An alien giant reached for my friends with tentacles as thick as tree trunks; I threw my own tentacles wide, and hissed – like a little girl in a school playground, pretending to be a dinosaur.
I sounded ridiculous.
It was an absurd response. My defiance was not born of heroism or bravery, because I am neither a hero nor possess any notable courage, no matter what affectionate lies Raine tells me. When faced with predatory mega-fauna the size of an asteroid, any sensible, fragile, cowering ape should run away as fast as its stubby little legs can carry it.
But I wasn’t entirely ape any more. The response came from my gut, from the principles and instincts I’d bought back from the abyss, a set of drives that were not remotely human – but which I had turned to human purposes. The ape, the savanna monkey, saw her friends, her family, her tribe, in danger. And the abyssal marine thing stepped in with territorial display and a pathetic attempt to make me look bigger than I was.
Or perhaps I hissed because the only alternative was to scream.
A still-rational part of me did try to scream. Blind panic lit up the back of my mind, as I spread my tentacles out in the manner of a cat arching its back. Even over the sudden euphoria and glory of these extra limbs, terror took my heart, took my legs with a tremor, dumped adrenaline into my bloodstream.
Me, Heather, all of five-foot-nothing, a tiny woman hissing her lungs out at a creature the size of a interplanetary body.
But it worked.
The sky-child reconsidered.
All three of its tentacles paused in mid-air, mid-strike. Giant worms, pitted and grey, armoured in stony hide. The one aimed at Raine turned slowly, like the head of a snake, to point a tapered tip toward me. The two going for Lozzie and Praem reared back – then drifted.
The trio of tentacles all drifted, like unanchored cables in zero-gravity. To the untrained eye the motion appeared random, listless, meant nothing; abyssal instinct read the message loud and clear.
Posturing, manoeuvring, testing for reaction.
I’d confused the sky-child for only a few precious moments. Now it wanted to see what manner of creature I was, and try to outflank me.
I hiccuped. Could scarcely breathe. My heart pounded in my chest, a panicked bird trapped in a cage, and my head throbbed with my own pulse. Cold sweat broke out on my forehead, my face, under my armpits, down my back. The euphoric echo of my once-beautiful abyssal form paled to nothing before this giant. I had no idea what to do.
One thing was certain, both ape and abyss agreed; if I turned and ran, the creature would be on us in an instant.
Up close, in more intimate detail than I ever wanted to see again in my life, the asteroid-thing’s vast tentacle limbs revealed their secrets. They creaked as they moved. Muscles or bones – or whatever it used for bones – produced a soft, meaty creaking which filled the air just below the level of human hearing. The outer layer of stony hide was semi-transparent, like cloudy plastic. Beneath that lay a shimmering substrate, coppery orange.
Somehow, in reference to some buried abyssal knowledge, I knew that coppery sheen was a sensory organ, hundreds of feet long. It could see us, quite clearly.
How complex must the creature’s awareness be, to keep track of so much input? Visible through the empty windows as only a great shadowed bulk, the sky-child’s main body hovered just beyond the castle walls, a kaleidescope of slowly rotating colours.
The ever present cosmic whale-song continued uninterrupted. We weren’t even important enough to disrupt the chorus.
In panic, I mirrored the drifting tentacles – or, attempted to. I tried to adjust the position and angle of my extra limbs this way and that, left and right, to cover every angle at once. But the effort sent my head spinning, my vision askew, filled my brain with fog. Bile rose in my throat. One of my tentacles seized up, another drifted aimlessly. I couldn’t track them all, I couldn’t move them all at once. Throwing them wide, grabbing things, those had been easy, but this wouldn’t work. My eyes bulged in panic.
“Heather!” Raine hissed in a stage-whisper. “Let go!”
I felt a tug, risked a glance sideways. One of my tentacles was still wrapped around the barrel of Raine’s handgun, keeping it pointed off at the wall, clenched hard like a muscle-locked fist. I’d forgotten about it. How could I forget about part of my own body?
“I get it,” she hissed, and how she managed to make eye contact with me instead of staring in terror and awe at the giant tentacles, I don’t know. She nodded down, at my pale, rainbow-strobing limb which gripped her gun. “I get it, no shooting! Use another tentacle!”
I managed to jerk a nod, and let go. Raine blew out a sharp breath and backed away toward me, covered by the extra tentacle I now threw into the air to ward off the sky-child’s attention. One of the three stony giants tracked her as she edged across the throne room to rejoin me.
“Heather!” Evelyn hissed from behind us, way back by the doorway. Her voice was tight with terror. “For God’s sake, back away from it! Praem, get over here, now!”
