It was the light that woke her. She grumbled under her breath and shifted, rolling onto her side and burying her head in the crook of her arm, trying to keep the bright yet bitterly cold light out of her eyes. She realised, belatedly, that some people were talking, near enough for her to hear.
“I did not intercede as soon as hoped,
The Hive will work to repair damage done,
And see about resealing the Formless.”
“You keep calling it ‘the Formless’,” said someone else – it sounded like Nik, she thought – “but I’ve never heard of a creature like it. Twelfth said the Concordance didn’t know what it was, either.”
“Yes, the Concordance would not know of it,
For it was sealed before they built Concords,
At the end of the first Demiurge War.”
It was Twelfth who spoke next. [What Is It?]
“A very good question, for I know not,
It is a plasmic thing description flees,
Of unknown origins, from unknown Realms,
A beast of change’ble chaos, blood and death,
Odd, though, that it pursued your waking friend.”
Nik’s voice again. “Who’s my waking fr- oh, Alice, you’re awake?”
“Nnnnnn,” she mumbled in reply.
Aidra giggled. “Wakey-wakey, sleepyhead. Can’t have you lying down on the job, eh?”
With another grumble, she sat up and opened her eyes, blinking in the stark light as she took in the scene.
Looming above them, wings beating far too slowly to keep something so massive aloft, was the source of the light, a creature clothed in layer upon layer of folded paper, whose hundreds of eyes shone like stars. It was difficult to tell where their body ended and the clothing began – or, in fact, if there was any real distinction between the two. Broad stripes of incredibly densely-written text in blue ink coiled around their body, about and along their many arms and wings, the symbols shifting in her peripheral vision. Atop their thorax, their head looked down on them, and they had no eyes or writing on their featureless face. From either side of their great head, a twisting and tangled forest of horns sprouted, coiling up and around, forming a closed circle, a halo above their skull, woven like a wreath.
“Well met – I am Third Uriel Caxton,
I am that which brings light into the dark,
Apologies for sending you to sleep.” they intoned, in a tone faintly musical and choral, like a thousand people whispering as one in an empty library.
“Um, no problem,” she squeaked, taken aback at their sheer towering size, “you’re, er, very big.”
“I am Archangel, short for archaic,
As angels grow in size over their years,
Becoming great and swollen as we age,
And I was ancient long ere Foyer grew.”
“Right. And, er, thanks for saving me, for saving us from the Formless thing.”
“The Name of Knowledge did Herself warn us,
This ancient changing beast had broken free.
Now, with your leave, I must begin repairs.”
She blinked. “Um, okay. Sure, bye?”
“Once more, well met, young Alice. Fare thee well.”
Third Uriel, with a flick of their mighty wings, was gone, moving through the air with a disconcerting amount of manoeuvrability for a creature so titanic.
“There you go,” said Aidra. “Now you’ve met an angel. Happy Easter!”
“Eh, it makes sense in context. Didya have any fun dreams when you were out?”
She frowned, trying to remember. “I… don’t think so? I mean, for all that they’re annoying, at least they don’t happen every time I close my eyes.”
Red looked puzzled. “Has Hatred in Crimson not stopped the nightmares?”
“Maybe? I think, now, it’s like my head’s an echoey sealed box, so I’m having weird conversations with different bits of my psyche.”
“Huh.” He shrugged awkwardly, then held out a hand and helped her to her feet. “Hope that’s better than all the weird monsters and stuff.”
They were still on the big cracked wood platform the thing – the Formless, apparently – had burst through. In fact, over on the other side of it, a swarm of Scripteraphim, smaller than Third Uriel, buzzed around the pile of grey ooze that was the sleeping Formless, weaving symbols made of light into a cage around it.
Following her gaze, Red grimaced. “Yeah, we should get away from here. I wonder if Gyran knows anything about ancient shapeshifting death machines.”
“You’re kidding,” scoffed Aidra. “She was probably the one who sealed it in the first place.”
“That’s actually a good point.”
“Sometimes I surprise even myself.”
“So, Red,” said Alice, “you know that Chalk and that Slate person?”
He winced. “Kinda. We’ve had run-ins in the past.”
“What are they? They said they were demons.”
“They also said I was technically a demon, so ‘demon’ is a term which is morally neutral, I guess.”
He blinked. “I… I mean, that’s technically true, but you are definitely not the same kind of demon as Doctor White and Mister Grey.”
A Librarian cut in, looking puzzled. “What’re you talking about?”
“Oh, er, when we were running away from the Formless, these two… weirdos stopped time to try to offer me some kind of deal.”
Confusion was replaced by worry. “Did you sign anything without reading it?”
“No, I didn’t. I’m not thick.”
“Right,” said Red, starting to lead the group in the direction of one of the wide ramps leading up into the undamaged bits of Foyer, “firstly, they’re both kinds of demons that are naturally very dangerous. Outsiders such as yourself are just unknown factors, but I’m pretty sure Grey is some kind of shadow creature, and White is obviously some kind of horrifying monster of light. They were being deliberately misleading.”
“You know,” said Aidra, “the trains, being an import from the Forge, are Outsider demons, too.”
Red rolled his eyes. “Anyway, what were they offering you, and what did they want?”
“Uh, they said Third Uriel would be too late to save us, and said they’d help. And they wanted three minutes of my lifetime, I think?”
He frowned. “That’s actually… a pretty good deal, for them. Are you sure that’s what they said was the price? Those exact words?”
“They might have said ‘three minutes of your life’, but does that make any difference? They were so freaky it was hard to pay attention.”
“Ah, yeah, they’re a bit much, aren’t they? Now, if they said three minutes of your life, that’s very different to three minutes of your lifespan. Lifespan is just ageing you three minutes. Three minutes of your life would be them owning your life for three minutes, picked at their discretion. Complete control over you, most likely.”
“Oh. That’s bad.”
[I Have Not Heard Tell Of These Creatures, But I Suspect There Is A Lot They Can Do In Three Minutes. And It Seems They Were Lying About The Arrival Of Third Uriel Being Too Late.]
“Yup. Sneaky gits, aren’t they?”
– – –
In a place and time slightly elsewhere, a bright figure and a dark figure were standing in a quieter, frozen facsimile of Foyer. Mister Smoke pulled out the second-last of the starstone knives that were embedded in his shadow, hissing under his breath as it burned his hands, and threw it to Doctor Fire, who was crunching the rest of them between her teeth.
“This is infuriating, Doctor Fire.”
“I agree, Mister Smoke. The Red Corpse and the Interloper are a tremendous headache to deal with.”
“Did she even consider our offer?”
Doctor Fire paused, halfway through eating the most recent knife. “I am unsure.”
Mister Smoke pulled out the final throwing knife that was pinning his shadow, which retracted, leaving only the shadow cast by the matter he was made of. He rolled his shoulders, stretching and wincing.
“Well, that was a catastrophe.”
“I am still in favour of damaging that insolent child until she makes a deal to save her life.”
“Patience, Doctor Fire. You catch more flies with honey, and so forth.”
“Incorrect. Vinegar attracts flies due to the fact that it is a fermentation byproduct. Are you suggesting we should attempt to drown her in vinegar? I feel that would be difficult, unless sufficiently concentrated. There are acids that would be much more effective for-”
Mister Smoke grinned, patting his associate on the shoulder, heedless of the sizzling noise and the smell of burning flesh. “In good time, Doctor Fire. In good time.”