Amy had spent less than a month in the Library, most of it dedicated to hiding or following the random paths traced by the Queen. A week, she could tell, was not long enough to get a good picture of the place, to understand the whims that guided its labyrinths of shelves and ordered its ancient paths, to know the people who called this place their ancestral home, to memorize even a millionth of the passages contained. And yet, in all her visions of the possibilities of this new world, she had never imagined something like this.
From the outside the door seemed to lead nowhere, uselessly attached to the end of a shelf. But when the Queen swung it open, and they stepped through, Amy gasped. The hallways inside were cream-colored marble, decorated like a palace. The carvings on the wall reminded her of Greek art in style, but the figures were inhuman. Some had fur or claws, others dozens of limbs, others a shape that didn’t correspond with anything on Earth. The stone was carved with such detail that she felt their gazes crawling across her skin.
The carvings grew stranger the deeper Amy and the Queen walked. The pair rounded a corner, and the lights dimmed to flickers. Amy glimpsed movement in the murk. Long, nervous shapes that swam between shadows, always staying just out of full view. She gulped, looked away. The shadows stayed in the corner of her eyes. The Queen looked unconcerned as she marched forward. Amy lost track of how many halls they passed, of the shifts in tone and architecture, of the windows that peered open into impossible, otherworldly scenery. But she didn’t lose the fear. The instinct, deep from her animal psyche, screaming at her to run.
Amy watched the Queen as they walked. If the women held any uncertainty, she showed no signs of it. No hallways passed were spared a second's glance. None taken were with a moment's hesitation. At times, she almost seemed completely unaware of her surroundings, navigating her own thoughts while her body mapped the corridors on autopilot. She said no words to Amy, and Amy was afraid to speak first. Breaking the silence of the labyrinth, she knew deep down, could be a death sentence.
As they crossed into a path lined with gardens, she worked up the nerve to ask, What is this place?
A thing that should not be, came the response, and then, silence. Even their footsteps rang empty against the stone.
Until, out of nowhere, the Queen held up a hand. At first, Amy kept. The rhythm of the walk had ingrained in her so much that she didn't stop until the Queen's hand on jerked her back. “We're here,” were the Queen's only words. She gestured toward a small door that opened into darkness.
For the briefest moment, as she stepped into the darkness, Amy's breath caught and she imagined herself back on the island, back in the forest, stumbling blindly through a dozen realities, trapped on all sides, clawing for release. The Queen's hand dragged her back to her senses, and she stumbled through to the light. Amy stood doubled over, gasping, trying to keep her trembling legs from collapsing.
When she looked up, she saw a stranger. Tall, razor-thin, with skin so dark it was like looking into the night sky and long, curling grey hair. Bright red scars covered the left side of his face, letters in an unknown language carved into his skin. The Queen stood next to him. He stared at Amy with eyes the color of moss. “You shouldn't have brought her here.”
“It's not your business who I bring.”
The man turned his head to stare at the Queen. His left eye remained focused on Amy. “It's not the who that concerns me.”
A glare from the Queen made the man look away. “Feel free to question me again, Thalmos. Any time you'd like.”
For a second, it looked as if Thalmos was going to respond. Then he spun and stalked to the back of the room. He sat at a small wooden table with two others. One was a tall, fat man more focused on a wooden puzzle than the scene before him. The other was, at most, probably human. They had the right shape, but were wrapped in long white bandages that covered almost every inch of skin, except for a few sickly-grey patches. They sat forward in their chair, and from their body language seemed to be staring at Amy. She couldn’t tell. If it had eyes, they were bandaged off.
The room looked like a professor’s study. Dim lighting, dark wood floors, a blood red rug supporting a thick oak table. Paintings hung on the walls, their subjects varied. Some appeared normal. Others showed humans engaged in fantastic situations. Others were bizarre landscapes that couldn't exist in any possible world. The Queen motioned for Amy to take a seat at the table. Amy did. The chair screeched as she dragged it across the floor.
“Where is Rupinder? Where is my Sister?” said the Queen to the others as she slid into her seat.
The room went silent. The fat man placed his puzzle on the table and exchanged a nervous glance with Thalmos. The bandaged one stared at the table.
“Well,” said the fat man, just before the silence seemed to be threatening to become a physical substance, “we assumed he'd be here with you.”
The Queen's expression didn’t change as she laced her fingers together. “You've lost him.”
“Not lost, per se. More that we can't get a view of him.” The fat man reddened.
“And how am I supposed to think that different from lost?”
“Well, we couldn't get a view of you either. And here you are, fine and fair! So maybe he'll show back up too.”
“Maybe he will.” She stood, the sound of her chair making Amy wince, and walked to the back door. Without a word, the fat man rushed to follow. Amy hesitated, looking between the other two, before going after the Queen. She stepped into a thin hallway.
They passed two closed doors before the Queen ducked into an open entrance. The only decoration inside the room was a tall, brown table, upon which sat a hand mirror. The fat man approached it, nervously running his hands through his hair. He stopped in front of the table and looked back at the Queen.
“Show me,” she said.
Without a word, he took the mirror and handed it to her. She stared into, furrowing her brown in intense concentration. When nothing seemed to happen, she shoved it into the waiting hands of the fat man. “When did you lose sight of us?”
