XVIL – TEMPTERANCE
The card had two humanoid shapes on it, one grey and one white. They held a roll of parchment bound by a red ribbon between them, one hand each. Their free hands were making strange and uncomfortable-looking gestures.
“So what does this mean?” Alice asked. Liz had demanded that she show Alice ‘your meat lady future’, and Nik’s brother was only too happy to oblige, giving Liz his pack of cards to play with.
“It means,” Liz said, grinning, “that your unknown past seeks you, in the form of new deals offered by old and hungry beasts.”
Alice blinked. “That was… concerning. What’s the chance of any of that being true?”
Liz frowned. “I’ll have you know that A Librarians are incapable of lying.”
“She’s having you on,” her mother said, not even looking up from the strange folding map that she was showing Nik, on a sofa set against the far side of the living room. “And I’m also a purple chicken.”
“Mum! How could you lie? I’m going to have to take your Library Card away!”
“Oh no,” A Librarian said, deadpan. “Whatever shall I do. No, please, officer. Please don’t take my Library Card away. I have a family.”
Liz blew a raspberry in response, and turned back to Alice. “Froggyman knows all about futures and prophesy. Ask him,” she said, waving in the direction of said ‘froggyman’.
Nik’s brother shrugged. “Liz certainly has the talent, if that’s what you’re asking. Whether or not she has it right this time, if she’s pared back the walls of fate in order to see the inevitability of an evitable truth? Hard to say.”
“Yeah!” Liz half-shouted with enthusiasm. “I’ve got talons!”
“That you have, kiddo.”
Liz suddenly turned her head to the side, as if she heard something, the slight glow of her eyes flickering for a few seconds, before a creak of the floorboards announced the arrival of another, younger A Librarian. The new arrival peeked around the doorframe – he was wearing an oversized sweater, had a hair texture something like a small leafy bush in aspect, pale yellow-green eyes, and a wide-eyed expression of nervousness.
Liz, without hesitation, got up and strode over to what Alice assumed was her brother, taking him gently by the hand and leading him into the room. The siblings sat together on the chair Liz had been occupying, and her brother looked around at the visitors.
“Ed says that it’s nice to meet you new people,” Liz said, and Ed nodded slightly.
“Hello, Ed, I’m Alice. Nice to meet you,” she said, giving him an encouraging smile. In response, Ed gave her a little wave.
“He says nice to meet you,” Liz said, before directing a question at her brother. “Hey Ed, wanna shuffle the cards? I’m trying to tell Miss Alice her future. Make it one with lots of blood and death, you know?”
“Um. Are you sure?” Alice asked, but Ed was already moving.
He raised a hand, and the stack of cards on the table rose into the air in one stream, before starting to shuffle, surrounded by a slight glow the same colour as Ed’s eyes, faster and faster, quicker than her eyes could follow. He clenched his small fist, and they halted, collapsing back into a block of stacked cards that unfolded into a circular fan that spun slowly in the air before drifting over towards Alice.
“Oh wow, that was really impressive!” Alice said, reaching out and taking a card. Ed grinned briefly at the compliment, and with a gesture, the rest of the cards stacked themselves neatly on the coffee table.
She turned her attention to the card she was holding.
MR BUN THE BAKER
“A Happy Families card? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Liz let out a mock gasp. “A dire omen! The Baker hunts you, and you are not long for this Realm!”
“He’s bunstoppable! His curse is only curable by a massive dose of a key ingredient. What was it, again, Ed?”
Ed blinked and then shrugged.
“See! We need to get you some candyfloss, as soon as possible, or you will be the Baker’s prey! It’s a matter of loaf and death!”
“You want to go to the Carnival, sweetie?” A Librarian asked, from across the room.
“Whatsoever gave you that idea, mother?” Liz asked, smiling sweetly.
“You get something of an intuition,” she replied. “You can go to the Carnival when your father gets back.”
Liz beamed and Ed gave a small smile. “Thanks, mum!”
“Ooh,” Nik’s brother said excitedly, “can we tag along? I’ve got a hot date with a claw machine.”
“That’ll be fine,” A Librarian said, “it’s always safer in numbers when you’re at the Carnival.”
“You know,” Alice said, “I don’t think I’m too enthused about going to a carnival you need to pay attention to safety that hard at. Plus, clownmeat burgers. Ew.”
“Don’t worry, Alice!” Liz said firmly. “If you come with us, Ed and I will protect you!”
“Well, thanks for the offer, b-”
“Going with them would probably be safer than going with myself and Alan, and we’re experienced monster hunters,” A Librarian said.
The other A Librarian in the room spoke up. “Additionally, the Carnival is a multi-Realmic location, and would likely be a hub of useful information we could use to see if we can find you a way home.”
“Look, I’d prefer to keep our visits to the Carnival short,” Nik said, “but, as much as it pains me to admit it, I think we are going to have to visit at some point. There are some quite singular ways to get hold of information there that would be silly to pass up.”
“I win,” his brother said, smugly.
“Don’t push your luck. I could just leave you behind.”
“Hah! I’d like to see you try. Rise, my adorable minions!” He gestured to Liz and Ed.
“What’s in it for me?” Liz asked.
