Campbell spent the day feeling a strange sense of anxiety, without really knowing why. It seemed a rather ordinary day on the surface, beyond being almost exactly two months since the strange final interview with Joanna Cross. That wasn't really what was bother her, though. She just… was half-sure she kept hearing some kind of humming. She asked several people throughout the day if they could hear anything, got negative answers, and decided that the strange sinking feeling was all in her imagination, and that she would call in to the site therapists on Monday. Hell, maybe Glass was around again. He was always cool.
When she finally returned to her desk, and sat down in front of her computer, she realized the sinking feeling wasn't in her imagination at all. Because she had a message waiting for you.
I am afraid I have not been completely forthcoming with you.
Footsteps, behind her. Campbell turned around —-
Joanna Cross, in the flesh, approached Campbell's desk. In one hand she held a gigantic potted flowering plant by the stem.
In the other hand, naturally, she held a gun.
After several hours of climbing stairs, swimming through multi-colored oceans, and climbing through the machinery underneath the Library, Alison Chao carefully stepped through a tangle of roots and onto a thin, long wedge of granite protruding out into thin air. Iris, Septima and Dega followed.
Thirty minutes left to go, Alison thought. Behind schedule, but we'll have to make do.
They stood in front of a vast sky. Well, "sky" was a bit of a wrong word for it, but no better one came to mind. It was a nice clear, blue sky with pleasant clouds floating through it, but it wasn't in the place a sky should be. Above, a vast network of roots weaved itself into the distance. There was no 'sky' there, just amorphous floating light sources, the kind found all over the Library.
It was everywhere else there was sky. No matter how hard you squinted when you looked down, you would never see ground there. Alison wasn't even sure there was ground down there. True, this space was technically all contained on the inside of the Library, but…
Dega swished her tail. "Is this a bad time to mention I'm afraid of heights?"
"I've got some rocks I could throw down there," Iris said. "So we can listen to hear when they hit the bottom."
Septima collapsed to her knees and planted her ear firmly against the rock, and started whispering.
"Jeez," Iris said. "Just a bad joke."
"I require silence!" Septima said. "I am communing with the rock."
"Don't," Alison said. "You'll need all your power for where we're about to go."
Septima shot her a glare. "This takes no power. I am merely communing. If anything, this would regain my power." She huffed a little bit, like an angry cat. "Therefore, I will need quiet, respectful silence." She resumed murmuring.
They waited several long minutes in silence, punctuated only by the occasional sound of wind and Septima's crooning.
Presently, they saw a shape soaring towards them, eventually resolving into the shape of a humanoid with four vast wings.
"Good," Alison said. "He's coming."
"Wait," Iris said. "There was a chance he wasn't?"
Alison shrugged. At that, Septima abruptly leaped to her feet.
"I have finished communing with the rock," she said. "It is a very, very, very long way down."
"Great," Iris said.
The four-winged person drew close and dropped down, folding his wings as he landed and smoothly transitioning into a bow. Alison bowed in return. Her three companions took the hint and bowed back as well.
"Greetings," the humanoid said. He face was covered in a thin coating of feathers, and his hair seemed to be entirely feathers; otherwise, he looked relatively human. "I am Ataxis. While we have not before met in person, I believe we must make haste. Let us be quick about this, then." He looked at Alison. "Do you have my payment?"
"I do," Alison said. She reached into her pocket, drew out a simple, silver key, and pressed it into the avian man's hand.
Ataxis examined the key from several different directions, gave it an experimental lick, and finally swallowed it whole. An immensely pleased expression crossed his face.
"Excellent!" he proclaimed. "Truly satisfying, truly. You are a woman who makes good on her bargains! And so I shall make good on mine. Without further ado—" Ataxis pivoted on one foot, facing out towards the sky, opened all four wings at once, and swept his left hand upward.
One instant there was nothing but sky at the edge of the granite protrusion, and the next that space was occupied by a massive, crystalline door.
Alison reached out and touched it, closing her eyes and concentrating for a moment. Then she smiled.
"This will do nicely," she said to Ataxis. "Our bargain is fulfilled."
