Yellow robes whispered across the wooden boards, and admitted no hint of gait beneath, no kick of feet to free the director from the tripping tangle. A pallid hand invited each volunteer player upon the stage, guided young ladies to their places by raised fingertips, positioned them with feathery touches at elbow, shoulder, and hip. Empty eye sockets in a blank mask gave no taste as to the coming genre; no comedic crinkle of crow’s feet, no tragic drawing-in of eyebrows, no melodramatic gathering of tears.
Soundless but for the rustle of yellow fabric, the King – or Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, or a demon that had followed us back from Carcosa, or a maniac dressed in rotten rags – set the actors in their starting poses.
And I appeared to be the only person in the lecture hall who saw anything out of the ordinary.
Professor Raymond had retreated to the edge of the stage, to nod and stroke his chin as his ghostly assistant set up the ‘demonstration’. The rest of the student audience watched, with all the curious boredom expected of first-years in an early class with a eccentric lecturer.
Raine’s concern was all with me.
“Heather, tell me what’s wrong,” she hissed.
“Can’t you see it?” I whispered back, mouth bone dry, my hand clammy in hers.
“Nothing. Heather, what’s-”
“Raine, exactly what do you see happening down there? Describe it to me.”
She only glanced at the stage because I was so terrified. She shook her head. “Nothing out of the ordinary. Mister owl chap is standing aside, looks like the students are gonna do a skit or something. Seems a bit much for a lit class.”
The Yellow Director turned an actor’s arm here, adjusted another’s footing there, rotated a volunteer’s wrist by a few precise degrees. The thin sunlight creeping in through narrow slit-windows at the top of the lecture hall suddenly clouded over. Several of the ugly modern fluorescent strip-bulbs flickered and went out, leaving only the wooden platform lit. Nobody looked up, or remarked on the gathering shadows.
How strange it is, not to trust the evidence of one’s own senses. I believe if any other had been in my place in the Yellow King’s audience that morning, they would have flirted with true madness. But I had ten years of experience in seeing things other people could not. With a conscious effort, I anchored my mind with that brutal fact, and told myself this was really happening.
To do otherwise would play right into those pale hands.
One other pair of eyes did see what I was seeing. But I suspected that Saldis was neither a person, nor actually here.
“What is happening?” I hissed over my shoulder, at the wizard in red-and-gold.
“I told you already,” Saldis answered with breathy excitement and not a little condescension. “The show must go on.”
“Heather, Heather, look at me,” Raine hissed sharply. “Whatever you’re seeing, it’s not happening. Or it’s spirits, pneuma-somatic, the same as always.”
Saldis laughed with a musical tinkle. “Your paramour is not part of the audience, lady Morell, however close your hearts lie. Best quiet her down before the ushers decide to remove a distraction from the stalls.”
That got my eyes off the stage and over my shoulder, if only for a second.
“Ushers?” I whispered.
“Heather,” Raine hissed, her other hand gripping my shoulder, squeezing to bring me back. “Heather, look at-”
“Shhh,” I hushed her as loud as I dared. “Raine, please stop. Don’t disrupt the play. I think you might be in danger if you do.”
In a testament to her trust for me – and how quickly she could adapt to the unexpected – Raine did exactly as I asked. She didn’t understand, she couldn’t see; she just dealt with it. She glanced at the stage again, then over her shoulder at the closed doors to the lecture hall. She scanned the other students, the empty seats, the exits. One hand crept inside her leather jacket.
“Right you are,” she whispered, wire-tight and ready to spring. “Do we need to get out of here?”
“I … I don’t know,” I admitted.
Down on the stage, the Yellow Conductor was making increasingly granular adjustments to the players – bending a finger here, tilting a head there. I noticed with relief that the student volunteers were still acting like students roped into a silly practical demonstration. Trying not to laugh, blushing faintly, sharing amused looks with their friends in the audience.
Eight of them. Six women, two men.
“There’s people involved now,” I hissed. “A-and the … it’s touching them, it can’t be pneuma-somatic, can’t be. Maybe we should get out, yes, maybe it’ll follow me, leave them alone and-”
The retreat died on my lips. The Yellow Apparition finished the preliminaries, and gifted each actor with a role.
A porcelain hand brushed each volunteer’s face, caressed a cheek, traced a jawline, shivered across a chin. At that touch, each volunteer became somebody else.
