“She’s just sitting there. Why is she just sitting there?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” Fross admitted. “She looks really unhappy. Can’t she run?”
Ruda stared down at the incongruous fancy dress party, eyes narrowed in concentration. Below them, illusory guests continued to chitchat and dine, while Teal sat woodenly before her own untouched plate, wearing a desolately empty expression.
“We were chased by stuff,” Ruda murmured. “It was… So it’s about fear. There’s a sort of progression when it comes to nightmares. Do you have nightmares?”
“I don’t even sleep! I’ve read about dreams. They, uh, sound…disturbing.”
“Can be,” Ruda said, nodding. “Being chased is a common enough thing in bad dreams, but… What makes them worse is there’s usually some way you can’t react as well as you could. Can’t run fast enough, can’t hit back if it catches you… Nightmares are basically fear brought to life. This is fear brought to life.” She finally tore her gaze from the scene below to look up at Fross. “Maybe we just got out of it in time to avoid the bad part. Looking at her… I bet this thing gets into our minds. Holds us there so it can work on us.”
Fross drifted slowly lower, as she tended to do when thinking. “…then we’ll have to zoom in and back out fast.”
“Yeah.” Ruda frowned deeply, looking back down at Teal. “Except I don’t know if that’s actually an option. I mean…look at her. It’ll take time and effort to drag her out of that. If it’s in her head, she may even resist, think she belongs there.”
There was silence for a moment.
“This is bad, isn’t it,” Fross said finally.
Ruda nodded. “Yep.”
“Oh! I get it! You’re not afraid of accountants, you’re afraid of being—”
“Sorry, sorry,” the pixie said hastily, fluttering backward from Ruda’s furious expression. “I kind of have a compulsion to figure stuff out. But… Wait, actually I’m not sorry. This is an immediate tactical concern, here! We have to go down into that to get Teal. We both need to know what to expect.”
“Okay, fine,” Ruda snapped. “What should I expect, then? Why are you afraid of other pixies?”
“That’s simple enough, pixies prey on each other. It’s basically the only thing we can eat.”
Ruda stared up at her for two seconds, then shook her head. “What the fuck. First Juniper and… What is it with fairies and cannibalism? No, don’t answer that, please, I’ve got too much shit to think about already. Okay, giant cannibal pixies, that it?”
“That…I can deal with,” Fross said more quietly. “That’s not really the thing that…I mean… Well. Look.”
She dipped to the stone surface of the ledge and spun in a rapid circle, materializing something out of her aural storage. It was a glass bottle, its rim marked with runes and encircled by twine which had twists of copper wrapped around it at intervals. A small metal hook was attached to the stopper.
Ruda frowned. “Wait…that looks like…”
“A fairy bottle, yeah,” said Fross in a subdued tone. “Used by some witches to contain fairies for…various purposes.”
“Like the one that bitch in the Golden Sea stuck you in?”
“It is that one. It was in the wagon we brought back to Last Rock; I brought it to Professor Yornhaldt and had him show me the proper arcane spells to break out of these.”
“I don’t think I get it, Fross.”
The pixie chimed softly in the short, descending arpeggio Ruda had come to recognize as her sigh. “You know how everyone we meet seems to think pixies are mindless until I talk to them with complete sentences? There’s a reason for that. I’m not exactly normal. So…yeah. If what I fear the most happens down there… Long as I’m in this thing, I can’t, you know, wander off and get lost. And if it doesn’t, I can get out of it any time I need to.”
“Okay,” Ruda said slowly. “That’s… Damn, I am actually really impressed. This is some serious planning ahead, glowbell. Well done.”
“Thanks!” Fross said, bobbing in midair and emitting a more cheerful chime. “And I hate to pick at you but on the same note…”
Ruda sighed. “It’s… I’m…” She turned to look down into the hall again. “Basically? I have the same fear as Teal.”
“You’re…afraid of dinner parties?”
“Fross, the only people who are afraid of dinner parties have severe social anxiety, which is pretty much the opposite of me. Or Teal, for that matter. It’s about…being trapped. Stuck in a life that doesn’t suit you.” She shrugged, refusing to look at the pixie. “Watching this, I feel like I suddenly get Teal in a way I never did before. It’s a cage with different bars, but a cage is a cage.”