"Most excellent," Ataxis said. "However, you will understand if I would like to be far away before you open this door. And… remember to shut it after you."
When Ataxis had flown away into the distance, Alison finally sighed in relief.
"Okay," Iris said. "It's a door. Can I ask where to?"
"This," Alison said, "is a Way directly into Site-17."
The door began to open. First, there was only diffuse light in the doorway. Then, the mist resolved itself into a plain, metallic-grey corridor.
An indefinable hum began to fill the air as Alison and her companions stepped through the door.
For a long moment, Kendra Campbell stared down the barrel of Joanna Cross's gun.
Then Cross lowered the gun.
"I will shoot you if I have to," Cross said. "But I really, really don't want to."
Cross chuckled. "Call it affection."
"This security breach is getting a little weird for me," Campbell said. "What the hell is that thing?"
The plant was… hard to look at. Green, with a pink-and-red blossom, but with a sheen about it that made it look like the colors were swimming. And the way it was shaped — the color of the green was off, the stem too thick, too smooth. It was off. It seemed like a thing shaped into the idea of a plant rather than a living thing.
"It's a focus," Cross said. "When you asked me two months ago if I was here to breach the Witch Child — the answer is yes. But it's not the whole answer."
"Alright," Campbell said. She felt surprisingly okay with this. Maybe just the relief of having any damn answer at all. "What's the whole answer?"
Cross looked at the watch strapped to her wrist. Funny, Campbell thought, I haven't seen anyone wearing a wristwatch in a while.
"Are you planning to trust me?" Cross asked.
"Jury's still out," Campbell said. "But you're gonna shoot me if I don't cooperate anyway, aren't you?"
"Maybe." Cross glanced at the watch again. "The world ends in twenty-six minutes. Sorry. No. Twenty-five. Let's go."
"What," Campbell said.
"Walk with me," Cross said. "Walk ahead of me, rather. I'm gonna need your keycard to open doors."
"Where are we going?"
"To the Site-17 bar."
"You want to get a drink?"
"What better time than right before the end of the world?" Cross laughed. "No, there's an actual reason. Keep moving. We really are running out of time, you know."
"You're obviously not supposed to be here," Campbell said.
"I've given myself a bit of a glamour," Cross said. "But I don't really think it's gonna be a problem. I don't think many people are going to be paying us much attention."
The sound of shouts came from outside.
Sigurrós Stefánsdóttir was still listening. Only twenty minutes left to go.
The song was changing. Building. More words and not-words being added to the chorus. A curious pain from everywhere, a full-body headache. Sigurrós could barely hold still.
Then she saw the light opening in her mind's eye. Down the hallway. A familiar face stepping through, and three companions.
She was still pulling out the IV tubes when L.S./Black Queen/Alison Chao opened the door, but she remembered her manners.
"Hello," she said. "My name is Sigurrós. It's nice to finally meet you in person."
"Likewise," Alison said. "Pardon me as I get ritualistic here for a moment… I am Alison Chao. I come on behalf of others, on behalf of this entire planet. I have come to offer you a bargain."
There were new words in song now, new words that she recognized. Fifteen minutes left to go.
Never never never never
Yesterday and forever
Forever and ever and ever and ever
Never never never never
Never never never never…
Campbell listened to the security codes echoing through the speaker, as she walked Cross through the labyrinth of hallways that was Site-17. She didn't recognize all of them, but one was obvious.
"Shit," she said. "239 breach. So you brought friends."
"We did," Cross said. "Not a moment too soon."
"You're ending the world," Campbell said. "Really, after all that talk, this is what it comes down to. You releasing a reality bender and ending the world." Campbell laughed. "To think I almost fell for all that shit you said."
"What?" A note of surprise was in Cross' voice. "We're not ending the world. We're trying to save it."
"Remember that breach — the one your friends captured me?" Cross paused, moved ahead of Campbell, cautiously peered round a corner, continued. "We didn't actually cause that breach. We were here to try to stop it."
"I don't get what you're saying," Campbell said.
