It was one of the sole shreds of romanticism that he had allowed himself over the years. To think of that place as a den of secret knowledge, something exempt from the general cares and concerns of the world milling overhead.
A corner in the dark, where questions could be asked without wondering whether it would be 'right' or 'wrong' to answer them.
A door on the first floor of his home, locked and forbidden even to his curious daughter. Facing her past questions, he had informed her that it was little more than a cellar, hinting at the presence of rats and centipedes to deter her from exploring further.
If she had any awareness of what was taking place at that moment, she would soon realize how he had lied to her. A small price to pay, he decided, if it would result in her return to the waking world. With that resolve, he stood before the unobtrusive door, accompanied by the creature that acted and spoke from behind her eyes.
Wearing his sole remaining family member like an article of clothing. His grip tightened at the thought, disturbing the ring of keys from which he'd been making his selection. All too aware of that void-black stare, he hurried to claim the appropriate key, recognized from the rest by a simple notch on its grip.
Someone else, seeking it for any reason, would likely make use of the most complex or ostentatious keys first. The decorative, the obvious. All of which would trip the basement's lock with their use, sealing that door with even greater strength until he arrived to perform the secretive routines which would open it again.
Only the unassuming key that he held would fit the lock in such a perfect way, prompting an obedient click as it was turned. The door's inward swing was accompanied by a protracted creak of hinges, a racket that he had long since decided not to oil or repair. Better to know if someone had breached his defence and was making their descent to his sanctum.
The same reason he tolerated the age and vocal nature of the stairs ahead, narrow to the point of precarious, steep in their downward progress. A shaft cut into the earth, revealed by the dusty dimness of an overhead light as he found and tugged its string.
That age was also evidenced in the first breath he drew, the musty aromas which clung to the air regardless of how he tried to clear them. Dampness and rot, death mouldering in forgotten corners. Taking that into the lungs, looking ahead to the stone and sawdust of the staircase's first landing, anyone could mistake it for the cellar mentioned in his most common lie.
Yet it seemed that the creature in his wake was wise enough to suspend judgement. With the door shut and locked in their wake, it trailed after him instead, matching his pace on those splintered steps. Where his footfalls caused each to groan and shift, however, the intruder proceeded in flawless silence. Even someone of Andrea's meagre weight should have caused some measure of noise, drawing his thoughts again to the varied past which the creature had mentioned.
The places it had been, all that it may have done. Memories shared so carelessly with a child of such tender years. Even if no damage was done to her body through that experience, what harm might come to her mind?
It had to be stopped as soon as possible. Sent away or otherwise annihilated – wouldn't that be the better option? Sear it from the world's surface, prevent it from bringing such grief to any other household. He had seen its body, that ghastly light and filigree, so delicate in appearance. Perhaps that was why it went to the trouble of taking hosts in the first place, protecting the fragility of its true self from those who would rightfully act against it.
His feet met that first landing, deliberate in its filth and neglect. A switchback of sorts for those narrow stairs, turning them back in the direction from which they had come and downward still. Only there, faced toward the second set of steps, did the nature of that place begin to make itself apparent.
Evidenced by a silver luminescence that he had not been able to purge from the air for years, the lingering result of an experiment that had created little more than discoloured flame and an excess of noise. Though he had since perfected that particular method, those reminders of past failure tended to linger like unwelcome guests, ghosts in the corners of his sanctuary.
Whispers beneath the last of those stairs, though it would have been impossible for anyone to occupy such a space. Cutting through that general odour of decay, the sharpness of something between citrus and copper, borne on a static charge which lifted the hairs on his arms.
Walls shielded in the density of metal, riveted, layered to contain anything that such failures might bring about. Though additional light was all but unnecessary in the presence of that phantom glow, the fixtures were kept primed and ready, in case said glow ever decided to abandon his company.
