The Ominbus crawled down the long road. Every now and again, in the middle of this ashy grey desert, it would stop and settle down, and a couple of skeletons would climb off, while a couple other skeletons climbed on. These new skeletons seemed to settle into exactly the same positions that those who had left. A couple of times, the Ominbus stopped, and there were no skeletons waiting. Then, she saw some of them dig their way out of the sands to the side of the road, before making their way over and climbing on, shedding little trickles of sand from their clothing.
In the end, the journey only took half an hour or so, the jet-black pyramids of Mictlan drawing closer as the road wound inexorably toward it. Spires stretched up into the dead grey sky, vanishing into a pall of gently twisting fog. In the windows, on the spires, fires burned in pits, cages and braziers, a strange deep red colour, shedding no smoke but casting a blood-hued light into the haze.
The Ominbus drew closer, and the buildings started to take shape. The thin mist grew a little thicker as they approached, clinging in ghostly clumps across the dusty dunes, swirling around buildings in endless eddies. Enormous blocks of black glassy stone, inlaid with ivory and gold in morbid patterns, formed aqueducts, buildings and walkways, crowded together with the jagged cyclopean spires.
And, everywhere, the dead walked. In a thousand shapes and sizes, skeletons trod the paths, walkways, and narrow obsidian bridges of Mictlan. Through the sky, fleshless birds flapped in wide spirals, and the enormous skeletons of what had to be undead whales slid through the mist, their haunting song not so much like that of living whales and more like the haunting tunes of enormous pipe organs. The Ominbus, destination reached, slowed and halted next to a bus station decorated in monochrome art nouveau, leaflike shapes and pale stained glass bordered alternately by ivory and obsidian.
They dismounted, thanking the driver. The Ominbus itself regarded them all with its empty eye sockets as they left.
“Ta-ta! Safe travels!” the driver bade them as they set off. “Mictlan’s a lovely place, even if outRealmers tend to find it a bit dour!”
“Well,” said Red, “that’s certainly an endorsement.”
“Why can’t they see you, anyway?” Alice asked.
He blinked, momentarily off-guard. “It’s a long story?”
“Okay, fine, it’s very short. And it’s not a story. I’m deathless.”
She looked around at the rest of the group, whose reaction was mild interest at best.
“Nothing to do with Syrk, I take it.”
“Yeah, deathless with a little ‘d’.”
“Hah!” Aidra burst into laughter. “You said—”
“I know what I said.”
Alice stifled a laugh.
“I’m surrounded by children,” said Red.
She snorted. “Okay, sorry, sorry. Right. Er, which way to the Causeway?”
“Because I’m deathless,” Red replied, “I’ve never been here before.”
“He can’t even ask for directions, either,” said Aidra, “so he can’t get less lost. It’s the perfect storm!”
“You do realise there are signs, right?” Red said, walking over to look at a large Ominbus timetable pinned up on the wall.
“You assume I can read,” Aidra replied.
“I’ve seen you read things aloud.”
“That’s just me reading the future where I say the words and repeating it.”
Red paused for a moment, then sighed. “You’ve got me thinking about whether that’s plausible or not, now.”
“Okay, firstly, I’m not sure you’d be able to get past the information paradox energy requirement without an external power source. Secondly, the Causeway is apparently not too far from here. It’s built under one of the big pyramids, sourceward of here.”
“Sourceward?” Alice asked.
“Oh, it’s a… it’s a Necropolis cardinal direction.” He frowned, then pointed. “I think it’s that way.”
They filed out of the bus station, to the quiet sepulchre of Mictlan’s streets and, with the aid of a little folding map from a rack next to the door, started to make their way in the direction of the Causeway, hopefully.
The streets of Mictlan were angular, moving in straight sections between oddly-shallow angles. Tracing the shapes in her head, Alice got the distinct impression that they were walking a maze of tessellating hexagons, or something similar — she couldn’t exactly eyeball the angles. Occasionally, long stairs or ramps went up a storey or so, dove down beneath a massive pyramid that otherwise blocked an alley, or stretched across a gap to form a wide and mercifully solid-feeling stone bridge. The inhabitants of the city continued to be mostly-skeletal, although the occasional Gaunt — most of whom appearing to be alive — also walked, floated along, or in one notable example, was carried on a sedan chair by a number of skeletal humanoids. Despite all the foot traffic — not a tremendous amount, by the standards of some cities she’d visited, but it definitely wasn’t a ghost town — the air was eerily silent, save for the occasional mournful air, sung by the dead birds.
Occasionally, there were street signs, each with names as strange and morbid as the last. They proceeded down the Carpal Tunnel, as it led out onto Vertebrae Way, where rows of small shops were set into the sheer obsidian walls. These ranged from a newsagent’s, Grave Tidings, to a cheery-looking drinks bar that proclaimed itself a ‘Spookeasy’. Unfortunately, as she was informed, many of the beverages and foodstuffs of Mictlan were designed for people with basically no biological processes, and were often incredibly poisonous. That didn’t stop her eye-rollingly ‘appreciating’ the names all these places had.
“I’m not actually sure why I’m in the lead,” said Red, after a short while walking. “I’ve never been here before, and only have the barest idea where I’m going.”
Indeed, he had been stopping at corners, reading more of the tourist information maps that were visible, dark tombstone-slabs sticking up from pavement on particularly portentous-looking intersections. The maps were colour-coded, if those colours you wanted coding were shades of grey, but it was easy enough for Red — with some help from everyone else, crowding around the map — to plot a zigzagging course through the honeycomb of streets.
“If you look enough like you know where you’re going,” Alice replied, “people are gonna follow you.”
[I Have Never Been Here Either.]
“I’ve been here,” said Aidra, “it’s just funny, watching you work out where you’re going.”
Nik frowned. “Wait, I haven’t actually been to Mictlan. How did you end up here?”
“Rude! We’re not each others’ keepers, we can come here separately.”
“So why did you come here then?”
“Eh, field trip with Gyran. Just to get away from it all, maybe dethrone a tyrant, that kind of thing.” He made a vague gesture with his hand, encompassing a wide array of Holiday Activities.
“That absolutely fails to answer my question,” said Nik.
“Does that surprise you?”
Red cleared his throat. “So, from here, we have to go up past this probably residential area, and the Causeway’s just past there.”
Alice frowned. “Probably residential?”
“That’s what it says on the sign.”
The Borough of Probable Residence was, to say the least, appropriately-named. The road zigged and then zagged through a cleft between two larger buildings, edifices, monuments, and up either side of the sheer obsidian walls, lumpy shapes like bone coccoons, like the hives of vast wasps, hung and jutted. It was like pale bubbles on a still, dark lake, if that lake was vertical and made of stone. Occasionally, a many-legged pale shape would leave one cocoon — each of which must have been as large as a room, at least — and scuttled over to one of the others, across the rock or along thin bridges that spanned the wide road, far above the pedestrians’ heads.
“They were right,” Alice remarked. “That does look like it’s probably a residence.”