by this art you may contemplate – 10.4

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Two hours later, Zheng had still not returned.

“Not planning any sleep tonight?” Raine asked, a knowing smile in her voice, as I shuffled back into the magical workshop.

“ … um.” I blinked and squinted, trying to figure out what she meant – and trying to see her.

I knew Raine was right there, my lover and ally and closest friend, but for a torturous moment my brain couldn’t digest the sense data from my eyeballs. My mind was running all the wrong routines, too focused on phantom limbs, on abyssal instinct, expecting a world of cold currents and predatory jaws. All I saw was a jumble of ape parts wrapped in hard angles of metal and plastic.

“Heather?”

I squeezed my eyes shut. Squeezed them hard, took a deep breath, pictured Raine in my mind’s eye.

When I looked again, I saw her, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Raine stood before the open gateway, on this side, safely in reality. She was wearing an old second-hand motorcycle jacket which she’d picked up earlier this week, padded and armoured inside, all red and black leather. She held her pistol deceptively loose in one hand, pointed at the floor. Her other hand rested atop a home-made riot shield.

She’d spent the last week constructing the thing, scavenging parts from the junkyard. A sheet of metal over a backing board of thick, stiff rubber, with plastic handles screwed into the back, all held together by liberal amounts of duck tape. I think the metal had begun life as a piece of tractor door, now spray-painted black.  It looked like flimsy scrap to me, but Raine had tested it, with a knife, a broken bottle, a bat, and Praem’s fist. She had judged it both sturdy and flexible enough for the job.

She also hadn’t meant to break it out until tomorrow, until the trip to Carcosa, and then it was only supposed to be insurance.

At least she hadn’t put the motorcycle helmet on as well. Without her face, I might have floundered for far longer. It sat on the table nearby, a shiny red-and-white half-dome beetle, next to a pair of goggles, and the packet of cocaine she’d taken off the ‘corpse’.

Evelyn’s spider-servitors crowded the gateway too. One hung from the ceiling above, the other clung to the wall. Both of them were locked onto the gateway with their banks of crystalline eyes, stingers quivering, faint heat haze rising from the smokestack structures on their backs. Evelyn had tried to order them through, but they wouldn’t go no matter what Latin orders she spat, so now they guarded her retreat along with Raine. Hopefully no retreat would be needed, what with Praem and Twil out there with her, on the other side.

Beyond Raine and the spiders, tendrils of fog moved like skeletal fingers in the castle hallway.

“Heather? You there?”

“ … sorry, I’m fine. It’s just, you look like you’re ready for a street fight.”

“And you’re getting ready to command it.” Raine smirked and nodded at my hands.

“Oh.” I gestured helplessly with an entire pot of coffee in one fist, an empty mug in the other, then sighed and poured my fourth round of emergency caffeine. “Yes, well, no sleep for the wicked.”

“Hey, Heather, if anybody’s big and scary enough to look after themselves out there, Zheng is.”

“I know that,” I almost snapped, tried to dial down. Breathe. Stop shaking. “It’s not- she’s-”

“She broke out from inside a concrete wall before, right? Don’t tell her I said this, but I wouldn’t rate the chances of anything in that freak-show out there.”

“Raine, that’s not … not what I’m … ”

I shook my head and sipped my coffee. Burning hot. Barely tasted it.

Couldn’t concentrate on the right words. Raine would never understand anyway. I struggled to reel in my phantom limbs. Even if I couldn’t see them, I could still feel them. Trying to protect me from hypothetical attack, anticipating my next footstep with additional support, groping at a chair for me to sit down in; they used up so much mental bandwidth, and they couldn’t even touch anything.

Raine cracked another smile, just for me, the kind she usually showed me in private. We weren’t in private right now, but she couldn’t see the spider-servitors, and Mister Squiddy slopping around his bucket of wet clay didn’t count.

“I’m not gonna lie and say Zheng knows what she’s doing,” Raine said. “She doesn’t, she’s like me. Goes with her gut. Improvises. And that’s how she’ll get back.”

I stared down into my coffee, into the dark brown swirl. At the corner of my awareness, one of my phantom tentacles started to imitate the motion, twirling around and around. I focused on that.

“She’s like a big ol’ house-cat that’s slipped out the door to chase a rabbit,” Raine was saying. “She’ll find her way back when she gets hungry. Hey, maybe we should hang some haunches of lamb from the windows to entice her back up here, yeah? … Heather?”

“Sorry,” I muttered. “I’m trying to calm down.”

“Caffeine’s given you the jitters?”

“It’s not the caffeine.” I sipped more coffee. Too strong. Walked over to the table and set the coffee pot down, my mug next to it, then I picked the mug up again, set it down again. Moved to pick it up, stopped halfway. Felt like I wanted to hurl it at the wall.

