Knowledge takes two paths.
The first is the eureka moment, the leap of discovery, the flash of a magic-eye picture resolving into a leaping dolphin. Archimedes in his bathtub, Newton under the apple tree, the elegant terror of the splitting atom. Oft romanticised but rarely experienced, the domain of ‘great man’ theory and a history of thought with time for only the brightest of shining landmarks.
The second kind is boring and slow, but we owe it so much more. Methodical categorisation. Repeated experiments. Close reading. Stubborn, bull-headed, constant investigation that grinds along week after week, month after month, year on year, down the centuries from the first pre-human ape bashing a rock to make a sharp edge. The unsung army of semi-literate chroniclers preserving Pythagoras and Aristotle from bookworm and mildew; postgraduate students uncredited by the papers their grunt-work makes possible; drug trial volunteers paid a few hundred pounds to run the biochemical gauntlet.
Or me, giving myself nosebleeds and headaches and vomiting in a bucket, and still getting nowhere.
We didn’t have years; Maisie didn’t have years. She had a few months.
“Again,” I croaked.
Evelyn reached for the television’s on button, but Raine stopped her with a gesture.
“I said, again.”
“Heather?” Raine leaned down and around in an effort to catch my gaze, one hand on my shoulder. I refused to look. If I met her eyes I’d lose my nerve. “Heather, you’ve done enough for one day, you’re shaking. Come on, time for a break.”
“Again, switch it back on. Evee, switch it back on.”
Evelyn hesitated, looked to Raine instead of me.
“I’m fine,” I hissed. “I’m in control. I haven’t been sick in over a week.” I gestured with irritation at the empty sick bucket next to my chair, the one Raine still insisted on for every session. “I can do this, I’m doing fine, I want to do another shape. I can do it. I can.”
“And I believe you,” Raine said. “But you’re also thirty minutes past the time you promised to stop, and when you stand up you’re gonna fall over, vomit or no vomit. You’re spent, Heather. Time to stop.”
I grit my teeth, gripped the pencil so tight it creaked in my hand, arm shaking with effort. Raine was right. I wasn’t angry with her, I was frustrated by my own weakness, my inability to go faster, to make greater sense of any of this. Progress, every day, yes, but toward what end? What use was any of this? I had to trust gut instinct and hope, and that was thin gruel.
“Another- another line, another few-” I jabbed at the notebook on the table in front of me. “Just let me-”
“You’re also about to bleed on your notes,” Raine said.
“What?” I scrubbed at my nose, tutted as my hand came away bloody – and glanced down. A mistake.
The notebook page I’d been working on for the last two hours was three-quarters full of tiny numbers and letters, one long equation that slid in behind my optic nerve and jabbed spears of pain right through to the back of my skull. Had to squeeze my eyes shut, head spinning, stomach threatening rebellion. Hissed through my teeth.
Raine knew the drill. She rubbed the back of my neck and head, raked her fingers through my hair, kept me here in the physical, grounded me.
I pictured her boobs, because boobs beats hyperdimensional mathematics. Another thing I’d learnt, more useful than anything in the notes. Boobs are invincible. Slow, deep breaths. Don’t vomit. Think about boobs. Not sitting here in this chair, not in Evelyn’s workshop, not pulling the secrets of creation from a monster in a plastic washing up tub. Not here. Not here. Boobs. Boobs.
“Alright, I’m with Raine,” Evelyn grumbled, sliding her chair back. “That’s the second time this session, we’re done for the day.”
“I can do more,” I mumbled.
“You’re literally dripping with sweat,” Raine said, not unkindly.
“Fine!” I snapped, pulled myself out of her hands, and grabbed the exercise bottle on the table. I yanked up the no-spill tab with my teeth and sucked down a mouthful of lukewarm cherry-flavoured energy drink. Keep my electrolytes up. Raine’s idea. I thumped the bottle back down. “Is that enough?”
“Not even close, boss, no can do. Negotiations start from a bath and a meal first.”
“Mister Squiddy will be in further residence tomorrow,” another voice added itself to the chorus of sensible suggestions, Praem chiming in from the back of the workshop.
“Yeah,” Raine said. “Not like he’s going anywhere.”
‘Mister Squiddy’ – as Praem had taken to calling our uninvited guest, much to Evelyn’s silent disapproval – was indeed not about to run off anywhere, not with the level of luxury he now enjoyed.
As soon as my little project had blossomed, we’d relocated him from the floor into a extra-large plastic bowl Raine had picked up from Homebase. I believe it was intended for mixing paint. That operation had taken hours, a masterclass in avoiding supernatural contamination or exposure, and had necessitated the drawing of several different magic circles to safely move the crumbling clay squid-thing.
He – and I did think of it as a he, because Praem kept calling it Mister – now wallowed in a half-inch of water and a slippery mess of brown smeared up the sides of the tub. Occasionally a tentacle would slop over to the bucket of fresh wet clay next to it, dipping in and scooping more matter to smear over his lashing, writhing form.
The amount of clay was carefully measured. We didn’t want him actually growing any larger.
Mister Squiddy still looked like a rotting sheet draped over a bunch of squid, but no longer crumbling and dying. Our attentions had ensured it would live, for whatever definition of life that thing possessed, and also ensured that the workshop was filled with the faint sounds of slippery wet clay in constant motion.
“That’s not the point,” I mumbled to myself.
