“MATERIA LIES ON THE FAR SHORE OF THE VOID. IT IS FAR EASIER TO LEAVE IT THAN TO ENTER. AS A MATERIAN, TO REACH HOME, YOU MUST CROSS THE VOID TO TOUCH YOUR WORLD.”
“I mean, I tried that, and it didn’t work.”
Aidra tapped her on the shoulder. “Hey, Alice?”
“You’re from a Materian world, and you’re a Materian girl.”
She paused, glaring at him for a long moment, before turning back to the Name. “Anyway, a guy called Red took me across the Void, and we had trouble re-entering my world. Something like a shield, keeping me out?”
“INDEED. THAT WAS A DEFENCE ARRANGED BY A GROUP FROM YOUR WORLD, AND YOUR FAILED BREACH OF IT ALERTED ITS MORTAL AGENTS.”
“I… mortal agents?”
“YES. TWO OF THEM, IN FACT, MOVE TOWARD MY CITY AS WE SPEAK. THEY ARE SEEKING YOU, AND WHILE THEY DO NOT PARTICULARLY WISH TO HARM YOU, THEY ARE FULLY WILLING TO USE FORCE TO APPREHEND YOU.”
“Wait, people from my Earth?”
“A WITCH OF THE BLUE AND… SOMETHING HARDER TO CLASSIFY. A CREATURE OF GREAT POWER.”
“But my Earth doesn’t have witches. Or whatever the second one is.”
“ALL I CAN TELL YOU IS THAT THEY COME FROM YOUR HOME PARTITION OF MATERIA, AND THAT THEY ARE HUNTING YOU.”
“A secret society or something? That’s so weird. Why’re they looking for me in particular? Is it just because I couldn’t get back in?”
“IT CERTAINLY DREW THEIR ATTENTION, ALTHOUGH I BELIEVE THEY WOULD HAVE TRIED TO FIND YOU OTHERWISE. NOTICE THAT THERE ARE FAR FEWER HUMANS IN THE WIDER REALMS THAN THERE REALLY SHOULD BE. THEY VEIL THEMSELVES VERY CAREFULLY, BUT THEIR PRESENCE IS STILL NOTICED.”
Alice made some inarticulate noises, realised she wasn’t making sense, and paused to gather her thoughts. “This… this is a lot to take in.”
“INDEED. UNFORTUNATELY, THERE IS MORE. THE WHITE AND THE GREY, YOU HAVE HEARD OF. THEY HAVE ALREADY MOVED AGAINST YOU IN WAYS THAT ARE DIFFICULT TO QUANTIFY, BUT THEY WILL MAKE THEMSELVES KNOWN SOON. AND, DEEP DOWN, WITHIN THE ROOTS OF MY CITY, A NAMELESS ANCIENT THING OF SUBLIME MALICE STIRS FOR THE FIRST TIME IN CENTURIES.”
Jöurnalmungandr leaned closer, Her head filling Alice’s field of vision with parchment-coloured scales that swam with strange symbols, Her lambent eyes mesmerising. Alice tried to say something, but the words caught in her throat, transfixed by Her gaze.
“YOU HAVE BROUGHT MANY EVILS TO MY CITY, YOUNG ALICE. THINGS MOVE AND CRAWL AND PLOT AND SCHEME, SOME SO ANCIENT AND TERRIBLE THAT EVEN I CANNOT GIVE THEM NAMES. BUT,” She leaned back and away, to Her normal speaking position, “THAT IS NO FAULT OF YOUR OWN, AND YOU WERE NOT VOLUNTARILY INVOLVED, COGNISANT OR CULPABLE. YOU ARE ENTITLED TO THE SAME PROTECTIONS THAT MY CITY WOULD OFFER ANY PEACE-ABIDING CITIZEN, AND I HAVE ALERTED THIRD URIEL, ARCHAIC OF THE SCRIPTERAPHIM THAT THINGS IN THE CITY MIGHT REQUIRE THE ATTENTION OF THE HIVE.”
