The Round Room - Part III
Written for the 2014 kurt_bigbang, featuring cover art and illustations by Riverance.
A burning throb in his hand and the fine metallic tinkle of a chain falling roused Kurt. He found himself seated upright. There was a rustle of fabric, a dull thunk, and silence in his head. No pressure or gnawing irritation or pain, nothing but a tender ache near his temple where he must have bumped it. Gingerly, he opened his eyes.
The chair in which he was seated was Mme Tibideaux's comfortable armchair in The Round Room. She sat cross-legged on the floor, his great grandmother's pendant dangled from one hand, blackened and dull, and some unfamiliar metallic object sat on the floor in front of her. Kurt pushed himself to sit up straight and winced. He looked at his injured hand, found it wrapped in the silk scarf he'd had tucked in his bag. It was damp, and the palm of his hand stung. It felt like a burn, but not too bad. On the chair next to him rested his first aid kit and bottle of water. His satchel sat, open, against the leg of the chair.
The ache in his hand from his locket overheating connected to the bright light and the weird implosion in the hall. And somehow they were safe. When he found his voice, Kurt asked, "Is it... my necklace broken?"
"Possibly," she replied, and she looked up at him. "Probably," she amended, no trace of a smile on her face. "How do you feel, Mr. Hummel?"
There wasn't a word that came to him sufficient to encompass the present strangeness. He was not entirely sure he was even awake. He settled on, "Sore and confused."
She nodded. "Where did you get this pendant?"
"It belonged to my great grandmother. My Aunt Mildred gave it to me I was little." Mme Tibideaux just kept nodding, and Kurt realized he would have to ask the obvious question. "What happened out there?"
She sighed and looked up at him. "What did it look like?" she asked, not in a mocking or disparaging way, but as if she genuinely needed to know the answer. "To you?"
"Um?" Kurt squirmed in the chair, brought his feet back under the chair so he didn't feel so off kilter. "It looked like a... hole? Something was coming through. I know that sounds impossible—"
"Not impossible," she said. "That is what you saw," she confirmed. "And you heard it, too?"
Kurt nodded slowly, unblinking. "I've been hearing it for weeks, on and off."
"Have you?" she measured Kurt with an impenetrable gaze. "Since that night?"
All the odd occurrences had begun then. "That wasn't a gas leak."
"No, Mr. Hummel, that was not a gas leak." Her smile was thin and tired, but there was warmth in it.
"Is it still out there?" Kurt asked. "Are people in danger?"
"No," she said, "thanks to you and your great grandmother's necklace. Although, it's not gone entirely. It's not occupying the same... dimension presently. We're safe in this room. It can't manifest itself in here."
Dimension? Manifest? Kurt sat, unmoving, and he closed his eyes. "This can't be real," he said. "I'm going to wake up soon."
"I'm truly sorry," Mme Tibideaux said. "I was afraid something like this would happen. I didn't want to involve anyone else in this, but you...?"
The inquisitive way in which she trailed off, prompted Kurt to open his eyes again. Nothing had changed. "What about me?"
"I suspect you have some interesting family history," she said. "The hound is hunting only me, you shouldn't have been able to hear it, and I don't know why it would have been following you, unless—" She looked down at her hand, the one Kurt recalled bandaging the night of the 'gas leak'. "I had wondered," she said more softly.
"Did I show the scar from where I cut my hand that night?"
"No," Kurt said,
"There isn't one," Mme Tibideaux said. "It healed completely within a day. It should have left some mark, but there's nothing. It's as if it never happened."
"I don't understand anything right now," Kurt admitted. And he turned his attention to the wet scarf around his own hand. Carefully, he unwound it. His palm was red and inflamed, and certainly sore, but there were no blisters or broken skin. He exhaled in relief. "What happened? What was that... thing ? Did you all it a hound?"
Mme Tibideaux smiled at him, almost fondly, and she got to her feet. She pulled another chair near and sat down, facing him. "Hound is not entirely accurate, but it is descriptive enough," she said. "The creature you glimpsed doesn't dwell in the same space or time that we do."
"So it's..." Kurt paused and rubbed his hands over his face. Saying the word felt like committing himself to an outrageous idea. "...an alien?"
"Yes, in a manner of speaking. They inhabit the..." Mme Tibideaux pursed her lips. "Angles of time, we live in the curves. They are as old as time itself. Older than either of us. Normally our worlds would never intersect, but sometimes, someone draws their ire. They can follow the angles we build, we make it possible for them to enter our space, in certain places."
"The Hounds of Tindalos."
"Tindalos?" Kurt desperately wished this were something from which he would wake up.
"I don't know the origin, only that that is how they are called here."
"And one of these hounds is hunting you?"
