by this art you may contemplate – 10.2

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“We were last here, what? Wednesday night? Three days ago.” Raine nodded out the bank of empty windows, at the corpses far below the castle. “Those poor buggers weren’t down there three days ago. I would’ve noticed.”

“Yes, quite.” Evelyn stepped away from the window, breath shaking as she struggled to compose herself. “You’re not the only one who can recognise blood and guts, Raine. The rest of us do have eyes, anybody would have noticed that, that- that mess, that-”

“Mystery,” Praem intoned in her clear, bell-like voice. Evelyn shut her mouth.

She wasn’t exaggerating. The view through the binoculars made for a gruesome sight. A crimson mess was smeared at the base of what I thought of as Castle Hill, in the perhaps twenty or thirty meters of clear ground before the jumble of the copied Sharrowford streets full of writhing alien life. The carnage was visible enough with the naked eye, even through the sluggish veils of fog; against the omnipresent grey of the dead-jade landscape, red stood out like an open wound.

But the first corpse was intact, and not so easy to pick out.

I had to brace my elbows against my chest to steady the shaking, wavering view through the binoculars, the metal cold in my hands, tendrils of fog obscuring the details. The corpse was flat on its back, legs straight, boot-toes pointing upward, hands folded across the chest like an Egyptian mummy. Short dark hair, heavily muscled build, probably a man. Like he’d just lain down out there and gone to sleep – in the middle of a magic circle.

The circle was clear as day, even through the fog. The rusty red colour left no mystery as to the medium with which it had been painted.

The second corpse was pulped meat. Gender, age, build, clothing, all pulverised. Spars of snapped bone, organs burst like overripe fruit, a skid mark of crimson and brown and bile on the ground. A dozen meters from the first corpse, almost as if unrelated. The splattered mess seemed unreal through the binocular lenses, but I couldn’t stop staring. Perhaps if I looked for long enough, the horrible sight would reveal itself as an imitation in play-doh and paint.

Distant whale-song washed through my mind, the constant refrain of the monolithic squid-moon-children out there in the mist, their train-sized tentacles still dancing in the upper air, uncaring of the human corpses far below. The other local fauna carried on as normal down in the copied streets, a thousand chittering, skittering, hooting sounds muffled by the fog.

We’d learnt that the strange wildlife avoided Castle Hill. We’d never spotted anything risking the climb. But now they avoided the corpses too, as if the dead bodies had created an invisible barrier. Bacteria in a petri dish forced back by a drop of penicillin.

“Heather? Hey, Heather?” Raine touched my shoulder and I jumped, a gasp escaping my throat as I jerked the binoculars down. “Hey, hey, it’s a grisly sight, no need to stare. You saw?”

I swallowed hard. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen corpses before, but this seemed almost unreal. “ … yes, yes I see. I saw, I mean. Where on earth did they come from?”

“Vermin,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth.

“I’m sorry?” I blinked at her, still numb.

“It’s Lilburne,” she snapped. “It’s Lilburne, Edward or zombie Alexander, I won’t try to guess which, trying to muscle back in. That,” she jabbed the head of her walking stick at the bank of empty windows. “That out there is a failed ritual. Or God forbid, one that worked. Vermin. Bastards.” She fumed, working herself up. “Fool to think they’d ever give us an answer. ‘Negotiations’ my arse, may as well talk terms with a scorpion.”

Behind her, on the far side of the gateway and safely back in Sharrowford, in the light and warmth of the workshop, Tenny flinched. Her antennae twitched rapidly, big black eyes gone wide, tentacles darting about. Lozzie tried to hush her, draw her attention with little private whispers, but she was staring at Evelyn now, fascinated or alarmed, I couldn’t tell which.

“Evee, Evee, s-slow down-” I said.

“Evee’s right,” Raine said, low and serious. She put a hand on my back and gently but firmly steered me away from the window, back toward the gateway. With her other hand, she drew her pistol from inside her jacket. “Which means we’re all leaving, right now.”

“Raine, we can’t just leave those bodies down there,” I protested, my heels skidding across the floor.

“I am not bloody well retreating,” Evelyn spat.

Tenny flinched again, tentacles whirling like a surprised octopus.

Evelyn planted her feet wide, walking stick wider, held at an angle as she tilted her chin up. She stood like a defiant general on some ancient battlefield. This small woman with her bent spine and twisted leg and prosthetic limb was ready to command an army.

What she had, however, was us.

“Evee-” Raine started, a warning in her voice.

Evelyn clicked her fingers. “Praem, fetch my wand. Please,” she added, catching herself. “And call Zheng.” She turned and shouted over her shoulder, through the gateway, past Tenny and Lozzie. “Zheng! I have need of you, barbarian! Get in here and make yourself useful!”

I closed my eyes and sighed. That was not going to earn Zheng’s approval.

“Evelyn Saye, you get back through that magical door,” Raine said. “Or I will pick you up and carry you, and you didn’t like it much last time I had to do that.”

Evelyn’s eyes blazed at Raine. “I am not letting them have this. No. Not this time.”

Back in the workshop, Zheng appeared around the kitchen doorway, both curious and unimpressed. I caught her eye and pulled a contrite face, a surrogate apology.