“A few weeks ago, ma'am.” The fat man placed the mirror back on the table as carefully as if he was handling unstable dynamite. “We assumed it was when you entered the new world.” He paused, then added, “Did… everything go alright?”
She didn't answer, instead spinning around to exit the room. Amy and the fat man started after her, but she barked out a hard “Stay here!” that made them freeze in place.
As soon as she was gone, the fat man gasped and fell back, trembling. Amy darted to his side. “Are you alright?”
“I'm a dead man,” he moaned between hyperventilations. “I can see it now, she's going to have me hanged.”
“You're not going be hanged,” said Amy, though she had no way of knowing the truth of that statement.
“Burnt then! Thrown into the pits! Oh, I'm doomed, I am!” He began kneading his knuckles against his shoulders.
“She doesn't seem like the type of woman who hangs people.”
“What a naive thing to say.” The man stood. His legs swayed drunkenly.. Amy caught him before he could fall, but he pushed her away, stumbled from the room. She followed as he lurched back to the entrance, slid into his seat at the table. The other two stared at him.
Is he going to be okay?
It is an appropriate reaction to the situation.
What was that mirror?
A Looking glass. And a rather elegantly designed one. An object that can be used to spy across worlds. I am impressed that they would be able to obtain it.
Amy looked across the table. The fat man was hunched over the table, muttering to himself. Thalmos patted his back awkwardly. The bandaged… thing stared eyelessly at Amy.
“So… who are you people?” said Amy, trying to ignore the noise of the man's mumblings.
The bandaged person pointed to themself. “Li.” They pointed to the fat man. “Gregor.”
“You guys serve the Queen?”
Li shook their head. “We serve the Serpent's Hand. At the top of which she stands.”
“So, she's like-” Before she could finish her sentence, the wind raced from her lungs, as if she'd taken a blow to the chest. She pitched forward, arms flung out in a desperate hope to grab something solid, but she collapsed in a heap, panting into a puddle. It was dark- she waved her hand in front of her face and saw only the outline of a silhouette. Something buzzed near her ear. She swatted at it, and heard it angrily dart away. God-fucking-dammit. I thought you were going to warn about this shit.
I cannot always anticipate its activation.
Well, do you sense anything around us?
I do not.
Better than last time, then.
She whispered three words in a long-dead language and gestured her left ring finger down. A bead of red light erupted in the darkness in front of her, illuminating what looked like smashed concrete. The light followed her hand as she turned it, revealing more of the area- a disused, collapsing parking garage. Bugs the size of her fist fled across the concrete as the light touched them. She stood, dusted herself off, and continued guiding the light around. A few cars still sat in the garage, crushed into flat tin by boulders that had fallen god knows how long ago. She looked up through the hole in the ceiling. The night sky was completely black.
The light fell upon a door on the other side of the room. She began crawling over the shattered cars and debris, cursing as she felt her shirt catch on a piece of loose metal. Soon her arms and hands were covered in black dust that made her skin blend in with the surrounding gloom. When she touched the doorknob, it left a dark handprint.
Wait, came the warning, before she could open it. Turn around.
A chill ran down her spine. Even before looking, she knew what she would see. But she obliged, moving to face the new presence.
Seven feet tall at least, the figure stood silently, hunched over. It was almost human in shape, the difference betrayed only by its height and an extra joint in its disproportionately long arms, which hung limp at its side. Its skin looked grey, but she knew in better light conditions it would have been dark blue. Its head was like a furless canine, skin stretched so tightly that every ridge of its skull was visible. A long, black sheet of cloth was its only clothing, wound around its body in an unfathomable knot. Its eyes were grey.
The creature didn’t move. Were it not for the slight flutters of the cloth in the wind, it could have been mistaken for a statue. Amy turned back to the door. The creature wasn’t important. If it had any interest in taking action, it hadn’t shown it in their two previous encounters. Let me know if it does anything funny.
As you wish.
The door swung open, bringing with it a blast of chill wind. Amy yelped and took a step back, shivering in her thin t-shirt and jeans. After a moment, she peeked her head back out.
The exterior was just as dark as the inside of the garage. The summoned light illuminated a snow-covered landscape. Cars, some whole, some wrecked, dotted a multi-lane road stretching up a large hill. The buildings around it were decrepit, caved in. Those still standing looked strained, as if they might collapse at any minute. The weight of the world seemed to press down on every available surface- just looking at it made Amy feel heavier. She stepped out. Her foot brushed aside the snow, and she realized what it truly was. Ash.
The creature had moved. It now stood atop a far away car, just at the edge of her light. Its head turned to follow her movement as she trudged forward. The same as their previous two encounters. She didn’t know what the thing was, or where it came from, and the Witness was just as puzzled. But it didn’t seem dangerous.
You know, she said as she hopped over a pothole in the road, you’d think eventually I’d be jerked out of existence and deposited in a place that was actually nice. I’m getting tired of being thrown into one shithole after another.
In purely statistical terms, it is unlikely. There are few worlds that are capable of sustaining long term life.
