“Do feel free to yet return and sample more of the beautiful fleshes,” the cultist-server whispered, bowing as they left the beautifully scented little restaurant-slash-church. It had certainly been an interesting experience, all told, and a good deal more pleasant than the whole ‘creepy sectarian bistro’ aesthetic made it seem.
“So,” said Aidra with no deficiency in smugness, “you’ll trust my restaurant recommendations in future?”
Alice rolled her eyes. “I will trust them as far as I can throw you.”
[They Do Have An Excellent Selection Of Ethereal Dishes And Beverages, But Since I Am Capable Of Throwing You A Great Distance I Will Not Concur With Alice.]
“Aw beans. I was thinking of Axathoth’s Gelateria for afterwards.”
“Yeah, no, I don’t like the sound of that place. Let’s go find somewhere to sleep, Gloaming’s gonna end soon.”
“How many times do I have to tell you you’re no fun?”
All things were fragmented, sharp at the edges, glittering like vitreous snowfall, casting distorted mosaic sights of memory through all things. Parts of the Tower fragmented, mixing with the inside of Nik and Aidra’s family house and the waters of the Bathyscape, all echoing with the thunderous tread of a corpse giant. Among them, pieces of shattered memory slowly knit together, emitting motes of red light as their edges melded.
Among them, she saw a shadowy figure that pulsed gently with russet smoke.
“Hello,” said Hatred in Crimson.
There was a brief and awkward pause, punctuated by the ever-present sound of something that resembled tinkling glass.
“So, um,” she said, “what’re you doing?”
“Your will was misappropriated by a Book Wyrm and by the hidden darkness. I am repairing the damage and fortifying your thoughts against intrusion.”
“Do not be afraid. I am a creature that affects minds. I am well-suited to restoring the independence of your thought.”
And, at that, Hatred in Crimson returned to their work, and Alice drifted back off into dreams of a more mundane variety. It was almost a relief to have a mild, distorted maybe-nightmare about being late for her paper’s deadline. The sheer unadulterated mundanity was so soothing she barely even registered it as something that was supposed to scare her, and it was some of the best sleep she’d had in weeks.
Morning came, and she woke up exactly where she’d fallen asleep, in a bed at the Golden Bezoar. No monsters, no Aidra bursting in t-
“GOOD M-oh, you’re awake.” Speak of the devil.
“How has no-one tried to kill you yet?”
“Oh, they’ve tried!”
“How terribly unsurprising,” she said, sitting up and yawning. “Wha’s for breakfast?”
“Beetle cereal, then we’re gonna go see Big Snake Herself.”
It turned out that, much to her relief, there was non-beetle based cereal.
“GREETINGS ONCE MORE.”
They were stood, once again, on the platform, afore the massive head of Jöurnalmungandr.
After a bit of indecision, Alice did a little curtsey. “Greetings yourself?” She was still incredibly unsure as to what ‘proper decorum’ meant in these circumstances.
“GOOD MORNING TO YOU ALL. MS ALICE, A LIBRARIAN, NIKRODEIMUS, AIDRAILOMON, TWELFTH ZEPHYR AND… AH, RED. IT HAS BEEN A WHILE SINCE YOU HAVE GRACED ME WITH YOUR PRESENCE, HAS IT NOT?”
“I felt it would be… imprudent, to put it off any more,” said Red as he bowed deeply, clearly uncomfortable with the entire situation.
“WELL, THAT IT WOULD. WHILE OTHERS IN MY CITY MAY BE WARY OF YOU, I LOOK WHERE THEY DO NOT, AND THE RED RIGHT HAND IS WELCOME IN MY COURT. OR, AT LEAST, YOU ARE. AS FOR THE OTHERS-”
“The less said about those, the better, if You might,” he replied, not rising from his bow.
“Um,” said Alice, “your… majesty?”
“I AM NO QUEEN, BUT YOU HAVE A QUESTION?”
“Why did you call me here?”
“YES. THE TIME FOR TRIVIALITIES AND GREETINGS IS OVER. KNOWLEDGE OF YOUR EXPLOITS HAS REACHED ME. THE SONG OF THE FALSE AXIOM THAT RANG IN YOUR BATTLES, INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL, HAS ECHOED THROUGH THE SUBLIMINAL SPACES ACROSS THE LIBRARY, IF ONE KNOWS WHERE TO LISTEN. THOSE HUNTERS OF WYRMS MAY BE THE FIRST LISTENERS TO FIND YOU, BUT I DO NOT BELIEVE THEY WILL BE THE LAST.”
