Melville squatted on the black-sand shores of the Atrament like something washed up with the tides. The train’s track fell in a gentle arc towards it as the strange field of pillars they’d been travelling through over the ink ended.
Alice looked back at the sea and its covering of branchless trees. “What’re those pillars, anyway?”
“Writing pillars,” said A Librarian. “They draw ink from the Atrament, ferrying it upwards to the next Layer of the Library, where the fruiting bodies of the pillars produce new books.”
“You used to live on some weird matter lump. Don’t throw stones.”
As they drew into the Melville station, she realised with a start that the strange grey rocks that surrounded and formed the vast majority of the buildings were enormous bones. The station itself had a roof propped by a massive ribcage, easily big enough to house a bungalow-sized set of lungs. A lopsided three-eyed skull framed the train track in its fanged maw, and the platform they alighted on had smooth bone-carved paving stones, slotting into each other in a mesmerising pattern. At least, they looked like they might be bone. They were the same colour as the bones in the buildings, and the right texture to be bone, at least.
Outside the sepulchral station, the morbid town of Melville stood, bent and twisted, no lines truly vertical or horizontal. A steady and quiet foot traffic of A Librarians, Masquerade and other, stranger beings half-filled the crooked, warped streets. Above them, on terraces and bridges above the bottom-level street, more pedestrians gently ambled, rustling in a language that sounded like stage whispers.
She turned back to everyone else, who seemed to be taking this in stride. “Er, what?”
“They’re speaking Middle Decimal. It’s a local language.”
“Actually,” A Librarian continued, “why do you even speak Inkomon? You’re from Materia, after all.”
The look on his face progressed to ‘deeply perplexed’. “Inkomon. You know, the language we’re speaking right now?”
“I have no ide- look, back to my original point, why is this town made of bones?”
“These? They’re the skeletons of Ink Giants, I think,” said A Librarian, looking at the frankly impressive teeth that the nearest house sported.
[In My Time, There Was Dispute As To Whether These Bones Were Properly Donated, Or Taken. I Think It Ended Up With Them Asking The Giants Themselves, Who Did Not Care In The Least.]
“Ink Giants? These are huge!”
“Well, duh,” said the fortune teller, “the word ‘giant’ is in the name.”
[Ink Giants Are The Largest Of The Giants In The Library, And Grow Continually During Their Multi-Century Lives. Auld Magog Reached At Least Five Hundred Feet In Height, But She Had Some Measure Of Titan Blood.]
Alice couldn’t even process how tall that was. She briefly imagined fifty Twelfths (ten-odd feet each in height) standing on each others’ shoulders, but her brain gave up when presented with the scales involved.
“Do they live round here, then?” asked Nik.
[Nearby. They Travel Along The Bounds Of The Atrament, Hunting Silver Fish And Porcepoises.]
“Right. So. Strange creatures in the ink sea, noted. Where do we go from here?”
“Where to go from here?” The fortune teller looked around. “The pub’d be pretty good.”
– – –
Alice glared at her plate. At the suggestion of Nik’s brother, she’d ordered off her usual ‘Newcomer to the Library’ menu. The thing she had been given looked something like a cross between a lobster, the Antikythera Mechanism and some sort of neon-spotted gourd. It was served in a dark sauce that glittered on its surface in the rainbow colours of tar, plus some unidentifiable sides that looked like what you’d get if you battered random objects found in a shed.
“’Pon my honour,” said the fortune teller, noticing her distress, “you won’t dislike any of that. I ain’t joshing.”
As Alice wrestled with her dinner, at the other end of the pub table A Librarian and Nik were discussing the finer points of cross-Library hiking.
“So, the island is this one.” A Librarian poked the map spread on the table, in the middle of a small archipelago. “I can’t find any record of a name, and… hmm, I don’t think it’s been close to permanently inhabited since the Coiled Ages.”
Alice tried to ask “what’re the coiled ages?”, but was still attempting to detach the inside of her mouth from a particularly glutinescent culinary oddment, so what came out was more like “whfr thhr clrr ergh?”
She held up a finger, swallowed, and posed her question again, mostly unhindered by the surprisingly tasty gooey object.
“There’s historical dispute as to their universality,” Nik explained, “but the Coiled Ages were somewhere between three hundred and a thousand years ago – although, by the Coiled Empire’s own calendar, it lasted far longer.”
“Bunch of wars and temporal mischief,” his brother added, “and something about an attempt at a pan-Realmic empire. Pretty boring, although I liked the bit with the Wyrms at the time.”
“You aren’t nearly old enough to have been there, bro.”
[Machinations Of Primordial Wyrms. Indeed, An Unpleasant Business. Some Secrets Of The Arcane Were Discovered Then That Should Have Remained In Obscurity.]
A Librarian cleared his throat. “Back to local history, one of the Coiled Empire’s splinters attempted to dig in around here, once they were forced away from the Foyan Causeway and the relatively stable Realmic path parallel travel allows. We’ll probably see some ruins when we travel, preferably from a distance. They’re probably not still filled with unpleasant things, but with stuff like that, it pays to be careful.”
“I’m morbidly curious now.”
“Firstly, that’s why I’m not telling you anything more until we’re well past them, and secondly, you’re supposed to take the shell off that before you eat it.”
Alice missed some of the next bit of the conversation – Nik asked something about supplies for the camping trip, maybe – due to being distracted by extricating some crustaceal lump of soft-shelled thing from between her teeth, shelling it, and eating it again. It was rather nicer, the second time around, and she returned to cognisance of the conversation just in time to watch A Librarian being beaned in the head by an enormous brown-paper parcel that fell from the sky.
“Aggressive postage system, that one. Are you alright?”
The response was a groan. “Kallie thinks using the ballistic postal system to send me my camping supplies is funny.”