For the first time in five years, Amy slept peacefully. No nightmares. No panic attacks in the middle of the night. She woke, and there was no aching in her joints, no cramped muscles. A comforter swathed her. She opened her eyes. The room was dim, lit only by a small lamp in the corner. The bed she lay in was big enough for two people, with blankets the color of bright lipstick. A nightstand beside held a silver tray piled with food. Looking at it made her stomach rumble. She tossed the covers to the side, propped herself up, and reached for the tray. Her hand stopped just before touching the food.
Where the hell was she? The last thing she remembered was running through the caves, being chased by… whatever those fucking things were. She glanced around the room, but it didn’t offer any answers. The walls were bare, aside from the single window. Other than the bed and nightstand, there was no furniture. A closet on the wall opposite was open, bare.
Amy rolled to the edge of the bed and as she did, glanced down at herself. The white jumpsuit that had been her uniform for the past five years was gone. It had been replaced by a set of cashmere pajamas, the fabric so dark it threatened to spill out to any surface it touched. The pain in her shoulder was gone. She lifted her feet, stared at the soles. They were free of any marks.
Okay. Time to consult the expert. You there? she thought.
The reply came an instant later. Yes.
Any idea what’s going on? Amy lifted herself from the bed, stepped over to the window. Two chords hung from the top of it.
Most likely, we are being held prisoner. I lack information to guess further than that.
The blinds snapped up as she yanked one of the chords. Her eyes widened at was on the other side. It was night. They must have been over ten stories up, far above a street of bumper-to-bumper traffic. People swarmed around each other on the sidewalks- many had umbrellas, and as she shifted her focus, she realized it was drizzling slightly. Across from the window was a row of buildings, each at least fifteen stories high. Fuck me, she thought.
That eliminates many of the worst possibilities. We are, at the very least, in your home universe.
Okay, so what’s left? She craned her neck, trying to get a glimpse of anything that would give her more information. What city was this? New York? She’d never been, but it looked like the pictures.
Similar possibilities, with the added chance that you may be able to escape. The voice hadn’t finished speaking when Amy heard the door open behind her.
She turned. A tall, tan-skinned man stood in the entry-way, his hand still on the doorknob. Dark black, curly hair fell to just above his shoulders, well-framing his already attractive features. Stubble covered his chin. He wore blue jeans, expensive by the look of it, and a grey button-up poked out from a green sweater. He smiled and shut the door behind him. “You’re awake. Wonderful.”
She eyed him suspiciously. There was no doubt in her mind the friendliness was an act. If he had anything to do with those creatures that had chased her, he probably wasn’t planning anything good. And he was blocking the door. “Who are you?” she asked.
“My name’s Rupinder.” He extended a hand to shake. She didn’t react, and after a moment, he drew it back. “I apologize for the behavior of my underlings. They may be effective, but can get a bit rowdy if not supervised properly. I hope it won’t mean we can’t get along.”
He is telling the truth, said the Witness. Or a supremely good liar.
Amy fought to hide any change in her expression. She crossed her arms. “You mean those fucking claw-things.”
“They prefer to be called the Nish-Hyet. And yes, I do.” The smile didn’t leave his face as he spoke.
“They broke my shoulder.”
“We fixed it.”
“They beat the shit out of me.”
“And they have been appropriately reprimanded for that.” He motioned towards the nightstand. “Aren’t you hungry?”
She ignored the question. “They killed two people.”
Rupinder raised an eyebrow. “As I understand it, both of those people were helping to hold you captive.”
“That doesn’t mean you kill them!” The words came out more forcefully than she intended, and she snapped her mouth shut. Why was she so worked up? She’d barely known Doctor Galloh. Ed had been alright, sure, but still… two days ago she would have told anyone she didn’t give two fucks whether he lived or died.
It is not to your benefit to antagonize these people, said the ever-monotone voice in her head. It doesn’t seem he intends to hurt you. It is possible he intends to offer assistance. Amy gritted her teeth. Fine. She would see what the game was.
“Few people have the right to do anything,” said Rupinder. “Yet we do anyway.” He stepped aside, motioning for her to exit the room. “Please, come. I will explain further.”
