Sacha drew in a sharp breath and opened her eyes. She was still here. In this damned room.
Only, she scowled, it was all so hazy. Yes, she was here. Now. Trapped and strapped in this god’s damned contraption that was so much like a coffin she shuddered to dwell on the possible future.
Except, her frown deepened. For a moment she was somewhere else, or had been, somewhere damp, and gloomy, she remembered…She wrinkled her nose, odours she didn’t want to think about in case she puked battled with her blurred and disconnected memories. There was a person, a man…?
Her stomach twisted. Either at the thought of the conflicting smells or the prospect of eating solids again. The tubes snaking into her limbs pumped clear liquid directly into her body at regular intervals. She assumed it was some sort of nutritional substitute and to replace lost fluids.
Still, this is better than the sawdust crap the Keepers forced on us. At least this stuff doesn’t try to shatter my teeth, even if it’s damned uncomfortable, these needles sticking in me, itching all the time.
As if on cue, Sacha carefully scratched the device stuck in the back of her left hand, connected by flashing crystals and copper wires. The tube adhered to her skin with a sort of self-adhesive bandage.
There was no infection and no attendants. Nothing…It was the damned strangest hospital she ever got laid up in. No-one came to changed the dressings, but they were always clean.
Sitting bolt upright, a thought flashed across her mind, an image. Or rather memory. He was there! Or was. The strange man with the bleeding face. The one with muddy eyes. He wasn’t a figment.
And…Sacha muttered a curse at her slowness. He was afraid. Not of her. At least not at first. Just angry. Probably because she got in his way. He’d been running. From something, or likely, someone?
When he got a good look at her, though, he stepped back, quick sharp. She saw him appraise the situation, saw him flicker between charging right past her or saying some sort of harsh retort…
Sacha grimaced, even a Stymphal would recoil from the mess of scars she was forced to live with. He didn’t run, though. Even let her get close and…Sacha gasped, she healed him, with a touch!
Then, she scowled, everything faded and she woke up…Stuck here. Lost. Alone…Well, not quite. The alone bit wasn’t exactly accurate, although, sometimes, Sacha wished it were true.
‘I warned you,’ a voice whispered right on cue.
Sacha gave the propped up woman in the box next door to her a hard glare. ‘You failed to mention the prospect of astral travel,’ she snapped. ‘A bit of detail might prevent me going into shock.’
Unarel shrugged, dismissing the courtesy of an apology. Instead, she tried to get more comfortable by twisting to the side inside her narrow box.
Resting her head against the wooden casing, Unarel stared back at Sacha with dark eyes that had the strange ability to drag her into the oily depths of that gaze if she looked too deep, or too long, into all that darkness. Sacha could find herself easily lost in the depths of this woman’s hidden secrets.
And, Sacha wondered, pain? No-one could own such a gaze and not have experienced something that made the woman so cold and barren of emotion. Like everything had been scraped away, leaving only a shell of what had been. Unarel never spoke of her past, only her life as a Keeper in the House.
However, there were telltale signs of torture evidenced in the large ruby clutching at Unarel’s chest like a red bodied spider encased in silver, crabbed legs piercing flesh and likely the sternum as well.
Once, and only once did Sacha dare speak of that gem. She shivered and briefly wished she could hug some warmth into her frigid limbs. Uanrel made it perfectly clear what topics were forbidden.
‘It’d be nice to have some heating,’ Sacha commented, stupid, but she needed to break the silence that had settled over the room like a shroud. It was worse when Unarel didn’t speak at all.
‘This place is a test.’ Unarel gestured to the machinery surrounding them like prison walls. Blinking lights and gears whirred softly like insistent whispers Sacha felt she should understand.
‘ I failed,’ Unarel said without any bitterness, merely dejected realisation that she couldn’t figure out what she was supposed to do.
With great effort, Sacha raised an eyebrow. ‘And you think I know what to do?’
Unarel turned her gaze back to Sacha. Her eyes were so dark… ‘You have to,’ she replied.
‘Thanks,’ sacha remarked dryly. ‘I’m not sure the confidence you have me is warranted, however.’
‘Because you don’t know who you are, yet.’
Sacha barked a laugh that was more a croak. ‘I suppose you’re not going to just tell me, are you?’
