The door offered no resistance, the hinges turning silently as she piled the room, an urgency to escape the blizzard outside rediscovered by the sudden realization that shelter had been found.
There were two openings next to the door, round holes to serve the role of windows, save for the lack of shutters or a glass barrier to keep the elements out. Nonetheless, the wind and snow seemed to part away from the apertures.
Only light streamed in from those windows, the same weak, all-pervasive light that had suffused the inside of the snowstorm, but it was the other light source within the treehouse that drew her gaze. There was a fireplace there, at the other end of the room, a weak flame lit over dwindling ashes. It cast dancing shadows over the room which seemed to swallow the light coming from outside such that details of the surroundings were blurred. Unimportant, compared to this light.
Her mind went back to the billowing fire she had seen out in the whites, sitting impossibly atop its large brazier. Back to the child she had left before it.
The latter thought allowed her to reign her wits in, giving her enough focus to notice the other occupant in the room. There was a pair of large chairs facing the fire and, she realized, one was occupied, the top of a head poking above the headrest.
The words came unbidden, before she had a chance to think.
“There’s a child in the blizzard.” The ragged whisper that came from her throat surprised her. It had not been that long since she had last spoken, had it? Yet her throat itched as though those words had been her first in a decade.
The top of the figure’s head tilted. They were listening.
She forced out more. “She’s dying.”
“Children do not die in this place.” A voice just as haggard as hers answered. She frowned. It sounded familiar to her ears. The head shifted, and she knew its gaze had returned to the dwindling fire. “Come. Warm yourself.”
She stuttered for a moment, trying to find words, before realizing she was shaking. She stepped forward towards the fireplace, and took the second chair that flanked the first, as if waiting for her. She sank onto it, and though her limbs did not feel the exhaustion her journey would have earned them, it still felt as though a weight fell from her shoulders. Passage through the wailing, white landscape outside, the same in every direction one looked, drained at the mind. Her eyes fell on the fire, feeling the warmth radiating from it. For a moment, she thought of closing her eyes. When was the last time she had had a chance to rest? Did she not deserve it, after braving the storm for so long?
Yet the sight of the girl slumped in the snow stayed in her mind. “There’s got to be a town somewhere. A way out of this storm. We need help.”
“There is none,” came the weary reply.
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, her irritation giving her the push to glance away from the flames. She flinched when she saw the other chair’s occupant.
Skin sagging over bones. Unassuming clothing that may have fit their wearer once upon a time now billowing over emaciated limbs, leather over bones. Cheeks that seemed to fall into themselves, as though they belonged to a person of much greater age than the one that sat on the chair. She was aware of this incongruity only because she recognized the face of her killer, stretched and pained as it was.
Her eyes met the apparition’s – both of its eyes – and she grimaced. “Gettin’ real tired of seeing that mug.”
“It’s a tiresome thing.” The woman smiled wryly, the expression seeming to split her features. “Yet it is not always the same. Time affords small mercies… and this winter has been long.” She gasped. “Have you come to replace me?”
A hundred different doubts and suspicions plagued at her mind after the question. She stared at the figure askance, and shook her head. “What? No, I’m just trying to find a way out of this storm.”
The figure’s head craned, bones creaking audibly, before it returned to look at the fire. “You shall not find it by walking.”
All that answered was the crackling of the fire. Glassy eyes reflected the dancing light, revealing nothing. She felt herself shiver. Did the emaciated woman not know the answer? Did she not want to tell her? It dimly occurred to her that she may well have left this place before she reached this state, had she known how.
“Who are you?”
The worn woman blinked, eyes turning to her once more, before shaking her head.
She frowned, before realizing what the gesture meant. No name. There was none to give.
Still, the figure stirred. “I have heard from others, that the one outside calls herself Pithy. But that came after I woke. If a grudge had a name, perhaps it would be Spite.”
“Spite?” she repeated. “Ain’t that pretentious.”
“Twas not modesty that brought me here, no, to play the warden and the grave keeper.” A wracking cough blasted out of the dying woman’s mouth. She realized it was laughter just as the sound ceased, too painful for the fragile figure to bear.
