Madeline misses her jump.
Theo lets out a shout, muffled by the crystal, and Madeline plummets. She’s gone before Theo can process what’s happening, what it means.
It means she’s dead.
A few seconds later, it hits him that it means he’s going to die here, too. He’s trapped in crystal; he can’t do anything alone.
All Theo can do is stay where he is, crouched in his crystal prison, watching his breath fog up the inside. The creatures, fanged and tentacled, float in the air like it’s water. They don’t seem to have any interest in his crystal; they just drift around aimlessly, mouths gaping. No prey.
Not now that Madeline is dead.
Is this crystal airtight? Is he going to run out of oxygen soon, or is he just going to survive, trapped in place, until he dies of thirst? He doesn’t know which one to hope for.
Everything suddenly splinters.
He thinks for a moment that the crystal’s breaking open, that he’s going to be dumped onto the floor of the temple and left at the mercy of those things. He tenses up, ready to run. He doesn’t know if he can make it out of here on his own. But, if he gets the opportunity, he’s going to try.
But it’s not the crystal, it’s the world, it’s everything he can see. It breaks apart, it shimmers into light, and suddenly everything reforms around him and he’s still in the crystal and—
He’s moving, someone’s carrying—
Madeline is carrying him, and Theo lets out a yelp so high-pitched it’d probably be embarrassing under other circumstances. He’s completely forgotten how to be embarrassed. There’s just too much going on.
Madeline starts violently, dropping the crystal. “Whoa!”
Should he apologise for startling her? Should she apologise for startling him, because, holy crap, she just suddenly came back to life and that’s pretty startling?
“Hey, uh,” Theo says. “Don’t freak out or anything. But I think I just saw you die?”
Madeline stares at him.
“No,” she says.
Theo laughs awkwardly, keeping it quiet, for whatever good that does after the noise he just made. The tentacled things are just the other side of the stone wall ahead of them. He’s not sure those things can actually hear them; they don’t seem to respond to sound. But he doesn’t want to take chances. “Yeah, I guess I’ve got to be seeing things, right? Sorry. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
Madeline glances in the direction of the pit, although it’s not visible from here. The pit that looked pretty much bottomless, the pit he just saw her fall down.
The pit’s beyond the wall. How did they end up back on this side? It’s like they... went back in time, somehow; they’re further back, and Madeline is here.
“No,” she says. “It’s just an anxiety thing. You can’t see it, it’s not real.”
“Uh, what?” Theo asks.
“There’s this... thing I’ve been doing,” she says. “All the way up the mountain. I keep just picturing all the ways it could go wrong. It’s... really vivid, it can be hard to tell it’s not real.” She pauses. “But obviously it’s not real. Because I’m alive.”
She’s obviously got the pit on her mind, the same way he does. Does that mean she was just picturing the same thing he saw?
How is that possible?
“You fell down a pit,” Theo says. He’d point in its direction, but, oh, yeah, imprisoned in crystal. “And then we both ended up back here.”
“Yes, but it happened in my head,” Madeline says. She’s starting to sound frustrated. “It wasn’t an actual thing.”
“Madeline,” Theo says. “This is not possible. You cannot picture your own death so clearly that your friends see it too. It doesn’t work like that.”
“So how does it work?” Madeline demands. “It’s not like anything else makes sense either!”
The temple creating illusions? They’ve both seen some weird things here. But she said this has been happening the whole way up the mountain.
Maybe it was some kind of glimpse of another universe? Which means... another version of him is still trapped alone in the crystal there, he guesses, no hope of rescue and Madeline dead.
Or they’re both just losing their minds. Or he’s losing his mind, he’s forgotten how the world works, and what Madeline is saying actually makes total sense.
He can’t think of any possibilities that feel good.
“If it wasn’t real, that’d mean we haven’t been here yet, right?” he asks, quietly.
Madeline doesn’t answer, her expression pure focus. She throws his crystal across a gap and dashes out of the way of a creature’s lunge, perfectly timed. He’s been impressed before by her incredible reflexes.
Are they reflexes? Has she just been repeating things? Practice makes perfect, and, if you’re not perfect, you die?
Theo swallows. Counts his own heartbeats.
Is she dead? He can’t trust it. It could be another illusion.
Or maybe she died the first time, and the illusion could be thinking that she came back.