Quirking a smile, Unarel closed her eyes. ‘You’re not ready for that.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t want to disturb your beauty sleep…’ Sacha bit down on further insults. It wouldn’t help or change the situation. Unarel was a long standing resident of whatever and wherever this was. Just one look at her told Sacha the woman really needed to get out of here. She was dying.
Not that Unarel ever admitted to such weakness, but Sacha could tell. Unarel rarely spoke, only if she had something to say. Either that was habitual retiscence, or she was conserving strength.
Maybe, she just likes to be all mysterious? Sacha shook her head. Being bitchy wasn’t going to get either them free of this so-called test before it killed them both.
Sacha risked another question, ‘Who is he? The man from my dream?’
‘It was no fiction you saw. What you experienced was reality. The place we have been denied. The world you were stolen from. It is where we should be and the Gate is trying to tell you that.’
‘No way!’ Sacha tried to shake her head, but only managed a slight shift of her neck. ‘No-one can jump from one place to another. It’s impossible. Only the Gods had those skills and I’m no immortal!’
Unarel’s tone wasn’t irriated, just resigned, ‘Your future is woven into your past.’ It was all she was prepeared to say apparently. Unarel gradually turned onto her side and went quiet.
Sacha watched Unarel for a while before she finally turned her attention back to the room. Not that it was much to look at. Whoever built this lacked the same aesthetic inspiritation as the designer of the generator room. Gloss black tiles sheathed the walls and floor. Hastily prepared matresses littered every available space between wood clad blocks of machines and looping copper wires.
This place was a riddle inside a box, kept inside a mystery, or whatever smart arse comment Thais might have come up with, Sacha deemed them all appropriate right now, especially the curses.
Why the matresses? Far as Sacha could tell they were both cooped in these damned coffins for a reason she hadn’t solved yet. Maybe, never would. Turning her head, Sacha griamced at the corpse still in residence beside her. A few rags of clothing clung to the bones and a similiar gem that adorned Unarel was studded to the front of the dead body’s chest, but this one was an opal and not a ruby.
It was all so…weird. It was the only way to describe this entire situation. She was supposedly going on little side trips to heal men with cut up faces and her only source of information was a Keeper.
Could this get any stranger? Sacha rolled her eyes. Not likely. Although, if the damned Gate was trying to tell her something she wished the bloody thing would just get on with it and talk straight.
Just beyond the doorway, Sacha made out the solid block of obsidian she now knew, thanks to her advisor, was the actual Gate. The very object she had maintained all her life. It kept monsters at bay, locked the immortals inside an inescapable prison created from Eliat’s own design. A man Sacha was beginning to suspect was a bit of an arse. Given that the Gate was a place of eternal judgment, where the Gods were found guilty over and over, for the crime of never dying. Like they could help that!
This obstacle was, according to Unarel, the very thing she was supposed to break. Cause that’ll be easy…Wrecking a magical artifact from the time of Ulyses…Yeah, no problem, just give me a minute!
To have a panic attack! Sacha grimaced. And then run for my life! Only, it’s not that easy. Nothing here is what it seems. A motto Unarel appeared to enjoy repeating, about the only thing she did relish.
Sacha bumped her head on the hard backing of her box. There were no blankets. The temperature was moderate to say the least. She was always cold, hungry, and oddly thirsty. Another mystery.
The man she met in that alley was a puzzle she was supposed to solve. Her future? That’s what Unarel said before she conveniently fell asleep. Sacha closed her eyes, but all she could see was the man’s face, slashed, bleeding, hurting. Also afraid. Running. Whatever chased him wanted him dead.
It was the eyes, though, an odd brown. No, she scowled at herself for being an idiot. The man’s eyes had been more like rust, or maybe, the stain of old, dried blood. Familiar, and yet, not…
Turning over, Sacha sighed. This man was important. There was no denying that fact. She wasn’t about to tell Unarel she was right, however. The woman was already unbearably insufferable at times.
Gradually, Sacha felt her limbs relax. Not by her own will. Another tube in her right arm fed a dark, red liquid into her blood, weighing her down, turning her body to lead as she was dragged into sleep.
For some odd reason Sacha knew she was dreaming…Maybe it was the fact everything in this place was melting like soft candlewax, chairs slumped at odd angles onto a rippling floor of warped boards.
