Category Archives: 9.01

Null 9.1

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When I opened my eyes, rain had settled in my one eye socket.  The act of opening my eye meant that freezing water seized the surface of the eye itself, and a thin dribble ran along my cheekbone.

I blinked, and found I couldn’t see out of the one eye, even after the moisture was gone.

My hand grasped for purchase, and it found mud.

The rain was as cold as water could get without being ice.  My body was numb and damaged.  When I tried to rub a sticky smear of blood from my face, I succeeded only in getting blood on my hand and grit on my face.

Standing was hard.  The mud beneath me was the sucking sort of wet mud that could steal a shoe, or let someone sink in to mid-calf level, and refuse to let them go.  As I dug a foot in, struggling to find traction, I created an opening that let the freezing water in nearby pools flood in around my foot.

My clothes were heavy with moisture.  My winter jacket, ostensibly waterproofed, was sodden, and my clothes were worse.  Wearing some suit made of snow would be better, because snow insulated to a degree.  This just carried the cold right through to the core of my body.

The mud insulated, I noted.  I pulled myself to a sitting position and blinked the water out.  I ran my fingers through my hair, and found my hands stiff to the point of being wooden.  I’d hoped to clean them, and found the mud on my head made it impossible.  With dirty fingers, I plucked at flecks of ice that were sticking to the eyelashes of my good eye.  I blinked the resulting bit of dirt out of my eye.

Which reminded me…  I tried to look with my Sight.

Nothing.  Nothing at all.

I was partially blind in a way that went beyond one eye being fuzzy beyond the point of use.  My one good eye saw darkness, the bad one saw everything through a milky gray veil, like a badly scratched lens, but neither eye could See.

All the same, a cold darkness in the very core of me told me what I’d expected to confirm.

I felt alone.

The rain and this loneliness weren’t so unusual to me.  They were recurring themes for me.  The dirt, too, being filthy, on several levels.

I expected to be weaker than I was.  Which wasn’t to say I was strong.  I still struggled to stand, with nothing firm to set my feet on, my body weighing twice as much as it should with the caked on mud, bits of ice and collected moisture.  Various small injuries decided to wake up as I moved.  My fingertips were scraped here and there, and a throbbing pain at the meat of my left hand insisted on nagging at my attention.

I raised my face to the ‘sky’, and let the rain pummel it, running through my hair and over my face, washing away the worst of the grit and blood.  The wind hit me, changing the direction of the rain, and I swayed, one foot very nearly skidding in the mud.

My one good eye revealed a sky of sheer darkness.  It was less like a starless night, and more like I was in a cave, the roof well out of view.  The rain could be from some lake or ocean above the cave, leaking in, threatening to break through some thin layer of rock and snuff out everything beneath in one swooping motion.

That pretty much summed up the effect that the darkness had, here.  An omnipresent weight.  The roof of this place could have been twenty feet above my head or completely absent, only a limitless nothingness above.

Like the rain, it pressed everything down.  It made me want to crawl instead of walk.

The only light, when there was light, came from a single old, orange lightbulb in a cage housing, mounted on a wall of irregular stone and mortar.  It flickered, spending as much time off as on.  I couldn’t make out the rest of the structure from the distance.

All the same it cast the faintest of light through the darkness, lighting up my path, or the lack of a path.  The bits of mud that crested and rose above the puddles were shiny in the light, the briefly revealed humps and ledges suggested snakes, centipedes, squid tendrils, or crocodiles lurking with only traces of their bodies above the surface of the murk.

Here and there, grass or weeds stuck up.  They were sparse in a way that only reinforced the desolate nature of the place.  That grass could grow and couldn’t.  Wouldn’t.

I shivered, and continued my lurching progress through the sloppy mud.

The light marked the arch-like entrance to a tunnel, its sister bulb on the opposite side of the entrance fritzed out, permanently off.

My good eye studied the interior, searching for any possible trap.  I could make out another light further in.  Around a bend, just far enough that a portion of the tunnel was unlit.

I stepped into the tunnel, just one stride inside, and got my bearings.

