He couldn’t be sure when they’d been separated, only that they had and it was far too late for that notice to be of any use to him. TV turning, he searched up and down the immediate, barren passageways of this once green hedge Maze, some sort of handful of needles rapping lightly at the back of his proverbial neck. No, no no. It’s fine. It’s fine, he knew this place. And it knew him. He would find her, and they would escape. Or at the very least, he wouldn’t find her and escape all the same. That pill had lodged in his throat a very long time ago, though outwardly he walked as if it sat in his stomach. How crippling he was a coward, to be cowardly in the face of cowardice.
Broken gray stone, once ornate and painted blue scattered in his step as he turned corners, a gloved hand brushing the bare branches and weather worn walls as if imploring the Maze to tell him something, warm his fingers, guide his way. Or fool him. Do something. Anything.
But She had killed this place many years ago, plunged an obsidian spire straight through the heart. It rose like a soot soaked railroad spike, a shadow made marble, a false nail off night’s right hand, twisted and massive. He found it easily from any point and curl, like a moon, and short of letting himself feel afraid, it occurred to him that lost in a maze, anyone would search for a landmark, a consistency. A great, black Tower.
It was a long-ish sort of shot to imagine Hero would meet him there, given variables he would rather string into a bracelet and leave behind on a bus, but he’d no other idea half as appealing. Calling out wasn’t an option. Dead as this place may be, he’d seen ears lent, never to be returned. RGB could not take that chance. Not here.
A bramble caught his sleeve and he snuffed a curse in his teeth as he tugged his arm free. Threads frayed unpleasantly as the hooks came away. He knew if he pulled them, they’d only worsen, so he smoothed it all over best he could and pressed on.
The Maze of...of something. (Lord it had been so long since he’d heard a name. No wonder it faded with each passing day. It had died, and in being forgotten, died again. RGB’s guilt was elsewhere at the moment, but the cushion it occupied was fluffed. What a way to go.) The Maze had grown far quicker, far larger, far more complex in its heyday than anyone could have possibly imagined. The hedge walls reached high, blocking sun and rain and wind such that for a time, the deep dark innards had taken on a climate of their own, a perpetual mist, an echo of running water. The leaves had shimmered silver against a breeze that seemed to circle and lap the paths as if trapped. In some sections, the cold- chased away by a warm fuzzy feeling perhaps- found providence, digging feet and hands into the earth and air. So cold was it, one could see their breath wisp into being, and then, be eaten by the walls. They were carnivorous in the ways a book could chew up time. Not truly, perhaps, but a length of cautious rope could be advised.
Now, after Her, the Maze flaked at the edges as if ready to be peeled from the world like a scab, the Tower its only means of affix. The hedges leafless, gray through to the roots, stone pillars, dividers, podiums half crumbled and faded, gold inlay picked clean. And silence. Not the type living, breathing in a monastery, brushing back hair and pressing a palm to the shoulders of those who pass through it, but artificial, a silence that chokes the air, like a ceiling uncomfortably low and painted a stained beige, rife with water damage. The sort of silence a drowning man knows. Beyond his own screaming thoughts, there was nothing, and no one.
The Maze had died of its own accord, She had lobotomized it.
He found the Tower far quicker than he expected, the base a seamless mould against the earth though RGB was well aware it extended far, far below into some other organ of this world. A silent breath slipped into his vents as he clenched and unclenched fingers around his cane, finding solace in stuffing a hand into his pocket, and circumvented.
He knew there’d be no reflection for him in its deep, dark face, but he avoided a glance all the same, turned his head away as something- the implication of a sound, the potential of a voice- shifted the air by his proverbial ear. It would be best not to be heard, better still not to be recognized. Yellow dribbled, mingling with blue and a touch of magenta. His pocket had a hole in the deepest corner. He needed to find Hero and get out. He needed to find Hero or get out.
