“Raine, that’s not possible.”
At least that’s what I meant to say. What I actually said sounded more like ‘buh?’
Lashed high in the gnarled old tree in the back garden, washed by cold rain in the early spring air, framed by the roiling storm clouds in the sky above, Tenny’s cocoon thumped and shuddered a third time. Branches creaked under pressure, a faint tremor vibrated through the ground, and a scratching, flaking, cracking sound followed, like claws raking across loose rock.
A pair of feelers flickered forth again, through the hair-line fracture in the top of the cocoon, white and feathery, tentative and nervous as they tasted the air and drank the rain.
“There,” Raine hissed. “Heather, right there, I can see those.”
“Ooooooh. Again!” Lozzie called to the cocoon. “Again! You can do it!”
“I don’t- that’s not- you can’t-” I stammered. “Oh no.”
The feelers withdrew. A pause, then the chrysalis shuddered again, rocking against the tree branches, slammed from within by incredible strength.
Raine stepped in front of Lozzie and I, still sheltering us beneath the umbrella, rain dripping from the brim. She held her knife low but obvious in the other hand. I was still too shocked and confused to complain, to tell her to put that thing away. Up in the tree, Tenny – or whatever she was now – had began to rock the cocoon back and forth, as if she was trying to roll it like a hamster ball. The age and stoutness of the tree-branches held it firm.
“Everyone else saw that too, yeah?” Raine asked over her shoulder without taking her eyes from the tree. “I haven’t just picked up Heather’s talent by sexual osmosis, right?”
“Yeah! Yeah, shit, oh shit,” Twil spat back, claws already out, nose wrinkled in disgust.
“Quite, yes,” Evelyn hissed.
From back by the house, Kimberly made a squeak that probably meant yes, and also probably meant ‘please allow me to leave before I wet myself’.
“Can bloody well smell it too,” Twil said.
Raine sniffed, and so did I. Twil was right. An unfamiliar organic scent had added itself to the storm-tossed cocktail of wet grass and slick mud; an iron-and-mucus smell, a sweat-and-blood smell. Not unpleasant exactly, not rot or disease, but rich and tangy like blood-laced spice in the back of one’s throat.
“Spirits do not smell of anything,” Evelyn said, strangled and urgent, shaking her head. “It’s a- Tenny … she’s bootstrapped herself a physical body.”
“Is that bad?” Twil asked.
“How am I supposed to know?” Evelyn snapped at her. “Let’s … withdraw, yes. Maybe indoors. We don’t know what’s going to come out of there.”
“It’s only Tenny!” Lozzie said, turning to everyone else with a little pouty frown.
“Only,” Praem echoed.
Despite the inflectionless bell-tone of her voice, Praem made her scepticism obvious. She took a half-step to the side, still holding the umbrella aloft over Evelyn, and made an ‘after-you’ gesture with one neatly gloved hand.
“Sure it’s Tenny,” Raine said. “But what’s Tenny now?”
The cocoon had stopped rocking, but the scratching sound had resumed, a desperate scritch-scritch-scape-scape, punctuated by weird wet slapping as if from inside a drum. An occasional fluttery fanning teased the edge of my hearing.
“She cannot break it,” Zheng purred.
I glanced up at Zheng’s contemplative look, trying to marshal my thoughts. I was going cold inside, shivering despite my hoodie, and wrapped my arms around myself more for comfort than warmth. “What?”
“No egg tooth.”
“ … you mean she can’t get out on her own?”
Zheng shrugged. “We could wait and see, shaman. Maybe the shell will fill with rainwater first.”
That sharpened my mind.
Unfortunately, my phantom limbs responded before I did. Tentacles that existed only in my imagination tried to reach up to Tenny’s cocoon with a half-formed mental image of prying her out before she drowned. I gasped as twin lances of pain stabbed into both my flanks. Bruised flesh and torn muscle twitched and quivered as my body tried to guide limbs I didn’t have. I screwed my eyes up tight and squeezed my sides with my hands, trying to quell the attack, trying not to think about Tenny panicking inside her chrysalis, trapped and alone.
“Heather?” Raine called. “Woah, Heather, Heather?”
“I’m fine,” I croaked, then sighed. “Damn it all.”
“Yes, quite,” Evelyn snapped. “Don’t you dare, Heather. That’s all we’d need right now.”
