The air of the War Room thrummed with power that even Alice could sense, a potential energy that made the hairs on the back of her neck prickle and filled her nose with an acrid tang of smoke.
At the centre of the room – from the distant domed ceiling down through the floor – what looked like the trunk of an alien tree stretched. It was dark grey in colour, with lines of gently pulsing bioluminescent spots spiralling across its ridged and undulating surface, filling the War Room with a cold and dappled light. The room was arranged around it, curved gantries and see-through platforms slowly circling it in a flagrant disregard of gravity. The platform she and the others had entered onto was one of those, etched glass edged in some kind of bronze-coloured metal, covering about half the circular area of the room, with space for the pillar at the centre. Towards the edge of the room, the clean aesthetic of glass, metal and… whatever the tree trunk was made of gave way to an intensely complicated jumble of mechanics covering the walls. It looked like what’d happen if you took a particularly dangerous steam organ and a steampunker’s convention and put them in a blender. Allowing the resultant solution to precipitate turned up an intricate mess of polished wood, mazelike brass piping and gently turning cogs that clicked, clacked and hissed gently from the walls of the chamber.
A gesture from Gyran, and a set of chairs rose from the main platform as if rising from water, sending ripples through the glass.
“Please actually sit in these,” she said, before turning to the tree trunk pillar and placing a hand on its surface.
“Oh yeah,” Alice said, sitting down, “we were too busy nattering to sit down earlier.”
“This modern generation and their ‘walk-and-talks’,” scoffed Aidra. “Back in our day, Gyran, we sat down before speaking, didn’t we? None of this talking is a free action stuff.”
He slid down into the chair, lying over the back of it in a manner that made Alice’s spine twinge in sympathetic pain.
Red raised an eyebrow. “I very much doubt that you and Gyran share a ‘back in our day’.”
Gyran, herself, seemed to be distracted doing something with the glowy tree. “I think not being able to walk and talk at the same time is a you thing.”
“Why’d we need to come to the War Room for this, anyway?” asked Red.
“It is significantly more insulated from outside observation.” Gyran turned away from the pillar, to Alice. “Now. To get to the point, it is patently obvious that you have been marked by a number of the – hmm – malign powers, not including Red.”
“I resent that.”
“And yet you should not dispute it. The most pertinent appears to have been directly placed upon your brow, by the being alternately known as Carpalithos and Left Hand Of The Adversary.”
[I Beg Your Pardon?]
Red’s face twisted, a mask of fury. “What.”
“I believe,” Gyran continued, paying no heed to the others’ exclamations of surprise and dismay, “that this is why ‘dark creatures’ have been quite so interested in you – I heard from Red about the vampire at the Carnival, and this incident with the Coiled Empire appears to follow this trend. The mark of the Sinistral acts as a lure, and while this may have been a simple attempt on your life, I think it somewhat more likely that this was an attempt on Red’s, given his ill-advised Vow.”
“Right,” Alice said. “So, can you… get rid of it?”
Gyran blinked. “Of course. Hold still.”
She was expecting something flashy and magical, so it came as a shock when Gyran simply walked over, licked her thumb and pressed it to Alice’s forehead. There was a sizzling noise, a brief flash of light and the distinct smell of something burning, then she took her hand away from Alice’s forehead, the thin fur of her thumb smoldering.
“Is it off?” Gingerly, she touched her forehead, finding nothing but a slightly warm patch where Gyran’s quite cold thumb had been.
“Yes. That should solve the majority of your problems with dark creatures. Now, might I ask how you encountered Carpalithos?”
“Yeah,” said A Librarian, “given that we’ve been travelling together for a while, how did C- er, the Sinistral get at you?”
“I kinda hoped they were just dreams. Or at least, mostly-dreams-slash-nightmares.”
“With your permission,” said Gyran, “I would ask Hatred in Crimson to guard your dreams, should it prove necessary.”
She blinked, taken aback. “Er.” She looked over at the skull-masked creature of maroon fire and neatly-pressed suit, then back to Gyran.
“I can assure you,” she said, noticing Alice’s concern, “that they are trustworthy in this regard, and answerable to me if they are not. If that is unacceptable, I would be happy to find another solution.”
“Hell no,” said Red. “Leave those creepy mitts out of her brain, thanks.”
“Red. It is her decision, and you cannot make it for her.”
“I- fine. Sorry. I still object to letting the creepy dream fae noble near anyone’s brain.”
“Do not be concerned. I do not need to be nearby to access someone’s mind.”
“That is – that is the exact opposite of a reassuring statement!”
She made up her mind. “Okay. I give you my permission.”
“Hey, wait, are you sure that’s-”
Gyran held up a hand. “She has made her decision, Red, and it would behove you to respect it.”
“Fine. It’s her own absolutely terrible mistake to make.”
“Oi,” Alice interjected, “you get to be smug about my terrible decision making after it all goes horribly wrong, not before.”
[Speaking Of Terrible Decisions, How About Binding Oneself In An Incandescent Vow Before Working Out How Feasible Completing The Same Would Be?]
Aidra cackled. “Yeah, what kind of prize idiot does that, Red?”
[The Same Kind That Would Start A Competition About Cookware Albedo?]
“Neither of you are funny,” said Red.
Aidra stuck his tongue out at him. “Well obviously, your judgement is impaired.”
“Is the matter decided? Does Ms Alice now owe one of us a favour?”
“Good question,” said Gyran. “I think, given how Red has somewhat erred against her, one could argue that we are repaying a favour on his behalf.”
Red looked for a second like he was going to object, but shrugged instead. “That’s fair.”
“Good. Then, Ms Alice, I will move the formation point of your dreams to within the lee or void-shadow of my mind, where it should receive no external influences without first passing through metaphorical space controlled by me.”
“The contract is thus sealed until further notice or the rescission of your permission.”
“That is also ‘um okay’.”
Hatred in Crimson was quiet for a few seconds, dark red fire licking at their suit. “Do not be concerned. While I am very dangerous, Gyran is much more dangerous and has promised that she will prevent me from damaging you.”
“I’ve… heard worse reassurances? And I’m not sure what exactly you said you were going to do?”
Gyran fielded that particular question. “It is… rather involved, and since you probably do not have a formal magical training, rather hard to explain non-metaphorically. Which part do you not understand?”
“The formation point of my dreams?”
“Ah, that is a piece of Realmic physics. All dreams are Realms, thus have ‘positions’ in the Outer Void, where all Realms lie.”
“Wait, so like the Library?”
“Yes, although the scale is very different. All thinking beings can create Realms – but the ones you, a Lower Sentient, create unconsciously are very much smaller and shorter-lived than the ones created by Dominions such as Knowledge Herself.”
“Right. So Hatred in Crimson would find my Dream-Realms and protect them? Would they, like, be looking through all my dreams?”
“My prevention of interference is non-invasive.”
“While you may see signs of their proximity to your dreamspaces, they won’t be actually entering your dreams unless they detect external influences.”
Alice thought of something. “Say, Gyran, do you teach this magic stuff?”
“While I am a capable teacher, I do not offer apprenticeships at this time.”
“There are many people who teach magic. For introductory topics, you hardly need someone such as myself to teach you competently.”
“I guess I could ask Red to teach me.”
Gyran frowned. “You know, maybe teaching you basic magecraft isn’t such a bad idea.”
“You’re not funny either!” shouted Red from where he’d wandered, on the other side of the War Room.