The apparition in yellow robes reached for Evelyn’s shoulder; a peek behind the curtain.
A shiver of disgust and nausea gripped my throat. I was not meant to see this. I had broken an unwritten and unspoken rule. I had trespassed on taboo.
A stagehand’s mistake, a director’s stutter, an actor caught falling after a slip on the boards. That unblemished pale hand was not intended for my eyes, the ripple of yellow robes in air without wind was not for my disquiet, the mask in place of a face was not for me to recognise. I happened upon this scene by turning at the wrong moment, staring into the hidden space of lost seconds as all eyes were elsewhere.
Or – as I theorised later – was I on the stage as well?
Was I the rebellious pantomime character, who upon the audience’s set refrain of “He’s behind you!”, had refused to play the role of comedic disbelief?
The grey press of librarian bodies jostled against each other, drawing their circle tighter; Evelyn was a stone dropped into an ocean, and that ocean was about to close back over her head. That was for us to witness, but the yellow figure was for Evelyn alone. It would touch her shoulder, she would look up, and I knew with the undeniable logic of dramatic structure, that she would nod in agreement and be engulfed by the grey librarians, and when the rest of us noticed and pulled them apart and shoved them back, Evelyn would be gone, and we would never see her again.
I screamed her name too late. Perhaps that was part of the performance too, improvised to contain and funnel my intrusion. The pale hand fell upon her shoulder, the drooping yellow cuff brushed the sleeve of her coat. Raine and Zheng both began to turn at the sound of my panic. Lozzie went up on tiptoes. Twil span on one heel, claws out. But all of them were out of sync with the narrative, denied correct places on the stage.
Evelyn did not flinch at the unexpected touch. She pushed stray golden hairs out of her face and raised her eyes from the page. The librarian creatures surged together in one final ripple of gangly grey bodies, about to obscure both Evelyn and the yellow robes from my sight. I knew as one knows that sunlight will feel warm that when the librarians parted again, the yellow figure and Evelyn would both be gone.
In panic I summoned a jumble of brainmath, a garbled attempt at pure pressure, pure force to push the librarians away, to part the curtain so that Evelyn could not slip backstage. With no time to aim, no time for finesse, that force would knock her flat too, break her bones, snap her walking stick. But it would take only a second for her to look up into the empty eyes of the mask beside her.
Panic was enough. I decided the price was worth paying. Evelyn with broken bones and shattered ribs and a concussion was better than Evelyn gone. I spun the equation together in a single heartbeat, molten-hot icepicks through the back of my skull, bile rushing up my throat.
And then Praem was among the librarians like an owl dropped into a box of kittens.
She smashed her shoulder into a knot of the squid-faced creatures, sending them down in a tangle of flopping limbs, shoved another so hard it bounced off the bookcase with a tumble of dislodged volumes, punched a third across the face at the exact angle to break spines and splatter the floorboards with gritty, grayish blood as it flailed backward and dragged down a clutch of its fellows. She span and her black-and-white maid uniform followed, flaring out with a sense of worryingly theatrical display. She slapped the book out of Evelyn’s hands, planted one sturdy boot into a librarian stomach, swung another of the creatures with both hands and such force it toppled others like bowling pins. She cleared a space around her mistress with merciless mechanical precision.
No noise, no screams, no grunts of pain; the librarians made no sound but rustle of their robes and the breaking of their bones.
I had to let go of the equation, of course. A waste of blood and stomach acid, but I would never begrudge Praem getting there first. I spluttered and spat and sagged, caught by a bewildered Raine, holding onto my guts with a force of will as blood streamed from my nose.
Evelyn was white with shock as the wave broke. When she regained enough of herself to scream “Praem! Stop! Down!” the squid-faced librarians had already scattered, dragging their wounded and clutching their bruises, already reforming their group at the far end of the rectangular clearing.
By that time we were all on top of her too.
“Evee, Evelyn, breathe. Breathe. Heather, what-”
“What the fucking shit were they doing to you!? What was-”
“Praemy-Praem, it’s okay, you won, they’re gone, gone away, flown awaaaay-”
I sagged against the arm Raine had under my shoulders, blinking between a shaking, white-faced Evelyn and Raine trying to tend to both of us at once – she had a handkerchief out, wiping at my bloodied nose – and then I shook my head, staring past the confusion and the blood on my own face at the source of a paradox.
“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled at my shoulder. “What do you seek?”
“It’s gone,” I slurred, lost.
As Praem had broken the ring of librarians, the apparition in yellow had vanished back into the crowd. It had not reappeared among the fleeing stragglers. None of the battered and skittish group of squid-faces wore yellow robes, or carried a white mask. It had slipped backstage.
