It had been many long years, but the word rang in Jed’s head as clear as the day he had heard it.
“The energy in his body will build up, pressing against the chain as the whole ocean would press against a dam. If the chain is broken…”
“It would explode,” Jed had said.
It seemed so long ago, now, and yet so recent, when he and an old friend had met in the hall after Az had been chained. Jed had asked what would happen if he was unchained.
“Doomsday,” had been the answer.
And now the memory rolled on relentlessly in his head.
“But,” Jed had said. “That would kill him.”
The old man’s brow had furrowed, moisture gleaming in his eyes.
“No, Jed,” the old man had whispered. “He is already dead.”
Then, the stress and pain of the last several weeks had crashed down on Jed, and he had cried. Now, he swallowed down the emotion and opened another door. Why would a memory from hundreds of years ago be louder in his mind than the cries of Az’s dying faithful?
When an empty room stared back at him, he closed the door and leaned hard against the wall. Maybe he was slipping in and out of consciousness. This search for Hope Hunter’s mother had drained him, leaving him an empty shell without the strength to block painful memories. He did not know how long he had been searching, but it felt like long enough for Az to burn himself out. It should have been long enough for Jed to find a prisoner Az would doubtless want near him.
He curled his fingers and closed his eyes, forcing his breathing to steady. Had Hope Hunter gotten out all right? Had she been able to find the gate back to the underground city? Had he done the right thing in sending her away? If Az had kidnapped her as nothing more than bait to draw Jed back here, the girl would be safer on her own. But if Jed had been right in his first assumption, that Az wanted the girl for the girl’s sake, Jed may have endangered every world by sending her away without protection. Az was not inclined to risk so much for an unimportant person.
Rubbing one hand over his face, he exhaled through barely open lips. So much rested on unknowns. It always had. He acted on unknowns, and prayed with all his might he had made the right decision.
The memory was different this time, but the voice so achingly familiar he could not breathe. It was a woman’s voice, one he had not heard since before Az had been chained.
“Don’t call me that,” Jed had answered, quietly, but more roughly than he ever should have spoken to her. “That is not my name any more.”
“Jed, are you sure—?” She began.
“Not at all.”
He felt it again, all the uncertainty of that day and the days following. Through the woman’s voice, over the cries from Az’s men in the present, he heard the rustling of her skirt and the steady beat of metal on metal. It was so clear. Every sound that had filled the room that day filled his head, from her breathing to the sound of the dwarf forging a chain. As vivid as life. As sharp as pain.
For a moment, neither he nor the woman said anything in his memory. The sounds did not stop, though; he heard the gentle tap of her shoe against the stone floor, and could almost feel her hand on his shoulder. Staring into the emptiness of the hall, he could see a shadow of her face in his mind; hair swept back from her cheeks, forehead bent in pretty wrinkles over prettier eyes.
“Are you all right?” She had asked.
He remembered the next part, too, how the words stuck in his throat as he tried to say them and came out hoarse and ragged. He mouthed them, now, as he heard the memory again in his head. “Not at all.”
He pushed himself off the wall and moved toward the next door, taking each step with care to avoid tripping over his own feet. When he tried the knob, it did not budge. For a moment, he stood with his hand closed around the cool metal, toying with the idea that maybe, just maybe, he had enough energy left to melt it; but if he was going to save Hope Hunter’s mother, as he had promised he would, he could not afford to use his energy so frivolously. He tapped on the door.
“Mrs. Hunter?” He said, and winced at the rasping in his voice.
No answer came from behind the wooden door. With a glance up and down the hall, he twisted the knob and shoved the door inward. The wood gave a little, and when he shoved again, it splintered around the knob. He bent his knees and looked through the hole.
In the light seeping into the room, Jed could make out the form of a person, slumped in a chair.
“Mrs. Hunter?” He called, daring to raise his voice a little louder. The figure did not move.
Jed slammed his body against the door. With a dull crack, it collapsed into the room. Jed stumbled to keep his balance.