“Shaman?” she rumbled.

“Bodies,” I said, then turned to Raine, stumbling over both my words and feet as she all but manhandled me toward the gate. “Raine, we should at least check. That … the … the other one, in the circle, he looked like he was sleeping. Maybe he’s not … you know. Dead.”

“And maybe it’s a trap. Heather, we can totally leave them here.”

“Oh yes, why not?” Evelyn said, voice full of scorn. “We’ve left plenty of other corpses rotting in this castle. We should drag them all back up here and give them a proper burial, fill the back garden with murder evidence waiting to be found.”

“E-Evee, that’s not what I meant, I-”

“This little beachhead was a mistake,” she spat. “I should have set about securing this place weeks ago. Had Praem go over every nook and cranny and put wards on every door and window. Well, no more mistakes!”

Raine sighed and made a gesture like she wanted to put her face in her hand. Praem hadn’t moved a muscle to obey her mistress. Zheng eyed Tenny, who was staring back at her like a cornered cat, tentacles drifting wide to present a united front. Lozzie cooed and stroked her and tried to lead her off to one side, out of Zheng’s path, but Tenny kept glancing back at us, rooted to the spot, caught between Zheng and an argument.

“Lozzie,” I hissed. “Get Tenny out of the workshop, please, this is upsetting her.”

“I’m trying! Try-try. Tenny-tens come come, come on, baaaaack, back we goooo,” Lozzie sing-songed at her, tugging on one arm and one tentacle. But Tenny was on high alert now, flesh-cloak twitching and shuddering, void-black eyes blinking back and forth at every cross word.

“Evee, hey, come on,” Raine said. “I’ve spelled it out already. Those dead dudes weren’t down there three days ago, which means somebody’s been here.”

“Yes! Exactly!” Evelyn spat.

“And they might still be here.”

Raine let her eyes say the rest. She looked pointedly down the castle corridor, in the direction of the throne room, which we hadn’t visited a second time since our run-in with Lozzie’s giant, be-tentacled friend. Then she looked the other way, in the direction we’d never explored. The corridor kinked off into unknown depths lit only by the omnipresent foggy light from outdoors. Then she looked at Evelyn again.

“Oh,” I said, a cold chill creeping up my spine.

Evelyn opened her mouth and hesitated, as if reluctant to give ground. She swallowed and finally followed Raine’s glance down the corridor, stared for a moment, then swore under her breath.

Zheng strode across the workshop. She passed Tenny without a glance, ignored her rising hiss, and asked me a silent question with her eyes.

“We found corpses.” I indicated the window.

Zheng stepped through the gate. Wisps of cloying fog swirled around her legs as she disturbed the soupy air. She shot a dead-eyed, murderous look down at Evelyn as she passed, but Evelyn wasn’t paying attention, grinding her teeth and trying to think. Zheng walked to the window and gripped the edge, showing no disgust at the unnatural, dead-thing touch of the bone-like grey jade. She peered down and grunted, waved away my offer of binoculars.

“If this was a trap,” Evelyn was saying, slowly and carefully, chewing each word. “They would have made their move already. They’d be up here with a gun, or have planted an IED for us, or … something. Anything. Praem, what are you waiting for? Fetch my wand. Please?” She managed to make ‘please’ sound like an order, and this time Praem finally relented. She marched past her mistress and back into the workshop. “I am not leaving these idiot amateurs to despoil and colonise this place a second time. We need to find the gate they came in through and shit on it from a very great height.”

“There’s too many factors here,” Raine said, shaking her head. “What if that guy down there isn’t dead? Maybe it’s a zombie playing possum. Maybe it’s a trap to draw us away from the gate up here. We don’t know. Here, Heather,” she pushed me toward the gateway. “Back through, please? For me?”

“Dead,” Zheng purred from by the window. She closed her eyes and took a slow, deep breath through her nose. “Rotten meat. Old blood.”

“Which means they’ve been there a while?” I asked. “Raine stop- stop! Raine! We have to come here, for Lozzie if nothing else. I don’t want this place to be unsafe for us, I-” My heart almost leapt out of my mouth. “Zheng! Zheng, stop!”

My giant demon-host had one foot up on the lip of the window, hands braced, about to jump. She stopped at my shout, turned and raised an eyebrow.

Back in the workshop, Tenny reacted too, like a startled puppy blinking and shaking at raised voices. She kept trying to look at all of us in turn, tentacles waving back and forth, unsure where to go, who to attend to. Lozzie hugged her forcefully, whispering something to her, trying to pull her back.

“Shaman?” Zheng asked.

“Don’t you dare!” I said. “That drop is hundreds of feet!”

“Join me, shaman?” She broke into a dark, toothy grin. “You enjoyed the last time we flew.”

“We fell! To escape being eaten by a building. And that happened in Sharrowford, which is not full of giant monsters and alien fauna, not physical ones. Those creatures out there could react to you in any which way at all. Yes, maybe you can repair broken knees in twenty minutes, but what if one of those things out there takes a disliking to you?” I sighed. “Don’t, please.”

“The tengerood?” Zheng shrugged. “A good fight.”

I sighed, squeezed my eyes shut, and pinched the bridge of my nose.