"It has its reasons, but my understanding of them is limited. Once one begins to hunt someone, they are unwavering in their pursuit, and said to be single-minded in their goal, until they catch their prey. They are attracted to hunt those who use what you would think of as magic and those who travel in time. "
Kurt raised an eyebrow. "So are you telling me you're a wizard or a witch? Shouldn't you be teaching at Hogwarts instead of NYADA?"
Mme Tibideaux laughed. Actually laughed, full-throated and rich. It filled the space wonderfully, and it made Kurt feel better immediately. He managed a smile of his own.
"No, Mr. Hummel, I am neither a wizard nor a witch, but I have been close to those who have traveled in time. I have been, myself, caught out of time. I have seen things and been places that few would believe or understand."
"I think right now, I'd believe nearly anything."
"I had hoped I'd lost the hound when I came here, but, as you know, it found me. That was what happened that night. I wasn't as well prepared as I had hoped to be. It had been long enough since I'd seen it that I became complacent."
With a frown, Kurt struggled to believe the incomprehensible. He had seen what he had seen, and since this wasn't a dream, then Mme Tibideaux's corroboration made this not a hallucination either, but something real. Unless she were somehow trying to trick him. And that honestly seemed to be a far more paranoid and crazy option than the existence of some monstrous alien inhabiting 'the angles of time'.
There was so much he didn't understand, things he wasn't sure he could understand, things he didn't want to understand. But he was involved in this bizarre drama whether he liked it or not. Perhaps knowing what was happening would help stop it from continuing to happen and he could get back to a more normal life. "So what do we do now?"
Mme Tibideaux turned over the hand in which she held the metallic object. "I want to ensure your safety Mr. Hummel, and I realize that, to accomplish that goal, I will need to find a way to depart, to draw the hound away from you. But, sadly, I am not sure how to accomplish this. As far as I can tell, this requires some kind of recharging," she said. "But I haven't discovered how to do that."
"What is it?"
"It's a device," she said. "Made by a race older and more advanced than either of us. It allows for the manipulation of the membranes separating universes and dimensions." She paused for a moment. "It's how I came to be here, in your universe."
With a frown, Kurt closed his eyes. He had no energy left for incredulity. He opened his eyes again. "So you're not... local?"
That earned Kurt another smile. "I attracted the hound's attention, and in an attempt to escape it, used this device to move to a different, but similar, universe. This one. I knew the hound might find me again, so I made some accommodations.
"For example," she continued. "I commissioned the construction of this room, which—in addition to its perfect acoustics—has no angles or corners, only curves, and therefore remains impenetrable to the hound. And this device I acquired, which not only let me travel here, but can also block its ability to cross into this dimension for a brief while." Mme Tibideaux looked at the device with regret. "Unfortunately, the travel between universes drained it of much of its power, and the span time for which it can stabilize our spacetime against intrusion is growing shorter each time I use it. The person who sold it to me, assured me it was rechargeable, but they failed to provide an instruction manual. I thought I'd have time to work it out."
"Ah, well, that's not helpful," Kurt said, for he didn't know what else to say. He felt pressed to offer help, but had little idea of what he could offer.
"I thought perhaps your pendant might provide some insight when I saw what it did, but it seems to be terrestrial in origin, and not as old. I'm not sure they function in the same way."
"May I look at them?" Kurt asked, and Mme Tibideaux handed him both the necklace and her device.
"Just don't touch the top of it. The symbols there activate its different modes, and I'm trying to save what energy it has left."
"I understand," Kurt says. He set the device in his lap and looked at the locket first. Inside, the glass was shattered and the surface black with soot. The hair had burned up when the locket did whatever it did to banish the hound. The metal remained the same shape as always, but felt both colder and heavier in his hand.
"Stopping the hound seems to have used up whatever power it had," Mme Tibideaux said. "I'm grateful you had it and thought to use it."
"It was protecting me," Kurt says with a shake of his head. "I think... I think it was a ward of some kind. It... when the hound was watching me, it blocked out the sound of it in my head." He still felt outside himself saying such a thing, as if he were mired in a surreal dreamscape, but it was a relief to finally put into words some of the peculiarity of his life in recent week—and to have someone look at him like he was speaking truth.
He slipped the pendant back into his pocket and picked up Mme Tibideaux's device. It was surprisingly light in his hand, had a rounded pentagonal shape, and a smooth metallic surface, though it felt in his hand softer, like worn stone. He couldn't identify it as anything familiar, not even when he tried to recall ninth grade geology class. Into the top of it were inscribed five glyphs whose lines were comprised of a series of tiny, depressed dots. The shape of them could almost be a different font face of the same symbolic language on the necropants and his locket, though he didn't recognize any particular shape. He wondered if Daphne would.
"Do you know what these symbols mean?" Kurt asked, as he realized perhaps he could help, even if only as a proxy between Mme Tibideaux and Daphne.
Mme Tibideaux shook her head. "Unfortunately not."
"I know someone," Kurt said. "Who might."