While it remained, it cast a ghostly brilliance over all else that was contained within those walls. Tables that had been manoeuvred down those narrow stairs in pieces and assembled in the openness of the lower chambers. Shelves and plentiful counter space of a similar nature, all polished in immaculate silvers and whites.
Glass and metal, chrome, nothing that would harbour liquid or the rare fall of ash. Much of it occupied by things that he would have cleaned and set in their place if he'd realized that he would be having company.
Experiments halfway completed, wire protruding at awkward angles from the refuge of a half-built engine. Flasks designed to decay or preserve their contents in very specific ways, set between stacks of wrinkled paper. References, the latest among scientific journals, his own notes and observations.
So much potential in that room alone, yet he'd learned years ago that he could not expect anyone else to see it.
Could he? The intruder was starting past him with unexpected speed, regarding his sanctum with terrible eyes opened wide. Like his own daughter on Christmas mornings, a memory that he was forced to shunt aside before it could do irreparable harm to his focus.
“This must be it,” it observed with an elation that he had known more than once over the years. The tone, the triumph, of one who had just been proven right against all odds. “The reason this place was such a beacon to me. You've been reaching to other sides – it would have been impossible for you to avoid attracting attention.” Before he could question its statement, it was stretching on tiptoes before one of those counters, staring into the arrangement of wire and fused metal as though it could read a thousand tales there.
Only then, when it was still and silent for a moment, was he able to catch his breath and reach for the tattered remains of his composure. “What do you mean,” he questioned the unwelcome guest. “Reaching to other sides?”
A finger was raised, tracing the intricate coils of that closest wire. Within a scant centimetre of touching, though the creature seemed to know better than to do so.
“It would be no surprise if you failed to notice,” it informed him in a tone that prodded at his sleeping ire like heated prongs. “There are countless ways to breach the space between without realizing that you've done so. You might harvest energy and different laws from other dimensions for years before someone more knowledgeable arrives to ask why.”
Someone more knowledgeable. That was what stuck in his heart, what tightened his fists in the intruder's presence. Still lording its experience over him, as though to remind him how powerless he was to reclaim his family from it.
Yet even as he clenched teeth against the wounding of his pride, he could not deny a measure of curiosity. A scientist he would always be, and the creature was hinting at a reality that he could never have imagined. New laws, new sources, breaching the simple understanding he'd had of the world. If it was true...
If it was true, then what did it mean for everything he'd ever learned or created? If he developed a machine that only functioned because it tapped into such mysteries, then was it still a triumph that he could claim? If he had-
He had lured it there. Was that not what it had said? Blaming him, in a sense, for drawing it into his life and family. The wounding of his pride had almost distracted him from that insidious wakening of guilt, and his gaze burned into the intruder's back as it continued its examination.
“So you came here,” he questioned in a voice with the fragile edge of porcelain, “To see who might be sapping these- these other dimensions of power?” If such a simple question had provoked its arrival, then could he dare to hope? “Now that your curiosity is answered, will you be departing?”
There was no apology in the way it shook his daughter's head. Treating the query as something so simple, answering as though he'd offered it tea instead of imploring it to leave his family.
“Not yet,” it answered. Casual, simple, more worthy of damnation with every moment it spent in his presence. “She is learning a great deal from our arrangement, and isn't the only one.” Again it was raising her finger, indicating the coil which had fascinated it before. “I've seen this before,” it mused, “On a much larger scale. They use something similar to power the jewel city of Tamering. Not so naked, and they have different ways of dispersing the charge, but you've started on a very profitable course.”
A course already walked by others? Not plotting his own path through discovery, but trudging in the wake of development that had taken place elsewhere?
Perhaps even borrowing the principles, the laws which made it possible?
“I've heard of no 'jewel city',” he informed it in that same frail tone, the only one he could seem to muster in the face of the creature's assault. “Everything that you see here is my own design.”
