“I don’t think this clever ‘running away’ plan of ours is working.”
Alice was a little too worried to come up with some kind of snarky reply, which spoke volumes as to the magnitude of her concern. Instead, she remained sat awkwardly in her new position under Twelfth’s arm as the bookbinder led the rest of the group, pursued by the time-ghost of an entire civilisation.
The ruins typical of the Coiled Empire were closing in with the deceptive speed of starfish, seeming to move far faster when she hadn’t been looking. They’d slid over the horizon towards the group from three directions, silent translucent buildings, glowing points of light – the eyes of the Imperators – crowding the dark windows.
She could see the smoky figures filling the streets now. The city was silent, and yet she didn’t hear the sound of them murmuring and screaming. She very definitely couldn’t hear the sound of the city, the ruins, the potential devastation of a nonexistent past, licking its lips in anticipation. She didn’t hear them so loudly, she was nearly deafened, soundless voices pounding in her head until she felt like her brain was going to rupture.
She tried to make a noise, and although her voice failed her, Nik’s brother noticed, furrowed his brow in concentration. While the pressure of the silent voices didn’t fully vanish, it was like an anvil being lifted off her brain.
“Thanks,” she groaned.
“Mmm-hmm. That’s getting distinctly worse.”
“Like you said, running away isn’t working.”
[I Am Open To Suggestions.]
When the city had started getting closer much faster, they’d unanimously decided to make a break for the Atrament. It was around then that they had realised that another patch of Coiled Empire ruins were blocking their path, rising from the ink like a reverse Atlantis, making nary a ripple on the black glassy expanse. They had, after all, always been there, in potentia.
[Can Any Of Us Fly?]
“I’m sure I had a Writ of Levitation somewhere,” said A Librarian, frantically sorting through the papers in his satchel.
[Would That Even Be Fast Enough?]
[Ah. Risky, But – Oh No.] She stopped walking suddenly, and A Librarian nearly walked into her.
Nik caught up with them. “What now?”
[We Are Officially Surrounded.]
“Ash and Ink.”
“Now would be a good time,” said Nik’s brother, “for a timely hero of some sort to swoop in and rescue us, poor sods.”
Alice raised an eyebrow at him. “Do you mean Red?”
“I mean the dang hecking postman! Of course I mean Red! What other deus ex machina do you know? Actually, if you do know any more, it’d be good to hear from them.”
“Not the time. Um, who has my soup-can phone thing?”
A Librarian shook his head. “No signal. I think the sauce is getting blocked – calling someone to bail us out was my thought too.”
She barely twitched at the pun and glanced around. The ruins were now within five hundred metres of them, gathered in a loose circle around them, or maybe a hexagon. “So we’re screwed, then?”
[I Would Not Necessarily Rule Anything Else Out, But-]
“Hey, Alice?” asked Nik’s brother, cheerily.
“Which hand do you think Red marked you on?”
She blinked, taken aback. “I, um. I don’t know? I’d guess right, for obvious reasons, b-”
“Trick question!” He flourished, and at a point that was hard to determine, a thin knife appeared in his hand. Before she could verbalise an objection, he struck like a viper, sticking it through her right palm.
It didn’t hurt nearly as much as she would have expected – the knife must have been very sharp – but she still yelled, mostly out of shock. For a while, everything was a bit too confusing to pay attention to – there might have been shouting, and she remembered A Librarian making soothing noises while gingerly wrapping her hand, knife and all, with some kind of cloth. By the time she’d calmed down enough to be cognisant of her surroundings, Twelfth was holding the fortune teller aloft by a leg. Her hand hurt a bit more, but it was a dull throb and relatively easy to ignore now that the blood was mostly out of view.
Around them, the ruined buildings of the Coiled Empire were still closing in, bit by bit.
“I-” she fumbled, “what was that for?”
[I Was Asking The Same Thing. Possibly In A Ruder Manner, And With More Shaking.]
Despite dangling upside-down, his voice was still cheery. “Don’t worry, Alice, you’re left-handed.”
“I’m not, though.”
“Huh. Your left, or my left?”
“You stabbed me.”
He shrugged. “I’m afraid it’s your word against mine.”
“We all saw you.” Nik sounded an even mixture of furious and exasperated.
“Okay, fine. It’s a fair cop, etcetera.”
“Wait,” said Alice, her thoughts now mostly in order, “before you stabbed me – and I think we’re still going to have words about that, believe me – you asked me something about Red.”
“Oh yeah, that. Well-”
With the actually-audible crack of stone meeting stone, the hollow ruins of the Coiled Empire shut in a perimeter around them, a solid wall of dark green stone, peppered with triangular windows from which the glowing eyes of the Imperators peered.
At the base of the hexagonal wall around them, more bandaged-wrapped figures made of smoke started to appear, walking through the walls like ghosts, score upon score of them, a shuffling crowd of mummified spectres from a time that didn’t happen, moving closer and closer.
And then, from above them echoed a woman’s voice, at conversational volume, but bearing an iron undertone of command.
“Ah, there you are. Shield your eyes, if you have them.”
And then there was light, a wall of silver light that burst up from the ground around them, splintering and charring the wood. Through the light, the massed forms of the Coiled Imperators piled against the wall, even as it burned them up like tissue paper in a furnace. The ruins behind them were losing cohesion, flickering and crumbling like sandcastles on the beaches of Time.
Alice looked up, trying to spot where the voice was coming from, only managing to catch a glimpse of something big and dark dropping towards them, stark against the silver brightness, before Twelfth grabbed her by the shoulder, pulling her backwards and out of the way. It landed before them with a crash that shook the ground, and what looked like a monolith when it was falling from above turned out to be a completely mundane-looking door, complete with frame, and a plain brass knocker and doorknob.
Someone Alice didn’t recognise followed the door in arriving from above, dropping to one knee to absorb the impact. She stood, brushed imaginary dust from the sleeves of her long coat, and opened the door on the impossible scene of an old-ish looking house’s atrium.
“After you,” said the newcomer, gesturing through the door.