There was little Emily liked better after a long and exhausting week than a luxurious scented bubble bath and a good book. The hot water seemed to soak all of her worldly stresses away, as she escaped into the work of her favorite romance author. Sure, it wasn’t high literature, but sometimes a girl needs to disappear into the life of an 18th-century heiress aboard a ship being attacked by pirates.
Just as the heroine was exchanging her first words with the roguishly handsome pirate captain, Emily was plunged into darkness. A jolt of fear shot up her spine and she sat upright in the bathtub. What was going on? All was dark and silent, save for the splashes made by her limbs and the occasional pop of a bubble.
The electricity had tripped, that was all. It wasn’t the first time. Emily’s building wasn’t the newest or best maintained in this part of the city, though the landlord was forever promising to fix the wiring. Still, it was strange for the power to trip now of all times, when Emily wasn’t using any appliances and her roommate was out of town.
If she’d gone with her original plan of lighting some candles around her bath and reading in the flickering half-light, Emily may not even have noticed. Unfortunately, she was out of candles and had been unable to bear the thought of leaving the house again to buy more. Because of that, she would now have to interrupt her bubble bath and go fiddle with the switchboard if she ever wanted to learn the details of the heiress’s first meeting with the pirate captain.
Sighing deeply, Emily deposited her book on the shelf behind the bathtub and lifted her body from the water. Bubbles clung to her skin as she stepped out of the bath and onto the rough-hewn stone floor.
Rough-hewn stone? That wasn’t right. Where was her fluffy bathroom mat? Where were the tiles? In the pitch darkness of the power outage, she could see nothing, but the sensation of cool and uneven stone beneath her soles was unmistakable.
Panic set in. “This is impossible,” she whispered to herself, hoping to hear the comforting sound of her own voice. But the way it echoed in that vast place frightened her even more. Although she could see nothing of her surroundings, the absolute silence around her and a strange new chill in the air told her that this wasn’t her bathroom anymore.
Emily stepped forward, groping blindly and in vain for the towel rail, or the basin, or any other familiar feature of her bathroom, but her hands grasped only empty air. She stumbled forward, eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness.
After she had traversed many times the length of her bathroom, her outstretched hands made contact with a rough stone wall, of similar texture to the floor. She let her hands travel across it, taking in every crack and bump, feeling the coldness of it.
Once her eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, she turned away from the wall to survey this strange place. The room was vast, with walls, floor and ceiling made of the same rough gray stone. The great height of the ceiling made her feel even smaller than her slightly below average stature.
In the center of the room, where she had walked from, sat a stone slab about the same size and shape as her bathtub, hollow and filled with water. Aside from these details, it looked nothing like her bathtub. There was no sign of the great white mounds of bubble bath she had used half a bottle to make, or of the book she’d laid down mere moments ago. She was going to have to wait to find out what the pirate captain said to the heiress.
Emily’s chestnut-brown hair clung to her skin, down to her mid-back. A few loose tendrils fell about her heart-shaped face, sticking to her lightly freckled cheeks and nose. There was a slight chill in the air, and she looked down at herself, hazel eyes wide.
Her pale skin seemed almost to glow in the darkness, spotted by droplets of water and a few slowly shrinking clumps of rose-scented bubble bath. Trickles of water slid down the small of her back and onto the curve of her bottom. They slid from the nape of her neck, through the valley between her breasts, down to the short, matted hair between her legs. The sensations were too strong for this to be a dream.
She was no longer in her bathroom, her apartment, or anywhere she’d ever been before, and the only thing she had on her entire body was a black elastic hair tie that was a permanent fixture on her wrist while her hair was down.
The only exit to the room was a simple archway a few feet away from her, which disappeared into a dark hallway. Gathering up her courage, Emily walked towards the archway, her fingers trailing against the stone wall. As she peered down the hallway beyond, she could make out a faint source of light in the distance.
It was a torch, flickering and casting dim, dancing shadows on the stone walls. Emily hesitated for a moment, wondering if she should remain in the room and wait for someone—or something—to find her. Better to be proactive, she decided. If nothing else, it would be better to stand in the light and heat than this dark and cold. Clutching her wrist and nervously toying with the elastic hair tie, she took a deep breath and approached the light.
The corridor was long and winding, but the torchlight grew brighter with each step. Emily’s footsteps echoed in the silence, every sound magnified in the stillness of the place. As her surroundings brightened, she began to notice details too: abstract carvings on the walls and a procession of torches along each side of the hallway. She could also hear faint whispers, what sounded like murmured conversation.
As she continued forward, Emily could now discern the source of the whispering. It came from a larger chamber up ahead, bathed in a soft glow. Her heartbeat quickened as she approached it, and the whispers grew louder and more distinct. There were definitely people up ahead!
The thought made her footsteps slow as she considered the potential danger ahead. She was in a unfamiliar place, like nowhere she’d ever been before. Would these people be friendly? Would she be able to understand them? Their voices were still too soft and intermittent for her to make out what language they spoke. What would they make of her sudden and unexpected appearance?
Even if they were friendly, she was about to encounter them without a stitch of clothing, still dripping wet from her bath. Her cheeks burned, and she wished for something, anything, to cover herself. But the stone hallway was bare of all but the torches set into the walls.
Having no better option, Emily wrapped her arms around herself to preserve what scraps of modesty she could. She would just have to deal with her embarrassment and enter the chamber like this. If the castle’s inhabitants were decent people, they would give her something to wear. And if they weren’t… Emily shuddered, forcing the thought of being thrown naked into a dungeon from her mind.
After much trepidation, Emily stepped into the chamber at the end of the hallway. It was a grand room, better lit than the dim hallway, by an enormous chandelier of glowing crystals that hung from the center of its domed ceiling.
