When they got back to the hotel, Kallie was sitting in the main living room, mixing something – an amorphous and wriggling something – in a large bowl.
“SO. HOW DID IT GO?”
Alice sighed, and continued sighing as she flopped onto one of the sofas, extending her exasperated exhalation in an expression of exhaustion.
Kallie clicked their maxillae sympathetically. “THAT BAD, THEN?”
She groaned loudly. “Blergh. Turns out, A Librarian knows someone who knows someone who tried to walk me back home through… the Void, isn’t it?”
“IT IS. VOIDWALKING CAN BE DANGEROUS, BUT IT TENDS TO BE THE MOST DIRECT PATH IF ONE HAS THE SKILL.”
When Alice had finished recounting the morning’s events, Kallie was quiet for a few seconds.
“AH. THAT KIND OF THING IS BEYOND MY EXPERTISE, UNFORTUNATELY,” they rattled, “WHERE DID A LIBRARIAN GO, BY THE WAY? I THOUGHT HE WAS WITH YOU.”
“Oh, he said he had to get something from home.”
“RIGHT THEN. IT IS FORTUITOUS THAT YOU HAVE MET A LIBRARIAN – HE IS A RESEARCHER IN METAPHYSIK, WITH AN INTEREST IN TRANS-REALMIC PHENOMENA. I THINK HE MADE PROFESSOR FAIRLY RECENTLY. I SHOULD PROBABLY GET HIM A CARD AS A MEANS OF CONGRATULATION.”
“Is that really a coincidence?” Alice said, sitting up, “Because that sounds like too contrived a coincidence.”
Kallie shrugged their exoskeletal shoulders. “NOTHING IS TRULY A COINCIDENCE, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN THAT IT IS MEANINGFUL. BESIDES BEING VERY LUCKY, I SUPPOSE.”
She was about to ask another question when a bell rang, reverberating through the entire structure of the hotel. Alice could feel the vibrations in her teeth.
Kallie stood. “A CUSTOMER. EXCUSE ME, PLEASE,” they said, putting down their mixing bowl, smoothing down their skirt and disappearing round the corner to the hotel’s entrance, clawed feet clunking on the ridged wooden floor.
Alice flopped back down into the soft embrace of the strangely glutinous sofa, trying to will herself out of being discouraged. It wasn’t working. The ‘future’ version of herself didn’t look too much older than her, albeit somewhat worn by all the dragon-fighting and other adventures. But future-her hadn’t given any indication of having been able to get home, back to Earth. Surely, a real future self would have told her about getting home, wouldn’t she?
Maybe she wasn’t telling her anything because the future wasn’t a real one. Or, worse, it was because she hadn’t made it home, and didn’t want to tell her(self). Did she really know her future self? Was that even a sane question to ask, anyway?
“Hey, Alice,” said A Librarian, his sudden voice jolting her out of her over-angsty pondering. He was carrying a large backpack, which bulged with what looked like alien camping paraphernalia – from a bedroll to the handle of some kind of machete.
She sat up. “What’s the occasion for the Ray Mears getup?”
“Ah yes!” he said, brightening up, “This is my basic equipment. I was thinking – we can probably get to the Causeway in Foyer, and while those don’t normally connect to Materia, they can work to temporal-spatial-Realmic coordinates, which I can measure from you because you’re made of material from your home Realm.”
“But Red got me most of the way home, and couldn’t do the final step. How does that work?”
“Well,” A Librarian said, unrolling a square of cloth with a pair of concentric circles sewn into its surface, the space between them occupied by a thirteen-sided polygon, “I don’t know Red, but I’d hazard a guess that he doesn’t have quite the magical clout of the Aeonic Causeways. They’re one of the most impressive workings of thaumoengineering in the entire scope of the known Realms. Now, stand here.”
Alice stood where he was pointing, at the centre of the circle, and A Librarian sat on the floor and tapped the outer edge of the pattern. A line of yellow fire, the same colour as his eyes, swept through the lines of the outer circle, tridecagon and inner circle, leaving the lines glowing a fierce and steady gold. Out of the pack came the tiny skull of a three-eyed rodent, which he placed at one of the corners of the tridecagon, facing outwards. The skull was joined by twelve other small knickknacks – a small crystal, a golden bell, a coiled candle, a tiny blue-leaved bonsai tree, a glimmering silver marble, some kind of scale from a large reptile, a plastic bottle filled with a dark green liquid, an eight-legged dried frog, a glass box filled with dancing motes of light, and several objects Alice could put no name to.
“What’re those?” she asked, watching him carefully adjust the position of the dried octofrog.
“They’re representations of the thirteen base elements of this particular magical working – each of these thingies is used as a focal point to divine as much detail as possible about you and your composition.”
“Now, hold still-ish, and try not to think too turbulently. Or adjust the character of your soul too much, that’d destabilise things.”
A Librarian had pulled a pack of colourful chalk out from his bag of many things and was now drawing lines in thin air, a mess of interlocking symbols that shifted when she wasn’t looking at them. A Librarian closed his eyes after drawing some of the symbols, seeming to concentrate as they flared into life, glowing with various colours of liquid fire.
Finished, he stepped back, looked his magic scribbles up and down, and pulled what Alice had thought was a machete out of his bag. It was in fact a short glass stick with a wooden handle, which he held as far from himself as possible as he gently stuck it into the cloud of floating chalk. With a slurping whoosh, the collection of floating diagrams collapsed onto the glass cylinder, sliding past Alice on the way, covering the clear glass with a thick layer of chalk dust. In a single fluid motion, A Librarian bought the stick down, end-first, onto a piece of parchment he was holding flat between his feet. A second whoosh, and the colour spread like ink in water, covering the parchment with a densely-packed mess of symbols, writing in a language Alice didn’t recognise in a bewildering rainbow of colours and arranged every which way across the paper, linked by thin lines between each ‘paragraph’. It looked like Satan’s tube map, with hints of the Voynich Manuscript.
“That was weird, and also very cool-looking.”
“Thanks? You can break the circle now,” said A Librarian, looking at the diagram, brow furrowed.
She stepped carefully over the trinkets surrounding the circle – feeling a jolt, like static electricity, as the gold light it was glowing with flickered out. She and A Librarian were so distracted by the pretty magical picture that they didn’t notice Kallie coming back into the living room.
“HAVE YOU BEEN DOING THAUMATURGY IN MY LIVING ROOM AGAIN, A LIBRARIAN?”
“Ah, Kallie! Um. Well, yes?”
“OKAY THEN, CARRY ON. ANY RESULTS?” they asked, gesturing at the sigil-crowded paper lying on the floor.
He sighed. “This is a more complicated result than I expected – I think I’m going to need to be in a lab to analyse this properly.”
“Foyer? The foyer of what?”
A Librarian looked confused for a moment. “Erm, the capital city of the Library is called Foyer. It’s where the university I work at is. I’m… not sure about going back there, though. I, um.”
“ARE YOU UNWELCOME?”
He sighed. “No. I’ll… book two seats on the next Ætherferry.”
“Wait,” Alice said, “what was all that about?”
“Nothing,” A Librarian said, altogether far too quickly.
“Riiight,” she said, believing him for approximately half a millisecond. “What’s an Ætherferry, anyway?”