“Oh, ouch. Your entire throat?”
“Hah, yeah.” Red rubbed his neck. “Luckily, possessed-you didn’t seem to twig that I’ve only got one vital organ, and it can’t be harmed.”
He waggled the detached fingers from his red right hand.
“Just as well,” said Aidra, “that it isn’t the brain, eh, Red?”
“That wasn’t funny the first dozen times, either.”
“It’s an acquired taste.”
“Look,” said Red, rolling his eyes, “if it doesn’t get a laugh, you should switch to new material, not repeat yourself. Anyway-”
He was cut off by an echoing booming from outside – like a cannon had been set off in the garden. This was followed by a muffled, but somewhat exasperated sounding discussion from outside – one of the voices sounded like Alan, who she hadn’t seen here since before she woke up.
There were a couple of thumps on the stair, and a confused-looking A Librarian poked her head round the door. “So,” she said, “there’s some dragon hunters here to see you, Alice. Do you want to see them?”
“I- you said dragon hunters?”
The Dragon Hunters were waiting outside. The first of them was a very old looking A Librarian, whose leafy beard and eyebrows were long, fading from a lush green to a dried-out looking orange at the edges. He was stooped, and wore long parchment-coloured robes covered in incredibly dense writing, layers upon layers of rustling cloth and gently chiming plates of metal, all inscribed. He blinked up at her owlishly from beneath his tinfoil hat (also covered in letters, these ones painted-on) and clung to a long wooden staff at least twice as tall as he was, and with a hooked end from which a thick book hung, wrapped in chains. Behind him stood a Bookbinder, significantly taller than Twelfth, clad in heavy-looking armour made from some kind of slightly-translucent crystal. They were carrying, between three of their five arms, a truly enormous sword, at least eight feet long, and there were several more of less impressive dimensions in scabbards about their person.
The A Librarian cleared his throat. “Greetings. We are the Order of Esteemed Dragon Hunters, and we would like to ask you some questions about your recent experiences.”
“Um,” said Alice, “sure? Go ahead, I guess.”
The old A Librarian grinned. There were words carved into the pale wood-like substance of his teeth. “We appreciate your time. I am A Librarian, Hunter of Bookwyrms. This,” he gestured up at the gigantic Bookbinder, “is The Seventh In Bone, Hunter of Drakes.”
With a grind of crystalline armour, The Seventh nodded to her.
“More of our fellows will arrive soon, I would reckon. It has been an awful while since a feral Bookwyrm was sighted in civilised parts, and they always draw attention.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
Alice had changed out of A Librarian’s spare pyjamas (they were far too big for her, anyway) and into one of the sets of clothes she’d bought with Red in the Bathyscape. She was still feeling a bit wobbly, but one of her friends would catch her if something happened.
Twelfth spoke up. [Greetings, Honoured Sibling Of The Seventh Generation. I Am-]
The mental equivalent of an incredibly fast text crawl went through Alice’s head as Twelfth listed her full name.
[-And It Is A Pleasure To Meet An Older Sibling.]
The Seventh nodded again. Apparently, they weren’t one of the Bookbinders who could speak, by construction or by choice.
“Now,” said the A Librarian hunter, “if it’s okay with you, Ms Alice, could I take a look with the cephaloscope, and see what Wyrmsigns you carry?”
The A Librarian pulled an object that looked like a collapsed telescope from one of his many pockets. As he extended it, section by section, the sections got smaller and smaller, until the thing he was holding tapered to a point she could barely see.
“Now, if you don’t mind, could you lean down a little, and look over there? I’m just going to take a small look at your brain.”
She glanced at Red, who nodded. “Sure.”
When Alice turned her head, he abruptly stuck the thing in her ear. It felt very strange, but not painful, as whatever it was slithered down her ear canal and beyond, somehow.
She could see out of the corner of her eye as he put the eyepiece to his eye and started to murmur to himself.
“Mmm. Yes, yes, clear Wyrmsigns, there, and something else, probably whatever protected you from the Wyrm itself. Interesting, interesting.”
With a noise like a slide whistle, he pulled the cephaloscope from her ear and retracted it.
“I don’t recognise the Wyrmsign specifically, but it looks like a Theral Bookwyrm, definitely. You’ve even got some minor scarring in your irises, but that will fade fairly quickly. The abjad isn’t one I know, but it looks similar enough to ones I’ve seen that I could probably track its ancestry.”
“Scarring in my irises?”
“Ah yes, they’re the most common entry and exit points for a Bookwyrm. Windows to the soul, you know.”
He pulled a compact mirror from a sleeve and passed it to her, so she could have a look and, sure enough, her irises were full of pale symbols, letters in an alphabet she couldn’t name. As she passed him the mirror back, she noticed that his hands were covered with tightly-packed writing, like every other part of him, carved into his woodlike skin.
“So, uh,” she asked, eloquently, “what’s with all the writing on and… about you?”
He chuckled merrily at that. “Ah, they are my protection from Wyrms, such as those I hunt. Bookwyrms are made of words, and travel through literature as easily as we travel through space. What’s important, however, is to keep them out of your mind, where all your most important words lie. The layers of different words-” he moved his arms, and the metal plates layered into his robe jangled slightly “- are layers of baffling, that keeps the Wyrm guided such that it moves around me but without actually touching my mind. And then, well, I bind them.” He pointed up at the chained book, dangling from his staff.
“What about the Seventh? They don’t have any, um, book-armour?”
He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, at the Seventh. “Bookbinders are indelible – the words in their minds can’t be altered, and you can thank the Demiurges and their paranoia for that. Besides, they usually hunt different kinds of dragon.”
The Seventh nodded again, and one of their free hands tapped the blade of their enormous sword.
“Yes, they refer to the more physical dragons, and while I’ve hunted a few in my day, they’re very much a specialist in those matters.”
“Huh. So, what exactly are dragons? I’m not sure what they’d necessarily be, but where I come from, dragons in legends are big scaly monsters, although the precise properties vary. What are they like here?”
The old A Librarian’s eyes lit up. “Oh, that is an excellent question! Do you have a few hours for me to give a brief introduction on the subject?”