Category Archives: 9.02

Null 9.2

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She fucked it up on purpose?

My thoughts were slow to get going as I tried to dredge up memories.  Promises she’d made, that had no real power behind them.

A promise to help me, to work with me, even.

The fact that she’d used Ty, Alexis and Tiff to prepare her summonings, but hadn’t been able to do it herself.  I’d glossed over it because she’d told me the ritual hadn’t worked.

Why?

How many times had I thrown myself into life or death situations, and all this while, she’d been holding back?  Keeping hands off?  I’d scratched, fought, and bled for power and she’d just turned it down?

Why?

When she would have made the decision… it would have been after we’d argued.  When she was frustrated, new to the mirror.

All because she’d wanted to be able to lie to me?

When I’d made promises to her, to get her out of the mirror somehow, she’d said she felt bad about it.  Because she’d known the promise she was making in exchange had no weight to it.

I was clenching my fists, and the strain was making the two halves of my one broken hand grate against one another.

It’s this placeThere’s a reason I saw it.  This place wants to grind me down, and it thinks giving me a glimpse like that is going to help do it.

Which isn’t entirely wrong.

I couldn’t let my agitation push me into doing something stupid.

This was the initial foray.  It was liable to get a lot worse, if what Green Eyes had said was true.  I had to get a grip on it now, if I wanted to be ready for whatever hit me later.

I grabbed the plank from where I’d laid it across my lap and stood, very carefully, making sure to have three points of contact with solid surfaces at all times.  One foot on the gutter, one on the gargoyle, my good hand on the wall.  I might still fall if something broke away, but it was less of a certainty.

The ledge here was steadier and gave me enough room to walk, so my shoulder didn’t scrape the wall, but I was more careful than I had been on first entering the drains.

There weren’t many light sources, and the ledge, at times, was only a thin line of light where the moist and rounded-off edge caught the light shed by some distant bulb.  A patch of stone, the edges lit up in a similar way.

Movement through this place was agonizing.  Slow, treacherous, and no matter how careful I was, there was no guarantee I wouldn’t fall prey to some trap, trick, or attack.

This was a place that made people feel small.  When I’d been in the tree with the Others beneath me in the Hyena’s woods, I’d compared myself to a prehistoric ape.

Here, I was degraded even further than that.  Calling myself an ape was maybe being too arrogant.

Apes had fangs.  They could climb properly.  They had fur to protect them.

Humans were built for endurance running, we evolved on the plains, chasing down our prey as pack hunters with improvised tools.  There was nowhere to run here, no tools, and no guarantee that I had more stamina than whatever I was up against.

The ‘ground’ here shuddered with some great mechanism, an endless roar of pouring water with a grinding of machinery, like the endless crush of some great millstone.

I felt like the trembling of the ground might make me simply bounce off, lifting my feet clear of the ledge, letting them slide to one side and off into the depths to one side.

Bugs crawled on my hand as I gripped one stone.  One, quite possibly a centipede, took a chunk out of the back of my hand.  I hugged the wall with my body and shook my hand, letting them fall into the darkness.

But more were crawling on my stomach and chest now.

I brushed them off and got stung by something.

There was no relief here.  No getting clean, no quiet, no comfort, no place where the smells weren’t vaguely offensive, no place where I was safe.

I approached a corner, and nearly jumped out of my skin as a massive figure loomed in front of me, at the corner’s edge. Not a gargoyle.  An irregularly-shaped block of brickwork that had broken away from the wall.  I got close enough to peer at it.  The mortar had cracked, but only around one section, so the entire thing held together, jutting out from the corner, as though it was poised to simply break free and tumble to the ground below if I tried to hold onto it for leverage.

I looked up.  The wall further above wasn’t much better, as far as I could make it out.  I could easily imagine something breaking free and braining me.

A steady stream of water flowed down the wall’s surface, joining the constant shuddering in responsibility for the state of the wall.  Thin trickles of water were pooling in the broken section of wall and draining off the edges of the block, onto my footpath and over area I’d have to squeeze through.

My plank scraped the areas I couldn’t see, a blind man’s groping in the dark.