Even the windows were disjointed, set into walls of oozing plaster that dripped down onto the floor, gradually spreading into puddles of white lime that fizzed and bubbled like boiling acid.
Yet, none of it actually ate away at the wood of the planks. Sacha frowned, it was as if whoever or whatever created this weird room was merely using special effects to divert her attention.
The drug fed into her via the tubes was some damn good shit, apparently…
Sacha sighed, glancing around…And that’s when she saw him…Or rather it…
Maybe the twisted creature deftly balancing on top of one of the sinking tables was once a person, but now they were warped just like the room and the furniture. His clothing suggested this was male, a tunic and trews of battered leather covered the twisted limbs, coarse jet black hair stuck up from his head, intense brown eyes stared back at her, boring into her skull…Almost burning…Sacha gasped…
‘What are you doing here?’ A rasping voice demanded, echoing in her mind like a shout.
Clutching her head in her hands, Sacha staggered backward, knocking a potted plant that fell over, spilling dirt that instantly turned to liquid when it hit the floorboards, green foliage spreading like paint.
The voice screamed inside her thoughts. ‘Get out! Mine! This is mine! Leave. Leave now!’
Dropping to her knees, Sacha sank a little in the soft mulch that was supposed to be a floor.
‘I can’t.’ She sobbed quietly into her hands.
‘Keeper?’ Boomed the voice.
Digging her fingers into her temples, Sacha collpased into a heap, whispering, ‘No, I’m not-‘
A shadow fell over her…Some other voice remarked out loud, ‘Well, why didn’t you say so?’
Twisting onto her side, Sacha peered up at the gnarled old man gazing down on her with the same brown eyes as the malevolent creature that tried to melt her thoughts just like the artifacts in the room.
Stooping lower, the man thrust out a hand that was liver spotted and lumped with protruding veins, fingers bent as if at some point in his life every one had been broken and then healed badly.
Grudgingly accepting the offer of help, Sacha tried to hide her surprise at the man’s strength when he hauled her upright as though she weighed no more than a sack of feathers.
The man released his grip and quirked a smile. ‘Nothing’s what it seems here,’ his voice was harsh as if he spoke around a throat full of gravel or was perhaps unused to talking.
Crossing her arms over her chest as if that’d protect her if the man turned violent, Sacha gestured to the room and disintegrating furniture. ‘I like what you’ve done with the place.’
He croaked a laugh. ‘Not my idea, I assure you.’ He shuffled over to one of the tables, laid a hand on the fluidic oak and muttered a few words. When he backed away, the whole thing was now solid.
He turned to face her, expression so full of lines it was hard to determine his emotions. ‘It won’t last long,’ he said. ‘Just enough that we can talk and be comfortable while we’re at it.’
‘What if I don’t feel like talking?’
The man rasied an eyebrow. ‘What else you got planned?’
‘Sleep,’ Sacha shot back.
‘You seem to think any of us have a choice,’ the man responded as he pulled out a chair, it’s liquid form rehsaping into a more pratical seating option. He eased hismelf onto the hard wood and sighed.
‘What makes you think we have anything to discuss?’ Sacha was starting to dislike the Gate’s sick sense of humour, if inanimate objects had such tendencies. Whatever, it was damned annoying.
Leaning back in the chair, the man gazed back at her. ‘You don’t know me, do you?’
‘Not that I recall, no.’
‘Shame,’ the man replied. ‘A damn shame Eliat managed to get what he wanted.’
Sacha stepped forward despite herself. ‘What do you…’ She stopped, and scowled.
‘Yes,’ the man said with a thin smile. ‘I know how to perk your interest. There are things in my head Eliat would love to get his hands on, seeing as he lost my essence and the control he once had.’
‘What are you-‘
The man’s features distorted, warped, softened like clay, changing his face, making him younger…
‘No,’ Sacha whispered as she stared at someone she never dreamed of seeing again.
‘You don’t know half of what you should,’ Trall said, hazel eyes softening. ‘But, you look good.’
‘You’re dead!’ Sacha thought she should point that out.
Trall gazed back at her. ‘Well, clearly I’m not.’
