We’d expected a derelict.
Even Evelyn had privately predicted an empty hulk, despite her dire warnings and sensible precautions; the cult’s unyoked creatures fled to the outer wild, the infernal apparatus gone cold, intrusion replaced by an eternity of silence and fog.
Instead, the ruins of the Sharrowford Cult’s great experiment echoed to a million alien calls and scuttles from down in the copied streets. A cacophony of strange sounds floated through the empty windows, muffled by fog and distance and the castle walls. The ever-present orchestra of whale-song and flutes washed over it all. Whatever otherworldly jungle of spirit the cult had slashed and burned, cleared and colonised, it had since flowed back in, regrown, reclaimed.
“Life finds a way, huh?” Raine whispered. She stared at the row of empty windows.
“This is not the time for movie references,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth. She’d turned pale, a little green around the gills, and I couldn’t help but note how close she stood to Praem. Her throat bobbed with a nervous swallow. “Actually, sod it, I would rather be in Jurassic Park than here.”
Raine experimented with a smile, but she couldn’t make it stick. Deep, sonorous cosmic whale-song filled the moment of silence, a sound that was not true sound, merely the closest analogue our fragile meat senses could invent.
“This doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” I tried, thinking as I spoke. “Maybe … ”
I trailed off at Evelyn’s incredulous look.
“Stay here,” Raine said, unquestionable command in her voice. She crept toward the row of windows, her hands deceptively loose and relaxed on her gun.
“Oh yes,” Evelyn whispered. “Great plan. Stick your head out, why don’t you?”
“Raine,” I hissed, but I couldn’t reach forward to stop her, occupied as I was by Lozzie slumped against me, holding her up.
Raine reached the windows and looked out – and went very, very still. Not the coiled-spring tension of my beautiful Raine ready to leap into action, but the heart-stopping animal alertness of instinctive fear.
“ … Raine?” I whispered.
With obvious effort, Raine exhaled a long, steadying breath. She edged closer to the windows, quickly checked right and left along the exterior of the castle walls, then up into the sky – at which she paused again, though for only a heartbeat – and finally down, into the fog-choked streets. All the while, a chorus of ethereal whale-song filled the air. Something down in the fog hooted. A reply came from deeper off, a chittering, chattering, snicker-snacking.
“Alright,” Raine whispered, and finally backed away from the bank of windows.
“Raine? Raine, what was it?” I asked as she rejoined us. Calm, collected, focused, but with a sheen of cold sweat on her brow.
“Strongly suggest we stay away from the windows.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Yes, very informative. Thank you.”
“What?” I adjusted Lozzie’s weight as she moved in her half-sleep. “Why?”
Raine glanced back at the open gateway behind us, then at me, her face a mask of concentration. On the other side, back in Sharrowford, the spider-servitor still fretted and stared.
“So we won’t be seen,” she said. “How long?”
“ … I’m sorry?”
“How long do you think Lozzie might need? I know you can’t be exact, I know we’ve got nothing to go on, but can you guess?”
“I, um … ” I tried to look down at Lozzie’s sleeping face. She hung off my arm like an exhausted child, slumped against my side. She didn’t show any change yet. If anything her breathing seemed deeper and slower. I shook her very gently. “Lozzie? Lozzie? Wakey wakey, rise and shine? No?” I sighed. “No, I don’t know how long. I haven’t the foggiest.”
Raine laughed softly. Evelyn tutted and rolled her eyes.
“Um, sorry,” I rushed to correct myself. “Maybe not the best metaphor right now. Raine, what’s out there? What did you see?”
Raine opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “I’m not sure. I think maybe we should call this off, get back through the gate.”
“Surely we can give Lozzie few minutes, can’t we?”
Raine finally managed to pull a proper smile. She shrugged, and her eyes slid back and forth between me and Lozzie, her protective instinct short-circuited by the conflicting needs. “I don’t know.”
“Of course you don’t know. You don’t know your arse from your elbow here,” Evelyn hissed, then jerked her head at Praem. “Go look.”
Without pause or complaint, the doll-demon marched over to the windows.