Giving up, or the idea of it, had practically linked an arm with his when he spotted her, just beyond the lip of the ex-hedges. Hero’s owlish eyes peering into the Tower’s closest side, her brows rose, then furrowed, in that clever way they do, and RGB - so struck by the fact he’d made the right call - froze solid to process. He’d found Hero, they were going to get out, and then she stepped forward.
It became apparent very quickly that RGB was just out of view, and though he could see her, Hero had yet to spot him. She instead seemed very interested in the Tower, but did not take in the height or surroundings as a small child in a large world might, rather, her gaze fixed as if she were appraising a painting, or wondering how on earth a person could harm another and feel nothing. The green dried, and yellow flooded as he realized Hero was not looking at, but into.
He could not see what it was that the Tower’s face presented to her, or hear the voice with which it called, made for her, meant for her, but when her lips parted to speak, and her arms lifted to reach for the crystallized, black hands and arms sprouting from the wall, he’d already moved.
Despite his promises and vanity, he leapt between Hero and the Tower and scooped the girl up under an arm as the fingers of her escaped fate grew sharp, pointed and plunged themselves into the right side of his body, piercing limb clean through in a strike meant for her. They curled maliciously, cruel and human, digging into the man with about every intention of pulling a cry out of his brain, pulling him closer. it only took a moment for him to realize he needed a free arm to resist, and tossed Hero as hard as he possibly could.
She rolled once over, skidding to a stop, certainly skinning her knees against the ravaged earth, and when she snapped up to call his name, RGB already had a finger poised across his flooded mouth, sharp as the sun between blinds. She made no sound, the gesture universal, and the sight of several oil black arms, warped and monstrous, tearing through him straight to the other side in a stalemate of trembling limbs and crunching glass effectively snuffed her voice. Yellow, cyan, red pooled below him. He’d no lip to bite, no teeth to clench, but she could see the line of his mouth, so deeply still, it betrayed the shake in his fingers.
It hurt. A lot.
She rose to her feet, slowly, carefully, and took a half-step towards him before RGB- keen enough to her habits- urged her with the desperation of a man privy to a bursting dam and oncoming water. Stay put, step back. And she obeyed, nodding, covering her mouth with both hands for good measure.
Abated by her action, and astounded she chose to heed him at all, RGB quickly found a crack in the foundation below and dug his fingers in, gripping tightly against the Tower’s ministrations. It pulled, and tore, and thrashed, clawing at his clothing, dragging fabric to shreds and splitting lapels, but he held fast. Despite a stream of dire colour coating the lower length of his frame and painting the earth in much needed shades it hadn’t seen in years, he would not allow himself to be dragged any closer to the Tower.
The Tower paused, limbs draining of animation and seizing in time like flawed polaroid. Just as the formaldehyde silence began seeping into the scene - threatening to make taxidermy of the man - a chipped chuckle shook the dust. RGB’s warbled grin flashed out of view as his head bowed, shoulders pulling tight as he forced the laugh from his body. It hurt, it killed him, but the blow found its mark.
“...You missed, you ghastly toothpick.” He coughed, disguising it in a mocking laugh. His voice sounded as if it were being grated slowly against a blade in his throat. His free hand curled into a fist, trembling. It took two tries, but he drew breath somehow, the sort that spoke and ached.
“You will never get her voice…” It came like a gavel. “...but you may have mine, if you like.”
Privy to the worth in the offer, the Tower ripped its grip from him, scorned and loathe to let him go. He cried out, collapsing where once he’d been supported by the impalement. No flesh bled beneath his ruined blazer flank and pantleg, but RGB did not rise. Breath pumped, stuttering in his spine, and Hero hesitated, catching herself as she thought to call out to him, tightening her fingers across her lips.
She glanced between the black Tower and her fallen guide, as if awaiting a signal of safety, of the danger passing. Her guts clenched, the cool unpleasant cheek of anxiousness pressed into her's. She waited still, watching, listening. Nothing suggested the Tower wouldn’t try to lure her into its own devices if she got any closer, but her toe ground a divot into the dirt.