Nothing offensive that I could tell.

I rounded the corner, edging along the ledge, while ducking below the giant hunk of brick.

The roaring, grinding sound got louder as I rounded the corner.  The wall no longer blocked the sound.

I stood straighter, and I could make out what looked like some massive, haphazard dam-turned-watermill.  A river of water flowed out of a tunnel and over the edge of an open-mouthed trough, dumping vast amounts of water and debris into the darkness.

The trough and the watermill were both put together with what looked like haphazard layers of metal, completely rusted, to the point of having cankerous boils on the surface.  The mill itself was a long cylinder, with four large paddles to keep it turning.  The turning wasn’t consistent, but when it did turn, nearby lightbulbs flickered on, or flickered brighter.  I could hear a distorted radio buzz.

More metal and wood formed a broad, flat, somewhat uneven bridge over the rushing water.  There were people gathered on and around it.  Kids.  Old people.  Others.  All together in clusters, or standing alone.  They had to be deaf, with the sound of this water and the metal-on-metal creak of the mill itself.

Shacks had been erected with more debris and sheet metal, fallen signs and collected branches.  When I’d been homeless, the accommodations I’d been able to manage had been better, on average, than what I saw here.

People were sitting on the ledge, and I wasn’t about to try going over them.  No choice but to climb down.

The climb down was precarious, especially when the surface below me looked so flimsy I felt like I might simply punch through and drown.  I could see the frothing water through the gaps in this makeshift bridge.

Metal sang with the impact of my landing.  One or two heads turned.  One man reached to his belt, where he had a makeshift skewer ready, deemed me no threat, and dropped his hand to his side.

I was careful with where I stepped, simultaneously watching the people around me.  All were dirty, most wore rags, and all were beaded in droplets of moisture that had been flung up from the crash of water below the bridge.

The man with the skewer had a wound on the back of his head that had festered as it healed.  It was mostly closed, helped by what might have been crude stitching with yarn of all things, but it was angry, puffy, with pus-like fluid in the recesses and cyst-like bulges straining against the skin around the site.  Another similar wound marked his arm.

My eye was drawn to the insect bites on my own arms.  My own arms were beaded with droplets, and the water-diluted blood was flowing freely.  It was freezing.  How could they even stand to be here, with the chill in the air making it worse?

One man was perched on the bridge, back to the railing, swaddled in rags.  He had no legs- no, wait.  Yeah, he had legs, but they belonged to an insect, not a person.  His eyes glowed through the shadows in the rags.

My heart almost stopped as a group of children tromped across a flimsy section of rusted sheet metal, each footfall slamming it against the wood frame beneath, producing a sound that I could hear even over the roar.

I exhaled as they made their way to the far end, well behind me, no longer certain that they were about to doom me to a watery abyss.  I watched them go.  They weren’t wearing much.  A little boy wore only a sash of cloth around his hips, more a skirt than anything else, and his back was riddled with ulcers.  A girl had patchy fur in two colors, black and part white, and snaggle-teeth that looked like they’d make it impossible to open or close her mouth, one arm ending in a scarred stump at the shoulder.  The biggest of the boys, who’d somehow managed to be overweight in a place like this, had bulges under the skin I could make out, like worms had nestled in deep.  A goblin rode on his shoulders, pulling his hair, but he didn’t seem to mind.

When I got closer to the far end of the bridge, I could see that the larger group of adults was staring at me, giving me hard looks.

Because I’d been looking at the kids?

I raised my hands to either side in the universal gesture of peace.  Maybe less effective when I had a plank in one hand, but if they were going to begrudge me a weapon in this place, they could get real.

They relaxed a bit.

It was eerie, getting the benefit of a doubt.  Was it the lack of bad karma, or was it this place?  Did they just not have the energy to spare to confront every threat?

The one or two of them that had weapons in hand didn’t drop what they had, I noticed.

I didn’t even try talking to them.  The noise was too loud, the looks too hostile.

I moved on, leaving them behind, heading for the next ledge, this one a broad pipe that ran alongside the wall, bolted in at intervals.

