Once the massive doors got moving, even the strength of five gods would have been ill suited to stopping their motion. Instead, they continued to move, eventually swinging a full one hundred and eighty degrees with a massive crash of stone on stone.
“Woah,” Isabel said through the drones, “I heard that even though all the stuff you guys threw over here.”
“I’m not surprised,” Athena said, rubbing her ear. Ryan could figure they were ringing as badly as his.
Not that he was paying too much attention to that at the moment. Instead, he was staring down the first corridor. It was far larger than he had expected, nearly fifty feet wide and stretching all the way to the roof of Tartarus. A layer of dust nearly six inches thick covered the pathway. Along the upper reaches of the path stretched strands of spider-silk forming webs that, from here, looked as delicate as those seen on Earth.
Until Ryan considered the fact that they were nearly a kilometer up and still were clearly visible. The thought of whatever spun those monstrous webs made him shudder.
Anansi stepped next to him and followed his gaze. “Well, I think it is best we can’t fly. Maybe as long as we stay on the ground, the weavers won’t bother us.”
“Aren’t spiders kind of your thing, Anansi?” Ryan asked with a glibness he didn’t feel.
The trickster god gave him an innocent look. “Oh, they absolutely are. But who said anything about spiders?”
“Ew,” Isabel chimed in, having turned one of the drone’s cameras upwards. “Give me a sec before you go too much further. Want to drop altitude in case any of them are lower.”
Crystal bent down as Isabel lowered the drones. “This dust…” she picked it up and blew on it, watching it drift away. “Nobody breathe unless you have to. It’s glass. You don’t want that in your lungs, yeah?”
“Ew,” Isabel repeated. “So glad I didn’t come with you guys.”
Dianmu had taken a couple steps ahead, and nudged something with her foot before bending down to pick it up. “I think it is best you did not,” she said, holding up what was unmistakably a human skull. “I imagine this is the first barrier – no mortal will be able to move quickly enough without breathing and kicking up a huge cloud of this.”
“I thought the Labyrinth resets every time someone makes it through,” Ryan said, looking at Athena.
“You’re correct,” she said, looking at the skull. “I’m guessing they didn’t make it.”
“I…yeah, I’m guessing you’re right.” Ryan peered down the hallway, which stretched at least a kilometer straight. “I guess let’s walk side-by-side, so we don’t kick a cloud into each other’s eyes if we have to run?”
They did so, stepping with exaggerated care. Each footstep sent up a small cloud of shattered glass. Each time it glittered in the sourceless light before coming back to rest. They stepped as far as they could which each step, Crystal and Dianmu – the shortest of the group – growing their bodies to where they were eye level with Athena, Ryan, and Anansi.
The silence was oppressive. Aside from the gentle crush of the powder they walked upon, and the gentle hum of the drones’ rotors, no sound echoed in this massive hall. No breath from his companions, no murmur of conversation. It got so quiet, that Ryan could hear the sound of his own heartbeat, pumping blood or ichor or both – Ryan wasn’t clear on how that worked – over the footsteps and drones.
His brain, meanwhile, was screaming at him. Not since Mars had he needed to force himself out of the habit of breathing, and thirty years of habit combined with natural instinct hadn’t lost much strength since then. If anything, it was worse than Mars – at least there, he had known the air was too thin to be breathable. Here, he could feel the air on his skin, see it with his divine sight, knew it would be safe to breath so long as he kept the glass down. He could even expend the energy to create a dome of air to protect himself.
Doing so would be a waste of power. They only had so much energy to spare, and only so many supplies to refresh their might. It would be stupid to spend it for something he didn’t actually need, and yet –
Anansi’s hand shot out to stop Ryan’s motion. His foot had been about to land upon a complete skeleton that was laying in the glass dust, one that would have tripped easily Ryan if Anansi hadn’t acted. Ryan carefully put his foot down and the line halted as he took a moment to inspect the body. The man or woman it had belonged to had died prostrate, one hand outstretched towards the end of the hallway, as if they had died trying to grasp for safety.
Ryan could do nothing but carefully strep around their remains.