There was no actual physical transformation, no terrible explosion of change, no warping of flesh like melting plastic, no ruined puppet flopping upon the stage. In a way, that would have made this easier. At least then I could have shot out of my seat with a scream, or scrabbled together some brainmath to reverse what this stray godling had wrought upon innocent bystanders. But no, the Yellow Intruder’s magic was one we humans knew all too well.
Facial muscles shifted in a million tiny ways, settling into expressions alien to their wearers. Musculature slackened here and tightened there, pose flowed like water, shoulders rolled back and up, or slouched with old pain. Eyes relaxed and fluttered, or narrowed into hard squints. Grins cracked open on faces that had never grinned like that before. Arms clutched at themselves in mirror mockery. Teeth flashed that were neither sharp nor too many. One of the volunteers ran a hand through her hair and winked. Another chirped a giggle.
One need not be a mage to recognise acting.
Except none of these people were actors. I do not know much about the art, but I do understand it’s not just reading the script in the right kind of voice. It’s in how you hold yourself, in how you breathe, in tone and glance and how straight your back stands, in every micro-expression and habit and subconscious tell. Acting is to rid oneself of everything that makes you seem like you, and replace them with other parts.
Every single volunteer suddenly displayed the mastery of a classically trained, lifelong veteran of the stage, and they did so without uttering a single word.
“ … oh,” I swallowed. “Well, that’s just obscene.”
Raine eyed me carefully.
“It’s beautiful,” Saldis said. “They have you down perfect. Don’t be such a philistine, little Englisher.”
The actors’ roles were us.
They looked nothing like us, of course. The young woman unknowingly aping Raine’s shoulders-back beaming confidence was nowhere near as athletic as the real Raine. She was soft and cuddly around the middle, with mousy hair down to her shoulder blades and an angular face that should not have been able to pull Raine’s grin at all, but did. Evelyn was played by a man, which vaguely offended me at first, before I saw the miracle of observational mimicry. He had her hunched shoulders, her awkward spinal twist, the kink of her hips and the uneven set of her artificial leg. He even had her scowl.
Twil, bestial and worried, played by a woman who should have been too willowy and slight, too gentle-looking. Praem was also played by a man, but that made no difference in the face of this supernaturally bestowed skill; straight-backed and precise, lack of expression an expression all its own, there was no mistaking who he was meant to be.
Zheng was absurd, played by a woman shorter even than I, but languid predatory intent lingered in every tilt of her head and kink of her amused lips. Even Lozzie was correct, giggly and flouncy in the body of a woman who probably spent her free time playing rugby, whose muscle mass could have given the real Zheng a run for her money.
As they changed, the lecture hall took on an air of hyper-reality. Every colour seemed more saturated, every line of scenery and clothing sharper, every scent richer. I could see every ripple in the Yellow Godling’s robe, every eyelash on the actors’ lids, every rise and fall of every chest, every flash of imitation face.
And then there was ‘me’.
“Tch,” I tutted at Saldis. “No they don’t have me perfectly, don’t be absurd.”
“She has your slouch!”
“She’s ten times prettier than me. And about three cup sizes bigger in the chest.”
I huffed, trying to triage outrage and fear with my own performance. Playing a character is one thing, but down on that stage were the mannerisms and expressions of real people in my life, people I valued and loved, people I chose to spend my life with. Seeing them stolen and recycled made me angry in a way I couldn’t explain. I risked a sideways glance at the real Raine, and saw the same mannerisms right there, right next to me.
“Heather,” Raine whispered, gentle but serious, “can I ask who you’re talking to?”
“Somebody who’s not really here. I think. Saldis. She’s behind us but you can’t see her.”
The pale hand brushed across the brow of the final of the eight volunteer players – a gently pudgy woman with a heart-shaped face and lots of ginger curls. I expected Tenny, or perhaps Kimberly, to sprout into being in pose and gesture, and briefly wondered if the former was even possible. But it wasn’t either of them.
At first I didn’t comprehend who she became, who the role was meant to be; I did not recognise the bouncy child-like shoulder wiggle, the happy side-to-side bob of the hips, the grope of a small hand for an absent partner. Neither did I recognise the awkward twitching layered on top, or the starving look behind the eyes. I did not recognise any of it, but my subconscious did.
It was partly me.
Me at eight years old, before Wonderland, and then molded by a different set of influences.
Tears prickled in my eyes. Fear turned to cold anger.
“You cannot show me this,” I whispered down at the Yellow Thing. “You monster, you cannot show me this.”