Raine winced. She put an arm out as if to stop me following, as if to encourage me and Lozzie back through the gateway. When nothing reached through the windows to pluck Praem from her feet, Evelyn bustled up alongside her and took a good look as well. She didn’t freeze like Raine had, but she frowned up a terrible storm, her face dark as thunder.
“Yeah,” Raine said with a sigh. “I don’t think we should stick around here.”
Evelyn swallowed. “It’s just wildlife. I’ve seen worse.”
“Wildlife can still take your head off, if you wander alone in the bush. Never get off the boat.”
“We’re indoors,” Evelyn muttered, gritting her teeth. She eyed the edges of the window, the grey jade walls, the horrible osseous fibre that made up every surface. “For all this counts as indoors. Those things are too big to get in here.”
“Raine, let me see,” I hissed.
“I really do think we should leave.” Raine laughed once, without humour, and gestured at nothing with her handgun. “This is sort of useless. I can’t protect either of you here. Evee, please.”
“Raine!” I snapped.
She glanced down and I saw it in her eyes; Raine would not allow me past. In fact, she’d pick me up and carry me home if she had to, and I had no say in the matter. For a moment, protection trumped respect. She’d been so gung-ho before, about taking the castle for ourselves, even planted the notion in Evelyn’s mind, and her rapid transformation both terrified and infuriated me.
“Evelyn is perfectly safe by the windows,” I said, cold and a little too sharp. “Why not me?”
The flash of outrage in my eyes must have been too much. Raine paused for a heartbeat, then lowered her arm. Instead, she placed a hand on my back in a gesture of support. “See for yourself. But quietly, yeah?”
“Quiet as a mouse,” I whispered, not entirely happy with her.
A moment later, with Lozzie’s weight dragging on my arm, I peered out and saw what lay beyond the castle, and understood.
From back by the gateway only the very tops of the most distant of the grey jade structures had been visible, the rooftop outlines copied from a square mile of Sharrowford in some bizarre alien mimicry, blurred by fog and distance. Up close, one could see the way the castle’s hill fell away toward the copied streets, the streets themselves choked with fog, the limitless fog stretching out into the distance forever. Above, the wide sky was a soupy grey sea.
I’d expected a distant glimpse of the planet-creatures, the vast sphere-like entities that Alexander had summoned from their rookery in the sky, the children of the crippled, trapped Outsider far below our feet. When I’d first seen them during that encounter, I’d mistaken them for moons. Their cosmic song reached us now, and I expected to see them far out in the fog, lost in the shrouded deeps above.
The sheer size of the things took my breath away.
“Heather, hey, breathe,” Raine whispered. “I’m not going to pretend it’s fine, but if they could see us, I think they would have reacted by now.”
Three of them had settled on the ground, two within the limits of the copied city itself and one further out in the fog beyond, a vague sphere in the mist. The closer ones had crushed the dead jade buildings under their incredible weight, cracked the ground itself, made shallow craters for themselves.
Marbled in ochre and cerulean and violet, their outer shells slowly shifted through a spectrum of colour, in bands and rings like the surface of Jupiter. Each one was easily larger than the castle, a sphere hundreds of feet across, with no visible features, except orifices for tentacles. Tentacles the width of train carriages, grey and pitted, armoured in stony hide.
A high-note counterpoint accompanied the cosmic whale-song, like a hundred frantic, atonal flute players. Perhaps it was the wind, whistling through tiny gaps in those giant tentacles.
Each asteroid-sized being possessed somewhere between eight and twelve tentacles, half of them waving in the air – not with the listless vegetable motion of seaweed, but active, a complex dance that never seemed to replicate into a comprehensible pattern, displacing great slow waves of fog – and half sunk deep into the ground.
Anchors? Or were they digging? Digging for the core of their parent, far below?
I felt, in that moment, a bizarre, unspeakable kinship. A physical empathy beyond words, beyond any human expression. The bruises in my flanks, my own tentacle anchor-points, itched and throbbed as I recalled my own abyssal beauty.
“More things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” I murmured.
“Heather?” Raine hissed my name.
