He realized now, having been led here, that Oubliette was not simply returning him to his floor where he could be more easily monitored. The time had come again to do his job. It had been months, too long in fact; Bastian had had too many opportunities to sneak away and explore. The caretakers grew weary of his increasingly long outings into the depths of the hotel.

They're reigning me in, Bastian thought.

"This one?" He said, gesturing absently to the picture hanging on the wall.

Oubliette gave a small, slow nod and glided gingerly backwards a few feet, leaving Bastian alone against the wall.

It had been quite a while since he'd last had to knead the muscles of his palms and work the stiffness from his knuckles. Bastian thought back to all the other times he'd been asked to perform his trick: the coin, the glove, the lavender armchair, the jaw bone, and now the picture.

The Picture

Bastian Feign stood facing a small rectangular, wood framed photograph of many ships crowding a dreary black harbor. Each mast seemed to soar upward with impossible delicacy, and criss-cross the mast beside it, creating a web that prevented the eye from focusing on just one. The ships appeared to be carbon copies of one another, shifted and warped within the depths of the photograph. The light and shadows blurred the edges of the vessels until each bled into the others.

The blackness was powerful. It was absolute. Bastian raised his hands and stroked the frame. He traced the roughness of the wood beneath his fingers and the smooth surface of the photo. He focused entirely on the murky line where the water met the hull. He drew his thumb across that line and it came away moist. He rubbed the moisture between his fingers and his pores opened wide to drink it in. Bastian leaned close and breathed in: salt, smoke, sweat, and rain. Again Bastian stroked the hull of the ship and brought his hand to his heart. He closed his eyes and let the thrumming of his chest absorb the water, dirt, and algae on his palm.

The rustling of Oubliette's skirt faded further and further away. By degrees he felt the wind tussling his hair. Scattered light flashed across the back of his eyelids in fits and starts.

Keep your goddamned eyes closed,
Bastian told himself.

Seep, Bastian implored with every fiber of his being. Seep.

A great and violent shudder rose from Bastian's feet and rattled through his bones into the soft gray matter inside his head. He felt himself breaking to pieces and scattering across an infinite void. He felt the terrible weight of perfect geometry pounding against his skull.

And then he heard her voice.

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