“You’re heading to the Arboretum, then?” Alan didn’t quite sound concerned, but there was a note of something warning in his voice.
“Just the Nursiian Smoglands,” Nik said quickly; “nowhere too far from civilisation.”
“I assume,” said Alice, “that because I’ve got a native to the Arboretum, it should be fine. Wait, why’s it called the Arboretum? That’s not very, er, ominous as a name.”
“I mean,” Alan replied, “it’s also called Eden, but that’s hardly less innocuous-sounding.”
“There are more misleading Realms, I guess?” Nik said.
“The Garden strikes me as one,” supplied Red. “That’s the Domain of War Herself.”
“You’re right, that sounds entirely un-dangerous.”
Alan looked a bit less worried. “Well, since you’re going with a knowledgeable guide, you should be fine. And Aidra’s going too, I guess.”
“You wound me, sir.”
“Oh no, poor you,” he replied with absolutely no inflection. “Now, Alice, why don’t you try some of these! I think they’re pretty suited to the human palate, but a second opinion wouldn’t hurt.”
She took one of the offered cakelike blobs, which burst on her tongue, a small explosion of syrupy fruitiness.
“Reminds me of a jam doughnut,” she said.
“Yeah, I thought so too, but they apparently grow on a type of bush!”
Alice held up a finger, finished her mouthful, then spoke. “So, about the Arboretum being dangerous-”
“It shouldn’t be.”
“Hey, don’t interrupt, Nik. I’m sure it’s not dangerous near wherever swampy place is that you come from, but how dangerous is it everywhere else?”
“Well,” said Aidra, “there’s always the rampaging Horrifying Monster Of Very Painful Death.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not a real thing. Nik?”
He squinted at his brother. “Hmm. I think I know what he’s talking about, and it’s not called that.”
“Oh, okay then!” she said brightly. “It’s not actually called the Horrifying Monster Of Very Painful Death, that makes it all better!”
“They’re called Ochre Defoliants, and they mostly eat trees, but are very poisonous. Luckily,” he said, glaring at Aidra, “they’re not actually known to come near the Smoglands at all. It’s far outside their normal range, and keeping big monsters out of civilisation is a thing that’s handled by the locals.”
“I wasn’t, er, trying to caution you not to go there,” said Alan. “It’s more that I wanted you to be aware that it’s another Realm, and has an entirely new set of dangers and pitfalls for the unwary traveller. For a start, most of the landscape is alive.”
Alice nodded. “Right. Wait, alive alive?”
“Yeah, see? New pitfalls!”
Liz looked up from where she was, with Ed’s help, hustling Aidra. “Tell her about the walking mountains!”
According to Alan, the Arboretum, as the Realm of Life, was vibrant in all senses, bursting with vitality. Forests migrated, uprooting and shuffling around the insides of the bioterra they grew on. Rivers sang. Roads slithered across the landscapes like worms. The very mountains of the Realm bent and shifted, breathing in their sleep, and occasionally rose on great stone limbs, shuffled a few miles, and sat down again.
“Most of them have been herded to the wilder places, where they won’t get disturbed-”
She interrupted Alan’s explanation. “Hey hey, hold on. What in the fresh hells herds mountains like sheep?”
“Oh, right. Ancient trolls, usually, or Stone Dragons.”
“Okay, that makes perfect sense, carry on.”
“That’s about it for walking mountains.”
“Well, then. Thanks for warning me. And for tea, that was lovely.”
Alan grinned. “Pop by anytime, it’s great having you here, both as a rookie adventurer and fellow human.”
“Hey!” Liz exclaimed. “I’m kinda human! Between me and Ed, we’re a whole human!”
“Of course, Liz,” he replied gently, “but Alice grew up on Earth, and thus we share some commonalities that I don’t share with you, Ed, or your mother.”
“He wants someone to test his horrible tea-like drinks on,” said A Librarian.
“Yes, dear, that’s exactly it.”
– – –
Goodbyes were said, and the group – which Aidra pointed out, had no snappy nickname – made their way back up the steadily more familiar path to Index to catch another train.
[I Am Not Sure That We Specifically Need A Name,] said Twelfth as they stepped through the doors.
“Aw, c’mon. Can you be so sure?”
[Yes I Can.]
Alice was content to watch the landscapes of the Library go past the window – the rolling terraced hills near Index were giving way to wide canyons, fissures in the wooden ground large enough that she could see the Library layer below through them as the train rocketed over the narrow bridges that spanned them.
It was as this jagged vista was giving way to the next that the horizon appeared to fold in towards them. They entered a series of twisting and turning tunnels whose walls were packed with books, and so close that she could see the writing on the spines. The odd thing was, as the train scaled the walls and ceiling, this way and that, travelling a route that presumably only it and the driver knew, nothing on the inside of the carriage seemed to shift. It was disorienting, watching the outside world upend itself and feeling no change to one’s position, and it made her feel rather dizzy.
“Eugh,” she groaned, “that’s gonna make me sick if it keeps this up too long.”
“Keeps what up?” asked A Librarian.
“You know, the… why does gravity only point to the floor of the train?”
“Oh, that? I think it’s part of the landscape in these parts. Gravity points the direction you want it to.”
“If you disbelieve hard enough,” said Aidra, slowly levitating from his seat, “you can deny that which has kept you on the ground your entire life. Fight the power!”
Nik grabbed his brother by the sleeve and pulled him down and into his seat. “The train is the one actively thinking about where it wants to fall,” he said, “so in absence of conscious gravitation on your part, you go along with its local frame.”
“So, if I think too much about it-”
“-you may start acting as if a different direction is down. You’re unpractised, so probably not, but be careful.”
She was about to ask something, anything, to distract her from the thought-responsive gravity, but it was at that point that the train emerged from the tunnels and onto a bridge.
It was one of many, a spiderweb of bridges arranged about a centre, leading into and around a massive cylindrical building of dark stone that seemed to have been shoved through the layers of the Library at an angle, and it stood somewhat askew. Chunks of stone were missing from the structure, scorch marks round the edges of the breaks leaving no doubt that something had happened here.
It’s strange, Alice thought. It seems so much more real than the Library around it.
It carried with it a sense of such solidity, a tickle in the back of her mind that seemed to intrinsically dispel all doubt, that she was immediately sure what it was.
The Fallen Axis, Tower of Babliothèque, stood before her at the centre of an enormous chamber, and she could barely tear her eyes away.