The Ætherferry journey had taken about an hour so far, travelling above varied landscapes, from the skyscraper-sized pillars she’d wandered through (the Forest of Stacks, Nik had called it), past a mountain-sized pale spire of what she’d been informed was the bone of some immense ‘Demon of Ignorance’ and through a maze of bookshelves half-sunken in a lake of ink – the Mire Dynthort, A Librarian informed her. She’d seen flickering lights, will-o’-the-wisps dancing above the inky marsh, and strange creatures walking through the mists that hung around the Mire, disappearing and reappearing into swirls of the whispering fog.
“There, see. City of Foyer; capital of the Library and home of the central archives and the greatest port in the Atrament,” A Librarian was saying, pointing at a distant feature in the landscape ahead.
“I can barely see it, mate,” she replied, squinting at the horizon from where she was standing, holding onto the deck handrail of the Æthership. She could see some pillars in the distance, across the Plains of Hard Fact – a rolling expanse of six-foot deep carpet and the occasional stalagmite of splintered wood, fallen from the distant roof in times gone by – but nothing more concrete than that.
“Oooh, look! There’s fantasy counterpart sky fish or something!”
“Those are vellum kites,” Nik corrected his brother, who was pointing over the side at a shimmering flock of paper planes, flapping around the top of a pillar that speared up from the Plains of Hard Fact, coming within a few hundred feet of the altitude of the Æthership.
“Bird’s the word.”
“Wh- oh, nevermind.” Nik seemed to reconsider asking, and turned to Alice. “It’s built around that Tree, there,” he explained, pointing out the distant city. It didn’t look like much at this distance, merely like a tall pillar, connecting the roof and floor of this part of the Library. It got slightly wider at the bottom, and at this distance, there were the impressions of branches, just about visible around it.
“Doesn’t look that big.”
“It actually isn’t too wide, it just stretches up from where its roots settle in the Great Atramentic Sea, two Levels below this one, to the Written Skies, five Levels above,” Nik said, “which makes it eight or nine times as tall as what you see. Now, we’re approaching from the level of the Æthership docks – they correspond in elevation with the shipping lanes in the Æther. The precise reasons behind the favourable conditions remain uncertain, but-”
She smiled weakly, held up a hand. “One thing at a time. You’re rambling a little.”
“It’s fine, it’s just that-”
Nik’s brother butted in. “She thinks you’re booooring.”
Alice was about to retort, but was interrupted by a tap on her shoulder.
<Excuse me, traveller,> a voice sounded in her head, almost like her own thoughts. She turned to the person who’d tapped her on the shoulder, and came face to face with a painted mask. Well, almost face-to-face, as the masked person was about five feet tall, so she had to look down to face them.
The mask was made of pale rough-cut wood, and its face was roughly painted white, with two jagged stripes of indigo paint running across it diagonally. The three eyes of the mask were painted on – how does it see, Alice thought – and were blotches of bright purple, arranged triangularly in the approximate place eyes should be. The person attached to the mask was almost entirely concealed in a voluminous hooded robe made of sewn-together rags – the only part of their body visible was the wooden, mannequin-esque jointed hand that had tapped her on the shoulder.
“Sorry, am I in your way?” she said, stepping out of the way so that the diminutive figure could get to the handrail.
<Thank you kindly, traveller,> the voice in her head replied, and the little masked person stepped forwards to the rail.
“If it isn’t rude, what exactly are you? I’m new around here, and I don’t really know anything about… well, anything, really.”
<I am a masquerade; my name is Tyrian. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mx… ?>
“Alice. And it’s, um, Ms. not Mx.”
<A pleasure, Ms Alice. I am, similarly, Ms Tyrian,> the masquerade said, inclining her hidden head slightly.
“Hey Tyrian, who’s this nerd you’re talking t- ow!” Nik’s brother was cut off as Alice elbowed him in the solar plexus.
“You know me, you git.”
<Ah! I thought I recognised that telepathy. How are you doing?>
“Ehh. Same old, same old. We’re off to visit someone in Foyer. You heading the same way?”
