“So what was Twelfth telling you off for, Red?”
He sighed. “It was a feeble hope that you’d forget about that, wasn’t it?”
Alice smirked. “Maybe.”
“Eugh. Well, Twelfth was asking me some pointed questions about a, er, an organisation known as the Red Right Hand.”
[The Red Right Hand Are A Cult Known To The Tome:emoT Of Reciprocal Law As Dangerous Threats To The Order And Populace Of The Foyan Polity.] Twelfth was looming, arms folded, tension in her posture, despite the fact that she didn’t have enough space in the room to stand upright.
He grimaced. “Yes. That.”
[He Denies Being A Member Of The Cult.]
“I am categorically not a member of the organisation. Dunno if the organisation truly exists anymore.”
[I Doubt It No Longer Exists.]
“Okay then.” He shrugged. “You’d know, I guess.”
[And You Would Not?]
“Like I said – not a member of that particular organisation.”
Alice sighed. “Okay, okay. I get it. I’ll take your mistrust of Red under advisement, Twelfth.”
[I Think It Prudent.]
Red made an irritated noise. “Oh piss off, you sanctimonious-”
Alice cut him off. “Red! Stop that. You too, Twelfth.”
“Fffffine. She has a point, anyway, much as I hate to admit it. Don’t just implicitly trust me, or anyone else.”
[My Apologies, Red, For Being Accusative. I Have Not Had Positive Experiences With The Red Right Hand In The Past And Was Allowing Them To Colour My Interactions With You, And For That I Am Sorry.]
“Thanks, apology accepted. Now, I have to go see an undead abomination for some better company than this.”
He turned and started to move in that familiar impossible direction Void-wards.
“Tell them I said hi!” the fortune teller exclaimed as Red disappeared, before going back to adding little flags to his card fortress.
[I Feel I Must Apologise Again. While I Have My Concerns, He Is Your Friend, Alice, And I Could Have Handled That Better.]
“What did the cult or organisation or whatever actually do, anyway?”
[They Were Plotting To Break The Causeway System, And By Doing So Start A New Age Of Flame.]
Based on the startled and dismayed noises everyone else in the room made, that was probably a very bad thing – even without what Alice already knew about the original Age of Flame.
“How would that work?”
It was A Librarian who answered. “Destroying the Causeways would tear very large holes in the fabric of the Real,” he said, a note of horror in his voice, “and let the most horrifying things of the Void through, into the largest population centres of the Realms.”
[The Threat Was Sufficiently Dangerous That The First Left Their Residence And Walked Abroad In The Library For The First Time Since The Last Demiurge Wars.]
“How have I never heard of this?” asked A Librarian.
[It Was A While Ago.]
“Also,” said Nik’s brother, “you were on sabbatical at the time, and busy not paying attention to anything going on in Foyer.”
“Oh alright, that makes sense,” he said grumpily.
“If it’s that important,” said Alice, “we should really find Alan’s friend, the guy who wrote this weird journal.”
“I’ve known him longer than Alan has, and I’ve still seen no sign of him in years.” said the other A Librarian. She shrugged. “I’ll put out feelers, but it may take a while.”
“Ah, thanks. Uh, do you know A Librarian’s phone-can number, or whatever it is that’d allow you to call him if you find anything out?”
“Sure – I think I can call Nik’s brother or contact Twelfth fairly easily. Actually, our friend will probably find you quicker than we could call you.”
“Your friend’s fast?”
“You could say that. I think he uses some kind of path-contraction, Kefitzat Haderech, Tayy al-Arḍ or space-folding to move between places near-instantaneously.”
“It’s completely silent,” said Alan, “and very startling, since he tends towards appearing behind people.”
“Sounds like what Red does.”
“Red’s a Voidwalker,” Nik explained, “which is inter-Realmic. Kefitzat Haderech operates entirely within a single contiguous space in the Real.”
“Voidwalking’s super dangerous, but Red cheats.”
Nik’s brother was now building a tiny paper gallows out the front of his ceiling castle. Liz and Ed were watching, rapt with attention as he delicately folded an executioner out of strips of paper he was pulling endlessly out of his pockets.
“You realise,” said Alan, looking up at the sprawling construction of playing cards and folded paper, “that you’re going to have to clear that up once you’re done?”
“My dread fortress will stand for a thousand years!” was the reply.
“Liz, can you detach him from the ceiling?”
A brief silent conversation with Ed later, she answered. “Sure!”
