“What’s the Red Key?” Maria asked.
“A Hrotata legend…” Mother Superior began. Ahrottl cut her off viciously.
“NOT a legend.” She swallowed, still Stilled, unable to tear her eyes away from the bodies lying in front of her. “History. My great-to-the-twenty-fourth grandmother knew Vettreg. My great-to-the twenty-second uncle’s cousin was there when they found the tomb opened.”
“Well,” Mother Superior replied crisply. “my sources identify it as a legend. I’ve certainly not seen any pictures of it.”
“Of course not. You’re a history enthusiast, right? You’ve specialized in the history of the Grrahthatt nation? YOU’RE FROM HROTATA PRIME? Of course you are.” Ahrottl sneered. “After all, if there’s no picture of it, it doesn’t exist, right? That’s human thinking for you!”
Gerry protested, “Hey, Throttle…”
“The Red Key was real.” Ahrottl heaved a sigh and resisted the urge to curl up into a ball.
“Shaharrtl came to the city of Tahr with a wagon full of equipment and a dream, to open up the tomb of the Great Matriarch Tahr-eeka, the Matriarch who supposedly founded Tahr in ages past. He didn’t share the dream, of course - he didn’t want to get executed. He stayed and watched the locals and looked for someone, someone who would be desperate enough to help him in a sacrilegious and perilous venture.
“That’s how he met Vettreg. Vettreg was a good-for-nothing, a layabout and a drinker. Vettreg was the husband of Srrash, who had married him for his beauty when he was young, but could not divorce him as they had had kits and it was illegal in Tahr to divorce a male that had produced young. Likewise, she couldn’t attract any other mates due to the reputation hit she had taken since marrying him. So, Shaharrtl went to Srrash and made her a deal: if she ordered Vettreg to go with him and help him, he would let her keep half of the loot from the venture. If, for some reason Vettreg failed to return, she would be free to re-marry. Either way, her situation could only improve. Srrash agreed.”
“Wow, what a bitch.” Gerry said, surprised.
“She was a bit cold-hearted, wasn’t she?” Ahrottl agreed. “She sent Vettreg out to help Shaharrtl without even telling him where they were going. Vettreg had no choice but to agree, although he sorely hated labor. Refusing a direct order from his wife could have netted him no end of punishment which was, I am sorry to say, perfectly legal at the time.
“So Shaharrtl and Vettreg went out of town, trailing over the dusty hills, to the old edifice, the ancient tomb of the founder of Tahr. It was unguarded, even though everyone knew that she had been buried with much of the material wealth that she had accumulated. She had a Vislin architect design her tomb and fill it with the most diabolical and cunning sorts of traps.”
“It’s always weird to be reminded that other sapients evolved on the same planet with you.” Maria murmured.
Ahrottl chose not to acknowledge this, and continued, in full storyteller mode. “When they arrived, Shaharrtl knew that the front door was not the place that they wanted to enter, as it was the last place trapped. He had been studying this tomb for a long time, and had even made consultations with other Vislin architects, all of whom agreed: if the tomb did have a safe way in, it would not be the front, especially as the front doors and chambers were the last portion of the tomb that were finalized, and the last place that the original architect had exited from. His crew had not left with him, mind you – no-one else was to know about the construction or know the secrets of the tomb.
“No, there had to be a back door that the architect and his crew had entered through so that they could make their way through and complete and set the final traps before leaving. The back door might be trapped, but not nearly so grievously as the front. Shaharrtl had found an outcropping of rock on a nearby hill that he was convinced hid the entrance, so he gave poor Vettreg a shovel and bade him to start digging.
“For a whole day and a night Vettreg did the most exhausting work of his life, carving into the thick soil with the blade of the spade and prying it loose for Shahrrtl. It was back-breaking labor, the sort of work that a Taratumm would have done without effort or a thought – but Shahrrtl didn’t have a Taratumm handy, just poor Vettreg. Vettreg shook for lack of drink and hallucinated, and at night was forced to sleep away from Shahrrtl – forced to sleep alone when another Hrotata was but meters away from him!”
She paused for effect here but no one responded. No gasps. The severity of that was lost on this particular audience. She continued.
“Finally, he found the entrance, a square stone doorway. He spent the next day in a harness, pulling on ropes for Shahrrtl, trying to dislodge the door. Finally, he managed to get it open, into the cold, empty darkness beneath the hill. After sniffing to try and detect fumes, Shahrrtl handed him a torch and bade him go first.
“Vettreg, exhausted but without any choice, ventured in first, and thus began a long journey through harrowing tricks and traps left behind by the coldly ingenious Vislin engineer. He dodged swinging pendulum blades, held his breath through poisoned gas, rolled beneath collapsing stone, and hopped from crumbling platform to platform, always first and opening the way for Shahrrtl.
