“Should we go up and see what he’s doing?”
Red glanced up the stairs sceptically. “Is there any space up there, though?”
“Er, not really?”
“Then it’s probably a bad idea to go up there and increase our chances of bumping into him and getting noticed. I mean, he probably won’t notice if we bump into him, but it’s the kind of thing that makes it more likely.”
They ducked through the door into the sitting room, where Sasha lay on the ratty sofa, snoring gently, her messy blonde hair falling in her face.
“Well,” said Red, “I think — based on what I felt back there, she’ll be out of it for maybe an hour, tops? She’ll be fine.”
“What is it, then?”
“Er, some kind of voidborne quale drain. It’s temporarily reduced her below the level of consciousness, so she’s dreaming, I suppose. Actually, I’m not sure why we’ve got any, er, Void-y effects going on — the guy upstairs seems like more of a fire mage type. Maybe he had some runestone in his pocket or something.”
“Huh. Why didn’t it work on us, then?”
He counted on his fingers. “We weren’t the targets, we’ve got greater magical resistance, some insulation from the veil over us, that kind of thing.”
“Should we wake her up?”
“Probably best not to. I mean, it’d basically wake her up while she’s being home-invaded. At a guess, this guy is going to examine your room, then leave before she wakes up, maybe placing some kind of entropic memory on her, so she forgets talking to him. If he’s got some other plan, I think we might want to wake her up and get her out of here, somehow.”
Alice frowned, looking over her friend and roommate where she lay on the sofa.
“Hey,” said Red, placing a hand on her shoulder. “It’ll be fine. Either way, there’s two of us, and only one of —” he pointed up at the ceiling “— that guy.”
“Right. I dunno, though, would presumably-STAR have sent one dude if he wasn’t capable of handling himself?”
“This is a low-magic Realm, so he probably could handle himself in nearly any situation. But, we are visitors from a high-magic Realm. Or, well. Most people would consider the Library to have a normal level of inherent thaumomenons, but that’s not exactly helpful for our exercise here.”
“Uh-huh. So we just kinda hang around and see what he does?”
“Well, what we probably can do is follow him when he leaves. And then… hmm. Work out where STAR is? Find out what they know about you and why they’re looking for you?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Walk into the lions’ den?”
“Okay, there might be a downside, but I do think we might have to know our enemy. Or, at least, more about what they’re planning.”
After a moment or two of nervous waiting, the anxiety faded a bit, and she found it in herself to pull up a chair and sit down, facing the door to the sitting room, to wait for whatever Sunglasses Guy was doing upstairs to finish.
“Is he just looking through my room? That’s pretty weird.”
“I guess? I dunno what STAR actually know about how you left Materia and what that’s done to your connections and such.”
“I mean, do we know much about that?”
“More than STAR, anyway.”
The stair creaked with the interloper’s heavy tread. The tall, bald man in sunglasses stepped through into the sitting room, followed shortly by someone uninteresting.
He looked down at Sasha. “Wake her up, or take her to containment like the other one?”
“Wait,” Alice said, talking over a bland reply from someone else, “the ‘other one’? Who’s that?”
Red frowned. “I’m not sure. Your other roommate? Rachel, was it?”
“I’m not sure that makes sense,” she replied. “Rachel’s probably been gone for weeks. Is there any way to work out what they’re talking about?”
Red shrugged, but before he spoke, Sunglasses Man started talking.
“Let’s talk to her, then,” he gravelled.
Alice frowned. “Is he talking to s-”
An analogy of noise filled the air briefly, stifling all thought for a second. Sasha, still lying on the sofa with her eyes closed, made a noise very similar to a snore.
“Alright. Ms. Carter, do you know one Timothy Jacobson?”
Sasha took a slow breath in, and spoke in a long, quiet wheeze. “Yes… I… met… him…”
Alice looked to Red, then back at Sasha, then back to Red. “What?”