“Of course it is,” the intruder acknowledged with what seemed like genuine agreement. Or was it simply humouring the remains of his pride? “Some things work the same between many different worlds. It makes sense that, in some of those worlds, similar methods would be discovered for channelling or harvesting them.” In what looked to be a moment of understanding, that dark gaze swung back to him. “It doesn't reduce the merit of each individual discovery.”
It was humouring him. Or pitying him, more likely, for his small-minded prodding at the mysteries of the universe. Universes? A thought which still ached in the back of his skull, inserting itself into too many of his hopes and calculations. If he assumed that he was not standing in the only world, and that others might have developed along far different courses, then...
Then it changed everything. To think of all he'd thought to invent and learn in the world, the only one that existed or mattered. Gwyn's revelations, delivered with such ease, reduced him to nothing more than a repetitive tinkerer among many. And if those other tinkerers were aware of the overlap between worlds, had been for any length of time, then he was worse than one of many. Like a child toying with the safest, least complex version of a chemistry set, or staring agape at the first textbook to tell them how vast and intricate the world truly was.
If that was his stance in the universe, then all the years which remained in his natural life would not be enough. To consider himself truly educated, never mind making a unique or notable contribution to such a whole.
There was a solution to both, wasn't there? His ignorance, the creature's possession of his child. And though he was well-aware of the desperation which drove his words, that would not stop them from tumbling between his lips.
“If you must have a host in this world,” he beseeched the impassive intruder, “Let it be me instead. For her freedom, I would gladly sacrifice myself.”
“No,” the creature repeated that most hated word, offering him not even one of those momentary glances as it did. Too transfixed, it seemed, by the set of half-filled flasks which it examined. “You wouldn't. Otherwise, it's an offer that you would have made prior to this point. Before you understood the full extent of what I could offer you.” Only then did its gaze stray to him, reflecting the ghost of silver light in its depths. “You want to know, and it's a desire that I can understand. That I respect, and share. But you harbour it for all of the wrong reasons.”
Faced with yet another denial of his wishes, he could not disguise the snarl that twisted his lips. “And what,” he interrogated the otherworldly beast, “Would you know of my reasons?”
It was scolding him with his daughter's expression again, laying a possessive hand atop that polished counter. “You can't think yourself such a mystery,” it continued, and must have known how it taunted him with each word. “I've met your kind time and again in my travels. My nature guarantees it.” Its attention swept back to engine and flasks, to jars of preserved and dissected creatures lining shelves. “Power. Recognition. You want to be singular, not for how you could help the world, but for how it would acknowledge you in turn.” At its bidding, a bitter smile played across her lips. “You want to be worshipped,” it concluded. “You'd have had more luck with religion than science.”
He would never have thought to face anyone that way, suffocating in the dense spaces between helplessness and indignant rage. Even in being ousted from the university, there had been a hot, furious hope, the surety of proving them wrong at some point in the future.
Of winning that power. Recognition. That creature, wearing the skin of a loved one, should not have known him half so well.
Yet the words that it forced from her lips confirmed it. He was commonplace, his kind could be found elsewhere in that entwined universe. Perhaps the intruder had spoken those same words to someone else in the past, the same grim, taunting pronouncement.
If it had, however, it had failed to meet the most dire consequences for doing so. It had escaped to perpetuate the grief and violation of its journey, which meant that there was something singular left for him to do.
If he could stop it, if he could wrest those secrets from it. In that he would be the first, his triumph singular, its defeat well-deserved.
How to begin? He could wile away days listing all the ways in which a human body could be broken or subdued, but that couldn't be his current goal, couldn't even be permitted as an unintentional side effect. However he exacted his revenge upon that monster, it had to leave Andrea's physical form unharmed.
As he stood frozen, it had turned from the conversation with such ease. Approaching another of the garish, wired forms on which he'd laboured for months, its various curves meeting along a central line with more than a passing resemblance to the human spine. Strange that the intruder was so prepared to break his heart by inches, yet still displayed the respect to refrain from touching such experiments. Stooped to examine it with greater care, musing in a voice that he hardly heard for the aching throb of his heart.
