I was barely keeping up.
Through the doorway, tip-toeing around an uncharacteristic spash of bile on the floor. It was almost orange against the black carpet. It was drying up. There were teeth in it. But no blood.
It was like walking through a hotel. Every door was numbered, except the closets, stairwells and dumbwaiters.
We passed a jewel case. I wanted to punch it. But not so much to get what's inside as to express my anger.
I had lost count of how many halls we'd traversed, how many doors we'd passed and how many ostentatious displays of impossible wealth we had been exposed to. Something inside me was numbed by it all. It was as if I was following her through some sick, twisted montage meant to tease unrequitingly at my urges until they confessed to torment and faced self-annihilation.
There was an oddly fashioned suit of armour in the next alcove. It hung tightly on a rotund gold dummy. I noticed a smudgy, massive handprint which someone or something had left on the face. The armour looked foreign to me, and ancient. Yet like nothing I could place.
The door knobs were giant diamonds, all the same size and cut, fists of reflective rigidity stuck in runed silver panels. I had no nearly no urge to pull one off when we passed the fifth door of its kind, in a hall of yet another style where every door was alike. Each had a number, in solid black veined with lustrous gray. Obsidian, polished and sharp.
Everything was in grayscale. Even the flames of the lanterns along the hallway, every flame flickering starkly white, as if it were burning something other than air.
3109. Someone must have twisted the six upside down.
We passed a human, who looked downright zombified. He paid us no attention. Or maybe it was a woman. An ugly woman.
"Almost there," said Avalynn, half a second later.
Damn the diamonds.
Then a doorway, down the hall, and through it the decor changes once again. The carpet faded to white, all one continuous strip, and the silver lacing of it began to ripple faster, cresting at a new frequency. And where there was no carpet, the pale, bleached wood panels of the floor replaced themselves with a dark, blackened wood. The nails of blackened steel became glittering silver. And yet the granite doors and glittery black stucco walls continued, only rounder and less edgy.
I no longer felt as if the walls and furnishings were going to dig in like thorns if I got too close. Even the carpet was softer.
"I hate diamonds," I muttered to myself, fooling nobody as I kicked a flesh-encrusted bone out of my way. I am very nearly accustomed to the
"Did you say something?" she asked, her hand on the next door knob.
"No," I lied. I was eager for her to open that door. "Nothing." I wanted nothing. In the next room, I wanted nothing. I wanted to enter a plain, undecorated, uncharacteristically modest room. But maybe something colourful.
Her head swung back toward the door.
Avalynn withdrew her hand from the door knob. "I've missed 3100."
"I don't think there was a 3100," I told her, though I obeyed her wordless cue and went back to double-check.
Sure enough, 3101.
We met halfway, in front of a portrait.
It was of a young man's face. A little gaunt. Pale of skin. Richly brown hair. A goatee. No mustache. The painter had made no lack of effort to avoid depicting the lingering acne on the once-teenage neck. It was a familiar face to me, by now, as I had passed several paintings of him, or that contained him. Or parts of him.
The expression on the face was a serious one. Eyes bulged, staring defiantly forward. Nostrils flared. A slender hand, fingers almost skeletal, with nails prim but sharp, was at his chin. The index finger alone was raised across the center of his lips to the tip of his nose, arching back, tendons tight. Silencing. Cautioning.
"What do think we should do?" Avalynn asked. "Wait here or keep looking elsewhere?"
I snorted. It was ridiculous, to me, that she would be the one asking me such questions.
"Right," she said, leaning against a thin, marbled black baluster. "Look, I can't take much of this. I need to wake up soon. I've been asleep long enough as it is."
I frowned. I had no idea what she meant by that. I eyed the framework of the painting. I was silver and crenelated, inlaid with glossy chunks of charred wood that fitted between every alternating crenel.
"My time in this realm is coming to an end, for now," she clarified.
I gulped. I did not want to be alone in this monstrous palace. Its sheer size, depth and complexity was overwhelming. I had to wonder if my kind had ever built anything to rival it.
Then it caught my eye. The illegible signature of the painting was followed by:
"The other paintings never replaced doors," Avalynn recalled.
"Is it a door?" I asked, reaching for the side of the painting. I could tell, from the look on her face, that she was wondering the same thing.
I pried at it from the right side, and then the left. Then I tried the right again, with more force. On a whim, I added an upward force, and the whole frame clattered right off the painting and the wall, onto the floor with me.
Avalynn put her hands on her hips and gave me nothing but a grunt.
I got to my feet, then picked up the frame and leaned it against the wall.
"That was unfortunate," I admitted. It was such an inane thing to say. But I felt foolish after that. So why not speak foolishly?
"Yes, it was," she said, acknowledging my keen grasp of the blatantly obvious.
Then, she gasped. The painting itself was slowly turning inward, on the panel of a door, exposing a crawlspace. It was too dark to see down.
A man's voice echoed out of it, "What's all that racket out there?"
I looked at Avalynn. She looked at me. Silence hung between us.
"Oh, it's ye," said the voice from the crawlspace.
I had no idea how it was observing us so easily.
"Y'must be tuckered out, Jeri," said the voice. Baritone. Gruff. Accented. Maybe Irish.
"Sure am," I ventured words toward the crawlspace.
"Well, I've just baked some shortbread in here," said the voice.
Shortbread? I wasn't hungry. My body didn't need food anymore.
"It'll taste good," the voice assured me. "Even if you don't need it for sustenance. Come, have a rest."
I looked at Avalynn. She looked at me. Silence hung between us.
Should I trust him?
How is he going to pay you?
Is this your real body? I've never seen purple eyes before...
I pursed my lips. The presence of the voice made me almost feel alive again. There was something hopeful about it. And I wanted to get closer, and hear more of it. I wanted to ask it questions. I was confident that I would get answers.
I craved rich answers. I wanted to steal them, and flee from here with that precious knowledge.
Orthrus. Ambrosia. Necromancy. Ridwan. Melchom. Lilith. Miss Lucy Fair.
Who? Why? How?
Somewhere, far away, a door opened. We heard it. I glanced at Avalynn, but she seemed unconcerned.
"Oh, I see..." said the voice, though I didn't know how it saw. "Mount the frame back on the wall for me, could you?"
Avalynn picked it up, lined up the nails with the hanger, and pressed it into place from above, right around the crawlspace's entrance.
"Good," said the voice, as I began to wonder whether Avalynn had actually heard the door opening down the hall. "Now, do come in. Quick, before someone sees."
Footsteps echoed, rising in volume.
Avalynn's head turned, in the direction of the approaching noise.
"Whoever that is, they better be dead," muttered Avalynn.
"Huh?" said the crawlspace.
I squinted, making out the outline of the person approaching.
The painting slammed shut with a quiet gust of air, making things hopefully less conspicuous.
"Let's keep walking, quietly," she instructed. "We'll come back."
I wanted the shortbread. I wanted the answers. But I followed her lead.