“I said- I specifically instructed- no- no fighting-” Evelyn was trying for incandescent rage, but too shaken to get there. Her voice came out a jumbled mess, her eyes going everywhere, one hand clutching hard to the front of Twil’s coat. “No hurting them, no fighting! Scattering them only! Praem!”
“Safe,” Praem intoned.
She turned back to Evelyn, spine ramrod straight, heels together, hands clasped before her in perfect demure poise, marred only by the grey blood on her knuckles.
“You made me to keep you safe,” she sing-songed. “Do not instruct me otherwise.”
“Oh, she’s mad at you,” Raine laughed. “Evee, you’re alright, yeah? They didn’t do anything to you?”
“Thank you, Praem,” Twil said, shaking with adrenaline jitters. “Thank you. What the fuck were they doing?”
“They don’t seem too bothered by us now,” Raine said, and waved her truncheon at the creatures. “Yo?”
“They cannot choose,” Zheng rumbled. “They are moved as pieces.”
“You sure about that?” Raine asked.
“I can see it plain.”
“Huh?” Twil squinted at her. “Who’s pulling the strings then?”
“If I knew that, I would challenge it,” Zheng purred.
“A-” Evelyn opened her mouth and faltered. “A warning shout would have been … quite … how did they get so close?” Her temper fell apart as panic dug in with long claws, as she shook all over, even with Twil’s arm around her shoulders. “I was- I- how long were you- there was hardly a need for that, was- oh, fuck, fuck, we don’t have any idea what that violence is going to precipitate. Why-” And then she saw me, with my nosebleed and my squinting pain. “Heather? What the hell were you doing?”
“Getting them off you,” I slurred.
“There was hardly a need for brainmath, you-”
“There was a figure in yellow robes. Reaching for your shoulder. Mask for a face.”
My heart skipped a beat as I reduced the unseen sight, the hidden scene, the taboo revealed, down into blunt words. My head pounded like a vice with the aftershock of aborted brainmath, but also with inability to express the ethereal nature of what I’d seen.
Evelyn squint-frowned at me, then at the librarians, then back to me. “Heather, what?”
“Didn’t you feel it? It touched you.”
“I felt nothing,” Evelyn said, sceptical and hard, and angry – with me. I boggled at her through the throbbing headache, then realised everyone else was looking at me with equal confusion.
“Praem, wasn’t that why you reacted?” I croaked. The doll-demon stared at me with blank white eyes.
“No yellow,” she intoned.
“I didn’t see that either, Heather, sorry,” Raine said, folding the handkerchief in half and wiping my nose again as I sniffed back blood. “Lean your head forward,” she instructed me. “Let it drain.”
“Yeah, I just saw the weird bastards,” Twil agreed. She shot a frown and an involuntary growl at the re-formed group of librarians, now standing a good thirty feet away at safe distance, like a collective whipped dog, shoulders hunched and tentacle-faces turned toward us in mute regard. Twil bared her teeth, and some of them shuffled further back.
“Spooky yellow?” Lozzie puffed her cheeks out, made her eyes wide as she could, and shook her head. “Nope.”
“I saw nothing of the kind, shaman,” Zheng purred.
“But it was- it was right there. It was only a second, but-” I turned back to Evelyn. “Evee, there was a figure in yellow reaching for your shoulder, like it hid itself among the librarians. Look at me, I’m bleeding like a stuck pig, I was going to use hyperdimensional math to knock them all back, I had to, it was going to- I don’t know, take you away, or-”
“Heather,” Evelyn said, through fraying self-control. “I am quite shaken by what just happened, alright? I accept, I made a mistake, I was not paying attention. I am an idiot, a fool, and we need to leave. I admit it. Do not mock me in addition.”
“Er, Evee?” Raine said.
“What?” went Twil.
“Uh oh.” Lozzie clamped herself to my side.
I blinked at Evelyn, increasingly lost. “I don’t-”
“You are insinuating we just had an encounter with The King in Yellow,” Evelyn spat, still white in the face. “Which is fiction.”
“I have no idea what that means,” I said. “I only know what I saw. Why are you-”
“The King! The King in Yellow! The book? Ugh.” Evelyn rolled her eyes and shook off Twil’s arm, trying to re-settle her walking stick in one hand and not doing a very good job of it. Praem had to take her other arm. “Isn’t literature meant to be your area of expertise? The name of this library – Carcosa – was used in some puerile pulp-era horror fiction. The author probably took the name from some tome he shouldn’t have been reading, but the rest of what he wrote was pure invention, nonsense, fiction. You just described the King in Yellow, an alien god, but fictional, no more real than the ravings of any starving monk or oversexed nun. There is no such thing as the King in Yellow, no such figure is mentioned in any real source, not in Unbekannte Orte or by Mechthild or anybody who has written about this place. It’s like believing in Prester John because Ethiopia is a real country. I’ve told you, Heather, keep your nose out of that 1920s crap. It clouds your judgement of reality.”