“I know,” Raine leaned in and whispered. “But you’re spent for now. You gotta rest, Heather.”
I sniffed hard, kept the tears of frustration inside.
“I hate that we’re keeping this thing alive,” Evelyn said with a huff, staring at the rotting squid mass. “Have I mentioned that? I believe I’ve mentioned that. I have right of revenge on this thing, surely. Have I mentioned that?”
“Once or twice,” Raine said with a smirk, straightening up, hands on my shoulders. “Can’t rightly recall.”
I didn’t see the humour, not right now. I was disgusted at myself, at my weakness. Every minute I sat here in a comfortable room with my lover and my friends safe at my side was another minute Maisie faded away to nothing in Wonderland. Even if I couldn’t see the bigger picture, couldn’t see how to apply anything I was learning, I had to keep going. Surely I’d find some application. If it shaved years off my life, so be it.
A stubborn, silly, sly part of me uncoiled an appendage that didn’t really exist, not yet, not as flesh or pneuma-somatic matter, only illusion and mental reinforcement and a trick of the senses.
One single tentacle selected from my phantom limbs, the highest on the left side of my hips. I ran through the mental exercises quickly, used to them now, pictured the pale smooth white flesh, the rainbow bioluminesence strobing beneath the surface. I imagined the veins and capillaries and nerve endings, the fat and the delicate tissues, built the limb up from first principles.
Real muscles bunched and contracted inside my torso, tendons prepared to take illusory weight. My bruises were a faint discolouration now, but an echo of the pain remained.
My tentacle reached for the television’s on button.
“Hey, Heather, not now,” Raine said.
I flinched and looked up at her, blinking in confusion, my mental construct falling apart and back into mere phantom-limb sensation. “How did you- you- Raine, what- how could you tell? I wasn’t- I-”
“S’cute when you concentrate so hard.”
I blushed terribly, embarrassed at being caught, mortified at the absurdity; the imaginary tentacle couldn’t even touch anything.
“What?” Evelyn frowned. “She was doing the visualisation thing again? Heather? You can’t even touch anything with that, you-”
“I know!” I blurted out, hiding behind my own hand, face burning. My forehead was sticky with sweat. “I know, I just … it just came naturally.”
Evelyn and Raine looked at each other. I put my face on the table and covered my head with my arms.
“Hey, hey, Heather,” Raine said with a laugh in her voice. She took me by the shoulders, rubbing hard. “That’s great, that’s a good sign. Means you’re getting used to it. Isn’t that the whole point? Your self-suggestion jazz is working.”
“Doesn’t make it any less embarrassing,” I muttered into the table.
“It’s not embarrassing. It’s cool. You’re cool.”
I struggled up off the table and stared at the dead, blank television screen again. I sighed and cast a final shot. “Five more minutes. Then I’ll stop.”
“Lozzie needs her dose of medicinal weirdness tonight, if we’re gonna pull the big day off tomorrow, doesn’t she?” Raine asked. “You keep this up, you’re gonna be too tired to go with her. Don’t want her to go through without you, right?”
“It’s not a ‘big day’,” Evelyn huffed. “Stop calling it that. It’s an experiment, that’s all.”
Raine raised her fingers from my shoulders in a gesture of easy surrender. “Lozzie’s still gotta go for some castle-time though. She wants to take Tenny along this time, too.”
“She what?” I tried to turn in the chair. “Oh no. No no no. I’m vetoing that. Where is she? I need to talk to her.”
“I thought you wanted five more minutes?” Evelyn asked.
“I … I don’t- … um.”
“Well, you’re not getting it. You’ve had too much.” Evelyn stood up, massaging her hip, wincing softly as her walking stick took her weight. “I’m cutting you off.”
“Last call, chucking out time,” Raine announced.
Evelyn did not laugh. She fixed me with a stare that I couldn’t ignore. “Don’t let this become an addiction.”
“It’s not. It’s not as if I’ll keep doing this once these are complete.” I picked up the pad of hyperdimensional mathematics and waved it vaguely in the air. “I don’t enjoy this, Evee.”
“Can they ever be complete? At what point will you have enough?”
“When I can out-think the Eye.”
She didn’t have anything to say to that. Neither did Raine, focused on rubbing my shoulders and smoothing my sweat-soaked hair out of my face. Evelyn held my gaze for a few moments, then sighed and looked away.
“Either I warn you off because I’m your friend, or I egg you on because this presents an unmatched opportunity.” She tapped the head of her walking stick with her fingernails, then shrugged. “You still need to rest, regardless of what motivation you want me to apply to you.” She held out a hand for the notes. “Let me look through those again, see how much I need to transcribe.”
“Good luck.” I passed her the notes, but when she took the heavy black notebook I held on a moment too long. Evelyn raised an eyebrow at me before I finally let go, surprised at myself, drawing my hand back and rubbing at my wrist. “Sorry,” I muttered. “It’s silly, you and your family have looked after much older books, for much longer. Of course it’s safe with you.”
“Mmm.” Evelyn stared at me with a curious frown, then flipped the notebook open and leafed through.
I was almost jealous of the way she could so easily look over those figures, my looping scrawl, often degenerating into chicken-scratch and spiderweb in the most difficult moments, page after page after page of it. We had two more notebooks upstairs, filled from cover to cover, tucked away in a safe in the study, plus Evelyn’s carefully transcribed versions of my more illegible parts. I’d filled half of this most recent notebook in only the last four days. Evelyn scanned my work unassaulted by icepick headaches or the creeping clutch of nausea.