A sharply bitter scent assailed him. Without waiting for his eyes, or his nose, to adjust, he strode toward the person in the chair. Shoulder-length hair draped her face, dark with dried blood. Her shoulders moved erratically with her breaths. Sliding his hand under her head, he carefully turned her face toward him, brushing back her hair with his other hand.
Even in the absence of good light, Jed recognized the round face of Hope Hunter’s mother. He flexed the muscles in his fingers. “Mrs. Hunter,” he said, softly. “Mrs. Hunter, can you hear me?”
“Mrs. Hunter, I don’t know if you can hear me,” he said. “My name is Jed. I’m going to try and get you out.”
If she could hear him, that would keep her from reacting with fear when she fully regained consciousness. He hoped.
Letting her head fall back to its previous position, he crouched and felt along the chair-leg until he found the rope binding her ankles. He followed it with his fingers until he found the knot.
Footsteps sounded from the hall. Standing, slowly so he would make no noise, Jed listened as the beats neared the door. Unless they were non-bipedal, there were three people approaching. Az’s men, no doubt. Would they realize as they passed that the prize prisoner’s door was busted, or were they coming here, directly? Either one would be dangerous, especially considering Jed’s weakened state.
He moved his lips silently. God of Salvation.
“I can’t believe we have to do this.”
For a moment, Jed thought the voice came from another memory. Then he realized it did not echo in his head the same way the memories did, and he had never heard the voice before, nor had he learned the language it spoke until very recently.
A quick laugh came from the hall. “Orders are orders.”
“It’s not like anyone’s going to sneak in to a place like this,” the first voice said. “And he’s already got the red-head, so what’s he worried about?”
“Ghosts?” Said a third man.
“Very funny.” There was a pause, and the first spoke again. “Unless he’s worried about a rescue attempt. You know, for the girl.”
“As if,” said the second. “She’s probably already dead.”
After another pause, Jed heard the first voice. “You don’t think he was actually planning to chain her, do you?”
“Nah,” said the third. “Unless…”
“Well, you never can tell with that thing,” the third man said, haltingly, as if he expected to be rebuked at any moment. “He could have been lying when he said she was just for bait.”
“Have a death wish, Farrel?” The second voice said.
“Don’t you think he could have been lying?” The third man, apparently called Farrel, pitched his voice higher.
“Course,” the second voice said. “But I don’t want to die for asking the wrong questions.”
“I’m not asking questions, I’m just—”
“Hey,” said the first voice. One pair of footsteps stopped. “Isn’t that the room the other one was in?”
The other two men stopped, and Jed tensed.
“Yeah,” Farrel said. “Why?”
One of them took a few steps closer to the room.
“I don’t think it’s supposed to be like that.”
“Who cares? We’re on patrol, not maintenance,” Farrel said. “Let someone else deal with it.”
“What if she…” The first man faltered. “You know.”
“In her condition?” the second man said. “As if. The dwarf probably just lost his key. Let’s go, Kian, before we end up in there with the others.”
“Myron’s right,” Farrel said. “If it bothers you that much, Mr. Conscience, we can tell somebody to check into it on our way out.”
Kian did not answer, but after a moment, Jed heard their footsteps fade down the hall. When the dripping and the cries of men were again the only sounds drifting into the room, he dropped to his knees and started working at the knot. Exhaustion, fever, and urgency shook his hands. He was bound by oath to get Mrs. Hunter out of here, but if the patrol kept their word and told someone else to check on this room, he might have as little as twelve minutes before it was too late.
Tightening his jaw, he moved his fingers in short, violent jerks. If Hope Hunter was not out of the building, she had better get out, immediately. The patrol would have to follow this hall to the only exit in the building— If Hope was not out before they got there, she would be trapped like a kitten up a tree.
* * *
Hope Hunter pressed her hand against the stone wall of the passage, ignoring the slime between her fingers, ignoring the bricks under her feet, ignoring the faint echoes of cries that still reached her. The dripping sound had steadily increased in volume the farther she went, and now it filled her head, and she focused on it, focused on the perfectly normal drip, drip, drip of water.