"We knew about it in advance," Cross said. "Not much advance warning for the initial breach, but, hey, at least we had a few months prep time for this one. Even if L.S. is cutting it close as hell."
"Message from the future," Cross said. "Alternate timeline. A hole in reality erasing an entire planet — yeah, that's gonna leave a mark. In both the future and the past. Good thing, too."
The two passed by an MTF detachment squad. None of them batted an eyelash.
"I see the glamour's working pretty well," Cross continued. "I admit, you were right about that too. It wasn't just a coincidence that I got picked to come here and that I'm the one who got left here. I have a mystical connection to my sister. Blood magic thing. Not the gross kind. But the glamor makes me seem like I should fit in here because she fits in here. Family magic. You should try it sometime."
They had arrived in front of the Site-17 bar when the explosion came from a few cell blocks away. Not a natural explosion — a brief flash of blackness, not light, coming along with a wave of force that knocked them both to the ground. Campbell heard that humming sound again. This time, though, it was undeniable.
"Shit," Cross said. "It's beginning."
Campbell hauled herself up off the group, ran her keycard through the slot, and stumbled through the open door. Cross picked up her strange potted plant and followed behind.
Rita Butler had been drinking, sitting alone, in the Site-17 rec room. This had become a habit of hers. She'd been trying to get out of her room, and there were always people in the rec room, but they were people doing their own thing — playing ping-pong, punching hanging bags, lifting weights, etcetera. In other words, they were people who wouldn't talk to her, at least besides the occasional hello and awkward easily-rebuffed pass from someone who hadn't heard who she was quite yet. The rec room rules were fairly lax, so it was easy to sneak in the vodka in clear plastic bottles. It was, in its own way, nice. Well, not nice, but acceptable. A perfectly acceptable existence.
She'd been doing this today as per usual when the klaxons went off, and then everything had started happening at once. She hadn't thought to head for the doors fast enough, and her way was blocked by a milling crowd of people by the time she had.
Then a burst of green light blew the side doors right open.
Four people strode in, four people who clearly didn't belong. A lizard-person, a woman in a flamboyant outfit waving a staff, and another woman with color-shifting skin. The woman who led them wasn't carrying much but a oversized shotgun and was dressed in street clothing, but she looked deadly serious. The leader.
"Get out of here if you don't want to die," she said, and to punctuate that, she raised the shotgun in the air, and fired a blast of green light at the ceiling.
The crowd obliged, scattering for the exits in a heartbeat. The leader pointed her minions in various directions, and they scattered along with the crowd. But she herself strode forward, eyes searching the crowd, landing on — landing on Rita.
Shit. She froze in place. Deer in the headlights reaction. Run, she told herself. You need to run. But the leader was upon her, before she knew it, seizing her arm, leaning in, hissing in her ear.
"Your sister is in the Site-17 cafeteria trying to save the world," she said. "Help her, for gods' sakes. Go. Now."
And then the leader was striding away, leaving Rita shaken and nearly alone in the building.
Rita found the will to move, and lurched towards the door. She grabbed an abandoned sidearm on her way out.
Sigurrós Stefánsdóttir heard the words of the song reach the fever pitch she'd been waiting for, that she'd been dreading.
They were running through the hallways, Alison just ahead of her and the others close behind, but they weren't going to make it to the surface in time. Somewhere up above, she could hear the chittering of innumerable wings.
Sigurrós looked up at the ceiling. Her feet lifted from the floor, her body rose into the air.
Never never never never never never never…
The nice thing about the Site-17 bar is that one of its rooms had a bar surveillance camera feeds. The Foundation knew its personnel, at least to that extent; if a containment breach happened in the evening when a lot of people were (mostly) off-duty drinking, it was to everyone's advantage to get as many people aware of the situation as well, even if someone of them were drunk. Foundation members joked that containment breaches were to the Foundation what sports were to everyone else. That wasn't really true, exactly — but Campbell found herself watching 239 with awe. She was crossing camera feeds at a rapid rate, heading for the surface of the Site, simply… unfolding the chambers and hallways around her as she passed through them and letting them settle back into place after her. It was both impressive and oddly tidy. The thought rose unbidden in her mind.: She's been taught to clean up after herself.