It’s starting to break through the wary suspense: he just saw his new friend get eaten in front of him.
The world splinters and reforms, and Madeline’s next to his crystal, gasping a little, one hand pressed to the side of her head.
Theo lets out a wavering, relieved breath. He still doesn’t know what’s going on. But it’s a lot better when he doesn’t know what’s going on and Madeline’s alive.
“You saw it too, right?” he asks. “It ate you?”
She whips around to stare at him.
He’s not sure if he wants the answer to this question. “Do you feel it? Does it hurt?”
She shakes her head. “I can’t let it slow me down.”
“That’s not really an answer.”
She picks up his crystal and heads grimly onwards, towards the thing that just killed her.
The first few times she did this, it was pretty terrifying. But her judgement’s good, her throwing strength is frankly terrifyingly impressive, he’s always made it to the other side safely. It’s been fine, or as close to ‘fine’ as anything can be when you’re trapped in a crystal in a nightmare temple full of tentacles.
It’s been fine.
It is not fine this time.
The crystal lands on the lip of the chasm, most of it hanging over empty space. It starts to tip backwards.
Theo tries to throw himself forward, desperately, in the very limited space he has to move, and he hears a horrified shriek of “Theo!” from behind him and the crystal keeps tipping and sliding and—
He’s plummeting backwards. He can’t look behind himself in this crystal, he can’t see how far the drop is, but it’s becoming sickeningly, terrifyingly clear, as one second slips into two slips into five, that it’s not one he’s going to live through. He can’t breathe, he can’t think—
The crystal shatters on impact, and he can feel the terrible smashing, splintering noise echoed through his entire body, and
He’s in the crystal, on ground level, and Madeline’s next to him, and he’s alive.
He swears, weakly, with lungs that haven’t had his ribs shoved straight through them, and presses both hands over his mouth. He has to fight very hard not to throw up, which would be extremely gross in his current circumstances.
And that’s something he needs to worry about, because he has a future. He’s alive. He’s alive, right?
“Theo?” Madeline looks very pale. Even more so than usual, which is impressive, really. “Are you okay?”
He closes his eyes and presses his forehead against the rough crystal of his prison. “I’m going to ask you a question, and I really need you to say no.”
Madeline doesn’t say anything.
“Did that really happen?” Theo asks.
A moment passes.
“Did what happen?” Madeline asks, unhappily. “Nothing happened.”
It’s not convincing. If the alternative is actually processing this, though, Theo will take it.
Even if hearing the crystal break sends his mind straight back to feeling his own body shatter.
He guesses he remembers dying now? He guesses that’s just knowledge that lives in his head from now on. Okay.
There’s daylight just a few steps away, at last, unless it’s the temple playing tricks again. Madeline tries to help him to his feet, but he’s been crammed awkwardly into that crystal for a pretty long time and his legs don’t really want to function right now.
She drags him outside, into the snow, and collapses next to him. He has to squint against the light after so long in darkness.
They sit there for a while, barely beyond the mouth of the temple, exhausted and steadily getting colder. But alive, at least.
They’re leaning against each other, Theo registers at some point. He’s not sure which of them initiated it, but having something to physically hold him up is pretty handy right now, so he doesn’t move.
“We’ll freeze if we don’t make a fire,” Madeline says, eventually. “We should find somewhere to camp.”
Theo considers, for a moment, whether his vocal cords are ready to be used, and then he gives them a try. “So what happens if we do freeze to death?”
Madeline goes quiet, wrapping her arms around her knees.
“What happens when we die off the mountain?” Theo asks. He can’t stop thinking about dying of old age, decades from now, and then looping back a couple of minutes to do it again and again.
“I’m sorry I killed you,” Madeline says, in a very small voice.
This is not making it easy for Theo to tell himself nothing happened, but, to be fair, he wasn’t exactly doing much to hold up the fiction on his end.
“I’m right here,” he says. “I’m alive.”
He might be able to convince himself of that much, at least.
She glances at him with a small, wavering smile, then climbs to her feet and offers him her hand. He takes it and lets her help him upright.
She looks real, she feels real. He saw her die in front of him, multiple times, but right now he thinks he can believe that she’s here as well. That they’re both here, both living, ready to help each other through whatever this mountain throws at them next.
He doesn’t understand it, but, for right now, maybe that’s all they need to know.