Time runs the other way for a while.
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
-Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress"
They sat in rows along tabletops, their lidless eyes staring through him as if he were made of glass. Positioned as they were around the perimeter of the room, the walls' light was brightest at their backs, creating the illusion of ghostly halos. Their mouths were sculpted to be slightly agape, as if they had been interrupted mid-breath.
Dimitri's plans to escape were stymied by the door's having apparently been absorbed into the wall.
"All right," he said, trying to smooth out the jumping panic in his voice, "whatever you are- and I know you're something because you're clearly controlling things for a purpose, petty and malicious as that purpose may be- whatever you are, I demand answers." Pleased by his reasonable attempt at eloquence under pressure, Dimitri crossed his arms and stared pointedly at the ceiling. When no answers were forthcoming, he added, "Do you expect me to fall apart? I am not a sniveling child who will tremble at parlour tricks."
He sensed movement in his periphery vision, and the back of his neck tensed. As he turned slowly, he saw one of the dolls- a delicate piece of porcelain in a blond wig and a white dress- had its head tilted slightly so that it was staring at him with intricately painted eyes.
No, it's not looking at me. Forcing himself to breathe normally, Dimitri noted with disapproval that his left hand had clutched his brooch.
"Nonsense," he muttered. "Parlour tricks."
Another hint of motion rippled through the air. With a sharp shudder, Dimitri looked up to find that every doll's head had turned just enough to put its gaze level with his. Their eyes gleamed like mirrors.
"Do you expect this to frighten me?" he said, making a sweeping gesture with his left arm. This is anger, not fear. Leveling his staff at a cluster of lace-adorned dolls, he chanted his favorite fire spell, finishing with a dramatic twirl of his staff.
The staff declined to work, and the entirely unburnt dolls continued to stare at him.
"That's cheating." Dimitri glared at the ceiling, tapping his staff once against the floor in a gesture of defiance.
For a long while, nothing happened. The walls glowed, the dolls gazed, and Dimitri's patience waned. Finally he let his posture relax with a sigh and turned his eyes from the unresponsive ceiling to the porcelain faces surrounding him.
At least the evil supernatural force cares enough to use the finest workmanship, he thought, leaning over to examine the nearest doll more closely. This specimen, representing a dark-skinned girl with hair and eyes the color of a midnight sea, would have parted a collector from a small fortune. The paints were warmly and precisely applied, the hair flowed almost naturally from the scalp, and the blue dress appeared to have been woven from silk. Every detail, down to the lines of the fingernails, was sculpted to be as life-like as the constraints of style allowed.
Something nudged a memory, and Dimitri frowned as he leaned in until his face was mere inches from the doll's. The doll returned the look with eyes that deepened his frown and drew a crease in his forehead. Inside the colored glass was the moon on the water, the mingled odors of fish and salt, and the callused hands of a fisherman's daughter...
He drew back with a start. The name was forgotten and the shape distorted, but there were memories etched into every line of the face, down to the slight, bemused curve of the lips. "Where are you going? It's still dark. Didn't I invite you to stay?"
Dimitri spun so that the doll could stare only at his back. This isn't real. This can't... His thoughts trailed off as the faces now in front of him flashed with recognition. Their gazes slid from cold to accusing.
Then his eyes fixed on a doll almost hidden behind two others, only its head and scarf peering out from a fence of hair and dresses. Its skin was pale and flushed, as if it had just come from in from the cold, carrying a bucket of water so heavy it left angry red grooves on the fingers, blinking cerulean eyes and refusing to cry, deciding it wasn't worth crying for...
It was enough to break him. She was a sigh on a house of cards, a raindrop on a sandcastle, the single regret in a basket of callousness, and the only thing heavy enough to pull it all hellbound. But I let it become disproportionate. It was a random collision of elements, nothing more. Why should I have staked my future on a fleeting sense of something I couldn't even name?
The doll's hair fell like petals over her- its- face. It bothered him, as if he could see the wind slipping in to hide her. Breathing more rapidly than he should have, he reached to tuck the errant strands behind a porcelain ear.