“She can’t get out,” I croaked. “She-”
“Good! We should not be able to see that, none of us. This- this- this should not exist, not here, this is dangerous and-”
“You are dangerous, wizard,” Zheng purred. “I am dangerous. Every monkey and monster in this garden is dangerous.”
“Yes,” I agreed, gathering my wits, straightening up, wincing as my sore muscles complained at even the smallest motion. “Everyone calm down, please. Raine, would you please put that knife away?”
“Not a hundred percent on that just yet,” said Raine.
“Heather, that is a spirit in there,” Evelyn said. “And we can all see it and I don’t know what that means.”
“Then we’re going to be the first to find out, aren’t we?” I said with a sigh.
“We are,” Praem echoed. She stared right at me.
The doll-demon declined to expand.
Evelyn huffed. “Heather-”
“Evee, need I remind you that you borderline tortured Tenny at one point?” I shot her a look – my best impression of her own expression – and felt like a bad friend for bringing that up, but this wasn’t time for careful debate. “I’m sure whatever she looks like now, she- I don’t care what she-” I pinched the bridge of my nose and screwed my eyes up. “ … why can you all see her? This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Tch!” Lozzie tutted and sighed, arms sagging, eyes rolling, the very picture of a grumpy teenager. “Because she’s gotten really clever, duh! I keep telling you but you’re not listening!”
“Great, yes,” Evelyn spat. “A hyper-intelligent spirit, after spending God alone knows how long eating live meat, is just about to hatch into an actual physical body.”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s um … a little unprecedented, I know.”
Evelyn snorted. “And I’m sure we’d all love to meet it in a completely uncontrolled manner five seconds after it’s born. Great plan. Bravo.”
“My thoughts exactly,” said Raine.
Evelyn grabbed Praem’s umbrella with one hand and used it like a lead, directing the doll-demon to accompany her on a retreat back up the garden and toward the house. “Don’t come crying to me when you get bitten!”
Twil grimaced, briefly left behind. Rainwater drummed off her hood. “She’s got a point, come on.”
“Tenny recognised me,” I said. “I’m sure … I’m certain whatever comes out of that … it’ll … ” I glanced up at the cocoon again as the scratching noises intensified. I was lying, to both myself and everyone else. The feeding tentacle, the dead sheep, the incredible strength with which Tenny had fought Zheng. None of these were exactly promising signs.
Behind us, the back door banged open. Evelyn stomped past Kimberly and into the house, stamping rainwater off her shoes. Praem waited.
“She did listen to me,” I said. “Tenny listened to me when I told her to stop fighting Zheng. She remembers me, it’s Tenny in there.”
“Yeah yeah, I believe you, right,” said Twil. “But like, lets not risk getting between a dog and it’s food or something?”
“Ha!” Zheng barked. “You monkeys. Flee if you wish.”
“Not everyone wants to fight everything all the time, alright?” Twil rolled her eyes, then slunk over to Praem and took shelter beneath the umbrella.
“Heather-” Raine started.
“Compromise?” Raine said softly, finally looking away from the tree to meet my eyes at her side. “Back up a bit, give her room to breathe. She recognises you, then it’s fine, sure, but let’s give her room to get her bearings.”
“She’s stuck in the cocoon, Raine! She can’t get out, I have to help, I-”
“Listen to your right hand, shaman,” Zheng purred. “She keeps you safe.”
“Make up your mind,” I snapped at her. “You tell us off for being afraid and then-”
“The laangren could stay. You are more fragile.”
“Zheng! It-” A light bulb came on in my brain. “Oh, you could-”
“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “Would be a pity, to leave such strength to rot in its shell.”
She knew what I was going to ask. She’d probably thought of it before I did. Without a another word, Zheng strode forward and climbed the tree again in three quick bounds. She did wobble slightly at the top, taking an extra moment than expected to find her footing, either because of her sodden, unwieldy clothes or due to the injures she’d sustained during the fight.
“Compromise then, please?” Raine asked. “Zheng’s on it, we can back up a bit. And for the record, I believe you that it’s Tenny in there.” She allowed herself an indulgent smile, and I was torn inside between a heart-flutter and irritation. “But humour me, please Heather?”
Zheng was already bending down and planting her hands either side of the hairline crack in the frozen-tar surface of the cocoon. Lozzie clapped her hands above her head, swinging her arms up and down like she was following a calisthenics video, chanting ‘Come. Out. Come. Out!’ over and over.
