Making words and working on ghost songs
Essie takes my hand when I catch up, rather surprisingly. “Don’t let go,” she whispers to me. “Not this close to the Inbetween.”
“Is that where we’re going?”
She graces me with a look of utter derision. “Are you still concussed? Of course. The Dark is just another name. All the worlds have their names for it. There are millions of them, names like stars; The Inbetween, the Nothing, The Void of Voids, the Amnio, and here . . ,” she sighs, “the Dark. It’s eaten its way in here too, and that’s not good. Urstat is close to the center. It should be safe. It’s supposed to be safe.”
“Trot, trot, little girls,” Alain says. “Keep up. And hold to the chain.” He gestures to a length of heavy iron links bolted at regular intervals to the tunnel wall. He’s holding on himself, one hand white-knuckled on the rusting metal.
Essie and I perform an awkward manoeuvre until we’re both holding on to the chain, and each other. Essie walks ahead, and I tread on her heels, a fact she reminds me of by constantly swearing at me and trying to tangle my legs up with her stupid dress.
“Haven’t heard of silk, have we?” I hiss at her “No, it’s got to be plant life or else you’re just not fashionable enough for whatever passes for high society here in the deadlands.”
“You’re annoying me,” she says. “Don’t.”
I do stop, but not because of her. Because of The Dark. We’re walking right into it.
Not just into an absence of light, though that’s definitely one aspect. We’re walking into nothing. Into cold.
My feet are going numb, and a hollowness spreads out from chest, making each breath more difficult than the last. I’m drifting, my legs moving without my command. My mind fogs, thoughts hazing in and out. Essie’s red hair turns to a burning smear ahead, and the green scent of her dress is eclipsed by the deep old smell of the dark. Caves and wet stone. The bloody pall of rain and rust.
Water drips from the ceiling. The air is mist, I breathe in clouds until my lungs are sodden and woolly. Even my coughs sound damp and flat.
And it grows colder.
I can see nothing now. My only grip on reality is my grip on the sliding wet iron, and in the other hand, the heat of Essie’s palm and fingers.
The emptier I feel on the inside, the more the pain flowers at my wrist. It burns and burns and burns, etching deeper, acid-eating right into the bone. It’s so bad that I can’t even make a sound, though I’m vaguely aware of the salt taste in my mouth from my silent tears.
Abruptly, we stop. I get a mouthful of Essie’s hair, and some of my pain is squeezed out of me in a high-pitched gasp.
“This is as far as we can go,” Alain says. “In any direction.”
“They’re all like this?” Essie says, her voice calm.
“Every one. All the tunnels connecting Urstat to the other islands have been eaten away. The iron goes no further.” He sniffs, spits. “And the chains grow shorter every day. So you see, Miss Teller, why we haven’t sent word to the great city of Minsterten-next, and to your childling King.”
“And the bridge?”
“There is only the bridge to Salisnesera, and no recent expedition has returned from there.”
And they won’t. Salinesera’s sand city of Quosept is gone, fallen into the void. Even the bridge is probably dust by now. “This isn’t good, is it?” I say through gritted teeth. The pain is making me sweat, but I’m perversely glad. It means I’m not a nothing eaten up by the Inbetween. The sigil is still keeping me here.
“Your observational skills are truly startling.”
I’m not even mad. Essie gets snippier the more scared she is. So, yeah, not mad. I’m scared. I edge a little closer to her, my grip tightening in hers. “How are we supposed to get out of here then? Or do we just sit around waiting for the end?”
“There are way-poin-”
But whatever she was about to say gets buried under a surge of light and agony. The pain in my arm is dwarfed completely. I am being torn inside out, and I buckle, screaming. Around Essie and me the light burns out brighter and brighter. My eyes are tight shut and I can still see. It’s like my eyelids have been burned right off.
Essie yells something at me, but I can’t understand anything, it’s all just noise.
The light burns all the breath out of my lungs. My feet skid and like a vacuum sucking an egg into a bottle, I’m pulled free of the iron chain, and into The Dark.