When his fingers brushed the artificial flesh, the doll exploded.
Dimitri flung up his arms to protect himself from the blast. From his wrists to his elbows hot shards of porcelain tore at his skin, ripping open the sleeves of his robes. Screaming, he tumbled backward to the floor.
He lay for a long while, panting, with "What a stupid way to die" looping dizzily through his mind. When he managed to sit up and examine himself, he found that the damage was far less than he had feared; while his robe was tattered, most of the shrapnel had only grazed his skin, leaving shallow cuts and a few tiny shards to pick out.
First things first, then. Wincing, he set to work removing the embedded porcelain, keeping a wary eye on the apparently combustible dolls.
Time was an arc, and she swung on it like a hanged man.
Gravity dragged her down again.
He had been suspiciously quiet for some time now. This period of time corresponded roughly to how long Clovis had kept her eyes closed, which indicated that he had prepared some sort of nasty visual shock for her. She promised not to let herself react to it.
Always comes down to reactions, doesn't it?
As much as she wanted to enjoy the reprieve from any empirical evidence of Cham, his absence left her with her least favorite thoughts for company. Memories marched in a small but noisy parade through her head, wearing grooves into her brain. Repeated attempts to think about anything else were overshadowed by a stunned pair of eyes and a nagging sense of thirst.
"Fine," she said, "we'll have a damn conversation or something. But not another word about suicide."
He didn't answer, so she slid her eyes open and found his arm poking through her abdomen to wave at her. "Out," she said firmly. In response, Cham leapt through her body and spun around to face her with a grin.
"But why not?" he drawled. "You're going to die any-"
"We're not talking about that either."
He shrugged, still smiling. "How about a game, then?"
The succession of thoughts that ran through Clovis's mind made her cringe. "Define 'game.'"
He caught her expression and laughed, a little less stridently than usual. In fact, he sounded very nearly sane.
The wheels began to turn in her head. It was clear that he knew more than he said, and if playing along kept him coherent and relaxed...
Eh, worth a shot. Clovis nodded.
"Then how about a question game?" he said at length, settling down opposite her. He was a few inches closer than she would have liked, but she was willing to overlook it in favor of keeping him rational.
Resting his chin in his hand, he continued, "It's an educational way to pass the time, right? One of us asks a personal question, and the other has to answer before asking one back."
"And this is different from a conversation how?"
"Because it's a game." Cham's eyes gleamed as he added, "If you don't answer, you lose."
Clovis shrugged. "Okay, I'll bite. What does the winner get?"
His grin showed more teeth than was necessary, and she had a feeling she was going to have to argue with him. "I think," he said, dragging out the words with relish, "that it shouldn't be what the winner gets, but what the loser has to give up."
She raised an eyebrow. "You realize we have to agree on these terms, right?"
"I'm pretty sure we'll agree." He regarded her for a moment, his look almost soft, before the unnerving smile returned. "If you win, I'll tell you how to get out of here."
"Liar. If you knew, you wouldn't still be here."
Cham bristled. "I'm here because I'm dead. But I think I've seen enough to know how the living could get out."
Her heart fluttered, but she tried to appear unfazed as she asked, "And what if I lose?"
He stared at her. She was on the verge of yelling at him to stop playing with dramatic timing when she realized that his eyes were aimed at her dagger.
"No fucking way."
"Oh, you'd do it," he said cheerfully. "Don't have a clue how to get out of here, and you'd die anyway, sooner or later." He leaned forward until his nose was only a few inches from hers. "Correct me if I'm wrong."
"Back off," she growled, and he did so, grinning.
She sat for a while, drumming her fingers against the floor, wishing fervently that he would become corporeal just long enough for her to wring his neck. Damn Orb. Damn castle. Damn ghost.
But what did she have to fear from telling a dead man her secrets? At worst, the game would go on indefinitely. She certainly wasn't petty enough to kill herself rather than confess something, and his mind seemed spotty enough that it wouldn't be too difficult to ask about something he'd forgotten. And I'm not above making things up. Crossing her arms, she said, "So how do I know you'll keep up your end?"
