A/N 1: Well, it's taken me ages, but I have an excuse - I've been getting used to life at university, so I haven't had all that much time to write. Hopefully this'll improve soon! Much love for everyone on y!m, MSN and email who've been prodding me into life, I need the occasional poke!
A Heaven of Hell
Chapter 5: Will's Well
"--What power would hell have if those imprisoned here would not be able to dream of heaven?"
--Neil Gaiman, 'Preludes & Nocturnes'
What bothered me even more than the weird, somnolent atmosphere of the place was that the front door had no lock. There were no bars on the windows, no gates, security cameras or any of the odds and ends you'd expect a madhouse to have. There were sharp edges and sharp implements by the dozen for anyone who wanted blood and scars, and if I'd wanted to at any time I could have strolled out of that door and wandered off across the fields into the sunset and never looked back.
But - and this was terrifying in itself - I didn't want to.
It had nothing to do with the friends I'd made, nor did it have anything to do with my believing there was something wrong with me. I just didn't want to walk out of that door.
"It's because they don't want you to leave," Mia muttered with a toss of her head, her eyes flashing dangerously. "Just as they don't want any of us dead yet."
I couldn't bring myself to ask who they were. I was frightened that I already knew.
The morning swept past in a haze of colours, clay and giggles; Luke stayed well away from us and never, not once, so much as looked in our direction. Not that I was watching him, of course. I was paying close attention to my work. It was hard not to notice him, that was all. He shimmered in the corner of my eye from time to time, and I'd glance over, and he'd be riveted, drawing or painting or writing, not distracted in the least. My own distraction bothered me.
Kieran noticed my glances. When Ben and Aya were off - Ben getting some silver card, Aya picking new paintbrushes - he moved around the table and sat down beside me, pretending to help me shade the stones of the castle wall I'd been drawing half-heartedly.
"Mia's stubborn dislike does her no justice," Kieran said in a hushed aside when she was not in earshot.
"It seems justified, if he keeps attracting bad attention like that," I replied guardedly. "I mean, if you keep in the company of bad people, you tend to get--"
"Everyone here's bad to be around," he said wryly. His fingers were working quickly over the paper, smudging lines into shadows. "But I suspect staying away from him does more harm in the longterm than it would in the short term."
I looked at him, expecting him to dismiss it and change the subject. But he didn't. His eyes were large and dark and serious as always, yet they weren't the eyes of a teenager. They made me think, for some vague horrific reason, of a soldier's wounds, raw and full of an undefinable hurt. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that Mia's so worried about the here and now, about what'll happen today and tomorrow and the day after, she doesn't realise there's a future bigger than that on the horizon. We could gamble on tomorrow or we could just let it slip. She's already decided - for all of us - and I'm not sure it's the right decision to make."
I gazed at him wordlessly for a moment and could find nothing at all to say.
Lunchtime came fast. As soon as the bell rang Mia seized my hand and pulled me after her down the corridor, completely ignorant of the fact that my hands were smeared with charcoal and green chalk. No one watched us go, but a path for us seemed cut through the spindly, blunted mass of people. I recognised a few from the previous day, all bleary-eyed and gathered in little knots of people talking to each other in hushed whispers and giggling almost like normal people. For a moment I thought I was standing in some American high school, surrounded by the stereotypical segregations, with the blonde popular girls and the brawny jocks and the unpopular buck-toothed geeks.
But there were the orderlies standing at the end of the corridor, dressed in perfectly-starched black trousers and shirts, hands folded behind their backs and their pale hollow-eyed faces completely blank and serene. They alone watched us, devoid of any flicker of life.
Mia's grip tightened. She was incredibly strong.
The sunlight hit me like a thunderbolt, sudden and heavy and hot and so bright it sent a myriad of twisted shapes and colours swirling behind my eyes. I blinked, almost tripped over a step and suddenly Mia was still, my hand released from her grasp. I looked up and around me and blinked again.
The air was sweet with the cold of early autumn, the promise of frost and the rot of the summer leaves, rustling around the stony little area on a pitiful little breeze that barely mussed my hair. I felt the touch of it upon my cheek and it was gentle and soft like velvet, but it was chilling, so chilling.