Still, at the mention of a grave keeper, her mind went to the mounds outside. Confirmation that their contents were as she had intuited.
“The cold took them,” she said. She understood readily that the woman before her had nothing to do with the corpses. The graveyard attendant had little to do with the corpses brought to his plot of land.
Spite surprised her by shaking her head. She had to stop herself from reaching out to stop the motion. So revolting was the sound of grinding bone within flesh. “None who fall to this place live in the first place. Still the cold… takes. Such is its nature. Until they find themselves here.”
“Like I did?”
“No,” Spite rasped, and she found herself more than a little relieved by the verbal response. “Even while you dream, you did not come to this place to sleep. It has happened before. We are not separate from the white outside, and thus it can be reached.”
“Where are these others, then?”
“They did not stay. Thought they did not belong here. Out into the white they went. They have since returned, but sharing this roof would do little for them.”
Unnamed graves. “What,” she asked softly, “is this place?”
“A graveyard. A prison.” Rheumy eyes blinked as they stared at the fire. “Every intelligent being dies hundreds of deaths throughout a lifetime. Every time they choose against their wishes. Every time they put another before themselves. Every time necessity demands we disengage what is moral within us. We kill ourselves by living. This graveyard is for her own self. All of us cut down and left behind.”
She did not have to ask who ‘her’ was. Still, despite all the strange things she had seen, the expansive snowstorm and featureless landscape, the multitude times she had seen ‘her’ face, the bizarre tirelessness of her body, even as she felt the numbing winds burdening her journey, this was simply impossible.
Was this not a hallucination in the last moments of her life? Why would ‘she’ find herself here, even if she had truly been killed?
A lance of pain speared through her temple at that thought. She hissed, bringing a hand to her forehead. “That sounds like the problem of someone who doesn’t live true to themselves.”
Out of the corner of her eyes, she caught Spite’s lips stretching into an ironic smile. “Yes. Yet only a wild animal can claim to do such a thing. I see now why you were cut away.”
She found herself irritated by the response, though for the life of her she could not tell why. It did not help that her headache only seemed to worsen. “I wasn’t cut away, I was cut down,” she grunted out. “I’m not that woman.”
“Then who are you?”
Wait. That was not right.
The skeletal figure shifted its body ever so slowly, bringing a pointed ear closer to her. “Could you repeat that?”
Her breathing grew labored. She had a name. She had one. She had known it before, yet now the more she sought it out the more her head throbbed. Yet it was more than that. Strange thoughts forced themselves into her mind, concepts she had known her whole life and others whose existence she had never been aware of way rearranging and expanding, trying to fit like pieces of a puzzle with too many parts. A memory of a song and the boisterous crew that sang it saw its members replaced. Not an eccentric Doctor, but a ship cutter. Not a jolly Captain, but a lean, wiry man captain with bloodshot eyes and a twisting tongue. The ship they had been in was not a home to her, and its name was Drowned Rat of all things.
“I-I can’t… why—” she fixed wild eyes on the desiccated woman. “What did you do?”
“I have done nothing,” said Spite. “The soul sees things the eyes do not. It looks outside itself. It remembers that which is not ours to remember, and dreams without us knowing of things out of reach. You have been dreaming, and just now begin to wake.”
Wake. Wake. What nonsense was this? She was wide awake already. She brought her other hand to her face, as though that would help steady the whirlwind threatening to burst out of her head, but something gave her pause.
She pulled her hands away, brought them close for inspection.
With five fingers each, capped in fingernails rather than claws. The only familiarity she found was in the coal hue of her skin.
An anguished cry escaped her throat.
“It will break you if you continue to struggle.”
As her ragged breathing began to border on hyperventilation, Spite sighed. Slowly, with great effort, she lifted a single arm, extending a finger. It touched her visitor’s shivering temple.
The influx of images and memories suddenly ceased. She gasped, feeling the stabbing pain slowly ebb and recede. She blinked repeatedly, licking her lips. She opened her mouth, but no sound came out, so she closed it. It almost felt as if she needed to relearn how to string words together bridging them in her mind into a sentence before she parted her lips again. “I’m not dreaming. I don’t want…” she trailed off.