“I’m not leaving Lozzie here,” I murmured. “And I don’t think either of us can convince her to back away.”
“Oh ye of little faith.” Raine smirked, then called out. “Hey, Lozz?”
“Mm?” Lozzie craned back, caught mid-clap.
“Let’s give Tenny some room to come out proper, yeah? If she’s really that big, we better give her some space to, you know, unfold.” Raine gestured with the umbrella. “Come huddle up with us.”
“Yes, please,” I sighed, my concerns all piling up in one big mess. “Please don’t get too wet and cold again, Lozzie.”
“Okay!” Lozzie chirped, to my incredible surprise. She hopped back toward us and ducked under the umbrella, and instantly linked arms with me, holding on tight.
Up in the tree, Zheng bore down and pushed, trying to simply force the two halves of the split cocoon further apart. Her lips pulled back in a grimace of exertion, but the shell proved too strong even for her. She wound back one fist and slammed the crack with all her strength, pulled back bloody knuckles and punched it again, and again.
As Raine hurried to lead us back toward the house, Lozzie giggled under her breath and smiled an oddly knowing little smile, just for me. She bit her lip and rolled her eyes and in that moment I realised she knew exactly what Raine had just pulled.
“Lozzie-” I hissed.
“Shhh,” she put a finger to her lips and whispered. “Raine-y brainy worry-wart.”
“ … I hope you’re right,” I hissed back.
We withdrew, but not as far as Twil and Praem had retreated. Kimberly stood inside the threshold of the back door now, ready to bolt. Evelyn had returned, scowling. In one hand she carried the carved thigh-bone, the closest thing she possessed to a magical weapon.
“Oh this is a fine display,” Evelyn was grumbling, grinding her teeth as she spoke. “In the middle of the day, in broad daylight-”
“Hardly broad, hey?” Twil pointed at the stormy sky.
“You know what I mean, don’t be dense. Oh, what do you care, running around in the woods covered in fur? I bet you’ve shocked more than a few hikers and you don’t care, they just make up urban legends. You don’t understand the first-”
“Kiss and make up already, you two,” I sighed, too exhausted to care.
“I- Heather- excuse me?!” Evelyn glared.
Twil just dipped her head, cleared her throat, and gestured up at the tree. “Weirdest uh, weirdest mime show ever, right? Heh.”
Zheng had breached the shell at last, forced a tiny gap wide enough to jam her fingertips into, and was busy ripping chunks of cocoon free and tossing them to the grass. The cocoon came away in Zheng’s fists as only part-solid, masses of layered fibres packed with a viscous black goo that stuck fast in great sticky strips, like a cross between a wood-pulp-and-saliva wasp nest and fibreglass soaked in molten toffee. Each chunk steamed softly in the rain, slowly melting to nothingness in the grass.
The smell intensified, wet and rich and biological. But the cocoon was so dense, Zheng’s digging barely seemed to make a dent.
“What is this stuff?” I murmured.
“Metamorphosis,” Praem intoned.
“Yes, but-” I looked at her and halted. Despite the lack of pupils in her milk-white eyes, I felt her attention directly on me. “Praem?”
Up in the tree, Zheng was chanting under her breath, a rolling rhythm in a language I did not recognise, a work-song. She jammed both hands into the hole she’d made, one on either side, and braced her shoulders, a living crowbar.
“True metamorphosis requires pain,” Praem sing-songed.
We all shared a glance. Evelyn frowned at her. “And what do you know about pa-”
With a sound like a cartoon snake popping from a garden hose, a thick black tentacle suddenly shot up through the hole in the cocoon, right into Zheng’s face. But Zheng had learnt; she dodged back with a casual flick of her head. The tentacle went sailing past.
It possessed none of the clarity of the giant feeding tentacle we’d encountered in the woods. After missing Zheng, it flopped to one side and slapped about blindly on the exterior of the cocoon, like a person fumbling for a light switch in the dark. Whatever senses Tenny’s pupa-stage had boasted, they’d withdrawn, concentrated, transferred to the thing trying desperately to claw itself free.
Zheng caught the appendage in mid-air, in one fist.
“Stay down, golog.”
She let the tentacle go. It instantly whipped back into the cocoon with a loud pop.
