There is a very small plane of existence linked to all others.
The Questseekers Centre prides itself on its minimal interference in other cultures, but it makes itself very easy to find for those who need it. It is, in fact, so easy to find that many of its customers have to sit in a quiet room for some time while they get over the shock of inter-dimensional travel, which, after all, doesn’t exist in many worlds yet. There is always an attendant on hand to explain things, stacks of pamphlets in every conceivable language and some that have not yet been conceived, and a wall-length fish tank, in the hopes that the smooth movements of the denizens thereof might be soothing to the people who find themselves suddenly at Questseekers. Their positive effects have not been formally studied, but it’s thought important and polite to make the effort.
The Questseekers plane is entirely contained in one building, and although this building is of awesome proportions, it’s still one of the tiniest dimensions yet discovered or created. No one is quite sure what the outside looks like, as all portals leading in converge on the foyer, and the same foyer forms the only exit. Just because inter-dimensional travel is rare on most planes right now is no reason for the secrets to be given away freely.
The foyer is wide, and rarely empty. There are bright, reassuring pictures on the walls, of smiling people of many races and species (though not all, and some of the more obscure peoples can be seen glaring at them resentfully and muttering). There’s no welcome desk, because those who would staff it never get the chance to sit down. There are always clients to be shown around and directed, forms to be fetched and appointments to check up on. Aside from the staff and the bewildered clients themselves, there are regular patrols of security officers stalking the floors: trolls and barbarians, and the occasional minotaur, who have proven themselves capable of understanding who it is okay to escort out, who it is okay to hit, and who must be left alone at all costs.
The Questseekers Centre, home of wonders and miracles of science and sleek bureaucratic efficiency, isn’t universally popular, and sometimes these regrettable measures must be taken.
It was hard to say which department, out of the myriad at Questseekers, got the worst deal, but everyone was certain it was theirs.
They were mostly wrong.
Qiarin knew exactly which department got it roughest, and it had nothing to do with the cartloads of forms to file and the dangers of the ladders in the filing departments, or marketing their slightly distasteful and slightly stigmatised services in innumerable languages and media, while also minding cultural taboos and eccentricities. It wasn’t even to do with the mind-breaking decision of who to hit and how hard.
Everyone in Correspondence got her sympathy, of course. They had all been reduced to tears at least once by frustration at the limits they were bound by (if they were bleeding hearts), or hard-luck stories (if they were sentimental), or simply by the ungrateful cruelty of their clients.
There had been tears in the aviaries over a slip of paper taken from the ring around a dove’s foot, and there had been weeping in the semaphore tower over particularly unkind flag-waving, and there had been crying over long papyrus scrolls. There was a particularly high turnover rate in the Telepathy sub-department due to their tendency to suffer nervous breakdowns.
But anyone who hadn’t had to sit down face-to-face with a disgruntled, out-of-work hero and tell him there was nothing they could do for him could count themselves lucky in the work department.
Qiarin sat at her desk, just one in a forest of desks, and Isayt’n at the station next to hers reached surreptitiously over. There was a crudely-enchanted folded paper bird in the palm of her scaly hand, which fluttered half-heartedly over when Isayt’n blew on it. Qiarin caught it, and read, How much are you giving to the whip-round for the Duke’s birthday? I don’t want to look stingy. She caught Isayt’n’s eye, shrugged, and then the number hanging above her desk lit up with a merry chime, and a magically-enhanced voice announced that the next customer was to go to desk number 359.
Isayt’n smirked over at her, in an odd mix of sympathy and gloating.
Qiarin picked up her quill and prepared a welcoming smile while her assigned client made his way over, clutching a thick sheaf of parchment. A new one. Ugh. Paperwork.
Isayt’n pretended to be working diligently.
Qiarin’s smile faltered as the sands in the hourglass slithered away and her assignment was still halfway down the aisle. The sign above her head kept blinking unhelpfully. Her long ears twitched when someone dropped something a few desks away.