A woman’s hand seized me by the upper arm.  I whirled, plank readied-

And others had their makeshift weapons pointed at me.

For a moment, we were still.  The kids on the bridge were staring, frozen.

I decided to lower my weapon first.  No point – they could kill me here if they wanted to.  It was hard to bring myself to do it.  My heart still pounded from the momentary contact, and she’d done it hard enough to hurt.

The others didn’t do me the favor of lowering theirs.

The woman had a heavy net folded and thrown over one shoulder.  She pointed.

The destination I’d been headed?

When I looked at her, she gestured, making a scary face, turning her one free hand into a claw with fingers and thumb hooked.

Monster that way?

She pointed that way, then drew a finger across her throat, and pointed at me.

It’d kill me?

She drew a finger across her throat, then pointed to herself, and her companions.

And kill them?

Point, to ledge.  Then hand to one side of her face, head tilted, eyes closed.

It’s sleeping.

One pointed finger, extended my way, then she ‘walked’ across the air with two fingers, very slowly, with exaggerated care.

Tiptoe?

I nodded and mouthed the words for ‘thank you’.

The roar of the water continued.  The weapons came down as people stepped away.

The woman looked over her shoulder, waved a bit to get someone’s attention.

A man, bald.  I couldn’t see what was wrong with him.  It maybe said a lot that I had to define people in this place by how screwed up they were.

He stood, walking past me with a bit of a limp, he paused, then gestured for me to follow.

I nodded.

Up on top of the shacks, using them as stepping stones, to a higher area.  A narrower ledge here – I couldn’t have two feet on one section at the same time.  My stomach scraped against the wall with every step.

The bald man, his limp aside, moved with grace and ease across the ledge.  Familiar ground.

Months or years of experience, easily.

He could have stood by and let me forge ahead on my own, but he didn’t.  He continued to lead the way, periodically becoming little more than a silhouette in light or a vague human-shaped blur in the darkness.  Here and there, he paused, gesturing to a possible hazard.  A bit of stone that stuck out enough it might poke me, or a bit of ledge that wobbled when I touched it with my toe.

After what I might have guessed to be ten minutes of progress, he stopped, pointing down.

The act of looking was somewhat terrifying, given how little I could afford to lean away from the wall, but I looked all the same.  I couldn’t make out the shape, not really, but it was big, it smelled like garbage, and it had spiky black fur with periodic spines sticking out.  I could see it expand and contract with every breath, steam rising from one area I took to be the head.

I wasn’t sure if I would have even seen it.  It was big enough to block some of the light.

When I looked up, my guide was already moving on.

It was easily another ten of fifteen minutes before I felt brave enough to speak up.  “Hey.”

He raised a finger to his lips.

Right.  I wasn’t about to argue.

I lost track of time before we reached safer ground.  A corridor opened up, and we were able to step inside the mouth of it.

“You’re new,” he said.  His voice sounded disused, creaky.

“Yeah,” I said.  I ran my hands through my hair, where it was sticking to my forehead.  How was it possible to be so cold and yet so sweaty at the same time?

“You come this way, you leave it ‘lone.”

“Will do,” I said.  I held my hands up to the light above the corridor to examine them.  My fingertips were raw from damp, cold, and friction.  “I don’t… I really don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing.”

“You got choices,” he said.  “You wander until something gets you, you find a place you can hunker down and you wait until something gets you, or you decide it’s too much trouble and get yourself.”

“Or you get others,” I said.

He gave me a look, about as dirty as they came.  “Y’think you’ve got it in you?”

I sighed, then shook my head.

“Good.  Because I’d throw y’off the edge here if y’did.”

I frowned, gazing over the edge at the darkness.  The wall opposite couldn’t be seen.  It was just a wall that extended up and down as far as I could see, a pinprick of light or two in the dark, and nothing more.

As if the world were nothing more than the one spread of grimy, damp construction here, the neverending downpour from a pipe that jutted out of the wall further down.

“You make it sound so hopeless,” I said.  “Why even bother trying if you think it’s that bad?”