"You do realize it's impossible to lie in here, don't you?" At her expression, he chuckled. "That's how it works, you know. Puts knots in your tongue. Try it. Tell me you've never killed anyone."
Clovis felt as if ice had lodged in her throat. "I don't have to tell you anything."
"Exactly." Before she could retort, he added, "This was my idea, so I'll go first."
"The hell you-"
"What's your name?"
The shadows were thick and looming, crushing her with their sense of imminence. It had been days since she had breathed without choking, and longer than that since she had breathed easily. The tent suffocated her.
Pulling on her robe as quietly as possible, she took her ax and slipped outside. She suspected he would be waiting, too sensitive to the crackling anxiety in the air to keep watch properly, and would be perched like a spider in one of the trees. But even his prattle was better than being alone with her musings.
She didn't start when he leapt down beside her. "Thought you'd stay with him tonight," he remarked, leaning against the trunk. She turned her back to him and kept a wary eye on the brush.
"It's strange," he continued after a pause. "It would be one thing if you pushed him away all the time, but then you turn around and cling..." He laughed quietly. "We've had this conversation before, huh?"
She didn't point out that a conversation is traditionally two-sided.
For a few seconds, the only sound was the drone of the crickets. He sighed. "It's not my place, right? It's just- hell, you'd think people who've been together this long would at least talk. I always figured the elf would be the holdout, but you can see how that's gone." His hand touched her arm, and she brushed him off with enough force to discourage any rational person.
He, of course, was aggressively irrational. "You're not still worried about his thing for the princess, are you?" he ventured. "Even he knew it wouldn't work out- I mean, she's already betrothed-"
A sudden rustling in the undergrowth provided an opportunity for her to swing her ax near his head. For a cathartic instant, the weapon cleaved air, flesh, and bone, thudding at last into the earth. His startled gasp mixed with the death-squeal of whatever creature she had just bisected.
"Very nice," he said, peering over her shoulder as she extracted her blade. As casual as he tried to sound, she could tell that his heart was buzzing. "I'm not entirely sure what that used to be, but it's, uh, definitely not a threat now." He paused before adding helpfully, "It had teeth."
Of course it had been hopeless. It had been the ghost of a dream, one that vanished when reality blew away the vapors. But what was to keep her own phantom intact?
To her growing annoyance, he was still talking. "Look, I get too attached. It's stupid, but it's going to bug the hell out of me if we part ways and you two aren't either a healthy couple or a healthy distance apart."
"I'll take the watch."
There was a pause, followed by a resigned sigh as he slunk back to his tent. Halfway there, he turned and cast a final look at her, a wan smile on his lips. "If we survive this," he asked, "what then?"
As his shadow melted into the tent, she turned and stared into the darkness, doing her best not to think.
When he woke, he was genuinely surprised not to be dead. That he was lying on his back, cold and naked, in total darkness didn't strike him as at all odd, but feeling air and blood flowing through him did. Just goes to show what kind of day I'm having.
Wincing at the stiffness in his joints, Glenn sat up and blinked at the blackness surrounding him. "I'd like it if the walls lit up again," he said hopefully. When no illumination appeared, he sighed and took stock of the situation.
Aside from feeling as if he'd taken a trip down a waterfall, he didn't appear to be injured. There were certainly no broken bones, and a quick survey revealed no bleeding. If he was bleeding internally, he didn't particularly want to know about it.
"So I'm here," he said aloud, in case whatever force controlled the castle happened to be listening, "because I screwed up. And I'm guessing that half-drowning me is supposed to mean something, but it might just mean that you think it's funny to hear me beg for my life." Glenn paused in case the darkness decided to snicker. "Well, either way, I'd rather just talk things over. Could we stop trying to kill me for a while now?"
He wasn't really expecting an answer, but he felt it had been worth a try. Taking a deep breath, Glenn got to his feet and began groping for the nearest wall to lean against.
The walls appeared to have wandered off while he was unconscious.
Calm down, he told himself. This place can do that. It's just messing with my head.