“I’m going, shaman. Try to keep up, Wizard,” she growled at Evelyn.

“I- no, Zheng, I- don’t. Don’t. If you jump, I’m going to worry about you. If I worry about you, I’m going to make us all rush down through the castle looking for the front door. If there’s anybody in here, or there is a trap set for us, we could blunder into it.”

Zheng stared at me for a moment, dark and unreadable, then sighed a huge, growling sigh and took a step back from the edge. She rolled a shrug. “Monkeys.”

“You know this castle, don’t you?” Evelyn said to her. “You can guide us down there.”

Zheng looked at her like something she’d found smeared on the underside of her boot. Evelyn didn’t seem to notice – but Tenny did. She hissed, a rapid fluttery sound like a very irate giant moth.

Praem returned at that exact moment, stepping through the gateway with Evelyn’s scrimshawed thighbone-baton. She handed it over and Evelyn tucked it under her armpit, hand cradling the other end, like a cavalry commander with a riding whip.

“I am not letting those vermin have this place,” Evelyn said. “We go down there, we find what they were up to, we find their entry point and destroy it.”

Raine opened her mouth, but Evelyn carried on over her.

“And no, for your information, I am not suggesting we go blundering down there like a bull in a china shop, kicking bodies that could well be bloody traps, I’m not you, Raine. I’m going to go over this castle with a fine-tooth comb, I’m going to put wards on every window, every fucking crack in the walls, and I’m going to get that front door closed. If you won’t help, I’ll call Twil, we’ll get this done properly. This is an all-night operation, and it can. Not. Wait.” Evelyn went on, almost shouting, punctuating her words by banging her walking stick against the floor. “I might not be able to stop these vermin from infesting the edges of Sharrowford, but I am not letting them back in here! Not at my fucking front door!”

“Evee-”

“And yes,” Evelyn spat. “I realise I am being a bitch. I am taking my anger out on you. On all of you, on my friends, on … ” She swallowed hard, let out a huge breath, rapidly losing steam. “Because I can’t believe I’ve made a mistake like this again. Because I’m a useless cripple, and lazy, and I should have seen this coming.”

Evelyn stopped. Silence settled. She couldn’t meet anybody’s eyes.

“Evee, you’re not useless,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” she barked.

Tenny broke.

Like a faithful hound confused and goaded by the agitation of her human pack, Tenny decided it was time to help.

She broke free from Lozzie’s grip with a boneless wriggle of too much muscle under silken skin, burst through the gateway with a hop and a skip and an excited fluttery hiss. Her tentacles shot out like an octopus pulling itself into a crevasse, a dozen black ropes gripping the edges of the window. Evelyn went wide eyed and stumbled back, losing her balance before Praem caught her. I reached out, a cry on my lips as I realised what Tenny was doing. Zheng rocked back on her heels, dodging out of the way, a grin ripping across her face.

Raine leapt, tried to tackle Tenny to the ground. Too late.

The tentacles acted like the rubber band of a slingshot, Tenny’s body the stone to be launched.

With an explosion of muscular force, she shot off the ground and straight through the window, tentacles whipping out behind her.

Raine skidded to a halt and almost crashed into the wall. I stood dumbfounded, until Lozzie raced past me. Zheng was laughing, Lozzie was shouting, and I was still processing what I’d just seen, even as we crowded shoulder-to-shoulder at the window.

Out in the open air, Tenny cut through the veils of fog like a bullet, the mist parting and swirling as she passed. Her tentacles withdrew suddenly, vanishing under her still-folded wings like a cluster of worms retreating into the ground.

“Ahhhh!” Lozzie had both fists clenched, genuine panic written all over her face. “Flap!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “You have to flap your wings! Tenny!”

The fog swallowed her voice, a tiny sound against the extra-dimensional immensity.

A tiny black form now, Tenny reached the peak of her arc and began to fall. For one heart-stopping moment I thought she might not know what to do. Lozzie put her hands to her mouth, white as a sheet.

A thunderous leathery whip-crack proved me wrong; Tenny stretched her wings to their full span, twenty-four feet from tip to tip, and caught the air.

Fog swirled in the sudden down-draft, and her descent slowed.

The softly furred underside ruffled as she flapped once, twice, three times, adjusting the angle, getting it just right. The smaller pair of rear wings acted like rudders, guiding her descent as she turned a fall into a glide. The nearest of the local otherworldly fauna – a cluster of crab-like creatures sunning themselves on a nearby grey-jade imitation roof – began to move away, shuffling down the sides of the building, like prey animals scuttling for cover in the shadow of a hawk.

Tenny went down in a narrow spiral, a daring manoeuvre, kicking her feet out as she neared the ground, the no-man’s-land surrounding Castle Hill. She toed terra firma with little hopping steps to slow her momentum, finally bouncing to a halt and ruffling her wings, shaking them all over, stretching and flexing the unfamiliar muscles. She folded them back up, back into a cloak, and turned to look at the bodies.

The whole process had taken less than a minute. I was speechless, and only realised I’d been holding my breath when I finally let it go. My head was pounding.

Raine let out a low whistle. “Now that’s a shakedown flight for the record books.”

“Clever puppy,” Zheng purred.