"I don't know," Kurt said, "But if you need to recharge it, we need to know more." He considered options. "And you can't leave this room for very long, can you? Unless it's working?"
"That is the unfortunate truth of the situation. The device currently allows me less than ten minutes of free movement before I need to return to somewhere safe."
"Will it attack me if I leave the room?"
"I don't think so. If it were hunting you, you would not be sitting here with me now. You have its attention, but perhaps, let us hope, only its curiosity. My best guess is that it's working out your relation to me and whether you may provide it information or opportunity to catch me. But you should be careful, I can't guarantee your safety."
"No time travel or magic, I promise," Kurt said and forced his tone to be light even though the knowledge of what lurked outside this room, what had been following him, chilled his heart, turned his bones to jelly, and made him wish for the days of simpler, kinder magics: a night light, an open closet door, and his father double-checking behind the dresser mirror.
But Mme Tibideaux was serious when she replied, "Something about you has drawn its interest, Mr. Hummel. It may be more than your association with me. At least, I am not aware of it observing any of my other students. First of all, you could hear it, which is a rare ability, for the hounds have no voice. But even before you caught its attention, your aunt had given you a very special family item, one that has served to protect you now. You need to take care."
In the meantime, Kurt wondered what he could do to help that was more immediate, perhaps even more mundane and practical. There were, and Mme Tibideaux was clearly relieved by his offer. She needed clean clothes from her apartment, and could he please bring her a hot breakfast the next morning?
Alone in the apartment, Kurt rearranged furniture. Today, the hound was with him, and Kurt had to keep busy lest the anxiety fizzing in his nerves send him running outside like some crazy person. He wasn't crazy. But, the way every corner and straight line inside the apartment drew his attention, the way he jumped at every odd sound or flicker of light from the traffic outside, made him feel less than steady within himself. So he rearranged everything. He moved all the living room furniture into what had been Rachel's bedroom. That way, he could enjoy the window over the fire escape while sitting on the couch. It also gave him a faster potential exit if he needed it.
Lying on the kitchen table was a hand drawn map Daphne had made for him; the key she gave him was in his pocket. Drawn neatly in purple ink, he had directions to hidden places beneath the city where she said he may find the information he sought. Carmen's device was down to seven minutes. She couldn't live in The Round Room indefinitely. He didn't want to go under the city, but he had to do something.
Once the furniture was all in its new locations, he realized any further fussing with his environment was only procrastination. So Kurt set about getting himself as ready as he could. First, he dusted off an old backpack in which to carry anything he found that he needed to bring back out. He stuck a couple bottles of water from the fridge inside and an unopened box of vegan protein bars Rachel had left behind. He grabbed every flashlight he owned: the long, heavy metal one collecting cobwebs under his bed, the emergency hand-crank one packed in with the storm supplies, and he pulled his tiny LED keychain flashlight off his keyring.
Then he dressed in his heaviest jeans, thick socks, and most comfortable Docs. He layered for warmth: a long sleeved t-shirt, turtleneck, shirt and pullover sweater. He took his spare battery for his phone, his first aid kit, and a pair of work gloves. He should probably have something like rope, but all he had were belts and scarves. He made sure to wear his sturdiest belt, and he strapped on a wristwatch. It felt like he was playing at some ridiculous hero role, like if he were serious about all this he'd have a Batman style grappling hook or some clever James Bond style gadget—or at least a fedora and a bullwhip. But all he had was himself. The last thing he took was his warmest hooded coat.
For once in his life, he was grateful for attracting no attention due to his clothing choices as he walked to the subway station. He felt conspicuous within himself though, dressed in such an unfamiliar manner. He had to backtrack on the subway, taking the L train from Montrose to Broadway station before changing to the J and heading west for the Brooklyn Bridge station. That was the easy part.
Rush hour had long passed, and he managed to discreetly find the door to the maintenance tunnels for which he had the key. He let himself through quickly, his fingers clinging to the key nervously. It was dark on the other side, this particular way having been abandoned after the Worth Street station up the line closed. That was his first way point. Kurt tucked the key back into his front pocket and snapped on his flashlight. He wouldn't need the map yet; there was only one direction to go.
Through antique access tunnels, all tidy brick work, brass, and painted cast iron, like something from a steampunk adventure, he made his way. The squeak and skitter of rats ahead of him sounded so much like something out of a film, he welcomed it. A known, expected presence was a welcome one.
Eventually, he came to the abandoned station, and the pale beam of his flashlight arced over graffitied tile walls and trash littered floors. A forlorn stairwell led up into black nowhere. So far so good.
Now he checked Daphne's map, to make sure he found the gap in the bricked wall just up the tracks. He stepped down into the tracks carefully, he had a little time before the next train. It was enough time, but he stepped carefully, mindful of the danger of electrocution, and found the small break in the wall, hidden in darkness and easy to miss unless one were on foot and knew to seek it. There was just enough room for him to squeeze through if he took off his backpack and pushed it through first.