She glanced at him, then to the door, then stepped past into the hallway. It was about fifteen feet long, stretching out in both directions, well lit by fluorescent panels across the ceiling. Several doors lined the walls. The floor was covered by a fuzzy red carpet that tickled her bare feet. Rupinder walked forward and motioned her to follow.
He continued to talk as they traveled down the hall, arriving at two flights of stairs. “Again, I apologize for any harm that came to you. Attempting to steal from the Foundation is… not a task most can undertake lightly. Doing so without any collateral damage…” he laughed. Then he began to descend the stairs two at a time. Amy, barely five foot five, had to move double-time to keep up. “Even with help it’s doubtful. Particularly help from the Insurgency. We fixed everything we could.”
“Great. Cool. You got a point?” Amy tried to make her voice hard, but she was still too disoriented to manage the effect.
Rupinder didn’t look back. He rounded the bottom of the stairwell, into a large room that looked like the lounge of an upscale hotel. An ornate chandelier from the ceiling. The floor was covered in a blue-green carpet, patterned in spirals that made Amy think of ocean reefs. Couches were arranged a flat-screen TV that took up almost a third of a wall- it looked like it was showing Ocean’s Eleven. A man and a woman sat on the couch. In the corner, a second man was reading a book. None reacted to Rupinder and Amy’s approached. “The point is, we desire your services.”
“You’re not getting them,” said Amy. She crossed her arms, hoping it could make her look more tough.
An entryway to the left led to a small kitchen sectioned off by a granite counter. Rupinder walked over, tugged open the fridge door, and retrieved two cans of Diet Coke. He offered one to Amy. She shook her head. He shrugged and placed it on the counter. “As you wish.”
Her eyebrow lifted.
Rupinder sipped his drink. “Take, or don’t take, what you want. Stay or go as you please. We won’t stop you leaving.”
The words processed in her brain. She remained silent.
“However,” he said, placing his Coke next to the unopened can on the counter, “we are the only thing shielding you from the Foundation’s search. Do you know how long escaped humanoids evade them, alone? Three days. Rarely longer than a week. And if you don’t assist us, we see no reason to assist you.”
He let the statement linger. Amy shifted her eyes to the ground. She bit her lip. Dammit. He could have been lying, but she doubted it. She’d only seen a small portion of her captor’s - the Foundation, she assumed - resources, but they were enough to make it clear they didn’t let people out of their grip easily. She sighed. “By my assistance, you mean-”
“The Witness, yes.” Rupinder nodded.
She grimaced. “Whatever. No way. You think I’m just gonna spend the rest of my life- whatever the hell that is anymore- being your library?”
He smiled. “Concerned you’ll just be moving to a different kind of prison? Fair. One job. All we need. You’ll be free to go and we’ll continue to protect you from the influence of the Foundation.”
The offer seemed way too good to be true. “You expect me to trust this.”
Rupinder shrugged. “I expect you to make the choice best for yourself.”
Amy looked around the room, glancing at the people on the couches, the television, the pantry stocked with more food than she had ever seen outside of a grocery. She thought of what it would be like, to walk outside again after five years, real outside, not the fake habitats they occasionally let her into. She thought of eating real food, seeing new movies, meeting new people. She thought about seeing storms, or snow, or the sun. And most of all, she thought of who she’d been taken from.
“I need to think about it.”
Rupinder nodded. “Of course.”
She wandered back into the lounge, her hands in her pockets, again examining the room. Three paintings decorated a section of wall. Moving in for a closer look, she glanced back at Rupinder. He was still in the kitchenette, but his eyes hadn’t left her. She turned to the paintings.
The first was of a man astride a pure-black horse. He wore a long red coat which billowed in the wind. One hand gripped the colt’s mane, the other thrust a thin saber towards the sky. His face, smeared with dirt, was contorted into a furious roar, or perhaps a cry of fear. Around him a great battle raged- explosions marking the Earth, men eviscerating one another with bullet and blade, air filthy with shrapnel and smoke.
“A wonderful piece,” said a rasping voice behind her. The man reading had approached. “Sadly, the artist’s name is long lost. A victim of an unprepared world.”
“Uh huh,” she said. It was difficult to place his age- older than forty, probably not older than sixty. His thick blond hair was touched at the edges by gray, and lines marked the edges of his mouth and eyes. He wore a red and white silk shirt that hung almost to his knees, black pants beneath. There was a hungry look in his eyes as he stared at the painting.