“The kids,” he said.  “Not mine, they washed up alongside us.”

“Washed up?”

“Bad weather hit, could be hurricane, but I dunno, don’t watch or listen to much.  Next thing, we’re all collected in some shallow drain with a whole lot of debris and dead.”

Washed away, I thought.  Had the storm erased their ties to the world as surely as Ur had eaten mine?

“You’re settled awfully close to that thing.”

“Sure.  Killed whoever lived where we’re at, we set up there, do what we can t’keep the thing going, fish the trough.  If it stops turning, it might hear us and decide t’pay a visit.  Lost two before we learned.”

I nodded slowly.  “What is it?  A goblin?”

He gave me a dark, suspicious look.

“What?” I asked.

“Yeh, it’s a goblin, or so we’ve heard.  Not what most people would guess.  Dragon?  Sure.  Bat?  Yeh.  But goblin?”

“I know stuff,” I said.

“Do you now?  ‘Cause the only one we know who knows this sort of thing calls herself a witch.”

“Is she dangerous?”

“Yeh,” he said.  “She’s dangerous.  Not always.  Not even some of the time, but she’s unpredictable, spiteful.  We mostly steer clear, but sometimes if we’re hurt or something new’s come up, we ask, and we pay.”

“Well,” I said.  “I’m not dangerous either, but I’m not all that unpredictable either.  I was a beginner, before I found my way down here, and I’ve lost just about everything I had.”

His stare was long and level, and there was a tension in the air.

Was he considering whether he should just shove me over the edge?  Handle the problem?

“If you want t’talk to her, she’s down through this way.  No light, y’gotta feel your way.”

“And if I don’t want to?”

A shrug.  “Wander until something gets you, wait until something gets you…”

“Or get myself.  I get it.”

He nodded slowly.

I rubbed my arms, comparing the two paths available to me.

“Y’realize the cold can’t kill you,” he said.  “Can’t starve, can’t go crazy without sleep.  But when y’give up on those things, y’give up something human in yerself.”

Wearing you down.

I was getting a sense of how this place worked.

Probably just as easy to let us decide to sacrifice common needs and let ourselves become less human than it was to maintain the usual rules for each individual inhabitant.

I couldn’t afford to do that if I wanted to get out and resume a normal-ish life.

I looked around.  Food was impossible and dangerous in its own way.  Water was… disgusting.

Sleep?  If I rested, maybe my mind would be a little clearer.

“Is this a bad place to sleep?” I asked.  “I… I just don’t really know much about anything here.”

He looked around before giving me a response.  “Probably.”

Probably.

The way he said it suggested that any place was probably a bad place to sleep.

I settled in, my back to the wall.  The floor was slightly sloped, and a thin trickle of water ran along the floor, dancing this way and that as dirt moved out of the way or the wind changed.  My rear end would get damp, and even my shoulders, where they pressed against the wall, given the state of my coat.  As places went, though, it was drier than some.

When I looked up, my guide was on the ledge, getting ready to make his way back.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Whatever’s keeping you going,” he said, “Hold onto it.”

“Yeah,” I said.

When the faint sounds of his shuffling progress were drowned out by more distant sprays of water, I glanced around, checking every way for possible trouble, then let my eyes close.

Days, weeks, years?  No, not years.  Months, at most.  It was hard to keep track of time.

Green Eyes had been so right.  It was all too easy to focus on the now.

I shuffled through the narrow space.  The walls pressed in around me, scraping at my shoulders.

There was no way to ensure I had food and water and sleep without staying active, focusing on the moment-to-moment. That came at a cost.  There was no way to track the passage of time but the intermittent flashing of lights, spouting of water and my own breathing… it was easy to just let the days slip by.  When I was so tired or sick that I didn’t think I could go on, I tapped into anger.

Rose and the others spoke up from time to time.  It helped to keep the anger stoked.  I couldn’t even remember what exactly had been said.  I only remembered the resentment, the self-hatred for feeling resentful, the fury at realizing what Rose had really been up to, the hurt.

A big ball of the most horrendous feelings possible, making it impossible to sit still.

