Contractual Catastrophe

“Call the— what? I… do you not know where we are?”

“Obviously not. Earth, probably?” Alice looked at Red. He shrugged.

“Well, yes, Earth, but this facility is embedded deep in the Eurasian continental plate and has no conventional entrances or exits. There is no way the mortal authorities could make their way down here.”

“Wait, if there’s no entrances or exits, where are the ‘no trespassing’ signs?”

Nyx sighed. “Well, nowhere, but—”

Hah! Then you didn’t tell us this was a restricted area! There’s no way we could have known.”

They didn’t roll their eyes — or if they did, it was indistinguishable on their pupilless, empty gaze — but they did move their head in an exaggerated motion that seemed to indicate that eye-rolling was something that was happening. An exasperoll, perhaps.

“This facility is not restricted because of any signs,” Nyx said, raising their staff off the ground. “This facility is restricted because I will keep you from leaving. Seize them!” they barked, bringing their staff down onto the ground with a crack and a shower of black sparks.

Alice tried to step back, but something cold caught her leg. Glancing down, her own shadow was winding itself around her legs like a snake, trapping her feet and shins in its freezing coils. Sasha squeaked and Tim shouted in alarm as something similar happened to them. Reaching down, Alice focused on her light, cupping her hand and trying to point the light at her feet, as the solid shadow roiled, bubbled and writhed, frantically trying to escape the transfixing beam of light even as it burned away under the relentless radiance. And then, because all was fair in love, war, and breaking her friends out of some weird supernatural prison, she pointed the light into Nyx’s face.

Dagh!” They stumbled back, their staff vanishing like a puff of smoke as they dropped it, covering their face. “Oh damned to the Deep, I—”

They held up a hand, thin ribbons of dark fire dancing at the ends of their fingers, but their aim was off, and she ducked to the side as a beam of utter darkness sliced through the air with an eerie silencing effect, splattering against the far wall like tar.

Red!” she shouted. “Can you hide us?

“That’s incredibly short notice!” was what he said, but his hands were already moving, manipulating a set of glittering threads, like a spider who’d learned how to play full-contact cat’s cradle.

Ducking under Nyx’s fitful, untargeted beams of prismatic darkness, she ran over to Tim and Sasha, shining light on their legs and feet until their shadowy bonds loosened enough that they could kick themselves free and start to run, following Alice and Red’s lead as they dashed down one of the drab concrete tunnels.

Tim spoke up once they’d rounded a few corners and slowed down slightly. “So, uh. How are we going to get away? I mean, they could have been lying about there being no way out, but they’re still some kind of… shadow wizard, and—”

Void wizard,” Red corrected. He was still spinning a trailing spiderweb of crimson threads between his fingers, trying his best to keep a steady hold of his working as he jogged along. “Less about darkness, more about unknowable things, veiling things from perceptions.”

Alice nearly stopped short. “Wait, was it them who cast that weird spell on Sash? That made her fall asleep?”

“Now that I think of it, yeah,” he replied. “Sasha, who was it that came to visit you?”

“Uh, it was two people in suits and dark sunglasses, a tall one and a quiet one? Wait, I think the quiet one was that Nyx person, but they didn’t have the third eye, or the weird robes.”

“Veiled,” said Red. “Two layers of perception baffles — one to make them and the other one seem normal to outsiders.”

“Why couldn’t we see them, then?”

“Ah, that’s relatively easy to explain. It’s actually harder to notice someone under a Void effect if you yourself are closer to the Void. It’s like… seeing something through two layers of concealment.”

“All very interesting,” said Tim, who was jogging directly behind the rest of the group, “but we’re still being chased, aren’t we?”

“Nearly… done with…” Red muttered, looping more spiralling threads around his fingers. “Hey, Alice, hold this a second. Think about… cold darkness, or being alone.”

She sighed, but took the skein of weird magic string from him. It was bitterly cold to the touch, like sticking her hands in a bucket of icy water. She winced, but centred herself and focused on the sensation of empty, lonely, lightless cold that oozed from the coiling geometric threads and ribbons of light.