“What’s wrong with her?” Evelyn asked.
“Nothing, I’m fine,” I lied. “Just … um, coping.”
“Swear I’ve heard you say that line before,” Evelyn grumbled.
“Shakespeare. It’s one I come back to again and again. Given me some comfort over the years, that’s all.” I nodded at the vast asteroid-things out in the fog. They made me feel so very small. “Seemed appropriate.”
“More things in heaven and earth,” Praem echoed, softly.
The thought of these giants lurking just behind Sharrowford made me profoundly uncomfortable. Separated from our reality not by the near-impenetrable barrier of the abyss, like Outside, but by a membrane so thin even our jury-rigged gateway could get us here. Like descending into one’s basement to discover hyper-intelligent blue whales had taken up residence. As we stared out at the things, the deep, rumbling whale-song intensified, changed direction, and a fourth sphere-thing floated into view. Low in the sky, orbiting the castle at a distance so close I could see the individual pockmarks in its trailing tentacles. The fog parted and swirled back before its vast bulk. It passed across the sky at a crawl. None of us breathed until it vanished around the side of the castle again.
“Evee,” Raine said. “Professional assessment then, are they dangerous?”
Evelyn shot her a look that spoke volumes.
“I mean, actively dangerous,” Raine corrected herself.
“I’ve seen worse, Outside,” I managed with a shrug. “I mean, they’re just sitting there, being all … plant-like. If they were actively hunting us, I think we would know. I think. Alexander isn’t here to control them anymore. Perhaps they don’t care.”
“Too big to give a toss, right,” Evelyn grunted.
The planet-creatures were far from the only life which had re-colonised the foggy dimension, but all the rest paled in comparison.
In the sky, the huge jellyfish and sky-whales scudded and floated, gathered in shoals and clusters up there in the fog, trailing long ropes of tentacle, opening wide jaws to filter-feed on whatever sustenance they drew from the fog itself. On the ground below, in the copied streets and across the roofs of the imitation Sharrowford buildings, all manner of strange life flopped and flapped, slid and slithered, with all the chaotic variety of pneuma-somatic life back in actual reality. Striding vegetable things made of green sticks, coral structures that appeared to breathe, barnacles of brilliant gleaming metal, bubbling mollusks and scuttling crustaceans.
“Was it not like this when Praem came here before?” I asked.
Evelyn shook her head, then paused and glanced at Praem. “You told me it had gone wild, you didn’t mention those things.”
“Aloft, then,” Praem sing-songed.
“They hadn’t yet landed,” I murmured. “Something drew them down?”
“We can talk theory later,” Raine said. “Right now, I still think we need to leave. I doubt Alexander’s lot made sure the front door was closed and locked on their way out, and I don’t much fancy the idea of that jungle party in the streets getting indoors with us.”
“Mm, point,” Evelyn grunted.
“I would say we could check the front door, but this place is a labyrinth and the lights are all out.”
I tore my eyes away from the spectacle and looked straight down, to the rise of the hill on which the castle sat. “I don’t see anything by the outer curtain wall,” I said. “Maybe they don’t like it in here.”
“We can bloody well hope,” said Evelyn.
“Still, let’s step back toward the gate, yeah?” Raine said, very carefully keeping her voice measured and calm, but I heard right through it. She was pulled wire-tight. “If we’re not secure, we should leave. Give Lozzie five minutes, see if she improves, and then-”
A shadow passed over the windows. Flitting, writhing, announced by a sudden burst of that mad fluting sound, loud and close.
And all of a sudden we met the musician.
In the split-second before Raine bundled Lozzie and I back, before Evelyn shrieked in shock, before Praem moved to cover her, before any of that, Lozzie opened her mouth and cracked open her eyes.
Before any of us reacted, she trilled back at the thing which peered in through the window.
Moments such as these never make sense as they happen, a whirlwind of instinctive flinching retreat, surprised screams, spiking heart rates. The ancient lizard-brain takes over from the conscious pilot of the neocortex, hijacks the visual input and dumps a pint of adrenaline into one’s bloodstream. And that’s merely when surprised by mundane physical threat.
