Nik was fairly easy to spot in the crowd, his orange-and-red robes significantly brighter than Foyer’s general fashion paradigms.
“Wh- oh, hey! Thanks, Alice, A Librarian for finding him. I’d considered cancelling our tickets and getting a later train until he turned up.”
“I’m always on time, ‘cause I’m a prophet.”
Nik snorted derisively. “Thank the squirming heavens that you bumped into someone sensible.”
It was at that moment that their train turned up. It looked kinda like an old TGV, orange colouration, pointed ‘nose’ and a long white stripe down the side.
“The train,” said Nik’s brother, “in plain, arranged.”
Alice didn’t have time to reply before the train’s doors whooshed open, and they got onboard. It wasn’t terribly crowded, so they all managed to find seats – strangely spongy seats decorated in oddly lurid patterns, under lights that seemed a little off in colour. With a chorus of tooting noises that echoed down the body of the train, it started to accelerate, its many legs moving silently as the train station of Foyer started to slide out of view, replaced with a commanding view of the hillocks and clusters of eternally-burning candles of this biome of the Library.
“What’s this place called, with the candles?” Alice asked, looking out the windows as the landscape glittered before her in rainbow hues.
“The Wax Bracket,” Nik’s brother said, lying across three seats in a pose that looked very uncomfortable, given the armrests.
“Should I even be surprised by the puns anymore?”
“Ah,” he said, producing a sheaf of cards from up his sleeve. “You’re asking a should question, which is tantamount to asking for prophecy.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Tough! You’re getting one anyway. Cards say you’re a nerd.”
“Uh-uh, they do!” He held up a card.
THE ACE OF NERDS
“That is not a real card!” she retorted.
[Looks Real To Me.]
“Oh,” said Nik to Twelfth, “I didn’t realise you were coming along with us. We haven’t been introduced.”
[I Am The Bookbinder Known As-] she said, launching into a recital of her full name in her stage-whisper thoughtspeak.
Once she had finished, Nik spoke. “Nik Dimetaliios. Nice to meet you, Twelfth.”
[Likewise, Nik. Your Name Is Oddly Short For A Spawn Of Nursiir.]
“That’s because it’s a shortening of his real name,” said the fortune teller, “which I’m saving up for a later chapter, when I can really annoy him.”
“So, changing the subject,” said Nik through gritted teeth, “I did some brief research in the University, searching for reports of people like you, humans.”
The other frogman started to say something, but Nik shushed him. “They’ve been seen on fairly rare occasions, from what I can determine. Alan and yourself are the only ones to appear within the last decade, and the previous records stretch centuries back, with the occasional mention of this Red fellow, who they don’t think counts as strictly human either.”
[Ah Yes. Red. He Is Probably Not A Human. I Have Been Informed By An Authority Who Has Known Him For A Few Centuries. You Have Met Him?]
“Yeah, yeah I have,” Alice said, “but wait… he’s centuries old?”
Nik shrugged, but his brother chimed in. “Kinda non-linear. I don’t think he’s lived all those seven hundred-odd years, myself. I’d rate him at barely over two centuries, give or take a decade or so. Not too old, honestly.”
“Humans only really live for a hundred years, tops, and they don’t look anything like Red when they’re that old.” Alice was getting more concerned. What was Red? Some kind of shapeshifting monster? It seemed like a preposterous idea, but it seemed anything went in this crazy layer of reality.
“Well – that’s your baseline human, in Materia too, which from what I’ve heard is a high-entropy environment to start with,” A Librarian said, “A Librarians tend to live for quite a while. I think I know a few that are pushing seventy decades. As for Nik and…”
“Us Spawn of Nursiir don’t really physically age, kinda like the various types of elf, ælf and so forth. And that’s before you consider the wonders of modern medicine,” the fortune teller filled in.
[Bookbinders Are Perpetual Until Destroyed.]
“Uh.” The strange enormity of what they were saying sank into her. “You mean, if I lived here, I’d live forever?”
“Well,” said Nik’s brother, “I dunno. Probably, until something dangerous, just plain entropy or something weirder gets you? You might suffer apotheosis if you’re particularly cool.”
“What my brother is saying,” Nik spoke firmly, “is that agelessness can probably be guaranteed, but random chance and the law of large numbers mean that the oldest lower sentients I know of that haven’t become something stranger are a few thousand years old, by your reckoning.”
“But yeah, Red could easily be nearly a baseline human, but I’ve never heard of a Voidwalker looking that… normal,” A Librarian said.
The train slid along its elevated path for a long thirty seconds, before someone next spoke.
“Additionally, in my research into humans and what they end up doing here, I think a couple of the last few ended up trying to find their way ‘home’, too. There are, however, scattered reports of some kind of organisation with humans as part of their members, who made some kind of deal with the Observers about twenty years back.”
