I wasn’t certain how long we walked before I found the courage to speak.
It couldn’t have been all that long. The shifting darkness made it difficult to judge judge just how far we’d travelled. The flickering torches seemed to only make the shadows we passed darker. I could barely make out the corridors that branched off. I would have missed a few had I not caught something moving down them out of the corner of my eyes.
I honestly felt as though we were being followed.
That unsettling thought was precisely why I was so reluctant to say anything. Yet, the silence only made the darkness more oppressive. The only thing that broke the silence were Portcullis’ sharp footsteps. Their crisp rhythm echoed endlessly down the still, stone passages.
Finally, I tugged nervously at the scarf around my neck, and looked up to the towering man. “So... umm... how long is it until we reach London?”
“Hmm?” the pale-skinned giant seemed to have been lost in his own thoughts. Judging by the look in his eyes, he didn’t exactly enjoy being roused from them.
“I... I mean, we’ve been walking a while now, and I’m just-”
“We’ve been in London since we crossed the threshold of the door.” His voice was dismissive, and it made me feel like an idiot for asking the question. I bit my lower lip and looked at the ground, chastised.
Portcullis sighed heavily, and almost reluctantly. “Yes, right. There is no way for you to have known that. My apologies, child.”
I didn’t exactly appreciate being called a child. The apology did lift my spirits some, though, so I wasn’t going to push that part. “Umm... so then where are we going?”
“London and Yekaterinburg don’t share many spiritual ties.” Portcullis waved his hand in a rather matter-of-fact manner. “It stands to reason that the door between the cities wouldn’t be centrally located.”
I nodded. I kinda followed that. I mean, I’d heard of London before. At least, I think I had. My mind still felt incredibly scrambled.
“We could have made a faster trip had we gone through Moscow or St. Petersburg. I just didn’t want to run the risk of the authorities there claiming you for their own.”
Well now, that particular bit of information made me almost trip over my overlarge feet. “Wait... what would Russia want me? I... well, for one I don’t speak Russian, and-”
“You’re a horror with a human soul,” Portcullis said matter-of-factly, his face remaining unreadable. “Perhaps a hundred like you emerge in a year. Half of them are maddened by their experience in the Pit.” Just mentioning the word seemed to draw the shadows closer around us. The usher took a slight breath to ready himself before continuing on. “Simply, you’re rather unique in a way we don’t fully understand. There’s a certain prestige for one to recover a horrors such as yourself. It’s why I believe Sbórščik gave you that scarf of his.”
I looked down at the bright red scarf in my hands. I hadn’t even noticed I’d been nervously fiddling with the fraying endings. Heck, I was so nervous my new claws had apparently torn a few rips into the ends of the crimson shawl. At least I think I’d torn it. I furrowed my brow and thought back to that bleak Russian street.
The Collector had knelt down, and taken one of the scarves off of his arm. It was faded red one, ragged and patched up in places. “Here,” he had said, gently draping it around my shoulders. “Is something to be remembering me by. Do not be removing it, for me, okay?”
I ran my claws along the fabric. It was hard to tell in this lighting, but it seemed like it was brighter and-
“It’s bonded to you.”
I looked up at Portcullis in confusion. “It’s... what?”
“That scarf was some of Sbórščik’s fear, given to you. Rather kind of him, but I’ve always liked the fellow. Regardless, the scarf is part of you now. It already suits you better, red and torn, not patchwork like him.” a stiff smile tugged at the corner of the usher’s thin lips. “In case you were worried you’d already torn it.”
My gaze returned to the scarf in my hands again. “Umm... right.” I think understood the gist of what he was saying, but not the exact details. “So... so this is like... like him-”
I scoffed and shook my head, laughing under my breath. “I am not going to be able to say that, no matter how many times you repeat it. But, this... this scarf is him giving me some of his power?”
“Something not entirely unlike that, yes,” Portcullis replied, in no way answering my question.
But before I could ask a follow-up, he made a sharp turned through a previously unseen door. I hustled after him, and stumbled forth into a massive chamber.