That’s a cheerful thought. She stopped in front of a building that had once been a store. The front window was smashed in. Display mannequins lay in a heap like a grotesque, plastic orgy. Clothes littered the ground around them. Spying a jacket, she climbed in.
Try to understand the positive angle. You are fortunate just to be in an area that you can survive in at all.
Thanks, that really brightens up my day. She slid the jacket on. The sleeves went well past her hands, and the bottom went almost to her knees. She glanced up. The creature stood in the corner, watching.
I believe it is important to view things realistically.
Right. It was awkward having to have to push her sleeves up as she walked, but it was better than being cold. She was climbing out the window when something caught her eye. In the middle of the road, a small wind-funnel of ash had risen. A blue glow lay in road in the middle of it.
She approached it and knelt down, holding up an arm to keep the batter of ash from blowing into her eyes. The glow was coming from a small, smooth stone that lay on the asphalt. A symbol that looked like a Japanese character pulsed in its center. She reached her hand towards it, and felt warmth spreading, as if standing next to a small campfire.
What is it?
I… I believe it to be a sending stone. But that is not possible. For such a thing to be- It was cut off by a long, piercing shriek.
The creature crouched in the window, its claws extended, howling upwards. After a moment its head dropped, and its eye fell upon her. And, for the first time ever, it moved. It bounded upwards, leaping almost ten feet into the air. The ground cracked as it landed. Before she had time to react it was racing towards her, its long arms swinging, eyes gleaming. It leaped forward again, claws raised. Without thinking, her hand closed upon the stone.
And she fell back into the Library.
Gregor started back as she popped back into existence and slammed into the floor. Li stood, leaning over the table to look at her. Thalmos leaned against the wall, unfazed.
“What was that?” said Li.
Amy pushed herself to her feet, ignoring the scrapes and bruises on her arms. “How long was I gone?”
“A minute, perhaps,” said Li. Amy was impressed. She could barely hear any trembling in their voice. “But where did you go?”
“Maybe I’ll tell you if I figure it out.” She was about to say more, but was stopped by the feeling of a weight in her pocket that hadn’t been there before. Pulling it out, she realized it was the sending stone. It glowed in her hands even more intensely than it had on the street.
If the three of them had been mildly surprised to witness her disappearance, seeing her with the stone was a total shock. Gregor’s mouth fell open, random syllables of babble spilling out. Li’s eyes went wide. The figure swayed back, and for a moment, Amy thought they were about to pass out. Thalmos made a small noise and stepped towards her. She jerked the stone away from him.
“How did you get that?” he whispered.
“I found it,” she said. “What the fuck is it?”
“The Queen must see this,” said Li.
Thalmos gulped, nodded. Without a word, he darted from the room.
Amy glanced at Li. “So, uh, what does it do?”
“Your friend is correct.” Li squirmed, as if just standing in the stone’s presence was a struggle.
“You can hear it?”
“I hear many things.” Li began to pace the room. “How did you obtain this? No sending stones remain unaccounted for.”
“I told you, I just found it. It was lying on the ground.” Amy looked at the stone, turning it over in her hand. It didn’t look that important. Other than the glowing sigil, it looked like a uncommonly ugly rock.
She discovered it while temporarily being transplanted into another reality.
“Oh?” Li stopped pacing and looked up.
Amy frowned. This was not something she had wanted to reveal. “Yeah. It’s something that’s been happening recently. I’m not really sure why.”
She attempted to travel through realities by riding a fragment of a broken universe. As a result she has become unmoored from traditional ontology. Parts of her remain scattered throughout the multiverse. Occasionally she is called to them.
Jesus Christ, would it ever take a fucking hint?
“Yeah,” she said, nodding. “That.”
“I see,” said Li, looking thoughtful. “I’ve heard of such things. I assumed it to be baseless rumoring.”
“Oh yeah, me too,” said Amy. “It’s why I never felt like trying to jump between universes before this.”
Li ignored her. “But still, there are precious few universes that hold a sending stone, and all are heavily guarded. Unless you walked into a throne room or dragonkeep unmolested…”
“I’m telling you, it was just lying there.”
There was a slamming noise as the Queen threw the door open. Without waiting for a reaction she said, “I hear you may have a way to find my Sister.”
“Indeed, my Queen,” said Li with a nod.
“Let’s hear it then.”
Li pointed to Amy. “The girl has found a sending stone. A filter for warping ritualistic power in ways that defy limitation. We should be able to use it to establish contact with Rupinder and your Sister.”
“A mechanism cannot work without the appropriate operator, my Queen.”
The Queen looked between them, thoughtfully. After a moment of thought she reached a conclusion. “What would we need to do?”
Amy stood before the doorway, clutching the stone in her palm. The only illumination in the hallway was the faint glow of the stone’s rune- it seemed to cast more light than physically possible. The teal glow stretched to the very edges of the room. She clenched her fist around the stone. It was warm, and as her skin enclosed around it, sent electrical surges through her arm, into her chest. They weren’t strong enough to hurt. They were almost pleasurable, in fact.
She let her hand fall open, and the stone’s light danced in appreciation. As she watched, its tones shifted, lightening and darkening in a slow rhythm. Perhaps it was trying to communicate. She got the feeling that she was touching something alive when she held it. That she had been joined in the room by a third presence looming just above her. But every time she turned her head to search for it, she saw nothing.