“Well,” Raine said with grim sort of grin. “Saw that one too.”
“Ugh,” went Twil. “That was like a giant slug. You’ve touched that, Heather?”
“I still don’t understand,” I admitted. “She’s … she’s turned herself from a spirit into … real life?”
“She’s a real girl now,” Lozzie giggled.
“Bootstrapping itself from one order of life to the other,” Evelyn muttered under her breath, as we all watched Zheng once again brace her hands either side of the hole she’d made. She put her back into it, bending forward and straining with all her strength, trying to rip the shell open. She bared her teeth, started to go red in the face. The cocoon wouldn’t budge, the crack still not enough to split the two halves. “This is an absolute nightmare, Heather. This is a level-ten fuck up.”
“But … but it’s Tenny.”
“I don’t know what we’re even looking at here,” Evelyn hissed, turning to me, eyes blazing. “This is completely beyond my knowledge, this isn’t supposed to happen, I’ve never seen it described, hinted at, anything. Even if what comes out of that cocoon is exactly as friendly as what went in, we can see it. Things like Zheng, or Praem, or hell, Twil here, at least they look passably human, but-”
“Aw thanks, yeah,” Twil muttered.
“But this?” She gestured with the tip of her walking stick, up at the tree. “Huge headache, at the very least. It’s one thing for some passer-by on the street to write Praem off as a weirdo in cosplay-”
Praem turned her head to stare at her mistress, but Evelyn ranted on.
“It’s entirely another to explain away a faceless tentacle monster with skin made of tar – or whatever the fuck is going to fall out of that egg!” She blew out a long breath and glared at me, coming down from her little rant. “Why do you keep doing this to me, Heather?”
“I’m … Evee, I’m sorry, I-”
“That part was a joke.” She huffed and looked away. “It’s hardly your fault.” She nodded at Lozzie. “More hers.”
“Nyeeeeh.” Lozzie stuck her tongue out at Evelyn, which earned her a pinched frown.
“We- we could get her indoors as quickly as possible,” I said. “That is, if she’s … if it’s safe. I mean, I don’t want to … I can’t just-” I understood what Evelyn was saying, or thought I did. For all that we were a bunch of monsters and magicians, we all looked human. Even Zheng, even if she looked like she’d stepped down from mount Olympus. “I can’t just … make her go away.”
“Yes, yes,” Evelyn sighed. “You’ve made your point well enough before, Heather. You were right then, and you’re right now, as much as it pains me to admit.”
“You, admitting you’re wrong?” Twil elbowed Evelyn in the side, grinning. “Yeah right.”
Evelyn glared at her until Twil pulled a grimace and looked away, then Evelyn turned back to me. “My point is, I get it, alright? Non-human fr-” she slammed to a halt and glanced at Praem.
“Friends?” I supplied the word. “Non-human friends are friends too?”
Evelyn sighed like we were all pets that had just messed all over the floor. “Why do you always sound so convincing when you spout lines like that? Yes, exactly. Friends, allies, whatever. It’s a responsibility, even. So no, I’m not suggesting we drive Tenny off, assuming she doesn’t emerge as a giant moth and immediately dust all of Sharrowford with poisonous spores.”
“Evee?” Raine asked. “You joking?”
Evelyn shrugged, raised her chin, and readied one hand on the carved thighbone. “We are playing with fire. We’ve been doing it for months. Let’s find out.”
Raine glanced at the back door, then at me.
“Oh no,” I said. “I’m not leaving now.”
“Worst case, we end up with a giant moth corpse to dispose of,” Evelyn grumbled. “Perhaps we could lure it into a fire.”
Up in the tree, Zheng strained harder, using her feet as leverage too now, braced against the branches like some kind of superhuman car jack. Beneath her wet clothes, her muscles rippled like steel cables. Veins stood out on her forehead as she heaved, and the hairline crack in the cocoon appeared to flex wider, but the material itself held strong. Zheng reached her limit and I heard a distinct pop-crack of a breaking bone as her left arm buckled. She stood up and sighed heavily, chest heaving up and down as she sucked in great lung-fulls of cold air. With her good hand she reached over and cracked her elbow back into place.
“No luck?” Raine called.
“Hold, please,” Praem suddenly intoned. She was offering the umbrella handle to Twil.
“Praem?” Evelyn said. “What are you up to?”
