The building shook, trickles of dust falling from between the ceiling tiles.
“Hmmmmmm,” said Aidra, “looks like a fixer-upper. Would it be a stretch to say it’s roomy?”
Red glanced down another corridor, long and dark and exactly the same as every other corridor in this damn place. “It’s labyrinthine, that’s what it is.”
“So… spacious? It’s got character, I’ll give it that, but I’m not even sure if it’s in a good neighbourhood or not. Definitely enough space for my sock collection, though.”
Red glanced down at Aidra’s bare feet. “Uh-huh. Why do you have a— you know what, I don’t want to know.”
“Of course. Do Children of Nursiir even have socks? You’ve got the whole opposable-thumbs thing going on.”
“Mittens! For feet, so… feetens?”
“… Forget I asked. Are your mystical senses telling you which way to go? Mine sure aren’t.”
It was still dark, and he didn’t dare risk a light, but he could still ‘see’ as Aidra, outlined in red lines, theatrically put his fingers to his temples and closed his eyes.
“I see… an idiot… wandering underground…”
Red was developing a twitch in his eye for some inexplicable reason. “No jury in the Realms would convict me if I left you here.”
“An idiot who won’t get rid of me that easily…”
“Gods and monsters, if only.” He sighed, swallowed some of his pride, and adopted a more conciliatory tone. “Please stop taking the piss. We need to find Alice and the others.”
“Alice and the others, eh?”
He glared at Aidra.
“Can’t see in the dark, remember.”
“I merely think that Alice’s situation is likely to be more precarious. Syrk’s after… something to do with the shadow fragment thing? Power? Getting back at Gyran? Something like that?”
“Firstly, he should really get a hobby. Secondly, you are a lying liar who lies. Or in really heavy denial. Which was funny for the first hundred and fifty-one chapters, but really you should do something about that at some point. Maybe go for coffee or something when you’re not daringly rescuing each other from deathtraps or whatever it is you kids do these days.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You’re right, I counted the intervals too.”
“I’m continually reconsidering whether Syrk knew what he was doing, putting us in the same cell.”
“‘Course he didn’t. We’ve got no sexual tension at all.”
“Definitely an attempt at psychological torture. Look, weren’t you trying to work out which way to go?”
“Oh, right, that. We passed that passage a few turns back.”
Red made a strangled noise. “You- I- kill you.”
“Hey, I didn’t know that earlier! Don’t blame me! Syrk built this place like a maze!”
“Syrk built this? Wait, which Realm are we even in?” He reached out with some esoteric senses, but nothing was apparent — some kind of dampening field?
“Oh, this is the Necropolis. Kinda near Mictlan?”
He briefly considered the implications. “… Huh. Welp, nothing I can do about that now. C’mon.”
Ignoring his own internal objections, Red turned on his heel and started to head down the gods-benighted corridors of this stupid stupid death-maze, heading for the rest of their group of friends, and hopefully eventual light and freedom.
“The light and freedom’s a different way.”
“I didn’t say anything, and what I specifically didn’t say was eventual light and freedom.”
“I just calls them as I sees them.”
The rough passages of wherever this was — some probably-underground secret villain base or some such nonsense, he thought — were long and dark, and zig-zagged with barely a landmark, barely a notion of direction or space.
“How does he even live here?” he wondered aloud. “I’d go nuts trying to find things.”
“I mean,” Aidra replied, “not saying that Syrk isn’t nuts, but he’s got a perfect memory and a sadistic sense of humour. Pretty sure Gaunts can see in the dark, too.”
“Guh. Hostile architecture, distilled.”
They had paused at an intersection. Aidra looked around. “I mean — this way,” he pointed — “I mean, I haven’t seen any spikes yet.”
“You can’t see in the dark.”
“Figure of speech, you humourless git!”
Red paused as the air seemed to tremble, the ground shivering slightly beneath their feet as a rumbling noise sounded from up ahead.
“— We better hurry.”
“But we had a good banter going,” Aidra grumbled, but he did pick up the pace, jogging along confidently despite the darkness.
“Banter can wait! We have friends to rescue!”
“Aww, aren’t I your friend?”
“Maybe so, but I’m definitely not going to let you be the last one.”
All she could see was light. All she could hear was darkness. All she could feel was feathers. All she could smell was song.
It stretched around her, filling all the spaces with the creaking whisper of growth, branching selves, spreading thousands of hands among the wings to blanket it all in a web of pulsing flesh. She was buried at the centre, her self the seed of an oyster’s pearl, a small hard fragment around which layers upon layers of wings grew, each darker than a starless night.
It was just her. She couldn’t even see Syrk’s—
Gleaming orange-yellow eyes, burning like accretion disks, opened in the stems of every single one of her near-millions of feathers, real or imaginary. Yes, she could see Syrk’s body now, in a level of detail she really wasn’t very happy with. She supposed it would keep her company until she was entirely subsumed by the crawling remnants of what was clawing up from her shadow, from the deep and forgotten places of her mind. Her vision was fractured, shattered fragments of glass each showing the scene from a slightly different angle. He was definitely dead, though. In fact, seeing as she was looking through him with about eight different senses and spectra she hadn’t known before, he definitely looked like he hadn’t been very alive to start with. Exposure mummies came to mind.
She didn’t look around so much as shift her focus, like looking at something in her peripheral vision, at the room she’d been contained in. Even ignoring the scratching of her claws, the scraping of her branching, glancing feathers along the rock walls, the room was wrecked. At some point, the table she’d been stuck to had been half-melted, there were strange fractal patterns of broken stone where she’d torn gravel from the walls, piles of gleaming metallic dust and blood, both her own red and his deep blue. Surprisingly little purple — apparently, it didn’t mix like that. Thoughts echoed through her human mind, small and meaty and utterly trapped, enclosed on all sides by a growing paroxysm of horrid yearning in whose jaws she lay. It was waking up.
It was waking up.
She had pulled the strings, torn at the branches, seized the power, and now the power seized her back. The rope of the well had gone taut and now threatened to drag her down into the dark and the cold. She had played with starlight, and now something that wasn’t her remembered what that was like. And once it had tired of starlight, then…
It was waking up.