The following morning, in the bright and even Highering light, they bade the Order of Esteemed Dragon Hunters goodbye, and headed back to the edge of the cliff. Zkrith’s houseboat was still moored in the bay — they’d called down and offered her one of the rooms they’d been appointed in the Keep, but she said she’d prefer her own bed — and the gondolier was in their boat, jutting out off of the edge of the cliff in a way that set Alice’s teeth on edge, even though she knew it could float. A neatly-knitted cardigan in swirling patterns of black and orange lay folded by their feet, and they themself were lying back with a brightly-coloured book lying open over the ‘face’ opening in their stripey, cowled cloak. The writing on book shivered briefly before her eyes as it translated itself, revealing that this book was called Lost in the Beating Heart Of Thirst, and that reviews were calling it a ‘bodice ripper of the highest calibre’. Apparently, the ‘Pandaemonium Press Journal’ gave it ‘eight out of ten heaving bosoms’, and she didn’t really want to know what that meant. As they approached, the snoring, which sounded like an off-key harmonica, made it fairly obvious that the gondolier was asleep.
Alice cleared her throat. The second time, with the sound of a rusty foghorn, the gondolier started awake and sat up abruptly, launching their romance novel into the air. They held out a hand, and the book, which had shot nearly directly upwards, landed perfectly in their palm, snapping shut as the gondolier turned to look at the group.
“Sorry for disturbing you?”
They honked that no apology was necessary, they were just resting something that roughly translated to ‘holes in my head that I perceive with’.
“Right, right. Could we get a lift down again?”
They spoke brief waltz music in the affirmative, and held out a hand for the little bag of weird coins that A Librarian had made with his moneygrinder earlier. Payment received, they tooted happily and ferried them down to the beach in a long, lazily-inclined spiral down past the cliff — whose irregularly-spaced holes and their hidden occupants didn’t quite loom, but whose presence and many jagged teeth weighed somewhat in Alice’s mind as they descended. The stones of the Whispering Sound murmured gently under their feet as they bade the gondolier goodbye and started to head down the beach to the gig they’d come ashore on, the afternoon before. It was quick work for Twelfth to undo the knots and haul the gig to the edge of the Atrament, and they were soon on their way out into the sound, to where the houseboat was moored.
“You had fun?” asked Zkrith, as she started to manoeuvre the boat raising crane thing — Alice was pretty sure Zkrith had called it a davit.
“Fun, maybe,” she replied, “but it was interesting and informative!”
“While you were all being nerds,” said Aidra, “I built a card tower worthy of my majesty.”
“He did,” said Alice. “And then we had to clean it up. That thing must have been at least twenty metres tall.”
“Huh,” said Zkrith, as the gig reached the level of the deck, and the group started to climb out onto the houseboat. “That’s a lot of cards.”
Aidra’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ve got big pockets!”
“Mmm-hmm,” she replied, turning to the rest of them as she started tying the gig down, securing it on the deck. “Anyway, were you heading anywhere else? Otherwise, I can swing back towards Foyer before I head off towards where I next want to go. It’s been interesting, but unless you want to pay for passage somewhere further afield, I do have to get back to my, well, career as a trader.”
“You also do trawling of the deep Atrament!”
“I think I’ve gone off that a little,” she said, fixing Aidra with a withering glare, “due to that bit where I accidentally released an ancient monster and, you know, died.”
“You got better!”
“Yeah, and I don’t want to push my luck. Like I was saying, where to next? I won’t be able to take you much further in a Phoenicic direction, that’s a bit too far out of my way, but I can totally drop you off anywhere this side of the Indelible Basin, which is basically anywhere from here, through the Inkstone Isles, and on the way to Foyer.”
“Yeah, I’m not really sure where else we want to be heading,” said Alice. “Aside from the general plan to get me back to Materia, I’m really not sure what the next steps are.”
“The last time we saw any STAR people was in Foyer, so we could head back there?” Red ventured.
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah! And there’s the big name snake and the weird angels and things, they’ll stop any funny business, hopefully?”
“I mean,” said Red, “it depends on how funny the business is, but probably?”
“The business,” said Aidra, “will be hilarious. Oh yeah, we should absolutely go to Foyer.”
Alice sighed. “Is this based on some premonition?”
“Ah, I’m sure you’ll find out eventually,” he said, “and it’d ruin the fun to give away too many juicy details!”
“You’re such a good friend, Aidra,” Alice said, flatly. “Why, you are such a good friend, I could throttle you.”
“Don’t get all mushy on me. I’m allergic to mush.”
A long sigh of disappointed air escaped her lips, and she turned back to Zkrith. “Sorry about that nonsense, we just had to confer a bit. Absolutely, if you’re heading back past Foyer, drop us off there.”
“Right, absolutely. Red has absolutely paid me enough for a return trip.”
“Ah, okay. Well, I’m sure he’ll present me with the bill—” she glared at him — “right as it becomes inconvenient.”
“I’m wounded by your lack of trust,” he said, utterly deadpan.
Zkrith snorted. “Well, enough of the bickering, then. I’ll start making preparations to s—”
She trailed off and tilted her head, ears twitching. A concerned frown made its way onto her face.
“Wh—” Alice began, but then she heard it.
A long, low moaning noise, rising and falling regularly, getting steadily louder and louder. Accompanying it was the creak of stiff bearings, as a pair of metal foghorns mounted on a pole above the main cabin of the houseboat was slowly, shudderingly starting to turn.
Zkrith blinked, goatishly. “The proximity alarm? The proximity alarm!”
Wild-eyed, she ran into the cabin and started to work the levers of the bridge, frantically trying to get the boat started. For her part, Alice turned, looking out over the Atrament in an attempt to see what was proximate, to cause the alarm.
The ink was dark, mist-shrouded, stretching away and out of sight, but it was still possible to see a disturbance approaching. It was like a pressure wave moving through the mist, still far away, but approaching Zkrith’s houseboat unerringly, its true shape hidden in the swirling mist.
Zkrith’s eyes widened. “Incoming!” she shouted, alarm rising in her voice. “Brace!”
And then it was upon them, the dark shape resolving out of the murk into something huge and pale and sharp, something which slammed into the small houseboat with a crash.