They waved the dragon hunters off, A Librarian looking tiny as he sat on the Seventh’s shoulder as the Bookbinder took stride after massive stride along the road to Index.
“So,” said Alice, “they’ve got a keep? Like, a big castle, or is that some other pun?”
A Librarian scratched his chin thoughtfully. “I think I’ve heard tell of Wyrmstooth Keep – one of the ancient Ivory Towers, long since fallen to rot. There’s a plaque about them in the Foyer University.”
Alice’s eye twitched, but she managed to suppress any more outward expression of her disapproval.
Instead, she turned to a different travelling companion. “Red?”
“I think you owe me some more answers about this Bookwyrm, and whatever happened back in the Tower.”
He winced. “Fair enough. Look, we were planning to go to Foyer after this, so I can explain on the way?”
[Are We Sure We Do Not Wish To Go A Different Way?] Twelfth asked. [These ‘STAR’ People Seem To Have Sent A Creature After Us, And We Would Be Travelling Back To Where They Had Last Seen Us.]
“Hmm, yeah, good point. Maybe we should leave the Foyan Polity completely, find somewhere out in another Whilderness?”
[Out Beyond Melville, The Lectern Isles Sit On The Atrament – I Suspect We Could Go There.]
“I guess we’d have to go through Foyer for that, and we can check if STAR have been around, then.”
“Oh!” Alice realised something and perked up at that. “We could thank Jour- um, Knowledge-Snake for the cake, too!”
“Good point, Alice,” said A Librarian. “We could ask Her if they’ve been seen too. Or maybe the Bookbinders’ Concordance would know?”
[Do Not Look At Me,] said Twelfth, [I Am No Longer Connected To The Local Nodes Of The Foyan Concordance Of Siblings, And Have Not Been Since My Stint As A Peacekeeper-Monk.]
“Well, we’ll have to ask another Bookbinder, I guess?”
“And check up on the Causeway people,” Alice added, “that went weird last time, what with the impostor and such.”
“The impostor?” Red asked, sharply.
[Oh, Right. You Left Suspiciously Before We Were Told About That.]
[In Any Case, An Impostor Pretending To Be A Masquerade Known As Cinnabar Misled Alice In Order To… Do Something? We Were Never Quite Sure What, But The Main Effect Was That The Causeway Had Not Actually Seen Alice’s Realmic Signature.]
Red’s expression spent a few moments deciding between anger and worry. “I- well- that’s… not ideal.”
Alice caught his eye, brow raised quizzically, but Red’s response was a carefully-crafted blank look.
“Right, so we’ve got a rough direction for the first leg of whatever wanderings we’re going on. What was it you wanted to know about this Bookwyrm, Alice?”
“-that sure was a simple and comprehensive explanation, Red!” said Aidra, entirely unprompted.
“I hadn’t even started explaining,” Red replied.
“That cut was a fakeout? What?”
Red squinted at Aidra in consternation for a few seconds before sighing and snapping his fingers with a crystalline chime. Aidra’s mouth shut with a snap.
“Mmmph-mmmm!” he said, trying and failing to actually open his lips.
“Oh, that’s clever,” said Nik, “how come I never thought of doing something like that?” He snorted at the gesture his brother made in response.
“So, the Bookwyrm was hunting you, on the orders of STAR, I think,” Red started to explain. “My understanding is that when it found you, it was supposed to either capture you – not sure how, Bookwyrms are incorporeal – or report back. What actually happened, however, was that it shook loose something that’s been hanging around your mind for a while, a primordial creature or part of a creature – a thing of darkness and hunger.”
“Some of my dreams were about that,” she said. “There was a big red star that turned out to be Hatred in Crimson, and then I talked to myself about ‘power’ and ‘darkness’ and stuff.”
There was a squeaky pop, and then Aidra spoke again. “I mean, that sounds about right.”
Red blinked in surprise. “That curse should have held for at least another ten minutes. What?”
“Hey now,” he replied smugly, “I’ve been cursed by far more accomplished thaumaturges than you.”
“Wait,” said Alice, “are you talking about Gyran?”
“One – there are plenty of magicians more powerful than Red who aren’t Gyran. Two – yes, correct, she has cursed me in the past as part of pranking attempts, and also her house hates me. But that was an assumption you made, even if it was a correct one, so shush.”
“Look, all this exposition could have been avoided if-”
“Red, could you zip his mouth back up again?”
“If you’ll just let me get a word in edgewise, I can start to explain things!” Red cut in.
“Weren’t you pretty reluctant to share that info earlier, Red?”
“I was, but the pair of you have managed to reverse-psychology me into wanting to!”
Aidra smiled sweetly. “So, what you’re saying is that you don’t want to explain things?”
They talked as a group, as they walked back to Index, and continued once they’d boarded the train heading for Foyer.
It hadn’t always just been White and Grey, Red explained. Once, long ago now, there had been Lord Black. It was a fallen and celestial being, an Archaic Angel who had once been of Creation’s Forge.
“We normally avoid saying its name,” he said, “but I think it’s already tried to do that, and nothing happened, so-”
It had been a creature of lightlessness, of hunger, an infinite point cloaked in the tattered rags of an event horizon, that had slain whole worlds, tearing them asunder with ebon fangs.
And then it crossed paths with Gyran, and perished.
“But that is not dead that can etern-” Aidra began to say, before Red zipped his mouth closed again, and continued to explain.
The working theory was that some drifting memory of Lord Black had intersected with Alice’s shadow, and therefore the entire ‘falling into another Realm’ debacle happened.
“Oh, so it’s all Lord Black’s fault?”
“Well, ‘fault’ is a bit of a hairy concept, especially since this isn’t the true Lord Black, but-”
“He means yes,” said an unglued Aidra.
“Hey! I applied that curse far better this time! How’d you wriggle around that too?”