“Okay,” Fross said. “Well, that’s actually kind of troubling. If you’ve got the same basic kind of fear, stepping into Teal’s personal nightmare might be especially risky for you.”
“Yeah,” Ruda said grimly. “I really, really wish I had a better idea. Do you?”
“Right. Because leaving her in that is not an option. We don’t abandon friends.”
“Agreed. Well… Okay, I’ll need you to attach the stopper once I’m in. Then just wrap the twine around it, that should seal the spell.”
“First thing’s first,” Ruda said with a bitter ghost of a smile. “I need a way down and a way back up.”
“Oh! Right, sorry. I’ll just…”
“Make it a slide on this side, please, that’ll be faster, and we don’t want to spend a second longer in there than absolutely necessary. And…a ladder on the other side.”
“The… Why the other side? Can’t we just retreat back up here?”
Ruda shook her head. “The others are still out there. Once we get Teal out of this hall, I want to keep moving. We’re not leaving anybody, and there’s no telling how well they’re doing. They may need help.”
“Got it! Okay, gimme just a minute.”
With the grim expectation of plunging back into fear itself hovering over them, the preparations were swift; all too soon, the ice slide and ladder were in place (none of the diners seemed at all perturbed by their appearance) and Fross was safely tucked away in the bottle, which now hung at Ruda’s belt.
The pirate took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “All right. Here we fuckin’ go.”
For the second and a half it took, the slide was actually sort of fun, aside from the sharp cold of it. Ruda landed nimbly on her feet and just as adroitly vaulted onto the table and over it, coming to rest beside her classmate. This, too, the diners ignored, including the bespectacled matron whose plate she had upended with her boot.
“Teal!” she said loudly, grabbing the bard by one of her bare shoulders. “Up and at ’em, girl. Time to go.”
Teal had to be shaken twice before she even reacted. With painful slowness, she turned her head to look up at Ruda, a faint frown of puzzlement replacing her depressed expression. “Ruda. Hi. What’re you doing here?”
“I’m getting you out,” Ruda said impatiently, glancing around. “Come on, there’s no time to—”
She jumped backward as if stung at the voice. A tweedy little man in a suit that smelled of dust bustled up to her, scowling thunderously. “And just what do you think you’re doing up here? I’m so sorry, Miss Falconer, she’s one of my clerks. I have no idea what possessed her…never mind, I’ll tend to this right away.”
Ruda grasped at her rapier’s hilt for comfort, and found it wasn’t there. She had no place on her cheap brown pantsuit to hang a sword. “Thanks so much for including me in your little horror story, Teal,” she muttered.
“You get back where you belong and back to work!” the man said imperiously, planting his hands on his hips.
“It’s okay,” Teal said somewhat listlessly, managing a thin smile. “Ruda’s an old friend. It’s nice to catch up.”
“I’m sorry, I really need to get back to…” Ruda broke off, frowning; there was an insistent chiming coming from her hip. She shook her head. “No. This isn’t real. Come on, Teal, get it together! We’re in the Crawl, we’re in some kind of mind trap, and we need to go!”
“Go?” Teal smiled up at her again, and it was such an achingly bitter expression that Ruda’s heart contracted painfully in sympathy. “Nonsense, this is the social event of the season. I am absolutely required to attend.”
“Come on,” Ruda said urgently, shifting to place Teal’s chair between herself and the man, who was still glaring furiously at her. “Vadrieny has to be miserable at this thing. We need to find the others.”
“Vadrieny? Oh, that’s long over with. The Church separated us. I’m alone now.” Teal’s smile flickered once, then collapsed into blank emptiness.
Ruda closed her eyes for a moment, concentrating on Fross’s furious chiming. Bless that little pixie and her stubbornness. “If you won’t do this for yourself, think about Shaeine. She could be in the same kind of trouble.”
