I did not so much awaken as piece myself together. Damn, but I felt awful.
I seemed to be back in my own body, which was clearly impossible. For one thing, I didn’t appear to be back in my cell. I was instead standing on the top of a lonely, isolated stone tower. All around me the darkness seemed to stretch forever, lit only by the stars above my head. Said stars burned with a pure, steady light, cold and white as Arctic frost.
Oh yeah, and Aiko was standing right next to me. That was a definite hint that something wacky was going on.
“Winter?” she said, sounding very confused. “What’s going on?”
“Give me a minute,” I said. “Feel like my head’s full of cotton.”
Below us, the tower melded into a mountain. The walls of the building, like the rooftop parapet we were on, were totally bare, Spartan, even desolate. The mountain, though…its slopes were covered in thick conifer forest, right down to the base of the peak where it ran into the sea. There was no other land in sight, no people, no sign that humans had ever seen this place. The forests seemed grim, full of dark and hostile shadows. Just looking at them I had to fight the urge to shudder, and I normally like the forest at night. The ground between the trees was covered with thick, pale mists, which seemed to swirl slowly in the breeze. The movement seemed odd, almost purposeful, with an inexplicable air of malice. The mists seemed to have an animus to them, giving an impression of volition and of awareness.
And then I suddenly realized what this reminded me of. “This is the spirit world, isn’t it?” I asked, squeezing my eyes shut against the eerie, disturbing sentience that the island seemed to be pervaded with.
“That’s what you called it,” she agreed. “Our word for it is…hard to translate, now that I think about it. The closest English word might be Nowhere. Or Everywhere. Or Somewhere Else.” She paused meditatively. “It’s kind of a Zen word.”
Okay. This was starting to make more sense.
Like I said before, there are tons and tons and tons of ways to go to the spirit world. The maddening thing is that, depending on which way you use, you might end up in a totally different world.
When I’d gone in, I hadn’t just taken the safest route. I’d only traveled a very short distance along it, in the greater scheme of things. More into the borderland than a total transition, really. I mean, I’d still been seeing the physical. That’s a definite indicator that you haven’t really left.
This was an entirely different way of approaching it. It was, essentially, a representation of Aiko’s own spirit-level existence—something I’d learned about from Alexander, but never actually experienced before now. That explained the isolation, the stark appearance, the way it wasn’t quite clear whether the barriers were keeping outsiders away, or keeping us in. This was my mind’s interpretation of those concepts and ideas which made up her being. And, like any simple representation of a very complex thing, it had to incorporate layers and layers and layers of subtlety and symbolism to get all the points across.
Considering what I’d learned about Aiko, I was suspicious that bringing me here was not an inconsiderable gesture on her part, regardless of how useful it might be. Showing someone that representation of yourself isn’t something you do lightly. It’s easy to see too deeply.
“Okay,” I said, opening my eyes. “Think I’m better. Remind me to never, ever do that again.”
“Do what?” she asked.
“Travel twenty miles by raven,” I said, gazing out at the endless dark waters. “Think I went a little crazy for a minute there.”
“Speaking of which,” she said. “What the hell happened to you? The transmitter was on your floor, and Snowflake couldn’t tell me much except that there was a big fight. Like the bullet holes hadn’t conveyed that already.”
Snowflake. Where had she been? It hadn’t occurred to me at the time, but normally she wouldn’t have missed a fight like that for the world. That bore looking into.
“Jon happened,” I said simply. “With half a dozen thugs. Knocked me out and absconded with me. I believe next up on the menu is light torture, followed by being killed and metaphysically consumed when I refuse to talk.”
“Screw that,” she said. “I did not get you a custom-made suit of armor just so you could get your ass killed without even using the thing.”
I grinned. “I was hoping you’d say that. Fortunately, I happen to know where I’m being kept. If you’d like, I can probably tell you how to get there.” I laid it out in simple, blunt terms.
“Should I bring in the vampire? Found her business card in your pocket.”
I blinked. “You were rifling my pockets?”
She shrugged. “Worked, didn’t it?”
I frowned. “Four hours ’til sunset. I kinda doubt I have that long.” I paused as a horrible thought occurred to me. “Aiko…this place, it’s not like the Otherside, is it?”
She looked confused for maybe half a second, then laughed. “The time dilation thing? No. The opposite, actually. Time does pass here, but slower than in the real world. Call it a minute here to a second there, that’s close enough.”
I sighed in relief, closing my eyes. “That’s a relief. For a second there….” I didn’t bother finishing the sentence.
When I opened my eyes, the world was utterly different. Or, more accurately, my perception of the world had shifted. Unless maybe it was Aiko’s perception. The more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed that she was the one imposing her views on…what? There didn’t seem to be an underlying structure to this not-place. Maybe that made sense, considering that it was Aiko I was looking at. Stability wasn’t really her thing.
Anyway, now we were walking idly through a city, but a city unlike any I had ever seen before. I was moving, in that smooth loping rhythm you sometimes get when you’ve been walking for a while. The moment I became aware of my own motion I stopped, almost tripping as I realized that I wasn’t actually consciously moving.
The buildings were all white stone, perfectly clean and antiseptic-looking. It was curiously, unsettlingly beautiful, like a blossom of nightshade in a vase. The sky was flat pearl-grey, without either clouds or sun, but there was light nevertheless, almost blindingly intense as it reflected off all the white.