You said I could do almost anything with this.
A family once ruled a planet for thousands of years through the power of a single sending stone.
How did it end?
They met someone who had two.
Amy went silent, gazing into the stone. The world felt calmer when she was near it. The chaos of her life was being nudged aside, leaving her, for the first time, to enjoy peace. It was the first time she could remember experiencing such a feeling. Maybe she had, long ago, when the world had a simpler place empty of magic and Foundations and worlds beyond her hometown. With a sigh, she slid the stone into her pocket and opened the door.
The room was the same as they had left it- a single brown table with a mirror placed in the center. She picked it up gingerly. It was heavier than it looked. Turning it over in her hands, she saw a fragment of writing in a language she didn’t know.
Who has the truth, has victory. An ancient proverb from another world.
She nodded and flipped it back to look into the glass. The girl she saw within it looked like a stranger. The appearance was familiar, yes, but it didn’t seem to be her. It was like looking into the face of a long-lost family member. There was some genetic resemblance, some similarities in the contours of the face, but only just enough to be eerie. Had she really changed so much in the last months?
Gripping the metal frame, she focused on her intent. The glass remained still, showing only an image of a very foolish looking girl. She focused harder, trying to form the image perfectly in her mind, to shut out every distraction that might disrupt the link. The picture in the glass shuddered. Ripples begin to forming in it, pushing outward, at first slowly, then speeding up until the glass hummed with the force of the vibrations. The mirror began to tremble, and she gritted her teeth, clamping down her grip. It rattled until she was sure it was going to leap from her hands and smash itself against the floor. Just before she felt her fingers slipping the mirror stilled. A new image burst forth from her reflection.
A dimly lit room. It took her a moment to realize what it was. The kitchen had been remodeled almost completely. The old-fashioned tile and counter her father hated had been stripped out and replaced with more modern decor. Her parents sat at the table, eating. Her mother said something to her father, and he burst out laughing. There was a third place at the table, its plate half finished. Her brother, probably, running off in the middle of dinner to pursue whatever idea was currently latched into his brain. The whole family had learned long ago to tolerate his random digressions. Even if they’d tried, there was no way to stop him once he had an idea going.
She watched her parents talk and felt a tightness in her chest. Years. It had been years since she had seen them. Are here they were, laughing and eating a looking so… normal. As if nothing had changed. As if she had never been there at all. But what had she expected? For them to still be miserable after four years? Did she want them to be unhappy? She’d spent every moment since her capture worrying about them. So why did she feel this way now that she knew they were fine? She placed the mirror back on the table, trying to still her trembling hands.
Do not judge yourself so harshly. It is difficult to control the storm of one’s emotions, in times like these.
So you’re a therapist now?
I have rather extensive knowledge of the subject.
Whatever. She willed herself to calm down. Now wasn’t a good time to lose focus, not when there was still work to be done. She took the sending stone from her pocket. It glowed brightly as she moved it towards the mirror. When she set it on the glass, its light erupted into a prism of colors, illuminating the room like a dance club. She watched as the lights pulsed, then stilled, fading back into the warm blue glow. Laying her hands on the mirror’s frame, she conjured a new image in her mind.
This time the image came instantly, in a flash of heat that almost made her jerk her hands back. When she looked back at the glass, she saw the Queen. She was bent over in pain, surrounded by bright light. But no, she looked closer, and realized it was the Sister, her clothes ratty, smeared with blood and dirt. She stood in a dark field, a starry night sky above her. As Amy watched she rose to her foot, holding her hands up towards the lights. Around her the air scrunched together, as if someone had grabbed a handful of cloth and squeezed it together. The lights around her recoiled. She stumbled, almost fell, gasping.
The image shimmered, refocused itself. Still the same field, but from a different angle she saw Rupinder, looking just as worn as the sister. A chunk of his hair had been ripped out, and his shirt was little more than shreds. The lights hung around them, and from this vantage point she saw what they were really are. The first thing she thought of was angels- seven feet tall, humanoid, made of pure light with massive, birdlike wings extending from their backs and taloned feet. But as they hang in the air their shapes changed, human forms shifting into snakes, bears, hounds, images she couldn’t identify at all. One dove at Rupinder. It flowed through his chest, passing through his body as if it were smoke. Rupinder collapsed back. Though the mirror gave no sound, she could tell that he was screaming.
What the hell are those things?
Guardians. Placed there to stop those who would try to free the Queen.
Did… did you know those things would come?
It didn’t respond. She felt a knot forming in her chest.. We have to do something.
You wish to act now?
They’re killing him!
No. The nature of their design is to prolong death. It may be years before they end his life.
Amy jerked back from the mirror, letting it clatter against the table. The image of Rupinder vanished. She stared at the mirror, breathing heavily, then scooped it and the stone up and stormed into the hallway.
It took almost half an hour of navigating to find the Queen’s room- the Hand’s hideout was a gnarl of intersecting routes and false starts that Amy couldn’t even begin to imagine memorizing. Fortunately, the Witness seemed to have it mostly figured out. It spotted a familiar corridor and guided her to a room blocked by a white door. A good sign. Very few of the rooms here actually had doors installed. Amy knocked.