“Traitors! The dungeons for y-” He was cut off with a yelp as he and his castle unstuck from the ceiling and plummeted to the floor. “Ow. How, how the mighty have fallen! Woe unto me!”
“Anyway,” said Alan, ignoring the continued melodramatic moaning, “if you’re looking for stuff to find in the meanwhile connected to this friend of ours, he used to live in a bunch of places, each hidden better than the last. Some of them, even his friends, like us, didn’t get told. The nearest one I know about is out in the Isles of Linguahans, fairly remote. He’s almost definitely not there at the moment, but if he’s still around, there might be signs of habitation. We’d know that, say, leaving a message there for him to pick up would probably work.”
“He’d be okay with that?” asked Alice.
“Hm. I think he trusts our discretion on the matter of where he lives, and he was always pretty confident in his ability to get out of danger.”
“Sheesh, the isles?” said A Librarian, “That’s quite a lot further into the whilderness than I’ve ever been.”
“The isles aren’t that far off the beaten track,” reassured the other A Librarian. “You could just take the train to Melville, then follow the ridge down to the sea, which will take a day or two. The islands should be visible then. Here, I’ll find you a map.”
Five minutes later, the collapsed castle was almost cleared up and Nik, both A Librarians, Alice, Twelfth and Alan were gathered around a map of ‘the Thrasiac-Coric Region Of The Polity Of Foyer’. It was spread out on a draughtsman’s board, itself balanced on a coffee table.
“So,” A Librarian said, dragging her finger along the map, which shifted and changed as it scrolled through elevation, “down here, the floor of this Level collapsed in days long past, falling into and being flooded by the Atrament. Later, the Isles of Linguahans were raised by the Ink Giants, here and here.”
She made another odd gesture and the map unfolded vertically, forming a paper model of a landscape of steep hills and a long ridge leading down into a dark sea, illustrated in coloured inks on a yellowed parchment background.
“This island’s where we’ll find our thing?” Alice asked, poking at the map.
“Yep. You’ll want to head down here,” Alan said, a dotted red line appearing as he spoke winding down the ridge, crossing the Atrament to a small island and ending in a large treasure-map ‘X Marks The Spot’.
“Right.” Alice looked around at her… ‘adventuring party’, for lack of a better word. “Do you guys think this is worth our time?”
Nik’s brother was the first to reply. “I mean, at this point I’m just kinda following you around to see the antics you get into. And maybe to antics myself? It’s about fifty-fifty. Nik’s along for the ride because it’s my turn to pick destinations.”
Nik sighed. “That it is, but at least you’re tied to things relevant to what I’m a scholar of.”
Alice turned to the third person. “A Librarian, why are you still tagging along? Not that I don’t appreciate it, but surely you’ve got other stuff to do?”
He looked startled for a moment – before holding up a finger and opening his mouth, shutting it again, frowning, consulting his strange animated slate and finally looking frantically at Nik before speaking.
“Er,” he said, “I’m technically doing fieldwork for my next paper, and your situation is sufficiently similar to my research interests to highlight aspects of Realmic Thaumophysics to look into. Additionally, Mr Dimetaliios is a scholar of similar interests, who I’m collaborating with on this.”
“Plus,” Nik’s brother said, “he’s on sabbatical, and is busy finding every excuse to not go back to his department, and you’re a worthy cause to help in this Procrastination Quest.”
“That’s not true, also shut up.”
“What an eloquent response.”
Ignoring their bickering, Alice turned to Twelfth. “And you?”
[I Am Fascinated By Humans, And Additionally The Presence Of This Red Person Is Quite Concerning. It Would Be Best For Me To Keep An Eye On This, As Red Does Not Appear To Be Known To The Concordance Of The Foyan Order Of Bookbinders. I Am Not Sure How He Has Managed It.]
“Oh, okay. Well, thanks Al-” she began, making as if to stand, but was rather dissuaded from her resolution to head off immediately by the sudden dimming of the daylight with the onset of Gloaming.
“Hm,” said A Librarian, glancing outside, “I think it’d be better for you guys to set off tomorrow, catch a morning train. We’d be happy for you to stay here overnight – I’ll set up the spare rooms – but one of you will have to sleep on a mattress on the floor.”
“Dibs!” exclaimed Nik’s brother.
– – –
The bed in the Petersons’ second spare room was remarkably comfortable, and Alice found it remarkably easy to settle down and drift off into sleep.
She opened her eyes to the sight of a face not quite identical to her own, inches away from her, black eyes filled with malice.
“Hi there,” said Carpalithos.