“Want.” Spite nodded. The sound of bone grinding made her flinch. “Is the dream you see truly worth clinging to?”
The woman stared at her mutely. How could she ask that? This brilliant dream she had. Or perhaps this dream she had stolen from another. Of bonds and trust and people she would put her life on the line for. How could she surrender it now that she had seen it? Even if less and less details remained, even if there was still suffering within, she could not simply do away with its radiance.
“Then Want I shall call you. Who knows? Mayhaps it is a yearning that was needed instead of a grudge.” Spite leaned back on her chair, weary bones resting their weight on the wood once again. “It is nearly time. Come now, sister. Let me show you something. Look into the hearth.”
Out in the apartment hall, Pithy’s gaze was drawn to the discarded drawer Dew had taken from the reception desk. It had been left out while the pair tried the keys on the various doors and now sat unattended on the floor. She knelt over it, picking out a set of keys from a floor some levels higher. She had been relieved to notice the keys had been marked with an intuitive numbering scheme, making it easy to tell where each belonged.
As she knelt, the snake creature slithered closer, snout peeking into the box curiously. Pithy shivered and drew her hands away when a forked leaf like a tongue flicked out and grazed her fingers.
Standing with the new keys in hand, she called back, “Put these away, Dew.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the lazy affirmative drifted out of the room.
Pithy bit down a chastising response. Insolence mattered little so long as he did as she asked. There aren’t enough hours in the day to correct that attitude, in any case.
She clicked her tongue in mild annoyance before heading for the stairs, ignoring the nearby elevators. Rather than heading down for the entrance, she took the stairs upwards, aiming for the higher floors. Her boots thumped against the hard stairs as she went up one flight, then another, and another, her steps followed faithfully by the snake.
At the sight of a plaque with the number ‘4’ inscribed on it, she came out into the halls, keys clinking in her hand as she examined the nearby doors. She had come to a higher floor with a clear purpose in mind, after all.
She noted with some displeasure, simply from the position of the doors and the mental map she had of the building she could see that at least half the keys she had brought would not be helpful. Those apartments do not face the streets, after all
She and Dew had secured shelter for themselves, but even then there was no telling when her next opponent might approach, their mechanical familiar tracking her position to the building. She could not prevent them from seeking her out, but the building was large, with several vacant rooms. With some misdirection she might well be able to dictate where they would look for her.
Taking note of the rooms she had access to, she found the apartment room closest to the center of the building’s face and allowed herself inside. Like the one she and Dew had availed themselves of, this one was furnished, with some scattered clothing over chairs and messy collections of paper piled over a desk the only signs that remained of its previous occupant. Unlike the one they had claimed, this one felt smaller, a thick wall sectioning off the kitchen from the living space rather than a counter. The decoration as well was comparatively spartan, with only a mirror and a single painting of a landscape on the wall instead of a flagrant display of the previous owner’s interests on every surface.
This all was illuminated by the scant few rays of light that came from the large windows spanning the wall opposite to the entrance. Pithy approached them, pressing a hand against the glass as she looked out onto the lifeless streets below. The sun had just sunk below the cityline, the remaining sunlight formed a halo over the buildings that painted the streets in a gloom preluding night.
Somewhere out there was her faceless enemy. Did their thoughts also wander towards the resolution of their encounter as they paused for their night’s rest? Or did they focus sharply on the task at hand as they sought to approach under the cover of night?
Or, she wondered, did they meet their match against one of the traitors of the College?
The shadows in the room deepened by the second, matching the thoughts in her mind. Pithy turned away from the view and with a swift glance located the odd light sources she had begun to expect from this city’s infrastructures. Moments later, after some further searching and fiddling, the room was brightly lit from within.
Anyone looking from the outside would inevitably have their gaze drawn towards the large window, the one source of light within the rooms above. Well above Pithy’s own room, which faced in the opposite direction. With some luck, if someone came for her in the night, they would simply go past her.
