Alice stood at the edge of the pier, watching Red and Nik talk to one of the captains. This was the third one – apparently no-one was travelling routes that took them near the Inkstone Isles, and neither were they terribly willing to adjust their courses. After the third refusal, she started to wonder if it was actually a good idea, to try to head that way. It certainly seemed like people were trying to give it a wide berth. Red, who was doing most of the negotiations, backed up by Nik, seemed similarly concerned, and was frowning and asking questions, even as he offered ever-mounting sums of money for passage to the Isles.
“Look,” he was saying, “why is no-one willing to take us to the Inkstone Isles?”
The thick-set, scaled person, the latest Atramentic captain they were propositioning shrugged and lit a long, twisted pipe that hung from their mouth, inhaling and then gently exhaling a cloud of grey-green smoke to the side.
“Wouldn’t know,” they gravelled, voice deep and rattling, “but it’s not on the way to anywhere, and the tales some people tell… they’re not good ones.”
Red smiled thinly. “You’ll excuse me,” he said, “but if you’ve got anything more specific, I’d love to hear it.”
“Hmm.” The scales on the sides of their neck shifted, and swirls of thin smoke rose from the cracks between them. “The Isles have been abandoned, a long while since. Upon their central mass, a tower climbs, a chapel. The stones of it are… wrong. They are white, as the Inkstone Isles are black, and you can see it for miles, glowing in the gloom, on some nights. I do not like it, and neither do many of the other captains.”
Red glanced up at Twelfth. “Is this new?”
[I Am… Not Sure? I Can Not Say I Have Heard Of Such A Thing. The Isles Are Relatively Close, Surely Someone Would Have Investigated It?]
“I dunno,” said the captain, “not sure the ‘binders bother checking outside the cities, too often, and it’s not like anyone’s been obviously hurt or menaced, not like that monster that tore through here last week. It’s just…” they shrugged. “It’s just a place no-one wants to go.”
“Oh, hey,” said an A Librarian crewmember who’d been hanging around behind the captain, “wasn’t that thing Zkrith’s fault? Told you she’d never live it down.”
“Mmm-hmm. Say what you want about it not being her direct fault, I prefer to spend as little time dead as possible.”
Red frowned. “Who’s this Zkrith?”
‘This Zkrith’ turned out to be a devil, a dark-furred goatish humanoid who glared at them all with no small amount of frustration and suspicion.
“I don’t talk to reporters,” she said, displaying a very impressive and non-goatish set of pointed teeth, “and I’m done talking to disgruntled fishermen about something that’s been fully repaired and wasn’t even my fault in the first place. I died, too, you know. That hurts.”
“We, er,” Alice said, “we weren’t here to cast aspersions on your… culpability? We’re just interested in-”
“I said no reporters,” said Zkrith. She moved to step back on her rickety-looking houseboat.
“Wait,” said Red, “we were likewise caught up in this, assailed by the creature that you found, that attacked you. In fact, if we were any further down the city than we were, we would likely have been killed, like you were.”
Zkrith turned, narrowing her eyes and folding her arms, but she stopped striding back towards her boat. “Uh-huh.”
“Yeah,” Alice added, “it just kinda burst up from beneath us, and we were only barely rescued by Third Uriel.”
“Right. Well, Third Uriel resurrected me and put my boat back together, I guess. And then that weird-smelling elf lady came and apologised in a way that made no sense-”
“Gyran smells weird?”
“You know her? And yeah, she does. Hard to describe, but not like any elf I’ve met.”
“Er, yes. We’ve met,” said Alice.
“And I guess she felt responsible for the accident with the thing,” said Red. “She… taught the person who did it, I think?”
“That’s nonsense,” said Zkrith, flatly. “The casket I found the creature trapped in was nearly as old as the Age of Flame. Elves don’t live that long, by at least an order of magnitude.”
Red looked to Aidra, who shrugged. “Gyran-”
“Moisturises well?” Aidra supplied.
“Well, now you’re just taking the piss.”
“Red,” he hissed, out of the corner of his mouth. “She’s seen through my ruse, Red. What do I do?”
“You,” he replied, “will shut up while I explain. My apologies for the flippancy of my… ‘friend’. I am an old acquaintance of Gyran’s, and can in fact confirm that she’s definitely old enough to have instructed the builder of the cage you found the Formless in.”
He held up a hand. “I have learned, over the years, that she simply does not care what is or isn’t possible, and if you want to argue the case with her, I can put you in touch. Now, myself and my companions here were looking for safe passage somewhere, and if you’re willing to head in the direction of the Inkstone Isles, we’d be able to recompense you… not handsomely, per se, but definitely adequately.”
She barely flinched at the mention of the Isles. “I’m listening. How much?”
“Well, there are six of us, and we’re quite capable of earning some of our keep, so…”
Alice tuned the discussion of numbers and currencies she didn’t recognise out, instead watching the dark-furred devil as she mulled something over, before coming to a conclusion, spitting on her paw, and shaking Red’s rather more reluctant hand.
“I was looking for an excuse to leave this place, anyway,” she said, with a small degree of bitterness. “They pay lip service to the accident not being my fault, but still, they definitely blame me.”
“So you’re not averse to the Isles?” Alice asked.
“Oh, not on your life am I setting foot there,” she retorted. “I’m staying in my boat, thank you very much. Although, if you find something interesting, I do have an interest in artefacts and archaeology.”