Chapter Twenty-Eight: Twilight Zones and Catacombs
In the middle of the afternoon, when the skies were clearing a little, a certain unnameable something crept out of the forest, its nose pressed close to the ground. The trail, it noted, was strong here.
It meandered across the beach, the stones shifting under its claws as if trying to crawl away from it; it snuffled, and it hissed, and soon enough it found its way to an old set of weed-strewn stairs.
The retriever growled a little, and stalked on into the bowels of the earth.
“Oh, f*ck,” said Smythe. “It's you.”
“It is me,” agreed Teiresias. “I have a proposition for you.”
Smythe hesitated. He did not, he thought, have a whole lot to lose by hearing the demon out.
“Go on,” he said. “What is it?”
“Do you want to escape?” asked Teiresias.
“Good. I need a body to conceal myself in.”
“Hey.” Smythe raised a hand. “Look, you didn't say anything about—”
“I am saying it now.” Teiresias billowed slightly; Smythe could make out glints of light on the fringes of its cloudy body. “Thanks, ironically, to Weland, I will soon have returned to my former strength,” it went on. “At that point, I will not have to be concerned with the Shrouded Court unless the King himself comes to attack me. For now, however, I have to tread carefully. It was not easy for me to break in here, and now that I have I find I cannot leave the cells without being detected. I require a body to conceal my presence in.”
“Then why the hell did you break in here in the first place?” asked Smythe, not unreasonably. He was beginning to realise that his fear of Teiresias had decreased in proportion to the length of time he spent in the tomb-city. Or, more accurately, he thought, he was still afraid of it, but he had spent so long in a palace of horrors that he was actually beginning to get bored of being scared.
“It's the only way into the last bastion of the old world,” replied Teiresias enigmatically. “There is a buried passage from the Western Transept here that leads there. I have heard it said that it was to be the last defence of the throne; if the city fell, the survivors would have somewhere to flee.”
“I have literally no idea what you're talking about,” said Smythe. “Do you want to clarify yourself?”
Teiresias rumbled in displeasure, but Smythe held his ground; if it needed him, he reasoned, it wouldn't kill him – not yet, anyway. Thus, he could afford all the pugnacity he desired.
“There is a fortress I need to enter,” Teiresias told him. “Most of which has long since collapsed. It is not accessible by the dark paths, and there are certain precautions in place against air approach. There is, however, a tunnel leading there from here. And to navigate it unnoticed, I need a living shell to shield my presence.” The blind eyes smouldered. “Possession is in my nature. When I dive deep, not even my brothers can find me.”
“You have brothers?”
“That is irrelevant.” There was a warning note in Teiresias' voice, and Smythe realised that while the demon needed him alive, it did not necessarily need him sane, or indeed in possession of a mind; this offer of a collaboration was, all things considered, rather generous.
“Right. Of course.” Smythe swallowed. “Well, then. It looks like our interests, er, coincide. So I'd be willing to, you know, accept your offer.”
“I thought you might say that.” The eyes seemed to expand, swelling like a corpse with the gases of decay, and Smythe realised that Teiresias was approaching. “It is time to sleep now,” it said, in that awful voice. “When you wake, things will be... different...”
Smythe had thought that the darkness he had been imprisoned in was absolute. He was wrong: as Teiresias sank through his face, everything went even darker.
“You know, this reminds me of something,” said Halley, “but for the life of me, I can't remember what.”
“Amnesia does have that effect on people,” observed Cheren archly.
I had no idea how long we had been walking through the gently dripping darkness, but it felt like forever and then a couple more centuries on top of that; here, with the stones themselves creaking under the weight of the channel and the weed clutching at my ankles, I felt like time had stolen away under cover of darkness and left us marching onwards through a blank, faceless eternity.
At least, I felt that way when Halley stopped talking. And thankfully, she didn't often do that.
“It does,” she said. “It really does. And, you know, there's this whole crazy—”
Halley stopped. Not just talking, but walking; I know, because I almost tripped over her. Cheren bumped into me and Alder stumbled over a rock; Bianca almost fell over. The only one unaffected was Candy, who had long ago decided that night must have come very early today and had gone back to sleep inside my jacket.
“Woden hang 'em,” cursed Alder, amid the general hubbub of oaths. “What's going on?”
“I smell something,” said Halley, a hint of a growl in her voice. “I smell something strange... not the sea. Something alive.”
There was a pause.
“Er... Alder, what kind of animals live in this cave?” asked Bianca.