A moment later the door swung open and the Queen appeared in the entrance, dressed in a blue nightgown and look of thorough annoyance. She glared at Amy, opened her mouth to speak. Then her gaze fell on the mirror in Amy’s hand, and a completely new expression formed, one that made Amy flinch back. “What are you doing with that?” The words were completely calm, but hearing them, Amy understood why Gregor had been so frightened.
“I-I have to show you something.”
The Queen took a step forward. Amy shrunk away. “I hope you can explain herself.” Amy shuddered. Her words snapped like a falling guillotine.
Amy held the mirror and stone out. She struggled to organize her thoughts, but any hope of summoning Rupinder’s image was being pushed aside by the fear that now ran through her. Closing her eyes, she breathed deep. Tried to ignore the fear. Tried to forget her trembling knees. A jolt of electricity ran up her arms. She chanced a peek at the mirror, and breathed a sigh of relief as she saw Rupinder’s image. The angels still assailed him. The Queen watched it expressionlessly.
“You used the sending stone?” she finally said.
“Is my Sister with him?”
Again, Amy nodded. She wanted to speak, but words seemed to have bottlenecked in her throat.
The Queen ran a finger down the mirror. “Can you take us to him?
Amy looked away, finally able to speak. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Good. Then prepare yourself. We leave as soon as everyone is ready.” The Queen turned back into the room. The door slammed behind her, leaving Amy alone in the hallway.
Will we be able to get to him?
What the fuck are we supposed to do against something that stopped Rupinder AND the Sister?
You may have a chance, if you are able to use the stone properly. But you should not be so eager to rescue them. These people do not hold good intentions.
Are you not going to help us?
I am merely cautioning against this course of action.
Amy glanced back down the hallway. A chill ran down her spine. She still couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. He’s a dick, but he’s a dick who helped me and saved my life. I won’t just leave him like this.
Your conception of karma is very strange.
Not really. She started moving back towards her room. I just don’t like owing people favors.
It was easier to return to her room than it had been to find the Queen’s- the Witness already had the route memorized. When she arrived she looked around the sparse space, thinking. There didn’t seem to be much preparation she could do. The only possession she had besides her clothes, a few books, and a handful of souvenirs purchased in the Library market was the sending stone. And from they way people had talked, it was all the preparation she required. She pulled it from her pocket, turning it over in her hand.
What am I going to have to do? Sometimes Amy wondered why she bothered speaking to it in her head anymore. A nervous habit, picked up from years of abuse perhaps.
The stone can be used to manifest a Way to their location. This will be the less challenging part.
I assume the more challenging part is getting rid of those fucking angel things.
She got the sense that, had the Witness a corporeal form, it would have nodded. And attempting to open another Way while being assailed by them.
And how am I supposed to do that?
With great care. And the right tools.
Thirty minutes later the Queen entered Amy’s room, prepared for war. She wore thin, black body, some cross between leather and a shiny material Amy had no clue as to the identity of. A bandolier was slung over one shoulder. A mixture of modern tech and library weaponry hung from it- modern looking grenades beside vials of multi-colored powder, rag dolls, wood carvings. On one hip was a silver pistol. A silver sword was strapped to the other. Li and Thalmos stood behind her.
“You think a sword is going to help against those things?” said Amy, eyeing the weapon.
“I wouldn’t underestimate it,” said the Queen.
Amy shrugged. If the Queen thought it would be valuable, she was probably right. She had more experience than Amy in the matter, certainly. Amy glanced at the other two. Li carried no weapons that she could see. Another mage, perhaps? Thalmos carried an arsenal even more impressive than the Queen’s. It seemed almost preposterous that he was able to balance so many blades, magazines, scrolls, flasks, and amulets. The sheer mass of it all would have looked ridiculous on almost any other person. But it only served to make him look even more intimidating, like a knight preparing his armor to ride into battle.
“You have everything you need?”
Amy slung a backpack over her shoulder and nodded.
“Then what’s our next step?”
“First we need to get back to the Library.” Amy gestured toward the door. The Queen turned and began to lead them through the maze of hallways that made up the exit. Amy was struck by how different it seemed than it had coming in. The light was brighter, the walls less oppressively close together. She felt a weight lifting from her as she walked, as if a stone she hadn’t even noticed had been strapped to her back and was finally being removed.
She looked at the others. Their faces were grim. Thalmos drummed his fingers against his thigh nervously as a walk. Li walked with his arms folded in front of him, muttering softly to himself. Not happy about the mission, perhaps? Only the Queen seemed free of anxiety. Her expression was no more hard than it normally was. Once again Amy found herself wondering about the woman’s history. She seemed young- she couldn’t be past her early 30s. But her ability, her determination, the way she commanded authority, seemed to be that of someone who had lived multiple lifetimes. It troubled Amy. There was little these days that wasn’t a mystery, but to see a woman like this- someone who was, for all Amy could tell, completely normal and human in origin- who blended so easily into this environment was troubling. Had the Queen been like her, perhaps? Was this what Amy might become? Amy had difficulty imagining herself ever so acclimated to things such as these, let alone thriving as the Queen did.
