The lab of a practising Realmic Thaumotech was… interesting. The walls and floor were dark polished wood, far smoother than any of the higglety-pigglety corridors outside, and there were several interlocking circular diagrams inlaid in the floor with some pale metal that made the circumscribed polygons and odd symbols stand out. Around the edges of the room were several benches neatly piled with weird paraphernalia – racks of strange tools which only barely resembled anything Alice had seen before, next to similar racks of sticks made from metal, wood or ivory (wands?) and a small shelf packed with leatherbound books. One of the benches was covered in a sprawl of chemistry equipment, a strange mixture of the antique and the modern – Bunsens and electronic pipettes sharing space with giant glass distilleries and coiled condenser tubes, along with a number of pieces that didn’t make much visual sense, that bent tubes through themselves or that seemed to disregard the normal rules of perspective. Boxes and boxes of coloured chalk shared space with incense sticks, flasks of effervescent luminous liquids and strange potted plants.
“Oh! Um,” said A Librarian, “it looks like someone’s reorganised in here. I remember leaving this place in a much less tidy state. That’s actually kind of worrying.”
“Someone’s been touching your stuff? I know who that was.”
A Librarian glared at him. “One of these days, I’m going to call your bluff on these ludicrous claims.”
“I know which day you’re gonna do that.”
“Is this going to be a problem?” Alice asked.
A Librarian grimaced. “Probably not. I’m technically still in charge of this lab. Let’s get started – stand in the, hmm, the ℸ-3 circle, and keep your arms by your sides.”
“Uh, which one’s that?”
She was standing in one of the magic circles, holding an irregular lump of slightly spiky green crystal that the fortune teller had handed her, while A Librarian placed the chalky paper in another circle on top of a wheeled bench. He pulled a thin volume from his bookcase, flicking it open to a bookmark and reading it for a few seconds, murmuring slightly before snapping it shut.
“It’s a shame you don’t have any magical training,” he said, “because the next bit of this usually involves the subject speaking an incantation, so… um, why are you holding that Verdroni Crystal?”
“He gave it to me!” she protested, pointing at Nik’s brother with a spare finger – the crystal was about the size of a melon, and rather heavy, so she could only hold it in both hands. Plus, the circle was active, and A Librarian had told her to keep her extremities within its bounds.
“What are you playing at?”
“Leitner’s Die Telicomnicon, third edition, Page 78, subsection 3, diagram 3.2,” the fortune teller said lazily. He was paying more attention to his attempts to balance a conical flask on his nose (or at least the face next to his nostrils) than he was to A Librarian’s travails in thaumaturgy.
A Librarian paused a moment, taken aback, before walking over to a tall cupboard on the wall, opening it to a solid wall of shelved books, and pulling a tome bound in pale leather from it. He closed the door hard and strode back over to Nik’s brother, opening the book and leafing through its pages for a few seconds.
“How in ash and ink did you know that?”
He rolled his eyes. “I’m. A. Fortune. Teller. How is any of this surprising to you? It’s certainly not surprising to me.”
“How long,” said Alice, glaring at the pair of them, “do I have to hold this damn rock for?”
“Oh! Um, not long, I think. I need to give this a harder look.”
“What even is that book about?”
It was the fortune teller who answered. “I decided to shortcut the process of finding the precise ritual formulation before A Librarian here decided to rederive it from first freaking principles because he’s a hecking loon nerd.”
“I wasn’t going to do that!” A Librarian said defensively.
“Look, buddy, one of us here can see the future and read minds, and it ain’t you.”
“What’s the crystal for, anyway?” Alice asked, attempting to deescalate.
“Well, erm, in order to properly… harmonise the disparate flows of ontologic, it’s best if the person inside the circle clearly incants at least one or two relevant Words. The Word of Explanation would give you some important diagnostic information, and is pretty easy to pronounce, but you aren’t trained to use Words, and you don’t know the Word of Explanation. You wouldn’t even know how to interpret the information. Do you follow?”
“Er.” Alice frowned. “Kinda?”
“Well, our green friend here handed you that crystal because it’s a resonant form – part of a different ritual that he suggested, one that doesn’t require you to use or know any Words. The Verdroni Crystal will accept diffused information from you, and so will act in a similar way to the use of a Explaining Word and allow the transfer of information about your person to a new papyrus, mediated through this -” he pointed at the chalky paper – “more coarse Realmic signature we gathered back at Kallie’s, used as a guide as to where to point the… viewfinder? I’m not sure the metaphor works, but it’ll have to do.”
“He means you’re going to have to hold the rock for aaaaages yet.”
“Firstly, no. Secondly, put those down!” A Librarian snapped at the fortune teller, who had added more beakers to the stack he was balancing.
“Spoilsport. Get on with the ritual; those goats aren’t going to sacrifice themselves.”
Alice and A Librarian spoke as one, for slightly different reasons. “Goats?”
“They’re fluffy things that eat grass, A Librarian. And Alice, I was what is known in the trade as ‘making an funny’, and thus was not speaking with tongue of truth.”
“I will throw this rock at you.”
“Not until I’ve finished setting up this working,” said A Librarian, picking a few weird brass thingummies from one of the instrument racks.