“Nothing much,” he replied. “A few fish and crabs in the tidal pools... some birds come down here to forage in the silt when the tide is out.”
“Not that I know of.”
“It's not that,” said Halley. “It smells like... a bird? A crocodile? F*ck me sideways if I know. But it smells dangerous.” I felt her tail rise and bristle by my leg. “It's close,” she said. “Too close for my liking. I feel like it's a hunter.”
“Which presumably makes us its quarry,” said Cheren. “How close are we to the exit?”
“We've been walking... twenty minutes or so,” replied Alder, looking at the luminous digits of his watch. “Which means we must be about halfway there.”
“We are in darkness stepped in so far,” muttered Halley, “that, should we wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er.” She let out a shaky sort of breath. “Whatever this thing is,” she said, “we don't want to encounter it in the dark. We need to get the f*ck out of here.”
No one disagreed, and we kept moving. The darkness seemed to deepen, and every scrape against the wall felt like the touch of a predator's hide; each tiny sound gained significance beyond its size, and if I concentrated I was certain I could hear a fifth set of footsteps, keeping pace with us in the blackness.
It's Córmi, I thought, knots tightening in my stomach. He's waiting by the pier...
Images from old books came to my mind unbidden – Córmi standing impassive on a wharf, Córmi with his hands nailed to the oars of his boat – and pictures from other books, too, images of ettins that wandered with outstretched hands through the forest, seeking out whatever would fit in their mouths; images of the Lacunosa Worm, the cosmic dragon that had slithered through the earth like water, emerging only at night, to snag a hapless passerby in its teeth before vanishing beneath the streets...
Stop, I told myself. You did this before, and you just made yourself panic.
Cheren cried out.
I whirled around, but of course I saw nothing; Halley, with her night vision, yowled, incredibly loud in the small space, and I felt her scurrying, spitting and hissing, around my feet. Something thumped onto the floor, and Alder was yelling—
I felt something cold and sharp touch my breast, piercing clean through my jacket and shirt without effort, and I jerked away instinctively, lashing out—
—fingers brushing something hard and rough as sandpaper—
—Cheren shouting a command in a flash of light—
—whip-crack and a choked, hissing roar—
—something like bone hit my head so hard that stars burst against the black, and my face was half-buried in the silt.
I reached out blindly, trying to get back to my feet, but my knuckles hit something like a leathery pillar instead; I grabbed it reflexively, and yanked on it as hard as I could—
Something big fell over nearby with a yelp of surprise, tail slapping against the rocks as it struggled upright again – and then I heard another impact, and another yelp, as Alder leaped on top of it.
“Thunor, Frige and Eostre!” he yelled. “The hell is this thing?”
“While it's down, Lelouch!” Cheren snapped, ignoring him. “Again!”
I had just got back to my feet when something big flew past, clipping my arm and knocking me down again – the beast had thrown off Alder. I fell backwards this time and my head hit the sediment hard; this time, the stars lingered and I felt a wetness on the back of my head, and observed with a kind of detached neutrality that my hands would not obey me, and that I didn't seem to be able to get up.
I felt Candy scuttling over me, cheeping in anxiety; the sound seemed to drive whatever monster we faced into a rage, and it roared so loudly that dirt pattered down from the ceiling onto my face; there was a sharp snapping noise and then a ghastly, pained exhalation – the voice of a tree being cut down, if trees had voices.
And then the world lit up: fire was bursting out from somewhere, Frige knew where, and I could see in the flickering light the massive, bulky head of no creature living, all angles and prongs and jagged tearing nubs of ossified leather—
The fire was too bright. I had to close my eyes, and listen to the pounding rhythm of unfamiliar footsteps beneath the red darkness of my eyelids.
“Are we all OK?” asked Cheren, at length.
“I'm fine,” said Bianca. “It didn't touch me. Smokey's OK... How about Lelouch?”
“His tail is broken,” replied Cheren grimly. “But since he's a Servine, it should be all right... Alder? Lauren?”
“Conveniently forgetting me,” said Halley. “I'm alive. Not that you care.”
“Here,” he said. “Just – oof – winded.”
“Here,” I said, or tried to say, but I didn't manage anything except a light breath through dry lips. I licked them and tried again. “Here.”
“Lauren? Where are you?”
“She's here,” said Halley. “Look – keep your hand on me – yeah, now you've got her.”
“Lauren, are you all right?”
“I feel weird,” I replied honestly. “I don't think I can get up right now.”
“You haven't broken anything, have you?” asked Alder sharply.
“No,” I said. “My head hurts, but not that much. I don't think anything is broken. I just...”
