There was a time, and it was empty. So empty that maybe there wasn’t a time.
The next thing she knew was… a commotion. She was being jostled, she might have been sitting down and—
She opened her eyes, tried to sit up, and nearly fell from Twelfth’s grip. “Wagh!”
“Hi Alice!” Aidra exclaimed perkily. “How’re you doin’?”
[Steady,] said Twelfth, gently taking her shoulder and repositioning her in the carry she had Alice in.
She looked around, seeing nothing but an ever-shifting darkness, painted by manic shadows as Red, running up ahead, shone light from his hand. They were all running down a long corridor cut into pale grey stone, pocked with white shapes, bones or fossils or something.
“You’re awake?” he asked, without looking around. “Feeling okay?”
“Uh,” she said, running through a brief mental checklist. Limbs, check. Major organs… presumably? She briefly reached out with her immaterial senses, which responded as she expected them to. “Yes?”
“Good, that’s good.”
She looked around again. A Librarian, Nik and Zkrith were there too, keeping up with Red and Aidra, while Twelfth… wasn’t running at all, come to think of it. Barely jogging, honestly.
“So, er,” said Alice, “what are we r—”
A rumble sounded from behind them, from all around them. The ceiling and floor started to crack. A rush of air tousled her hair, blowing from behind them, and she heard, distantly, the cacophony of what seemed like dozens of inhuman voices, raised behind them.
“So, we might have released all of Syrk’s strange and terrible monsters from his underground murder-dungeon,” said Aidra. “I think it seemed like the moral thing to do, but also the dangerous thing. Which is why we’re running!”
She paused a moment. “Right. Okay.”
[I Thought You Said It Was A Murder-Basement.]
“Hey, it’s large. It can contain multitudes of murders, basements and dungeons.”
“Less talking!” Red said loudly from up ahead. “More telling me which way to go before whatever’s going to happen here happens!”
“Things have already happened here!”
“If we weren’t running for our lives, I’d kill you!”
“Hah!” Aidra shouted back. “Get in the queue! Left!”
The group veered, down another corridor, barely visible in the bobbing light and wavering shadows. Alice leaned back against Twelfth, and felt the darkness close back up over her head again, as she drifted away.
Once, there had been a song, in the dark. Arias of appetite, hymns of hunger, and a tremendous monstrosity from before the first dawning of the light.
Was the song gone? Did its echoes continue? Was it still borne by sinister airs, a waltz of dissolution long left unfinished?
Was there a way to determine, in a darkness so absolute it had forgotten light, a presence or an absence?
Did it remain, silent, vast as the sky on a starless night, featureless, behind and beyond everything. There were no words, just an emptiness. There was no light, just a hunger. A terrible immortal symmetry, coiled and shapeless and gone.
Or was it?
More tunnels. Darkness. Everything moved in brief snatches, time flowed wrongly, as if she was only really present for one moment in three.
Rising, the surface. A pale grey light over dark grey sands, stretching from horizon to horizon. Great arches overhead, jutting from the sands to either side, the ribcage of a titanic, long-dead beast rose above them.
Black pyramids in the distance, with oddly ruby-red fires atop them that belched columns of smoke into the pale air.
The flashes continued. A road, paved pale with cobblebones, wended a path between tomb-cities. The enormous skull of a three-eyed crocodilian thing, propped open, with tables arranged around it for some reason.
She slipped from consciousness again, and if she had dreams, she didn’t remember them, only a peaceful kind of oblivion.
The bed was softly lumpy. The sensation of waking up in a strange bed was, alarmingly, getting familiar. This must have been the… third time it had happened in only a month or so.
She attempted to say something witty about the situation, but it came out more like “mnrghfnrble,” so she decided to try sitting up instead.
The room’s ceiling was pale, and sloped from one side to the other. It was made of one single piece, a strangely organic off-white surface. She reached out and tapped the wall. It was cold. Maybe stone, maybe bone? She looked around. The bed had thin layered sheets, the mattress was weirdly lumpen, and the room wasn’t huge. What immediately caught her eye, however was the slumped figure, sleeping in a chair in the corner of the room. Red. He was leaning back, curled up slightly to the side, his head resting on his shoulder and upper left arm and his fez fallen to the floor. His crystalline right hand had apparently settled, and was lying in pieces on the seat of the chair, with a few bits of his fingers scattered on the floor below. It was rather strange to see — while she’d definitely seen him sleeping, on the couple of occasions she’d woken up before he did, and the group were sharing rooms or something, he’d normally neatly stored his hand on a bed table, or in a pocket or container out of sight. His face was softened and relaxed when he was asleep, there was no sign of his normal demeanour of occasionally-prickly sarcasm.
She swung her legs down onto the floor gently, so as not to disturb Red. Someone had had the decency to remove her shoes before putting her to bed, so she fished them out from under the bed and put them on before heading over to the door. Just before she left, she had a thought, and went back over to Red, pulled a sheet from the bed, and gingerly laid it over him. It wasn’t particularly cold in the room, but it probably wouldn’t have been comfortable to sleep there.
Good deed for the morning complete, she tiptoed over to the door and snuck through it, to see if she could find anyone else, see if they were okay and check what was going on.