“Oh, but this is the entire point,” Saldis supplied. Only the fact she didn’t exist stopped me from turning on the spot and slapping her stupid. “Isn’t this the aim of your quest, lady Morell? You can hardly be expected to deduce the true intent of the author without the goal on stage. The show would make no sense.”
“It’s grotesque,” I whispered, my throat thick with emotion. I wanted to leap out of my seat and run onto the stage. Part of me didn’t care if it was an imitation, if it looked nothing like the real person, if it was plucked from my own memories or a connection with the abyss or some unthinkable simulacrum. “It’s violation.”
“All art is violation,” Saldis said with dismissal.
“When we return to Carcosa, I shall slap you for that,” I hissed.
“Blame the pretender, not I,” Saldis drawled. “I’m right here in the audience with you, lady Morell, and I mean no offence.”
“Heather? Heather,” Raine repeated. “We getting out of here or not?”
I shook my head. I could no more leave the performance than I could stop breathing.
The King in Yellow, or Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, or a ridiculous ghost in yellow sheets, had summoned my twin to the stage.
Played by a woman that looked nothing like Maisie or I, but there was more of her down there than I’d seen with my physical eyes in ten years.
“No,” I hissed, and scrubbed my eyes with my sleeve. “No, we can’t leave. I can’t leave, I have to … I want to watch. I need to know.”
“I’ve never known a pretender to be so literal, hmmm,” Saldis allowed herself a mildly disappointed hum. “Or perhaps a demonstration of power? I suppose you are foreign royalty, after all. Only the most conventional form is acceptable. Unless this is merely a narrative within a narrative.” Her voice brightened at that, and laughed another tinkling laugh. “But hush, I will still myself. It’s beginning!”
The Yellow Master stepped back, falling into muted shadow as if out of focus, and the players began to move.
I’d only ever seen one real play before, a production of Macbeth, alongside the rest of my secondary-school literature class. I did possess vague childhood memories of our parents treating Maisie and I to several Christmas pantomimes, though those hardly count. But I know the theory.
A play is fragile illusion, forged by agreement between actors and audience. Flesh and blood in real time, pretending to be something it is not. Even the worst play captures a glint of that magic, invokes the stage as a place of transformation, invites the audience to believe.
It should not have worked, not on me, not here, not like this. The actors looked nothing like us, I was terrified out of my mind, still not sure if I was going mad, and distracted by trying to see beneath the Yellow Robes at the back of the stage. According to the clock on the wall, the scene the actors played out took no more than Professor Raymond’s promised five minutes, and they acted entirely without dialogue, a story of silent gestures and meaningful looks and pure physicality.
It was so powerful it reduced me to tears.
I cannot do it justice. I am incapable; words fall short. It is often said that one cannot simply read Shakespeare’s plays, one must see them performed, and that the same is true of any great playwright. The Yellow Pretender was one such genius, and the intended audience was me alone.
The play was a vision – or, I prayed, as I came to understand, a version – of what would happen when we tried to rescue Maisie from Wonderland.
Not literal, of course. The Maisie-actor always out of reach at the edge of our group was not literally in the Eye’s clutches, Wonderland itself did not blossom around the actors’ bodies. If it had I would have been provoked to intervention, or destruction, or worse. But it was in the actors’ forced, mimicked expressions, in their fear and resolve, in the pain and anger on ‘my’ face. Wonderland was present via interpretation, in panicked gesture and mad scramble across the stage, in a circle of fellowship that exploded under its own weight.
It was a story of how I was going to fail.
Under the pressure of the Eye’s attention, Evelyn’s efforts collapsed, and she with them, mewling and broken. Praem wanted to help, but she was lost inside herself, redirected to her own lack. Twil became an animal. Zheng and Raine turned on each other – the actors played out a stylised fight, all strike and block and twist with bare hands. Lozzie stayed by my side too long, refused to leave when I told her to go, returned when I pushed her away.
I – the real me – was so absorbed in the personal horror of the story, that I almost didn’t realise when the actor playing me started bleeding.
Great slow rivers of blood flowed from her nose, her eyes, out of her ears, stained the front of her tshirt and jumper as she stared upward – me, defying the Eye – and that was no fake blood. She bled far more than I ever did when executing brainmath. A wave of crimson choked out of her mouth.
“Oh, oh no,” I whispered, finally ripping my attention away from what was happening on stage in favour of what was really happening on stage.
“Heather?” the real Raine squeezed my hand harder.