The mud, it seemed, formed a gentle ditch, and the collected rainwater was being directed into the tunnel entrance.  The water frothed, oily black in the darkness, only the periodic foam catching the flickering light, and it churned against heaps of objects that had been dragged into this tunnel.  A shopping cart, rent and ripped, so the prongs stabbed skyward, a few planks that were nailed together in what might have been an old loading pallet.  A bit of fence.  On either side, the ledge was only about two feet across, a half-foot above the water level, where water flowed in a steady, incessant stream.  The water itself formed a gap maybe five feet across.

The walls were wet and slimy, and resembled an old tunnel wall that predated cars, rounded stones set in place with cracked mortar.  Where stones had crumbled, they had been replaced with brick.  That brick remained older than I was.

A drain.

My hands didn’t feel like my hands as I pulled off my jacket.  They felt like puppet hands I was operating by remote control.  Obeying my instructions, but not in any clever, effective way.  I still managed to hold on to my jacket and wring it out, careful to maintain my footing.  I couldn’t even hear the water I squeezed out hit anything, over the dull roar of the flowing drainage.

There was nowhere to put my jacket where it wouldn’t get dirty, so I put it down in the muck just outside the drain’s entrance.

I pulled off my sweatshirt and shirt as one single entity.  One of my hands hurt – I’d smashed it somehow, and my shoulder hurt where I’d taken some impact.

Stupid, maybe, but I couldn’t imagine getting any colder.

My inside-out shirt and sweatshirt dangling from my hands, I saw the light flicker on briefly.  Inviting me to see.

I saw the dirt that had leaked inside my clothes, and I saw the dirt move.

Bugs.  Not all of it, but some.  I’d imagined seeing great centipedes in the muck, and I saw small ones here.  Earwigs, centipedes, pillbugs, all things I’d expect to see under a rock.

Even on my arms-

The light went out.

I stopped, waiting, my arms shivering from cold and the tension of holding onto the wet fabric.

The light flickered on again.

No, not that many bugs on my arms.

Great black tracks marked the surface of each arm.  They were great thorny branches, grown mature.  No birds, but innumerable feathers, one bird’s skull with a branch growing through the eyehole.  Here and there, the branches stood alone, as if they’d broken off and fallen to earth.  Not a healthy tree, but tinder, the limbs of a great tree frozen and cast to earth by the weather.

The branches crawled up my arms, past my elbows.  One reached to my shoulder.  I couldn’t see how far up my neck it traveled.  The other was denser, painting my left arm black and brown with branches and feathers, respectively.

I touched a spot where the darkness was especially deep, on my left hand.

A crack, not a branch.  Running from the spot between my middle and ring finger to my wrist.

The light flickered off.

I tested the wound, prodding my ring finger, pushing the two halves of my hand apart.

The light flicked on.

I could see through the gap.  A yawning wound, effectively cutting my hand in half.  The ring and pinky finger were especially stiff.  The bits of flesh in the gap were nearly black, not crimson.  It barely hurt.

The wound on that same hand was an old one, a puncture wound I’d made to draw blood.  The scratches on the fingertips were self-inflicted, made for the same purpose.

Wounds I’d healed with glamour.  The glamour had been left behind, the wounds had yet to heal properly.  I’d only forestalled it, painted over it.  Why would my body heal a wound that wasn’t there?

I didn’t have the strength to hold up my shirt and sweatshirt anymore, and I didn’t have the focus to busy myself wringing them dry.  I hugged both to my stomach, my back touched the slimy wall, my head bowed, and I closed my eyes.

The scene was, ironically enough, bright in my mind’s eye.  Memory more real than this.

Being in the factory.  Realizing just how bad things were going.

Running for the windows.

I hadn’t made it.

The demon had closed around me, blocking every avenue of escape.  Getting help had been impossible – my connections to the rest of the world had been severed.  That I was as alone as anyone could ever be.

Or, as it happened, so alone that I couldn’t be.

The world had broken away around me, no longer seeing the value in holding me up.  Cracks had yawned open around me, and in my hurry to get away, I’d fallen through.

Putting me here.

My dirty shirt and sweatshirt got dirtier as I laid them against the narrow shelf of brick I was standing on and unlaced a boot.  I got one sock off, and carefully wound it around my cracked hand, tying the knot at the back of my hand.  It made for a crude sort of bandage, holding the two pieces of my hand together.  If I hadn’t thought I needed to use my fingers to grip, I might have stuck my whole hand inside the sock.

I needed those working fingers.  I pulled my boot on over a bare foot.

