They traipsed nervously for a couple of hours along the Natterjack Road, the constant wariness to pursuit putting Alice on edge.
“It’s Syrk,” said Red, noticing her expression. “We’ll know if he’s coming, don’t worry. Not a subtle guy, usually.”
“It’s the ‘usually’ that worries me,” she replied.
They lapsed back into silent walking, although Nik and A Librarian were talking quietly about some esoteric Realmic physics as they trailed a little behind the group. She took the time to look around, and noticed suddenly that the trees around them were steadily getting taller, the forest getting deeper and darker as they travelled along the road.
The road lead out into a clearing, surrounded on all sides by enormous trees that seemed to stretch up into the patchy clouds, trunks as wide around as skyscrapers. Thick bushes dotted with strange flowers covered the floor of the clearing in weird spiralling patterns, and at the centre, in a circular lake, an enormous whirlpool turned, like a glass funnel leading down and out of sight. The heady scents of alien flowers and the tremendous sounds of flowing water filled the air, and as Alice watched, a small boat set off from the side of the lake and whirled once, twice around the whirlpool before disappearing from view like it was going down a titanic drain.
“Not a whirlpool,” said Aidra, replying to her unspoken confusion, “the Where’llpool.”
She immediately wished he hadn’t told her what its name was. “And what exactly is it?”
“Ah,” said Nik, perking up at the opportunity to explain something, “the Where’llpool is a hole that links to the Aqua Regions, which is an adjoining Bioterra, emerging in the wetterlands outside Bathyscape, and we should be able to get there without drowning any of the landbreathers amongst us.”
She squinted at him for a second. “I’m pretty sure I don’t breathe land. I’m not sure how that’d work, physically.”
[I Think I Am The Only One, Nik, Outside Of You And Your Bother-]
[Brother. I Meant Brother, Apologies For Mis-Speaking. Apart From You Two, Only I Do Not Need To Breathe.]
“I don’t need to breathe,” said Red. “And the frogs need to breathe, they just can breathe water, too.”
“Why don’t you need to breathe?” Alice asked him. Exactly where Red fit on the “human-to-nonhuman” spectrum still kinda eluded her.
He started to reply, but Aidra interrupted. “Ya see, normally, a human bean would need oxygen to keep their brain running, but the mysterious Red has a remarkable evolutionary adaptation! A vestigial, useless brain consumes no oxygen!”
“Sounds about right,” she said.
“I was going to tell you,” said Red, “but now I won’t.”
“Tough. In any case, I think it’d be fairly easy to… Hmm. You might need some sort of diving suit. A Librarian, too. What kind of pressure is there, in Aqua Regionis?”
“Wouldn’t deep-sea pressure squish… everyone except Twelfth?”
“Oh, right,” said Nik, “pressure isn’t a problem in this particular Bioterra – there’s barely any gravity in the Aqua Regions. I think you’re thinking of Aqua Mensis, where shallows-dwellers like us Children of Nursiir have to live much closer to the inner surface.”
“Why’s there less gravity there than here?” she asked incredulously.
“Er,” said Nik, with the air of someone caught out by the question. “I think it’s something in the soil?”
“I have no idea how plausible that explanation is,” she replied flatly.
A Librarian snorted. “On a scale from one to ten, about a three.”
Nik’s reply was to grumble something about never paying attention in Arboretal Geography. The group had, by this point, drifted into line, queueing up for the next Where’llpool Ferry, a steady stream of rickety-looking boats that alternately vanished into and emerged from the massive maelstrom of churning water.
The next boat drew up to the dock, cast on, and the varied people – fish, fowl and frog-like, from what Alice could see – in the queue started to file aboard.
“Wait,” she said, “aren’t we supposed to be getting diving suits?”
“Pressure isn’t a problem,” came Red’s reply from just behind her. They were starting to stand much closer due to the crush of people. “So you and A Librarian will just need something to provide air for a little bit.”
There was a rustle from nearby as A Librarian manoeuvred his satchel open. “Er, I think I can make something for that, I just need… some paper…”
“We can do that once we’re sat down,” said Nik, “and the dock Aquaside has air, so we’ll have time.”
“Oh, um, right.” Another rustle, as whatever-it-was returned to the bag.
[Right, I Recommend That Everyone Stay Close, That We Might Get Seating Next to Each Other- Wait, Where Did Aidra Go?]
– – –
They found Aidra by following the tuneless whistling, lying across enough seats for all of them, up on the front deck of the ferry. It only required a small amount of threatening to sit on him to get him to move.
“Aren’t we going to get splashed, here?” Alice asked, as A Librarian spread out a variety of scribing tools and rolls of paper on the folding table that emerged from his armrest.
“These kinds of boats have a canopy of crystallised air,” Nik replied.
It took her a moment to process that in a way that made any sense. Instead, she turned to A Librarian.
“So, what’re you doing, magic-wise?” she asked.
His face lit up. “Ah right! Your interest in magic. Well, what I’m doing here is making us some, heh, diving helmets. This loop of paper I’m making will go around your neck, and will project a field of breathable air around your head for… well, I’m not sure about that bit yet, I’m still calculating.”
As he was talking to her, and without any obvious attempt to look at it, he scribbled something that looked like the eldritch cousin of long division on one of his pieces of paper.
“Oh, so how does that work?”
“Right, so, this here-” he indicated a segment of carefully-written symbols on one of the long paper strips “-it defines a point at the geometric centre of the loop, once the ends of the paper are closed, and then a foot-radius sphere from that, which will end up being a bubble of air. Now, the centre won’t be exact, so what I’m calculating now is a quick way of getting an approximate geometric centre, because it doesn’t matter if your head’s at the centre of this ball of air or not, as long as you can still breathe. Does that make sense?”
“Uh,” she replied, “I think so?”
“Okay then, now, the tricky part here is that it’d be very bad if this thing tried to put bubbles of air in your blood or my vascular system, right?”
“You’d probably instantly die from the bends, or from air being in your brain,” Red helpfully pointed out.
Alice blanched. “Yep, let’s avoid that.”
“So I’m working on a sub-thaumosystem that’ll elide our flesh, and make sure it’s not forcing air anywhere it doesn’t need to go. Since my flesh is very different to yours, I’m just trying to work out if I’ll need two versions, or if I can define it based on solidity. Now, if-”
It was at that point that, with a creaking of timbers and a clang of bells, the Where’llpool Ferry lurched forwards, prompting a squawk of alarm from A Librarian, and began to circle the mouth of the maelstrom in ever-narrowing circles. Once, twice, three times around they went, and then down the funnel of churning water and into darkness.