A Return To The Unfamiliar

Alice passed through the concentric interlocking spheres of the Causeway, and felt herself vanish. For a dizzying period of time that could have lasted for seconds or millenia, she simply wasn’t, a sensation of disconnectedness that was at once bizarre and familiar. And then, as soon as it started, she was back on solid ground, descending the Causeway steps in another Realm. Sensation returned with a sudden shock of colours, scents and tactility that she’d barely have noticed before they’d been taken away and returned.

It was the smell that was particularly striking, a strange but unmistakable odour of dry, old paper and varnished wood, the smell of the Library. She kept walking as more Causeway passengers started to materialise behind her, across the pale glyphed stone of the Causeway and onto the intricately-patterned mosaic tiles of the Tower of Babliothèque. The tiny tiles, each about the size of a thumbnail, formed a series of slowly-shifting whorls and interlocking patterns, spanning the whole floor, visible even through the pedestrians that walked across It – like before, they were far less intrinsically real than the tower was. It still had the strange entrancing property, the pure awe that it was created from drawing the eye like a magnet, but the effect was much lessened from her last experience with it, almost a week ago. While she could see every crack, every dust particle on the floor of the Tower, she managed to not walk into any walls, and got out of the way of the flow of varied and esoteric pedestrians to wait for the others. Shortly, she saw Red appear from the Causeway, and it was easy to catch his eye and wave him over.

“Relatively familiar ground, eh?”

“Yeah.” She looked around at the strange crowds, the alien architecture. “Still pretty weird, though.”

“Well, you’ve barely seen a tenth of a percent of the full range of the Library’s weirdness,” he replied, “why, any moment now, Aidra’s gonna pop out of the woodwork and tell us ab-”

He was interrupted by a creak from behind them. When they turned to look, Alice saw a strange, unfamiliar figure stepping through a door she hadn’t noticed before, set into the outer walled ‘shell’ of the Causeway, where it ended and the Tower began.

The figure was tall, taller than either her rather unimpressive height or Red’s slightly-less-unimpressive height. Instead of a head, a wooden post stuck up through the collar of their shirt, and atop it was an old-fashioned looking mailbox in the American style – a semicylindrical metal can, with a hinged flap at one end and a little red-painted flag, standing upright. Apart from that, it seemed to be dressed a bit like a postman, not so much like the old-fashioned ones, but in a red sweater and dark trousers, with a mailbag hung from their shoulder.

Ms Alice Huang?” they asked, with a voice like rain, like snow, like heat, like the gloom of night.

“Um.” She glanced frantically at Red, who shrugged in obvious bewilderment. “Yes?”

Ah. Package for you.

The post-thing reached up, and opened the flap that closed its mailbox head, releasing a cloud of thick smoke, in which she would have sworn she saw tentacles waving. It reached in, just as the wave of smoke washed over her and Red, filling her nose with the acrid stench of rotten eggs, stinging her eyes and giving her a short coughing fit. When she could see through her own watering eyes again, the mailbox-headed giant was holding out a package too large to have ever fit in their head – their head which was now thankfully closed up, with the little flag no longer standing upright.

“Okay, well,” she paused to cough again, “thanks, I guess? Why are you giving me a package, though?”

I am the mail-carrier. There is no return address. I was given this package by the worldly heralds of Jöurnalmungandr.

“Oh? Oh! Well, er, could you tell her ‘thanks’ from me?”

I am the mail-carrier. I will transmit a telegram on your behalf containing:

They switched, disconcertingly, into a facsimile of Alice’s own voice. “Well, er, could you tell her ‘thanks’ from me?”

And with that, the self-identified ‘mail-carrier’ turned back to their door, stepped through it and closed it behind them with a click.

“Wait!” she cried, reaching out and pulling the door open, revealing… a broom cupboard. Not the long corridor she’d glimpsed through the door when the mail-carrier used it at all. “What?

“Huh,” said Red. “I thought that someone interrupting me when I talked about Aidra would b-”

HI RED!” the man himself shouted cheerily, coming round the corner.

“██████!” Red exclaimed. “You sneaky bastard!

“Love you too. You gonna open that present, Alice?”

“Where’s everyone else?”

In lieu of an answer to her question, she heard the telepathic voice-echo of Twelfth.

[Aidra? Where Did You Go?] she asked, coming round the corner and into view. [Ah. Nik! I Found Your Wayward Brother And The Rest Of Our Friends!]

“So,” said Aidra, once A Librarian and Nik had turned up, “you gonna open that box or what?”

Alice sighed. “I… Okay, fine.”

She sat down on the bench they’d arrived at, a short distance from where the mail-carrier had given her the box, and balanced the offending item on her knee. It was neatly but plainly wrapped in green paper, tied up in yellow ribbon with a large and beautifully sculpted bow. The box was a bit too heavy to balance with one hand, so she passed it to Red so she could undo the knot. The wrapping paper was perfectly, mathematically folded, and came apart when untied with machinelike origami precision. Within the paper was a plain white envelope with her name on it, and a box. In the envelope was a note, beautifully written:

FOR ONE ALICE HUANG, AS PROMISED.

Beneath the note, the box contained a cake.

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