But what did an ancient castle have to gain from playing with the perceptions of a lost boy? How bored did a supernatural force have to be in order to put such care into tormenting whoever wandered into its path? Shivering, Glenn huddled back into a ball on the floor, mulling over whatever vendetta he had unknowingly begun with the castle.
And how does it know exactly where it hurts?
He had been too young even to pretend that he was certified, but she hadn't asked and he hadn't volunteered the truth. What could he have said? That he was a runaway and a coward? That he had robbed the dead? He had blamed his parents, his temperament, and fate; he was running out of fingers to point. But she must have known. Maggie knew more than she let on.
Shaking his head, Glenn tried to pull himself back into the present, but the present was a void.
And he had created it.
Is that what this is? My own mind coming up to haunt me? Seized with a sudden hope, he concentrated all his thoughts on leaving whatever prison he had created, on feeling the wind and sun of a free world, on waking up to discover he'd gone the other way at the fork and never felt the darkness in the Orb pulse beneath his chest.
After several minutes of trying, he gave up with a sigh and hugged his legs to his chest. "I didn't ask for this," he said bitterly, staring at the darkness in front of him. "How the hell is this my fault? I just wanted to be left alone. I just-"
-never knew what to say or how to explain myself, never figured out what I was doing or what I wanted, never thought past "can't" and "not yet" to "can" and "now," never thought past drifting because if you drift you can put it off forever, and never meant for any of this to happen, because sometimes I think I never mean anything at all-
Glenn's head shot up as the light blossomed around him. The hallway had returned, and so had his underclothing.
He had never been so delighted to see his underclothing.
The world had begun to slide the moment they crossed the threshold, long before his bleeding hand laid the crown on the throne. And as the darkness fell she remembered:
The girl trembling in the stone shadows, whispering, "I am here. Let me share your light."
The voices that washed away like dust in the rain, saying, "But why this? Wouldn't you do better as a fighter? Why do you want this?"
He was sun, moon, blood, and drug. She didn't know what not to say.
"Why did I want this?"
When the present reclaimed her, her hand was in his.
He sat in an unhappy lump on the floor, a pile of bloody porcelain chips beside him and his staff lying defensively across his lap. The dolls' eyes cut tunnels through him.
"I don't appreciate the symbolism," Dimitri said, glaring back at them. "And it's hardly my fault they were all idiots."
Usually, the hardest part was not laughing at a girl who believed that her little tragedies had captured the heart of a wanderer. The dreamers wanted to believe, and to say that he had felt himself forever transformed by such a pure and special soul could lure them completely out of reality. An empty universe would take any center.
And she would have taken me, if I had taken her.
Scowling, Dimitri used his staff to push the remains of the doll out of sight, then stood. He had four solid walls and a few dozen potential explosives; it seemed to him that these could be combined in a meaningful, escape-inducing way. The only trick was working out how.
Gingerly, he used the tip of his staff to poke a figure resting against the wall and was unsurprised when it failed to explode. An even more cautious attempt to push one doll into another also resulted in nothing.
Dimtri spent a moment examining his right hand, which was still trickling blood from a wound left by a large shard of porcelain. It would probably leave a scar. Assuming, of course, that it has a chance to heal. Brushing the thought aside, he crawled under the nearest table, pulled the remains of his sleeve over his hand, and carefully reached up to tap a painted leg with a covered finger. The doll remained intact.
"So is it flesh you want?" he asked aloud, getting back to his feet. "Or would you be content with blood?"
Ignoring the silence that buzzed in the air, Dimitri began using his staff to gather a table of dolls into a pile, packing them tightly against the wall. The last explosion had left no mark on the surrounding figures, but it had done promising damage to the wood beneath it. If he could trigger enough simultaneous blasts, the stone might at least crack.
It was a ridiculous plan. It was also the only plan that didn't require him to tunnel through solid rock with a wooden staff.
Once he'd arranged the dolls to his satisfaction, Dimitri took a step back and squeezed the cut on his hand, collecting the blood in his palm. The blue light gave it an otherworldly sheen. Taking a deep breath, he threw the handful of liquid over the the dolls and dove for cover.
