When Ward opened his eyes again, he was standing in front of Harold’s building, his hand already on the door. In the underworld it was winter, apparently; the frosty metal stung his bare skin, like a warning that he’d get stuck here if he wasn’t careful. Sure. That much he knew.
He opened the door.
The lobby was a couple of degrees warmer, but still cold enough for him to see his breath. He wasn’t dressed for this shit. It was June back in the real world, a goddamn sweltering New York June, and he was wearing jeans and a bloodstained T-shirt. He chafed his hands together, trying to warm them up.
“This is cute,” he said. “Can I expect an elevator spilling out blood like it’s The Shining?”
It used to be that every footfall echoed in this place, bouncing off the marble floor and the vaulted ceilings. Now the noises were swallowed up as soon as he made them.
Danny and Colleen had been dead for twenty-two days.
Ward walked up to the elevator bay and actually chuckled. And that sound echoed, like the building was laughing back at him.
The only available arrow was down.
“Subtle.” He pressed it; watched it light up amber.
Maybe he shouldn’t be antagonizing whatever mystical death force was lurking around holding Danny and Colleen, especially given how long—and how much—it had taken him to get access to this fucking Art Deco underworld. Then again, not antagonizing people had never exactly been his strong suit.
The elevator chimed, the doors opening. Apparently they weren’t out to spite him on the gore-flood; that was something.
Ward stepped inside—finally, some warmth—and then almost stumbled right back out again, gagging. He caught the inside of the door to brace himself, and the damn thing buzzed angrily at him for keeping it open, like it had all these important places to be. His knuckles whitened as he squeezed the door tighter, and he used his other hand to yank the neck of his shirt up, covering his mouth and nose. His throat was still spasming.
It was like the concentrated essence of Harold’s little greenhouse in there, a kind of sick green humidity: the damply pungent smell of freshly cut grass, the earthy reek of fertilizer, the rotten hamburger stink of the gingko sapling, the sourness of the wheatgrass. All balled-up and weirdly insistent. Ward had always hated that smell.
The door screeched again.
Ward let go. If he threw up in the elevator of the damned, he hoped the management would know that one was on them.
Fine, though: lesson learned. Don’t mock the—whatever this was.
There were way too many floor options for this to be convenient. He was here looking for two people, and it was giving him twenty-two reverse stories of ground to cover.
Twenty-two. The actual building had had twenty-five.
Twenty-two floors, twenty-two days. Once again: cute. Ward tried all of them, running his whole hand up and down the panel of numbers like some bratty kid, but only floor twenty-two responded.
There was no feeling of movement. The doors just slid open again—on a snowy mountain range.
Himalayas. Probably. Not that he’d put it past this place to dump him in the Alps just to screw with him.
He stepped forward into the snow, immediately sinking down up to his knees. The wet cold wrapped around him and soaked straight through to his skin; he probably could have been naked for all the good his clothes were doing out here.
He looked back over his shoulder and saw the elevator still there—a clean, well-lit rectangle of civilization. Yeah, message received. He could turn around whenever he wanted. Give up, give in.
Death doesn’t let go easily, the girl in the warehouse had said. She’d been taking his blood, cutting at the inside of his elbow with something that looked way too close to a box cutter. You’ll have to fight for every inch it takes to get to your friends. You’re not supposed to be where you’re going, and you’d better believe the whole place is going to be working to get you out. As long as you’re bleeding here, you’re rooted there—it can’t force you to go. But it can make you want to. Free will’s a bitch.
Well, he wasn’t going. It wasn’t like he could freeze to death here, anyway, not when he didn’t have a body.
He slogged forward through the snow, breaking a path to nowhere. It didn’t take long until it felt like every muscle in his body ached: so much for that health club membership.
Then again, he guessed he hadn’t been there in a while. Not in the last twenty-two days, anyway.
The wind kept sending flurries of glass-sharp ice into his face, blinding him and making him feel like the whole outer layer of skin there had been peeled away, and Jesus, he hadn’t known a person could even get this cold and still be alive, and he’d at least thought dying of the cold was supposed to be painless. Apparently the really shitty luck with death was that you couldn’t even die to get out of it. You just had to keep walking even though every time you turned around, that fucking elevator door was just a foot away, trailing you like a dog with its tongue out.
“Fuck you,” he rasped. He stuck his numb, dead-white hands into the snow and raked it aside as best as he could, stumbling on.
It felt like another hour before he came to a downed plane. The aluminum had peeled back in places, leaving its framework skeleton exposed. He could see inside, a little, and he didn’t want to. He’d been on that plane before.
