It wasn’t dark.
It wasn’t light.
It wasn’t anything.
The Outer Void howled with silence, blazed with darkness, flickering through thousands of possibilities. Each burst of sensation touched Alice’s senses sideways, filling her eyes with the taste of music and sending morphemes skittering across her skin. The air-that-wasn’t teemed with infra-terrific fearlights, burning in the unknown colours of trepidation.
And, in the midst of it, Alice’s future conditional imperfect self was sitting in a lawn chair, reading a magazine titled Mysterious Brooder’s Monthly.
“Oh, um, hi,” she said, hurriedly standing up and dropping the magazine. “I didn’t expect you back so soon. Uh. Crud. I didn’t have a speech prepared.”
Alice’s double was hurriedly searching her pockets. “Cuecards, cuecards. Damnit! Where did I leave them?”
“I wasn’t expecting this, okay? I’m supposed to be all cool and collected, and here I am, getting blindsided by something I should have already experienced!”
“What the hell are you doing here? I’m supposed to be going home! Where’s Red?” Alice looked around desperately, but Red wasn’t apparent in the cacophonous silent stench of the Void.
Future!Alice snorted. “That man is never where you need him to be. Take it from me.”
“You know him? I mean, of course you do, you’re future me.”
“What the absolute hell is going on?” Alice growled, stopping just short of grabbing the other her’s shoulders and shaking her… self?
“Haha, would you look at the time!” her doppelgänger said, backing away from her. “Gotta go! Bye!”
She vanished into smoke, leaving Alice alone, again, in the darkishness of the Outer Void.
– – –
An eternity later, with a swirl of light and shadow, taste and texture, the Void quietened to something dark and still, approximately. Shapes moved slowly in her peripheral vision, whispering in scents that felt strange against her skin.
Red appeared out of the darkness. “Are you okay? I think I lost you for a second, there.”
“You did, and I met a future version of myself.”
“Ah, sorry about that. You only have the time and space you bring with you into the Void, so you can end up seeing echoes of possible pasts and futures once that runs out. Are you feeling okay?”
Alice shrugged. “Approximately. It’s a bit hallucinatory, here.”
“Has it settled properly? Some people get motion sickness when voidwalking.”
She made a monosyllabic noise of assent. That symbol, on his fez. I’m sure I’ve seen that before. The place where she’d seen that pitchfork-shaped symbol before eluded her, however.
“Cool. Now, you can’t see it, but we’re nearly at your stop, inasmuch as physical distance means anything, here in the Void between Realms. I mean, even that’s a flawed analogy,” he said, gesturing to the left and right with his spare hand, “because the Realms are all that there is, and the Void isn’t. Capisce?”
“Don’t think too hard about it, it’s mostly not all that relevant to day-to-day life. Especially since we’ve arrived!”
He reached out, and as if parting a curtain, something moved in ways that made Alice’s brain itch, unfolding like origami. Through it, she could see a road, some buildings. Was that the library she’d been working in before? A rush of air escaped the portal, and she could smell the air of home. The madness was over. She could forget the Library, although maybe not the kindness of A Librarian, Kallie, Neferet and Red. And maybe that fortune teller guy, too. Maybe if she-
Her thought was cut off by the portal being blocked, a massive steel vault door materialising across the folded space.
“I’ll need my hand back, for a moment.” Gently, he let go of her hand and started to scribe strange interlocking shapes and glyphs on the surface of the steel door with lines of fire that sprung from the crystal fingers of his right hand. Finished, he dusted his hands off and turned to her.
“Right. Sorry for the delay, I’m not used to travelling to Realms like Materia.”
“What is that?”
“This,” he said, rapping on the door with his red hand, “is a metaphor for not being able to get in, I think. I’ve writ upon it the Words of Opening, so it should open any… moment…”
The lines and glyphs on the door flared for a moment, and the steel burst into flames, burning up like newspaper and revealing the shimmering gateway to Materia.
Alice stepped toward the view of home, somehow gaining traction on the nonexistent ground. As soon as she started to move, however, the lack-of-ground shook as a gigantic block of stone forced itself into existence, growing from a point and unfolding in a series of directions in a manner that was hard to look at. With a crash, it settled over the gateway. Dumbfounded, Alice turned to Red, who was similarly taken aback.
“Well. Uh,” he said, openly gaping at the massive stone, “that doesn’t normally happen.”
“Are you sassing me?”
“Yes! I’m apparently a couple of steps away from home, but things keep getting in the way! None of this normally happens!”
“Fair enough. Now, let’s see what I can do about this,” said Red. He reached out, fingers clinking against the stone, coming away attached to glittering silver threads. Wrapping them round his fingers, he stretched them between both hands in a opalescent Cat’s Cradle, twisting and weaving the strings, striking multicoloured sparks from them where they touched each other.
With a grunt of effort, he pulled the Gordian knot of glowing lines tight, and the boulder cracked in twain, before dissolving into luminous sand.
“Right,” said Red, with no small amount of annoyance, “let’s see if this holds.”
He reached out backwards and took her hand again and, quick as a flash, a brick wall had formed across the gap in the Void, bristling with wooden spikes.
Red gingerly took a step back. “Oh come on! Someone or something really doesn’t want you getting back.”
“I’m unsure.” Red looked pensive and deeply aggravated. “It’s possible that I may live to regret Vowing to help you get home. It means I can’t give up and leave you here, for the Inimical Demons to eat.” He grinned cheekily as he noticed her glare. “I’m kidding. Let’s get back to the Library.”
– – –
“Back so soon?” Neferet asked as they alighted next to her stall. She was playing some kind of card game with A Librarian, who seemed to be losing.
“I’m afraid,” Red said, “that Alice here is going to be staying in the Realms at large a while longer. Something more powerful than I is preventing her access to her home Partition.”
“More powerful than you? That doesn’t narrow things down much.”
“Ha ha. I find myself in an unenviable position of owing a Vow that I can’t fulfil.” He was pacing, now, talking to himself. “I could ask the Triskelion, because if she can’t do something about it, I really am in trouble, but I’ll get mocked until my skin comes off, and owe her a favour.”
A Librarian snorted. “Looks like you’re stuck. This is why you don’t make Vows verbally, remember?”
“Are you sure you’re actually trying to get me back?” Alice asked, accusation in her voice, “because that attempt took all of three minutes, and lead to nothing happening at all.”
“Well, I’d hardly argue th-”
Alice found herself shouting. “Of course you wouldn’t argue that! You’re not the one who can’t ever get home!”
“Piss off, you- you smug twat!”
Red sighed. “If you insist,” he said, and disappeared.
It was Neferet who spoke first. “You okay, Alice?”
Okay, deep breaths. “Yeah. I’m fine,” she lied, fighting to keep a tremor out of her voice. She wasn’t going home. At this rate, she’d never get home.
All her friends, her family, they’d have no idea where she was. She’d be a corpse, buried out in the Realms, under an alien sky.
No-one on Earth would have any idea where she had gone.