“Tenny!” Lozzie leaned right out of the window. Sympathetic vertigo wriggled up my legs, but Zheng reached out and grabbed a fistful of Lozzie’s poncho, her other hand looped around Lozzie’s waistband.

“Clever indeed,” I said, swallowing on a dry mouth. “She understood exactly what we were arguing about. I think. She’s um, solving the problem.”

“Well, if there is anybody still here, we’ve definitely alerted them now,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Tenny! No!” Lozzie scolded, her voice swallowed by the fog as she waved both arms out of the window. “No! Come back up here! Bad girl!”

Tenny turned to the sound of Lozzie’s voice for a second, her face so tiny from all the way up here in the apex of the castle. Fog banks drifted between us, rendered her hazy and indistinct. Either she couldn’t hear Lozzie or pretended not to. Tentacles snaked out from beneath her wings and one of them waved at us, but the others turned to examine the dead bodies on the grey-jade ground.

“If that’s a real circle, she’s about to breach it,” Evelyn hissed.

“Tenny!” Lozzie shouted again. “Don’t touch! No touch! No!” She terminated her panicked plea with a sound like a steam kettle.

But nothing happened. No explosion, no flash of light, no discharge of magical power, no plummeting temperature as Tenny’s innocent curiosity triggered some obvious trap. Her tentacles crossed the edge of that crimson magic circle and set about investigating the corpse within.

She poked at his face and got no reaction, peeled his eyelids back and leaned over to look the eyeballs. Her tentacles felt around his throat and neck, perhaps for a pulse, and rummaged in his pockets and the inside of his lightweight raincoat. They extracted a few small items and dropped them on the ground. One tentacle looped back to her own face, holding up something small and white.

“Spiral-bound notebook,” Raine said, binoculars pressed to her eye sockets. “She dropped a wallet, keys, phone, some tissues I think. Hard to tell.”

Tenny stared at the notebook, antennae flickering, while her tentacles lifted the dead man’s wrists and let them flop back to the ground.

“Can she read?” Evelyn wondered out loud.

“Not yet,” Lozzie said, voice shaking. “I-I’m trying to teach her letters, she’s doing really really well, she’s so clever. So clever. Tenny! Tenny, leave it alone! Tenny!

After a moment the tentacle held the notebook up and waved it, as if showing us, then tucked back close to Tenny’s body and held onto it tight. The rest of her tentacles rolled the dead man onto his side, flopping him about before gravity returned him to his back, his arms sprawling and loose.

“No rigor mortis,” Raine said. “Means he’s either been dead only a couple of hours, or more than two days. My money’s on the latter.”

“I said, yoshou, rotten meat,” Zheng purred.

“No missing flesh either. The bodies haven’t been touched,” Raine murmured. “No carrion eaters out there, I guess. Maybe our proteins aren’t compatible.”

Tenny lost interest in the intact corpse. Her tentacles drifted away, toward the shattered one.

“Tenny, no!” Lozzie called. “No! No touching that! It’s dirty!”

Tenny looked up again. Tentacles shivered and bobbed. Her human mouth moved and she waved her arms about, flesh-cloak twitching. A distant trilling, fluttering noise floated through the foggy air. Whatever she was trying to say was impossible to make out at this distance, but she sounded both confident and happy. A puppy, trying to help.

“It’s dirty!” Lozzie yelled. “No touching!”

But she needn’t have bothered. Tenny’s physical transformation had apparently imbued her with a basic sense of disgust, but she’d simply never encountered it before. Her tentacles hovered over the shattered bones and pulped meat of the second corpse, but refused to touch the blood and guts. She took a step back as if confused and the tentacles withdrew too. I couldn’t see her expression at this distance, but her body language was unmistakable: confusion, repulsion, sickness. She stared at the bloody corpse, then hopped and skipped a few paces back up the hill.

“Come back up here, Tenny!” Lozzie shouted. She waved her arms, flapping. “Come back up! Flap flap! Fly back!”

“Tenny!” I added my voice. “Fly back here!”

“Yes, keep shouting, I’m sure that’s doing wonders for our element of surprise,” Evelyn drawled. I turned and shot her a sharp frown, and she cleared her throat with a guilty look. “If she knows how to fly, I’m certain she knows to come back now.”

Tenny looked up and down the castle, then out into the city and the cacophony of weird monsters, then down at her own feet, as if only just realising the reality of her physical position. I sighed in relief when she spread her wings again, stretching her flesh-cloak out into a rippling leathery mass and cupping the air. She did a little hopping run, beating the air with her wings, using the incline of Castle Hill to build momentum. She got her feet off the ground for one wing-beat, skidded on a heel like a plane bouncing on a runway – and then stumbled to a stop.

“Oh shit,” Evelyn hissed.

“Wait, wait,” Raine warned, one hand up.

“Try again! Tenny, try again!” Lozzie called, shrill with wild panic.

Tenny tried again. She ran with her head down, slender legs pumping, wings heaving at the air, but it was like watching an ostrich try to take flight. She stumbled and fell and rolled in a ball, protected by her wings wrapping around herself. She got up again and ran back down the hill, hopping and skipping and unable to generate enough lift. She hissed and whirred and trilled, her frustration carrying through the fog between us.