The Rands had said they’d take him to China with them. Him and Joy both, actually, but Harold had said no, Joy had her piano recital coming up, and there’d be other trips for her. He’d said Ward could go. The Rands would take good care of him.
He’d gotten the flu right before they’d left. No trip to Anzhou for him.
Too bad for Harold. But three out of four wasn’t bad, and hey, he hadn’t even planned on Ward going in the first place, he’d just let it happen. A little something extra. Lagniappe.
The wind struck him head-on again. The plane became just a dark shadow on a white field. He fought his way towards it, and he must have passed under one of the wings because the onslaught cut out a little.
Danny was there, sitting in the snow, his knees curled up to his chest. Danny at ten years old.
Ward felt like something was cutting his chest open, twisting their hand around in there. He half-knelt, half-fell to the ground. He tried to smile and had no idea if he was pulling it off, since his whole face was felt frozen.
“Hey, Danny,” he said.
Danny looked up. He didn’t seem to be feeling the cold at all; the snow was melting the second it hit his hair. The tears in the corners of his eyes hadn’t frozen there. Well, Danny was a warm person: welcome to the land of the literalized fucking metaphors.
All he saw on Danny’s face at first was confusion, and then Danny said, “Ward?”
“Yeah. I came here to—” Rescue you, he almost said, but that sounded way too dramatic. “Take you home.”
“I want my parents.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” There was no chance of him dragging Mr. and Mrs. Rand back into the world, not after all this time. It’s the underworld, the warehouse girl had said, not the afterlife. You’d just better hope your friends aren’t so well-adjusted they’ve already moved on.
Trust me, Ward had said. That part’s not going to be a problem.
He cleared his throat. “They’re not here, Danny. You know that, don’t you?”
There were little free-floating pinpricks of gold in Danny’s eyes as he studied Ward with all his ten-year-old seriousness; they started coalescing into thin rings around his pupils. “You’re not supposed to be here either.”
“Day trip,” Ward said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Danny looked suspicious, but he heaved himself up on his feet. “Magic elevator?”
That provoked a short laugh. “Yeah, magic elevator.” It was hanging out a little ways back from the plane, like it hadn’t been able to get any closer.
They made their way to it back through Ward’s own messy footprints, and as soon as they were inside, the chill completely vanished, and Ward was there in dry clothes and with the feeling back in his hands again. Nice trick.
The brass elevator doors slid closed again.
Ward didn’t do anything just yet. He needed to take in the sight of Danny—this version of Danny, who seemed so damn young to him, like some sort of bizarre pipsqueak elf, all fragility and floppy hair. Had they all looked like that when they were kids? How had any of them managed to grow up at all? He said, “Did I really put a dead frog in your sandwich?”
Danny gave him an incredulous look. “Yeah.”
He touched the crook of his arm, where he was bleeding out back in the real world, and felt a kind of distant ache. He was banking on some relativity there, on his time here not matching up to whatever time was up there. He’d told her to stanch the bleeding when she had to—living meant he could still try it again—but she was a shady mystical operator who did business out of an abandoned warehouse, so it wasn’t exactly implausible that she’d just take his money and leave. Factor in all of that and he should really be grateful it had been so easy to get Danny in the elevator, but it was still weird.
“Do you remember what happened? How old you really are?”
Danny shook his head.
“But you know who I am. And you’re okay with all—this.” He gestured at the elevator.
“We had to go somewhere,” Danny said. “You looked really cold.”
Ward thought about Danny, outside Sapa, bringing Taiwanese sesame oil chicken soup back to their cramped little hotel room, the little container piping hot and billowing with ginger-scented steam. You looked cold, Danny had said, and the lady at the restaurant said this is guaranteed to warm you up. Danny himself had had squid pho, straight Vietnamese and a little lukewarm now, which had made Ward wonder if he’d gone to two different places, if he’d gone for pho first and then figured Ward might want something else, some random bit of variety. Chicken soup.
He’d said something about it, kind of sideways, and Danny had said, “I’m just glad you’re here,” and then tried to convince him to take another bite of squid.
Ward felt that little twist inside himself again. “I was,” he said. “Thanks. Way better now.” How did you talk to kids? Specifically, how did you talk to the dream-logic ten-year-old version of your dead brother? At least he probably couldn’t do any worse than Danny already remembered him doing—not like he was going to repeat the dead frog stunt. “Look, we have to find Colleen. Do you remember Colleen? Owns a dojo? Likes you, hates me? You two have matching fists?”
Danny looked down at his hands, eyebrows raised.