Now, I’m certain some of it was exaggerated by my own much-reduced size. But from where I was standing, this cavernous hall seemed to easily be the size of a large stadium. Hundreds of chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Each of these cast thousands of flickering shadows on the myriad rows of benches and chairs. And each of these were filled filled with a dizzying array of creatures. There were men and women in robes, chatting away, as glowing orbs danced around their heads. A group of what looked like pale-skinned punks lounged about. What appeared to a gryphon was arguing loudly with a woman with long, pointed ears and silvery hair. An elf? There were walking wolves, shambling mummies, flickering phantoms, and- “Is that a dragon?”
“Hmm?” Portcullis cast an idle glance over his shoulder. The towering, blue-scaled beast looked as if it had been ripped right from a fantasy painting. “Wonderful. Azuriax. Wonder what’s drawn that pain in the arse down here this week.” The usher looked down at me. “Word to the wise, Fringe. Don't become involved in the affairs of dragons. They are invariably the most pretentious sods I have had the displeasure of dealing with. Now keep up here!”
I shook my head and tore my eyes from the fantastical menagerie before me. This proved harder than I thought it would be. Everywhere I looked seemed to be filled with some new, fantastic being. Were they all horrors? The Collector had mentioned spirits and werewolves as if they were different. So then, were all these creatures also distinct beings? Or was it something else entirely?
I mean, a lot of the things here looked rather human, more human than either Portcullis or the Collector had. Had I bumped into one on the street, I wouldn’t have thought them out of the ordinary. Yet, for every handful of human-like things, there were ones that were obviously monstrous. There was a bald, gaunt man whose mouth was filled with vicious fangs. There was a man with goat legs and horns. There was a short, stout fellow with an impressively braided beard. There was a ten-foot-tall woman with blue, tattooed skin and ice-white hair. There was a hunched over man-bat-thing. There was a tall, deathly pale man in a gold-trimmed red uniform-
...wait a second. That was Portcullis! Already, he was vanishing among the winding queues that filled the far side of the room. “He-hey!” I shouted, and made to run after him... only to tangle my feet together, slamming face first into the ground. “Stupid... claws....” I grumbled, pushing myself up onto all fours. Wait... weasels walked on four legs, so did that mean I was supposed to walk on four legs now? I mean, I had been walking on just my hind feet.. I think?
I mean, it was worth a try. So, is it left foot right hand, or left foot left hand, or was it both hands, and-
It was a couple minutes later that Portcullis stomped back over to where I was busy tying myself in knots. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to figure out how weasels do it...” I grumbled through clenched fangs, pushing myself to my feet again.
The usher just sighed, rubbing his eyes in frustration.
“I’d like to see you do this!” I shot back at him.
“Fringe,” the usher knelt, his long, red coat spreading out around him. “Were you under the impression that you were walking like a human this whole time?”
I scoffed up at him “Well... yeah. I mean, I have been! Do you seriously expect me to believe I've been walking around like an animal and hadn't noticed?"
The usher sighed. "Yes. Just as, if Sbórščik is to be believed, you'd been looking like an animal and hadn't noticed."
I’ll admit, I really didn’t have a response to that. Instead, I bowed my head, abashed. How much had I changed here?
“The only problem it is giving you now is that you are thinking too hard about it. Just move as comes naturally." Portcullis stood and turned around, lightly dusting off his jacket. “Just try to keep up this time.”
Right, just move naturally. I grunted and pushed myself onto my feet. “Right, okay....” Don’t think, don’t try anything special, just walk.
I took a few steps forwards, and somehow managed to not embarrass myself. I guess it wasn’t so hard. “Hey, wait up!” I shouted after the usher, and began to charge after him.
Only to end up in a tangled heap, my snout thudding into Portcullis’ boot. He halted and looked down at me, eyebrows arched in question.
I shook my head and straightened out. “Okay, serious question. Was I really going around on all fours earlier?”
"No," the corners of the usher’s thin mouth turned up giving the closest thing to a real smile I’d seen from him. "But it's an old trick, and I’ve seen it work in the past."
I growled and pushed myself onto my hind legs, feeling flushed with embarrassment. “Thanks for that,” I muttered under my breath.