They came to a staircase Amy didn’t remember descending and began to climb. Amy glanced at the others. They didn’t seemed troubled by the different route. No matter then. Soon the staircase leveled off into an ornately decorated hallway. Red carpet led down walls fine with gold filigree. As they walked down it, Amy saw movement in the corner of her eyes. Amy looked, and the shadows darted away to escape her gaze. The others seemed unconcerned, however, and she let her guard relax. There was already more than enough to worry about. They reached a door- remarkably plain looking- at the end of the hallway. The Queen threw it open. The group stepped back into the Library.
The Queen looked at Amy. “Now?”
“Follow me.” She began to lead them through the shelves, following the Witness’ instructions exactly. It took slightly longer than expected- apparently a few shelves and routes had been moved since the Witness last surveyed this area, and they got stuck trying to push through a crowd at some kind of political rally. But within time they stood before a grey stone rising from the Library carpet.
The Queen looked at Amy and raised an eyebrow. “You want to use a Way to reach them? There are none to lead that universe. It was one of the reasons it was chosen to be her prison.”
“No,” said Amy, kneeling and touching the rock. She clutched the sending stone in her free hand. “But this Way should be the easiest to redirect into the area want. In theory, at least.” She began to pace around the Way, murmuring to herself the words the Witness had told her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the others tensing up, anticipating what was coming. It was all she could do to control the shaking of her knees herself. Her voice trembled around the words of power. The Witness had explained what could be done to hold back the angels (hold them back, Amy thought to herself, not actually stop them. There was no way to truly stop them). But there was a vast gulf between knowing what to do and actually doing it. Even Rupinder hadn’t been able to protect himself from them. How much would she really be able to help?
The etchings along the Way’s stone began to shine. Normally the light of the portals was a pearly white. This time, the cracks glowed a deep blue. Amy tried not to think of what that could mean, and continued her path around the rock. The light brightened as she continued speaking the necessary words, rippling as if it were trying to escape its prison of stone. Staring into it, Amy stumbled her words, almost losing track of her place. The light responded, instantly dimming, but perked back up as she resumed her chant. She felt the stone growing hot in her hand, and looked down. Its glow was visible through her flesh.
She reached the final line of the rite, and the Way responded instantly. Its center erupted with tendrils of light, spinning and twisting around each other like dolphins dancing through the ocean. They condensed and fell back, coating the Way. It no longer looked like stone but a single, massive light. Amy stepped back, looking at the Queen. “Through there.”
The Queen didn’t hesitate. She advanced into the light and let it consume her. Li and Thalmos exchanged a glance. For a moment they hesitated, and Amy got the feeling they were wondering what the consequences of turning back would be. Any doubts they had didn’t last long. They pushed forward into the gate, leaving Amy alone with the Way.
It’s not too late to turn back is it?
It rarely is. But would you allow yourself to?
In response, she entered the light. She was prepared for the feeling of travel now, the nauseous sensations and the forces that seemed to slam her around the featureless landscape. When she spewed from the portal into her destination, she only retched for a moment, balancing herself against a tree. She wiped her mouth and looked up. The other three stared at her.
A great forest surrounded them. Through the canopy, a massive moon barely illuminated the foliage. Amy made the motion that had become instinctive at this point, summoning a small ball of light which she held up. “So what now?” She asked.
The Queen pointed. Amy followed the motion, and saw far off through the trees flashes of light. A moment later a roar made Amy jump back, a noise like a sheath of earth cracking off and falling into the sea. Near the light, a tree splintered and felt. A figure darted through the shadows of the forest, weaving and ducking between branches and trunks, pursued by light. The runner stumbled as they ran, sprawled onto the forest bed. A screeching noise echoed as the light descended towards them.
Before Amy could react, the Queen rushed forward. Amy cried out at her to stop, but the Queen kept running. A moment later, Li and Thalmos followed, weapons drawn. Amy cursed as she watched them approach the figure. The Queen threw an object forward. It was too far for Amy to see the effects of it, but it seemed to get the angel’s attention. It whipped around and rushed towards the trio. The Queen ducked out of the way, but the light slammed into Li, throwing them through the air. They crashed into the shadows of the forest bed, out of sight.
This wasn’t how things were supposed to go. Amy dashed towards the fight. As she arrived, the Queen was standing over Rupinder, helping him to his feet. Thalmos stood between them and the angel, holding up a silver medallion. The creature tried to push forward but was held back but an unseen force that sparked as it pushed against it. Sweat dripped from Thalmos’ face, and the arm holding the medallion trembled. The showers of sparks grew stronger as the creature dashed forward again and again. It gave one final forward thrust and there was a cracking noise as Thalmos’ arm snapped, the elbow flopping backwards in a direction never meant to be bent. Thalmos collapsed to the ground, streaming.
Before the creature could strike at the Queen, Amy thrust her arm forward. She held the sending stone in her fist, and at her command, a ball of force launched forward. It caught the angel, which went crashing against a tree trunk. It shook itself, dazed, then advanced towards them again. From behind the shadows of the tree, several other creatures appeared.
