The Mansion Painted World, Five days into the Holi Tribulations. Seven days into the Contest.
Cane, Vivian and Lillin were sitting on an empty floor. They had spread sixteen paintings in front of them. They spent the last hour collecting the missing ones. With Lillin's help, the search went faster than antic.i.p.ated. They had sixteen canvases; all looking similar save for some small imperceptible changes. They had stripped all the paintings from their frames and tried aligning them together, like a piece of puzzle.
Cane gave up on the task when he couldn't differentiate between indigo and violet. He just called them purple. Vivian and Lillin were still arranging some pieces together while Cane was looking out the window.
The sun was getting closer to the horizon. It had already hugged the forest trees. It was calm outside, unlike in the morning. He wondered if Myles had died. He was surprised to find himself hoping he had.
Lillin let out a faint gasp. Cane turned around to see Vivian beaming. Her smile painfully reminded him of Greta. She didn't deserve to die, not in this unfair goose chase. Lillin opened her mouth to speak but a movement by the paintings stopped her. They looked down to see all the paintings moving closer.
The canvases expanded and magically attached themselves to each other. By the time they stopped moving, a pentagonal picture presented itself to the three champions. It looked like an abstract painting. Dark colors hugged each other in the background while warmer colors danced around a golden orb in the middle.
The orb slowly detached itself from the canvas. It slowly transformed into a ring then flew at Vivian. It went through her ring finger, shone once more before it settled. She was holding the second key. A silver ring with a ruby incrusted on it.
"What now?" Cane asked.
"We wait for dinner," Vivian answered. "The sun has almost set."
"Should we head to the dining room?" Lillin asked.
"We should wait here. There's something we need to discuss." Vivian looked tense. She looked at Cane with nervous eyes.
"You said the man with Black Eyes had familiars?" she asked the big bear.
"Yes, what of it?"
"Familiars?" Lillin looked confused.
"Not now," Vivian apologetically looked at the teenage girl then turned to Cane. "Did he happen to say what they were? Not their names, but their nature."
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"He called 'em Fairies," Cane answered.
"Did they look like the ones from the Plains?"
"How should I know? I've never been there."
"Did they have some kind of hide, fangs or sharp claws?"
"Nah, they were small as a b.u.t.terfly!"
Vivian fell silent. Her eyes had involuntarily widened. Her nostrils flared. Her eyebrows shot upwards. Surprise and terror filled her pale face now.
"b.u.t.terfly Fairies?" Lillin asked. She looked quite upset by Cane's words. "They're – But they're cursed…"
Vivian exchanged worried looks with the teenage girl. She looked as upset as Lillin was. She tried to utter some words but they failed her. Cane kept looking at the woman, urging her to speak her mind. At long last, she managed to spill the beans.
"There are two kinds of fairies," Vivian spoke in a whisper. She struggled to breathe steadily. "The ones in Ulmir's domain are known for their ferocity and their terrible wrath. But the small ones… The small ones are a bad omen… the ones Black Eyes presumably controls are far worse than the Faeries in Ulmir's domain."
"I heard the guards confirm it. They were all destroyed," Lillin commented.
"The little ones saved my life twice," Cane muttered.
"Be that as it may," Vivian knelt beside Cane. Her eyes were trying to find his. "They might be docile, especially in their master's presence. But they're cunning creatures; the very definition of mischief."
Cane was looking at Vivian's clear brown eyes. "What's that gotta do with anything?"
"The man with black eyes is the same one NewsCo spoke about before the Hunt. The Black Eyed Devil, is that right?"
"I dunno," Cane answered. "Never read a newspaper in my life."
"Clueless!" Vivian, exasperated, said. "The Black Eyed Devil's an old prophecy from the southern continent."
"I was told it was destroyed long ago," Lillin interrupted.
'What's up with her and destruction?' Vivian found herself thinking. "Did they happen to tell you why it was destroyed?" she asked. Her eyes challenged the teenage girl to say yes.
