“Wh- what are… who are you?” she demanded, trying to keep the notes of fear out of her voice in the face of the advancing other her.
It chuckled. “Empty, useless questions. You think yourself a stone in a puddle, but you are a sandbar in a hungry sea that stretches between horizons.”
“What questions should I ask, then?”
It twirled its spear lazily, then in a sudden motion flung it at her, the point of the spear sticking deep into Alice’s shoulder. Agony instantly slammed into her, every single muscle in her body seizing. She gurgled, the nearest thing to a scream that could escape her throat, and toppled backwards to land heavily on the floor that this strange dark dreamspace apparently had.
The other her walked over to where Alice was twitching on the ground. “But I’m a nice person, so I’ll give you some answers. I have numerous names, but I am often known as Carpalithos.” It grabbed the end of the spear, put its foot on Alice’s chest and wrenched the spear from her shoulder. The pain singing through every nerve in her body abated, and she lay gasping as Carpalithos stepped off her.
“Definitely… not a nice… person,” she wheezed.
It shrugged. “Neither nice nor a person. Now, as for your very interesting fate,” it said, “you are tangled in blood and darkness, and will work yourself deeper into the heart of it as you try to free yourself.”
“That’s – owfuck – ominous.” She tried to stand up, but Carpalithos kicked the back of her knee and it buckled, sending her crashing to the floor with a curse.
It sighed happily. “So much delicious anguish, in your future. But enough digressions and amusements. I’m here for business.”
“Oh yes. It’s a mere petty amusement, but I do so love to mix business and pleasure.” It tapped her on the top of the head with the handle of its spear, and her vision briefly flashed red, accompanied by a shrieking noise, splitting pain, and a series of nightmarish images. There was blood. There was an open mouth, full of fingers arranged in rows, like teeth. There was Red, with the empty pit eyes and sharp teeth of Carpalithos. A book, cover dotted with weeping human eyes. A dark thing, plucking stars from the heavens. A blinding, hateful light.
It turned out that the strangled gargling scream she was hearing was, in fact, herself. Carpalithos was laughing, in a manner not totally unlike her own laugh, echoey and distorted in this strange dream space.
“You have been marked by more than most,” it said, wide smile stretching beyond the edge of its lips, tearing open its cheeks, “the Red Man, the thing that hides in your shadow, and now by me.”
She sat up. “What does that even-”
“Hush,” it said, putting a finger to its lips.
Alice coughed as the taste of blood filled her mouth, nearly choking her until she doubled over and retched. With a wet slap and a splatter of blood, her tongue landed on the indistinct ground.
It was still wriggling. She stared at it in literally mute horror for a moment.
“Now, as I was saying before I was interrupted,” it said, “I have marked you in my capacity as the Hand of the Adversary.
“‘But Carpalithos,’ I hear you say,” it said, speaking with an exaggerated and airy version of Alice’s own voice, “‘what’s that mean? I am but a fool of a girl, too ignorant to know the magnitude of my own peril!’
“Well, glad you asked,” said Carpalithos, pausing to chuckle at the exceedingly impolite hand gesture Alice was making, “but I wasn’t made to help by coddling people. I’ve opened one of the doors in your head, in your shadow, and now you’re playing the full part of the wounded swimmer in infested waters. Old things, dark things, strange things. They’ll flock to you. Now, have fun. I’ll be watching.”
– – –
With a flash of golden light, Alice awoke, coughing and hacking, back in the room in the Bezoar.
“Ah, um, I woke you up because you were screaming quite loud,” said A Librarian. He was holding a piece of paper that was dissolving into motes of light as she watched. “Um, with a Word of alertness, on the paper. Well, it’s more like a macro I wrote a while back, utilising several Words and-”
She tried to sit up, before realising that most of her muscles were aching. “H- ow. How’d you get in the room?”
“Well, you were screaming loud enough to disturb my sleep, so I got his help.”
“I picked the lock!” the fortune teller exclaimed, beaming. “A Librarian aided and abetted me in committing An Crime!”
“I didn’t help you, I was going to go get a staff member before you’d unlocked it.”
