The three of them walked through the Third Bone Shipgates, down a gigantic wooden tunnel and into the hollow interior of the Great Tree. Above them, a spider’s web of struts, bridges, and suspended buildings teemed in the space within the Tree, crowding out the inside of the trunk. The city was stacked vertically, a towering jigsaw of different building styles and materials, gathered round the inner surface of the Tree’s trunk and occasionally dangling in the middle, like wooden insects on a bird’s nest of rope and walkways. Signs flickered, some in neon and tamed lightning and some in dripping liquid fire, positioned seemingly at random, proclaiming their messages in languages Alice didn’t recognise.
The strange urge to BUY [,,,,] POTIONS AT HOBBELWEISENER’S HOUSE OF HOMILY, TINCTURES & TREPANATION!!! YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER(S) WILL THANK YOU! ᴛᴇʀᴍs ᴀɴᴅ ᴄᴏɴᴅɪᴛɪᴏɴs ᴀᴘᴘʟʏ flickered through her mind, an alien series of sounds and images that evaporated as soon as it took form.
She’d barely begun articulating her confusion and startlement before the fortune teller cut in. “Psionic advertisements! You’ll get used to them, or we can find you a tinfoil hat or something.”
“There should be a law against those things,” A Librarian muttered, “they’re too disruptive to have around in a public place.”
“Word. The next vertitram arrives at the port station in about three minutes, by the way.”
A Librarian blinked. “Stop reading my mind. Also, thank you for the information. Right, the tram’s this way.”
<Ah, this is where our paths diverge,> said Tyrian.
“Likewise,” Alice said, sticking out her hand. There was a brief pause, as Tyrian looked at it in… confusion? After a short eternity, Tyrian tentatively reached out and grasped Alice’s wrist with smooth wooden fingers.
“Um,” she replied, “sure. Let’s go with that. It’s more of a thing where I’m from, sorry.”
Nik’s brother burst out laughing, freeing her from the awkwardness so she could try to kick him in the shins.
The tram station was manned by a Bookbinder wearing a pale sash and comically small blue cap.
‘GREETINGS. WHERE DO YOU WISH TO TRAVEL, A LIBRARIAN, CHILD OF NURSIIR AND, UM, GUEST.’ they scratched out on a slate built into their chestplate with coloured chalk.
“I’m a human.”
‘I SUSPECTED AS MUCH. I HAVE NOT MET A HUMAN BEFORE, AND WAS UNABLE TO JUDGE BASED ON DESCRIPTIONS I HAVE BEEN GIVEN BY THE CONCORDANCE. APOLOGIES FOR THE DIGRESSION, FRIEND HUMAN. WHERE DO YOU WISH TO TRAVEL?’
“I’m actually fairly interested in finding other humans,” she said, glancing behind her to allay her fears that she was holding the queue up. It was just her, Nik’s brother, and A Librarian, who was looking pensive.
In response, the Bookbinder wrote feverishly, rubbing their writing off in a flurry of chalk dust when they filled the writing slate on their chest, pausing after finishing the next sentence to allow Alice to read.
‘TO FIND MORE PEOPLE LIKE YOU, YOU WOULD NEED TO SPEAK TO THE LAST MEMBER OF THE CONCORDANCE TO SEE A HUMAN, WHO SUBMITTED THE UPDATED ‘HUMAN’ DEFINITION. IT IS A MATTER OF PUBLIC RECORD, AND THEY,’ the Bookbinder scratched out the word pointedly before continuing, “SHE WOULD HAVE PLACED THE NEW RECORD IN THE TOME:EMOT OF RECIPROCAL LAW, WHICH IS KEPT IN THE HIVE OF THE SCRIPTERAPHIM.’
“Oh, Grawlix’s rancid guts, the Hive?” By A Librarian’s tone, he sounded like he was swearing. Not best pleased, either.
“A Hive of neither scum nor villainy, on pain of dismemberment,” Nik’s brother said. A Librarian shivered.
“What are Scripteraphim?”
‘THE AEONS OF THE LIBRARY,’ wrote the Bookbinder.
A Librarian sighed. “They’re… angels, that live in a big paper hive in the upper reaches of the Tree, and they’re stark raving nuts. They like collecting information, require a toll in secrets to access their records and always look like they’re three seconds away from tearing your head open to put your brain in their collection.”
“So I take it,” the fortune teller quipped, “that the grant application didn’t go well?”
“It went terribly.” He shuddered. “Let’s put going there down as a plan B. When we’re done checking your Realmic resonant signature.”
‘THE UNIVERSITY, THEN? I WILL CALL A TRAM.’
‘I WILL ALSO,’ they wrote as they pulled a cord, ringing a series of silver bells in an odd pattern, ‘SEND OUT WORD ON THE CONCORDANCE THAT THERE IS A HUMAN LOOKING FOR THOSE WHO HAVE MET OTHER HUMANS.’
