"Why do I volunteer for things? Whhhyyyy?!"
"Why're you asking m-" Karate chop to the head. "Ow."
"That was a rhetorical question!" Lucy yelled and continued to cradle her poor 'abused' face. Having returned to the 'Beware of edges' hallway, she had in the spur of the moment volunteered to go first, so as not to have Natsu do everything after he got ambushed twice in a row. As she had expected, there were more disembodied hands lying in wait, but thanks to their limited reach they couldn't get her long as she stayed in the center of the path. Still, just because they couldn't reach her didn't mean them bursting out of the walls without warning didn't scare her, and when she reached the end and hands reached out from both walls at once, she reflexively dodged forward to get away, straight into one last hand that lashed out from the wall right in front of her. While she did manage to turn and dodge to the side, she still earned three more shallow cuts across her left cheek. "Why is everything going after my face?! This place must be jealous of my beauty!"
"You flatter yourself too much." Happy stated, making sure to treat the Princess' hands like the ones on the walls.
"Come on Lucy, no point crying about it. Wendy's the one who can fix you up, so let's keep going and find her already!" Natsu said as he fitted the green key into the door ahead. Grumbling to herself but unable to argue, Lucy followed her friends onwards, exiting the green room into a brown one. The first thing they saw was…
"It's a cat!"
"I'm pretty sure that's a wall, Happy."
"It's both." Lucy summed up what stood before them. The entire back wall was shaped like a cat, complete with two eyes painted on. Where its nose should be though was a fish-shaped indentation. On the two side walls were doors leading elsewhere. "I feel like that indent there's for something…"
Happy raised his hand. "A fish?"
"Or something shaped like one. Maybe we'll find something in the side rooms." The blonde nodded, "Let's not split up, I feel like something bad's gonna be guarding that fish…"
"You're not the only one." Natsu agreed, and the trio headed for the left room first. The hall actually resembled a gallery, with eight rectangular pillars, each having what should be a painting on them, but the paintings were covered up by red curtains. All except for the one closest to the entrance, which had nothing but a stick figure on it.
Curious as to what the stick man was doing that, Lucy approached to inspect it, only to yelp and recoil as scrawled yellow text appeared beneath the figure just as she got close.
"Lucy, you okay?"
"Yeah, just more spooky writing…" She exhaled the shock away and read the words. "'Play hide and seek?'" She read aloud. Immediately, the stick figure vanished. Looking to the side, they found that all the curtains now had a yellow dot under them, like buttons. "…Guess we don't have a choice in the matter."
"Wait, we're actually doing this?" Happy asked.
"I feel like we need to. This whole place is designed like a game, remember? We'll have to play along to find the key and keep going. That stick man's got to be behind one of those curtains, just be careful when you open them."
"Right then! Let's go find that stick guy and make him give us the key!" The Salamander declared with enthusiasm at the prospect of a game and hurried off to start pushing buttons.
"W-Wait, I said be careful!" Lucy rushed after him along with Happy, but it was too late. Natsu picked a random button to press and the curtains opened, revealing-
Behind the curtains was no stick figure. Rather it was a detailed painting of a woman.
After a moment of gawking from the trio, the painted woman shrieked and reached right out of the canvas, slapping Natsu in the face before pulling the curtains back together.
The three took a moment to process what happened. Lucy rushed over to stop the young man from pushing the button again as soon as he saw that grin show up on his face. "Natsu, no!" She yanked him back from the curtains and sighed. "Let's try a different one… I'll press it this time."
With that said, Lucy walked over to the pillar on the left and carefully pressed the yellow dot, ready to dodge if something tries to reach out at her again. The curtains opened, and nothing tried to attack. The painting itself was disturbing enough.
Upon the canvas was Lucy herself, unconscious, bound in thorn-covered vines and bleeding from numerous lacerations. A knife was stabbed into her heart.
"W-What…" The depicted woman backed away from the painting, but her eyes refused to be peeled away from it. "That's… me? How?!"
"Beats me." Natsu shrugged and took a closer look at the unsettling painting. "…Yep, all the details are accurate, clothes, hairstyle, proportions, even that cut and the scratches on your face from earlier. Either Gartana could see the future or this was made really recently."
