Under other circumstances, the phrase “when Miq regained consciousness” might be found here, as falling three-or-so stories generally tends to send people into unconsciousness. The key word there is people, a category to which mimics do not conform. An artificial construct designed to guard valuables that can fall unconscious is not a very good guard, after all.
Instead, she’d been lead around the garden by The Voice. The Voice originated about four feet over the mimic and slightly to the left. Miq might’ve considered the absence of something that might cause The Voice odd, but she figured it was a ghost or something, and was more interested in the things The Voice was describing anyway.
If Miq had ever taken a guided tour, she’d likely liken The Voice to an easily distracted tour guide. These are the flowerbeds, aren’t they growing nicely? Ooh, these ones look a bit sickly, might have to prune them. Ah, my tulips! Took ages to grow, but look at them now! I think I’ll send them in to that floral contest, ooh, what was it called again? … And this is the orchard. Costs much less growing your own fruit than buying it, turns out. We’ve even got pomegranates, can you believe that? Gwrfn actually went all the way to India, plucked the originals from the trees himself! Cost us a fair bit, but we’ll never have to buy another now. … Over here… is our pet cemetery. All our little loved ones are buried here. Even the fish, ha! I’d… rather not linger. You understand. … Now then, if you’ll step to your left a bit, there’s a giant snake falling from the sky.
A meaty thump heralded the serpent’s arrival. While he miraculously managed to avoid crushing any rare flora, the indigo blood dribbling from his lack-of-torso wasn’t helping the garden’s aesthetics. One of the serpent’s arms was bent around the wrong way, pinned beneath his own bulk. A spark of recognition flickered through the mimic’s mind, and her natural curiosity got the better of her despite The Voice’s vehement protests.
Subject 384 entered the dark, empty room at Dr. Hikaru's bequest, the door sealing shut behind him. After a minute or so, the opposing steel door hissed open, revealing a man, dressed entirely in red, his face masked by a helmet, being led in by two armed security guards. The doctor's voice echoed through 384's head: "As you know, Subject 384, you will be sent to war tomorrow. No more of our training sessions, no more of the medical study... don't you miss it already?" The serpent cringed at the mention of the latter; vivisections were not exactly his idea of a good time. "But I have one final task for you. This man – no, this pitiful excuse for a man is a soldier of our enemies, the very same forces you will be decimating soon. Your final task is to kill him. I don't care how you do it, I'm sure you know a lot of ways to kill a man by now. Remember, he is the enemy. I trust you will be able to do this, 384. Hikaru out."
Subject 384 was confused by his new orders. Kill? Three months of training, and he had never been asked to do such a thing. And now, against a seemingly defenseless target. Well... he knows what he's talking about. Guess I should get it over with. The serpent projected a portal directly above the man, placing another just to the side. Without hesitation, he shifted the portal down over the man, stopping at his midsection and instantly dispelling it, slicing him cleanly in half and killing him instantly. "Very good, 384... Very good indeed... Syvex..."
Syvex was jostled back into consciousness, finding himself right next to another shadow serpent, in a dark forest. "You okay, Syvex?"
Then he awoke to the blinding light of the manor.
"Hey, snakething! You okay?"
“Nnng… What the… Miq…?”
“Oh oh oh! Hiiiiiiii snakething!”
Lifting his head from the ground, Syvex was vaguely aware that something was wrong. He was lying at an awkward angle underneath a tree. Tree… he remembered something about trees, but that wasn’t it. Miq stared at him – despite her new chassis, her jagged grin and excited tone were unmistakable. She was stained with some purple fluid Syvex didn’t immediately recognize. One of his arms was broken, but his regeneration could fix that up quickly enough. Or, it could have, had the omnipresent glare not defied the existence of shade beneath a tree. There was a woman made of glowing, flickering lines glaring at him, but while she was odd, he felt that she wasn't quite the problem he was trying to recall. His midsection felt full of pins and needles- wait. Glowing lady?