“Oh no, no no, that’s girl’s going to die, she’s just normal, she can’t bleed like that, not without-”
The action reached a crescendo, and exploded into climax. ‘Heather’ collapsed in a blood-soaked heap, just as she seemed to break through some unseen barrier, her last effort to reach for the Maisie-actor thwarted by her own failing body. The Twil-actor leapt at ‘Praem’ over Evelyn’s prone, still, unbreathing corpse, and awful tearing, ripping sounds came from their frantic struggle. At exactly the same moment, Raine and Zheng’s duel ended – the Raine-actor produced a knife, a real one, huge and sharp, and slit Zheng’s throat in a bloody arc of short-lived triumph, disembowelled a moment later by Zheng’s death-spasm, guts spilling across the stage like writhing snakes.
Not one of them screamed. Not even a grunt.
The Yellow Nightmare whispered forward, into the wreckage, and engulfed the Maisie-actor in yellow robes. She was gone.
Real blood, real guts, real death. This was no illusion. The mingled reek of blood, sweat, and shit filled the air. Only a decade of self-control kept a scream from clawing up my throat.
“Oh, bravo! Bravo!” Saldis slapped her hands together in wild applause. “Not exactly subtle, but I approve. Real grand-guignol treatment, yes! Beautiful!”
I reached both hands into the black pit of my soul, and summoned the Eye’s lessons.
Innocent people lay dead, because an alien god-thing wanted to teach me a cruel lesson, but I could re-knit them if I was fast and precise. It would cost me. I could perform miracles, but I would have to run the equations beyond my body, return to the abyss. And that awful, ugly, bloody prediction upon the stage was so convincing that I wanted to leave, go back to the ocean between worlds, be what I was meant to be. What was the point in staying here, if my actions, my plan, would lead to that? Better I become a thing of photons and starlight and black ocean depths, than lead all my friends, my beloved, to that. A trade. My useless, disgusting ape-self for those innocent dead who weren’t even part of this.
But then The Yellow Beast reached for one of the fallen players – the Zheng actor, I think – and passed that pale hand over her torn throat.
The wound was gone. Blood vanished behind the ripple of yellow sleeves. The actor got to her feet with a flushed face and sheepish smile, no longer channelling the mannerisms and gestures of my beautiful demon-host. She took a nervous bow and shuffled off the stage.
Seven-Shades-of-Serious-Shenanigans went from actor to actor, raising the dead and spiriting away the mess. A stage trick. Relief flooded me even as I sniffed back a bloody nose of my own, the product of stalled brainmath. The vanished Maisie-actor reappeared from behind the yellow robes, and followed the others back to her seat.
“Heather, yo, brainmath, now?” Raine hissed. I just shook my head.
“Why … why show me this?” My breath shuddered as I whispered down at the Yellow Thing. “What was the point? Just to tell me I’m going to fail? I’m going to kill all my friends?”
“Heather, you’re not going to kill all your friends,” Raine murmured, sudden and hard and certain. “I don’t know what you’re seeing, but you’re not going to do that.”
Professor Raymond cleared his throat and returned to the lectern, adjusting his glasses with an awkward smile. “Well, there you have it,” he said. “I hope that made sense. And thank you,” he nodded at the Yellow Mockery.
The King in Yellow turned and glided back toward the little wooden side-door.
“What was the point?” I hissed again, brimming with anger now. I glanced over my shoulder but Saldis was gone, her seat empty once more.
When I looked back at the stage, The Yellow Torturer was still there, on the very edge, about to exit. It stopped and looked directly at me with those dark holes for eyes. I held the gaze. It bowed low – in thanks or mockery or apology – and left the lecture hall.
The door closed behind it. The light bulbs flickered back on. The clouds passed from the sun.
“Right then, where were we? Ah yes, the torture machine,” Professor Raymond picked up exactly where he’d left off.
“Okay, okay, right, okay,” I whispered to Raine, shaking harder than I’d thought, soaked in my own layer of cold sweat as I wiped at my bloody nose with the back of my hand. “I would very much like to get out of here now, yes please. Help me.”
“All I saw was a bunch of students doing a silly skit. But if that’s what you say happened, it happened, and I believe you.”
Raine kept her voice low, in case of random passers-by as we climbed the stairs in Willow House, as quickly as my shuddering heart would allow.
The long snake of a building was quiet between classes, our footsteps echoing in the whitewashed corridors and stairwell. I’d never left a lecture early before, and even under these utterly mad circumstances a tiny part of myself – the well trained, goody-two-shoes part – felt awfully guilty at skipping out before the end.