“ … Evelyn, I have never read that book. I didn’t know it exists until you just told me all that.”
“You must have! You must have done so, and forgotten you did.”
“No.” I sighed, in too much throbbing pain to indulge her. “Evee, I saw a figure in yellow robes and a pale mask, reaching for your shoulder, and I am not lying or hallucinating or having the vapours. You can’t overturn my life by convincing me to believe the evidence of my own eyes, and then tell me I’m wrong when you’re threatened. I know what I saw. It almost took you away.”
Evelyn stared at me, trying to work her jaw. “That’s … that-” She glanced over at the librarians. If they had any secrets to reveal, she saw none.
“I believe Heather,” Raine said with a thankful finality. “She sees more than we do on the regular, why should here be any different?”
“Because reality works different here,” Evelyn muttered, but her heart wasn’t in it, voice quivering. “Plus Lozzie, Praem, Zheng, all would have seen it in that case.”
“Mmhmm!” Lozzie chirped agreement.
“Evee, hey, it’s alright,” Twil was trying to say. “I shouldn’t have left you alone, I’m really sorry. Really sorry.”
“Alright,” Evelyn said. “Alright, let’s say you saw what you did, Heather. That doesn’t mean it’s The King in Yellow.”
“Don’t care what the freak was,” Twil said. “It stays the fuck away from you, that’s what matters.”
“Evee, why were you standing up and reading a book again?” I asked.
“Because we need one to re-orient the gate exit,” she huffed. “Praem checked it, it’s fine, it’s nothing interesting! Any of you can pick it up.” As she spoke, Raine did exactly that, waiting for the affirmative nod from Praem before lifting the nondescript old leather-bound tome in one hand. “It’s just some medieval German nonsense about place names and numerology. The usual, by and for bored monks. This doesn’t change our plans, it doesn’t change a thing, and I am fine.” She cleared her throat awkwardly and took a long, shuddering breath.
“You’re right, Evee, it doesn’t change our plans,” Raine said. “Ladies, we are leaving. Right now.”
“Damn fuckin’ straight,” said Twil.
“Lozzie, ready to do your thing?” Raine asked.
“Yes ma’am Raine miss sir!” Lozzie beamed back and did a tiny salute.
“I haven’t finished the gate calculation yet!” Evelyn snapped. “There’s no guarantee I’ll be able to do that from back home. We’d have to start all over again.”
“Then we can start back at the bottom floor,” Raine said, and looked to me for approval.
For a moment, I didn’t understand why. Of course we should be getting out of here. We had no idea what the vision in yellow meant, what it wanted, if it would return again. We still didn’t know how the squid-faced librarians would react to our violence. They seemed docile now, but this place did not obey our logic.
Then I realised, we were here for me, for Maisie; but Evelyn mattered too.
“Yes,” I croaked. “Of course. Let’s go, let’s all link hands.” I grabbed Lozzie’s hand as she reached out toward Praem, as Praem reached for Twil, as I looked in Evelyn’s eyes.
“Fine, yes, alright,” Evelyn spat. “Everyone out!”
“We can come back,” I said all in a rush. “Tomorrow, we-”
Zheng took one step backward, away from the group. She turned with all the fluid grace of a hunting tiger, head high, senses open; the gesture sent all us monkeys into a gut-instinct freeze, except for Twil who bristled and growled.
“Listen,” the demon purred. “We are approached.”
Metal spikes rolling across wood, a gentle tock-tock-tock of steady motion, now close enough to reach mortal ears, creeping through the maze of bookcases to our right.
“Ah.” Raine pulled a dark grin. “Our stalker’s here.”
“Our what?” spluttered Evelyn.
“Yeah, yo, what?!” Twil flexed wolf claws, turning to confront this new threat.
“We have been hunted, wizard, beyond the range of your attention,” Zheng rumbled. “Now the scavenger descends, in our moment of disarray.”
“All the more reason to get skedaddlin’,” Raine said. She took Evelyn’s weakly protesting hand in one of hers, and mine in her other, then tipped her head to Zheng. “Don’t be shy, left hand, join up and let’s go.”
But to my endless exasperation, Zheng stepped away and turned from us. She rolled her shoulders, staring at the opposite exit from our temporary camp.
“Zheng,” I said, in a tone that could have frozen iron.
“Ahhhh balls,” went Twil.
“I stay and fight. Until tomorrow, shaman,” Zheng rumbled, rotating her arms and letting her face split into a huge, shark-toothed grin. “It has been too long. You can pick me up when you are ready.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I snapped, pulling myself free from my own position in the circle. “Zheng, I am not leaving you behind, that is absurd. There’s no need for a heroic last stand, however much you want one, and I have too much of a headache to argue with you. Take my hand, now.”