The moment stretched, snapped, and faded. There was no explosion.
Gritting his teeth, Dimitri crawled out from beneath the table and stood, glaring at the blood-spattered dolls. "If you expect me to slice off my skin for you," he said, "you underestimate me." The dolls remained silent.
In a fit of frustration, he brought the staff down on them like a club. The impact reverberated up his arms as if he had stuck boulders.
"This is what I meant by 'cheating,'" he said to the ceiling. "You've made them delicate and unbreakable at the same time." With a pointed look, he lifted a doll on the end of his staff and slung it into the wall, resulting in a loud collision and no damage.
"And if you're trying to kill me," he added, "they are less roundabout ways to do it."
As Dimitri swung his staff into a cluster of dolls and sent them scattering over the tables, a sparkle from the bottom of the pile caught his eye. A little digging uncovered milk-bright porcelain, a black labyrinth of curls, and tiny gemstones glittering from every exposed joint.
She still wasn't looking at him.
Dimitri's voice spoke ahead of him, trying to distract his brain: "This- you're mixing metaphors now, which is terribly sloppy of you, and you can't- you can't expect me to fall apart every time you put out something I've already..."
He trailed off, hoisting the doll up on the end of the staff. No matter how he moved it, the sharp green eyes focused on something away from him without making him feel actively ignored. The lips curled up at the ends, too taut and glossy to have ever known what it was to need without being needed.
I never needed you. The white legs hit the table with the sound of metal striking wood. Raising one arm to guard his face, Dimitri used the other to flick the doll.
He had been prepared to spend a long time picking shrapnel out of his skin. What he hadn't expected was to feel burning cold pain shoot up his arm, searing his fingers at the point of contact. Dimitri scarcely recognized the noise he made as coming from his own throat.
The next thing he was aware of was huddling in a corner away from the doll, clutching his hand to his chest and drawing in heavy, ragged breaths. That the pain was dulling didn't entirely comfort him.
"What in all hell?" he managed, prying his hand open enough to examine it. The skin that had touched the porcelain was an angry red. When he tried to tried to move the affected fingers, they only half-obeyed.
Tucking his hand inside his robe to warm it, Dimitri glanced back at the doll to find it lying on its side, staring casually past him at something more interesting. She had pruned away the sister who offended her aesthetics. Why should his blood have meant anything?
Dimtri's working hand fumbled with his brooch, scratching and pricking his fingers until he unpinned it. In less than a minute I stopped crying that I didn't want a new mother and started wishing I could die to make you keep me. Love has nothing on contempt. In what felt like the emptiest gesture of his life, Dimitri threw the jewelry at the doll, aiming for the head. It landed with a dull clink on the table.
And I know, he thought sullenly, something about empty gestures. Without bothering to turn his back on the doll, Dimitri sighed and began trying to squeeze life back into his hand. He had just achieved tingling when something occurred to him, and he looked up to say, "I don't suppose you're trying to absolve me."
Soft light washed over them both, giving a pale sheen to the pools and droplets of blood. They were too stunned to react; he had collapsed into her arms, and she had fallen awkwardly with him to the floor. All sound was soaked up before it reached their ears. For a split-second, the heavy crimson became an alien presence, a misplaced memory of another life. Then the bubble burst and reality filled the vacuum.
"Astos!" His voice rang from the stone walls, overlapping the echoes of running footsteps. "You filthy traitor! Get back here!" He tried to raise himself from the ground, gasped, and fell back into her lap.
She made hushing sounds as her fingers brushed the glow of magic over his abdomen. "Kill him later," she said. "First survive."
He coughed, shaking himself violently. "Let me go." Crimson flecked his lips and chin. "That bastard. I can still catch him."
She wrapped her arms around his chest and buried her face in his hair. "Stop it. You can't-"
A slow series of footsteps, much too loud for an elf to have made, came from the far end of the corridor. Her grip on him slackened.
He howled. Rage and fear echoed from the walls as hot blood fell from his mouth to her arms, leaving pink froth on his lips. His lower body convulsed.