All hell broke loose. I nearly tumbled over with Lozzie. Evelyn would have fallen over too if Praem hadn’t caught her. Raine, cool as ice, pointed her handgun.
Only once the moment had passed did my brain process the sight: a cross between a cactus, a cone, and a flying squid. It was very green, maybe eight or nine feet tall, with a long head and a tapering cone-like body made of distinct curved staves of tough, leathery plant material. The body ended in a skirt of long tentacles. Recognisable eyes – maybe two dozen of them, with yellow, side-slit pupils – but no mouth. In four of its many, many tentacles it held a long rod of bone, punctured through with dozens of irregular holes. One end of the rod was plugged into its flesh like the junction of a horn. With other tentacles it gripped the edges of the window, peering in at us.
My body reacted in the worst way possible. With pain.
Self-defence, before I could even think. Abyssal memory attempted to sprout spines and flash warning colouration and arm me with tentacles and claws and razor-sharp teeth. Pain raked at my sides and my back, in my gums, in my eyes – and a hiss, a loud, resonant hiss of warning, of go-away, of I’m too difficult to eat, ripped out of my mouth, left my throat raw and stinging.
At that – or perhaps our screaming, or Raine’s shout – the Flutist’s eyes went wide. It’s tentacles raced across the bone-rod, produced a frantic burst of piping, a screeching crescendo of discordant music.
And as suddenly as it had appeared, it let go of the window and scudded away on jets of air squirted from the ends of thicker tentacles. Jerking, bobbing, it turned and regarded us once more, then quickly jetted off back toward one of the planet-creatures.
For a long moment, nobody said a word.
“ … Heather?” Raine turned to me. “You alright?”
I almost hissed at her. The instinct still lingered in my throat. I clutched my side with one hand, clinging to Lozzie with the other, throat muscles aching and sides throbbing, abyssal echoes of the body I did not have wracking me with shuddering and quivering.
“No, not really,” I croaked. “Oh, I can’t keep reacting to everything like this. Ow. Oh, this is absurd. That was the stupidest thing.”
“Stupidest thing?” Evelyn spat. “No, I think violent reaction to that makes perfect sense.”
“Unn-nuuuh?” Lozzie made a sleepy noise, eyes half open. She pulled at my arm, trying to take a step forward. My sudden pain made her seem so much heavier than normal.
“No, it doesn’t,” I croaked.
“Oh.” Raine lit up. “Oh, right, yes.” She started laughing.
“What the hell are you laughing at?” Evelyn demanded, boggling at her.
“Evee, we just got jump scared by a cat in a closet.”
“We surprised it as much as it surprised us,” I croaked. “The way it turned around and looked back? It was only curious. I think. We- I-” I gestured at my throat, coughed hard. Muscles and tendons felt out of place. “Didn’t you hear Lozzie?”
“Wanna- mmmm,” Lozzie mumbled. She tried to pull away again. I had to lurch to catch her, sending a spike of pain ratcheting up my ribs. Praem and Raine both stepped in to help, propped Lozzie up and into my arms.
“What?” Evelyn asked after I had recovered. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“She replied to it, when it appeared. Lozzie made a noise at it. A weird hoot or something.”
Evelyn blinked at Lozzie, then me, than Raine.
“I think she knew what it was,” I said. “Probably from her time stuck here.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Evelyn said. She frowned at me, but then sighed and shook her head, readjusting her clothes. “Some jump-scare cat. That thing was ugly as sin and I swear it knew what it was looking at. At least it’s too big to get inside.”
She was right about that part – the reason we’d all screamed and jumped out of our skins was how the Flutist had been so distinct and direct. I was used to bizarre pneuma-somatic life, terrifying amalgamations and mutations; I’d been dealing with their unwanted attention for a decade. But whatever the Flutist was, it had been intensely curious.
Before any of us could suggest a course of action which included not getting ambushed by the Flutist again – such as going home, which sounded increasingly sensible – Lozzie made another sleep-addled noise, puffed her cheeks out, and tried to lurch away from me.