That was his first burst of real fear, shoving his necessary belongings blindly through a hole into an unknown space. He kept his mind on the action required, tried to avoid any paranoid speculation about what might be on the other side. Then he turned sideways and stepped through. The dull scrape of the bricks against the back of his head sent an unpleasant shiver down his spine. Kurt gritted his teeth and ignored it.
Here was what remained of an older, earlier attempt at a subway tunnel, back when it was the newest pneumatic technology. The old brickwork was dull with neglect, but precise in its graceful arc over his head. He took a turn into a narrower passage with a lower ceiling, and he passed abandoned, rusting equipment from the day. It was silent down here; there was no litter or scurrying rats. Just the empty length of old, abandoned tunnels.
Eventually the brickwork gave way to raw, dug earth, and Kurt slowed his pace to check the map again. The next turn off shouldn't be much farther. The beam of his flashlight caught on an orange reflector up ahead. He spotted the gap in the side of the tunnel, and before it sat a modern looking barrier with a big red sign proclaiming DANGER: Keep Out.
Daphne said the warning was a real one. Her old friends—her coven, Kurt had guessed by now—had brought the sign down after they had discovered they were not alone down here and had ceased using these old tunnels. Turning back remained an option. He'd not gone that far yet. But Kurt knew, if he left now, it would be that much harder to return.
Kurt looked more closely at the barrier, saw some of the occult symbols there, adding their own warning in a language he still couldn't read. He wouldn't turn back now, but he did hesitate. The barrier felt like a threshold. Would he step, willfully, from the life he wanted in New York into something entirely different? Even though the purpose of this journey was to find his way back to his intended life, he couldn't help but feel a swell of sad realization, that the life he desired to build here, had already slipped away. This experience was going to be part of him forever.
And with that sadness tight in his throat, Kurt stepped through.
Past the barrier, the tunnels were lined, not with bricks, but with broad square stones. They formed smoothly curved walls, and that brought Kurt some ease: there were no angles for the hound to follow here. Beneath his boots, the ground was damp, bringing an inorganic mineral smell. He checked the compass on his phone, and found he had no signal, so he wouldn't be able to call anyone for help.
Daphne was the only one who knew where he was. If he didn't make it back, no one would know what happened to him. He'd just be gone.
The passage sloped steadily down and bent gently, and Kurt understood he was following a coil deeper into the earth. Along the way, black openings gaped at him like blindly opening mouths. He counted the ones on the exterior, just to give himself a sense of distance.
It was colder down here than he expected. He zipped up his coat and pulled up his hood.
As he carried on, he grew more uncertain of his path. The darkness weighed more heavily upon him, as if it held the weight of the city above him, and all the weight of the time since these tunnels were first made. Daphne said they discovered they were far older than the city. He didn't want to dwell too much on why these tunnels were already here to be discovered when the subway was first dug.
It must've been miles he walked. But from when he last checked his wristwatch, it'd only been twenty minutes.
Then he heard something, indistinct, like a memory of sound, but definitely not the hound. He stopped and held his breath. Suddenly, the full implication of Daphne's warning and her urgency in making sure he understood that he wouldn't be alone down here sank into his bones. He thought of the length and distance of passageways behind him, everything that lay between him and the surface, and he nearly threw up.
His legs felt like jelly and his hands were clumsy on the flashlight, which suddenly seemed like nothing more than a big fucking beacon to announce his presence. He turned it off and squatted down near the wall. In the darkness he waited, and it was such a complete darkness, it made him dizzy. He listened, but could only hear the knock of his own heartbeat in his ears and the faint rasp of air through his nose.
The longer he stayed in the dark, the more the entoptic play of his vision became apparent. Closing his eyes made no difference. Strange, unreal shapes and colors bloomed and morphed.
Kurt couldn't stay like this, crouching here while his ankles and knees protested his immobility. Cowering.
"Courage," he said to himself. And he turned the flashlight back on. Then he stood back up, wincing at the numb buzz of blood flow returning to his legs.
And then, he realized with a sinking lump of dread, that he'd forgotten his count of side passages. Daphne said the turn to take would be marked, but he didn't want to lose track of where he was in relation to where he'd been.
Still, he wasn't lost yet. All he had to do was turn around and go back up if he wanted to. He was fine.
Anyway, he could always forget about Carmen. The hound would eventually leave him alone if he did. She'd been getting by without his help this long.
But that was not who he was; the thought didn't warrant his seriousness. But sometimes it was important to know he was making a choice. Kurt firmed his jaw and his determination and kept going.
It became a strange, anxious kind of mediation, for Kurt was so embedded in his present moment, jittering on a sharp blade of fear, but maintaining his balance. Eventually, he found the opening with the red sigil of Daphne's coven. This corridor was square, but the chances of the hound having even thought to come down here seemed remote. But not impossible. Kurt stood at the rectangle of what seemed an even deeper darkness and offered a silent plea to the universe, to both fortune and circumstance, that it not find him down here.