“Thank you, yes, but Raine, we need to get home. We need to,” I hissed back. “We need Evee to look at my head- and- I can’t, I can’t do this. I can’t let you all end up like that, I-”
“Medieval Metaphysics room is closer.” Raine gave me a confident grin. “It’s also warded. We’ll get you there, lock the door, then call Evee. She’ll know what to do.”
“Will she?” I murmured.
Raine squeezed my hand tighter, and dragged me onward.
We reached the door to the Medieval Metaphysics room, tucked away in the bare concrete stairwell at the rear of the building. Thin grey sunlight filtered through the single tiny window. Raine had her key ready before we even stopped. She got the door open and got me inside with a minimum of fuss, then left me shaking and shivering alone for a moment as she closed and locked the door behind us.
“Sit down, take a moment. It’s gonna be alright,” she told me.
We hadn’t spent any great amount of time in here lately, but the Medieval Metaphysics room was still a rallying point for us, a main stop on our routine of safety when beyond the walls of number 12 Barnslow Drive. A comfortable room with a kettle and some tea and some nice armchairs, where I regularly waited for Raine to pick me up, or where Evelyn came between her own classes. We’d even had Praem in here a few times, bustling about and making tea.
The familiar sagging bookshelves and the soft light through blanket-covered windows eased my terror, gave me a moment to take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Even the old racking that filled half the room felt friendly. Perhaps the Thing In Yellow had been forced to use the lecture hall because the house was warded, so perhaps we were safe in here, for now. On shaking legs I walked over to one of the shaded lamps and fumbled for the switch, felt better for the light, then walked back to Raine.
She had her mobile phone out, thumbing at her contact list.
“Seriously, you can sit down, I’m right here, not going anywhere without you.” Raine raised the phone to her ear with a wink for me. “Emergency first, I’ll contact Evee, then I promise I’ll help you get cleaned up.”
“Yes, yes of course. I just-” I sniffed back the lingering nosebleed, dabbing at my face with a tissue, then let my shoulders slump. “I’ll sit.”
Our backs had been turned to the trio of armchairs and the wide table in the middle of the room, for about five seconds.
When I turned back I screamed and jumped out of my skin.
Raine – bless her, keep her safe, I love her so much – reacted faster than I thought possible. She dropped the phone and drew her big black combat knife from inside her jacket in one fluid motion. With a manoeuvre that felt too gentle for how fast she moved, she took my shoulder and shoved me back, interposing herself between me and the occupant of the chair, who had not been there a moment ago.
Her senses didn’t even register what it was until I was safe, until she was protecting me.
I should have been the one shielding her.
It was Raine.
The figure slumped in the chair was Raine – or at least, a patchwork parody of Raine. A life-size wooden doll with a painted face and fake hair and cheap, scratchy versions of her clothes, which looked to have been sewn together from various different cast-off pieces of spare fabric. The doll itself was all mismatched too, arms and legs of different sizes, with different kinds of joints, made from different colours of wood.
But that face. A masterwork of cruel satire. Her rakish grin, the flash of her eyes, the angle of her nose. It was all there, made ugly and false.
A rusted butter knife lay in the doll’s lap. In one hand it held a length of industrial twine. In the other, a large sewing needle. Two thick bands of similar twine – one rose-red in colour, the other dark crimson – were wrapped about it, under the clothes and over the clothes and looping the torso and hooked around the limbs. The wire braced it, held it together, kept the doll in one piece.
At least it wasn’t moving.
“Raine? You- you see this, right? You … see … ”
Raine could see it, and she didn’t need to tell me so. The point of her knife wavered. She began to form a word, a question, but trailed off into silence, frowning in a way I’d never seen her frown before, as if over a bittersweet pain in her heart. She smiled through the frown.
“Ow,” she sighed.
“Ow?” I echoed, panic in my throat. “Raine, are you okay? Are you- its not hurt you- you-”
“I’m okay,” she said, steady and careful, keeping her knife up, and I had rarely heard her less okay. “This- this- Heather, could- could you not look at this thing, please? Maybe … maybe I can deal with-”
I lost my temper.
“Stop it,” I snapped over Raine, over her shoulder, at the doll-mockery of her most well-kept secrets, ones I didn’t even know.
The doll did not move.
“Stop this right now,” I went on at it, voice shaking as my anger grew. “Tormenting me is one thing. You can get away with that, because deep down sometimes I think I deserve it. But you do not get to torment Raine. You stop it, this instant.”
Nothing, except Raine’s breathing.