“Evelyn will get wet. Hold please.”
“Uh, alright.” Twil took the umbrella, holding it over herself and Evelyn. “But-”
Praem turned neatly on one heel, and marched off toward the tree.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Evelyn snapped. “You- Praem! Get back here! Praem!”
Praem ignored her mistress. Hands clasped before her, she glided across the garden with neat, measured strides, her shoes dusted with rainwater, her hair getting damp, shoulders of her uniform dotted with raindrops, quickly turning soggy in the slow deluge. Zheng watched as Praem approached the tree.
“Demon,” she rumbled. “What do you propose?”
Praem didn’t bother to answer, look up, or even stop, but simply hiked her skirt up and started climbing the tree. She lacked Zheng’s explosive muscular force, but more than made up for that with grip strength, balance, and a comfortable pair of shoes. With careful, confident motions, she scaled the tree-trunk and pulled herself up next to Zheng, a good two feet shorter than the giant zombie.
“Oh yes, you climb the tree as well,” Evelyn huffed. “That’ll go down fantastically if we’re seen.”
“Is she stronger than Zheng?” Twil asked, frowning. “Or they gonna work together?”
“I don’t care what they do,” I said. “As long as they get Tenny out.”
Zheng, one eyebrow raised in amused curiosity, gestured to the cocoon, as if to say ‘fine, your turn’. Praem ignored her and bent forward over the frozen tarry-black egg, head twitching one way, then the other, examining the surface. The cocoon rocked and shuddered as Tenny resumed her panic, or instinctive hatching behaviour, or whatever it was. Praem reached forward and tapped the cocoon with one knuckle, as if on a door. The rocking stopped. She put her ear to the cocoon and tapped again, and again, and again, mechanically testing every few inches.
One minute stretched into three. Three drew out into five. Evelyn ground her teeth. I started shivering, the enforced wait gnawing at my belly. Up in the tree, Praem was quickly soaked through to her wooden bones, but she kept going.
Zheng watched dispassionately, then eventually glanced at us mere humans huddled down in the garden.
“Wizard,” she called. “We need another method. Your method.”
Evelyn screwed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Evee, I know,” I said, feeling her pain. “It’s been a long day, but please, I’m not going to leave Tenny to drown or suffocate in there, please, I-”
“Alright!” Evelyn hissed. “Yes, fine. God alone knows what I’m going to do, I don’t even know where to start.”
Praem stood up.
She touched the tip of one finger against the surface of Tenny’s cocoon, at a point on the side, quite far from the long hairline fracture.
“Mmm?” Zheng rumbled.
“Punch? Why can’t you do that, little thing? Feeling weak?”
Praem clasped her hands demurely in front of herself, and resumed her habitual pose of perfect poise – no easy feat when standing on a tree branch, drenched from head to toe. Her hair was dripping wet now, blonde slicked together into long rat-tails stuck to the back of her dress. She stared at Zheng for a moment, then turned on her heel and promptly fell out of the tree.
Again, she lacked Zheng’s muscular power or impact, but possessed a preternatural grace. She landed at the base of the tree with a little squelch on the wet grass, marched away a few paces, turned, and looked up at Zheng.
“Get on with it,” she sing-songed. “Gorilla.”
For a split-second I thought Zheng was going to jump down out of the tree and fist-fight Praem on the spot. Evelyn would have a fit. But then Zheng broke into a grin, barked one ‘ha!’ of laughter, and wound up a fist. She rocked back and slammed a punch into the spot Praem had indicated, put all her strength into one strike.
The cocoon split like a cracked walnut.
The shell exploded into fragments, some falling out of the tree and crashing to the earth, others stuck between the branches, fragments pinging off and bouncing through the leaves. Zheng actually blinked in surprise. A wave of thick black fluid slopped free as the cocoon burst, splashing to the ground, diluted with rainwater but still reeking of that iron-and-mucus smell.
Flesh fell with fluid, a bundle of black meat and white fur, flopping limbs and limp pseudopods, a confusion of fluttering, twitching body parts that slithered to the ground in the middle of the exploded cocoon.
“Yaaay!” Lozzie cheered.
“Lozzie, Lozzie hold on,” I said quickly, holding fast to her arm looped through my own. “Let her … let her … ”
Tenny, whatever she was now, lay still in a heap on the grass.
