Red’s eyes widened, and with frantic speed, he held up a hand and quickly gestured. Alice watched as the world around her, apart from Red, seemed to drain of colour, desaturating until only the barest hints remained.
“Quick, over this way,” Red hissed. “This works better if we’re less obtrusive.”
“What?” she whispered back. “What is this?”
“I muted us. We won’t be as noticeable.”
On realising the double meaning of ‘muted’, Alice very nearly gave the game away by swearing very loudly. However, with admirable self-restraint, she scooped up her laptop and bag, before following Red over to the edge of the library. Out of her immediate line of sight, the door to the library creaked, screeched, and finally, with a clunk, slid shut. Footsteps sounded across the carpet, and a figure came into view.
They had features. She was pretty sure of that. They looked human. They had eyes, a nose, and a mouth, and they were where she expected them to be, but the overall effect was somehow completely incomprehensible. The elements just didn’t sum to something recognisable in her head as the person in the neat blue-grey suit walked over to the centre of the library and turned their head in a manner that hinted at but didn’t actually fully complete the motion of looking around.
“Red,” Alice whispered, “are you seeing them too? What am I looking at?”
As they watched, the figure’s expression flickered between thoughtful, vague, and umami, and they seemed to either search the desk Red and Alice had been sitting at, sweep its surface, or maybe just gesticulate wildly. It was extremely hard to tell, and she found that she couldn’t focus on the figure, that her eyes kept finding something, anything else to look at. They seemed to be on one side of the table, and then the other, only partially occupying the spaces in-between.
“I’m not sure,” Red whispered in response. “Some kind of illusion? I’ll see if I can just…”
He focused, his irises glimmering redly in the half-light of the library.
His eyes widened. “You should see this.” He reached gingerly over to tap her on the shoulder.
Everything briefly went a bit red. The indistinct figure flickered, twitched, and solidified. She could see through them, now, through the vague impression of a nonspecific human and to the bizarre and monstrous bones below the skin. Their skin was a greenish-blueish grey, squamous and inhuman, fins and spines sprouting from their neck, head, and shoulders, protruding through their suit. The figure had no eyes, just scaly skin stretched over hollow sockets, and as they ‘looked’ around, a long, pale blue, luminescent tongue flickered out through their lips, between pale and glowing pointed teeth, tasting the air.
Their voice solidified too, from unclear murmurs into actual words. “That’s sstrange,” they murmured, the sibilant hiss of their voice rattling across the room, “could’a sworn I smelled ssomeone.”
“So, um,” Alice whispered again, “to reiterate my original question, what the hell is that?”
“Oh,” said Red, at normal volume, “I just realised. This is perceptual, it doesn’t matter how loud we talk.”
“Oh COME ON.”
“Not that loud! It’s best not to push it!”
“The original question, Red! Who-what is that person and what are they doing here?”
He looked back over to the intruder, who was rubbing some of the dust from the table between their clawed fingers, a frown creasing their face oddly around their empty eyes.
“Some kind of, er, benthic vampire?”
She looked the creature up and down, from luminous fang and dark scale to their immaculately-pressed, but still salt-crusted, suit.
“That doesn’t look anything like the vampire that nearly bit my head off at the Carnival?”
“I mean, there’s a lot of types.”
“And this is a fish type?”
“Aquatic type, more like. Anyway, shh, I want to know why they’re here.”
The ‘vampire’ was now wandering around the table that Alice and Red had recently been at, occasionally pausing and tasting the air.
“I ssmell you,” they hissed slowly. “I don’t know where you’re hiding, but I know you’re here.”
“Ooh,” Red muttered, “whatever’s up with their sense of, er, smell-taste has got through the muting. We should, er, leave.”
He started to sidle sideways along the wall, and Alice followed, keeping a wary eye on the vampire as they paced the room in widening circles.
“How do they know we’re here?” she whispered.
“I don’t think they know, but they suspect, and they’ve gotta have a supernatural sense of smell or something.”
They shuffled over in the direction of the door. Alice kept glancing back towards the creepy newcomer, until Red suddenly stopped walking and she nearly ran into him.
“What?” she hissed.
“I think they’ll notice if I open the door. It might decrease the plausibility of the muting below— er, it might break the illusion.”
“Uh-oh. Can we just… make a run for it?”
Red flashed her a slightly-worried grin. “Let’s find out!”
He snapped his fingers, and the doors slid open. She was already ready, and she’d grabbed his hand and pulled him through the door before he could even finish his silly flourish and start actually running.
Behind them, she heard a hiss, first of confusion and then of a terrible, searing rage.
“Doors!” she barked, and Red was actually on the ball this time; he snapped his fingers again, even as he was being yanked along by his human arm, and the doors slammed shut, just in time for them to crack and buckle as something extremely fast and angry hit them from the other side like a sack of fishy meat.
Colour started to creep back into her vision — the ‘muting’ thing Red had done must have been starting to fade — and the December day outside was shockingly bright after the dingy, unlit library. They fled through the campus, until Red stopped short.
“Huh,” he wheezed, “they’re not chasing us.”
“Why’re you even breathing heavily,” she replied, similarly out of breath. “You don’t even — phew — need to breathe.”
“Firstly, I don’t need to breathe, so this is mostly psychosomatic. Secondly…” he looked around, frowning, “they’ve stopped chasing us, like I said.”
“I mean, it’s sunny. Does that affect vampires at all? I get that from, like, this Earth’s vampire legends. Or, well, some of them. The vampires my grandparents told stories about weren’t affected by sunlight. And this vampire didn’t even have any eyes.”
“Er. Maybe? Powerful sources of light can affect some vampires, often negatively. But, like, even Paradise, Realm of Light has things called ‘vampires’ that eat peoples’ light.” He paced a little, as he started to get into the subject. “In general a vampire is a thing from a Realm that drains the substance of that Realm in order to live. They’re a kind of Fanatical Demon, like… a toxic concentration of the very substance of a Realm that’s still dangerous? So, like, in the Library, the substance is of Knowledge Herself, and thus Antithetical demons are demons of Ignorance, but the native vampires are infovores. Does that follow?”
“Good enough! I’ll answer more questions when we’re not worrying about things eating us. Speaking of, where did that one go−”