There were three doors in the first room, one on each wall, not including the now-sealed door they entered through. One of them was jammed shut by something leaning on it from the other side, and Alice declined Twelfth’s offer to simply shove it open – she didn’t want to upset whatever delicate balance this place had been left in.
The second door swung open, and she barely managed to catch it as it disengaged from its hinges and made a break for it down the stairs. The stairs themselves, once she’d propped the door so it wouldn’t fall anywhere and had a good look at them, led downwards a long way, and the very bottom of the stairs was bathed in red light.
“That, er, doesn’t look like somewhere I want to go.”
“That’s quitter talk,” said Nik’s brother. “I vote we go down the spooky death stairs.”
“Yeah, no,” she replied. “I’m not a fan of ‘spooky death stairs’, so let’s put that on the agenda for later.”
“Hush. Next door!”
[It Leads To A Corridor That Is Mostly Navigable, Albeit Crammed With Furniture. I Am At A Loss For What Happened Here To Make It So Untidy.]
“Yeah,” said Nik, “it really does look like it’s been ransacked.”
A Librarian nudged a stack of papers with his foot. “Given how paranoid the guy was supposed to be, if this place got got-into, it’s likely been completely abandoned.”
“Maybe that’s what he wants you to think!”
“What? No, that’s dumb.” Nik rolled his eyes at his brother. “That’s too convoluted – you’ve got to think of Occam’s Razor in this kind of case – it’s most likely to be the immediate explanation unless we find something really suspicious.”
The fortune teller gave the most unconvincing innocent smile ever issued from the face of a sentient being. “Oh? You mean, like this here?”
He smartly rapped a knuckle on the wall next to the blocked door, and a series of grinding clunks and clatters sounded through the walls. The previously-blocked door swung open with a smug creeaak.
“I hate you sometimes.”
He shrugged. “I do my best.”
The door had apparently been blocked off by a series of cabinets and other tangled furniture, attached by ropes and moved out of the way with a system of pulleys. The room behind the blocked door was, in startling contrast to the rest of the hideout Alice had seen, meticulously organised and clean. A series of pinboards covered most of one wall, covered in neatly-arranged cards connected by pins-and-strings like something out of a police procedural or conspiracy thriller. A lot of it was in languages she couldn’t read, but the E-with-a-tail symbol she was starting to associate with the Red Right Hand turned up fairly often. The desk was clean, stationery, pencils, pens, brushes and inkwells all neatly tidied away into various holders and racks. Beneath the desk, a series of trays held innumerable handbound journals in a similar style to the one Alan had copied for her. Beside the writing desk were racks of clean and ordered tools, only a tenth or so of which looked like they had actual sane functions, at least as far as she could tell.
Nik regarded the conspiracy board. “Yeesh. He really was paranoid enough to make it look like his safehouse had already been raided.”
“It was still pretty unlikely, and you probably knew beforehand.”
“Details, details. A magician never reveals his totally cool tricks, even if he really wants to.”
Alice ignored his puppy-dog eyes and turned to Nik. “What does the board say? I can barely read the bits that are in English or Inkomon or whatever it is.”
“Er.” He pulled a face. “I’m not sure?”
“It’s really rather incoherent.” A Librarian added. “Although I think the main subject is this ‘cult of the Red Right Hand’, it’s both nonlinear and seems to be drawing all forms of strange inferences between random sightings of symbols and people with no obvious connections besides coincidence.”
Without warning, an unfamiliar voice spoke, just behind Alice. “When it comes to the Red Right Hand,” it hissed, “there is no such thing as a coincidence.”
She wouldn’t have been embarrassed to say that she nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of the raspy voice. She definitely squeaked, which was probably far more embarrassing, and managed to make a little hop, followed by a quick sidle across the room away from the grey-cloaked figure.
“Oh hey,” said Nik’s brother, “didn’t see you there, mate. How’s tricks?”
The hood of the figure’s layered cloak betrayed no emotion. “What are you doing here?” His (was it actually this Nameless Walker guy?) voice was flat and matter-of-fact, not quite hostile but certainly on the way there.
“Er,” Alice croaked. “Well, I think we were looking for you. And possibly more information on the Red Right H-”
As soon as she started saying the name, the figure was moving, faster than she thought possible, almost as if he didn’t cross any of the intermediary space. A warm and slightly fuzzy hand appeared from nowhere, clapped over her mouth.
“Not more than twice,” he hissed, hood falling back from the wind of his passage, and Alice saw his face for the first time.
His face was broadly human-like, but stretched somehow, chin a bit too long and pointed, cheeks a bit too narrow. His nose was elongated and beaklike and his brilliant crimson eyes were sunken, like he hadn’t slept in weeks, dark bags visible beneath his eyes despite the thin downy fur that covered his face. What initially looked like spiky hair and a scruffy goatee were actually made of feathers.
She decided she’d had enough of him shushing her, so she bit his fingers, and he yelped.
“Agh! What in Ash and Ink was that for?”
“Sticking your hand in my mouth!”