“In the wrong hands, this would be just as dangerous as Inprencibilis Vermis,” she said. “As anything in my collection.”
“You mean you’re starting to understand it?”
Evelyn glanced up at me and laughed once, a harsh bark. “Not head nor tail, but that doesn’t mean others wouldn’t. We already know you’re not the only person in the world who understands hyperdimensional mathematics.”
“Lozzie’s not quite the same though.”
“She’s just bad at maths,” Evelyn said, snapping the book shut with one hand. “This goes in the box until next time.”
I nodded, sagging inside. This was all so slow, and I had no guarantee that any of it would work. Not for the first time, I asked myself why I was doing this.
Because I had no other leads.
I’d followed Maisie’s advice and gathered my friends, but now what? Even with this breakthrough, with all this technique I was gathering, how could I possibly fight the Eye? I could barely even think about what I was putting down on paper without being sick, it didn’t matter how much of it I could learn unless I could forge it into something useful, something greater, something less fragile than little old me, physical or abyssal.
No idea where to start. Just had to have faith.
Raine must have felt the lurking despair running beneath my skin, because suddenly she squeezed a little too hard, enough to draw an unexpected grunt from me. “Ahhh, Raine.”
“No … no, do that again. Left shoulder, please.”
“You’re pushing yourself too hard,” she murmured. “What would Zheng say?”
“She’d probably probably tell me to keep going, then carry me to bed when I pass out.”
“You want me to carry you to bed?” Raine asked. Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes and stepped out with the notebook tucked under one arm. She clacked through the kitchen, out into the front room, and creaked up the stairs.
I didn’t answer, too focused on the mental exercise of rebuilding my tentacle. These weeks of practice had made it habit now, the slow process of picturing muscle and tendon, skin and fat, mentally counting the imaginary anchors inside my own body, preparing their creation in hyperdimensional mathematics – but not executing, not yet, by pain of most dread promises to my friends. I saw it in my mind’s eye by force of self-suggestion, a solid pale white appendage that uncoiled from my flank and stretched out into the air.
“Doing it again, huh?” Raine asked softly.
“Mmhmm. It’s getting easier every time.”
“Wanna slap me in the face with it?”
I turned in my seat and stared at her, unsure if I’d heard correctly. Raine concealed her amusement well. She fought the smile for several long seconds, and then lost the battle all at once. I sighed.
“What?” she asked, grinning like a loon. “Thought I’d developed a fascinating and dangerous new fetish?”
“I hope not.”
“Come on, practice! It’s not like you can actually hit me with it. Just try it out.”
“I’d … I don’t know … not right now.” I looked down and let my concentration wander, forgot the tentacle again. “But thank you.”
“Hey, you can try out your tentacles on me any which way.”
This time she didn’t even bother to hide the joke. I rolled my eyes as Raine laughed, but inside I flushed with slow-burning relief, the kind she’d been pampering me with. The dirty jokes that lifted my defeatism, the pats on the bottom and the sudden unexpected hands up my tshirt that dragged me back into my body, the kisses that reminded me what mattered, they all helped more than I could express, and Raine had been very liberal with her attention these last three weeks.
Between hyperdimensional mathematics and building myself an extra limb via self-hypnosis, it was a minor miracle I wasn’t losing my mind yet. Raine kept me sane.
“Let’s get you in the shower, yeah?” she said, helping me out of the chair. My legs wobbled and I held her hand for support. She slipped her other arm around my waist and held on tight as I leaned into her. “I think you’ve earned some special attention.”
“Special attention,” Praem echoed.
Raine laughed. “You keep your ears to yourself.”
My mind made several leaps of free association. Perhaps it was the mental exhaustion, or perhaps I was just getting bold – or lazy.
“Where is Zheng, anyway?” I asked. “Wasn’t she here this morning? I thought she was watching.”
“Went hunting,” Raine answered. “Said she’d be back this evening, in time for Lozzie’s little outing. Wanna cook her catch again?”
I wrinkled my nose. “Only if it’s pheasant or rabbit. No squirrels. And absolutely no badger. In fact, I need to tell her to stop killing badger at all, it’s upsetting.”
“Hey, squirrels cooked properly are perfectly safe.”
“They’re also disgusting.”
“At least she’s helping with the food budget.”
Zheng had spent the last three weeks living like a huge semi-domesticated cat, sleeping all over the house in different spots every night, spending every second day out in the woods, hunting game or eating wildlife. I never knew if she was going to be around, but Raine seemed to. Either they were coordinating behind my back, or Raine was watching her every move like a hawk. I didn’t know which possibility was worse.
Raine walked me out of the workshop and into the kitchen. My eyes settled on the chessboard on the kitchen table, the pieces frozen mid-game.
“Gonna make a move?” Raine asked.
“Mmmm … maybe later.”
“She’s close to figuring this one out, you know. She might beat you this time.”
“Perhaps I should let her.” I sighed. “No, she’d know that right away, wouldn’t she?”
Zheng had yet to take a single game off me, and I wasn’t exactly a very good chess player. Strategy was not her strong point, though she occasionally made bold plays that required serious thought. The game had been Evelyn’s idea, to everyone’s surprise. I suspected she was trying to domesticate the giant zombie. Zheng either didn’t care or hadn’t caught on, and took me up on the challenge. She was a good loser, sporting, amused – against me, at least.