“No last stand, shaman,” Zheng purred, easy and relaxed. “Just for fun. See you tomorrow.”
“Can’t you order her?” Twil asked, looking aghast.
“No, she has a point,” Evelyn spoke quickly. The tock-tock-tock of wood on metal drew very close now, separated from us by only a bookcase or two. “We leave here, good idea, yes, but whatever this thing is may have the power to follow us. Or it may wait in ambush here tomorrow, and we’ll be unable to get a foothold.” She wriggled her hand free from Raine. “Everyone get back. Praem, up front. Twil, keep an eye on the squid bastards, I don’t want them getting in the way. Heather, I need you next to me.”
“That is not my intention,” Zheng turned and growled at Evelyn. “Go home, wizard.”
“Too late, you’ve precipitated something you can’t control,” Evelyn dismissed her. She drew her scrimshawed thighbone from inside her coat. “Zheng has forced our hand. We deal with this here and get rid of it, so it won’t bother us on return. Now, everyone, if you please!”
Evelyn’s snap of command did the trick. In a few short heartbeats we drew together again. Raine tucked me behind her shield, next to Evelyn behind Praem and Twil, a maid uniform and a miniature hulk of werewolf fur with too many teeth. Lozzie huddled in close to my side, arm around my waist. Zheng stayed where she was, and turned away in disgust.
“Heather,” Evelyn hissed, eyes fixed on the gap between the bookcases as the wood-on-metal sound grew louder. “Are you ready? Can do you it again?”
“Yes,” I whispered back. “I’m ready. I’ll just … I’ll flatten it with my mind, I suppose. Whatever it is. Would that be okay?”
“Good plan,” Raine said, low and confident.
“Yes, but wait for my signal,” Evelyn whispered. “This might be nothing, like the goats. Might.”
Metal on wood approached with the ticking inevitability of a metronome; mechanical, perfectly regular, uninterrupted. We held our collective breath as a shadow fell across the gap between the bookcases. The caster of that shadow turned, and tock-tock-tocked out into the clearing. Thankfully it stopped a few feet later, because none of us had any idea how to react. Zheng stared in stoic distaste. Evelyn started to speak, then stopped. Twil’s growl fell away.
Lozzie, under her breath, went “Ooooh!”
Our stalker was a sphere.
A sphere about six feet in diameter, composed from thousands of hand-width rectangular prisms of matte grey material, like carbon fibre or very finely wrought concrete fenceposts. Each individual prism stood perfectly upright and flush against each neighbour, except where they marched back with a sort of stepped pyramid effect, forming a rough spherical curve both above and below. It wasn’t rolling, but instead each row of blocks moved downward and back to achieve locomotion, like tank tracks. The spiked wheel sound was produced when those edges touched the floor, but the sphere was clearly too large and too heavy for such a gentle noise. It should have been breaking floorboards as it passed, shattering wood and churning up splinters. No visible mechanisms, nothing to move the prisms; whatever held it up was beyond our understanding.
It was a machine, of that I had no doubt, but a machine wrought by no earthly science.
“S’like lego,” Twil said.
“Say nothing. Do nothing. Touch nothing,” Evelyn shushed her through clenched teeth. “Wait for it to … to leave. Heather, if it-”
“I know,” I hissed back.
Nothing happened. Just as I was about to suggest we back away to give it room – perhaps it wanted to pass us by – an awful tearing, ripping sound filled the air, a wet red noise, from inside the sphere, as if it had just suffered a terrible internal injury. Then it opened.
The rectangular prisms slid back to form a gap down the middle of the sphere’s front, with the eye-watering mechanical precision of a very expensive toy, folding away until they seemed to vanish in on themselves. Inside was a surprisingly well-lit interior of the same matte grey material, but of softly flowing curves instead of blocky exterior armour.
And on those softly flowing curves, the sphere cradled an occupant.
She looked quite normal, which was extremely worrying.
She – the sphere-woman, the pilot, whatever she was – was long and slender and neat, like a dancer, lounging in the seat of her strange machine as if under the sun of a tropical beach. She had very dark skin, equally dark hair woven into thick masses of braid, and the kind of face given to bubbly laugher and knowing looks, easy smiles and mocking snorts. Her eyes were gentle, creased with laughter lines, but her age was impossible to place. She could have been twenty five or fifty.
She was also completely naked, and covered head to toe in a steaming layer of crimson blood.
“Say nothing,” Evelyn hissed, wide-eyed and going green.
