The ship, taller and wider than the houseboat, scythed off into the mists, and Alice got only the briefest glimpse of dozens of long oars up and down its sides as it slid off and out of sight. The houseboat rocked violently as it spun, the deck plunging up and down, and she clung to the handrail for dear life as waves, disturbed from the normally placid ink, crashed over the deck of the boat in a freezing deluge.
[Careful,] said Twelfth, her voice quiet as always. Alice’s eyes were closed, but she felt Twelfth’s hands solidly but gently grab her under her arms and heft her from over by the railing to the door of the cabin.
In the cabin, at least, it was relatively dry, and Alice was barely able to catch her breath before Twelfth shoved Nik, Aidra and A Librarian through the door after her.
“Yech,” Nik said, coughing, “I think some of that got in my gills.”
Zkrith was, meanwhile, clinging to the controls as the boat rolled and pitched. Books, scrolls and other paraphernalia fell off shelves, clattering and thumping to the floor, but the boat was starting to steady on the waves, the worst of the disturbance over.
Red crackled into existence next to them, and the spidery form of Twelfth clambered in through the door.
“We need to leave,” he said, sounding certain and, maybe, a little scared.
[Concurred. What Was That?]
Zkrith snarled, pulling a large lever with a heavy clunk. “Didn’t see it.” The thrumming melody of the houseboat’s engine burst into life. “If it hit us that fast, however, we’re not going to be able to get away if it comes back round for another go.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” said Aidra, brightly, “it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of—”
The proximity alarm resumed its warbling cry.
“—when,” he finished, sheepishly.
“Channels of the Heart!” Zkrith swore, or at least used the same kind of cadence one does when swearing. She started to work the boat’s controls faster, more urgently, pulling at levers and yanking at valves.
“Aidra,” Red hissed, “which way is it?”
He pointed off to the left of the cabin, into the swirling mist. “Yon.”
Aidra looked off, into the distance, eyes briefly flickering with cerulean light. “Twelve… eleven… ten…”
“On three, we push together.”
He flashed Red a thumbs-up. “Seven… six… five… four…”
As the jagged ship — a galley, Alice realised, made entirely out of bones strung together with dark red viscera — started to loom once more out of the mists, Aidra got to “three!” and, with a mighty lurch, the boat shot forward, propelled by coiling, rust-red smoke and flickering blue-green energy both. More things fell off of shelves, but the monstrous galley shot past, hissing through the ink, long oars clawing at the waves like a spider.
“We can’t keep doing that,” Red said, breathing raggedly. “The boat’s too big.”
“Would some kind of illusion—” Nik began, then stopped — “wait, no. It’s not tracking us by sight, not through this mist.”
“What is it, Aidra?” Red asked.
Aidra blinked. “Hey now, I’m not some living information dispensary.” He paused. “But I think it’s Alice’s shadow it’s chasing.”
She groaned. “Not again.”
“It’s an interesting shadow, apparently,” he replied.
“Cool,” said Zkrith. “Now how do we get out of here?”
“Have you considered sinking?”
“I dunno, have you given it a try? I could throw you overboard and see how you like it?”
“I can breathe water!”
“Can you breathe ink, though?”
“Little trickier, but I’ve got a go-getter attitude that’ll sea me through!”
“Brother, you will choke and die if you try to breathe ink,” said Nik.
There was a clunk as Zkrith pulled a lever with an air of finality, and the gentle singing hum of the engine increased slightly in pitch.
“Right,” she said, “that’s as fast as we can go, unless I use a different admixture in the engine, and I already loaded the best one I had before we started.” She grimaced. “It’s still not fast enough. We could try dodging it some more, but this is a houseboat, it’s not built to be manoeuvrable!”
A Librarian frowned. “Do any of us have any way of, er, improving the alchemical engine’s power?” He picked up his satchel from where it had fallen, and started to rummage through it.
“Oh, I dunno,” said Zkrith, “do any of you just happen to have powerful reagents, foci or whatever just lying around?”
“I mean, we could-” he started to reply, but was cut off by the proximity alarm starting up again.
“Aidra, do you think—” Red began.