Praem moved to follow us out of the workshop. At the threshold she turned on her heel with a little click and performed what was becoming her usual routine, one that Evelyn had told her to stop doing.
“Stay,” she said out loud, to the blob of clay rolling and slurping in a plastic tub.
I glanced back, over the shoulder of Praem’s maid uniform, past the hateful squirming mass of imitation squid, beyond the table with the old CRT television.
Past all of it, on the back wall, the gateway mandala waited for Evelyn’s final touches.
The massive fan-shaped design surrounded the blank doorway shape in the middle. For a moment it seemed to stare back at me like an empty eyeball. It was almost ready, all the other additions laid out on temporary paper, held in place with masking tape so we could switch them back and forth. In a few hours we’d strip them off and replace them with the necessary marks to take us back to the cult’s castle again, but then tomorrow loomed.
Tomorrow, we were going to perform an experiment. And for that, we were going back to the library of Carcosa.
Three weeks had passed since our woodland outing and Tenny’s messy, physical rebirth. Three weeks since my midnight notion had borne fruit.
The thing from the Sharrowford Cult’s trap in Glasswick tower, the shard of Outsider thought which had been lodged in Alexander’s corpse like a jungle booby-trap, the Eye’s minion sent to cripple us – whatever it really was, it contained a treasure trove of secrets.
“As long as it’s not Pandora’s box,” Evelyn had said, that night.
The shapes it was displaying on the television screen were a form of mathematical notation, principles crystallised in the relations between a thousand surfaces and angles. A language of maths dreamed up by an alien with a hundred eyes and a thousand fists. Nobody but I could see that, of course, because nobody had the actual math with which to read them.
It hurt, of course. I figured it out, ripped a principle from one of the abstract shapes, transcribed it onto a sheet of paper with shaking hands as my eyes burned and my nose leaked blood. An eighth of a single puzzle piece in a billion-piece pattern.
But I recognised it. Hyperdimensional mathematics.
“You understand what this means?” I brandished the piece of paper at Evelyn, shaking with cold sweat. In retrospect I must have looked like I’d lost my mind. “Evee, it thinks in hyperdimensional math, that’s what it’s showing us. I-I know this stuff, I look at it and I know it already!”
“Heather, I understand your interest, I really do,” Evelyn told me. “But stop. Think.”
“It’s an obvious trap. Think. Put that- put that pencil down, you’re going to put your own eye out. Look, it can’t escape that body, can’t cross the air-gap, can’t use the television to do anything except communicate, and it’s chosen to communicate hyperdimensional math right into your brain, you-”
“It isn’t- guh.”
I choked a little, had to swallow and wet my lips. Praem brought me a glass of water, and Zheng had opened her eyes again, watching us from the kitchen with the interested silence of a big cat observing curious prey.
Evelyn waited for me to recover. I wiped my mouth on the back of my hand, scrubbed at my nosebleed, and gestured at the piece of paper again, at the mass of figures I’d scrawled.
“It isn’t anything new,” I explained, but had to avert my eyes before the thoughts made me nauseous again. “These are principles and equations I already know, I think. Things I’ve already been … taught. But it’s easier this way. Like when you already know something but somebody else explains it better than you can. It’s so much clearer. Evee, it makes sense to me already, but it’s … easier.”
I stared at the television screen again, at the multicoloured abstract shapes moving within, and it seemed as if I gazed not upon a curved surface of glass, or a three-dimensional representation within, but into an actual space that existed inside the television, a window into some other universe in which all our physical laws were represented in some alien language of space and angle and colour.
The shifting shapes looked like something a computer might generate, part of a model of a hurricane or a tidal wave or an explosion, but moving at a hundredth of the speed, each piece rotating with aching slowness. Each separate shape had dozens upon dozens of sides and angles, and each angle and side corresponded to every other side and angle to reveal a molten-hot piece of hyperdimensional mathematics. If I concentrated – and held onto the contents of my stomach – I could write it down.
Much easier than dredging my soul directly for the same information.
Examining my own mind was a nightmare, the things that lurked at the bottom of my subconscious always caught me with barbed hooks of pain, the lessons from the Eye like boiling tar in my brain. But this? This I could drag from another’s thoughts, and render down on paper.
It took all three voices – Evelyn, Zheng, and Praem – to snap me back to myself. I scrubbed at my face, realised my nosebleed had restarted, my head pounding, my limbs shaking, a sickness growing in my belly.
“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t still be a trap,” Evelyn said. “A crude one, improvised, yes, but a trap all the same … Heather? Are you alright?”
I almost fell out of the chair that first time. Zheng was fastest on her feet, into the workshop and catching me before my head hit the ground, strong arms around my back and belly as she hoisted me back into the chair.
Just exhaustion, excitement, and the natural drain of hyperdimensional mathematics, even if I was only interpreting rather than executing. A glass of water and a good sit and five minutes later I felt ready to try again.
“I’ve been wracking my brain for months about how to do this,” I said, looking between a frowning Evelyn and a towering Zheng. “How on earth I’m supposed to fight the Eye, wrestle Maisie from it when even the simplest thing makes me bleed and pass out. This is the first lead I’ve had, the first … source! I have to try, I have to know what’s in there.”
“The wizard may be right, shaman,” Zheng had rumbled, one surprisingly gentle hand resting atop my head like I was a small child. “It may be a trap. Do not ignore uncomfortable potentials.”