“As I said, it can work,” he noted, picking up his pace once again. “You just have to stop being so self-conscious.”
Yeah, I was a two-foot-tall, talking weasel. That wasn’t going to happen.
I followed the pale giant as we made our way around the room. We gave the weird creatures milling about a wide berth. There was a great deal of activity around the doors on the far side of the room. Dozens of them were constantly swinging open and shut in a ceaseless bustle. I couldn’t quite see what lay beyond, given my position so uncomfortably close to the ground. I think I caught a glimpse of a bright red bus rushing past one, kicking up a spray of water. The one right next to it looked over a broad river with a few boats bobbing past.
Right, so doors were weird now.
Portcullis came to stop at a massive bank of counters that lined the wall opposite to the strange doors. There was a rather imposing queue leading up to the counters. Like the rest of the hall, this line filled with a dizzying array of strange beings. Many more such beings clustered around tills. Many of them were engaged in conversation with the monstrous-looking creatures on the inside. Discounting the strange forms possessed by these creatures, this could almost be considered normal. Boring even!
I breathed a minor sigh of relief when Portcullis bypassed the queue. Instead, he headed straight towards a much shorter line. This line stood before a booth, somewhat apart from the others. Next to the booth towered a rather imposing set of double doors.
Indeed, the only person in this line was a short, balding creature that looked identical to a human. He was nervously checking over a few papers, while muttering to himself under his breath.
Portcullis strode straight up to the man, and placed a gloved hand on his shoulder. “I think you’re in the wrong line, Darryl.”
The small man sighed and shook his head with annoyance, raising a hand in protest. “Listen, I don’t see where you horrors get off with your own special line. I am currently dealing with a matter of vital import. And I will have you know, sir, that I am fully aware of my rights here as guaranteed...” his wheezy voice trailed off as he noticed the red uniform. Slowly, almost reluctantly, his gaze followed up Portcullis’ arm. One could see the colour drain from his face as he reached the stern, pale face of the usher.
At that point, the man’s eyes doubled in size, and a black cloud began to rise off him.
“Ahem... sorry, sir. Thought you were some minor busy-body here. Yes, well, I mean, if you have something urgent to attend to then I guess I shall be forced to let you-”
“Go into the main line, Darryl.”
The man’s shoulders slouched. With a defeated sigh, he picked up the crate at his feet. The man then trudged over to the main line, leaving behind him a wispy, dark mist. I caught of a whiff of that cloud, and it was intoxicating! It was almost like that scent that drew me to Russia. Almost, but not quite. And far less intense. Like a watered down version.
I felt a growl rise in my throat. That could be changed of course.
I shook my head and looked up at Portcullis “Hunh?”
“Could you not, please?”
“Do the whole monster thing here, please?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, so I just shrugged and sighed “Whatever...” that weird black fog had vanished anyways. “So, did you know that guy?” I hooked a claw over my shoulder in the direction the nervous creature had retreated.
The usher gave a brief glance over his shoulder at the departing man. “Darryl Flitman. Owns a menagerie of supernatural creatures down in Brighton. He comes in here every few months. He's typically requesting permission to stock some new and dangerous creature. One that would inevitably kill thousands should it get out. Runs a tight ship, thankfully, so nobody’s had to cover up for him... yet.”
“Right, and what kind of monster was he?”
“Darryl?” Portcullis scoffed, and looked down at me, making certain I was serious. “Darryl’s a human.”
“Wait, okay, hold up!” I made a t-shape with my hands, “You mean to tell me there are humans here?”
“Well, yes. Most-”
I pointed at a pair of human-looking creatures in business suits, “So those are...”
“And them?” I indicated the robbed people with the lights dancing around them.
“Humans... mages if I had to guess. Now, Fringe-”
“And them?” I pointed at the pale folks drinking what I presumed to be blood.
Portcullis sighed, “Vampires. I’d think that was obvious...”
“Yeah, I just found out that vampires existed. Thanks.” I then pointed a group of what appeared to be humans over in a corner, “And those?”