But what truly caught Emily’s attention were the statues. The chamber was lined on either side by rows of statues, each carved from different types of stone and metals. They depicted humanoid figures, ranging from ordinary men and women to figures with animal heads, to hulking beasts that stood on two legs. She recognized some as fauns, satyrs and gargoyles, while others were entirely alien. While most stood at attention, there were a few seated figures, as well as some captured in dancing poses. Curiously, many of the statues were turned to face each other, as if in conversation.
The whispering Emily had heard in the hallway, previously so constant, had ceased. Had this chamber really been its source? There was no one here but the statues, their immobile stone faces peering down at Emily with dead eyes. She shivered and drew her arms tighter over her body.
Maybe the whispering people had left the room just as she’d entered. Could they be afraid of her? What a thought! They had nothing to fear from a poor, lost, naked girl. Emily strained her ears to hear if the whispers had started up again somewhere else, but heard nothing. All was still and silent in the chamber.
Emily allowed her arms to relax at her sides, as no one was around to see her. Had she imagined the whispers? No, they had been far too distinct and continuous, and they’d only stopped the instant she entered the chamber.
“Hello?” she called out tentatively, her voice cracking slightly and echoing across the chamber. “I-is anybody out there?”
“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen someone new,” said a soft and lilting voice from behind Emily’s back. Startled, she spun around, eyes searching for the source of the voice, arms firmly rewrapping around her naked body.
But no one had snuck up on her—the chamber was just as empty as before. “W-who’s there?” Emily asked.
“Only us statues,” the voice continued. It was coming from a point to Emily’s left.
Emily’s widening eyes settled on a tall statue of a woman carved from white marble. She had strong features and an intricate hairdo and was dressed in a flowing toga. But what caught Emily’s eyes was the statue’s lips, which moved with the soft voice. Their movement was jerky, like a low-frame animation, but that they moved was unmistakable. Moreover, the statue’s eyes moved to meet Emily’s.
“You’re alive?!” Emily stammered.
The statue chuckled, making a sound like the tinkling of wind chimes, her shoulders moving mechanically up and down. “Not quite as you are, but in our own way. Long ago, we were as you are. But ancient magic trapped us in stone and forever bound us to Castle Elid.”
There was a terrible sorrow in the statue’s voice, a deep and long-held sense of loss that Emily couldn’t help but feel affected by. She fidgeted uncomfortably with the hair tie on her wrist as she asked, “Why were you trapped? And by whom?”
A deeper voice began to speak, resonating from the bronze belly of a statue of a bearded man on the other side of the hall. This statue had a stout form, with muscular arms, giant shoulders, and a slightly bloated gut. While his upper body was bare, he wore a weathered pair of trousers and large, sturdy work boots. “Stories differ,” he said. “Some of us were employed in this castle, others members of its royal families. Others still, merely passing through, the unlucky sods. But every last one displeased a castle mage, and this were the punishment.”
“Castle mages?!” Emily repeated, glancing nervously at the entrance to the chamber as if one was just about to enter and turn her to stone.
“Don’t worry, friend,” said the marble lady. “They are all long dead. Yours is the only flesh to enter this castle in centuries.”
“And what flesh it is!” roared the bronze man, reminding Emily that she had left her bottom uncovered and directly in his line of sight. She squirmed and twisted her arms ineffectually, trying to hide everything at once. The twinkle in the statue’s eyes and the grin beneath his bronze beard caused her to blush a deep crimson and wish she could melt into the floor.
“Don’t be crass, Bromberht, you’re making our guest uncomfortable,” said the marble lady curtly. Then, turning to Emily, she said, “Please excuse him. What is your name, dear?”
“What a beautiful name! I am called Aria.” The statue drew herself up into a regal pose. It seemed to Emily that her name and appearance seemed quite commonplace and dumpy in comparison to this refined lady.
“Ya can call me Brom fer short, Miss Emily,” said the bronze man, his voice small and contrite. “I’m sorry fer my outburst, but please take it as a compliment.”
Emily’s blush deepened. These people—statues—were being very nice, but there was little that words could do to ease the discomfort of her current situation. Although none of the other statues had yet spoken, she could see them moving out of the corners of her vision, and she knew that all eyes were on her pale, damp little body.
“Th-thank you,” Emily finally sputtered out. “Please, do you have anything for me to wear?”
Aria looked down and shook her head. While the gesture was intended as one of sorrow, the stiff and mechanical nature of her movements made it appear somewhat ridiculous. “I am sorry, Emily, but the only clothes we statues own are those we wear as part of our bodies. Would that I could give you my gown, but I can no sooner part with it than with my head.”
For just a moment, Emily felt quite jealous of the statues, having their clothing permanently attached to their bodies. “Is there nothing in this whole castle?” she asked. “I’m not fussy, I’ll happily take a tablecloth or bedsheet.”
“Nah, lass, no living man or woman has occupied these halls for nigh on three hundred years!” said Brom. “Any rags what were left behind have long ago provided food for the moths.”
Emily’s shoulders slumped. “Well… okay. Can you help me get home?”
“Where is your home, dear?” asked Aria. “Do you live in one of the neighboring villages?”
Emily shook her head violently. “No, no, I live in a city.”
Aria’s eyes widened in wonder. “Ah, a citizen of Lirethel! You are indeed far from home, Emily.”
Emily quirked an eyebrow. “Lirithel? No, I live in Greenville.”
“Never ‘eard of it,” boomed Brom. “Though it has been many a year since I last saw the green plains of Thessolan.”
