“A good stageplay without the right characters is a bad stageplay.”-Eighteenth age Údanese master dramatist Epinoster Nine-thousand-six-hundred-thirty-centimeters
Ktsn Wdondf Daephod didn’t wake up.
The woman found herself standing on her fastlegs, in a daylight-suffused circular clearing, and somehow prevented herself from reacting at all to the sight of a strange and terrible creature at the clearing’s extreme end.
The thing had the suggestion of a seriously deformed greshna, an odd off-orange pink tint to its flesh, and only one plane of symmetry. Those swirling cloths around its body were – presumably – clothes, though they managed to be both stupendously tight in some places and so loose in others that Ktsn was amazed they didn’t fly away. Two five-digit hands flexed with sleek twitches of tendon. Two things that at least resembled eyes sat burrowed into its visage, and the way they panned over her was completely and utterly alien.
As the thing abruptly rose from its compact resting pose, on two limbs, Ktsn felt… nothing. No… not quite. She felt a thin skin of anger, the seed of something quite like fear. These were stifled, though. She realized that something was off.
She realized, with inescapable self-evidenced logic, that she was dreaming.
“Hello,” said the not-greshna. Those eyes were close to the axial plane of the face, but the mouth lay on the face’s lower half, and the neck attached at the bottom of the head. There was a raised ridge with two holes in it almost like-
“You’re dreaming,” said the not-greshna, and its out-of-place lips were definitely making words.
Well, Gegaunli. Of course she was dreaming.
“Please don’t be alarmed,” said the thing, and Ktsn watched carefully as its full height became clear. It wasn’t large by any means, probably half her weight at maximum, but its height was close to her own if she rolled over onto her highlegs. Its sackcloth-like garb ringed it in wavering sheaves.
“I do not think I have enough free thought to be alarmed,” she told the not-greshna, rattling her claws together despite (or maybe because of) the seriousness of the dream.
“That’s for the best, I suppose,” replied the creature. It did something near its waist, or what she assumed was its waist. “Hopefully that shock will wear off soon.”
The common tongue had an uncommon accent in the thing’s employ. It leisurely settled back to the thin grass, gesturing with one hand at her. “Here, at least feel a bit comfortable, then, if you aren’t going to start panicking.”
Before she could ask what it meant, she saw a well-stuffed flock of pillows appear beside her, lumpy and thick.
Ktsn looked at the pillows. Ktsn looked at the not-greshna. Ktsn looked back at the pillows. Her tongues felt stuck together.
“Oh, of course,” said the not-greshna. “I’m sorry. You prefer something a bit more civilized.”
A long-threaded carpet sifted upward through the dirt, the grass, and the air. The pillows didn’t even have to move to place themselves on their new home.
“Now, we don’t have a lot of time here,” said the not-greshna. “So let’s use what we have wisely.”
Ktsn eyed the carpet. Her attention fixed there for several heartbeats, before cutting up to the strange creature.
“Please, sit. If anything else occurs to you – something that you’d feel would give you the comfort for good listening, name it.”
The not-greshna sounded suddenly serious.
Ktsn plonked herself down in the pillow forest and almost disappeared. Her fur got caught in the pillows’ fabric, pulling just enough to be annoying without actually being uncomfortable.
“Now. Let us begin at the end, and work backward.”
The not-greshna gestured at its own form.
“You, my dear woman, are Ktsn Wdondf Daephod. Farmer of Goskec Tktl. Educated, self-reliant, annoyed at your family for various and sundry reasons which do not bear recounting here. I know you. But you do not know me. I am…”
A closed hand moved up to the mouth, fist-shaped, and received a cough. There was one thumb on it.
Ktsn looked at the other hand. The other ONE THUMBED hand. Either the not-greshna had gotten very symmetrically mutilated or-
“… in no particular order of importance: one of a clade of creatures called ‘humans,’ the Librarian, a member of the male subset of the species, and Thomas.”
Before she could process the words, the mouth opened up once more and continued its dispensing.
“I am also particularly interested in you, a little bit bored with my position in the scattered shards of reality as of late, capable of inhabiting dreams of other thinking entities from across all sorts of esoteric borders, annoyed at my colleagues for their interfering with my interference, and a commander of great and terrible forces.”
There was another cough.
“Finally,” the voice rasped with razor-straight enunciation, “I am a Being of Old.”
“I am sure that you now have at least as many questions as you had before we met.”
Ktsn stared at the… male human named Thomas, a Being of Old called the Librarian, who had taken an interest with the farmer woman before him and thus inhabited her dreams thanks to his command of great and terrible forces, as a direct or indirect result of annoyance at his colleagues for their interfering with his interference (and indirectly or directly the result of his boredom with his position in the scattered shards of reality as of late).
“I have questions,” she said, and shifted one of the pillows directly in front of her out of the way with one of her legs.
“Good. Unfortunately, it’s not time to answer those, just yet.”
Thomas leaned forward, and the only-sagittal-mirroring of his face and body made her feel strangely perturbed even through her fog. He got no closer than two body-lengths distant, and yet it seemed like he was suddenly right there sharing the same air she breathed.
“Tell me, Ktsn. Have you ever wanted to have adventures like those in the stories of Tdsd-Who-Writes?”
All four nostrils flared, Ktsn blinked rapidly.
