The stairs to the next level of the tower were wide, steep, and stretched upward into the darkness, where the illumination of Alice’s witchlight could not reach. As she looked up into the gloom, she couldn’t suppress the cold shiver that raced up her spine. It was so quiet, still. She thought she caught sight, as she rounded corners, of long, spindly things disappearing, vanishing back into the gloom, but that could well just have been nerves and the unsteadiness of the light she held still, clutched in her fist. At least the blaring, multicoloured, teleporting monsters had stopped appearing.
Unless, she thought warily, they’re not all bright and flickery all the time. Those shapes in the dark…
She reassured herself that, for all their theoretical sneaking, they still had A Librarian’s magic interdimensional paper thing. The group stuck together this time, as they explored the next floors of the tower.
The next floor seemed to be some form of laboratory – acid-scarred wooden benches, overhead cabinets full of glassware, both stuff recognisable from Alice’s experience in her secondary school’s chemistry labs and contraptions that seemed far more esoteric. In one of the rooms, the walls were covered in floor-to-ceiling shelves, themselves thickly packed with jars and bottles of all shapes and sizes, each of which holding a bizarre preserved animal, alien-looking organ, or something stranger.
“Yeah,” said Red, looking around the room of preserved things, “this is looking weirder by the second. I’ve no idea what half this stuff even is.”
They left the room and its grisly display quickly. As they left, Alice could have sworn she saw the dead eyes in one of the jars swivel to watch them go. When she looked back, they hadn’t moved, but she still barely suppressed a shudder at the thought.
The third and final room of those that unevenly divided that floor was much smaller than either the weird morgue or the alchemical laboratory, but far more cluttered. On one wall, a large bookcase had been emptied, the books scattered across the floor, some lying open, some lying in pieces. Pages, torn from the contents of the empty bookcase, had been haphazardly glued to the walls, floor, and even ceiling in a pattern that only took shape standing at a distance. And finally, across everything, someone had taken a thick black marker and covered the room with writing, jagged glyphs that swam like a magic-eye illusion as Alice turned her head to take more of the room in.
A Librarian hissed in a breath through clenched teeth. “Yeesh. That’s… unpleasant?”
“Oh, right,” she said, “all those destroyed books. Does that have an, er, religious significance for A Librarians in general?”
“I was more talking about it being a huge mess.”
[I Do Not Recognise This Syllabary, Abjad, Or Alphabet.]
“That’s… Hmm,” said Nik. “As you’re a Bookbinder who’s lived in Foyer for centuries, that’s a pretty big endorsement of this being very obscure. Possibly a code of some kind?”
“I don’t recognise this either, so I’ve not a clue where or when another me might have learned this,” said Red.
“You’re assuming it’s the other you that wrote this,” Nik replied. “Could’ve been any random sod.”
Aidra was squinting at a section of wall. “Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm.”
“I’m going to regret asking,” said Red, “but what’re you ‘hmm’-ing about? Can you read it?”
“What? No, I’m illiterate.”
“I’ve seen you read and write things.”
“I could’ve just been seeing the future where I write things and copying what I see.”
“That’s needlessly complicated!”
“Your FACE is needlessly complicated! And that’s a bold assumption, that I wouldn’t do something needlessly complicated to mess with people!”
“Look-” said Red, but Alice wasn’t listening to their argument anymore.
The words had changed, before her eyes. Or maybe they hadn’t, but it felt like a shift, like meaning was leaping out of them. She read.
-pure and malignant-
-the shadow, the shadow –
-did you hear it in the darkness? -hunger, but for-
-inky, lambent- -older, yet older-
-not mine, I belong to it-
-wait for her. Tell her th-
-sorry sorry sorry- -this all-too-fragile form-
-welcome, wipe your feet.
-must tell the other selves. DO NOT-
-see, see the stars. The sky is wrong! Look, look-
-lies beneath the ink, lies beneath the stone-
-white and black and grey and red and and-
It didn’t make much more sense than the random symbols, but she caught snatches, glimpses into something larger, laid out on the papers in a pattern, stretching across the inside of the room. If only she could get to the right vantage point…
She took a step to the side, and nearly collided with Red, who was still arguing with Aidra, apparently about time paradoxes and the necessity for information conservation. He made a startled noise and hopped out of the way.
“Hey, look where you’re going, there.”
“Mmm-hmm,” she replied, off-handedly, “just trying’a read this.”
“Wait, you can read this?”
[Ah. The Omniglottal Ability She Has Demonstrated Before. I Wonder If This Means That This Is Not A Code, Or Whether It Only Works On Languages.]
“What does it say? Or, well,” Red looked around at the sheer volume of scribbles that covered the walls, floor and ceiling, “could we get a general gist?”
“Spooky stuff,” she replied, moving her head from side to side, closing one eye, trying to find the perfect point where all the lines intersected properly and the true pattern jumped out.
“Er,” said A Librarian, “I think you overdid the ‘gist’ bit. Maybe a bit less general?”
“Almost,” she murmured, crouching and looking up at the wall.
The words moved as she did, as if they were written on a surface a bit in front of the papers, or maybe behind, so the way their parallax worked didn’t quite mesh with the actual surfaces.
“Almost wh-” Red started talking, but she had found it.
The words matched up. The world unfolded. She was at the centre of an origami universe filled with knowledge and around her the bromeliad was unfurling, thoughts and things wider and more impossible stretching out over an infinity not graspable. Time slowed, time wasn’t. The message shaped itself in fractal excellence, imprinted on her skin, on her eyes, behind her mouth, across the folding surface of her brain, intricate and exquisite. She saw the shuddering, twitching machinery of language and thought and idea and motion that another Red had built, saw a him that was not him slave away, moving mechanism of metaphor to make a thing whose purpose she could only guess at.
It was like she was standing inside an intricate clock, watching as the machinery started to move around her, spurred into action by forces she could only barely, dizzyingly comprehend. She felt something grab her shoulders, at the very edge of her perceptual spheres, and felt… a motion. The twisting shapes and thoughts spooled around her as her perspective was moved bodily out of the focal point, and she was vaguely aware of people talking as the machine she had glimpsed started to fade from view.