Behind her, Cross was doing… something with her potted planet. Taking it out of the pot, holding it over the center of the floor with one hand, making odd shapes in the air with her other hand.
"Shit," Cross said. "It's not taking."
But Campbell was again transfixed by the cameras. She saw — something familiar.
A humanoid with a featureless face and scaled black skin.
Sigurrós burst through to the surface, letting her feet touch down on concrete, closing up the path she'd taken behind her.
It felt a little startling breathing the surface air again. Physically, not just in a dream form. She hadn't expected there to be that much of a difference.
In fact, it felt very odd to be breathing like this, she realized. She needed to go back to her room. She needed just a bit… just little bit more sleep…
She startled awake as she nearly fell over. The adrenaline rush countered the soporific effect, and she realized the presence of something behind her.
She turned around to see a blank, scaled face watching at her through invisible, myriad eyes. Eyes within eyes within eyes. No mouth, but a voice. That eternal murmur…
"My name is Sigurrós," she told the thing. "Who are you?"
In response, it reached out, invisibly, with its mind, and touched her. Seeking, probing. Sigurrós was startled enough by this that she didn't immediately stop it. Then, she probed back.
The strange creature seemed to open up, to unfold in response to her probe. And it kept opening, further and further, eternally branching tendrils, reaching out far away into forever —
"You're… a Way," Sigurrós said aloud.
Five minutes left until the end of the world.
It was almost comical, the way Cross was looking at her weird potted planet in obvious frustration.
"Alright," Cross said. "Breathe, start again." She began moving her hands again in a new pattern.
Campbell watched the screen. "What is that thing?"
"You were there when I was captured," Cross said. "You saw Dr. Bright killed and resurrected."
"Yeah." Campbell thought back, remembering the necklace curling around that sword. But…
"Just keep asking me questions," Cross said. "I'm not joking. I get anxiety. Talking helps my anxiety."
"No shit," Campbell said. "Okay. I saw 963… Bright… take over that… that thing. I thought that… killed it?"
Cross laughed a little bit. "That thing is the personification of a damaged Way, forced in to human form to heal itself."
"A Way? A magical passageway?"
"Essentially." Cross moved her fingers a little faster, making shapes in the air. "That almost never happens, especially not in this particular … fashion. Still, it happened, and we all had the bad luck that your Foundation found it first. Wandering the wilderness alone, blundering across highways…"
"Why didn't 963 kill it?"
"Because it's not possible to kill a Way. But you can damage it. You can make it vulnerable. And … there are things that live in Ways. Things that prey on the vulnerable. The things that never did exist, and never will exist, and don't exist, but desperately, desperately want to."
"And they're… dangerous?"
"More than anything you can imagine." Cross grimaced, paused in her invisible-pattern-weaving, shook out one of her hands, and continued. "They're… This isn't a perfect explanation, but you can understand them as parasites of the soul. They are deeply unhappy and deeply hungry, and this one has landed the most powerful host it could imagine. They normally live in the Ways, but this one… is trying to become a Way. It only got that foothold because of the damage that … soul-searing medallion did. And then only because the Way is in human-ish form, and its soul has become something a Neverwere can understand." Cross laughed. "It's as if reality in conspiring against us."
"Cross," Campbell said. "How do we fix it?"
"The Witch Child," Cross said. "She has to kill it."
"What is the plant for?"
"It's a focus." Cross adjusted the angle of the plant's stem. "Sigurrós is young, inexperienced, and the only person currently on this planet who can help. We've got to metaphysically plant these in the… magically key areas of Site-17. In this case, the bar is a locus of human energy, but it's so drunken that I'm having trouble—"
Cross stopped talking mid-sentence.
Campbell, who had been watching 239 and the faceless humanoid stand stock still in front of each other in an apparent staring contest — though without enough eyes to really make that work out properly — turned to look to see what was going on.
She saw Rita Butler, standing in the doorway and aiming a gun at Joanna Cross' head. At her sister's head.