Hero had already slept, and the blaze of RGB’s display filling her eyes with the liquid neon of wakefulness helped no part of her find the deep, warm tired again. Neither was she allured by the prospect of curling up against his broken side lest her sweater catch on his ruined outline, ends twisted like the snapped curb of a wire coat hanger. She reached over and shut the volume off plainly when there was nothing left to watch, fingers pinching the lip of her sleeve, eyes trained on the state of her companion.
There was no improvement, and hadn’t been since the Tower’d laid hand upon him. He’d fallen asleep in pain, and it crimped her shoulders to know he’d wake the same after all. The finality in his voice as he’d explained grafted a line through the possibilities of mending him, but despite the distress in the air in and around the wound, she wanted to help him. To achieve the impossible was the mark of a Hero after all. RGB had dubbed her thus, and the World of Make Believe had begun to abide by it, so why not try?
She sat cross legged, thinking as hard as she’d dared, fingers drawing a failing square into the loose sands at her side. His chest rose suddenly just as she traced a smile and her attention latched. She worried she’d turned the wrong dial and sent him to sleep proper where another nightmare might’ve been waiting like a knife in a river, wedged handle-down. But the program returned, stilling her anxieties around the corner and she abandoned her project to press an ear to his heart as she once had.
Static and heat. A faint warmth, the sort collected on the skins of stars under studio lights, sticking to the air in a pair of lungs, or slipping up sleeves. Just like the first time. She turned her head to rest a chin on his sternum, impossibly there as it was, eyes finding the rough where his outline ended and empty space begun. For a moment she pictured the colours of his clothing running from the wound like the milk, soap and ink trick she’d had at a birthday party. Maybe. Would that be a blood similar to his grin?
What he’d said of his outline, its origin inside and far off, flipped over and over in her thoughts, catching the light at some angles. She didn’t think reaching into his form and rummaging around was a good idea, and she didn’t want to wander too far from his side to search for his story. She wasn’t even sure what it would look like.
She stood and began to walk in circles, having seen a detective on RGB do so and earn a stroke of brilliance as the camera closed in on his face, but her uneven weight shifting the sands beneath her and the footprints left behind became distracting. Before she knew it, the Tower had centered itself in her sights. Of course it had always been there, but Hero had hoped she could forget about it like a cut across the back of a hand.
It was hard, RGB had said, hard as a nail in ice, and hungry enough to eat every voice in the Maze. It could fold them, twist and layer like cellophane into something familiar. This far into the World of Make Believe, memories had come loose and so “sort of sounds like” could pass for truth.
But Hero was not thinking about that - because she didn’t know - instead tilting her head, one eye shutting to take in the Tower like the games she’d play watching the raindrops race on the car window.
The memory of the Tower’s onslaught sat, still damp with terror, against the back of her neck but an idea began to take shape. She looked to her guide, prone and damaged and far away at the moment and carefully pictured trying to bend the frayed edges of his outline back into shape. The ends would not meet, sections were missing, crucial lineart ripped away and suddenly, though Hero could sense the scope of the search for a means of mending her friend ahead of her, she knew precisely where she could start.
The Maze welcomed her as a clock welcomes the hour and RGB’s cane felt suddenly sticky in her sweating hands. The pathway she’d asked of the hedges still stood, and the Tower’s base remained obscured by a curling corner. Already the air had clenched its fists, squeezing the sound of her own footsteps. Hero had nearly forgotten the choking silence, a syndrome of the structure, RGB had said.
Stealing a glance back to the dune where she’d left RGB to rest, her grip tightened but she could not turn back now. Halfway, she drew a hand across the passing dried foliage, as if hoping it would know she’d returned. Gray leaves flicked to the ground, and Hero wasn’t sure she could call the Maze a friend, but their shared experience with the Tower seemed a foundation of somekind.
Wherever RGB had been pinned before the Tower, wherever she’d managed to drag him, the yellow ire of his suffering had vanished, but the tracks remained. The dig of a few fingers, the press of a knee. She stopped just short of the center, around a corner, hairs on her arms and legs raised though the air was mild and hollow, as if even the memory of cold had been stolen away but its ghost leased the effect.
She curled her toes in her boots and looked back. A story-expectation told her her entryway would vanish, swallowed into labyrinthine walkways to give her no small nudge ahead, no choice. But nothing had changed. She could still see the dune where RGB lay, her footprints, the sand she’d tracked in. She was the only one moving and she could stop at any time.