"…Let's just try a different one." Lucy shivered and finally managed to look away. The painting must've been enchanted to generate an ill omen of whoever pushed the button, just more magical mischief meant to spook her, nothing more, no sir…
"I'll go next!" The feline volunteered, and flew over to the pillar on the right of the naked woman this time, pushing the button. The curtains parted, revealing a picture of a crescent moon. A second later, the lights in the room dimmed and took on a blue tint. "Ooh, cool!"
Seeing nothing bad nor scary happened, Lucy allowed herself to relax a little. "That wasn't so bad. Maybe I was worried over nothing… That's three down, four more curtains to go."
"This is taking too long, let's all pick one and press at the same time!" An impatient Natsu suggested and immediately hurried over to the other row of pillars along with his feline friend.
"That doesn't sound like a good idea…" The girl hesitated, but chose a button anyway. This game of hide and seek hasn't been too malicious so far- Well that painting showing her stabbed to death was pretty mean, but it hasn't been outright dangerous. It's not like one of those paintings would explode on them, right? …Right?
"Alright, on three!" Natsu declared once everyone was in position, "One, two, three!"
"AHH!" "AHHHH GET IT OFF GET IT OFF GET IT OFF!"
Both Natsu and Happy yelled out; only Lucy didn't respond until a second later.
"…Is it just me or did everything get quieter? Guys?" The oblivious princess blinked and looked away from the painting of a musical note with a black bar and the word 'OUT' on it, turning to check on her friends. "GUYS?!"
Both Lucy and Natsu rushed to the flailing Happy together to pry the red hand off of his face. Thankfully its grip wasn't too strong and the palm soon released its captive, retracting into the canvas and leaving the cat with a big red handprint on his face.
"Happy, are you okay?" Lucy asked, and the scared feline nodded. He also said something to her, but despite seeing his lips moving, she couldn't hear what he said. It was at that moment she realized she couldn't hear anything at all besides her own voice. "Oh no, I think something's wrong with my hearing, I can't hear what you're saying! Wait, Natsu, what about you? I saw that knife swinging at you!"
"Yeah I'm fine, like that'd hit me." The Salamander smirked, and upon realizing his friend's currently deaf and probably doesn't know how to lip-read, pointed at his own unscathed torso and gave her a thumbs up.
"That's good to know." The girl smiled back, and turned towards the final set of unopened curtains. "One left. I swear, if that guy's not there…" She grumbled as she walked up to the last button and pressed it. The curtains swung open, finally revealing the stick man behind them. "There you are! 'Found me, you get prize'. I knew it!" Lucy cheered after reading the text that popped up, then looked around for their 'prize'. "…Where's the prize? Natsu?" She asked, but her friend had walked off to the back of the room where a blue object now lay on the floor. It turned out to be a wooden statuette of a fish head, apparently fallen out of the large painting on the wall, depicting a cutting board and a chef's knife.
"Is this what we're looking for?"
"That should be half the key we need!" Lucy remarked, still mostly deaf, "Only half, I guess the other half's in the other room. Here, gimme it and let's keep going." She extended a hand to receive the fish head and moved to place it in her duffel bag, only to make a worrying discovery. "What the… Hey, Happy, could you check your rose and Natsu's?"
"Aye?" The flying cat set down his backpack and checked inside. Much like Lucy, his eyes widened. "Huh?! Natsu, look!"
The pink-haired boy walked over to see what's wrong. "Some petals fell off mine. …That's bad, right?"
Lucy checked as well, unable to hear her friends' reports. Happy's light blue rose was fine, but two petals had come loose from Natsu's pink one. "Two? But Happy's didn't lose any, and mine lost one. So they're not just withering with time? Then why…" The brains of the team furrowed her brow as she tried to understand the cause. "Pulling petals hurts us, but we didn't get new wounds when they fell off on their own. Unless… It works the other way around too?" The answer came to her, and her eyes gradually widened. "I got scratched by those claws, you were punched by the statue and slapped just now. This adds up, if our own bodies get hit our roses get damaged too! That's sneaky!"
"And if all the petals fall off, we die?"
"Yeah. Also she still can't hear you, Natsu."
"Dammit. Happy, pack up, we're getting outta here!"
