Prologue: Awakening

Home. That's all Iaka wants, so badly that it hurts. Home. But home is over the horizon, behind time, inside a dream. Here, now, is the city of Cumira, and four people who now look to him to lead them through the streets of gray and gold.

The first thing Iaka knew was the Sound.

The second was a crashing, tinkling, a lesser sound vibrating through the liquid in which he was suspended.

The third was an unpleasant, sucking, oozing motion, carrying him forward from out the warm dark place where he had slept for so long.

The fourth sensation was... everything, all at once. Light flickered and danced (blue white purple red) too bright and too dark and too fast for his eyes to adjust. He caught glimpses of dripping stone, shrieking machinery, sparking computers scattered here and there; blurred shapes huddled on the floor wherever he looked, lying where they'd fallen in spreading puddles of viscous containment fluid.

(he tried to remember what the ruptured tanks were for, what they were doing here, what he was doing here)

Everywhere, above it all, on and on and on, was the overwhelming, all-consuming Sound.

His breath rattled, and with a sharp panic he realized he couldn't breathe. He struck himself in the stomach, again, again, coughing and retching as he convulsed on the wet stone floor. The stuff was thick and heavy and didn't want to come out of his lungs and stomach; but come out it did, eventually, to his great and ragged relief.

Hands grabbed at him. He tried to flinch away, but his muscles refused to obey him, and he found himself being hauled to his feet.

Someone was shouting. Dazed as he was, it took a moment to register that it was his blurry benefactor, and they were shouting at him. He did his best to pay attention, but it was so loud and he was so tired, and staying conscious and upright was already struggle enough.

The white-coated stranger seemed worried by his lack of response. Shouting was replaced by concerned inquiry, which he appreciated despite not understanding a word of it.

The stranger (who he thought might be a woman) sighed, grabbed his arm, and set a brisk pace across the cracked, slippery floor. When he immediately stumbled and fell, the white-coated figure darted back to catch him, cursing softly. White-Coat-Face draped his arm over her shoulders and set off again with as much urgency as before, if a bit more care.

Something kept falling in his face, long and stringy and white. It wasn't until he tried to bat it away that he remembered it was his own hair. His fumbling claws grazed his cheek, leaving bloody scratches; he flinched, groggily dismayed at the warm trickle running down his face, but the pain cleared his head slightly.

"Wh-whrr," he slurred, his voice lost in the cacophony of alarms and gunfire and shouting and roars and screams and the Sound--

Amazingly, White-Coat-Face heard him, and understood. "We're going to the transportation hub," she barked in his ear. "You're underground, heavily sedated, and not safe." They maneuvered around a twisted hunk of metal buried in the floor. "Stay with me or you won't be alive, either."

He nodded dazedly. It was an effort to make out the woman's voice (it was a woman, he was sure of it) through the haze and the Sound and his own sluggish thoughts, but he caught the gist of it. Follow, live. Pass out or fall behind, die.

Or worse.

They ran for what felt like hours, twisting and turning with the dark, close corridors, fleeing by the soft glow of computer monitors and the harsh glare of alarm lights. More than once he nearly collapsed, but White-Coat-Face just hoisted him more firmly over her shoulder and ran faster.

Finally, after what seemed like hundreds of near-identical passageways, they emerged into a huge, rounded chamber of smooth yellow sandstone. This looked more even, more finished than the--the--

(Containment Bunker, his memory supplied)

--less like a hastily blasted cave, and more as though someone had intended Architecture.

Twenty stone doors of monolithic size loomed from all sides, spaced evenly around the length of the circular wall. The wallspace remaining between them was occupied by other, smaller doors, presumably leading to other parts of the vast underground maze.

A few yards from the walls the floor rose sharply into a dais, several hundred yards wide, covered in sigil sketchings and a wide variety of thaumoscopes. In the center of the dais stood a massive obelisk, every available surface of which jutted with stone dials. Colored lines in myriad hues followed the carved conduits, all glowing softly. There were no sensors or other devices integrated into the obelisk, save for one small screen and keypad. Another white-coated figure worked industriously at this terminal while others scurried about, twisting dials, pushing and pulling stone buttons and levers.

Another time, Iaka might have been fascinated by the strange construction, a patchwork of recent technology and ancient thaumaturgical machinery. Now, he simply stared dully as his fogged brain absorbed the details.

White-Coat-Face waved, shouted something to the operators. They waved back and went to work with a will, reaching new heights of frantic activity. A wide line of the floor-sigils began to glow, forming a pathway of pale blue light leading to one of the larger doors.

As he watched, the enormous doorway ground open, revealing a wall of eye-searing electric-blue light, pulsing in time with the floor-sigils. He started to shield his eyes with his hands, but his stinging cheek made him reconsider; he settled for squinting into the glare instead.

The obelisk hummed, the lines on its surface slowly shifting and rippling to match the color of the path and the gateway.

Not just a gateway, Iaka understood too late. A Gateway.

We're going to the transportation hub.

He was aware of more presences around him, both human and Summon, but he couldn't have looked away if he'd tried. The light, although harsh, was mesmerizing, pulsing to a rhythm that was... familiar.

The Sound, he realized. It moving in harmony to the Sound, like a beating heart.

He wondered if he should say something; but White-Coat-Face was yelling again, and then the small cluster of humans and Summons was moving down the path--very careful, he noticed, not to stray from it--toward the Gateway.

It should have been a long walk. It was. And yet it also felt, in a way that worsened his headache, as if they'd hardly moved any distance at all. The door was far away, and then closer, and then rearing over him like a whispering, searing mouth.

He glanced down as they hurried past, noticed that the sigils had grown into thin air (that he was walking on them), and quickly looked away again.

He looked back up, in fact, in time for one clear flashing glimpse of White-Coat-Face--brown hair in a bun, green eyes behind rectangle glasses, mouth open to say something--

--and then the light washed over him, the Sound went silent, and all was darkness once more.

The End

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