“— a couple more times, yes,” he replied, tipping his head to the side, as if he was listening to something. “It’s over that way, and it’ll be here in ten… nine…”
“We really can’t keep doing this,” said Red, winding up to shove the boat again, russet smoke coiling around his hands.
“Couldn’t we just… go into the Void?”
“All of us?” He frowned. “I mean, maybe?”
“Big enough hole,” said Aidra, “and the boat would drop through, too.”
“My boat?” Zkrith hissed, “Into the Outer Void?”
The conversation was briefly interrupted as Aidra reached “three!” in his countdown and the boat heaved as he and Red magically shoved it, dodging the macabre galley. This time, as it slid past, Alice saw things unfolding from its side, things like limbs, reaching futilely for the houseboat as it dodged out of the way.
“Okay,” Red wheezed, “I’m really not going to be able to reach the Outer Void with anyone if I keep that up. Anyone got any — phew — bright ideas?”
Alice stopped paying attention to the conversation, instead racking her brains for any idea as to how to escape. A familiar tickle at the back of her head, the slightest sense that there was power, waiting, in one of the unclear voices of her dreams. She pushed the impulse back — nothing good had come of paying any attention to the shadow, but—
“Wait,” she said, “I have an idea!”
Everyone else stopped talking.
“Um,” she said, suddenly conscious of everyone looking at her. “Did I interrupt anything?”
“I mean, yes,” said Aidra, “but none of it was any bright ideas, so you’re one better than us!”
“Right, right. Sorry, but… I’ve got the shadow thing, and if we can find the opposite to that, doesn’t the alchemy engine on the boat run off of… opposing pairs?”
Zkrith blinked. “I mean, I have some light sources? Is your ‘shadow’ really that powerful?”
Red burst out laughing. “Alice! You’re a genius!”
She glared at him. “You’re up to something.”
“Of course I am! Your idea! C’mon, let’s get you to the engine!”
“How long can we keep dodging it?”
[I Do Not Know. Aidra And Nik Are Apparently Leading Our Pursuer On A Merry Chase Around The Inscribed Archipelago.]
Alice stood still, in the centre of a chalk circle Red had drawn on the floor of the engine room. It wasn’t larger than the cabin, in here, but it was much barer, only the far wall from the door where Twelfth was standing occupied by the brass tubes, hissing pipes and glassware of the alchemical engine.
“I admit I was wrong when I said he’d probably crash my boat,” grumbled Zkrith. She was standing to the side, leaning against a wall with an air of resigned grumpiness about her boat’s engine being messed with.
At the other end of the engine room, a sphere of light blazed in its own chalk circle, too bright to look at directly. Between the two circles, A Librarian and Red were scuttling around, drawing, erasing and rearranging a network of weird runes and chalk lines. All around them, the boat sang a bizarre, tuneless song as it skipped along the waves, at least three times faster than its previous maximum speed.
“So,” she asked, raising her voice over the new engine’s song, “Question.”
“Shoof,” mumbled Red around a pencil in his mouth.
“If the repulsion between my ‘dark aura’ and this mini-sun is what’s making the boat go…”
“It is,” said Zkrith. “So fast, in fact, that I can’t steer it any more, and your precognitive friend had to take over.”
“Nik’s minding him,” said A Librarian, “he’ll be fine.”
“Phgeck,” said Red, spitting the pencil out. “Anyway, what were you saying, Alice?”
“Oh, I was wondering why I wasn’t flying backwards out of the boat.”
“Oh, that’s why we’re drawing all these sigils and stuff,” he replied. “It redirects the reaction force. Otherwise, um. Don’t worry about what’d happen otherwise.”
“I’d go flying out the back of the boat?”
He grimaced. “Yes, but there’s boat in the way, and you’re made of softer material than the boat, so…”
“Cushioning you if something goes wrong is what some of these diagrams are for!” said A Librarian, cheerily scribing more symbols on the wooden deck.
So, physics question: why isn’t Alice ordinarily sent flying by light? Is it because she believes that she shouldn’t be?
Physics Answer: She’s not normally wired up into an alchemical engine used to turn opposition into momentum.