“Oh, I’ve got some choice words about what you can do,” said Alice. “Some of them are even anatomically possible.”
Syrk chuckled. “So rude, young lady!”
“Yeah right,” she scoffed, “you’ve got me tied to a table and you keep waving scalpels around, so I think you were rude first.”
“Oh?” He smiled with a false geniality most telling. “I didn’t tie you to this work surface.”
She tried to lift her head, feeling a now-familiar twang of pain as she didn’t move. “Then wh—”
“I nailed you to this surface.”
For a moment, she was speechless. “What.”
“Although your head is in a vise, to stop it moving around.”
“No, I mean—” she tried to sit up again, wincing at the sudden shooting pains — “why aren’t I dead? Or in much more pain?”
“Well,” he said, launching happily into lecture mode, “necromancy, such as that which I study, is about the movement of life and death itself. It follows, therefore, that people I nail to tables only die if I let them.”
“Are you expecting me to thank you for nailing me to a table?”
He scratched his chin. “Hmm. No, but it would be polite for you to appreciate my technique.”
This time, he laughed. “I already did. Can’t say it took. They call me ‘Deathless’, after all.”
“Who even calls you that?”
“You know, I’m not even sure who started it. It’s hard to find out, with epithets, especially.”
“Are you going to un-nail me to this table?”
“Maybe. I’ll need to put other things on it eventually. For now, however, I believe you contain some very interesting answers about the nature of sacred darkness. I’d be remiss to let you leave without satiating my curiosity.”
“Oh!” His face lit up. Some of it peeled slightly. “You asked about the pain. Well, I’m keeping it suppressed, so you’re lucid. However—”
He snapped his fingers, and the pain hit her like a truck. The world went white, then black, then red. It hurt so much that she couldn’t hear herself screaming. Moving made metal things scrape against her bones. Everything tasted like blood. There was nothing but agony, stretching out from horizon to horizon, and then, like a candle guttering out, there was nothing, and Alice faded into blessed, merciful unconsciousness.
“Oh, it’s been too long,” she said, gazing down at herself. “Hey there, gorgeous.”
She opened her eyes, looking up to see herself, grinning a shark’s grin of gleaming, razor-sharp teeth beneath a pair of ink-black, oozing eyes.
“Speak of me and I’ll appear.”
“Aren’t you supposed to leave me alone?”
“Hah!” The other her straightened up. “You’re in my presence now, girlie. I am what you are experiencing, and you are at the mercy of that wonderful little man, who hears the crooning songs the Spine sings in its sleep. You cannot escape me, this time.”
Alice sat up. The place this — it must have been a dream — was occurring in was wet, red and visceral. The pair of her stood and sat, respectively, in a vast pulsating tunnel, walls slick with some kind of thin mucus, like they were in some disgusting passage of a vast beast. The other her reached into its jagged-fanged mouth and, with a crunch and a burst of sticky black blood, pulled out a long tooth. They threw the jagged fang up, where it span once, lazily, in the air before springing out, transforming into a vaguely familiar long, silvery spear.
“Oh cripes,” she said, before diving to one side to get out of the way of the spear, which sprung from Carpalithos’ twisted hand, seemingly by its own volition.
The spear thudded into the wall of the passage, which bucked and rippled. A flow of hot, stickily humid air rushed past the pair of them, bringing with it a foul, foetid smell. Carpalithos snapped its fingers, and the spear jumped back into its hand like a streak of mercury through the air, leaving a wound in the fleshy wall, which started to ooze blood.
“Your threats don’t really mean much,” she said, sneering at the twisted reflection of herself, “given that Syrk has nailed me to a slab in real life.”
Her own voice giggled back at her. “Syrk is good at what he does, isn’t he? That aside, why do you feel that this isn’t real in the same way that your physical body is? It’s all part of the Real, is it not?”
“Please stab me, if the alternative is philosophical discussion.”
“Well,” said Carpalithos, stabbing her, “that’s just rude.”
“MOTHER OF F—”
“Oh, stick it up your a—”
“Not while it’s stuck in your chest, I won’t.”
Alice kicked out at her double’s legs, managing to sweep them out from underneath it and send it crashing to the damp, yielding floor of the horrible fleshy tube.
The simulacrum of herself screeched, a noise that couldn’t have come from a human throat, and attempted to stand back up, briefly waylaid by the bucking and twitching of the floor’s flesh.
“You,” it hissed, “by the dread towers, the flesh axis, the—”
Alice, ignoring it, grabbed Carpalithos’s spear and, in a burst of bright pain, pulled it from her chest. There wasn’t even any blood, or a hole, either through dream logic or through some weird property of the pain spear. Maybe it wasn’t really solid?
It seemed solid enough when she brought it down onto the other her’s head with a resounding crack and a spray of goopy black ichor.
“Petulant child,” Carpalithos hissed, standing up, the black goo inside the copy of Alice’s head writhing as it started to pull the sundered skull back together.
“Wow,” said Alice, “that’s really gross. And I say that while stood in some kind of massive creature’s… unidentified internal passage?”
“Enjoy it while you can,” they hissed, black eyes twisted in rage. “I think I’ve worked out how to best… inconvenience you.”
“Oh yeah? Well, I’ve still got your sp—” she began, before the spear twisted and wriggled in her grip, before jumping into Carpalithos’s outstretched hand like an eel carved from mercury.
“As I was saying,” her double said, “I think the cruelest thing I could do to you right now is to wake you up, and deliver you back into the clutches of Syrk, who sees the Spine, the Tower of Flesh, the Axis of Bone. Wake up, Alice, and smell your blood.”
As it finished speaking, her copy twisted and warped like a reflection in water, rippling as it, the fleshy walls, and everything else besides vanished, and Alice woke up.