“Great. More people trying to find me?”
“IT IS UNFORTUNATE THAT WE ONLY MEET WHEN BAD NEWS IS TO BE EXCHANGED. WHEN THIS HAPPENS AGAIN, I REMEMBER THAT IT WILL BE BETTER.”
“PAY IT NO MIND. IT WILL BECOME CLEAR LATER, THESE THINGS OFTEN DO. TIME IS A THING OF DIFFICULTY. NOW, IT IS NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE TO DETERMINE THAT YOU ARE THE SOURCE OF WHAT HAPPENED AT THE FALSE AXIOM – IT WAS A LOCALISED EVENT, AND YOU BEAR LITTLE TRACE OF IT UPON YOUR PERSON. WHAT SHOULD CONCERN YOU THE MOST ARE THE AGENTS OF STAR – THEY MAY WELL CONNECT THE EVIDENCE, DESPITE THEIR RUDIMENTARY METHODS.”
“After we went on this whole sojourn to avoid them? Cripes.”
“WELL, IT IS MERELY A THING TO PAY ATTENTION TO. I SUGGEST LEAVING THE CITY VIA A ROUTE YOU HAVE NOT PREVIOUSLY TAKEN. YOUNG TWELFTH ZEPHYR KNOWS THE WAY.”
Red spoke up. “So, wait, another way… you want us to take an atramentic ferry?”
“IT IS A ROAD LESS TRAVELLED, AND ONE UNTO WHICH YOU HAVE NOT YET TROD YOUR MARK. THE INKSTONE ISLES ARE LOVELY DURING THIS SEASON, AND LOCAL TO THE IVORY KEEP OF WYRMSTOOTH. I BELIEVE IT SERVES YOUR PURPOSES WELL. ADDITIONALLY, THERE IS ONE WARNING I HAVE LEFT TO GIVE, AND ONE FAVOUR TO ASK.”
“Uh.” Alice looked around to her travelling companions, who didn’t seem to disagree with the idea of doing Her a favour. “Sure, go ahead. Not saying we’ll definitely do it, but we’ll hear you out, if that’s okay?”
“ABSOLUTELY, YOUNG ALICE, AND WELL WORDED IN YOUR ACCEPTANCE. I CAN SEE WHY RED APPRECIATES YOUR COMPANY. THERE ARE DANGEROUS THINGS AFOOT, BEYOND MY DIRECT SPHERE OF INFLUENCE WITHIN THE INKSTONE ISLES. DEMONS OF A MOST UNPLEASANT VARIETY GATHER THERE, UNDER THE BANNER OF SOMEONE YOU MAY NEED TO OBSERVE. DEAL WITH THEM, IF YOU CAN. IF YOU REQUIRE ASSISTANCE, CALL MY NAME.”
“Well, we’ll give it a go, won’t we?”
“A quest!” Aidra exclaimed. “Her Nibs even has an exclamation mark over Her head, if you squint a bit!”
“That’s a yes, then?”
The rest of them murmured their assent. Red seemed troubled by the crimson in Her cadence, but still nodded, brows furrowed.
“CAPITAL. NOW, FOR A WARNING.”
The colossal snake leaned closer, and the world seemed to darken in, like She was sucking all the light out of the air.
“YOU HAVE ENCOUNTERED SYRK THE DEATHLESS, LAST OF HIS NAME. HE IS THE OTHER WHO WILL HAVE HEARD THE SONG OF THE FALSE AXIOM AND UNDERSTOOD ITS IMPORT. PAY CLOSE ATTENTION. HE IS NOT TO BE TRIFLED WITH. CONTACT YOUR FRIEND, YOUNG GYRAN, IF YOU THINK HE IS ON YOUR IMMEDIATE TAIL.” She leaned back away, and the light flowed back into the space, and the tension evaporated as if a collective breath was released. “AND DO COME AND VISIT, SHOULD YOU FIND THE OPPORTUNITY. I APPRECIATE OUR TALKS.”