“I … ”
“Back away slow,” Raine said, low and calm. She reached me, eyes flickering over my extra limbs – she could see them! But I barely had the brainpower to speak, let alone process that right now. “Pull Lozzie along with us.”
“I … I can’t.”
My legs were paralysed.
Knees locked, hips aching, all I could do was stand in place. Maintaining my extra tentacles took every ounce of energy I had, and I could already feel it fading, feel myself going faint, blood sugar crashing out. Moving them – six of them, all at once – took so much concentration that I couldn’t even wiggle my toes. For two whole seconds I forgot to breathe.
What had I said last night, in my post-euphoric bravado? That I could wield a dozen tentacles, a hundred, and instinct would scale up?
My brain simply wasn’t made to track six extra limbs, each one performing a different function. I felt them anchored deep inside my torso, three on each side now, pneuma-somatic flesh embedded deep inside my core muscles, wrapped around ribs, cushioning organs and infiltrating tissues. Alien muscle attached to my own, forming a new web of neutral connections and signals too complex for the ape to pilot and too fleshy for the abyssal memory to recognise.
Lozzie’s limp weight sagged in the only still-occupied tentacle, the one I’d wrapped around her like a harness. I could feel her breathing, feel her heartbeat transmitted down my extra limb. Her wispy blonde hair tickled me.
She was still singing, a reedy mumble of nonsense-sounds.
Behind her, Praem was frozen to the spot, deceptively calm with her heels together and hands clasped in front, out of place in her maid uniform. She’d ignored Evelyn’s frantic command.
“Heather?” Raine hissed.
“I can’t move my legs,” I choked out. “Raine, I’m- I’m going to run out of energy. I can’t-”
Raine jammed her handgun into the waistband of her jeans. “Praem, get ready to grab Lozzie and run,” she called out. “Evee, back into the corridor, now. Heather, I’m going to move you. Hold onto Lozzie as tight as you can.”
“Raine, I can’t hold this up! I can’t do it, I-”
“Praem, on three,” Raine said, as if they were about to lift a sofa together. Her blind confidence kept me going another few seconds. Raine had a way out, she always had a way out, a plan. “One, two, three.”
Raine swept me off my feet.
The tentacles in my flanks made it more complicated than usual, but she scooped me up in one swift motion, an arm hooked under my knees. My tentacles whipped around with the sudden change of position and the sky-child’s massive trunks surged forward into the opening. Raine was already turning, making for the doorway and Evelyn’s wide-eyed face beyond.
Praem broke for Lozzie, but even the doll-demon wasn’t fast enough. Three strides of dead sprint with artificial muscle was not going to be enough. The trunk-like tentacle would win, reach Lozzie first and – what?
With a scream and a shout and an awful tearing sensation inside my chest, I hoisted Lozzie into the air.
I recall very little of the next few moments. Several things all happened at the same time, and only by later reconstruction could I piece them together.
The sky-child’s tentacle that had been reaching for Lozzie slammed through the open space where she’d occupied a moment before.
My chest felt like it was on fire, like I’d torn a hole in my lungs and broken all my ribs.
Raine turned back, staring down at me in horror as I screamed.
Praem jerked to a halt.
The other two asteroid-thing tentacles went for me, arcing through the air as Raine – confident Raine, unphased by anything – stumbled in sheer animal terror at the size of the things. To her infinite credit, she didn’t go over, she didn’t fall or cower or even scream; she swung me backward with her entire body weight.
For one weightless, stomach-dropping moment I knew she was going to throw me at the door and hope I made it, her own safety be damned.
But with my ape-brain distracted by pain, the abyssal thing in me took over. Four tentacles met the two massive trunks from the sky-child, and held them there for a split-second, wrapped around them, pushing back, exerting a strength that I’m certain took a decade off my life expectancy. My ribcage creaked and I screamed again, awful pain, jagged and cutting, sawed up my chest.
All for one split-second, all because there was no way that I, whatever survival instincts I’d brought back, was going to let Raine go. It wasn’t until later that I realised I’d anchored myself to her with my final available tentacle. I’d wrapped it around her waist and clung on tight as she’d tried to throw me.
The split-second ended.
My strength failed. The power in my extra limbs faded. I felt it like pins and needles, like a leg going numb.
Lozzie cheered with child-like exuberance. So very out of place.
It froze us all. Even the sky-child – which is what saved us.
She was wide awake.
