“What even happened to you?” asked Red. “You look like you’ve died, and that’s not a good look on me.”
The other Red rasped out a chorus of laughter. “We come here, we ask what we’re doing, what happened? You must be further from us than we thought, poor lost small self.”
“You’re not exactly in a convincing position to boast of how cool being a literal corpse is, mate.”
“Simple presuppositions. You pity the nymph for abandoning our cocoon, for no longer crawling in the soil as a larva. The flesh wraps you in its cage, when you know as well as we do that it is something to be risen beyond.”
“Mmm, yeah,” said Alice, “you made a good choice, whenever you diverged, Red, to not become a weird floating smug dead guy.”
“Yeah,” she continued, “I didn’t know you could make non-idiotic choices! Good going!”
“I rescind my offer of thanks.”
[You Know,] Twelfth said, ignoring the other Red, [I Think The More Alarming Members Of The Red Right Hand Cult Looked A Bit Like This. An Interesting Connection, To Be Sure.]
“I said be quiet.” Some of the voices in the left-handed Red’s voice were laughing, and some of them were sobbing.
[As My Voice Does Not Make Physical Noise, How Can I Be More Quiet Th-]
As the other Red raised their twitching, spasming left hand, Twelfth stopped speaking, mid-sentence. She tilted her head to the side, confusion and shock obvious from her body language.
“Quiet, yet quiet, in the songs of the mind.”
The joints of Twelfth’s fingers clacked as she made a series of gestures. Alice didn’t even need her mysterious knowledge of language to know that the things she was signing weren’t particularly complimentary.
“Hey now, er, me,” said Red, “since we’re the same person and all, can’t you tell me what this is all about? Last I recall, I’m not big on weird towers and spooky teleporting monsters.”
The thing with a face like Red’s chuckled. “The things at the gates are not ours. They scratch at me, they claw at my cloaked thoughts. They seek only our destruction.”
“Huh. Okay, then?”
“They are creatures that chew at the worked edges of power. But here, in our heart-Realm, there are no weaknesses, no compromises, no ‘good enough’, no time saved. They cannot penetrate our defences. We built this fortress to perfection, even as you and your rabble come in, making our perfect sanctum untidy. But, we created it well. There are systems in place, provisions for the more… messy of your minions to pollute this noosphere.”
“So you’re saying we’re his minions?” Alice asked incredulously. “You’re saying that this man can overlord his way out of a wet paper bag?”
“So you’re saying we are your minions?”
“No, I- I demand more options in this multiple choice!”
A Librarian cleared his throat. “I don’t know about you, but I’m a little averse to bickering while, er, that,” he pointed at the wrong Red, “is being quite so threatening.”
“Oh, do go on,” they rasped. “Your blatant stalling and false bravado is frankly hilarious to us.”
“Yeah, well,” Red retorted, “you look like a dead guy. Probably because you are, but my point still stands!”
“By the infinite hatreds of Sheol, we despair that we were like you prior to our metamorphosis.”
“The feeling’s mutual, you cadaverous git!”
“You are stalling.”
“I mean, it’s working, though, isn’t it?”
Alice turned to the Red to her right. “What are we stalling for, anyway?”
“Well, I’m glad you asked. Firstly-”
The not-voice of the not-Red filled every available space in the room. “SILENCE.”
She winced. “Cripes, volume, please.”
“I tire of this.”
The walls and floor of the amphitheatre rippled as the other Red moved. Their body, the corpse of a Red that dangled limply from their left arm, swung wildly as it was dragged behind as their hand darted forward like a striking viper.
Alice flinched, almost as an afterthought to the blur of motion, but it wasn’t lunging for her. There was a clack as the not-Red’s jagged fingers closed on empty air. Red, the real Red, wasn’t there. It was almost too fast for Alice to follow, but she caught the blur of Twelfth’s motion, the startled squeaking noise as Red’s legs flew out from under him and he plummeted out of the way of the other him’s sharpened clutches. For a moment, it looked like Red was going to brain himself on the floor, but instead of landing, he vanished in a burst of maroon smoke, which started to flow across the ground in a thin stream. The other Red growled and started to turn to pursue it, but stopped short, their overextended crystal arm held in Twelfth’s steely grip.
Familiar smoke started to ooze from the wrong Red, like the original’s magic, but more twisted, with shapes that writhed like a carpet of crimson worms, but it was too late – Twelfth was already swinging them over her head and into the wall of the amphitheatre. Corpse met stone with a sickening crack, leaving a smear of dark blood against the pale stone.
Alice looked around, taking in a bit more of the scene. Nik and A Librarian were backing away, taking Aidra’s prone form with them. A Librarian noticed her and frantically beckoned her over, out of the way of the fighting. She backed towards them, trying to keep track of the frenetic action as it unfolded.