The rules are the same, I thought.  The bald man’s advice had reminded me of that.  Whatever was down here, the basic rules I’d learned were the same.  Goblins didn’t like metal.  Faerie, even the sort of Faerie that lurked down here, they didn’t like crude things.

A little bit of ruthlessness, a goblin’s hide to keep myself warm, a bit of glamour to mend injuries…

Well, that made it easier to get the ball rolling.

I reached the corridor that opened up into the Cistern.

I unfurled wings.

They’d been decoration at first.  Then, with time, they’d become a part of me.  Even a part I could use.

More bat wings than bird wings, which was disappointing, but I had feathers, both real and tattooed, across the flaps.  A part of me liked that on a visceral level.

Another part of me felt like it was tainted, a gift for bending to the rules of this place.  Becoming a part of the system, cooperating with this small universe in helping to break others down.

Fetid, muggy air rushed over skin, through hair, feather, fur and spines.  Here and there, droplets of moisture fell on me, heavy with silt and grime.

I glided more than I flew, and I watched for potential prey.  Only the ones that were further gone.  Less human.  They were more nourishing.  If they asked for mercy or drew weapons, I left.  If they roared or screeched, I killed and I ate.

Steering myself up until I very nearly stalled, no air under my wings, I hooked clawed toes and fingertips on an outcropping of brick, twisted myself around and leaped off, because it was easier than reorienting myself in mid-flight.

In this area, where the smell of feces was stronger, I knew to avoid certain areas where water could come pouring down without any warning, knocking me out of the air.

No prey.

That was fine.  The nice thing about a primarily carnivorous diet was that one didn’t need to eat frequently.  One meal could do for several ‘days’, as far as days existed in this damnable place.

I hadn’t given up on getting out.

Not long now.

Before too long, I would try to make my way over the steam vents.  I’d lost heart the last time around, gliding for what felt like days and nights without seeing anything, while a great shadow followed, waiting for me to grow tired enough.

Next time.

Then I’d be out.

I steered myself upward.  The claws of my feet scratched small chunks out of the ledge as I settled at the mouth of one drain.

My night vision was good enough to reveal the figure emerging from the water.

“Blake,” Green Eyes said.

Most of the others that had known me as Blake were gone now.  The ones who were still around would be the targets of my revenge.

Simple, but it was still what drove me.

I had to get my feet wet to draw closer.  The bed of the drain here had collected so much silt and grime that it was like walking in the shallowest water on a beach.  That same silt and grime had, here and there, worked its way into my skin, coloring it, texturing it.  It had done the same with with Green Eyes, I assumed.  Her skin was rough, like a cat’s tongue.

She ran one hand along my long neck.  I didn’t flinch.

I’d given that part of myself up long ago.  I’d needed a more animal comfort before I’d needed to hold on to that.  My feelings for her weren’t romantic.  I’d just wanted to be warm.

I think I’d known, as I made that choice, what I’d be giving up.  Even why and how.  It wasn’t long after that that Blake Thorburn had crumbled as a person, leaving room for me to become this.

“Soon?” Green Eyes asked me.

No longer able to speak, I bobbed my head in a nod.

I woke up.

I spent far, far too much time staring at my hands, convincing me it had all been a dream.

Except it hadn’t, I realized.  It had felt real, as had the weight of memories, dim as they had been for my monstrous self.  They faded as quickly as I could reach for them, useful details dancing away.

A portent, then?

A suggestion of what could easily come to pass?

Even as the memories faded, the feelings remained, taunting me.

The act of flying, or gliding, and the feeling of security.  Of being one of the bigger threats in this particular area.

The knowledge that, if I were only to agree, to relinquish it, I could be rid of metaphorical demons that had haunted me for years.

If I didn’t want to go to the trouble of eating or sleeping, I just… didn’t have to.

If I didn’t want to feel cold, I could just stop.  Flick that switch in my head and stop worrying about it.

Everyone I’d seen to date had chosen some vestiges of human to cling to, but they hadn’t all chosen all vestiges.  There was only so much energy and time, so much risk any of us could face before we got ourselves killed for our trouble.