“Two humans, and a wererat, if I’m judging correctly. Honestly, Fringe, this-”
I jabbed a claw in the direction of the hunched-over bat-creature, “So, then, is that a vampire or a horror?”
He sighed, “That’s Dr. Benjamin Obasanjo, professor of antiquities at Cambridge.”
I scoffed up at Portcullis, “Okay, seriously?”
The usher responded with a flat “Yes.”
“You’re telling me you know exactly who that is?”
Portcullis rolled his eyes. “There are a hundred or so werebats in England. Only one of them hasn’t figured out how to shift into human form, and that’s Dr. Obasanjo. He became cursed five years ago, if I recall, when he was exploring Aztec ruins in the Yucatan.”
“Hunh....” I stared at the bat, er, man, er, Dr. Obasanjo as he sat down and picked up a copy of a newspaper from the table in front of him.
“Fringe, did your parents never teach you not to gawk at strangers?”
I snapped my attention back to the kiosks of me, feeling incredibly self-conscious. “I... well, I don’t really remember....”
“It seems that they did...” the usher muttered as he straightened up and clasped his hands behind his back.
“I’m sorry... I just, well, I... I had no idea that any of this existed!” I gestured around the room. “Like, I thought that werewolves and vampires and... and closet monsters!" I plucked at the ruff of fur on my chest “I thought all this was just a bunch of stories! Things people dressed as on Halloween. Well, maybe not closet monsters, but... you get my point!”
“That means the Veil was doing its job,” Portcullis responded, not even looking down at me.
The usher seemed to groan inwardly. “It’s... a long explanation. To put it simply, the Veil is what divides the magical world from the mundane one you grew up in.”
“Okay... but why?”
He groaned outwardly now, “I did just say it’s a long explanation, did I not?”
I crossed my arms and released an annoyed huff, but it was clear I wasn’t going to get anywhere. But before I got out more than a “So...,” a harsh voice shouted out “NEXT!” and Portcullis began striding forward.
“Got ‘er now, guv?” the voice that came from behind the till was gritty and unpleasant. It sounded if the speaker gargled with whiskey and cigarette butts every morning. His coarse accent didn’t help the comprehension much, either.
Well, at least I think it was a he. After all, I’m not exactly one to tell the gender of giant spider monsters.
The man-sized arachnid rose up on its spindly legs. It stared down at me over with the counter with his disturbingly human eyes. A lop-sided grin made his mandibled maw look both terrifying and hilarious at the same time. Yet, as awkward it looked, a giant spider leering down at you isn’t going to make you laugh.
Especially not after the kind of day I’d had.
“This is her, Spinner.”
“Bit of a small one now, ain’t she?”
I looked up at the spider and tried my best to puff out my chest. “Hey!”
“Got some spirit, though, I’ll give ‘er that.”
Portcullis let loose another belaboured sigh. “Are you done mocking the closet monster, Spinner, or shall I order myself a bite to eat?”
“I ain’t got much better to do here today, ‘Culley!” the spider quipped, turning his smug grin onto the usher. “But if sending her on her merry way means I don't gotta deal with you, then I’ve already wasted enough time.”
“Just don’t cock this one up.” Portcullis growled at the spider beast as it began fishing around its desk for a bunch of papers.
“Oh, come now, that last kid you brought in ended up alright!”
“You sent a winter monster to Queensland. Now, I don’t know if you’ve been to Oz, Spinner, but Queensland’s one of the warm parts. With jungles, you know?”
The spider shrugged “Could’ve sworn the kid was a wild one...”
The look Portcullis gave me was a desperate plea for help, and I could only shrug helplessly back. After all, I could barely understand what the spider beast was saying through his accent. Coupled with my rather selective amnesia meant most of the discussion flew right over my head.
“Alright, got ‘er!” the spider announced victoriously. He then reached down over the counter, and jerked me up in a pair of claws. Rather suddenly I might add.
I made to protest, but before I could get much more than an annoyed “Hey!” out of my mouth, I was set down on the counter. The spider creature clicked his mandibles as he took the lid off of an ornate pen.
“Alright, luv, what’s your name here?”
I blinked a bit, “Umm, well....”