My hands were wringing out my shirt and sweatshirt when I saw the first other living thing in this place.

Female, emaciated, her eyes reflecting like a cat’s might, but as pale green circles instead.  She was perched on the heap of wood and the torn-up shopping cart.  Only her upper body was visible, collarbone and ribs standing out with skin stretched taut around them.  Her naked breasts were small, her arms tense with the exertion of holding herself up.  Her hair was plastered to her head, her face looked like she was wearing a section of someone else’s skull as a mask.

The lights went off, behind me and further down the tunnel.  Pitch darkness.

Only darkness.  In the stillness and the quiet, I wrung out my shirt and sweatshirt further, then pulled it on.  Clammy and wet and dirty on grimy, damp and cold skin.

The lights came back on, first one, then the other.

She was gone.

I shivered, pulling on my winter jacket.  The mud had risen up, trying to claim it, to hide it.

I should have been scared, in the midst of all of this.  I should have crumpled up into a ball and refused to move.  I should have railed against the world, this fucked up unfair world and all of the wrong that loomed behind the curtain.

Except all I felt was numb.

I checked the sock-bandage at my left hand.  Secure.

Where to go from here?

It was tempting to just follow the light.  Outside, it was only darkness and hard rain.  The mud could take hold of a foot and refuse to let go, or hide traps or waiting ambushers, human or otherwise.  It could be hours of walking through a black so absolute I might as well be blind.  My gut told me that the only things I was liable to find were more places like this.  Vaguely hostile in layout, dangerous, quite possibly riddled with Others.

I made my way down the stone path, toward the second light.

When I reached the spot where the Other had perched, I reached over, grabbing a section of wood from the shattered pallet.  A broad, flat plank, a nail stuck in the end, holding it firm…

One tug, only as hard as I could manage without risking losing my footing on slick stone, and it came free.

One end was sort of jagged.  It was wet, slick with algae or slime or just from being wood worn smooth by current.  It was cold, even, and bits of ice clung to the splintery bits at the frayed end.

No sign of the horrifically thin Other.

There was a dip further ahead, a downward slope.  More debris sat on the slope, and with the little light that extended forward from the first light, now behind me, I could see the flowing water foam where it crashed against the debris.

A large rock.  The handle of some gardening implement or broom or something, with a scrap of cloth caught on it, and the legs of a plastic or folding chair.  More sat below the ramp.  The Other could easily be one of those jagged shapes.

The Other didn’t attack.

I reached the darker patch, and the end of my plank skittered lightly across the stone in front of me, feeling for any tripping hazards.  Progress was agonizingly slow as I checked the ground, used my hand to feel for anything jutting out of the wall.

A half-foot of progress, me shuffling forward, then another check.

When the wood wasn’t checking my route, I held it out, feeling for any reaching hands, ready to smash an attacking Other in the gut.  If it gave me a chance.

If the darkness outside had weighed down on me, this was worse.  It pressed in on me from all directions, making me feel impossibly small.

The numbness at the core of me gave way to a profound uneasiness.

Spelunking, the art of exploring caves, was terrifying unto itself.  The idea of getting stuck, of getting turned around… even if one was traveling a route others had taken a hundred times, it was a fear that lingered.

When we -and we felt painfully hazy right here- had been discussing the factory, the topic of the urban explorers had come up.  Same idea.  Old buildings, the risk of getting stuck, of something happening, it was a very real concern.  For an unknown number of urban explorers in Toronto, something had happened.

This was worse, on a level.  All of those same claustrophobic, paranoid fears, they held true in this place.  Even aboveground, it was claustrophobic.

Problem was that here, they were justified fears.

I stopped short.

In pitch darkness, where I couldn’t see anything but phantom images persisting across my field of view, I found that the path ended.  There was no more ledge.  A quick test with the plank confirmed.  It had broken away.  Crumbled.

A quick feel around, and I could confirm that there was no bridge, no passage or door to my right.

I peered forward, leaning a bit, trying to make out a ledge a bit further, or even prod it with the plank to gauge my ability to make a step.

No visible ledge.

I did see two circles in the churning water.  So faint I might have thought they were phantom images.

But when all the other images danced in and out of my field of vision, my eyes remained locked on those faint green circles, and those circles remained exactly where they were.

Confidence.  Theatrics.