The woman in the sphere glanced down at herself, then rolled her eyes and sighed. Before any of us could say ‘Oh, excuse me miss, but you appear to be covered in gore’, the sphere closed again, as quickly as it had opened.
“What the fuck,” Twil said out loud.
“Shut. Up,” Evelyn snapped at her, on the very edge of her nerves. “Everybody shut up. That is a person in there, and that can only mean one thing.”
“Wizard,” Zheng growled, disgust in her teeth. It took me a heartbeat to realise that insult was not aimed at Evelyn.
“And let me do the talking,” Evelyn said. “Heather, if she so much as looks at any of us wrong-”
But the sphere opened again before Evelyn could finish telling me to kill the mage.
The blood was gone. In its place, the black woman wore a thick-spun red dress which looked distinctly medieval, very little skin on display, extra shawls around her shoulders, a rope-like belt around her waist woven with golden thread, and with golden inlaid patterns across the chest and arms and ankle-length skirt, mostly of ravens in flight. A distinctive crest adorned the right side of her chest, a shield with a speared boar picked out in yet more gold thread. A necklace lay at her throat, with a heavy golden pendant showing three interlocked triangles.
“Ogh?” she asked.
We all looked at Evelyn. All except Zheng, who looked like she wanted to surge forward and rip the woman out of the sphere with her bare hands.
The sphere-woman smiled at us in a very lopsided, old-lady kind of way. “Kmal eru fu lidel skotfrel ad gera hiier?”
“What’d she say?” Twil hissed.
“I … I don’t know,” Evelyn wet her shaking lips. “I have no idea. I don’t know what she’s speaking.”
“Sounds kinda Scandiwegian to me,” Raine murmured.
“Shut up. You don’t know anything,” Evelyn hissed at Raine, eyes wide on the strange lady. She raised her chin and raised her voice, speaking very carefully. As she spoke, I saw Lozzie reach out and take the back of Evelyn’s coat in one hand. “We do not understand your language, but perhaps you can understand mine, or at least my tone of voice. We mean you no harm. If you wish to pass by, you may do so.” Evelyn paused, forgetting what to do, then took one hand off her bone wand to gesture to the side in a please-go-around-us wave.
The sphere-woman nodded, raised her eyebrows, and made a rotating ‘carry on’ gesture with one hand.
“You want more words,” Evelyn said, and swallowed hard. I reached out and touched her back too, willing her what confidence I could spare. “Very well, very well. Uh, we mean you no harm, we do not obstruct your path. We were just leaving, we will be on our way. We have no interest and no stake in whatever your business is here and wish you-”
The sphere lady clicked her fingers and pointed at Evelyn with the most knowing smile I’d ever seen on a human face.
Then she rammed her hand inside her own head.
No blood, no splattering of grey matter, no cracking of skull. Her hand went straight through the side of her own cranium and into where I assumed she kept her brain, as if passing into water. She rummaged around for a moment. One of her eyelids fluttered, the side of her face drooped, and she shuddered three times, then pulled her hand back out with a little flourish. It was clean of blood, as if she’d merely removed it from her pocket.
She took a deep breath, wet her lips, and tried again.
“There we go,” the sphere-lady said, in perfect if heavily-accented English.
Raine was right, very Scandinavian. “Told you so,” she whispered.
“There we go, yes, much better,” the sphere-lady repeated. “Now we can have a proper talk, isn’t that so much better, much … ” Her face fell. She smacked her lips as if she’d tasted something foul, wincing and grimacing. “Oh, oh no, oh that is not better at all.”
“Fuck,” Evelyn gasped, hands shifting on her bone wand. “Get-”
“What is this barbarism I’m speaking?” the sphere-lady said to herself, in the exact tone of outrage one would use if somebody had just urinated on one’s favourite party shoes. “Oh, oh this is just intolerable, what is this? This language feels like a Saxon peasant dressed up as a Frankish prostitute. Is this what you people speak? This is a real thing? This isn’t some expeditionary cant you only use beyond the wall of your redoubt or something? Ugh, ugh.” She stuck her tongue out and flapped her hands.
“It’s called English,” I said, gently offended on Shakespeare’s behalf.
“Ruuuude,” Lozzie whispered.
“Yes, yes, well.” The sphere-lady cleared her throat. “I’m sure your … ah, noble tongue has … produced many great poets and worthy sagas. Yes. Certainly. No offence meant. Bleh,” she made another face. “Oh I am sorry, poppets. The last language I forced myself into was far prettier, more sparkling. It had all these wonderfully arcane connective propositions, like decorative plumage, it was marvellous.” She spread her hands, then sighed. “There’s a touch of the old northern speech in here, isn’t there? But none of you understood a word of the pure form, so I suppose we’re left with this ‘English’. Mm.” She frowned at us with great pity. “It isn’t really even a ‘language’, is it? More a linguistic chimera. Here, that word was Greek! See what I mean?”
