It’s hard to keep track of time in the compression of darkness, but Bastion thinks they’ve been in for a long while. Longer than he had wanted or intended, that Bastion can say for certain.
The further in they go, the more frequent the pauses to hide become. Bastion tries to cheer himself up with the idea that it’s because they’re getting closer to an escape point, some mysterious weakness in the Spires that every mage before has simply… failed to make it to. He refuses to acknowledge the unlikeliness of that, turns his face from the reality of the situation with a brazenness that would honor even the most stubborn of children.
The darkness is wearing on him. He can’t hear whatever ‘buzz’ Saila and the academic are talking about, but walking in a body-length of light that periodically gets snuffed out for good reason is a hard state to endure. The floor underfoot is just more perfectly inlaid wood, and though he can’t see anything, the way sound bounces around in here makes it feel like the ceilings are incredibly high. He flexes his feet a little, digs his claws in now and then just to be mean. His previous respect for the Spires’ floors has evaporated to be replaced by an angry, pent-up feeling of spite. He wants to burn the whole damn place down.
The thing of it is, though he’s growing weary, his two companions are almost visibly struggling at this point. He wishes he could press his hands over Saila’s ears, block out whatever invisible voice is calling out in hunger to her like he’d blocked out the sight of the thing hunting them before.
The academic’s smile has wilted into a strained, tight grimace, then a simple show of teeth, and finally, now, as the floor starts to tilt and a mildewy smell meets Bastion’s nose on occasion, the academic is quiet and withdrawn. He barely knows the man, but the sudden loss of vitality seems alarming, makes him worry that if this goes on for too much longer he’s going to have to pick him up and carry him on to their goal.
Saila, too, is clearly under strain. She’s still got the scissors in hand, but at this point Bastion is less concerned that she won’t use them if she needs to and more concerned that she’ll start stabbing and won’t stop even if she’s being forced halfway down something’s gullet. She’s got a tense, drawn edge to her like a string pulled to snap, and the way her eyes flicker back and forth makes her look like a frightened, caged animal.
“What’s that smell?” Bastion asks, desperate to pull their awareness away from that unheard voice if even for a moment.
Saila flinches, then looks around wildly.
“Water?” She asks, turning to face them. The academic mouths something, licks his lips, lifts his head to look around.
“Water?” He asks, rubbing at an eye with the back of his hand. He’d been sleeping, hadn’t he said? That thing, whatever it was, had wanted him to go back to sleep. He’s clearly headed that way again.
“Wake up,” Bastion says, slapping the academic’s back hard enough to send him reeling. He worries it might bruise him, but better that than him falling asleep on his feet. “We’re almost there, aren’t we?”
“Ooof! I think so,” he says around a yawn, and Saila comes up very close indeed to them, her eyes big and orange and blank. The academic reaches out and pets her a little, trailing his fingers through her hair.
Bastion looks at him aghast.
Saila’s expression crumples into misery at the same rate she crumples into the academic’s hold: instantly. Looking at them, he finds he can’t muster any real indignation after all. As the unheard buzz is trying to drag them under its thrall, the academic is clearly staying afloat better, working his best to keep Saila up with him. “There there, there there. Let’s find our sisters. They’ll make everything all better…”
They stay still like that, Saila rocking where she stands, the academic holding her around her shoulders and moving with her like a tree in the wind.
“I’m hungry,” she says, an odd, rough little catch to her voice.
“You are?” Bastion asks, his eyes flying wide open.
“You aren’t,” the academic says, turning her gently and pushing her forward with his hands on her shoulders. “That’s just the Spires. They’re hungry. Come on, come on. Let’s go find our sisters…”
They resume walking. Bastion starts to scent the air more frequently, hungry for the smell of the rivers.
Bastion starts to prowl around them in a miniature patrol, rapier out. He’s not sure what will happen if something comes across them now with Saila and the academic like this. Certainly Saila is in no state to be their watch any more; she’s started to rub at her eyes, to bite at her fingers, to jump and twist and look about even when Bastion can’t hear anything. She resembles nothing so much as a fox caught in a trap, one a second from chewing her own leg off to get free.
He’s changed his opinion on the academic. When Saila jumps, he leans on her and pulls her back down. When she turns, feral and defensive, he pushes on her shoulders and goads her forward gently. If she starts to gnaw on her fingers he bats them sleepily away from her face. Bastion is grateful while also feeling a stab of guilt as sharp as Saila’s scissors: the only reason she’s here and being put in such a state is because he insisted they come to visit the Spires.
They didn’t even get the information he’d come for, Bastion realizes, and curses himself, again and again and again.
They go further down. The scent of water is growing stronger. The floor, tidy and wooden, gives way to a rough stone surface shattered in uneven pieces here and there. Bastion gladly digs his claws in, hopeful that the change from well-polished wood to untended stone means something.
“Soon,” the academic mumbles, his face contorting into a jaw-cracking yawn. “Should be soon….”