If I earned my own demise, doing this, well, my circumstances wouldn’t be that much worse.  But if I could look stronger than I felt, well…

Thin odds, but I’d take what I could.  I couldn’t move forward without addressing the creature in the water, so I decided to address it head-on.

I extended my free hand, and with my finger crooked, I made a ‘come hither’ gesture, beckoning it.

My other hand gripped the plank, ready to defend myself if I had to.

The eyes rose up, and I could hear the sound of water falling free, as though someone were rising from a bath.

The eyes stopped, level with my bellybutton, over the water.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” she said.  Her voice was airy, halfway between hiss and whisper.

The emaciated Other from before?

“You could have grabbed me by the ankles,” I said.  “Hauled me under.”

“I could have.”

“But?”

A long pause.  I didn’t dare move my eyes away from hers.  Part of it was a dominance thing, the other part of it was that I wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to find her eyes again if I looked away.

When the lights went out, the eyes retained their faint green color for a moment.

Just when I thought that brief color would fade, the lights came back on.

She never blinked.

“You don’t have to answer,” I said.

“I know.  It’s not something I like to think about.  That’s where I fell in.  Right there.”

I didn’t have a response to that, and she didn’t bother to elaborate.

The dull roar of the drain and the faint rattle of debris against debris took on an imperceptibly different tone, in light of her words.

As if the sound of the water was now a great machine, grinding, scouring.

I could smell her, and she smelled faintly of ammonia, joining the smells of rich mud and the damp, mildewy smell of the drain itself.

“You were like me, then,” I said.

“I don’t know what you’re like,” she said.  A pause.  “But I was human.”

“Do you have a name?”

“Not anymore.  Only other person to talk to me couldn’t speak anymore.  When I think of who I am, my old name gets mixed up with underwater sounds in my head, I guess.”

“Well, my name’s…”

“It’s okay.  It’s hard to remember names here.”

“No, I remember.  My name is Blake.”

Another pause.  “I knew a Blake once.  You don’t look anything like him.”

Having conversation was nice, even if I couldn’t shake the notion that she could lunge at my any moment, and drag me to a watery grave.

“You seem so calm,” she whispered.

“I don’t know enough yet to be properly afraid,” I said.  “Makes it a bit easier, and I guess, I dunno, it hasn’t really sunk in yet.”

“You’re supposed to fear the unknown.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I used to think that too.”

A loud crash spoiled my calm act, causing me to nearly jump out of my skin.  My left foot skidded a half-foot on smooth, water-slick stones.

The crash didn’t stop.  It sounded like a one thousand car pileup, vaguely muffled.

“That’s the sluice,” she said.  “Further down.  If you see lots of little snails and things stuck to the ground, it means the sluice is right above you, and it could open any time.”

“I can’t see much at all,” I said.

“Oh.  Yeah.  I forgot.  Then if you hear them crunching underfoot, like you’re walking on… on… what’s that cereal called?”

“Cheerios?  Rice Krispies?  Corn flakes?”

“Yeah.  Corn flakes.  You can’t figure out the big sluice unless you’ve been down here a bit.  Stay away for now, or it’ll wash you over the edge.”

“I appreciate the advice,” I said.

Somewhere along the line, I’d jammed one of my hands into my armpit for meager warmth.  It didn’t work, but I maintained the habit.  Now I shifted the plank to another hand.

“It’s okay.  You get used to it,” she said, and I imagined she was trying to sound soothing with that thin voice of hers.  “The dark, the cold, not being on the top of the food chain, always being worn down…”

“That doesn’t sound the least bit like I want to get used to it,” I said.  “No offense.”

“Haven’t you ever looked at wild animals and envied them a little?  Their simple existences?”

I thought of my bird watching, not long after I’d gotten my own place, with…

With a friend’s help.

Alexis’s help.  Right.

My heart started pounding a little harder at that near miss.  The noise here, the rushing water, the pressure and the need to focus my senses elsewhere, it made it harder to remember.

“I guess I have,” I said, before I could get too lost in thought.  Let’s not disturb the creepy Other.

“I don’t think you find your way down here without dealing with something bad.  That’s how I think about it.  There’s- there’s a relief in all this, Blake.  Putting it behind you.  Whatever was burdening you, it’s gone by the time you come this far.”

