“So,” Alice asked, when she’d sat down and after the skeletal bartender had brought her a drink of water, “where is this place? What Realm? It’s got a kinda… boney and tomb-y feel to it, so I guess it’s something to do with death?”
“Pretty much spot-on,” said A Librarian, enthusiastically. “We’re pretty close to the city of Mictlan, in the Necropolis.”
“It’s where Syrk comes from,” Aidra added, “and where he builds his weird lairs, I guess.”
“So it’s the opposite of the Arboretum, then, since that was all about life?”
“To some extent, yes,” said Nik. “They’re a bit like… shadows, or reflections of each other. Not quite the same in aspect — I think the idea is that they grew apart, diverged as they formed or something.”
“As creatures from the Arboretum,” Aidra added, “it’s anathema to us!”
“Oh? Is that… bad?” she asked.
“No, it isn’t,” Nik clarified. “It’s like… I always know that this Realm isn’t where I’m from, in the back of my head? Much more clearly than I feel it when we’re, for instance, in the Library. It’s not unpleasant — the Necropolis and the Arboretum are close-ish to each other? Or, at least, closer than you’d think.”
“It’s actually kind of odd for a Realm to have a companion or mirror Realm,” said A Librarian. “It’s an interesting idea — some people think that the Dominions of the two Realms are actually different aspects of the same ‘being’, or that they are the same being under two different identities or ‘masks’. I think ontolographic studies have shown that there’s a link, there, between the idea of the First Demons, Dominions, and the division between the Arboretum and the Necropolis.”
“This is very interesting,” said Alice, diplomatically, “but it’s very much going over my head.”
“I’ve been absorbing some of the Realm talk, just not all of it.”
“Well,” said Aidra, “as my brain is very large, I think you’re missing out the variegation into the categorised thaumion principle, pursuant to Jodni’s Second Equation.”
A Librarian frowned. “None of those are real things, though.”
“What?” he looked genuinely startled. “But they’re just as implausible-sounding as the other stuff!”
“They aren’t, though.”
“Well, from some perspectives, they might be?”
“Aidra,” Nik said.
“And I was thinking that—”
He smiled sweetly. “Yes, brother mine?”
“There’s enough jargon in the world already — stop making more up.”
“You know, I think you misunderstand the purpose of jargon, sometimes.”
Nik sighed. “Look, back to the matter at hand, I think there’s a Causeway in Mictlan, where we can go back to the Library, for Twelfth’s repairs.”
“And we’ll be away from Syrk,” A Librarian added.
“And I’ll find my boat,” Zkrith grumbled.
“Right, those too,” he continued. “Now, Syrk may still return, but the only information I could get about that is —” he pointed at his brother.
“Syrk will return when it is most plot-convenient,” said Aidra in his best ‘spooky prophet’ voice.
“— and that’s not very specific or helpful,” he finished.
“Look, man, you want specific, you get specific, you want helpful, you get helpful. Both is trickier.”
[What Went On, Back There, Alice?]
“You mean, back in Syrk’s…”
“Murder-dungeon?” Aidra suggested.
“Lair. Back in his lair?”
[Yes. Um. If It Is Not Too Much Of A Traumatic Thing To Speak About. I Am Merely Curious, You Do Not Have To Answer.]
“It’s not so much a horrible experience, just kinda… vague. Stuff happened, and I’m not sure I remember all of it right? There were some scenes — I think I remember throwing stuff at him?”
[Well. That Is Good. Not Knowing Other Things Is Less Than Ideal, But At Least Throwing Things Might Be Satisfying.]
“Yeah, yeah it is. Heh. But… I remember—” she paused, concentrating, trying to sift through a bunch of dreamlike images. “I think I was… I thought… hmm. There were things?”
She shushed Aidra. “Quiet. I’m thinking.”
“Is it hard?”
“Shut! I think there might have been a fight? It’s all a bit dreamlike, and I’m sure some of the things that happened couldn’t have happened?”
“Hey now,” Aidra said, “I think your suspension of disbelief is a bit off if you’re thinking stuff’s implausible in this mixed-up magical world of ours.”
“Fair enough, I guess, but I’m not sure that throwing literal stars at him was a thing that happened?”
“Don’t let your dreams be dreams?”
“I think I met Doctor… Salt and Mister Ash is what they called themselves this time.”
“Oh, them! Laurel and Hardy!”
[A Laurel Of What?]
“I think I made that exact joke,” she said. “And, er, ‘Laurel’ is a name.”
“Look, if two people make the same joke, it’s obviously a sign that it’s a good one. Or that I heard the thing from your mind and forgot. Either way, I claim credit.”
[The White And The Grey — Seeing Them Again Is Concerning. Do You Remember What They Said?]
She tried some more remembering. “No, but I think it was some way to escape, and I told them where to shove it.”
Aidra laughed. “Brilliant. Yeah, that’d do it.”
[That Does Sound Like The Appropriate Response.]
“Well, thanks then.”
There was a scuffing noise from behind her, and she turned to see Red take a half-stumbling step from around the jaws of the morbid inn, the kind of gait someone had when they’d just been running flat-out and wanted to appear nonchalant, not panicked, once they were back in view of people.
“Oh, so there you are,” he said, in a manner of practised indifference.
“Hey there yourself,” she replied. “You should really, you know, sleep in a bed. It’s gotta be hell on your spine.”
“I’m fine,” he grumbled. “You were gone when I woke up, which gave me quite a fright.”
She couldn’t suppress her smirk. “A fright?”
He rolled his eyes. “Yes, a fright.”
“Aww, Red,” Aidra smugged, “you do care!”
He sighed. “Yes, fine, you’ve got me there. I was concerned when you were unconscious for more than a day, following whatever in the worlds went on with Syrk.”
“I was out for more than a day?”
“Yeah! See why I was worried?”
“I wasn’t on a drip or anything, how did I not die of thirst?”
“There is a short answer and a long answer,” he replied, “the short answer is ‘magic’, and I can give you the long answer if you want.”
“No, I think I’ll be fine without an explanation, but thanks for offering.” She stood up and turned, tired of craning her neck to see him. “Thanks also, for the keeping-me-alive bit, although—” she prodded him in the chest — “you should still look after yourself.”
“I don’t need as much sleep as—”
She glared at him.
“— Fine. I should still look after myself, thank you for bringing it up. Happy now?”
“Sure. Was that so hard?”
“Maybe. Look, anyway, what I wanted to tell you after you woke up, which I got distracted from by my concern for your well-being—”
Alice shushed Aidra. “No, no, he’s getting somewhere.”
“As I was saying,” he continued, “one of the important things I think has happened, during your confrontation with Syrk and the aftermath, is that your soul has shed its fragment of—” he paused, self-consciously, and leaned forwards, his voice dropping— “Lord Black.”
“Huh,” she replied.
[That Is… Good, I Believe.]
“Not got a lot of context,” Zkrith remarked, “but I think that means you can’t power my boat any more.”
“She can’t!” said Aidra. “I think that’s the most important consequence of this.”
A Librarian spoke up. “I had a theory that it might have been something to do with how she understands languages so easily, so that might have stopped too?”
“She can still speak Inkomon, though,” Nik pointed out.
“Yeah, I don’t know why that is, then.”
“Also, also!” Aidra was practically bouncing on the bench he was sitting on. “She won’t be able to do cool fight scenes with Syrk!”
[He Is Dead, Though.]
“Pssh, yeah, for now.”
Red, by this point, had sat down, and had now laid his head on the table, bearing an expression of defeat.
“So,” Alice said, sitting down next to him, “what was your idea for the most important consequence?”
“You can go home now,” he replied, flatly.