Wide awake and wide eyed, laughing and giggling, all the way up in the air where I still held her aloft with what little of my strength remained. She twisted and turned in my tentacle-harness, flailing to push her hair out of her face, staring around at the paused chaos.
“Lozzie!” I tried to say – but my breath came out in a broken wheeze.
A tremor of failure passed through my extra limbs, fading, shrivelling, turning to ash from the tips on down, flaking away into dust on the wind.
“Heather!” Lozzie lit up at me.
“No, no no no,” I moaned. I hissed, I spat, I felt more like an animal than a human being.
The tentacles gave out. I dropped Lozzie.
Praem stepped underneath and caught her with ease. The first of the sky-child’s tentacles was rearing back, attention locked on Lozzie and Praem. I keened through my teeth as my own tentacles finished dissolving, desperately trying to reform them, to perform the hyperdimensional mathematics all over again. Awful stabbing pains lanced into my sides where the tentacles had been rooted, but I had to help, I had to stop it, I had to make Lozzie safe.
“No, bad! Down!”
Lozzie held a finger up at the giant rearing tentacle. She screwed up her brow and turned her delicate, elfin face as stern as she could manage, as if she was admonishing a naughty puppy. She quickly wriggled out of Praem’s grip, though with nothing like the slippery grace she’d shown the first time. Praem helped by setting her on her feet.
“No! Down!” she repeated. The sky-child’s tentacles lowered toward the floor, all three of them, in a distinctive bow.
“Lozzie,” I wheezed.
She looked back over her shoulder at us and pulled a half-cheeky, half-worried smile of gritted teeth and wide eyes, an ‘I-can’t-believe-that-worked’ smile.
“What now?” Raine asked, sharp and quick.
“We should go!” Lozzie stage-whispered, grimacing as she tiptoed backward from the trio of giant snakes. She kept one finger out to ward them off. They followed slowly, a poorly trained animal testing its boundaries.
“Right on,” Raine said.
Of the rest in the castle, there is little to tell. Lozzie and Praem backed away from the tentacles until they rejoined us, and together we all crept to the door, Raine carrying me in her arms, clutching me close as I hissed and spat and writhed in pain. The sky-child’s tentacles followed us a way, splitting and splitting and splitting again down into dozens at the slender opening of the doorway back out of the throne room. But even that technique did not allow it to worm its way through the entire castle structure. Even giants have limits.
We made the gateway back to Sharrowford seconds later and plunged through in a rush. Lozzie tumbled into the table, and Praem caught Evelyn by the arm as she dropped her walking stick.
I was almost delirious by that point, uncontrollable in Raine’s arms. Awful, bone-deep pain wracked my sides, and a worse pain roiled in my chest. Cold sweat plastered my hair to my forehead and glued my clothes to my skin.
“Little suggestion, maybe close the gate?” Raine threw back over her shoulder as she carried me to the sofa. Lozzie scurried after us, a pale, worried little face bobbing over Raine’s shoulder. “No rush, you know, take your time and all that.”
“You do not have to tell me twice,” Evelyn snapped.
I caught a glimpse of her back, one arm out as she drew a scribble in black marker pen on the wall, marring the complex perfection of the gateway mural.
It collapsed without so much as a sound. No pop, no flash, no implosion of mirror-smooth surface. One moment it showed a vision of grey jade and fog, the next it was the bare wall of the ex-drawing room, an outline scored into the plaster.
Raine set me down onto the sofa. I clutched at her arm, I hissed, I tried to stand up. I was barely aware of what I was doing.
A gasp ripped out through my throat, and it did not sound right. Wheezy, serrated, like broken glass inside my chest.
“Lost them again!” I whined through my teeth. “No, gone again, no, noooo.”
“Heather, Heather look at me,” Raine snapped hard, and took my face in both hands. “Heather, concentrate. I need you to stay awake, okay?” She glanced over her shoulder and raised her voice. “Kimberly! Kim! Get in here!”
I couldn’t focus. Not on Raine’s mask of worry. Not on Evelyn as she stomped over to us, raving about idiot decisions and mortal dangers and ‘what the fuck has she done to herself?’ Not on Praem, straightening her skirt. Not on Kimberly as she appeared wide-eyed in the kitchen doorway.
Lozzie’s face bobbed over Raine’s shoulder, and I could focus on that.
“It worked,” I croaked. “You’re awake. Worked.”
Then I coughed, and up came a mouthful of blood.
“Oh, Goddess, what?” Kimberly’s said. “What- what-”
“Call an ambulance, now,” Raine told her. She turned back to me, and for once Raine failed to cover her fear with confidence. “Heather, Heather don’t look at it, it’s going to be- you’re going to be fine. You’ve probably torn a lung, maybe. Focus on me. Heather.”