“Pretty girl?” Ward tried. “Runs around with a katana?”
He wasn’t sure which part of that did it, but Danny’s head shot up. “Colleen.”
“The two of you got here at the same time,” Ward said. It seemed like it might be a bad idea to tell a ten-year-old that he and his girlfriend had been killed by a rogue dragon, the sworn enemy of Shou-Lao, especially since he didn’t like delving into that shit in the first place. “Do you remember where she went?”
Danny bit his lip. “We couldn’t stay together. It just—pulled us.”
Fine. At least it meant he probably wouldn’t have to leave Danny in happy central-heated elevator land while he went back off into the damn Himalayas again. Colleen probably had her own little corner of the underworld.
He wasn’t hitting the lobby button. He didn’t know if that was a game-ender.
He pressed twenty-two again.
The doors opened to the view of the inside of a hospital, all colorless décor and pulse-monitor beeps.
“Whoa,” Danny said, his voice deep again; Ward turned around and saw actual adult Danny, in the same clothes he’d died in, still blood-soaked. There were Ward’s handprints, stamped into the fabric, where he’d been trying to do CPR. Before the dragon had turned it all to ashes.
He just sort of grabbed Danny, turning his face against Danny’s cheek, and he felt Danny’s arms come up around him.
“It’s okay,” Danny said, like he wasn’t dead, like he hadn’t died. “It’s all right, Ward. I promise.”
Ward separated himself, breathing in sharply through his nose to get himself under control.
“We’re in the underworld, right?” Danny said, in the same tone his younger self had said magic elevator, like he was just double-checking. But then an indentation appeared between his brows; his jaw tightened up. “Ward, you’re not supposed to be here. You’re really, really not supposed to be here. You’re not—you didn’t—I know what it takes to get to the underworld, Ward! What are you even doing up there?”
“Trust me, I know the whole ‘forces beyond our understanding’ schtick is more your thing. I’m not going to make a habit of it.”
“You’re dying,” Danny said. “Back in the real world, you’re dying.”
Ward walked out of the elevator. “Good thing we’re at a hospital, then. Now help me find your girlfriend.”
Danny took a step forward—and hit some sort of invisible wall where the elevator door should have been. “Huh,” he said, rubbing at his nose. He pressed his hand against the barrier.
“You look like a bad mime,” Ward said.
“I don’t think I can come with you.” Danny looked around. “It’s not my place. Your soul gets sort of—misty, when you die, like it’s going to expand to fill whatever part of the underworld it’s in. You can’t put two of them in the same space.”
Ward looked at him. “You can feel your soul,” he said. “Expanding like mist. Solid soul, liquid soul, gas soul.”
The corner of Danny’s mouth twitched just a little. “All this has to be driving you crazy. When I think of how far you must have waded into the mystical underworld to even find somebody who knew how to do this—” The smile faded. “How long did all this take? You’re thinner.”
“Do you know where I’m going in here? Because I don’t.”
Danny’s eyes were soft. “That’s a while.”
“Yeah,” Ward said. “It’s a whole damn eternity.” He exhaled. “Seriously, do you have any idea where I’m supposed to be looking for her?” He walked on down the hall, grateful to have his face turned in the other direction so he didn’t have to think about whatever idiotic expression was on it. “I mean, what is this, the hospital where she was born or something?”
“What?” Danny’s voice sounded strangely distant.
Ward turned his head. The elevator was staying put this time, way at the end of the hall.
Sure. It’d be too easy if he could have Danny trailing around after him giving advice. He waved his hand, dismissing it, and then pointed to indicate the hall he was turning down.
Swinging around the corner of it sent a little chill through him. It had put Danny completely out of sight. Anything could happen. He could make it back to the elevator with Colleen and then find that Danny had vanished, that this place had swallowed him up again and spat him back out onto the mountains. Which meant Ward either had to go back, and give up on Colleen, or—trust that Danny was still there.
That wasn’t a real choice. Danny and Colleen were a package deal. If he left her here, he might as well be leaving half of Danny’s own soul behind. And it wasn’t just that. She mattered to Ward, in a way he couldn’t put his finger on. She was somebody he’d slip up and call a friend before he remembered they hardly knew each other and she didn’t even like him. She was smart and brave and she hadn’t sold out Danny, and these days, those were the kinds of things Ward liked in a person.
And the world would be better if he brought her back. Which would matter if he were a more philanthropic kind of guy. He wasn’t, but it might make for a good enough reason if she asked him.
