saw that these smaller doors both sported brass handles, but neither knob nor lock. Behind each was a blank brick wall.
Next, she looked at one of the cabinets. It was also unlocked, but, as before, it also opened up on a blank wall. She pushed back the top of the rolltop desk. Empty.
She walked a circle, slowly inspecting the eight walls. Then, she turned her flashlight up. A wooden dome made of eight curving panels was above. As when last she stood here, the chamber was like a stage setting, not a real room. What was she overlooking?
She directed her beam downward, seeing how obvious were the trail of triangular prints her boot toes made in the thick dust and the tiny, sharp imprints of her heel. Her brow creased. Did Winged Vengeance never sweep the carpet? Perhaps that had been her job. But where were his boot prints?
Kneeling, Yumiko ran a finger along the fibers. She inspected the dust on her fingertip. It was a white powder. The alert light in the corner of her vision flashed. Toxic environment.
Yumiko shivered, remembered that her supersuit had clamped shut, airtight, the last time she had entered this chamber. At that time, she had not known how to turn on the warning messages from the suit’s hidden instruments. Despite this, the suit, or whatever thoughtful paranoiac had designed it, had saved her life.
But she also remembered taking off her mask during her last visit. Why had the toxin coating the carpet not acted on her then? She tried to remember the exact order of events. Yumiko stood, stepped over to the pole lamp, and switched it on.
In the bright light, the dust stain on her fingertip looked dull gray. The warning light in her lenses winked out. The air registered as safe to breathe. She turned the pole lamp off again. The dust turned from gray to white. The warning flashed. Toxic environment.
What kind of material could change its properties when struck by light and turn from lethal to harmless instantly? Whether it was elfin alchemy or human super-science, it was astounding.
And astoundingly stupid to use. How did Winged Vengeance make sure, when he left the room and stepped into a dark place, a closet, unlit corridor, or out into a moonless night, he had no small gray stain overlooked on his elbow, or boot sole, or clinging to the hem of his cape which would instantly suddenly turn white and lethal again? In fact, how had she left this room of death safely?
She could not remember. But surely she had twisted the ring to render herself weightless before exiting since there was no other exit but the window. Could the mist of the elfs disperse the dusty poison?
Yumiko twisted the ring twice widdershins.
The mist thickened about her, rendering her unseen to human eyes. Immediately, her hands began to tremble. Her fingers were cold. She bit on the switch inside her mask to increase the oxygen flow, but she still seemed unable to breathe. Yumiko turned the flashlight left and right, wildly, looked for the source of the threat. No one was here.
Then, she switched the flashlight off. There was a man hanging by his neck from a rope descending from the shadows of the eight-sided dome. An arrow pinned a note, written in blood, to his chest, and protruded from his back. His eyes were terrible pits of emptiness opening into a universe larger and darker than the universe of stars the Earth’s tiny globe spun through. A second man, eyeless, bound, and hanged, was next to the first, also impaled by an arrow. A third man, hanging by the neck, arrow-stabbed, had his wrists tied behind him by his bootlaces. A fourth hung head downward.
She looked over her shoulder. There were more behind her and more to either side, like grisly fruit hanging from a rich tree. One looked as if he had been run over by a truck before being hanged and impaled. Another, as if he had been burned. Yet another had huge bites torn out of his bound arms and legs, as if he had been lowered into a pit of savage animals before dying.
With a creak of ropes, the corpses now all rotated so that their bloated, blackened, torn, and desiccated faces all faced her.
Yumiko screamed in shock and terror. She had let go of the flashlight and covered her mask with her gloves. Gritting her teeth, she forced her cold fingers to move. She grabbed and twisted the ring. Once, twice, thrice, and once more again.
Her longbow and short sword snapped out to their full length, and her cape unfolded into glider wings, knocking the phone off the table. Bolo and boomerang and dozens of knives, barbed and throwing stars jumped out of their belt pouches and fell to the carpet.
The metallic clamor of the dropped weapons rang in her ears. The echo hung in her ears a moment, and silence came.
The ghosts of the slain were gone.
A light as clear and subtle as starlight was streaming from the ring in all directions, glinting like Procyon on a clear winter night.
Yumiko stared at the ring in awe, but this time, it was the awe of wonder, not of terror. The woman’s face in the intaglio of the ring had changed again, and now her features were those of a stern and bright-eyed angel crowned with rays.