YOU CAN NOT HIDE
PROOF RESTS BELOW
It took Stoni a few seconds to comprehend the words, but when she did they were more chilling than the bathwater. It wasn't just the words, but also the dreadful implication: someone had been in the bathroom with her.
The realisation was acompanied by a progression notification but she wasn't in the mood to appreciate it.
Clutching the towel to her chest, she sat on the edge of the bath and dipped a toe in the water. It felt as cold as when she'd leaped out. That hadn't been her imagination or a hallucination. She looked around for signs of disturbance. The bathroom door remained shut, and her clothes were in a tidy stack in front of the door.
The door opens inwards, which is unsafe but I guess Mrilchift doesn't have laws about that. I doubt anyone really cares about that sort of thing in VIVID. But doesn't matter right now. What's important is that there's no way anyone came in that door without disturbing my clothes. And the windows are all completely shut, so...
She was already shivering from the cold water. The thought that there was an intruder that was not barred by walls sent a shudder from her toes all the way to the back of her neck. Feeling increasingly vulnerable, she dried herself as thoroughtly as she could in a hurry and dressed herself. With her hand freed from holding the towel, she felt the mirror. It seemed normal, other than the clear lines where the condensation had been wiped away. But something had most definitely wiped at the mirror.
Proof of what? I'm not trying to hide. Is the message for Raphael? Is he hiding something? Is it downstairs, or further below?
The bathroom held answers to none of those questions. Stoni put her hand on the door handle and was in the process of considering turning it when she heard a sound. Something in the bedroom beyond was rustling softly.
"Hello? Who's out there?" she called, while trying to be gentle to her recently squashed nose.
No one answered.
"I can here you moving out there."
A door slammed. It didn't sound like the bedroom door. Stoni guessed it was a closet door.
She backed away from the bathroom door and returned to the mirror. Her face looked much improved, other than her grey hair which was plastered to her skull, making her head look smaller.
No way am I going out there unarmed. Hmm, what have I got to work with? Scissors and scalpel in the first aid kit... no, too small. I could throw a shampoo bottle. Once. And not very hard. A backscratcher isn't very menacing. Oooh, I could try to ensnare my foe in adhesive bandages! More seriously, I could use a bandage to fasten the scalpel onto the backscratcher for more reach. No, it's still too small. If only...
Once quick burst of violence and several minutes of delicate work later, she had fashioned an adequate weapon. It would have taken a fraction of the time with the use of both hands, but she couldn't help that.
"Good thing I brought my shoes up," she muttered as she pushed down on the doorhandle with her elbow. Pulling the door open while holding a backscracher with a wicket shard of mirror glass taped to it was difficult, but possible. "Another reason why the bathroom door should open out."
Opening the door revealed the presence of no one. She slowly entered and looked around, clearing the hiding places. Nobody was lurking under the bed, or behind the curtains, or in the closet. "At least I know no one could have hidden behind the door." Feeling a little more secure, she slipped the fur coat back on to help her regain a comfortable temperature.
Examining the room for further signs of disturbance yielded new unsettling discovery: a gold and white sheet was laid out on the bed. A closer look revealed that it was a robe. Stoni frowned in mixed confusion and anger. "Just what are you trying to tell me? Hello?"
Stoni let out a short wail of frustration. It didn't change anything, but she felt slightly better. "Fine, I'll figure this out myself. It would be a lot easier if I had some idea what I was trying to figure out, or what the point of any of this is!"
Nothing replied to her implied demand for information.
Shrugging as if she didn't care, but also trembling with anxiety, Stoni turned the robe over to look at all sides of it. At first she thought it was white with narrow gold strips running horizontally, but her inspection showed her that it was actually a golden spiral. That information got her nowhere, but the act of repeatedly flipping the smooth cloth drew her attention to a small, heavy object concealed inside it. After pawing at the thin piece of fabric in near futility for a minute, she located a pocket and drew out a large brass key.
At least, I think it's large for a key. How many keys have I seen in my life, I wonder? How many doors have I been through? Doors... I'm sure I've been through a lot of automatic doors that didn't need keys. But I definitely remember using keys too. Argh, this is useless! Alright, Stoni, think about the key. It's not they key to the house. Perhaps it's related to the 'proof'. Which rests below. Perhaps under the bed?
She checked under the bed again, but there were no irregularities in the floor. She did find a few locked boxes, but the key was much too big for any of them. There was nothing the key fit in the closet either. Sighing as her observation skill went up, she decided it was time for her to go down. Regardless of the mystery, she knew she ought to check the fire. Due to her lack of pockets and the difficulty in holding the key at the same time as the lantern and her improvised weapon, she taped the key on top of her shoe. While she could have gained pockets by donning the robe, she very much did not wish to wear something her unseen intruder had laid out for her.
Why doesn't this coat have any pockets? This is ridiculous!
The fire was burning nicely when she reached it. She added a couple of pieces of split logs from the stack beside the hearth, to ensure it stayed that way. She stayed close by until she no longer felt chilled. The chairs looked very comfortable, tempting her to sit in one for the rest of the evening, but a creaking sound from the kitchen got her moving again.
A thorough search of the house yielded no locks that suited the key. As the minutes wore on she felt her tension and fear grow. Nothing else crashed to the floor, but she regularly heard nearby inexplicable sounds. Every time she entered a room she was almost certain that multiple small objects were not where she left them, but she wasn't absolutely certain. The uncertainty was the worst part. If things definitely moved, she could have acted on that information. As it was, she had to consider that her mind was playing tricks on her. That in turn made her doubt everything else she saw and heard and felt.
At last she discovered something new. The walk-in pantry had a metal ring set into the floor. Lifting the ring revealed a keyhole, but to her immense disappointment it failed to match the brass key. It did however match a key hanging on a hook by the front door. Unlocking it allowed her to lift a trapdoor, revealing a ladder down to a cellar.
Oh, so that must be the cold storage. Guess I'll have to search it too. Proof rests below and all that. Alright, how do I get down the ladder with the lantern? I need my hand to climb and I can't drop the lantern so... Oh, there was some rope in one of the closets. That'll work.
Stoni hummed a tuneless ditty to herself as she worked. First she located the rope and slung it over her shoulder. After lugging it back to the pantry she tied it to the lantern, which she lowered into the cellar below. There was enough rope to lower her 'backstabber' with the other end of the rope, but first she tied the middle of the rope to the top rung of the ladder as securely as she could. The ladder consisted of individual metal bars set into the stone wall, with no side rails. She hoped the rope would give her a little extra safety. She suspected there was some way to rig the rope to help her control a gradual descent, but she knew she would need a second rope for that, and she had no patience for figuring out knots.
At least her unseen, uninvited guest had stopped producing heartstopping noises every minute or two. Another positive was the the higher tier of Handiwork she achieved from tying the knots.
Rope is surprisingly difficult to manipulate with one working hand and eye. Alright, now for the hard part.
There were a few moments when she feared climing down a ladder in her condition was a mistake. To her great relief, nothing conspired to startle her in a vulnerable moment, and she made it down safely. Her heart was pounding as much from anticipation of falling as it was from the exertion of one-handed decent.
"I'm here," she said to anyone who might be listening, trying to sound defiant. "Whatever this key opens had better be worth it."