“I don’t care if it’s a trap!” I snapped at her. “If it is, that only means I have to beat it. There’s no other choice.”
Zheng stared, then broke into a dark smile. “Shaman.”
“And I … ” I swallowed, couldn’t say why yet, a mad notion surfacing in my mind. “I don’t think it’s a trap.”
Evelyn slid an old notebook across the table, toward me. Her hand lingered on it, and a strange look lingered in her eyes as she watched me – I recognised it instantly, but this time I welcomed it, because it meant she was going to back me up.
She looked at me with hunger.
“Try again then,” she said. “Let’s verify this works.”
“Then bed,” Praem had intoned.
“Yes,” I sighed, not quite insane with hope just yet. “Once more, then I promise I’ll go to bed. I promise”
‘Once more’ had turned into a marathon session the following day, the first of many, during which I’d sat at the table and pulled secrets from the mind of a thing that very may well have been trying to corrupt me.
But it didn’t, and my suspicions grew.
Raine insisted I never do this alone. We almost had argument and I blamed myself for that, my hatred of my own weakness turning barbs outward on her. She settled it the end.
“Who’s going to save your sister if this thing cooks your brain?”
“I- Raine, that’s not- I-”
“No. I want to be there every time you dive into what it’s showing you, so I can pull you out by the scruff of your neck if I have to. And if you don’t like that, I can talk to Zheng and get her to enforce the rule instead.”
“She encouraged me, she-”
“We’re both supposed to be looking after you. And hey, apparently she’s bigger and scarier than me. Either I watch, or Zheng pulls you out of the chair.”
My acquiescence was more for the sake of keeping that conflict frozen, not any acknowledgement that what was I was doing might be dangerous.
We still couldn’t figure out what the other part of Mister Squiddy’s show meant – the writing on the wall of black bricks. It wasn’t any human language, at least not one that had survived the sands of time. But as three weeks passed, he showed it less and less, and focused more on the hyper-complex shapes. As if responding to me.
The more of the shapes I interpreted, the more pages I filled with obscure notation, the more I began to realise that I didn’t know all of this. At first each fragment of equation had seemed familiar, in the manner a scent might tease out a half-forgotten memory. But as I dug deeper I found these equations were not only filling in gaps, drawing connections I was unaware of, but were exercising the parts of my mind left bruised and bloody by the trip to the abyss. Hyperdimensional mathematics became less like tonguing the socket of a shattered tooth.
“Perhaps it was sent for me, not Evee.”
“The Eye gave you homework?” Raine laughed.
“Don’t joke about that,” Evelyn had grumbled. “Something this size could never contain the totality of the Eye’s thoughts. It’s a carrier with leftover instructions. Heather, that’s what you’re re-purposing. That’s all.”
“Yes, right, of course.” I’d swallowed, nodded, tried to believe. The Eye had made a second mistake, that was all. This wasn’t a miracle. It wasn’t intentional.
At least, I never let the opposite thought reach my lips. This creature had been deployed against us as weapon, lodged inside Alexander’s corpse, summoned by the Sharrowford Cult in their worship of the Eye. It had almost killed Evelyn.
But a little voice whispered to me.
This wouldn’t be the first time my twin sister had co-opted one of the Eye’s vectors, would it?
Her first message had been just as inscrutable, just as terrifying. The Messenger had been an alien thing. And this one hadn’t been noticed by anybody except us.
But this trap had sprung before I’d dived into the abyss. Surely Maisie would have told me if this was her doing, wouldn’t she? Then again, she’d had so little energy left to communicate, she may not have been able to. She’d expended everything she had to convince me to return to my body. Maybe she’d slipped this in, piggybacking information via the eye’s minion.
The possibility at me up inside. Deny as I might, in my secret heart I treated it as a gift, from Maisie.
With the kind of clarity that comes from deep and careful consideration of an astoundingly stupid plan, we’d decided not to commit terrorism for the purpose of demolishing Glasswick tower.
We’d spent an awkward evening trying to come up with a safe way to confirm what Amy Stack had claimed – that Alexander’s corpse had been removed – but we kept running into the issue of more traps, or the building waking up and eating one of us as it had swallowed Zheng during our escape. None of us wanted to set foot inside, despite Raine’s laughing bravado.
“Praem is not going again, I won’t send her. Under no conditions,” Evelyn had said. “I won’t have her risked.”
“You’re going soft on her, Evee,” Raine teased.
“Yes, I am,” Evelyn deadpanned back.
Praem had said nothing to that.
Zheng solved the problem for us, overnight, on her own, without telling anybody first. I’d spent a very confused hour before bed wondering where my mobile phone had gone. She’d returned in the small hours of the morning, waiting triumphantly in the kitchen in her new trench-coat and boots, baggy ribbed sweater and long jeans. We’d bought her two changes of new clothes, and she insisted on this shapeless, baggy outfit as much as possible. I didn’t blame her. It made for a comfortable hug.
“Zheng?” I’d caught the smug look on her face, even through the groggy layers of sleep packed in my head like cotton wool. She stood there almost steaming from the cold outdoors.
“Shaman!” she bellowed a laugh and tossed me my phone.
Of course I fumbled the catch, dropped it on the kitchen floor where it slid into the wall. Thank heaven for phone cases and screen protectors. I sighed and trudged over and picked it up, then turned a confused look on Zheng. “What were you doing with my phone? I was looking for it all last night.”
