The night Alice spent in House Dimetaliios was oddly restful. Nik and Twelfth cleared the dust sheets out of a couple of vast guest bedrooms, and the party slept, passing the time between a cold and misty Smogland evening and a cold and misty Smogland morning.
She woke relatively early, relishing the quiet and dreamless sleep, and ducked into an adjoining bathroom to change out of the exceptionally soft nightdress Tarash had loaned her and into… pretty much the same clothes she’d been wearing for a month. Grimacing at their slightly distressed and threadbare state, she made a mental note to learn how to sew from A Librarian, or to take up Red’s offer to buy her some alternate means of dress. Wardrobe-related introspection over, she padded, yawning, down towards the kitchen, in search of other early-risers and maybe even some manner of breakfast-related substances.
Her slightly brainless shuffle was interrupted by the sound of gentle chanting in a language she didn’t recognise, drifting down the wicker corridors. She froze, and the words continued coming, lyrically, almost a song or prayer. Was that… was that Aidra? He didn’t seem the song-singing type, unless you counted something silly or satirical. Cautiously and quietly, she followed the sound of the singing through a maze of corridors that seemed to coil and twist despite the rules of space and reason, until she reached a closed door. The song was louder now, and almost definitely Aidra. Behind her eyes, somewhere in her brain, she felt strange gears moving and then clicking into place, and suddenly she understood what he was singing.
“-and from the fates, whose vast design,
tangles us all, we dance in time,
puppets upon the coils of thread,
from day we’re born, to day long dead.
But is that true, and is that wise?
We see the strings, we know their lies,
like a river, time flows downhill,
carving fate’s channel, good or ill,
and, like a river’s bounding course,
It can be changed, it can be forced-”
At the end of that verse, he paused his singing and cleared his throat.
“Come in, Alice.”
She looked briefly at the door, raised an eyebrow at the sign – Aidra’s Room: No Boys Allowed! – and gingerly pushed it open.
The room revealed was large, a small camp bed shoved in the corner a far cry from the luxurious beds up in the guest rooms. The room’s walls were covered in shelves filled with mounted crystals, strange bone sculptures, and thick dusty books. The curtains – blue with a motif of silver constellations – were drawn, and light came from a number of candles mounted at semi-random around the room, dribbling down over whatever they were set on – a candleholder, a plate, a three-eyed skull. Towards the centre of the room, a number of felt tables stood at odd angles, covered in complicated arrangements of cards, rolls of paper and scroll-cases. On one of the tables, a nailed-down sheet of black paper was coated in strange chalk diagrams that seemed to warp and shift like a heat-haze. Stacks of books propped up a drafting board with another of these diagrams, and nearby was a plastic milk crate, full of weird-shaped corked bottles containing colourful liquids. Overall, the room was an absolute sty, and she could barely see the carpet beneath the vast piles of papers, stacked books and arcane paraphernalia. Seeing no sign of Aidra, she was about to try to pick her way through the clutter to the door at the other end of the room, but a giggle from above made her look up, and suddenly the confusing room made even less sense.
The ceiling was carpeted, and while it was clearer than the floor, still bore some of the same piles of debris and books. The shelves on the sides of the room extended all the way up to the ceiling and, about halfway up, gravity seemed to reverse direction, and things stood on the shelves the other way up, back down-or-up to the floor-ceiling above her. And, at the centre of the ceiling, sitting in the centre of a bunch of candles set in holders around the edge of a circular diagram drawn on an unrolled tarpaulin, was Aidra. He grinned at her, and waved.
“How…” she sighed. Magic stuff, probably. “How do you get up there?”
“Jump!” he said, simply.
So she did. She’d barely left the floor when, with a sickening twist of perspective, the room upended and now she was dropping towards the floor. She landed okay, although she did immediately fall over onto the soft blue carpet.
“You’re up early,” he said. “Did you get a good sleep, for once?”
“Not sure I’m not still dreaming,” she said, her voice muffled by a mouthful of carpet.
“Well,” he began, before switching to Brackish. A few seconds later, she felt the language slot into place, and she could understand what he had said. “I can hardly make my way to your dreams – your big rocky friend keeps miscreants like me out.”