Whatever was burdening me.

Karma?  That was… I had to assume it was on my successor’s shoulders now, on…

…on Rose’s shoulders.  Right.  Why had the name been so hard to conjure up?

Well, I was assuming Rose wasn’t cast down here along with me, that her role in things wasn’t screwed up by the screwed up way I’d gone down.

All the rest of it?  The threats, the pressures, the worries and conflict?

I’d wanted to get away from it all, to put it behind me.  Now, well, I had my wish.

Be careful what you wish for.

“You might be right, but how do you get out?” I asked.

“Only way I know is to go further in.  In here, you are what you eat.  It’s easy to- to let yourself go.”

“Let your Self go,” I echoed her.  Her thoughts seemed to have a thread to them, but I was having trouble connecting the dots.

“That’s what I said, yeah.  I… it’s hard to remember the details, but I arrived, and I wandered for a long while in the rain.  I found this big store, you know the kind, one of the huge ones you could spend half a day inside, but the parking lot was fenced in, and I tried walking around to find the front door, but it was like every side of the store was the back of the store.  That’s when I first realized something was wrong, because I’d just left this… this place, and found a city and I somehow found myself-”

“There.  Here,” I said.

“Yeah.  I found a group of people, and they told me that there was nothing there.  That it’s just landscape, for show.  They laughed at me and took what little I’d brought with me.  I ran before they could hurt me, and I got here, after a couple days.  Except I didn’t get far.  I stepped onto that broken bit of ledge right there, and I fell.  Just like you almost did.  Water pushed me down, and I wasn’t strong enough to swim against it.  Someone saved me.  He wasn’t strong enough to lift me up, either, so he pressed his lips to mine, and breathed for me.”

“Breathed?”

“He could breathe like I can now.  For hours, he breathed for me.  And he’d stop, making me hold my breath, then start again.  Until I could hold it for a couple of minutes.  He left me, holding my breath, and came back with raw fish.  Tore it with his teeth and regurgitated it for me, kept breathing for me… for days.  Weeks.  Pressed his sandpapery skin against mine, and we… yeah.  I wanted to, and I dunno if that’s that syndrome or whatever from that movie with the bookish girl and the big horned ox guy-”

“Beauty and the Beast.  You’re thinking of Stockholm syndrome,” I said.  I didn’t elaborate, arguing for why it wasn’t Stockholm Syndrome.  That would have been assholish, arguing when she was sharing her story.

“Yeah.  I forget words sometimes.  Somewhere along the way, my skin came apart, because his skin was rough and the water just kept coming down so hard.  But I healed and everything back together in scars and tougher bits, and then I could breathe underwater, and I have teeth and claws to hunt fish with, and I can see better in the dark and…”

“…And the other guy?”

“I was in a state where I couldn’t swim.  He went to get food for- for me, and one day he didn’t come back.  Eventually I had to swim, and I did.  Now it’s just me.”

“Waiting at that same ledge?”

“I thought I’d save you if you fell in, like he saved me,” her voice was a thin whisper.  Almost reluctant, abashed.

The shiver that took hold of me right then was more profound than any the cold had gotten out of me so far.

I had to resist the urge to accuse her.  She’d been waiting.  Not warning me, only waiting.

But the rules and expectations were different here.  She knew I was friendly-ish now, but she couldn’t know before.

I couldn’t let myself blame her.  She’d been genuine in other respects, and quite frankly, I couldn’t afford to give up even a tentative friend.

Not the first time I’d been in that position.

“Hey,” I said.  I didn’t have a name for her.  “Green Eyes?  Can I call you that?”

“Yes.  I like that.”

“Green Eyes, if and when I do fall in, if you can’t or won’t help me get somewhere with a secure grip, can you kill me instead?”

“Kill you?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Just… no offense, but that sounds like a torment that would be custom-made for me in hell.”

A pause.

“After I kill you, can I eat you?”

Eat me?

She said it so very casually.  I might have felt a chill run down my spine if my spine wasn’t already all chills.

“Go to town,” I said.  Better to say yes than risk her not killing me.

I heard a short, reedy laugh.  “Cool.”

She said it in a way that made me think it would be spelled ‘Kewl’.  I suddenly had a very clear vision of her as a teenager, stumbling into here much the same way I had.