"Natsu? What are you- Hey!" Lucy yelped as she was dragged back to the cat room, though she blinked when she found her hearing returning upon passing through the doorway. "Oh, I can hear again!"
"That's great. So, summary, if we get hit by traps we lose petals, if we lose all petals we die, right?"
"Pretty much." She nodded, "Considering even that slap counted, your inhuman endurance won't be enough if you keep getting hit, so be more careful, okay?"
"Yeah yeah." Natsu crossed his arms, not really feeling the severity. "Anyway, we've still got half a fish to find, right?"
"Right. Let's go check that other room."
Wendy and Carla held their breaths as the 'Mistake' turned to face them, lumbering forward. The former was hesitant on what to do, but the latter expected the living painting to be hostile like the others, she just needed to spur her stronger friend into action. Just before she could tell Wendy to attack though, the bloated humanoid turned a corner and wandered off. What? Was it not interested in them? Or…
The cat furrowed her brow and motioned for the girl to follow, hurrying for the door. As soon as Wendy sprinted past though, the being spun around and started racing after her, until she bolted out the door and slammed it shut. Something slammed against the door on the other side, then started pounding against it, but fortunately for the two the gallery's architecture was sturdy enough.
"Not feeling so sorry for it now, huh?" Carla remarked; her friend said nothing, simply backing away from the shaking door. "I think that thing was blind, that's why it didn't attack until it heard footsteps. Hopefully we won't have to deal with it at all anymore, but just in case, keep that in mind. Now let's keep looking for a way out, I'm getting really sick of this place."
Wendy nodded, then hesitated. "But… where do we look now?"
"There's still that dark room over there, we'll need a light source though."
"Maybe there's one back in that room? There were a lot of boxes lying around."
"…I'd rather look elsewhere first."
Coming to an agreement on that, the Sky Sorceress and Exceed began to retrace their steps, going back upstairs. As luck would have it, they made the right choice.
"Ah?" Wendy blinked as the fiery butterfly left its perch on her head and flew ahead, straight into a painting of an unlit candle upstairs. The insect set itself atop the wick, becoming the 'flame' from which glowed a soothing light. "Whoah… Hey, I think that's our light source!"
"Good, that means we didn't go through those needles for nothing." The sourpuss remarked while the Sky Sorceress carefully removed the painting from the wall, "Let's go back to that dark room and see what we can find."
With a nod, Wendy led the way this time back to the other door and carefully opened it, peeking inside. It was still as pitch dark as before, until she entered the room with the painting; the glow managed to permeate the darkness, but only for a short distance. 'This is the perfect kind of place to prepare an ambush…' Carla thought to herself, but didn't voice it for fear of jinxing it. "Move slowly and keep your ears out." She advised instead, and after a nod from her friend, the two entered the room fully.
Even with the candle, it was only just enough for them to not bump into stuff, and there was a lot of stuff lying around, namely heavy cardboard boxes piled on top of each other. Most were sealed shut, though a few open ones revealed sets of drawing utensils. Despite the enchanted darkness and the pseudo-maze, it wasn't long before the two made their first discovery.
"…Nine?" Wendy whispered, looking at the propped up canvas with nothing but a purple number on it. "Is this important?"
"Maybe it's part of a code? We'll see if there's more." Carla responded, and the two continued their journey through the darkness. Sure enough, they soon found another canvas in a corner with a green '1', then a blue '2' further on. The third had been propped up against the back wall, and it wasn't the only thing in the vicinity. 'A Prelude to Wine', read the plate, and holding up the 'candle' revealed a painting of grapes. The Exceed flew up to inspect it for clues, and finding nothing, they resumed their search, working their way around the barricade of boxes to find another nameplate: 'Alarm for the Clock'. The light was held up once more, shining on, not another picture, but a switch instead. "For the clock… The giant one outside?" Carla surmised, and hoping she won't regret her decision, pulled the switch. There was a ding, but nothing more.
After waiting for a moment to make sure nothing else happened, they resumed their search, quickly locating a yellow '3'. Things were going well thus far, the Exceed thought to herself. No traps, no strange noises, no killer paintings, it's almost too good to be true. Then the light shone on a third nameplate.
'Malice's True Form'.