"I've asked," Lillin said, her voice but a faint whisper. "But they've told me to never speak of it, for the Devil's always listening."
"Right they are," Vivian ruffled the girl's hair then went on. "The Old Prophecy says the Devil will come to destroy the world. Our punishment for destroying the land we were entrusted to keep."
"To keep?" Lillin looked confused. "By who?"
"I have no idea!" Vivian smiled then shrugged. "But the prophecy also speaks of the Devil's servants, nasty little creatures. They specialize in deception. They look adorable and defenseless. They lure people into loving and trusting them, before they – " Vivian slid her index finger across her neck.
"The Devil died long ago," Cane was frowning, his arms crossed. "Our savior defeated 'im."
"The funny thing about history, it always repeats itself." Vivian commented. "Prophecies are old stories we hear but always choose to ignore."
She lowered her head then turned around, towards the windows. She looked out into the quiet forest as she played with her hair. Cane and Lillin observed her expectantly. It took her a while but when she spoke, her voice was low.
"I don't believe in fortune telling. But I can't help but see the state of decay our world had reached. A part of me dreads this Devil. We have an old story in our house you see. I won't bore you with the details but the gist of it is that the Devil is always among us. He's imprisoned in a dark, cold world, bidding his time.
He'll break through the barrier one day then come terrorize us once more. Sometimes, I sense chills in the air, even during dry hot days. It feels as if all my fears had surfaced at once. The funny thing, I don't even know what I'm afraid of."
She turned to look at Cane. He never imagined he would see that smart, composed woman look so frightened. "When I look at Myles, I feel the same fear. I don't know what I'm afraid of. But something, maybe intuition, tells me he's bad news. There's something about him that gives me the w.i.l.l.i.e.s."
"How do you know he's not dead?" Cane sprung up to his feet. "Did ya hear anything since the explosion?" He was pointing at the woods outside. He looked out the window to see Myles rapidly approaching the mansion. His face was swollen, his clothes wet and in tatters. He also saw Rose quickly catching up to him. She had a bow and quiver strapped around her back. A long sword was also strapped to her waist.
"Com'ere, quick!" he beckoned to two ladies to the window.
Myles had just reached the clearing before the main door, when an arrow missed his left ear by a hair's width. Rose was running his way.
"We should giv'im a hand," Cane told the other two. Lillin bit her lower lip while Vivian shook her head.
"If I didn't have a special disliking for Rose, I would lend her a hand."
"Are you for real?!" Cane was shouting. "We wouldn'ave found the key if it weren't for 'im!"
"We've found the key because we looked, Cane. It was me who told you about the Painted World, remember?"
"What now? He's an enemy?"
"Why are you defending him?" Lillin interjected. "You don't trust him, yet you place your life in his hands. That's plain dumb!"
"Watch yer mouth little one!" Cane was easy to provoke. "I don't like hitting little girls!"
"Try me!" Lillin yelled back. "Did the victory against the mushroom get to your head? We all fought to get here!"
"Cane!" Vivian interrupted before they started barking at each other again. "Myles has the key, I can see it."
"What?" Both of them yelled simultaneously.
"This ring means I have a key. I think that's how I can see the other one flashing inside his body."
"Then why isn't it over?" Lillin asked.
"Beware the key holder, to him, you're cannon fodder." Vivian was repeating the song the initiator sang for them when they just arrived. "He can leave in a week, unless you get him to speak."
"So the way to get out of here is to get all the key holders to confess to it?" Lillin asked.
"You're a sharp one," Vivian said." I believe you got the gist of it. No killing has to be involved,"
"But we know Myles has it, ya told us."
"He has to confess it." Vivian looked outside the window. Myles and Rose were exchanging blows. He managed to disarm her and now they were struggling on the ground.
"He doesn't seem ready to confess," Lillin commented. "At least not to her."