“Sh…a… No.” Teal slumped in her seat, staring down at her plate. A single tear fell onto it. “All that’s over with. Not appropriate at all. I’m engaged now, to a…to…” She trailed off, staring desolately into space.
“Goddammit, woman, we don’t have fucking time for this!” Ruda shouted, seizing her by both shoulders and shaking her violently. “I know you’ve got a spine in there somewhere! Snap out of it, you spoony bard!”
“That is enough!” the little man bellowed. “You are one more indiscretion from being out on the street without references, Punaji! If you wish you remain gainfully employed, you will be back at your desk five minutes ago!”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Jones,” she said immediately, releasing the unresponsive Teal and cringing. “I don’t know what came over me…”
“I don’t want to hear your excuses, just go!”
Ruda glanced around. “I…that…do you hear something? Like a bell?”
“Are you mad as well as insubordinate, girl? I am going to count to ten, and if you are not out of my sight when I finish, you are fired! One!”
Ruda looked frantically around. The diners, her furious boss, the despondent Falconer heiress… Everything felt wrong. This wasn’t right.
Her instincts were telling her to do one thing, her brain another. She always followed her brain; instinct lied.
Except instincts never screamed at her like this; the brain never had so little to say. She made a decision, and let instinct take over.
“Fi—what are you doing? Put down that knife immediately!”
The diner from whose hand Ruda had snatched the steak knife let it go without even looking up. Ruda, barely conscious of what she was doing, raised the blade and stabbed Teal in the throat.
Teal gagged, shock suffusing her features. Scarlet blood fountained onto her plate, onto the lacy white tablecloth, staining her diamonds.
Ruda let go of the knife, staggering backward, stunned. “What did I…”
She shrieked, staggering to the ground and covering her head with her hands as an eruption of fire occurred right in front of her. In the next instant, a hand had seized the back of her coat, and suddenly she was being pulled. Her feet left the ground, and for the next moments Ruda was tossed about so violently she couldn’t even begin to get her bearings.
Then, with much greater gentleness, she was being set down. Ruda staggered, then grabbed at her sword. It was there. So was Fross’s bottle, hanging at the other hip.
The pressure on the back of her neck eased up, massive claws releasing her collar. She turned, letting out a sigh of relief.
“That was risky,” Vadrieny said sharply. “What were you thinking? If she physically had been separated from me, you’d have killed her.”
“I wasn’t thinking,” Ruda said frankly. “I don’t even know what I was doing, much less why the fuck it worked. But it did. Are we out of there?”
The twine crackled sharply as it snapped in multiple places, releasing the bottle, whose stopper immediately popped off, shooting away to the side. Fross zipped out and rose to hover at her normal spot just above eye level.
“We are! Look!”
Behind them was the hall, filled with mist. In fact, all around them were halls. They stood in a broad octagonal chamber, each side opening onto another wide hallway. Every one of them was shrouded in fog.
“A pattern emerges,” Ruda muttered. “Well! You got us out of the dangerous area, then. Nice work, Vadrieny.”
“I only did the flying,” the demon said somewhat grudgingly. “We’d still be there if not for your rescue.”
“Are you okay?” Ruda asked carefully. “I wasn’t sure you were there… What did you see? No, never mind, that’s not my business.”
Vadrieny averted her burning eyes, glaring at the hall from which they had come. “I… Couldn’t help her. She couldn’t hear me. I was trapped in there. Watching, but basically alone. Powerless.”
“Well, that’s actually kind of elegant,” Ruda said, scowling. “One personal hell to fit both of you at once. I fucking hate this place.”
“So, the others are in these halls, then?” Fross drifted over to the one they’d just escaped, then back. “Okay, that one’s cleared… And the one to the right, there, we came out of that one. Next counter-clockwise on the list?”
“Right,” said Ruda, nodding, then hesitated. “…right. Let’s, uh…catch our breath first, okay? I don’t wanna leave the others too long, but… But…”
“Yeah,” Fross said quietly.
Vadrieny sighed heavily—even that was musical in her voice—and withdrew back into her host without another word. For a moment, Teal stared at her classmates, wide-eyed and visibly shaken.
