Late at night, on an autumnal evening in the north of England, on a planet known to its primary inhabitants as ‘Earth’, Ariel – known otherwise as the Shepherd – strode towards a concrete-and-glass university building with no small amount of impatience. Hands buried deep in the pockets of a dark hoodie, she grumped up to the closed automatic doors and glared at them, her eye sparking briefly with azure light before the door creaked open with a hiss and the odour of ozone.
Inside the darkened library, a figure waited for her, ghost-pale, with eyes that glinted redly in the gloom.
“You’re late,” said the Dual.
She glowered at him. “I’ll be as late as I want, when I can’t travel quickly.”
His teeth became visible in an expression that could be mistaken for a smile, at a great distance. “Ah, how the mighty have fallen. How’d your discussion with Tarquin go?”
Sparks flickered within her wild nest of hair as she struggled to barely conceal her rage. “My meeting with the Steward went as well as could be expected,” she said through gritted teeth, “and that is not what I am here to discuss, Silas.”
“Ah, yes, my investigation.”
Silas turned and padded off between the shelves, moving like a silenced cat through the darkness. Ariel rolled her eyes, fished in a pocket for a few seconds to find her phone and turned the torch on before following. He led her through this mundane library, whose shelves seemed to loom above them, the bobbing light of her phone casting ever-shifting shadows across the carpet.
“Here,” he said, stopping short, crouching, and indicating an entirely normal-looking patch of carpet.
She squinted at it, then looked back up. “What am I supposed to be looking at?”
He placed his hand flat on the carpet. For a few seconds, nothing happened, but then the carpet… sizzled. Thin silver lines that glowed in the torchlight spread out from where Silas was touching the floor, tracing out a humanoid shape, like a distorted chalk outline.
“This is the shape of the breach,” he said. “Impossible to see non-thaumically, but it’s the impression of a shadow – almost definitely that of our missing person.”
“Right. Why’s it here, though? This place isn’t exactly known for its Inimical Demons.”
“I don’t have all the answers,” he replied, “but I do have a theory.”
“I was about to, you impatient bint. The idea is that, since this is a small-el library, it is a mere pale reflection of the Library itself, refracted through Materia as in multi-faceted funhouse mirrors. A Shadow, in the Platonic sense! That symbol has been seized upon here – a shadow in the shadow of the Library, in a library becomes a gap between the Realms. What’s less clear is why this particular person. Not sure what’s going on there without further information on context.”
She squinted at the strange outline. “It looked like this when it opened?”
“Ah, no, more like this.” He moved his hand slightly, and the floor within the outline seemed to recede down a great long tunnel, deep into the earth, springing back to normality as he took his hand away from the floor. “Like a big long hole to fall down, I guess?”
He blinked, taken aback by her outburst. “Hm?”
“Our missing Earthling’s name is Alice. She fell down a hole into another Realm.”
“Oh. Oh. Yes, that would make sense.”
“It makes sense and I hate it.”
Silas stood again, and the lines faded back into the carpet. “I wonder if the Dodgson books have any further predictive power on this particular situation. I’ve not previously known nominative determinism to be that strong, and Alice is a common name.”
“So we should… expect her to turn up with a disappearing cat, a white rabbit and so forth?”
“Well, correspondences are rarely that clear, but I wouldn’t be surprised if similar themes-”
He stopped speaking, and turned his head in a motion that would have broken the neck of an unaugmented human, looking down the aisle.
“Wh-” Ariel began, but Silas held up a warning hand and glared at her, his odd crimson eyeshine glowing in the light from her torch.
“I can hear you sneaking around, back there,” he said, a strange reverberation entering his voice as he continued, “won’t you come out, so I can get a look at you?”
Ariel was used to the Dual’s particular method of persuasion, but she still felt a muscle in her leg twitch in response to his words. Whoever had been sneaking around in the library after dark – besides them, obviously – stumbled towards them and into her torchlight with the certain shuffling reluctance of someone whose body had inexplicably ceased to obey them.
The newcomer was young, far younger than either of the creatures of STAR, younger than Ariel looked. He must have been a student, and he shuffled to a stop, looking at the Shepherd and the Dual with a certain degree of flummoxed terror.
“Good morning!” Ariel said cheerily. “What’re you doing in this closed library at two in the morning, by the way?”
The student wavered a few seconds. “Wait, why are you here? You don’t look like staff,” he said, managing to briefly suppress his confusion and fear in an admirable attempt at deflection.
“We are private investigators,” said Silas, stretching the truth to near-breaking. “We have reason to believe that a missing person was last seen near this location, and are looking for evidence of a crime,” he continued, veering into outright lies.
Ariel was watching the student’s face, so the shock and recognition that passed over his countenance was obvious, even as he tried to hide it.
She raised an eyebrow. “You know something about this.”
“I, um… my friend.”
That got Silas’s attention. He turned to face the newcomer, wearing his most human face. “Continue.”
“She, um, she disappeared. Back in May. And then, when I asked some of our other friends where she went, they, they didn’t know who I was talking about.”
Ariel shared a meaningful look with Silas. “Go on,” she said.
The young man looked both grieved and relieved. “And then, well, I went to University security, and there’s apparently been no student matching her name and description, um, ever.”
“That, too, is strange,” said the Dual, examining his fingernails absently.
“And the worst part -” the student’s voice cracked – “I- I went to talk to her parents. They didn’t know who she was!”
He stood there for a second, steadying himself, and looked up at them. “You… you believe me?”
“What is your name, my friend?”
“Um. Tim. Tim Jacobson.”
Silas smiled, and his smile was full of knives. “My name is Silas, and I believe you. Come with us and we will solve this mystery together,” he said, and his voice buzzed and reverberated with a subtle power.