“Ah, A Librarian! And a guest! To what do I owe the pleasure?” the shopkeep asked as they reached the counter of the stall. Very few features were visible under the bandages wrapped around her face and hands, some patches of scaly grey-blue skin, a slit-pupiled eye and a somewhat pointy grin were all that was immediately visible, the rest obscured by either the curtain of dreadlocks that crowned her head, the yellowing bandages or the loose-fitting robe the trader wore.
“Hey there, Neferet,” A Librarian said, leaning on the counter, “Alice, this is Neferet. Neferet, Alice.”
Neferet grinned, the claws of her left hand tapping on the wood of the counter. “Pleased to meetcha.” Her accent had a languid Southern US sound to it – how did accents work, in this crazy place?
“Um, hey. Likewise,” she said awkwardly.
“So, what’re you looking for?” Neferet said, gesturing behind her at the strange and eclectic collection of wares. “I can guaran-tee that I’ve the best prices this side of Mictlan, at least in the spatial dimensions.”
The wares looked like something of a cross between the contents a charity shop and the attic of Alice’s grandma, from the skeins of flickering wool marked “Memories” to bottles of unctuents, labelled “bliss”, “happiness”, “fear” and other emotions. Most of the corner of the shop was dedicated to a contraption made of copper tubing and coiled wire, that occasionally emitted little puffs of coloured smoke.
“Er,” Alice nearly froze up, trying to work out how to word her question, “I want to get home. Do you know how to work out where that is, and how to get there?”
“Mm-hmm,” Neferet said, turning to pick up a device about the size of a brick, that whirred and clicked as a little antenna on its front rotated, from a shelf behind her and tapping a couple of buttons on it. “You’re a matter creature from one of the partitions of Materia, most likely. I’ve seen a couple things like you in the Realms at large, but Materia isn’t on any of the Aeonic Causeways, at least on their normal routes. How did you get here, again?”
“Well, I fell through the floor. A hole opened up in my sh-”
Neferet cut her off. “Reality bleed, with some nasty-looking paradigm contagion, according to this. You fell through the darkness and landed in the closest analogue to how you once were.”
“This… library planet?”
It was A Librarian’s turn to look confused. “What’s a planet, and what does that have to do with The Library?”
“It’s a lump of silicates and metals that things in Materia sometimes live on,” Neferet supplied, “and no, The Library isn’t a planet. It’s what is commonly referred to as a Realm. More like a universe than a planet, although Realms are greater than universes. Makes the name ‘universe’ a bit of a misnomer, doesn’t it?”
“Um, okay? I don’t see how this helps me get home, honestly.”
“Patience, patience. I happen to know an… associate of mine who can take you places the Causeways don’t go. Now, voidwalki-”
She was interrupted by A Librarian. “Voidwalking? Isn’t that, you know, fantastically dangerous?”
“C’mon, let me finish,” Neferet said, taking a tin can on a string off its stand and holding it to a bandage-obscured ear. “I’ll just call him now, and he can explain.” The label on the can read Marconi and Cheese. Of course it did. The can let out a crackling noise, and then a series of beeps.
“So, Neferet, what’s happening?” Alice nearly jumped. A man had appeared, seemingly out of thin air, behind her and A Librarian. She did a double take. A human, or at least a fair approximation. Tall, wearing a black coat, a fez perched atop a mess of brown wavy hair.
A handsome one, the thought leapt into her mind unbidden, and she fought down the warmness in her face. He had an easy smile and a twinkle in his eyes and wait crud he was saying something, listen to what he’s saying, Alice!
“-so, I think I’d certainly be willing to escort her home.”
“Yeah,” A Librarian was saying, “but I only have your word that you aren’t just going to drop her in Sheol or the Keep or even, itself forbid, Paradise.”
“You’ve got my word, too,” Neferet added. She was sitting down, feet up on the counter, reading a book, not even looking up when she was interacting with the conversation. “You know I’m good for it, and if you really want, you could probably go too.”
Alice piped up. “Thanks, A Librarian, but I think I can negotiate this myself. What’s your name, mate?”
The man did a little bow, sweeping his fez off his head and holding it to his chest. “Call me Red, my dear.”
“Okay, Red. Are you a human? Because you look like one.” He’s keeping his right hand in his pocket, she added mentally. Some kind of weapon?
“That’s a very interesting question. Whereabouts are you from, Alice?”
“Ealing. In London, Britain. On Earth. In the Milky Way. And you didn’t answer my question.”
“I didn’t answer because I don’t know the answer, I’m afraid,” Red said. “While I do appear to be similar to the humans I meet, out here in the Realms, my story begins with me waking up, without memory, in a place no other humans have been.” He shrugged, and smiled sadly. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
She glared at him. However good he was to look at, he was starting to get on her nerves. “Fine. So, you can take me home? A Librarian said it, how can I be sure you’re not going to drop me in a volcano, or in one of those other places?”
“Alice, I vow to ensure your safe return to your home Realm, partition of said Realm and temporal location in the same. I will do so to the utmost of my ability, this I vow.” When he spoke the word ‘vow’, his voice seemed to take on a strange reverberation, as if many people were speaking at once.
She looked round, at A Librarian, who looked impressed and a little startled and Neferet, who was still reading her book. She glanced up, saw Alice was looking and gave her a thumbs up.
“Wow. That was a proper Vow,” A Librarian breathed. “Normally those are huge legal proceedings, with contracts drawn up, but I’ve never seen one done verbally.”
“You don’t often see them done verbally,” Red said, grinning smugly and nonchalantly examining his fingernails, “because most people don’t like the idea of an unbreakable promise that gives them scant little wiggle room. But, in this case, I’m fully confident that I can find Alice’s home – all I’ll need to do is follow her past backwards, and then drop her off at a suitable point in space, time and higher dimensions.”
Alice made up her mind. “Okay. I’ll come with you. Take me home.” Red nodded, and withdrew his right hand from the pocket of his coat.
It looked like someone had made a jointed sculpture of a clawed human hand out of some kind of red glass, chopped the fingers and thumb off with a cleaver, right next to the knuckle, and left them next to where they’d been severed. His fingers and thumb floated around the shape of his palm, which itself floated next to the end of an empty sleeve.
“Take my hand, and we’ll go on a walk.”
A leap of faith, she thought. Alice took a deep breath, before reaching out and wrapping her fingers round the smooth, cold digits of Red’s right hand.