They moved at the same time, Hero stepping forward, RGB extending an arm. He braced the elbow against the earth, dragged himself a little ways, and repeated, path permeated with coloured language and coloured ooze. The other arm followed uselessly, a soaked rag. She crept, carefully closing the distance until he reached wrong and convulsed, spitting what could have been a sob, and she was at his side in a moment.
He could tell Hero wanted to help. He did not know how she might, but she’d collected his cane for him, and now knelt to nestle under his working arm, trying to offer support so that he might find his feet. He tried to speak again, but the world spun sideways for a moment and he fell to a punctured knee. Small hands took handfuls of his clothing where it was whole, refusing to let him go.
RGB wouldn’t have liked to admit he’d been leaning on a child, but if asked, he would gladly tell any and all that without Hero, they would not have escaped the Maze. By some trick of time, or a lapse in consciousness, they dragged RGB and all his pieces to the nearest cover. Backs to the Tower now, it was much easier to turn the corner and escape the memory and its hands. He drew every loose thread of his body together and held the seams closed in one working hand, resisting a different pull entirely. The ground seemed as welcoming as any feather bed but there was no time for that now.
“We have to get out.” He pinched his words like a pearl of blood between forefinger and thumb. “We have to…”
He could feel her looking at him, feel the air brush what remained of him beneath perforated clothing, his cycling breath rolling up and under his chest with the ease of a rock tumbler. She was thinking, hard. He need not ask to know, the static across his glass spiked this close, clear and itching despite the whirling world.
Short of wondering whether the Maze was tilting beneath his feet and it hadn’t been a mirage of his leaking resolve, Hero urged him onwards and he’d no choice but to follow. He thought to ask her if she knew where to go, but the question fell spinning like a coin to the bottom of some cerebral patch of tall grass as pain tightened his side. He’d twisted where he ought not, and gasping too quickly, coughing too hard, slipped to the ground. RGB need not have said he couldn’t anymore, it was enough a flood of buttery fear spilled down his collar.
Hero’s grip loosened and he found himself cyan soaked for an instant despite knowing he couldn’t bring himself to blame her for leaving him behind. Not at all. He’d slipped and sidestepped so many a time where it should have been him, survival instinct shrouding his shuddering shoulders like a cape, always, always heavier than any garment of guilt.
“We…You…You have to get out.”
He hadn’t spoken it yet, needing a morsel of mettle. Given the paper napkin of a backbone he’d in fine health, it was slim pickings. But he would. He would in a moment. Give me a second, he said, give me a second and I’ll give you everything.
Hero spoke before he could stop her, acted outside of expectation, as he should have expected.
“Hello. I’m sorry for being so quiet, but he’s hurt, and we’re lost. Please, can you show us the way out?”
It didn’t take him whole to know she was not speaking to him, hand pressed softly to the dried, dead brambles of the hedge maze.
The Maze hadn’t known rain since She’d latched her lips to the world’s arteries and sucked dry even the most thought provoking trees, and so a Hero’s tear, a Hero’s word, outweighed mountains of gold and saffron stacked to the skies.
As he tended to be, more often than ever as of late, RGB found amazement breaching pain and terror as the Maze - a paragon of topiary rigor mortis, a dead place, a dead place - listened.
The hedges parted, one after the other, like folded cards, blooming a path to the outside, and Hero- returning to her post- half carried, half helped RGB through.
Safe now on some bank of blue sand near a white, porcelain spike, sections suspended in air like vertebrae that RGB assured her was a tree, he sat back, ruined right side lying straight and as painlessly possible. His fingers twitched as nerves continued to catch fire, one by one. She sat nearby, eyes passing across him. He suspected she was painting very real injury in her mind’s eye. RGB knew her illustrations would fall short, and so smiled as if they overshot.
“I have my theories, but…” He adjusted, and steadied his breathing. “Why did you do that? How did you know it would work, Hero?”
“Well...you said everyone was scared to speak in the Maze. Not to talk or else, but...then it’s been really quiet in there for a long time. The Maze can’t see but it can hear, you said, so even though someone might be visiting, it wouldn’t know. That sounds...lonely.”