I couldn’t. All I could see was my own blood on the hand I’d raised to my mouth. Bright red. Another cough – more half-strangled choke – produced another splatter of crimson. Tasted iron in the back of my throat.
Inside, my body was trying to change, trying to close the wound. The memory of the abyss tried to knit me back together with logic meant for starlight and photons, not flesh.
Impossible, of course. The pain spiked, a hot needle in my lungs, and I screamed again, bucking and kicking on the sofa.
“What do we do?” Raine asked, hard and urgent. “Evelyn, what do we do?”
“I don’t fucking know!” Evelyn shouted. “I don’t know the first thing about healing fucking wounds, let alone internal ones.”
“Hospital,” Praem intoned.
“Yes, yes exactly,” Raine said. “Kim!”
“I’m calling, I’m calling now.” Kimberly had a mobile phone to her ear.
“Surely there’s something we can do in the meantime,” Raine said. “Evee, please, come on-”
“There is!” Lozzie chirped.
Her head suddenly wriggled into view from beneath Raine’s armpit, like a puppy nosing her way into a lap. She smiled a resolved little smile and nodded seriously to Raine.
“I’m going to do a thing to help her do what she’s already trying to do and it’ll replace missing parts for a bit, okay?” she said to Raine all in a rush. “Might hurt though! Like, lots and lots! Don’t hit me afterwards?”
“I won’t hit you, Lozzie. Do it.” Raine took my flailing hand and squeezed tight.
“Heather, it’s me, it’s meeee,” Lozzie said. “And look, now it’s going to be you too!”
Lozzie put her hand on my chest, at the base of my ribcage. I’d love to say that I passed out from the pain, that I didn’t feel what happened next, what she knitted inside the lung I’d torn out of position. I’d love to say that merciful oblivion took me, as it so often did with the pains of hyperdimensional mathematics.
It did not.
I felt every moment of Lozzie’s emergency pneuma-somatic ‘surgery’. Five seconds was all she took. Fast, I’ll give her that.
Five seconds of broken glass, molten steel, and burning tar.
“It’s all my fault! It’s all my fault. I’m sorry, Heather, I’m really sorry. It-” Lozzie hiccuped, sniffed, and scrubbed her nose and eyes with her sleeve in a huge wet mess. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”
“It- Lozzie- it’s okay,” I said, and tried to smile encouragingly. “I’m going to be okay, aren’t I? You fixed me.”
“ … I fix you and you fix me,” she said, smiled a shaky smile, then let out another wet sob and – gently, thank goodness – buried her face in my shoulder. “It’s my fault. I was in a dream and I heard them calling and wanted to join in. They’d never hurt me, I know they’d never hurt me! It was all a big mistake and I couldn’t tell anybody, I couldn’t tell you! Please don’t hate me, Heather, please, please.”
Lozzie sobbed and shook. No crocodile tears, no childish attempt at invoking sympathy to avoid disapproval. Her anguish was painfully real. I would have cried too, if it wasn’t for the bone-crushing exhaustion. Instead, I touched my head to hers.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said. “It was my fault, over-reacted.”
“Hey, me too,” Raine put in gently. “I tried to shoot at the thing. I’m sorry too, Lozzie.”
“I wasn’t-” Lozzie sniffed. “I wasn’t awake when you needed me to be.”
“Then I forgive you.”
“Please don’t hate me,” she said in a small voice.
“I don’t. I won’t.”
“Does Lozzie maybe want some hot chocolate too?” Raine ventured. “Though I think hers would be sans the vodka.”
“Mmmm-mmmm?” Lozzie shrugged minutely. I gave Raine the nod anyway, but Praem was the one who left the room to go downstairs and whip up another batch.
We were all gathered in my and Raine’s bedroom, over seven hours after our return and Lozzie’s impromptu surgery. Lozzie herself was tucked half under the covers with me while Raine sat on the edge of the bed. Evelyn was perched in the desk chair, frowning like a hawk, distractedly rubbing at the junction between her thigh and her prosthetic. Outdoors, the sun was almost down, just a thin orange glow on the horizon as the street lamps flickered on. We’d turned the heating up, the radiators struggling.
I’d spent most of those seven hours curled up in a tight ball of pain, caked in cold sweat, at first dissociating heavily in the aftermath of Lozzie’s work – not to mention the awful stabbing pain of the bruises in my flanks, old and new.
Of the surgery itself I recalled little.
