The sign above the corner shop’s door read:
Darkness, Dread & Secrets’
Store of Magic & Miscellany
Alice looked around, caught A Librarian’s eye and waved, pointing at the door. He gave her a thumbs-up, so she pushed the door open and walked in, confident that A Librarian would be able to find her with the rest of the group.
The door creaked open heavily, and a bell atop it rang, echoing out far louder than it should into the gloom within the shop.
“Ahhhh,” a voice purred from deeper inside, “a customer. Haha, let’s get a look at you.” The words were punctuated by soft clicking noises, like they were speaking through ill-fitting dentures.
“Er,” Alice replied. “Hi? Nice, um, shop you’ve got here?”
Looking around, she caught no sign of the origin of the voice, but what she did see were multiple rows of bookshelves and a wire bin full of assorted bones along one side of the store, stretching off into the darkness. On the other side, the one to the right of the door, racks of strange tools were arrayed, ranging from somewhat esoteric gardening equipment – shovels, rakes, hoes and the like – to the frankly impossibly bizarre. What stood out the most was a fork-shaped thing which either had three or four prongs depending on what angle she viewed it from, like a real-life optical illusion.
“It’s a wonderful shop I have here!” the voice replied cheerily, accompanied by the sounds of footsteps padding nearer over the thickly carpeted floor. Alice turned to where the voice seemed to be coming from, and nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt someone tap her on the shoulder.
“Gah!” She whirled around and came face-to-face with a grinning skull in a lilac bobble hat.
The skull was in fact attached to probably a whole human-like skeleton, wearing a thick striped purple jumper, short pleated skirt and, strangely, leggings printed with an x-ray style skeleton view. The ensemble was so bizarre that Alice didn’t manage to say anything more before the skeleton spoke again.
“Hi there!” she exclaimed, holding out a hand. “Notion of Darkness, a third of ‘Darkness, Dread and Secrets’, part-owner of this fine establishment!”
“Um, I’m Alice. Hi.” She took the offered hand, finding it predictably bony, and tried to look Notion of Darkness directly in the, um, little purple pinpricks of light, deep within her eye sockets.
“A pleasure to meet you, Alice! Now, how can I help you upon this fine post-Gloaming?”
“Well,” she said, repeating her now well-practised spiel, “I’m a trainee mage, and I was looking for some beginner-to-intermediate books or guides on magical theory. Do you carry any of those?”
Despite the fact that, being made of bone, her face couldn’t change shape, Notion of Darkness grinned wider. “Oh, absolutely. We’re a premium source of occult literabilia, bric and/or brac. Right this way, ma’am!”
And, with that, she turned and started to walk off through the shelves and into the dark, with Alice in tow.
Or, rather, Alice would have been in tow, were it not for the sudden and inexplicable headache, like her brain was being strangled by fingers made of branding irons and ice. Beneath the pain, there was darkness and an icy cold. Above the pain, there was light and burning. Her breath briefly escaped as a cloud as she shivered uncontrollably, unable to focus her vision, an acrid scent of burning hair filling her hearing, and the ringing in her taste nearly blinding her. She saw stars swirling before her vision, she saw… scales?
– – –
‘Alice’ steadied herself on one of the bookcases, and then started to follow Notion of Darkness deeper into the shop.
“Come along now, Alice!” Notion chirped. “I think the simple textbooks are over here, last time I organised them, but you know how the other proprietors can be.”
“I’m sure I don’t,” she replied, as if slightly confused by the shape of her own tongue, “but I know how books can be. Capricious. Delicious.”
“Ah, absolutely! Now, here are the beginner level ones, and the intermediate ones are next to them, here, although I don’t know your style of thaumaturgy. Jntharnat’s one is pretty broad-strokes, so it should be independent of styles and such, but…”
It was at this point that a being that looked a lot like Alice tuned Notion of Darkness out, in favour of examining the sharpness of her own teeth and pondering. Something was very strange, and this wasn’t supposed to be happening. It had intended to merely touch the mind, verify that this was the one the Master had spoken of, and either report back or harry the host to a known position, but as soon as it touched the mind of the host, it had turned dark and strange and sucked it in. Now, it was trapped, its seventeen informational senses garbled into six material and two immaterial senses, and none of the things it expected were happening.
The mind of the host still couldn’t be left, like an impossibly steep informational gravity well. Since it had no point of reference for what was going on, it ignored this, and moved away in this new strange articulated matter form, sliding through the shelves and doors of the shop without even disturbing the dust on their surfaces. It was incredibly simple to do, once one realised that matter was so very rarefied, not like information. Just a matter of shapes and thoughts and particles.
Outside, it looked around with the host’s more useful senses, sieving the strange inputs until it found something indicative of Mission – the one stationary truth of the everything. A red shape loomed, taste like brackish water in a sense without a mortal name tickling the back of the host’s mind.
It aimed the host and started to move directly towards it, moving unimpeded through the strange information systems that made up this alien Layer of the Realm.