The light grew fast, but thankfully that was because Demetrius had helped me to stand and started walking toward it, taking long strides. He seemed excited to have a goal. Or perhaps that was just me. He could have been embarrassed by his faux pas and wanting to leave it behind, as if it were a physical landmark.
It would have been easier to convince myself of that if he had shown at least a bit of remorse over what he'd done, but that was not something to dwell on. He would never make sense to me, I decided, and that was that.
All thoughts of this nature dribbled out of my head like beads of wax down the sides of a distressed candlestick when we had come close enough to the light to discern its nature. It was a cavern, carved out of the rock by deliberate hands.
I let go of Demetrius, pulling my arm away from his shoulders, and walked over to one of the walls. Placing my hand on the rock, I rubbed my fingers over it. Smooth as a sidewalk. "This place was made," I told him, glance back at him.
"But for what purpose?"
It was not a question that held an immediate answer. The cavern, more like a round room, was stocked with all sorts of paraphernalia. It made me think of the laboratory, but without either the human element of amiable chaos, nor the incredible order of a disturbed mind that was inherent in all scientific pursuits.
Two tables had been propped up as close to 'against a wall' as they could be, but one, slightly higher and about the length of a human body, stood in the middle.
No, the exact centre. I knelt to examine its single thick leg and found it had been bolted in place. Hinges on the bottom of the table made me wonder what purpose this table had. I stood back up and tested the hinges, but they didn't move with the leverage of physical effort alone. Either it was a machine, locked somehow, or I had simply misunderstood the workings of the hinges.
"Oy, look at this." Demetrius walked over to me, holding a book. It was not of the leather-bound, neatly but well-used variety that I had gotten used to seeing during the past few days. Instead, it was a very tidy spiral notebook, filled with handwritten notes and inconceivably intricate drawings that were practically scribbles--just on the front of it. He opened it up and set it down on the high table.
Page after page was filled with an incomprehensible scrawl. As I tried to read it, I thought of Chrysander and his translation efforts. "Do you think it's written in the ancient language?" I asked.
Perhaps thinking along the same lines I was, or at least similar ones, Demetrius made a face. "No, I don't think so."
"Is that because you don't want to ask Chrysander for help translating it, or because you really don't think it is?"
He ignored the teasing lilt in my voice and pointed to a single line. "The latter, Miss Smarty. See this? That's a cipher. Or a code of some kind. I recognise the loop at the end."
"Just there. It's from the old language, or it's just supposed to look like it to fool people, but the rest of it is just a code." He closed the book and put it away in his vest. "If it's complicated enough, you'd have to be the person herself who wrote it to have any hope of understanding a word."
Wandering about, I saw that there was only one other notebook in the room. "This couldn't have been a study though. So why write anything in code?"
"Why build a room inside a cave and then abandon it?"
I ran a finger along the surface of one of the other tables. It came away dusty, leaving behind a line of dark wood in the greying surface. "Maybe they finished what they were doing."
There wasn't much else in there. A bit of what might have been food, mostly recognisable by the clue of a plate and some dead flies that had either come about by spontaneous generation or just a very hopeful progenitor. I wrinkled my nose at it and moved on. An apparatus that looked a little like a scale, but was too narrow to actually work. I tipped one of the dishes down, getting more dust on my fingers. The dishes had both been shaped so thin that I could have cut myself applying too much pressure to an investigative touch of the rim.
Demetrius put away the other notebook I had seen, tucked carefully into his vest. I wondered why he was keeping them. If they were written in code, especially one that it wasn't likely that anyone could translate, it seemed pointless to hoard them. But he must have known what he was about. Or at least thought he did.
I didn't understand anything that he did, did I? I rubbed my arm, watching the scale dip slowly back to its almost, but not quite, even split between one dish and the other. There was no sign that it had ever been used. Aside from the dust, there was no detectable residue of anything that had been put inside. Perhaps that meant that it had been used to weigh dry things, or small packages. Or perhaps it had just been a very long time since it had been used at all.
This place made me shiver, even though whoever had made it had left behind a spell that made it warmer than the rest of the cave. When I pointed this out to Demetrius, he smiled a little. "Couldn't be a scientist then. They don't care about comfort."
I tried not to laugh. "That's not true. Dr Cordet is a fiend for it. Have you seen her insist upon morning tea?"
"The first time she did that, I wondered if she was going a little bit mad. Tea in that horrible white room. It made me think of my old aunt and a carpet that she was obsessed with keeping clean."
Pulling out a chair to the more laden table, I said, "Let me guess, you got into a tousle with the family dog and got hair and blood all over it."
"Dogs play rough."
He leaned against the table and looked over my shoulder as I picked up each strange unusable object--of which there were only three in any case--and said nothing for a moment. Then he coughed, and it took me a moment to realise that he was laughing. "That was a pretty good guess. No one ever gets the blood."
"Aren't I wonderful."
It was meant to be a harmless thing to say. University slang, stating one's pulchritude or other shining feature out of proportion to its actual value, as a question without the harmonics of one. But Demetrius patted my shoulder with one hand and said softly, "I rather suspect you are."
