The Path started as, with a crash and boom, the Shepherd appeared before them through a thunderbolt. The air, already thick with the scent of ozone, smelled even stronger as the smoke cleared.
“I, ah,” they said haltingly, gingerly checking their ears, “wish you wouldn’t do that so close. I think it’s bad for my hearing.”
“You whine about it,” she retorted, “but if you wanted me to stop appearing so close, you’re capable of preventing me.”
“But that’d be rude!” The Path’s face was half-hidden by the mask over their mouth, but they still looked dismayed.
“I wasn’t aware that your particular freakishness involved being an invertebrate.”
“I’m saying you don’t have a backbone.” She rolled her eye. “Anyway, the Steward’s got you out here in the forward base for… what, exactly?”
“He said for protection.”
“That seems like overkill.” She looked around at the couple of tents arranged artfully between the bookshelves. “Isn’t the Foyan Polity one of the least whildernessy bits of the Library?”
“I. Er. The Steward asked very nicely? And he said the Serpent might be watching us.”
The Shepherd pinched the bridge of her nose. “You doormat. If it’s anyone’s job to make sure we don’t get observed, it’d be the Drowned’s.”
“I did point that out!” they replied brightly. “And he said that was being taken care of.”
“And if it’s been taken care of, why are you needed out here, day and night?”
“Well, I think they’re called Highering, Gloaming and Withering here.”
“That was not the point I was getting at.”
She groaned loudly. “Oh, come on. I’ve been buzzing around bits of the Library, on and off, for weeks now. Haven’t run into anything more dangerous than a Stain.”
“Isn’t that still fairly dangerous?”
“You can fly, Path.”
“Er. Well, I mean…”
“Now, enough natter about the Steward playing you like a cheap harmonica. Follow me, I need your help with something.”
“I should probably tell the Steward th-” the Path began, before noticing the Shepherd’s glare and changing tack. “Actually, an adventure sounds fun. Where’re we going?”
“I’m just agog at how easy it is to intimidate you. You could atomise me without lifting a finger.”
They shrugged, azure energy crackling through their hair. “It’d be rude to destroy you.”
“You’re a nutter.”
“We’re all nutters. Where did you say we were going?”
She sighed. “No backbone, no sense of adventure. We’re going to Foyer, because I think I might have caught the breath of our fugitive on the wind.”
“Why do you need me, then? Just go get them.”
“It’s the home of the Foyan Order, those nutter giant robot monks! That, plus the omniscient snake god and the hive of paper angels, and Foyer’s just not the kind of place you can simply walk into.”
“It’s a fairly peaceful city.”
She grinned sheepishly. “Well, if we find this person, we’ll probably have to slightly disturb the peace to get hold of them.”
The Path made a sceptical noise.
“A just-in-case measure?”
They raised an eyebrow.
“Okay, fine, it’s at least partially to annoy the Steward and hamper whatever weird construction he’s making here.”
“Hmm.” The Path narrowed their flickering turquoise eyes. “Sure, I’ll come.”
– – –
“You know,” said the Path, after the thunderclap of the Shepherd’s arrival died down, “I don’t think this is very stealthy.”
She looked around at the squeaking flocks of Vellum Kites, disturbed by the thunder that still echoed across the shelf-cliffs of the plains near Foyer. “What makes you think that?”
Dislodged by the lightning strike, a pile of disorganised tomes near the pair slowly collapsed with a thump.
“You know what, nevermind.”
“Why’d you stop here, anyway?”
“I can hear the Tree.”
She tilted her head quizzically. “You what, now?”
“It’s a quiet mind. Thoughtful.”
“It’s a tree.”
“Don’t let the Soldier hear you say that. She’d flip at you implying trees don’t normally think.”
“Did the tree have anything interesting to say? Heck,” she said, gazing into the dusty haze of the Third Upper Whilderness, “I can’t even see Foyer from here.”
Before them was a spiderweb of blocky double-sided shelves, linked together by thick iron chains, stretching away into the hazy gloom.
“It’s not that far,” they replied, “and it’d be simpler if we arrived by foot. The Tree told me that one of the Young People had set up barriers against the quicker kinds of intraRealmic movement, such as you are wont to do. Voidwalking would work, but you’d have to be subtle.”
“Eugh. Would that be the splat kinda barrier, or the boing kinda barrier?”
“Well, still glad you pulled us up short. And why’s the tree interested in telling you about Foyer’s defences?”
The Path twitched slightly. “It’s lonely. Doesn’t talk to too many people, these days, besides its oldest friend. But it says she’s busy? And can’t visit as often as it’d like.”
“A lonely tree? The Soldier would have a field day with that one.”
“Oh yes! I’m sure both she and the tree would love a chat.”
“Mmm. Yes. Charming. Two old gits, chattering about shrubbery or something.”
“You’re just upset because you don’t like walking.”
“Stop reading my mind.”
“But you think so loudly!”
In response, the Shepherd started walking, taking long, floating strides across the wide gaps between the chained bookshelves.
The Path sighed, eyes flaring with aquamarine electric fire. The glow spread across their skin and their clothes, and they lifted into the air, shooting like an electrified comet between the stacks after the Shepherd, towards Foyer.