Looking up, I saw the Well. It was little more than a pile of roughly-hewn chunks of stone arranged around a hole in the ground, at least three feet high, upon a raised platform of different-coloured sandstone that had been cut and arranged into a strange Celtic knot pattern, only it was far more convoluted than any such design I'd ever seen. The very shape of it seemed to get more and more insanely intricate the longer I looked at it, at the overall pattern, and it was a tough wrench to look away. The garden was just flagstones cornered in moss with thin reedy bushes in the shadow of the high grey walls, bulky and sharp with rough rocks and splotched with vivid lichen and little bursts of weed. Ivy and sick-looking trees clustered under the protection of the wall in clumps of rustling shadow. It was quiet, except for the persistant whisper of wind. So quiet.
The Tower loomed over us. It seemed like a sentinel, a guard, although a guard of what I didn't know. The sun gleamed weakly opposite it in the sky. It looked, for an absurd splinter of a moment, as if some weird force was trying to attack the sun with a long, dark, glinting knife. I shivered.
"I'm here," Luke said, from where he sat on the rim of the Well. He was fiddling with a loose thread from his dark red sweatshirt sleeve, pulled over his knuckles as he inspected it closely. "I'm ready to tell you what I know."
"Fanfuckingtastic." Mia crossed her arms. "Do go on."
"First, though," he tugged on the loose thread and wrinkled his nose as if displeased, "I need to know what you know. We're all here. No one we don't want to will overhear us. There is nothing to be afraid of and nothing that should be kept back. You first, Mia. Yours is the first part of the jigsaw."
After a few moments of silence in which the balance of everything seemed to shift a world over, Mia told him. We listened. Aya helped her, and Ben added things, and Kieran cut in to clarify, but she was the one doing the telling. They all told of things some didn't know; everyone carries a different tale, somewhere inside. But Mia. There was something in her telling beyond the relaying of information, beyond the attempt to piece together some formless mystery into a clarified whole; there was something of an abdication in her words. I don't know if she realised it then, but it was the beginning of the end of her so-called leadership of our small group. In giving Luke her information, she was making him our head, our leader, our first. It was such a small moment then. So small. I felt the click and the change of gear as her words flowed and I knew what these things can be like when time and nature magnifies them. They can suddenly be the difference between surviving and... not.
She told him about the girl who had been in my room before, who had died, scratching the skin away from her wrists with her ragged fingernails until she clawed her way through her arteries and bled to death on her bed, her blood and gore soaking itself into bedding and the floor. She told us about the nightmare she'd had, of the tower becoming a tornado, ripping the hospital up from its foundations to reveal a broiling, bubbling volcano below - and Kieran murmured that it was his nightmare too, and then Ben admitted he'd also had it, and yet though they could all describe it word for word, they had all dreamt different endings to the same dream. She told us about the watchful eyes that were not there, about what the orderlies see and often do, and that though they might be guards she suspected they did no guarding. She said so much and yet there was more to say, more that no words could quite encompass.
There was silence again while we let the words sink in. Mia was pale and her eyes were reddened; Kieran was staring away into a distant part of the garden, probably beyond it. Aya was hugging herself against the cold. Ben bit his lip as he scowled down at the flagstones, one hand clenched in a tight fist by his side. Luke still sat, hunched, on the side of the Well. He seemed calm.
He pulled the thread out from his sleeve with a sudden snap.
"There are goblins," he said finally, announcing it with a sigh. "They live in the obsidian floor. They help me and talk to me and they really do exist and most of them have been enslaved by Knull. With their help I stole one of Zara's scrapbooks and looked into her dreams. Knull hates me because he can't work out what I am. It aggravates him because once he's worked out what I am, he'll know what he is, and all he knows is that I'm his opposite in every way and that I'm not going to help him work himself out. If he works it out, he'll work out what he can do, and the goblins have said that he's powerful enough as it is and if he knows what he can do, there'll be no stopping him. One out of every ten people here is like he is, like I am, like... like how you lot are, I suppose, except each of us is different. Most of the madness here is genuine. Sometimes it's inflicted. That girl," he said, looking up at Mia, "was called Rebecca. She was a... an experiment, I think, and it went wrong. Obviously, it went wrong. I knew her quite well when I was first here. The girl before her died too. I don't know if there were any before that. But Zara's his next attempt and she'll probably die too unless something happens."