There were no doors in the buildings, no windows. Where they should have been were only decorative arches filled with more stone.
And there was not another living thing there but us. Somehow I knew that this would be the case, no matter how far we walked. There would be open courtyards but no parks, yards but no grass, empty bins but no rubbish, no scavengers come to eat it. This wasn’t a place that was friendly to life. Each and every blank stone arch seemed to have something horrible behind it, seemed almost like the reason there were no doors was because they had been bricked up to keep something in.
I wondered whether, if I were to go break down the walls, things might come out. Monsters, demons from the nether reaches of pseudoreality? That seemed unlikely. Horrible memories from Aiko’s life? Or, worse, the worst parts of who she was?
Or, scariest of all…what if the reason there were bad things behind those arches was because I’d put them there?
I did the smart thing and pushed it from my mind.
“What about Kyra?” Aiko was saying, seeming oblivious to the change in our surroundings. I had to hurry to catch up with her, although we didn’t seem to be making any progress down the promenade we had found ourselves on. The other side looked exactly as distant as before, the buildings not changing in size the way perspective would normally make them, nor were the buildings to the side moving in relation to us. When I glanced back, though, the other end of the square was getting farther away at a normal rate. If I’d had the time I would have gotten a headache.
“Kyra…” I frowned. “There’s something funny going on there. I trust her, I think that she’s probably telling the truth, I think she has my best interests at heart. And yet, for all of that, there’s…something not quite right about it. Something fishy.”
“I don’t suppose you have anything more specific?”
“Of course not,” I said sourly. “If I had something specific, I would have told you that instead. But…I really think there’s something up. She contacted me in a weird way when this particular mess started. She seemed awfully quick catching on, too. And then there was that construct.”
She frowned. “I thought she saved you from the construct.”
“Well, sure. But how did it get loose? She was strong enough to rip the thing’s freaking head off without breaking a sweat, but not enough to keep a hold? Then, once it did get away from her, she killed it fast. So fast that it almost makes you wonder….”
“Whether she wanted it dead from the beginning,” she concluded. “To keep it from talking, maybe. Or whatever it is that constructs do.”
I shrugged helplessly. “I can’t put my finger on it, Aiko. But I don’t want her any more involved with this than she already is.”
“Hey,” she said, shrugging. “You know her better than me. Your call.” There was a brief silence. “So. Vampires are out. Werewolves are out. I’m not making bargains with the fae. Think there’s a chance of mages?”
“Not so much. Either Luke or one of his cronies—or, if I have any idea at all how this kind of guy operates, at least two and probably more—are shilling for Jon, like we expected. Be suicide to bring them in.” I hadn’t noticed the transition, but we weren’t walking aimlessly across an empty, open square anymore. We were climbing a tight, walled-in spiral staircase, all of it more white stone, surrounding us completely. There were small, strangely shaped windows in the walls. Not just a little strange, either; I saw at least one right triangle which had three right angles. Looking out them revealed a seemingly infinite expanse of sky, grey and misty like that above the city we had been walking through. It seemed like we were still in that city, except that a tower this tall should most certainly have been visible from a ways off, and I hadn’t seen any such thing. I didn’t see any other buildings out the windows, either.
“I know that,” Aiko said scornfully. “I meant that old man you work for. The wizard.”
“Alexander?” I considered it. “It’d be nice,” I said. “He’s freaking scary when he puts his mind to it. But I don’t think it’ll work. He’s not keen on sticking his neck out, and he doesn’t like me that much.”
“So we bribe him.”
“A good thought,” I conceded. “But unless you’re a lot richer than you look, not gonna work. The man got at least ten grand for a set spell that he made in under three hours. Without leaving his lab, or exposing himself to any danger worse than eyestrain.”
“Oh.” She paused again. “So it’s just me, then?”
I grimaced and looked away. We both knew that that was pretty much a suicide mission, one that was likely to fail anyway. We also both knew that, if she had to, she would do it anyway, and die laughing. That was who Aiko was.
“Snowflake,” I said eventually. “She’ll help you. And….” I frowned. “Go to my lab. There’s that skeleton, the one you gave me. It’s the vessel for the demon I summoned. I told him to obey your orders. His contract doesn’t include violence, but he might be willing anyway.”
“I thought that place was warded.”
“They shouldn’t stop you if you go there with the intent of finding that building, specifically. Just don’t mess with anything inside and you’ll be fine.”
She took a deep breath, then nodded. “Okay. You’d probably better leave now. Might take me a minute or two getting out of here, then an hour and change to that house. Um…better call it two hours, be on the safe side. If I’m not there by then, assume that I’m dead and you have to figure out something else.”
I frowned. “How hard is it to leave this place?”
She shrugged. “For you? Should be just like waking up.”
“And for you?”
“I made it. Unmaking it’s my job. Now get out of here. You’ll just distract me, anyway.”
We climbed out of the enclosed staircase, from light into darkness, emerging on the same desolate, wind-blasted tower rooftop as before, looking out over the starlit seas. I glanced back, only to see that the tower was as bare as ever. There was no entrance, no sign whatsoever of the tall staircase we had climbed, or the barren city beneath, and no windows in the walls below us. The breeze was picking up, the water stirring into swells that would be terrifying on a boat, the air cold enough that even I began feeling it. Aiko’s eye had a strange, slightly unnerving fey light to it, and her teeth looked very sharp as she smiled.
“Good luck,” I said. And then I closed my eyes one more time.