“I… cannot say that I ever considered the topic.”
The Being of Old named Thomas cocked his head, and those inside-only teeth showed again.
“Would you object to the opportunity to leave behind your family, your current life, and everything you consider ‘home’ right now, and go seeking the wild unknown?” he asked, in an almost whimsical tone.
Ktsn heard the words, and toyed with them for a while in the box of her head. “I would neither object to such an opportunity nor accept it without careful consideration,” she answered. “I feel like you are being very forward asking such a thing. I feel like I am very nervous despite my curiosity.”
What was she SAYING? Where were these words coming from? Did she actually feel any of this? No, she didn’t. She was like her pickax; swung by a hand, and not that which did the swinging.
“What if I told you that you could receive a gift of highly irregular value, but with the added benefit of making yourself an invaluable asset to those around you – and which would almost certainly change lives and save things worth saving?”
This time, Thomas was actually standing before her and she looked up at him. The… human (and what kind of name was that?) looked reciprocally down, those sideways eyes glowing at her with a strange and haunting light. He had one of his one-thumb hands pressed to his torso, fingers flung outward in a splayed arc, and he didn’t appear to be breathing.
“What do you want of me?” she replied.
“I want to give you a little forewarning. For what good and ill it will do.”
Thomas bent forth, then, and before she could protest or claw out his eyes or even clip his finger off with her sharp outer teeth, touched her directly on the featureless part of her head just above her lip.
Ktsn suddenly fell to the ground, every part of her limp, flogging the world with her weight. Her claws lacerated soil as her raiments picked up dirt and refuse. Her eyes flickered, went dark, then sharpened once more. A little shiver ran from the crevices under her arms and legs, up her trunk, past her neck, and met at her jaws. Her inner teeth ground across each other, turning the air into paste. Hands convulsed as a little gulping grunt-moan came out.
A certain something extra dwelled at the back of her mind, sensed but not truly evaluated just yet.
She turned herself to the task of getting upright, rather than dwelling on how she had been placed on the ground. Dream-grass – the kind of grass in a dream, not the psychedelic – folded under the bottoms of her feet.
The farmer shook her head, and felt up around her mouth for the point where the human had touched her. It was familiar by slow tactile exploration, but no feature or lack of feature seemed to differentiate that part of her head from how it was structured before.
“Terribly sorry,” said Thomas, voice weird and low and contrite. Glancing up, she saw his face had almost folded in half, and one of his hands rested in a clothing pocket as he leaned toward her.
“I’d like to extend you a little bit of courtesy, then.”
Thomas walked a bit closer. Ktsn watched him, placid, wooden.
“Don’t distrust Eihks Richard when you meet. He has good intentions and a bad illness and a gap inside of himself where he hopes to fit a companion.”
Thomas kept his distance, crouching down just enough to put his eyes on a precise level with her own.
“I… apologize again for the scare. For scaring you, I mean; not for actually doing the thing that ended up scaring you.”
He bared his teeth again, and somehow the woman intuited that this was some incredibly cross-grained display of bonhomie.
“Now, that wasn’t just a scare, by the by. I’ve given you a gift.”
Those lips (uuuuuuggghhh, lips without teeth in front of them) drew down, hiding the little chisel-pointed things inside the human’s mouth.
“A gift that I do not lightly give… because I interfere in the matters of folk such as yourself only rarely. In your case, though, it’s necessary.”
He paused, and that head turned to the side, one eye squinting at her.
“It will be very interesting for you, I’m sure, but it’s going to be more so – vitally so – for those around you. In due time, though. In due time.”
“What kind of gift?”
Chinks in the thick soft armor of sleep-thought. She began subtly shaking off the haze of the illogic behind dream rationale. If things had been normal, Ktsn’s tongues would practically be licking each other with her desire to stay well out of… whatever this was. But that was the sort of begged coy question she couldn’t have kept from asking if she’d had a knife to her neck and rope around her wrists, let alone in a dream.
“I’m afraid that’s part of the issue; it’s-”
Suddenly the white chisels came back.
“-the kind of gift that won’t work quite the same if I tell you about it. Not just yet, at least.”
“I do not know…” began Ktsn, before stopping. That was an endless pit of possible ponderings. Best not to fall in. Unknowns all the way down.
“That is just fine,” answered Thomas, those teeth going away ever so slightly. “Don’t worry yourself overmuch about the future; it’ll happen as it happens. One day, and then the next afterward.”
He stopped, and hunched over in her direction like a gpsl nuson stooping to feed.
“Or will it?” he muttered. “Retrotemporal slippage or parallelization, that’s a real possibility for you in the next few years.”
He stood up, face scrunching into a wrinkled vaguely horrifying desert of squishy dunes.
“Well, I can – and will – tell you that you’ll find the experience enlightening.”
He abruptly twisted on a foot in a way that ought to have sent him stumbling and flopping to one side, with how unstable he had to be on two feet. As it turned out, she was absolutely wrong.
“Just make sure you remember about Eihks Richard!” he said, one hand waving in a circular motion. “You’ll be a boon to him in time, and he to you… you’ll see!”
She began to call out to him again, just before Thomas passed out of the clearing, and he abruptly vanished at its edge.
Then, Ktsn Wdondf Daephod didn’t remain sleeping.