“Some say,” I raised my voice, seeing an opportunity for quick rapport with this strange woman, no matter the gentle bruising to my literary pride, “that English is merely a pirate grammar that has plundered vocabulary from elsewhere.”
“Haha!” The lady in the sphere lit up with a great bubbly laugh. “Well, at least you have a sense of humour about it. Bravo.”
“We mean you no harm and seek no conflict,” Evelyn said without missing a beat, stiff and formal.
“Wizard,” Zheng rumbled through a mouth of knives, but luckily both Evelyn and the sphere-lady ignored her.
“We are strangers here,” Evelyn continued, measuring each word with great care even as she clutched her bone-wand in both hands, walking stick propped in the crook of her elbow, relying on Praem for support. “We are also about to leave. I am a mage of no little power, and my companions are under my protection. You may pass us by, on your business, and we wish you well.”
The sphere-lady blinked at Evelyn several times, suppressing an amused smile at the corners of her mouth. Then she looked around, over our heads at the gaggle of librarians, past our elbows, made eye contact with Lozzie, frowned at Zheng.
“Where’s the pretender, then?” she asked. “It’s not one of you people, is it? No, of course not, that was a joke.”
“The … pretender,” Evelyn deadpanned.
“Seven-Shades-Of-Sunlight? The Sepia Prince? Lady Tawn? The Jaundiced Count? No?” She boggled at us, as if we were the ones speaking in cryptic reference.
“You mean the figure in yellow robes,” I answered. “Don’t you?”
“Yes!” She lit up, all beaming smile and dancing eyes as she leaned forward to consider me. “Was it you he appeared to? Or … she? Yes, I think a princess or a noble lady in your case, rather than a prince. Much more likely, from your … aura, shall we say? So? Yes?” She waved both hands in a go-on motion, bursting with excitement.
“ … so?”
“So what happened?” She laughed. “I am all ears, please, you must tell me the particulars. I am dying to be part of the audience. You did see a pretender, yes? Did you not?”
“The King in Yellow,” Evelyn said, dripping with scorn.
“The King?” The sphere-lady laughed long and loud and slightly mocking, so much she had to wipe little tears from her cheeks as we all glanced at each other. “Don’t be absurd. If you’d met the King, you would know so. Besides, he’s certainly not in the library, you’d have to go to the palace. You met a pretender to the throne, I’m certain. There’s enough of them to go around.”
“We did not,” Evelyn almost snapped. “And if we did, it left, we chased it off. This is absurd, there is no such thing as the King in Yellow, it was a fictional invention.”
“An interesting theory,” the sphere-lady nodded. “You subscribe to the auto-genesis school of thought, then? Or perhaps the illusionist sect?”
Evelyn and I shared a glance.
“This is getting fuckin’ crazy,” Twil growled low, for our ears alone. “Let’s go, she’s tryin’ to mess with us.”
“Yeah,” Raine agreed softly. “This is a mind-screw.”
“And she wouldn’t have left,” the lady carried on, crossing one leg over the other, lounging on her seat inside the armoured grey sphere. “Not if she was beginning a performance, not so early in the show. Which means you delightful little … Englishers? Is that right? You must be more than meets the eye. Even the dullest pretender wouldn’t grace just anybody as an audience. And you’re the one who saw?” she said to me. “What’s your name, little one?”
“Don’t answer that,” Evelyn hissed, without taking her eyes off the lady, caution peeled away for naked hostility.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” the lady sighed. “I’m no demon of the deep, I can no more reweave you with your name than you could me with mine. Here,” she placed one hand against her chest and raised her chin. “Saldis Solveig Nyland, that was my name on birth, daughter of Jarl Tollak Nyland. Now, you?”
“Still don’t answer,” Evelyn said. “Be on your way, magician. We do not wish conflict.”
Saldis rolled her eyes.
“Forgive our suspicions,” Raine said with a smile. Evelyn turned to hush her, but too late. “But you were following us.”
“Nonsense!” Saldis waved a hand. “I wasn’t even consti- … hmm, I’m mangling the subtleties of your mongrel tongue, aren’t I? Constituted? Hydrated? … I was sleeping, let’s leave it at that, shall we? You can hardly blame a sleepwalker for following her nose.” She patted the arm of her chair. “I only get up when I get where I’m going. And where I’m going is the audience of a pretender. Which means whatever performance has begun here, it is still ongoing. But I do wonder, poppets, what is so special about you?”
Saldis frowned gently above her broad smile, and the strangest sensation came over me, as if I was standing on a suburban street before the scrutiny of a sweet old lady, not deep in a labyrinth of books and monsters on the far side of reality. Her eyes flickered over each of us, with a purse of her lips for Zheng and a wink for Praem.
