He slips into the place between worlds and walks into the warehouse unseen. All around him phantom images of warehouse workers go about their business. By now he’s far enough into the slipstream that they can pass right through him like the ghosts they might as well be.
The young man smiles and steps through the spectral shipping crates without a second thought. A man driving a forklift passes through him, and he barely notices. He has long since gotten used to the feeling of non-contact.
He walks on, going deeper and deeper into the slipstream without ever actually coming out onto the other side. What he seeks isn’t trapped in another world, it’s trapped between one. Occasionally, he sticks a hand into his pocket, making sure his tools are secure. He’ll need them later.
Eventually he reaches the exact center of the between. All traces of the Ironside are gone, but he’s far enough away from the Otherwhere that nothing from there is showing up, either. He is in a rare position of perfect trans-dimensional balance.
The slipstream has its own rules. It picks and chooses them from the many worlds it’s been connected to over time, leaving behind old rules and worlds as it takes new ones up. Physics, logic, time- all of them are hit or miss, or twisted to the point of unrecognizability. Things like souls, however, are hard to change, and even buildings can have souls of a sort.
He is still in a warehouse, but rather than the bustling hub of commerce it is on the Ironside, it’s a few months worth of dry rot short of dilapidation. Plaster and concrete have been replaced by wood and brick. Half rotting crates of all size are piled high, creating a makeshift wall. Yellowed newspapers cover up the few unbroken windows, and there is the distinct scent of rat.
A smile plays on his lips as he steps towards the wall of crates. Once before them, he pulls a tarnished silver key from out of his coat’s pocket. He lightly taps it on a crate about level with him.
There is a deep rumble from somewhere below –where, exactly, he doesn’t know. The wall begins to shudder, and he steps back. With a great sound of splintering, the crates part, allowing him to enter a maze made of boxes. When he steps through, they close in behind him, melding seamlessly back together. He doesn’t mind; he’s never been here before, but he knows the way. He moves on.
Time passes. Hours, days, years- it doesn’t matter. Time is fluid. Thanks to the pendant hanging around his neck, he doesn’t get hungry, and that’s really all that matters. Every once in a while, he stops and digs through his coat pockets. He’ll pull out an old fashioned, silver pocket watch and check which way the hour hand is pointing. Then he’ll nod, tuck it back with the other tools, and continue on. It isn’t done so much for directions as it is out of a need to double check himself.
Gradually, as he goes deeper into the maze, the larger the crates become. Soon they tower over him, effectively blotting out whatever ceiling there might be. He feels almost like a toy amongst overlarge building blocks.
Eventually he reaches the end of the maze: the dead center.
It is a room, almost. There is no door barring him from entrance, only a slightly narrower passageway. He strides confidently into the enclosure, only to stagger backwards a second later, clutching at his nose.
The smell is atrocious. It is the smell of blood and fear and pain. It clogs up every part of him and seeps into his pores. He desperately tries to breathe through his mouth, only to find that in doing so he can now taste it as well.
He waits a few moments outside, trying to compose himself. The odor isn’t nearly as strong outside, but it’s still there, hanging faintly in the air like weak incense. How, he wonders, could he not have noticed it before? When his eyes stop streaming and the urge to gag is gone, he tentatively steps back into the room.
Once again the smell washes over him, a thousand times stronger than that in the hall. But he is ready for it now. He rubs his burning eyes and tries to get a look around the room.
The crates here are huge. The small portion of his brain devoted to noticing useless things tells him that they’re probably about fifty feet each, though that doesn’t really mean much in a place where a few inches can also be a few miles. Unlike the crates in the other parts of the maze, these ones are still in good condition. They look new; the wood is clean, the delivery stickers are clearly legible (albeit in a language he can’t understand), and they’re solid.
For a moment, he’s confused. The enclosure is empty. It shouldn’t be. For a split second, panic grips him.
Did I do something wrong? Did I foul it up?
He’s in the middle of pulling out the watch again when he notices something odd.
There is a large heap of metal hanging off of the far wall, about six feet off the ground. If he had to compare it to anything, he would have to say it loosely resembled an upside-down tulip made of random bits of metal. Steel, copper, and brass gleam in the light, casting off a deceptively warm glow.
He puts the watch away and comes a little closer. Slats of metal overlap other slats in what almost looks like a cocoon. Some of the slats are raw looking, like someone actually fabricated them to make them look intentionally rough. Others are polished well enough that he can see his reflection in them. Strands of either steel or silver intertwine some of them in a mesh.