The pause stretched like a piano wire, and as a poor man finds a pence in his pocket, Hero discovered she was waiting for something to happen though she knew nothing could if she stayed put.
And so, she turned around and began to walk backwards towards the tower.
Something what felt like a black eye, rolling in its socket, settled between her shoulder blades, burning, but she concentrated on putting one foot behind the other. Stray granules of sand skiffed and cracked beneath her shoes as the earth hardened, sandstone to black glass.
Her imagination sprinted from reason to fear and back again, cultivating images of thorned tendrils, thousands of teeth, tigers and deep water but she did not turn. Hero could not remember what it was the Tower had shown her in its reflective facet, but it had been something that left her listening at its mercy and she could not risk getting another look. Even a chameleon’s repertoire of voices failed to make their allusion without a visual aspect. If she did not look, she would not hear.
The Tower still spoke, but it was a floating conversation, a pedestrian on the phone through a bus window, parents on a park bench while their children played. She stuck a free finger into an ear and scratched, filling her head with what she always thought sounded like hoofs on a gravel walkway.
Resisting the instinct to check on her progress, Hero instead stretched the cane backwards and felt around. Close but not too close said the brush of bamboo against black stone. The Tower had seen her the moment she’d stepped into view, but her plan demanded tighter quarters.
RGB’s immediate consequence playing back again and again, she acted in silence, tucking his cane close to her side and sitting on her knees. The sand bit her bare shins.
The pad of her finger found the cool stone a half of inch below the surface, sweat making the slide catch and the sand stick but she drew the letters with mute conviction.
DID YOU TAKE HIS OUTLINE?
Waiting found her once more, eyes flicking from the message to the rigor hedges framing the clearing, to the sky where the free sun blazed reds and yellows, far closer than the star she knew back home.
It was only The Tower’s shadow creeping into her peripherals that indicated any passage of time, and in that, a lack of response. At first she didn’t quite understand. Had she misspelled? A silent “sound them out” session disproved that hunch and she straightened her shoulders, squinting at her sentence. The Tower could see her, it could speak to her, she knew it knew her language. Hero pinched the fabric of her sleeve in tightened thought, trying to roll the question over as if the answer was etched into the underside. Rotate, spin, and then on its axis, flip.
Realization, a coin landing heads up in her favour, she scratched out her progress and started again.
Though it could communicate itself to nefarious effect, The Tower spoke through mirrors. She only need adopt her language to its dialect.
Spelling the right ways forwards already presented its own challenges, and her “W”s still came out wonky at times, but she resisted her instinct, trace an “E”s arms in the opposite direction. Here she spoke whilst keeping her voice wrapped around the spindle in her chest, gripped like wet yarn, and hoped she would be heard.
The Tower’s shadow moved again, though no will of the Sun pushed it. It sprouted arms. Quick as she’d seen it, Hero raised the cane, both hands around the bottom, prepared to make a weapon of it, but the Tower’s appendages, edging slowly into space, twisting impossibly - or so their silhouette suggested - did nothing of offense. She squinted, her thumbs adjusting their grip as the cast’s fingers of many hands merged into a solid shape, and then, into letters.
She blinked, more than surprised, then dragged sand and replied as if she’d expected the conversation..
WHERE ARE YOU KEEPING IT?
HE NEEDS IT BACK
CAN I HAVE IT?
There went her initial approach. She sat, and considered the silver tongue in her guide’s proverbial mouth she’d neglected to borrow. Emulation and imitation would need to suffice, though RGB would garner no flattery in the matter. What had the Tower gained in their encounter? Pieces of the man’s very story, but, she recalled, that hadn’t been the Tower’s original intent.
IT IS NOT WHAT YOU WANTED
YOU WANTED MY VOICE
She thought back to the market and its rates. A two digit price for a pair of legs. But now...she was not the buyer. She thought about the Maze, the Tower’s taking, and suddenly Cell’s marketable confidence trussed her like pottery glaze and she puffed out her chest like RGB when he faked. All these masks were beginning to feel a little heavy and she wondered how anyone managed.
HOW ABOUT A DEAL?