Raise an army. Stop Az. Fight. How was she supposed to do any of that?
She raised her head. For the past several minutes, or hours, she had been able to see where the hallway ended in a wall with a grey hole in it. Grey, because nothing in all the world was as black as the portal Mei had led her through. Just like nothing in all the world was as lonely as this endless hallway and the brick floor and the sagging ceiling and stone walls and endless dripping.
As she got closer, she could see that the hole in the wall was a clean-cut rectangle, half as tall as she was. She stared at it, hard. Was that what Jed had meant when he said she would find “it”? The exit? Was it a door leading outside? Was it night outside?
She had wondered more than once what would happen if she had missed a turn or a door, or if the entire hallway had just rearranged itself since Jed came through here. He had seemed to think it would be obvious, but nothing obvious had presented itself to her, except the violent bursts of light coming from pipes that lined the wall near the ceiling. Hopefully Jed had not meant she should go through a pipe. They were far too small.
If she had missed it, it did not matter at this point. She was too tired, too confused, to go back. Unless she saw another way to go, she would just keep following the hall, wherever it led. And if she lost herself in this dismal place and wandered until her death?
Well, then. She would have to miss the war. Pity.
Stopping at the hole in the wall, she dropped to a crouch and peered in. A short tunnel kept the opening cloaked in shadow. Just beyond that, she could see into another room. Water, tinged red by light spilling in from the other side, lapped against steps that led down into the room. Past the steps, a tangle of pipes that reminded Hope of a jungle gym stood out of the water. Small pipes, attached to pipes almost large enough for Hope to crawl through, twisted in seemingly random directions and disappeared into the walls. The dripping sound was definitely coming from in here. It bounced off the walls of the room inside, danced around her head, and slipped over her shoulders to flavor the air in the rest of the building. Drip, drip, drip.
Hope shivered. For a few seconds, she entertained the thought of turning back, of telling Jed “No.” She would do a lot of things, but having to walk through a room full of water carrying who-knew-what diseases went too far. Yet she had neither the energy, nor the option, to turn back. This was her path, cliché as it seemed. Until she got somewhere, she had to keep going this way.
Besides, this was rather noticeable. Maybe she was going the right way after all.
She ducked into the tunnel and walked bent double, her back pressed against the top of the ceiling.
Her feet splashing in the water, Hope started down the steps. Scum from the surface clung to her clothing as if drawn there by magnetic force. By the time she descended into waist deep water, her skin was numb with the cold of it, and the edge of her shirt sagged with the weight. Images of tiny parasitic creatures and large, slimy, tentacles crowded into her mind. What had she read, in years past, about water? In every story, something unpleasant always lurked beneath the surface.
At this point, she thought she would settle for something unpleasant. As long as it was not fatal or terrifying, she was happy.
She reached the pipes, great black tubes connected to smaller white-and-grey ones. One pipe, passing directly from one side of the room to the other, was half-submerged in water, and covered by small grey worms that swarmed in an ever-moving mass. She pressed a fist to her stomach and stopped. The pipe blocked her way; she would either have to duck under it, into the murky water that filled the room, or she would have to climb over it, squishing the tiny grey swarm under her hands as she pulled herself on top of the pipe. If she ducked under it, she would probably run into some other pipes, or get tangled up in something under there, and die a horrible death. She had no choice but to go over it.
“Ugh,” she said. Her voice echoed off the walls. “Gross.”
If she was going to do it, she could at least complain about it first.
Gritting her teeth, she placed her hands on the pipe, nearly twelve inches apart. The creatures squirmed under her skin, crawling up between her fingers to escape the pressure. Shivering, she shifted her weight to her hands and lifted her feet off the floor, trying to vault onto the pipe.
Half a second. Then her hands slipped, and she fell forward, slamming her chin on the pipe as she fell. The water rushed into her mouth and nose. Panic throttled her. Just as quickly as she fell, she was on her feet again, and stood gasping for breath, choking on air, not for the time she was not breathing, but for the fear pounding through her veins and tightening like a hand around her throat.