He walked down first one hallway and then another. Hospitals, in Ward’s not inconsiderable experience, were boxy mazes basically built to confuse Alzheimer’s patients, but this one seemed even worse than usual. Apparently the underworld really was petty.
Finally he found a promising-looking door, something new in a hallway he was sure he’d already been down before. It was painted a sickly yellow-green, with that color peeling up to show a hard industrial gray underneath. It opened to a predictably dank, dark flight of cement stairs.
Still better than the greenhouse smell.
Foggy plastic tarp divided the basement into sections. It was just opaque enough to make it hard for him to look around: he saw a light on somewhere but he couldn’t figure out how the hell to get to it.
That turned out not to matter much. Where Colleen was, it was dark.
She was strapped to a metal-framed chair in the center of the room, surrounded by IV poles. She looked to be her actual age, or close enough.
Her eyes were squeezed shut, her face contorted with panic. She was pulling hard against the leather restraints on her wrists and getting nowhere. Pale tear-tracks stood out on her cheeks.
Ward couldn’t do this. He was so far out of his depth. He barely knew her, he didn’t know what the hell was going on, and he had no idea how to even start calming her down.
He was going to fuck this up. She wasn’t going to come with him.
His mouth was dry. “Colleen?”
Her head shot up. He hadn’t thought it was possible for her to thrash any harder against those wrist-cuffs, but apparently he’d been wrong. Her hair was falling out of her ponytail, flying around her, strands of sticking to the sweat on her skin.
He at least knew that kind of terror, maybe. That metallic taste of adrenaline. The hard disconnect between you and sanity.
She screamed, a howl of frustration as much as terror, and then suddenly slumped over, panting in shallow little breaths. She stayed that way for what have might have been half a minute, gathering herself. Ward could see the nape of her neck; the collar of her jacket was a little frayed.
His arm throbbed. He could see a dark bruise on the inside of it now, like he’d finally bled enough up in the real world that some of it had started seeping through down here.
Colleen finally looked up again. She’d bottled up all the panic—Jesus, just like that?—and there was just a hard wariness in her eyes now. He saw recognition finally click. It didn’t come with any relief.
“Ward Meachum. I should’ve figured.”
That seemed a whole hell of a lot more complimentary than he’d have guessed she wanted to be. “That I’d come and rescue you?”
“You call this a rescue?” She tensed against the restraints again. “What happens now, my body parts show up in the next groundbreaking round of Rand medical tech?”
He actually recoiled. Anytime he thought he’d tapped the bottom of whatever weird, terrifying shit life could throw at him, bam, a whole new world of crazy coming down the pike. “What? No! God—where are we? What’s even going on here?”
“You seem pretty confused for a guy who strolled into a Hand facility.”
That figured. “Give me a break, that’s got to be like half of all New York real estate at this point.”
There was a dry little explosion of breath that might have been a laugh under other circumstances, ones where she wasn’t steeling herself to have her organs ripped out of her. It was something.
“What are you doing here?” Colleen said.
He wanted to get those cuffs off her, but even now, he thought her first step would be knocking him out and running, and he had no idea if he’d ever find her again. He was starting to get a little lightheaded. And this was Colleen’s floor twenty-two. He didn’t know if he’d get another one if he screwed this one up.
He had to get her to believe he was really going to take her to Danny.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” he said carefully.
She appraised him a second before answering. “They told me what was going to happen to me, that they were going to take my blood, my body. My students—I betrayed the Hand—” The distant light flickered with a mosquito-like whine. Her lips shook. She was, he realized, confused; Danny’s setup in the Himalayas had been running off a kind of dream-logic, and Colleen’s probably worked the same way.
Maybe that bettered his odds a little.
“Look, it doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about it. I’m here helping Danny, okay? We came to break you out of here.”
“You’re helping Danny,” she said. “Sure.”
He forced a smile. Couldn’t exactly say he didn’t deserve that. “We can all agree I’m an asshole. But I’m telling the truth, and you don’t have a whole lot to lose here. Give me a chance and let me take you to Danny. Then you can kick my ass with kung fu.”
Colleen studied him. “I don’t do kung fu,” she said finally. “That’s Danny. I do karate, kempo, and jujitsu. And fine. Let me out of here and I promise not to kick your ass until we find Danny.”
“You’re all heart,” Ward said.
He undid the straps around her wrists and ankles, still half-waiting for her to send him flying halfway across the room. She didn’t. She stretched; there was a look of concentration on her face that said she was testing her body more than she was waking it up again. When she stood, she didn’t even sway.
“You’re bleeding,” she said.
He didn’t even need to look. He could feel the blood running down his arm now—hot and slow.