According to Raine, I’d screamed my head off. I did vaguely remember trying to shove Lozzie’s hand away. Raine had to grab my wrists and hold me down by the shoulders, not an easy feat despite my scant muscle mass and small size. By the time Praem had joined, Lozzie was done, and sobbing apologies over and over as I lay there in a shell-shocked heap, wheezing and shuddering.
Raine had fed me sips of water and painkillers, then carried me up to the bedroom and watched me for any signs of relapse.
Only two things kept her from rushing me to the hospital regardless; first, that I’d stopped coughing up blood as soon as Lozzie had finished. My breathing had returned to normal, no longer that awful fluttering, guttering sound. And second, if she did present me for medical treatment, the doctors would find a very curious structure inside my chest, supernatural stitches and staples and surrogate tissues holding my left lung together. I’d become instant medical history; or more likely their brains would refuse to see reality, and whatever treatment they attempted would hurt me far worse.
“No more blood. It’s all packed down. It’s safe, safe, really, serious. Double serious! I wouldn’t guess, wouldn’t guess about this!” Lozzie had chattered, sniffing between her tears as Raine had listened to my breathing. She seemed even more reluctant to leave my side than Raine was. “I didn’t even do it, not really, it was Heather, all her, I just encouraged it over the finish line because she couldn’t think right then.”
Her tiny elfin face, wracked with awful lip-chewing guilt, had watched me from the edge of the bed.
“But how long will it hold for?” Raine had asked.
Lozzie’s answer was a whirlwind of overlapping statements and explanations, retractions and loop-backs, how my own cells would replace the ‘sticky-fix pollyfiller happy goo’ – but that didn’t help with the pain. Eventually I’d drifted off into a state of feverish half-sleep. Raine had tucked me in under the sheets. Voices whispered on the edge of my muddy consciousness.
“Thank you,” said Raine. “Thank you, whatever you did.”
“But it hurt her so much … ”
“And it’s kept her alive. Who knows if she’d have made it to the hospital?” Raine sighed heavily. I think I heard her raking her fingers back through her own hair. I’d never heard her sound so shaky. “Thank you.”
“ … okay.”
“Hey, Lozzie, it’s alright. We haven’t talked much in the past, we barely know each other, but Heather cares about you, which means I do as well.”
“Of course, mmhmm,” Lozzie said, voice still sad but recovering a little. “You fuck a lot, after all, right?”
“I-” Raine failed to suppress a ‘snrk’ of laughter. “Uh, yeah. Yes, we do.”
“Oh for pity’s sake,” came a third voice – Evelyn, further away. “This isn’t the time. You’re absolutely sure this ‘replacement flesh’ will hold?”
“Mmhmm! Mmhmm! It’s her own body!”
“Hmm … well, when she’s awake, I want her downstairs, in a circle. I want to check for myself. Make sure she’s not going to bleed out internally one night if she tears something.”
“Yes. Good,” Raine said. “Do that, please.”
Silence fell. I drifted off. Minutes or hours later, voices filtered back in as I turned over, my throat thick and heavy with sleep and the lingering taste of blood.
“- be fine if I can go play with the kids again,” Lozzie was saying. “They’re fun! They’re safe, really! You just have to speak the language!”
“Fun, right,” Evelyn said through clenched teeth.
“And that’s what woke you up? Proximity?” Raine asked.
“Mmmmhmmm! Like, they remind me what I am, you know? It’s cool, it’s fine, I can go myself if you just open the door.”
“How often?” Evelyn asked.
“Um … maybe … no … um, wait and see?”
I slipped off again as my friends hammered out the logistics of keeping Lozzie awake. Dozed for maybe an hour, maybe two, but not full sleep, only scraps of life’s great feast.
Even hours later I was still shaky and weak, when I finally woke. Raine helped me sit up in bed and pull the sweat-soaked hoodie off my head. Sitting there with my tshirt hiked up, bent forward on the bed, Raine found six bruises this time. One anchor-point for each tentacle old or new, clustered on my flanks between the base of my ribcage and my hips. Each one throbbed, deep and lasting.
“Take it slow, real slow, okay? Try to straighten out, but move slow, that’s it.”
Raine helped me sit upright, as I struggled up through the haze of painkillers and the throbbing ache in my sides, but I froze halfway there.
A foreign object, an alien structure, tugged inside my chest.
“Ah! W-what is that? Ah- ahh!” I broke out in panic sweat again, a hand fluttering to my chest. One should not be able to feel one’s own lungs pulling and tightening, like a mass of scar tissue immobile against the elasticity of the surrounding skin. “What is that?!”
