“Eugh. What do you want?”
Carpalithos chuckled. “So rude, young lady! I’m just checking on things. The target on your back and the hole in your shadow, leaking darkness into the world around you.”
“A vampire tried to eat my face. I don’t think weird threats faze me so much now.”
“Oh?” It grinned wider, black blood oozing from the tearing facsimile of her face. “A creature of darkness caught the scent? They’ll be the first among many, child.”
“Yaaaaaaaay,” Alice groaned sarcastically.
The pale fog that shrouded the nondescript dreamplace she and Carpalithos were meeting in suddenly receded, revealing a landscape of grey sand, dunes peppered with shattered masonry and sunbleached bones. The grey and mottled desert stretched from horizon to horizon, featureless, and as Alice slowly sat up to look around, she realised that there was someone else there besides her and Carpalithos.
The figure was dressed head to toe in the brown-red rusted colour of dried blood, and above its head burned a crown of black fire, shot through with flickers of pearlescent light.
“Who is that?” she asked, looking around. “And where is this?”
ᴛʜɪs ɪs ᴛʜᴇ ᴏᴜᴛᴇʀ ᴠᴏɪᴅ, ʜᴏᴍᴇ ᴏғ ᴅʀᴇᴀᴍs, said the figure, ɪɴ ᴏɴᴇ ᴏғ ɪᴛs ɢᴜɪsᴇs – ᴛʜᴇ ᴅᴇᴛʀɪᴛᴜs ᴏғ ᴀ ᴛʜᴏᴜsᴀɴᴅ ʀᴇᴀʟᴍs, ᴛʜᴇ ʙᴏɴᴇs ᴏғ ʀᴇᴀʟɪᴛɪᴇs sᴄᴀᴛᴛᴇʀᴇᴅ ᴛᴏ ᴛʜᴇ ᴡɪɴᴅs, ʟᴏsᴛ sᴀɴᴅs ᴏғ ᴛɪᴍᴇ.
Its voice was quiet, but the words resonated, ringing out far longer and louder than they were spoken.
Carpalithos grabbed her by the hair, dragging her to a standing position. “Meet my colleague, The Apostate Speaker.”
ʙᴇʏᴏɴᴅ ᴛʜᴇ sᴏʟᴇᴍɴ ɢᴀᴛᴇs ᴏғ ᴍɪɴᴅ ᴀɴᴅ sʜᴀᴅᴏᴡ ᴅᴏᴇs ɪᴛs ᴠᴏɪᴄᴇ ᴄᴀʟʟ, intoned the Speaker, ᴀɴᴅ ʜᴇɴᴄᴇ ɪ ᴀᴍ ʜᴇʀᴇ ᴛᴏ ᴀɴsᴡᴇʀ.
“What,” she growled, yanking her hair free of her double’s cold fingers, “do you want?”
Carpalithos lay an arm across her shoulders, and a shiver went up Alice’s spine. “We’re all going to get along famously, isn’t that right?”
ᴄᴀʀᴘᴀʟɪᴛʜɪᴏs ʜᴀs ᴘʟᴀᴄᴇᴅ ɪᴛs ᴍᴀʀᴋ ᴜᴘᴏɴ ᴛʜᴇᴇ. The hand that slipped from the sleeve of the Speaker’s robe was gloved, a long nail driven through each knuckle. It pointed at her, and she felt a pinprick on her forehead. ɪ ᴄᴏᴜʟᴅ ʀᴇᴍᴏᴠᴇ ɪᴛ, ɪғ ᴛʜᴏᴜ sᴏ ᴡɪsʜᴇᴅ.