“How’s Tenny holding up?” Raine asked.

“Oh, fine now. She’s fine. Still upstairs with Lozzie.”

Being kept firmly out of the way, in case she decided to make another dive for the castle windows. Evelyn’s new wards might not work on her, we weren’t certain, and nobody was in a hurry to find out.

When we’d returned, all in a hurry and feeling like the hounds of hell might be on our tail, Lozzie had thrown herself at Tenny before we’d even stumbled back through the gateway. She’d squeezed Tenny hard enough to make her bleat, kissed her face and head and cried a little while trying to tell her off for flying away like that.

“No going without an adult!” she’d scolded between the tears of relief. “No-no Tenny, no flying without an adult, okay? You have to promise me now, promise me!”

Lozzie’s emotional release had gotten to Tenny, crossed the species barrier. Tenny couldn’t cry. No tears ducts, Evelyn thinks. But she could shake and whimper in imitation of Lozzie’s tears, wrap tentacles around her, and refuse to let go.

“Lozzie’ll be clinging to her for a week after this,” Raine said. “We gotta find a safe way for her to stretch her wings. She really wanted to go for that, didn’t she?” Raine clicked her tongue.

“Yes, well. Tenny’s her baby.”

Raine laughed. I couldn’t tell if she agreed, or if she thought I was joking, or if she simply liked my phrasing. I wanted to ask for clarification, but that part of my mind drowned under a torrent of gnawing animal fear, a desire to retreat and hide, instincts for a place that was not here. I was holding the coffee mug again, trying to concentrate on drinking more. Locked in place. Staring at nothing.

“Heather? Heather?” Raine called my name softly. “Ground control to space cadet, come in Heather, this is mission control speaking.”

“I’m … I’m okay,” I lied, and finally gathered myself enough to sit down in a chair. I set my coffee down too. Stood back up. Sat down. Rubbed my thighs and pinched my knees. Needed to run, or climb into a corner. I longed to be underwater right now, curled up in a cave. Or upstairs, with the curtains closed and the lights out. In the dark.

With Raine right here, dressed for war, I still felt isolated and frantic.

I had done, every second since Zheng had left.

“You don’t have to pretend for me, you know?” Raine said. “You can be not okay, even if it’s over another girl.”

==

We’d waited down by the foot of the castle for only about twenty minutes after Zheng had vanished into the copied Sharrowford streets. I’d been shouting myself hoarse into the roiling tidal pool of fog and chitin, calling Zheng’s name to no avail, not understanding why I was so panicked, why cold sweat had broken out down my back, why I felt like I needed to grow spines and toxins and hiss at my friends.

The only sign of Zheng and the strange resurrected man was a sort of ripple outward through the motions of the wildlife, a scattering of the shoal before a predator, but our vantage point was too low to follow it for long. The verdant deep swallowed them up.

Zheng had acted as a cork in a bottle, for scrambling emotions I hadn’t examined in three weeks.

With her around, the abyssal side of me felt safe. The squirming mutable dark creature I’d been in the abyss felt sheltered in the power of a larger pack member. Zheng was from there. She’d been born out there. She was like me.

When she walked off into that fog, I regressed within seconds.

My throat felt like an alien thing, but it was the only tool I had to call her name, so I kept shouting and shouting until I made Tenny panic too.

She’d begun by trilling wordless noises into the fog as well, louder and louder over half a minute, her chest puffing up. Ropes of muscle rearranged themselves inside her body, permitting her lungs – or whatever she used for lungs – more room to expand. No ribs to get in the way. Pressed against my side in a supporting hug, she felt like an inflating balloon of leathery flesh, and sounded like a moth crossed with a frog.

Her final call was so loud it cut through the fog and echoed off the exterior castle walls. Evelyn winced and shushed her. I blinked, shocked out of my instinctive fear for a second.

“Shhh, shhhh, Tenny, it’s okay, shhhh, no no, I was just … I’m okay, shhhhh,” I hushed her. Maybe Tenny’s inhuman form helped; here was something a little like me, at least.

Raine decided it was time to leave.

“We can’t stay out here forever,” she’d said. “Worst case scenario, our coke-head friend circles around Zheng and comes back with some nasty mates. Best case, we all get really cold and really tired and Lozzie wonders where the hell we’ve gotten to.”

“Back inside the castle and we seal the whole bloody place up,” Evelyn said, already backing away a couple of paces.

I shook my head, numb and confused. “No … ”

Evelyn stared at me with a scold in her eyes. I had to look away, back to the fog and the awful churn of bizarre life within. “Heather? Heather, you are not thinking of following that huge idiot. You are not.”