“I suppose you’re browsing the books for the same thing all sorcerers visit here for,” Saldis sighed with disappointment. “Wandering around without protection, all thinking and feeling and seeing without restriction. Barely a human among you, all constructs and amalgams, but that doesn’t explain the interest.” She tutted as if over a puzzle.
Evelyn leaned in close to me, until she caught Lozzie in the corner of her eye too.
“We need to leave,” she whispered through the corner of her mouth, and only then I realised how badly she was shaking. “Now, before this mage changes her mind.”
“Right,” Raine muttered in agreement. “Lozzie, you ready?”
“Can dooooo,” Lozzie whispered back.
“But- Zheng-” I said.
“Exactly,” Evelyn hissed. “Get her over here, or we leave her behind. Quickly.”
Saldis, the sphere lady, the black Norse-woman from a thousand years ago, was still stroking her chin and considering us like a difficult magic-eye puzzle. I turned to Zheng and spoke as casually as I could manage, an effort marred only by the crack in my voice and the tremor in my chest.
“Zheng, could you please rejoin us over here? Come hold my hand.” I stuck a hand out, and found it quivering.
Zheng arched an eyebrow at me. A slow grin spread across her lips, cracking her face until she showed all of those beautifully sharp teeth. Then she turned back to Saldis.
“Zheng-” I started.
“No,” Praem intoned.
“Oh for pity’s sake,” Evelyn hissed.
“Left hand,” Raine called out, but we were all too late.
“Wizard,” Zheng purred. “How sturdy is your chariot?”
“Hmmmm?” Saldis tore her eyes away from the puzzle of why we mattered, and looked Zheng up and down with quick appraisal. “Sturdy enough to withstand the arm of any draugr. Why do you ask? Fancy your chances? I am in a gentle mood, little dead-walker, don’t put me out of sorts-”
Zheng let the old mage know exactly what she thought of her ‘gentle mood’.
The demon-host surged forward like a greased bear trap, a blur against the background of bookshelves, her coat streaming out behind with a leathery whip-crack. One hand formed a wedge, to punch through teeth and jaw and rip out tongue at root, before the mage could utter a spell. Zheng moved so fast I flinched; I think I screamed her name, screamed for her to stop. Evelyn scrambled with her scrimshawed bone-wand and the ambient temperature dropped by several degrees. Raine shoved Lozzie and I back and down, crouching behind her home-made shield.
With a whump and a thump and the breaking of several finger-bones, the sphere closed up, and Zheng’s fist bounced off.
She reeled backward, leaving a bloody smear behind where she’d punched the edge of one of the blocks that made up the sphere. I watched in mute horror as the surface absorbed the blood and fragments of skin, as they vanished into the grey.
“God damn you!” Evelyn shouted at Zheng. “Get over here now, or we will leave you behind, you blathering idiot zombie!”
“Shit, shit, shit,” Twil was saying. “We gotta go, we gotta go before she opens up again!”
“We do, yes,” Evelyn agreed. “Lozzie, link hands. Get us all together. Zheng, you have three seconds.”
Zheng growled at the closed sphere.
“Zheng, please!” I called, even as Lozzie’s little hand fumbled into mine and held on tight. Zheng reluctantly backed away from the grey stone sphere, flexing her broken hand to re-knit the shattered bones.
The sphere opened again like a flower peeling back under the light of the sun.
“Oh, no, don’t leave now,” Saldis said, apparently unconcerned that Zheng had just attempted to pull her face off, talking as if we were exiting a dinner party too early. “I want to make a friendly little deal with you people, just a small one.”
“You have nothing to offer us,” Evelyn said, loud and clear and shaking. Twil grabbed her elbow, the circle almost complete.
“You are meat in a shell, wizard,” Zheng growled.
“Zheng!” I hissed.
“You’re undoubtedly here for the same reason a thousand mages have been before,” Saldis continued, waving an airy and disinterested hand at this notion. “Knowledge, power, all that boring stuff. Now, if you will consent to getting me into the audience for the performance your oh-so-interested pretender is putting on, I will help direct you to the most illuminating, most well-informed, correct and complete grimoires you could imagine. Beyond your wildest dreams, anything you like.”
“We have our own way of locating books, thank you very much, no,” Evelyn said. Zheng took another slow, retreating step toward us. Evelyn put her head sideways against mine and whispered. “We need to go, right now, while she’s still talking.”
“Almost is not enough, Heather.”