By the time her client had reached her desk, she had brightened up again, and she gestured at him to take the seat in front of her. He was brawny and shirtless, probably human, bearing faded tattoos and scars all over. His beard looked as though it had seen better days. He fiddled self-consciously with the heavy jewelled pommel of his sword, and handed over his parchment forms.
“Good afternoon and welcome to Questseekers!” said Qiarin brightly. “Let’s see what we can do for you today.” She took the papers from him and glanced down quickly, almost sighing in relief when she saw they were in a variant of Common Tongue that she could read. They had done that to her before, sent someone to her who didn’t understand a word she’d said. Mixed up a couple of digits on the table number, she supposed. She did, however, give a start when she realised that all of the neatly ruled lines underneath each question were blank. “Is this your first time here?” she asked.
The barbarian – she knew she shouldn’t think of them like that but she couldn’t help it – nodded.
“All right then. Have you heard of us at all?” She could see the answer to that already, in the way he was looking suspiciously at his surroundings.
He shook his head.
“Right. Don’t worry.” She prepared the spiel. “What we’re here for, is to help you find work. So what all this is about,” here she waved the untouched parchment leaves, “is you telling us what skills you have, and what you want to do, and then we’ll do all the work and hopefully find you a job. In the meantime, if you’re eligible, we can set you up for weekly payments just to help you get by.” It was possible that the problem was the nature of the questions. She had heard of races who refused to answer personal questions on the basis that they believed they were giving bits of their souls away.
“‘m sorry ’bout that,” the barbarian muttered into his beard. “Can’t read, so.”
Qiarin’s smile froze, as more precious time piled up behind her. “Ah. Well, don’t worry, I’ll just go through the questions with you now.” She dipped her pen in the inkwell (more dimension-shuffling was involved here, or else the inkwells being refilled every ten minutes would have brought chaos) and held it poised above the first blank line. “Right, what’s your name?”
“Aethmor the Wyvernslayer.”
She wrote it down, grateful that he was not a complete lost cause. People seemed to be much more willing to take on a hero with a title. “And what world is that?”
“Where are you from? It helps us find a quest as close to where you live as we can. As far as possible, we’ll always try and find you quests in your own world, but if you’re eligible, we might offer you something a little further afield.”
Aethmor the Wyvernslayer looked confused, and a little worried. “Hang on a minute,” he said, his moustache bristling. “The wives wouldn’t be happy if I was to work abroad, like.”
“You can easily choose not to, if you’d prefer to stay where you are,” said Qiarin quickly. “But we do like to keep families together, if you ever decided you wanted to move to a different universe, or if quests are simply too hard to come by, so your wives would be able to move with you. Where is it you’re from?”
“The Empire of the Twenty Marks.”
“Right, okay.” She scratched it down. “And, er, where is that, sorry?”
Aethmor the Wyvernslayer glanced around awkwardly. Qiarin could practically hear him wondering where anywhere was, when you could just step through a door and be in a whole new dimension.
“Do you have a name for your land?” she asked. “For your, erm, whole big land?” Not all of them knew what planets were. Not all of them even lived on planets.
“Oh, you mean the Aethyrplane,” said Aethmor the Wyvernslayer, still faintly confused and embarrassed.
“Ah, yes. That Empire of the Twenty Marks. Of course.” The trick was to sound as though she was familiar with all of these places she had never heard of. It reassured the client. She’d have to look it up later anyway, to see what the going rate for Questseeker’s Allowance was there. “Race?”
“Powers or abilities?”
“Well I can fit my fist in my mouth-”
“Magic, psychic abilities, anything like that?”
“Ah, er, no.”
The quill scratched away at the parchment, and they slowly worked through the questionnaire. Eventually Qiarin turned over to the last section. Aethmor the Wyvernslayer seemed to be nodding off. Qiarin was feeling drowsy herself, and almost cut herself when she had to stop to trim her quill halfway through.