“Oh, um, thanks.”
‘THE ONE WHO MET THE PREVIOUS HUMAN WILL BE ALERTED, TOO. SHE WILL PROBABLY FIND YOU, BECAUSE SHE LIKES OUTSIDERS. HERE IS YOUR TRAM.’
As the tram climbed through the hole in the platform, Alice realised in a hurry that a mostly-vertical city would probably have mostly-vertical trams. It didn’t necessarily follow that these trams would be mounted on the backs of gigantic insects, but the fact was that a minivan-sized creature had just settled down five feet from her, jointed carapace shining. She may have shrieked a little. It was a distinct possibility that she had nearly jumped out of her skin.
“Actually,” said the fortune teller, “it’s an isopod, not an insect. Common mistake.”
“Oh,” she squeaked, “that’s okay then. Carry on.”
The insectoid driver of the large crustacean spoke up. “Where’s’ll thee be shouldered ta challenge? S’place ‘stensive.”
“Realmic studies,” replied A Librarian, without missing a beat.
“Cardinal thou’s. In’nop be gettin’,” said the driver cheerily.
“Wh- what language are they speaking?” she asked, flabbergasted.
“Papyran slang,” said A Librarian, stepping up onto one of the dozen seats attached to the giant pillbug’s saddle. He turned to offer her a hand as she struggled to climb the beast.
“Showoff,” she muttered as she watched the fortune teller leap up into a seat, landing in a fluid motion.
In response, he blew a raspberry at her.
As they were attaching themselves to the extensive harnesses in the tram seating, the driver rang their bell.
“Away’s’s! Shoe’dness!” they yelled, and the tram bustled into life, heading straight up the inner wall of the Great Tree, through a path cut through the strange architecture, up towards the university.
– – –
The tramtrack ran vertically for a few hundred metres before ducking outside of the Tree through a tunnel so narrow Alice could have reached out and touched the walls. The light at the end of this tunnel swept past, and they were suspended above a different landscape than the Plains of Hard Fact, one that seemed to be the Library’s equivalent of a desert. Everything had something of the aspect of some kind of cathedral or temple, made of some pale brown stone, arched ceiling supported by pillars covered in runic script, with books in vast piles around their bases. The ground sloped upwards shallowly as it moved away from the Tree, blocks of stone in different sizes and shapes scattered around and piled up into crude structures, as if by some giant’s hand. Here and there, brightly coloured flags stood out against the grey-cream stone.
What really drew Alice’s attention, however, was the snake. Its head was easily the size of a bungalow, and its whole body was wrapped nearly three times around the Great Tree, its tail disappearing off between the pillars of whatever Layer or Level of the Library this was. Its four pale eyes glimmered against its yellow scales, and it raised its titanic head briefly, as if to watch the tram going past, before turning back to two tiny figures standing in front of it, looking like ants against the colossal serpent. Above its head hung a flickering ball of white fire upon which a strange sigil burned ochre.
“What the hell is that?” she gasped. There were barely any words adequate, against the sheer scale of the thing. It was longer than a train. Its body was approaching the width of a skyscraper. It probably weighed thousands of tonnes. What was a monster like that doing so close to a city? Did it live here permanently, like some ophidian sword of Damocles, waiting to crush the Tree?
“That,” said A Librarian, “is the Name of Knowledge Herself.”
“Well, um, names have power, right?”
“Then it stands to reason, then, that the more powerful you are, the more powerful your name is. Correct?”
“That makes sense. What’s this got to do with massive snakes?”
“I was getting there. Knowledge Herself is the creator of this Realm,” he said, injecting a fair deal of reverence into Her moniker.
“This Realm? So, like, the entire Library?”
“Correct. As a Dominion – a Realm and concept creator, if you will – She commands unimaginable power, and thus her Name is a sentient and very powerful being, and one of Foyer’s most capable protectors.”
“Huh, okay. Any idea who’s talking to her?”
They were receding, but it looked like one of the two figures was glowing white, and the other was… wearing something grey?
Nik’s brother piped up. “Looks like an angel and someone in a big cloak. No idea who, can’t read their minds from this distance and wouldn’t dare, with Her Nibs so close.”
“Could I just… ask the godsnake how to get home?”
A Librarian grimaced. “I was going to leave that to a low-priority resort – the waiting list to speak to Her is really long, unless She sees fit to grant you an early appointment for a number of different reasons.”
She considered it for a moment. “Okay, it’s good you’ve considered all this.”
“Hey, Alice. Hey. Hey.”
Nik’s brother grinned wolfishly. “She’s a Name-Snake.”
The rest of her anguished cry echoed in the tunnel the tram ducked into, leading back towards the centre of the tree.