“You remember my name! Excellent work, Alice!”
“Aidra, how did you get here?”
Mister Slate’s voice bristled with menace. “My associate and I were wondering that too.”
“We thought,” continued Doctor Chalk, “that we had arranged for a private conversation. Barging in is-”
“-incredibly rude, is it not?”
“Well,” Aidra replied, “Tweedledum and Tweedledee, I’m extra magical and notice time things going on before they happen.”
“She called us that, too-” said Doctor Chalk.
“-and I’m not sure what it’s in aid of.”
Alice grinned smugly. “Yeah Aidra, way to be original.”
“I could just leave, you know.”
“Cease your blathering. Tell us why you are here.” The buzz of Doctor Chalk and Mister Slate’s combined voices reached a sharp crescendo that made Alice wince.
“Alright, alright, calm your tits.” He stepped towards them, ducking under one of Twelfth’s outstretched arms. “So, you want to know why I’m here, eh?”
Doctor Chalk tilted her head slightly, and when she spoke Alice could hear something behind her voice, like some kind of gentle roaring or maybe the sound of the sea. “You are stalling. Why?”
He chuckled. “Always with the questions, you two! Honestly, just such a nosey pair of gits.” He drew himself up to his full height, significantly taller than the statue of Red he stood next to. “I’m here to do this,” he said triumphantly, and clapped a hand on Red’s shoulder. As he did so, there was a flash of turquoise light too bright to look at, and when Alice had finished blinking dark spots out of her vision, Red was in motion, standing next to his time-stopped form, looking around, bewildered.
“I- Aidra, what?” he began, and then, as he saw Doctor Chalk and Mister Slate, his face twisted with a sheer fury that Alice had never seen in him. “What are you two doing here?”
“Friends of yours?” Aidra asked innocently.
Mister Slate spoke, his lips curled in a sneer of disgust. “Ah, Red. How unpleasant of you to-”
“-join us, you associate of that murderer. We were making a sale, now-”
“-please leave us in peace.”
He ignored them. “Alice, you okay? Signed anything without reading it?”
“Uh, yes and no, respectively?”
“You will not interfere,” said Doctor White, the roar behind her words growing louder, sounding more and more like a distant jet engine as the light she emitted flared. She stepped towards Red and Aidra, leaving glowing and smoking footprints behind her. Mister Slate’s shadow seemed to leak from his feet like ink, spreading across the ground and forming shapes of hands and claws, as he stood nearly motionless.
“You got the sparkly one, right?” said Aidra, pulling a handful of small throwing knives from one of his pockets. Their blades glimmered oddly in iridescent colours.
Alice felt something cold touch her leg, and looked down to see the tentacled shadow of Doctor Slate crawling up her ankle. She tried to jerk her limb away, but the shadow stretched disconcertingly and a jolt of cold sent shivers through her body like she’d jumped in icy water.
Aidra threw a handful of his little knives in the air, and they landed around Mister Slate, stabbing into the ground in his shadow, which recoiled, releasing Alice’s leg. There was a tearing noise, and Mister Slate doubled over, groaning in pain.
Doctor Chalk was glowing brighter and brighter, trading blasts of searing light with Red’s smoky darkness, so luminescent that even the small glances Alice took at them left purple spots in her vision.
“Doctor Chalk,” hissed Mister Slate, “less light! The bastard’s pinned me with starstone!”
The light dimmed, and Red took the opportunity to surge forwards and catch the next blast of light with his crystal hand, flinging it sideways at Mister Slate. He tried to dodge, but his feet were pinned to the floor somehow via his shadow. The bolt of light slammed into the side of his head, filling the air with the scent of burning hair and cooking flesh, but he remained standing.
“Irksome creaturess,” he growled, words mangled by the smoking ruin of his face as flesh grew back over his charred skull like moss in fast-forward. All the while, his shadow twisted and strained against the little silver knives sticking it down like the floor was a pinboard.
Accompanied by another burst of terrible, searing light, Doctor Chalk roared, opening her mouth wide. Her teeth were long and sharp, and past them spewed blazing light, her skin it seemed only serving to contain a roiling and incandescent furnace. Something smelled like burning hair, possibly Alice’s own eyebrows.
“Welp,” said Aidra over the shrieking din, “that’s our cue to leave, folks.”
He’d made his way over to Alice in the confusion, and as he said they should be making themselves scarce, he tapped her on the shoulder. With a sound like a champagne cork being shoved back into its bottle and a blur of multicoloured light, she was back where she had been earlier, crouched beneath the descending claw of the grey beast. To begin with, everything was still, and she couldn’t move. But, accompanied by a whirring noise that pulsed like the beat of some enormous clockwork heart, the world loosened. At that point, things started happening rather quickly indeed.
Twelfth, in a diving roll, scooped Alice out of the way, sending her skidding across the floor, away from the circle of claws and tentacles. Almost instantaneously, a series of tremendous crashes sounded out as the thing’s limbs slammed down into the platform, sending chunks of splintered wood flying. The circular patch of floor started to buckle, and Twelfth, carrying Red, Aidra, A Librarian and Nik, only barely managed to leap free before it collapsed inward, massive chunks of wood tearing away from the rest of the platform and ferried away by the hands and claws of the beast. Unfolding as if turning inside-out, the creature forced its way through the gaping hole it had just made, rising up on a myriad of spindly legs and sliding toward them, unnervingly smooth upon its many feet. For her part, Twelfth just kept running, placing A Librarian onto her shoulder and picking up Alice in one fluid motion as she dashed past, heading for the inner wall of Foyer.
Alice caught glimpses from under one of Twelfth’s armpits of the thing growing into a vast humanoid-ish shape, a person from the waist up sculpted inexpertly out of clay by an amateur who had only ever been given conflicting descriptions of what a human looked like. It reached out, giant mitten-like hand moving to intercept them, arm lengthening too fast for them to get out of the way, and it was with a grim finality that she-
“Now halt and cease and quieten motions thus.”
The words rang out, softly spoken and yet echoing with a power that made every muscle in Alice’s body immediately lock in place. But if it merely paralysed her, it had a far more dramatic effect on the monster, whose surface seemed briefly to writhe, before the entire semi-humanoid shape disintegrated, losing its solidity and falling like thick sand into a massive pile on the platform that immediately started to writhe and grow again.
“Formless, you have been named in ages past.”
The paralysis vanished, and she watched with amazement as something descended from the tangle of girders and ropes and walkways higher in Foyer.
It was massive and parchment-coloured, enormous paper wings folding and unfolding as it descended. Its entire body was criss-crossed by jagged stripes of faded blue that Alice suspected were writing on its papery outer shell.
“Formless has root forma, cognate with morph.”
It spoke, its very words appearing far more intrinsically real than even reality seemed. Arms and wings and blazing eyes cast a light that did not warm, stark and unyielding across the twisting and twitching pile of grey matter that had, until so recently, been pursuing them.
“And morph is root of Morpheus, so sleep.”
The last thing she experienced before unconsciousness settled over her was a sound, something like a mixture between a beehive and a church choir.