Leaning back in his seat, he stretched out his legs, all the while pinning her in place with that damn familiar stare of his, all knowledgable as if she were an idiot who needed everything explaining.
‘I saw you die! I was there. I tried to save you, but-‘
‘A lie,’ he interrupted, tone measured and calm. ‘They wanted you to believe, so they altered your memory, surely you realise those scars on your face and hands are not what they seem?’
Holding her hands close to her chest, Sacha scowled. ‘I got them trying to help you.’
‘No.’ Trall shook his head, light brown hair falling over his shoulder. ‘We were doing the forbidden.’
Sacha faltered. ‘You mean…’ She thought of his mouth on hers and felt the heat in her cheeks.
‘Not that.’ He smiled gently. ‘I stole books which the Gate provided, once I learnt those secrets no-one should ever know if they want to survive in the House. I learnt the truth and spread those ideas.’
Gasping softly, Sacha doubled over as pain seared right through her skull like a lance. A surge of images flew across her mind so fast it made her dizzy. She clutched at her stomach as it did a double back flip, drowning her mouth with saliva. Sacha retched, but nothing came out except a string of bile.
A hand gently rubbed her back. ‘It’s alright,’ Trall murmured comfort. ‘You must know, Sacha. What they did to us.’ His hand bunched to a fist against her spine. ‘What Eliat did.’
‘He burned me.’ She whimpered. ‘And he enjoyed it.’ Sacha drew herself up once more and moved away from Trall and his hand on her back. She looked at him closely. ‘He pushed you into the Gate.’
Trall stuffed his hands in the pockets of his long tunic. ‘Eliat likes to see those he hates suffer most horribly, prolonging torture.’ He grimaced. ‘Not that he’s particularly nice to those he considers allies.’
Sacha wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and cleaned it on her leggings, which were now in good order. ‘Good thing I haven’t eaten for a while or I might have made a mess of your new home.’
Trall gave her an odd look before turning away and returning to the chair he made solid as he sat down the persona of the old man returned, hiding Trall’s younger and more familiar features.
Once more he spoke with that rasping voice he used earlier. ‘I can’t keep up the pretense for long, just like the room and it’s contents, I’m bound by the laws of the Gate, eventually we must all return to the forms it has chosen for us at this time.’
‘You’re stuck here,’ Sacha surmised, sort of glad they were on a different topic now.
Trall nodded. ‘Until the Gate decides otherwise.’
‘I’ve been told I’m the only one who can save us all,’ Sacha remarked wryly.
‘That is possible,’ Trall said carefully. ‘However much of what you know is given to you by a traitor. I see your mind, Sacha. There are still fasle memories that have too strong a hook on your mind.’
Sacha hesitated, unable to truly focus. ‘You’re saying…Unarel…?’
Trall finally looked away. ‘Yes,’ he said softly. ‘I’m sorry…I should have waited.’
‘For what?’ Sacha demanded. ‘Until she decided to kill me in my sleep?’
Fixing her with his gaze once more, the man’s expression was drawn and pale. ‘She is not as she once was. Nor are you. Not any of us, really. The one named Unarel will not intentinally harm you.’
‘Oh great! I’m so relived that if she murders me it’ll just be an accident!’
Abruptly Trall rose from his chair. ‘The Gate is waking!’ He moved toward her. ‘Save them, Sacha,’ he insisted. ‘Find the Seven! Restore the balance of order! And most important, Kill that bastar-‘
Lurching into an upright position, Sacha blinked as overhead lights flared into full brightness and tried to burn her eyes out. Wincing, she eased back a little so the tubes didn’t pull so much on her skin.
She didn’t know how long she slept. She suspected it was the machine’s way to ensure obediance, or send her into weird and wonderful places where old men advised her to murder ancient gods and that her only ally in this hell hole might well do the same, but don’t worry, she won’t mean to do it.
And what the Hell was Trall doing alive, messing with her head like that? Part of her screamed that she could trust him like she did before his fake death. While the other, more cautious self, whispered not to listen to a damn word he said. It could be a trick. Plus, what was she supposed to tell Unarel?
Sacha glanced across, but Unarel was partially curled in her box like a sleeping cat. The same red liquid that sent Sacha into dreamland oozed through the transparent tubing and for the moment kept Unarel in an induced state of unconsciousness. Luckily for her. And for me, Sacha thought.