She coughed out the taste of green things and dead water, tears spilling down her cheeks.
I can’t do this, she thought. I can’t.
She balled her hands into fists and lurched forward, throwing both arms across the top of the pipe. Shoving dignity aside, she wriggled up onto it, lips clamped tightly shut as she pressed her face against the pipe. Worms squirmed through her clothes and against her skin. Gritting her teeth, she wiggled until she was on top of the wide black pipe, and swung her legs off the other side.
She fell faster than she meant to. Her feet hit the floor hard, and she pitched forward, crashing into a jumble of pipes. She clung to them and breathed.
The light tingeing the water like blood came from a ragged opening beyond this tangle of tubes. Another flight of steps led up to it. From this angle, Hope could see nothing but the sky; a red sky with shreds of black cloud, about as welcoming as the rest of this world. Instead of a door frame, the inside edge of the opening was spilling grey fuzz, as if the space between the exterior and interior walls had been filled with mold, or spider webs, or dirty fiberfill. Though it looked like someone had hacked through the wall to make the opening, at least it looked full-size.
Weaving through the forest of pipes, ducking under some, she made it to the steps. Rather than the sturdy stone steps that had brought her into this room, these were as make-shift as the door. Bricks stacked at varying heights led up from the floor and met with wooden planks screwed to each other and to the stone wall. These steps were longer than the ones she had already survived, giving her the impression that the entire building had been built under ground.
Wind, sneaking into the building through the opening, bit at her skin. She slid her foot forward until it bumped the first step, hidden by the water, and tested it with her weight. It held. As she climbed, she kept her eyes on the sky outside, feeling for the next step with her feet. A kind of morbid curiosity settled in her stomach. What kind of world would have a red sky?
She slowed when she reached the wooden portion of the steps, but kept moving. The steps creaked a complaint.
Then she stood on bricks, under the red sky. She shifted her gaze and looked at the world she had stepped into.
A city stretched before her, clusters of blackened stone buildings stretching toward the sky, divided by red brick streets stained dark in places. But for the wind, nothing moved; Even the sun, a dark orange ball of flame hovering on the horizon, seemed frozen in space. She wondered if the planet no longer turned. No people lay on the streets, but cars did— bright metal skeletons sitting deathly still in front of the decaying buildings, as if they were waiting for their owners to step into them and drive away. Off to the side, scorched vehicles lay scattered around the edge of a crater, a pockmark, six feet across, marring the bricks.
She shuddered. A feeling of sick horror spread from her heart to the tips of her fingers, a numbness that rivaled the numbness from the water. It was dead. Utterly dead, but for the green and grey things in the room behind her. What an awful place to choose as headquarter, even for a monster like Az.
From here, nothing was obvious. She did not know which way to go.
She forced herself to take a step, and another, until she was moving at a deliberate pace down the street that bent away from the building she had just exited. As she moved, she saw the details she had not noticed before; a trail of muddy footprints on the bricks; a hole in the grating on the gutter; a metal doll lying in the street; rust around the edges of the holes in morbidly cheerful cars; rot clinging to the wooden doors that were, without exception, closed. These were houses, she realized. Great sky-scrapers of houses, perhaps apartment complexes, now falling to pieces, so that the highest levels were only metal beams like exposed rib-cages. Through the gaping wounds in the buildings left by shattered windows, she could see couches, beds, and electronic screens. Through one window, she caught a glimpse of a screen glowing with the familiar speckled mess of static.
When she looked up, she realized the lights lining the street were also on, as though in preparation for the night that had no interest in falling.
Voices unsettled the air. Fear shooting through her, Hope slid into a space between two buildings and crouched, covered by the shadows. Her heart hammered in her ears.
Footsteps pounded the street beyond her hiding place. Scooting further into the darkness, she flattened herself against the bricks. She could not understand the language they were speaking, or see who they were, but she had no friends in this world.
The footsteps stopped. The voices paused. One set of footsteps drew closer to her hiding place, casting a shadow across the bricks— A shadow carrying a rifle.