“Hang on,” said Halley. “I can get you back on your feet.”
Several sharp somethings dug into my side, and I sat up sharply.
“That's the ticket,” said Halley kindly. “Up you get.”
“Look, you needed a f*cking hand, I was here to give it—”
“She might have a serious head injury,” snapped Cheren. “In which case, she shouldn't be moving.”
“I don't, though,” I said, probing the back of my head with a cautious finger. “I think the skin just split a little... yeah. I mean, I've had worse before, when I was climbing a tree.” I got to my feet, leaning on the wall. “Yeah,” I repeated. “I'm OK.”
Something tugged at the leg of my jeans, and I bent down to pick up Candy, biting my tongue against the ache in my head.
“Forgive me if I don't take your word for it,” said Cheren. “We need to get that looked at as soon as we can. But first we need to get out of here.”
“Before that thing comes back,” added Bianca.
“Sh*t... yeah,” said Alder. “Did anyone see it? I only got a glimpse, when your Pignite started spitting fire at it.”
“I saw it,” said Halley in a low voice. “Be thankful you didn't. That was not a Pokémon, nor was it any animal that has a right to exist on this f*cking planet. You didn't see how it fought, did you? It was f*cking learning – you choked it once with Lelouch, Cheren, but next time it happened it saw it coming and had a hand at its throat to pull it off. We're bloody lucky that it's never seen fire before, because it was f*cking fireproof – those flames barely scorched its scales. They did scare it, for now – but only for now, because it's going to realise soon that the fire didn't actually hurt too much, and then it's going to be right back over here to where the big meaty things are walking slowly through its territory.”
That was a hard act to follow. No one said anything for quite some time.
“Woden hang 'em,” muttered Alder. “Where did it come from? What is it? There never used to be anything like that living here before – or anywhere else, for that matter.”
“Valid questions, but ones for another time,” said Cheren assertively. “Halley, get us out of here.”
“Abso-f*cking-lutely,” she said fervently. “This way!”
Ezra lingered on the bridge, leaning on the rail and staring out over the water.
“Problems, problems,” he said, tobacco smoke trickling from between his lips. “It was risky, but there was no other option.”
A skua landed on the rail a few feet away and stared at him with insolent eyes.
“Don't look at me like that,” said Ezra. “If Niamh got the message, I get into the Shrouded Court. And even if she doesn't, she gets Smythe back. If anything, it was a rather self-sacrificial move on my part.”
The skua shuffled closer. It did not seem to be afraid of him, but then again, gulls always were unimpressed by humans, or things that seemed human.
“The main problem is what to do in the interim,” Ezra went on. “This has all been a rather sudden change of plan – and a risky one too, staking everything on one move like that. Though I suppose I don't lose anything if it doesn't pay off; I only stand to gain if it goes well.”
The skua maintained its stare. Perhaps it wanted something to eat, thought Ezra. He dug about in his pockets, and came up with a dead mouse.
“Do you want this?” he asked, waving it. The skua stared at it greedily. “Here,” he said. “Take it.”
He wiggled it once more, and the temptation was too much; the skua snatched it from his hand and skimmed away low over the waves, heading for some unknown roost. Ezra watched it go, shaking his head.
“Bread and circuses,” he said with a sigh. “I wonder how you mortals can have built all this when you have that hunger inside you all the time. It's a wonder it doesn't drive you mad.” He blew a smoke-ring and watched it decompose slowly in midair. “Bread and circuses,” he repeated. “I'll go north, I think. I have a feeling north is the way to go. And if it isn't, well, it's the work of a moment to come back south again.”
He vaulted the bridge rail and vanished, and an excitable docker faced an evening of ridicule from his friends as in the pub he recounted the tale of how he had seen the ghost of a suicide.
I had never been so glad to see daylight as when we emerged from the other end of the caves. It was still overcast, and dark seemed to be coming on early – but we were out, thank Frige, and climbing a trail of broken stones up the side of the island that bore the west end of the drawbridge. There was a bridge ahead, I knew, one that couldn't be raised, and if we could just get over there we'd be in Driftveil, where we could find a Pokémon Centre and I could at last rest. (It wasn't the walking – I was used to long walks – but the tension and the brief, chaotic fight had taken all the strength out of me.)
Of course, Cheren had insisted on looking at the back of my head as soon as we were out in the light, even before the rest of us had really finished being relieved that we'd escaped without another encounter with the mystery beast. Maybe that was his way of dealing with it; he always seemed to channel his feelings into strategies or actions, I reasoned, and perhaps this was him expressing his relief.