"Help me," he panted. Fingers that could scarcely grip tugged at her robe. "I can't die like this-"
"Met a Clovis once," he said thoughtfully before she could ask a question of her own. "It's your surname, right?"
She shrugged. "Hey, you already got your answer. It's my turn."
"I meant your first name. I gave you mine." Cham tilted his head until it rested on his left shoulder. "The scales are spun out of line."
And there goes the sanity. Clovis tapped her fingers against the floor and said, "Next time, specify. So... how'd you end up here in the first place?"
For a moment he seemed ready to argue, but instead he straightened his neck and leaned forward, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. "I imagine the same way you did. Took a little fall with a star and a chimera, and didn't realize we'd brought along a vampire."
Clovis sighed. "Once again, I have no idea what you're talking about. And I don't think you do, either."
He ignored her, turning to stare into the darkness at the end of the hallway. "Took my blood," he muttered, half to himself, "and probably theirs. Made me trust him first. Clever bastard. Played a silver flute and led us all along the rope."
There was no point in trying to decode all of that. "So I'm guessing 'bid for glory gone back-stabbingly wrong.'"
"For three of us." Cham shrugged and turned back to her. "What light did you follow?"
"One that's heavy, about the size of my head, and probably Wind. Not exactly a light yet, either, but I'm stuck with it." Clovis grinned at the puzzled look on his face. "Say, that is pretty entertaining."
Cham blinked, tilting his head from side to side as if he expected her to be more informative from different angles. "So that's why," he said at last. "Never wanted to come here. Got a chain in you."
Clovis snorted. "That, and an ax-happy pirate who thinks we need dragon mojo to kill the last two Fiends. My turn."
"Fiends?" Cham paused, then continued before Clovis could reclaim the conversation, "You mean people are killing them now? What brought that on?"
"Hey, didn't you make the rules you're ignoring?"
He didn't answer. Instead there was a silver flash in his eyes, and he began muttering, "Wind, Fiends, and little holes where time falls in- backdoors and trapdoors, and they all make the stone echo-"
With a look that was equal parts desperate and predatory, Cham sprang forward, passing his arms through Clovis's legs. She had jumped to her feet and started to complain when she realized that he was speaking again, his voice low and shaky.
"So old. I hear it again and again, footstep and footstep and never step closer. Something we did. Maybe the elf did it. Smeared them over time. Made them forever." The skin on the back of Clovis's neck crawled as Cham continued, "Made little soldiers with hooks in their chests, too. Made whirlpools in time. Old magic. Bonds and breaks and only deals in blood." A short giggle escaped him, followed by laughter that was only a shade away from screaming.
"Okay," Clovis called over the noise, "I already know you're crazy. You can shut up now."
To her surprise, he obeyed. After a moment's shaking, Cham got to his feet and faced her with an oddly solemn expression.
"Forget it," he said. "Game's over. I concede."
"And the catch?" When his gaze remained earnest, Clovis narrowed her eyes and said, "No, really. What the hell?"
"I like you."
"That's a laugh."
"And you're going to help me."
From one angle it was a map; from another, her own, it was a tunnel where the surface was lost and every exit was blocked with the same dirt. It wasn't falling if she dug her way down.
All blood tasted like metal and dried into rust, dirty blood and clean blood and the blood that whispered its way out even when the bones were white. Blood was salt, and all of life was salt- sea and sweat and the erosion of years, leeching away everything wet and green.
There was red. Where there was not red, she created it, and it gleamed with the knowledge that someone else paid for her mistakes. Then it faded to brown and dirt and salt.
She had tried to cover it with other, darker crimsons. But stains that deep could only be burned out.
The eye was the moment when the storm came into focus, all around and outside, the clarity as an instant left a scar in eternity, and if she fell in holding on she would sink, but if she fell in letting go perhaps she could float, swim clear of the wreckage, and find the frozen water floating in the brine, and maybe there were no second chances, but life was nothing if not one first chance after another, and the only trick was understanding choice.
She found her voice again:
"I did. And I came back."