Cas stepped beyond the door and winced. The air was stale and cold, the path ahead obscured in darkness. There was a subtle, familiar dull hum, barely audible. Cas hesitated, uncertain of her next step.
Behind her, the door swung shut and clicked loudly. She turned and tried to open the door again, only barely surprised to discover it had locked.
“Only one way to go, I suppose,” Cas muttered to herself. Dim lights flickered to life as she turned back to face the room.
“More walkways,” Cas said to herself. The path she stood on forked into two staircases leading upwards where it met the wall. The twin staircases reached landings, then turned back towards the catwalk she stood on. They gradually, Cas saw, seemed to spiral upwards to a latticework of walkways. Beyond that, however, was too dark to see in the low light.
Both staircases looked identical, and so Cas chose one and started her ascent. As she made it to the landing, she caught a glimpse of something on the opposite landing. Motes of dust suspended in the air, she thought, or perhaps a trick of the light. She continued up the stairs, pausing on the next landing for a moment. Nothing above was visible yet, but she could hear faint noises drifting downwards. Cas tensed. It sounded almost like conversation to her. She continued upwards, slowly and ready to make a run for it if the need arose. Unfamiliar but not unpleasant scents made their way to Cas, further piquing her interest.
At the next landing, Cas could see flickering lights up ahead. She could hear the conversation clearer now, and it was punctuated with moments of laughter and warmth. In an instant, Cas let her guard down as she found herself entering a collection of makeshift tents and huts suspended over the catwalk intersections. People milled about, some pausing to exchange pleasantries with each other from time to time as others entered and exited the various makeshift dwellings. Some wore similar uniforms to the ones she’d seen earlier while others wore things ranging from simple outfits to ones showing off quite a bit of color and flair.
No one seemed to give Cas so much as a second glance, which put her further at ease. Allowing her curiosity to get the better of her, Cas approached a small tent. A series of levitating steps bobbed gently in front of the entrance. She pulled aside the flap covering the entrance – an old solar sail, Cas thought, from the feel of it – and entered. The first thing she noticed was that the tent seemed to be larger on the inside. Had she been her a day ago, she pondered, this may have seemed remarkable, or perhaps even shocking, but it seemed almost familiar.
The woman on the opposite side of the tent sat with her legs crossed beneath her. She was remarkably tall, her eyes meeting Cas’s gaze without having to look up despite being seated. She held a long, wooden pipe between thin, spindly fingers. A series of elaborate tattoos formed a mural from just above her eyebrows all the way along the top of her head disappearing along her neck. A series of eyebrow rings glimmered in the simulated candlelight.
She inhaled deeply, exhaling smoke that spun and twirled like distant galaxies.
Cas cleared her throat, unsure what to say. “Hello,” she ventured.
The woman smiled. “Expected you hours ago, darlin’,” the woman said. “But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Strange shadows passing over the visions these days. Everything’s thrown off by the sudden, new light.”
“Excuse me?” Cas asked.
The woman pointed with her pipe at a small cushion opposite her on the floor. “You’ve got questions,” she stated in a way one would observe the weather. Cas nodded, sitting down in a way that mirrored the woman.
“I’ve got answers,” the woman continued. “Well, I don’t, but…” She trailed off as she reached in between layers of her flowing robes. She produced three metal cubes, each one held between her fingers. Gingerly, she set them down between Cas and her.
Cas looked at the cubes for a moment. They were smooth, devoid of any noteworthy features, and looked to be made from solid metal. She glanced up at the woman and frowned briefly. “I’m sorry, but do I know you?”
The woman smiled, but said nothing.
“What is this place?” Cas asked.
The woman smiled again. “You’ve made it to the Betweenways,” she said. “Or perhaps you’ve returned.” She offered a sly wink, and Cas felt a touch of heat at the back of her neck and around her ears. These weren’t answers so much as they seemed like coy riddles.
“I want you to think long and hard, darlin’,” the woman instructed. “Then ask the Oracle Cubes the first big, scary question that comes to mind.”
“What is this place?” Cas asked immediately.
The woman clicked her tongue. “Give it a little more thought than that,” she said. She took another long pull from her pipe and exhaled. In a fluid motion, beautiful as a well-choreographed dance, she turned her pipe over and tapped it against her free palm. Replacing the pipe between her teeth, she rubbed her hands together, causing a fine dusting of ash to drift to the floor.
Cas raised an eyebrow. “I’m lost, I think,” Cas said.
The woman smiled. “We’re all a little lost, darlin’,” she replied. “Go on.”
“The only reason I’ve made it this far is by following something I saw when I first woke up,” Cas continued. “So…I guess my question, then, is where do I follow the ashes to next?”
It started subtly enough. Fine lines moved along the surface of the cubes, beginning on one and ending on another. Faint lights emanated from within the metal, glowing in gentle hues of green and blue before giving way to deep purples and vibrant silvers.
The center cube jostled, followed by the one to its right rolling from one side to another and another. A humming sound began to build, and with a sharp snap the three cubes came together to form a short tower. Vibrant silver lines navigated the cubes’ exteriors, and upon a closer look Cas could see places where the lines vanished into the cubes.
The woman smiled once again. “The journey ahead of you will be long and not without its challenges,” she said. “And at its end, who is to say what you will find? Perhaps you will discover the truth? Or perhaps you will create your own truth.”
Cas considered this a moment. “That leaves a lot to interpretation,” she said at last, and the woman burst into laughter.
“The Oracle Cubes’ wisdom is one of databases and algorithmic predictions, darlin’,” the woman said. “But you’ll want to take those. That map should get you to where you need to be.”
Cas reached out to take the cubes. She flinched when the three cubes jostled suddenly, gradually combining and shifting until a thin, flat layer remained. Faint outlines now surrounded the original silver lines. Cas picked up the map and looked it over.
“I still don’t know where I really am,” she admitted, an edge of defeat to her voice. “Or what it is I should be doing. I’m just running from people.”
The woman produced a small satchel from in her robes, untying it with one hand while she moved her pipe into position with the other. She tamped down its contents with her thumb, a thoughtful expression the whole time. There was a soft popping sound from the pipe followed by a slow, serpentine curling of smoke. The woman inhaled, then puffed out a thin silver wisp that spiraled around her. The smoke snaked its way to, and then around, Cas before sharply changing directions and passing through the tent wall behind the woman.
Cas watched as the smoke didn’t seem to dissipate, lingering improbably.
“Speaking of running, perhaps you should resume doing so,” the woman said, her eyes darting to the back wall and then to Cas. “Right now.”
Cas became very aware of the sound of approaching footsteps. They were measured and deliberate, producing a crisp sound against the metal of the catwalks outside.
“Thank you for your help,” Cas said, leaping to her feet. She paused just before exiting. “I hope.” She pulled aside the tent’s wall and exited.
The woman’s focus, however, remained on the front of the tent. A single, glowing eye appeared in the dim light.
“Come to get your fortune told, darlin’?” the woman asked, smirking.
As Cas stepped out of the tent, her feet landed softly. Storm clouds rumbled in the distance as they drifted further away, the grass beneath Cas’ feet flattened from the rain. She glanced back to discover the tent, the catwalks, and the Betweenways were gone. Or, she considered, perhaps she had gone from that space. Pulling out the map, she tried to regain her sense of direction.
A small, blue-green dot blipped to life on the map’s surface. Cas took a step forward, and the dot mirrored her movement.
“It’s a start, I suppose,” Cas muttered to herself. “All right, then. Off I go.”