The paths of Foyer wound like basket-wicker downwards and downwards, and the light grew dimmer, the world grew quieter.
Past the pale stone and slow flickering light of the Causeway, the lowest place she’d been in the city, they went, and then further, deeper. The murmuring of the city, quiet to start with, died down, and all she heard was the gentle movement of water, the gentle whispering of dark ink lapping on ebon shores. The air around them grew colder and damper-
“Danker works as an adjective, too,” Aidra whispered.
“I’m just saying.”
-the thoroughfares down here weren’t empty by any means, but the other people moved silently, almost reverently, padding around the twists and turns of walkways, rope bridges and gangplanks with the soft tread of ghosts in a maze. By comparison, Alice’s footsteps practically thundered, no matter how much she tried to sneak, but none of the other figures seemed to pay the group any mind. The lamps and lights were few and far between, down here, and the eyes of the A Librarians she saw glowed eerily in the gloom. There were Masquerade and Bookbinders, too – nearly invisible in the darkness unless they carried a lantern about their persons, and besides the mildest creakings of their articulated joints, they were silent as they moved.
“It’s much colder, down here,” she murmured, her breath escaping as a pale cloud in the gloom.
“The ink of the Atrament acts as a gigantic heatsink,” A Librarian replied, under his breath. “And why are we whispering?”
“It’s just… quiet down here. I don’t want to disturb anyone.”
“Or anything,” Aidra added, conjuring a brief flicker of flame below his chin, illuminating his face like he was telling a spooky story at a campfire.
“This is a populated city,” Nik said, eyeroll audible. “There is nothing dangerous here-”
“I mean, apart from the Formless what rampaged through days ago.”
“Brother, I will kill you with my own bare hands.”
“That’s what they all say.”
“Okay, yes, fine, the Formless was down here, because… probably because it was dredged up from the Atrament somewhere?”
[I Do Not Recall A Similar Event Since That Incident With The Red Right Hand, More Than A Century Ago.]
“No comment,” said Red.
[Mmm-Hmm. Very Suspicious. In Any Case, Such Things Are Rare, And The Scripteraphim Are Likely On High Alert For Other Old, Dangerous Things From Beneath The Ink, And Will Be For A Few Decades Until They Re-Enter Torpor.]
“It was a group effort,” she said, “but I am sufficiently reassured.”
[I Would Like To Thank The Reassurance Award Committee For This Honour, And For My Creator, Elphizur Atch Tarlûlaaork, Who Built Me And Most Of The Rest Of The Twelfth Generation.] Twelfth gave a little curtsy, strange to watch, given the sheer length of her limbs.
“If I had an Oscar, I’d give it to you, for that acting alone.”
[I Would Like To Also Thank Every One Of My Several Thousand Siblings, Individually, By Name. I Will Start With-]
“Oh, hey, there’s the dock!” said Aidra, pointing away into the darkness.
[Goodness Gracious, You Are Correct.]
“Am I the only one here who can’t see in the dark?” Alice asked, incredulously.
“Neither me nor Aidra can, actually,” said Nik, “he’s just, you know, spooky.”
“You’ll see how spooky I am! You’ll see! I’ll crawl out of your television and eat all your socks!”
“I don’t own any socks, though?”
[I Do Not ‘See’ In The Traditional Sense, So My ‘Vision’ Does Not Depend On Light. However, Alice, Were You Not Just Recently Practising Your Command Of The Spherus Lux?]
Excitedly, Alice held out her hand and focused on the magic, and a little pale green ball of light popped into existence above her palm. It was briefly dazzling in the darkness, and when her eyes adjusted, she saw the tangled ropes of the walkways around them illuminated, the colour making everything look ghostly.
Red leaned in towards the light, giving it an inquisitive glance, and then sniffed it.
“Your form and poise is getting much better,” he said, approvingly. “How long can you hold the light for?”
“Oh, thanks! I haven’t timed it, but… a few minutes, probably?”
“Progress! Well done with that, then. You’re a pretty quick study, actually.”
Alice didn’t say anything in reply, but the light she was holding fizzed and sputtered for a second as she processed the compliment and frantically suppressed her blush.
“Er,” said Red, “remember to concentrate on it.”
“Right, yep, sorry, that was what I was doing!”
The light finally stabilised, and she avoided looking in any direction other than down, to where the lights around the docks glowed above the glittering, gently rippling darkness of the ink sea, the Atrament itself. As they got closer, it got bright enough that she didn’t need the light, and she could have a good look around at the many and varied ships of the Atrament.
The dock sat like an island of light in its sea of darkness, lit by strange fireless ‘hermetic lanterns’, neon electric lights, swarms of caged, brilliantly glowing insects and many other stranger forms of illumination. Around the black-stained boards of the wharf, the ink stretched out into the encroaching darkness, glistening with an oily, iridescent sheen where it caught the light. The boats and vessels that were moored at the quay were as varied as the eclectic mix of lights – a boat made entirely of unworked, slotted-together driftwood rubbed shoulders with a trireme, between whose metal hull plates she could see pale flesh, which twitched in time with an echoing, pounding heartbeat. As she walked past the prow of the trireme, an enormous eye opened with a squelch on the ship’s flank, watching her with interest for a few seconds before closing again. A ship of brass and coiling pipes, clicking gears and whirring belts, belched columns of thick, black smoke that smelt like burning tar. All the while, people were coming and going, various kinds she recognised and a few she didn’t, bustling around in the general workings of a dock.
“So,” said Alice, looking around at the vast array of ships and those who crewed them, “we’re taking a boat, then? Which one?”