Hope held her breath, closed her eyes, and prayed.
Someone said something. With a bit of laughter, the people moved off again, the sound of scuffling clear between their steps.
Before the beats had quite faded into silence, Hope released her breath as calmly as she could manage. Trembles started at the space between her shoulders and spread outward, until her whole body quivered in great, hard shudders. Pushing herself off the street, she climbed to her feet.
She waited a few moments before leaning out of her hiding place. Down the street, in the direction she had been going, she could barely make out the forms of three uniformed men.
She did not move until they were out of sight.
If they were leaving to go somewhere in particular, she could not guess how long they would be gone. If they were on patrol— Well, if she were a villain in a place like this, she would definitely send out a regular patrol— they might turn around and come back any minute. She had to do something. Go somewhere.
Stepping out into the street, she looked around at the rows of identical buildings; all of them metal, all of them missing the windows, all of them coming to pieces in this world where night was always falling but never fell. She turned full circle, looking at all of the buildings.
Finally, she saw it.
In a world of closed doors, one door was ajar, a black door in a stone building at the end of the street. The street turned off at both sides at the building, as if it was a rock diverting a river. It just happened to be in the direction the uniformed men had gone.
This time, she did not even bother to consider the possibility of going back.
She moved toward the building, resisting the urge to run, for fear her footsteps would be too loud and would bring the uniforms back. This may not even be where Jed had meant for her to go; and the way this day had been going, it would not be a safe place even if it was the right one. Still, she wanted to run into the building, slam the door, and hide away from this dead world with its dead villain and his very much alive guards.
She hoped Jed could rescue her mother.
Reaching the door, she realized someone had propped it open by a headset, like the one Stori had worn when she was running delivery back at the underground city. Hope felt a wave of comfort, and a bit of excitement. If this was here, it meant she had come to the right place. Jed probably left it to mark the door. Using her shoulder to shove the door further open, she slipped into the room, stooping to pick up the headset. The door clicked shut behind her.
“Hello,” said a pleasant female voice. “How may I help you?”
Yiping, Hope pivoted toward the room. On either side of the door, two long, cushioned benches lined the walls. Several yards into the room and to Hope’s right, a stocky black podium stood as though waiting for a preacher or politician to make a speech. Beyond that, black lines marked the floor in a half-circle.
The room was empty otherwise.
Hope sucked in a breath and took a careful step forward. “Hello?”
“Hello,” repeated the voice. “How may I help you?”
Hope shivered, and not for the cold. The woman speaking— Whoever she was— had said everything the exact same way she had the first time, with the same intonation and all. Almost like…
Relief flooded Hope. Almost like a recording, or a computer.
Now she just hoped the computer was not anti-stranger.
“I’m looking for a gateway,” Hope said. “Back to—”
Rectangles of rippling light shot out of the floor, forming a semi-circle opposite where Hope was standing. Gaps in the row of portals stood out like missing teeth in a mouth full of perfect ones, with nothing but black lines on the floor where gateways used to be.
“Please make your selection.”
Hope’s heart thudded. How could she tell which one led back to the compound? She did not know what it was called, aside from “the compound” or “the underground city.”
“Which one leads to the underground city?”
There was a pause the length of a breath.
“Please make your selection,” the voice said, as polite as ever.
So that would not work.
“God, help me.”
The pause was shorter this time, before the computer said, “Please make your selection.”
Wait. Jed had used this to get here from the underground city, right? Hope cleared her throat. “Which gateway was used last? I mean, most recently?”
All of the rectangles of light winked out, save one standing to Hope’s right, like a promise that she had gotten it “right.” Taking a breath, she crossed the room and stepped into the portal.
Pain tore at her stomach for a split second. Light rushed by her and settled, and birds were singing nearby.
She opened her eyes.
Before her, hills rolled on until they met the horizon. Behind her stood a familiar grey cliff, bare as death.
And because she was tired, slimy, scared, and did not want to cry, Hope stated the obvious.
“This isn’t the underground city.”