He spluttered for a few seconds before resuming speech. “I, well. Um. Well. The thing is, if you said that phrase again-”
“Oh,” Nik’s brother said, “you mean Red-”
“I said don’t say it! Criminy! Are you thick? It-it’s a thing, see. A shibboleth. A taboo. A nominative call! If you say it three times too close together, it’ll come for you!”
Alice raised a tentative hand. “Is it a bad idea to say I’ve met Red?”
He rolled his eyes. “Well, obviously you have. You most likely were sent this way by Alan once you found the only other human in the known Realms, and this is the place I mention in my notes on the Red Right… you know. Thus, you must have had a brush with one of the most prominent, or only, known members nowadays and Alan sent you here to find me, or more information.”
“Oh. That’s right.” She was a bit taken aback at this guy’s deduction. Was it really that easy to work out?
“The main reason,” whispered the fortune teller, just loud enough for the Nameless Walker to hear, “is that he can see the warning mark Red put on you.”
“Um,” said the Walker, “yes. That’s true too. And might have been the confirmation for that particular theory.”
Alice smirked. “So it wasn’t that Holmesian of a deduction?”
“Egads, Watson,” said Nik’s brother, “I’d suppose not!”
The guy looked dismayed. “Hey! It’s not easy to observe those marks Red uses, he’s very subtle about keeping eyes on his victims!”
“Well, yes. He probably approached you and offered you a deal you couldn’t refuse. I can help you if you want to escape him.”
Alice pulled a face. “Er, not as such…”
Nik’s brother snorted. “Like some kind of idiot, he Vowed to help her back home, for nothing in return.”
Instantly, the Walker’s eyes narrowed, his posture shifting from ‘tentatively open’ to ‘deeply guarded’. “You’re lying. That’s not how it – how the Right Hand – operates. Why are you lying to me? What do you have to hide?”
“I mean, he couldn’t actually help me, so it’s put him in a bit of a tricky situation,” she said hurriedly, “but yeah, that’s about what happened. I’m telling the truth!”
[As Far As I Can Determine, That Is What Happened,] said Twelfth in a gentle chiming tone of mollification.
He blinked at Twelfth, looking somewhat taken aback for a second before speaking. “I… Bookbinders can still lie, they were all upgraded after the third generation, and you’ve got to be at least generation twelve, given your style of build.”
[Sir, I Can Assure You That None Of Us Mean To Intentionally Deceive You Or Cause You Harm.]
“That’s what you’d want me to think!”
Alice facepalmed. “Oh my god, this is ridiculous. Look, all I can tell you is that Red Vowed to take me back home, and then he couldn’t.”
“He can voidwalk. Not getting you back home is pretty far-fetched, too.”
“Oooh! I have an idea!” The fortune teller raised a hand like an overeager schoolboy. “Since you’re so paranoid, what point would there be to trying to deceive you with such an implausible story?”
“Well…” the Walker searched desperately for an excuse, before conceding, raising his hands in mock-surrender. “Maybe. Wait, no. It’s too convenient.”
The fortune teller sighed. “Look, mate, you could wipe the floor with all of us. There’s no need to be apprehensive.”
Alice blinked incredulously. “Wait – all of us?”
“There are, um, more of us than there are of him,” A Librarian chimed in.
[I Am Also Sceptical,] said the ten-foot tall war golem lady.
“Look,” said Nik’s brother, “I’m not joking. He could absolutely cream all of us, at once.”
[And I Respond That I Find That Somewhat Difficult To Believe. No Offence To… Ah. I Did Not Catch Your Name, My Apologies, Mister… ?]
“People call me the Nameless Walker. And I’m glad you’re sceptical, it means I can take you by surprise.”
The fortune teller had barely managed to squeak out an “I told you so!” before the Nameless Walker lunged, moving impossibly at the group. Reality lurched, like a trick of the eye, as if everything was an optical illusion, a kaleidoscope, and…
They were on the glass beach again, or maybe the glass beach had always been closer than she thought it had been. Alice stumbled, nearly toppling before Twelfth caught her. Around her, she could hear a chorus of groans and whimpers.
“Yeesh,” she managed to croak.
[Concurred.] Twelfth was on her feet, presumably because she didn’t have the organs required to become nauseous. [Is Everyone Okay?]
The fortune teller was lying on his back in a pile of sea-smoothed inkwells, hands over his face. “You just had to get at his pride! I had it in hand! We’d have been able to convince the guy if you hadn’t… blergh. Told ya so, he could pretty much beat anyone south of Red mano-a-mano, not that he’d need to. Look how quickly he booted us out!”
[You Certainly Seemed Knowledgeable. How Did He Manage That?]
“He’s a Walker, you dappy git! It’s in the name!”
Nik looked up from searching the beach for the stuff he’d dropped in the confusion. “Walkers are a myth, to scare tadpoles.”
“Well, he sure seemed fictional to me!”
“Much as I hate to admit it,” Alice said, suppressing a shudder as she formed the next phrase, “Nik’s brother is right. I’m going to go apolog- AAAGH!”
The Nameless Walker was standing barely a foot from her as she turned, implausibly close to have arrived stealthily. “Apology accepted.”
“Is this-” she wheezed – “your revenge? Killing me by heart attack?”
He cracked a smile at that, the first one she’d seen. “Maybe.”