I boggled at her and opened the phone’s photo album. “Why didn’t you ask? You can … you … ” I thumbed through picture after picture, trailing off. She’d taken hundreds.
She shrugged. “Forgiveness is easier than permission.”
“What … what is all this?”
Crumbled pieces of wall, masses of shredded concrete, broken spars of rebar, all of it caught in camera-flash that revealed true darkness in the background like the depths of a cave. A half-demolished interior, fallen to ruin and rubble.
“The tower, shaman,” she purred. “It’s a shell. The wizard’s corpse is gone.”
I stared again at the pictures scrolling past on the phone’s tiny back-lit screen, quite unreal in the morning spring chill with the comfortable, familiar kitchen all around. Raine shuffled in behind me and peered over my shoulder.
“This is where Alexander was? The hollowed out floors?” I asked. Zheng grunted an affirmative. “But this was all … twisted. Biological.”
“And now it’s dead. They removed the heart. He’s gone.”
I nodded, still numb.
“You sound disappointed,” Raine said. “S’good news though. What are you sore about?”
“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “No fight in it.”
“No fight in it?” I gaped at her, then tutted and rolled my eyes. “You wanted to fight a building again, of course.”
“This time I would win, shaman.”
We spent breakfast looking over those pictures, even called Twil round so she could tell her family the news, but there really was nothing to see. If a surveyor or homeless person or urban explorer climbed Glasswick tower, they’d come away with an unsolvable mystery of internal vandalism. Evelyn peppered Zheng with questions. Was there any sign of magical workings left? Any bodies? Could she tell how recently anyone else had been there? Was she seen on the way, or back here? What was she thinking, stalking around Sharrowford, even with her change of new clothes and clean hair?
Zheng got bored, answered in monosyllabic grunts.
In the end we settled on a plan to upload some of the pictures to a major urban explorer website. Raine carefully scrubbed them of traceable information, a process that was utterly beyond me, and then posed as an anonymous concerned citizen. She worried about load-bearing walls and building collapses, asked how this could have gotten so bad, and what was the city going to do about it?
The aftermath of that made the local news. One of the photos even cropped up in a Sharrowford newspaper, put through a grainy filter for some unfathomable reason. They tried to blame homeless squatters, but cooler heads pointed out that level of demolition would require weeks of sledgehammering and powered cutting tools, and no nearby residents had reported any noise. The level of decay and crumbled concrete looked months old. Had the construction been botched, had water got in, was the concrete bad when it was laid?
Glasswick tower came down six months later, properly demolished, no need for illegal explosives or shady calls to the police. Gleaston tower got a once-over by building inspectors, and was pronounced healthy with little fanfare.
The mundane world moved on.
But I didn’t, not quite, always half-expecting the rotten, headless corpse of Alexander Lilburne to show up at the window in the dead of night. At least Lozzie didn’t seem bothered, and her continued good cheer helped me, helped us all, I suspect. She never mentioned her brother, wasn’t interested in the fate of Glasswick tower, spent most of her time doting on Tenny, teaching her to speak, playing with her in the old disused sitting room, reading books to her.
My time split three ways, across those three weeks. One third went toward university. Amid all of this I still had classes and essays, had to ‘pull my finger out’ as Raine so delicately put it, and scrounge up a few thousand words on Kafka. I played the good student during the day, attended lectures, tried to take notes. I’d never clung to the hope of a normal future before, so pretending now was not easy. Only a love of books kept me going.
The second third went to Maisie, to dragging the secrets of hyperdimensional mathematics from the squid-thing in the workshop, trying to build some kind of blueprint to combat the Eye, with no notion of how to start.
The final third went into my tentacle.
Tentacle, singular, for now. Once I had one down, the others would be easier, or at least that’s how the theory went. In my free time I devoured biology textbooks, pinned human anatomy diagrams to the wall behind my laptop, read about the basics of biochemistry and what muscles were made of. I watched videos of squid and octopus on the ocean floor, pined for the abyss, tried to recall the feeling of a mutable, changeable body.
I understood almost none of it; science was not my favourite subject. My best hope was that my subconscious would retain the details, use it as fodder, fill the gaps in my creative work.
My sketches and diagrams were of equally poor quality. I’ll never be an illustrator, but the point was to give my imagination concrete images to work with. I drew the muscles inside my torso, an approximation of my own ribcage, sketched out where the tentacle should attach inside, the ligaments holding it in place, the cartilage anchoring it safely to a dozen internal points of flesh and bone. One night, Raine even suggested we draw on my body itself, and I was going to take her up on that soon.
Kimberly, of all people, surprised me. She taught me how to visualise.
“Most people use it for spells,” she’d said, alone in the little room she’d made her own, sat cross-legged on lilac bed covers taken from her flat in Gleaston tower. She hadn’t moved back out yet, and Evelyn hadn’t asked her to. “Wiccan spells, I mean. I know you don’t believe that stuff, but you don’t have to. I-I’m not going to ask you to.”
“Anything that might help is welcome. I mean it, Kim. Please, go on.”
Kimberly had glanced over at the open door, uncomfortable at the idea others might be listening in. She’d found a new job at last, and spent as much time out of the house as possible, away from Zheng.
“If anybody bothers you,” I told her. “You can come to me. Zheng intimidates you, I’ll slap her. And she has to stand there and take it.”