“Come on.” He got her to the stairs. She wanted to go up first, and from behind her, he could see the muscles in her legs shake slightly in erratic little tremors.
There was no way he could find his way back through the labyrinth of those hallways. They’d just have to wander around until the place got sick of it and threw them a bone.
“I was with Danny,” Colleen said. She was still walking, her neck rigorously straight, her eyes fixed ahead of them. “Wasn’t I? This isn’t—this can’t be real. It’s a nightmare.”
“Something like that.” He stumbled and caught himself against the wall. Looking back the way they’d come, he could see a long trail of blood drops on the linoleum.
Colleen turned her head just a little. She said slowly, “You’re not supposed to be here, are you? You don’t—fit.”
“Everybody keeps saying that.” He pushed off the wall and kept walking.
“Ward, what’s going on?”
“Trust me, it’ll all make sense when we get to the magic elevator.” Even he couldn’t tell if he was getting hazy from blood loss or just intentionally being a dick. “It did for Danny, anyway.”
“Are you on something?”
She actually sounded more concerned than annoyed, which was kind of funny. Also: he wished. They turned the corner and—
“See? Magic elevator.”
“Danny!” Colleen ran for him, her stride a little stiff and broken, and Ward saw her pass right through the invisible barrier and into Danny’s arms.
They had time for a cozy little reunion while he finished making his way down the hall, and of course by the time he got there, they were both willing to make time to be pissed at him, especially when Danny noticed all the blood. It was seriously a good thing that he wasn’t doing this for the thanks. Everything was tightening around him, like a camera shuttering down to just a pinprick of light. He squeezed his bad arm just to get the jolt of pain to keep himself alert.
“Going up?” he said.
And punched the button for the lobby.
The next thing Ward knew, he was waking up in a strange bed. His left arm was wrapped up in so many bandages it actually felt heavy.
It took a second for the memories to wash back in.
He hadn’t done it. It hadn’t worked. The warehouse girl must have bandaged him up and taken him somewhere, and Danny and Colleen were still dead.
His eyes burned, and he squeezed them shut. He’d have to try again, as soon as he possibly could; he could take whatever weird diet of red meant and iron supplements they put you on after blood loss, or he’d get Claire Temple to get him some sort of private transfusion. And he’d do it again. He’d be faster this time. He’d been close—cut out those seconds of freaking out at the greenhouse smell, tamp down his need to be a smart-ass to mystical forces—so fucking close. Twenty-two days. He could try again on twenty-four. They’d still be there. They had to be. Nobody just moved on from that mountaintop and that hell basement.
Maybe if he pushed it on the transfusion, he could go again right away. They wouldn’t have to wait where they'd been—
“I’m just saying this is a more comfortable if you’re going to be sitting there the whole time. I can’t even read in bed for too long with my back against that headboard. And then even if you are sitting on the bed, I can still sit in here.”
“Yeah, good idea, just help me turn it kind of sideways—”
Ward had that shuttering-in feeling again, the world coming down to nothing but this. He opened his eyes.
Danny dropped the chair.
“Ward!” He was at his side in a second, grabbing Ward’s hand. “Are you okay?”
“That depends.” He could hear how ragged he sounded. “Are you two alive?”
“Yeah.” That was Colleen, sliding over the arm of the chair they’d left stuck in the doorway. She stood off to the side of Danny, looking at Ward with a kind of surprised softness; it was the opposite of how she’d looked at him in the basement but the exact same message. It’s you, and I don’t know why I’m even surprised. “You got us out.”
“Don’t do that again,” Danny said, his hand tightening around Ward’s. “Seriously. I mean, thank you, especially for getting Colleen, but—you almost died.”
“Considering that of the three of us, I’m the only one who didn’t rush out to take on a dragon, I think I’m fine as far as self-preservation goes.” His eyelids already felt heavy. “Where am I, by the way?”
“Home,” Danny said.
Colleen said, “Considering it looks like you paid our last utility bill, you can call it a timeshare.”
“You were never officially dead, for the record,” Ward said. He closed his eyes again. “It cuts down on the paperwork.”
“I never really do that anyway,” Danny said.
“Yeah, trust me, I know. I ran a company with you.”
“Kind of seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?” Danny said.
Ward thought about Colleen in the basement, about her grim, earned skepticism that he was really there to help out Danny. “Not that long.”
“Long enough,” Colleen said, like she somehow knew what he was thinking. She leaned around Danny and squeezed Ward’s arm, just for a second. “You should sleep. We’ll be here.”
“That’s what I was going for,” Ward said.