“Nasty fanatical demons from Sheol,” A Librarian explained, “kinda dangerous to do business with.”
“What is Sheol, exactly?” She’d heard that name a lot, spoken with a mixture of disdain and wariness.
“Hmm,” Nik said, “as the Library is to knowledge and books, Sheol is to adversity and sacrifice, I suppose.”
‘It’s where Carpark comes from’, said the fortune teller, and it took Alice a second to realise that he’d said that without moving his lips. Telepathically?
[It Is Said That In Sheol Are All Things To Be Found – That Heart’s Desire And Waking Nightmare Walk Hand In Hand.]
She perked up at that. “Heart’s desire? Like a way to get home?”
The grimaces on the faces of Nik and A Librarian were enough to disaffirm that possible plan of action. Whatever Sheol was, this other Realm was unlikely to prove her salvation.
The rest of the journey passed amicably. A Librarian and Nik were still talking about some kind of inter-Realm thermo-enochian dynamics or some such nonsense. Alice briefly joined in with some kind of card game with Twelfth and Nik’s brother, using his multi-functional pack of cards in what seemed to be a bizarre Frankenstinian mix of Snap, Happy Families and fifty-two pickup.
All the while, the alien, haunting landscape of the Library moved slowly past the train windows. The giant clusters of growing candles in the Wax Bracket started to give way to a disconnected landscape of titanic bookshelves, floating in clusters in what seemed to be an endless space filled with twisting, luminous fog. Flights of Vellum Kites and other, larger and stranger flying things, from origami dragons to trashbag sharks, started to pass the windows as gigantic angular shapes of wood and books loomed out of the thin mist. The train seemed to be travelling on a path hanging in midair, proceeding relentlessly past bookcases the size of warehouses, the size of mountains. Looking out the window, Alice felt very small in the face of the endless and implausible variety of the Library. The mists parted as the train entered something of a tunnel, the lights set into the wood blurring past into a streak.
Suddenly, with a wet slap, something hit the window from the outside, and Alice plain near jumped out of her skin.
“Sheesh, that scared the hell out of- what the heck is that?” she managed to stutter out. The thing that had landed against the window had stuck there; pages smeared with oily looking ink. A book, open like a mouth, was pressed against the window. Peering closer, Alice could see the words on the pages, half hidden by its inky ‘saliva’.
Alice looked back at her travelling companions. “Uh, guys? What is this?”
A Librarian answered. “It’s a Hireadinea – a parasite that lives on trains and other large creatures, drains tiny amounts of their life to sustain themselves.”
“Occasionally attack people too,” the fortune teller said gleefully, “pretend to be books, hide in shelves, jump out and suck your brains out through your face.”
She blanched, looking back out at the Hireadinea as it clung to the window, bookmark-tongue flapping in the wind of the train’s passage.
[One Of The Siblings Of The Order Locomota Will Be Along In A Second – Ah, See. There Is One.] She pointed as the pale articulated hand of a Bookbinder reached into view, grabbing the book attached to the window and flinging it off, before giving the train window a brief scrub with a soapy cloth. They must have been clinging to the side of the train like a spider, especially considering the tunnel they were going through.
The tunnel ended, and they shot out into the relative brightness of another part of the Library, one seemingly wrapped in glowing lines, glittering like the train was travelling through the inside of some wooden computer, inlaid with silicon and gold. On each side, the air was thick with an arrangement of hovering monoliths, paths and roads made of these floating blocks winding through the air and around the massive stalactites and stalagmites that spanned the cavernous space – more cavern-like than any she’d yet seen in the Library. And everything was covered in these moving, flowing, silicon board-style lines, twisting across every surface like a tide of worms.
“This place,” Nik was saying, “is called the Segment Fault. The Library subsists on information, and this is one of the locales that is predominantly electrodigital in nature.”
“Does that mean there are stone tablets in the Library, somewhere?” Alice asked. “I suppose that does make sense.”
“Well, there is always the Codex Petrifex, in the Stone’s Throe, which is pretty close to here. Why are you rolling your eyes?”
[I Did Not Really Know What Puns Were Until I Learned How To Read Singular Librarian. Telepathy Is Naturally Unambiguous.]
That sounded frankly rosy, as escapes from the endless cascade of wordplay went. The flicker of lightning briefly cast everything in light and stark shadow as it jumped from one stalactite to its corresponding stalagmite.
“Oh hey,” Nik said, pointing. “That was a Blaster Wyrm, jumping through physical existence to another track in the Segments. It’s a dragon made of information, something like a Book Wyrm, but with an additional element of electricity.”
“I thought dragons were lizards, or something,” she said, watching the dingy landscape of the Segment Fault whoosh by.
“Some of them are lizards,” was his defensive reply.