She glanced up at me and twitched this nervous little smile, tucked a lock of stay auburn hair behind one ear. “Okay. Okay. Please don’t slap her though.”
“I won’t, that was exaggeration.”
“Well, okay, um … there’s this other way of using visualisation too. Do you know what a tulpa is?”
I shook my head.
“It’s a Buddhist thing,” she said. “But I’ve seen people on the internet use it to make, um … ” She swallowed, blushed a little. “Imaginary friends.”
“ … imaginary friends?”
“Don’t laugh, please, it really does work. A-and it’s not a magical thing, just a mind-trick thing. You do visualisation over and over again, talk to a person who isn’t really there, and if you do it right and reinforce it again and again you sort of … convince your brain it’s real. I thought maybe it would work in a similar way for … well, your, um, problem.”
“Yes, yes I can see how that might be useful.” I gestured without thinking, at the phantom-limbs that lurked on the edge of my mind.
“You can’t … you don’t like, see them already, do you?”
I shook my head. “They’re exactly like mundane phantom limbs. I can feel where they should be, not see them. That’s all.”
Kimberly nodded. “Um, then, close your eyes? S-sit down first, I mean. Sit down and … close your eyes, and we’ll talk through, um, what they look like. What you want them to look like. I think. I’ve done this before with girls from the coven, for spells. Apparently I’m not bad at leading this sort of thing, so, I hope … I hope I’m good enough.”
“You are, Kim. You are. It’s okay, show me how it’s done.”
“No flying, no flappy, no floop!” Lozzie said, bobbing her head from side to side with each word. “Repeat after me, no flying.”
“No flying,” Tenny repeated.
She blinked huge black eyes at Lozzie, then looked up and away, out one of the empty castle windows, into the sunless sky and the thick fog beyond. Her flesh-cloak twitched and rippled, threatening to unfold into wings.
“No, no!” Lozzie put her hands on Tenny’s shoulders, tamping down the cloak-flutter. “No flying. No going through the sky, not here, no no.”
Tenny looked at her again. Her antennae twitched back and forth, and touched each other. We’d learned that meant she was thinking very hard indeed. “No,” she echoed.
“No? … is that a refusal?” I spoke up. “Or an echo? Tenny?”
She looked at me instead, antennae wiggling.
“No,” she fluttered.
“You have to stay on the ground,” Lozzie said. “It’s dangerous out there, okay? The big ones are friends.” Lozzie pointed at the squid-moons, two of them visible, sitting on the ground out in the copied mile of Sharrowford, like mountains blotting out the horizon. “But all the small stuff, mmmm, maybe might not know you. So you have to stay, stay here, stay by me and auntie Heather and auntie Raine, okay?”
“Heather!” Tenny repeated.
My name had rapidly become Tenny’s favourite word. We’d figured out she wasn’t capable of the full range of human facial expressions, but when she looked over at me again I could see the happiness in her eyes all the same, shining through that slick-wet darkness.
“Yes, Tenny,” I managed through the tiredness hanging heavy on my bones. “Lozzie’s right. No flying. Stay here, okay?”
Tenny turned her head and gazed out of the window once more, almost wistfully.
“You know, it wouldn’t be a bad place to experiment,” Raine said. “At least here nobody’s gonna spot her.”
“Don’t,” Evelyn hissed – from another dimension, back in Sharrowford, standing about three feet back on the far side of the gateway. “Don’t tempt her and don’t tempt fate. That’s the least you can do. Let’s get this outing over with.”
Tenny rustled her wings one more time, then turned away and puffed up her cheeks. “No flying,” she fluttered.
Her voice had matured over the last three weeks. Perhaps she’d cleared the remnants of amniotic fluid from whatever she used in place of vocal chords, perhaps her lungs had grown stronger, or perhaps it was merely confidence, but the fluttery paper sound of her voice had mellowed into a soft dry buzz not unlike a cicada with the volume turned down. She looked at me, looked at Raine standing outside the circle, then left Lozzie and paced around the perimeter of our little safe zone.
Her tentacles extended from beneath her wings as she paced, reaching out to probe the osseous bone-like walls of the cult’s castle, but even Tenny disliked the touch of this dead husk-place. Her tentacles touched, recoiled, hovered, and went in search of more interesting objects – the hem of Praem’s skirt, the second unoccupied camp chair next to the one I was sitting in, and my hand.
She slipped her tentacle into my hand. I gave it a squeeze.
“No flying,” she repeated, then made this little huffing breathy noise. Frustration? “No flying, no flying.”
We all shared a glance. Raine was ready to tackle her at the first sign she was going to launch herself at a window.
“She’s not going to,” I said softly, and indicated the hand-holding. “See?”
We were gathered in the lofty upper reaches of what had once been the Sharrowford Cult’s castle, but was rapidly becoming our patio in another dimension, overlooking a verdant jungle of unceasing alien life. Surrounded by the stomach-turning bone-like surfaces of the walls and floor, tendrils of fog creeping in through the bank of windows, with the gateway back to Sharrowford open behind us, we made the best of it. Raine and I, Lozzie with Tenny, Praem standing on silent watch, Evelyn on the far side of the gateway just in case something went wrong.
The purpose of this outing, like the two before it, was to stave off Lozzie’s supernatural narcolepsy.
She still couldn’t go Outside. She and I were still cut off.
