“Ah,” said Syrk, voice a familiar unpleasant rasp, “you’re back with us.”
Alice coughed, and attempted to spit in his vague direction, but her head wouldn’t move, so her aim was off.
“You have a very peculiar malady of the soul,” he continued, “one I heard but the whispered harmonies of when you rang the False Axiom, at Babliothèque. But now, close up, it’s almost palpable.”
Since willing herself back into unconsciousness wasn’t working, she decided to at least pay some attention to whatever monologue this was.
“Since you are Material, I doubt you will know the tale. It occurs before time was truly linear, before the great Spindle-Spires, the Towers, the Axioms, before they spun the Real out of the Unreal, as thread is drawn from diffuse fibres and wound about a bobbin. In the heart of the Forge of Creation, the sky is solid and rotates overhead, held in place by interlocking crystal spheres. And in those heavens, the stars are legion, and shine down on the Forge, weaving the Real from their living songs of light and colour. But one star — and while there were others, this one star is the one we are interested in — it broke with the chorus, it struggled against the structures and melodies laid by its fellows, it looked into somewhere dark and empty and saw a world to its liking. And so, though it was a mighty aeon, a creature of purest burning nuclear fire, it was defeated by its siblings, broken, chained, and cast down through cracks in the crystal spheres and into the Void, where it was quenched, the creative singing light of a single celestial nothing against the eternal hunger of the Void.”
A resounding clang, and nothing happened. The metal box dented, but it was apparently built sturdily enough that the hammer and chisel simply weren’t cutting it.
“They wouldn’t be cutting it,” said Aidra, “not with a hammer and—”
It was a figure of speech, gods damn it, Red thought loudly, lay off, you tit.
“Wow, you’re being very grumpy.”
“Don’t you dare talk in such a condescending tone to someone holding a hammer.”
“Yeah, well, I’m holding a chisel, and chisel beats hammer.” Aidra paused, and his red gleaming outline scratched its chin in the darkness. “Wait, is it hammer-chisel-scissors or hammer-chisel-paper?”
“It’s neither, you preposterous oaf. Now, do you have any better tools for getting my arm out of this can, or am I going to have to break it open by beating you about the thick skull with it?”
Red couldn’t see detail in the dark too well, but Aidra made up for it by somehow managing to loudly roll his eyes. “Okay, fine. C’mere, let me take a look.”
“Once it fell,” Syrk continued, voice dry as dust and cold as the grave, “the star, in rage at falling, in shock and horror, cut off from the light of Creation Itself, blazed with a terrible hunger of darkness. It turned from the Celestial Pole, the Axiom of Creation, and from it no light could escape. Now, eliding a certain amount of — heh — in-between story, this fallen star was killed. But it was made sturdier than that, so when it was destroyed, its sundered organs of celestial darkness fled through the Realms, and as far as I can determine, some small part of that ended up attached to your soul. All very interesting.”
“You’ve missed some parts, I think.”
“Yeah. You know, the bit where you nailed me to a table.”
He rasp-chuckled. “Ah, I always forget how impatient the living are. The anatomy of your soul is very interesting to me — and as a non-physical object, it has to be delved obliquely. I’m no haruspex, but to plumb the depths of the spiritual, we will first have to examine the physical.”
“What’s a haruspex?”
“You’ll find out, in time. I always thought that the best lessons were ones you learn yourself.”
“Gods, I almost wish I could pass out and talk to the horrible doppelgänger of myself, now.”
“Oh? You’ve spoken to the Sinistral? How wonderful! Ah, so many secrets of the Spine will be ensconced within your blood and bone and tissue.” He picked up something like a large cleaver, and tested its edge with a dessicated thumb. “Such songs, such melodies, caged in bone, the Flesh Tower’s paeans. Such intricacies that can be wrung from the jaws of Creation, and how fortuitous, Alice, that you are here to help me.”
Without pain, the sensation of him starting to cut into her flesh was oddly dissonant, the soft tearing noise of skin and the scrape of his long knife on her collarbone and ribs.