“It’s all supposed to be! Supposed to be!” Lozzie leaned on the bed and peered at my chest. “It’s all supposed to be. It’s going to be fine! It’s your own body, it’s okay. It’s just you, all you, all Heather.”
“I can … I can feel it. I can feel the inside of my own lungs. Oh, ugh.” I swallowed the feeling down.
“Only for a bit. Then it’ll become you!”
I blinked at Lozzie’s elfin face as she swept her wispy golden hair back, trying to comprehend what she’d said and link it with what I felt tugging and stretching inside me. Despite all the words I’d heard earlier, I’d been in too much pain to internalise the meaning. It came to me slowly, in waves of invasive horror; every time I breathed, I felt replacement lung-tissue flex inside me.
“Heather?” Raine murmured softly, one hand stroking the back of my head.
“ … I grew pneuma-somatic flesh as a replacement,” I said at length. “Right. Okay. I can- I can deal with this.”
I almost couldn’t. As Raine helped me sip from a mug of hot chocolate, I felt too nervous to move, disgusted and flinching at every tug and pull of tightened tissue inside my chest, weak and shaking from hunger despite the biscuits Raine brought me, despite inhaling an entire packet. Lozzie read me like an open book, great big eyes watery and sad, biting her lip in guilt, and then she finally clambered half into the bed to hug me and wail her apologies.
“You’re saying that thing – that … ” Evelyn sighed. “We need a name for those things.”
Praem had returned with more hot chocolate. Lozzie sat cross-legged on the bed now, sniffing and snuffling and feeling awful about herself.
“Shitfuckers,” Raine suggested with a smirk. “Okay no, for real. Squid-moons?”
“Squid-moons,” I sighed. “Farcical.”
“Ruuuuude,” Lozzie said, but without any hooting exuberance. “The one we saw … um … well, he’s called-”
She made a sort of breathy honking sound which was absolutely not meant to come from a human throat. Whatever else Lozzie was, the piece of her we knew was physically human, so she managed to sound like an asthmatic duck. Raine was very polite and did not laugh.
“ … mmm.” Lozzie made a sad little pout of failure.
“S’okay,” I croaked for her. She shrugged and wiggled her backside deeper into a mass of bedsheets she’d pulled up around herself.
“Let’s go with squid-moons,” Evelyn said with a long-suffering sigh. “Lauren, please. You’re saying that thing was, what, playing with us? Like an oversize dog that doesn’t know it’s own strength?”
Lozzie dipped her head, puffed out one cheek, and sketched a sheepish shrug. It was like she felt responsible for their behaviour, for our easy mistake.
“That’s a yes, isn’t it?” Raine asked. For the first time, I got a preview of the sort of tone Raine might use with a child – a gentler version of the usual bursting, overflowing confidence.
Lozzie nodded. Evelyn let out a huge sigh.
“Which means all this was unnecessary,” I croaked. Gestured at myself. “Could have defused it without hurting myself. Stupid Heather.”
“Hey, Heather,” Raine said. She reached over and rubbed the back of my head and my neck. Her touch took my mind away from the pain and exhaustion. “We don’t know that for sure. Right, Lozzie?”
“Um … ” Lozzie bit her lower lip.
“Thank you for attempting to make me feel better,” I managed. “But I am an idiot.”
We all knew what Lozzie was. We all knew those squid-moon-thing were the children of the dessicated Outsider below the castle. But in a moment of panic and terror we’d simply reacted. Like the stupid, aggressive apes we were.
“Don’t beat yourself up, it’s not-”
“We were all idiots!” Evelyn interrupted Raine with a snarl. She lurched up out of the chair, too much weight on her walking stick and withered left leg. Her prosthetic socket was bothering her, too much stress in the last two days. She stomped to the door, then turned and stomped back again. “We should never have gone any deeper into that fucking place without serious preparation. How else are we supposed to respond to a giant fucking tentacle monster?! I could have sent Praem, I could have- Goddammit!”
“Evee,” Raine said. “Hey-”
“Don’t you hey me,” Evelyn snapped. “This was all our fault, we’re all responsible for Heather’s condition, you as well as me, Heather herself, my-”
Evelyn cut off at the sound of her name in Lozzie’s mouth. Lozzie straightened up on the bed next to me, and I had the distinct, skin-crawling impression of a puppet drawn up by a set of strings – and then it was just Lozzie again, blinking big wet eyes at Evelyn.
“What?” Evelyn boggled at her. When Lozzie didn’t reply, Evelyn cleared her throat and looked to Raine and I for help.
“Evelyn,” Lozzie repeated with a determined little nod.
