“We need to go,” Bastion says, working to keep his tone from developing a snap at the end like a mean dog. “Saila and I don’t belong here and we need to leave.”
“Oh yes!” The academic gives himself a shake and snatches the match from the air. Bastion realizes that it’s been burning for a bit too long to be a normal match, but then, the academic must be a mage, mustn’t he? So it’s mageflame. “Yes, let’s make like leaves and blow off the tree.”
“I don’t think that’s how that goes,” Saila tries, but her voice slowly peters out as she speaks until she ends almost inaudibly.
“It’s a straight shot from here back into the records request office and then out again, isn’t it?” Bastion says with an edge of desperation.
“It should be,” Saila agrees, following Bastion. He’s gratified to see that she’s staying at his right and a little behind him; it’s a small thing, but it makes him feel safer to have her there behind him where he can protect her, even if the fact of the matter is that he can’t, not right now. It’s also, if he thinks about it from Saila’s newly-discovered subtle language, likely a signal that she’ll stand with him in whatever he decides about the additional soul in front of them.
With protection in mind, Bastion rummages in his sash and pulls out the scissors, reaching back to hand them off. Saila takes them from him, and when he glances back, she’s got a fierce, steady light in her eyes. She’s holding them the way he told her to, and it makes him feel something like happiness despite the circumstances to see she’s getting her feet under her again.
He smiles at her, just a little. She ducks her head, eyebrows knitted up tight, but nods at him.
“It should be but it isn’t!”
“Kings take me,” Bastion grumbles, wheeling around to face the academic. “Woah!”
He’s moved up soundlessly to right behind them, so when Bastion turns, he’s right in Bastion’s face.
“Please,” Saila says sternly, making the academic look down at her in surprise. “Step back and give us space. Explain yourself, if you please.”
“Right,” he says, smiling, but it has the quality of a grimace, a baring of teeth like a frightened dog. He steps back one pace, looking to Saila for approval. When she nods, he spreads his hands out wide. “This place is curved, coiled in on itself both physically and, you know, sort of in an almost metaphysically thematic nature! So, past a certain liminal connection to the outside world, the Spires are incapable of leading anybody on a straight path. It’s not their fault, the poor dears. It’s just how they were pushed out into this world.”
“Then we’ll cut our own straight path right on out,” Saila says. Bastion, a bit over his head when it comes to matters magical, admires her spirit but doesn’t have the foggiest idea of how to do it.
The academic tucks his hands into his sleeves. He’s making an exaggeratedly thoughtful face, the caterpillars on his face that pass for eyebrows wiggling animatedly.
“An interesting idea,” he muses. “Appealingly forceful. I’d rather like to see it in action, if you would allow me!”
“We have to leave,” Bastion insists. “I don’t care how, just that we do.”
“Oh, my,” the academic says with a smile too sweet to be jaded and yet dangerously candied, unnervingly honeyed. “Do be careful with how you phrase things, hm? My goodness, no doubt this one isn’t a mage, not in the least.”
“Please don’t be unkind,” Saila says, stepping up once more, this time to stand before Bastion. She stares at the academic seriously. “Captain Bastion is a judicious and diligent individual. You saved us just now, but that doesn’t give you free license to speak every uncharitable thought that crosses your mind.”
Bastion tries very hard not to, but he’s relatively sure he’s coloring. At least it’s likely to be difficult to see given his skin tone and the poor lighting.
“Well said,” the academic says with a shrug. “My apologies! I’ve been asleep for a while, and so I’ve lost any sense of grace I could possibly have had, if I had any to start with. And, if we don’t make our escape soon, I’ll be asleep again and lose even more!”
“You’re going too?” Bastion asks, surprised. With the way he had interacted with the thing chasing them, he had sort of assumed that he was relatively comfortable here in the Spires.
“I would like to, I rather think so,” the academic agrees, swinging out to stand at Saila’s left. His mageflame follows like it’s bobbing on a current in the river. He swings up a hand, sweeping it left and right as if he’s dowsing for water. “Let’s see…. I would suggest we go… that way.”
And he points deeper into the Spires.
Bastion looks at Saila. She’s already looking back at him with a fox-clever expression on her face.
“Let’s go,” she confirms, her scissors clutched shining and silver in her hands, and steps up to take the lead. It makes sense: she doesn’t need light, can see far beyond the little bubble of light the mageflame allows Bastion and the academic to work in. Still, Bastion doesn’t like her out front. That’s his job.
“She is resilient, isn’t she,” says the academic conversationally, and it’s the first thing he’s said that Bastion doesn’t want to immediately question or balk at.
“Keep up, whoever you are,” Bastion replies, rolling his shoulders up in irritation, and with rapier out bristling golden in front of him he follows Saila.
True to the academic’s word, despite walking in what feels like a straight line, Bastion gets the distinct impression that he’s traveling down a very large spiral staircase. The academic corrects their course occasionally, almost always pointing them further to the right. A clockwise spiral, then, Bastion notes.
Their journey is long, with wearyingly few diversions.
They pass through a very large archway, points of which dip down just enough to hit the mageflame’s light and reveal themselves to be the sparkling, razor-sharp tips of enormous thorns wrought in what looks like pure silver. They clink like bangles as the group passes under, and though he can’t be sure, he thinks he hears the thorns slither in movement as they walk away.
