The door is locked.
Of course the door is locked. The door is always locked. The door should stay locked, shouldn't it?
But this lock is on the other side.
Why is the lock on the other side?
Why is he locked inside?
Why is he inside?
WHY IS HE INSIDE THE PRISON
Both fists slam against the door, over and over, and the impact shudders up his arms but the door holds, of course the door holds, the door is Pookan-made of darkest lead and held up to all of the Fearling armies, it won't give under the onslaught of one man too weak to leave it locked, how would you be inside if you hadn't opened the door? There's blood trickling down his arms and he rams the door with his shoulder instead, throwing his whole body into the attempt even as he knows it won't do any good. The walls are swarming with shadows and it won't be long before they're on him, and what they'll do to their jailer now that they have a chance for revenge he doesn't know, but it won't be pleasant, and his assault on the door grows sloppy in his frantic haste –
There's a voice. A voice a voice a voice on the other side and for an instant he freezes, what if this is a trick, he wouldn't put it past them, making him think he's locked inside with them and has to open the door to get out. His laugh is low and dark as he backs away from the door, runs a hand through his hair and blinks when blood trickles into his eyes.
He can't stop laughing. Oh yes, they think they're so clever, but they can't fool him. Not even – not when she was screaming, screaming, screaming so loud that he can hear the echoes even now –
And that's when the laughter stops, because something's rattling, small and metallic and the door is opening, why is the door opening, you'll let them out you'll let them in you'll let me out why am I in the prison
THE DOOR MUST STAY CLOSED
There's a scream from the other side when he slams into the door again, forcing it shut, a short yelp quickly aborted. He's heard all the screams, he's something of a connoisseur by now, and he lets it slip by like nothing but another tempting threatening whisper on the wind. He leans back against the door, and ignores its rattling as whatever is on the other side tries to push it open. He is the guard, and he will do his duty. The door must stay closed.
The shadows in the corners curl and reach out, and he shuts his eyes but he can still feel them, cold as deep space and soft as a promise, leaving their trails of dark all along his skin. But – if they are here, in here with him, then what's out there?
Footsteps. Running footsteps are out there, and a lot of them. At least four men, he judges cautiously, possibly five. It's hard to tell through the echoes and the whispers. And a second voice. "What's the matter?"
"I don't know! He was fine when I left him, but when I came by to check again he just – he started pounding on the door, out of nowhere, and when I went to see what had got him so agitated he slammed it shut on me!"
He shouldn't be listening to this. They lie so cleverly, they can sound so convincing. So like someone you once knew, someone important, someone –
Someone's taken his locket.
Someone has taken his locket.
The cry tears out of him before he can think, wordless and furious and heartbroken, and the voices on the other side stop abruptly. He doesn't pay them any attention they're nothing but illusions anyway, frantically scouring the room for any telltale gleam of silver. The roiling shadows have no mouths but he swears he can feel them smiling. It doesn't matter. None of it matters. Someone has taken his locket and there will be hell to pay.
The door swings open, nearly knocking him off his feet, and he finds himself face-to-face with –
Not a monster. Not a Fearling. Not a shadow. Just a man. A man in a black coat, his eyes wide and widening farther, who swears under his breath.
And suddenly the whole jumble falls together into something that almost looks like a pattern. Of course he was inside the prison. It was made to hold the Fearlings and the nightmares, after all. And if they aren't on the outside, then they must be inside. In here. With him. In him.
The door should have stayed closed.
"Kozmotis?" the man in the black coat asks, and his voice is gentle, like someone talking to a scared horse, or coaxing someone off a ledge.
The smile that splits his face doesn't feel right, it's too jagged and too tight. But that suits, because that name doesn't feel right either, it's too bright, almost blinding. "No."
The man's face falls, and he sighs. "And he was doing so well, too." He steps back, raising a hand, and the men who step into his place are large and not unkind but not gentle either when they grip him, one by each arm, and pin him against the bed. He thrashes, tries to throw them off, but hammering the door has left him exhausted and a moment later the man in the black coat bends over him and something sharp pricks the inside of his arm and "Something to help you sleep, General" and the shadows are laughing, their silent voices whispering against the back of his skull as they always have, for as long as he can remember.
There was something important, something he was looking for, but his mouth won't frame the words, his mind won't frame the thought, he is unraveling into the dark and it draws him gladly into its welcoming arms. For the barest sliver of an instant, there is a face, a familiar face, bending over him, white against the dark, young and soft and sweet and kind and good, and she presses the lightest of airy butterfly kisses to his forehead before his eyes flicker closed.
He sleeps, and does not dream.