“Yeah, we’re not following her,” Raine said. “Not into that.”

She backed away too, away from the street, the magic circle, the shattered second corpse – and her body language herded me backward. Tenny understood as well, uprooting my stubborn feet as I tried to dig my heels in. It was like fighting a giant fist.

“We can’t!” I snapped, a weird strangled noise in my throat. I felt like hissing at Tenny. “We can’t close up the castle with Zheng still out there. She- I need-”

“It’s alright, Heather,” Raine said. “She’ll make her own way back, I’m certain.”

“I doubt any of my wards would stop her anyway,” Evelyn said. “Stop dawdling, come on.”

Evelyn led the way with her walking stick. Raine brought up the rear, gun out. Tenny dragged me. Back up the hill, into the shadow of the castle, then we slipped in through the gap in the huge metal doors, back into the killing ground from months ago. Shelter brought a tangible, physical relief so strong I almost sobbed. Out there in the fog, beneath the vast bulk of the squid-moon-children and the skywhales and giant jellyfish, dwarfed by the chaos of chitin and claw and pale flesh out in the streets, the abyssal creature in me had felt like a terrified scurrying thing clinging to the ground for the illusion of safety.

I wanted to squeeze myself into the deeper parts of the castle as soon as possible, make myself small, and hide. The sensation was overwhelming.

Evelyn clearly felt a human shadow of the same sensation. She let out a huge sigh and eyed the metal doors. “We need to shut these. Raine?”

“I’m flattered you think I’m that ripped,” Raine said, testing the door with one hand. It didn’t even flex. “Nah, last time I had Twil’s muscle to help. I can’t shift these.”

Evelyn tutted. “Why is idiot brute strength never here when it’s needed? What about Tenny, she … ”

Tenny was blinking her huge black eyes at the field of zombie corpses. Three of her tentacles hovered over the nearest body, as if sniffing for the scent of decay. Fascinated. Blank-faced. Learning about death.

I pulled together what was left of myself. “Tenny, Tenny no,” I murmured, trying to squeeze one of her hands. “It’s okay, don’t touch them, don’t look at them. They’re all gone. Um, dead. A long time ago. No need to stare. Tenny? Tenny?”

“Mwaaah?” she bleated.

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed. “Tell her to close the doors.”

“Doors?” Tenny fluttered. “Front door. Keep closed.”

“Y-yes, yes Tenny, good girl. That’s right,” I said. Lozzie had been trying to drum that into her – keep the front door closed, no going outdoors alone. “Look, Evee, what about-” I hiccuped, squeezed my eyes shut, swallowed hard. “What about Zheng? We can’t just lock her out there. I-I know this sounds silly, but couldn’t we leave a note on the door? One of your post-it notes? ‘Please close the door behind you’?”

“A note?” Evelyn deadpanned at me.

“Please,” I hissed through my teeth. Evelyn frowned at me, saw I wasn’t acting normal, even for this situation. “It would be the normal thing to do. Polite thing. If we weren’t in a castle made of bone, yes.”

“Don’t see why not,” Raine said. “If it gets us back upstairs and out of here quicker. Evee?”

“Oh sod it, yes, we’ll leave a polite note on the giant metal door into the supernatural castle in another dimension, fine. She better well close it. I’ll have her hide if anything follows her back home.”

Evelyn scribbled out a note and slapped it on the door, where Zheng couldn’t miss it.

Our journey back up through the castle took a fraction of the time we’d spent getting down; we followed Evelyn’s trail of post-it notes and the rough map she’d drawn, worming our way through the passages like maggots in a corpse. But for me, those minutes descended into a hallucinatory nightmare.

My phantom limbs wanted to pull me along the inside of the corridors, like an octopus in a tube. My body was a constricting shell, the wrong shape for this environment. Instinct screamed at me to grow spines, to sprout claws, to back up into the darkest possible corner. I hadn’t been this bad since the days right after my return from the abyss. I thought I’d gotten better, but really I’d just been compensating. Zheng had been a crutch.

I tried to focus on Tenny. She’d developed a unique way of holding hands – she wrapped one tentacle all the way up my forearm to my elbow, the satin-smooth surface of her skin shifting slightly with every step. Wings folded, head ducked, walking very close to my side. She hated these confines as much as I did, though for different reasons.

When we reached the top corridor, Lozzie burst out out of the gateway, frantic for Tenny. Evelyn bustled back into the workshop, calling for Praem, for her mobile phone, for a bucket of paint and wellington boots and a box of nails and a good sturdy hammer.

The light and normality of the workshop, of Sharrowford, of home, brought me little relief.