With deliberate care, he took one of the tools – a long-handled tuning fork-like thing that rippled gently as he moved it, as if it was behind warped glass. The magic circle about Alice’s feet flared into life as he bought the business end of the fork closer, the number of tines varying between three and five as it twisted disconcertingly. He moved the end of the fork in a long lazy circle, like gathering candyfloss, and as he did so a ghostly, fabric-like cloud of glowing stuff gathered around the end of the fork. It shimmered with a constellation of tiny colourful lights as A Librarian carefully manoeuvred it into a glass jar covered in magic marker symbols that faintly glowed as he screwed the lid on.
“What is that?” she asked, looking at the gently undulating waves of light and colour that shifted within the container.
“It’s one of the components of this spell – some of the Aspect that you’ve left about, like a magical scent trail. Don’t worry, it’s in a dual-Hermetic sealed container. Now, could you tell me who you are?”
“Don’t you already know that?”
“The working requires it from your own lips.”
He sighed. “Very funny, now… oh, I guess it’d make sense for you to not know the formulation.”
“No idea what you’re talking about.”
“Well, I would say ‘I am A Librarian, born of A Librarian and A Librarian in The Library’. If you’ve got more parents than that, just keep adding them spaced with ‘and’, and if your parents are unknown, replace their names with ‘born of unknown parties’. If you’re adopted, you say ‘borne to’ rather than ‘born of’, and if you claim citizenship of multiple Realms you’ll have to speak a mixed state of the Realms as operated on by the Realm mixing tensor. I’m not sure I know how to calculate a Realm mixing angle, though.”
“Uh, I guess… I am Alice Huang, born of Russell and Valerie Huang, in Materia?”
“Perfect! Now,” he said, before speaking a few words in an oddly echoey tone of voice – probably some magical mumbo-jumbo.
The stone in Alice’s hands surged with warmth in response to his words. Looking down, she saw it start to glow a faint, pulsing light – something like the beating of a heart, deep within the crystal. Die Telicomnicon stood open on a bench, and A Librarian glanced back at it occasionally as he set up the next thing, putting a spoonful of the Aspect he had gathered, along with a carefully excised corner of the Realmic signature parchment and a number of powdered whatnots and fragmented thingies from some of the benchtop jars into one of the big glass distilleries.
“You can step out of the circle and put the rock down,” said Nik’s brother with a sly smile, “he was about to tell you, but it annoys him to be preemptively interrupted.”
A Librarian didn’t respond in the negative, so Alice stepped over the circle, breaking it with a fizz of energy not unlike static electricity. She plonked the crystal down on a bench and went to watch as a strange sigil glowed and crackled on the distillery. As the contents distorted and grew blurrier, they dissolved into a thick pearlescent mist that seemed to shift continuously between every colour of the rainbow and some besides.
He turned a brass tap, releasing the gas from the chamber, and it rushed down the coiled glass tubing, then along into a second chamber. Each flash of the runes on its surface turned the gas within immediately to a fine spray of colourful liquid, which ran in dribbles down a pipe and into the reservoir of the beautiful antique fountain pen that stood in a stand at the very bottom of the strange array of equipment.
As soon as the pen had filled, A Librarian shut off the flow of gas into the weird condenser setup, and with a second valve shut off the flow of ink into the pen.
“Right,” he said, gesturing towards it, “pick that up, and balance it on this paper here.”
He unrolled a parchment, holding it out flat on a bench, and waited for her. The pen was slightly warm in her hand as she picked it off its stand and put it on the paper. It practically jumped out of her hand, landing on the paper and standing upright like a gyroscope, swaying slightly in the middle of the parchment sheet. She turned to A Librarian and was about to say something when the pen started to move. It drifted in a slow, lazy circle, leaving behind a line of glistening iridescent ink, and burst into life, pirouetting across the sheet of parchment in dots and sweeping lines, tracing a fiendishly complicated diagram of loops, whorls and strange symbols. At points, the pen leapt like a ballerina, landing somehow without spilling a drop of ink to resume the next line of the diagram.
With a flourish, the pen was finished, and A Librarian gently returned it to its holder, before pulling an old-fashioned blotter out of a drawer and carefully making sure the ink was dry.
“Right,” he said, “this looks sufficiently detailed. I was worried we’d have to do some more working up, but this should be good to go.”
The fortune teller was looking at the paper over A Librarian’s shoulder. His face was uncharacteristically pensive.
“I’ve got bad news,” said the fortune teller, “you’ve only got six months to live, and this looks like a broken arm.”
A Librarian ignored him. “Not a Realmic signature I recognise, but it’s a Realmic signature. The Causeway staff should be able to tell me what’s going on with this.”
“Oh, that’s good. I expected it to be more complicated,” Alice said, mildly disappointed. She was, somewhere in the back of her mind, holding out the vague hope of doing some more hands-on magic.
The fortune teller looked like he was about to respond to her thoughts with something snide, but he froze. He looked at the door of the lab, then over at A Librarian, who still pored over the Realmic signature paper. He winked at Alice and held up three fingers, then two, then one, then-
The door burst open with a crash, swinging round and hitting the wall with a wham. Alice near jumped out of her skin.
“Ash and Mould, A Librarian? WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”