“Ah- Lozzie? Hey- please, Lozzie?” I croaked.
She didn’t stop, trying to take another step as I held on, down the corridor toward parts unknown. If I let her go, she’d drop, but I could hardly allow her to wander off into the depths of the castle. She grunted and pulled, and only relented when Praem stepped in to restrain her more firmly than I was capable of. She hung in the doll-demon’s grip, limp and grumbling like a petulant child.
“Fresh air and exercise,” she mumbled. “Fresh and washed and farm to table.”
Raine and Evelyn and I all shared a glance.
“Maybe she knows what she needs?” I ventured. Evelyn huffed and grit her teeth.
Raine glanced out the window, down the corridor, and took a deep breath. “Executive decision. Time for real quick poke around. Just down the hallway. Follow Lozzie’s footsteps. Five minutes, tops.”
Evelyn opened her mouth to object, then caught my pleading look. We couldn’t give up on the reason we came here. Couldn’t give up on Lozzie.
“Immediate surroundings only,” she hissed through clenched teeth. I noticed she was gripping the head of her walking stick extra tight, knuckles almost white with pressure. “And you stick close,” she added to Praem.
“Thank you, Evee,” I said.
“No fear,” Praem intoned. Raine allowed herself a small laugh. Evelyn shook her head.
We strayed not far beyond sight of the gateway. To the sound of our footsteps echoing along the castle’s hallways – Lozzie’s dragging, sleepy feet, the click-click-click of Praem’s heels, and the clack of Evelyn’s walking stick – accompanied always by the ethereal cosmic whale-song and the mad flute playing, we spent a few minutes shuffling through the wreckage of the Sharrowford Cult’s great experiment.
Detritus lay everywhere, equipment and incongruous everyday items abandoned by the Cult as they’d rushed to leave before getting cut off here – food wrappers and empty plastic boxes, an overturned telescope, a discarded robe, burnt-out candles, a heavy wooden bat, a dead mobile phone with a cracked screen. We passed one of their own inactive gateways, far more elaborate and precise than Evelyn’s work. She stopped to take pictures on her phone.
As she did, Raine picked up the telescope and settled it back on its tripod. After a moment’s thought, she pointed it out of the nearest window, at the closest of the asteroid-creatures.
“Are you certain that’s a good idea?” I asked. Lozzie pulled at my arm, trying to drag me onward. She felt so heavy compared to usual. Was I weak from sleep deprivation last night?
“It’s cool.” Raine shot me a wink. “Takes more than a giant marble to upset me.” She bent down, squinted one eye shut, and looked through the eyepiece. “ … huh.”
“Huh?” Evelyn echoed, slipping her phone away. “‘Huh’, what? Raine, don’t go ‘huh’ in this place. Explain.”
Raine looked up at the asteroid-creature with her naked eyes and gestured for us to take a peek too. “Looks like our wibbly-wobbly flute-playing octopus has got friends.”
“What?!” Evelyn’s eyes went wide. “You mean it’s coming back? It-”
“No,” Raine said with a grin and a knowing kink in her eyebrows. “If it was heading back with a posse, I’d be carrying Heather to the gateway ten seconds ago, not talking about it. Take a look for yourself.”
Evelyn followed the suggestion, and bent down to peer through the telescope’s eye-piece. Bending forward looked hard on her spine. Too much weight on her walking stick. She sucked on her teeth, and straightened up.
“Hmmm. Huh, indeed.”
I managed to take a look as well. Praem held Lozzie still for a moment, sleepy heels scuffing at the ground as she tried to walk on.
The Flutist had a whole herd of friends.
Dozens of them flitted and bobbed through the air around the nearest of the asteroid-creatures. Specks when seen with the naked eye, obscured by thick fog and the omnipresent glow. The telescope showed them weaving and dancing, playing their flutes, oblivious to us.
“ … at least he’s not lonely, I suppose?” I tried. Evelyn huffed and pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Heather’s got a good point actually,” Raine said.
“What, that it has friends?” Evelyn’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Yes, wonderful, I’m sure we’re all very happy for it.”