“IT IS NO HARDSHIP TO ME TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF MY CITY’S CITIZENS. NOW, WHILE I HAVE TOLD YOU MANY IMPORTANT THINGS, I HAVE NOT MADE MANY INROADS INTO ANSWERING YOUR QUESTION, HAVE I?”
“RECALL THAT, IN YOUR FUTURE, THE SEER MADAME PYTHIA SAW THREE SYMBOLS.”
The Name of Knowledge Herself exhaled a burst of shining fire that hung strangely still in the air, forming three familiar symbols in front of them in red, white and black fire.
A red fork-like shape. A star bearing a symbol of an eye at its centre. And, finally, a mess of scribbly lines in deep black fire that seemed to pulse and ooze as it hung there, almost entrancing.
“THE FIRST WAS OF YOUR FRIEND THE RED RIGHT HAND. THE SECOND, A STAR WITH AN EYE, IS THE SYMBOL OF STAR, THE HUMAN ORGANISATION WHOSE AGENTS SEARCH FOR YOU.”
“Starluminati confirmed,” Aidra whispered conspiratorially.
“QUITE. THE THIRD ICON, HOWEVER, IS OF SOMETHING DIFFERENT. IT IS A THING WHOSE NAME I SHALL NOT SPEAK. NOT EVEN HERE, IN MY PLACE OF POWER, FOR TO SPEAK ITS NAME IS TO INVITE IT FURTHER TOWARDS THE REAL. IT IS POWERFUL, BUT FADING, AND WILL DISAPPEAR IN TIME IF IT IS LEFT ALONE. AND YET,” She gave a long, hissing sigh, “BOTH THE YOUNG ONES AND THE OLDER ONES SEE FIT TO MEDDLE IN SUCH MATTERS. SUCH IS THE NATURE OF CURIOSITY. WITH LUCK, YOUNG ALICE, MOST OF THIS WILL NOT BE MORE THAN A MILD RELEVANCE AND A BAD DREAM OR TWO.”
With a whoosh, the symbols of floating fire dissipated, smokeless and cold.
“Ah. I’ve seen a bunch of things in my bad dreams.”
“YES. IRKSOME, THAT THE DREAMS OF YOURS ARE WITHIN THE REACH OF THINGS LIKE CARPALITHOS, OTHERWISE KNOWN THE SINISTRAL, AND THE APOSTATE SPEAKER.”
Nik and A Librarian both winced at the mention of Carpalithos’s name, looking furtively around as if they expected it to appear in a cloud of brimstone.
She chuckled musically. “DO NOT BE CONCERNED. MYSELF AND CARPALITHOS ARE THE SAME MANNER OF BEING, APPENDAGES OF DOMINIONS. IT CANNOT HARM YOU HERE, IN THE HEART OF MY CREATOR’S DOMAIN, FOR IT WOULD HAVE TO FACE ME FIRST.”
“IT SHOULD BE,” said the gigantic and terrifying god-snake, “I AM RATHER POWERFUL, ESPECIALLY WITHIN MY DEMESNE. ADDITIONALLY, CARPALITHOS IS A COWARD WHO WON’T EVEN PHYSICALLY MANIFEST IN RESPONSE TO A DIRECT INSULT SUCH AS THE ONE I JUST MADE.” She looked around for a second, placidly, before continuing. “SEE?”
“I think so. But, what about the, er, other one?”
“THEY ARE A FAR LESS MEDDLESOME CREATURE. MORE PERSONABLE. NOT THAT THAT IS A PARTICULARLY HIGH STANDARD TO EXCEED.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.” Alice paused a second, pensive, before a thought occurred to her. “Wait, what about Red? How does he fit into all this weird stuff? Back in Foyer, we mentioned you and he pretty much instantly disappeared. Do you know what that was about?”
“Oooh! Ooh!” Aidra hopped up and down on one foot, holding an arm in the air like he wanted to get a teacher’s attention, “Pick me! I know!”