And if I am not lucky, it will draw the attention of others completely unrelated. The possibility had not escaped her, but she did think it more unlikely than the alternative.
A rustling sound drew her attention, and Pithy turned to look at the snake nosing the contents of the desk. After a moment it lost interest, slithering away from the piece of furniture and pulling several pieces of paper to the floor with the motion. Almost out of reflex, Pithy knelt to grab the fallen object.
A thought struck her then.
They may not come tonight. Or even if they did, there was no reason why her planning should stop at a simple diversion. After all, until then she had been all but thrusted into each of her encounters for the Crucible, coming across them at the least opportune of times or having her attempts to gain an advantage thwarted by a third party. Thrice she had come to be a razor’s edge away from the end of her journey in that very same day.
This time, however she could afford to lie in wait and prepare.
She stood and opened the desk’s drawers, searching for a writing implement.
Once she had finished her business inside the apartment, she had taken the time to find other access routes to that floor. Of these, she had found a window at the end of one hallway with a set of metal stairs affixed to its side.
She also took note of an unnumbered door which, when opened, led to a small room with two large containers the contents of which marked the place as a disposal room. More notably, there was a metal lid covering a chute on one of its walls, which she gave a preemptive test by throwing away the keys she had brought up with her.
She casted a spell over the boundary of each key entrance, leaving behind a method to detect the progress of intruders. The cantrip she used to alert her of danger while she slept could well see a lot of use soon.
After that, she had searched the lower floors for back entrances and had, while doing this, found the other end of the disposal chute she had found upstairs, the discarded keys serving as an obvious identifier.
By the time she arrived at the reception desk plant creature still at her heels, it was already dark outside. She caught Dew on his way in, a set of large, flat boxes cradled in his arms.
His brows rose as he saw her approach. “I thought you were checking something outside. I don’t suppose you’re here to welcome me back, right?”
“What is that?” Pithy asked. The aroma wafting from the containers made her keenly aware that it had been a fair few hours since she had eaten anything.
“Ever heard of pizza?” The man grinned. “Tonight’s gonna be more comfortable than I expected.”
Comfortable. In this abandoned city filled with those who would kill them. The thought cooled her interest. “Do not forget where we are, Dew.”
The man shrugged, ambling past her. “I am reminded every time I look at you. Still, pizza.”
Pithy sighed, unwilling to continue the debate. “Wait for me in the room. I may still be away for another hour.”
“Right. I’ll leave some in the microwave, then.” With that, Dew made his way towards the elevators.
The woman looked at the back of his shoulders for a moment longer before shaking her head. She glanced at the snake, coiled and staring expectantly at her.
“What is it?” she asked it. “Would you rather not rest in the room with him?”
The snake’s head tilted in the direction Dew had gone, what passed for lips twisting slightly, then turned to silently regard her again. Was that an expression of contempt on its snout, or was she simply projecting her own feelings over it? Perhaps the creature was none too fond of Dew after their incident upstairs. The thought of another sharing her disdain for the man felt surprisingly uplifting.
She still was not certain why it had decided to follow them. At first she had entertained the notion that it was waiting for a chance to kill her and Dew. The sight of Dew’s transformation had certainly triggered an aggressive response, but beyond that, the creature had shown no intent to harm the one who had brought about the death of its previous owner despite the numerous chances she had given it in the previous hour.
Perhaps she ascribed too much intelligence to it. It may have been able to comprehend language and to communicate to some degree, but it was entirely possible that the large snake’s mind was on the same level as a small child’s. A child who, upon losing sight of their parent, had latched on to the first adult who did not shoo it away.
“Do you yourself know why you follow me?” she asked, but the only response she received beyond a continued stare was a flicker of a forked tongue. “Very well,” she sighed, turning towards the door.
As she stepped out, taking a deep lungful of night air, she produced a slip of paper. She took a moment to hide it before she moved on.
Pithy had had a destination in mind when she had stepped into the night air, and that was the building with the colorful façade she had seen earlier that day. There had been several books on display cases near the windows then, and she had spied shelves upon shelves of them past them inside the store proper.