“I once ripped a human being from the Eye’s clutches,” I said to the doll. “You’re not as complex as that. If I think hard enough, I can unravel you, no matter what you pretend to be, no matter where you hide. Go away, and leave us alone, or shall we find out what’s under those yellow robes?”
The Raine-doll exploded like a dust devil of yellow sand, a tiny whirlwind of jaundice and bile and dying sunlight. With a swirl of fabric and a whirlpool wave of yellow ripple, it resolved into the figure behind the illusion. We had been admitted backstage.
The apparition in yellow stood before us.
Up close, it was an awful thing. Not the pallid hands which emerged from the dangling sleeves like ropes of dead intestine, not the blank mask of perfect ivory, nor the holes for eyes, nor the bottomless emptiness behind them. I realised, in the way one creature recognises another akin to itself, that the yellow robes themselves were all that mattered. Yellow was the medium, the canvas, and the truth.
Cotton and silk and wool, and fabrics named in no human language. A billion ripples, like an ocean seen from miles up. Patterns formed in sleeve and hood and skirts, slow spirals and mountain ridges, hypnotic and infinite.
Raine almost went for it with her knife.
Bless her, but she can be very stupid sometimes.
I stopped her by stepping past her, past her knife, into her path toward the Yellow Thing.
Pure instinct drove me, not courage or defiance. Raine wasn’t merely not on the same level as the Yellow Director, she wasn’t even the same manner of being. She may as well try to stab the North Sea.
But me? I was close enough.
Abyssal instinct pushed me forward because my mate was in danger. Before I knew what I was doing, I’d shoved past Raine’s shoulder, I’d spread phantom limbs to make myself look big, and I opened my mouth and hissed.
Long and loud, sharp and sure. An inhuman sound.
The Yellow King did not move.
It took me a long moment to come back. The wet meat in my throat felt all wrong, shouldn’t have been meat at all. The hiss left behind an echo of euphoric rightness. For a moment of adrenaline and instinct, I’d expressed the truth that lay under my skin.
Vibrating with aggression, crashing back into the sagging reality of my own body, I almost sobbed.
“Heather-” Raine whispered from behind me.
“This is-” My voice was so ugly compared to the hiss, I almost choked on it. But I didn’t take my eyes off the Yellow Robes. “This isn’t something you stab or shoot, Raine.”
“Dunno ‘bout that,” Raine said. “Always gotta give violence a chance.”
“You,” I told the Yellow Provocation. “The play is over. You made your point, fine. But I’ve had enough of grim lessons from cruel Gods. You must see what I really am. I’m not bluffing. If you choose to keep tormenting us, I will peel you open.”
The King in Yellow bowed its head, to hide the eyeless pale mask inside the yellow hood. Then it raised those porcelain hands, and peeled the hood away. Beneath, it possessed a head, and a face, and one last torment to inflict upon me.
For just a moment I thought it was-
“Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight,” Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight corrected me.
In my voice, with my mouth, set in my face.
The head above the rippling neckline of yellow robes was an exact replica of mine, perfect as a mirror. The bowing motion from before the reveal had even served to reduce the thing’s height to match mine.
“Wha- … why- … ” I managed, almost crying with cruel hope. “Why?”
“Uhhh,” went Raine.
“Plenty of people have lost their temper with me over the centuries,” Seven-Shades grimaced, in the exact self-conscious way I might do when having made a nasty faux-pas. “It comes with the territory, and I am sorry. But nobody has ever credibly threatened to disrobe me by force, that’s … new. So I thought I better show my face.”
“My face,” I hissed. “Maisie’s face. How dare you.”
“Ah. Oh, um.” Seven-Shades winced hard, flustered and awkward. The effect made my head swim with recognition, as she spoke with my own voice, my mannerisms, my micro-expressions. “Oh dear. Yes. Oh, I’m … I’m so sorry for the confusion. You’re such a unique case. Or, um, not unique. That’s the point, yes, the exact problem. You’re not unique, there is another in the wide seas of all reality with the same face as you. I do apologise. I’m sorry. That was not my intent.”
Did I really look like that? There was something deeply uncanny about seeing oneself in motion, like a video recording but a hundred times worse. A mousy, scrawny, skittish young woman with thin brown hair, an unhealthy pallor to her skin, and deep-set rings of old exhaustion around her eyes. And the eyes themselves, blinking, twitchy, perhaps warm but terminally afraid.
Yes, I had to concede, Seven-Shades had me down perfectly.
