There was something wrong with the stairs. It wasn’t obvious, at least at first – they simply went up the rough-cut stone stairs as they curved slightly up the inner wall of the tower itself.
There was something wrong with the stairs. The first sign was the creaking, the subtle little sounds as the solid stone moved and shifted beneath Alice’s feet. She looked down at that, alarmed, and instead of the cracks and breaking stone she feared she’d see, she saw that she was leaving actual footprints in the pale rock, the stone itself shifting and bending like wet clay, yet still remaining bizarrely solid.
There was something wrong with the stairs. She reached out and touched the wall. It was cold and smooth and dry, but still her hand sank into it, leaving a handprint, which slowly started to fade as she pulled her hand away, like the water welling up from a wet beach, filling the depression, smoothing it away.
“This,” said Red, gingerly testing the spongy masonry of the stairs, “is rather unsettling.”
“Oh, so you don’t know what’s happening?” she retorted. “Surely you’ve got special knowledge of all alternate-you’s techniques. This isn’t normal?”
“We are so far beyond normal,” he replied, offering a hand to her as she made her way unsteadily up steps that bent like hot wax, “that I’m pretty sure we’re grazing Oblivion’s Reef.”
“Uh-huh.” She reached the landing at the top of the stairs and stood, unsteadily, on the relative stability of the floor. “Oh hey, it’s solid-ish up here.”
“I’d theorise,” said A Librarian, who was down below on the stairs, bringing up the rear of their little party, “that the lack of solidific integrity is more a feature of two different types of Real meeting each other, like the foam at the edge of the Atrament, or a layer of rust on metal. The stone and all its idiosyncrasies is the medium upon which this standing reality wave plays out.”
She peered down, edging as close to the edge of those damn liquid stairs as she dared. Yep, A Librarian was at the bottom, making his way up the impossible, twisting, flowing incline with the unshakeable surefootedness of a mountain goat, talking all the while. He barely even seemed to be paying attention but for the occasional flicker of his eyes. Meanwhile, Nik and Aidra reached the top too, crawling over the edge and, in Aidra’s case at least, flopping facedown on the more solid stone.
“It’s like walking up an escaligator,” he groaned into the floor.
[Concurred.] Twelfth emerged from behind them, stepping over Aidra and Nik with one massive stride. [And The Air Here Feels… Unpleasant.]
“Unpleasant how?” Alice asked. Twelfth’s voice never changed from its neutral tone, and the Bookbinder had precious little body language to go off, but she still looked like she might have been wary, if wariness could be measured down to homoeopathic concentration.
[It Is As A Librarian Said – Reality Is Strange Here, Layered Oddly. The Wrongness Of The Air, It Sings Strangely In My Core, In My Soul, In My Shem, In The Words From Which My Mind Was Forged.]
“So, it’s, er…” Alice trailed off as she thought through several separate analogies. “Wait, is it radioactive or something in here? Shouldn’t we be leaving?”
[No, No. Apologies For Perturbing You. It Is More Like A Change In The Quality Of The Air, The Sound Of The Wind, The Mood Of The Room. A Small But Eerie Thing. If It Was In Any Way Dangerous, I Would Already Be Carrying You All Down The Stairs Again.]
“We’ve only just got up here,” A Librarian remarked, stepping neatly up onto the landing and stopping just next to Twelfth’s elbow. “And I can’t say I feel anything amiss, but the effects of whatever happened, or is happening here -” he gestured around them “- speak for themselves.”
The walls on this floor of the tower were melting, endlessly, like great flows of candle’s wax, bubbling like tar or magma, but the room they’d entered was still cold, and while the roof sagged, the stone it had supposedly been carved from didn’t break or drip under its own weight.
“Hmm,” said A Librarian, walking over the uneven floor to a wall and giving it a sharp tap with his knuckles. “Maybe the melting-ness passes? Like, it looks like it’s moved down the tower over time, possibly even spreading out from a central point?”
Alice looked to Red. “Still no clue what the other you’s been up to?”
“I think -” he frowned, hand in his hair, the glinting fingers of his right hand drumming a beat against his skull “- it’s like I’ve walked into an old room of mine, once someone else has renovated it. I recognise things – the walls melting is odd, but not unexpected, for one – but it’s all arranged in a way that I can’t imagine myself doing.”
“Well, if this other you is trying to keep theoretical self-interlopers on their toes,” said Aidra, who hadn’t moved from his facedown position, “surely playing against type would be a way to do that? Think of what you want to do and do the opposite.”
“That sounds moronic.”
Aidra rolled over onto his back. “But they won’t be expecting you to be a moron! Or, uh, well. You’re a bad example, but my point stands!”
Red snorted at the insult. “Well, you sure aren’t standing.”
“Oh, but I am,” he replied, grinning, and in time with his words the floor lurched beneath them, sending the rest of them toppling towards a wall that was now attempting as best as it could to masquerade as a floor.
It felt like the entire tower was falling over, and while Aidra slid down the floor, landing on his feet, the rest of them were not positioned in such not-coincidentally convenient positions, and they started to fall. Alice threw herself backwards, downwards towards the floor, but before she could start to scrabble at the undulating stone of the new wall, everything was suffused in a pale blue-green glow and she stopped falling.
She looked around. Everyone else was floating, in a similar state of puzzlement, and as she looked down, she saw Aidra, sitting on the floor-wall, arms raised, eyes blazing with turquoise light. He sighed out a long, slow breath, and as he lowered his arms the light in the room dimmed. Everyone slowly descended towards the floor, light as feathers. As she descended, she managed to right herself so that, when she touched down on the wall, she landed on her feet. Only the slightest glimmers of the light remained, and Aidra’s arms flopped to his sides.
“Haaah,” he half-wheezed, half-laughed, “sorry ‘bout that. Couldn’t resist.”
And, with that, the light went out, his head flopped back, and he started to snore loudly.