The corridors continued with neither rhyme nor reason, zig-zagging, branching, rejoining. It was as if the seed of an underground parking garage had been let grow rampant, twisted and malignant as it burrowed through the ground. Long and slightly damp hallways coiled along with neither obvious purpose, clear organisation, or any signage at all. Most of the cells they passed were empty. Some, however, had things in, which shuffled behind the glass in strange inhuman shapes, or simply stood and stared as Red and Alice hurried past.
Red barely spared any of them anything other than a glance or wrinkled nose as they passed, but he stopped short at a cell whose window had been burst open from the inside. It was fascinating to observe the entirely un-glasslike way that the clear adamant of the window had been pushed outward, bending instead of shattering, until finally it had torn open, leaving a jagged rent across the centre of the window, maybe five feet across at the widest.
Red whistled. “Yeesh.”
“Hmm? Is it bad?”
“Clear adamant is pretty tough. I wouldn’t want to be on the other end of whatever did that.” He indicated a set of long, parallel grooves in the adamant, and scored into the concrete floor.
“Maybe? Let’s just… keep going, shall we? I’m sure STAR have dealt with whatever this was, and it isn’t still rampaging around this place. I’m very sure,” he added, sounding very unsure.
They pressed onward, along corridors and hallways that branched and stretched like a sickly plant that hadn’t ever known much light, growing spindly and pale in the dark. Some of the halls were slightly too wide, too narrow, too tall or short, and some of them twisted strangely, like the architecture itself was warping under the pressure of growing so branched, so burdened by what had to be thousands of cells. At each clear fork, they paused to check which way the glittering thread of Alice’s connection pointed as it led them down a circuitous path of indistinguishable, mildly damp corridors.
“None of this makes any sense,” said Alice, after a spate of dead ends and tumorously twisted corridors. “Why’s this place so damn convoluted?”
“I have no idea.”
“Is this even… where would this even be?”
Red looked around, taking in the damp stains on the plain concrete walls. “Underground, somewhere wet, maybe? I can’t say I’m an expert on Materian geography.”
“There’s no windows, so I guess it could be anywhere. We could be—” She trailed off.
“Could be what?” Red was walking ahead of her, so it took him a couple of steps forward to realise she wasn’t following. He glanced back. “You okay?”
For a long moment, she didn’t answer, her gaze fixed on the reflective blackness of the latest cell’s window. “I could have sworn I saw something. Like… like when you shine a light into a dark wood and see eyes shine back.”
Red slowly turned and peered at the window. “Well, I can’t see anything there, but that sure was an ominous way to tell me that.”
She shivered. “This place just gives me the creeps. First that weird sponge-person—”
“You can’t make me say that like it’s a word that makes sense. First, the weird sponge-person, then that one that was full of all those glowing plants—”
“I’ve thought about that one — I think it was the leftover detritus from a Life elemental.”
“— Right, a Life elemental magical glowing cabbage. Then there was the one with all the clocks, and the other one with all the spiders? What’s that about?”
“Realms are broad in concept, and some of those concepts end up here, I suppose.”
They started walking again. She couldn’t quite shake the feeling that she was being watched, couldn’t quite dismiss the image of gleaming eyes staring out of her own reflection in the window. It didn’t feel like anything was back, all of a sudden, that Carpalithos had crawled its way out of wherever it had wandered off to, or that some scrap of the shadow was still clinging to her like a bad smell, but it still made her wary, and perhaps that was what she needed, for the moment.
Distracted by that train of thought, she nearly walked right past the next occupied cell — it was the first one after nearly twenty that were merely damply empty. She started, briefly convinced the glowing eyes in the dark were back, but it was merely the glint of something metallic, slowly moving behind the dark not-glass. Red had also failed to immediately notice it, so she called him over and took a closer look. It was dark, off of the corridor, so she raised her hand, tensed her mind in that familiar way, and a point of light bloomed in her palm, gleaming off of the metal behind the ‘glass’.
The cell was almost completely full of machinery, a nearly solid surface of shifting gears, cams, and chains that glittered in the light from her spell as they moved. Behind those, layers upon layers of similar machinery continued, deeper into the cell and out of sight, packed in such fluidly-moving density that she couldn’t see the floor on the other side of the window. A gentle ticking emerged from the cell, so muffled by the adamant window that it was barely possible to hear.
She moved her light around, peering in through the window. It seemed that the machine started just behind the window, with barely enough gap to keep the twitching mechanisms from scraping the window.
She turned to Red. “What’s this?”
“I have no idea how it got here,” he replied, “but that looks like a Dire Machine. Weird and stunted, but unmistakable.”
“What’s a ‘Dire Machine’?”
“Like a normal machine, but worse. How are they even containing it? It should be perfectly capable of eating through the walls.”
She snorted. “Surprised that STAR’s being competent?”
“I mean, I’d probably say that a competent shadowy organisation would have put this thing back in the Forge, in its natural habitat, where it has natural predators and stuff, and won’t do the whole invasive species-concept thing. I wouldn’t want to be here when whatever they’ve poisoned it with wears off.”
There was a moment’s pause as Alice strained to hear the ticking noises. It was so close to the edge of her hearing, a gentle clicking in a syncopation of patterns that she felt she could almost decipher. Were there messages for her, in the click of gears, the whir of mechanisms, the chimes of tiny bells?
“Right, that’s enough siren-song listening.” Red took her by the shoulders and gently steered her away from the cell, where the noise of the Dire Machine was starting to worm its way in through her skull.
“Aww, Red, it was starting to get interesting…”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say. C’mon.” He took her hand and started moving away from the Machine.
As they stepped out into the main corridor, they brushed past someone who wasn’t interesting, and set back off.
It didn’t take very much walking for Alice to realise she’d been acting weirdly. Reflexively, she looked around, furtively, to see if anyone had noticed, but it was just Red, still leading her by the hand. She almost started looking around to see who noticed that, but decided that was getting silly, even if her face did feel a little warm.
“So, um,” she said, sidling up next to Red, “what was all that about?”
“Oh, the Dire Machine? They’ve got this thing where they kinda… exude elemental Order or something, and it gets into your head and your ideals start aligning with the Machine’s, and so forth. If they get out of hand, they tend to get surrounded by cults and such, listening to the noises they make and trying to transcribe them. Whatever STAR’s been doing to keep it in the box isn’t foolproof, and I guess they don’t come down here enough to notice that this effect is escaping?”
Alice thought for a moment. “Interesting. I have an unrelated question. You said you brought us ‘close’ to where the sunglasses guy was going, but we’ve been walking for what, half an hour? How close is ‘close’?”
“I’ll admit it’s been further than I expected.”
“You’ll admit that, huh?”
“In my defence,” he retorted, “the entire planet probably counts as ‘nearby’ as far as the Outer Void is concerned. Be glad we’re probably in the same building.”
“I’m filled with confidence,” she replied. “How many weird sets of subterranean nightmare tunnels could there even be?”