“And what if the Tower were to hear?”
“I wasn’t talking to the Tower.”
He knew he wasn’t stupid, but he should have seen the simplicity as it slapped him across the screen. He breathed deep. It had become easier.
His head began to tilt back, screen flickering a moment as something like adrenaline began to peter out the holes in his arm and leg, it seemed. Slipping into stand-by didn’t seem a terrible course of action. He hadn’t sat too close to the tree.
“Why didn’t it want your voice? The Tower, I mean. Why did it let you go?”
He was spared of sleep by a Hero’s voice. She’d shifted closer. He hoped she didn’t climb on top of him.
“Now that’s obvious, dear girl. Who would take me at my word?”
Her head tilted, brows furrowing. He smiled like a man bidding a coworker good evening on Christmas Eve, knowing he’d never be home in time.
“Don’t believe everything you hear on TV.”
Sleep did not arrive so much as found him like a streetlamp snapping ablaze, arresting a walker. It became too taxing to both think about and feel pain, and so he made a choice. RGB could not pinpoint the moment he decided to take the day, fold it thrice and put it in some tightly packed box at the bottom of everything, but at some point, he felt the back of his head come to rest upon the soft curve of the sandbank and let the world swirl down a deep dark drain. A soft ache in his bad leg permeated the dredges of his consciousness but he couldn’t for the life of him discern the cause before the silt settled and he was off.
Hero, curled up against his knee and, eyes half open to watch, saw the line of his mouth shape something before he tilted into rest much needed. She decided she wouldn’t pester him about it later.
Exactly what it took to break RGB had crossed her mind from one end to the other, steadying into a large monochromatic eye, a dark palette and a hum in the air like some greater machine bursting to life beneath the ground. What that sight represented remained a mystery, but the last time she’d seen it, her guide had been in dire straights and surely had no choice but to become more dire in turn, more frightening than anything this strange world could stitch together. It scared her even now, however, and so she stopped thinking about it, evacuated the images like water out an ear to avoid giving herself nightmares.
But nothing disappeared in this place. Like true energy of any breed, indestructible, it vacated and found a new home.
He became, sketched into some charcoal black scape by a cosmic slip of chalk, offered only a moment to flicker in half questions or what and who. He spotted the ironing board, the spitting steam warping into a husky, papercut voice almost immediately, could see words warping the air like heat and turned tail.
Hero had fallen asleep far too close to him again, despite his telling her time and time that dreams did not agree with him, case in point. However, given the Tower still loomed some yards away like a tombstone, he couldn’t fault her. He himself wished he could have rolled so he might’ve laid with his back to it.
This was a dream, of course. Hardly a total static sense of place, only a vague tug at fingers and toes telling him he was not where he last left himself, Inner compass spinning in vain. He turned from one side of absolutely nowhere to the other, his only greeting an expanse of rich blackness divided by a soft chalk horizon. The symbol of aggression and its accessories had gone. He suspected the moment they’d left his view, they’d dissolved, vanished, as things did in dreams. Formless without observation, without thought.
Hours passed, perhaps. Or minutes. Time scratched its head and reviewed its notes, the projected subconscious a gray area, a clock over a campfire, arms soft and numbers running. The skyline offered no indication of passage, bare and jagged in some illusion of topography though he knew he’d find no mountains far and beyond. Void as it was, moving through dreams felt heavy, clouded, as if he were chin deep in sand, carving a path for himself. He needed to stop and catch his breath, or he must have, for his hands were suddenly braced on his knees. The squeeze of some proverbial thickness in the air weighed on him like a cement jacket, he felt as if he’d been sprinting for some time, though he hadn’t been. Breathing wasn’t especially easy. He pressed a hand to his side as if to plug some hole through which he was sure great gulps of air were escaping.
The drip did not register until it had run to his elbow and when his hand came away oozing and red, he felt himself panic, then panicked. He tried to find the source, some unfelt wound on his flank but in the selective focus of his dreamer’s eye, he could only see the spreading oval pool at his heel as the stream channeled down his leg. He bled and bled, and he yelped, cries evaporating against the backs of his teeth, strangled by leathered air.