Wendy looked back at Carla, Carla shook her head slowly, and the two carefully backed away from the wall. They didn't need to risk waking it up, if it wasn't already stalking them in the shadows already. Hastening their steps, the duo hurried to the last corner of the room, locating a red '7'-
The Sky Sorceress didn't need to be told twice after hearing that bizarre howl and that glass-breaking sound from somewhere in the darkness. Within seconds, they were out in the lit hallway again, slamming the door shut behind them. "Phew… I was starting to think I got lost…" Wendy took some deep breaths to settle her pounding heart, thanking her lucky stars she found the door quickly. Carla meanwhile looked towards the giant clock. The clock's missing face has returned, along with its two hands, which were curled up for some reason. The nameplate had also magically been filled in now, 'Truant Seconds Hand', and a panel had appeared beneath for inserting numbers.
"5 digits, exactly what we found in there. The problem is the sequence…" The Exceed remarked as she took a closer look.
"How about 91237?"
"That's just the order we found them in, it might be wrong, and I don't want to risk putting in the wrong code." Carla shook her head, "Did we miss something somewhere? Maybe it was the colors? But that still doesn't explain the order… The clue better not be on Malice's True Form…"
The two thought for a minute, to no avail. "Mmm…" Wendy furrowed her brow, but her think pan came up with nothing. "Maybe we should go back to the tea room? I'm getting tired…"
"Might as well." Carla nodded and floated after her friend as they returned to the little side room. All these scares aren't doing their hearts any good, the smell of tea might help them relax at least. Once they've returned there, the two quickly sat themselves down against a wall and sighed, just shutting their eyes and resting for a moment. Huh, the smell of hot tea was actually helping a lot, the Exceed thought as she opened her eyes, looking towards the wall of paintings.
…Wait. The frames… Red, blue, yellow, purple, and the anthill they removed…
"Huh?!" The Sky Sorceress flinched, looking at her oddly excited companion.
"The code sequence! It's tied to the colors of the picture frames here! The code is 72391!"
Carla's joy quickly spread to Wendy, and the two raced back to the clock, bringing the candle painting along. With nervous anticipation, the mage typed in the sequence. Soon after, the sound of clockwork came from within the massive construct, and the pendulums began to swing. In a bizarre motion, the clock's hour and minute hands unfurled, pointing towards the moon pattern, which prompted the lights to dim and take on a bluish shade, imitating nighttime. As if sensing its purpose was fulfilled, the fiery butterfly fluttered back out from the candle painting, flying about freely.
"Yay! We did it!" Wendy cheered, watching her butterfly friend enjoy its freedom with a smile, though the Exceed didn't quite share her enthusiasm.
"Now the question is, what did we do?" Carla pondered, soon coming to a hunch. After catching her friend's attention, the two returned upstairs once more to find her theory correct. "The flowers sleep at night. Now that they're down, we should be able to get past them safely." She said as she examined the now inanimate stone flowers, slumped over as if asleep. Just in case though, she snuck past the killer statues herself (and did so safely) before testing the door on the other end.
"It's locked." The Exceed growled, returning to Wendy. Even after that, they're STILL not done with this area! "Looks like we'll have to find a key. Maybe something else's changed too, there's nothing left for us to do but look around again."
Wendy nervously nodded, and the two re-commenced their search. It only took a few seconds before the Sky Sorceress found their first clue. "Oh, it's Mr. Ant again!" She pointed at the small white dot of an insect that had returned to wandering around where they first found it. Compared to before, it was almost luminescent in the dimmed light, making it easier to spot. Before Carla could say anything, the girl had already stepped over and crouched down to talk with it again. "Hello again, Mr. Ant! Is something wrong?"
"I'm hungry. I want something to eat. Something sweet would be great." The chittery voice responded.
Carla was about to tell her friend to leave the bug alone, considering how helpful it was the last time they helped it, but thinking about it, the ant is the only lead they have right now. If this place works like she thinks it does, and it really is all a series of puzzles, then maybe she shouldn't be so quick to dismiss something as purposeless. Instead, she landed beside Wendy and looked at the little bug. "Hey. If we find you something to eat, can you help us? We're looking for a key." She requested.
The ant actually turned to regard her. "Yes, I know where key is. Trade sweets for key." It answered. Carla nodded.
