Alice and Red walked a little bit ahead of the rest of the group, crunching steadily up a gravelled path that wended its way between great jagged grey boulders. The tall, bone-pale tower that was their destination grew steadily closer, dropping out of sight occasionally as the path cut deep furrows through the bleak and rocky landscape.
“So,” she said at last, “what was the Name-Snake talking about, when She talked about the things that were here? You were all weird about it, do you know something?”
Red cleared his throat. “I was not, as you so deftly put it, ‘all weird’ about it. I was the perfect level of weird about it, which is not at all. I was concerned because I have some… scattered memories of this tower, which aren’t related to me actually visiting this place. It’s troubling.”
“And how is that not weird? Asking for a friend, who is being weird.”
He shot her an amused look. “Is that friend me, perchance?”
“I’d never accuse you of being weird!”
“You just did. Moments ago!”
“Hey now, I was merely asking you to explain why you’re not being weird. Any accusation you read into that was purely in your own head.”
“You’re a terrible liar.”
She shrugged. “Well, I made what I could from the quality of the teaching I’ve been given.”
“Touché. Anyhow, my current working theory is that a separate me has come here, and is this ‘banner’ some demons or whatever are gathering around.”
“A separate you?”
“Well, kinda. It’s gotta be pretty distinct, if I can barely get at snatches of its memories.”
“That’s very nice and all, but I’m still not sure what you mean by ‘a separate me’.”
He sighed, relenting. “How to put it… I’m not just this, you know?” he waved his hands vaguely around his head. “One of the basic tricks I can pull is to be in two places at once – I’m less like an actual lower sentient, more like a bundle of threads tied together by the Right Hand – so I’m still the same being, just in multiple places. And, sometimes, when I doubt myself, when I can almost hear myself explaining how whatever it is I’m doing isn’t going to succeed – sometimes that voice isn’t actually internal. And then I’m in two places at once again, but one of those places disagrees with me, so we kinda diverge, and that can be pretty nasty, given that these ‘selves’ fundamentally disagree with me.”
“Wait, you can be in two places at once?”
A certain amount of… thoughts, considerations and hypotheticals distracted Alice for a moment, and she was almost too busy schooling her expression to ‘interested neutral’ to pay attention when Red started to talk again.
“If it’s a bit confusing, I don’t blame you,” he said. “The analogies that best fit are, I think, a bit confusing in and of themselves. Either I’m ‘really’ a higher-dimensional monstrous thing, whose appendages just happen to look like me, or maybe these other selves are like alternate timelines that all occur in the present, at once?”
“Just imagine,” said Aidra, loudly, from far too close behind them.
Alice nearly jumped out of her skin. “What? Wh- how are you so sneaky?”
She looked round. He’d somehow managed to come up just behind them, and neither of them had noticed. For all that he was occasionally cacophonous, when he wanted to, he moved like a cat fitted with a silencer.
“Two Reds. Maybe more. Imagine.” He waggled his brows.
“Are you here to say something productive,” said Red tersely, “or are you here to make weird flippant comments and mock me?”
“Silly Red, I’m always here to mock you. But I can say productive things, I can.”
“’Course! Imagine, if you will, that there’s some Proper Red, and this thing here –” he prodded Red in the arm “– is like… a reflection in a mirror. He’s like an image of the ‘real’ thing, but because he’s spooky he’s all made of matter and stuff, right?”
“Okay.” She nodded.
“Well, what if I get another mirror and point it at the Proper Red? I’ll get another image, right?”
“Now, there’s limits to this analogy. Both Reds can do different things, so it’s not quite like mirrors. Now, oh no, we’ve bought in a funhouse mirror. The image of Red in that is still an image of ‘him’, but now it’s all weird and grotesque! Well, more than he’s already weird and grotesque, anyway.”
“Wow, thanks,” said Red, “your analogies are always so flattering.”
“I get it now, I think,” she said. “It’s actually a bit like… Plato’s Cave.”
“What’s a cave got anything to do with plates?”
“Er. Plato is a philosopher from my homeworld. Anyway, the Cave is a similar story but with shadows in place of mirrors, I guess?”
“Good to know you have philosophers made of play-doh,” said Aidra.
“You’re just taking the piss, now.”
“Wow! I’ll have you know, I’ve never taken a piss! At least, not within the narrative, so as far as I’m concerned, it never happened.”
“Look!” she pointed past him, feigning shock. “Over there! A distraction!”
He wheeled around. “Where? I only need a couple more to complete my collection!”
Red got the hint, and they ran up the uneven, gravelly path as quickly as they could, zigzagging through the contours of the island until they ended up, panting, in a small hollow overlooked by a black-barked, twisted looking tree. The pale tower was nearly overhead, now, and close-up, its unnatural lustre was more pronounced, seeming to gleam, even though there was barely any light.
“Whew,” she breathed, leaning back against a rocky wall. “Do you think he’ll catch up with us?”
Red glanced back the way they came. “It’s Aidra. If he thought it’d be funny, he’d probably be right behind us.”
“Good point. Any idea what’s up with the tower, then?”
He frowned, looking up at the looming building for a few seconds. “Hmm… nope. I just know I’ve been here before, as someone else.”
“Wow, those are some fortune cookie-level memory powers.”
He snorted. “Yeah, well, I’d like to see you try to remember somewhere you’ve never been, based off of the memories of a quasi-alternate self. C’mon, let’s go look at the tower.”
The path ended its meandering, circuitous route through the island’s inky geology and strange flora, opening out to a wide, circular plateau around the tower, from which Alice could see all the way down to Zkrith’s boat, sitting in the centre of the island’s wide bay, partly hidden by the mist that rose off the Atrament. The inky sea itself spread off into a grey infinity around them, the occasional dancing luminescence casting diffuse light through the haze. Further away, the other islands of the Inkstone Archipelago were darker shadows in the fog, alternately jagged and smoothened shapes sticking from the placid ink like the rotten teeth of some ancient dragon.
And then, at the centre of the dusty plateau, the tower stood. It must have been nearly a hundred feet across, at the base, and it was constructed of enormous pale blocks of some kind of stone, not the ivory or bone she’d half-suspected from a distance. The stones glowed faintly, casting everything around them with a pale, cloying luminescence that somehow emanated from the blocks, which were each more than six foot square and irregularly sized, yet still fitting together so precisely that it was only the slight bevel on each of them that allowed her to see their seams. Slowly, carefully, she walked up to it and then around it, until she met Red, who had apparently had the same idea, but went the other way.
“So,” she said, the smallness of her words stark against the tower, which stretched upwards, into the darkness and out of sight. “No entrance?”
“Mmm-hmm.” Red looked pensive. “Is it time for us to storm a tower, Alice?”
She grinned. “I mean, I’m not turning tail and going back. So, yep.”