She awoke with a start, as the runaway train of dream-nightmare hit the brick station wall of wakefulness. She felt very much like she’d been dropped from a great height onto a bed made of meat tenderisers.
Alice coughed, then wheezed in pain as the motion sent tremolos of agony through what felt like every single muscle in her body, and groaned. Did every dream have to be like this? Her face felt kinda sticky, which upon inspection turned out to be an impressive nosebleed.
“Ash and Ink,” she heard A Librarian say from out of her field of vision, “what happened?”
“Dreams,” she grumbled, trying to wipe the blood from her face with her sleeve.
“Wait, don’t do that. Let me get you a flannel or something, and I’ll see if I can spell you up some kinda healing. How’d a dream even make this happen? I don’t know that many mammals, but the ones I do know aren’t bleeding out the face all that often.”
She chuckled, then winced again. “‘S a defence mechanism. But, seriously, I think someone in my dream yelled too hard at me.”
“Hmm,” said Red, sitting blearily up from where he’d been sleeping, “if it’s broadly psychic damage, I think I can do something about that.”
“She’d probably be fine,” A Librarian replied, “if I just gave her some painkillers. People heal faster, in the Arboretum.”
Red came over with the uncoordinated kinda-stumble of the not-quite awake. “Well, at least I can clean things up a bit,” he said, idly gesturing. In a series of swirling streams, the blood and stains rose from her shirt, leaving it spotless.
He wrinkled his nose. “This is the same set of clothes you had back when I first met you, a month ago.”
“I’ve cleaned them! And I think I got some new shoes for walking a while back.”
“We’ve got to get you at least a change of clothes.”
“Thanks,” she said, “for volunteering to pay for my broke-arse self.”
He grimaced, but didn’t object, instead laying a cold, smooth stone hand on her forehead. “Yeah, something psychic hit your brain pretty hard. I’ll have words with Hatred in Crimson, but you’ve just burst a bunch of capillaries and probably unwittingly strained a bunch of muscles, nothing terribly serious.”
A flash of red light, and it felt like a weight had been lifted from her, the chorus of little aches melting away in seconds.
“Wow, thanks.” She sighed in relief.
“Red’s actually multiclassed to some kind of idiot druid,” said Aidra. He and his brother were just starting to rise.
– – –
After breakfast, they found Twelfth outside doing some kind of meditation, and once she stood up again, they started to walk down the road to Grenoville. The sun was ‘rising’ – the light face turning slowly to face this portion of the bioterra. And, in response, the trees, the grass that grew where there was light between them, the flowers in patches here and there… they were all singing. The strange voices of the flora combined into an ululating song that raised the hairs on the back of Alice’s neck.
“It’s the Dawn Chorus,” said Nik, speaking loudly in order to be heard. “It’ll stop in a minute.”
Morning mists swirled around them as they walked, forming long branching, coiling, oddly-organic patterns. The air was cool, and still carried with it the rainstorm scent, accompanied by the slightest whiff of brackish water and rot, not quite strong enough to be unpleasant.
A thought occurred to her. “Hey, Nik?”
“Why’s it called the ‘Great Western Toad’, exactly? I know it rhymes with ‘road’, but that doesn’t seem enough of a reason.”
“Oh! I keep forgetting that you’re new here – you speak Brackish like a native. It’s called the Great Western Toad because-”
He stopped walking, reached down to one of the heavy-looking stones that made up the road’s surface and with a grunt of effort levered it up, pulling it out of the soil with a sucking sound. He held it up for her to look at.
“I don’t see wh- ack!” she squeaked in shock as the stone wriggled, four limbs unfolding with a series of cracks and two beady black eyes opening. The stone, which now looked very much like a rock carved into the shape of a toad, gave a low, impatient-sounding ribbit, before wriggling free of Nik’s hands and plopping back down into the space it had been occupying.
“See?” said Nik, brushing the dirt from his hands. “The road’s cobbled in toadstone.”
“Wh- I…” She spluttered, briefly at a loss for words.
“I think the technical term, dear brother,” said Aidra, “is frobblestones.”
“Well,” she said, stony-faced, “that makes about as much sense as anything else here. I assume they’re okay with being walked on?”
“They could easily move out of the way if they minded,” said Nik.
“Right then. I’m going to try very hard to forget the wordplay, and see where that gets me.”
They set off again, down the Great Western Toad as it wound between the trees like a sleeping pile of thousands of toadstones, which is exactly what it was.
– – –
“Are we nearly there yet?”
“Aidra,” said Nik, “you grew up here. You know the area – you tell me.”
Alice sauntered along behind the bickering brothers, gazing blandly up at the clouds. If there was anything to be said about all this walking she was doing, she was certainly in much better physical shape than she’d been, back on Earth, cramming for assignments and pulling all-nighters to reach important deadlines.
She was distracted from her vague reminiscence by the movements of the clouds – they weren’t drifting in the wind. Or, if they were, they weren’t drifting in a breeze she had ever seen before. As she watched, one of the clouds slowly drifted in a lazy half-circle around another, before lunging at a speed comparable to a caffeinated snail, a set of cloudy jaws closing around the other cloud in the slowest mortal combat she’d ever seen. The other nearby clouds scattered, drifting painstakingly every which way as the two clouds savaged each other with fluffy claw and insubstantial fang.
“The Faunonimbi are gathering early this season,” said Nik, noticing her fascination.
She made an appreciative noise in response, as they hiked down the hill, a motley little group slouching their way towards Grenoville – visible as a gap in the canopy up ahead, an hour away at most.
They weren’t kidding, she thought, about everything in the Arboretum being alive.