The voices that made up the not-Red’s voice all started talking at once, an incomprehensible murmuring argument, an angry crowd. The voices rose to a scream, and Twelfth was thrown back in a blaze of scarlet light, feet scraping on the ground as she came to a stop. Red reappeared in another burst of smoke, raised his hand and shot something at the other him, something that burned with a darkness so absolute it was impossible to look at, sucking all the light from the area. It streaked through the air, slamming into the other Red and imploding, sending ripples through the air and carving a circular chunk out of the floor and wall of the arena. As the terrible not-light faded in stinging afterimages from the very air, great spires of pale rock shot up from the ground, in from the walls, converging on Red as he floated above the arena floor.
He batted them aside. “This is my place of power, too, you dolt!”
The spikes shattered at his touch, falling and splashing like water into the still-smooth ground.
“Yes,” it hissed in a chorus of whispers, “yes, you are us, and we are you. We assert, we attest, we, we, demand. Obey us, for we are you.”
Their crystalline arm still twitched, unblemished, but the flesh on the Red-corpse that hung from its end was scorched, smoking and peeling. As the skin flaked away, the veins beneath were crystalline and bloodless.
“Yeah, no,” Red replied. “How about you obey me, for I am you.”
Their jagged claws swiped at Red, swung through him, but his form was already unravelling, and it was like clawing at an image in water – it scattered the forming smoke, but there was nothing there to do damage to. The stream of dark carmine smoke skated across the floor, zig-zagging out of the way as not-Red hurled globs of light at it, specks of crimson illumination that shattered like balls of glass when they hit the ground. Twelfth rushed across the arena and leapt at them, causing them to pause in their harrying of Red to dodge, the dead fleshy bit of their body swinging like a marionette as they dipped out of the way.
“This is pointless,” they hissed, as Red rose once more out of his cloud of smoke. “Run all you like, we are that which is yourself, unfettered from any limit on our power!”
It was at that point that their right arm finally gave way, detaching from their shoulder with the sound of tearing flesh, and falling to the floor with a slap.
There was a short moment of stillness before Red started to laugh. “Well,” he wheezed, when he could catch his breath, “I’d clap, but I think that’s a bit too soon, you know?”
“The flesh,” replied not-Red, unconvincingly, “is not required.”
From behind her, Alice heard Aidra, suddenly roused. “’Tis but a scratch! Hah!”
“For you, one final opportunity. Join the whole once more.”
To Alice’s right, Red took a step forwards. “Absolutely not.”
“So be it.”
The false Red’s left arm swung across, claws raking through empty air as Red threw himself backwards. But it didn’t stop there, and by the time Alice worked out that she was within their reach, it was too late. The clawed hand whistled past, clipped her with a crack, and her head erupted with pain. It was so cold, and she saw little crystals of frozen blood land like pink snow around her as she hit the floor on her hands and knees.
“Keep your minions further from the fight, next time.”
Red chuckled brightly. “I’m going to kill you!”
“Oh, you were fond of that o-” They were cut off by a distant, continuous rumble. “What?”
“’S the Langoliers,” murmured Aidra, barely audible and quite groggy sounding, or maybe that was the probable concussion on her own part?
“What- what is that?”
“Once upon a time,” said Red, in a voice that was equal parts cheery and menacing, “I said ‘I vow to ensure your safe return to your home Realm’, and, well. You’re the one who’s been insisting that we’re the same person this whole time.”
“You said WHAT.”
The other Red started to move, to advance, but something was clearly wrong. The flesh on their corpse-body was disintegrating, skin peeling and flaking, the flesh under it turning to ash, and as they moved their grotesque left arm, cracks started to appear in the crystal, faster and faster until its entire surface was covered in crazed patterns, red dust trickling from it as it moved. Around them all, the arena was disintegrating as the rumbling drew nearer, accompanied by… the jagged howls of some animal?
“Y-you-” There were fewer voices in the false Red’s words as it moved towards them, sinking slowly until their feet started to drag along the ground, leaving a trail of wet ash as they slowly slumped forwards. When they finally stopped moving, just metres away from the true Red, they were barely recognisable as a corpse, let alone as her friend’s doppelgänger.
Creatures like the ones they’d seen elsewhere in the tower, flickering bodies twisting with shapes and colours, started to slink out of nowhere, slowly circling the grotty pile of ash and crimson dust of the other Red’s remains.
“They thought I was the other me, earlier,” said Red. “They seek out things that are unfinished, not wholly lawful, and they’re made of cut corners. Now, we’ll need some medical stuff for… Alice? Alice!”
“Clearly, my vow was not actually a carelessly stupid act of hubris, but was a brilliant subconscious strategic maneuver to protect you from any malicious divergent selves on the off chance I wasn’t able to get you home right away.”
— Red, probably