This place wanted us to choose.

But it was a lie.  Bait in the trap.  I wasn’t sure I could believe I had it in me to become that.  Not positive.

I was stiff as I hauled myself up off the ground, resting one hand on the slimy wall for balance, so I wouldn’t slip and simply fall backwards into the endless darkness.

I ventured into darkness, one hand on the wall, plank on the ground in front of me, making a faint sound as I dragged it left and right against the stone floor, feeling for hazards.

The bug bites were stinging.  I cursed myself for not thinking to ask about it.

The mark on my cheek where Green Eyes had kissed me stung too.

My wounds, from the stab wound on my left hand to the scrapes and blisters on my fingers and the place where my arm had been grabbed too hard throbbed.

I had little doubt I could simply shrug off all the pain.  Push it somewhere deep inside me, where it wouldn’t touch me.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay whatever price this place would exact from me.

How had the other Bogeymen gotten by?  Had they found their way to these same Drains, or had they discovered other places like them?  A ghost town shrouded in mist for the Tallowman to claim a building and resume his practice?  Had Midge found a place in the wilderness to set up a shack and live much as she’d lived in life, only becoming harder and meaner as she spent more time there?  Was she there now, so rooted in this Limbo that she would simply find her way here if her material body was killed a hundred more times?

The blank skittered right, but it didn’t touch wall.  The interruption cut off my thoughts.

A bend?

I prodded, and found a drop.  The plank’s end rose of its own accord.  A quicker movement made a splash.

Water.

Feeling around more, I was able to figure out the general layout.

Pitch darkness, a bridge of hard earth.  Water under and on either side.

I made my way across, the plank scratching across the ground, reminding me of where the bridge was.

Water splashed to my right.

I froze.

A rotten fish smell flooded the area.

Damn it, damn it, damn it.

Another splash, then another.

The smell grew stronger.

I felt cold.  Not personally, but from some nearby source.

Cold radiated from this as heat did from a hot poker.

I felt it draw nearer, and in the darkness and near-silence of this chamber, my other senses were painfully acute.  I felt the cold increase by steep degrees, reaching from my left shoulder toward my chin and collarbone.

I raised my chin by mere fractions.

It was a matter of an inch or two away from me.  Some reaching hand.

I felt the cold envelop my neck, and held my breath and my voice both.

Reaching around my neck, but not touching.

I felt it reach down along my spine.

Too many turns.  It wasn’t an arm.

I leaned back as I felt it draw closer to my neck, a natural consequence of this tendril or tail or whatever it was snaking around over my shoulder and behind me.

When I couldn’t lean over any more without risking falling into the water, I turned my upper body, not moving my feet out of concern that they might scrape.  I bent over, resting my free hand on one knee for balance, and ducked under.

I stayed like that, bent over, one hand on my knee, the other holding the plank.

One remained behind my leg.

Another was well over my head, only close enough for me to feel the brush of cold.

A droplet fell on my extended arm.  I suppressed a hiss of pain.  It might as well have been acid.

Every muscle in my body was tense, some of that tension from a searing pain that bordered on agony.

Alexis?”  Tiff’s voice.

A sniffling.  “I’m okay.  I don’t even know why I’m crying.

You really need to sleep.  Things are getting ugly out there.

I know.  I’ll try.

It was like a slap in the face, the knowledge that I hadn’t left the world a better place than it had been when I’d come into it.  Not for Alexis.

Something nudged the plank I held in the moment I was distracted.

A tenth of a second later, before I could even get my bearings or comprehend what had just happened, it had the plank, gripping it with a strength I couldn’t have resisted if I was on my bike, a chain stretched between bike and plank, wheels spinning full-bore.

It crushed the plank, and only windmilling arms kept me from plunging into the water.

I was left with only a square of plank.

More splashing, more violent, coming closer.

I turned to run and fell instead.  I spread my arms wide, reaching out for and hugging the bridge to keep from rolling off.  My empty, sock-bandaged hand touched water and went instantly numb.

A splash of water hit me, and more numbness spread from where water touched skin.  It was right here, whatever it was.