He needed Daphne's map again, and he hoped her memory was good. The maze of corridors he had to navigate was narrow and tall, its walls an unfamiliar greenish-gray stone, ground silk smooth beneath his fingertips. There were very shallow engravings. Geometric and abstract patterns that lacked any pleasing symmetry or proportion. The closer Kurt looked at them, the more peculiar they appeared. The aesthetic was entirely alien and skittered an uneasiness beneath his skin.
So he stopped looking at the walls any more than he had too. Moved slowly, deeper into the darkness, cautiously swinging his thin beam of light back and forth. An occasional waft of air tickled his bare face and brought with it a fetid, muddy scent.
Another sound interrupted him then. He stopped so the tread of his rubber soles upon the fine grit of the floor wouldn't obscure it. It was a low, barely audible gasp that dragged through the air from somewhere ahead. He couldn't pinpoint the direction beyond that.
He hoped it wasn't anything alive. Whatever the source of the breeze was, it must be responsible for it. It repeated at regular intervals, as if some giant beast lay ahead, slumbering, like Smaug upon his hoard of treasure.
And somehow that thought helped. To think of this place in those terms. Something not unlike the ancient halls of the Dwarves didn't seem so daunting. He could pretend, like he used to as a child. And the memory of going to see The Hobbit with Blaine and Sam over Christmas helped too.
He took several marked turns in a row until he no longer had an intuitive sense of the way back. Wondered if, like Hansel and Gretel, he needed to be laying a trail of bread crumbs or pebbles. If he lost Daphne's map, he'd be lost down here forever. The only trouble was, if there were something else down here with him, a trail would lead it straight to him. If it were even more cunning and malevolent, it could rearrange his trail to get him lost deliberately on his way back. Like Sarah in the labyrinth.
He kept on, letting his mind toy with whatever piece of a story seemed familiar or relevant to his current circumstance. It helped. Meanwhile, his feet grew cold, which made it harder to step quietly. According to Daphne's map, he should be close to the room her club had used. She'd told him that when they first discovered the tunnels, they'd spent time exploring, and everything they found they collected in this one space they dubbed The Art Room. They also brought their occult books and trinkets from above to keep safe down here. The information he needed to solve the mystery of Carmen's device might be here.
Except it had turned out it wasn't safe after all. Daphne didn't know what it was down here, but she had watched a friend die, she said. The thing, whatever it had been, had been shapeless and dark—and terribly quick.
"Whatever you do, Kurt," she'd told him before she agreed to draw him the map. "Don't tell people what you're doing, what you find, or what you see. They won't believe you. They'll think you're crazy. I ended up in a mental hospital upstate for two months. Thank goodness Isabelle is as generous a friend as she is, when I came out and needed help getting back to my life, she gave me a job." Then Daphne had smiled. "I was an intern, like you."
He found the room. He stepped in and knew immediately this was the place. It was star-shaped and the ceiling high enough that he could only gain the vaguest sense of its vaulted architecture. The walls here were inscribed too, but less abstractly. There appeared to be drawings of strange figures accompanied by the same strange dotted writing, like fine inverted braille, that was on Carmen's device. It seemed this was some kind of ancient temple or tomb. Except, he could tell, without looking too closely, that the figures were not human, nor any terrestrial animal he knew. Some fanciful creation of the imaginations of whoever built this place. Or—and he didn't like the thought, because it still sounded to his mind outrageous—aliens who lived here and built this before humanity's ancestors were even walking upright.
He'd seen some of the documentaries on the History channel when Sam lived with his family. Aliens built the Pyramids or the Egyptian gods were reptilian aliens from Orion's belt. It was Men in Black level stuff, and he still considered himself a skeptic.
But there was Carmen, who said she wasn't from around here. She seemed human enough, but she could have tentacles under her skirts and loose pants for all Kurt knew—or horns or scales or a transparent skull under the headwrap she wore.
There were, about the edges of the room, low slabs of stone, altar like. Upon them were collected the items of Daphne's coven. It surprised him they'd never returned for them. He moved to investigate and remained uncomfortably aware of the open door behind him being the only exit from this space. If he were cornered in here...
Kurt did not wish to linger. He moved toward the slab which contained the largest collection of items, and sought anything that appeared to be of use. There were a few leather bound books to put in his backpack straight away, a dagger with a faintly glowing ruby pommel and strange sigils carved into the blade. He could use it to defend himself if necessary. And, ah--there was an object that immediately reminded him of Carmen's device. It was roughly the shape of a soccer ball, polished warm stone-smooth metal, that fit in the palm of his hand. There was a different dotted symbol on each face. Slowly, he turned it in his hand, examining each face in turn beneath the pale beam of his flashlight, looking for familiar shapes.