"That settles it. I don't know where we're supposed to find sweets in this place, but I'm almost certain we can find some. Come on, Wendy, let's-"
The sound of a door opening and closing echoed through the otherwise quiet gallery.
Rigid and without speaking a word, Carla turned towards the nervous Wendy and put a finger over her lips. Wendy nodded, and the two began their search for candy, keeping silent as mice.
"…I don't like this place. I don't like this place at all." Lucy grumbled, sweeping a suspicious glare across the room filled with 'Death of the Individual' mannequins and identical large statues of heads. It was what they found in the room opposite of the hide-and-seek room, and where they're presumably supposed to look for the other half of the key.
Not feeling particularly enthusiastic about the sight neither after their prior experience with the mannequins, Natsu crossed his arms. "Me neither. So what are we supposed to do here?" He asked. Aside from the statues, there was no obvious puzzle or game in sight, other than boxes randomly littered about.
And then most of the already dim lights flickered and failed, leaving the room's contents barely visible.
"…Yeah I REALLY don't like this place." Lucy grumbled again, "I guess all we can do is search for the key the old-fashioned way. Keep an eye and ear on these statues too, there's no way at least one of them isn't coming alive to kill us."
Giving their affirmatives, the three proceeded deeper into the room, sticking relatively close together as they walked past two rows of creepy statues unmolested, though Lucy almost tripped over a large indentation in the ground (which she inspected but found nothing suspect about it), and finally spread out a little to start searching the boxes on the other end. Giving a backwards glance at the statues that continued to remain statues for the current moment, Lucy carefully opened one of the cardboard boxes to look inside and find nothing but stacks of brushes, palettes, and other tools of artistry. She almost wished they were faced with another deadly puzzle instead of this menial searching, at least a puzzle was kind of interesting…
"Happy, Lucy, you heard that?"
Natsu's sudden comment caused Lucy to flinch and immediately turn around, scanning the room again for signs of any works of art turning homicidal. She found nothing. "I didn't, and I don't see anything off." She responded.
Happy, who flew up into the air to provide recon, shook his head as well. "I might've heard something, but I definitely don't see anything."
Seeing nothing strange himself, Natsu made a noncommittal hum and returned to his search, as did the others. Maybe it was just from Lucy and Happy searching through their own boxes, but still, his senses were rarely wrong.
Then he heard it again, this time clear as day, the sound of something grating together. The others heard it as well this time, and all of them spun around to find one of the giant stone heads had begun to move, its expression changed to a menacing leer as it slid quickly across the floor straight towards Lucy. The girl screamed and barely had time to throw herself out of the way before the giant bust tripped over the dent in the floor and toppled over, the momentum of its movement sending the entire thing crashing into where Lucy was but a second ago.
"Lucy, you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine! It's gonna take more than that to get me!" Lucy said despite her hammering heart. Having narrowly avoided getting crushed, the Princess let Natsu help her back on her feet, quickly scanned the room for anymore kamikaze statues, and finally examined the wreckage. It turned out the heads were hollow, and this one had shattered upon impact; among the fragments lay the wooden statuette of a fish tail.
Gingerly, Lucy retrieved her prize for survival.
"That's the other half of the key, now let's get out of here!"
"Sounds good to me!" "Aye!"
Without wasting a second, the trio hurried back out the way they came, returning to the better lit room in the middle and closing the door behind them. Breathing a sigh of relief, Lucy pieced the fish-shaped key together and cautiously set it into the indentation on the cat-shaped wall.
Immediately the room shook, and the eyes of the cat-wall turned red with a distorted meow. The three quickly backpedaled away while the middle of the wall sunk into the ground, accompanied by a chain of additional meows, finally revealing a path forward.
"I didn't think I'd ever find a cat so creepy…" Happy remarked nervously, a little shaken by the loud distorted meows.
"Yeah, that was… weird." Lucy nodded as well, not expecting that to happen. "Oh well, at least we're making progress! At this rate, we might even make it out of here alive!" She chuckled, though her mirth quickly died down again. "Heheh, yeah… I hope Wendy and Carla are doing alright, wherever they are right now."