“Too heavy,” Praem intoned.

“Yes, she’s too heavy for unassisted flight,” Evelyn said, frowning down at the scurrying black figure below us. “Not without a helping hand from gravity.”

“Let her try again,” Raine said. “She’s a baby bird, come on, she can do it.”

“Catapult!” Lozzie called, spreading her hands in rough imitation of Tenny’s explosive launch earlier. “Tenny, catapult, up!”

But Tenny didn’t seem to understand.

“That behaviour may have been pure instinct,” Evelyn said. “She won’t do it again without an obvious method nearby.”

Tenny stopped trying after attempt number five. Winded, bruised, confused. Stuck. She stood next to the corpses and kept looking up at us, making loud open-mouthed trilling sounds, then glancing up the length of Castle Hill towards the where the front door must be, hidden from our position by the bulk of the structure. She hugged herself with both arms beneath her flesh cloak. Her tentacles had drawn in close and tight, formed a spear-wall around her body. She took a few shuffling, halting steps up the hill, probably making for the door.

“Yeah, okay,” Raine said, low and serious. She lowered the binoculars. “She ain’t flying back.”

“Stay there! Tenny, stay where you are!” Lozzie called, waving her arms through the window. She turned to us, eyes wide, gone pale. “We have to go down and get her, we have to go fetch her!” She turned back to the window, then hopped away, trying to be in two places at once, halted by Zheng’s grip on her poncho and jeans. She scrambled for a moment like a hound on a choke-chain.

“Slow down, mooncalf,” Zheng purred.

“It’s my fault, I brought her here,” Lozzie almost wailed, crying now, starting to cry. “I’m so dumb, I’m so dumb, I’m so dumb!” She whirled back to the window, leaning all the way out again. “Tenny, don’t move! Stay there!”

A soft trilling sound drifted up from far below.

“No, it’s my fault,” Evelyn said, hard and clipped. “I lost my temper. I shouted.” She huffed at herself and shook her head, face in one hand.

“Please, we we need to go down there and get her!” Lozzie said, crying openly now. “She’ll get lost on the way back or … mmmmm … ” Lozzie’s lips shook, unwilling to voice her fears.

“The puppy will be fine,” Zheng purred. “She is almost as strong as me.”

“Why didn’t you stop her?!” Lozzie turned on Zheng, all tiny blazing frown. “You could have caught her!”

“Little ones have to learn, mooncalf.”

I’d never seen Lozzie like this before. Even when we’d come to rescue her from this very castle, when she’d been running around down there in the cavernous depths below, barefoot, abused, with blood in her teeth, she’d still retained her bouncy humour, as inappropriate as it had seemed at the time. But now all her coping mechanisms had fallen away. She’d been reduced to lashing out in panic.

Because, in a way, Tenny was her baby.

“Zheng could go fetch her,” Raine was saying. “She’d be fastest.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Evelyn snapped. “Zheng terrifies her, she’ll run off.”

“The puppy can make her own way back,” Zheng purred.

“No!” Lozzie yelled. “I’ll go, I’ll go, it’s my fault, it’s all my-”

“It’s not, stop saying that,” Evelyn snapped at her. Lozzie recoiled.

“Lozzie,” I said, and the soft certainty in my voice stilled her panic. She stared at me with red-rimmed eyes. “You need to stay up here.”

“But, Heather-”

“You need to stay here and stay at that window so Tenny knows we’re coming down to fetch her,” I continued, feeling myself pulling together inside, like bootlaces tightening around my mind. “You stay here, keep calling to her, keep her from panicking. Praem, you’re going to stay with Lozzie.”

“Why her?” Evelyn snapped. “I’m not sitting this out, I need to look at those-”

“Stop,” I said, calm and soft. “Evelyn, Raine, Zheng, and me, we go find the front door and bring Tenny back up here.”

“Heather, hey,” Raine started to say. “I don’t want you in harm’s way-”

“Somebody needs to hug Tenny,” I said, sighed, and resisted the urge to squeeze the bridge of my nose. “And hyperdimensional mathematics is always our trump card. Isn’t it?”

 Raine opened her mouth, then closed it and pulled a rueful smile.

 “Good,” I carried on. “You wouldn’t let me go down there without you, so you’re coming. Zheng is our best bet at fighting off anything or anyone inside the castle, and Evelyn knows how to deal with any magical traps. Don’t question me please, we need to do this quickly, and there’s no time to call Twil right now.”

“Right you are, boss,” Raine said. From anybody else, in any other tone of voice, it would have been mockery. Raine meant it.

“Praem, please would you fetch the torch from the kitchen, the big one?” I asked. “Give it to Lozzie so she can shine it through the fog.”

Raine cleared her throat. “Tactical question. What if this is a trap to draw us away from the gateway?”

“We use the same plan as for Carcosa,” Evelyn jumped in. “My spider-servitors hold the gateway from the other side. Praem can manhandle Lozzie back through if anything comes this way.”

“I’ll brain them!” Lozzie declared, genuinely angry at this prospect. “With the torch!”

“A disappointing errand, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “The puppy can find her own way back up.”

I shot a frown up at Zheng’s disinterest. “Nobody gets left behind. That includes you too.” I didn’t need to raise my voice. “I thought you would have learnt that by now.”