“Again, I’m so sorry,” she was saying. Did I really speak like that, as well? So precise, so polite, but with a tremor of nervous tension. My chest ached with sympathy – for myself? “I chose your face because it’s always easier to talk to a person as their self, especially if they’re really introspective. Which, you are.”
She tried to pull a gentle smile, but it came out very awkward.
“Stop it,” I said, more offended than afraid. “Stop imitating me, stop, take it off.”
“I’m not imitating you,” Seven-Shades said, voice a little unsteady with nerves. My nerves. “That would be most disrespectful, both to you, and to the art. While I inhabit your form, I am bound by the limits of your personality. I’m not going to suddenly go all spooky and … well. You can imagine, I’m sure.”
A humourless laugh escaped my lips.
“You’ve chosen the wrong person to imitate,” I said. “I barely trust myself to do the right thing five percent of the time.”
“I’m sorry.” She winced again, tilting her head. “I could choose one of your loved ones instead, but that would be contrary to my aim here. Sorry.”
Seven-Shades’ imitation did not extend below the neckline of rippling yellow robes. The hands were still long and bony and porcelain perfect, not mine. The robes themselves continued their ocean-like infinite dance, their half-glimpsed swirling patterns, their admission of nothing beneath. I reminded myself: that was the being I was really speaking to.
“Do I really apologise this much?” I glanced at Raine, just over my shoulder.
Raine was having a harder time with this. Her eyes went back and forth between my face and Seven-Shades’ imitation of my face, her eyebrows jammed halfway up her forehead like she’d suffered a critical software malfunction, her knife limp in her hand.
“ … sometimes?” she said eventually.
“Raine, this is incredibly weird for me,” I said. “Help?”
“It’s weirder for me,” Raine said, then forced a grin. “Don’t think I could handle two of you, Heather. I’ve only got one tongue.”
“Raine!” I hissed. “This is hardly the time.”
Seven-Shades cleared her throat too, fighting down an insistent blush and scowling indignation at Raine. My scowl, my blush.
“Yeah, see? You like that experiment?” Raine nodded at the Yellow Daughter. “That? That’s you, Heather. I can’t even tell the difference, it’s so good. This is some extra spooky shit, and I do not like it.”
“My intention was not to disquiet you either,” Seven-Shades said.
“Oh yeah?” Raine gave her a quietly eloquent look. I had never before seen her able to deliver such disapproval and doubt with a smile on her face. Pain lingered back there too, behind Raine’s eyes.
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight winced, embarrassed and shamed.
“The only reason I’m not sticking a knife in you right now is because Heather asked me not to,” Raine went on. “But you keep saying things in her voice, with her face, I’m gonna step up and peel it off you. Piss-rag robes won’t stop me.”
“Oh, don’t be absurd, I’m not going to hurt you, Raine,” Seven-Shades told her with my voice, faintly outraged. “Heather can hardly resolve her ménage à trois if I remove you from her tale. Then it would just be her and Zheng, and that’s hardly why I followed you. That would be sweet, but boring.”
“Excuse me?” I bristled. “You … what? Ménage à trois?”
“Household for three,” she said with another awkward smile. “Or in your case, perhaps for … eight? Nine? I’ve lost count, sorry.”
“Why does everyone want me to have a bloody threesome?” I snapped. “This is absurd. An alien God wants me to have a threesome?”
“For pity’s sake, you’re lucky you got me,” Seven-Shades sighed, exactly like me. “Some of my siblings and cousins delight in asking dark questions that lead to awful places. Your quest offers plenty of opportunity for tragedy, or cruel farce, or simple, uh, ‘gorn’,” she winced at that word. “If I hadn’t taken an interest, somebody darker would have. Somebody far less interested in the delicate tangle of women loving women. Count your blessings you didn’t meet The Sepia Prince, or The Jaundiced Child. They’d have you devouring your own intestines by now.”
I shook my head at her in disbelief. “You’re not a person, you’re just wearing my face. Why should you care about relationships, or love, or anything human?”
She blinked at me, hurt. “ … my father’s family is very large? One of us has to be a lesbian.”
“Typical,” Raine muttered. “Muff magnet, the pair of us.”
“Then why show me that awful, awful performance?” I asked, my anger returning. cold now. “What did that have to do with anything? You made your point, I’m going to fail.”
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight scrunched my face into an expression of solid determination, serious and small. I’d never seen that expression in a mirror before. The times I pulled that face, I didn’t exactly have a mirror handy. And for a moment – just for a moment – I knew why my friends believed in me and followed me.