“Hm. Don’t have any cash on me. I suppose I could buy you some candyfloss if you steal some money from Nik.”
“A Librarian, please stop your children from robbing me,” Nik said, as Liz and Ed advanced on him menacingly.
A Librarian put down the quill she was using to jot down notes on the weird map. “Liz, Ed, my dear saplings. It’s more efficient to repeatedly extort, rather than to commit a mugging. But both are illegal, and I won’t take you to the carnival if you will be so easily bribed.”
The conversation was interrupted by the sound of someone at the front door, just round the corner from the living room.
The person who came round the corner was pretty much wholly covered in their clothes, from a balaclava and tinted ski mask to the several bandoliers of strangely-shaped pouches round their shoulders, gigantic boots and thick-looking gloves.
They shrugged off the pack they were wearing, before pulling off their balaclava and goggles in one motion. He looked like he was in his late twenties, with tightly curled brown hair and a few faded scars on his face and neck.
“Hey there, Durian, Liz, Ed. And visitors, welcome!” Alan had a faint Northern accent, on the borderline of Scottish, continuing to climb out of cold-weather gear as he talked.
A Librarian rolled her eyes. “Durian? Is that the best you can do, Otter?”
“It’s a plant, isn’t it?” Alan said, grinning as he removed his heavy coat. “Phew. It was sweltering in this getup as soon as I got back to the Library.”
“The Keep’s pretty chilly, most of the time,” she replied. “Did you catch it?”
“Yep. One Elder Stirge is no longer nesting on the Keep side of the Causeway. Chased it a good long way out into the corridors before I got it,” he said, not pausing in his speech as Liz climbed his arm to stand on his shoulder, like she’d done with Nik’s brother, “and it’s in a holding pen at the ‘Saurus Causeway, waiting to be transferred back to Sheol.”
“Dad! One of the visitors is a meat creature like you!” Liz said, almost hopping up and down on Alan’s shoulder.
“I was just getting to that, sweetie.” Alan deftly caught Liz as she stepped off his shoulder, and placed her on her feet. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen a human. I’m Alan, which I’m sure you knew already, so you have me at a disadvantage.”
“I’m Alice,” she said.
“Nice to meet you, Alice. Good to see you again, Twelfth! And, uh. Your name,” he pointed at Nik’s brother, “escapes me. And this must be your brother Nik!”
[It Is Good To See You Again, Alan, A Librarian, Liz. And It Is Good To See Ed, Who I Have Not Previously Seen.]
“You’re very tall,” said Liz, “and he says it’s nice to see you too.”
[Thank You. The Creator Of The Original Bookbinders Was Very Tall, And Made Us As Tall As They Were.]
Alan, finally divested of his heavy garments, flopped into a large armchair and turned to Alice. “So! Not that seeing another human being for once isn’t a reason to come visit, but if there’s anything I can help you with, I’d be happy to.”
“Well, um, do you know how to get back to Earth?”
He pulled a face that didn’t exactly fill her with confidence in getting home. “Not as such, no.” Seeing the crestfallen look on her face, he quickly continued. “Uh, what I meant to say was that the way home isn’t that simple. Look, we’re probably not even from the same Earths, and-”
“Oh, you are,” said Nik’s brother. He hadn’t looked like he’d been paying attention. “Or, at least, so close that it’d be very hard to work out which was which on a cursory glance.”
“Huh,” said Alan, “I stand corrected.”
“How do you know?”
He shrugged. “Smell, mostly.”
“That raises more questions than it answers,” she retorted.
“You get used to it,” said Alan. “But I digress. In theory, I know how one would get back to Earth, and it’s not especially hard. Have you talked to the, er, I think the official name is Aeonic Knights, that maintain and operate the Causeways?”
“Yep! They said they’d get back to me in a week or so.”
He frowned. “That’s odd, I thought they still had a… a ‘route’ to my Earth on file.”
Alice was about to ask a further question, when Nik’s brother started speaking.
“Hello? Anton Chekhov?” He was talking to himself, holding a hand next to his head in a ‘telephone’ gesture.
“Uh, what?” she asked.
He shushed her, gestured at the ‘phone’ he was holding. “Yeah, an order. No, no, just a simple wall bracket. Something subtle, but obvious in retrospect. Uh-huh.”
Alice glanced at Alan, who shrugged, baffled.
“Is he always like this?”
Nik, across the room, gave a helpless shrug.
“Anyway, ciao. Do svidaniya, seeya, whatever works for you.”
Since no explanation seemed to be forthcoming, she turned back to Alan. “So, in the interim, I’m visiting you, I guess?”
“Well, I appreciate it,” he said warmly.
It was at this point that Liz, who had finished climbing up the side of her father’s chair, wrapped her arms around his head. “Dad!”
“Oh,” said Alan, “it’s gone dark. I didn’t think the nights came so much quicker this time of year.”
“Mum said we could take the new people to the Carnival!”
“That so, Turnip?”
“From a certain point of view,” replied A Librarian, “I’d say that’s accurate, Thylacine.”
“Right then,” he said, standing up – Liz remained dangling from his head and shoulders like some kind of weird hat – “the people have spoken. Wanna come to the Carnival, Alice?”