The vines had gone again - the clinging, probing, torturing, healing vines. The faces returned. Each the same, each different, each laughing, pitying, raging, mocking. They circled, they scattered, they split and merged. Once she had fought them, lashed out, unleased the storm. Now she huddled, cried, laughed, screamed. Four years passed in five minutes, taking a dozen lifetimes. The faces whirled. The door was locked.
There was a click, too soft to hear, the way she heard it under the laughter. Beyond the faces, though there was no beyond, stood the past. It wasn't her, but it didn't mock - it just watched.
It stopped watching. It was by her, lifting her, carrying her - no, no, it was attacking her, she had to fight back! Lightning flashed, but the past was unaffected, or lightning didn't flash, or the past was never there.
The door stayed. The room changed. The white walls were brass now, brass and rust and storm-torn skies, and the past was watching, not laughing, not laughing and how did that make sense?
Countess Serenity of Transprussia knelt on the deck of the Grafin Gelassenheit, her burning eyes oddly gentle as she studied the woman huddled in front of her. "How did it happen?" she asked softly.
The tall, black-haired man with the unusual ears shrugged, not turning away from the window. "I wasn't there," he said, his tone distant. "They didn't... no-one even bothered to tell me."
The Countess reached out and lightly touched the other woman's hair. "She broke... is it common, in your world?"
The man sighed softly. "It's usually the strong who break," he recalled. "And she... she was very strong."
"I can see it," the Countess murmured. "Even now, as damaged as she is - yes, I can see it." She stood abruptly, turning to the fourth occupant of the airship. "Artificer. Will it work?"
The Oriental Artificer held out his hands, palms up. "I cannot say," he told her. "This fusion - our technology with their 'computer' - it seems impossible, but... it hasn't exploded yet."
Countess Serenity favoured him with a thin smile. "A powerful recommendation," she agreed. Then she turned back to the visitor. "What would you do?"
The man turned at last, looking at her with striking grey eyes. "That... isn't a life," he said. "I'd take the risk."
Countess Serenity nodded slightly. "You heard him. Do it."
The Oriental Artificer knelt by the rescued woman's head, and the Countess joined him. As the Artificer worked, she took the fallen woman's hand.
"All we can do is give you a chance," she said softly. "We cannot guide you out of there - only light the way. And so, Lady Selene, I wish you good luck." She looked up, made eye contact with the Oriental Artificer, and nodded. "Throw the switch."
Something had changed.
The faces still whirled, the mocking continued, but something had changed. The woman huddled, trying desperately to muster enough sanity to figure out what, holding her precious treasure tight in one hand.
Her hands, once perfect, were scratched and torn by her own nails, nails ripped and chewed to ragged ruin. But lying on her palm, rusty and battered and altogether wonderful, lay something new:
The woman lifted her head, looking past the mockers who had stolen her face to the door, the locked door, the only possible escape from her madness.
And, very slowly, Selene Windflower smiled.
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