“Right, hold up,” said Red, after a second of magical weaving. “We need to stand still for this next bit, it’s fiddly.”

He took his loops and whorls of weird magic string from her as the group drew to a nervous stop, glancing back down the darkened hallway and straining their ears for any sound of Nyx’s approach. Across the hall from them, the cell held a roughly-humanoid lump of jagged pink crystals standing perfectly still in the centre of the room. Similar pink crystals sprouted from the floor of the cell around its feet, spreading across the floor of the cell and slightly up the front window and walls, encrusting the furniture in sharp-looking growths.

“Right, right,” said Red, walking around the rest of the group, scattering glowing lines into the air, where they floated, forming constellations of geometric patterns. “Linking us together at the metaconceptual level, drawing from the residual energies of the void on us, and—“

No.” The voice wasn’t loud, but it still managed to echo along the corridor.

The spiralling lines of Red’s magic shivered, flickers of violet intruding on the crimson light before they crumbled, swirling back along the corridor like sand down an hourglass. Nyx stepped out of the shadows that clung unnaturally to the walls, hand raised, and the reddish-violet dregs of the working collapsed in a vortex to a point in their palm.

They closed their hand, and the light briefly flashed between their fingers before going dark. “I can’t perceive your associate, yet. But tracing disturbances in the Deep? I could sense you by implication, if nothing else.”

“Ah crap,”  said Red, frozen partway through an arcane gesture. “Plan B?”

“Which one’s that?” Alice whispered in response.

“The one where I stall for time and—” he raised his voice. “I invoke the negotiation clause as it pertains to the Red Right Hand and the Council of STAR!

Nothing happened for a moment, but then Nyx started. “D’agh!” they yelped. “Where did you come from?”

“Contractual nonexistence, I guess. Anyway, Nyx, was it?” He smiled, and took a step forwards.

Nyx, for their part, frowned and took a step backwards. “Yes. Who are you?”

“Oh, they call me Red. I think I met your predecessor, you know. Short lady, blindfolded?”

They squinted at him, suspiciously. “I never met her. Why do you have some kind of contract with STAR?”

He shrugged. “We came to a mutual understanding, a while back. It certainly came as an unpleasant surprise to have my associates, here, kidnapped and held without explanation by STAR. So I thought I’d come here and, well. Express my displeasure.”

“Uh. Is that how you’re here? We broke the contract, accidentally, and now you’re allowed in?”

“Oh no,” said Red, grinning a bit wider and more maliciously. “I stayed away out of courtesy. Madrigal didn’t want me doing anything like this.”

He held his right hand up, and as the crystal briefly caught the light, Alice saw lines of magic, threads wrapped around his hand and arm, stretching away to the window next to them, and away into the darkness around them, like his hand was pushing at the centre of a spiderweb. And, in response, on the cell window nearby, a little red sign glowed. A familiar little red sign.

“The thing about adamant, as I’ve told my friends here, is that it’s very strong to rational forces, but if you set up the right harmonics, it’s very fragile.”

Nyx’s expression took a brief stop at confusion before heading directly to dawning horror. “Wait. No! You don’t know what you’re—”

“Oh, and if you really know what you’re doing—” Red rubbed two of his crystal fingers together, the air sang with strange music, and the threads thrummed, “you can set up something to really spread those resonances around.”

Nyx lunged forward, but Red had already snapped his fingers. The air sang, the threads vibrated, the symbol on the window blazed with light, singing in response, and the window buzzed as it sublimated.

The sound died down, echoing down the hallways, murmuring from every bone in her body. There was a silence, and then the distant sound of screaming, roaring and other, stranger noises replaced the song, replaced the silence. Nearer by, the concrete cracked and crunched as new pink crystal growth sprouted from it, and as the vaguely human shape within the cell turned its eyeless face in their direction and started to move, sliding towards them over the carpet of crystals at the speed of a caffeinated glacier.

Nyx watched this happen in quiet horror, and looked stricken as they looked up and down the corridor, before turning back to Red. “What have you done?