She hadn’t given up on it, but she’d maybe resigned herself to ‘going home’ being a thing eventual, and now that the possibility was suddenly presented to her, she didn’t feel ready, like she’d just been called up to do a presentation in a class and didn’t have her notes together.
“Yeah, I think I figured out that the reason you just weren’t allowed back into your Materia,” Red said, “was that STAR have put a number of measures in place to keep ‘outside influences’ from their Earth. These kept you out because of the fragment of a powerful inimical demon imprinted on your soul.”
“Did we discuss that? Or was that just implied and not stated in the narrative until now? I forget, it’s been hundreds of chapters.”
“Aidra,” said Nik, “not helping.”
“So yeah,” said Red, glaring at Aidra, “I’m pretty sure you could make your way back to your home Realm if we tried, although…”
“I’m not sure what STAR are actually doing, at the moment, and they did say you needed ‘decontamination’ from all those Realmic experiences and memories. Maybe it’ll be possible to sneak past them, maybe not. Hmm.”
[It Does At Least Sound Like A Barrier Against Returning Has Been Removed.]
“Yes, and I suppose we’ve progressed, from the terrible eldritch powers of an ancient demon to the rather more mortal machinations of STAR and their ilk.”
“Syrk’s a pretty ‘mortal’ power.” said Zkrith. “That didn’t stop him kidnapping us, dragging us to a different Realm and probably sinking my boat.”
“Hard to say,” said Red. “He’s certainly managed to give Gyran a run for her money a non-zero amount of times? That’s pretty dangerous, I guess?”
“You seem a bit hung up on this whole boat thing,” Aidra added.
“I live there.”
Red sighed. “I hope Syrk was the most dangerous of our mortal foes, at least for now.”
“That sounds like tempting fate to me,” said Aidra.
“Yes, well, if I wanted to know things about fate, I’d have asked you, since you’re a fortune teller and all.”
Alice spoke up. “So, what do we do now? Can we do anything about STAR?”
“Now? We go to the Library, find where they’ve been looking over your Realmic Signature, and get you home,” said Red.
“That sounds deceptively simple.”
He shrugged. “Well, it’s the simplest plan we have. Sure, it’ll likely get complicated by something, but until we know what that is, we won’t be able to do anything about it. In the meantime, I’ll keep us warded from detection. Since most of the dangerous things we were encountering — Syrk, maybe others — were tracking you via the leaky can of darkness, it’ll quite possibly be much easier to escape their notice.”
“If I don’t have the darkness thing anymore, why can I still understand what you’re saying?”
Red paused for a moment. “I have no idea.”
“Hmm. Can you still understand Brackish?” Nik asked, in a different language that Alice could still, somehow, understand.
“Um, yes.” She thought about it for a moment. “Although, before, I could feel my brain change gears or something, but now… I can just speak either, I think.”
[I Remain Telepathic, And Thus Beyond Language.]
“But none of us are telepathic, though?”
“None of us except Aidra,” Alice corrected herself. “So how do you understand us?”
[When I Was Young, It Took Me A While To Understand That Other Peoples Could Not Simply Understand Any Language. For Bookbinders, Understanding The Meaning Of Someone’s Words Is So Simple As To Be Hard To Explain.]
“Huh. I guess that is ‘beyond language’. I guess that’s kinda like how I experienced it? Now, it’s just that I… know two more languages?”
“Probably more,” said Aidra. “Who even keeps track of what random languages you heard, had the time to automatically understand and then permanently learned?”
“I have no idea how I’d know any of that.”
“Self-examination is a skill you have to develop.”
“How would you know?”
Red interjected before the bickering could continue. “I mean, I’m sure there’s some limits. How about—” he began, before uttering a series of symbols that appeared distinctly and irrationally angular to Alice’s ears. He paused a second after he’d finished. “Did you get any of that?”
“Well, there you go, then. You don’t know Trigonometric.”
“That’s… a thing to know. Don’t think it’s practical, however, to just run through every language in existence to see which ones I have lingering supernatural understanding of.”
“Yes, but it at least establishes that there are limits to your residual knowledge.”
“Science,” said Aidra, in an exaggerated stage whisper.
After breakfast and a brief discussion, they set off toward Mictlan, a nearby city of the dead which loomed in the distance, a close-packed and towering collection of dark spires and squat stepped pyramids, glowing fitfully with the light from cherry-red fires.
It didn’t take long, once they were out on the road, for an Ominbus to show up — the name was short for ‘ominous bus’ apparently, a fact which Alice groaned at — a mummified hexapedal creature that lumbered along the road, pausing behind them as the driver hailed them.
“Ho there, travellers,” the figure exclaimed, perched high on the near-clean skull of the Ominbus, “wish to rest your feet? Require a lift? Our rates are reasonable.”
The driver was a Gaunt — the same species as Syrk. Their eyes glowed an amber-yellow beneath their long hood, and they didn’t appear to be commanding the enormous undead Ominbus creature through reins or any other means. It just stood there, points of green light flickering deep in its seven eye sockets, matted grey fur and dried skin hanging off its ribs, from the bottom of its enormous skull. On its back rested a palanquin of dried leather and carved bone, with a row of comfortable-looking seats in two rows facing in from either side.
“Fare to Mictlan?” Nik asked.
“A molar each, so six for the lot of you.”
“A molar?” Alice whispered to A Librarian, horrified.
“I think that’s the name for a coin?” he whispered back. “Probably?”
“Also, there’s seven of us,” she murmured.
“I don’t know why,” he replied, “but no-one here can see Red.”
“We don’t have the local currency,” Nik replied to the driver, “do you take Carte Librare?”
“No problem, no problem, friends,” they responded, counting briefly on their fingers. “That’ll run you to… four Carte Librare, I think, unless the exchange has changed recently.”
Nik glanced over to the rest of the group. “Sounds reasonable?”
“It sure is a number,” Alice replied. “I continue to have no idea how Realmic economics work, but it beats walking?”
There were nods and shrugs all round, so Nik flicked four plastic tokens to the driver, who nodded. The Ominbus shifted slowly, settling itself to the ground, its kneeling stance bringing a short ladder up the side of the palanquin within easy reach. The group clambered up into the ‘carriage’, joining a couple of animate skeletons as passengers in the Ominbus, and sitting down. With a gentle shudder, the creature stood back up, and started to walk at an unhurried pace that, thanks to its great height and the length of its near-skeletal legs, wasn’t at all slow, each footfall making a soft clack against the cobblebones of the road.
In the distance, Mictlan continued to loom, between peaks of bleached bone in an ash-grey desert, getting steadily closer.