Now that his attention was drawn back to his surroundings, he could see there were more. Dozens of skeletons, scoured clean and laying in various poses in the glass dust that sat near the door. Some were laying like the one Ryan had nearly tripped on. Others he saw had died with their hands near their throat, clawing for breath that likely wouldn’t come. Near them lay gear, bags and swords and guns and spears – a complete history of personal weaponry, scattered across the floor of a maze that had claimed the lives of everyone that carried it.
“You know,” Ryan said quietly, recalling the trick of speech without breath that had served him and Crystal in their training on the Martian plain. “When we make it through? That’ll be the last sign of any of them. Right?” The act of speaking helped distract him from his instinctive craving for air.
Athena pursed her lips at the thought. “You’re right. I wish we could give them a proper burial,” she responded, matching his tone.
“We will, though,” Dianmu said, carefully stepping over what looked like a German helm circa World War I. “When the labyrinth resets, they’ll be encased and stone and earth.”
“Does that count?” Ryan asked.
She turned her head to face him, and after considering, shrugged. “It has to.”
Ryan could think of nothing to say to that. Silence reigned. He started to count sheep in his head to distract himself, getting up to nearly five hundred before Isabel broke the quiet. “Wait, if these are all mortals, how did they get here?”
“Someone must have brought them, love” Crystal responded.
“Well, I mean yeah, but why? This place has ‘not safe for mortals’ written all over it.”
“It’s not particularly safe for us gods either, yeah? Maybe someone decided to send them down to see how safe it was before risking their own bloody divine hide.”
“I’m certain that is it,” Anansi added. “Multiple times, over centuries. Likely the same person.”
“Not one of my people. They’ve probably been in here for centuries,” Athena said, her voice taught.
Again, Ryan could think of nothing to say to that, and silence returned, and with it, the burning need for air. Finally, they reached the end of the hallway, and the dust became thinner and grayer. Dianmu reached down this time to touch it, shrinking to her normal height as she did. “It’s dirty, but safe,” she said after studying it for a moment.
Ryan gasped for breath, feeling the sweet relief of giving into the pressure and drawing looks from the others. “Sorry,” he said, between wonderful breaths. “Still not used to not breathing.”
“Took me a good century,” Anansi said reassuringly, “at least when I was in air. Underwater or in space, however-“
They didn’t get to hear what that however was. The doorway to the entrance, nearly a mile back, slammed shut with a resounding thud that shook the floor even here.
“That’s not ominous,” Ryan said. The tension of the walk had left him a bit giddy, and he fought back a nervous laugh.
Athena was squinting down the hallway towards the closed door. “Everyone get behind me,” she muttered, and without waiting for a response she twisted her hands and wove a wall of air that rose up before curling over into a crescent, the points facing away from the group.
Seconds later, a wall of glass dust, propelled by that slamming door, hit the wind and was pushed back down the hallway. She didn’t bother to take it down afterwards.
“Huh,” Crystal said, “That explains why they were skeletons. Without much bacteria, I was wondering how they got worn down to nothing.”
A skull chose that moment to hit Athena’s wind wall, where it began to tumble in place like a leaf. Ryan started to laugh as it did. The scene was so ludicrous, and combined with the giddiness of finally breathing again, he couldn’t help it. Athena gave him a concerned look. “Have you gone mad?”
He shook his head, getting the laughter under control. “Oh, come on,” he said to the group. “It’s just floating there, like…it’s staring at…us…”
Another skull had joined the first, and it was followed in seconds by ten more, making a full dozen of laughing skulls floating in the air wall Athena had erected. Vertebrae followed them, weaving together to connect the skulls on serpentine necks back to a block of rib cages. Femurs and tibia and fibula followed to form a pair of arms and legs, each with several elbows and knees and twice as long as any of the gods were tall. Armor and weapons from the hallway joined the rush, welding themselves together into a hodge-podge mace.
The osseous monstrosity rose to its feet and let out a sound like the death-rattle of a roar.
“Sorry I laughed,” Ryan muttered as he raised his sword.