He offered a hand. “I have heard much of you. It is an honor. I am Amon.”
“That’s great.” She turned back to the painting. It almost seemed familiar, but any time she got close to the idea of how it slipped away.
Amon gestured at the paintings. “I selected all of these, from my personal collection. The finest I have found in years of travel.” He sighed. It sounded exaggerated. “It’s a pity, how this world treats art. They don’t know what it means to search. To scour a world for years in hunt of a true masterpiece. For them, it’s as easy as trading stock, giving bills.”
“Look, I’m not in the mood for this. Go bother someone-” she turned and stopped. The man had disappeared. In his place a swarm of wasps churned the air, crawled across walls, littered the floor. A cow’s skull sat suspended in the center of the mass, hovering almost six feet off the ground. As she stared, the skull shifted, and the buzzing of wasp wings made a noise that sounded like “Is everything alright?”
You must escape came the voice of the Witness. These are not people to be trusted.
It was the Witness’ doing. Showing her the man’s true nature. She blinked and managed to stammer out, “Uh… y-yes…” She glanced to the left. Where the man and woman had sat on the couch were two grey-skinned creatures. The ones that had chased her through the caves. She gulped.
Okay. How do we get out?
The most efficient way to do so without risking notice would be a rite.
And what is that exactly? She looked back at the swarm. “Um. This is interesting, but I really just need some time to think right now.”
The skull nodded. “I understand. You have had quite an experience.” The swarm drifted back to the chair. Hundreds of wasps settled on a book and lifted it to the skull.
A less refined being might refer to it as magic.
Uh, you realize most people don’t know how to do that, right?
That is unfortunate. However, had you no aptitude for it, we would have been unable to bond. I will be able to walk you through the steps of a simple rite. Arditio’s Curtain. Find a place you will not be seen, and some way to write. It need not be ink.
It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to just ask for a pen and accidentally give him an idea of what she was planning. She thought for a minute, then approached Rupinder. He looked almost the same through Witness-cam, though his clothes had changed from a sweater to black rags, and thin smoke drifted from his body. He looked at her expectantly.
“Would it be alright if I took a shower? I just need some time to relax after…”
Rupinder nodded. “Of course.” He pointed to one of the hallways. “Third on the right. Everything you need will be there.”
She strode to the hall and quickly found the room, shutting the door behind her. The bathroom was almost the size of her living room back home. Everything was black and white, made of hard angles and sharp edges. A large mirror hung above futuristic sinks. The shower had two metal dials, and she turned the one labeled ‘H’ as far as it could go.. In minutes the room was filled with steam.
Three symbols flashed through her mind. The components of the spell. Transcribe each atop the other. Infuse them with power as you write.
Am I supposed to know how to do that? She turned the shower off, then approached the mirror. Water had condensed along the glass
As you draw a symbol, picture it enveloping you. Imagine you are an ant, exploring a landscape made only of the rune. Crawling through the ink upon the page. Blot every thought from your mind but the image you are drawing.
Oh, simple. She touched her finger to the mirror and took a deep breath. The first of the symbols was a spiral that twisted around itself, like the old Greek labyrinth. She stared at the image as she drew it, tried to stare into it, fall into its depths like a river. As she sketched the symbol, her body begin to shiver. Sweat beaded across her forehead. Her legs felt weak, as if she’d just swam a mile. She drew the final line and stumbled back in exhaustion.
Do not hesitate. Begin the next, on top of the first.
It was almost impossible to keep her hand steady as she drew. Her whole body shook, shuddering as if she’d just sprinted a marathon. Dots of light danced in her vision. Her mouth was dry. She didn’t stop, dragging her finger down the glass, etching out the angles of the second rune.
Good. The third.
She had to grip her wrist to keep her arm raised. Her fingers were numb. Her lungs tight. Sweat soaked her face, blurring her vision. She wanted to pass out, to fall, anything but continue writing. But continue she did, until the final mark had been made. Then she collapsed against the counter.
You must hurry, before the energy dissipates. Put your hand to the surface.
She grunted, forcing herself forward, lifting her still-good arm to the mirror. As her palm hit the glass, she felt the energy surging forth. It slammed against her like a wave, and as it did the soreness in her muscles disappeared, the shaking vanished. She pressed her palm against the glass until the wave had flowed past completely, then stood. Her body was still tired, but it only a fraction of what it had been. Blue symbols covered her palm like a tattoo.