I felt a hot breath and nearly gagged from the rotten fish smell.  The heat of it was a stark contrast to the coldness of the limbs.

The sheer amount of breath, enveloping me, forming steam where it touched water, was another indicator of what I was up against.

I managed to find my feet.  There was no testing my step, only memory.

Another breath, more diffuse, only half as strong, in combination with cold as intense as I’d felt yet…

It was just in front of me, mouth open.

I acted on instinct alone.  I held the remaining bit of plank in both hands, and I struck out.

I hit something solid, and, using my two-handed grip, I raked the ragged edge of the plank across flesh.

There was no cry of pain, no response.

Only the limbs lashing out.  They hit water before they hit me, just as I was turning to run.  The water caught me mid-stride.

My shoulder met solid wall, hard enough that I didn’t even realize I’d dropped the plank in the shock.  One leg went off the bridge and into water so cold it should have been frozen over.

With one good leg and one good arm, I managed to heave myself past the corner of wall, past the area with the bridge, to the corridor that followed.

I heard something wet slap against stone, a faint crack.

There was no relief on the other side.  No remedy from the sharp pain that jolted from my shoulder to the fingertips of my good hand, nor the blistering cold that made me feel like my leg had fallen off.

No light, even, to convince me that whatever I’d left behind me wasn’t waiting a short distance in front of me.

I crawled ahead enough that I could be reasonably sure it wasn’t about to find a way to reach into the corridor and grab me, then collapsed.

I had no way to judge the amount of time that was passing.  My thoughts were borderline feverish.

I had to get out of here.

Had to.

Had to help Evan and repay debts and keep this fucking pattern from continuing with the Thorburn line.  I wanted to see Alexis and Tiff and Ty but especially Alexis.

I wanted to ride my freaking bike and my complete and total inability to tell what had happened with my leg and the freezing water was making me think that maybe that wasn’t necessarily possible.

I wanted to kill that freaking motherfuck of a demon who had put me here.

My fingertips scraped against the hard, damp floor beneath me.

Hours might have passed before the cold in my leg receded enough for me to feel confident about moving it.  My arm still felt stabs of pain from my shoulder, but they were only about ten times as bad as the worst whack I’d ever given my funny bone.

The pain in my frozen leg was a much different sort of pain from what I was experiencing in my shoulder.  If I were carved of stone, my shoulder might have a general crack running through it.  My leg, if I had to put an idea to it, felt like it was all cracks.

I thought about how the injuries of the people on the bridge had healed, and felt a twinge of panic.

But above all, I hobbled forward, wincing with every step.

The pain didn’t subside before I reached light, and it took me a long, long time to reach light.

The lack of ability to judge time was getting to me, joining the pain and general disorientation.  It was very much what I expected it felt like to be in solitary confinement, only this was a big, big place, and there were others present.

But the idea fit.

Light.  I could see a place very much like the watermill’s bridge, but far more extensive.  A settlement.

I had no illusions.  This wasn’t a safe place.  The danger here would be danger of another kind.  People would be vicious to retain whatever they had here.

All the same, I started plotting a path.  A great many bridges, real stone ones and makeshift pipe ones, as well as improvised bridges cobbled together with debris.  The path to the settlement area was a winding one.  I memorized the route I needed to take, one that would involve interacting with the smallest number of people.

Progress was slow, but that wasn’t a bad thing.

Priorities.  Getting information was one.  Green Eyes had suggested a way out.  Maybe there was another way out.

If the Witch had a measure of respect and power, maybe I could get something, or barter my knowledge and meager expertise to obtain something.  A better weapon would do worlds for my mental well being.  Medical care too, if it meant not letting my body be corrupted or degraded or whatever this place wanted to do to it.

But a weapon, after that run-in, sounded like a fantastic idea.

Hobbling footsteps carried me to the first bridge.  Stone, natural to this place, with no railing.  The stones had been smoothed by droplets of water that had fallen down from above and run off either side for decades.

A man was there, oblivious to me, hands clasped behind his back.  Black hair, black beard, black scarf, black jacket, black slacks, black shoes.

