“Huh,” she said, after a short pause. “I was half-expecting them to jump out of the bushes when you said that.”
“Hm. Maybe you’re right about the sunlight thing. If they’re benthic, that means their natural environment is some lightless deep, so it’d make thematic sense. But they just walked in the door, so I’m not sure that follows. Hold on a moment, I’m going to try to set up a less delicate, more powerful working of muting. We need to stay out of sight, until we can work out what’s going on here.”
“Uh-huh,” she replied, watching as Red started drawing more symbols on the air, “that looks really unobtrusive.”
Red sighed, paused, and scrubbed out one of the floating runes with his sleeve. “These are glyphs of nondetection, they’re naturally really hard to notice or read.”
“You’re included in this spell, which is why you can notice them. Otherwise, your eyes would kinda… glaze past them or something.”
“Like my computer?”
“Er, yes. I’m actually using part of that as a, hmm. A ‘fuel’ for the working. Well, more like a ‘template’? Anyway, I’m trying to focus. You keep an eye out for, er, anyone who looks like they shouldn’t be here, I guess.”
“I don’t know how easy they’d be to spot at a university, given the normal level of weirdness, but I’ll see what I can do.”
He frowned. “You’re right. You’re looking for people who’ll be both very well-dressed and walking around in careful search patterns.”
Red continued his working, tracing lines through the air to connect groups of symbols in strange constellations, while she kept an eye out across the square. It was the holidays, sure, but she was pretty sure she hadn’t seen anyone apart from the weird vampire — who they were assuming was a STAR person — yet. It was starting to edge from ‘strangely’ into ‘uncannily’ empty, and she wasn’t sure what it could mean, but whatever it was, it wasn’t anything good.
“Alright,” said Red, stepping back from his working. “Now, er, hold out your arms.”
“No, out to the sides. Like you’re being fitted for something.”
She obliged, and he reached into the working, which had built up from mere symbols and lines to some kind of bizarre, continually moving clockwork machine made of red light, silently twisting and turning, words forming and disappearing in beautiful, coiling shapes. The whole thing shifted, and he drew shimmering threads from it and walked slowly around her, laying them out so they hung in midair like he was setting up Christmas lights around her, or maybe a strange spiderweb. Once he’d finished the circle, it flared with light and language, snapping towards her as the insubstantial threads constricted, passing through her and disappearing without a trace. Everything felt the same on a physical level, but her somewhat-practised metaphysical senses got a feel of it.
“Oh,” she said, “it’s like the muting thing, but I can still see colour the same?”
“Pretty much,” said Red, as he started to lay his own festive light trail around himself, drawing it from the ‘machine’ like thread from a spindle. “I’m less rushed with this one, so there’s less conceptual bleed.”
He did a quick spin, before joining the ends of his spell up and activating it. As it took hold, Alice got the distinct impression that she was seeing through him, while being fully aware that he was there, like crossing her eyes to see through her hand.
“You’re a bit see-through.”
“Well, we’re treated as the same ‘entity’ for the purpose of the spell, so we can still perceive each other, but it’s still trying to have an effect.”
“We should probably stay within a few metres of each other, or ‘same entity’ becomes too much of a stretch.”
“It wasn’t already?”
“Do we want to argue about the minutiae of how I defined ‘entity’ when I wrote this working, or do we want to acknowledge that I’m a pretty competent magician and make with the sneaking?”
She fake-pondered until she saw his frown deepen, then stuck out her tongue. “You’re no fun.”
“I’m yes fun, and I’ll get to ‘comparative entity definitions in spellwork’ when we get to… I dunno, lesson fifty? Lesson fifty of your magical education.”
“Nothing says ‘fun’ like a fifty-lesson syllabus.”
Red, unlike Alice, decided to be the better person and not respond to that. At least, to her, that was clearly what he was thinking while he endeavoured to change the subject.
“Right, so, that aside,” he said, ‘unconvincingly’, “should we… head back to the library? One of your other haunts? Anything within walking distance would do, I guess.”
“I did share a student house, just outside of campus. It’s… it’s an inconvenient distance to walk, of a morning, but it’s close. Ish. Also, this place is weirdly quiet and I kinda want to leave.”
He brightened a little. “Oh okay, good to know that a local thinks it’s weird too.”
“Mmm, right. I wonder what that’s about. Anyway, I guess we’ll go to my home? I mean— wait, do I have my keys?”
“Did you have them with you when you went out?”
“I don’t know! It was a month ago!”
“Well, it’s not housebreaking if you live there.”
“I’m not sure that’s true.”
The walk actually felt shorter than she remembered it being — something she chalked up to the fact that all the running away from danger she’d done in the Realms had really made a journey home pale in comparison. The little student house was part of a terrace, and looked pretty much exactly as she remembered it — there were no leaves on the trees outside, and there were some fresh chips in the paint on the door, but that was pretty much as she expected.
She’d dug around in her bag for a bit before finding her keys where they’d been languishing, and unlocked the door with a strange sensation of misplaced familiarity — like this shouldn’t have been as familiar as it was.
“It’s not, er, super impressive,” she cautioned Red.
“I haven’t seen a lot of student digs,” he replied, “but I’m pretty sure that if they’re impressive, something has gone terribly wrong.”
She snorted, and pushed the door open. It stuck briefly on the doormat, as usual. After a moment or two of grumbling, she managed to get the door open. The interior was pretty much as she remembered it, her favourite rain coat still hanging by the door, exactly where she’d left it. She was almost surprised her housemates hadn’t taken it, but then she thought about it for a second — it probably had exactly the same perception-avoiding effect that her bag and laptop had, back in the library. The entrance corridor led up to the stairs, and she was about to head up, towards her room upstairs, before Red stopped her.
“Say, Alice,” he said, “does anyone else live here?”
“Uh, I have two housemates, why?”
“I can hear someone upstairs.”
She looked up to the extremely opaque ceiling, which provided no useful visual cues.
“I think one of them must be staying over the holidays,” she whispered, before realising that was silly, clearing her throat awkwardly and continuing. “Sasha, probably. She’s doing a PHD, so she’ll probably be relishing the peace and quiet, now all the undergrads are away.”
This time, when something upstairs made a faint clunk noise, she heard it. The ceiling creaked, footsteps made their way over to the stairs and started to make their way down. She briefly froze, panicked. She met Red’s eyes across the entrance corridor, and they both flattened themselves against the walls as Sasha made her way downstairs and directly between them, yawning.
“Well,” Red whispered, as Sasha headed off towards the kitchen, “I sure hope that’s your housemate.”
“Oh wow,” said Alice, “she’s cut her hair short.”
“I’m going to guess that means she’s actually your housemate. You expect her to be here?”
“Uh, yeah. It’s just a bit weird to see her again, you know. It’s been a while.”
She was interrupted from her reverie when Sasha reappeared, carrying a steaming mug of coffee, and she had to fling herself back against the wall in order to get out of her way again as her housemate made her way back upstairs.