Chapter Twenty – Landing

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Alice fell hard on the steps, landing on, and then rolling over, Esther’s limp body. She felt her knee come down on some soft part of the unconscious woman, and she heard the crack of a bone close to the surface banging hard against the stone.

Alice braced herself for a fight, instinctively trying to get her feet under her, her hands in front of her face. She knew she would be swarmed and overrun; she didn’t stand a chance, but she was damned if she was going to go down easy, and anyone that wanted to take her out was going to have to brave her attempt to take them with her.

The light in the stairwell was dimmer than it had been out on the path. The only illumination came from up the steps where the spider waited, dancing back and forth, hissing at her, the tip of its leg still dripping in Alice’s blood. As she watched, more approached and joined it, and in moments there was a jostling crowd of scuttling black eight legged little monsters three or four deep just being the threshold of the stairway.

But when the spiders didn’t follow her down the stairs, she let her hands fall slowly down, and some of the fury drained out of her to be replaced by curiosity. “You can’t come down here.” She said, mostly to herself. The spiders seemed indifferent to conversation, but eager for her to come back out. She took a step up toward them, being careful not to stick her head up above the entryway.

Bits of mortar and stone crumbled down around her as she brushed against the wall of the stairwell. She felt like one big bruise, and her shoulder was burning where the spider had stabbed her. She hoped that in a place like the Dreamlands, there wasn’t much risk of infection. She supposed that if there was, it seemed like it would come in the form of a giant rabid raccoon trying to eat her, rather than inflammation and a fever.

She watched the spiders  swarming over each other, looking for a way to get to her. Her position below them didn’t offer much of a view, but it looked like a number of them in the rear were losing interest and moving off, though there still remained a healthy contingent standing by, ready to tear her apart if she came back outside.

“Ah,” Alice said. “You’re the storm. You can’t come inside. And… I guess this counts as inside.”

There was movement behind her, and the Esther’s voice. “Yes.” Alice turned to look and Esther was sitting up, leaning back against the wall where the steps turned. The left side of her face from her cheekbone down through her jaw, was already purpling into a nasty bruise. “Yes,” Esther repeated herself. “The storm. Well, as far as the storm is concerned, we’re home.” She winced. “I think you broke my arm.”

Alice stepped down toward her and bent down. “You’re awake.”

Esther managed a condescending look, even from sitting on the floor, down several steps from her. “Obviously.”

Alice crouched down and started to examine her. “Well, I saved your life, so you can forgive me.” She held Esther’s arm lightly pressing on it and feeling for fractures, watching for Esther’s reaction as she moved it. The tattooed animals beneath her fingers seemed to twist under Alice’s touch, and the odd sigils sent a tingling sensation into her hands, almost as if they were electrified. She noted that the snake previously coiled around Esther’s forearm was missing, leaving a conspicuous amount of unmarked skin.

When Alice had done her first responder training, they had taught her, really stressed to her, the importance of not diagnosing people. When you have someone with a broken bone, you don’t tell them it’s broken, she’d been taught. They’ll ask you what you think, and you just tell them it needs to be x-rayed. Her job, they had said, was the just examine it enough to know if it was life threatening, and if it needed to be stabilized, and to let the doctors do the rest. If you tell people what you think and you’re wrong, it’s bad. Either you get their hopes up falsely, or you unnecessarily upset them. Either way, it’s a lawsuit. And if you’re right, nobody gives you an award for being right. It’s not worth it, so don’t do it. That’s what she’d been taught.

Alice had never been good at following instructions. “Yeah, it’s definitely broken,” she said, pushing the arm gently back into Esther’s torso. “Try not to move it. I think you might have a concussion, too. Your uh… eyelight thingies look weird. Well, weirder.” Alice looked closely at Esther’s eyes. The glow off the left one seemed off somehow, but she couldn’t place how, and staring into the light wasn’t doing much for her own eyes. She blinked a few times to clear the spots. “I’ll need to examine you…” she looked around. “Somewhere that isn’t here.”

Esther looked up at Alice, and Alice saw what might have been compassion in her eyes for the first time. “You’re bleeding.” Esther winced and reached out to Alice’s shoulder with her good arm, but kept her fingers a few inches away from touching her.

Alice straightened up and away from the contact, gritting her teeth at the pain, but she liked pity even less than being injured. “Yeah, it’s an occupational hazard. Are you okay to walk?”

“I think so. My knee doesn’t feel great.” The look was gone from Esther’s face, hard lines appeared again. “We’re not far, though. It’s just to the bottom of the steps. Help me stand.”

Alice gently but firmly took Esther by the shoulder and grunted as she pulled her to her feet. The glow from Esther’s eyes illuminated the steps before them, down into the darkness. They walked down together, both limping, their steps echoing around them. Alice counted the stairs, but there didn’t seem to be a consistent number of steps between landings, and she lost track after turning a fourth time.

At the bottom of the stairs, she raised her hand to knock, but Esther waved her off, saying, “No, I live here.” Esther reached out and turned the handle, a thin silver lever that looked like it might easily bend in even Esther’s small hand. Her rings clacked against the metal as she grabbed it. Esther pushed the door open, and Alice felt a breeze against her like a breath of life buffeting against her.

Beyond the door was a dirt floored basement with fieldstone walls and lit with an electric lantern sitting on the floor. Standing directly in front of the door was Bruce Hanlon, with a black eye and a bathrobe, aiming a shotgun level with their heads.

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