Now she stood before it again, looking up its tall façade. Nothing had changed since the last time she had stood there, though with the advent of night, the inside of the store past the display cases looked pitch black.
Pithy brought a hand to the door handle and found it to be unlocked. She twisted it open, peering into the darkness for a long moment.
She almost jumped out of her skin when something brushed against her leg, and she looked down to see the large snake brushing past her, slithering into the building. Muttering a curse under her breath, she stilled her heartbeat and moved a step into the bookstore.
A gesture made a magelight appear over her palm. Cold light radiated from the orb over her hand, revealing the same shelves she had seen before, though this time the harsh, small source of illumination brought out sharp shadows that gave the place a haunted aspect. The light also revealed three wooden steps leading down to the main floor an inch away from where she had stopped.
At the base of the steps, the snake stared back at her, head tilted. She could imagine Dew laughing at her if she had tripped over them. Shaking her head, she navigated down the steps and located the now familiar switch on the wall. Flipping it bathed the interior in a warm, welcoming light.
She dismissed her magelight and stepped forward, slowly turning to take in the sheer amount of paper in the room. From the steps at the entrance, the room opened out into a spacious hall, with full shelves lining the walls. Near the entrance she could see tables filled with multiple copies of the same books with signs proudly proclaiming ‘New Bestseller,’ ‘50% Off for these Authors’ and other such commercials appeals. Double-sided bookshelves, short enough that she could peek over their top spread out in rows only some distance away, and to the left of the entrance she could see a counter.
Further away, divided by a single step as if demarking the area from the rest of the store was another section with rows of larger bookshelves arrayed in tighter rows. Just before that, a set of stairs led up to the other floors. She suspected the entrance of the business was purposefully made to feel more welcoming to walk-ins, but the vast majority of their stock would be displayed deeper in.
Pithy picked up a random book from the nearby tables, thumbing through its pages. She paid little attention to its contents, instead noting the lightness of the binding and the mechanically precise writing inside, so similar to the one she had seen appear on the devices she kept running across in this realm.
“The scribing process must have been taken away from human hands,” she observed, with an ambivalent feeling rising in her gut. The snake creature only looked at her silently, making her wonder if he even understood what she had said. It was not particularly important if it did, in any case. She could simply pretend someone was listening. “Where I hail from, making this many copies of a single book would have been a costly, time-consuming endeavors. Scribes would need to transcribe the contents and bind the pages together by hand, and one who wished to have this done would have to pay for literate workers, not to mention the price of parchment.”
She closed the book on her hands and eyed the tag attached at the bottom. It reminded her of the signs she had seen at the eatery she had stopped at after meeting Dew. Using the numbers she had seen there as reference, the one she saw on the book was staggeringly low.
“If someone offered me a tome at the price of a single meal before now, I would have suspected trickery,” she said dryly.
She returned the book to its table. On the one hand, the thought of plentiful, inexpensive literature was awe-inspiring for the sorceress. There had been many hints before, but this spoke of a human civilization the likes of which she had never seen before. Not in a matter of technological advancement so much as of social uplifting. Books as easily available as these suggested a literate population, which in turn suggested widely available education. Education which brought about social awareness, casting doubt on pillars of unjust authority and uplifting the lower echelons of its society.
On the other hand, she only had to look at the plaques over the bookshelves to feel a shiver of dread. Horror, Fiction, Fantasy, Romance. Bookshelves upon bookshelves dedicated to simple leisure, and the placement and price in this store told her that these would be, by far, the kind of piece most often read. The sheer banality of this excess is utterly disappointing. Human nature remains, then? The masses shall be the masses educated or not?
“I heard it said, once,” she told the staring snake, “that a literate world is not a world of philosophers, but a world of bureaucrats.”
The creature blinked dumbly at her. Pithy scowled. Had she been expecting anything else? The sorceress turned away and marched deeper into the store.
There had been questions that had occurred to her since she had learned this was not her own realm, though given the circumstances, she had not felt answering them was relevant to her pursuits. These were not tied to the Crucible itself so much as to the nature of the world she now inhabited and, indeed, had the competition not shown signs of derailment, she may well have ignored them. She did not plan to stay for long, after all.
