Mind becomes shape, shape becomes matter, matter becomes mind.
They moved, and their surface bristled with structures that absorbed sound, that deadened vibration. They crept silently through a jagged maze of wood, ink, and paper pulp, scanning the outer shapes for traces of the goal.
Outside is observed, transferred to Inside. Fluid Shape is formed Inside, Shape to face the Outside. Inside becomes Outside.
Senses sharpened through thousands of shapeling iterations spotted the tripwires, sniffed out the magic of the wards, tasted the sweat of the patrols. A form of fluid plasm moved and changed, stepping over a thin wire, sliding past wards without touching them, and avoiding the patrol by taking on the exact texture and consistency of a pile of books dislodged from a shelf in some past seismic shift.
Booted feet moved past, bearing the acrid scents of salted nervousness. The patrol was obviously less than comfit with the alien world whose soft carpet they trod bootedly. When the three of them passed beyond earshot, the pile of books that their tired eyes had just skimmed past bubbled, melted, and started to slither down the aisle of bookcases the way they’d came.
Tastes lay in trails through the ground’s weave. An internal shape, recently ignored, labels them as ‘prey’. If the shape were sapient enough to realise the possibility of being disregarded, there would be an air of desperation in its ‘tone’. But it isn’t, so there isn’t.
A pack of stumbling homonculi, uncoordinated, bent-limbed and misshapen, moved awkwardly along the route they were programmed to patrol. They didn’t possess the wherewithal to notice a similar figure, clad in the same black leathers and motorcycle helmet, join the group from behind, stepping out of an adjoining alley of written words. They definitely didn’t possess the level of independent thought necessary to note that the extra homonculus’s gait began smooth, stable and purposeful, starting to stagger and lurch as it copied those around it.
Although it had never worked out that way, the Formless was originally designed to be an infiltrator.
“What are you even trying to do, here?”
Eve, the Gone, looked up from the book she was reading, plucked from one of the endless shelves. The Steward and the Hunter were arguing, again.
“It is my operation,” the Steward was saying, “and I give out information on a need-to-know basis.”
The Hunter didn’t actually snarl, but she definitely bristled. “Then, I need to know why you’re sending me on all these wild goose chases!”
“They are not-”
“They bloody well are! You send me off to some place in this nightmare plane where the sky is made of ideas and the walls are made of secrets, and then I sniff around a bit, find nothing at all of use, and come back! What’s the point, even?”
The Steward drew deeply from the pale clay pipe he was holding and sighed before continuing. “We seek to triangulate the lost person from our world, and work out how and why that happened. Need I remind you that people spontaneously falling out of reality is a bad outcome?”
“It’s one incident. All this fuss for one person? We’ve tried to find her, we’ve failed, so we should stop throwing good resources after bad. The Realms are vast, people get lost in them occasionally.”
“Impressively callous, Ori.”
The Hunter narrowed her eyes, and Eve could see the slight movement through her cheeks as her teeth got longer. “I’m just saying. We do not have infinite resources, and I am tired of wandering around a hostile whilderness full of carnivorous books, censœrs and other complete nonsense. I am not being callous, I am being practical.”
“Well, in practical terms, if one person can inexplicably fall out of reality, more people can! It won’t be an isolated incident for long if we don’t work out what happened and patch whatever security hole in the Worldwards allowed it to happen.” His voice steadily rose in both pitch and volume. “It could be a crisis! Some kind of sick rapture! Thin places are enough – they’re documented, they happen for reasons, but this is an existential quandary!”
Orion actually leaned back a bit, caught aback by the ferocity of his outburst. “Okay,” she croaked, before clearing her throat. “Well, I still want some more specific information about what I’m needed for.”
Meanwhile, with only half an ear on the argument, Eve was reading what she had determined was an incredibly detailed architectural description of cities that had never been built, and how they would have grown, were they not destroyed. Strange cities of a ‘Coiled Empire’ rubbed shoulders with more earthly descriptions of “New Constantinople” within the slim green volume, and it served as an ample distraction from the arguing of her colleagues.
“Look,” said Tarquin, the Steward, “homunculus group alpha-three-B vanished without a trace over near one of the beaches here-” he indicated a space on a map, spread out over the table – “and there’s barely been any losses on the groups I’ve sent with you.”
“Didn’t even find any corpses or remains? Did something just eat them?”
He stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I’m not entirely sure. Would you be willing to check out their last known grid location? You are, after all, STAR’s best tracker.”
She snorted. “Hah. Well, I’ll swing by as I head over to… The Mire Dynthort? Sheesh, they’re really reaching with these place name puns, aren’t they? I should probably take some waders or something. Which bundle of misshapen weirdos are you sending with me this time?”
“I think-” he glanced over at a clipboard. “Ah, sigma-three-A are returning from patrol around now.” He reached into one of the pockets of his tweed jacket, pulling out a little vial of red, viscous fluid and gazing through it. “Hmm. The status report said they’d lost three, but they’re only missing two. The connection on the final one must have died – Eve, could you do something about that?”
Eve sighed, closed her book, and walked out of the tent.
“Not sure if that was a ‘yes’ or not,” said the Hunter.