“They finally reached the Matriarch’s tomb, and Vettreg thought that for sure, it was worth what he had put up with to get there. Jewelry of silver and platinum and gold, ivory from a dozen creatures, and works of arts that made even the hard-hearted Shahrrtl weep and dance to see. They bundled up as much as they could safely carry without being slowed down, the most valuable pieces that they could find, and hoped that they could make it out the front gate safely.
“Now, Vettreg was a simple fellow and had been underfed and felt very under-appreciated, so when, searching through the magnificent golden vases, he found some very well-preserved jerky and fish sauce, he gobbled it down straightaway. It’s important to note that, and that Shahrrtl did not say anything to him at the time.
“Again, they went through a battery of deadly traps, though these ones did not damage the tomb behind them. At last they came to the central chamber where, sitting around a jug and with empty mugs in their hands, were the mummified bodies of the laborers, all twenty-two of them, poisoned. Carved lightly on the inside of the door was a message for them. It didn’t name them, certainly, but it was a message for them nonetheless. Do you know what it read?”
“Repent?” Suggested Mother Superior.
“Fooled you!” Gerry said.
“No.” Ahrottl twirled her whiskers mysteriously and shook her head. “No. It read, ‘I hope that you were able to find the Red Key.’
“Immediately, they panicked, because the massive stone doors were locked with a very complex mechanism requiring a very specific implement to open. They cast around, searching the bodies of the workers, and went back through the mostly-disarmed traps to the tomb, searching there. Treasures they found a-plenty, but not a single key, nothing that would fit the lock, or the mechanism.
“That didn’t stop them from trying anything that they thought might fit in the keyhole. Scepters, wands, platinum toothpicks, and even fingerbones from the poor dead laborers. Nothing worked.
“’I think that we might be able to remove the mechanism if we worked together, Shahrrtl. If we both braced against those gears and tried to spring them we might be able to pop the lock out. It’d be hard to move the doors after but we have rope and a harness. We could do it.’ However, Shahrrtl was looking at him strangely.
“’Are you sure that you didn’t find the key, Vettreg?’ Shahrrtl asked him. ‘What was it you swallowed back there?’
“’Why, some fish jerky and old sauce, nothing but that. Why?’
“’Because it makes too much sense. You think yourself clever, don’t you?’
“’No.’ Vettreg replied, quite honestly.
“’No, you really think you are. Swallow the key, hide it, and then try to have me kill myself on a spring or a trap. Well, I’ll have none of that. Vomit up that key!’ Shahrrtl roared at him.
“They argued back and forth, and eventually, fought. They rolled back and forth across the floor of the tomb, cracking mummies and breaking their mugs, tearing at each other. Finally they ended up lodged against the front door. Shahrattl had taken a ceremonial dagger of the finest Thrathumm ivory, trying to disembowel Vettreg while Vettreg clawed desperately at Shahrattl’s throat, trying to get him to stop.
“Then, to both of their surprise, the mechanism began to work. Blood from their many wounds had splashed upwards and all around, and most importantly, into the vertical keyhole for the doors, set in the floor before them. The doors moved open with a mighty groan, slowly and ponderously, as Shahrattl’s life came pumping out his throat and Vettreg’s faded slightly more slowly.
“Some travelers, merchants from Tahr who were heading to the nearby town of Uthrril heard the sound and headed off-road to see what was causing it, and found the two of them splayed across the door, that terrible door opened by the Red Key, Shahrattl already dead and Vettreg very close to, and he relayed their tale. Among those merchants were my great-to-the-twenty-second uncle Rresk’s cousin, Turrtkee, and he heard the tale as it came from Vettreg’s lips, and they saw, they all saw, the gate that had been opened by the Red Key.”
Ahrottl gave a shuddering sigh and managed to squeeze her eyes shut. Alone. In space. So far away from any solid world that she knew that she might as well be in another universe. Her only friends aliens and their strange computer programs. In an abattoir floating in the ether, filled with dead creatures.
Confronted by the Gates of the Red Key, for lying across the outer door of the airlock that had just opened were two of the humanoid figures, so like Vessels or humans, locked in place where they had died. One had blades affixed to the back of its hand by what looked like a molded plastic grip, three ugly, sharp, curved blades like the talons of a beast, stained brown with rusty hemoglobin-bearing fluid. That one’s stomach was open, and a twisted mass of viscera floated, slightly free, from its open abdominal cavity. The other lay sprawled back against the wall, bearing a knife that looked like it had been made for cutting meat and had indeed succeeded in its purpose, its head thrown back on a neck so savagely torn it was hard to tell where it began or ended.
The inside of the lock was rust brown, every surface covered with spray but for a spot or two that just served to highlight the completeness of this vile and violent aspersion. Small lumps of dried circulatory fluid floated in the air of the locks, casually, blood droplets that hung in mid-spray, long since dried.
The silence was deafening, the emptiness so vast, the world she knew so distant, and yet here, in this nothing, she was being confronted by an image from her own ancestor’s past, a hideous tableau that she knew intimately, stories of which had kept her awake as a kit.