I ached to plunge back into the fog, to grow wings and fleshy sails and trailing feelers, to search for Zheng.

==

“Even if it’s over another girl?” I echoed.

“Yeah.” Raine nodded.

I sighed and closed my eyes. “Raine, I’m not worried about Zheng.”

“Really?” Raine waited, but I only swallowed, couldn’t summon the right words, so she carried on. “Could’a fooled me. You’ve got the jitters real bad. Am I mis-reading this here? Is this about the notebook, the picture of the Eye? Heather, anything comes for you, I swear to God I’ll-”

“It’s not that,” I hissed in a strangled whisper. “I- yes, Raine I really like Zheng. But this isn’t about that.”

“Then what it is?”

“I don’t … I can’t expect you to understand, because what I’m feeling right now is not a human emotion.”

“Try me.”

From anybody else I would not have trusted those words, but I opened my eyes and looked up at Raine and knew she meant that for real. She’d been on the verge of cracking a joke, some sexual innuendo about Zheng and me, but she carefully tucked it away and made room for me to speak. Guilt tugged at my heart. Why didn’t Raine’s presence soothe my abyssal instincts? Burning inside with shame I couldn’t place, I gestured at her with my mug of coffee.

“You look really good in all that,” I said. Not what I’d intended. I blushed and sighed, annoyed at myself.

Raine broke into a grin and shifted the motorcycle jacket with her shoulders. She’d left it unzipped down the front, and I wondered what it would feel like to slip a hand inside that armoured cocoon. “You like the riot girl look? S’cool, huh? Not quite shining armour, but it gets the job done. Bit sweaty though.”

“ … really?”

Raine raised an eyebrow.

“Um, not that I- not that-” I huffed and cleared my throat. “I’m sorry. I changed the subject. I shouldn’t avoid this.”

“I noticed.” She laughed. “It’s okay, sometimes you gotta use anything you can to distract yourself.”

“I need clarity, not distraction.” I put my face in one hand. “Of course I’m not worried about Zheng. She’s superhuman. I’m not worried about her, I’m … pining. But it’s not romantic. It’s animal. Abyssal.”

“Yeah?”

I tapped my chest with my fingertips. “The me I brought back. The me out there. It … I really, really like having her around. Nearby. All the fears, all the weird little disjointed perceptions, the bodily … wrongness, it all got bottled up with her around. Kept under control. The abyss isn’t a place for alliance or friendship or kindness, it’s all predation, all the time, it’s darkness and a constant war of evolutionary edge. But, with Zheng, I feel safe again, because she’s from there. Survivalist logic, I suppose. She’s big and mean, and on my side, so all that can relax.”

As the words spilled out of me, I felt my phantom limbs slow in their frantic wanderings. Talking about it helped, made room for the ape to take back the controls. Room for me to get angry.

“And now she’s thrown herself into danger,” I hissed. “For what?”

Raine just waited, as I gathered myself and let out a big sigh.

“Oh dear,” I said, hanging my head. “Oh dear, okay, that wasn’t um, wasn’t what I expecting to say. Oh dear.”

“So in the end, you are worried about her, as well?”

“I suppose so.” I shook my head and leaned back in the chair. “She’s constantly looking for a fight, just for the sake of fighting.”

Raine allowed herself a smile. “I do that a lot too.”

“You put yourself in danger for me, that’s different. And then you get out of danger and take me with you. Zheng wants to fight, to kill stuff. She couldn’t resist following that man, not after he dodged everything she threw at him. How do you sustain a caring friendship with somebody who’s determined to destroy herself?”

Raine raised her eyebrows. “You think that’s what she’s doing?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. That’s a human worry. The abyssal creature in me, it just wants the pack member back.”

Sagging with unexpected release after speaking the words aloud, I stood up from the chair and went over to the gateway, stretching up onto my tiptoes to see through the windows opposite, the windows which looked out on the fog beyond, the copied Sharrowford streets far below. Of course, I couldn’t see anything from this angle, let alone any disturbances in the wildlife which might tell us where Zheng was.

“Heather?” Raine put her free hand on my arm.

“It’s like we’ve got the world’s largest, spookiest cellar.” I shook my head. “Connecting this house to another dimension was maybe not the safest idea.”

Praem and Evelyn and Twil were in there right now, off down the corridor somewhere with two buckets of paint and a clutch of brushes. Evelyn was determined to seal the whole place off hallway by hallway, window by window, making extensive use of the same symbol as on my left forearm.

They’d already been all the way down to the left, to the old throne room and a corridor beyond, painting wards around every doorway like separate bulkheads in an ocean liner. The throne room itself had been left as no-man’s land, the high windows too tall to reach without climbing gear or scaffolding or hours worth of Twil digging her claws into the walls.