The only thing that saved him was the fact that both of my feet were safely tucked under the desk, and the object I was holding was only an old pencil. It had been worn down to a stub and needed to be sharpened.
I pushed the chair back and thought of standing up again, but stayed where I was. There was no point in getting up, we were still stranded. We hadn't found a way out. We had found someone's old hideaway.
"How did they get to this place?" Demetrius folded his arms over his chest, possibly to keep the notebooks from falling out.
"Don't ask me. I don't even know how we reached it." My stomach was feeling heavy again, but it was different than when we had first had our jarring landing from the non-fall. "Have you any idea?"
"As to which?"
"To either. Who's being a smarty now?"
He cracked a smile, but it wasn't much of one. Looking around the room, as if it would lend some further clue, he seemed to be thinking rather hard about it. "Before it happened. You were talking about... You were saying very odd things. Do you remember any of it?"
Not even a week ago, I would have lied and said no. Not only were lies, especially such an convenient, comfortable one, easier, they were familiar. But I hadn't really had to lie lately. There was no reason to do so. Everyone knew my hardest secrets, and with Soterios around, I couldn't even worry about a mysterious or unknowable past. He more or less knew it because he had basically the same one, minus the things about parents.
"Athena? Do you?"
"Yes," I said at last, a little annoyed at being henpecked into answering. "You don't have to fuss at me, I remember. It just wasn't a pleasant part of the day, if you don't mind my saying."
"Sorry." He leaned against the edge of the centre table and looked expectantly at me. "While you were... well, raving on, really, you said that it wasn't to do with the Hollow Man. That someone else was using him."
People said a lot of crazy things when they were taken by sickness or had been drugged, either by others or their own selves. At least, I assumed they did. I'd only ever seen my mother do that sort of thing, when she'd had too much to drink. Which was all the time, of course. She would tell me that my father had left because it was better for us, but really it was only better for her and me. He was out there getting killed or worse, she would say.
"What did you mean by that?"
My eyes went wide. I hadn't said that out loud, had I? Swallowing hard, I tried to think of something to say to fix it, but Demetrius just looked the same as he had a moment ago. I relaxed, trying not to let out a tumultuous sigh of relief. "To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. Just that... I can feel the Hollow Man. When I was in the dark that the light couldn't touch--not the dark we were walking in, but before. I could tell there was something inside it because he told me. Or something like that. He doesn't talk like people do. Maybe he doesn't even talk."
He pushed away from the table and grabbed the chair from the other desk-like table to sit nearer me. "Athena, you aren't making any sense. Again."
"It's my turn," I snapped. "Heaven knows you never make any sense." I hugged my stomach and leaned forward. "Some of the things I was saying, mostly what I was doing, they weren't me. There was another person, maybe another me." Something Hollow-born, I thought, then wondered why I had thought it.
He set a hand on my knee. It was comforting, but I disapproved and pushed it away. A hurt look crossed his face, but that was his own fault. "That explains you acting odd. I suppose. But was it you who said that the Hollow Man is being used?"
I thought about it, angry that I had to. It had been something I had said, I ought to have been able to tell whether or not I had actually said it. Oh, it made the head hurt. And the stomach. I felt like I had eaten a heavy dinner that I hadn't wanted.
Squeezing my eyes shut tight, I took comfort in the personal darkness and sifted through my thoughts. My thoughts and his. It was chilling more than anything, like plunging one's hand into a half-melted bucket of ice. Chilling to the point of burning. But I couldn't take my hand back out. The worst part was the feeling of almost comfort. I was somewhere close to the Hollow Man, and my body was trying to react with natural fear, but the portion of me that had connected to him was at peace. A twisted sort of peace, like feeling unaffected by the death of someone I had known, but with whom I had not been well-acquainted.
For a moment, I considered voicing at least some of these thoughts, but I held them back. I didn't even understand them, and Demetrius looked puzzled enough. He also looked scared, and I didn't like that at all. I wasn't used to placing him and fear in the same sentences.
"Oh dear," I said suddenly, looking about my person. It wasn't a very dramatic exclamation, and made me sound rather like an old lady. "It seems I've lost the shiny pointy things you gave me. Weaponry must be allergic to me."
He gave me an odd look. "The dagger was a little too eager to be in your hand while we were all together. I unbuckled the scabbard while you were being sick and gave your weapons to Soterios. You've only just noticed?"
"Yes, I have only just noticed. There have been a few things on my mind."
"I wish you'd tell me more of them. It isn't like you to be so at odds with yourself."
This statement, however true he might have thought it was, made me raise an eyebrow. I stared at him for a few seconds, just taking in the details I had come to know. His hair was still the first thing any observer would notice first. That fluffy ginger mess that he never ever combed. There was no bracken in it now, which made it look a bit lonely. Like a princess who had forgotten her tiara in a rush to get dressed.
He blushed suddenly and turned away. I thought of Noni and cringed. I must have done something wrong, or he wouldn't have acted the way he had in the dark tunnel. "Demetrius, you--"
"They're in here!"
