Regroup and Recoup

Alice watched quizzically as an exact duplicate of the loose-leaved book of notes by Alan’s apparently nameless friend oozed its way out of what, for all appearances, was a normal office photocopier. It was a perfect copy, down to the wear and tear on its cover of blue scaled leather.

“It’s funny what sorts of things you can find in the markets at Pandemonium,” said Alan, pulling the completed journal from the output tray, dusting it off and handing it to her. “I haven’t heard from the guy in a while, but I’ll see if I can find him.”

“Are you sure you don’t have a name for him?”

Alan raised an eyebrow. “Do you know what Nik’s brother’s name is?”

“I, uh, that’s different!

“I’m sure it is. In any case, he signed himself as ‘A Nameless Walker’.”

“Oh. I see what you mean by him having no name, now. That’s fairly definite.”

She opened the book, which was still warm from printing, and glanced at the first page.

‘I write these words in the hope that, someday, someone may know what happened to me.

As cliche as it sounds, by the time anyone but me reads this, I will be dead, or so far changed that I might as well be.’

It was, she thought, not an optimistic start. She shut the book hurriedly.

“I think I’ll read this later.”

“Fair enough, it’s pretty doom-and-gloom at times,” said Alan. “Once I’ve put this back in my study, do you want some tea or something?”

“What kind?”

He pulled a face. “Well, I make it by putting dried plant leaves in boiling water, so that’s at least one commonality it has with tea as I once knew it?”

“I’m very intrigued, now.”

“Good enough! Go grab a mug, and I’ll be with you in a sec.”

– – –

“He’s not convinced you to try that absurd concoction, has he?” asked A Librarian.

“I heard that!” Alan said from the kitchen. The occasional bubbling or fizzing noises, along with little wisps of multicoloured steam leaking through the door between kitchen and living room, were, apparently, an indication that ‘tea’ was being made.

He tries to poison all the guests,” A Librarian whispered theatrically, “I think it’s a compulsion.”

“I heard that, too.” Alan entered the living room, gingerly holding two mugs of brownish-greyish-purpleish steaming liquid.

A Librarian stuck out her tongue. “Ash and Ink, it smells like the Hospital.”

“Ignore her,” he said serenely, “she doesn’t appreciate art.”

“That does smell kinda awful, Alice,” said Nik. He and A Librarian (the other one) were sitting on the sofa opposite her in the living room. His brother was sitting upside-down on the ceiling, stacking his seemingly never-ending deck of cards into some kind of gravity-defying fortress. Ed and Liz were watching, and occasionally passing him things to add to the structure.

She examined her tea again. It had, alarmingly, changed colour since she last looked.

“So, what were you two doing at the Carnival?” she asked. “I didn’t get to ask before we left.”

They had decided unanimously that given recent near-face-eating events, retiring to Alan and A Librarian’s home was a far more sensible idea than hanging around the Carnival any longer than absolutely necessary.

“We were doing research,” said Nik, “into the Realmic phenomenon that is the Carnival as a whole.”

His brother rolled his eyes. “Friggin’ nerds.

“Shut up. It’s well-known that the Carnival Carnivora travels between Realms without the aid of Causeways.”

She frowned. “I… vaguely recall people talking about that?”

“It’s a fascinating process,” A Librarian chimed in. “The organism known as the Carnival spans Realms, hyphae stretching between each emergence point, buried both in the Void and in the substrate of each Realm it calls home. Every so often, a fruiting body surfaces where the creature touches a Realm, and that’s the Carnival we know and are mildly afraid of.”

“Hyphae? Isn’t that a fungal thing? I’m pretty sure the Carnival has too many teeth for a fungus.”

“It’s not a fungus,” said Nik, “it’s a building. Well, probably. It’s the only creature like it that’s been seen in the known Realms.”

“Now,” A Librarian said, pulling some kind of slate out of a messenger bag he had acquired at the Carnival. “I did do some research on the hows of it getting around. The main bit, with the tents and things, extrudes itself through the Realmic fabric, coiling thaumo-spatially through a stretched hyphaeic or sinewy micro-Causeway – possibly based on the Aeonic ones. I think the Carnival isn’t old enough to predate any of the Causeways, but the people I asked were kinda cagey about that. Otherwise, I’d posit that the Aeon Mages based their designs off those of the Carnival. Here.”

He tapped the slate and showed Alice an animated diagram of the Carnival travelling between Realms like an octopus moving down a stretchy pipe.

Nik frowned as he looked at the diagram. “I’d argue that it could have developed with pseudosimultaneity – the direct chain of cause and effect here is unclear.”

“You veered from making some sense to making no sense.” Alice had had enough with this techno-magi-babble. “What are you two getting at?”

“Well,” A Librarian said, “I was about to say that while you could possibly work for the Carnival, and thus arrange for transit to your partition of Materia, eventually, it’d take the Carnival growing a Causeway-esque tendril into your universe for you to get home. And that may take months to years, even if the Carnival approves.”

“Let’s put that down as Plan B, then,” Alice said. “I’m not a big fan of working for a giant space clam, or whatever the Carnival is.”

“In any case, I’m not wholly sure where to proceed from here,” Nik said.

“The Causeway people haven’t got back to me yet, so I guess I’m going to have to wait. Unless you can think of something to do in the meantime?”

The fortune teller added a little flag to the top of his upside-down card castle with a flourish. “I dunno,” he said, “what do you think, Red?”

Red materialised in the doorway with a startled noise, tried to move backwards, tripped over his own feet and collapsed to the ground.

He groaned. “How did you even… what? How? I was in the Void!”

“Trade secret.”

“I hate you.”

“Shouldn’t go sneaking around in the Outer Void, Reddy-boy.”

Alice stood and offered a hand to him as he peeled himself off the carpet. He attempted to glare at her, but took her helping hand.

“Where’s Twelfth?” she asked.

“She took the long way round, she’ll be-” he was interrupted by a crash from outside, followed by a quiet knock at the door.

A Librarian glanced out the window. “Liz, be a dear and let Twelfth in.”

“’Kay!”

Twelfth and Red explained that Heidi was now en route to Lord Kairon, a self-styled ‘shepherd of the dead’ who ran an organisation dedicated to rehabilitating ‘vampires, ghouls, ghûls, wights and other maladjusted members of the post-life community’.

It was around then when Alice decided her ‘tea’ had cooled down enough to brave, and she gave it a taste. To A Librarian’s horror and Alan’s delight, she rather liked it – it was fruity in a completely unidentifiable manner, which was followed by a series of strange fragmented sensations.

Alan assured her that any hallucinations were temporary.

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