“I could conjure a light?” Red whispered. “We’d be able to see, at least. Is that, er, prophetically-ominous?”
“Red, mate, I’m literally flying blind here. Well, not literally flying. And not literally blind, because I can see, but it’s dark. Hmm. Figuratively flying blind, here. And I can’t see the future, either, ‘cause all the worldlines are being cut where they intersect with the olythreme and wards in the walls.”
“Uh-huh. Well, since the alternative is blundering around in the dark…”
Red cupped his Hand, mentally beckoning a little spark of light into existence between his fingers. He held it up, and it shone, the light vanishing into the cavernous space, casting massive shadows from the bars of the cages, and from the entirely sealed metal blocks, presumably for things that couldn’t be simply caged. They stood in rows, cages or cubes eight feet on a side, running the entire length and breadth of the massive room. Things moved, shifting, reacting to the light, some of them pushing up against the bars of their cages, some of them shying away, curling up into the dark corners of their enclosures. Some of the cages were silent, their occupants merely corpses or piles of bones — and for some of those, the eerie flicker of cold fires in the eye sockets of their skulls betrayed an awareness, if not a life, per se.
He looked around, past the gleaming thing with too many wings and eyes, past something which grinned and chuckled as constellations of cracked teeth grew like barnacles on the bars of its cage.
“I don’t see them. Any idea where they are?”
Nearby, a creature that filled all available space in its cage with its dozens of spindly, hairy limbs, whispered. “We’ll tell you if you let us out, we will. Let us out and let us taste that juicy flesh,” it whispered, speaking in a small chorus of whispers and clacking its mandibles. Red ignored it, turning to Aidra for a response.
Aidra frowned, eyes closed, massaging his temples. “Hrm… I think… kinda over there?” He gestured vaguely, off towards the far corner of the room, beyond the reach of Red’s light. “There’s still a future in here, but it’s hard to get a perspective on. ‘Specially since I’m touching the floor,” he finished, pointing down at the green-blue brushed metal plates that made up the flooring of Syrk’s prison.
“Can’t you fly? Or, at least, hover?”
“Hmmmmmmmmmmm.” Aidra looked pensively off into the distance for several seconds. Just before Red could interject, ask a question, interrupt the ‘hmm’-ing, he spoke again. “Maybe.”
And then he folded his legs up beneath him, the rest of him remaining fixed in the air, he closed his eyes and began melodramatically massaging his temples again.
“Glad we had this talk,” said Red.
“You there,” said something else, straining against the bars of its cage, “allow me freedom, and I will tell you the secrets you keep from yourself. The things you’ve forgotten. The things you don’t dare remember.”
“Uh-huh,” said Red, “nah.”
“Inssolent worm! Your ssecretss, you wear them on your sskinss! I could tell you!” it shouted, its long teeth scraping sparks off of the cage’s bars.
“I wouldn’t listen to that one,” said the occupant of the next cage, “ an absolute blowhard.”
It didn’t look like there was anything in that cage, for a moment, but Red looked harder, peering into the thick, cloying darkness. Whatever it was was small, huddled in the centre of the cage’s floor, crumpled into itself. He caught sight of maybe an arm, a leg?
“Well,” he said, “I guess you’d know.”
“Heh. Try being its neighbour for a century or so.”
“You’ve been here for a century?”
“Time is vague, death is distant. Or maybe too present. Ah well.”
“Aidra, do you think we could—”
“Shhhh!” Aidra held up a hand, and Red felt his jaw forcibly shut.
He sighed inwardly. I’m sure, if we went looking, we would have found them by now, he thought, loudly.
“And shut that mind up, too.”
“If you’re that distracted, I could go stand behind one of the cages. If the distance doesn’t do it, the giant block of solid magic-grounding metal might?”
“Eh, stay within smelling distance. So, you know, a few hundred miles.”
Red made a rude gesture in his direction, and stalked around the cage with the smaller, more reasonable thing in it, getting it between him and whatever Aidra was trying to do.