It might have been Emily’s imagination, but she could almost swear she saw a tear form under Brom’s left eye. “What’s Thessolan?”
Both statues threw their heads back at this question, their bodies making loud creaking and grinding sounds as they jerked with laughter. But the laughter quickly died when they noted the continued bewilderment in Emily’s eyes.
“You do not know of Thessolan?” asked Aria. “Perhaps there is a different name for it now. In our time, Thessolan was the name for the known world, all the land across the seven kingdoms, from the endless sea in the west to the great desert in the east.”
At the statue’s words, spoken in a matter-of-fact tone despite their fantastical content, Emily finally admitted to herself how truly far she had come from the bathtub in her Greenville apartment. Perhaps the talking statues should have been her first clue. “I think… my home is in another world.”
“Another world?” asked Aria, intrigued at once. “I have heard of such places, but seldom of visitors from them. Pray tell how you made the journey.”
Emily shrugged. “Well, I was in the bath, reading a book, and suddenly everything went dark. At first I thought the electricity had gone off—my landlord keeps promising to fix it but never does—but when I got out of the tub to go check, I found myself in this castle.”
“Well, that certainly explains your lack of attire,” Aria replied. “But I have not heard of this ‘electricity’ you speak of. Is it a form of magic your people use to travel between worlds?”
“No it’s… well, it’s not important, really, but it’s not that. I had no intention of coming here, it just happened. Believe me, if I’d wanted to go to another world, I would have put some clothes on first.”
“Very curious. I sense the workings of great and powerful magic. You were brought to our world for a reason, Emily.”
Emily pouted. “It would have been nice to have some advance warning.”
“Aye, I felt the same when that mage turned me te bronze,” Brom interjected. “Would have worn me good trousers if I’d known.”
“At least you’re wearing trousers!” Emily cried, pushing her legs together.
“We are all victims of magic, in our own ways,” Aria continued. “But I do not think the magic that brought you here was born of malice, Emily. Your aura is not poisoned by it, as ours are. No, I believe you were brought here for a good and noble reason—to free us from our bondage!”
Emily staggered back at Aria’s words, her back brushing up against Brom’s bronze arms. “Whoa whoa whoa, what?”
Aria smiled. “Forgive me for placing such a burden on you, our guest. But there is something you can do that we cannot, a simple task that will break the curse upon us and restore us to life.”
A third statue, who had been standing frozen at Aria’s side, now came to life. It was a jester, carved of the same gray stone as the castle itself. The jester was short and hunchbacked, his nose rising barely above Aria’s waist. One eye was comically larger than the other, and he spoke in a shrill voice, “Lady Aria speaks of the Labyrinthine Pool! Deep in the heart of Elid Castle, there is a maze of submerged chambers, twisting and turning, with hidden currents and secret alcoves. Some say that its paths shift, ever-changing from day to day. Others speak of strange chambers, which present obstacles and challenges to those who would traverse them.”
Emily shivered at the jester’s description, her mind filling with thoughts of sea monsters and drowning in the dark.
The jester cackled at her. “At the center of the Labyrinth lies a talisman—the Stoneshell, a silver necklace imbued with the power to break the curse on the Statues of Elid Castle and free them from their bondage to the castle. A cruel trick, for we cannot navigate the pool! Many have tried, merely to sink like the stones they are!”
Aria’s face snapped into a grimace. “Thank you, Jivaro, that was… illuminating.” Then she turned to Emily. “The Labyrinthine Pool is a place of great terror for us statues, as, being made of stone and metal, we cannot swim or float. But for a being of flesh, it is not so bad. The water is warm, and there are many places to catch one’s breath. That is part of the cruelty of our curse, you see, that any one of us might retrieve the necklace were we not made of stone.”
Aria’s sad expression made Emily hesitate about what to say next. Jivaro’s description of the pool had been horrifying, and she’d made up her mind that whatever her most sensible course of action was, it couldn’t possibly involve drowning in an underwater maze. While Aria had made it sound slightly better, it was very much in her interest to do so. Was Emily really the first person to enter the castle in three hundred years? Or had these statues asked others to enter the pool for them before, only to drown?
Brom spoke again. “Our fate is in yer hands, Miss Emily. Only you can retrieve the talisman. Milady Aria speaks truth, but do not think that retrieving the Stoneshell will be an easy task. The Labyrinthine Pool is filled with challenges and tests, riddles and mysteries. Sorry, milady, but we must be upfront with her.”
“You are right, Brom, of course,” Lady Aria said, her tone carefully neutral. “Dearest Emily, we cannot force you to take this risk. But it would be remiss not to mention the direness of any alternative. This castle is inescapable, sealed to keep the objects of the mages’ wrath forever trapped. Should you refuse to enter the Pool, as is your right, we will be unable to offer you any alternative course.”
Emily gasped as the full implications of Aria’s words dawned on her. “So I’m trapped? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yes,” replied Aria. “We can offer you company, but this castle is a dead and empty place. There is nothing here to sustain life.”
Emily shivered. She’d eaten shortly before her bath, so she wasn’t feeling hungry just then, but that would change. Even so, she didn’t appreciate Aria’s calculating tone. It was some nerve, asking a lost, shivering naked girl to embark on a dangerous quest just after meeting her.
“I don’t know, this is a lot,” she said to Aria. “I’m lost and I’m cold and I just want to go home.”
“We understand, Emily,” said Aria, whose arms now jerked into a wide, embracing gesture. “Take as much time as you need to decide.”
Though the gesture looked like an attempt to comfort Emily, it did nothing of the sort. She faced an awful choice: to venture into a watery maze filled with unknown dangers or to remain in this cold, desolate castle with no way out.