"Wendy's a Dragon Slayer, it'll take more than a spooky gallery to kill her!" Natsu assured her with a confident grin and a thumbs up, and the girl couldn't help but find herself feeling better as well.
"Yeah, you're right. Alright, onward!"
As the ant returned from its burrow with an orange key, Carla had to admit that for all her naïve blunders so far, Wendy's intuition for how the gallery works could be pretty on point. It was by searching the whole floor again thoroughly that they had found the painting of a starry night sky near where they found the butterfly, a painting Carla was sure hadn't been there before, but she never would have considered that the painting was relevant to their quest just by the fact the stars had the same white luminescence as the ant, then proceeded to shake said painting until one of the stars fell out, and then taken it to the ant which accepted it as a sweet. Perhaps there was just something about the logic of this place that resonated with a young and innocent mind.
Either way, she wasn't about to question it too much. The Exceed accepted the key and, after Wendy thanked 'Mr. Ant' and whispered her goodbyes (being careful to not attract the attention of the Mistake, which was still wandering the halls downstairs), the two returned to the door past the killer stone flowers and successfully unlocked it.
On the other side was a small room, a big painting in the middle with two stairways upwards on either side. The painting depicted a beautiful blue-haired lady dancing in a ballroom, surrounded by watching guests. The lady almost resembled Wendy… or rather, the older, more mature Wendy from Edolas. As the two observed it, the painting suddenly began to animate, the woman finishing her dance with a twirl and a flourish, and the guests began applauding.
They could hear something stomping its way up from downstairs. Immediately, the two crossed over entirely and shut the door, a click signifying that it had locked itself. The Mistake won't be opening this one any time soon.
"Even the celebration's a trap…" Carla muttered, glaring at the painting that had gone back to being inanimate.
Wendy patted her friend on the head, calming her down. "Don't be like that, maybe the gallery's just trying to be nice?" She suggested with a little smile, innocent as always. "At least we're out of there now! I'm sure we don't have much further to go."
"I sure hope so." The Exceed sighed. The area they just went through was pretty big, and whoever made this place did put a congratulatory surprise at the end of it. She wasn't normally one to get her hopes up, but she wanted to believe that the worst was behind them, and at the very least, maybe they'll reunite with the others soon.
After catching a breather, the two made their way up the stairs, then down a different flight. The orange floor and walls turned to dark turquoise, until they ended up in another short hallway, with only a purple sculpture of a misshapen woman contorted in a circle (which both agreed wordlessly to stay away from), and a message scribbled on a wall in fresh, runny paint.
'Drown in the abyss…'
Wendy shivered, and Carla decided not to dignify that ominous message with a remark. Somehow she's starting to believe the worst is not, in fact, behind them.
Then they turned a corner and opened the next door.
They stared at the massive sculpture in the center of the grand hall, depicting a beautiful princess embracing a skeletal king, both emerging from a tilted canvas on the ground; the clothing was made from real fabric, the princess looked perfectly life-like, and the skeleton, somehow, seemed made of real bone. Even Carla had to admit she was genuinely impressed by the artistry, even as she prayed the skeletal king won't start swinging around that big golden sword of his.
To the pair's right was another astonishing sculpture, this time of a large tilted glass cup filled with a starry blue liquid that spilled upwards, forming a puddle of moonlit night sky before dripping back down to the floor. Despite the fact it should be a sculpture, the fluids looked liquid and merely frozen in time.
To the pair's left was… what looked like a giant lump of smooth clay. Huh.
And behind the princess and skeletal king, was a huge blank canvas that covered the entire back wall.
Then Carla saw all the doors leading out from the grand chamber.
"…It's so… Huh? Carla, are you okay? You're starting to twitch…"
"…I hate this place. SO. MUCH."
WELP. Nearly two years without updating this fic. I didn't want to leave it unfinished, but since I've started having trouble keeping even my main fic updated on time, seeing how little viewership this little side project had I had little choice but to set it aside. I just remembered I still had half of this chapter written here for like over a year though, and decided to just finish and post it. When's the next chapter coming out after this? I don't know. I can't really promise there will even be another chapter. But I will try, that much I will say.
Thanks for the few follows and favorites that guilt-tripped me into finishing the chapter. Please comment if you're still interested, it's a great motivator for me. Until next time, hopefully.