Reinald hesitated only a moment before he gave Anna a meaningful look and followed her, pressing his teeth together at the heavily implied threats.
"Why are we walking away?" Anna hissed, glaring over her shoulder as a black-furred butler appeared to reshelf their work.
"Because the last time I declined the books prompt to be a monster, it made my friend into one and made us kill him," Fourteen answered. "What is predictable in murder stories?"
Reinald looked to Anna, remembering her horror movie comment. She snorted. "The first person to leave the group gets killed first," she said. "The murderer's a character you've already met. The murderer's close to the main characters, or even working with them. The body-"
"Wait, I thought of something more important," Fourteen cut in, eyes suddenly brightening. She looked at the pair of them, and said, straight faced, "Which of you two is the main character?"
Does there need to be one?"
"Because the person who isn't the main character doesn't get their name in the title after this story is done," Flume said, "and because they're the one the Book will use if killing someone off is necessary. So
if we mess this up, which of you is the more disposable?"
The patterns in their heads derailed and Anna and Reinald looked at each other again. The alien's words were blunt, and that came, certainly, from her own recent loss and frustration at this system. But that phrasing was not ideal, and it had sewn, intentionally or not, a seed of hostility into them both. They had always worked so well together. It was all they needed to form their trust. Reinald gave his head a sharp shake, refusing to think of the wound James had inflicted on her.
"Why does it have to be one of us? No one said you can't die in your own story."
Fourteen swiped her hand through the air, diffusing the rapidly mounting tension she had just implanted. "Okay, okay, we'll come back to that later. Just be careful, whichever of you it may be. Or me." Come to think of it, it was only Sinclair's open mindedness that had stopped her from being the dead monster in the previous story. "On that note; I've been set up to get killed by the other out-of-book characters at least twice. So
thanks for not doing whatever it is you people do to kill people, when you saw me." She realized those implications and quickly kept the subjects moving; "Your driving force was an entity called Discord, right? And your Archetypes came out of their places and tried to take over people. And I never met anyone like that
but I did have a rainstorm dash me around, and a Geezle that- right. Elements of conflict to rush the ending. Anna, what had you been about to say earlier?"
"Whatever it was we were talking about when the Book came and threatened us."
"Oh, nothing. It was stupid."
Reinald considered that- something to make the Book 'come and threaten' them. He thought back to what James had said, and before that, and the tears in reality. "What do you think happens, when it's all been appeased?" he said.
"When the story's done here? Probably the next random genre."
"No," he said, but that gave him pause as well. The story was completed, and then the genre would change. He frowned, and wondered what the hurry could be, that frustrated the Book or Chaos or whoever, when they stopped playacting to discuss. "Anna, what was it?" He asked suddenly.
"What was it you were going to say all those books looked like before we were interrupted?"
"Oh." She shrugged. "I was gonna say the order made it look like a tournament." She met their eyes, and was aware of how stupid; how fictionally faux that would be. With a smirk, she tacked on, "Like a character tournament."
Reinald and Fourteen took that into consideration more seriously than she had anticipated, and soon after, Reinald produced the questions. "Well, if that's the case, I think we should be asking what dictates why one character advances to another story while the other remains and gets its name, and
"And what it is they're competing to win," Anna finished for him.
"And what happened," Reinald said slowly, "to the people who stayed to get their name on a story."
They all took a moment to think on that, as they wandered the hallways under the pretext of looking for clues.
"In my stories," Fourteen said, "the other people- Mirasis, Terry, Llimsey, and Sinclair
behaved the way I read they should have in that genre. Hiding from monsters, fighting savages, kissing girls and killing monsters, and all that.
make them the ideal candidate to star in such a story?"
Overhead, the gaslights down the hall flickered, and went out.
They all froze. The lights flickered back on; outside came a clap of thunder. No one spoke up, but each wondered if it was the activity of an impatient book or just the weather setting the mood. Fourteen ran a hand through her hair, dismissing it for now.
"Anyway, if that's the case it's like you win by doing everything different and being bad at being a character. But isn't that the whole idea? That your Ink and Mudd sent you here to do that so you could 'fix' things?"
Anna grunted. "We ran through the motions of telling a story to keep Chaos happy, last time around."
"Yeah, you mentioned that; that Chaos appeasing
the Book doesn't want like original developments and it doesn't want to be fixed."
Reinald was going to comment on that but Fourteen kicked over a nearby serving trolley. "So what's it doing? Just feeding us through plots until we fit in one and it can be done with us? What's it gone and done to Sinclair!"
"In other words, get the story right and get stuck in a book, or mess around with it and get your life threatened," Anna said.
"It's a bad god," Fourteen said.
"Maybe we can, I don't know, appease the Book really slowly, Anna proposed. "Give ourselves time to work things out without getting it mad."
"I don't really know how to appease it in the first place," Flume said. "It's obviously set up this plot based around my last one, using Smarmadine and Sinclair, so I knew how things had gone before it became a big mystery.
And you said you're supposed to have worked with the murderer? Yes, that's Sinclair again. But we shouldn't be able to find Sinclair if he played his part in the last story and stayed there.
Do you think
"Do you think people still exist when they get their name in a title?"
"If this is a tournament about stories," Reinald said, "then assuming everyone shares their past experiences, the people in the last match are going to have the stories of everyone who was involved. So no
I don't suppose the Book would need to keep them, once they've done what it wanted."
"If it's that simple, why does it even need people from outside. It could have used its own dumb made-up ones."
"If they stop existing because it doesn't need them anymore, you think our worlds are already nonexistent outside?" Anna proposed.
"No way," Flume snapped so automatically it was unlike her. But that was ludicrous. Her entire eons-old empire rubbed out with the universe around it over the course of a few genres?
"What's it need them for, then?"
She didn't have an answer for that.
Reinald changed the subject. "What did you mean when you said it's a bad god? Did you mean literally god?"
"Yeah. I have lots of those," she said.
"What makes one 'bad?'"
" she hesitated, thinking of her own peoples' apathetic deity. "Even gods have patterns and guidelines. They don't just take creation, pick out a few pieces and toy with them while the rest of the world stops existing without so much as a ceremony. You need beginnings and endings, or cycles, at least."
"In that case, do you believe you can stop a god from ending the world?"
She thought about that too, pursing her lips. "I think
even a god should listen to the people it created." She felt a cold trickle through her blood. "Maybe we just think we're special characters from other universes. Maybe the Book's the only god and it made us the moment we touched its pages and we only believe we had story before that."
"Oh, don't even start," Anna said. Flume looked up at her a little balefully, and she said, "You're Stockholm-syndroming the apocalypse."
"I agree that even if that were the case, it would have used such stubborn and ignominious characters such as ourselves for a reason," Reinald added.
"Let's find that murderer," Anna said. They looked at her. "We've wandered around talking about this long enough."