It was hard to convince myself that he wasn’t going to simply turn around and push, just because he could.  Something about him made me feel uneasy.

I edged around him, and when I was close enough to be pushed, I took one quick step, putting me out of reach.  I stumbled on my bad leg, but I stumbled on safe ground.

I was clear.

Paranoia would wear on my sanity too, but paranoia was better than falling victim to some stupid, vicious act.

“Blake.”

I stopped short.

That voice-

I turned.

To say my heart dropped out of my chest really didn’t do the feeling justice.

It was more like a great brutish fist just reached up from under me, fingers gripping everything inside the ribcage, and tore everything out, leaving me hollow.

I wobbled a bit.

If I’d been smarter about it, I would have put the pieces together.  I’d been watching for the wrong thing.

He didn’t belong here.  His clothes were intact, free of grime.  His jacket was a blazer worn to contrast the nattiness of the sweater he wore, his scarf worn for style, not for winter wear.  He wasn’t dressed for the season.  His hands were jammed in his pockets, he was completely at ease.

I recognized him.

Fuck me, did I ever recognize him.

“Long time no see, Blake,” he said.

I swallowed hard.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” I asked.

“I think you know exactly what I’m doing here, Blake,” he said.

“Stop saying my fucking name,” I said.

“Whatever you want,” he said.  He smiled.

An easy, genuine, disarming smile.  His eyes crinkled, betraying his age.  A little older than thirty, maybe.

The colors were all wrong.  His hair was supposed to be brown, I remembered the scarf as being red and white.

He was a shadow version of the man I remembered.  Black.

That thought made me think of a fleeting mention Green Eyes had made to something.  A black fish.

Of course.

I’d been treated to a vision of the present.

A glimpse of the future.

Now a shadow from my past.  Something produced by this place to harry me, to ensure that I wouldn’t have peace without paying for it.  Without becoming a monster, or… or what?  Letting go of my memories altogether?

This place doing what it could to find my weaknesses, to claw at them.  Attacking from different directions, to put me on my heels.

“Carl…” I said, and the name felt heavy on my tongue.  “Don’t follow me.”

“You know I’m supposed to, Blake”

I turned to go, putting him behind me.

His footsteps followed.

I broke into a run.  Heads turned.

He was faster.  When I glanced, I saw him pass by them, running just as fast.  They didn’t react, didn’t see him.

He was here for me and me alone.

My run became something reckless. My footfalls came down hard enough on one makeshift bridge that something bounced loose, to strike a hard surface a distance below.  I was already a ways ahead, running along a ledge that would have been too narrow for casual walking.

I looked, and I saw him just a step behind me, reaching.

Stupidly, instinctually, I spun away.  Less instinctually, more out of anger, I threw a punch.

Except there was nothing solid underfoot as I planted my foot behind me.  Only open air.

A glimpse, as I turned in the air, of Carl standing on the ledge.  A smug, vague expression that revealed nothing at all.

I was dimly aware of a bridge, and with the one foot that was still on solid ground, I kicked.

Another bridge of scrap metal and wood.

I didn’t trust myself to grab onto something and hold on.  Instead, I simply slammed my arm into the nearest gap.  Metal sliced the back of my hand and the ‘v’ shaped gap crushed my wrist.

I dangled, the entire bridge swaying with my weight.

With my damaged, bandaged hand, I gripped the sturdiest piece of wood.  I was breathing too hard, and my hand shook.  Rather than trust the integrity of my divided hand, I wrapped my forearm around it, and then pulled my wedged hand free.  I climbed up onto the bridge in increments.

I didn’t stand.

“Mann, Levinn, Lewis,” I said.

My voice was hollow in the darkness.

“Mann, Levinn, Lewis.”

Eyes stared at me.

“Mann, Levinn, Lewis.”

There was no clap of thunder, no fire and brimstone.

Only a long pause, and heels striking the bridge.

I didn’t look up.

“Let me help my friends,” I said.  “You win.  This place wins.  Just let me help them, and you have me after that.”

A deal with the devil.

“No,” was the reply.  “Too late.”

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