The bank of windows opposite the gateway were each encased by rough magic circles now, simple white designs. The Fractal stared back at me, painted dozens of times all over the inside walls. The paint was still drying. Evelyn and Praem and Twil were somewhere off to the right now, with an agreement to check in every twenty minutes.

Twil had only been here about half an hour, but she’d come running as soon as called, in the middle of the night without complaint – because Evelyn herself had done the calling.

I sighed heavily. “I guess Carcosa is off. For tomorrow, at least.”

Raine pulled a sympathetic grimace and rubbed my shoulder. “I can tell Evee’s gonna be up all night at this.”

“We can’t wait. Maisie can’t wait.”

“Maybe Monday? We want Evee with all her wits about her, not sleep deprived.”

“You don’t think that man we found is the herald of something worse? Raine, he had a drawing of the Eye. I can’t let him- I want- I don’t want these people interrupting our plans. It’s the Eye, trying to interfere. That dead man – dead, tch – is going to cause a problem.”

Raine shrugged, with shoulders, eyes, and eyebrows, an oddly innocent gesture for her. “Maybe he does. Or maybe I shoot him in the head when Zheng brings him back, so we can focus on what matters.”

With a horrified shiver, I realised Raine wasn’t joking. She would actually do that.

Abyssal instinct flooded me with blind, survivalist relief, drowned out my gut rejection of cold blooded murder. Raine understood. She knew that Maisie came before everything else. The abyssal version of Heather wanted to curl up against Raine and purr. Remove the threat, it whispered.

Out loud, I said, “I hope that won’t be necessary.”

“Oh, I mean, hey, yeah, me too,” Raine laughed herself into a grin. “Look, if he doesn’t come back, if he vanishes down there, or gets eaten or whatever, maybe I can go check out the address on his keys. Maybe tomorrow, if we’re not crashing a party in Carcosa. You don’t have to come, I’ll deal with it. In the past, ehhh,” Raine pulled a sheepish look, “I might have done that without telling you. Now? Well, I’ve learnt my lesson.”

“The last time we checked out somewhere like that, Twil got stabbed in the hand, and we precipitated a chain of events that almost killed all of us.”

“This time we keep some distance, then. I find Kimberly mark two, I promise to ignore her.”

I gave Raine a look. “Raine, you’re incapable of not helping a woman in need. I have noticed.”

She laughed. “Fair enough. Maybe we let this guy go then, let sleeping dogs lie, if he’s not a threat?”

“An Eye Cultist? I … I don’t know, I … ”

Kill him, instinct whispered. A knot twisted in my stomach.

“Then I’ll deal with it,” Raine said.

That’s when Lozzie made us both jump.

“Hi-hiiiii,” a little voice whispered from the doorway. I flinched like a rabbit. To Raine’s great credit she managed to avoid pointing her gun anywhere dangerous, then laughed at herself.

“Lozzie!” I breathed again after what felt like an entire minute. “You snuck up on us.”

“Whoopsie-sorry.” Lozzie giggled and flounced into the workshop, pastel poncho wrapped tight around herself with both arms. Her hair was in even worse disarray than usual, tangled up behind her, and despite the flickery smile on her face, I could see the emotional burnout around her eyes.

“Lozzie? Lozzie, come let me look at your hair,” I said, stepping over and raising my arms to her. “You’re all tangled up.”

Lozzie plodded over without complaint and turned around to face away from me. I tutted and combed at her wispy blonde hair with my fingers.

“Where’s Tenny?” Raine asked.

“Went to sleep,” Lozzie explained. “Too-too much excitement for little Ten-Tens. Tucked her into bed where she needs to stay for now.” Lozzie sniffed.

“We’ll find a safe spot where she can learn to fly properly,” Raine said. “Promise.”

“Outside would be best.” Lozzie giggled again, a nervous hitch in her throat. She turned her head left and right, as if searching for something she couldn’t find. “If I could take her somewhere with no people – no people! No people and no beings and no fuss and no mess.”

“Lozzie, Lozzie, please hold still,” I murmured.

“I miss Outside,” she said, very softly, oh so sad. My heart tried to pull in two.

“Loz, hey, got a question for you,” Raine said. Light and easy, her tone cut through the moment. Gave Lozzie something to focus on. It’s not often that Raine makes me fall in love with her all over again.

“Yes?”

“You got any idea what that guy might have been doing out there?”

“Hmm-mmm?” Lozzie blinked big eyes at Raine, half-twitching her head before catching herself. “Gotta stay still, still for Heather,” she giggled. “Doing?”