It spread, soaking him warm and heavy until his chalky figure filled to the edges like a flawed watercolour. He blinked hard, trying to clear the filmy pull in his eyes and his eyelashes stuck together. It stung, blinding, and he folded, cursing like a snapped wire. The flats of his fingers drilled into his sockets, trying to squeeze the pain out the corners as he felt his knees find the earth, elbows pressing tightly together until the outline blurred and his arms shared a sleeve.
He shook his head side to side, wet hair licking his ears before he stuffed his hands through it, gripping hard handfuls and letting his eyes burn. Red squeezed under his palms, dribbling into his sleeves until his cuffs overflowed like cups. He bowed to reverse and pour them out.
His nose and mouth filled and he raised his chin, staring through acid into a red sea rising around his knees. Hands shot down to push off the bottom and he straightened to his feet, a gasp straining between teeth, grit in terror. Drenched hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and snagged his collar like small fingers. Too much like them to be anything else, in fact. He tried to pivot and escape but they were too strong and too many, grips born of death, exceeding the sum of parts broken at his hand. He couldn’t see their faces despite turning until his body locked, sides creaking like the tin man. Only their arms, thin and new, extending into his blind spot. His own voice ripped the air and he shaped his lips to catch it but it turned over, splitting off like the braid of a river to fill their mouths instead.
The weight came and he began to sink. Their arms slipped through space, all but their elbows disappearing under the red as they pulled. It seemed the sea itself had sprouted hundreds of hands and all were grasping at his clothing, swallowing him at the knees and higher still, determined to drown him. He couldn’t feel his feet and their fingers pierced like glass in a car accident. He screamed with the voices of many children, thrashing and coughing up lungfuls of red, movement stunted as if key frames had gone missing. His face felt claws as liquid spilled from his nose and mouth before the sky narrowed into one thick line flanked by blazing white like twin screens in a dark cave. A massive, black Tower roared above, swallowing the xenith from horizon to horizon. The darkness birthed a massive eye, a planet of spiraling irises that stared, and stared, and stared...
RGB awoke on his bad side to a jostle that helped the pain none. His mouth fizzled, twitched whole and back, dials quivering in their sockets as a cry leaped from his throat, feeling more like a sob as it dragged its feet through his voice. Hero spoke his name, panicked and grainy with sleep. She must have only just woken up. His good hand found his chest as if a heart hammered beneath, an attempt at curling up bringing a true sob hiccuping from his latched shoulders. He couldn’t move, not on his own.
It must have taken a fair amount of strength on her part to sit him up. He tried to tell himself her small hands would not pull him into some abyss but the press of the nightmare and all its fingers felt humid against his heart, and his head spun. Pain’s nest in his right half anchored him to the here, at least, though it had abated somewhat in the way the tide recedes. He knew it would be back, but he needed to take advantage of its absence.
A foundation of sand spoke for itself. RGB could not get to his feet, even with Hero’s support. More than once he fell back into his divot against the small dune, breath trembling as if it were rattled from his body like pocket change. Soon, shaking his head, the pain cracked an eye open and he knew his window had passed. Head tilting, he stole a glance at his own damaged half and poorly stifled a hitch in his next words at the sight of his outline. It had been broken, stuttering where the Tower had pierced him as if ripped from his shell. Like the sharp, snapped half of a broken bone, the edges of his very story dug into him as he moved, burning dry ice and molten rock.
“Hero-” He began, shaking his head. “I can’t- I need to lay down, will you help me?”
He did not blame her when her grip found the unceremonious ending of his lineart, deciding to hold his breath instead and try not to let the agony find a foothold. She worked to make him comfortable, straightening his lapels and smoothing his sleeves. Somehow, she knew he liked to look presentable, even prone and riding the vestiges of a truly horrible dream. She would make a fantastic coroner. The irony made him smile, and she smiled, which made him smile.