I wasn’t drying off, and the darkness was disorienting.  Without my eyes to go by, I was very concerned I’d lose my sense of up and down and simply teeter over into the water.

I broke eye contact with her, looking toward the light further down the tunnel, hoping to center myself.

Big mistake.  It left phantom lights against my eyelids, making it twice as hard to see the ledge.

I was more blind than ever, with only two feet of damp, slick ledge and a watery grave before me, a cannibalistic Other waiting to dine on me.

“If you’re looking for a way past, it’s one big stride to get by,” she said.  “You’ll want to lean on something.  There’s a big branch here.  A couple of really good places to put your wood there.”

I reached out blindly for the tree branch.

A hand seized the plank, and I felt my blood go cold.

She moved it, and I felt it scrape.

I tested, pushing, and found it firm.

Would she move it away as I made the step?

“Can I trust you?” I asked.

Yes,” she said.

I hesitated.  “Can you lie?”

“…You know about that?”

“About?”

“That some things down here can’t lie?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I guess I do.”

“I’m not one of those things.  They don’t tend to be very pleasant, just so you know.”

“I know,” I said.

On a level, I’m one of them.

I made the leap of faith, a blind step into utter darkness, my heart dropping out of my chest as the branch gave.  The plank slipped.

A moment’s give.  Something stopped the plank from sliding free.  It provided the resistance I needed.  I felt my foot set down on Terra Firma.

I pushed, carrying my momentum forward, and I felt a momentary resistance as I pulled the plank away from the branch.

She let go of it.  She’d been holding it secure.

I was upright, safe on the other side.

Would I be able to make it back the same way?

“Thank you,” I said.  “I don’t have much to offer you in gratitude.  I’m sorry.”

“Then, can we keep talking until we have to go separate ways?”

“Yeah?  I might be benefiting from that more than you are,” I said.  “You can ask what you want.”

“Don’t know,” she said.  “Just hearing another voice or having someone listen is nice.  Usually the only one I hear is the little man that sells snails, if I find something I can barter.”

I nodded slowly.  “Then… can you tell me more about how to get out?  We got distracted.”

I got distracted, it’s so easy to do, when you focus on the now all the time,” she said.  She was falling behind me, her already quiet voice growing fainter.  “Moment.”

I heard the faintest of splashes.  A metal-on metal scrape.

Her voice came from a new location.  “Can’t stay afloat on my own.  Have to grab stuff, or I get pulled under.  Um.  So if you want out, the only way I know is to go through.  Change, adapt, eat, and get stronger.  Then there’s places where it’s closer to the real world than others.  You gotta get to those places, and it’s not easy.  One part, you have to swim against a current that’s three times as fast as this, and you have to do it for a while without a chance to surface.”

“That’s not an option for me, then,” I said.

“I don’t know about any others, really.”

“That’s okay,” I said.

“But if you do get to one of the exits, there’s usually someone or something there, or so I hear.  They sit there and they get in the way and they make you work to get past.  Usually, you’re really tired, and they eat you.  Or you can put up a bit of a fight, and they make you promise to do something for them.  To carry something back.”

I nodded slowly, continuing my slow, careful, shuffling progress.  “There’s no way out that doesn’t force me to give up my Self?”

“Sort of, but I wouldn’t count on it.”

“What is it?”

“Sometimes someone comes, and they pick a few of us and take us with them when they leave.”

“These people that come, are they monsters?”

Very sometimes monsters, but mostly it’s people.  I thought at first you were maybe one of them.”

“But?”

“But I think if you were, you wouldn’t have gotten stuck where you did.”

“Ah.”

“And your arms, when I saw them…”

“Yeah,” I said.  “My tattoos have a mind of their own.  I don’t really get it.”

“If you’re thinking someone’s just going to show up and help, I wouldn’t count on it.  They only come for the worst monsters, and I don’t even think they ever come looking for anyone specific.  That would be almost impossible because this place is a maze and it gets more like a maze all the time, when stuff breaks down.  Just like people break down.  It’s just what this place is.”

“Where things that fall through the cracks go,” I said.

“Yeah?  I like that,” she said.

“What would you call this place?”

“Dunno.  I think of it as the sewers,” she said.

They weren’t really sewers, but I didn’t correct her.

“Or the compost heap,” she said.

“Compost?”