Then, quite abruptly, Kurt couldn't feel the floor beneath him. The space around him spun with a disorienting vertigo, and the dots on the surface of the stone soccer ball glowed green and swam beneath his gaze. The flashlight slipped from his hand and fell to the ground with the sharp sound of popping glass. Kurt swooned.
He couldn't tell if he were on the floor, or somehow—as unlikely as it would be—floating. His mind had been forced wide open in the face of a deluge: strobe-quick visions of things, terrible, indescribable things, an incomprehensible amount of data and time, as though he were mainlining the whole universe. Or had been plugged into the Matrix. He experienced the pouring in of knowledge as inchoate sensation, like it was being fed through his consciousness and straight into his unconscious brain. He couldn't keep up.
New stars ignited and old ones exploded, galaxies turned, nebula coalesced, life began in so many places, and all the while, in the shadows were hungry things. The hounds stalked the angles of time right from the beginning (and he understood, in a blinding, mad instant exactly what that meant though he could never put words to it) and great god like entities hungered and slept in the centers of galaxies. Stars had memories and children. Elder races spawned through the cosmos, traveling and shaping younger worlds to their own whims. Taking what they wanted, and destroying the rest.
Others, kinder beings, preserved fragile life and worlds. Younger races, still ancient compared to humanity, came and went. Empires spanning hundreds of worlds rose and fell to ruin after thousands of years.
Kurt came around with a blinding headache and promptly emptied the contents of his stomach. He was on the floor, and it was cold. And he knew, immediately and without the smallest doubt, that he was not alone here and he knew exactly what it was that was down here with him, though his mind skittered away from even naming it. The thought was too terrible to hold. He needed to leave. He understood what Carmen's device required. He understood other things, but it was a tangled mass of too much information and he had too little conscious bandwidth to process it all. For now he needed to get out. Get out. Get out.
He couldn't retrace his steps, because he knew it knew he was here; it could smell him and every step he'd taken. But there was another way out, if he could find it. He had to trust himself. Kurt fished his key chain light from his pocket.
He left the icosahedron where he found it. It should never be brought up.
His head throbbed, raw pain, like a deep bruise. His whole body ached, even the surface of his skin, as if he had influenza. He was too cold and then too hot, light headed and ravenously hungry. There were the protein bars and water in his bag, but he didn't have time.
He ran. Taking turns decisively and for reasons he could not articulate. It was like there were a compass in his breast bone.
And the stone corridors come to mad life around him—or so it seemed. The patterns on the walls writhed grotesquely. Movement flickered in his peripheral vision, uncoiling tentacles reached for him. He heard things, echoes of the past. Horrible discordant music, a sanity piercing piping. Terrible wailing and remnants of torturous enslavement and death.
He had to get out. He careened to a halt at a passage that ended with a precipice. There was nothing ahead of him, nothing below but blackness. But, as he crouched down and groped below the edge, he found there were handholds cut into the rock. Smooth shallow grooves. He put his flashlight in his mouth, turned and lowered himself down. This was the way to go. Down first, and then back up.
The black space swallowed him. It unnerved him to be hanging in an empty void like this, and his heart raced from more than exertion. His hands sweated and he feared he'd lose his grip. It was like all of space had yawned open behind him and all the terrible hidden things with sharp teeth hung just out of reach.
God, he knew what was out there, and he wanted to forget. It'd been so much easier to think the universe void of will.
He had to stop to catch his breath, and carefully, one hand at a time, he wiped his fingers and palms dry on his pants. He wasn't sure how much farther down, but up was a long way above.
He concentrated on his breathing, moving each foot down to seek the next groove, stepping his hands down one at a time. Tried to remain present in just that necessary movement.
The bottom, when it came, startled him. His foot landed with a splash in shallow black water. The water made being silent impossible, and his steps echoed in the volume of the cavern around him. He kept to the perimeter and eventually found a raw cut opening in a more familiar hard glittering rock. He touched it and knew its age. This rock was far older than the dinosaurs, and had formed during a time when most of the life on Earth perished in a massive freezing of nearly the entire globe.
Kurt shook off the strange knowledge, and forged ahead. The tunnel he followed wound an uneven way toward the surface, and it was a relief, the more irregular shape of it, sized more favorably to his proportions. There was no more unnaturally perfect geometry and discordant asymmetry.
His thighs and calves burned a special kind of agony as he made his way up. It wasn't something he'd thought about on the way down, how he'd be working against gravity all the way back up. Dance class left his legs tired enough.
