When Alix woke to the dreamworld, her head spun and her stomach lurched. She’d made the mistake of looking down.
She was standing on a platform made of crumbling stone that hung over a vast, cloud-filled sky. A tiny propeller- ridiculously tiny, compared to the platform- sprouted from the center. It whined like a mosquito as it spun.
A rickety-looking wooden bridge clung to the edge of the platform. It connected to another- just like it, if not for the four bridges, one hanging off each side. Each connected to another block, with more bridges, stretching out as far as Alix could see. It was like a maze, but the walls weren’t stone or wood- the ‘walls’ were the edge of the platforms. If you stepped off, you’d fall forever.
No wonder Vashe couldn’t hack it. If she was afraid of heights, she’d be screaming too.
She squinted into the distance. Something glinted- was it lio?
No. No, it wasn’t. Alix bit into her fingers to keep from crying out.
At the centre of the maze was the Committee of Progress Building-four stories of gleaming steel that coiled around the old Palace like a parasitic vine. The Palace’s onion dome stuck out of the top, surrounded by bright mirrored triangles. Alix’s heart hammered against her chest like an animal trying to escape from its cage.
The Progress Building gave her waking nightmares. Its winding basements, glass cages, sterile torture chambers- they were branded on her brain. What was it doing here in someone else’s nightmare?
I don’t have to go inside, she told herself. She wasn’t here to explore the bastard’s mind; there was nothing here she wanted to see. She was here to grab lio and run. Maybe there’d be some in the maze and she wouldn’t have to get close to the building.
Alix felt a soft squeeze on her shoulder. She glanced behind her- but there was no one there. Someone had touched her in the waking world. Was it Vashe or Nvara, trying to calm her? Or was it something worse?
It had been a gentle touch. She took a deep breath and composed herself.
“I’m fine,” she whispered. She didn’t realize she was shaking until the words had left her mouth.
Alix started to walk.
She felt disconnected from herself- like she was piloting a machine, looking at a screen instead of seeing through her eyes. It was probably because she was in a dream. Everything was floaty and disconnected in dreams, wasn’t it?
She was standing on the bridge. It creaked and wobbled beneath her. She stuck her arms out to balance. Step, step, step. Forward, and forward, and forward, until she was on solid ground again. She let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding.
She picked her way across the swaying bridges. An aeroplane drifted by lazily beneath her. Its motor cracked and buzzed, the sound tearing through the silence. It passed through the clouds, and disappeared.
Arcs of light rose in the sky above her. They looked like the northern lights, but darker— like oil paint carelessly smeared across the sky. Even through the sepia-tinted goggles, it shone bright, gold and violet and crimson.
It started to rain.
The rain was deep blood red, and when it hit Alix’s hands, it stained them.
Creeeeeeeak. The bridge twisted beneath her. Alix reached out to steady herself – and the rope snapped.
Her foot slipped as the bridge tumbled down, hanging like a corpse. It swung crazily back and forth. Alix clung to one of the planks.
She scrambled up, reaching up to the next plank as if it were a ladder. The other rope groaned under her weight. Her knuckles burned as she pulled herself up.
Alix staggered to her feet. The platform sank under her weight. She looked back at the broken bridge, dangling uselessly from the edge of the platform, into the void below.
She’d made it across.
She caught her breath, and sat down. The propeller whirred inches away from her shoulder. She ignored it, and scanned the horizon.
There wasn’t a speck of lio, far as the eye could see.
Alix cursed under her breath. Svelen had told her that lio came from inside people, deep in their cores, and flowed outwards. That meant that the center of the maze was his core and she’d find it there. She’d find it in the Progress Building.
Why of all the thrice-vexed places did it have to be there?
Alix gritted her teeth and stood back up. If she had to go in, she’d find the lio and get out as quickly as she could.
The red rain pattered down on her hands and shoulders. She shielded her eyes with her stained hands as she crossed from bridge to bridge, looking for even the slightest hint of lio.
There was none. The Progress Building towered over her. The mirrored glass triangles reflected her face back at her- stained red, distorted. Her reflection’s mouth opened wide, even though hers was closed- letting out a long, silent scream.
Alix flinched. She had to get out of here.
She grabbed the handle and pulled. Half in a daze, she opened the door, and stepped through.
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