There was a harsh, grating noise of metal on metal as Brom cleared his throat. “I understand yer hesitation, Miss Emily. Were I in your shoes, I’d be wary too. Jivaro’s tales of the Labyrinth can be a bit… exaggerated.”
Jivaro the jester hopped forward, nearly toppling off his plinth, but somehow stablizing himself. His stony eyes glared at Brom. “Oi! I speak only the truth, bronze behemoth!”
Brom simply chuckled as the tiny jester shook his fists.
“Regardless of Jivaro’s flair for the dramatic,” Aria said, “the danger is real. The choice is Emily’s alone.”
The weight of countless eyes bearing down on her vulnerable form made Emily’s decision all the more difficult. She thought of her home, her roommate, her mom and dad. How long would it be before they knew she was missing? What would they think? She had to get back to them, but she had no idea how. “I need to think,” she finally whispered.
“Of course,” said Aria, her voice gentle. “Please, wander about the castle, and take all the time you need.”
Emily nodded and turned to shuffle out of the hall of statues, shifting her arms to obscure her butt from stone and metal eyes.
“One more thing!” Aria cried out, just as Emily reached the doorway.
“Yes?” Emily asked, looking over her shoulder.
Aria paused briefly and then said, “If I am restored to flesh, my gown shall be yours!”
“Now we’re talkin’!” shouted Brom.
Emily smiled to herself as she turned back into the hallway. Now that she had spent more time here, and become acquainted with the place’s inhabitants, the strange and foreboding atmosphere of the place seemed to have softened. Castle Elid remained an eerie place, but it now appeared more lonely and sad than frightening.
As her bare feet stepped soundlessly down the corridors of Elid Castle, Emily relaxed and allowed her arms to fall to her sides. She would be ready to cover up at the sound of another voice emanating from an object that appeared inanimate, but for now she was truly alone.
The rooms she came across were largely empty, their furnishings long removed or rotted away. In some rooms, she found old bedframes, ancient tables and chairs, but never a sheet or curtain or blanket to cover her nudity or provide warmth from the castle’s many drafts.
If she used her imagination, she could picture some of the rooms as they might once have been. Some must have been banquet halls, others ballrooms. But little remained as a reminder of those times, beyond the strangely long-lasting torches on the walls.
The most interesting room she stumbled upon was an old library, full of leather-bound books stacked upon wooden shelves. Pulling one book out, she found to her shock that she could read it. The book contained tales of the land of Thessolan, of knights, mages, and fierce dragons. Of princes, princesses, kings and queens. Each page appeared to have been painstakingly hand-written, with beautiful illustrations and elaborate border details.
When she’d first entered the library, the thought of tearing pages out of books to construct a makeshift outfit had crossed her mind, but their beauty and craftmanship were such that the idea now filled her with an even greater shame than her nudity. Emily had always loved books, and in this world, they were clearly rare and difficult to produce. To defile such beautiful objects… it was better to remain naked, as difficult as that was.
The library also contained the first mirror she’d come across in her journey. Through a layer of dust, she looked upon her naked body between the shelves, a leather-bound book open in her hands. A moment of vanity told her this would make for a creative and quite saucy photo opportunity if only she had her phone. She could think of a few guys who would be quite keen on seeing such photos. Laughing to herself, she struck a few tasteful poses. Though not having anything to wear once she was done soured the experience somewhat.
Her hair and body were dry by now, and she took a moment to put her hair up in a bun, getting it out of her eyes. This only made her feel more exposed, so she took it down again, slipping the hair tie back onto her wrist. With her hair back down, she attempted to arrange some of it so that it covered her breasts, Lady Godiva-style. This worked well enough and would stay in place as long as she walked carefully.
She had a choice, but really it was no choice at all. The statues had been correct when they told her that there was no way out of this castle—if she ventured too far down one corridor, she’d just end up back where she started. Magic was probably involved somehow. Unless she wanted to while away her time reading books in this library, there was only one thing to do.
After checking her hair one last time in the mirror, she returned to the hall of statues. All eyes turned to her as she entered the doorway, her right hand plastered over her crotch.
“Alright,” Emily began, looking directly at Aria. “I’ll do it. I’ll enter the Labyrinthine Pool and retrieve the Stoneshell.”
Brom smiled warmly at her. “We knew ya had the heart of a hero, Miss Emily.”
Aria, her face etched with gratitude, said, “Thank you, thank you! At last, we shall all be free!”
Jivaro rubbed his small stone hands together, moving them so fast that bits flaked off. “Excellent! A new challenger approaches the Labyrinthine Pool! Best of luck to you, Lady Emily of Greenville, our beautiful and bare benefactor!”
Blushing, Emily asked, “How do I get to this Labyrinthine Pool?”
Aria gestured towards a doorway that Emily had previously not noticed. “It lies at the very heart of the castle. Bromberht and I shall guide you there.”
A loud crack sounded from the plinth below Aria as she lifted a sandal-clad foot and brought it forward. Dust and fragments of marble sprinkled the ground beneath her as her legs separated, clearly for the first time in many years.
Emily winced at the noise. “Does that hurt?”
“N-no,” Aria replied, grimacing as she staggered forward, almost losing her balance. “It just… takes a bit of effort.” With jerky, uneven steps, she advanced towards where Emily stood, causing the latter to spring back, lest Aria lose her balance and fall. “Forgive me, I have not had any cause to leave my station for over a century.”
Emily could feel the immense weight of Brom’s bronze form moving behind her, from the tremors made by each of his footfalls. Up close, his surface was visibly tarnished, in contrast to Aria’s immaculate complexion. He moved swiftly and with greater ease and confidence than Aria but with the same mechanical rigidity. “Aren’t I always telling ye to move about more, Lady Aria?” he said playfully.
