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to fly upward

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Sansa awoke in the forest at the edge of night, just as the mature woman had promised. She pursed her lips and straightened her spine. She was prepared to face all manner of devils to complete her task, and waited almost impatiently for them to appear. When none did and she realised she was wasting precious time, she began to walk forward. She occasionally pushed at an shrub that had overgrown the dirt track, with both hands, to allow her to struggle through. The short journey further into the forest seemed to take an age. But when she looked up at the sky, Sansa found the dusk was still gathering, and night had not yet fallen. Hours seemed to pass, and yet the sky did not change. Sansa realised with a sickening feeling of unease, that it was an illusion, a reminder that she was not in Westeros any more, but an alien world where the normal rules of life no longer applied.

She emerged into a clearing, and saw the yawning opening of the cave she had been expecting. Three creatures sat before her; a lion, a vicious she-wolf and one she could not name, a large cat with dripping fangs, with a sandy coat covered in curious spots. Sansa stepped forward, and when the beasts did not advance toward her, she picked her way hesitantly across the clearing. Their slavering jaws did not snap at her, and their large paws did not press into the ground as if to bound or pounce. Sansa hurried into the cave, and swallowed thickly, before she pressed inside. The heat hit her like a slap. She panted, uncomfortable, sweat pricking on her neck and sticking her distinctive red hair to her nape.

Sansa refused to cower in fear. She picked up her skirts, and continued toward the source of the unnatural heat: the tunnel which lead into the heart of the cave. Sansa began to feel the ground beneath her feet move curiously. She heard the sound of her footfalls not as soft pads in the dirt, but crunches as she stepped on something writhing underfoot. She swallowed thickly, but had enough courage to look down. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw the ground was festering with bugs. Worms, beetles and spiders competed for space, crawling over one another in a wriggling mass like a sea of insects, undulating under her feet, and then over them, smearing her slippers with filth as they slithered over cloth-covered toes.

Sansa let out a wail of horror. Disgusted at the sensation, she skittered backward, but there was no escape- the entire trail to the mouth of the cave was carpeted with tiny, ugly creatures. She might have done herself an injury, hopping about in an attempt to avoid them, were it not for the hand that clamped on her shoulder. Sansa instantly stood rigid, terrified that some giant bug creature had caught a hold of her. But when she turned to look, it was the ghost of Ser Jaime Lannister, holding her tight. Sansa wavered, unsure, but remembered what the wildling had said. Her guide to the Seven Hells, or the underworld as she had called it, would be someone unexpected. Someone with an unknown tether to her life.

Sansa swallowed thickly again before she spoke. As she gathered her courage and attempted to hide her confusion, she noticed something flickering at the edges of her vision. A second image below the first, as though something was inside Ser Jaime's pale skin, waiting to burst out. Then the image solidified, and she spoke.

"I did not think to see you here, Ser," she said, quiet at first but with her voice gathering in strength. "What debt do you owe me that you should be my guide?"

Ser Jaime seemed amused.

"A oath I did not fulfil, though it was not mine," he said mysteriously, before gallantly offering her his hand.

Sansa took it without further comment, and they advanced further into the darkness, which began to glow with a curious, burning red light up ahead. Sansa screwed her courage in tighter, and stomped beside the disgraced dead knight holding her hand, as they ventured on.

At last the tunnel began to widen, letting more of the awful, red light in, and emerged upon a plateau, which seemed quiet at first. Jaime stopped, for no reason Sansa could see. She made to keep walking, but he cautioned her back by placing his spare hand in front of her.

Sansa soon saw what she was waiting for. A low, creeping buzzing sounded, before she saw it; a purple banner, sigil-less and yet shining, richly edged in gold. It floated and raced along without a man to heft it. Sansa gaped in shock when it was closely followed by a stream of naked men and some women, racing after the banner, pushing and shoving one another in their vain attempts to catch it. They did not appear to notice Jaime and Sansa. They only had eyes for the elusive banner. And to Sansa's mounting shock, the naked people barely seemed to notice the swarm of hornets that followed them, buzzing loud and angrily as they attacked with rage. The runners were covered in sores, wounds opened again and again with repeated stings. Some were red and gaping, others still oozing with puss. The puss and blood from their wounds dibbled down to feed the worms and beetles.

Sansa placed her dainty white hand over her mouth as she felt bile rise from her stomach, but she did not shame herself by vomiting. Ser Jaime seemed amused, and he smirked at her obvious discomfort.

"What was that?" she demanded, as the last of the naked runners disappeared into the darkness.

"Those were the disloyal, besmirching and blaspheming their gods. They shirked the gods they belonged to, yet did not choose another banner to follow. Now they chase after one that means nothing, in perpetuity."

Sansa realised with a sinking feeling, that this was a far lesser crime than Theon had committed. These poor wretches suffered eternal abuse for not being godly enough, like Sansa herself, who no longer prayed to her mother's gods, yet had not accepted her father's into her heart either. Not after all she had suffered. They thought her very pious in the South, for all the time she spent in the godswood, much good it would have done her without a heart tree to pray to. But Sansa had not prayed, regardless. She had only ventured there so often in Joffrey's reign, to be free of her tormentors for a while. They would not dare to speak to her there. It was the one place she could be alone with her pain.

"Lead on, ser," Sansa said at last.

Standing about in awe-struck terror at the cruelty of the gods would do her no good. She would not find Theon so early in her journey, in the lesser circles of the inferno. She picked up her skirts, and marched determinedly onward into the Seven Hells.