“Right, here we are at the important bit now,” she said, and he tried to look interested. “Just a bit longer to go. What kind of quest do you think you’d be most suited for?”
Aethmor the Wyvernslayer scratched his nose. “What… what’ve you got?” he asked cautiously.
“Broadly speaking, we split it into three categories based on result. Quests for people – rescue missions and so forth, quests for inanimate objects and information, and quests for glory and slayings. Sometimes they overlap, of course, ‘kill the dragon and rescue the princess’ being a classic twist, but I just need you to choose the one you’d most prefer, so we can narrow down the search for you.”
It didn’t take long for Aethmor the Wyvernslayer to decide that slaying foul beasts was his particular realm of expertise. He had been making a living at it for nigh on fifteen years now, and he quite enjoyed it.
“Any preference as to what kind of slayings? Dragons, chimaera, humanoid creatures?”
“I’ve always been a bit partial to dragons,” said Aethmor the Wyvernslayer, coyly. “My first, you know.”
“I’ll put down that you have plenty of experience,” she said, feeling the rush of pent-up feeling that would mean freedom, and one more item ticked off on the great list of Things That Must Be Done. “It’s looking good for you, Aethmor the Wyvernslayer,” she added. “You’ve got plenty of experience, and your title will look very good to any potential employer.”
Aethmor the Wyvernslayer looked unmistakeably relieved, and started to fidget with the hilt of his sword again. “I dunno,” he said. “This damnable peacetime is ruining things for all of us.”
“I’m certain something will come along,” said Qiarin soothingly. “But that’s it for today. I’ll make an appointment for you to see me in another seven days, and I’ll give you all the details of the money you’ll be getting.”
“H-how do I get back here?”
“The greeters at the door will be able to give you all the information,” said Qiarin, not wanting to have to look through piles of books to find out his world’s entranceways. She’d have enough consulting of weighty tomes when he’d gone. “I’ll see you in seven days. Have a nice day!” She managed to keep the smile up until he turned his back to make his way back down the long aisle to the foyer, and then sighed heavily.
“Sounded like fun,” said Isayt’n, who had obviously tired of schoolroom magics. It wasn’t exactly like anyone else would be paying attention to them.
“I’ve never had an illiterate one before.”
“What, really?” Isayt’n spread her fingers to examine her nails, the delicate webs between them glistening oddly in the light. “He’s going to be easy, anyway. What was his title, Wyvernslayer? Quest givers love stuff like that. They’ll snap him up.”
An office messenger passed by in a hurry, looking harried and trying to balance a stack of books in his arms. His tail thrashed and one of his horns almost unbalanced the whole pile when he turned his head too fast. Isayt’n stopped him ruthlessly. “You. I want you to ask the Scribes where the hell the copies of form 35a are, for desk 360. They’ve been ignoring my notes. If they play dumb, tell them I want 50 copies.”
“I’ll get it done as soon as possible,” replied the disappointed demon.
He continued on his way, hefting the books higher and desperately trying to look over the top of them.
“Anyway,” continued Isayt’n. “I’ve got a favour to ask you.”
“Yeah?” Qiarin had already pulled out the first heavy reference book, part of a series which included every known world and mapped out every conceivable reference to it in other literature. Initial assessments were always the hardest part. If it had been a smaller book, she would have flicked through it, or even leafed through it, trying to find the Aethyrplane, but as it was she had to be content with pushing the pages over and squinting through a jeweller’s loupe. “What’s this favour, then?” she asked absent-mindedly.
“Shift swap. I said I’d work this weekend but it turns out there’s a storm coming back home, a big one, and I have to help move the house underwater again for safekeeping.” She blew through her gills. “I’ve lost count of how many times this has happened this season. I tell you, things are getting absurd.”
“Could be an omen of some kind?”
“If it is, I know where to come for help. All my clients owe me favours.”
