Cut off from the others, Dianmu and Ryan followed the drone in tense silence for some time. Ryan wasn’t sure how long – with Isabel gone, they didn’t even have her biological clock to give them reminders of the time. His leg still hurt, and the pulses of pain provided a bit of a ticking clock for their walk, but wasn’t enough to really ground him in reality. Not with the fear pulsing an entirely different beat the entire time, a rapidfire drumline of panic underlying every step.
For once, though, Ryan was certain his decreased sense of time was making it seem far longer than it actually was. Each time the drone did anything even remotely odd – paused, dipped, turned, anything – his heart leapt hoping it would be Isabel saying she’d passed out or finally fixed the computer issue or reconnected the cable or something. Each time the drone continued along silently, his heart sunk again.
“Ryan,” Dianmu said finally, her tone far softer than Ryan was used to. “You need to stop. You’re going to drive yourself stark raving mad before the next challenge even arises at this rate.”
“What am I supposed to do?” he snapped, and then shook his head, moderating his voice. “I just…there’s nothing else to think about right now. I can’t help thinking about what’s happened to her. Or happening.”
“You have to try. We will do what we can as soon as we can. Until then, we cannot control it.”
Ryan actually let out a laugh at that, prompting Dianmu to cock her head and raise a confused eyebrow. “It’s not funny, not really, it’s just…when I found out what having a nanoverse meant, what I could do, I thought that it meant I’d never be powerless again. I didn’t think that meant I’d never lose or never be overpowered, but I thought I’d always be able to do something.”
Dianmu gave him a small smile. “The realization there’s some things even we can’t do anything about is a hard one to face. I think it is good you are doing so early, when the memory of what it was like as a human is still fresh.” Ryan smiled bitterly at that, and Dianmu continued with a slight bow of hear head in acknowledgement, “of course, I wish it was for a better reason.”
“Thanks. Me too.” Ryan trudged along, clenching his fist open and closed as he walked. “So I know you’re not the labyrinth expert, but we should be nearing the end, right? The test of Body were the deathtraps, the test of Mind was the riddles, the test of Soul was the infighting.”
“Maybe. It depends on if we passed the last test.”
Ryan barked out a chuckle, then saw how serious Dianmu’s face was. “Wait, you think we might have failed it? I mean, we broke free of fighting each other before things escalated, that’s gotta be a win.”
Dianmu shook her head. “It depends on how Tartarus is interpreting what happened. What you said is correct, yes, but we also had outside help calming down, and then an external threat to unify against. The fact that those mitigating factors were needed might have invalidated our victory.”
Ryan reached up to rub his temples as he walked. “So, what? We might have to do that again?”
“Not if I understood Athena correctly.” Dianmu tapped her chin. “Passing the tests expedited our trips through this maze. Failing any results in more difficulty further down the line, but she did not specify what that meant. So we’ll likely have some more challenges to overcome, but it’s not clear on what that means.”
Ryan grimaced. “And it’s just the two of us. At least Crystal isn’t moving solo. Hopefully.”
Dianmu nodded. “She won’t. The smartest plan is to stay still, and without Isabel, she won’t have an efficient way to feed her social hunger. She needs to conserve her strength and she knows it.”
“I didn’t even think about that.” Ryan’s frowned deepend. “If we don’t get to her soon, and she has to use her power, do we need to worry about her?”
“No. She brought a book, I believe, and even if she didn’t, she’s unbound and free. If nothing else, she’ll have the option to create art to satisfy that hunger.”
Ryan relaxed some as his frown turned thoughtful. “I didn’t know that was an option.”
“It’s not the most efficient option, which is why it probably wasn’t mentioned. But really, at its core, isn’t all art just a way to communicate through time?” Dianmu smiled with that.
“You know, when you put it that way…I guess you’re right.” They walked for a bit longer, and Ryan noticed he’d stopped grasping at the air in frustration. “Thanks, Dianmu.”
“Think nothing of it. I know how frightening this can be, but everything about the situation says that she is alright. The best thing I can do for both of you, right now, is make sure you stay calm and relaxed so you survive to get to her.”
Ryan managed at least a half smile a that. “Thank you for that. Anything I can do for you?”
It was Dianmu’s turn to laugh. “Make sure you stay calm and relaxed so I don’t have to get the rest of the way lugging your body until you regenerate.”
Ryan snorted. “Okay, point taken.” They rounded the next corner, and Ryan stopped in his tracks “Yeah, I think I’m going to need my wits.”
Dianmu tensed as she saw it. Suits of armor lined the walls of this hallway, at least a dozen on each side, armed with swords and shield. They were full plate, but their styling was distinctly Greek, with the spartan helmets and round hoplon shields that were covered in silver and shined to a mirror polish.
“So, you think those are going to come alive and attack us?” Ryan turned to Dianmu and asked with a grin.
“Almost certainly. You seem…quite thrilled at the prospect.”
Ryan unsheathed his sword and rolled his shoulders. “Yeah. I’ve got a bunch of pent up aggression to work out, and these would probably be perfect to let it loose.”
Dianmu drew her glaive as well. “I understand. Just don’t lose track of your own safety.”
They began to walk down the hallway, moving as slow as they could manage. As they started passing the armored figures, they rotated until they were walking back to back, trying to cover each other on every possible angle. Their reflections stared back at them, slightly warped by the age of the mirrored shields to the point where, to Ryan’s eyes, it almost looked like they were mocking the caution.
Halfway now, and Ryan’s excitement for the battle was fading. The suits of armor were becoming oppressive, looming over them. “Dianmu?”
“Nothing over here.” Her tones were short and clipped. “I am beginning to think they are not the challenge we face.”
Ryan nodded, figuring she’d catch the motion in one of the mirrors. “Then what is-”
“Silence!” Dianmu snapped. Ryan heard it as soon as he shut his mouth. A low hissing sound, like dozens of hungry snakes. Oh no. They met each other’s gaze in the reflective shields, and both leapt to grab one out of the grasp of the nearest suit of armor.
The suits of armor, naturally, chose that moment to come to life, resisting the gods’ attempts to steal their shields and raising their swords high. Out of the corner of his eye, Ryan caught a shape uncoiling from the ceiling and slithering down the wall.
He averted his gaze as the suits of armor moved to make sure their mirrors didn’t reflect back upon their mistress, and Dianmu and Ryan pressed their backs closer together.