Now that her paranoia had been justified, however, with the new appearances within the city and members of the College actively interfering with the proceedings, she felt gathering more information could be crucial. She was not expecting the abandoned bookstore to hold direct answers to her questions, but perhaps there would be hints she could garner from what she saw there. A civilization’s written works would say much about their environment and the state of their society.
The one thing she feared was that this bookstore was in fact an Echo such as the ones Nero had mentioned, and any information she might find there might not in fact apply to the realm she found herself in. There were, however, ways to confirm whether this was the case to a certain degree.
Her eye caught on a nearby stand filled with colorful brochures, and she approached it. Clearly meant for visitors to the city, several of these mentioned guided tours, some alluding to unfamiliar objects called ‘buses’ and ‘headphones’. Some of these messages were printed out repeatedly, with the same line appearing over and over under the previous one.
She picked out one which claimed to contain a map and unfolded it, giving her a view of the city. Frowning, she produced the crumpled map she had taken from Dew’s tower. Stuffed under her clothes as it had been, the paper was matted with sweat and torn in a few corners, but even with the large hole she had made down its center, the similarities with the map she had found were many. While the contents of the map differed in certain places (what she assumed was where Echoes had appeared) the size and shape of the city were in fact identical.
“The City of Rome,” she murmured, reading the highlighted words.
Was she looking at what this place had been before it became the City of Echoes?
She heard a rustling noise and glanced back over her shoulder. She forced herself to stay still and not recoil as she caught the creature following her rising, head reaching her eye-level as it angled itself to look over her shoulder.
It was easy to forget how large the blasted thing was until it lifted itself from the floor.
“Maps show an area as though looking from above,” she found herself explaining, masking her trepidation. She brought her thumb up the paper, signaling to the ‘X’ mark on the crumpled map. “We are near here. This other map shows some differences, but this area is the same, is it not?”
The creature stared at the paper for a moment before it looked away, bringing its body down to the ground.
Pithy hissed out a breath through her teeth and stored away her crumpled map. She neatly folded the pamphlet and once again found herself staring at its cover, eye trailing over the repeating messages once again. It may have been a mistake, or a stylistic choice, but a small part of her screamed that there was significance to it.
What is one thing notices aimed at foreign visitors must take into account?
The idea, simple as it was, struck her with the force of a hammer blow, and she stored the pamphlet away. She had garnered that Dew’s world was more like this one than hers. She would have him confirm her suspicions.
For the moment, given the fair likelihood that this business belonged to the city proper and had not phased in from another realm, she set out to browsing, as though the city was not abandoned, and she was yet another costumer perusing their wares.
She payed special note to the indexing scheme of the shelves when she approached them, noting the labels specifying a range of letters. She quickly made a note of the descending order of the names (she guessed these were the authors) on the spines of books as she looked through them, keeping the fact at the back of her mind.
Occasionally she would take a book out, skim the pages, then return it to its place in the shelves. This process only became faster when she found that the blurbs at the back often summarized the contents. She did this for a handful of books in each of the library’s sections. A few she picked out and kept apart, intending to bring them back with her to the apartment to see what she could learn in what little time she had left.
There were already some strange details she had picked up from the literature she had skimmed through. There was no mention of sapient species other than humans in most of the books she had found, be they educational in nature or not. Furthermore, in most sections, mentions of magic were either non-existent, or clearly referred to as something fictional. As strange as it felt to have her known world referred as such, most mentions she could find about elves, dwarves, dragons and magic in general had come from the ‘Fantasy’ section of the store and even through her light skimming she had picked out inconsistencies in their portrayals.
The idea that magic as a force did not exist in this world seemed patently absurd when one considered the fact that she could still use hers with relative impunity, but it was possible that talents did not emerge in this city. What she had read so far only reinforced her suspicions that this society had managed its advancements without the use of such power.
She had to wonder how much of an aberration she was to this realm.