He stroked his chin. “That is an odd way of conducting an interrogation — not letting them get awake enough to be strategic about question-answering?”
“What do these people know about Tim?”
“I don’t know, that’s why I’m listening, now shh!”
Sunglasses Man had pulled out a notebook and a ballpoint pen. “Did you notice anything out of the ordinary, last time you saw him?”
“Yeah, actually…” she said, taking almost an entire breath per whispered word that slid slowly between her lips, “he was… talking about… someone called Alice… seemed quite upset… when I didn’t know her…”
Alice blanched. “Tim knew I was gone?”
“My friend. I— he was maybe twenty feet away when I fell through the floor to the Library. Wait,” she said, the dawning possibilities unfolding in her mind’s eye, “he was talking about ‘the other one’ — do they have Tim?”
“That would complicate things.”
“It’d complicate things?”
Red put a hand on her shoulder, and she realised she’d been stepping towards the sofa, fists clenched. “We’re still pretty low on information. If STAR has been ‘entertaining’ your friend, we don’t know where he’s being kept. I guess we could follow him back to wherever STAR is when he leaves?”
“Right.” She took Red by the forearm and removed his hand from her shoulder. “Right, okay. I’m calm.”
“Ow,” he replied, “you’re really calmly squeezing my arm, there.”
Sunglasses Man finished making some notes, making a few murmured observations to someone whose responses and input weren’t interesting.
“Right,” he said, after he’d finished listening to a couple more of Sasha’s whispery responses to his questions. “I think we should take her back to containment and put her in the decontamination queue — she’s clearly a second-order knowledge breach via Jacobson.”
If there was a reply, it wasn’t interesting enough to bother recording as part of a narrative.
“Alright then,” said Red, cracking his knuckles — somewhat odd, she realised, given that his right hand didn’t really have any joints — “sounds like they’re going somewhere, so let’s see about finding out how to get there.”
He raised a hand, gesturing, as a little red light flickered within the crystal of his hand. Alice focused, paying as close attention as she could with her mind’s ear, or whatever esoteric sense allowed her to ‘feel’ the pneuma of magic as it happened. He finished the spell, she felt the tickle as it passed their brain, and saw as a tiny red symbol, like a little fork, appeared on the back of Sunglasses Guy’s coat shoulder.
“He shouldn’t notice that,” Red whispered.
Something was happening, and it only barely managed to be interesting enough to pay attention to. It was like all the shadows in the room were being pulled, by some inexorable metaphorical gravity, towards the sofa, its occupant, and the man with the sunglasses. With a burst of impossible noise, the entire back of the sitting room was swallowed in a burst of darkness so deep it hurt Alice’s eyes, and she was left blinking away the afterimages for a second as she processed what had been going on. When the dust had settled, nothing was left of the intruder or Sasha, besides an empty sofa and a rush of cold air that bought with it a scent so maddeningly empty that she didn’t think she’d be able to forget it. She stared at the sofa for a long moment, as if she could simply will Sasha to reappear.
Red’s voice broke the silence. “Huh. If I’m not deceived, that was void-walking.”
“Oh, like you do?”
“Pretty much exactly like I do. Weird, because Sunglasses Guy doesn’t seem the type, but it definitely happened. And, well…”
He strode forwards, stopping by the sofa and looking around thoughtfully.
“What’re you doing?”
“Well, you see, if someone’s very skilled at walking the Outer Void—” He paused for a second. “Oh okay, you’re very rattled.”
She stopped pacing for a moment. “Huh?”
“Normally you’d say something snarky and — oh, nevermind. Anyway, since this guy, who I’m starting to suspect is a void magician of some sort, left through the Void, he’s carved a path, and it’s a path I can follow, especially with that mark I put on him. So…”
He held out a hand, and she took it. He gave her a reassuring smile, and she returned her own, nervous and anaemic though it was by comparison.
And then he turned away, from her, from the Real, and they plunged into the all-too-familiar arms of the Void.