The spider looked at me with a bit of confusion, eyebrows cocked over at least three eyes. After I shuffled my feet a bit, he turned his questioning eyes to Portcullis.
“She is a reborn, Spinner.”
“Oh, right!” the spider leaned down and looked me straight on with his eight too-human eyes. “Did you pick a name out for yourself yet? I can suggest a few! Claw, Fang, Blade maybe... Weasel’s always a good one, and it’s not all that common either. Eh, but you’re more of a ferret really....”
What? I raised my claw to speak, but continued to ramble on.
“Mask, maybe, ‘cause of that mask across your eyes... or Masque if you’re feeling exotic. Red, ‘cause of the blood red around your paws, and your claws right? Or maybe Blood? That’s always a good-”
I stopped him rather quickly there. “It’s Fringe.”
“Fringe, eh?” the spider clicked his mandibles. “Interesting choice... like that TV show, right?” I didn’t have a chance to respond with a “What?” before he hurried on, scribbling stuff down on the paper before him. “Haven’t met many Fringes in my day, so you’re gonna stand out a bit. Which is a good thing. Last thing we need is another ‘Shade’ or ‘Black’ or ‘Grim’. Some blokes just don’t have a creative bone in their body. Right, so where were you spawned?”
“I... well, you know,” I tugged at my scarf nervously again, “I mean, it was that great, black-”
The spider jerked around and slammed two claws over my mouth. “Nope! Not interested in that. Really not interested in that, thanks luv.” His breathing was coming hard and fast. It was clear that this guy had been traumatized by his experiences in the Pit as well. How many people down here had gone through that? Was that something all supernatural beings shared?
It took him a couple seconds to calm down and release his grasp on me. “I’m, well, I’m actually asking you where you were found, okay? For census purposes and the like.”
“Oh... yeah. Eh-katrinsk...”
“Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia,” Portcullis offered, helpfully. I honestly hoped I didn’t have to learn to spell that.
“Well, that’s kinda neat. A Yank spawning in Russia?” the spider chucked. “Wonder what’s the story behind that.”
I bit my lip and shrugged, unable to do much more than shake my head, “I’m... I’m sorry, but I don’t really remember much.”
The spider chuckled. “You keep that up and I might just have to mark you down as Canadian instead.”
“Yeah, that.” Spinner seemed way too pleased at some internal joke he was making at my expense. Thankfully, he didn’t linger on it. Instead, he dove right into the next question, “Okay, so who was it who found you?”
“Oh, right! It was the Collector!”
The spider looked up from his scribblings and cocked several eyebrows, “Come again, luv?”
“He said his name was the Collector.”
“I... the Collector’s from-”
“Sbórščik,” Portcullis interjected, causing the spider’s eyes to alight with understanding.
“Oh, Sibor! Great guy! Shame they shuffled him off to the ass end of Russia. He was a riot at parties... I mean, bloody depressing at times if you listened to some of his stories. But did you know he once drank Asegirr the Iron-Handed under the table? That was a beautiful ruckus, that was! Anyways, kid, got any idea of your fear?”
It took me a moment to realize he was talking to me and wasn’t just more idle banter. “Umm... what?”
“You know, what are you, really? You the fear of having things nicked from you? You the phobia of claws? I mean, you’ve gotta have some idea, right?”
I shook my head. I had absolutely no idea what he was even asking.
The spider looked somewhat disappointed, and his many shoulders sagged. “Right, then, Culley, could you hold her still then?”
I took a step back, “Why... why does Portcullis need to hold me?”
It was then I was reminded of the old adage: don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to.
The spider drew out a massive needle that seemed to be made of rusting iron and tarnished brass. A winding hose connected the needle to some kind of archaic stove, with far too many knobs and dials. The entire device seemed like it was ripped straight out of the Victorian era. “Well, it’s simple, kid. This contraption here hurts. A lot.”
Before I had time to react, I was pushed to the counter, held down by Portcullis’ bony hands.
“Guys! Please!” I begged, but it didn’t seem to have any impact. Instead, the spider’s chitinous claws tapped across my shoulders. One tap located some point right between my shoulders that set my entire body rigid.