"Listen Cane," Vivian turned away from the window and held the big bear by the shoulder. "If he doesn't confess to having the key, then he'll try to fight us after dinner. The sun has almost set. We'll soon teleport to the dining room."
"Isn't the initiator dead?" Lillin pointed out.
"Yes, but the Holi Tribulations don't end when the initiator dies. They end when all the conditions to victory, or loss, have been met."
"And the rule is to survive seven days," Cane muttered.
"Unless Myles confesses to having the key, yes," Vivian was looking at the pentagonal canvas, thoughtful.
"But –" Lillin was interrupted by Vivian before she could continue.
"We need to think of a way to defeat him. He's defeated the Scion, which means he's stronger. I don't even think we can defeat him."
"I can," Cane said with a clenched jaw.
"You two fought before?" Lillin asked.
"Do you know what powers he has?" Both women were staring at the big bear with questioning gazes.
"If that's the man with black eyes, then we're all dead," Cane answered. "But he's not. Black Eyes never makes mistakes."
"What makes you so sure?" Vivian was squinting at him.
"If it were 'im, we'd never even suspect 'im." He cast a grim gaze at both women then went on. "D'ya remember the intruder?"
"Myles was arrested by the guards. I saw them take him from the Training Arena. I think they suspected him," Vivian answered.
"Black Eyes predicted that, ya see. He planned everythin' . Told me teh stay away from 'im in the Contest."
"And where's he now?" Lillin had her hands on her hips.
"I dunno," Cane was looking down, like a brooding big child. "I dunno anythin' anymore. All I know is that I was on the ground, Black Eyes had a knife on my throat. He's fast and scary strong."
"I have something else to add," Lillin said while holding her arm in the air, like a student asking for permission to speak. Cane and Vivian turned to look at her at the same time.
"The song in the beginning, it said we should solve a riddle, and beware of the key holder. We've found the key. a.s.suming we defeat Myles, or get him to confess, what then? What will happen to the ones who don't have a key?"
The empty room grew quiet. Outside, Rose was screaming her lungs out. Cane and Vivian didn't even turn to look at Myles tearing the woman's heart out of her open back. They were thinking of what the little girl had just told them.
"There has to be some kind of exit. If this is a painted world," Vivian was muttering to herself. "Then the exit must be by the painting. But we held the painting in our hands and nothing happened to either of us."
"The song also says the key holder can leave within a week. But nothing of the others who didn't have a key," Lillin added.
"I'll make you plump and juicy," Vivian was still muttering. "For with food I am choosey."
"It's bad, right?" Lillin made an ugly grimace, a mixture between hopelessness and terror.
"I don't think it's that bad," Vivian answered.
"What's bad?" Cane asked. He was clueless.
Before any of them could answer, they felt their bodies getting lighter. They felt drowsy. Their eyelids grew heavy and their consciousness slowly faded away. They opened their eyes to find themselves in the dining room. Myles was sitting there too, his arms crossed, smiling.
"I've got the key!" he said with a wide smile that surprised everyone else. His face was swollen, his hair greasy. His clothes were torn at different spots too. His smile soon disappeared when he saw the others looking at him with grim faces.
"What's up with you all?" He suddenly yelled at them. "I've done nothing but bring you one piece of good news after the other. And yet, you always find a way to frown and scowl!"
"Did you get to speak to the initiator?" Vivian asked.
"Was it Greta?" Cane intervened before Myles could answer.
"Was she in the shack?" Lillin said, as if to keep the custom of questioning interruptions. Myles looked at them, bewildered.
"It wasn't Greta," he told Cane.
He then turned towards Lillin then said "She was in the shack.
"But she coated it with Aetherbane. We had to fight the old fashioned way – " He slapped a fist into his palm as he told Vivian.
"Did you speak to her before you fought?" Vivian insisted.