“With your big friends out in the fog.” Raine thumbed at the open gateway. “Do you think he was trying to talk to them?”

Lozzie made a squinty thinking face. “Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm no.”

Raine and I shared a glance. “Lozzie?”

“The kiddies – squiddies? – they don’t really do words, words are too slow for their brains, which are like, super dense balls and everything’s moving a lot faster than words and it’s really hot in there, right? So you can’t do words, but you can sing, which is fun! But it’s just like playing with your hair or something, it’s not communication. If you wanna have a proper talk you gotta go downstairs to the star.”

“The … thing under the castle?” I asked.

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded, smiling, happy with me as if I finally understood a point she’d been trying to explain for hours. “But, mmmmm, bodies are better than words.”

A chill went down my spine. “Bodies?”

“Yah! Like you can talk with words or you can talk with your body, you know?”

“Oh,” I sighed with relief. “That’s what you meant, okay.”

“Talk with your body?” Raine struggled not to smirk. I opened my mouth to shush her, but Lozzie surprised me by getting there first.

“Dirty Raine,” she sing-songed. “Sex isn’t what I mean. I mean talking with needs, through your body.”

“So, body language?” Raine asked. “Human body language?”

“Nooooo. No no no no.” Lozzie shook her head and scrunched up her face. “Like you talk and you say you have needs, right? But that doesn’t make sense, so you try to talk with the natural needs of your body and it down there, it listens a lot better! It gets bodies, not minds, at least not well. That’s why it could grow a big shell. Bodies are so much cooler when you can just grow when you really need. That’s what happened to me! Of course it can’t do that anymore because it’s not there, it left with me, but the first time I went to it, it knew exactly what I needed without words, and it fixed me!”

“Fixed you?” I asked, staring at her.

“Yeah! When I was little, everything was … wrong.”

“You were ill as a child?” I frowned. I don’t think this was something she told me in the dreams. I groped for memory, but there was nothing.

“Mmm kinda.” Lozzie shut one eye and smirked at me, an impish little toothy smile. “My body suuuucked. Now it’s great!”

Lozzie hopped away from me and lifted the hem of her poncho, bouncing from side to side. Her nervous tension had ebbed away. Talking about this was apparently good for her. She danced from one foot to the other, then skipped over to the gateway and reached up to pet the rough, scarred hide of one of Evelyn’s spider-servitors. For a second I worried it might lash out at her, but it didn’t react at all.

“Good boy, good boy,” she chirped.

“Spiders?” Raine asked me, watching Lozzie with fascination. She couldn’t see them, of course.

“Good boys. They’ve got your back!” Lozzie did a thumbs up for Raine.

“Hope they do better than last time,” Raine said. Lozzie did a fussy pout and turned her nose up, and petted the spider again.

“Well,” Raine said. “Maybe our boy out there was barking up the wrong tree then, if your friends aren’t good conversationalists.”

“Probably! Dumbos always trying to boss around or get bossed around.” Lozzie stuck her tongue out. “Bleh.”

Muffled echoes suddenly broke out from the far side of the gateway, warped and distorted by the bone-like grey material of the corridor. A jumble of footsteps and raised voices. The fog swirled, pushed down the hallway by the sudden motion of disturbed air.

Raine went from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye. She readied the makeshift shield. Lozzie hopped and skipped away from the gate. I was caught between them, paralysed for an awful moment as abyssal instinct tugged both ways at once, phantom limbs scrambling to protect me.

“Heather,” Raine threw over her shoulder. A warning. Get back. No room for argument.

“What if it’s- Zheng!”

With a stomp and a scowl – and a massive lacerated bruise across her face – Zheng appeared around the corner and strode through the gateway. She was drenched from head to toe in what looked like the product of a giant sneeze. Clear mucus was matted in her hair, stuck to her clothes, all over her hands where she’d tried to wipe her  face clean. Her boots stuck to the floor with every step, making sticky peeling noises as she lifted her feet. A thin, acrid smell filled the air. Zheng looked most unhappy.

Raine let out a low whistle. “You lose a 90s game-show or something?”

Abyssal Heather didn’t care what Zheng looked like or what she was covered with; inside, I soared, felt like a puppy reunited with the pack. “Zheng. Goodness. Okay.”

“Shaman,” she slurred. Her jaw was misaligned, as if broken at one corner.

The others piled through after her. Evelyn was scowling far worse than Zheng, holding Praem’s arm for support. Twil hopped over the splashes of goo Zheng had left all over the floor, grimacing through her teeth. She looked like she’d much rather be in bed right now.