LET ME LOOK FOR HIS OUTLINE
IF I CAN’T FIND IT THEN YOU CAN
HAVE MY VOICE
The Tower took its time. Hero watched the shade until the owner replaced itself in her mind. “An impossibly tall, stringy woman-” said imagination “with long dark hair spilling from her crown like a polluted river in a cartoon, wrapping around her ankles. She stroked her chin, knuckles and wrist-bones bulging under tight skin. She hated the wind and anything with a glow.-”
Closer? Hero stared at the word as if wondering how it got there. It persisted under her gaze, hard as she blinked. She stood, apprehensive, and clutching the cane across side to shoulder, stepped back, closer.
Entirely expecting to be skewered and surprised to find herself alive and whole instead, she braced - quiet like a kiln- and slowly squeezed the distance until the space between herself and the Tower flattened into a line.
Closer, as it had requested, she felt her presence pressed like a soap bubble caught between tiles. No building breathed like the Tower, every brick in every wall tightening in cartillaged mortar.
A last look at the shadow, instruction absolute, she unstuck a flight of fingers from around the cane, reached back and brushed the base. It registered cool for an instant before the sun’s warmth vanished and Hero was somewhere else.
Though the Maze still laid itself before her, precisely where she’d left it, Hero quickly realized this was not the same place. The wind blew, the hedges drew greens, the sands parsed in reds and oranges. Before her, a portrait of stolen sights and sounds marked the Tower’s efforts. Only the sky and its accessories told any truth, draped in grays and blacks, whatever range a lense of black glass could provide, for the Tower could not reach them so far away. She quickly gazed down at her hands, and found herself swathed in monochrome and though she could feel questions knitting themselves into her fibers, she felt relief.
She never did understand compasses, but Hero sensed whichever direction she’d been facing before, now, had been reversed, and the world had wheeled with her. She had entered the Tower, and now stood in a reflection.
Short of letting her curiosity brush her hair the wrong way, she tried to focus on what lay before than what she’d left behind. Some rules out there were clear, but in here, she wasn’t so certain, and though it seemed the Tower was giving her a fair chance, allowing the search for RGB’s outline, it could hardly be as easy as that.
Hero’s optimism over having come so far dried on one side as she realized the shadows around her were moving far quicker than they ought. A look up at the gray sky revealed a sun slowly making its way down, hardly quick, though not as imperceptibly as was proper. It occurred to her that deals had conditions. Of course the Tower would not allow her to look as long as she liked and scanning the stretching shade, Hero realized time was already running out, and so picking a passage between green, healthy hedges, she tore off, leaving no trace in the sand.
It was some time before Hero heard the voice. She’d been shielding her eyes from the gray, false light of the false sun, and a word on the wind startled her, having carried silence for so long.
It came again, and her ears strained, arms half raised as if waiting to clap the sound it in both hands, to watch it bounce between cupped palms like a silver marble.
It sounded...Young. Young and small and afraid? No. Curious, and cautious, and for a moment Hero feared she’d let something slip and the Tower had taken her voice to use against her.
However, the voice was only like hers, tailored to soften her guard, as was the Tower’s wont, a knife red with heat approaching a wax wall until it wept.
She turned away, swallowing dry- her throat coated with disuse- and proceeded down an opposite path, turning several grown corners. Hero was not entirely sure what she was looking for, a spackle of black lines floating in space, or a pile sitting on the sand like charred pick-up sticks, but the “sun” would not stop, and neither would she.
The voice followed like a trotting cat. Hello? More fervent, louder now. More like her own than ever, though not quite. The clock hadn’t rounded, she had time. If the Tower had thought of cheating her, it would have by now. She slowly turned the cane in her hands, grateful she hadn’t come unarmed.
The breeze seemed a mumble all its own, and Hero’s skin rumpled in goosebumps as it brushed her cheeks and wrists, then turned on a dime and struck her again, carrying the voice. It had grown insistent, abandoning any cadence of question. Hello. Despite her efforts to put distance between the source and herself, it seemed only a well placed corner separated them, and the moment Hero glanced backwards and spotted a shadow leaking onto the sand, she began to run.
Stray branches snagged as she turned tightly, throwing herself into the Maze like a pin through paint, dragging the pattern. The voice split into two, then four, and further like the business end of a firecracker. They heated the air around her ears, struck her neck with sweat and a tightness like digging fingernails. Forgetting her search for the time being, she sprinted, trying not to let her own voice dip into her desperate panting. Hello!!- Hello?-Hell- Hello-? Hello - Hello- Hello!!- Hellohello. Hello-HELLO-hello-HELlo? Hellohello- hEllooo- Hello- HELLO-
Hero caught herself mid-stumble as she turned another corner and found a dead end stretched high like a tall proctor.