Amy dropped to a knee next to the Queen. “I can get rid of them,” she said, “but I need time.”
Rupinder pushed himself up. Blood caked most of his face. His clothes were little more than scraps, and a long gash split the side of his leg. But the look in his eyes was fearsome. “How long do you need?
His fists clenched and unclenched. A small grin spread on his face. “That’s a tall order.”
“It’s the best I’ve got.”
“That’s what I get for relying on amateurs, I suppose.” He gestured towards one of the angels, and it burst apart into a rainbow-prism. A second later it reformed, looking only slightly irritated for the experience.
“Where’s my Sister?” said the Queen.
Rupinder pointed towards a spot behind the angels. “Through them.” Amy could just barely make out the silhouette of a figure lying on the ground some 200 feet away.
The Queen stood, holding the sword before her, tip pointed to the ground. Reflections of the angel’s light flashed along the side of its blade. Standing tall, silhouetted by the shine of her enemy, the Queen brought to Amy’s mind an image of an ancient hero, prepared to martyr herself for a cause greater than they could imagine. She stared unblinking into the angels as they approached.
“They’ll tear you in half,” said Rupinder. He sounded as concerned as someone telling their roommate they were out of milk.
“I hope you start distracting them soon then,” said the Queen, and charged forward.
The angels dove towards her. As one flashed near, she struck out with her sword. The metal swept through the light and the creature reared back, screaming. A scrap of glowing cloth fell from where the blade had sliced and disintegrated against the ground. With a cry, the Queen lunged forward, blade gleaming as she sliced again and again. This time the creature was prepared for the attack. It split, shifting its form out of the Queen’s blows, and appeared to the side of her unharmed. Before she could react it sunk a talon into her shoulder. She stumbled away, clutching her bleeding arm.
Before she could escape, the other creatures moved into place, encircling her. She brandished her blade, trying to move to keep an eye on all of them. Her arm shook, and looked as if she might lose grip on the sword at any moment. She turned, and a creature pounced from behind.
It was stopped by a column of brick rising from the Earth. The creature tried to dodge from the side, but the wall moved with it. It curled down, ensnaring the creature, then began to wrap around it, drawing into the ground until it resembled an egg, completely encasing the angel. After a moment, the rock began to glow from within.
Rupinder limped closer to them, his arm outstretched. He held his fist clenched, though it looked like he was struggling to keep it that way. With a gesture of his other hand, arcs of lightning leaped from the earth to strike at the angels. They scattered, screeching as the bolts raked at their skin. The Queen took advantage of the opportunity. She jumped up and resumed her race towards the Sister. A few of the Angels noticed and turned towards her, but attacks from Rupinder drove them back. She reached the Sister and began to shake the body.
“Is she still alive?” said Amy.
“Isn’t there something else you should be focusing on?” said Rupinder. The words came out strained through gritted teeth. The angels were regrouping, charging at the Queen and Sister. Each time Rupinder managed to push them back, but Amy could tell the effort was already beginning to grind him down. No time to waste. She unslung her backpack and turned it over. The contents spilled to the ground- copper wire, metal stakes, and 6 flashlights with spent bulbs.
She picked up the wire and began to unspool it. Twice her trembling hands dropped it before she managed to unroll the right amount of wire. Calm down, she told herself. Just focus. She sucked in a breath and let it trickle out. Then in three quick movements, she wrapped one of the metal stakes in the wire. She had barely let it fall from her hands before she began working on unspooling the next thread.
In the corner of her eye there was a blur of crimson and a loud screech. She turned. One of the angels had made a break for Rupinder. He held it back, a wall of red light standing in front of him, but the creature inched closer and closer. And without Rupinder’s protection, the others were free to strike at the Queen. One struck with a talon of light. The Queen tried to dodge, but carrying the Sister she was too sluggish. The claw caught her in the shoulder. She dropped to the ground noiselessly.
You are wasting time. If you want to aid them, complete the rite.
She turned her way, doing her best to ignore the noise of the fight. She looped the wire around another stake, then a third and a fourth. Soon she had a line of six strung together stakes. One by one she slammed their tips into the ground, forming a small circle. She picked up the first flashlight and-
Suddenly she was rocketing through the air. Time slowed as she soared, and she watched the bits of leaves and twigs flying along her trajectory. Then she slammed into the ground. Something in her chest snapped. For a moment she lay still, trying to force oxygen into lungs that no longer seemed to be working. She looked up. One of the angels was soaring towards her. Behind he it, she saw another clutching Rupinder. It slammed him against the ground. His limbs flopped, unresponsive. The sight barely had time to register before the other angel was upon her.
It lifted her into the air. She tried to struggle, but her limbs felt dead. The world was starting to grow fuzzy. She tried to breath, but could only swallow sips of air. The angel’s talons were gripping her too tightly. So this was it then. This was how she died. She let herself go limp, watching the fading, upside-down world as she dangled from the claws of the angel. In the back of her mind, she heard a familiar voice. One she should have been able to recognize but couldn’t.