Bastion opens his mouth to ask him something, anything to keep him awake, but stops.
He heard something.
Bastion circles around the academic and Saila, keeping himself penned in to the little dollop of light he has thanks to the mageflame. It’s grown weaker, dimmer as the academic himself has, but it’s still there and it counts for something.
Saila has whipped around, her eyes bright and piercing in a way he doesn’t like; she looks him over briefly, seems to struggle with herself before she launches her attention out further, and through all of that not a flicker of emotion slides across her face, not the merest hint of annoyance or fear or wry, sensible humor.
Bastion follows her gaze and positions himself accordingly: between her and whatever she’s looking at, rapier up and at the ready, point sharp and hungry to strike.
The sound comes again: soft plopping, a wet squelch and then a creak like old springs taking a too-heavy load.
Bastion hunches himself up, desperately aware of how small his range of vision is. The sound is echoing slightly, coming from multiple directions. He waits, trying to pinpoint the origin before he strikes out.
Again: plop, squelch, creak, but in stereo, in concert.
That’s no echo, that’s-
Say multiple gray figures in one voice from different bodies, slouching close, too close, their shoulders down by their chests and their mouths up near their foreheads and every other part of them dripping down in a spongey, dough-like collapse.
“Shit,” Bastion says, swinging out and slicing one’s head clean off in a single blow. It gushes a clear, sour-smelling liquid and falls apart like an oilskin punctured.
Says a single voice from multiple points, and it has a sizzling, stinging reverberation to it that makes Saila recoil, snarling wetly, at the same time the academic gives a low moan, clutching at his head, and stumbles back. Even Bastion can feel it, this close, like a brewing headache in the temples, something fresh and sharp and raw scraping at his mind, at his head, at the undercurrent of self that he always takes for granted. It makes his sword arm shudder and his hand tremble, makes his belly clench and his eyes wince shut without any say, any say at all, from him.
Bastion slashes blindly to drive back the figures. They fall, flooding the ground with more of that sickly-sour liquid, but yet more formless, lumpy bodies slide in to replace the fallen. Bastion has no way of knowing how many of them there are, no way of knowing how many are coming up behind the first ring he can see. He glances back quickly, trying to see if he can step back into the dimming, flickering light.
He does a rapid-fire double-take.
The space behind the academic is an empty pit. No wonder these grey men haven’t circled in on them from behind: there’s nothing to circle them on. Bastion feels his throat go tight and his heart thunder, feels dizziness seize him and knows it’s not from the smell of the sour rotten slump-skinned men, gray and sloshing bloated around the ankles as they shuffle closer in an impenetrable, ever-growing wall.
The gray men reach forward as one, a single sloppy arm multiplied by five, by ten, by rows back pushing forward in ways he’s glad he can only hear. Bastion can see the liquid pooling below where the muscles of their arms would be, can see the pop and sway of bones under the too-mushy skin as they extend their spongy hands out for him. He can’t get his sword up without knocking the academic back into that yawning pit, can’t get any further away without doing more of the same.
This is it, he thinks. It’s time. He was no Jack. He was just Bastion, and now he’ll be Bastion, Captain of the Leaping Guard for the rest of history, and nobody else.
But Saila, ever Saila, has no time for bullshit even when the Ivory Spires have sent an infinite horde to condemn them: she leaps forward and her eyes are blazing wild, the heat of it, the intensity of that fire taking over her features so thoroughly that she looks like a mere shell holding back an essential element of nature. Her hands are crooked into claws, the very tips of her fingers singed black and sooted into hooked claws, and when she strikes out with a slash like an angry cat the arms stretched out for them wither and melt, steaming that sour liquid out everywhere in an unpleasant miasma.
“SAILA!” Bastion screams, casting aside his rapier to catch her around the waist, because the crowd around them, faceless and featureless and grasping, has two hands after all, and they clearly want her: they’re pawing forward hungrily, their mouths migrating further up their bodies, and something stark white and darkness black is rearing out of them, all of them, from a point at the center of their mouths that feels very far away and yet entirely, terribly too close for comfort.
She snarls at Bastion, wildcat-shrill, pivoting to face him and slamming him back.
He feels his balance shifting. Normally Bastion would jump, would distance himself and assess the situation from higher ground. He feels his legs give a jolt as he instinctively tries to leap.
But his legs are broken, their pretty little swirls and hard stern springs crunched up into an ugly red-raw mess,
and so all Bastion manages to do is fling them, Saila and the academic and himself, off the edge of nothingness.
They fall for eternity. Bastion grabs for the academic by aiming for the little flicker of light, misses, grabs again and catches the edge of some hair. Saila is twisting wild and loose in his grip, snapping and snarling and insensible, but he holds on to her as firmly as he can despite the strike of her claws, the snap of her jaws.
Then he hits water and everything goes black.
Bastion sees red.
There’s a flash of something ultra-luminous and striped in front of him, and he opens his mouth to scream, but water rushes in where air should be.
Everything goes white.