“Thunor,” he muttered. “You know, there's quite a lot of blood here... Bianca, your hat's going to need a serious wash.”
“It's dry clean only,” she replied, looking at the bloodstained hat sadly. “I think it's ruined.”
“I'm sorry,” I said. “Um – I'll get you a new one—”
“It's all right,” she said. “I've been meaning to get a new one for a while, anyway... I don't know, I fancy one with a little bow on or something.”
“Is Lauren irredeemably broken or not?” snapped Halley. “Because I don't want to hang around here where the f*cking murder monster lives.”
“I can't tell for sure,” replied Cheren irritably. “We'll have to get it checked out.”
“Then let's move. Like, now.”
For once, no one argued with her; none of us wanted to be reminded of the 'murder monster', and none of us really wanted to see it in the light, either.
The long walk over the bridge was not enjoyable. Driftveil was a city built around freight, not humans: the road was broad enough to allow six lanes of lorries (all jammed with the bridge raised) but the pavements were unspeakably narrow. I felt like I was being crowded right out of the city, as if the machines here had no time for people; the air was thick with petrol fumes and the smoke from the boats and docks, and I thought plaintively about White Forest. I didn't belong here, I knew; I belonged beneath the trees, surrounded by wood and birdsong, not choking in steel and smog.
Thankfully, two streets from where the bridge met the mainland was a bus stop, from which, the Internet told us, a 54 or a 254 would take us to where we wanted to go in Halbarn. Alder, on the other hand, informed us he would be getting the 71, which would take him almost all the way to his odd niece's house.
“I'm glad we met,” he said, as we waited for the bus. “I would have... well, I wouldn't have known any of this otherwise.” He sighed. “Of course, I'd be happier not knowing it, but I guess I can't really avoid this.”
“I know the feeling,” I replied. “That's wyrd for you.”
“Yeah.” He glanced down the street. “My bus.”
As it pulled up, he hefted his (miraculously undamaged) book and looked around at us awkwardly.
“Well,” he said. “Er, bye.”
“Goodbye,” said Cheren. “Thanks for guiding us.”
“And for helping us in the tunnels,” added Bianca.
“Thank you for throwing yourself on the monster,” I said softly. “I think that might have saved our lives.”
Alder looked faintly embarrassed.
“Well – yeah – OK,” he said. “It's, um, nothing.”
He stood there, looking awkward, for quite some time, until Cheren pointed out that he was in danger of missing his bus, at which point he turned around and made a desperate leap for the doors as they closed.
“We're going to see him again, aren't we?” asked Bianca.
“I think so,” I replied.
“I'm sure we will,” said Cheren. “He's the Champion. He's going to have to intervene now we've told him about the situation.” He glanced at the electric sign on the bus shelter. “Three minutes until our bus.”
In fact, it was closer to ten, and it took us much longer than we thought to get to the Centre; we didn't arrive until close to six, and if we had still had any idea that we might get to the warehouse that evening we were mistaken: Lelouch had to be taken for examination by the Centre vets (who pronounced him fine, but to be rested for several days while the wood of his bones rejoined), and I, still pretending to be Swedish, had to spend quite a long time in the infirmary while a doctor spoke very slowly and loudly to me to make sure I understood what he was saying.
“Not too bad,” he said. “You should be OK. Got it? O. K.”
“She's foreign, not deaf,” protested Bianca.
“Can you or your friend tell her she needs to rest?” asked the doctor. “I can't seem to get through at all.”
We couldn't rest, though: the doctor had been fooled for the moment, but as soon as he opened a newspaper or turned on the TV he would see my face looking back at him, and realise that his patient hadn't actually been Swedish but had been a runaway from White forest. So we moved on immediately, to a Centre a couple of districts to the southwest, where I pulled Bianca's ruined hat low over my eyes and slunk quietly upstairs to the room I'd been given. There, I fell asleep before I'd actually got to the bed—
—and before I knew it, I was awake again, lying on the floor and wondering why I felt so crappy.
I sat up. My head hurt, but I really wasn't sure why – I didn't recall any head injuries. I'd been knocked about a bit in the fight with the unseen monster, yes, and I had a few bruises around my ribs where it had whacked me, but nothing above the shoulders.
“Huh,” I said. “The hell happened there?”
As if in answer, my phone started to ring; I was still kind of confused, and stared at it stupidly for quite a long time before I realised what I was meant to do with it.
“Hello?” I mumbled. “Whosis?”
