The days passed quietly, for the most part. Occasional flashes of ghostly light above the mirror-black surface of the ink disturbed the gloom. Occasionally, pale and sightless porcelain fish breached the surface, sometimes for a brief moment, sometimes for a full leap before splashing back down into the opaque darkness. On the fifth day of the journey, a gigantic dark shape slowly emerged from the mist, a great pillar that bridged the gap between ceiling and ink, down into the dark Atrament and up, away into the shrouds of mist, to the vaulted ceiling that hung above this ocean, visible only in glimpses through the haze.
“Ah, the Fiftieth Vault. We’re getting close to the Isles,” said Zkrith, one hand on the weird articulated tiller, the other occupied with manipulating a set of switches and levers that controlled the ‘aetheric flow’ of the boat’s engine.
“Are we there yet?” asked Aidra, with all the whining of a toddler on a long car journey.
Zkrith snorted, rolling her eyes. “We’ll sight land by… this Gloaming, I’d reckon. Hard to tell the time by light down here, but the boatlights will flicker a bit when we pass between the day intervals.”
“Oh, that’s cool,” said Alice. “So even artificial lights respond to the day-night cycle, in the Library?”
“I mean, why wouldn’t they?”
“Uh…” She thought for a moment.
“And to add to your confusion,” said Zkrith, “I’d point out that most of the lights in, say, Foyer are actually artificially placed there.”
“I realise that I don’t actually know how the day-gloom-night cycle actually works here.”
“How’d it work in your home Realm?”
She thought for a bit. “Well, I lived on the… surface of a big roughly-spherical thing, and there was a star that shone for the daylight, and the planet – the sphere – rotated, so occasionally the place I was wasn’t the place the light was?”
“Sounds like a weird version of how the Arboretum works, which probably means your home’s thing was mechanical like theirs. It’s all based on stuff interposing itself between the light and you, and so forth.”
“Well, I come from Sheol, which has no day-night cycle at all. We just count our days by the beating of the Heart, which echoes through the entire Realm. But the Library has a natural cycle of light and dark, which starts off low, rises to high, drops to medium and then back to low, and this is reflected by the effectiveness of light-generating things in the Realm. So, say, fire is a bit darker in the Gloaming, and much darker in the Withering than it is in the Highering. You don’t normally notice this about fire, though, firstly because it’s a protected substance in the Library and secondly because everything is so dark at night that the fire being dim looks bright by comparison.”
“Huh. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but it’s internally consistent?”
“It’s magical,” said Aidra, “it doesn’t have to make sense!”
“I assure you,” Zkrith retorted, “that a thing being ‘magical’ does not preclude it making sense, and the fact that certain magical processes are repeatable and reliable is what I rely on to power this boat’s engine.”
“So if the suspension of disbelief is so good, why’s the ride so bumpy?”
She turned to Alice. “Is he always like this?”
“I can only assume so.”
As predicted, a few hours later rocky shapes started to come into view, drifting out of the swirling fog and jutting out of the ink, what once had been jagged forms smoothed by the endless lapping of the sea against their shores.
“Look, there,” said A Librarian, pointing off into the darkness ahead. “I think that must be the ‘chapel’ the captain spoke of, back at the docks.”
Sure enough, as Alice squinted into the swirling gloom, she thought she saw glimpses of a pillar or tower, mostly concealed, visible by its sickly and almost luminous pallor. As they approached, the island it stood on became clearer too, a jagged mass of dark grey-black inkstone upon which the tower stood like a sliver of ivory atop a pile of coals.
“It’s taller than I remember,” Red said pensively, either failing to notice or ignoring Alice’s questioning look.
Zkrith looked up at the tower for a few seconds before speaking. “Yeah, that looks deeply spooky, so I’m staying back here in the boat. Have fun with whatever Dread Tower this ends up being.”
“You can be our getaway driver,” said Aidra. “The secret sign that we wanna get away quickly will be us running down the beach, screaming.”
“… I’ll bear that in mind?”
“Great! Seeya in a tic, then!”
[In Case You Are Concerned,] said Twelfth, [We Will Call You On Your Canner-Phone If We Wish To Leave Quickly, That You Might Start The Engine Up And Prepare For Our Arrival.]
Zkrith had anchored her houseboat a short way offshore, so they took a smaller boat – a gig, apparently – ashore, landing with a soft crunching on a pebbled beach of dark grey inkstone. Looking around, Alice couldn’t see much, besides the grey-on-grey of the different veins of inkstone, the occasional tuft of navy blue vegetation the only splash of colour against the general dreariness of the main island itself.
“It’s pretty bleak, isn’t it?” she wondered aloud.
“On the surface,” Red replied, “but if you know where to look…”
He reached out with his foot and flipped a large, flat stone over, dislodging it from its resting place among the pebbles of the beach. When the rock’s surface split, opening to reveal several sets of jointed legs, waving them around until it found purchase and managed to flip itself back over, slotting back into the hole Red had dislodged it from and clacking closed again, Alice was too startled to articulate a cry of alarm or surprise.
“Well,” said Red, looking down at the rock-creature, which looked almost suspiciously unremarkable once more, “you never know what you might find.”
“Do I,” she began, once she’d managed a partial recombobulation, “do I need to watch my step?”
“Nah. These things are camouflaged to keep themselves away from predators, and they’re tough enough that you’re not gonna squish them by treading on them, don’t worry.”
“Oh, okay,” she said, looking around suspiciously at the landscape around her, which was now possibly filled with a myriad of concealed creatures.
In the meantime, Twelfth had carried the gig, complete with a protesting Aidra, up beyond the high tide mark, and walked over to the rest of the group.
[So, We Are To Investigate This Tower? I Believe Jöurnalmungandr Said There Were Demons About, But I Neither See Nor Feel A Sign Of Them.]
“I could venture some guesses,” said Red, “but I think we’ll only know for certain once we take a closer look at this tower, especially if it’s what’s been scaring off all the local sailors. It’s a place to start, at least.”
And with that, they started to make their way up the dark and rocky slopes of the largest Inkstone Isle, toward the pale tower that stood at its heart.
And the tower waited for them.