“Stay still, don’t you dare move!” Evelyn snapped. “I told you to stay on the other side, for God’s sake! Praem, Praem, get- get- oh, I don’t know, a bucket of bleach! Boiling water. A flamethrower.”

Praem was already marching into the kitchen.

“I am not cleaning this up,” Twil said, shaking her head and backing for the door to the kitchen as well. “Nope. No way. Not in it for this. Not it.”

“Zheng can do it herself,” Evelyn was grumbling, as a cold realisation came over me. “Running off like that was her idea. What did you expect would happen, you-”

“Where’s the corpse?” I asked. Looked at Zheng’s empty hands. “Zheng? You … killed him, right? You got him.”

Zheng stared at me, dark and sullen.

“You didn’t get him,” I said. “You didn’t get him!”

“Heather?” Raine said.

“I failed, shaman,” Zheng rumbled.

“He got away?!”

My words emerged as a screech of disbelief and disappointment. Abyssal instinct welled up inside my chest, but guilt crashed back down even before I finished the sentence. Guilt for snapping at Zheng, for caring more about her prey than her bruise and broken jaw. Guilt for the way she looked at me. A kicked hound.

Guilt at my own rabid aggression.

Everyone was staring at me.

“I … sorry … I … ” I blushed, mortified. “What happened? To your face, I mean. Did he do that?”

“Mmmmmm,” Zheng grumbled, and to my relief she pulled a broken grin. “No, shaman.”

“It’s like squid ink, or skunk smell, right?” Raine asked with an open grin. “You ran into the wrong creature out there, freaked it out, and got sprayed, didn’t you?”

Zheng turned her grin on Raine. “I still won. You want to try it too, yoshou?”

“No, no thank you.” Raine put one hand up. “I’m sure you’ve done enough zoological fieldwork for all of us.”

“You look like a turtle, hiding in that shell.”

“What, this?” Raine hefted her rubber-and-metal shield. “If it works, it works. Don’t knock it ‘till you try it.”

Zheng grunted an acknowledgement. She eyed me with odd caution, and I felt like living rubbish. Praem returned with towels for Zheng and a bin liner for her clothes.

“Make sure you rinse those off outdoors before loading the washing machine,” Evelyn told Praem. “For all we know that crap will dry like super-glue.”

“So go on then, what happened to our boy?” Raine asked.

Zheng shrugged and grunted, and began struggling out of her ribbed sweater. I prepared myself for another uninterrupted view of her nude upper half, but even that couldn’t distract me right now. Abyssal demands were being made deep in my soul.

“If he got away there must have been a gateway,” Evelyn snapped. “This is important. We could still reach it, still find it. What happened?”

Zheng pulled her sweater off over her head and used it to wipe more slime off her face and out of her hair, then dumped it into the bin big.

“Nothing happened, wizard. I made a mistake.” She gestured at her bruised face.

“And he didn’t?” I asked. “He knew the … wildlife?”

Zheng blinked as she thought about that one. She rolled her shoulders and raised both hands to grab her own face and jaw, then yanked her skull and her jawbone sideways at the same time. A crunch filled the air, and Zheng work her jaw up and down normally again.

“No,” she decided. “He moves like dust on the wind. Invisible currents under his feet. Prey that can see a handful of seconds into the future is no prey at all.”

“Is that what he was doing?” Raine asked.

Zheng nodded. “Either he sees the future, or reads intention. Or both.”

“Explains how he dodged the bullet,” Raine said. “Hmm.”

“But where did he go?” Evelyn demanded. She clicked her fingers, then huffed and muttered an apology with a wave of her hand. “This is essential. Did you see the gateway? Any sign of it? Anything at all?”

Zheng shrugged. “He slipped into the mists. I lost his scent. Vanished.”

“Through a gateway then!” Evelyn raged. “Shit. Shit, shit, shit.”

“Dude could still be out there,” Twil offered, quite unsure. “I guess, like, in theory?”

“The way he moved, he could be,” I murmured.

“Did you at least close the front door of the castle?” Evelyn asked. “There could be a mystery dead man out there in the fog, there’s nowhere else for him to go except through a gateway, or back up here.”

“Yes, wizard,” Zheng rumbled, fixing Evelyn with a steely look. “The door is shut. Satisfied?”

“Yes. Yes, thank you.” Evelyn managed to make ‘thank you’ sound like an insult, but Zheng grunted an acceptance all the same.

“You idiot, Zheng.”

It took a moment for me to realise those words had come from my mouth.

“Shaman?”

“There’s things bigger than you out there. Look at you, your face is … you’re hurt.”

She shrugged. “Nothing can beat me, shaman.”

“What if you’d gotten stuck? We wouldn’t have been able to get you back out.”