“Yes, yes, you’re quite correct, Brom,” Aria replied dismissively. “I just need a moment to return the feeling to my limbs.”
Emily watched with fascination as Lady Aria’s marble form jerked through a series of stretches, the stone of her limbs grinding against each other and producing a copious amount of dust and debris. She had never seen anything quite like it and had to pinch her thigh, for about the tenth time, to convince herself that she wasn’t dreaming.
“There we are. I feel much better now. Follow us, Emily, the Labyrinthine Pool isn’t too far.” Aria walked over to Brom, moving much more surely now, and the two statues beckoned Emily to follow them to the doorway Aria had indicated.
“All honor and gratitude to Lady Emily, Savior of the Statues!” cried Jivaro’s shrill voice. “I shall compose a song to tell of her bravery, her epic deeds, and the alluring curve of her backside!”
Realising that her hands had fallen at her sides while watching Aria, Emily blushed and scurried towards the moving statues, who led her into a mercifully dim hallway.
“Pay Jivaro no mind, Miss Emily,” said Brom. “He’s harmless, really.”
Emily sighed and turned her gaze to Aria, who had taken the lead. She wondered what the marble gown she’d been promised would look and feel like after she retrieved the pendant and broke the curse. She felt a tinge of guilt about Aria’s offer, which would leave her without anything to wear. But then, it had been an offer freely given, and surely the least of the statues could do in exchange for Emily’s undertaking of such a dangerous quest.
Besides, the gown looked quite loose and flowy. Perhaps, with some careful alterations, it could provide outfits for both of them.
As they walked, Aria pointed out rooms in the castle and explained what they had been for during her time as a royal occupant. She pointed out bedrooms, servant’s quarters and mage’s chambers and told brief, light stories of the people who had lived there. For his part, Brom indicated the stones on the wall that would give way to reveal hidden passages and stories of his time as one of the castle’s defenders. During some of these stories, especially those concerning mages, the statues would trail off and quickly change the subject, clearly unwilling to relive the events that had led to their petrification.
Finally, Emily and her statue guides turned a final corner and came upon a large, cavernous room with a warm dampness in the air. The walls, floor and ceiling of the room were of the same color as the rest of the castle, but here were unbroken natural rock rather than carved stone slabs. It was as though the castle had been built around a natural cavern, which they had now entered.
In the middle of the cavern was a still pool, its waters shimmering by the light of a single torch on an adjacent wall.
“Here it is,” said Brom. “The Labyrinthine Pool.”
Emily glanced down at the water. In the dim light, it was entirely opaque, like a portal to the unknown. “How will I know where to go?” she asked.
“A light will guide you,” said Aria. “That is what the legends say. All who enter the Labyrinthine Pool know where they must go. It is the going, not the finding, that presents the difficulty.”
Emily shivered and felt the chill of cool metal rest gently on her shoulder. It was Brom’s enormous hand. “Ye were sent here for a reason, Miss Emily,” he said, staring resolutely ahead. “You’ve courage and wits enough to best whatever this Pool throws at ye.”
“I don’t feel very brave,” Emily muttered.
“Real heroes seldom do,” said Aria. “But they don’t let that stop them.” She placed her own marble hand on Emily’s other shoulder.
Emily’s gaze fixed on the surface of the pool. Aria had a point, she thought. Despite everything, she had come this far. A less courageous person in her situation would probably still be sitting in the stone bath room, curled into a fetal position, willing herself to wake up. Despite the insanity of her situation, being transported to a strange world with magic and talking statues, and having to navigate it totally naked, she had stepped into the role of a hero. Reluctantly, perhaps, but indisputably.
“Let’s get this over with,” she said. The statues squeezed her shoulders appreciatively. “Ow!”
“Sorry!” said Brom and Aria in unison, immediately withdrawing their hands.
“It’s fine,” Emily replied, rubbing both shoulders as she advanced towards the pool. She dipped an experimental toe in and found that the water was warm, just as Aria had said. It felt just like her bath.
Her mind filled with thoughts of the comforts of home, she slowly lowered her body into the water. The water surrounded her in a comforting embrace. Emily paddled out, noting that the pool quickly became too deep for her feet to touch the surface. It also wasn’t very big, being merely the entrance to a large labyrinth.
“Time to go under, I guess,” she said, turning back to smile at Aria and Brom.
“Good luck, Emily,” Aria said. “We will see you again soon.”
Emily sucked in a deep breath and dove down, plunging into the depths. For a moment, all was in darkness, but soon small spots of light appeared in the corner of her vision. As she watched, a school of luminescent fish swam by, the light of their scales illuminating the vast underwater space she now found herself in. They swam rapidly forward and down, and Emily kicked against the water in pursuit.
Odd rock formations were scattered across the cavern floor, and it took Emily a moment to recognize them as statues. She recalled Jivaro’s description of the Labyrinthine Pool, and of the statues that had unsuccessfully tried to navigate it. A pang of sadness grasped her heart, and she had to avert her eyes.
The fish led her down to a gap between a decaying castle wall and the natural rock of the cavern floor. It was just large enough for her to squeeze through, where she found herself in a narrow tunnel. After a few perilous seconds of swimming through the tunnel, it widened at the top, and Emily caught sight of a surface. Lungs burning, she sprang upward and breached the surface of the water, immediately opening her mouth and gulping in fresh air.
After catching her breath, Emily looked up at the cavern ceiling, in which glowing runes had been carved. She had no idea what they said, if anything at all, but they provided an eerie blue light for the tunnel, which split off into a fork not far ahead. She had truly entered the maze now. At least the water was warm.
