“I’m Alice.” She paused for an awkward second. “Um. We’ve met.”
“Yeah, I… I think so. And you’re Alice? The same Alice those weirdos were insisting lived in the same house as me and Rachel?”
“Yeah,” she grimaced. “I know it’s confusing, but I’m your housemate.”
“Then why don’t I remember you?”
“I don’t actually know. I’m sure Red — that guy, he’s the one who woke you up — has some theories, but I’m not sure any of us have any real idea.”
“Hi,” said Red, giving a little wave, then following Sasha’s confused expression down to his hand. “Oh, right. It’s magical.”
She blinked. “I… okay? Right, sure, it might as well be that. I’m in a strange bed, this guy’s got a weird hand, and I’ve finally met the Alice they were apparently talking about. Fine.”
“Maybe we should have roused them both at once,” said Red. “Getting someone up to speed twice is probably inefficient.”
“Um,” said Tim, “am I really up to speed?”
He shrugged. “Velocity is relative.”
“Okay,” said Alice, holding up a hand for quiet. “Red and I will explain everything we can once we’re out of this spooky concrete maze.”
“Who’s this ‘Red’ they keep talking about?” someone else asked. No-one noticed.
“So what is this place?” Sasha asked. She stood up shakily, and looked around, up and down the cell-lined hallway, stretching away into the dark.
“It’s where STA— where a shadowy organisation hides impossible and magical things,” said Red.
“I don’t feel very impossible or magical,” Sasha replied.
“Well, once you’re impossible or magical, it won’t seem quite so impossible or magical anymore. But yes, you don’t appear to be impossible or magical.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Did you want to be impossible or magical?”
“I mean, kinda.”
“It is possible to learn magic,” Alice pointed out, “so that’s one out of two?”
“Alice,” said Red, “the number of your friends who are going to want me to teach them magic seems to be increasing geometrically. I’m an individual of many talents, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep up.”
“Isn’t one of your ‘many talents’ being in more than one place at once?”
“That doesn’t actually make it okay to volunteer me as the entire faculty of some theoretical institute of higher magical learning.”
“Red. It’s at most two people.” She clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t get ahead of yourself — I’m not going to ask you to teach everyone I’ve ever known.”
“Well, count me mildly reassured.”
“Grand! Now, let’s get out of this dump.” She turned, addressing Tim and Sasha. “You two ready?”
Tim and Sasha, given an opportunity to not stand around awkwardly listening to Red and Alice’s argument, nodded.
“Cool, good. Should we—” she took a step forward, and stopped.
She felt off-balance, like her feet were walking out from underneath herself, so she stopped.
“Ah, excuse me,” said someone who wasn’t worth mentioning. “I’m afraid I can’t let you leave.”
“Should we what?” Red asked.
“I—” she started, taking another half-step forward before stopping. “I don’t know?”
She couldn’t move, maybe? But her arm, her shoulder— her thoughts slid past it like it wasn’t there — she was stuck for some re—
“Look,” someone said, unimportantly, “I can’t let you leave, because— oh, wait a second. You can’t perceive me.”
She became aware of the hand gripping her shoulder before she connected it to the arm it was attached to, half a second before the whole person she’d somehow been unaware of materialised next to her. But that wasn’t right, they’d always been there, she just somehow… hadn’t noticed. She spun to face them, shrugging her shoulder from their grasp. The darkness of the twisted corridors warped, deepened and rippled. In a moment, the light she was holding in her hand flickered, guttered and vanished, snuffed out by a sudden pressure of supernatural darkness. And, as the light failed and she was left in the perfect dark, she saw three points, three eyes, darker than the darkness, empty and unfathomable as a moonless, starless night. Startled, she focused on her light, the potential for light, forcing her mind as hard as she could into its luminous shape, but all she could feel was a dark pressure, pushing back against her thoughts. Like a dam sundering, she broke through, and light exploded into existence in her cupped palm, almost blinding in its sudden intensity.
The light she cast was a far more brilliant green than normal, and spread from her hand like a shockwave, forcing the darkness back with an almost physical force — blanketing the corridor in eerie light and harsh shadow. Scraps of darkness clung unnaturally, blowing about a tall figure whose three dark eyes were simple pits of empty cold in a face whose features were still hidden. They shied from the light, and Alice felt the magical pressure release, all of a sudden. In response, the light in her hand blazed, so bright and hot and green that it felt like her hand was on fire. She flinched, raised a hand in front of her face, briefly seeing her bones outlined in the light through her skin, before Red snatched the bead of flaring, searing light from her hand and snuffed it between his hands. She was left standing in darkness again, trying to blink away the after images, before another, smaller light appeared, hovering above Red’s shoulder.
“Did any of that burn you?” he asked, shaking his gently-smoking hands.
“I don’t think so,” she said, looking down at her hand and gently flexing her fingers. Her skin was a bit pink, but her hand felt fine.
She looked around — the newcomer had backed away, covering their face, still surrounded by clinging shadows, which twitched and smoked as the light fell on them. They groaned, standing up straighter and rubbing at their face.
“Okay. I wasn’t expecting a mage of that potency. Ow.”
They twitched their hand, and shadows crawled from the recesses of their sleeves, solidifying into a long gnarled staff in their grasp, which they used to support themself as they shielded their eyes from the light. Despite their three dark eyes, they looked fairly normal once they were out of the shadows — their face was narrow and angular, pale against their dark maroon robes and framed by dark hair.
“What the hell?” Alice demanded, surprise giving way to annoyance. “Who are you and where do you get off, appearing from nowhere to tell us not to go places?”
They blinked. “Um. I am… my name is Nyx, and you’re the ones who were wandering around this restricted area. Actually, yeah!” Their expression shifted to one of annoyance. “You’re in a restricted area!”
“Wasn’t very clearly signposted, was it, Red?”
He nodded. “I certainly didn’t see anything when we arrived.”
Nyx raised their staff, pointing it at her. “Who are you talking to?”
“Uh.” She indicated Red. “This guy?”
They looked at her blankly. “It was already difficult to find you earlier, cloaked in the Deep as you were, and you’re telling me there’s another layer of obfuscation? And— and, it doesn’t matter how you got in, this place is still a restricted area! Some of the creatures down here are dangerous!”
“Since you’re also keeping these two —” she indicated Tim and Sasha, who were subtly shuffling away from the weird wizard-person — “perfectly normal humans here after kidnapping them for no reason, I’m not even sure that anything you’re keeping locked up here is dangerous! And even if it is, I’m sure that’s not helped by the fact that you’re keeping all these things locked up here in tiny boxes.”
“I mean,” said Red, “I’d estimate that maybe three out of four of the things they have here are legitimately too dangerous, destructive, or just plain hungry to let romp around an unprotected Materian partition but, like, it’s rarely that hard to send them back to their home Realms and habitats.”
She raised an eyebrow and glared at him, but at least he wasn’t undermining her argument where this Nyx person could hear him.
“Are you some kind of… animal rights activists? For, er, monsters? Cryptids? Anomalies? How would that even work?”
“We don’t even need to be from the… the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to… to Aliens! You kidnapped two people, we could just call the police!”