And then, suddenly, in a way she found all too familiar, everything stopped, grew still and silent.
The metal box creaked, twisted and, finally, with a series of pings as the rivets fell out, came apart. Red gasped, a sudden flood of life entering his being, and though he had no specific memories, he was for a moment reminded of taking a massive gulp of air after coming up from… underwater? It must have been a memory from before, jolted free by this, because he didn’t normally need to breathe at all. He pulled his Arm free of the stricken metal casing and gave it a shake.
“I’ve known you for a while,” he said, looking down at where Aidra had crumpled the thick metal like paper, “but you haven’t stopped being full of surprises.”
“If you say so. Now, let’s get out of here, and find Alice and the rest of them.”
“Mmm, yeah,” said Aidra, “Syrk’s stopped monologuing, so we should get a wiggle on.”
Red thrust out his Hand, palm open, sheathed in crackling energies that he now remembered to command, waited a moment as the power built up, spreading up along his arm in sparks of crimson energy.
He clenched his Fist, the red outlines of what he saw in the dark shivered for a moment, and in a sudden burst of cacophonous noise, the entire side of the cell blew off, sending fragments of the metalstone-olythreme alloy crashing into the opposite wall.
Aidra took his hands off of his ear-fins, wincing. “There was a door, you know.”
“No there wasn’t! And how would you know, you can’t see in the dark!”
“Oh, huh, good point. I forgot.”
“Now come on!”
“What a pleasure,” said the man, face hidden in unnatural shadow, “for myself and my associate to—”
“—meet you again, Ms Alice,” said the woman. Inside her mouth was nothing but sharp teeth and a scalding light.
Alice sat up, feeling herself pull free of her mortal form like she’d been lying on something mildly sticky.
“Oh God,” she groaned, “not you again.”
“Shall we excuse her rudeness, Doctor Salt?”
“I’m sure we could find it in ourselves, Mister Ash.”
“I have no interest in whatever it is that you’re selling, you Laurel and Hardy dipsticks.”
Mister Ash grinned. The smile probably didn’t reach his eyes, if he even had them. “But you haven’t heard—”
“—our proposed exchange.”
“Will you go away if I listen to whatever stupid shady deal this is?”
“She’s cynical, isn’t she, Mister Ash?”
“Concurred, Doctor Salt. Ms Alice, you are trapped. Your allies cannot reach you. There will be no divine intervention from Third Uriel. No help from the M— from Gyran,” he said, spitting her name like it was the bitterest poison. “It is just you, and a man who was known as ‘The Soulless’, even before the acts that got him banished from Xilbalba, thrown from the Sunless Cities of the Necropolis. What we propose—”
“—is an exchange to return your agency. You will be free, and we will ensure that you and your allies are transported back to Foyer.”
“Uh-huh. Sounds like a lot — what’dya want for that?”
Mister Ash shrugged. “Oh, it’s a steal. We ask, in return, for the fragment of our associate Lord Coal that is adhered to your soul. We assure you—”
“—that extracting it will do you no damage, to your body, soul or spirit. I am a doctor, after all.”
“That you are, Doctor Salt. She’s really very good.”
“Wow,” said Alice. “That’s actually genuinely tempting, for once.”
Doctor Salt attempted a smile. “Myself and my associate wouldn’t—”
“—make many deals,” Mister Ash continued seamlessly, “if we didn’t offer good ones.”
“Okay, cool, you’ve said your bit, please kindly eff off and leave me in peace.”
“Hey! Who’s the customer, here?”
Red lights glinted briefly, deep in the darkness that hid Mister Ash’s eyes. “Why, I spoke out of turn. You’re absolutely correct. Come, Doctor Salt. Let us leave Ms Alice to her vivisection.”
The pair of demon salesthings retreated reluctantly, into dark and into light, and Alice shut her eyes as sensation and being reentered her limbs.
She reached out, or in. Deep in her subconscious lay a part of her that did not flinch from power. And, beyond it, a reservoir of darkness deeper than the world.
Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she reached out and seized it.
When her eyes opened, they were black as ink from corner to corner.