“ … Lozzie?” I croaked.
But she was suddenly busy disentangling herself from the sheets, hopping on one foot as she bounced to the floorboards, hair everywhere, willowy limbs windmilling as she caught her balance. She got both feet down, erratic and clumsy for somebody who had seemed almost puppet-like moments before, and let out a long, almost theatrical sigh. She closed her eyes.
“Lozzie?” I repeated, heart in my throat. This reminded me far too much of when she first left us. The poise and theatre of her movements, the sudden change of attitude. “Are you … Lozzie, what are you doing?”
“Oh!” Her eyes flew open, and she giggled. “This.”
She put her hands together as if praying, and bowed her head to us, a little Buddhist monk with too much hair and borrowed clothes.
“Thank you,” she said, heartfelt and bouncy. “Thank you. Evelyn. Raine. Praem too! But especially Evelyn, yes. Special thank you, special.”
Evelyn frowned at her in utter confusion. I wasn’t exactly up to speed either.
Lozzie straightened up and let out another sigh, this time with a contented smile on her face. Before Evelyn could back away to safe distance, Lozzie tripped and hopped across the gap between them and threw her arms around Evelyn in the same way she might hug me, with zero inhibitions and the wild abandon of a person who rarely wears shoes.
“I- what- I- yes, okay, yes, you’re … welcome?” Evelyn flustered, trying to withdraw. Lozzie squeezed. Raine hid a laugh behind one hand.
“Yes, okay, yes-”
“Lozzie,” I croaked. “Let her go. Evee has spinal problems, it’s hard for her to hug back.”
Not technically a lie, but Evelyn looked in need of rescue.
“Okey-dokey!” Lozzie withdrew her arms and pushed her hair back again, trying to keep it out of her face. She did a happy little foot-to-foot bob at Evelyn. “Thank you, Evee!”
“Yes, stop … stop yelling everything, please.”
“Okay!” Lozzie whispered. “Thank you, for giving me somewhere to sleep, for letting me eat your food, for looking after me and putting a roof over my head. Thank you.”
“ … oh, um.” Evelyn frowned again, at a loss for what to say. She frowned and cleared her throat, averted her eyes. Lozzie bowed her head again, a deep bow this time, the ends of her tresses trailing on the ground.
“You are welcome,” Praem supplied the words stuck in her mistress’ throat. Evelyn harrumphed and hemmed and cast about, deeply uncomfortable.
“The least I can do is provide what resources I have at my disposal,” she grumbled under her breath. “Not as if I’m much good for anything else.”
“Not true!” Lozzie chirped, one finger raised. “You are incredibly pretty, you know that?”
“I’m-” Evelyn frowned hard. “Alright, compliments are nice, but that’s a bald faced lie. I’m shrivelled and crippled. Don’t insult me.”
“Mmm—mmm.” Lozzie shook her head, a big smug smile on her face, as if she knew something that Evelyn didn’t.
I suspected I knew what Lozzie meant. She wasn’t talking about the physical world perceptible to the rest of us. Evelyn was a mage, and Lozzie, at least inside, was as non-human as I had become, even if she’d gotten there by a different route. The inside of her head had been forever changed, when the thing below the castle had used her as a way out of its prison when she was little. What did she see when she looked at Evelyn? The rest of us could only guess.
To see Lozzie recovered gave me strength. Up and around, bouncing from foot to foot, well and happy and whole. It made all the pain and terror seem worth the risk, even if it had all been an idiotic mistake. Lozzie was whole once more, and I would protect her, from her uncle, from the vengeful ghost of her brother, from everything and anything that might harm her. Surrogate be dammed, she was not Maisie; Lozzie was Lozzie, and if she wanted to be a little sister to me, I would accept.
“And you’re not an idiot, Heather,” she said. “You’re beautiful too.”
“Thank you, Lozzie. You’re too sweet.”
She beamed at me, and clambered back onto the bed.
“Ahem, well,” Evelyn cleared her throat.
“Beautiful,” Raine echoed. “But also incredibly brave. Heather, I’m serious, don’t beat yourself up for making the decision to protect Lozzie, or anybody, ever. Hey, I should know. You’re braver than me.”
“No I’m not,” I croaked. “You were going to toss me out the door and sacrifice yourself, weren’t you?”
“Ah.” Raine pulled a rakish grin. “I won’t say I wasn’t, but hey, turned out we didn’t need to.”
“Please don’t ever do that again,” I croaked at Raine.
Lozzie gasped and put a hand to her mouth, mock-scandalised.