Raine, Evelyn, Twil, Kimberly, none of them could see the cracked cocoon – but they absolutely saw the contents. To them, a bizarre creature had just fell into reality out of thin air, surrounded by her own reeking afterbirth.
“Ugh,” went Twil.
“Well, ‘least she’s out,” said Raine.
“Oh Goddess,” Kimberly squeaked from the back door.
Evelyn stared, wide-eyed, green around the gills again as Praem stepped forward, over a chunk of melting cocoon. “Don’t- Praem! Don’t touch it!”
The bundle of tar-black limbs and quivering feelers twitched and writhed on the ground – and something drew a first breath. A fluttering, flickering, feathery sound.
A strange silence came over us all. I recognised the tension in Raine’s limbs, ready to spring at one wrong move. Evelyn swallowed hard and fingered her carved thigh bone, hand slipping into position. Twil grit her teeth, barely holding back a growl. My stomach clenched hard.
“ … Tenny?” I called softly.
Soaked in her own viscous afterbirth, twitching and fluttering body parts that had never until this moment felt sunlight or rain, clumsy and confused but very much alive, ‘Tenny’ sat up.
Beautiful. The moment, I mean, not necessarily Tenny. Not a clean sort of beautiful, not the mathematical perfection of a cathedral or the elegance of a perfectly balanced poem, but a raw, instinctive sort of beauty. If you’ve ever watched an animal being born, or a moth pulling itself from its chrysalis and stretching its wings for the first time, that is the beauty I think we all saw in that moment, as this weird collection of alien flesh and quivering membranes sat up and blinked huge black-on-black pelagic eyes at the world.
I recognised those eyes, golfball-sized inky pools of limpid darkness, full of intense, innocent curiosity. But now those eyes blinked with triple lids, a quick flicker of three wet membranes over rolling orbs.
I let out a sigh of relief.
“Is it her?” Twil hissed.
“Yes,” I whispered, swallowed, repeated myself louder and clearer. “That’s Tenny, yes. She’s- she’s got the same eyes. Tenny? Tenny?”
Tenny was too numb and too new to respond, head waving slowly from one side to another as she unfolded unfamiliar parts; she had been through quite the metamorphosis.
At least she still had tentacles.
She also retained a head, two arms, and two legs, which was quite a relief. I’d half expected some segmented, chitinous, scuttling beast to emerge from that pupa, with Tenny’s eyes set above some monstrous slavering maw. I had a feeling we’d gotten exceptionally lucky.
Her skin was still the same pitch-black, but no longer bubbled and roiled like the surface of boiling tar. It had set, satin-smooth and slick wet with amniotic fluid, slowly washed by the falling rain, undeniably biological.
Lozzie squealed like an old steam kettle, both hands to her own mouth. “She’s so fluffyyyy!”
Tenny was, indeed, very fluffy. Sort of plump, too.
She’d grown thick tufts of feathery white fur across her thighs, hips, up her back and belly, over her head, up her throat, across her forearms. The fur formed streaks and swirls, a pattern that seemed to follow some kind of curved geometric logic. As she brought her arms up and stuck a finger – long and delicate but without fingernails or knuckles – into her own mouth, I saw actual muscle fibres bunch and relax beneath her skin. Tendons flexed, skin stretched, individual white hairs separated. A quartet of insect antennae twitched from atop her head, two-foot-long feathery white feelers tasting the rain. She’d turned pneuma-somatic flesh into physical cells.
How many meals of raw mutton had that taken, I wondered.
She’d grown a mouth too, and a nose. In her face, rather than relying solely on the one in her chest, which still lingered as a puckered line across her breast. Tenny looked up as Praem stopped a few paces away, pulled the exploratory finger out of her own mouth, and opened her pitch-black lips.
“Nnnn … nnnuuuhhh,” went Tenny, with the mouth in her face.
A fluttering voice, like dry hands rifling through a stack of papers, warm air drawn over frilled lungs. Tenny closed her mouth, made a child-like popping sound with her lips, and decided now was a good time to attempt the feat of standing up.
She wasn’t very good at it. Wobbly and clumsy, no balance, couldn’t work her ankles, spent a lot of time staring at them and rotating them before she made them support her weight. Lozzie made another muffled squeal, as if we were all watching a stumbling puppy rather than some nightmare moth-creature dredged up from the other side of reality.
