“Oh? You’ve been looking for me? Wow, that’s not creepy at all.”
“Your sentiment is noted-” began Mister Slate.
“-as is your sarcasm,” finished Doctor Chalk.
Alice rolled her eyes. “Fine. Why’s nothing moving, what are you two, and what do you want?”
The taller woman in the pale coat turned to the shorter man in the dark one. “She has questions. Mister Slate, if you would?”
“Certainly, Doctor Chalk. Now, Miss Huang, your first question. Nothing is moving because myself and my associate here have taken you aside for a quiet and private chat.”
“So you stopped time?”
Within the darkness that hid Mister Slate’s eyes, something red flickered, like the embers of a dying star. “I hadn’t finished. Very rude, isn’t she, Doctor Chalk?” he said, a note of steely menace in his voice.
Doctor Chalk ignored her. “Quite, Mister Slate. Now, she’s young and impetuous, so I think you should give her another chance.”
“Three strikes, good Doctor?”
“Absolutely. Pray continue?”
Mister Slate brushed some imaginary dust off his sleeves and cleared his throat before continuing. “Now, before I was so rudely interrupted, I was answering your question. We have taken you aside, rather than fully stopping the flow of Time. Of course, there are limitations – you can’t move yourself, and once this is over,” he indicated the plummeting claw of the monster, “you will be returned exactly where you were before our conversation started-”
“-provided,” continued Doctor Chalk, “we don’t make some other arrangement in the meantime.”
Mister Slate grinned. “Now, now, that’s answering the third question before the second! Don’t get ahead of yourself, my good Doctor.”
While they had been talking, they’d been stepping ever closer, and now stood before her, just beyond arm’s length. Otherwise, they were still, only becoming animated when it was their turn to talk.
“Right,” said Alice, “you’ve got me over a barrel, and you want to extort some kind of non-consequential deal from me? Am I in the right ballpark, Tweedledum and Tweedledee?”
Mister Slate’s smile widened. “Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it extortion, and it’s technically the Formless there that has you over the metaphorical barrel, but you are remarkably perceptive!”
“Yay, go me. What do you want?”
“So impatient, isn’t she, Doctor Chalk?”
“I agree, Mister Slate. She hasn’t even heard the answer to her second question. Might-”
“-you do the honours? Of course, my good Doctor.”
Doctor Chalk looked towards her, and even though her eyes were hidden behind both a blindfold and a curtain of white hair, Alice could feel her gaze like a sunbeam on her face. She glowed with a searing light, ancient and terrible, and a wave of dry heat hit Alice in the face, like she was looking into a kiln.
“We are demons, Miss Huang.”
“You do-” she said, squinting and shielding her eyes from Doctor Chalk’s searing incandescence, “-realise that ‘we’re demons’ isn’t a good sales pitch, right?”
She couldn’t see Mister Slate’s eyebrows – his face was still in shadow, despite his associate’s luminance – but she got the impression that he was looking at her quizzically.
“Oh, Doctor Chalk, this is dreadfully amusing. She doesn’t know-”
“-what she has become? I don’t believe she does, Mister Slate. Should we-”
“-inform her? For free? We aren’t exactly a-”
“-charity, are we? Well, I’m sure we can make an exception…”
They both turned to Alice, and spoke again in creepy unison.
“Just this once.”
She briefly searched for a snappy comeback, but these two were honestly being far too disconcerting for that. “I… what? What have I ‘become’?”
Mister Slate’s grin stretched wider with a soft sound of tearing flesh. “To quote Hyrkon, ‘The Outsider Dæmon be that which invades a Realm other than that in which it were created’. You are a Materian in the Library, and thus you are a demon within it. As a category, ‘demon’ doesn’t mean as much as you seem to think it does.”
Doctor Chalk cleared her throat. “Thus ends the free imparting of information-”
“-any further exposition will incur charges, at our standard rate,” Mister Slate finished with a smile.
“Your standard rate? Wait, does answering that question count as exposition? Does answering that?”