Propping herself up against her box, Sacha thought on Trall’s words. Some of what he said made sense. The rest was all just random babble she didn’t know whether to trust or simply ignore.
Right now, she decided to go on Unarel’s knowledge which the woman gleaned from her long stay in this adjoining chamber and also her apparent ability to wander the corridors while alseep.
The Gate, apparently, was just a tool that Eliat first turned into a trap and then a prison for Gods. Sacha concluded wryly, it was doing a damn good job of ensuring she couldn’t escape.
Except, why bother with this charade at all? It was a Hell of a lot of trouble just for a Worker whose basic skills consisted of replacing light globes and tinkering with a few wires here and there.
She had no idea why the Gate apparently chose her to lead a revolution. Unarel’s words not hers. It might be the fact Unarel was a long time resident, but she claimed the Gate was sentient.
It hurt her mind just to think of such a complex and totally unrealistic suggestion. The Gate was an object, not a person. It didn’t have feelings or opinions. Sacha looked at the slab of obsidian.
The solidity of it’s presense liquified to that of ink, but when Sacha blinked, the Gate was a block of solid stone, polished to a black mirror, reflecting a warped and shadowed image of its surroundings.
Sacha chalked it down to the annoying habit the woman had of speaking in riddles. Unarel claimed it was device used to force people to think. It just gave Sacha a headache and shortened her temper.
Although, Sacha pressed fingers to her temples. Those cries for help inflicted on her when she first arrived were a mumur, thanks to Unarel’s advice on how to dull the noise, but still damned persistent.
‘In pain?’ Unarel’s voice sounded coarse as if she gargled a mouthful of rust every morning. ‘You’ll get used to them, eventually.’
The older woman was propped up on one elbow. The arm was so thin and skeletal Sacha cringed at the thought it might just snap under the weight of Unarel’s lolling head.
Sacha dropped her hands into her lap. ‘Does that mean, get used to it or go insane?’ She gave the other makeshift beds a pointed look, given all were unoccupied, but likely had guests at some point.
Unarel got the gist immediately. ‘I’m not sure what happened.’ She frowned. ‘This place was in the same condition it is now when I arrived. I’ve seen no-one else, except you, of course.
‘And I’ve never figured a way to rid myself of these tubes or how to get myself onto one of those matresses. Despite their appearance I’m quite sure they’re a sight more comnfortable than a box.’
Sacha rubbed her forehead in an attempt to erase the lines that were slowly ingraining themselves onto her skin in a permanent frown. ‘Right. Not really helping. We’re just going round in circles.’
‘I brought you here,’ Unarel admitted. ‘Despite disagreement with my subconscious mind.’
‘Yeah.’ Sacha touched her throat. A few scabs marred her neck where Unarel tried to strangle her.
‘I apologise. Apprently I’m of two minds about this whole thing.’
‘Aren’t we all,’ Sacha murmured.
Unarel sat up a little and leaned closer. ‘Did you see him? The man you healed? Did you go to the real world? How did it look? Anything different?’ Her words tumbled out. ‘Have you seen the Palace?’
The look Unarel gave her made Sacha think very carefully about her words. ‘No,’ she said slowly. ‘I don’t recall dreaming at all.’ She didn’t know why she lied, something Trall said most likely.
‘It wasn’t a figment of your imagination, Sacha. The man was real and you saved his life.’
Sacha scowled darkly. ‘How do you know so much of what’s in my mind?’
‘It’s my business to know such things. Like it’s yours to aid warriors in times of need.’
‘I don’t think he was a soldier,’ Sacha remarked wryly. ‘He looked more like a beggar to me.’
Unarel gave her one of those stares again. ‘Looks can be decieving.’
‘Yes, they can,’ Sacha replied shortly.
Laying back down, Unarel replied.’Don’t give up. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve if you put your mind to the task at hand, instead of whining about how hard you think it will be.’
‘Thanks for that bit of supportive advice. I’ll remember that the next time I try to help someone who turns out to be a crazy woman.’
Unarel twisted to the side and faced her. ‘Whatever you think you know, I am not insane.’ With that she rolled the other way and put her back to Sacha. Apparently, lessons were over for today.