“Where would Syrk even put some new prisoners?” he mused aloud.
“The cells down the end,” said the diminutive thing in the cage, raising one spindly limb from the general blob of shadows to point down towards the far end of the chamber, lost in the general darkness of the room.
“Really?” He paused. “Why should I trust you?”
“Probably shouldn’t, but then you’ve got that guy over there to verify. I mean, what do I have to gain by telling you stuff, exactly.”
“I’m not sure, but not knowing why not might be a bad reason, down here.”
He lapsed into silence, and while the thing in the cage didn’t seem to be feeling talkative either, their other neighbours continued their litany of wheedling whispers, cajoling, demands and threats continually until Aidra showed back up.
“They’re over that way,” he said, pointing back into the darkness of the room. “It’s all of them, even! I guess he was so busy with her,” he dipped his head toward Alice, “that he didn’t have time go all murdery on the rest of us.”
“What about sticking the pair of us in a different box? We weren’t anywhere near one of these places, near as I could tell.”
“Not a clue. He works in mysterious ways? Anyway, let’s off.”
“Right back atcha, mysterious cage creature down in Syrk’s murder-basement!” Aidra directed some fingerguns at the approximate centre of the cage, and started to walk off.
“I think they were talking to me,” said Red, as he followed him down between the rows of cages.
“Hey now, not everything’s about you! Everything might be about me instead!”
“One — shut up. Two, everything is currently about finding our friends and getting out of here. And then, er, maybe releasing the creatures here?”
“I don’t know, which was why I asked you. It seems like the, hm, ‘right’ thing to do.”
“If only Gyran was here, to tell you what the correct course of action is?”
Red sighed. “You know what? Yeah. It’ll be bedlam if we release everything here, and I don’t know if we’ll be able to get out, then.”
Aidra rolled his eyes. “Yeah, you’re overthinking this. Yes, it’ll be chaos, but also that’ll really annoy and delay Syrk when he gets back together, and I’m sure we can rig something to open all of these at once. Heck, there’s probably some mechanism somewhere, that’s probably a villain trope he subscribes to. Anyway, stop here a sec, a friend.”
The next cage wasn’t there, instead the square on the floor where the cage should have been was recessed slightly, and there was a plinth at the centre, on which a hollow sphere of green glass perched.
He squinted at it as they sidled closer. It seemed familiar. “A friend?” He glanced back at Aidra.
“Oh, it’s Twelfth.”
“Twelfth?” He looked back over at the sphere with a horrified recognition. “Where’s the rest of her?”
Aidra shrugged. “Not here, but this isn’t damaged, so she’s fine.” He rapped on it with his knuckles, making a hollow ringing sound. “See? Basically indestructible.” He plopped the glass sphere down, balancing it in Alice’s lap, and moved around to the back of the chair, ready to pick it up again.
“Ol’ Tarlûlaaork built ‘em to last. ‘Course, they didn’t actually build the twelfth generation personally, but that’s just details. You know, I met them once. Taller than you’d expect. More arms.”
“You’re not that old.”
“Also, I’ve just realised — if this is Twelfth’s core, why isn’t she talking to us?”
“Oh, that! She doesn’t know we’re here. She doesn’t have any senses without her body.”
“Oh.” Red paused a second. “Oh. That’s kinda horrifying.” He paused a moment longer, thinking. “Is she… okay?”
“It’s very sweet of you to worry, Red.”
“She’s fine! I’ll chat to her telepomethically when I get a moment, and Bookbinders aren’t scared of time like finite beings are. She’ll no more go nuts from sensory deprivation than a book would if you left it on a shelf too long.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“Aww, are you getting concerned about your friends?”
“Yes? Why are you taking that tone of voice. It’s normal to be concerned for people in, like you said, ‘Syrk’s murder-basement’.”
“Uh-huh. Anyway, since you’re so concerned, it’s that way.”