“That’s how I think of it.  It’s what this place is, what it’s meant to do.  It wears you down and grinds you up, like the water would have done to me if I hadn’t been rescued.  The mold gets you, or the rats gnaw you up, or something.  Then you’re gone.  Some like me eat and we get by, but we have to fight constantly and in the fighting we get worn out and hurt too, so we get worn down there.  The strongest… the strongest eat and get powerful.  And because they eat a lot of things and they get scarred, and they get ugly, and maybe they lose some big part of whatever they were before they came here.  They get composted,” she said.  “Then they leave, and I dunno what happens next.”

“I imagine they become bogeymen,” I said.

“Maybe,” she said.  “But in all that eating, they’re still giving up more than they get, and this place still takes pieces out of them.  It’s the whole purpose.”

I remained silent.  I wasn’t sure what to say to all that, and this bit was a little steeper, the corner of the ledge more rounded, allowing an errant foot to slip.

“I stick to the shallows here, mostly.  There practically no food, little fishes and frogs and bugs if I’m quick, but it’s safer.  Only a few guys I gotta watch out for in the water here.”

“Anything I need to worry about?”

“Not unless you go for a swim.  One of them, they’re only a threat to me, it feels like.”

“Duly noted,” I said.

“You’re so calm,” she said, again, almost in awe.

I was quiet, making my steady progress.  I passed into an area with light.

“There’s a bit coming up where I won’t be able to follow you.  Not so much stuff in the way.  Bigger things underwater.”

“Like the guys you mentioned?”

But she was gone.

A moment later, a faint sound of splashing water, she emerged, hands on the ledge opposite me.

She wasn’t wearing a skull mask.  Her face was skeletal, the skin virtually transparent, veins visible beneath the surface, red, blue, and yellow-black.

I was pretty sure people didn’t have yellow-black veins like that.

All this time, I’d been thinking she didn’t blink.  Now I saw that her eyelids were so transparent that I couldn’t tell.  Her eyes, luminous green in the dark, were a pale milky white right now.

Her teeth were tiny, narrow, and sharp, visible through transparent lips.

The lights flickered out, leaving me with an afterimage of her face superimposed on darkness.

She reminds me of a fish from the deep ocean.  The angler fish or something like that.

“There’s a branching path ahead,” she said, in her whisper of a voice.  “Go left.  I think that’s the last advice I can give you.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Good luck,” she said.  “Good luck.  If you wanted to stay here or come back sometime, that’s okay.  We can talk, and I could show you where the stuff is on land, for food, while I get the stuff from the water.  Some rats here can get pretty fat.  And if you die, I can eat you, and that can be your payment for me showing you the ropes.”

The sluice, somewhere distant, closed.  The abrasive noise stopped, and I realized I’d been tensed.  My shoulders relaxed.

The lights came back on.

“Bye,” she said, her voice far clearer in this sudden quiet.

“Wait,” I said.

She stopped.  There was only the sound of water, and with the slope well behind us, even that wasn’t as bad as it might otherwise be.

“I owe you one,” I said.  “You said that some of the guardians of the exits, they ask for people to carry favors or carry things back to the real world.  Is there anything I can take back for you?”

“You really think you’re going to make it back.”

“I’m going to try.”

“I don’t think you realize how bad this place can be.”

“You don’t know how bad some of the stuff I’ve dealt with so far has been.”

She remained silent.

“Sorry if that came out wrong,” I said.  “I do appreciate the help, and the offer stands.”

“It’s easier if you don’t fight.  Stay out of the way.”

“Before, you said you get to leave all your burdens behind,” I said.  “I don’t think that’s entirely true.  My burden is, well, I can’t just stop like you’re suggesting.”

She nodded slowly.

Lights out.

“I don’t have anything I want you to take back there.”

“Then, what if I said I really am, in a roundabout way, one of those wizards you talked about, one of the people who come to collect monsters and take them away?”

“Are you?”

“Not right now,” I said.  “But I’m hoping I can be again.  Kind of hoping.  I think it’ll happen when I get free.”

She stared at me.

“Would you want me to come back for you, if I could?”

“I’d like to get away from the black fish… but I can’t think about the future like that.  I have to think about food, and keeping certain areas blocked off, and figuring out where and when to rest where I can’t get surprised or cornered.”

“Nothing, then?” I asked.