“Your foe is my foe, shaman. The revenant had to be put down. Yes, I failed. Don’t insult me further.”

“I’m not insulting you!” I snapped at her, abyssal fear turning to anger. “I need you with me, you idiot! It hurts when you’re not- when I’m- damn you, Zheng. Don’t leave. Don’t leave me alone.”

The room fell into an uncomfortable silence. I sniffed back unexpected tears and scrubbed at my eyes. Lozzie crossed to me with delicate tiptoes and rubbed my back. Zheng eventually grunted a non-committal noise.

That was one of the most unhealthy things I’d ever said.

Eventually, Evelyn cleared her throat and set her walking stick at an angle. “We need to find that gateway. Or!” She held up a hand to forestall the inevitable objection. “We need to confirm a body. Or that he’s still out there. Yes? Yes.”

“Before or after we finish the paint job on an entire castle?” Twil asked, nodding at the gateway, hands in her pockets, looking tired. “Look, Evee, that’s a huge task in there. And I don’t think any of us fancy tangling with the creepy crawlies out there if they can do that to Zheng’s face. I don’t fancy that, yeah?”

“The rest of it can wait,” Evelyn said. “We need to find this man, or confirm he’s gone. Somehow.”

“Alright, girlies,” he said.

We all turned – Twil with her claws out, Raine raising the pistol, Zheng dark and brooding, Praem stepping in front of Evelyn – and there he was. Standing right on the other side of the gateway to the castle, in his raincoat and his pinched, dead skin. He pulled a goofy sort of smile.

A rush of pure aggression passed through me. My throat closed up. Phantom limbs braced, wanted to twist his head clean off. I bit my tongue hard enough to draw blood.

“Alright yourself,” Raine answered, low and dangerous. She pointed her handgun at him. “What’s up?”

“Uhh, well … ” He looked off to the side, as if listening to somebody else. “Yeah, yeah, right.” Then he turned back to us, grinning and wincing like somebody who knew they were being a bit of a bother. “Mind if I use your front door? S’uh, no other way out. Yeah? Cool, we’re cool, yeah? Yeeeeeah.”

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17 thoughts on “by this art you may contemplate – 10.4

  1. So… if there’s no other way out, this guy and his squished friend either had a one-way portal in, or they snuck through Evelyn’s house at some earlier point to go in?

    A couple typos:

    > “Then what it is?”

    Got the “it” and the “is” swapped

    > “Oh dear, okay, that wasn’t um, wasn’t what I expecting to say. Oh dear.”

    Missing a “was”

    • Thank you for typo spotting! I always miss a few, no matter how many times I proofread.

      The other option, of course, is that they had a gateway/portal, but now it’s closed. After all, he did run off into the fog at first.

      • Ah okay, that makes more sense than running off just because he needed a jog to work the kinks out of his undead muscles.

  2. At least he’s polite! I’m sure they won’t mind. Just answer a few questions first, mate, like what the f**k are you?

    Brave new Top Web Fiction site! Basically it’s been integrated with parts of the soon to be defunct Web Fiction Guide sister site. To vote, click on Boost. There will be a CAPTCHA the first time. To see the ranked listings, .click on Popular.

    If you think they should let him in, vote here http://topwebfiction.com/listings/katalepsis
    If you think they shouldn’t, also vote here http://topwebfiction.com/listings/katalepsis
    Also if undecided http://topwebfiction.com/listings/katalepsis

    • Top Web Fiction comes back strong! Really glad to see that, actually, there’s so few central resources for web fiction, delighted it’s not going to vanish now. Thank you for all the votes too!

  3. Gender change seems a lot more detail oriented and broad change then what I would expect an outsider to figure out and pull off without unintended body horror results.

    I see once it was pointed out how what Lozzie says perfectly fits this interpertation but until it was pointed out I just assumed her mental health issues used to be worse and derived from physiological reasons that were changed to be closer to the average human brain.

    • I’m going to continue for now to leave the details here up to reader interpretation. As for an Outsider figuring things out, is an Outsider still an Outsider after it stops being Outside and escapes its prison via a human mind? Perhaps Heather needs to really talk to Lozzie about that part.

  4. “That was one of the most unhealthy things I’d ever said.

    Eventually, Evelyn cleared her throat and set her walking stick at an angle.”

    When Evelyn feels vaguely uncomfortable because someone is being less emotionally healthy than her. 😛

    Have to say, I’m loving the nuance to Heather’s abyssal side this chapter. It’s really interesting to see the lack of Zheng causing such a response.

    Honestly, I think its a very good thing she has Zheng right now, because otherwise I think those instincts might drive Heather to make unhealthy choices about her relationship with Raine.

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