“Evee, Evee, think tactics for a moment,” Raine said. I could see Evelyn wanted to snap at her. “If it’s got a lot of mates out there, and it wanted us gone, they’d be coming for us already.”
“Yes, obviously. I’m not a complete idiot, despite the state of my life. That doesn’t answer the question of what the hell they’re doing, why they’re here, why any of this … this fucking zoo is here.”
“I think that creature was from Outside,” I ventured.
Evelyn frowned at me. “Explain.”
“Look at all the stuff down there, in the fog. That’s all pneuma-somatic life, but in the flesh, somehow, something to do with this place. This isn’t Outside. But those things,” I nodded at the huge colour-shifting sphere in the middle distance. “They’re the young, the children, spawn, whatever, of the thing below the castle, and that was – is – an Outsider. It taught Lozzie hyperdimensional mathematics, like the Eye did with me. Which means, maybe it came from the abyss. Maybe it made all of this, maybe before the Cult got here. Maybe they drove it all out.”
“Like panspermia,” Raine said.
“I’m sorry?” I asked. Evelyn raised an eyebrow too.
“The theory that life came to earth on a comet. Didn’t Lozzie say something about the Outsider down below having crashed here? Like this is an impact crater.”
“This sub-dimension is an impact crater in reality itself,” Evelyn muttered. “Behind Sharrowford. Good metaphor. The thing below seeded this place with life? But from Outside instead of outer space?”
“Yes!” I felt myself light up inside, despite the shock. “Yes, exactly.”
“‘I want to believe’,” Raine laughed. “We should put pictures of this online. Send the conspiracy types up the wall.”
Evelyn shot us both a dark look, then turned to stare through the nearest windows once again, at the asteroid-sized lifeforms out in the fog. Her dark frown faltered, and for once Evelyn’s Saye’s leathery exterior gave way to a hard swallow, a worried brow, and nothing to say.
“We absolutely cannot let Edward Lilburne have access to any of this,” she whispered.
Lozzie led us to two corpses.
The first we found in a short corridor, just around the corner from the gateway. The remains of a man were slumped against the wall, little more than a bundle of sticks and dry leather wrapped the cult’s distinctive cream-coloured robes. The corpse was dessicated, denied the natural process of decay, mummified by the air in this unnatural place.
The second corpse was in the throne room where I’d killed Alexander.
It was the body of the heavyset man Lozzie had knifed in the throat during the fight. Alexander’s chief disciple, the one who’d been tending to his wounds. He’d been left to shrivel and dry where he’d fallen, surrounded by the cracked stain of his own blood.
“I’d really rather not go in there,” I said at the threshold, but Lozzie dragged me on, as if she’d been searching for this place specifically. Why come back here? This was the stuff of nightmares.
Raine went ahead first, just in case.
The throne room was much as I recalled it. A wide space flanked by ceiling-height empty windows which let in plenty of the colourless light, with a sort of raised dais area at the rear. Off to one side sat the cult’s bizarre magical experiment – a series of interlocking circles, chunks of the green-gold matter mined from deep underneath the castle, and pieces of dismantled medical machinery pilfered from some hospital back in reality.
The rear of the room looked like a bomb had hit it. Which, in a way, it had.
I’d retained only seconds of consciousness after I’d used brainmath to kill Alexander. Hardly time to get a good look at the physical result.
Nothing had been touched, nothing moved out of place since. The folding tables at the rear were still covered in bags of drugs, bottles of strange liquid, hypodermic needles, much of it smashed aside by the blast. Alexander’s blood was still all over the floor, dried to a brown crust. Some of the blood-soaked towels had survived. I even spotted the pair of pliers he’d been using to dig Raine’s bullet out of his ribs, knocked to the ground along with the table they’d been sitting on, contents scattered wide.
A crater of cracked grey jade, slightly oblong from the direction of force, marked where he’d stood. The wall directly behind – a good twenty feet away, my goodness – was punctured by a gaping hole where I’d blasted him through. The edges of the hole were torn, ragged, splintered like bone.
Raine crept over and scuffed the ground with the tip of one boot. Alexander’s dried blood flaked away to dust.
