The thread of connection thrummed, blurring like the plucked string of a guitar.
“Looks like we’re getting close,” said Red, holding his hand up to illuminate the thread stretching from Alice, down a corridor and out of sight.
“What’s it doing?”
“As you get closer, the resonances start being more visible. It’s kinda like both of you are holding the ends of a string, and as you get closer, it starts to bunch up. It’ll settle down as you start to, uh, ‘reel it in’?”
“It’s not a perfect metaphor.”
“I can tell.”
Corridors stretched and bent like clay, splitting and rejoining like light through a broken prism. Doorways sagged and twisted, but it was all still solid stone.
“I really don’t like the look of this,” Alice said, looking up at a corridor that extended vertically from the latest junction, up into the darkness and out of sight. “This place… it’s not quite the same, but it’s acting like that weird tower the creepy evil version of yourself was in, with the weird melty bits.”
“Not terribly dissimilar, actually. Much as the ‘weird melty bits’ of tower were the edge of, er, myself’s sphere of influence, the large collection of extraRealmic concepts contained here have had a pretty adverse effect on, well, the architecture. I doubt it’s at nearly the same scale, though — the reality potential gradients are entirely more shallow, so the effects are less, er, liquid?”
“Yeah, that’s what it appears to be. It’s not just some architect just having a breakdown when they were asked to design this place.”
“Do you think anything’s up there?”
“I mean. There’s no ladder or anything, so maybe not?”
Alice looked around, into the long shadows her light spell was casting. Nothing looked back, and she tried to be reassured. The sooner she found Tim and got out of this horrible maze of empty hallways and trapped horrors, the better. It was probably approaching an hour of wandering, and she hadn’t seen any sign of human life at all — if people from STAR ever came here, they weren’t here now.
Behind Alice and Red, down the corridor, there weren’t any sounds of footfalls worth mentioning, and whatever slowly stalked along, following their path, did so unremarkably.
Out of the gloom, for the first time in their traversal of the sickened maze of warped concrete, a radioactively-bright yellow sign emerged. It bore a toilet stall’s icon of a human, and the words ‘HUMANOID CONTAINMENT: MINIMUM SECURITY’ in big, bold letters.
Red raised an eyebrow. “Your friend Tim, does he seem like a ‘minimum-security humanoid’ type?”
“Well, looks like we’re closing in, then.”
“We’ve been ‘closing in’ for over an hour, now.”
“If you start asking me if we’re nearly there yet, I’m turning us around.”
Alice snorted, and the pair of them kept walking.
The cells they passed made a transition from the bare, unadorned concrete boxes they had been so far to bearing carpets, beds and chairs, resembling either reasonably-appointed prison cells or particularly depressing motorway services hotel rooms.
“Treating the humanoids better, aren’t they?”
“Seems so,” said Red. “I mean, it’s not like a Dire Machine would need, want or even notice ‘comfort’ in its accommodations, but it’s probably also a matter of empathy. It’s harder to look at something truly unlike yourself and then imagine that it could have needs or wants similar to the way you do.”
“Right,” she replied, looking into the next cell.
The walls, floor, bed and chairs were all covered in long gouges, stuffing from cushions and shreds of bedsheet scattered over the floor. On a solitary, broken chair at the centre of the cell, a painfully gaunt but otherwise normal-human-looking man sat, crisply-pressed grey suit hanging on his shoulders like it would from a coathanger. He was sitting perfectly still as they passed, head down, grey-streaked dark hair hanging in front of his face.
“That one just looks like some dude. What’s he even— GAH!”
As she started to talk, the man’s head whipped up, and he stared at them with solid-black, cold eyes ringed with just the faintest hint of white, like they were almost filled with pupil. He twitched his head from side to side, nostrils flaring like he was sniffing the air, staring at Red and Alice, through them, without any indication that he actually saw them. His grey lips peeled back into something that had a similar shape to a smile, baring an impressive set of extremely sharp and serrated-looking teeth.
“Sheesh,” she muttered, watching as the strange shark-man sniffed the air. “More creatures that notice us despite the whole anti-perception thing.”
“Yeah,” Red replied, just loud enough for her to hear. “I’d say something about how difficult it is to plug all the holes in a perception filter, but that guy’s also maybe smelling us through an airtight window, so I’m sure there’s something going on. I can’t write an edge case about every single weird esoteric sense a creature might have into the spell, just in case. The best I can do is try to dissolve connections as soon as they arise.”
“What is he? Some kind of shark person?”