Putting those thoughts away for later consideration, she finished picking out reading material. She headed for the counter, placing the books she had found over it. In the end, she had only chosen three books. One, she surmised to be a general history book, the second was a collection of charts and maps titled ‘World Atlas’, and the third was an autobiography. The last she had picked up out of curiosity for this world’s inhabitants usual life, but she well knew that if she intended to get some rest, there would not be enough time throughout the night to go through its entirety.
There was, however, one last thing she meant to do in this place.
She glanced down at the snake following her. More than once she had glanced over her shoulder to find the snake picking out books from the shelves with a tendril-like vine. It would twist them around as though to observe them from every angle, and then return them to where it had found them. She very much doubted it had the ability to read, so she suspected it was simply mimicking her as she went along.
“Wait here,” she said.
The creature looked up at her and bobbed its head up and down in a nod.
Trusting it had understood her and would not to simply wander off when she was not looking, Pithy made her way to the restrooms.
Almost half an hour later, the sorceress and the snake left the store. The lights had been turned off behind them, and the shutters before the front windows had been closed to prevent onlookers from seeing into the store.
Droplets of water fell from the hem of Pithy’s robe as she glanced around to ensure the streets remained as empty as she had left them, her set of books hugged to her chest. Once she was sure the streets were clear, she gestured with a tilt of her head at the snake, and set out towards the apartment.
After the day she had had, the short walk there was refreshingly uneventful. Walking past the door and ushering the plant monster into the building, she withdrew her rapier with her free hand and tapped the threshold with it, placing yet another ward. She did this again on the way up, at the stairs and at the elevator doors, until she was finally standing before the room she would be sharing with Dew.
“The key drawer is gone,” she noted.
The snake besides her bobbed its head.
Pithy knocked on the door.
A few moments later, the knob turned and Dew’s face peeked out. “Was wondering where you’d gone off to,” he said as he pulled the opening wide and stepped back to give her room.
Pithy walked in and caught the tail-end of one of Dew’s weapons vanishing into his pockets, a display of caution that very much pleased her. “There’s no need to worry over me.”
“Who said I was worried?” he said as he sauntered back to the living area. He threw himself onto the sofa, picking up a hand-sized device from the tables and facing the screen on the wall. “Left you some food in the microwave if you still want it—uh, the box with the number pad on the kitchen counter.”
Pithy deposited her haul over the divider, sparing the device in question no more than a glance before she produced the tourist pamphlets she had taken from the bookstore. She wanted to talk to Dew before entertaining any distractions, but she found herself stiffening when noise burst out of the screen.
“Quiet!” she hissed reflexively. Is he trying to let others know where we are?
Dew glanced at her askance and pointed another device at the screen. The volume began lowering immediately.
Pithy let out an annoyed grunt as she approached. Still, she found her eyes straying towards the moving image shown on the flat surface. She saw the ruins of an elegant hall, with debris and torn tapestries littered wherever she rested her eyes. The perspective moved erratically, but here and there she saw doors barred with wooden planks. Bloodied and grimy looking men with glowing, haunted eyes glared from behind the barriers as they tore them from place. The one constant of the image was small text and numbers at each corners, and a firearm held at the lower right of her vision. It was the latter which clued her into the fact that the screen was simulating her looking through the perspective of another. And it was clearly a simulation. No matter how well-drawn, the textures and colors of the representations on the screen clearly did not belong to the world around her. It was, however, close enough to be uncanny.
Dew noticed her interest and flashed her a grin. “So I happened to be looking into the drawers, and what do I find but a Playstation 4 and a bunch of games just sitting there gathering dust? I can guarantee this is the first time someone boots it up too.” He grimaced. “Didn’t know the password for wifi, though, so I’m playing solo.”
Pithy stared at him quietly.
“…though I guess that doesn’t mean anything to you.”
Pithy shook her head. “Is this something common to your realm?”
Dew chuckled, mouthing the word ‘common’ to himself as though it was the funniest thing he had heard that week. “Oh yeah,” he said nodding. “That’s a good way to say it. It’s kinda weird, though. I know this game, and it’s just plain weird having it here. It’s like a copyright strike waiting to happen.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, feeling her mouth suddenly run dry.