“You should be doing the same,” she said.  “Focus on the now.  Realize just how much trouble you’re in here.  Giving you something to think about could get you killed.”

I leaned back.

“A kiss?” she asked.

I startled a bit.

In the darkness, I couldn’t make out her expression.  Even if I’d been able to see her face, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to.

“I… it’s something I let myself think about, sometimes.”

I couldn’t shake the idea of her simply grabbing me and hauling me under, especially after I’d refused her offer to stay.

I remembered her lurking beneath the water, not warning me, only watching to see if I drowned.

But here I was, utterly alone.

In a way, the very worst thing that could have happened to me had happened.

In a way, that made it very hard to be afraid.

I still felt numb inside.

A kiss, bodily contact, that was scary unto itself.

But all of that, even that part of the past, it felt so far away.

I knelt on the ledge, aware of how precarious my position was.

She heaved herself partially out of the water.  Two transparent lips brushed against my cheekbone.  I flinched, despite my best intentions.

Then she pushed herself away.

I stood, slow, aware that my clothes had partially dried, though I was still freezing.

The light came on just in time for me to see her dive.  Her tail broke the water, and I saw a flash of albino white scaling, and skeletal ridges separating transparent fins.

“Bye, Green Eyes,” I said.

I moved on, with excessive caution, and I reached a branching path.  Wooden planks had been arranged in a triangle, allowing passage between ledges.  They were supported by trash and debris that had collected at the intersection.

I passed over the bridge, my heart pounding.

The tunnel opened up into a vast area, so wide I couldn’t take it in all at once.

Tunnels were lit by dim lightbulbs within, and others were only hinted at, highlighted by distant lights.  The smells were thick in the air, and I could see where it might be called compost, or sewers.

The drains and grates and pipes all led onto ledges and balconies, or emptied water intermittently onto broad bridges, or simply dropped vast amounts of liquid into vast, empty darkness.  Here and there, I saw figures, most furtive, moving quickly from one area to the next.  Here and there, I saw others.  A man was perched in one spot with what looked like a jury-rigged tent, made of trash.  A tarp was laid out, showing an arrangement of common trash and shells.  He was only a hundred feet away, or so, but he was across from me, and a great void separated us.  It would be a long, convoluted road to meet him.

Not that I had anything to barter with.

It was loud, here in this central hub.  Green Eyes had said the whole intent of this place was to break things down.  The cacophony of noise would be intended to erode at sanity.  It was loud enough to make my vision distort, to startle the wits out of me when a sudden crash rang through every drain and sewer here.  intermittent enough to distract.

Noise aside, I was glad to find a dry spot to sit down, on a spot just above a broad, stagnant gutter choked with debris.  It looked like a gargoyle had once sat here, oddly enough, but had broken away.  I sat, leaning against the wall, my shin securing my position by pressing against the base of the gargoyle’s statue.

Perhaps a little too visible here, but it was a place to sit down.

“We’re in!”

My head turned.  A voice.  A recognizable voice.

“My gut was right,” another voice said, her voice quiet.  “I was never that big on trusting my gut, but now…”

That second voice was Rose.

“As haunted houses go, this is pretty flipping cool,” a small boy’s voice, excited.

Evan.

I craned my head around, looking.

I saw a flash of Rose’s face in the gutter, before a drop fell from above.  The water rippled.

“We’ve got access,” Rose said.  “That’s the key thing.  I’ll show you to the library in a second, then we got to start with the rituals.”

Somewhere else nearby.

Sources of still water.

I couldn’t quite see it, but I could hear it.

Except I wasn’t hearing it with my ears.

It resounded through me.

“I just don’t get why you didn’t do this ritual earlier,” Alexis said.  Her tone was vaguely accusatory.  “Or how you didn’t do it earlier.”

“I don’t know,” Rose said.

“Something to do with this Blake Mags mentioned?” Tiff asked.

My heart pounded.

They didn’t know me?

‘Mags’ knew me?

My throat was dry.  I almost forgot to watch my back.

Except the stab in the back didn’t come from the Drains.

“There was a reason for it,” Rose said.  “Had to be.  And I’m sure we’ll find the clues here, given time to look.  All I know is, I fucked up my awakening ritual on purpose, last time around.  This time, right here, right now, I’m gonna do it right.

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