“Yeah, some kind of shark person. There’s a lot of things in the Realms, and I can’t be expected to recognise them all on sight.”
“Really?” She smirked. “You don’t know everything?”
“I know it’s hard to believe.”
She snorted. “Yeah, keep thinking that.”
“Actually,” said Red, once they’d started walking again, “that gives me an idea. Humour me a second.”
“Not sure I’m actually interested in humouring you,” she replied.
“I get that a lot,” he said brightly, doubling back and walking briskly to the cell they’d just passed, brushing past someone uninteresting as he did.
Alice trailed after him. “Wait, I didn’t say I’d actually humour you.”
“Uh-huh.” He pressed his right hand against the clear adamant window of the cell. “If you later decide this is a bad idea, you can claim you didn’t humour me at the time, if you want.”
“That is not how that works. Also, what are you even doing?”
He took his hand away from the window, and his odd fork-like sigil briefly glowed crimson on the surface, before subsiding to invisibility. He looked at it for a moment, pensively.
“I reiterate my previous question,” she said.
He grinned at her. “It’s a surprise.”
“You’re not making me more likely to humour you, you know.”
“Okay, fine, but it’s a contingency surprise, so I’ll tell you what would have happened if I don’t get around to setting it off before we leave.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, but relented. “It better be a good surprise.”
“A great surprise.”
“Are you going to do that for every cell?” She started regretting that she’d humoured him.
“Right, hmm,” he said. “What if I…”
He held out his hand, pointing at the next cell. Within it, a creature shifted, as if pacing, translating itself around the cell in a rolling, undulating tangle of limbs. It unfolded and shifted with no regard as to the laws of perspective or topology, like some kind of mobile optical illusion, hands and feet and hands and feet and hands and feet clambering over, under and through chair and bed and table. As she watched, Red clenched his fist, and with a little flicker of light, his glyph appeared on the surface of the window before fading out of view.
“Well,” he said triumphantly, “that’ll make it quicker. Great, because that was going to start getting old very fast.”
More of the cells were occupied, as they walked through the last few junctions. The occupants were ‘humanoid’, or at least they were entities or creatures that had approximately two legs, two arms and a single head each. For all that Red had been defensive when she maligned his perception filtering, only a handful of the dozens of ‘low-security humanoids’ in the cells seemed to pay them even the slightest heed — they were busy climbing on the walls, exuding slime onto the furniture or standing ominously in a far corner of a cell, facing the wall. The ensemble cast was certainly giving Alice the feel of a prison, or maybe a zoo, full of offcuts from shlocky horror films.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Red said after what had to have been the umpteenth inhabited cell. “But this will eventually have a payoff. And it’s not even slowing us down that much.”
She nearly walked past Tim’s cell, before she recognised the figure lying on the bed. His hair was longer than she remembered, he looked dishevelled and worried and tired.
“Hey, Red! He’s here!” She ran up to the glassy window, knocking on the adamant, which rang with an odd, un-glasslike noise. “Hey, Tim! Tim!”
On the bed, eyes closed, facing toward her, he didn’t react. He didn’t even twitch.
She felt Red’s hand on her shoulder. “Perception filter, remember. He won’t notice us.”
“Then deactivate it! And— and where’s Sasha?”
“Uh.” Red circled around her, looking into the next couple of cells. “Over here. And I’m not sure we should—”
She wasn’t listening. She rushed to the cell, and there Sasha was, similarly unconscious, laid on the neatly-made bed.
“We need to get them out! How do I—”
“Deep breaths. We’re going to get them out, but one thing at a time. We’ve found them, okay?”
She grimaced, and held back a couple of biting retorts, but she managed to take a few breaths, a few steps back from frantic urgency and near-panic.
“Right,” she croaked.
“Now,” he said, walking over to Tim’s cell with Alice in tow. “Clear adamant is tough, but with the right thaumic harmonics, it does this.”
He had barely brushed it with his crystalline hand, but the window sang, a beautiful, piercing tone that made Tim scrunch up his face as he started to stir, bleary eyed, only to watch with blank confusion as the entire window blurred, rippled and disintegrated.
“Uh,” Tim said, “what? Is anyone there?”
Red took a step behind her, before reaching out and touching her shoulder. “He’ll need to see a friendly face, I think.”
She felt something like a thread break, somewhere internally, as the spell of perception ended, and Tim looked at her, focusing on her, seeing her.
“Alice?” His voice, his expression held an unthinkable hope.
It took her a second to find her voice. “Yes. It’s me.”
“Ah,” said someone entirely unremarkable. “There you are.”