“Well, I guess in something more up your speed, it’s like, you go to a different, completely unrelated world and expect to see it has its own… creative inventions, I guess? Then you get there and find books and songs pretty much identical to some you already know, made by the same authors even.” He glanced at her, smiling bemusedly. “On that note, I checked. The box has the same publishers written on it. I wonder how that happened.”
“Could this not be an echo from your world?”
Dew gave her an incredulous look. “Didn’t I say it’s the first time this thing’s booted up? Of course it’s not from my world.”
Pithy did not have words to describe the feeling that began to take root in the pit of her stomach, settling there like a heavy rock. “That is… certainly odd,” she choked out. She glanced to the pamphlets in her hand. “Dew,” she said. “I want to confirm something. Look at these for me.”
“Can’t I do it later?”
The man huffed petulantly, rising to look at her form his seat. He took the proffered pamphlets and frowned. “Rome…” he read out. “Is that where we are?”
“Does it mean anything to you?”
“Nope!” he said happily, “though it does have this holier than thou ring to it for some reason. Was that all you wanted?”
“No. Here,” she said, pointing at the repeating text she had noticed earlier.
“Oh. Yeah, that’s a bit weird. Must be a misprint.”
On every single kind of pamphlet in that rack? “What is it supposed to be?”
“The language. These things usually have translations in multiple languages for foreign tourists. Makes sense, right? But it looks like they messed up and wrote them all in the same one.”
“I see. That must be it.”
But of course, it was not that. The pamphlets did indeed contain the same message written in different languages. It was simply that she and Dew, despite being able to read them, could not register the difference.
Up until then, she had thought she and the others had been speaking the trader’s tongue, but she was no longer certain. This was not a case of a translation occurring within her mind, as could be achieved through the use of certain magics. She had made sure of that when examining the indexing of books at the store’s shelves. Had she been somehow reading the titles after being translated to another tongue, there was no guarantee that the indexing would carry over. Even if the tongues were literally similar to the number of characters and changes in author names were minimal there was no reason beyond some monumental coincidence spanning worlds for the characters to be in the same order she was familiar with.
Somehow the knowledge of these languages had been forced into them, and they had been then made to speak and read them naturally, unable to even register the fact that they should have been unable to. They could have perfectly gone their whole stay in this realm without a reason to bring it into question, beyond the mild disquiet that it was indeed odd for all these beings from different worlds to communicate with more ease than a foreigner in a neighboring country.
It was, however, not the language itself that concerned her.
What else? she wondered. What other change could have been made without me knowing? My memories? The way I think? Could she trust the things she thought to be true, to be so in truth?
“You okay there, Pithy? You’re looking paler than usual. It’s actually kind of creepy.”
The woman blinked and shook the doubts from her mind. She forced her taut muscles to relax. “Yes. It’s nothing.” What she had to do still had not changed, and it was too late to change course in any case. “You said you left food in the kitchen?” she asked on the way there.
“Yeah,” he answered, frowning after her. He suddenly blinked, as though remembering something. He picked up a bottle from the ground and tossed it at her.
Pithy saw the object make a lazy arc towards her and snapped her right hand up to catch it. The bottle fumbled against her fingers and fell to the ground. The snake creature, which had slithered nearby, tensed at the sudden clattering, coiling as though prepared to pounce on the offending object.
“Woah there, butterfingers.”
Pithy grimaced, hiding embarrassment. She knelt to pick up the drink. “Finish that soon, Dew,” she said tilting her head at the screen. “If the next foe comes at us during the night, we will not have much time to rest. I will alert you if that happens.”
Pithy was surprised. She had half-expected the man to jest about her not being his mother.
One way or another, that was the last exchange the pair had for the night. Pithy ate what had been left out for her, and while Dew had suggested she would enjoy what he had found, the direction her thoughts had taken had all but squashed her appetite.
Eventually she retired to the adjoining room, taking her books with her. The earlier conversation made it difficult to focus, however, and the progress she managed to make before the day’s exhaustion took her was not nearly close to what she had hoped for.