The Heights, like a Reptile, Are Scaled

The world wobbled as streams of strange data uncoiled from around her brain. Glyph and paragraph collapsed, parting like gossamer veils afore her senses. Things that were, things that weren’t, things that could yet be.

With a sudden shock, like a wave of icy water, she splashed back into full reality. They were all in a different room, outside the wreck of that library and its beautiful machine of sculpted words.

“Okay, there’s iris response, and it doesn’t look like she’s concussed or anything.”

As the voices around her snapped into focus, she realised Red was holding her head still, his right hand cold on her cheek. On his other hand, the tip of his finger was glowing, and he was shining the light in her face, carefully looking at her eyes. Refocusing, she blinked and met his gaze.

“Oh!” He let go of her face. “You’re back! Well, that was alarming.” He cleared his throat and took an awkward half-step back. They were in a different room, now, whose bare stone floor was partially covered by a series of mismatched carpets.

Twelfth leaned closer, her featureless face looming into Alice’s field of vision. [How Are You Doing? What Happened?]

“There was…” she paused a moment, deep in thought, “there was a machine. Made of words?”

A Librarian’s eyes, always luminous, lit up more. “Oh? A different systema of Linguamancy? That’s fascinating. Do you know if it had a purpose?”

She frowned, concentrating. “I’m not sure? There was things, and they were put together in all these complicated ways… moving around me?”

“You think it was an intentional trap?” asked Nik, at no-one in particular.

[Seeing As It Is Only Effective On People Who Know Whatever Language Is Written On The Walls, I Would Feel It Is Not A Trap.]

“Yeah,” said Alice, “it only got me. That’s, what, one out of six?”

[Unless, Of Course, It Is Solely Designed To Work On Alice.]

Well. That’s worrying.” She paused for a second to allow the thought to sink in. “I’m now worried.”

[You Need Not Necessarily Be Concerned. There Are Informational Considerations, Too. How Would A Theoretical Builder Of This ‘Trap’ Know You Existed, To Start With? Someone Built A Very Complicated Magical Working On The Offchance You Would Go To A Fairly Out-Of-The-Way Island In Order To Walk Through One Specific Room, Get Snared By One Of The Walls, And Then… What?]

“I’m less worried?”

[Glad To Be Reassuring. If It Is A Trap, I Would Suppose It Is For Capturing A Category Of Being That Includes You, Rather Than You Specifically. Seeing As We Do Not Have Any Knowledge Of The Providence Of Your Omniglottal Abilities, Which Were Required To Spring This Alleged Trap, Further Investigation Is Required. But I Believe It To Be Unlikely That You Are Specifically Singled Out By This Mechanism.]

Alice paused for a few seconds, while that processed. “Have you been a detective or a lawyer or something?”

Twelfth’s windchime laughter echoed in her head. [Well. I Was A Member Of The Foyan Order Of Peacekeepers For A Century Or So, Which Requires A Certain Attention To Detail, And I Did Do A Stint As A Sister Avocat. That Is Covered By The Definition Of ‘Lawyer’, Although There Are Some Semantic And Legal Distinctions That It Would Be Stereotypical Of Me To Elaborate On, I Suspect.]

“You were an avocado?” asked Aidra.

[I Was Not, In Fact, An Avocado. I Was An Advocate.]

“You’re a bit tall to be an avocado.”

[Correct.]

“Maybe the big cool robot lady is but a suit, and the real avocado is inside, piloting it!”

[Incorrect.]

“You never let me have fun!”

[Accurate.]

Alice was half-listening to the shenanigans, preferring instead to mull the idea of the ‘trap’ over. Meanwhile, Red was standing nearby, pointedly not fussing over her, and the Nik-A Librarian coalition was back through in the library room, animatedly exchanging ever-more convoluted academic theories on how it functioned and what its purpose was.

“Are you… doing okay?” Red asked. He’d been awkwardly hanging about nearby, like some kind of deeply concerned hummingbird.

She shrugged. “I guess so? Back to whatever ‘normal’ counts for, anyway.”

“Good.”

There was an awkward pause. Red fidgeted. Alice felt the last of the fuzz that had been embracing her brain fade away, presumably from sheer embarrassment.

She broke the silence. “So… how’re you doing? Is this like, I dunno, looking into a spooky ‘there but for the grace of god go I’ fairground mirror?”

He snorted. “Not so much. Maybe it’s more weird, because I don’t recognise myself in, well,” he gestured around, “any of this. But it’s still giving me deja vu, or something like it. This is all stuff that I could have created, under different circumstances. But the things I’d recognise as my own ‘fingerprints’ are absent.”

“And you don’t know how to make a spooky word-machine contraption?”

“Not in the foggiest.”

[Interesting,] said Twelfth. [How Long Do You Think It Takes To Learn How To Make One Of Those Machines? Years? Decades?]

“I mean,” he replied, “I’m not wholly linear in time, so it could be longer or shorter than it seems to be in normal Realm time.”

[Good Point.]

“It’s still strange, I think, that we’re so divergent.”

“Oh yes,” said Aidra, “how sinister. It’s like this other you hasn’t left any clues at all.”

“I know what you’re doing, and stop it.”

“Couldn’t think of a better rebuke offhand?

Red groaned.

Okay,” said Alice, before the squabbling could continue, “that’s enough of that.” She raised her voice. “A Librarian? Nik?”

A Librarian appeared around the corner to the spooky paper room. “Yes?”

“C’mon, we’re heading upstairs. You can do some research on the thing when we’re sure we’re not so much at risk from weird teleporting stuff and also a Red evil twin. Well, eviller.”

“Rude.”

“Right, okay,” said A Librarian, “Nik’s just finishing up the picture-captures, and then we won’t even need to go back.”

“That’ll be incredibly convenient when the tower collapses following our climactic confrontation with Red’s inner-outer demons,” said Aidra.

“Why would the tower collapse?”

“It’s more narratively satisfying.

“I’m certain,” she replied exasperatedly, “that that’s not how it works.”

“Not quite,” said A Librarian, as he and Nik joined the rest of the group, “it depends on how you interpret the effects of the weak and strong narrative forces.”

“I choose to ignore that and substitute a reality which actually makes sense.”

“Who’s the crazy one now?” asked Aidra, oozing smugness.

“One – still you,” she retorted, “and two – we’re in a spooky tower, let’s have dumb arguments when we’re in less imminent peril.”

He looked around at the darkened, empty room. “This doesn’t look very imminent. We’ve got plenty of time to argue. In f-”

Nik clapped a hand over his mouth, cutting whatever nonsense his brother was about to utter short. “So, we’re finding some more stairs and heading up, then?”

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