Moving like a chord of music beginning an overture, Soterios swept into the round room. He was wearing an extra sword belt that I did indeed recognise as having been somewhat mine. As well as a broad, relieved smile. "We thought we'd lost you," he said, panting. He clapped a hand on Demetrius's back, and then crouched to look into my face. "Are you both all right?"
His relief was so palpable that I felt like a different person. The feeling in my stomach was becoming a wrenching pull again, but it was easier to ignore than the awful contentedness of a moment before. "Just a little banged up."
"You are, at that," Dr Cordet said, ducking inside. The mouth of the cavern seemed even smaller as she stood next to it, although she didn't stay still for long. She rushed over to me, tutting before she had even reached me. "Look at this, you've gone and hurt yourself again. Is it a habit for you?"
Sitting up rather indignantly, I moved my hands from my stomach and put them on my hips. "It was an accident."
"So I should have guessed. You are prone to those. Is it a natural offset to thoughtform magery, or are you just careless?"
I didn't get a chance to answer, which was a shame, as I should have liked to have been terribly insulting just then. Chrysander cut in ahead of Noni, shaking his head and looking dazed. His eyes were lighter, nearly grey, and he walked as though in a dream. He stumbled over his own feet, which I thought very unlike him, and banged right into the table. Still in a great hurry, he felt his way around it. Then he practically tackled me.
My torso, unhappy as it already was, took the impact with more grace than I thought it ought to have. Perhaps because most of his grip was absorbed by my arms and shoulders. Or that it only lasted for a moment. He pushed himself back, fixing me with a stern gaze that belonged on someone else's face. It made his mouth look big. "This is why I came along," he said quietly. "If you get yourself lost, I have to find you. Now what kind of job is that for a bounty hunter?"
"A normal one," I said, trying not to laugh and failing. "Finding people is what bounty hunters are paid to do." The hug lingered in my mind, but this was Chrysander. The fool had kissed my nose before, I would take a short hug over that any day. If he had to tease, at least he did so in spurts and then seemed to forget himself from one moment to another. He wasn't like Demetrius. Demetrius meant things. The bugger.
Chrysander squeezed my shoulders, ignoring Dr Cordet's insistence that he move so that she could see to my new scrapes. "I s'pose that isn't wrong. But no one is paying me. You'll ruin my reputation, Athena Idony."
"She already has, in my opinion," Dr Cordet said, shoving him bodily aside. It was the first time I had seen her lay hands on him, and for some reason, it made me laugh again. Perhaps just relief. They'd found us, we could leave. Dr Cordet would do something about this thing, this connection like a hook in my belly, and Noni would have a fit because her fiancee was an idiot.
I looked around for her. Noni was not a quiet person. Why hadn't she run up to me before Chrysander? I would have expected her to knock him over before he could even get in the room.
There, with Demetrius, fussing over him and carrying on just enough that I could sympathise with her and too much that he could mistake the obvious feelings she toted around for him. I averted my gaze. She had to know that he wasn't the wonder man she thought he was. Or maybe she knew, and didn't care.
I just watched Dr Cordet apply first aid to the worst of the cuts I had sustained from tripping, and nodded while she told me that I had torn the mimet tooth marks so badly that some of them had lost shape and would need stitches. It all meant we would be leaving this horrible cave and that was all I cared about.
A bang knocked my thoughts over, like an earthquake upsetting a tall stack of books. I jumped up from the chair, nearly hitting Dr Cordet in the face with my arm. There was a clatter as the few objects on the desks fell over, and Soterios was jostled so hard that his pistol was thrown from its holster.
Demetrius slammed into the smooth curved wall, holding Noni so that she would not take any damage. "What's going on?" he shouted over the rising, rumbling din.
"Can't rightly say," Chrysander shouted back.
One of the notebooks had fallen to the floor, to an empty page. I glared at it, feeling as if someone was telling me something. Snatching a pen from Dr Cordet's coat pocket, I yelled for everyone to huddle together.
The rune of return was broken. Perhaps it had never worked, or there was something wrong with me that made it not work. Bad luck or bad blood, it didn't matter. The important thing was that I didn't need it. I could draw my own sigils and no one was going to complain about it at this point.
With an angry flourish, I sped through the thoughts and calculations necessary to compose the words of a simple but powerful wish, and condensed it into only the necessary letters. Noni lost hold of Demetrius and bumped into me. There was a cut on her cheek, and her hair was no longer even slightly pink. "I'll get us out of here," I promised, although I couldn't be sure that she heard me. The sounds of rock shifting was getting louder.
I ripped out the sheet of paper from the notebook and pressed it to the table. The letters of my wish were in my mind, burning with energy. I sketched them out into a curling design, then stepped back. My sigil flashed. I ran to grab onto the arm of my nearest companion, and then we were all somewhere else.
There are so many edits that need to be made. But I will resist. Feedback is terribly appreciated, but I'll probably just make a note of it. I am not going to actually sit down and red pen this until January or so.