He was looking at me. I could only gape at him, all words fled, shock rushing through me like crushed ice in my blood, and I couldn't even move.
"Assume, for a moment, that you don't need eyes to see or hands to touch those sculptures of yours," he continued, pointing at Mia, who flinched. "Assume that you don't need a tongue to taste, or a nose to smell the scents of what you cook," he said to Aya, walking around to Ben, "or ears to hear those symphonies you conjure up on a whim. Assume you don't need those senses. Assume you can go beyond all that. Then you can start to understand Knull and understand this place."
"They'll need a whole lot more than that," someone said from beside us as a shadow detatched itself from the shelter of the wall. "A hell of a lot more."
Luke slid off the well and stood up straight, facing the shadow, who turned out to be a tall red-headed boy. "There's nothing else for me to say," he replied.
"Then you need to know what I do." He turned to look at me. "I'm Will."
"I'm Zara," I said, for lack of anything else to say. He was very tall, and his hair was chin-length and lanky. His eyes, though, were the clearest blue I'd seen in my entire life, while his face was well-formed and noble but for a long scar that looked like a clown's face paint - it bisected his right eyebrow and caught the top of his cheek under his eye, close enough for it to look like an oddly-formed teardrop.
"I know. I was expecting you to come and see me." His voice was quiet and sounded almost as if he spoke with an Irish accent, except it was too soft to be sure.
"We were going to," Mia said, giving Luke a filthy look, "but we got sidetracked by Luke the Wonderboy here."
Luke rolled his eyes and turned away. He looked tired and frustrated; I couldn't tell why, but I felt a surge of sympathy for him.
Will was looking at me speculatively. Unlike the rest of us he was dressed in more normal clothes - jeans and an overlarge dark green shirt, in his case. He could almost have walked in out of the real world, where they have televisions and the internet and nightclubs and so on, but for that scar. It made him look somewhat wolfish. When he smiled at me, I was almost surprised that he didn't have fangs.
"I'll tell you what you need to know," he said softly, "if you have something to give me in return."
All eyes turned to me. All, except Luke's, who was looking at Will instead. "Can't you let your game drop, just this once?".
"It is no game. You don't get something for nothing. It is a fundamental law of the universe that no one can break."
"You could just--"
"I can't, Luke. I can't."
"I have--" began Aya, raising a hand.
"No," Will snapped, shivering. "It's for her to give this time, whatever it is that she can give me." He was pointing at me. I didn't have to look at him to know it.
When I was small, I remember, I somehow managed to climb onto my mother's dressing-table up in her bedroom. The world had seemed smaller from up there - smaller, yet more complete, and I wanted to be high up forever so I could see everything and not miss anything out. I sat beside the strong, heady scents of her perfumes and played with the silk scarves she kept hung beside her mirror. I felt like a princess on a throne. And then I leant too far forward, kicking my feet against the wood of the dressing-table as I peered into the nothingness between my sandals and the floor, and I fell. For a moment I felt the nothingness around me, and I was too startled to feel afraid, so I didn't tense up and when I hit the ground I didn't get so much as a bruise. My mother heard, ran upstairs and scolded me furiously for half an hour straight. All I could think was that I'd not felt any pain at all, just shock.
That was how I felt, out there in the garden.
All I had were words. I thought of the stories I knew, the legends and folk-tales and myths and mysteries, of the quotes and weird facts I knew, of the superstitions and old wives' tales I'd heard, but none of them seemed right. Nothing seemed to fit, until I remembered something else entirely, and it was almost too perfect.
I paused. "A story. A bit of one, anyway."
"A myth. A Norse myth."
"Yes!"he exclaimed, grinning, surprised.