She heard a bang. The angel’s grip released. She dropped to the earth, rolled across the forest bed. For a moment she lay there, gasping every possible breath of air. As the world came back into focus, she saw Li standing in front of her. The left half of his body looked deformed. As her eyesight fully cleared, she realized his arm had transformed into a massive claw, almost as long as the rest of his body. The bandages covering his face had come partially loose. Beneath them, a golden eye framed by blood gleamed. The angel floated in front of him. One of its wings looked crooked. A second later, it reformed in a shower of light.
Li’s body began to bulge. From beneath the bandages, folds of grey skin began to push through, until the wrappings begin to split and fall away. Pale grey hair sprouted from his flesh. His right arm lengthened and grew thicker to match the left. His jaw cracked as it elongated into a large snout. Soon, a large wolflike creature stood in front of her. It growled and approached the angel.
Amy looked away. She didn’t have to watch what would come next. In the darkness, about a dozen yards away, she saw her collection of tools. Her knee buckled as she pushed herself to her feet. Catching herself before hitting the ground, she limped towards the collection as fast as she could without tumbling over. When she arrived, she let herself fall and snatched up a flashlight. She quickly arranged them into a hexagram. From behind her came a howl of pain.
Taking a deep breath, she placed on hand in the center of the arrangement.
Hope there is a god on this world to answer your prayers.
She poured out energy, every last drop that she’d been saving for just this occasion. Her save reserves were gone in seconds, but she didn’t stop. She felt her arm growing numb. Her mouth felt like sandpaper as the water disappeared from it. There was a pressure building over her eye, as if someone were trying to dig their finger behind it and into her buzzing brain. But she kept pushing, every ounce of energy she had, until all that was left was an empty space within her.
Screams filled the air. The kind of screams the Earth would make as it broke apart. Blinding light filled her half-closed eyes. She tried to squeeze them shut, but couldn’t find the strength to do so. Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the light vanished. The screams quieted. In front of her were only six trembling flashlights.
We must hurry. This will not hold them long.
Amy didn’t need to be told twice. She tried to push herself up. Tried. But didn’t move an inch. Her muscles wouldn’t budge. She struggled, trying to rise, but it was as if there was a blockade between her brain and her body. It simply wouldn’t happen. As she laying their, trying to force motion, a large hand picked her up and slung her over a shoulder.
Looking down, she saw the Li-creature carrying her. Blood gushed from a dozen gashes across its body and legs. It limped over to where Rupinder lay, picked him up. Then it collected the Queen, Sister, and Thalmos before moving back to the glowing portal. Amy barely managed to slur out a “thanks…” before it stepped into the light.
A second later, they stood in the Library. Li gingerly placed his charges on the ground. Amy slowly turned her neck. Rupinder lay next to her. He was a mess. Blood covered his face. His arms were crooked. Bone poked from one of his legs. But he was still breathing steadily. And, as Amy watched, the injuries slowly began to knit themselves together. Bastard was tougher to kill than she’d thought.
Wasn’t the stone supposed to make this shit easier?
You must learn how to use it more efficiently.
After what felt like hours, and was probably only a few minutes, she managed to rise to her feet. The runes surrounding the Way glowed- it wasn’t yet closed. She reached down and dismissed the magic. That was it, then. When the creatures did escape the lights, they’d be trapped in their miserable world. She plopped down, resting her back against the Way, taking deep gulps of air. After a minute, the Queen sat down next to her. One of her arms hung limp. Blood matted her hair to her skin.
“Thank you,” said the Queen.
Amy didn’t have the energy to do more than grunt. She looked down at the unconscious Sister. The left half of the woman’s face was covered in burns. She took slow, labored breaths.
“There are people I can take her to,” said the Queen. “She’ll live.”
Amy nodded. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do.
“Well,” said the voice of a man, behind her. “We didn’t expect you’d make it quite this easy.”
He stepped into view, a tall man with dark hair and the kind of bulk that would make a linebacker jealous. He wore grey military fatigues, and Amy didn’t even need to see the the white patch on his shoulder to realize where he was from. To other men in similar uniforms flanked him. Li growled at the man and took a step forward. The Queen stood, hand on a knife-hilt. The Agent smirked. “I know you’re smart enough not to follow through on that.”
“You should have been more careful,” said the Agent. He snapped his fingers. A small pinpoint of red light began to glow underneath Amy’s skin. “It was easy enough to place the monitor on you during that little India mishap. Luckily your friend was too distracted by the more obvious one to notice..”
Amy stood. Her hands balled into fists. “Leave me the fuck alone.”
“Or what?” The Agent raised an eyebrow. “You’ll hit me? Go ahead. It’ll make my job much easier.”
“Why can’t you people just drop it? It’s over. I’m not your fucking zoo exhibit anymore.”
“You love your family right?” A smile crept onto the Agent’s face.
The world seemed to drop away as Amy processed the words. “What?”
“Of course you do. You’ve been fighting like hell to get back to them. In our Earth. And it is just not acceptable to have someone like you running around there outside our control. So we decided to fix that.”
“What did you DO?” roared Amy. She charged forward. Li stepped in front of her, holding her back from striking the Agent.
“It’s simple,” he said. “You can come back into our custody, and we’ll let them go. Or you can stay, and we keep them. And if you attack me they’ll be killed too, of course. So which will it be?”
END PART SEVEN