She hugged her legs when she was unsure and waiting, and did so now, her chin and mouth disappearing behind her knees, one scarred. He could hear in her voice that the smile wavered.
“...Are you going to be okay, RGB?” Something in the fixed gaze she gave him made him want to give her an answer worth something, like the first brick that builds a home.
No throat to mention but he swallowed, and laying on his back, spoke up against gravity. It sounded crushed.
“...My outline is damaged, Hero.” He said.
“...Oh…” She’d grasped the concept as one would the sun in the curl of a finger and thumb, an eye shut tight. Her gaze flicked to the wound, looking as if she might reach for it, but did not. He flinched anyway.
“Can...Can I fix it? I can find a marker...or- or you can have some of mine…”
“...It doesn’t quite work that way…” He explained, softly.“...An outline comes from inside...and far away. Finding oneself and...and the story elsewhere…”
His consciousness flickered again. She rolled forward onto her knees, hung over him, and he saw her shape his name, but a thick static jolt drowned her voice for a moment.
“Yes? I’m here, RGB. What is it?” He heard.
“...I will be fine-” A necessary preface though he could see skepticism in the frown pulling at her lip corner. “...I will…”
“...But...I do have a...a favour to ask of you.”
“Yes, RGB? What can I do?”
A task would pull her energy away from worrying. A busy body had no room for concern, and he couldn’t have her scared for him only for that fear to show up.
“...I need you to...watch some telly.”
Her head tilted. His fingers twitched.
“...I...don’t want to go back to sleep at the moment...not truly, anyway. I do need to rest, however.” It was only in Hero shuffling closer, turning her ear to his speakers did RGB notice how far his voice had fallen. It had become so weak he didn’t much think the volume dial would make a difference.
“...But when you’re a TV, you go into a sort’ve....sleep mode, right?” She asked, quietly.
“...That’s right…” He said fondly, and tried to shift his better shoulder and settle in. It seemed his aches had pooled into his back, lining his blazer with thumbtacks. He wheezed and it crackled his speakers.
“...You can watch...whatever you like, really...Be it cartoons or...history...even a cooking show...I shant judge…” He said, tightly though he meant to tease.
“...Okay, RGB. I promise I’ll turn you back on when I’m done, I won’t leave you too long.” She said with a smile that could lift a mountain.
“Thank you.” His good hand rolled over as if he’d meant to do something, but it fell away like a failed card trick. He was too tired to try again. “...Thank you, Hero.”
“You’re welcome. Have a good rest, RGB.”
Some imperceptible tension left his frame the moment she switched his channel, his gentle grin chased away by the marvel of moving picture. She watched for a moment before her eyes drifted to the broken half of him.
Hero’s time in the market had familiarized her with the importance of a strong outline, a reflection of becoming real, of finding one’s story or one’s story finding them. She wondered then, briefly, where RGB’s story was, or whether he had one at all.
Hero didn’t know close to enough about the man to suppose what sort of story would take him away, eventually. The thought had her tucking her knees closer, hugging her arms. So instead, she made herself smile thinking about him fighting with all his might against the ascension to stay here, grabbing onto other characters, awnings or trees alike. That seemed more like him.
This place was dangerous and terrifying and beautiful. RGB was dangerous and terrifying, though it didn’t look like he knew about that. She wondered what a monster might have nightmares about. She did not ask what could push quiet pleads through the static of his sleep until he was thrust from the dream, crawling desperately on his hands and knees back to the waking world. No ill-eaten curiosity existed in Hero, she only wanted to know what had made her friend cry.
The commercial break passed and she was caught by the brightly coloured program, leaping and jumping in shades and sound, beckoning her attention. She stared, glazed and unseeing before reaching over and turning the dial, cycling through the stations, searching until the flash of stark gray caught her eye. Doubling back, Hero found some film in black and white, as musical as it was silent. A pair of men, one fat and the other thin, argued back and forth in a car that moved quicker than it should have, but the way it whipped around corners and the exasperated takes of the larger man made her smile.
It looked like something they could both enjoy, so she left it and watched all the way through.
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.