“Is that Jared? It's Iris.”
“Oh,” I said. “OK. What?”
“Are you even listening?”
“Yes,” I lied. “Go on.”
“I managed to get through to Drayden,” Iris told me. “He's putting the word out now through the police force, and Elesa's going over to your house to explain to your parents. Shauntal's going to call in some favours in the papers and have your story pulled – people should forget about it soon.”
“I hope so.”
“They should,” she repeated. “I mean... Well, people tend to forget stories that stop appearing in the news fairly quickly. We can't stop the bloggers, of course, but we can stop the main news sites and the papers.”
“OK,” I replied. “Thanks. It'll be really helpful.”
“Don't worry. We'd like to see Harmonia stopped as much as you would.”
“Yeah. Oh,” I said. “We found the Champion. Alder.”
I winced and held the phone a little further from my ear.
“Where is he? We've been looking for him for ages! What's he been doing? Come on, we—”
“He's probably already contacted the Elite Four now,” I said. “He said he'd do that when he got to his sister's house, and that was” – I glanced at the clock – “about eight hours ago.” I frowned. “Wait, it's one in the morning? Why are you even still awake?”
“I'm busy. Why are you still awake?”
“I have no idea,” I answered honestly. “I woke up about a minute before you called me.”
“Right. Whatever. Anyway, that was, er, all I had to say, and I've got to get on with work—”
“No, that's OK, it's cool. I'll let you get on.”
I tossed my phone onto the bedside cabinet and crawled up onto my bed; I didn't quite have enough energy to get into it, however, and fell asleep on top of it instead, my head throbbing with each slow beat of my heart.
Niamh did not know what she had been expecting of Weland's domain, but it did not disappoint her. In the unknown corridor they had materialised in, it was far colder than was possible this far underground, and dark as fear; the walls were carved with bands of runes that defied all identification, and the only light came from the glowing wand of oak her guide bore.
He had cast aside his human guise as soon as they had entered the dark path, and now Niamh saw him as something huge and dark, thirteen or fourteen feet tall, and vaguely human-shaped. What his face was, she had no idea; perhaps in an effort to make her feel more at home, he had left his human face stuck to the front of his shadowy head. If calming her had been his intention, he failed miserably: it looked hideous, like a hellish mask of skin and muscle, and Niamh was not surprised when she noticed that the eyes behind the eyelids had been replaced with red lights, or that the lips no longer moved when the demon spoke.
“This way,” he said, and led her down the corridor.
They passed no others. Either the tomb-city was larger than she'd known, and this was just one small passage among many, or the other demons were keeping out of her way for some reason. Whatever the cause, Niamh saw no one else until they came to a large, square chamber, lit by four smoky green torches. Here, there were two creatures that resembled the human-shaped dimension of a ghul – a man and a woman in black armour, standing on either side of a pair of vast bronze doors, big enough to admit a pair of elephants.
“Niamh Harper to see His Undying Majesty,” said her guide.
The guards thumped their spear-butts on the stones with a sound like breaking bones.
“To see His Undying Majesty,” repeated the man.
“Niamh Harper,” said the woman. “Enter!”
The doors swung open, oddly silently for such massive objects, and without quite knowing how Niamh suddenly found herself on the other side of them.
She looked behind her. The doors were shut, and so covered in grime that it was clear they had not been opened for quite some time.
She returned her attention to what lay before her – nothing, or at least nothing that she could see: the hall appeared to stretch away into unending darkness.
Niamh almost called out, but something told her not to, and instead she started to walk.
As she walked, shapes began to appear in the dark; not identifiable shapes, but odd, flickering things that wavered at the corner of her eye, breaking apart and recoalescing like drops of oil in water. They were not threatening on their own, but Niamh felt a certain something behind them – not something she could name, but something that looked with shrivelled eyes through the shapes, and saw her coming; something black and smoky and smothering that yearned to break free from wherever it was held and choke, and choke, and choke...
Niamh could see something now.
A throne, it might have been – far away in the dark, down the length of the interminable hall. Someone, or something, was sitting on it; she could not make out what it was, but it was perfectly still, and she knew with absolute conviction that it was dead.
Niamh stopped walking.
She heard a voice – a voice like the buzzing of a thousand flies, echoing and resounding over itself as if the swarm were trapped in the speaker's throat; a voice like space, boundless and alien, terrifying in its emptiness; a voice like death itself, devoid of all motion but the relentless chewing of maggots.
“WE ARE WELAND, KING OF SANDJR,” said the voice. “WELCOME TO OUR COURT.”