“You must understand,” Madame Pythia was saying, “determining the path the future is likely to take is an inexact science, and probabilistic in nature. Things can always have a greater or lesser effect than first assumed, and the weft and weave of the Realmic timespaces is very unintuitive, especially for Lower Sentients such as you and I.”
“Why didn’t you give me that spiel?” Alice whispered to Nik’s brother, who was sitting on a chair next to the bead curtain that left the tent. Nik, Alan and both A Librarians had left to go look at the rest of the Carnival.
“I will thump you.”
“If you two are quite finished,” Pythia continued, slightly louder, “I will see what destinies and fates await you, building upon the portents revealed by my colleague, here.”
She gently placed a glazed earthenware bowl that looked like it was made of snakes at the centre of the table. A brown bottle in a paper bag was produced, and a clear yellow-green liquid from it was used to fill the bowl, at the same time filling the air with the pungent odour of… whatever it was.
With a creaking noise, the coiled serpentine segments of the bowl started to move past each other, sliding in an interlinked series of ouroboroi with the soft noise of scales on scales. Pythia pulled five oddly-shaped vials from under her tablecloth shawl, each filled with a different glimmering fluid. With deliberate, almost theatrical care, she started to slowly pour the vials into the serpentine bowl.
The red one, which bubbled like tar in its faceted vial, filled the room with the faint scent of gunpowder as it blended with the concoction.
“Salamander blood,” said Pythia.
Next, an egg-shaped vial whose hot pink contents defied gravity, pooling at the top of the vial rather than the bottom. With practised ease, she poured the liquid upwards into a carefully-held spoon, before she introduced it to the mixture in the bowl, one inverted spoonful at a time.
“Ætheric basilisk venom,” was her comment on that vial’s contents.
A bottle, shaped in a coil, filled with what seemed to be featureless blackness was next, and as Pythia poured it, it seemed to evaporate, separating from a liquid into coils of dark mist that settled over the surface of the liquid in the bowl, sinking in as the potion in the bowl slowly changed colour from its previous dirty green to a deep violet.
“Purest Shadow, straight from the Dark,” Pythia added, stirring the substance into the rest of the stuff in the bowl with a long glass ladle.
The next up was a vial that glowed almost too bright to look at, and Alice averted her eyes as it was poured, the light suddenly vanishing, leaving spots on her vision.
“That,” said Pythia, “was liquid crystal. Unpleasant stuff, although they do make televisuals with it.”
The final vial was a simple glass cube with a stopper in it, and as Pythia poured the dark blue liquid within it into the bowl, there was a series of sharp cracks and flashes of light as whatever was within reacted with the stuff in the snakebowl.
“A measure of Deepest Ink finishes the ritual,” she said; “we are in the Library, after all. Now, Alice, gaze upon the surface, and you will see the Symbols that guide your fate.”
The surface of the liquid, which was now a deep and glittering purple, swirled gently under its own volition, before its surface seemed to fall away, and a dark haze fell across Alice’s vision.
There were faces in the darkness. Her own, that of her strange future self, some she didn’t recognise – those were gone as soon as she looked at them, vanishing like smoke in a breeze. A group of symbols suddenly switched on, brilliant against the darkness.
A star with an eye at its centre, blazing white.
A shape like a fork, burning red.
The third symbol… wasn’t there. Or it was there, and she couldn’t focus on it. It peered from the darkness, glowing black. She couldn’t see it, but somehow knew it was there. Taunting her.
All of a sudden, she was back in the tent. She was gripping the table with white knuckles, and was breathing heavily.
“So, had a nice trip?” Nik’s brother asked, grinning again.
She glared at him. “I saw some symbols.”
Madame Pythia slid a piece of parchment across the table, a pen sitting on it, balancing impossibly upright.
“Picture them, and the psychegraph will pick them up and transcribe them for you,” Pythia said.
Alice closed her eyes and concentrated on the vision, and she heard a scratching as the pen moved. When it stopped, she opened her eyes to see it had drawn the first two symbols perfectly, but the final one was just a mess of scribbled lines, almost dense enough to break the surface of the parchment. It looked like an inkblot, and the two fortune tellers looked at it with puzzlement.
“The first one, I’ve certainly seen,” Pythia was saying; “it’s some kind of Materia-bound group of miscreants, possibly from your own Earth if they’re related to your fate.”
“This symbol is Red’s, or at least it’s the one on his hat,” the other fortune teller announced, pointing at the second one.
“Now, this final one, it’s either been obscured-” Pythia began.
“Or,” Nik’s brother finished, “it has a nature that means you can’t observe it with your meat brain.”
“Oh, okay,” Alice said, understanding little (par for the course in this place, she thought).
“Yeah, this method of prediction is broadly speaking measuring the effect that a certain number of things have on your past, present and future. Red’s fairly obvious, he accidentally vowed off more than he could chew, and will keep popping up until the bargain is fulfilled. Star-eyeball is a little more obscure,” Nik’s brother said, sounding oddly lucid, for once, “and could really be many things – they could help you get home, or be an obstacle to avoid along the way.”
“I’m more worried about the Obscure. Everything should be symbolised here, even if it doesn’t have an official symbol, the thematic perturbations will vary towards a norm that’s perceptible in your range of experience.”
“Hm. Working theory’d be that it’s too alien – isn’t enough like anything Alice has seen to be a connection.”
“Or it’s deliberate, and this thing is deliberately hiding.” The fog in Pythia’s head was coiling in a manner that gave off a strong impression of worry, despite the fact that that made precious little sense.
“I saw my future self in a dream, once,” Alice said. “Could that be a clue?”
“I dunno if that plotline makes the blindest bit of sense. Doppelgänger could just be something drifting across the Dreaming in an attempt to find substance.” Nik’s brother looked pensive.
“Not certain, myself.”
“I propose,” the other fortune teller said suddenly, “that we solve this problem by montage! Cue the funky music!” He leapt up on the table and pointed triumphantly into the air.
“Uh,” was Alice’s only response.
“Oh, right. Montages don’t really work in the print medium. Drat. Well, to the next chapter! I’m sure we’ll have worked out the solution then.”