“Almost nothing left.”
“Good,” I said.
“Admiring your own collateral damage, hey?” Raine grinned back at me. I shook my head and her grin switched off instantly. “I’m sorry, Heather.”
“It’s alright, I just … I don’t like being back here.”
Understatement of the year award, first prize, Heather Morell. Truth was, I tasted bile in the back of my throat, felt a shaking in my belly and my limbs. To commit terrible violence in defence of one’s friends or community is one thing, but to return to the scene and contemplate the aftermath, accompanied by that unceasing cosmic whale-song from beyond the walls, made me feel sick to my heart.
Not to mention the faint nausea. The brainmath I’d done here had been brutal, blunt, violent. The memory of it ghosted at the back of my mind, prodding at that bloody socket I dare not touch. What I’d done here had left an echo.
Was this what Lozzie had been struggling to reach? Even now she pulled at my arm, making sleepy noises, trying to walk deeper into the room.
“Me neither,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth. She’d hung back in the doorway and Praem had stuck close to her. “These windows are too big, not to mention that hole in the wall. We’re exposed here. Raine, get back in the corridor.”
“No! Noooooo- … oooouuuu … ” came Lozzie’s reply, strident denial trailing off into nothing. Her eyes struggled open, lids uneven and heavy.
“Lozzie? Hey, Lozzie, look at me,” I tried. “What are you looking for? Please, try to tell me, what-”
As if on cue, a giant shadow fell across the hole I’d blasted in the back wall. It drifted past the upper reaches of the windows, blotting out the diffuse light in a glacial whirlpool of shifting colour, a giant marble of which we could see only a tiny portion. The cosmic whale-song touched us like a foghorn. Vast tentacles trailed behind the asteroid sky-child as it orbited the castle. I suddenly felt extremely small, a rodent inside a rotten log as an elephant strode past. Even Raine seemed to hunch, the gun in her hands a hopeless nothing as the creature passed by.
And pass by it did, off to complete the orbit of the castle. I let out a shuddering breath.
“You know what, going back sounds good,” Raine said, backing away toward us. “I think we’ve had enough.”
“Lozzie?” I bent around again, tried to look in her eyes. “Lozzie, can’t we go back to the gate?”
“Mmmm-mmm!” she shook her head.
“What do you need, what are you looking for? Lozzie, tell me, let me know.”
She smacked her lips and made more sleepy noises. I felt so helpless. Couldn’t tell if this was doing any good for her at all. In my secret heart I’d imagined her waking up after thirty seconds here, or that the atmosphere might act like a bucket of water to the face. With disappointment I began to accept that she’d probably need to spend a whole night in this awful edifice.
She needed to dream again. I hoped she might take me with her, Outside.
“If she needs to stay here longer, we can return better prepared,” Evelyn said. She must have seen the look on my face. “I can whip up a protective barrier, set something up on this side of the gateway.”
“Better prepared,” Praem echoed.
“Maybe,” I sighed. “I don’t know what she needs. She won’t speak.”
“Help,” Praem intoned – but kept her voice nice and low.
“Yes, that much is clear … o-oh.” I flushed as I realised Praem had not been competing for the title of Captain Obvious, but was offering to help with Lozzie. “Thank you,” I said, and passed the struggling, sleepy girl off to her. Praem hoisted Lozzie from her feet, ready to carry her back to the gateway.
“Right, yeah, we’ll go back, make a new plan,” Raine said, smiling with her beaming confidence as she rejoined us. “Figure it out. Hey, maybe we can just bring Twil, sic her on anything that tries to get in here. She can go fight a whole moon.”
“Yes, wonderful,” Evelyn drawled her sarcasm. “That’s exactly how I’d love to spend a weekend with her.”
Raine cocked an eyebrow. Evelyn flustered, blushing hard when she realised what she’d just implied. “Don’t you say another bloody word. We need to leave, we don’t have time for this. Come on, get-”
Like a cat that had decided it had enough of being held, Lozzie woke up.