“Now this,” it noted without a moment's aversion of its gaze, “Is dangerous. Abandon the alternating circuit, or you risk creating a feedback loop. It will burn out not only itself, but everything in a hundred-yard radius.”
Like being a student again, criticized for posture and handwriting. That place existed so he could avoid such scrutiny, so that he could work without the blueprints and disapproval of any other. Yet it sought to spoil even that simple, integral pleasure, leaving him with so little to call his own.
His steps swung forward with new resolve, and still it was distracted. Counting off the ridges in that makeshift spine as though to prove something in the depths of its own mind. His hand closed firm over the arm that it had lifted, and only in the last moment did he remember why it would be wrong to squeeze.
Drawn out of its reverie, it regarded him with night-deep eyes and that sweet, stolen face. Searching his face for motive and meaning, relenting at last with an extended sigh.
“You had other reasons for bringing me here,” it acknowledged as the sigh came to its conclusion. “That was clear. What would you do?”
Even its concession was bitter to behold, the unmistakeable sense that it was humouring him again. Allowing him to prod and beg as he would, knowing that in the end, it would still hold the true power. Like a parent, allowing a child to tend a useless corner of the garden so that their flailing methods would not spoil the whole.
But he was no child. He had wrested secrets from that world for years, by inches, against every obstacle and source of grief. He had wrung knowledge from the intestines and pooling blood of the vivisected, had examined shreds of reality that only the most powerful lenses and careful calibration would reveal.
“I would know all that you know,” he answered its question through gritted teeth, “And I would see you removed from my daughter, never to possess another.”
The incredulity in its gaze was a razor edge, a silent question, as though it couldn't quite believe that he'd spoken the words with sincerity. No attempt made to pull that arm from his grasp, no fear betrayed in the face and body that it had defiled.
“You think,” the intruder questioned him, “That you're the first one to try?”
For once, he was prepared to respond the moment its lips became still. “Not at all,” he turned aside its latest attempt to wound his ego. “An evil such as yours must have been challenged before, or the many worlds that you describe are worth nothing. I may not be the first to try, but I'll be the first to succeed.”
Its gaze seared him in answer, fierce and unrelentingly cold. Danger, wickedness that a child's face should not have been capable of portraying. Nor should her voice have been able to hold such a tone, resonant in its cruelty and purpose.
“You're small,” it informed him in the statement of fact that seemed to resound through most of its words. “I've allowed creatures from the true deep to feed on the edges of my soul. I've pledged allegiance to kings whose kingdoms will not exist for a thousand years. I have trod upon the corpses of deities. Anything you could offer me, I have gained and lost a hundred times before. Any pain you could inflict on me, I've felt a hundredfold in the past, watching from ground zero as universes unmake themselves in answer to a bidding word. So tell me – what would you do?”
He would waver in that moment, at once the father and scientist again. Hating the part of himself that wanted to sit at its feet, absorbing the details of every adventure and invention at which it had alluded. He was clinging to a wealth of information that the greatest of universities could not have imagined, and if it had taken anyone else as its host, they might have been friends.
But he had promised, he had sworn to himself in the worst and darkest of nights. That he would look after her, that she would never want for anything or cry for some grief that he could have prevented. That he would be there to hold her hand for all of the years that the world would allow him, and then he would turn its laws back on themselves to be there for longer.
He had to be the father, first and foremost. The scientist could only be fuel for that fire, fed to the burning in his chest.
He was speaking with conviction again, hauling it to her feet by that captured arm. “Whatever is necessary,” he informed it, betraying none of the doubts which insisted on clawing the edges of his mind. As long as it took, whatever was required, it would be done. The experiments which littered his laboratory would only be useful for how they could contribute to that greatest of causes. “As long as you won't leave her, you'll remain in my custody and under my power, and I promise that you'll regret the experience.”