A few times Saila shushes them, and each time she does the academic flicks out his magelight.
The fourth time, they wait and listen to a strange shuffling noise go by. It sounds like a cloak being thrown on the ground but writ larger, fleshier. Bastion catches the very faintest bit of a slosh at the end of each noise and shudders; he finds himself glad when Saila grabs his hand and tucks her face against his leg. He knows she’s frightened, feels glad she can wring some comfort from him while he does the same from her. He brings his rapier up, ready to strike into the heart of whatever sound he hears if one strays too close, but the sloshing goes on and on, and finally becomes too distant to hear.
As they part and leave what Bastion presumes was some kind of alcove, the academic, passively orbiting behind them both, comments,“You know, just closing your eyes is fine.”
“Can you see the light from my eyes when I close them?” Saila asks, turning suddenly. Her tone is plaintive, as if this is some existential question she’s struggled with for a long time. Though she phrases the question broadly, her gaze makes it clear that she’s looking to Bastion for the answer.
“No,” Bastion replies, shaking his head. “When they’re closed, you just look like…” like you’re normal, he almost blurts out, and swallows those words down hard. Yikes.
“I never knew for certain,” Saila says, turning around in a fluid swirl of skirts and shawl to set off again toward the direction the academic is pointing in urgently. “I can’t exactly check myself.”
Bastion contemplates her back, the swish of her hair under her white gauzy veil with the little golden embroidered trim he suspects she made herself based simply on the quality of the work. It does seem reasonable to not know what you look like when you close your eyes. He doesn’t, certainly. It’s not like he could look in a mirror, after all.
“Well now you know! No need to jam yourself up tight against this tall fellow. Unless, oh! Are you two a couple?”
“A couple of idiots trying to escape the Spires,” she grinds out in an exasperated tone, which makes Bastion bite back down a chuckle.
He’s visited the Spires countless times for reference purposes, certainly hadn’t anticipated that anything like this would ever happen. Getting lost in the Spires? Being chased by some kind of mechanical-flesh monstrosity? Deciding to burst out of the Spires like the world’s most dedicated safe crackers? Meeting one of the lost mages? All of that is a wash, he supposes, just sort of something he has to accept and make his peace with in the landscape of bizarre that has been his day. But of all the things he’d never anticipated, the part where he’s being questioned about romantic attachment by an oblivious fool is somehow the least expected.
“A pair of idiots… What does that make me?” The academic muses, clearly undeterred, pursing his lips and gazing up at the ceiling. The warmth of his magefire catches in his eyes like a moth in a spiderweb, makes the blue flickers more pronounced, more urgent.
“A soon-to-be fugitive?” Bastion suggests, mostly in an effort to steer the conversation much, much further away from the original topic. “What’s happening here, anyway? I’ve never seen the Spires in this state. There was blood in the archive reference room, you said?” Saila nods, glancing back and meeting Bastion’s eyes for an instant. She glances at the academic, then back at him before turning to face front.
Shit. What does that mean?
“Oh, yes. I had forgotten…. I had forgotten….” The academic puts a hand to his brow. “I was trying to leave, wasn’t I? So sorry. After a few years in here, the buzz, you know… it gets into you. Gets up from your feet into your guts and then your mind.”
“You were trying to leave?” Bastion pushes, suddenly realizing why Saila had looked at him like that. She knows he can pry information out of people, or try anyway. She wants him to work at the academic while she guides them.
“Yes. I ran into a fellow… said he was new here, but he wanted to not be. Wanted to leave.” The academic starts to rub at his brow, his bones standing out stark and frail against the luminous paleness of his skin. “Did I run into him? I feel like… I feel like I simply woke, and there he was…”
“Do the Spires put all the mages that come to it to sleep?” Bastion asks, trying to redirect him. The academic seems to be growing distressed. The last thing they need is to lose their guide, either to madness or temper or sheer, simple upset. Bastion has no intention of dying, certainly no intention of abandoning Saila to whatever fate has befallen the academic, but if they lose his guidance Bastion thinks they will be, likely, completely and totally fucked.
“Oh, well, not really! I mean, they get eaten up from the inside, don’t they? By the buzz, I mean. I can hear it now. It’s looking for me….” He starts to run his fingers through his hair. The way he does it looks mean, like he’s tearing at himself.
“I can hear it too,” Saila agrees, hunching her shoulders up. “It’s hungry.”
Bastion whips his head around to look at her. “Are you all right?”
“I want to leave,” she says, quietly but with urgency. If she was turned to face him he thinks he would see that tense, stern terror on her face from before.
“Good, I’m all for that, yes,” the academic says, ripping his hands out of his hair to fuss with his robes. It looks like he’s a moment away from flinging them off his body. As he sees Bastion watching him he gives a little waggle of eyebrows, pulling his hands up to point and reorient them. Bastion sees several long pink strands caught between his fingers before he drops his hand again. He brushes it off at his side, clearly trying to be subtle, but Bastion catches it. “The Spires are looking for all of us at this point, after all.”
And on that ominous note, they hurry on.