Nik cut in. “Oi! We can’t just invite everyone on our- oh, hey Tyrian. Didn’t see you there.”
She’d had enough. “Does everyone just know everyone around here?”
<It seems that way, sometimes.>
“Well, I don’t know Tyrian,” A Librarian said, shrugging.
“Yes, but everyone else knows each other.”
“Well,” Nik’s brother said, “I’m a popular guy, telling fortunes all over. I can’t help it if I’ve got a fanbase.”
<We bumped into each other in Seven-Twenty, and he mentioned that he was heading towards Foyer anyway, so I was expecting to find him on the boat. I hadn’t met him beforehand, but we had swapped pleasantries.>
“Why’ve you got to ruin the magic, Tyrian? I had her all convinced about my fanbase.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Now you’re ruining the magic, too. This boat is full of philistines. I’m leaving.” With that, he climbed up onto the rail and stood, holding it with feet that had opposable thumbs before stepping out into empty space and plummeting away, gone so quickly that Alice could only make a brief noise of alarm before he fell.
Frantically, she glanced left and right at her travelling companions. “Did… did none of you see that? He just jumped off the side!”
“Yeah, I did.”
Alice practically jumped out of her skin at the voice, before he climbed back up to the railing, scaling the side of the Æthership like a monkey. “H-how did you do that?”
“Remember the floaty crystals on the sides? They put out a gravitational nullfield, something like a plane of invisible trampoline around them. I landed on that, then climbed the side.”
“Right. So I know this isn’t going to kill you.”
“Wh-” he began, but Alice was already moving, and gave him a shove as hard as she could. With a yelp, he toppled off the side of the ship for the second time of the day.
“He said it himself!” she said, seeing the expressions of the people standing around her.
– – –
Most of the rest of the journey passed uneventfully. Tyrian was a decent conversationalist, and Nik’s brother had apparently learned something of a lesson from being shoved off the edge of a moving Æthership. Nik and A Librarian were back to talking about science. Reminded her of the academics of different disciplines back home, speaking so deep into jargon that no-one else could understand.
“So, what I’m researching,” Nik was saying, “is the transubstantiational paradynamics involved in Realmic travel, with a test case in the form of the Aeonic Causeways – the Aeon mages managed to solve the problem of perspective shift, but no-one’s really sure how. The Gates themselves are something of a black box, and I think most of the research is lost, or hidden in the codices beneath the Chapel of History.”
“Isn’t there an Aeon mage still active?” A Librarian asked, jotting down notes in a small, leatherbound book. “Surely they’d be the person to interview about these kinds of problems.”
“Ah, you’d think. But the Triskelion is pretty hard to get a hold of, and tends to be incredibly cagey about stuff from long enough ago. It has been over nine millennia since the Causeways were-”
The soft not-noise of Tyrian’s voice interrupted Alice’s feeble attempt to follow their conversation. <Alice, I think there’s someone following you.>
She turned to Tyrian and cocked an eyebrow. “I haven’t been moving for, like, an hour now. Surely, if they’re following me, they’d have caught up by now.”
A soft chuckle echoed in her brain. <That’s as maybe, but there’s a man, about halfway down the ship, on the starboard side.>
“Which one’s the starboard-” Alice began, looking back over the lower deck, “oh.”
It was Red. He was leaning against the railing, looking out over the Plains of Hard Fact, almost pointedly not looking in her direction.
<Someone you know?>
“You could say that. I’ll go see what he’s up to.”
Red didn’t look up as she walked over. “Hello again, Alice. Took a while to find you.”
“You did the teleporty thing onto the boat?”
“Mmm, the ‘teleporty thing’. Not quite accurate, but I think it’s an adequately incorrect metaphor.”
“Are you here to argue semantics with me, or are you here to tell me that you can take me home?”
Red looked evasive. “You know, arguing about semantics sounds like a good idea, given the circumstances.”