“Right, luv, just close your eyes and think... well, honestly, you won’t be able to think of much here.”
And with that cheery bit of encouragement, he shoved the needle into my spine, and I screamed out.
Everything was white.
Everything was broken.
Everything was wrong.
I couldn’t get out.
I needed to get out.
But a horrible blade of metal pierced me.
It bound me to this place.
I screamed, I cried, I clawed. But nobody came.
I was alone, I was trapped, and I wasn’t going to get out. Ever.
This was my fate.
Had I ever really escaped from this place?
Was that horrible black void just madness sinking in?
Was that fantastical world just a lie I made up in a vain effort to keep my sanity?
Is this all there was?
This dead white maze, tumbling into ruin around me, falling into ruin only to rebuild itself anew?
There was no escape.
There could never be an escape.
I could never get out.
The needle came out with an excruciating jerk, and I let in a frantic gasp. My chest heaved, my ears rang, and my heavy breaths brought a bitter taste to my mouth.
Spinner was right. It did hurt, a lot.
“Easy now, luv!” the spider said as he removed his claws from my shoulders. “Don’t wanna get up too quickly. Coming down from an adrenaline rush like that will knock your balance right out.”
It took me several moments to even begin to think straight enough to respond with words. Eventually I managed one: “What?”
“Needed to find out what you were the fear of.” Spinner said, rather matter-of-factly, as he fiddled with something behind the desk. “Best way to do that? Make you absolutely terrified, then take a look at your soul.”
That made absolutely no sense, so I wheezed out another “what” between panting breaths.
That word was quickly becoming my go-to response for everything.
“You know, to be honest, I don’t really understand, myself. Just repeating what the mad folks from the Tech told me. All I know is this contraption here works really well. Also, seems to beat the piss out of those who get spiked by it... as you’re figuring out first hand here.”
I managed to somehow find the strength to raise an arm. I then flipped my hand around, and presented the spider with my middle claw.
Spinner let loose a cackle that sounded something like a dying cat hacking up a lung. “Just like I said, this one’s got spirit, Culley! Keep a close watch on her, alright?”
The usher responded with a chuckle. “The human soul never ceases to amaze me....”
The chime of a small bell broke through their shared levity, and the spider wiped a claw across his eyes. “Right, kid, let’s see what we’ve got here...” Spinner held up a small vial, holding a swirling white fog that seemed to be constantly shifting. Crumbling. Growing.
A ringing sounded in my ears, and the bitter taste returned to my mouth. I swiftly averted my eyes. That thing, whatever it was, was wrong. Just wrong. “What... is that?”
“Well, you’re a horror now, right?” Spinner asked offhandedly, still pondering the vial, “And we horrors are living fears. Every one of us is something that people are afraid of. And it seems like you’re... hmm...” he tapped the jar with one of mandibles, “I’d say some kind of fear of being trapped. What would you say, Culley?”
The usher leaned forward, to get a better look at the thing. I don’t know how he could stand it. It was wrong. Even thinking about it made my skin crawl. I wrapped myself tighter in my scarf, as Portcullis pondered above me.
“Perhaps... fear of being trapped in a collapsing building? Would explain the crumbling walls.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. Just trying to understand the white there... some kind of lab maybe?”
“Oh, that’s an idea! Got that sterile kind of feel to it that florescent light does...”
“COULD YOU STOP IT!” I shouted out, stomping my foot on the counter top. The more they talked about that... that thing, the more agitated I was becoming. It was like somebody scratched their nails across a chalkboard. Meanwhile, others were discussing the artistic merit of the ensuing noise. I didn’t even want to think about it, but the more they talked about it, the more I was forced to admit it existed.
Portcullis sighed, and straightened back up. “She’s right, Spinner. She’s been through a lot today, and the last thing you want to do on a stressful day is deal with your own fear.”
The spider clicked his mandibles in annoyance, but set the vial down. I hadn’t noticed, but the fur along my shoulders had ruffled out. It was only beginning to flatten back down now that the damned ‘fear’ had been put away. Wonderful. Seemed like ‘raising my hackles’ was no longer just an idiom for me.