Qiarin grinned, and found the Aethyrplane at the top of a page. She made notes of the references she would need, and closed the thing with an almighty effort. A little cloud of dust spurted from the yellowed pages as the cover thudded down. “Always looking on the bright side, aren’t you? I can’t help you though. You’ve got storms, we’ve got nomad raiders.”
“Wow,” said Isayt’n. “You win.” She looked through a stack of forms, making notes on some, and then paused. “Oh gods, what about your sister?”
“Shan’s fine,” said Qiarin, running a finger along the row of book spines that lined her desk. “They won’t go near her in the temple. She’d just curse them with plague or something if they dared. Turn them into… stuff. You know. It’s my own place I’m worried about. I left my valuables with Shan, but I’m not looking forward to them setting fire to the house.”
“Well, if everything’s all sorted, why can’t you help me?” Isayt’n persisted.
“Because I’m working then anyway. I’m not going to be home when the bandits arrive. They can have what they want.” Qiarin had settled quite nicely into the semi-trance of flipping through ledgers and lists, running past the names of worlds and currencies she had never heard of and probably never would again, meaningless words that occasionally tugged on a string of memory or interest or curiosity, with eyes only for the mysterious Aethyrplane. She had found multiple similarly-named worlds, but after cross-referencing with the Empire of the Twenty Marks, she was reasonably sure she was looking for the right one. “Ask Taz,” she said. “He owes you anyway, doesn’t he?”
“That’s a point.” Isayt’n chewed on the end of her quill thoughtfully. “He won’t be in for a couple of days, though. All the wood elves are out. Some kind of religious thing. Flipping babies.”
The trance snapped. “What?”
“Flipping babies. Really. He was explaining it to me. All the wood elves gather in this one place, right, and they bring all the babies who were born since the last time they did it. There’s two people, priests or something, one holding the arms and one holding the legs, and then they kind of lift the baby and flip it over, and the louder it cries, the stronger it’ll grow up to be.”
“What? That sounds… like something no one would ever do.”
“Ask Taz when he comes back. I swear that’s what they’re all doing. And you know wood elves. All mad.”
Sea elves are all perfectly reasonable, though, are they? Qiarin didn’t say. She had heard of a lot of strange customs from the other employees of Questseekers, and for the most part she tried to keep an open mind (especially after being greeted with disbelief and even disgust at her own traditions), but she couldn’t help thinking that this time the wood elves were just having some fun with the credible Isayt’n. She made a noncommittal noise and continued searching for details and numbers.
“Have you got the latest Rates book?” Qiarin asked when she noticed the numbers she had found for Aethyrplane were two years old. Given that a lot of the worlds and countries Questseekers had dealings with were either war-torn or on the brink of it, the economists they employed were constantly busy updating the conversion rates.
Isayt’n leaned over, and Qiarin lifted the heavy front cover to display the volume number. “I think that’s the one,” she said, and ducked under her own desk to check it against her version. “Yep. What’s wrong?”
“No one’s updated the information for the world I’m looking for in two years, apparently.” Qiarin sighed, the beginnings of a tension headache pulsing at her temples.
“Isn’t that always the way. Maybe it’s just a stable economy?”
“I doubt it somehow,” Qiarin muttered, and took out an emergency flare from a drawer. It was the only chance she had of flagging down a messenger in the din of the main office. Not everyone could just magic up their own distress call.
Before anyone came to her, however, the disgustingly happy chimes sounded again, close enough to make her eye twitch, and another customer was shooed her way.
This one she recognised straight away. “Hello, Yurz,” she said, trying to sound as though she was actually pleased to see him. “How have you been? Nice weather back home?”
The lizard man’s tongue flickered out as he sat down. “Don’t act all nicey-nicey with me, girl,” he hissed, crossing his legs and leaning back in his chair. “I don’t need your pity.” His clawed hand played with his belt where he would have worn weapons, but unlike most Questseekers’ claimants, Yurz had been stripped of that privilege.
It was not going to be a good day.