Eventually, he had to stop to catch his breath and stretch. He swung his pack down and rummaged for water and a protein bar. Urgency still pricked up his spine, and every second spent not moving gave the thing that lived down there time to catch him. But his legs wouldn't carry him much farther without a small break, and his body needed fuel. Kurt leaned against the wall and took a bite of the protein bar. It was dry and sharp tasting—didn't taste very much like either chocolate or peanut butter as labeled—but his mouth flooded with saliva as if it were the best thing he'd ever had. He washed down each thoroughly chewed bite with a swig of water, and slowly the worst of the haze eased from his mind.
A sound then, behind him, a sort of watery plink and slither. Though it didn't sound close, Kurt stuffed the empty wrapper into his pocket, jammed the bottle back in his pack, and got moving again. His awareness dissolved into taking just the next step. "Just one more step," he repeated to himself hoarsely. "One more, and one more, and one more, and you'll be able to go home. Come on, Kurt, one more."
When the first fresh breath of cool night air touched his face, it reinvigorated him. He lifted his head and strode ahead. It was another five or ten minutes before he saw the light ahead and switched off his flashlight. The opening in the schist was narrow and covered with shrubbery. Kurt had to fight his way out, but after everything, the touch of something as vital and natural as a plant, he welcomed.
The city night glowed so brightly after being beneath it, his eyes watered and he gasped at the simple beauty of lights in apartment windows filtering through the copse of small trees into which he'd just emerged. He took a step farther, into the gentle, beautiful night and his foot promptly landed in a generous pile of dog crap.
All he could do was laugh. Then he cleaned off the sole of his boot, and tried to work out where he was.
A brief investigation turned up that he was still in Manhattan, thankfully, but not very close to where he'd started. He was at Homer's Dog Run in Inwood, far to the north. Kurt took out his phone and checked the bus routes. It would be a long journey home.
Despite his fatigue, he could not sleep that night. His brain was wired with too much everything. Every time he tried to close his eyes to rest, it became an unbearable buzz, an urgent sort of itching in his head, and he had to get up and move around to ease it into something bearable. So he was still horribly alert when he left the loft before dawn to go see Carmen.
She was already awake when he arrived, bearing breakfast sandwiches, the tea she favored, and coffee for himself.
After he passed her her food, he took a seat.
"What did you find out?" she asked.
Kurt described the highlights of his journey, but tried to avoid telling her of his fears and struggles, didn't tell her of the magnitude of the incident with the icosahedron. But he did tell her he learned what her device required to be able to open a way for her to travel to a new universe again.
"Plutonium would be easier to acquire," Kurt tried to joke, because the truth needed some levity to precede it. She waited for him to continue. "Because, actually, it needs... a life. And someone who, um—" and there had to break off with a shudder. There were things about himself he understood better now, too.
"Someone?" she asked, raising an eyebrow and looking at him expectantly.
"Someone who can be a conduit for the, uh, transfer of life energy."
"And where do we find someone like that?" she asked.
The nightmare of the bird that had morphed into something happier, it had been trying to tell him all this time. It was his touch and his will that had inadvertently given its corpse some life back. It had been his life force, some of his own neural energy, transferred in his moment of grief. He remembered too what Carmen said about the wound on her hand; he dressed it, and it healed quickly. He wondered if she had already suspected this about him.
It was more than those two incidents though. When the doctors didn't believe his father would make it, and Kurt had sat at his bedside, holding his hand and wishing fervently to bring him home. His father had defied his prognosis and returned to Kurt, weakened but well.
Blaine was meant to lose his eye, the doctors all said so. The damage was too severe. But, like with his father, Kurt had sat by his bed, holding his hand, and wishing for his recovery.
And finally, there had been David Karofsky and his broken spirit.
In the enormous burst of data that had flooded his brain, he learned things about himself, the ancestry of his family and how it traced back to the magicians of mythology. Who, it turned out, were not so mythological after all. A Child of Thoth, Daphne's people would call him. Kurt didn't know what he'd call himself. The realization, as it had unfurled in his mind and he pieced the evidence together, had left him shaken. "Me," Kurt whispered. "I can do it. At least I think I can.
"I mean, in theory," he amended. "Someone has to give up their life for this. I'm not going to just..."
"You're not going to murder someone," Carmen said firmly..
"No," Kurt agreed, and he folded his arms around himself, chilled by the thought of it. "There's too much death in the world. I'm not going to add to it."
"Death is everywhere, Kurt," she said. "That's true. So I wonder, would you help someone who is already dying?"
"You mean like euthanasia?" he looked up at Carmen, and found the weight of her gaze sympathetic but probing.
"Yes, when it's a mercy."
"I... I don't know," Kurt said. It was another thing that, in theory, made perfect sense to him. He'd seen his mother suffering near the end of her life, but in practice. He simply didn't know.
"It's your decision," Carmen said gently. "But please think about it."
"How long have you got left?"
"Just over six minutes now."
"Maybe I can charge it a little bit? Not enough for you to travel, but enough that you can at least take a decent length shower?" He tried to smile.
Carmen shook her head. "I don't want you giving any more of your own life."