Zheng stared at me, then shrugged herself into an easy grin, showing all her sharp teeth. “Then we hunt, shaman. In this rat warren? Nothing stands a chance. Boring.”

==

Zheng went first – ‘taking point’ as Raine called it – striding ten paces ahead of us through the twisting, jinking, rotten-jade corridors of the fog-castle, looking for trouble.

Every few minutes she stopped and cocked her head to listen for sounds beyond the range of human hearing. Deep within the castle, the thick walls of pseudo-bone muffled the cacophony of hoots and grunts and animal calls from the streets outdoors, rendered them down into a ghostly background tease on the edge of one’s ears. Even the cosmic whale-song was deadened to an ethereal hint at the back of the mind.

Occasionally we passed near the outer walls and the mercy of open windows, once emerging onto a short stretch of exposed battlement, wreathed in a bank of fog so thick we couldn’t see the far end, let alone down to the ground below, but most of our hurried journey plunged through darkness. The cult’s source of local electricity – probably some kind of portable petrol generator – was long dead, and their strings of light bulbs did not necessarily follow a logical path down to the front door, but instead spread out through the inner passages of the castle like a sinus infection, rambling off in dead ends and trailing to nothing on unpromising spurs. Zheng’s back rolled and flexed in the light from Raine’s handheld torch, as Evelyn and I stuck close behind.

Unfortunately, Evelyn’s assumption was incorrect. Zheng did not recall the inner layout of the castle.

“Memory as a slave is no simple thing, wizard,” she explained. “Emotional details remain strong. Others, not so much.”

We could have taken the route Lozzie and I had used to reach the throne room, descended through the shaft cut into the bowels of the castle, down to the vast cavernous darkness and the single distant star in the void below, crossed the metal walkways over the remains of the Outsider which had created this sub-dimensional space. In theory it wouldn’t be too hard, and we could ascend back to near the entrance hall. But Lozzie and I had both vetoed the idea before we left. Without Lozzie with us, passing over that thing was too risky for an unprotected human mind.

Evelyn drew a map as we went, scribbling at a pad balanced on one forearm. She slapped blank post-it notes on the walls at every junction, a classic paper trail. I didn’t envy her the task, and more than once I caught her shuddering in disgust as her fingers grazed the dead grey-jade substance, undeniably organic despite appearances.

“If there was anybody here in force, we’d know,” Raine whispered into the dark. “This place echoes like a bitch. But that doesn’t rule out one or two people, stealthy and careful.”

“Or a zombie or two that survived,” Evelyn muttered under her breath.

“Then let us find them,” Zheng said, loud and uncaring, her voice echoing down the twisty little passages. “Come out, little things! Come oooouuuut!”

Evelyn winced. Raine pulled a pained grin.

Zheng’s cry trailed off, bouncing down into the depths. She turned and grinned at us over her shoulder, shrugging. “See? Nothing.”

“Good,” I said. “Now keep moving.”

For me this journey was both the retreading and exorcism of a nightmare. When I’d first squirmed and stumbled and fled through these passages and dark empty rooms, I’d been alone, cut off from my friends, pursued by monsters, and that misadventure had culminated in the horror that lay below the castle, the corpses of mutated children, capture, and murder. Now I strode the opposite way, accompanied by power.

We passed a couple of older corpses. A zombie who’d died in the fighting, head pulled off by Twil, and the body of a middle-aged man slumped against a wall. Both were all skin and bone, the unnatural foggy air of this alien dimension having mummified them inside their own leathery skin. The man’s hands had been reduced to claws, still wrapped tight around the handle of a heavy cattle-prod.

“At least I don’t need to shoot anybody this time,” Raine whispered. She had her gun out as we crept through the darkness, pointed carefully at the ground, safety on.

“Don’t jinx us,” Evelyn said.

“Yes, let’s not count our chickens,” I whispered back.

When we finally reached the wide open space of the entrance hall, the relief came as a palpable, physical sensation, a loosening of back muscles, a weakness in my knees. Raine actually sighed, then laughed and shook her head at herself. Foggy light streamed in through the massive open metal doors at the front, still wedged at the same angle we’d left them when we’d forced our way in, months ago. We emerged on the overlooking balcony, right in front of the sweeping staircase.

The floor below was littered with the corpses of defeated zombies, beheaded, torn in two, bullet wounds through the skulls. All of them were dessicated and dry, skin sunken around the bones, most of their eyes open and shrivelled in death. They hadn’t rotted properly, no smell of spoilt meat in the air. I stared, confused for a moment, before I realised this was the aftermath of our fight.

“Well, I remember this place,” Raine said, then squeezed my shoulder. “Heather?”

“I uh … ” I swallowed. “Haven’t actually seen this before.”

I’d been unconscious when we’d passed through here on our way out, carried on Raine’s back.

“The laangren did all this?” Zheng asked, an appreciative smile on her face. She laughed low in her throat. “I have underestimated her.”

“Not all of it,” Evelyn snapped. “Hurry up, she’ll be just beyond the doors.”

“Try not to look down, Heather,” Raine murmured for my ears alone. She tucked the torch away and took my hand. “Just one foot in front of the other. Here, I’ll lead.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” I managed, taking a deep breath. “We need to get to Tenny, we’re almost there.”