“SHE ASKED ME, AIDRA. AND,” She said, looking down on him with an expression somewhere near to concern, “I THINK YOU SHOULD TAKE A SHORT WALK AWAY FROM MY DIRECT PRESENCE. THE STRESS I PLACE ON YOUR ETHEREAL SENSES IS VERY GREAT, AND WE HAVE BEEN TALKING QUITE A WHILE ALREADY.”
“Pfft, nah,” he replied, before demonstratively hacking up quite a lot of blood.
“VERY CONVINCING, I AM SURE.”
Nik and Twelfth dragged him away, despite plaintive cries of “but I wanna hear her smack-talk Reeeeeed…”
“HE IS SOMETHING OF A HANDFUL, IS HE NOT?”
“WE SHARE CERTAIN RATHER UNIQUE PERSPECTIVES ON THE NATURE OF THE REAL. POSSIBLY A LITTLE TOO MUCH PERSPECTIVE FOR A SINGLE MORTAL MIND TO HANDLE. BUT YOU ASKED ME ABOUT RED, NOT HIM.”
“You say his name a bit like he does, actually. With this kinda… weird emphasis.”
“I PROBABLY DO. NOW, THE RED RIGHT HAND IS A BEING THAT PRIMARILY OPERATES BEHIND THE SCENES, DEALING IN FAVOURS, INFORMATION AND SECRETS. BENEATH MY GAZE, NO SECRETS ARE SAFE AND NO LIES SURVIVE. WHILE I AM BROADLY IMPARTIAL IN THESE MATTERS, I CAN UNDERSTAND WHY SOMEONE WOULD WISH TO RETAIN THEIR PRIVACY.”
Alice pulled a face. “Is he trustworthy, then? Sounds like he has something to hide.”
“HE HAS A GREAT MANY THINGS TO HIDE. SOME OF THEM ARE EVEN FOR GOOD REASONS. I RESERVE JUDGEMENT ON MOST OF THEM.”
She nodded Her great head, and with a rustling, two figures sprung up from beneath the sand, sandcastle-esque facsimiles of Alice and Red, respectively.
Alice looked into the dead sandy eyes of her double. “There seem to be a lot of creepy clones of me running around, these days.”
“SUCH IS LIFE, SOMETIMES, I AM AFRAID. NOW, YOUR FRIEND RED HAS VOWED TO ENSURE YOUR SAFE TRAVEL ‘HOME’.” The copy of Red raised its hand, and a handful of thin tendrils of sand stretched between their two copies, linking random parts to each other. “SO, IF YOU WERE TO DIE,” She continued, and the copy of Alice closed its eyes, stuck its tongue out and flopped its head to one side, before starting to sink slowly into the sand, “THIS WOULD BE RENDERED IMPOSSIBLE, AND RED WOULD UNRAVEL.”
The creepy little puppetshow ended with Red’s clone frantically trying to keep itself aloft, the threads leading to Alice’s clone going taut and starting to tear bits out of its body like an unravelling jumper, leaving nothing behind but hollow limbs as, still struggling, silently screaming, Red was dragged beneath the dunes.
Alice paused for a long while before speaking. “Well, that was horrifying.”
“ONE COULD REASONABLY SURMISE, HOWEVER, THAT RED’S INTERESTS WOULD BE BEST SERVED BY KEEPING YOU SAFE, YES?”
“I guess. He’s still a secretive arse, though.”
“I REFRAIN FROM COMMENT ABOUT HIS POSTERIOR.”
“HMM. ETHICALLY, I THINK HIS SECRETS ARE HIS TO TELL, AND I THINK HE WOULD AGREE TO TELL YOU SOME OF THEM, IN TIME. THEY ARE SOMEWHAT PERSONAL IN NATURE, AND IT WOULD BE CRASS OF ME TO DISRESPECT HIS PRIVACY LIKE THAT.”