Bastion shoulders open the door at the end of the hallway and lets Saila in first, slipping after her like before. This time he’s the one that pauses in the doorway, though, when he sees the center of the room.
The desk, scattered with papers like feathers fallen from a slain bird, is the same. The narrow pool of blue light spreading out over the desk is also the same. The pits and gouges and tears in the wood are also the same, rubbed smooth and soft from years and years of use, of touch, of wear.
But there’s no gaunt-stretched Archivist there in their ink-blue hooded robe, no stack of books behind them. Illuminated in the moon-cold light is an enormous empty space.
There’s never been an empty space before.
Bastion is given to ritual, to pattern, to a gentle adherence to schedule whenever it makes sense. He doesn’t consider himself overly married to the concept of regularity, past what it can do for him. But the stakes here are too high for him to feel anything but alarm about this sudden break from procedure. The Spires are dangerous, that he knows though he himself has never come to harm in them. He’s not an idiot: simply because he hasn’t been harmed yet doesn’t mean he doesn’t think he will ever. All of his caution and manners and polite greetings to the Archivist don’t change the fact that he is alive, and usually, things that are alive don’t leave the Ivory Spires.
“Bastion,” Saila says, pivoting slowly, mechanically, so that her back is to the door they came through, “there’s blood behind the desk, out of the light.”
“Blood,” he repeats leisurely, and just as leisurely draws his rapier. “Get your scissors out.”
Saila fumbles with herself briefly before pulling them out, an uncharacteristic gracelessness to her handling of her inventory that attracts his attention. Her gaze lifts up to him. She’s got them pinched in her fingers awkwardly, like she doesn’t want to touch them.
“Hold them like this,” he tells her, reaching down with his right hand to adjust her hold, but she shies away and holds the scissors out to him with both hands.
“I don’t,” she says, her eyes dimming even as her body dips into shadow and half-vanishes, biting her lip so hard it turns pale under her teeth, “I can’t, I-“
“It’s easy,” Bastion replies, confused. Still he keeps his senses honed tight, listening. It wouldn’t do to be snuck up on, not with blood everywhere out of sight and their weapons barely drawn. “Just hold them firmly, but not too firmly. Hold them like you would a knife, and if you need to stab somebody-“
“I don’t want to stab anybody!” Saila bursts out. She holds the scissors out to him again, her eyes wide, frightened. Her hands are trembling. “I don’t want to! Please!”
Bastion spends a moment looking at her, really looking at her, as she stares up at him beseechingly. Where usually her expressions are mutable, flickering, swift as a flame under wind, now her face is frozen at the edges, suspended, caught in an ever-extending moment of fear.
His first instinct is toward annoyance- both at himself, for dragging her into this situation, and at her for taking the scissors but voicing no complaints until now.
But she had protested, hadn’t she? Little soft refusals that he’d ignored because he wasn’t listening to them properly. The comment about her having scissors at the shop, the joke about wanting a lantern instead… in her own way, she had been perfectly straightforward about her feelings on the matter of a weapon. He’s been with her all day, has watched how she functions and interacts with the world. She’s trained herself to go softly, to walk lightly, to permit no trespasses but make none in kind herself. No matter how many elbows she pokes out in a crowd, ultimately she’s a merchant who trades in agreement and positive facades despite whatever actual hostility she or her business partner feel toward each other.
He wants her to take up a knife?
She looks up at him with shadows under her eyes and her hair pulled back from her face by the gravity of the situation and begs him, as overtly and frankly as she can, to help her with the situation he’s gotten her into. Who is he, what kind of man is he, what right does he have to call himself Captain of the Leaping Guard, if then only way he can move forward is to force people into terrible acts that frighten them?
He wants her to take up a knife?
“All right,” Bastion says, reaching out and grabbing beyond the scissors for her shoulder. Even softened as it is by her shawl and dress, it feels bony and thin, but she bleeds heat like she’s been basking in the sun. “Okay, no, you don’t have to. You’re right. Keep the scissors just in case. Put them in your shawl or something. But- it’s okay. Just stay close to me, on my right side so that you don’t get hit by my sword if I have to fight. Is that all right?”
“Yes,” she says in a voice dangerously close to a whisper, looking piteously grateful. “I’m sorry.”
“No need,” he tells her. “I should have… I should have done that a little better.”
Saila opens her mouth, perhaps to argue, perhaps to agree. Bastion opens his mouth to respond in kind, but something else beats them both to it:
“WHERE ARE YOU,” roars somebody, or something. It sounds like it’s coming from the hallway they had come in through. The door into the reference room, the one they’ve just barely come through, rattles on its hinges with the force of the cry. Bastion can feel more than hear the low, percussive beat of something large and heavy coming toward the room they’re standing in.
Saila and Bastion exchange looks.
“WHERE ARE YOU MY LITTLE FIREFLY,” calls the voice, sounding like the rattle of a coin in an empty jar, the buzz of a thousand angry bees, the squeak of dry stone on metal. It still advances, the thud of every step growing heavier and heavier.
“Let’s not be here,” Saila whispers, reaching up to pull Bastion into the shadows with her.
“There’s nowhere else to go,” Bastion hisses back, telling himself that it’s Saila’s hand that’s shaking and not his.
“This whole room has plenty of doorways out,” Saila tells him, her gaze fluttering around the room like a bird. “You can’t see them?”
