Around and around, the ferry spun, descending into the depths until, with a subtle shifting, the tunnel of swirling water stopped going down and started ascending. As Nik had said, the deck stayed dry, like the boat was under an inverted fishbowl, and while she occasionally caught flashes of rocks or strange shapes that might have been alive, mostly what she saw was the frothing, swirling dark water. Everything was getting lighter, too, and were it not for the harness-seatbelt, she was pretty sure she’d have been flung out of her seat as the ship tumbled and turned.
And then, as suddenly as they’d lurched over the edge of the Where’llpool, they were thrust out of the narrow tunnel into an expansive land – wait, no – seascape in darkened shades of blue. There was light, far overhead, a flicker in the uncertain gloom, casting feeble rays down on forests of swaying seaweed and coiling structures of weathered stone and coral. The ferry righted itself and drifted in to dock, just as another ferry set off down the gaping hole that lead back to the Where’llpool. The dock was a large building seemingly carved from an enormous lump of pale stone, and shoals of strange fish flit about, passing the boat inquisitively, shimmering iridescently despite the lack of light. Bioluminescence, Alice reckoned. Atop the dock building, a large translucent dome stood, the brightly-lit shapes of dry-land vegetation visible within.
“Yeah, see?” said Nik. “The station’s got an airspace, A Librarian, you don’t need to rush.”
A Librarian looked up from the piles of paper on which he was scribbling the bizarre hieroglyphics of Library magic. “Hmm?”
“You weren’t listening, were you?”
Distractedly, A Librarian shook his head, before returning to his scrawling magework.
Nik rolled his eyes. “Right then. Twelfth, could you please-”
With a shudder, the ferry docked, and the passengers started to disembark, either leaving the ship through weird membranous field-doors, directly into the water, or filing down a long tubular walkway and into the terminal. As the group headed down the glass-walled walkway, Twelfth scooped the still-writing A Librarian up out of his seat and flopped him over her shoulder. He barely seemed to notice, reaching out absent-mindedly to grab his satchel and keep it with him as he was carried.
“Is this…” Alice gestured helplessly at him. “Is this an A Librarian thing, a him thing or what?”
“‘S a wizard thing,” Aidra replied, flicking A Librarian’s ear. He didn’t react.
Above them, beyond the glass of the walkway, something occluded the dim light of the deeps, like a cloud covering the sun. Looking up, Alice saw the edge of something vast and dark, a shadow that covered half the ‘sky’. As she watched, the shadow changed shape as a colossal protrusion drifted slowly along its edge, and then another, moving gently in and out, as if they were… Flippers, she realised. How big even was that thing?
Noticing her gaze, Nik looked up. “Oh, that’s an adolescent Leviathan. Aqua Regionis is about… twenty times the size of the Smoglands, so the creatures here get bigger.”
They passed from the walkway into the main body of the terminal, and as she lost sight of the Leviathan, Alice suppressed an involuntary shudder. She’d felt similarly small when she visited the Natural History Museum, seen the skeletons of dinosaurs and whales looming above her, but to see something like that in motion almost beggared belief. And that was an adolescent one!
Inside the terminal, the walls and floors were pale, made or perhaps formed from that opalescent stuff you found inside oysters, that pearls were eventually-
“Nacre,” said Aidra, cutting off her train of thought. “Or mother-of-pearl.”
“Oh.” She looked around, at the gentle curve of the walls and their iridescent coating. “Oh. Is this some giant snail shell or something?”
He waved a hand vaguely. “Eh, seven out of ten, more like a very big nautilus.”
Nik piped up at that. “Quite a lot of buildings in these parts are made from Giganite shells. Their herding and husbandry are quite a big industry in this cluster of aquatic bioterra.”
She looked around. “Is there somewhere we can park A Librarian while he does his thing? Some kind of wizard crèche?”
As if on cue, he spoke. “Hey, Alice, could you estimate the water content and purity of your blood? Percentage-wise, I mean.”
“Either that, or an approximate Mohs hardness of your head?”
Red snorted. “I will refrain from commenting about the hardness of your head, because I value my life.”
“Clearly,” she retorted, “you don’t value it enough.”
– – –
“Now, once this is attached-” said A Librarian, fussing with the paper ribbon he was laying around her shoulders- “you should be able to breathe normally underwater. Please tell me if you notice a sudden change of pressure, bubbles of air in your blood-”
“-An erection lasting longer than three hours,” Aidra added helpfully.
A Librarian closed the loop, gluing the ends together, and then tapped the strange markings in dark ink that crowded the paper, which flared into life as the spell started to work. She stood still for a few seconds, trying to notice if her head was about to explode or something. Nothing did, and she was about to head in the direction of the airlock-membrane leading out of the building, but she was stopped by Red’s hand on her shoulder.
“Wait, I almost forgot,” he said, and she felt something weird with her nascent magical senses, beneath the surface of his inhuman right hand. “Waterproofing. Want some?”
“Oh, right. Thanks.”
A flash of inexplicable feeling, suffusing her entire body. Impressions of depth, of darkness, but of defiance and clarity. “There you go, that should last a few hours.”
“Right then. Where did you say this… Bathyscape place is?”
Nik pointed out of a wide window set into the nacreous wall. “Over there – you can just about see the lights. It shouldn’t take us long to get there at all. Definitely before your waterproofing wears off.”
In the distance, lights sparkled in the darkness like stars, set on an angular shape just slightly darker than the surrounding water.
“Okay. Into the breach, I guess?”
And, at that, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, before walking through the shimmering field doorway, and into the water. The sheer coldness of it was only slightly blunted by the waterproofing enchantment Red had lain on her, and she found herself unable to breathe for a few seconds as the ocean closed over her, constricting her lungs. A Librarian’s air bubble surrounded her head like an invisible diving helmet, as she briefly floundered in the cold and the dark.
A warm hand grabbed hers, stopped her drifting off – Red’s left, his human hand. She turned, and she saw him, that permanent fez clinging impossibly to his head, even as his hair floated and swirled in the water. He grinned reassuringly at her, and she heard his voice in her head.
How’re you doing?
“Um,” she spoke, uncertainly, into the bubble of air around her head. “I think I’m good.”
Behind Red, Twelfth was climbing out of the airlock membrane thing, those candles that sat permanently on the shoulder of her outer layer of scarves and fabrics still burning underwater. Aidra and Nik were floating nearby, perfectly at home in the cool water, the fins on the sides of their heads flexing slowly as they breathed. A Librarian was the last one out, and he nervously clung to Twelfth as he looked around, a similar globe of air sitting around his head like a soap bubble.
Lead the way, you two, said Red to the brothers.