The Void closed around them in a dreadful analogy to the freezing water of deepest ocean. It simply wasn’t, in a way that didn’t quite register in the mind. There was no direction, but Alice could feel that, ahead of her somewhere, a small red light shone, a faint trail, a thread dangling towards her in a landscape that closed around her like her entire field of vision was a blind spot. She knew Red was near, felt him ahead, perhaps, closer to the trail they were both following, drawing her along, but she couldn’t detect him with any of her sane or lucid senses.
Time stretched like putty. Space sped up and slowed down. And then they landed, stepping free of the Void in a dark concrete corridor lit by sporadic fluorescent lights that hung bare from the ceiling.
“Okay,” Red whispered, glancing carefully around. “The cloak’s still functioning, and I brought us in close to, but not next to, wherever that dude with the sunglasses was going.”
“Why are you whispering?” she replied, at speaking volume.
He didn’t respond to that, but fixed her with a Look that carried with it the weight of a thousand unspoken curse words. She smirked back at him.
“Good to see you’re back to quipping,” he said.
“Yeah,” she said, thoughtfully. “I think doing a magic thing and getting my brain dunked in whatever primordial chaos is going on out in the Void does wonders for any anxiety on these matters.”
“I don’t believe that’s good medical advice.”
“Hush. Now, where are we?”
“STAR containment?” Red looked up and down the corridor, taking in its humming lights, and its bare concrete walls. The air didn’t smell damp, but it certainly smelled like someone had gone to a great effort to make the smell less damp.
“I mean, I don’t see any… cells? Cells sounds like a ‘containment’ kinda thing, right?”
He frowned. “Hmm.”
“Hold on a second.” He murmured something arcane-sounding, and his irises lit up, gleaming redly in the dim illumination. “Actually, I can show you, if you’d like.”
Red blinked, his eyes growing brighter, bathing them both in strange illumination. The pulsing crimson light glinted off of fine threads, like gleaming hairs, around them both.
“These are your connections,” he said. “The ones in other Realms are all folded behind your higher-dimensional shadow, so it’s just the connections you’ve made in this Realm that’re visible, here.”
“Oh, okay,” she said, looking around at a bunch of frayed and broken threads that swirled mournfully around her. She reached for them, her hand passing through them with neither sensation nor resistance. “Are these… my friends? Why they don’t know me?”
“Yes, but see this one here,” he said brightly, pointing at an unbroken thread that led off into a solid concrete wall. “That’s your friend Tim, by process of elimination.”
“Right, so we just follow that one…”
“… and it’ll lead us right to wherever he’s being kept! And, with luck, your other friend is being kept nearby. If not, I think we’d be able to trace connections from him, onward, to Sasha.”
“Oh, that’s good,” she said, looking down to the space between herself and Red, which was spanned by a veritable spiderweb of glittering threads.
He reached out with his right hand, and unlike when Alice tried it, the crystal of his fingers touched the thread that led from her into the concrete wall. Light briefly flickered within his palm, and when he drew his hand away, the thread briefly vibrated, like the string of a guitar.
“Yeah,” he said. “Wherever this leads, it’s pretty nearby. Definitely someone who remembers you, even if it isn’t Tim. That’ll be a place to start.” He looked at the string as it trailed off into the wall. “So… left or right?”
They went left, after Alice dug a weird plastic Library coin out of her pocket and Red lost the flip. The corridors were silent, apart from the sound of their footsteps, and seemed interminable. Occasionally, they passed a ‘cell’ — a bare concrete room set back from the corridor, behind a massive pane of glass.
Red paused at the first cell they found, taking a couple steps into its alcove and peering through the glass. “Huh.”
“Is there something in there?” she asked, peering around him into the damp-looking and seemingly empty room.
He tapped the glass with a chime of crystal on glass. “This isn’t glass. Where’d these people get hold of clear adamant?”
“Yeah, but what’s that, though?”
“Very indestructible, mostly. It’s quarried from, like, weird planetoids that fall from the sky in the Forge. I guess they must have some kind of supplier or something. Or maybe they make it? That seems like the stupidest way to do it, so I think it’s probably the accurate one.”
“Was this just the adamant stuff you were looking at? Because I don’t see anything in the cell.”
“Hm. I thought I saw something. Either it’s very well-hidden or it’s not actually there anymore.”
She shrugged. “Maybe you saw our reflections in the not-glass?”
They passed around a dozen more cells before they reached a cell that was definitely occupied. The plain concrete of the room beyond the glasslike ‘adamant’ was streaked with mould and damp, and in one of the far corners, a figure sat or crouched, facing away from the light from the corridor.
“Well,” said Alice, watching whatever or whoever it was. “This is straight out of a horror movie.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Red replied. “This one doesn’t look like much of a ‘Tim’.”
She pursed her lips, peering into the dark, dank cell at its occupant. “I mean, probably not? I really can’t tell from over here.”
She reached out, tentatively, as if to knock on the glass, but Red caught her wrist.
“Hey, wait a second. Look.”
He pointed, and she looked at the figure again. They still sat or crouched, hunched over so she couldn’t see their head, only some hair, maybe, poking over the top of their shoulders — the hair didn’t look like Tim’s, it was too light — and it looked like they were wearing a long cloak or greatcoat or some kind of smock, maybe, which trailed on the floor of the cell behind them.
She lowered her hand and turned to look at him. “Look at what?” Turning back to the window, she continued. “It’s just a — GAH!”
The figure was standing across from her, now, face right up against the glass. They’d somehow managed to cross the distance silently in the second or so she’d been looking away.
She could see how, from a distance and possibly in dim light, it’d be possible to mistake this creature for a human. Their face was spongy and pale, close-up, with dark pits roughly positioned where someone would expect eyes to be, and as they pressed their face and hands against the ‘glass’, their face squished and deformed like clay, flattening against the surface.
Alice took a couple of steps back, instinctively, and made several noises of disgust that were hard to transliterate, until she composed herself enough to say some actual words. “Yeah, okay,” she squeaked, “I don’t know that person.”
As she moved away from the glass, the figure turned in her direction, their face leaving a wet trail as it slid unsettlingly across the window with a squeaking noise that was only barely muffled by the glass.
“Yeah,” said Red, pulling a face. “I suppose we know now, why it’s so wet in there. That’s a mermic.”
“Yeah, I don’t know how it got into Materia, you usually find them skulking around in deep seas or coastal places, pretending to be people to lure sailors to their doom?”
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the name. How did they spot us?”
He shrugged. “Telepathy, I think? Normally they’d already be pretending to be something specifically designed to be alluring or pitiful or something, so you’ll get close enough for them to eat you. I guess the layer of clear adamant is blocking that out, unless you’re into spongy, wet people?”
“Well, let’s not hang around for long enough to see anything we’d be embarrassed by. Or, worse, some kind of horrible chimeric combination of things they think we’d be interested in freeing from prisons.”