“Oh… Another ghost…? Don’t tell me… you’re possessed too, Miq…?”
The lady blinked in surprise. “Oh! You’re not?”
“No, I… I don’t think I am… Vision’s a bit weird, but… I’m not as crazy as… some of the others.” His breath came out in a ragged wheeze, blood lathering his tongue. Why was he coughing up blood? A broken arm wasn’t that bad, especially when he had five more. Maybe it had something to with that feeling in his chest. “Who’re you, then?”
“I’m Fwrn. Pleased to meet you.”
“Perhaps for… serpents, it’s odd, but among the race of men, Nrngl is fairly common.”
“Wait, so… is it Nrngl… or Fwrn?”
“…What are you- Oh! Of course, silly me… Mother will do, I suppose.”
Her gaze flicked down the length of his body, lingering around the cut- oh, duh! He’d been cut in half. That was it. “Syvex. …You don’t seem as… crazy as the… other ghosts I’ve met.”
“Yes, I fear they’re not quite in their right minds. I was the first to die- well, after L… ah, Daughter- so I didn’t go quite as mad. ...I hope.” Wait, he was bisected? When had that happened? Oh, right, he’d fallen through a closing portal. “Of course, the magical training probably helped some.”
“You know magic?”
“Well, not as such. Nothing that would help; Daughter had all the arcane talent. Even in death, she…” ‘Mother’ lowered her eyes. “I… I’m sorry, it’s… still painful to recall, even after all this time.”
Syvex pushed himself upright. Blood still trickled from the stump where his tail had been, but some minor remnant of his regenerative ability had stagnated the flow. “Alright, alright.” He gestured at the house. “So what’s with the… doors going everywhere?”
The apparition grimaced. “You tried to go in the basement, then.”
“How did you…?“ But she wasn’t looking at him anymore.
“The Malevolence. That’s only an approximate translation of its name, mind, but a terribly accurate one. It is a vile, powerful demon, sealed away for two centuries beneath the grounds of this manor. Once, a venerable order of magi maintained its prison, but as magic passed into myth, their numbers dwindled. You’ve already seen what it can do when merely reaching through the bars of its cage. I’m… not actually sure the extent of this demon’s power, but nothing good will come of its freedom.”
A thought seemed to strike her. “It’s not free already, is it? It didn’t do this to you, did it?”
“Do…?” At which point the reality of Syvex’s injury registered consciously. “…Oh.”
A deep violet globule of bloody spittle splattered on the green grass. The brown tree and leafy canopy suddenly seemed to loom threateningly over him. The brilliant flickering construct of vectors that was Mother gazed at him sadly, as though she knew he wouldn’t survive the injury. Miq… just stood there grinning. It was sort of unnerving.
“No, that was… my own fault, I think. I… need to go see someone to get... that... fixed. Hopefully. Thanks for the info, Mother.”
“You’re sure? Well, ah, take care.”
Syvex flopped over onto what was left of his his belly, leaving a trail of thick purple blood in his wake. He fervently hoped Riko hadn’t yet succumbed to the voices in his head.
“Odd fellow, but pleasant enough. I don’t know how he’s still alive… Ah well. Come along, Miq; if the house has come under the demon’s influence, we don’t have much time.”
They’d been traveling towards a large green structure near the edge of the gardens for some time. The chest didn’t recognize it immediately; she had encountered such structures only rarely when her travels took her to more opulent locales. The answer struck her as they approached the obvious stone arch of the structure’s entrance. “Hedge maze!”
“Mm-hm. Guests used to love it, when we still had any over. Of course, few of them managed to find their way out without assistance, ha.” Under the guidance of The Voice, Miq ambled her way through the maze without much trouble. Coming from a predominantly magitechnical world, the greenery was a pleasant change of scenery for her. She wasn’t unduly worried that she didn’t know where she was going; Mother seemed confident enough, and despite the apparition’s urgent tone, Miq wasn’t really in any rush to get anywhere.