Kurt wasn't inclined to argue. "I don't suppose you know anyone who's dying?"
He ended up walking around the city in the afternoon, thinking it over, feeling like he was waiting for death: an animal hit on the street or a person mortally injured in a car accident. It was an awful kind of vigilance.
And then he got a text from Carmen with a name, room number, and the address of a hospice. He called her on his way to tell her his decision.
"He's a old friend," Carmen told him. "The doctors say he has only days. Tell him I sent you, he might be able to hear you. Sing to him, and he'll go with you."
"What should I sing?"
"I trust you to know the right piece, Kurt."
On the bus, Kurt Googled the man's name. He had been a performer when Carmen was younger. A mentor, the occasional leading man, a friend at the very least. Kurt recalled a photo of him from Carmen's apartment, part of the cast photo for a production of Faust.
Holding the energy of someone's life—Kurt still wasn't inclined to think of it as a soul—felt like being a corked champagne bottle, if such an object could actually possess sentience. His skin felt like electricity was arcing between every fine hair, shifting and crawling over his body everywhere; and his blood was carbonated, fizzing and popping through his veins with every strong, steady heartbeat. His senses seemed sharper, his mind clearer and quicker, and he'd had an erection for the past hour. Which he was doing his best to ignore for now. Holding all of this within him made him feel like he could conquer the world, or at the very least, run a marathon and win.
Carmen's friend, Vincent, had had a lucid moment while Kurt had sang, "Oh, there will be an answer / Let it be," Their eyes had met, and there was an understanding somehow, an acceptance, and relief.
Even so, Kurt kept tearing up with the fullness of it, what the man had, in the finish, let Kurt take. He'd been as gentle as he could, though he had little explicit understanding of how this worked. He'd concentrated on the song he sang, as if he were singing it only for the man himself. But it had been a song Kurt always sang with thoughts of his mother, and he sang it as much for himself and for her memory.
But it was strange now. Though he remembered how he had felt sitting at Vincent's bedside, he wasn't feeling sad or regretful right now. His melancholy was more poignant and expansive than that. And he was no longer scared at all. Those bad feelings were remote. He hadn't felt this good since performing on stage at Nationals with New Directions. He was terribly, joltingly alive and young and full of potential and he could feel all of it, vibrant and bursting into every moment.
The day was getting old, streaks of vermillion painted the sky. He spotted the sign for Therapy ahead, and remembered that night, the exhilaration of dancing with a handsome stranger, the things that could have happened, the possibilities of which had embarrassed him once he'd sobered up. They didn't seem so embarrassing now, and he found himself almost ashamed of his past timidity.
And so Kurt's steps slowed as he approached the doors. Inside. He could go inside and find someone to share this sharp edge of euphoria, maybe blunt the edge a little bit so it didn't feel quite so much like he was about to break out of his own skin and fly away. A beautiful stranger to touch him and be touched, to share some lovely, ephemeral intimacy. Because he hadn't felt this good in such a long time, and he knew could feel even better, and he could also make someone else feel just as good.
He went in, and suddenly, he was slipping. All his extra sensitivity and desire swamped him when surrounded with the sound and heat and smell. All the music and people and activity that had overwhelmed him back in December threatened to drown him now. "Hey," a young man with a sweet smile asked him, hand upon Kurt's elbow, and the touch made Kurt shiver. Kurt looked at the man's hand upon him and his head swam, hot and strange. "Are you okay, man?" the guy asked.
If he touched another person with actual desire while he was like this, let any of the energy burning beneath his skin slip from himself to them—or worse, drew more from them—it would harm them both. He needed to get to Carmen so he could offload the excess. It required effort still, to look back up and speak. "I need to go," he said, and he turned around and stepped back out onto the street.
Kurt pushed his way through the doors to The Round Room with violently trembling arms. "Where is it?" he asked. Carmen came to him, took him by the arm and led him to a chair. "You don't look well," she said. Her hand was cool and dry on his forehead.
"It's too much," he said. She brought the device out from her pocket and he reached for it. He turned it over. He knew what the symbols meant, so he knew how to do this, the sequence to touch before the metal moved, smoothly, like liquid, and a small aperture opened at the top of it. He laid his palm over it as Carmen watched, and he felt the connection immediately.
He didn't have any control over it. It pulled hard, drawing the excess heat and energy from his nerves. Until it had taken all of what he had of Vincent and he felt paralyzed to let go. It started to hurt, and Kurt gasped in pain as the device kept drawing, started taking his own energy. "Help," Kurt managed, and Carmen wrenched it away from him. Then he collapsed. He remained conscious, but dazed, weak, and confused.
He was cold again, horribly so, and aching. Carmen held him in her lap, petting his hair, and talking to soothe him like a mother would. She apologized to him, and she thanked him, and she told him it was all going to be all right, but Kurt could hear the uncertainty in her voice.