Taking another deep breath, Emily dove back down and followed the tunnel to the right. After a couple of tight turns, the tunnel slanted steeply upwards, and Emily broke the surface of the water in the middle of a tubular chamber that appeared to be made entirely of gleaming white marble. Along the sides of the chamber were a series of alcoves, occurring at regular intervals. Each one glowed brightly in a different color, from teal to aqua.
As she passed close to the alcoves, they seemed to whisper to her in different voices. Some were deep and low, others high-pitched. At first, they spoke in a jumble of words from different languages she couldn’t understand—she recognized French, German, Japanese—but as she progressed through the chamber they gradually became intelligible.
“Go back, go back!” the voices urged her. “Leave us!”
Always a stubborn girl, Emily set her face in a hard expression and pressed on. The voices became more detailed in their pleas, warning her of great dangers if she should press on. They told her she was weak, unprepared, and would never survive the trials ahead.
“Leave now before it is too late!”
“One such as you is no match for the Labyrinthine Pool!”
A shrill lady’s voice echoed from one alcove when she had almost reached the end. “Where is your bathing suit, young strumpet? A shameful display!”
A hot blush overcame Emily, and she submerged her head in the water, so she didn’t have to listen to the voices anymore. Thankfully, she had almost reached the end of the chamber, where marble once again became stone. She pushed on passed the final alcoves and entered another tunnel.
The next tunnel was longer and more circuitous, and Emily worried that she wouldn’t reach the end in time. The words of warning from the glowing alcoves echoed in her mind, even as her lungs screamed for air. But there was nothing to do but to press on. She swam desperately, and soon enough the end of the tunnel came into sight.
When she burst up for air, she found herself in another large chamber. This time, it was made not of marble, but of mirrors. The walls, ceiling and even the floor beneath the water were all covered in massive, shimmering mirrors, each of which distorted Emily’s appearance in some way.
In one, Emily’s hair floated around her head in a fiery halo, and her eyes flashed with lightning. In another, she appeared with long, thin arms and her legs were transformed into a fishy tail—the effect was more siren than human. Another mirror enlarged her breasts and butt, and the next one made her appear flat as a board.
There was a mirror that put a crown on her head and turned her hair tie into a golden bracelet, and a mirror that showed her body entangled in kelp. Every last one reminded her of her absolute nudity.
The reflections were disorienting, her every movement amplified and mimicked in a dozen different ways. As she swam, ripples distorted the mirror images to wobble and distort even more, creating an almost hallucinogenic effect. The further she swam, the more her mirror images appeared to separate from her actions, to stare and make menacing gestures at her.
Emily closed her eyes and relied on her other senses to navigate. The cool touch of the water against her skin and the sound of the current guided her forward. Only when she sensed darkness through her closed eyelids did she open her eyes again, to find the mirrors mercifully gone.
Emily’s hands brushed against a stone wall, and she knew she was at the end of the chamber. A faint glow beneath her signaled that it was time to dive once again. Taking another deep breath, she submerged herself in the water and swam down towards the glow.
The source of the glow was a dense, underwater forest of tall, waving kelp, bioluminescent, casting shades of soft colored light. Each strand seemed to be a different color—there were vivid purples, deep blues, and golden yellows, painting the underwater scene with a kaleidoscope of hues.
Before she knew it, Emily was surrounded by the waving strands of kelp. As she moved through them, the strands reached out, brushing against her skin with a velvety touch. They wound around her, caressing her with gentle curiosity. Their touch was soothing, though it tickled slightly, but fear rose in Emily’s heart as she felt the kelp across more and more of her body.
With a couple of violent kicks, she moved down, aiming for the rocky ground, among the roots of the kelp. This seemed to work, as more strands of kelp released her the lower she went, until there were only a couple left, winding gently around her legs.
Emily passed through the kelp forest in this way, keeping low, and soon she was in clear water again. A few strong kicks took her back to the surface, where she gulped in much-needed air. She gave herself a moment to float there, panting, and glanced back in the direction she’d come. The kelp made the water glow with ever-changing colors.
“It’s very beautiful,” Emily said to herself.
The next challenge the Pool had for her was a series of twisting paths. Some led to dead ends, while others had strong undercurrents that threatened to pull her under. Through patient and careful trial and error, and with a lot of backtracking and coming up for air, she found the right path, which led her to a larger chamber than any she had been in before, so vast that she could not see the walls or ceiling. If not for a glow that seemed to come from the water itself, she would have been in total darkness.
The waters around her swirled in churned, for some way ahead there spun a massive whirlpool. The vortex’s pull was so strong that even from a distance, Emily could feel its drag, trying to suck her into its swirling depths.
In the very center of the whirlpool, Emily spied a stone platform, wide enough for her to stand and walk about on. In the middle of the platform, she saw a pedestal. Something on top of the pedestal glinted in the dim light, and Emily’s heart leaped.
Despite its vastness, the whirlpool chamber appeared empty, but for the stone platform in its very center. Emily swam away from the whirlpool, searching for the wall of the chamber, but soon gave up. This place was impossibly big, and it would be a terrible waste of what remained of her energy to attempt a thorough search of it. Emily was a strong swimmer, and she’d taken numerous breaks during her passage through the Labyrinthine Pool, but she could feel a deep weariness in her limbs. She would enough for one final push.
Emily let herself float in the water, far enough away from the whirlpool that it was still and she could rest. She allowed herself to luxuriate in its warmth and recover some of her strength. Then, once she felt ready, she set out for the center of the whirlpool.