We hurried down the steps and across the killing field. I tried not to think about it, but I failed – all of these zombies had been homeless people, kidnapped by the Sharrowford Cult, minds hollowed out and replaced with demons.

“They should be buried,” I whispered, a lump in my throat. “We should … we should do something. A- marker … or let their families … or … ”

“Maybe we can,” Raine whispered, and squeezed my hand.

Zheng strode on without a care. Evelyn put a hand over her mouth and tried to conceal her shaking, and I decided to pretend I hadn’t noticed, leave her with some dignity intact. We reached the huge metal front door and Zheng slipped out first, followed by the rest of us, out into the clinging chill fog.

To my incredible relief, Tenny was right where we’d left her, a little black and white figure huddled near the base of the hill, obscured by the drifting fog, arms wrapped around herself, tentacles bristling like spines.

Unfortunately, everything else was right where we’d left it too.

It was like standing on the precipice of a gigantic tidal pool.

Beyond the protection of the castle walls, exposed to the writhing life in the copied streets and the mountains of the squid-moons overhead, we mere humans faltered in our tracks. Evelyn and Raine both stopped, Raine’s hand anchoring me even as I tried to pull forward. Evelyn subconsciously stepped closer to Raine, staring out at the indistinct shapes in the foggy deep.

I was more used to this, after ten years of Outside dreams, ten years of Slipping, but even I felt a drop in the pit of my stomach at the prospect of walking down that hill.

Thirty or so meters from the base of Castle Hill rose the copied streets of a fake Sharrowford, cast in dead grey jade. The buildings themselves were bad enough, familiar shapes made uncanny, but the last time we’d been down here they had not been infested. Among the streets and behind the houses and on the roofs writhed and slithered and hopped and jerked such a multitude of strange life, like sea creatures squeezed into the cracks in the ocean floor. Multi-jointed chitinous arms rose above the rooftops, terminating in crab-claws and tendril feelers and tiny lamprey-eel mouths. Huge barnacle-things made of metal slid slowly through the streets in herds, leaving trails of thick slime behind. Stilt-legged walkers strode in the middle distance, picking their way carefully over the houses. Jellyfish tendrils dangled downward to catch unwary prey. Shelled amalgamations scuttled in the shadows, snapping at each other with their claws. Soft, squishy, white-fleshed mollusk things flitted behind the buildings as if slipping through water.

And above it all, the gargantuan tentacles of the squid-moons drifted back and forth in an endless dance.

Zheng strode on a few steps, then stopped and turned when she realised we weren’t following. “Shaman?”

Down the hill, Tenny looked up. She must have seen us. A fluttery trilling noise added itself to the cacophony of sound from the streets. Her tentacles waved, and she hopped up the hill toward us.

“Tenny! Stay!” Lozzie’s voice called from somewhere very high up, rendered ghostly in the fog.

“Carcosa will be worse,” I said.

“W-what?” Evelyn muttered, blinking at me.

“Carcosa will be worse,” I repeated, then swallowed.

“You’re not … unsettled?” she asked.

Raine took a long, deep breath, and nodded once. “Real pea souper out here, hey?” She pulled a jaunty grin. “Just gotta wade into it.”

Evelyn looked at her like she was mad. She was, sort of.

“Of course I’m unsettled, I have no idea how Raine does it,” I said to Evelyn, and managed a small, jittery smile. “But you just have to focus on what you’re here to do, try to ignore all the … things, things bigger than you. Things you can’t take in. Keep them at the edge of your mind. It’s what I always tried to do.”

Evelyn swallowed again, then nodded as well. She tilted her chin up and set her shoulders. “I do need to look at those bodies. Waste to come all this way otherwise.”

“Monkeys,” Zheng muttered, shaking her head.

“You’re telling me you’d jump into that?” Evelyn hissed at her, gesturing at the roil of alien life out in the streets. “I don’t believe you. Not even you, you bloody great oaf.”

Zheng barked a single laugh. “They would flee before I could get started.”

“Tenny!” I called out as we finally hurried ahead.

She came trotting out of the fog to meet us halfway, tentacles all a-whirl. She barrelled into me and almost knocked me off my feet, but I held on and hugged her around the shoulders.

“Heath- Heath— Heath!”

“Yes, yes, it’s okay, it’s okay. It’s okay Tenny, we’re all here.” I held on tight. Hugging Tenny was a uniquely disquieting experience, because part of my mind told me I was holding a sack of writhing serpents, all muscle trying to clamp itself around me, no bones beneath her skin. Her tentacles joined in too, wrapping around to squeeze me tight. I let out a little ‘oof’ of air squeezed out of my lungs, my face squished against her fur. “Not so hard Tenny, ease down, please.”

“Heather!” she trilled.

Ahead of us, Raine held up her torch to the fog. She clicked it on and off three times, in the rough direction of the apex of the castle. Our pre-arranged signal for Lozzie. We all watched as an answering point of light in the high fog flickered on and off. Raine nodded and put the torch away. “Right, that’ll be them heading back inside.”

“Inside?” Tenny buzzed, blinking big black eyes at Raine. “Back inside? Inside?”