She pinched herself. No such luck. “What’re you doing here, then?”
She rolled her eyes. “What kind of magic?”
“It’s a piece of divination. I’m attempting to plot us a course so those STAR people will lose the trail.”
“Huh.” That was, actually, very sensible. “Where do you think we should go?”
He drummed the fingers of his hand on his chin thoughtfully. “Probably best to travel to the Where’llpool and head through to the Aqua Regions. Bathyscape has a nice landbreather district, and they’ve got a Causeway over in Sulis, so we can scoot back over to the Library, or maybe another Realm again, if they’re still on our scent.”
She glared at him, trying to figure out what the joke was, before giving up. “Wait, what’s your game here?”
He gazed back at her, guilelessly. “I have no idea whatsoever you mean, Ms Alice.”
She glared at him harder. “Alright, then. C’mon, if you’re done here, let’s go get breakfast and explain the plan there, and say goodbye to your family, if we want to head out early so STAR won’t have chance to catch up.”
– – –
They hit the road after breakfast, the goodbyes from Nik and Aidra’s sister and her adorable family ringing in their ears.
“The Where’llpool is dawnwise, a day or so’s trek,” said Nik, “And, um, ‘dawnwise’ means in the direction the dawn comes from. From the Where’llpool, we’ll travel down by bathysphere to the liquid bioterra of the Aqua Regions. We follow the Natterjack Road, and it’ll basically lead us right there, I think.” He looked up from the battered map he had produced from some deep pocket. “Sound good?”
[I Defer To Your Superior Experience In Navigating The Arboretum.]
“What Twelfth said,” Alice added.
A few hours of walking later, at around midday, a dark cloud drew across the sun, and the temperature dropped by a few degrees. Nik looked around, confused, as a thin, cold mist rolled slowly in from ahead of them.
“This is very weird, for this season,” he said, looking quizzically at Aidra, who shrugged.
“If I knew all the future,” he replied to Nik’s unspoken question, “it wouldn’t be nearly as fun.”
Nik grumbled in response and, not nearly as confidently, kept walking forwards, into the coiling mist.
It was Red who noticed it first. He held up a hand to stop them in their tracks, and pointed forwards. In the distance, muffled by the mist, a pair of yellow lights hovered, no detail apparent in whatever was emitting them.
“Are those… eyes?” Alice whispered, leaning closer to Red.
“I think so.” Red sounded worried. “Hey, Aidra, could you-”
“I can see you, by the way,” a cold voice called from ahead of them.
Red whispered an expletive.
With a shifting of the air, the mist moved aside, and Alice could see down the Natterjack Road to a figure that floated above it, their eyes glowing a sickly yellow. Their head looked like a horned skull, pale violet skin stretched tightly across their bones, and the sides of their head curving upwards in two shallow horns. They looked like they were five feet tall, at the very most, and their bandage-wrapped, clawed feet hung above the ground as they floated in place. They wore a long, dark orange cape that rose to a high collar around their head and nearly trailed on the ground beneath their feet, and the palms of their thin hands were wrapped in the same tattered-looking bandages that poked out beneath their threadbare robes and through the gaps in what little armour they wore.
They drifted closer, as they spoke. “Ah, Mx Red. It has been a while, hasn’t it?” They smiled wide, sharp teeth crowding their jaws. “I could have sworn I killed you, the last time we met.”
Red seemed pretty thoroughly rattled, but his voice was calm. “Ah, hello Syrk. This is a little far from home, for you.”
Syrk kept smiling. “Ah, but the Necropolis and the Arboretum are two sides of one coin, a duality of sublime beauty, for without life, how could there be death?”
“That’s very interesting,” Red began, looking around meaningfully at the rest of the group, “but we’ll be taking our leave now, right, Twelfth?”
Syrk had barely started to look confused before Twelfth was moving with a noise like a whipcrack, a pale blur of motion that slammed into the diminutive creature with a force that shook the ground. He went flying off to the side, crashing through one tree and into another in a spray of ink-blue blood.
“RUN!” Red shouted into the stunned silence.