The gondola creaked to a stop at the edge of the cliff, and the Grim Gondolier’s singing came to a halt with the sound of a record player’s arm being disengaged from a vinyl.
“Right, thanks,” said Alice, hopping off the gondola and onto solid ground, trying very hard not to look down and to mind the gap, as the gondola was parked just alongside the top of the cliff.
As the rest of them dismounted – far more at-ease with the great height than she was – Alice looked around at the landscape that lay at the top of the cliff. Wyrmstooth Keep stood, towering above the plain, and now that she could see the ‘root’ of it, it looked like the enormous, ivory-coloured castle had been thrust up through the ground beneath it, surrounded by cracks and divots in the stone. Further than that, the ground rose back up again into a series of great towers, twisted pillars that tapered towards their centres, connecting the ceiling of this massive cavern to the floor. It reminded her somewhat of an area she’d been to very early in her exploration – where she’d seen enormous thin pillars made entirely out of books. These pillars, conversely, appeared to be made of stone, riddled with holes full of scrolls, like the cliffs were.
The gondolier lilted a lyrical thanks to them, then settled their gondola down on the edge of the cliff, fished a ball of wool and some knitting needles out of various deep robe pockets, and stopped paying attention to whatever the rest of them were doing.
“Right then! To… why did the dragonslayers ask us to visit again?” She thought briefly, then fished around in her pockets for the business card the Seventh – that Bookbinder with the enormous sword – had given her. “Aha! Is this the right address?”
Nik squinted at the card for a second, examining the weird holographic address sigil. “Looks like the place.”
“Oh, excellent. It’s bigger than I thought. It’s really made of a dragon’s tooth? How big was that dragon?”
Aidra looked out over the plain, criss-crossed by a maze of pathways between short, stout rocky pillars and stalagmites towards a tooth the size of a castle. “A big’un.”
“Yes, thank you Aidra, that was very helpful.”
The pillars of the plane were roughly hexagonal, and the ground had cracked into a hexagonal tessellating pattern — much like pictures she’d seen of the Giant’s Causeway. And, everywhere, in small cubbies in the stone, stuffed in the cracks between the pillars and piled up on the floors, were the endless books, scrolls, tablets and other writing ephemera of the Library.
Luckily for the purposes of navigation, they were able to climb up on the flat-topped pillars, changing an enclosed maze to a much nicer and more navigable maze, apart from the couple of times that she had to get a hand from Twelfth in order to make it across the larger gaps. They did manage to spot some creatures – including some censœrs that slid like ████ through the ███ in the pathways between two pillars. They beat a hasty retreat before the cloying vapours managed to █████ too many of their thoughts and memories, and managed to work their way around, giving the creatures a wide berth. Less dangerously, Alice managed to catch sight of more of those little hermit-crab creatures, and then disturbed a little flock of brightly-coloured paper planes, which exploded out of a nest between two pillars in a whirl of fluttering colour.
The gates of Wyrmstooth Keep loomed, and must have been twenty feet tall, although a more reasonably-sized wicket gate was inset into one of the massive stone doors.
“So,” said A Librarian, looking the door over as they all stood before it, “do we knock or something?”
“Do they have an intercom?” Aidra mused. “Would that be an anachronism?”
“I know what an intercom is,” he replied.
“Well you do, now I’ve told you what it is!”
“Firstly you haven’t, and secondly no.”
Ignoring the developing argument, Alice walked up closer to the wicket gate. It was made of the same stone as the rest of the landscape – a dark grey granite-like crystally rock that she didn’t have the geology chops to fully describe. Would it be possible to have igneous rock, here in the Library, where fire was illegal and the world didn’t have any volcanoes or lava? She wasn’t sure, and wasn’t about to get dragged into discussing that, when she could be inside discussing dragons instead.
What the gate did have, however, was a knocker, an enormous brass contraption crafted in the shape of – surprise, surprise – a snarling dragon’s head. She attempted to lift the heavy handle in order to knock on the door, gave it as good as she could, and only when it came down with a mocking ding, barely making any noise at all was it that she turned to Twelfth and implored her to try.
Twelfth, for her part, made it look very easy to lift the doorknocker and bring it down with a deafening crash that echoed up and down the field of pillars.
The A Librarian who opened the door of the Keep wasn’t the same one she’d met before from the Order of Esteemed Dragon Hunters. She was a much younger-looking woman, wearing a suit of armour crafted from dark red metal scales, her dark green hair tied back in a bun and fixed with a pair of very sharp-looking needles.
“Greetings,” said this A Librarian. “What brings you to our Keep?”
“Ah, er,” said Alice, suddenly feeling very on-the-spot, “we spoke to A Librarian, and he told me to come here?”
She looked puzzled. “Who?”
Alice took a moment and, like in the lessons Red had given her on the boat on how to do it, pictured the face of A Librarian – the old one, with his inscribed skin and long leafy beard – as clearly as she could.
Once she was ready, she spoke. “A Librarian.”
She tried to put as much meaning as she could into those two words, and it clearly worked, because A Librarian’s eyes lit up.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “A Librarian! Yes, yes, I heard he went off on an excursion to look for something a while back. Come in, come in, I’ll see if I can’t ring for him. You should’ve said!”
And, with that, she swung the door wide open and ushered them in.
The ivory halls of Wyrmstooth Keep were thickly carpeted, and hung with a bewildering array of trophies and tapestries, each of which depicting some tremendous struggle against a coiling monster. Tiny stick figures of A Librarians, Bookbinders and other people scaled the sides of one enormous, limbless feathered wyrm on one of these illustrations, brandishing tiny spears as the creature spat bright green bubbles of liquid at them, the acid melting holes in the rocky landscape they were fighting on.
The A Librarian looked back over her shoulder, noticed Alice was staring at the tapestry, and grinned. “I was there for that one – the great Taming of the Aciddrake – that was nearly fifty years ago, now. I think there are still some of their feathers, up in the museum of artifacts. You can’t stay in the room with them too long – the aura they give off would melt the eyes right out of your skull.”
She waggled her fingers for emphasis, and Alice reckoned that if she could have, she’d have shone a torch under her chin for the full effect.
“Grisly,” said Red.
“What happened to the Aciddrake?” Alice asked.
A Librarian scratched her chin. “I think, once they were subdued, we arranged transportation back to their home Realm, and released them into the wild. Once they’d got settled in again, they sent the Order a fruit basket as a thank-you.”
“Yeah, one of the great tenets of the Order is that dragons tend to be well-adjusted within their natural environment, but the stress of being in a new place or unfamiliar situation, combined with such great power, is a recipe for chaos.” She sounded a bit like she was reading something off of a brochure. “Anyway, did you want to see anything else? I suppose I could give you a tour of the museum.”
“Actually, a question’s occurred to me,” Alice said. “How did -” she thought of that particular A Librarian as hard as she could – “A Librarian and the Seventh find me so quickly?”
“Oh! We can go past the early wyrning system, if you want, and I can explain some of that. Follow me.”
“What else would you call an early warning system that warns for wyrms?”