Then, abruptly, she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Ruda in a rib-cracking hug.
Ruda stiffened momentarily, then found herself hugging back.
“So,” Gabriel said with a casualness that sounded forced even to him, “how well do you get along with your roommate?”
Triss shot him an annoyed look. “What’s with this? Have you ever known me to want to just chitchat about my feelings?”
“No,” he said immediately and in total honesty. “Right now I don’t even know what I know. I’m just…trying to get my bearings.” When she didn’t answer after a long moment he sighed and dragged a hand over his hair, having holstered his cheaper wand in order to reach his enchanting supplies if needed. “Nevermind, probably a stupid idea. I don’t mean to pry.”
“Always wanted a sister,” Triss mused thoughtfully. Gabriel clammed up and watched her sidelong as they meandered down the foggy hallway. All appeared to be quiet, still. “Ruda… Yeah, we’re close.” She glanced at him. “I guess you don’t remember, but I spent the winter break in Puna Dara with her.”
“I thought Puna Dara was too far away to get there and back over break?”
She frowned. “By Rail? It takes all of two hours, including stops.”
“There’s not a Rail line to oh gods why am I arguing about what’s in an alternate universe? Ignore me, I’m shutting up now.”
Triss grinned, a rakish expression so totally unlike what he was used to seeing on her face that it left him slightly queasy. “Yeah, well, I can’t say her parents liked me. Punaji and Eserites, you know how it is. Don’t you?”
“Let’s assume I do and move on.”
“Heh, fair enough.” She shrugged. “Ruda… She’s got this issue where she always has to be the alpha female. It was annoying at first, but hell, I learned to roll with it quickly enough. Suits me pretty well, in fact; I do better when I’m not the center of attention.” She produced a silver coin from somewhere, probably inside a sleeve, and rolled it across the back of her knuckles. “People who’re watching you are more likely to notice when you cut their purse strings. My mom wanted me to follow in her dainty little footsteps, but that’s parents for you. I just don’t have the patience to properly manipulate people. Give me daggers and a clear shot from behind, know what I mean? Yeah, me and Ruda… Two pieces of a puzzle.” She smiled again, this expression more gentle. “Of course, you will not tell anyone I was waxing emotive down here. This is strictly because your mental landscape is full of holes. I hope she’s okay.”
“This is so fucking disturbing,” he whispered.
“No kidding,” Triss said, coming to a halt. Only then did he notice that the hall had changed around them. It was an abrupt shift, this time, and apparently retroactive; quite suddenly everything was different, even the stretch of hall behind them. Different, and familiar.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he groaned. “This again? Why are we back here?”
“Are we back?” Triss mused, turning to look around at the Tiraan street in which they now stood. “I mean, is this your hallway again, or did it change mine to look like this?”
“Fuck if I know,” Gabriel growled. “Why is it so determined to torment me?”
“Well, you’ve just got one of those faces. I’ve noticed it too.”
He gave her a bitter look. “Thanks, that’s super helpful.”
“I aim to please,” she replied, grinning.
They paused momentarily, studying their surroundings, before Gabriel heaved a sigh. “Well, as you said. Nowhere to go but forward.”
“Mm.” Triss didn’t start moving. “You get the feeling this is leading toward something?”
“Yes,” he said grimly, “and it is only through the supreme exertion of my will that I am not pissing myself in anticipation.”
“Yeah, well, after what happened to…” He glanced at her and grimaced. “Let’s just say there’s a pattern here. If you fail to be cowed by the lesser terrors, the Crawl will drop something even nastier on you. In hindsight, maybe I’d have been better off if I’d just fallen to pieces when it leaned on me in the first place.”
“Enough of that kind of talk,” she said. “C’mon, I’m sharp and you’re sturdy. We’ll get through this. Wanna hold my hand?”
“…I think that would unsettle me even more.”
She laughed, but started walking, and he fell quickly into step beside her.
“Tiraas isn’t really my beat,” she said after a few minutes of tense silence. “Do you recognize this street?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t think it’s a street. I mean, not a real street. I couldn’t swear to that, but the way it’s… Vague, yet specific. Know what I mean?”