The water splashed around Emily as she propelled herself forward, fighting the whirlpool’s pull even as it grew stronger. She focused her eyes on the stone platform and moved towards it with single-minded determination. But the current was powerful, and she felt herself slowly losing to it. Panic and fear energised her and moved her onward.
At last, skin touched stone. Emily felt a surge of energy course through her body as one hand brushed against the stone of the platform, and she reached out to grip it. The stone was smooth and slippery, so she had to fight for a handhold, grabbing with one and then both hands and eventually pulling herself up.
But just as Emily was half out of the water, ready to collapse onto the stone platform in total exhaustion, she felt a tremor from deep below, which threatened to send her back into the grip of the whirlpool. Scrambling, panicked, her hands grabbed at the smooth stone, failing to find purchase.
And then the platform began to sink.
Emily managed to suck in a deep breath of air just before the platform fell below the water, taking her with it. Now she was down below, caught in the whirlpool, chasing a sinking stone, her eyes on the pedestal and—the pendant!
As Emily watched, a silver necklace lifted from the now fully submerged pedestal and started to swirl around with the whirlpool. It was so close now, she could almost touch it. And the swirling waters were bringing it to her!
Emily slackened completely, no longer interested in fighting the current. The waters pulled her down, down, with the pendant following. Now it was just above her! She reached out an outstretched hand, felt the necklace’s smooth chain between her fingers, and shut her hand tight. The Stoneshell was hers!
At the very instant that Emily’s fingers closed around the pendant, the whirlpool ceased. The current vanished as if it had never been, and Emily used the very last of her strength to propel herself to the surface, with the Stoneshell firmly in her grasp.
Breaking the surface of the water with a weary triumph, she opened her mouth and took in another breath.
“Emily! You’re back!” came the sound of a familiar female voice. For Emily had emerged in the same cavern the statues had first guided her to. Aria and Brom stood patiently on the shore, their carved faces pictures of anticipation.
Smiling weakly at her friends, Emily slowly waded to the shallow end of the pool, her right hand still gripping the Stoneshell. After hours in the water, she finally crawled back onto land, where she collapsed in an exhausted sprawl on the damp rock floor, her closed right hand reaching towards the statues.
“I got it,” she wheezed, opening her hand to show Aria and Brom the necklace.
With a cacophony of creaking and grinding, the statues bent down to examine the silver pendant. “Yes, this is indeed the Stoneshell,” Aria said. “Well done, Emily!”
“Aye, it matchs that jester’s description perfectly!” added Brom. “Good work, lass!”
Once Emily had regained enough of her energy to pull her head up and take a proper look at the necklace, she noted that it was a simple silver chain with a seashell pendant on it, which, appropriately enough, was made of stone. “What now?” she asked.
“To lift the curse, the pendant must be worn by its rightful owner,” said Aria, gazing wistfully at the necklace.
Emily stretched her fingers a bit wider. “Please, Aria, take it.”
But Aria shook her head. “No, Emily, the pendant’s rightful owner is she who proved herself worthy of it in the Labyrinthine Pool. You must wear it.”
Brom nodded in agreement. “The legend is clear.”
“It won’t do anything weird to me, will it?” asked Emily.
Aria shook her marble head. “The Stoneshell is imbued only with good magic, to counteract the evil curse upon the statues of Castle Elid.”
Emily bit her lip and glanced from Brom to Aria, and then to Aria again. “Are you sure? I don’t want to become a statue!”
Brom threw back his head and laughed, causing echoes across the cavern. “Though ye’d make a fine bronze, ye’ve nothing of the sort te worry about, Miss Emily! The Stoneshell shall not harm ye, it will protect ye.”
“Protect…” Emily repeated, holding the necklace up in front of her face. She imagined putting the necklace on, and immediately having a suit of armor appear to cover her body. “That sounds good.”
Emily lifted the necklace over her head and brought the chain to rest against her neck. She angled her body away from Brom’s gaze to lift her hair up and out of the necklace’s way so that the chain rested against her skin.
The stone shell came to rest just above Emily’s breasts. Which, like the rest of her, remained naked. But even while she remained unchanged, the air around her seemed to shift, as if the castle itself was exhaling a long-held breath. There was a sudden lightness to the air, an infectious joy that had Emily pulling herself to her feet and almost jumping for joy. She felt deliciously, irrationally happy.
“Yippee!” she cried, jumping up and twirling around to face the statues.
Aria and Brom were still statues, made of marble and bronze respectively, but both were grinning just as wide as she was.
Emily’s grin fell and she gripped the pendant, turning the small stone in her fingers. “I thought the curse was broken. Why are you still statues?”
The sadness that Emily had long noted in Aria’s voice was now apparent in Aria’s eyes, and her whole face seemed more expressive. “Magic is a fickle thing. With the Stoneshell worn by one worthy of it, the castle has been opened to the world, and we, its inhabitants are free to go. I can feel it. But we have been statues so long, that perhaps that is all we can now be.”
“Ah, ’tis not so bad,” Brom added. “My limbs are more limber now than they have been in many a year, perhaps even more than when they were flesh.” As if to demonstrate, he moved his arms up and down with a smoothness that was almost human.
“Stone and metal do not age as the flesh does,” said Aria. “Perhaps it is a blessing, the gift of immortality.”
At these words, Emily had a ghastly vision of Aria and Brom turning to flesh and becoming skeletons before her eyes, like in an old movie that had given her nightmares as a child. Maybe this was for the best, even if it meant that she would not be getting her hands on Aria’s gown.
“Oh!” Aria exclaimed, noting the direction of Emily’s wistful gaze. “I had forgotten that I promised you my gown, did I not? Well, I am afraid I must renege. Though my movements feel smoother, freer and easier, I still cannot remove it.”
