Twelfth brought the dinghy ashore with a crunch on a beach of dark sand that shifted continually in spiralling patterns. The only sound Alice could hear as she jumped from the boat to the shore was the susurration of the moving sand and the scraping as everyone else disembarked.
“How far ahead of it are we?”
Nik’s brother licked a finger, holding it up to the ‘wind’. “Couple hundred metres Subsolanus, I reckon. Not moving fast enough to reach us anytime soon, however.”
“In English? Or, wait, you called it Inkomon.”
He pointed. “That way.”
“Right.” She turned, and started to walk.
“Not to call question on your judgement, but that is the wrong direction. You know, the one I said the thing is in.”
She stopped walking. “What? I went the opposite way!”
He pointed again, and she dutifully turned to face the other way and started to walk, more hesitantly this time.
Only three steps later, he spoke again. “I don’t think this is working.”
Turning back, she saw that he was pointing the other way, again.
“Are you taking the piss?”
Nik, watching the proceedings, piped up. “I don’t think so? You end up heading in the wrong direction almost immediately. Do you not notice that you make a full turn rather than a half-turn?”
“Turn to face the opposite direction, then.”
Alice sighed loudly. “Fine.”
Carefully and deliberately, she turned round until she was facing back the way she came.
“You turned all the way round again.”
[That Is The Way The Ruins Are, Correct?]
“Yeah,” said the fortune teller, “at this point, I vote Twelfth just… picks her up.”
“Wait, wh-” she began, but was unable to escape as Twelfth scooped her up and gently placed her over a shoulder. “Ack! Put me down!”
[I Apologise, And We Will Endeavour To Work Out What Is Happening When We Get To Safety. Stop Wriggling.]
A Librarian, dinghy stowed, wandered over. “Oh hey, Alice.”
“Get her to put me down!”
“I would, but Twelfth is bigger and scarier than me.”
[That I Am.]
“Oh come on!” She glared down at him from her vantage point over the Bookbinder’s shoulder. “I can walk myself, even if I can’t tell which direction I should be going in, suddenly.”
He looked to Nik’s brother. “Is she under some kind of compulsion? She seems pretty lucid to me.”
“Why’re you asking me?”
“I – you’re telepathic?” he replied dumbfoundedly.
What must have been a look of dawning realisation crossed the fortune teller’s face. “Oh, that!”
“Haven’t checked, sorry.”
“Brother mine,” Nik said with more than a hint of menace, “would you mind taking a look?”
His brother squinted at Alice, then back over his shoulder. “Mmm. Long threads, travelling from her, back over the hills, coming out of key joints on her arms, legs and spine. Looks like… a mild-to-modest suggestion? The kind of thing where your legs move on their own, and you come up with some kind of justification in your own head to paper over the fact that you’re not fully in control.”
“Wait, are the ruins enticing me?”
He grinned up at her. “I’m not kinkshaming, but if you’re being enticed by the ruins, that’s kinda weird.”
[Can You Break These ‘Threads’?]
“Maybe.” he pursed his lips, reaching up above his head and grabbing onto something invisible.
Instantly, Alice’s entire body went numb, and she flopped in Twelfth’s grip, her head landing on the Bookbinder’s shoulder.
[She Has Gone Limp.]
“Let go of- of whatever that is!”
A soft twang, and her limbs flooded with sensation again, along with some of the worst pins and needles she’d ever experienced.
“What the hell,” she croaked.
He grimaced apologetically. “Turns out those are hooked pretty far in.”
“I could probably get them out properly, but it’d take ages. Or,” he said brightly, “I could give ‘em a yank and see if they come out.”
“Let’s not,” she replied icily, attempting to massage some feeling back into her arms.
[Well,] Twelfth said, her echoey voice sounding cheerily upbeat, [We Travel Faster Than These Ruins, So Let Us Get Going.]
– – –
Twelfth had been walking, the rest of the group jogging to keep up, when she suddenly came to a stop, jolting Alice slightly from her position across her shoulder.
[Oh. That Is Not Good. Not Good At All.]
“If it’s in front of you,” Alice said testily, “I can’t see it.”
“I can’t see it either,” Nik said. He and A Librarian glanced around, puzzled expressions plain on their faces.
Nik’s brother, however, looked far less confused. “Ah. That complicates things.”
[Is This The Same-]
“No? Different centre, I think. Maybe one of the Septentric ones.”
Alice sighed theatrically. “What’s worrying?”
[Another Ruin, Yonder.] She plucked Alice off her shoulder and spun her round, until she faced forwards, then plonked her back down on her shoulder.
Indeed, there were small green shapes on the horizon in front of them.
“We’re getting boxed in.” A Librarian said incredulously. “We’re being got in a pincer formation by the slowest ambush predator in this entire Realm.”
[As I Said, Worrying. How Fast Is It Moving.]
The fortune teller held up his hands. “About this many fast.”
[Right. This Way.] Twelfth strode off, moving faster this time, in a direction slightly off to the right of the distant green shapes on the horizon.
They’re getting taller, thought Alice. Glancing back awkwardly over her shoulder, she thought she saw that the landscape behind them was peppered with scattered tetrahedral green bricks and shadowy figures. But then Twelfth went over a bump, her field of view changed, and they weren’t there anymore.
It took five more minutes for Twelfth and Nik’s brother to spot the third set of ruins. A shorter conversation, and they set off again, on another slightly adjusted heading.
“Are they… cutting us off from the time fences?”
Nik grimaced. “Categorically, the ruins of the Coiled Empire should very much not be capable of that kind of long-term planning.”
“First-hand evidence does suggest a worrying picture, however,” said his brother.
[Maybe We Should Make A Break For The Atrament. They Cannot Pursue Us With Sunken Ships.]
– – –
In a time that was long since never passing, they trailed their quarry. It sung with the delectable songs of a thousand nights of agony. It filled the winds of Time with the taste of fear, heavy and unguent with false promise and the whispers of stillborn stars.
Yes, it whispered, come to me, fragments of what was broken. Time betrayed thee, and here will come thy salvation. You spoke Truth too far into these decaying laws of light and were punished.
The ruins crept ever closer, pulling on fine strings. The hypothetical carcasses of the History Engines flared with the white-lilac heat of years.
Yes. Come, children of the Coiled, works of the Coiled. Soon, thou shalt feast.