“Alright. I’ve made enquiries, and I’m fairly sure that whatever’s keeping you out of your original reality space is not something with a simple or common explanation. Some of the people I contacted have yet to get back to me, but I think it’s fairly likely that there’s something weird going on,” he said, “and given that we’re standing in a flying ship en route to a city at the centre of a Realm full entirely of information, something I find ‘weird’ has a whole different level of gravitas.”
Her face fell. “Oh, okay. I was hoping…”
“Yeah, I was hoping it was going to be a quick fix too. You’re nice and all, but having a Vow hang over your head isn’t very fun.”
She stuck out her tongue at him. “Well, it’s your own fault, you overconfident dick.”
“You wound me. Look, I’m sorry it’s taking so long, but-”
“Red! My dude, my man, you’ve done goofed!” Nik’s brother nearly shouted as he strode across the deck towards them.
Red froze, looking for all the world like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming truck. “Um.”
“I mean, seriously, making a Vow to Incandescent Law for something you weren’t wholly sure of the outcome of? I’ve heard of better ways to commit suicide!”
Red’s eyes narrowed. “Alice, is… this man travelling with you?”
“Not as such, I guess? We’re going in the same direction. A Librarian said we could get to the Causeway in Foyer.”
“Hmm,” Red said, still glaring at the fortune teller.
“Boo!” Nik’s brother shouted suddenly, and Red yelped, vanishing somehow backwards and away without actually moving, beyond Alice’s sight.
“What was that about?” she asked, turning to the frogman.
“He’s still a little scared of me, it seems. Wimp.”
“Red’s scared of you?”
“Are you implying that I’m not terrifying?” he retorted, mock-pouting.
“You know what, yes. You’re not terrifying.”
He grinned. “I’m hurt. Nah, he finds me unnerving. Most people who touch the Void in some way do.”
“Dare I ask why?”
“That was a figure of speech, you dolt.”
The pack of cards had made its way back out of a pocket. “Well, of course. Something’s come up, by the way,” he said, producing a card with a flourish.
LXIX – OBSERVATION
The card was mostly black, a starless night. Breaking up the darkness, however, were dozens of eyes, each staring towards a small grey silhouette at the bottom centre of the card.
“What does this mean?”
He was quiet, almost uncharacteristically serious. “It means that there are eyes on you. Be careful.” The card vanished with a flick of his wrist, and his webbed hand was empty again.
“Wow, thanks for the cryptic warning, I guess.”
<Is he telling you about your grim fate?> Tyrian had wandered over, and was ‘watching’ the proceedings with interest – as much as one could, with no visible eyes. <And did that fellow have anything interesting to say?>
“Uh, yes and no – in that order.”
<Capital, that’s good to hear. The crew just came round; we’ll be docking at Foyer in about five minutes.>
Alice took a look over at the city-tree, which had expanded, and kept getting larger in view, beyond what seemed likely or plausible. The trunk of the massive tree must have been at least as wide as a bouquet of office buildings. The bark itself was nearly fully concealed, dotted with platforms, ladders, warehouses and bridges, spiralling up from the bottom of the Layer to the top.
She could see the docks themselves now, piers and hooks and mooring posts upon which Ætherships that must have been as large or larger than the one she was aboard were parked, looking like toys against the vast structures of metal, bone and wood clinging to the side of the enormous tree – growing closer by the second as the ship made its approach. Finally, the Æthership jolted slightly as it halted, and the crew of A Librarians and Masquerade started to throw mooring ropes to the dockworkers.
Before the gangplanks could be lowered or the ropes fastened, Nik’s brother took a flying leap off the side of the ship, landing with a roll on the pier with a practised ease.
Nik, who’d walked over as the boat started to cast on, groaned. “Frigging idiot. He’s going to wander off, since we can’t follow. Get himself into trouble, most likely.”
As if in response, his brother, down on the quayside, blew a raspberry loud enough to be audible over the bustle of the deck as the passengers queued at the lowering gangplanks. He scampered off, deeper into the docks, pushing past the A Librarians that worked there.
“Seeya, suckers!” he shouted, just before he disappeared from sight.