She woke up, limbs flailing, baffed Praem in the face with a loose hand – the doll-demon didn’t even react – and as if by some miracle of grease and contortion, extracted herself from Praem’s grip. It was like watching a weasel break from a trap. I’d seen Praem restrain a possessed fox, but Lozzie all but fell out of her arms.
“Praem, grab her.”
Lozzie got three paces, stumbling, head loose, hair a wild mess, eyes still closed in sleep, before she opened her mouth.
It was not the most horrible sound in the world. That trophy goes easily to another. But it was one of the most eerie. Lozzie opened her mouth and sang, wordless sounds, tuneless notes, rising and falling like religious chanting. With a shudder we all realised exactly what she was doing: imitating the cosmic whale-song of the asteroid-creatures. Those sounds had not been made for a human throat, and Lozzie did not exactly do a good job of replicating them, high-pitched and whiny and gummed up by passing air over all that inelegant human meat.
But she sung her little heart out. The only reason Raine didn’t grab her was shock, as Lozzie stumbled into the throne room and fell to her knees, raised her head and belted out alien noises.
“Grab her!” Evelyn hissed again.
But the shadow was already returning.
The orbiting sky-child thing had changed direction at the sound of Lozzie’s voice, at a familiar call from an unfamiliar throat. A vast shadow of shifting colours fell across the room once more. Panic gripped my heart, and my bowels. We did not want that thing’s attention on us. Hide, screamed every cell in my body.
But I didn’t.
I went for Lozzie.
So did Raine, and Praem. Another pace and we would have stopped, Raine would have bundled me back while Praem retrieved Lozzie, and we would have scuttled away back into the corridor of the castle, back to the gateway, away from the attention of this floating giant.
But the sky-child was faster. Before any of us could reach Lozzie or stop each other, a pitted grey tentacle as thick as a train car probed at the hole in the rear of the throne room. My legs turned to jelly at the size of that thing. My bladder almost let go, an involuntary animal reaction. But it couldn’t get in, it couldn’t. Too big, its own size worked against it. Raine grabbed me by the waist, made to drag me back.
The tentacle split. First in two, then in four, then eight, on and on in a dizzying multiplication that suddenly surged into the room like a shoal of hunting squid. Grey armoured tentacles filled the air.
Raine dropped me and pulled her handgun.
Praem reached Lozzie, who smiled as she sang, eyes still closed.
I think Evelyn screamed, I don’t remember. Maybe it was me.
The sky-child’s tentacles reformed, recombined down into three, each as thick around as a oak tree; one went for Lozzie, the second for Praem. The third hesitated, poised; Raine’s finger tightened on the trigger of her handgun, and the third tentacle darted for her.
I never had a choice. Raine broke her promise, didn’t she? She’d told me she’d make sure I’d never be put in a situation again where growing my own tentacles seemed a like a good idea. That’s how I justified it later, but in the moment I followed only instinct, only the need, the body. Pure survival.
Right then, at that moment of the unknown, possible violence, growing my own tentacles seemed like a very good idea indeed.
One variable of hyperdimensional mathematics, just like before, just like yesterday. At the speed of thought I pictured exactly what I wanted to do, where I wanted to reach, what to touch and push and grab and slam. Pictured the limbs in my mind, felt them where they should be attached to my body. One variable, from non-existence to reality.
I didn’t even think about the pain. That was for later.
Six tentacles of shining pneuma-somatic flesh sprouted from my sides, straight through my clothes again. I felt their anchor points deep inside my torso – three where they’d been before, and three new.
First pushed me up off the disgusting bone-substance of the floor, righted me. Second grabbed Raine’s gun, turned it to the side with a flick so her bullet hit the wall. Third stretched out and wrapped around Lozzie’s middle, held her with tight affection, a safety harness.
I had only seconds. Moments of energy reserves with which to ward off this vast creature.
Had to make myself understood.
My remaining three tentacles, slender as my wrist, ghost-pale beneath the strobing rainbow bio-luminescence, I threw wide. Body language of the predator, the abyss, of marine display and threat. Loud and clear – I am poison and toxin and acid and I will fight you.
I opened my mouth and hissed.