“She wearing something?” Twil hissed.
“No, that’s attached to her,” I said. “Look.”
As Tenny stood, the rest of her unfolded. A sort of cloak structure covered her shoulders, attached at her neck, made of pitch-black flesh and falling about her in a protective layer of pseudo-clothing, all the way to her bare, stubby, toe-less feet.
The exterior surface of the cloak shifted like oil on water, a dizzying, disorienting effect, and for a moment Tenny’s outline looked only half there, the cloak almost managing to imitate the tree and the grass behind her – but then she overbalanced on her unsteady new legs, let out a ‘brrrrfff!’ and the effect rippled away. A clutch of very familiar tentacles shot out from beneath the shoulders of the flesh-cloak, to steady her against the ground and break her fall. She let out a petulant, fluttering ‘naaaah’.
The inside of the cloak was lined with more fluffy white fur, dripping with the womb-fluid from Tenny’s cocoon. As she finally gained her feet, I realised she’d lost maybe a foot of height, a little shorter than Lozzie and I now, but she’d made up for it with mass.
She had hips – imitating us, with secondary sexual characteristics? – and the rest of her looked somehow softer and rounder, but not in the exact way or places a human being would. She’d filled out, but to the tune of her own biology, not in pure imitation of ours.
The flesh-cloak twitched, flickered, seemed almost to vibrate.
“Wings,” Raine said softly. “Them’s wings. Look at thaaaat.”
As if on cue, Tenny flexed and stretched her new wings, the cloak opening out and splitting into four parts, great leathery structures that looked completely incapable of actual flight. They unfurled and unfurled and kept going, each one about twelve feet long when stretched to maximum span.
Evelyn made a choking sound, a word caught in her throat.
Tenny stared at her own wings, looked at her own hands, looked at the sky, Praem, us. Her tentacles reached over and started to groom one of the wings, trying to clean the sticky black amniotic fluid off, like a bird preening itself.
Then she sagged with effort, the wings flopped back down into a cloak, and Tenny sat down in a heap.
“Buuuuullllffff,” she fluttered, a very grumpy child woken from a comfortable nap.
“That,” Twil said, bristling like a dog confronted by a lobster. “Is the weirdest fuckin’ thing I have ever seen.”
“Don’t exaggerate,” Evelyn grumbled.
“What do you mean, don’t exaggerate? Look at it!”
“What, you scared of a little bug?” Raine asked with a smirk, and slipped her knife away. “She’s exhausted, just been born, can’t even stand up.”
“She’s so cuuuute!” Lozzie squealed again, and wriggled out of my grip. I doubt anything could have stopped her, certainly not my weak “maybe wait” as she skipped across half the garden in two seconds and fell upon Tenny with a hug.
Luckily, Tenny seemed to recognise her, because she sat looking very confused for a moment before returning the hug with awkward, jerky motions, smearing black goo all over Lozzie’s clothes.
“Can’t argue with that,” Raine said.
“Cute?!” Twil boggled at everything and everyone.
“In the eye of the beholder, I suppose,” I muttered, but my own reaction went deeper, in a way I couldn’t voice. I swallowed, and settled on saying, “she is, kind of.”
“Yes, I’m sure this is all very charming, but this is still very much a worse-case scenario,” Evelyn snapped.
“Noooo! She’s amazing!” Lozzie turned back to us for a second before looking at Tenny again. “Aren’t you amazing? You’re amazing, look at you! You’re so big, you did so well, well done, I love you!”
She was touching Tenny all over, hands in her fur and linking with her fingers, patting her shoulders and ruffling what passed for hair, slipping beneath Tenny’s wings to hug her tighter. Tenny blinked like a cat getting petted and let out another wordless ‘naaaah’ sound.
Tenny’s tentacles searched further than her hands, poking and prodding at the pieces of shattered shell, ignoring them and moving on to the weeds amid the grass. Some of them still showed the wounds from her battle months ago, with Amy Stack’s scribble-monster, severed and burnt, but the rest seemed longer than before. A few split their ends into hungry maws as they explored the garden, full of tiny needle-teeth, biting into stray twigs and trying to eat a flower before spitting out the petals.
I choked up. Not because of some abstract beauty of the miracle of life, but with jealousy.