“Oho, you are a clever one. Detailing our services is free of charge. How else would we be able to do business? Second, our standard rate is currently highly discounted. Each substantive fact costs three seconds, with more premium secrets and pieces of information costing more in the region of a minute each.”
“A minute of what, exactly?”
Doctor Chalk sniffed disdainfully. “Too inquisitive, almost too sharp, Mister Slate. It would be a minute of your life.”
She thought about it. A minute of one’s life wasn’t really all that long, even considering how comparatively short humans seemed to live, compared to all these Realm people.
“What’s the catch?”
“How delightfully cynical, Mister Slate. Why would there be a catch?”
In perfect unison, they stepped either side of her, and started to circle, slowly, footfall by footfall, each on opposite sides so she couldn’t keep both of them in her field of vision at once.
Mister Slate spoke first. “It’s bad business-”
“-getting a reputation for skullduggery-”
“-and we wouldn’t get any repeat customers-”
Alice was off-balance, glancing back and forth between two people who seemed to shift unsettlingly when she wasn’t looking directly at them, too many limbs in her peripheral vision, the suggestion of wings or claws or teeth.
“Well, fair enough. But I don’t want information, at the moment. I’d prefer not to be squished by whatever that is, but it looks like Twelfth has that in hand.”
“For the time being, it would seem-”
“-she does. But, Mister Slate, how long will that be?”
Mister Slate shrugged, and Alice twisted to see that he had exactly the same number of arms as he used to. “Who can say? This is a rather time-dependent situation, after all. The Scripteraphim, lead by Third Uriel, are descending through Foyer, and they will certainly stop the Formless, but will they-”
“-be there in time? An excellent question. Now-”
“-Twelfth Zephyr is well-trained in the fighting styles of the Foyan Order of Peacekeepers, and has only improved with age since she left the organisation.”
“She is too young, however,” continued Doctor Chalk, “to remember before the creature was sealed. She does not know its capabilities. I predict that, without assistance, she will last an entire sixteen seconds before being subdued.”
“That long, Doctor Chalk? Impressive. And how tragic for you, Miss Huang, given that by my reckoning, Third Uriel will reach you in twenty-one seconds, give or take a second or so.”
“Right, right,” said Alice impatiently, “so? What’s your ‘offer I can’t refuse’, then?”
“Straight to business, isn’t she?”
“Absolutely, Doctor Chalk. Now-”
He was cut off, not by Doctor Chalk this time, but by a loud cracking noise that seemed to come from behind them.
Both Doctor Chalk and Mister Slate stopped dead in their tracks and turned to look in the direction the sound had come from. Once she’d overcome the dizziness, Alice turned to look too, but couldn’t see anything different about the time-stopped tableau of her friends, the monster, and herself.
“What is it, Mister Slate?”
“I’m not rightly sure, Doctor Chalk.”
“Hmm. Interruption aside, Mister Slate, we were about to give Miss Huang here a quote.”
They spoke as one, the strange buzzing harmonic grating on her ears. “Three minutes of your life, and the beast will harm neither you nor your associates here.”
“What would that entail, exactly?”
“We are subtle beings-”
“-and our influence here is limited, however-”
“-a myriad of small changes can tip the balance-”
“-and ensure you manage to escape the Formless for long enough that Third Uriel can arrive,” finished Doctor Chalk.
“You know,” said Alice, “I think I was specifically warned not to deal with you. Slate and Chalk. Grey and White, right?”
Neither of them moved in response, but she felt the heat on her skin intensify, and saw Mister Slate’s shadow twitch.
“Who told you that?” they asked simultaneously.
“Er.” She got the strong feeling that the wrong answer here would be somewhat fatal. “I… Um, I don’t give out that information for free?”
They paused, looked at each other, and then Mister Slate grinned again. “Clever and quick? Oh my, we were lucky to find you. You win, we won’t-”
“-enquire as to where you got that information, but will instead offer you an escape for a reduced fee of two minutes. As an apology for our crassness.”
Her thought was interrupted by a resounding, splintering crash that echoed through the timeless space.
“Whoops,” said Aidra.