“Right,” Spinner said, shuffling things around, and locking the vial away in a case. “I’ll just mark you down as ‘fear of being trapped in a crumbling building’ for now. How does that sound, kid?”
I waved my hand. “Yeah, whatever.” At this point, I really couldn’t care less.
“So, Culley, when did Sibor come across her?”
The usher thought for a few moments, “According to him, this morning. Therefor, given the time difference, I’d say she came to either last night or this morning.”
Spinner’s mandibles clicked as he looked over a calendar, “Hmm... I’ll mark September 3rd, just to be on the safe side here.”
That couldn’t be right.
I didn’t know why, I just knew it wasn’t right.
I rubbed the side of my head, “No...” I said aloud. “It... it’s March. It’s March! I know... because I hadn’t yet....” I ran my hand through my rough mane of hair What hadn’t I done? There was something I did in the Spring, every Spring. I bit my tongue and tilted my head back. My eyes squinted up at the shadows playing across the cavernous ceiling. I couldn’t remember what it was.
The two other monsters remained silent as I agonized over this. I think it became evident fairly quickly that I wasn't getting anywhere with this.
“AARGH!” I slammed my palm into my head. It was like a puzzle, but somebody tossed away half the pieces and replaced them with blank, black tiles. There were a few small things I could remember, but the big picture? I had not clue.
“Fringe...” Portcullis said, a slight degree of hesitation in his voice. “Today is the fourth of September, 2016. I don’t know how long you were gone for, but...”
I shook my head, not willing to accept what they were telling me. “It’s March...”
“The... well, the void... I don’t know what Sbórščik told you of the Pit... but... but that place is the End of Everything. Everything includes time. It seems to me that you spent around seven months on Earth within...”
Seven months... I shook my head. On one hand, it hadn’t seemed that long. Yet, it had also seemed like I'd been in the darkness for an eternity. My shoulders sagged, and I let loose a massive sigh. “Okay... okay, that I can... that I can kinda see.”
Seven months, lost to that void.
Could have been worse, I guess. I mean, I could have died instead.
Yeah, that was pretty much the only way I could think of this being worse.
Spinner’s clicking mandibles once again brought me out of my reverie. “Right, so...”
“Actually, that will be enough, Spinne.” Portcullis said, withdrawing a folded note from one of his jackets' pockets. “You can ask her further information at a later date.”
The spider monster snatched the note from the usher’s hand, his eight eyes scanning over it. “Well if that’s the way it’s going to be!” the spider clicked his mandibles and clapped two of his eight claws together. Another two claws busied themselves placing the form and the box containing the vial into a tube. His eyes left the note and focused instead on me. “Looks like you should be all processed within a few days here! Now, if you wouldn't mind, we should be getting that back to Sibor.” As two more of his claws grabbed my scarf, I took a step back. Portcullis leaned forward, laying one of his gloved hands on Spinner’s limbs.
“Actually, Sbórščik wanted her to keep it.” the usher said in response to the confused look on the giant spider’s face.
“Really? Isn’t that just a bit unusual?”
I didn’t see what the pale giant said or did, but Spinner’s look of confusion was replaced with one of surprise. And more than a little fear.
“Ahh, hunh... so, you’ll be needing a place for a while, Fringe?”
I shrugged, rather confused by this turn of events “I... I guess?”
“We’ve got a few rooms for you to crash in while we find a more permanent place to put you up.” The upbeat tone returned to the spider’s voice as he fished around in his voluminous cubicle. “Here we go! Room 1493!” he held out a spindly limb, and dropped the key into Portcullis’ waiting hand. “Trust you know your way there, Culley?”
The look Portcullis gave the spider was one of blatant annoyance, he wasn’t even trying to hide it this time. But instead of retorting, he picked me up and returned me to the ground. “Follow me, Fringe!” he said as he shoved his way through the massive double doors beside Spinner’s desk.
I looked up at the spider monster. He grinned a rather fake looking smile down at me, a pained attempt at looking comforting. “Welcome to the Netherworld, Fringe.”
Then, with a slight grimace, he turned his attention back to the massive chamber beyond.