There was sensation. Disjointed swirling merging patterns of light and colour and feeling and emotion. Drifting through the mad machinery of the tower, through the attack of the kaleidoscopic creatures, through her memories of the ocean of ink, she sank, rose and drifted. Briefly, she thought she saw herself, reflected in a shard of displaced thought, the familiar ‘future’ self, the long scar down from her hairline almost glowing in the strange light.
“Oh hey! We match!” said the other her, grinning. “Well,” she continued, holding up a hand and waggling her three remaining fingers, “almost. But hey, future-sight can’t always be perfect.”
Alice reached out, mouth forming words, questions, but her hand passed through the reflection and it faded, insubstantial as a spiderweb. The dream unfolded and refolded, and she was in the pale stone arena, watching in slow motion, unable to move as the jagged, clawed hand of that other Red swung towards her.
She couldn’t move. It was like she was fixed in space, unable to even turn her head, only able to look a bit left and right. She couldn’t move. There was blood on the other Red’s hand. She couldn’t move. The scene had been different, and this time there were no other people there, none of her friends around to help her. She couldn’t move, there was nothing but the imperceptibly slow scything motion of the monster’s claws. Closer and closer it moved, inch by appalling inch, and she could do nothing about it. After trying to move for what felt like hours, she gave up and closed her eyes, willing it to be over.
She plunged into a cold darkness behind her eyes, darker than the dream, than the nightmare, darker than any mundane lack of light. She felt the air leave her lungs, felt the panic rise and then… stop. She hung there, nowhere, the pressing icy grip of the black water about her, feeling nothing but its emptiness, its… hunger. It didn’t present arguments. It didn’t wheedle, a bizarre copy of herself didn’t appear to start talking about power and strength and whatever other nonsense was in the sales pitch. It just was, and that was almost scarier than hearing its whispers.
In time, the darkness faded, and things changed tack, and it was more mundane dreams, ones she couldn’t really remember, from which she finally surfaced to consciousness again.
Eugh, again? I should be used to this, she thought, wincing, waking up slightly pained and kinda bandaged in a bed, I guess.
She couldn’t see through one of her eyes, and was alarmed before she realised that it was buried under a bunch of bandages that covered most of the right side of her face. Well, that wasn’t much more reassuring, but her eye wasn’t obviously damaged, and she was content to take her small victories where she found them. On a dream-borne whim, she checked how many fingers she had, breathing a small sigh of relief when she realised she hadn’t misplaced any in the confusion.
Distractions finished, she braced herself and sat up. No new and exciting pains – most of that was concentrated around her bandaged face, more achey than painy. Yep. Those were real words, and nothing to do with how groggy she was from waking up, let alone any lingering effects of the injuries. Looking around, she recognised the room – even if the gentle rolling motion was sheer dizziness, this was in Zkrith’s houseboat. She was laid out on a folding bed in one of the smaller rooms-or-storage-closets.
She heard footsteps on the deck outside, and then A Librarian poked his head round the door. “Oh, you’re up! Are you feeling alright?”
“I’m alright.” She coughed, loudly. “Could do with some water or something, though.”
He ducked back out, returning shortly with a full cup, carrying it with that same perfectly-balanced fluid grace across the shifting floor and plonking it down on a nearby bookshelf. She picked it up, promptly spilled a little bit on herself, and drank it down relievedly.
“Ahh,” she sighed happily. “Anyway, how’s everyone else? How’re you doing?”
“Well, after the Hounds ate nasty-Red’s body, they started to eat the remains of the tower, which was starting to properly decay, and-”
“Oh you know, those creatures. They’re called Hounds of Tindasloth, and they’re made of cut corners. They’re supposed to eat things which mess with reality too much, but they were being kept away by nasty-Red. Um, are you still feeling alright? You’re kinda… burying your face in your hands and groaning.”
“No,” she said, muffled, “I’m good, it’s life that is pain.”
“Fair enough. So, the tower started collapsing, we were able to grab you and float down thanks to Twelfth and Red, and then we high-tailed it down to the boat and set off.” He sighed, slightly disappointed. “I never got to do a full study on that word-machine the nasty-Red built.”
“Yeah, that’s full villainous. What other kind of person has a castle that’ll straight-up disintegrate once you get killed?”
“I mean, to be fair, I don’t think they were expecting to get killed.”
“Still! Anyway, back to the point, you’re all good?”
“Cool. Can I have some food? I’m famished.”
“Oh yes, absolutely. Should I tell everyone you’re up?”
“Yeah, yeah, go ahead.”
The room seemed a lot smaller once everyone else had come in and made themselves comfortable. She’d shifted up the bed, sitting cross-legged, back to the headboard, so Red could sit at the middle, with Aidra lying bonelessly over the foot of the bed, head and feet resting on the floor. A Librarian had brought her a meal, and apparently they’d been having lunch or something, because everyone else had brought in their meals too. Hers, at least, looked relatively normal – thick, uneven noodles in a dark, meat-scented broth. A Librarian had even given her some disposable wooden chopsticks to go with them.
“It’s based on traditional Devil meals,” said A Librarian, noticing her wariness. “Although those are usually more raw.”
“You’re all heathens,” Zkrith added.
“Hey now,” said Aidra, sprinkling what looked like raisins onto his bowl of noodles. “I’m the most heathen, and I’m insulted that you didn’t note that.”
“Okay fine,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Where’d you even get those flies, anyway?”
Alice looked closer at the ‘raisins’, then wished she hadn’t. “That you eat… those makes perfect sense and is yet revolting.”
Aidra grinned. “It’s not as weird as A Librarian’s, technically! I’m still in the ‘technically edible for you’ category!”
A Librarian shrugged. His own lunch was mostly soil and muddy water, and he was eating it with a spoon.
“I forget you’re technically a plant, sometimes,” said Alice.
“Yeah, well, I forget you’re a mammal sometimes.”
She tried some of her lunch. Like most of the things she’d eaten in the Realms at large, it didn’t resemble anything else she’d ever had, but it was pretty good.