The Aeonic Knights that Nyth summoned were a bookbinder and an A Librarian, garbed in suits of armour made of overlapping plates of stiff, waxed paper. Each set of armour was personalised, the A Librarian’s covered in writing, an illuminated manuscript sprawling across the plates of her armour, and the bookbinder’s coated in old-fashioned maps that seemed to change when Alice wasn’t looking.
‘WE WOULD LIKE TO OFFER OUR APOLOGIES, ON BEHALF OF THE ORDER OF AEONIC KNIGHTS, THAT AN IMPOSTOR DELAYED YOUR PROJECT,’ said the bookbinder, via slate. ‘I AM REFERRED TO AS FIFTEENTH SNOWFALL, AND THIS IS MY COLLEAGUE A LIBRARIAN.’
“Our identification,” the A Librarian added, holding up the same kind of card that Nyth had, Fifteenth following suit.
“The, erm, impostor-Cinnabar took a copy of my Realmic Signature – could that be a possible thing they were after?” Alice asked.
[Possibly. As Identifying Information, It Could Be Used To Target Certain Types Of Curses, Or To Track You.]
The Knight A Librarian started to ask questions and make notes, and once Alice had said her piece and passed most of the questions to A Librarian, she sidled up to Aidra, who had been rather subdued since they’d arrived at the Causeway.
“You were here last time, right?” she hissed.
He blinked froggily at her. “Hmm?”
“You can read minds. Couldn’t you tell it was an impostor?”
She glared at him. “What?”
“I mean,” he said cheerily, “who can even say they truly know anything at all?”
“Maybe! The impostor-person was telepathically screened – I wouldn’t have been able to get anything more than brief impressions if I hadn’t been closer. Or maybe they were just very good at pretending to think correctly?”
“Is that… usual?”
He shrugged. “About one in ten people are a bit more resistant. Psions in general and telepaths in specific have even better filters.”
“Alright, then. Sorry for snapping at you.”
“Mmm. It’s all a bit too convenient, honestly. Contrived coincidences are messy ways to tie up loose plot threads. I think something more’s going on than is obvious to either of us. How exciting!”
“Aaand you’ve stopped making sense again. Thanks, Aidra.”
He stuck his tongue out at her. “Everyone’s a critic.”
– – –
That night, her dream was cold.
A forest of metallic trees, shifting and chiming despite the lack of wind.
The sky was dark and empty, save for a moon, hanging like a bloodshot eye above the horizon, casting its scarlet light across the landscape of jagged metal struts.
She took a step, the ground creaking and shifting slightly beneath her feet. She walked aimlessly for what seemed like hours until the track she was meandering along arrived at the edge of a wide clearing.
Feet moving on their own, she walked to the centre, and it was there that it spoke to her.
She looked up, searching for the source of the voice. It was a person, probably, and it sat above her, cross-legged and upside down, hanging in midair a few feet from the top of her head.
The figure looked down towards her, and she realised that they didn’t have a face. They had… features? Eyes, probably. Possibly noses, ears and mouths, but no face.
“It has been quiet here, recently,” they said. “Quiet enough for you to hear my words.”
“Yes. Your dreams have many visitors. The Sinistral, the Vocal, and that false self of yours. All quiet, for the time being. A thing, a pebble, a dam. It stands upstream, and does not permit them entry.”
The figure with no face pointed ‘down’, towards the moon.
“Oh? Hatred in Crimson?”
“Is that what it calls itself? I knew it by a different name, I think. Or something very much like it, in any case. Long ago, before our time.”
“If everyone else is gone,” she asked, “why’re you here?”
The features that the creature didn’t have on its face writhed in… amusement? “I am internal. Well. I am from nearer than the creature is blocking. For all their lost sciences and mystic arts, the elf and the fairy didn’t consider that the call was coming from inside the house.”
“The house being… my head?”
It laughed. “In a sense, yes. In a sense, no.” While it was talking, it kept laughing. The sound was less and less like human laughter by the second.
She grimaced as it got particularly grating. “Care to elaborate, maybe?”
“You are weak, correct? You rely on the patronage of greater beings than yourself for basic survival. But,” it said, pointing ‘up’ past her, “look down.”
She did so. Around her feet, in the bottom of the depression she was in the centre of, a pitch-dark liquid was pooling, glistening like oil. Tendrils of darkness were starting to climb up her legs.
“Uh, what?” she said, panic rising in her voice as she tried to move her legs, to no avail. The liquid shadow mired her, like trying to wade through treacle.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
It continued speaking, its echoey voice growing sing-song. “It is power. The power to be something that matters. Why be ‘kicked around like the pawn in the schemes of a bunch of cruel gods’, as you so delicately put it, when there is a power such as this, that you only need to reach out a hand and grasp?”
Alice tried to fix it with a sceptical look, but the whole lack-of-face threw her off somewhat. “Yeah? Well, which bits of my soul do I have to give up for that?”
“There is no price,” it said, contemptuously; “the power is already within you, lurking within and beneath your shadow. Taste the Void, partake of its power, and it will be yours with no condition. This power is unclaimed, and you would be the first to taste it for millenia.”
“You want me to… drink the goop? Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.”
“Do you not hunger? There is a hunger and a thirst, older than everything. From the Void, did all things come, and to the Void they will return. There’s an awful lot of power there, ripe for the picking, in the turning wheel that underwrites all things.”
“Still not drinking it.”
“And that would be your loss. You could become a shadow-borne godhead, a figure at the front of the tide of darkness that will swallow this Real, return it to the cold and nameless depths from which it came, that sublime hunger from before the Real was formed.”
“Not making the deal sound any sweeter. I like not being in the cold depths.”
“The Sinistral called you a ‘sandbar in a hungry sea’. And yet, ships still run aground on sandbars. Show them. Show the creatures of the Adversary that you are not one to be trodden on. You needn’t even drink it – the Void will seep into your bones and fill them with songs of depths and darkness.”
“Can’t I just have normal dreams, where I don’t talk to… whatever the hell you are?”
“I am the part of you that does not flinch from power.”
“Yeah, and I’m the part of me in charge, so can it.”
The floating, faceless creature had nothing to say to that.
I think I’m going to call this thing Malice Alice. M’Alice for short.