As the suspended walkway started to lurch precipitously, Twelfth was already moving. Alice had seen her properly move in the past, but the sheer speed with which she scooped up Aidra, Nik and A Librarian and leapt up to grab the scaffolding of the next walkway up was still dazzling. With no apparent effort, she pivoted her entire body around her shoulder, hooking her feet over a metal beam even higher in the maze of ropes, beams and rafters that filled the interior of Foyer.
“That’s our cue to go,” said Red. He placed a steadying hand on Alice’s shoulder and snapped his fingers with a crystalline chime.
The ground lurched, but it wasn’t the walkway shifting beneath her feet. Looking down, she saw a mass of those same red smoke tentacles rising from the ground, wrapping around her and Red’s feet. Before she could make any noise of objection, her footing shifted again like an elevator starting, and the whole mass of tentacles took off, carrying them both with it up and away from the collapsing walkways.
“Fffffudge,” she said, once the initial surprise wore off, “warn me, why don’t you?”
Red glanced down past their feet. “Fair point, but also,” he replied, pointing downward.
She looked down again, and then wished she hadn’t. Foyer was in disarray, buildings dangling with half their tethers broken, crashed into others, walkways folded up or collapsed. And, in the midst of it, something like an enormous… spider? It was hard to describe, but it clambered upwards towards them, twisting and extending an unclear number of limbs in a manner that seemed far too stretchy to be a solid creature. It was too far away to see clearly, but it was getting closer, flowing over falling buildings and collapsing scaffolds. Alice had no idea how she should know, but she was struck with the sudden certainty that it was heading towards her and the others, specifically.
[Ah Yes,] chimed Twelfth’s silent voice in her head, [That Creature Is Currently Under Intense Discussion. No Bookbinder In The Local Concordance Knows What It Is, What It Wants Or How To Stop It.] Alice looked around, quickly spotting Twelfth, still carrying Aidra, Nik and A Librarian, scaling the inner trunk of Foyer.
“That’s because they haven’t been reading the intervals!” shouted Aidra, barely audible over the sounds of destruction beneath them.
She glanced down again. The creature was larger and closer, somewhere between the size of a truck and a bungalow, and now it was nearer it was easier to make out detail. It seethed with limbs, growing new ones in clumps out of the side near them, lashing out and grabbing wires, ropes, buildings or what intact scaffold remained. These limbs then slid back, more limbs growing from its centre and grabbing at higher things, moving the thing upwards towards them, with such a speed that it seemed to bubble with mismatched limbs. It was mostly pale grey in colouration, with the occasional patch of black dots appearing and disappearing at random. It clambered upwards with giant crablike claws, disturbingly human-like hands, barbed tentacles and stranger limbs that seemed to be hideous mixtures of the others, flesh stretching like putty.
The entire time, besides the crashes of things falling, the creaks of stressed wood, and other sounds of parts of Foyer breaking, the creature was completely silent as it writhed in and around the heart of the city.
With a disconcerting ripple of limbs, it leapt, crossing another thirty feet straight up towards them, limbs scrabbling on the facing of some kind of market building, tearing chunks as it gained purchase and sending the whole block of suspended buildings rocking on their chains. Red made a strangled noise of alarm, they started rising faster, and Alice saw that what she thought were small scales or black dots positioned randomly in clumps across the thing’s limbs glistened, and occasionally blinked, a few at a time. They were eyes.
“Uh, Red, where’re we trying to escape to? Can’t we, like, duck into the Void or something?”
He sounded distracted when he replied, pathing their course through the maze that was Foyer’s lower-mid levels. “Getting up to somewhere solid. The Scripteraphim should be here any moment, and I want us to be out of the way of whatever throwing-down goes on.”
With that, they swerved around a platform that spanned almost the entire interior circumference of the Tree, alighting in its rough centre. Twelfth came up over the edge of the platform, and then jogged over with that strange long-limbed digitigrade gait of hers before depositing the other three back on their feet.
[Why Are We Stopping Here?]
Red pointed upwards, and in response came a rolling crack of thunder and flashes of brilliant light, far above and occluded by the city.
“The Scripteraphim ride forth. I think we should get under a rock and hide for a bit.”
[You Think They Will Arrive In Time?]
He grimaced. “They better. The thing will probably go around the platform – it takes paths of least resistance, as far as I can tell, and-”
With an explosion of splinters, a clawed and pallid arm broke through the platform barely a metre from his feet, followed by another and another, mismatched limbs bursting from the ground around them and stretching upwards, surrounding them like a particularly macabre fence. Red blinked, looked rather embarrassed at his misjudgement of the situation, and then said something eminently unprintable.
As the first of the massive limbs struck, swinging downward towards them, Alice dove to the side and braced herself as best she could, but the tooth-rattling shockwave of the thing’s blows never came. In fact, everything went oddly quiet.
Gingerly, she opened her eyes and looked around. Everything was still and somewhat solid-looking, like the entire world had crystallised in a single moment. The claw of the creature hung above her, midway through its strike. Red was still, his eyes closed and right hand raised, tendrils of smoke rising from him in their dozens. Twelfth looked like an insect caught in amber, midway through diving towards her. Nik was looking out for A Librarian as the latter rifled through his satchel of thaumalogical tools. Aidra was, true to fashion, doing double fingerguns and winking at her.
As she stood, she noticed with a start that she could still see herself crouched directly under the descending path of the beast’s claw. Was she real? Upon inspection, her hands looked exactly the same as before. An out-of-body experience? Sure, that was as plausible as anything else.
She looked around, taking in the frozen scene, and it was as she stepped away, passing through the ring of raised limbs like a ghost, that she realised she wasn’t alone in this crystalline and timeless space. A flash of light, followed by a splash of shadow, and two figures stood before her.
The man in the black coat spoke first. “Myself and my associate-”
“-greet you, miss Alice,” finished the second, a woman in a white coat.
They could not have been less alike. The man’s face seemed framed in shadow, and the woman glowed, brilliant light seeping from her very skin.
“This is Doctor Chalk-”
“-And this is Mister Slate.”
And then, they spoke together, in an unsettling harmony.
“We’ve been looking for you, Alice Huang.”