“Not yet,” Evelyn said.

She glanced further down the hill, at the corpses and the magic circle. They lay only a dozen meters or so away now. The circle was a single enclosure, wrapped in words that looked like Arabic. A couple of knives and a plastic food tray full of dried blood sat on the floor next to it, along with some crimson-stained paintbrushes and the objects Tenny had pulled from the dead man’s pockets.

The corpse in the circle was indeed a man, perhaps in his mid twenties. Tall, with wide shoulders and a barrel chest, muscled but not like a bodybuilder. He wore thick jeans and a raincoat, a fisherman’s jumper on underneath that. Curly dark hair formed a corona about his head, and like every other corpse in this place, he’d not rotted properly. He looked a little dry and pinched, but that was all.

His face seemed intensely peaceful in death, as if he’d died in a moment of utter conviction.

It made my skin crawl.

“Inside?” Tenny repeated.

“Not just yet, Tenny,” I said. “We need to look at the dead people.”

“Dead,” she said.

“Old blood,” Zheng grunted, and nodded beyond the dead man, at the bloody, pulped mess of the second corpse. I could only sneak a glance before feeling sick. Mashed meat, pounded into the ground, the jade grey cracked with incredible force beneath the spars of bone and scraps of clothing, as if the unlucky victim had been hit with a wrecking ball.

None of us said it out loud, but we all glanced up, at the drifting tentacles of the nearest squid moon.

“You think … ?” Evelyn let it trail off.

“No, wizard,” Zheng purred. “It doesn’t care. Only for the mooncalf.”

“You know that for a fact?” Evelyn asked. Zheng shrugged.

“Maybe,” Raine said, trying to sound light, and failing for once. “Maybe not. Ten minutes, max, then we get back inside.”

“Agreed,” Evelyn answered, then looked at Tenny. “Does she have the notebook still? Give it here.”

“Tenny? Do you have the notebook?” I asked, still half-wrapped in a hug by her tentacles and one arm. “Please, give it to auntie Evee.”

“Auntie Evee,” Tenny trilled. A tentacle ventured out from behind her body, still clutching the spiral-bound notepad. Evelyn took it gingerly, as if accepting a treat from the mouth of a dog. The tentacle had left tiny needle-point teeth marks in the cover.

“What’s in it?” Raine asked, her eyes doing a circuit of the fog around us, her handgun still out, pointed low.

Evelyn flipped through the pages, scanning them quickly. She shook her head. “I don’t know. Not in English. Poetry, I think, lots of lines crossed out. A poet’s private composition book, this isn’t important, let’s get a look at the bod-” she flipped another page and stopped dead. The colour drained from her face.

“Evee?” I said, a spike of panic in my chest. “Evelyn?”

“What?” Raine glanced round at the tone in my voice.

Evelyn slammed the notebook shut, eyes wide, shaking – and shot a look of cold fury at the corpse lying in the circle.

“Evee? Evee, what is it?” I let go of Tenny with one hand and reached out. Evelyn growled her frustration and flipped the notebook open again, holding it up for all to see.

I choked down a scream.

It was too real. I took several seconds to realise it was drawn in ballpoint pen.

The work of a master, real enough to make my heartbeat race and my guts clench up. Cold sweat broke out on my back, and Tenny must have sensed my fear because she squeezed me tighter, letting out little throaty trilling sounds of sympathetic alarm.

The artist had used nothing but black ink, yet had somehow managed to vary the shading and pressure by such precise degrees as to produce reality, right there on the page. He – assuming it had belonged to the dead man on the ground – had even incorporated the ruled notebook lines into the picture, creating an illusion of space and depth so believable that one’s mind was tricked for a few heart-stopping seconds.

Shadowed depths of a static grey sky, the great lid peeled all the way back, the void inside.

It was the Eye.

“Oh God.”

“Heather, hey,” Raine took my shoulder. “It’s a drawing, okay? It’s a picture, it’s … fucking weird-ass shit, Goddamn,” Raine swore, then forced a grin. “It’s a drawing, that’s all.”

I shook my head, numb. Zheng rumbled, unimpressed. Tenny actually squeaked.

Evelyn brandished the notepad, blazing with fury, and swept an arm wide at the corpse and the circle. “I am not falling for this bullshit a second time!”

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10 thoughts on “by this art you may contemplate – 10.2

  1. I hope the guy got more than the ability to draw a single god-tier drawing before he died, otherwise that’s not much of a deal. Maybe it was the last thing on his bucket list?

  2. I love the unsettling vibe of this place.

    I’m also very curious if this is a successful ritual or a failed one. You’d expect the person outside the ritual circle to be the sacrifice, but it definitely seems like the guy in inside had some dangerous insight into current events.

  3. “Those creatures out there could react to in any which way at all.”
    react to US in any
    (or “you”)

    “But Lozzie and I both vetoed the idea. Without Lozzie with us”
    It’s possible they discussed this before leaving, but the previous sentences give me the impression they’re already travelling when this thought comes to Heather. Clarify – or correct the first “Lozzie” to whoever it should be.

  4. I wanted to make a joke about Heather being the gay aunt, but then I realized that isn’t exactly a specific description when it comes to this group!

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