I took a deep breath and tucked my hands into my sleeves, feeling the creeping warmth put feeling back into my fingers. "In Norse legend, after Odin and his brothers had killed the frost giant Ymir and created the nine worlds, he and his brothers were walking along a beach when they discovered two logs of different wood lying on the shore. After giving them human form, Odin gave the two logs the breath of life while his brother Vili gave them wits and feelings; their brother Ve gave them the senses and the ability to express themselves through looks and speech. Ask was the male, and his name means Ash, for that was the tree he had come from as a log. The female's name, Embla, means Elm, and that was where she had come from. Odin gave them Midgard as their home, and there they started the human race. It's not a far cry from the Adam and Eve story, really, except that this one suggests we're all made out of driftwood."
There was silence for a few moments. Mia was looking thoughtful, a small smile playing around the corner of her mouth.
"Ash and Elm, Adam and Eve. I like it," said Will. He was looking at me with narrowed eyes this time, and his gaze was searching, as if he were looking for something in me that wasn't there. "How much do you really know about this place, Zara?"
"Nothing," I said truthfully. "Except I believe Luke about the goblins, and that they live in the floor, and that Knull... is something. I believe that. I don't know why, because it doesn't make any sense, but it seems... right. But it shouldn't. I don't know anything at all, not here."
"Good, that's about right," he said cheerfully. "The truth about this place isn't for us to find out. It isn't even relevant, really. It's you you have to work out, all of you. Knull has tried, many times before, to set up his machine, but none of the parts were right for what he was trying to do. He was, if you'll excuse the imagery, trying to fit jet engines into Ford Fiestas and periscopes into 747s. Nothing fit right, nothing clicked, and his entire constructions destroyed themselves every time. But the man is tireless. He kept trying over and over again until one day, to his delight, he found that he had all the right parts for his machine, every part working perfectly in perfect order, except for one. The one he was missing was the most vital, and until he found it, he knew his machine was not going to work with him or against him. So he let it alone for weeks and days until it grew dusty and rusty with disuse. Then he found the missing part, and with that discovery, he began to look at his machine again, and started to fix it up so he could fit the last piece and let it run." He paused. "The five of you are his next attempt. Together, you could be the thing he's been looking for for years. But he cannot know until he puts the six of you together and once that happens, if he's wrong, he cannot undo it."
"Six?" asked Luke, startled.
Will nodded. "Five plus Zara. The most vital part."
I was staring at him with my mouth open. "How the hell do you know this?"
He gave a minute shake of his head, and for a moment I thought he wasn't going to answer. "He set up this machine before and it blew up in his face. I was the only one to survive it, though whatever it was inside me that made me a part of it was burnt out. If it hadn't been, Zara, he wouldn't have needed to wait for you to arrive."
"This is sick," Mia muttered.
"We have to leave," said Ben, his voice heavy and dark. "Soon. Now. Whatever. We have to get away."
"I agree," Aya and Luke said at once.
"I don't think we can," Kieran sighed, covering his face with his hands. "I don't think they'll let us, by any means. We don't even want to walk through the fucking front door! Zara said - even she doesn't want to leave and she's not even been here two days yet!"
"So what can we do?" I asked. My voice sounded so small and unsure, after theirs. "Are we trapped here?"
The dreadful silence that followed was all the answer I needed. I sat on the edge of the sandstone platform around the well and stared at my shoes, willing it all to go away and to be a very bad dream. A nightmare. It had to be. He'd needed me here and I'd come, and whatever he was planning, whatever was going to come of it... I was so very, very scared.
I'm not a part of a machine.
"We could try to fight this, you know." We all looked at Luke, who shrugged. "We could," he said, as if it were obvious.
"I suppose could," Mia nodded, an expression of unease on her face.
"We could try," Aya murmured.
"Then we will," Kieran said with a small smile.
We looked at one another, pondering the idea.
"There will come a time when you believe everything is finished," Will said finally, hands in his jeans pockets as he turned to leave the garden and go back inside. "That will be the beginning."
A/N 2: I'm afraid the updates for this story are going to be quite intermittent. I'll do my best to write longer chapters with more in each, but such is my workload for the coming term I don't think I'll be able to get much done. This chapter was written quite fast too, so I'm sorry for any mistakes there might be. Keep the emails coming though, people, they're great fun to read! I've also got a soundtrack thing that I'm working on too - just a few songs that seem like they fit in various places and as themes for characters and so on. If you have any suggestions I'd love to hear them!
Until next time!