“Gabriel, I think you’ll find that babbling errant nonsense is a perfect way to ensure that of course I don’t fucking know what you mean!”
“Right.” He rubbed a hand through his hair again. “Right. Well… It feels like Tiraas. Very profoundly; I have an irrational but extremely compelling sense that this is a street in Tiraas. So do you, apparently, or you wouldn’t have said so. But I don’t recognize any landmarks, which means… Well, it suggests that the feeling is something the Crawl’s putting in my head.”
“I hate that,” she muttered, jamming her hands in her coat pockets. “Things messing with my mind. I can work my way around just about anything, but… Things that alter the way I’m me are just wrong.”
“Yeah,” he said, giving her a long, wary look.
“I almost wish we could get on with it an encounter whatever horror… Why are we stopping?”
Gabriel was staring ahead, at a place far enough from them to be just barely visible through the mist, and on the opposite sidewalk from the one they were on. “…I know that place.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well, good. Or…bad? Care to venture a theory?”
He stared at the house, frowning deeply. It didn’t look remarkable in comparison to the other fake edifices lining the illusory street. A nice place, certainly, but it blended in well with this apparently generic line-up of nice places.
“I think…” Gabriel trailed off, then shook his head. “Am I late?”
“What?” Triss frowned at him. “Late for what? Hey!”
He moved off ahead without her. “Crap, she hates it when I’m late. I should’ve checked the clock before leaving…”
“Gabriel!” Triss snapped, increasingly concerned. “What’s gotten into—hey, snap out of it! This is the Crawl, it gets inside your head, remember?”
He roughly shook her off when she tried to grab his arm, which looked extremely odd as he didn’t seem to notice he was doing it, or even that she was there. Triss swore under her breath and kicked him hard in the rump. He staggered forward, but quickly regained his balance and continued making a beeline for the house. There was nothing for her to do but trail along in his wake.
The door opened before they reached it, and Triss muttered another curse. Standing in the portal, smiling benignly, was the pretty, curvy, dark-haired girl from before.
“Gabriel!” she cooed. “I was about to start worrying.”
“Sorry to make you wait, lovely,” he said, strolling forward with a slight but distinct swagger in his step now.
“Oh, this is just priceless,” Triss groaned.
“You’re not late yet,” Madeleine said with a smile, extending her hand. Gabriel took it, bowing gallantly and placing a chaste kiss on her knuckles. Behind him, Triss gagged violently. Neither of them appeared to notice her. “That was what had me worried, my darling. Had you been late, I’d have had no choice but to be upset with you. Today of all days, I wanted to avoid that!”
“Then we’re in luck!” he said, grinning, and sweeping her into a hug.
“Gabriel!” she protested, giggling and struggling unconvincingly. “Not out here! The neighbors!”
“No one’s watching, pet,” he said, planting a kiss on her lips.
“Oh, that’s nice,” said Triss, folding her arms. “That makes me what? Grandma’s breakfast?”
“Ah, ah, ah!” Gently but more firmly, Madeleine extracted herself and eased back into the doorway. “Plenty of time for that later, darling. Please, come on in. I have something extra special planned for today.”
“The anticipation is killing me,” he said, following her. Triss could tell even from behind him that he was grinning insufferably.
“Am I right in concluding that you two can’t see or hear me?” she called. Neither answered, nor did they react when she darted forward to seize the door as he tried to shut it behind him. “Then let me just inform you, Mr. Boyparts, that skull-sized tits are not an asset on a girl. She’s gonna have lower back pain something fierce, and they’ll be hanging around her knees by the time she’s thirty.”
The two young lovers had vanished into the house. Standing in the doorway and craning her neck, Triss could tell that this wasn’t just another flat facade lining the walls of the corridor: there was an actual living space in there, expensively but tastefully furnished.
She grimaced, glancing longingly over her shoulder at the misty hall outside. Already Madeleine and Gabriel had passed through the foyer and were about to get out of sight round a corner. Muttering another curse, this time in elvish, she followed, slamming the door for emphasis.
They didn’t notice that, either.