“It’s what I do.” Raine shrugged.
“I protect you too, Raine.” The pain made me both bold and bitter. She blinked at me, and I saw the internal denial, the refusal of the premise, in the way she smiled. I frowned. “I protect you too.”
She put her hands up. “Okay, okay! I will admit, you getting all territorial, puffing yourself up? Kinda hot. The tentacles were even cooler than I imagined, too.”
“Oh, right,” I grunted, and swallowed down the other pain – the loss, all over again, for the second time in as many days, of watching my beautiful, shining tentacles crumble to dust, of losing that bodily perfection yet again. I curled up around my wounded flanks, and felt like I’d been sliced apart rather than returned to normal. A shudder of suppressed pain passed through my sides, and I winced, hard, as the phantom limbs tried to uncurl, but found themselves seized up, invisible, never born. “You could see them, couldn’t you?”
“It was that place,” Evelyn mused. “All that crap out in the streets, that was pneuma-somatic life, but we could all see it. Same with your … additions,” she added that word through her teeth.
“You saw them too?”
“Yes,” she sighed. “Rainbow strobing. Very flashy. Didn’t exactly seem like your style, Heather.”
“What, rainbows?” Raine asked with a smirk. “Come on, Evee, do the math.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes.
“Yes, I’m with Evee on this one,” I croaked. “Just because I’m a lesbian doesn’t mean I automatically sprout rainbow tentacles, don’t be absurd.”
“Lesbian limbs,” Lozzie whispered.
“Very cool,” Raine said.
“You should not have done that,” Evelyn grunted. “Any of that. We are all clear on that, aren’t we?” She glanced around at all of us – Praem too – with a thundering frown. “Extenuating circumstances, yes, emergency, yes, but not like that.”
“Evee?” I croaked.
“You could be dead, Heather. You were lucky it was a lung, and not your heart, or your spine. You could have ripped your insides apart right there on the spot, and no amount of pneuma-somatic replacement could save you then. Do not. Do that. Again.”
I nodded. The deepest recesses of my heart tried to deny it, but I’d almost killed myself back there. Evelyn was right.
“You did promise you wouldn’t,” Raine said gently – and the hint of her disappointment, the gentle reminder that I’d broken a promise, cut me to the quick.
“I won’t- I won’t do it again,” I said, and couldn’t look Raine in the eyes. “I’m sorry, I … I just reacted. It’s not an excuse. Never again, yes. Until I can make it safe.”
Evelyn grumbled, not happy at that final qualifier I’d added.
But how? I needed to understand biology, my own biology and musculature, how to attach the limbs, the physics, the neural wiring. So much, too much. How could I even begin?
“I can show you how!” Lozzie chirped. “I … I think!”
“You think?” Evelyn asked, dark and unimpressed. Lozzie bobbed her head, utterly unphased by Evelyn’s glowering ire.
“I think! I do it a lot, there’s a lot of things to think about, you know?”
Raine laughed. Lozzie looked at her as if she didn’t understand the joke. Perhaps it wasn’t a joke.
“There’s so much I want to ask you,” I said to Lozzie, and reached over to take her hand. She interlocked her fingers with mine and waved our joined hands back and forth.
“Ask away. Away-away!”
A million questions surfaced in my mind, curiosities and important matters I’d bottled up for weeks or months. The dreams we’d shared – how? Where did Lozzie go for all that time after we rescued her? Why had she trilled at the Flutist creature back in the castle? How had Maisie contacted her to save me from Wonderland? Where did she get her clothes out there? The memory returned to me in a flash; Lozzie with a half-eaten brownie paused on the way to her mouth, standing amid the black ash of Wonderland. Her Knight, her history with Zheng, the nature of the Outsider under the Cult’s castle.
A horrible voice whispered in the back of my head.
What if she doesn’t last? What if she leaves again?
She won’t. She can’t, not right now.
What if she goes back to being a vegetable? What if this wasn’t enough? She needs to be Outside. She shouldn’t be here – you’re selfish for wanting her to stay.
“Lozzie … ” I wanted to ask so many things, but I settled on the practical question first, because my self-loathing didn’t fully believe she was going to stay. “Lozzie, we’ve been trying to find Zheng. We don’t know where to start, but you were … friends, of a kind, with her, weren’t you?”
“I was! Am! Zheng is lovely I know she’s scary sometimes but she’s such a sweetie if you talk, but I had to go inside her head to talk, because she couldn’t.”
“Do you know how we could find her?”
Lozzie lit up in a smug smile. “Easy! You have to smell her out. She has a pretty strong smell, you know?”