Then she ran into a dead end.
“…Then take a left at the next junct- oh. Odd, I could have sworn this was the right way. I had this place memorized as a child; helped ever so much in hide and seek… Hmm. Turn back, I may have taken a wrong turn somewhere…”
There was a door behind them.
The mimic’s curiosity instantly took over. She was aware that doors didn’t usually spring up in the middle of the wilderness but it was that very fact that made her want to go through it. Mother grew increasingly agitated as she approached, warning not to go in, even resorting to impossible threats of violence. But telling someone who wants to do something not to do that thing only serves to make them want to do the thing more. Undaunted, Miq nudged open the door.
It opened to a lit fireplace.
Touching fire is a Bad Thing for any organism, but this particular organism was currently made of old, dry wood, and was fairly simple-minded. Upon being confronted with a mysterious door that seemed to her to be trying to kill her, she took the only logical course of action and panicked. Had she bothered to watch her surroundings as she crashed through the hedges, she would have noticed the paths of the maze blending into other parts of the grounds which should not have existed there under the rules of Euclidean space-time. She only gave enough thought to the warped paths to curve out of their way, pushing through leafy barriers in an attempt to escape the scary doors.
Then she burst into a clearing and ran into a wall.
At the center of the maze – at least, Miq assumed it was the center – lay a homely wooden shack, weathered with age but not yet falling apart. The door hung slightly ajar, and Mother assured her that this place was supposed to be part of the maze, so the mimic let herself in. “We should be safe in here, assuming the shield spells still work. Mn- ah, right… Grandmother put them in place, so they may have faded since…”
The interior of the shack resembled an amateur chemist’s laboratory set up in a kitchen. There was a sink, an oven, a cupboard, a flowerbed, an icebox, and a few contraptions Miq couldn’t quite place. Glass tubes snaked around each other like some sleeping hydra, prepped to vomit chemicals into a waiting beaker. The air was thick with the scent of various herbs and flowers, a few freshly crushed flora of indeterminate origin preserved eternally in the mortar on the counter.
“I’m not- rather, I wasn’t any good at spellcasting, but I was a fair hand at alchemy. Open that cabinet over there; it’s been a while and I don’t quite recall...”
Mother paused, visibly paling. The apparition flickered, arcane lines composing its form distorting and fading. Of course, Miq was unable to perceive this; her only cue that something was wrong was the last phrase mother managed before winking out of existence entirely: “Oh, hell.”
There was, of course, no response.
Unsure of what to do, the mimic shrugged and popped open the previously indicated cupboard. Within lay about a dozen vials and flasks; less than half held any contents. Miq took them all; glass was nearly as enticing as legitimately precious minerals to mimics, a species-wide design flaw that had never quite been corrected. Rooting around the rest of the room, she acquired a pair of fish (from the icebox, kinda funny-tasting but still good), five more vials (three from the icebox, two from the floor), a clove of garlic (hanging from a string, went well with the fish), and a wicked-looking knife (embedded in the countertop, rather ornate). Having little space left for anything else, and satisfied with her meal despite having to leave behind a whole chicken, she left the shack and wound up
in the foyer. She wasn’t unduly worried by this apparent impossibility; she’d not been in the manor proper yet and wished to divine its secrets. This room was inherently uninteresting; despite a lone mirror there wasn’t much shininess to hold Miq’s attention. She wandered down the hallway, barging through the first double-doors she came across
and launching herself out of the chimney.
But the mimic was already gone, pulled by gravity
through a pair of hallway doors
and out a kitchen cupboard.
Now she was starting to freak out a little. Miq was pretty certain that things, in general, were not supposed to be quite so disorienting. She was starting to wonder where everyone was, for that matter; houses as big as this – at least, she assumed she was in the big house she’d seen before – usually had several occupants. She figured she’d wander around until she found someone to ask what was going on.
She went to open the kitchen door and ran straight into one very bewildered scientist.