“I can open doors with my brain.”
Alice started to say something, but broke down, coughing, accepting the offered glass of water from A Librarian.
The mocking face of Carpalithos crossed her mind, and she shuddered. “Yes.” Her voice was croaky.
“Well, try to get some more sleep. If you’re having trouble, I can find the counterspell for the wakefulness aid. Just knock on the door next to yours. Room, um, ψ.”
He stood up, attempted to give her a reassuring smile, and left the room, leaving Nik’s brother sitting on the dresser, looking contemplative.
She glared at him. “What?” she rasped.
“Your new friend.”
“Not out loud,” he hissed, practically leaping across the room to clap a hand over her mouth.
“Mmph?” His hand was oddly cool, but not nearly as clammy as she had expected.
“Ah. Sorry for startling you. It’s just… names have power, and things like – y’know – can hear their names being uttered.” He took his hand away from her mouth, looked at it for a second, then wiped it on his impressively grubby robe.
Alice snorted at the image, and that was what opened the floodgates. She laughed until her sides hurt – given that she was aching all over, it didn’t take long for that to finish, and for her to start sobbing.
Right. Deep breaths. “W-what can I do,” she said, attempting to control her breathing, “about being kicked around like the pawn in the schemes of a bunch of… of cruel gods?”
“Well,” he said, “some people take up drinking.”
“Not really my style.”
“Some people,” he said, raising a hairless eyebrow, “become travelling fortune tellers, wandering the Realms in search of novelty and interesting stories.”
She glanced at him. He wasn’t smiling, and the expression looked very strange on him.
“You’re not just a fortune-teller, are you?”
“Who’s asking?” The cheeky smile returned from its brief rest break and took up residence on his face, once more.
Alice took another drink of the water A Librarian had given her. “So. What can I do about… things.”
“Call Red. Tell him what happened, and he’ll get extremely cross on your behalf.”
She grimaced. “Are there other options?”
“Interesting question. Firstly, your new friend Carp-face? It called itself the ‘Hand of the Adversary’, right?”
“If it did, it got lost in all the screaming and flailing I was doing.”
“Well, you’re not gonna remember the details of a traumatic experience with that kind of attitude.”
“Right on! Carpy Tunnel is a Hand, which means it experiences Reality like a hand would, capiche?”
“Well, think about how your hand would experience the world, compared to you as a total person.”
“Is… is this a masturbation joke?”
“Well I never! Get your mind out of the gutter, Ms Alice! I mean, Cabbage is a wanker, but that’s not really connected. Or is it?”
“Dunno how hands experience things then. They don’t even have brains, so do they experience things at all?”
“Well, Crappy isn’t some hairless ape’s hand, it’s a Hand – one of the implements of something else that it’s a bad idea to mention the name of. Sentient in its own right, it’s still a hand, at the base of things. Hands are blind and deaf, but have an excellent sense of touch,” he said, flexing his own hand by way of demonstration, “they’re like the blind men and the elephant – they’re not usually the seat of the primary sense.”
“I’m not sure how this is meant to be reassuring rather than confusing.”
“Well, think of it this way. Hands are your direct way to influence the world, yes? Cup-head walked into your dreams, which is a super circumspect and energy-expensive way to have a chat with you. Energy-intensive is understandable, Crorp is pretty powerful. Sneaky, yes, it’s a tricky bastard. But indirect? That’s not how it does things unless it has a pressing reason. What does that imply, do you think?”
“Er, that it can’t come to Foyer?”
He shrugged. “Well, I mean, it wouldn’t be welcome, per se, but it’d probably be able to get here. Subtle and sneaky, remember. The reason is that it doesn’t want to meet you face-to-face.”
This time, he grinned, bright and wide. “I don’t know. Isn’t that fun? I can make some guesses, but Carpy-friend doesn’t give much away. That’s the kind of thing you can discuss with your boyfriend when he notices you’ve been marked.”
“Noted,” she said, yawning. “now goo’night, and get out.”
“Have a nice sleep. Try not to talk to any satanic archetypes.”
The door clicked as he re-locked it telekinetically.