“Hey now,” growled Carpalithos, gripping her shoulder painfully, “I didn’t agree to-”
The Speaker held up a hand and Carpalithos stopped talking. ʏᴏᴜʀ sʜᴀᴅᴏᴡ ʟᴇᴀᴋs, ɢɪʀʟ. ᴛʜɪɴɢs ғᴏʀ ᴡʜɪᴄʜ ᴛʜᴏᴜ ᴀʀᴛ ɴᴏᴛ ᴘʀᴇᴘᴀʀᴇᴅ sᴛᴀʟᴋ ᴛʜᴇᴇ. ɪ ᴡᴏᴜʟᴅ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ᴛʜᴇᴇ ᴋɴᴏᴡ ᴛʜʏ ғᴀᴛᴇ, ᴛᴏ sᴛᴀʀᴇ ᴛʜʏ ᴅᴏᴏᴍ ɪɴ ɪᴛs ᴍᴀɴʏ ᴇʏᴇs, ᴀɴᴅ ᴛʜᴜs ʙᴇ ᴘʀᴇᴘᴀʀᴇᴅ.
“Thanks?” She wasn’t sure if that was a threat or not. The Apostate Speaker didn’t speak with any inflection at all, so it was hard to tell.
“Yeah,” Carpalithos said, copying her voice, “thanks, Speaker. Much obliged for you offering to ruin my fun.”
ʏᴏᴜ ʀᴇǫᴜᴇsᴛᴇᴅ ᴍʏ ᴘʀᴇsᴇɴᴄᴇ, ᴄᴀʀᴘᴀʟɪᴛʜᴏs. ᴀʙɪᴅᴇ ʙʏ ɪᴛ, ᴏʀ ɪ ᴡɪʟʟ ᴀssɪsᴛ ʏᴏᴜ ɴᴏ ʟᴏɴɢᴇʀ.
The thing that wore a copy of Alice’s face muttered something about busybodies, but it relented.
ɴᴏᴡ, ᴄᴀʀᴘᴀʟɪᴛʜᴏs ᴅɪsᴄᴏᴠᴇʀᴇᴅ sᴏᴍᴇᴛʜɪɴɢ ғᴏʟʟᴏᴡɪɴɢ ᴛʜᴇᴇ ᴀʀᴏᴜɴᴅ, sᴏ ɪᴛ ᴛᴏᴏᴋ ᴛʜᴇ ʟɪʙᴇʀᴛʏ ᴏғ sᴜʙᴅᴜɪɴɢ ɪᴛ. ɪғ ʏᴏᴜ ᴡᴏᴜʟᴅ ᴘʟᴇᴀsᴇ?
“Alright!” Carpalithos grinned and rubbed its hands together. “Now you’re speaking my language.”
It stepped away from Alice, dipping its fingers in its black eyes, coating them with a dripping black tar that trailed weightlessly in the air. With this, it traced a series of lines that seemed to twist and move before her eyes. When it had finished, the sigil glowed redly, and she felt the sand and bone gravel beneath her feet shift in response as something rose from the sand, shedding clouds of dust as it rose. It started to move, coughing loudly – it was a person.
“Hey,” croaked the future version of Alice, “I see you – aheh – met the copycat.”
Her supposed future self was in an absolutely terrible state, caked with grime and sand and – she noticed with alarm – Carpalithos’ spear stuck through her chest. She tried to move, but her legs were still sunk in the sands of whatever this part of the Void was.
“What the hell? What did you do to her?”
The Speaker was silent. Carpalithos laughed.
“Don- ow – don’t worry,” said Future Alice, “I’m not actually alive, so they can’t kill me. I’m just a memory, a dream.”
“But… but you’re hurt! And you look a lot like me, so it’s kinda weird.”
She let out a wheezing chuckle. “Well, would it help if I told you I only look like I feel pain?”
“Heh, it was worth a shot. Seriously, if they destroy me, they’ll destabilise their connection to your dreams, so they won’t be able to come torment you.”
Alice glanced at the two dreamscape intruders. “They can still hurt you, though. I don’t want to leave you with things as cruel as this.”
“Well, Craphead here is cruel, sure, but the Apostate Speaker… well, they’re cruel too, but much less of a dick about it.”