Tenny had changed. She’d grown. She’d entered a cocoon and emerged with a body closer to that she was always meant to have. Clumsy and weird and obviously exhausted by the metamorphosis, drenched in her own amniotic fluid, yes, but she looked right. Perhaps I was desperately trying to retroactively justify my gut emotional response, but Tenny had always looked weird, half-finished, sweet and protective yes, but stuck together from spare parts. Now she’d matured. She was beautiful.
And here I was, stuck in my scrawny, slow, ape body.
Jealousy and delight mixed into an awful cocktail. The feeling reminded me of my early teenage years, how I used to feel about other, prettier girls, when I was young and didn’t understand my own sexuality, stuck between admiration and desire, jealous need and self-identification. My abyssal memories recognised myself in Tenny.
Phantom pain twinged in my sides with sympathetic need. She had tentacles. I didn’t.
Zheng dropped out of the tree again and landed in the grass, amid the broken shards of cocoon right behind Tenny. Our little pet moth-person flinched and jumped, then looked up and around as Zheng loomed over her, meeting a grin full of sharp teeth.
“Puppy,” Zheng purred. “Well done.”
Tenny reacted like a cat before a snake. She flared and puffed herself up, opened her mouth in a loud hisssss of fluttery vocal chords. All her tentacles whipped back to spread out and make her look bigger. If she hadn’t been on the floor with Lozzie, I suspect she would have arched her back and lashed out.
“Bad Zheng!” Lozzie yelled. “No! No scaring her! Bad!”
Zheng grumbled. She grudgingly backed up a few paces, and Tenny’s panic relaxed, tentacles lowering, though she still eyed Zheng with suspicion.
“Yeah, you tell her, Lozz,” Raine laughed.
Twil started laughing too, but a nervous, panicky sort of laugh, like she was trying to convince herself this was all normal. “Right, right … yeah.”
“It’s a huge fluffy moth person, what’s not to laugh at?” I said with a sigh of exhaustion. Everything ached, my hair and scalp were cold with rain, and I could tell we had hours of work still before us. “At least we’re not doing something absurdly dangerous, for once.”
“Heeeeeaaaaa,” went Tenny, a whining flutter – at me. Either she’d only just noticed or recognised me, or only just worked up the energy to demand attention. She held her arms out to me around Lozzie.
“I think she wants a hug,” Raine said.
“Oh, for pity’s sake,” Evelyn hissed.
I walked over without hesitation. Raine followed me with the umbrella.
Tenny did look weird and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. She wasn’t an image of human femininity overlaid with a touch of alien exoticism, she was actually slightly unsettling, inspiring the same gut reaction one might have to an unknown insect; was she safe to touch, or venomous, would she bite, would she leave unknown bacteria on one’s skin? She was inhumanly proportioned, her face like some kind of bug-eyed cave creature, her eyes twin pools of void, and now she was fuzzy too, weird insect fur all over her body, an odd smell in the air around her like powder and mucus mixed together, still covered in her own amniotic fluid.
But I’d known weirder, in the abyss. I’d been weirder.
Our little Tenny needed to know we recognised her too.
Lozzie shifted to the side slightly, gave me enough room to reach down and hug Tenny around the shoulders.
It was like hugging a canvas bag filled with pythons, no matter how smooth and soft and fluffy. The musculature under her skin was not remotely human. Did she even have bones in there?
“Alright, this is going far enough. We are moments away from disaster,” Evelyn announced, raising her voice and gesturing at Tenny, Lozzie, and I. “Praem, get them up, now.” She pointed the thigh-bone at Zheng. “You, get the hell indoors.” Then she whirled on Kimberly, still cowering in the back doorway. “You, get- hell, I don’t know, towels. Run a bath. Quick!”
Kimberly scurried off at double-speed.
“Evee?” I blinked at her in surprise. “What-”
“This is a worst-case scenario and I’d like to avoid it getting worse, Heather. Get Tenny up, now. Or Zheng can pick her up, I don’t care which.”
“It’s … Evee, it’s fine. She’s safe, I’m pretty sure. I think she’s kind of cute, even, I-”
“Yes, yes, sure, whatever,” Evelyn snapped. “She’s also visible and here and completely alien.” She waved her walking stick at the garden fence, at the not-so distant neighbouring houses. At Sharrowford. “You want to end up on the goddamn evening news? No? Then get her inside. All of you. Now!”