“Oh, you mean name-finding?” Saldis grimaced delicately. “What an awful term for it. Your English really is not up to much, is it? Anyway, whatever locationary magic you have planned, it won’t work here, names themselves don’t work properly here. You have to use the catalogue system.” She gestured up and over our heads, at the gaggle of squid-faced librarians in their wounded huddle. “But it can be very tricky if you don’t phrase yourself right, and-”
“Thank you, and no thank you. We are leaving,” Evelyn raised her voice and lost her temper. “Zheng, now, or you are being left here.”
“Oh, I can’t let you do that,” Saldis tutted, and raised a hand.
That delicate dark hand exploded in slow motion – split open like a flayed fruit, skin peeling into springy curls, muscle separating from bone into vibrating staves of wet crimson meat, blood vessels springing apart to branch between them like arcane notation, bones a gleaming white sculpture. Her hand forced itself into a symbol, a sigil that hurt the eyes, that made Twil howl through her teeth and Raine hiss in pain and Zheng flinch like she’d been struck with a whip and-
I shouldered past Raine’s shield, and stepped forward.
Saldis, whatever she was, raised an eyebrow at me, at the certainty in my voice beneath the shake and the quiver and the fear of being so very small. Her writhing, mutilated hand paused mid-transformation.
“My name is Heather Morell. The mage behind me, she is not the leader of our group, I am,” I said, and forced my chin high, my spine straight, my bowels to stop quaking, as I prepared an equation in my mind. “I am the adopted child of the Great Eye. I have swum the space between dimensions, and brought the abyss back with me.” I squinted hard as I dug my hands into the sump at the bottom of my soul, as blood began to leak from my nose. “We are looking for specific books with which to save my twin sister, not knowledge or power for power’s sake, and I will kill anything that gets in my way. You will lower your hand or I will reduce you and your … your ridiculous ball-thing to atomic paste.”
I closed my mouth, and held myself there, vibrating with searing headache pain and blood dripping from my nose, right on the edge of violent climax.
Saldis – to my incredible surprise – lit up with girlish glee. She snapped her wrist and her hand returned to normal, and then she clapped it together with the other one.
“A quest! Oh, you’re on a quest! Oh, I do so adore a proper heroic saga. And what could be more heroic? A missing twin? Beautiful! Well, that explains it then, doesn’t it?”
Raine and Praem both caught me as I let go of the equation, as I buckled at the knees and fell back. Even Zheng finally relented in her absurd, costly aggression, and placed herself directly between me and the ancient, horrible, inhuman thing which pretended to be a human being.
“Explains what?” I croaked.
“Heather, shut up,” Evelyn hissed.
“Why you’ve been graced with a performance, of course,” Saldis explained. “All the pretenders take after their patriarch, they all have such a sense for the dramatic. No wonder one showed herself to you personally. Probably Seven-Shades-Of-Sunlight. I have heard she has a taste for sentimental relationships between women, that sort of thing.”
“But it tried to take-” I glanced at Evelyn as I choked back a mouthful of blood, and remembered not to say her name.
“Nonsense, that was for your benefit, lady Morell,” Saldis said, tutting. “Why would a pretender care about some little sorceress? No no, you’re the one who saw it, the show was for you. If you’re the adopted daughter of … what was it again? Never mind. You’re practically foreign royalty, and on a quest! Seven-Shades wants to teach you something, impart some wisdom, inspire you. This is a wonderful opportunity!”
“I have had quite enough of being taught things by alien gods,” I croaked, too exhausted to humour this woman any longer. Raine dragged me back into our little group, and finally Zheng stepped back too, and put one hand on Raine’s shoulder.
“I would like to offer you a different deal,” Saldis said.
“No,” Evelyn snapped. “Lozzie-”
“Yah!” Lozzie chirped. “Twil grab Praem. Praem touch me!”
“I want to be written into your saga – you are recording it, yes? Somebody must be writing it down for posterity?” Saldis went on, heedless, very excited indeed now. “Make sure to include me, in detail. I’ll take you straight to whatever books you wish, name them, please, and in return I want to join the audience for the pretender’s show. Oh I do hope it is Seven-Shades, I’ve not yet had the pleasure of one of her performances.”
“Lozzie, are we ready?” Raine asked.
“Everyone close your eyes,” I slurred as loud as I could.
“Oh, I wouldn’t leave if were you,” Saldis said, with none of the casual menace she had displayed earlier, only an irritating, knowing smirk. She leaned back in her seat, utterly at ease.
“Wait,” Evelyn stalled Lozzie with a sideways nod. “What does that mean, magician?”
“I mean the performance has already begun.” Saldis laughed softly. “The rest of you may exit the stage at will, I’m certain, but … ” She pointed a lazy finger at me, winked, and blew me a kiss. “But the intended audience, well, she is in for the duration, until the final curtain. Whatever stronghold of humanity you are about to retreat to, the show must go on.”