Hard as she tried, the hedges were too dense and healthy to part, and the cane nearly did not come away after a second on third plunge. She scuttled from corner to corner before the voices spilled into the small space, backsplashing like a tidepool, and turning slowly to watch the shadow creep into view, Hero realized she was trapped.
Tiny hooked branches tickled her palm as she pressed herself back again the organic wall, the cane shaking in a grip so hard it hurt. The vocal rockslide came to a head like water finding a fault, before collapsing into a silence draped in the vibrations still butterflying through the air.
The shadow changed and moved and Hero’s raised hackles fell straight through her shoulders to the sand, because it couldn’t be her mother, here and now, who stood at the other end of the passage. It couldn't be.
Reason and logic pulled at her sense, but a voice like her mother’s wrapped a fist around it and spoke a name she thought she’d forgotten, though the moment it was said, she forgot again. Child she was, Hero’s yearns jumped at the instinct to go to her, leap into her arms and let her carry her home. She succumbed, reached for her, dropped the cane, made a beeline. Desperate eyes crinkling above a smile unworthy as Hero called out to her and broke a promise.
Her mother smiled back and the line art flickered. The pace faltered. She blinked, realizing in abject horror what she’d done, and though her hands rose to clamp over her mouth, though she pulled to a sudden stop, she knew the Tower had heard her voice. The lost name came and went, once more,
Her mother’s arms grew obsidian, colours leaching the lines, outline shambling, straying like a smeared watercolour. Everything reached for Hero’s speech in a sharp, hungry instant and couldn’t move.
RGB’s cane swept into her sights, faster and harder than she could swing and meeting its mark, shattered whatever had been her mother. It burst like a balloon, shards and strings of its line-work drifting through the air, the colours and voices trembling violently in place like a cymbal striking the ground
Hero was seized around the middle, tucked under an arm, and carried up and over the nearest hedge with familiar ease. A crouched landing on spat shoes, a very well practiced sprint, she knew this drill but it certainly hadn’t posed itself a possibility. Further a surprise, the pose changed and she was lifted from her role akin to luggage, and held instead in both arms as only a child could be. Hero could see now, following the lapels up to the collar, the empty space where ought be a neck whereupon sat the TV set where a man’s head should be. It was RGB, and certainly not RGB.
The arresting, black ringed eye that occupied the entirety of his screen in place of the colourful grin of the guide she knew drifted down towards her, black ooze, like warm tar, defying gravity, dripping upwards and disappearing. She blinked, he blinked, seemed to determined she was in one piece, and turned his singular gaze back to the path ahead.
It gave chase. She saw it roil over the brush behind them and could only describe it as a screaming scribble, a churning, folding, flipping congress of lines, colours, voices, lives desperately trying to find form, but utterly forced into a mass as if scrunched and balled between two very large, very strong hands. Limbs half formed to drag and claw before losing faith and unwinding like a loose knit blanket caught on a coat-hook. The Tower’s Collection.
He must have noticed the way she gripped his blazer for he whipped down another path so quickly she thought she felt her toes hit the ceiling of her shoes. The Collection could not make the turn and rolled by, yelling incomprehensibly in stolen voices of every suit. It would find another way to reach them, it would climb or dig and draw blood, but, for the time being, they ran in relative quiet, hardly helped by his nature, or whatever she could get. If knowledge were a window, she’d seen him through a pinhole in a dark room.
RGB was a creature of colour and choir, vivacity and sing song vernacular, like one fourth of a barbershop quartet desperate trying to explain what had happened to the other three. This one existed in striking shades of black and white, tied together in gradients of channel static and resolute stillness of voice. It occurred to her that they matched at the moment. She did not know what to call him. Since the first time he’d appeared, many weeks ago, overtaking RGB’s form to bring down a beast of miserable size, Hero had half convinced herself it had been a daydream of somekind. She hadn’t thought to give him a name, nor whether he had one to begin with, but if RGB stood for Red Green Blue as she suspected, she might think to call him Black White, BW. Hero could not- however- be sure if she had the power to do so. A name was worth much more than warranted giving them away like handshakes at a wedding.
