The figure was somehow out in the middle of the bridge already, waiting. Well? Are you coming?

He looked at the man and the woman, nervously. What do I give them to let me pass?

The figure laughed. Give them whatever you like. But they’re not guarding against you. There’s other business for them, and they’re blind to everything else.

Slowly, he edged past them, watching closely for any sign of movement. But there was only the woman’s hair caught by the wind, and the loose end of the man’s blindfold flapping. Even so, he felt their presence burning into his back as he passed.

Step by step he walked out onto the bridge, smelling air that was scented exotically, carrying pollen from lands he didn’t know. The figure walked ahead, towards the building on the other side. Below, white birds sailed under the bridge.

On the other side, the figure stood before an enormous stone door in the building’s wall, waiting for him. The frame of the door seemed odd. With a shiver, he realised that it had been carved in the shape of a skull… but not a human skull. Empty stone eye sockets peered down at him, above angular gaping jaws dripping with points. The door itself was hung between the skull’s teeth. Someone had hacked at it with a chisel but failed to do much damage, or take away any of its power. Underneath, someone had carved at the stone of the door, the way a prisoner might carve at the wall of his cell. It didn’t look like words, though somehow it looked like language. Dax found he could read some of it, but in his dream-state the words slid past into nonsense, and all he remembered was the shape. He knew that if he saw it again he would remember.

The figure tilted its head up to look at it. Here. This is where things began.

Dax touched the slightly gritty stone of the door. How do I open it?

Well, you –

The figure fell silent. The winds took on a sudden chill – clouds blew across the pale sun overhead, and the world seemed to darken. The undergrowth from the roof, hanging down to the lintel over the door, rustled as if something was coming through.

Here, the figure said again, more quietly. Here is a lesson. Don’t forget it.

What –

He could hear a noise on the wind – like mechanical gears grinding together, like thick, high pitched mechanical laughter – but it was faint and lost almost as soon as he heard it. It was the door he was backing away from. He could see movement in the undergrowth over the lintel.

Thy enemy, the figure said, and then the leaves of the undergrowth were shoved aside as something leaped through. He barely had time to see what it was before it tore through the figure, scattering it like smoke. He stepped back but the chasm was at his heels. The bridge had gone.

The creature turned towards him. Its body glistened as if metallic or wet, and it smelled strange. The matted hair hanging in its eyes was pure white. Metallic barbs slid from its skin as it approached, crouched and low like a hunter, some jungle savage. He held out his hands, pleading, as a command was roared, desperately, from somewhere close by:

Dax, kill her!

With a raptor’s shriek the creature lunged at him. It struck him in the chest and he staggered backwards. His foot slipped on the edge of the chasm and he fell, fingers clawing as the beast tore at him, a razor-sharp spine pressing towards his throat –

 

 

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