"Have some compa.s.sion woman," Myles protested. "At least congratulate me for doing you all a great service. Oh, and I took care of those bigots for you too, thank you very much."
"We saw you murder Rose," Vivian said in a cold tone. "Did you speak to the initiator?"
Myles let out a long sigh before he answered. "I asked some questions. She answered with her fists, and kick, and fists again – d.a.m.n she was a tough one." He shuddered, scratched his greasy hair then went on. "She only mocked me for fighting her alone. Those were the only words she spoke." He cast a dark look at Cane, who looked down.
"This complicates it," Vivian said.
"What do you mean? You didn't find the key?"
"We have," Lillin answered.
"Who has it?"
Vivian raised her hand.
"We should be leaving the place…" Myles grabbed a bowl of hot cabbage soup then started filling his spoon.
"We're supposed to solve a riddle," Lillin spoke. "It's in the song. The one the initiator sang for us when we arrived."
"In other words," Myles said between two spoonfuls of cabbage soup, "only Vivian and I can leave this place, unless we solve the riddle that is. Right?"
"Correct," Vivian answered.
"Do you know what the riddle is?" he asked her before finishing his bowl and filling another.
"It's the whole song," Lillin answered.
"Not entirely, the song tells us to beware of the key bearer. We're then supposed to get the key bearer to speak then solve the riddle. It's like doing things in a specific order. Vivian and I hold the key. The key holder can leave in seven days, in which case the others die, cannon fodder. If the others manage to unmask him or her, then the confession part is over."
"Then why aren't we leaving?" Lillin asked.
"Under the table," Cane said. He was religiously devouring some animal leg. It looked like a chicken's but it was ten times bigger.
"Ha!" Myles exclaimed. "Leave it to Cane to provide us with the perfect, yet simplest, answer."
Vivian stood up. She grabbed the dining table from each corner and tried to push it aside.
"What d'ya think yer doin'?" Cane asked.
"Pushing the b.l.o.o.d.y table aside?" Vivian replied. She must have noticed Cane frowning since she immediately added. "Is there a problem?"
Cane let go of the meat he was devouring, looked at Vivian while chewing. "We're eating!" He barked as chunks of meat fell off his mouth, onto the table.
"Can't we just move it aside then keep eating?" she exasperatedly asked. Cane mumbled something with his full mouth which sounded like 'no can do'.
They had their dinner as they waited for him to finish eating. Vivian sipped the food. She wasn't in the mood for dinner. Lillin carefully picked up some vegetables, avoiding gravy and meat all the while. She placed them before her then stared at them, unable to eat. Cane didn't seem to mind them as he enjoyed a crimson looking pudding. Myles had finished his meal and was humming the initiator's song when he suddenly sprung to his feet.
"Cane, would you mind holding the pudding in your hands? We're short on time here."
Cane held the pudding on one hand while taking spoonfuls with the other. The others cleared the table then moved it aside. Myles and Vivian made to open the hatch at the same time.
"We're both key holders," he told her. "We should both touch it at the same time and open it, just to be sure."
Vivian nodded and the two held the trap door by its circular handle. They tugged and pulled with all their might but the hatch wouldn't budge. When Cane finished eating, he tried helping them, pulling both their bodies while they held on tight.
The wooden door gave a moan before it moved. A box was hidden underneath the trap door. Myles and Vivian carried it on top of the table then opened it. They saw a painting of a mansion on top of a hill. It was identical to the one they'd seen in the dining room. But this one had a strong aura emanating from it.
"Are you coming?" Myles yelled at Cane. He had already found another pudding to devour.
With a low grunt, Cane gave up on the dessert he'd just started then reached the others. Together, they put their hands on the painting at the same time. They felt their bodies getting lighter. A drowsy feeling enveloped them and they all closed their eyes then fell into blissful sleep.
"Welcome," a cheerful voice rang inside their heads. "My name is… well it's too complicated for your folks to p.r.o.nounce it. Just call me Game Master."