The censœrs muttered in tinny voices as they clustered around her, tendrils twisting and clinking in agitation. Clouds of smoke were settling round the body of their prey, slowly eating away at its meaning and substance, filling the air with the heavy scent of █████. Alice’s outline was wavering, becoming blurred as the process of digrestion began.
“Hey! Hey, get off them! Shoo!” The voice was loud, echoing across the ridged landscape of the Plains.
The censœrs, startled, twitched and chattered grumpily before reluctantly drifting away from their quarry. The thick grey smoke started to dissipate, revealing more of Alice’s slumped form. A Librarian approached Alice, handkerchief wrapped around his mouth and nose to keep the stinging forgetfulness of the smoke away, the censœrs rapidly dispersing as he advanced, waving his arms in a vague attempt to waft the air clean.
Her reality was slightly blurred, colours smeared like wet watercolours across her limp body, and A Librarian grimaced as he assessed the damage. Nothing fatal, thank Knowledge; her details were already starting to sharpen back to normalcy, and he doubted any permanent damage had been done.
What had this nearly ill-fated traveller been thinking, walking across the Plains of Simple Truth without any bottled memories or other distractions for the censœrs? She certainly didn’t look local, what with the beige skintone and dark brown hair. Possibly some kind of tourist, although this was a long way from Foyer and its Causeway to have wandered without getting at least some information about dangerous animals. A gentle prod to her shoulder confirmed that her physical form wasn’t dissolving or anything dire, and that she was pretty firmly unconscious or unresponsive.
“Right then, miss, let’s get you somewhere safe,” A Librarian said to no-one in particular. He couldn’t be sure that she was actually unconscious, or paralysed or something – she wasn’t a creature he recognised, although she bore some superficial resemblance to him. It was a reasonable supposition, however, to guess that she’d need some rest somewhere more comfortable than the Plains of Simple Truth (there was hardly anything more uncomfortable, in A Librarian’s opinion). Awkwardly, he managed to heft her over his shoulder, and fumbled in a pocket of his robes for a few seconds before pulling out a loop of thin red string, one end of which lead deeper into his pocket, and the other end was attached to an empty can which – according to the brightly-coloured label – used to contain “Hertz’s Telephomarto Soup”.
He spoke briskly and clearly into the can. “Hey there. A Librarian speaking. I’ve found someone who fell afoul of the censœrs, and who probably needs a place to stay. She was wandering the Plains of Simple Truth without any equipment, and they’d burrowed halfway through her identificationary flux layers before I chased them off.”
“↟⇑⇅↶↬⇃↧⇓↼↡↦⇆↝⇟↝↧↿⇝↴↑⇆⇁←⇄⇓↫⇗⇉↡⇁⇋↦↵⇇↡↷⇁↜↷↑↳↠⇌↲⇒⇋↤↞⇕↼↭↳↤⇉↹⇚↣↱↬↝⇐↿↝↳⇟↡⇚↯↯↾↷↥↞↽⇈⇝↭↥↝↯↼⇌⇌↴⇝⇇↓↿←⇚↯↡⇀⇚⇂↓↡↠↜⇝” came the distorted and garbled voice from the can in response, something like the noise of a thousand squeaky ducks in an industrial shredder.
“She was being devoured by censœrs, and those are practically inimical demons by marriage,” A Librarian retorted, starting to walk in the direction of the walltown of Seven-Twenty.
“⇜⇉↹⇚↜↢⇆⇘⇊⇀→↱⇋⇘↹⇔⇗⇓⇝↲↴⇔⇓↧→⇉⇜↽↽⇉⇙↦⇘⇀⇞⇞⇕⇐↽↲↬↫↦↻↠↥↜↥↧↽⇓⇘⇟⇅↼⇚←⇉↲⇛↞↧⇓↥↻↷↑⇒⇐⇇⇃⇟⇇⇄↹↳↳⇘⇞↻↹⇑↤↓⇆↾⇕⇃⇕⇋⇔⇋↵⇚↯⇒↥↬↻⇜” The muffled sound of an explosion at an airhorn factory sounded marginally more conciliatory as it made its second statement. “↰⇈⇚⇞⇘⇓⇙⇇⇞⇔⇉↽⇒⇙⇙⇗↟⇖↝↟⇄↯↻↫⇟↑⇅↶⇟⇖⇒↳⇜⇙↺⇚”
“I wouldn’t expect it to take too long. Before the Misery they forecast for this gloaming rolls in, I’d guess. See you there!”
The response from the can sounded like a shaken box full of wasps and helium, albeit a happy one.
– – –
There was something standing behind her. She turned, and there was no-one there, just the stinging brightness of the starless night that surrounded her.
“Hello? Is there anyone there?” Her voice sounded pathetic in the vast darkness.
The echoes of her words changed, almost so quiet she didn’t catch it.
“You’ve got nice hair.”
The echoes were too faint to hear after that, and Alice was left alone in the scouring darkness. She got the distinct impression that she was being watched. Only the faintest movements, brief flickers at the edge of her peripheral vision, hinted that she wasn’t blind, although the tautological quality of “bright blackness” wasn’t much of a consolation.
That was weird, she thought.
“Yeah, I thought it was weird the first time round too.” Alice turned, and saw… herself, but more worn. The other her’s eyes were tired, and a long scar travelled from her hairline down to her cheek. She was wearing something different, a battered grey hoodie with bandages tied round the wrists, and a red scarf with a symbol like a capital E emblazoned at the dangling end.
Alice blinked. “Um, what? What the hell?”
The other her chuckled. “Man, that takes me back.”
“Y-you’re me? From the future?” Alice was stammering now and made motions as if to back away, fruitless on this frictionless void.
“Not in quite the same words,” other Alice said, almost wearily, “I’m more of an impression of the concept of a future you that may have existed, somewhere in the nonlinear temporal flow of this place. These places. Plus, you’re dreaming at the moment, so that’s another layer of interpolation from a potential future.”
She was struggling to take in the new information. “This place? What is this place?”
“Place,” the older her grimaced, as if at a bad smell, “is something of a strong word for the wheres, whens, whos and hows of this new layer or paradigm of reality you’ve found yourself observing.”
This was starting to sound dangerously philosophical. “Cut the crap. If you’re really me, I’d tell my younger self something useful, like how to escape this madness, or avoid getting that scar.”
“Where’s the fun in getting spoilers?” Her older self bought her right hand out of her pocket, as if to check her nails, and Alice was startled to see that she was missing the ends of her ring and pinky fingers. In response to her blank stare, her doppelgänger gave her a little wave with her marred hand. “A freebie; I lost these fingers to a dragon.”
“Sure. Look – as fun as it is, living rent-free in your dreaming mind as you recover from having most of your memories eaten, I’ve got things to do, people to see.”
She could hear the desperation in her own voice now. “Where are you going? What do I do next?” She prayed for a hint, a sign that everything was going to be okay, that the madness would end.
Her double grinned. “You’ll see.” Her face faded away, leaving the glint of her teeth for last.
Alice stood on nothing for a long while, listening as something laughed, but there was no-one there.