He slowed to a stop at the edge of the Maze’s center, near the tower and knelt to set her down, hands on her shoulders as if he intended to address her. She wondered what his voice sounded like and her gaze flicked to his volume dial. The large eye pierced like a blunt instrument though it was difficult to read like an entry written in white ink, available only in the right light. The pupil twitched and he gazed past her pointedly. She followed, looking over her shoulder.
The sun was setting rapidly, horizon blazing near white, eager to swallow it whole.
Hero looked back to her savior, thinking to tell him everything but the resistance to speak seized her again. Instead she shook her head and covered her face with both hands, pressing her palms into her eyes as if trying to push back the thought of being taken by the Tower in accordance with what she’d wagered, leaving RGB to wait in vain, crippled and incomplete, unable even to rise and find another Hero.
A small snap of static prickled her cheek as a finger brushed by. She lowered a hand and found him with one, swollen eye. They matched again for a moment. She suspected he also knew why she had come, and that she was now bound to fail. She clenched her teeth and found her shoes in shame but the way his gaze affixed her like the first snow, she did not find him as frightening as she had back then, reaching for her from his loom. It might have also been the fact he was kneeling, but the thought dissolved under duress. She tried to dry her eyes with her sleeves, but the thought of losing everything once more and becoming nothing but pen strikes and finger paints sent her seizing from the outside in.
He took her hand then, by the wrist, with a soft, impersonal power, like a scar on a writer’s fingertip. He was warm, like RGB. He held her still, palm up and open and reached for his own side where on RGB, outside and elsewhere, injury relished. He rested his hand there, imploring Hero to confirm his eye-rung query. She blinked, then nodded. Yes, there.
And so he dug his fingers into his form and tore from it a hefty length of lineart, the most precious lifeblood, Hero’d been informed. Eye scrunched in more than a little discomfort, Hero reached for him instinctively, drawn by his familiar shape, and a something soft spiking to his aid. He crumpled whatever he’d gathered and pushed it- hot - into her hand before she could protest.
Her fingers clamped tightly around it, with his help, and she registered some familiar shape against her palm before the Tower’s Collection burst from the hedges at their back and charged.
He took her in his arms again and leapt backwards into the Tower’s ring, his figure falling apart with grace, as if being passed over by a too-diluted shade of white, coat after coat. The prize in her hand, his anchor, heated as she watched him disappear. The cane hanging at his elbow remained, not yet belonging to this place and Hero had every intention of returning it to its proper owner.
The gray sun touched the earth, the Collection reached with everything it had, screaming and calling with the despair of hundreds caught in an avalanche as she and him shattered through.
But for the cane, Hero fell into the outside alone. An open hand and fist pressed to the earth, she struggled to her feet, and found the cane tucked in the sand and fetched it quickly before noticing the persistent heat in her hand.
Her reward. A smooth, faceless fountain pen rolled across her unfolding palm and Hero allowed herself to marvel at the sense it made. Hugging herself and bursting with some breed of electricity, she took to her passage, whispering excitedly to the walls of the Maze.
“I found it! I found his Outline!”
The Maze waited until she’d cleared the exit, then closed at her back, her short-cut returning to its previous form as if acknowledging the end of many things, including a visit in the future. She placed a hand where the arch once stood, and whispered another grateful thank you.
A little ways out, she stopped, turned, and took in the Tower for what she certainly hoped would be the last time. Then, something propped itself against her whimsy and she slowly lifted the fountain pen and held it parallel in space to the distant tower. From the handle up, they matched. Hero wondered how deep the similarities went, and what of the Tower laid below the earth, out of sight.
RGB laid still upon the sand where she’d left him, display jotting back and forth in silent movement. Hero smiled far brighter than she ever thought she could, happy to see the man in any form he took. She turned him back on without a second thought, twisting his volume dial, ears itching to be full of something true.
He twitched awake, groggy, his technicolour frown flickering into shape and at the sight of her, lifted feebly into a grin that couldn’t curl a feather.
“...Now now…” He tutted faintly. “What’s all this then?” A hand rose at the elbow, gesturing towards what she imagined was her general demeanor.
She brought the pen into view and he froze, mouth nearly disappearing into the bottom of his frame as what Hero decided could be nothing but utter disbelief crossed his visage and person.
Tentatively, he reached up and took the pen from her as a man would a seed of Eden’s Garden.
“...Hero…” He whispered, bright greens and cyans dribbling as if pushed out by the rising smile. Magenta joined the fray a moment later.
“My Hero.” He said, and with her help- he sat up and made himself whole once more.