“A pity,” said Brom, with a sly wink.
“Okay then,” said Emily. “We can leave this castle now. That’s an achievement. That’s a start. Next thing, I need to find some clothes. And then a way home.”
“In Lirethel, there are many skilled mages and scholars,” Aria suggested. “If anyone knows how to send you home, we will find them there.”
“We?” asked Brom, raising a bronze eyebrow.
Aria blushed, the white marble of her cheeks turning pink. Even though the Stoneshell hadn’t turned either statue human, it had made them both far more lifelike and animated. “Y-yes. Emily needs a guide, someone who knows this land and its customs.”
Brom chuckled. “Begging your pardon, milady, but your knowledge is a wee bit out of date.”
“Be that as it may, I also have my own reasons for traveling to Lirethel,” Aria said sharply, in a tone that implied her mind was made up and she wouldn’t be taking any questions. “Could I have the honor of being your guide, Emily?”
“Of course,” Emily said. She was becoming quite fond of Aria and would need a companion in this strange world.
“Marvelous!” Aria said, clasping her hands together. “Perhaps you would like to accompany us as well, Brom?”
Brom shook his head. “A thousand pardons, milady, but I have my own quest. Under any other circumstance, I would be honor-bound to protect two traveling ladies, but with the Stoneshell around yer neck, no harm can come to ye.”
Aria nodded. “Should we be accosted by bandits, I will fall upon them and crush them under my weight.”
Emily turned the shell over in her fingers. She didn’t feel very well protected, standing naked and dripping wet in the middle of a cave, but the change in the atmosphere that the pendant had brought about was undeniable. Even as an outsider to this world, she could sense the potency of its magic.
The statues guided Emily back to their hall, which was now drowned in cacophonous noise. All the rest of their fellows were whooping and hollering, running around, jumping and dancing, relishing in their newfound freedom. As Emily entered the hall, they all stopped what they were doing and surrounded her, oohing and awwing at the Stoneshell. The statues showered her in praise and compliments, shook her hands, and some even insisted on giving her bone-crunching hugs. All throughout, Emily blushed furiously, wishing the room’s center of attention wasn’t hanging just above her still very bare breasts.
“All hail Lady Emily of Greenville, the Stoneshell Bearer!” screamed Jivaro. “She’s baring many other things as well, mind! Gaze upon the Stoneshell, framed by her lovely bosoms!”
At Emily’s command, Brom gave Jivaro a solid kick that sent him flying into a wall. “Ow!” Jivaro cried, as he scraped against the wall and thudded onto the floor.
“He’s faking, we statues can’t feel any pain,” Brom whispered to Emily.
“Too bad,” Emily muttered.
After some time, Emily and Aria were able to extricate themselves from the adoring crowd. Having said final farewells to Brom, the two women turned into the corridor where Emily had first emerged.
The eerie torchlight was now replaced by the natural light of the sun, streaming in from windows that Emily was certain had not been there before. It gave the castle a mundane feeling, like one of the ruins Emily had visited on her last trip to Scotland. As Emily ambled across the uneven stone floor, the dreamlike feeling that had pervaded the place seemed to dissipate. If Emily looked away from the moving marble statue beside her, she could almost imagine she was back in her world, touring a castle ruin. In the nude, for some reason.
Emily felt sick, like she would come across a tour guide or large group of ordinary tourists just around the next corner, who would point and stare at her exposed body. She turned her head back to Aria, the lady walking beside her who was unmistakeably made of marble, as if to assure herself that this wouldn’t happen. No, the only people who would be pointing and staring at Emily’s naked body were inhabitants of this strange magical world.
This was hardly a comfort, but Emily didn’t have much time to dwell on it before they reached the castle’s entrance hall. Two massive wooden doors opened out onto a verdant field, with rolling green hills in the distance.
“It is good to see the plains of Thessolan again,” said Aria. “I had given up hope that I would ever lay my eyes upon them again. Thank you, Emily.”
Emily smiled, her eyes darting around the hall, searching for something she might be able to wear. The idea of going out into the world as she was terrified her. But the entrance hall, like the rest of the castle, was quite bare of any kind of fabric.
“It is a long journey to Thessolan,” Aria said. “I am sure we will be able to acquire some clothes for you along the way.”
“The sooner the better,” Emily muttered.
“Don’t worry, the Stoneshell shall bring us good luck—hark, what are those?”
Emily followed Aria’s gesture with her eyes, which soon came to rest on something small and brown lying behind one of the open castle doors. It was a pair of boots. She approached them and picked one up, finding a gray sock inside it. They were soft and slightly worn, and looked to be about her size.
“Ah, it is already working!” cried Aria in delight. “These are sturdy walking boots, and they will serve you well on the journey ahead.”
“Boots,” said Emily, nonplussed. “A necklace and boots.” Though she had to admit that her feet were getting quite sore from the uneven stone.
“We will buy a dress and a travelling cloak for you from the first traveling merchant we encounter,” said Aria. “Those should complete the ensemble nicely.”
Emily sat down on the stone floor and put on the socks, and then the boots, lacing them up comfortably. They fit perfectly, as if they had been made for her, and the socks’ softness provided welcome relief for her feet. But they also served to highlight her lack of other attire.
“I think I feel even more naked now,” Emily said, standing up and walking around experimentally. “Shoes and socks make it feel intentional. Like I’m a streaker or a nudist or something.”
“Worry not, dear Emily, you’ll have that dress before you know it!”
“I sure hope so. Lead the way, Aria.”
With a gracious smile, the marble lady led the girl from another world, clad only in boots and a magical necklace, out of Castle Elid. The road to Lirethel beckoned.