“Observe.” Her future self coughed, then spat a wad of blood and what looked like oil to the side before turning towards the Speaker. “Hey, Speaks.”
“I stake my suffering now for Craphead there to never get back in Alice’s mind in any capacity.”
ʜᴍ. ᴛʜɪs ᴡɪʟʟ ʙᴇ ᴀᴍᴜsɪɴɢ. ᴅᴏɴᴇ.
Alice’s features twisted on Carpalithos’ face. “What?”
The Apostate Speaker ignored it. ᴛʜᴇ ᴅᴇᴀʟ ʜᴀs ʙᴇᴇɴ sᴛʀᴜᴄᴋ, ᴛʜᴇ ʙᴀʀɢᴀɪɴ sᴇᴀʟᴇᴅ.
“You mother f-” was all it managed to say before it vanished with a ear-splitting screech of rage, disintegrating skin-first, followed by the flesh, leaving behind a crumbling skeleton lying among the ubiquitous grey sands like any other. Like any other, that was, besides the scream, which trailed off for more than thirty seconds before finally abating.
“Yeesh,” said the other Alice, “sore loser.”
ɴᴏᴡ. ᴀʟɪᴄᴇ. ʙᴏᴛʜ ᴏғ ʏᴏᴜ. ᴛʜɪs ᴡᴀs ɴᴏᴛ ᴀ ғᴀᴠᴏᴜʀ, ɪᴛ ᴡᴀs ᴀ ᴅᴇᴀʟ. ᴛʜᴇ ʟᴇғᴛ ʜᴀɴᴅ ᴏғ ᴛʜᴇ ᴀᴅᴠᴇʀsᴀʀʏ ᴡɪʟʟ ʀᴇᴛᴜʀɴ, ᴀɴᴅ ʙᴇ ᴀʟʟ ᴛʜᴇ ᴍᴏʀᴇ ᴄʀᴜᴇʟ ғᴏʀ ᴛʜᴇ ᴀᴅᴠᴇʀsɪᴛʏ ɪᴛ ғᴀᴄᴇᴅ ɪɴ ɢᴇᴛᴛɪɴɢ ᴛᴏ ʏᴏᴜ. sᴜᴄʜ ɪs ᴛʜᴇ ᴡᴀʏ ᴏғ ᴏᴜʀ ɪʟᴋ, ᴀɴᴅ ᴛʜᴇ ᴡɪʟʟ ᴏғ ᴛʜᴇ ᴅᴏᴍɪɴɪᴏɴ ᴛᴏ ᴡʜɪᴄʜ ᴡᴇ ᴀʀᴇ ʙᴇʜᴏʟᴅᴇɴ.
“Okay. Thanks, anyway.”
ʙᴇғᴏʀᴇ ɪ ʟᴇᴀᴠᴇ, ɪ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ᴏɴᴇ ʀᴇǫᴜᴇsᴛ. ʟᴏᴏᴋ ʙᴇʜɪɴᴅ ʏᴏᴜ.
She turned her head. “I don’t know what you e-”
She trailed off, not quite comprehending what she was looking at. Her shadow was long, far longer than it should be, stretching away towards the horizon of the ashen dreamplace.
Glancing downwards, she saw that – yes – this was her shadow, it was connected to her feet and everything. Which didn’t make sense, the shadow on the ground before her was too long and, looking closer, she saw the shape wasn’t right, either. There were too many arms, and the whole thing seemed to slowly ripple, as if its edges were continually reshaping themselves. It looked nothing like her.
And then she saw the eyes. And then she saw the teeth.
She saw her shadow and her shadow saw her.
– – –
She woke, throat raw from screaming.
She must have been having a nightmare, she explained to a worried Alan, two A Librarians and Nik, but she had no idea what it was about. The images had just… fled her mind, and all she had was a vague sense of unease.
A Librarian joked that it must have been Alan’s tea.
She managed to get back to sleep – and she didn’t remember what dreams, if any, followed.