Highly inefficient said the voice, and it almost sounded like sighing. But acceptable, for a first attempt. Now hurry. They have forgotten your existence, and will not notice it again in the next five minutes.
In the lounge, Rupinder had joined the movie-watchers on the couch. None looked at her as she crept from the hallway. As quietly as she could, she moved towards the stairs. Every noise made her flinch, glance back to her kidnappers, but they paid no attention to her. She reached the stairs and scampered down
The spell is fading. Hurry. She glanced at her palm. The symbols had begun to grow faint. She quickened her pace, leaping down the stairs two, three at a time, until there were no more to descend. Ahead was standing in a large room, at the end of which was a door. Through the glass, she could see people moving, cars driving through the street.
The spell is gone. Run. She was at the door almost before it finished speaking. Her shoulder slammed against the glass, but she ignored the pain. The door swung open, and she stumbled onto the sidewalk
The drizzle had changed into a downpour, and she was soaked in seconds. Swarms of passerby bounced her between them. Water streamed around her ankles, carrying with it garbage and muck that clung to her legs. Sprays of water from passing cars splattered her with filth. A smell clung to the air, unmoved by the rain, fumes and cheap grease and rot and sewage and a hundred others.
It was beautiful.
She squeezed through the crowd. Though it was night, light from the buildings illuminated the street. Restaurants, thrift stores, a tattoo parlor… she freed herself from the river of people and ducked into a Chinese restaurant that didn’t seem too crowded. A couple in the corner swiveled to stare as she stumbled in, dripping wet. The middle-aged man behind the counter’s face twitched, but he said nothing.
Amy collapsed into an empty chair, brushed the wet bangs from her eyes. She stared up at the ceiling and began to laugh, a cackle bursting from her belly, growing louder until it seemed the room would buckle under the force of it, then trailing into a giggle only she could hear. It was several minutes before she became aware of the man from the counter standing next to her.
“Ma’am, you’re going to need to order something.”
She sighed. “Come on, just… fuck off for a minute, alright?”
He did. Bells above the door jangled as he stepped into the rain to be swept away by the crowd. The couple stared, wide-eyed, and almost tripped on their chairs racing for the door. Amy stared after them. I can’t look that bad.
Your aptitude for the Craft showing itself, triggered by the casting of your first rite. An unwitting compulsion charm, said the Witness. It felt the need to add, The lovers left of their own volition.
Great, I’m a Marvel supervillain now. She glanced at the abandoned table. The food was half-eaten, but not nearly finished. Her stomach growled. In an instant she was at the table, shoveling as much lo-mein into her mouth as her fingers would allow. She finished, then descended upon the plate of General Tso’s chicken. Jesus, how could food this delicious exist?
After the plates were licked clean, she settled back in the chair, rubbing her hands with napkins. So. The Foundation. How fucked are we?
There was a moment of pause before it said, Thoroughly.
Great. She ran her fingers through her hair, rubbing her scalp. Plus, Rupinder and the three razor-sharp amigos. Still no idea who they are?
They are almost certainly Serpent’s Hand.
You can tell me what that means later. She stood, walked to the counter. After a glance back at the chef, she popped open the register. Only a few coins and crumpled bills. She pocketed it anyway. So, my family’s in San Diego. We’re in New York. That’s… what, a 200 dollar plane ticket? Shouldn’t be too hard.
This would be a regrettable decision. You will be apprehended before boarding the aeroplane. Should you manage to make it home, they will certainly be waiting for you there.
I’ll avoid them, then. She slipped from the restaurant into the rush of the sidewalk.
This is impossible.
She gritted her teeth. I’ll fight them off. You can show me a spell.
I would show you a rite. And we have very little time for that. You would only make yourself easier to capture.
“Goddammit, I’m going to see my fucking family!” she roared, halting in traffic. A few passerby shot her dirty looks.
You will not. If you attempt to contact them, you will be captured. If you do not leave the city, you will be captured. If you give anyone your real name, you will be captured. If you make any one of a million possible mistakes against this enemy, you will be captured. You will need the help of another.
“Yeah?” she hissed. “Who’s that?”
You must find the Warden.