He is almost tempted to reach out and touch them. Almost.
Instead, he steps back and takes out a small silver bell.
There is no sound from the bell, no matter how hard it is shaken. He knows something is happening though; he can feel the vibrations in the air. They fill the room, rattling the boxes and reverberating through his chest and up into his teeth.
The heap of metal shivers.
He leaps back in time to just avoid being hit as the metal slats fan out. He watches in awe as wings of steel and copper arch out. The slats are feathers, the bolts and rivets serve as joints, keeping them together. Chains of silver twine between them feathers, hanging off at the ends. In defiance of a gravity that has checked itself at the door, the wings begin to flap.
A gust of wind tosses the young man backwards against the wall.
He squints through the dust and can barely make out the prone body of a man (or something very like a man) hanging behind the wings.
“Hey!” he shouts. “Stop- cut it out! I’m here to help you.”
That is all he can get out before succumbing to a fit of coughing. The dust is everywhere, the wind is biting. Gradually, though, as if unsure of itself, the wind dies.
The young man gives a sigh of relief and gets to his feet. Cautiously, he approaches the hanging man.
The man is huge. He is hanging by his wrists, though to what, the young man is uncertain. His feet are shackled together. A mop of gray hair obscures his face.
“Can you talk?” says the young man.
There is no answer, save for the twitching of a few feathers.
The young man takes the silver key out of his other pocket. He takes a deep breath, steps forward, and unlocks the chains binding the man’s feet. Though he’s careful not to touch the nearest of the feathers hanging down, he still manages to accrue a number of small cuts on his arms. By the time he’s through, the sleeves of his coat is nearly in shreds.
There’s no way he can reach the chains holding the man’s wrists. For the first time, the young man is truly stumped.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t know what to do next.”
Is there anything around here to stand on? he thinks. Should I go back for a ladder?
Before he can do anything, the hanging man croaks something that sounds like a word.
“What was that?”
“Bell,” the man rasps.
Hoping the stranger knows what he’s doing, he hurries over to where the bell had fallen and picks it up. He frowns. Unsure as to what, exactly, is supposed to be happening, he begins to ring it.
This time, there is sound. It starts off as one would expect from such a small bell; a clear, high ring that echoes around the room. The toll grows louder the longer the bell is rung. Deeper, too. Soon the sound is ringing down the hall into the maze. He wants to stop- to get this mind boggling sound out of his head, but he finds he can’t. The bell refuses to be silenced.
Just as he is beginning to fear he may pass out, the bell abruptly grows quiet. It once again remains silent, no matter how much it is shaken.
He looks up, his ears still ringing, to see that the winged man had fallen to the ground. Still not quite sure whether this was part of the plan or not, the young man steps forward to help.
The old man folds his wings back in a clatter of metal. He is tall, much taller than the young man, and leans on the his shoulder, using him more like a crutch than anything else.
Together, they walk through the maze and make their way towards the exit.
* * * * *
It takes the two undefined ages to reach the lobby of the Otherwhere warehouse. By the time they arrive, the old man is capable of walking on his own.
He was, the young man reflected, getting stronger the farther away he was from the maze’s center.
Once out, the young man collapses against the wall. The crates shift behind him, and the maze is once again closed. Sweat beads his forehead and he shakes uncontrollably. The adrenaline that had been coursing through him drains away.
The old man watches him impassively.
“You know the arrangement, I presume?” he says. His is voice strong and deep.
The young man nods, unable to speak just yet. His heart flutters in his chest.
The old man crosses his arms. “Three answers to three questions. Ask.”
The young man gets unsteadily to his feet. He leans partially on the wall for support.
“Not yet.” He looks the winged man firmly in the eye. “I’ll save them. Come back later.”
The other man frowns. “When will you come back?”
He grins. “When I have questions to ask." He can see the smile threatening to break out on the other man’s face.
There is the metallic clinking of metal as the old man adjusts his wings. “Sounds fair to me," he says. The smile breaks loose. "Thank you.”
The young man nods tiredly and makes a motion in the air reminiscent to that of someone unzipping a tent. Aching and tired, he gets up and limps through the slipstream. As he gradually makes his way to the Ironside, he can’t help but smile.
Now, he thinks. Time to find some questions.