Her limit was about a week, before she started nodding and drowsing, falling asleep standing up, blinking bleary eyes at all hours of the day and night alike. This was our plan for regular treatment. Every five or six days Evelyn replaced the necessary parts of the gateway mandala and re-opened the door into the castle.
The first time we did this we’d all stood around looking tense. I’d struggled to keep a lid on my own sense of the absurd. Raine had openly carried her gun. Evelyn had directed Praem in painting a huge magic circle which encompassed the gateway itself, the wall it emerged from, and a massive section of the hallway. Protection against the unknown.
Technically it shouldn’t be scary anymore. We knew the moon-sized monsters beyond were on Lozzie’s side, or at least not hostile, but we had no idea if any of the life in the copied streets had made its way inside the castle, or what leftovers lurked in the deeper hallways.
The second time we brought folding chairs, a stool, binoculars for looking out of the window and down at the chaotic churn of bizarre life below. We made it into a whole activity, not something to be feared, despite, well, the fog and the cold and the alien cacophony.
The third time, we brought snacks.
This time we were ahead of schedule. Lozzie was still going strong, but we wanted to eliminate all wild card variables for tomorrow. Lozzie was a crucial part of tomorrow’s experiment in Carcosa, if only because she could perform it with a flick of her wrist rather than my minutes of agony of blood and vomit. All would go so much quicker if she could simply confirm our hypothesis with a thought.
Tenny padded around the edges of the magic circle, stopped before Praem, and made little buzzing sounds at her. Lozzie caught up and hugged her from behind, around the middle, giggling, her pastel poncho twirling as she skipped along.
Poor Tenny had been cooped up for weeks.
She hadn’t seem bored, exactly, listening to Lozzie reading books out loud, following me around and watching all the things I did, stalking Zheng through the house like a territorial puppy. Despite her blunt expressions and basic curiosity, she’d taken a great interest in the chess game, almost eaten several of the pieces, seemed not to be listening as I explained the rules – and then beaten me a dozen times without even looking at the board. Then beaten Evelyn. Then Praem, who nobody else had bested yet. Her tentacles had played all the moves. My little savant.
Raine was right, Tenny did need to stretch her wings, eventually. We hadn’t let her fly yet, we had no idea how to make it safe for her. Perhaps this place really would be a better option than letting her into the skies over Sharrowford? I glanced out of the windows as well, huge and empty, at the giant squid-moons and the hint of life churning away in the fog below.
Tenny was shivering slightly in the cold fog. Her flesh-cloak pressed tighter, wrapping her deeper in the interior fur. I hugged myself too. Maybe it was warmer down in the streets.
“Heather?” Raine called my name softly.
“I’m fine, just thinking.”
“You sure? Wanna go back and warm up? Not getting cold down there?”
“A little, but I’m fine. Thank you.”
By ‘down there’, Raine meant the canvas camping chair. I was wrapped up in my hoodie and coat. The fog trailed tendrils of pale mist up my trouser cuffs and down my collar, but the thought of those bodies further out there in the rest of the castle made me shudder inside no matter how well I warmed up. I felt like we were playing at normality here, in our little semi-circle of peace and light. Clearing the castle out, getting downstairs and shutting the front door, may well have been completely beyond our resources.
I was still worn out from this morning, from dredging for hyperdimensional mathematics, and I wasn’t looking forward to tomorrow, a churning nervousness in my guts at the idea of voluntarily stepping Outside again after so many weeks.
But at least we’d have an answer. At least we’d know.
Praem and Tenny were speaking with their eyes, a silent conversation of taciturn creatures. Raine and I shared a glance over that, then she shrugged for me and looked out of the glassless window, down into the copied streets of the false mile of Sharrowford far below.
I saw the stiffness in her shoulders in the moment before she spoke.
“Lozzie,” Raine said softly. “Would you please take Tenny back into the workshop?”
“Ahhh? Mmm?” Lozzie looked up. Praem did the same.
“Back? Back in- inside,” Tenny fluttered and frilled, tilting her head one way then the other. She felt the tension as clear as I did. “Are we … going? Going? Going?”
I got out of the chair, arms crossed against the cold. “Raine, what is it?”
“Lozzie?” Raine turned, grabbing the binoculars off the other chair. “Now, please, back inside.”
Lozzie tugged on Tenny’s arm, guided her back through to our reality. They peered at us from the workshop, and Evelyn frowned, looking like she was going to shoo them away, then sighed and stepped through to the castle. “What is it now?” she snapped. “We can’t afford distractions tonight, Raine, not-”
“Looks like somebody’s been here besides us,” Raine said. Praem stepped up next to her, peering out of the window too.
“You watch the edge of the circle!” Evelyn hissed at her, walking stick clicking across the dessicated bone floor.
“What do you mean?” I asked, heart in my throat. “Raine, is somebody out there?”
Raine put the binoculars to her eyes, stared for a moment. She offered them to me and Evelyn, then hesitated and grimaced. “Actually, maybe best not look.”
“Give me those,” Evelyn hissed, and pulled the binoculars from Raine’s grip. She huffed and bustled up to the lip of the window, jamming the binoculars against her face.
“Corpse,” Praem intoned, voice carrying like a cracked bell in the fog. Evelyn turned slightly green, lowered the binoculars with a shaking hand, and couldn’t breathe for a second or two.
“Corpse?” I echoed in a whisper.
“Two corpses, actually,” Raine said with a grim sort of smile. “There’s a pair of dead bodies down in the street, and they ain’t no natives.”