“Too dark,” Bastion answers, surprised by the revelation. The thought that he’s been standing in a hub instead of a closed office for years is unsettling; who knows what might have been watching him from the shadows they’re diving into?
“Should we go toward the blood trail or away?” Saila asks, clenching her hand harder around his fingers. Bastion, trying not to be unnerved by the fact that he really, truly can’t see anything in front of him, works to keep in step with her. He tries by hearing first, but finds that’s unreliable with his own heart working so hard in his ears. By feel, then: the slight rise and fall of her hand in his as she walks. To that end, he sheathes his rapier almost unwillingly. There’s no use in having it out if he can’t even see where his feet are, and it’s making following Saila’s stride more difficult. Still, there’s no denying the comfort it brings to have it in hand. Now it’s back in his sash, he feels conspicuously unprotected.
“DAWN BRILLIANCE, SUNSET LUMINANCE, I HAVE A FRESH HOME FOR YOU,” says the thing, and this time the shout rattles the wood of the door into the room. This close, its voice feels like a knife set against skin, the catch of paper on flesh an instant before the cut.
“Toward the blood. Go! Go!”
Saila takes off running. Bastion has a moment of panic that scatters his feet unsteady under him: he has no idea where they’re going, no idea what they’re doing.
The door into the room slams open with a roar. He hears the rip of wood being shredded, the thousand-scattered impact of papers being destroyed, the sound of an enormous body thrashing angrily in a small space.
Bastion forces his mind silent and still. He takes off into the darkness, running as fast as Saila can lead. She’s trusted him to get them into this mess. He has to trust her to get them out of it.
“I HEAR SOMETHING,” draws out the papercut voice, and to Bastion’s horror he feels the heavy resonance of steps behind them. With his other senses tuned into nothingness, he latches on to the air currents, the tremble of the floor, that sub-aural impact, with intense desperation. “ARE YOU THERE?”
Saila’s hand tightens on Bastion’s. He can tell she’s keeping her speed down, trying to make certain he can follow her. He remembers the feel of being pulled behind her in a dense crowd, the grip of her hand small and soft and warm, and gives it a squeeze.
“Faster,” he whispers, which is either a mistake or just in time: the floor trembles, some kind of impact rocking what feels like the whole damn Spires. The not-heard pulse of steps behind him is speeding up,
“Hold on to me,” Saila gasps, looking back for an instant with her orange-lit burning candle eyes.
Bastion can see little of her. He can see her hair as it flicks in front of her eyes, and her eyes as they glow just a bit, and he can see the edges of her nose, the ashen pallor of her skin there, the darkness pooled under her eyes like bruises.
He can also see the moment when her eyes go wide and flare bright, the moment when her candle-gaze flickers up and down and left and right and back again, the barely-there shift of her skin as she processes something. It occurs to him, running in the dark led only by the hand, that she might stop, that she might be swayed by some infernal magic, or perhaps simply by the shock of whatever she’s seeing-
Bastion thinks of the Cat King, of the roar, and how he faltered and Saila pulled him on-
but of course Saila’s expression simply goes flinty and hard, unyielding as a steel trap, before she turns back again and picks up the pace.
Bastion can feel the thing chasing them coming closer. He dreads hearing that voice again, that voice like a dry blade being run over a ragged sharpening stone. He dreads being snatched up again and this time being swallowed down for real. He feels all of that and crushes it down, stamps it into a little box. No time for fear. Only action.
He draws his rapier again just in time to feel a wash of blisteringly dry boiler-hot air flow down onto him from above. The helplessness of fleeing has been so intense that the chance to fight back feels like heaven: he slashes with certainty and is rewarded with a horrendous whine of metal on metal, like a train car coming loose and ripping its siblings along with it into death.
“Keep going!” Bastion tells Saila as she falters. She gives his hand a squeeze before bolting with renewed effort.
They make it a few paces before a plume of fire cuts, astoundingly, through the dark above their heads as if shot from the mouth of a dragon. The thing cries out. It sounds angry, as if somehow before it had only been a bit piqued.
Bastion feels a trickle of pride in his heart and turns to assess the damage on sheer instinct. He catches sight of a confused image of struts made of bone and girders edged in flexing tendons that are working in rigid synchronicity to strike down, a coal box at the figure’s heart slamming shut with the silhouette of a figure inside, an enormous hand stretching out toward them, one made of red-burning iron with a bristle of splintered claws coming out of its palm. There’s a dangle of luminous fibers that are dimming back down into blackness, and as they fade out of visibility they point out and up, stretching out into a nexus of dying brilliance.
Bastion snaps his head forward just in time to be pulled into a hard left, to be forced down at an odd angle and urged under something. His rapier goes flying off to who-knows-where, but there’s no time to chase after it. It clangs as it hits something.
He navigates by feel, working as hard as he can to stay quiet, to stifle his thundering heart, to keep his breath silent and his body hidden. Saila is curled up tight next to him, trembling but silent as the dead. He realizes that their hands had come undone in the dark, but doesn’t dare try to find her again with the chase so close.
The heavy steps of their pursuer slow, then pause. Something about the way the sound travels to his ears makes Bastion think he’s underneath something, but he doesn’t dare raise his head to find out.
“WHERE ARE YOU, MY STARSHINE,” calls the voice.
“I’m right here,” says a voice immediately above where Saila and Bastion are huddled.