“It was a pleasure to have you here, Alice, Nik, A Librarian, Twelfth. Red should have introduced us sooner.”
They were back in the atrium, the outer chamber of the vast sprawling of extradimensional spaces that made up Hollowed Hall.
Gyran continued to speak. “Now, before you return, I- yes, Aidra?”
“You didn’t say it was a pleasure that I visited.”
“No, I didn’t.”
He gasped, clutching his chest, eyes wide. “Gyran Margaret Triskelion!”
“That is not my middle name. Now, for each of you.” She pulled a number of things that looked like pieces of chalk from the pocket of her coat.
“What’re those?” asked Alice, taking one.
“Breakcons. When broken, they will signal the nearest rescue-capable authorities, or myself, Red or Hatred in Crimson if we’re nearby.”
“Excellent. Hopefully, they can work as a substitute for the Scarlet Sign. Now, the doors to Hollowed Hall can appear anywhere they wish, so where were you headed? I found you near Melville, I believe.”
“Er,” Alice began, looking around to her travelling companions. “Where to?”
“Foyer,” said Nik; “it’s been long enough that we should start asking the Causeway people about how finding your home Realm is going.”
“Red has spoken to me about the troubles he has been having getting you home,” said Gyran. “I will see about informing you, directly or via him, of anything I come across relevant to your personal situation. So, Foyer, was it?”
“Ah, yes, unless anyone disagrees?”
“I wanted to go to Disneyland.”
“Shut up, Aidra.”
– – –
When the door had shut behind the group and the atrium of Hollowed Hall was quiet once more, Gyran Triskelion walked over to one of the chairs by the fire and sat down, slowly.
“Gyran. I have a question.”
“Why did you not tell Ms Alice of the shadow?”
“You noticed that too? I thought it was somewhat too concealed for you to perceive, following her like that.”
“I did see it, that is obvious, given that I asked you about it.” Hatred in Crimson paused for a second, unmoving apart from the dark fire that flickered around their mask. “Why have you not answered my question?”
She sighed, leaning back in her chair and smiling slightly. “Touché. Well, I don’t know how much it knows, or how aware it is of things like Alice’s thoughts and its own environment. Maybe it wouldn’t recognise me, or maybe speaking its name would call it up, from whatever pit it ended up in. I cannot yet be sure, so I am playing it safe.”
“This is your seat of power. It could not defeat you here, especially in such a state.”
“True, certainly. But I would not so easily be able to guarantee Alice’s safety.”
“Red unravelling aside,” she said, turning her gaze to face directly into the sockets of The Hatred’s mask, “there’s no such thing as an acceptable loss. That’s my first principle.”
“During the time I have known you,” they replied, “you have told me fifty-eight ‘first principles’ without repeating yourself once.”
“I have? I must be getting forgetful in my old age.”
– – –
“Right,” said Red, once the door to Hollowed Hall shut behind them, “what was it you wanted to do?”
They were at the end of a narrow alley, leading out onto a level of Foyer that Alice didn’t recognise that was dominated by a jungle gym of market stalls, arranged with little regard for space, structural support or gravity.
She shrugged. “I suppose-” she began, before she felt something land in her outstretched hand. “Um. What?”
It was a paper crane. She looked up, but there was no obvious source, no maniac dropping paper cranes from a great height.
“It’s a paper crane,” Aidra observed unhelpfully. “Maybe it fell out of the nest.”
“Do these actually come from nests? I mean, I wouldn’t be that surprised, but still…”
“Oh, that’s not an alive paper crane. Also it’s got things writ on it, so read ‘em.”
“Right. Of course.” Gently, she unfolded the crane, revealing what had been written on its inner surface.
The Name Of Knowledge Herself Will See You Eleven Hours, Seven Minutes And Fifteen Seconds After You Finish Reading This Message. We Apologise For The Delay. Cake Will Be Provided.
“This seems implausibly precise.”
Nik peered over her shoulder at the note. “Not at all – it’s the Name of Knowledge Herself, sure She’d be able to determine something like this.”
At the mention of the Name, Red froze. “I. I should go.”
“What?” He was facing away from her, so Alice couldn’t see his expression.
“I have, hmm. Things to attend to. You can find your way from here.”
And at that, he stepped away, image distorting as he entered the Void.
“Damnit, Red.” She sighed. “It’s not just me, right? That was deeply suspicious?”
“I’m, er, afraid so.”
“Great,” she groaned, stuffing the crane in her pocket. “I guess I’ll have to get him to tell me whatever that’s about at some point. Or maybe this… Name-Snake can tell me. Still can’t believe She’s called that.”
[Technically Her Name Is ‘The Name Of Knowledge Herself’. One Could Say That She Is Knowledge’s Ser-Pentname.]
– – –
There was someone different at the causeway reception desk – a cycloptic woman who, according to A Librarian’s response to her whispered question, was an imp.
“Ah, welcome,” she said, looking up and shutting the book she had been reading, “I’m Nyth, and what can the Aeon’s Causeway do for you today?”
“Oh, um. I’m Alice Huang, and I think your colleague told me you’d get back to me within a week. I was just checking how that was going?”
Nyth pulled a thick book from a drawer in her desk and started to leaf through it. “Alice… Huang… Uh, I’m sorry, but I’m not seeing any records of active projects related to you or any known associates in the last two weeks, at least.” She put the book down and snapped her fingers, the pages starting to flutter back and forth on their own. “And, according to a basic search, I don’t see anything under your name. Do you have any other aliases, ma’am?”
A Librarian frowned. “We were here on the twelfth circadian interval of Diction, and spoke to a Masquerade with prominent russet stripes and no eye-holes in their mask.”
“Cinnabar? They’re the only person matching that description who’s ever worked this desk, but they left months ago.”
“Oh. That’s not good, I take it?”
“I, er, I’m not sure what I can say,” she said apologetically, scratching her head, claws rasping against the scales around her horns. “You’re not on the system, and the person you say you were talking to can’t possibly have been the real deal.”
Alice tried to think of something more insightful to say and failed. “What?”
“I’ve checked, and Cinnabar hasn’t been in town since they moved to their retirement home in the Topics.” She grimaced. “I’m very sorry. I think you must have been talking to an impostor.”
[That Is Worrying. The Causeway Is Supposed To Be A Secure Place Within Foyer, Itself A Safe City.]
“I’ve already reported it to the Aeonic Knights of Foyer over the secure Connective channel – they’ll be here shortly. And, um,” she held up some kind of ID card with a painted portrait on it, “I’m Nyth Cornice, and here’s my certification, so you can tell I’m who I say I am.”
“Wait,” said Alice, “what kind of weird impostor pretends to be an employee and… misleads me about getting something done? Is that some kind of prank? Were they doing that to everyone who turned up?”
“Ah, no,” said Nyth. “There are other projects and appointments listed through the day. As far as I can tell, they’re real. This might well have been specifically directed at you and others who haven’t yet noticed.”