Varajas was doing a better job keeping up with Ruan. Or maybe Ruan had slowed down a little. It was hard to say, and Varajas certainly wasn’t about to presume anything.
Bolt was a little ahead, and kept looking back, as if to urge them to hurry. “What is the deal with that dog?”
Ruan flashed Varajas an incredulous look. “Of all the things surrounding us here, it’s Bolt you’re asking questions about?”
“As it turns out, yes.” Because everything else made sense. Not actual sense, but it all fit together well enough in Varajas’s mind. This nightmare Ulek was horror after horror, and so the spider and the shadows and the darkness—all of belonged together. The dog didn’t.
“Is he trapped in here like us? However it is we got trapped. Did he wander in on his own? Was he with someone? Are we not alone in here?”
Ruan looked at him, his brow pulled down in the way that meant he was thinking. “I’ll admit, I wouldn’t mind the answer to any of those questions.”
Those answers would tell them quite a lot. Not just about Bolt, but possibly about how they got in here themselves. “It’s too bad he can’t answer.”
“Someone knows the answers,” Ruan mused.
Which had to be true. But was that someone in here with them, or somewhere beyond their reach? That was the question.
Bolt stopped, bristled, feet planted as he stared forward. Varajas raised his sword, a part of his mind noting that Ruan mirrored his movements in perfect synchronization while the rest scanned their surroundings. Still just an empty hall, as far as he could see.
Bolt looked back at Ruan and Varajas, then lifted his head, sniffing at the air. He started moving forward again, still tense, casting about as he moved. Until he reached an open door and gave a short, sharp bark.
Varajas looked at Ruan, found him looking back, that reflexive habit from ages past. It was so dangerously easy to fall into those old rhythms. “I’ll go first,” Ruan said.
He slipped up to the door; Ruan was always good at moving silently when he needed to. Ruan peeked in, sword ready, then relaxed. “It’s empty.”
Bolt barked again. As though arguing.
Varajas came up to look. A sitting room. Nothing particularly interesting. There was a rug that wasn’t too badly decayed in the middle of the floor, with a chair at one end. And yes, the room was empty.
Seemed empty. But he’d be a slow student indeed not to have noticed how this place liked to deceive them.
“Is Samir in here?” he murmured to Bolt. “I think maybe he is.”
He pulled out the card he’d tucked carefully into his jacket pocket. The one that bore Samir’s face. He pressed it between his palms.
This wasn’t a magic he was familiar with, and in most situations, he wouldn’t have dared experiment out in the field. Failures with magic tended to be explosive. He looked at Ruan, raised an eyebrow in question. Ruan nodded yes in response. He knew Varajas was reaching, but wanted him to go ahead anyway.
So Varajas closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and focused. He reached for that place inside himself, that mental state where magic happened, the place where the creations of his mind took shape in the real world.
He found that place. He pressed his palms together, feeling the smooth wax of the card between them. Samir.
A bridge—that was the idea. A link between the Samir who was real and the card that represented him. That was the shape of the magic he wanted. All he had was hope that it would work.
He felt it, the moment everything settled into place. His eyes snapped open and he saw Samir, stretched out on the rug. Then Ruan gasped. Varajas fought for his own breath. As darkness descended and he was, again, falling.