“We both know you have no hope of defeating the Eye,” she told me.
If those words had come from any other mouth, in any other tone, I would have spat them back in the speaker’s face. But there was my own worst fear, in my own words.
“You cannot even hope to hold the jaws asunder for a moment or two,” she continued, sad and shaking.
“No,” I said. “No, it’s-”
“Not in your current state. That’s your plan, isn’t it? The one you don’t tell anybody else about. You’re banking on a millisecond’s reprieve, during which you will find your sister, and pull her free. And you know it’s folly.”
“Evee’s … no. Evelyn’s working on the Invisus Oculus. It worked in reverse on Tenny, that’s why we need the books, we’re going to-”
“To make you all invisible to its attention, on the ground of Wonderland itself? For how long? And then what? As soon as you reach out to find your sister, it will know you. You’re setting yourself up for a contest of strength. Or strength of will, at least.”
“I gathered my friends!” I almost shouted at her. Raine took my shoulder, gently, but I shook her off. “That’s what Maisie told me to do!”
“And yet you’re going to wrestle the Eye into the dirt with force of will? What role do your friends have to play in this?”
“I … I don’t … ”
Suddenly the awful, bloody, cruel play clicked into place. The Heather-actor, alone in the centre and reaching for Maisie, while all about her my friends fell alone and apart, while my attention was focused on the Eye.
“Your brainmath alone could not peel back my layers,” Seven-Shades said. “You’d give me a rough old time of it, certainly. But you couldn’t win. And I am descended from something very much like the Eye, but also a little like you, a being that dragged itself out of the abyssal ocean, once upon a time. You have performed the same miracle, recently, and returned to a body of flesh. But you refuse to use what you brought back.”
“How? I’ve been trying!” I felt tears on my face now. “All I can do is make tentacles that pull me apart from the inside-”
“Brute force is not the only way to use enlightenment-”
“And it hurts!” I shouted at her, at me, at myself. “All the time. It hurts, being in this body, being wrong, and I can never have it again, and … and … why? Why tell me to do something I can’t?”
“You have tied yourself upside-down from the tree, put out an eye, and returned with the keys of self-creation, yet you refuse to use them,” Seven-Shades said, in my voice, almost sobbing and sniffing, reflecting my own pain back at me.
“Refuse? Refuse?” I echoed. “I’m learning, I’m still learning, from the clay-thing my sister sent, from-”
“You could wander the library of Carcosa for a thousand years, sit at my father’s feet for a thousand more, and your methods would still avail you nothing against the Eye, and you know it.”
I stopped shouting at her. She was right. I was right.
“Brute force is not the only way to use enlightenment,” she repeated, sniffing, wiping the echo of my tears from her imitation eyes. “My father and my siblings and I, we have one way. You need to find your own.”
I hated myself for being such a snivelling coward. Left my sister behind. Cut off from the abyss, trapped like this. Won’t give Raine or Zheng what either of them want of me.
“Hey,” Raine said softly. “This is some cryptic bullshit. Tell her what you mean.”
“I am only a question,” Seven-Shades told her. “I’m sorry.”
“Try,” Raine told her.
Seven-Shades huffed through her distress. “In the abyss, Heather was a thing of speed and grace. Grace, friendship, solidarity. These are potential building blocks. Things the Eye can never draw on.”
“What difference does that make?” I said, throat thick with defeat. “You’re right. It’s too much. How can I ever do anything against it?”
“Power is relative to form of expression,” Seven-Shades told me. “Heather, you’ve come to an uncomfortable accommodation with what you brought back. You still think of it as a ‘side’ of yourself, instead of accepting it as just you.”
I shook my head. “Raine’s right, these are nonsense riddles. How would that even help? How would that help save my sister?”
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight just stared at me, with my own sad twist of my own little mouth.
“If you care so much, why don’t you help me?” I asked. “You’re an Outsider, a real one. If you want my … my ‘play’ to end well, why not help me?”
She shook her head – my head, with a sigh. “You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said, Heather. That’s not what I am. It’s not what you are either, but you’re trying to bend yourself that way, playing the Eye at its own game. My way is no more suited, and if you won’t even listen to yourself telling you these things, then I shall resume the play until you bloody well learn.” She tutted, like me losing my temper. “It was a mistake to talk to you like this, so soon after mere preamble. I am sorry.”
The robes flowed upward as the pallid hands rose to flip the yellow hood back up.
On impulse, I reached out to halt her. Human fingertips recoiled from the edge of the yellow robes, but a phantom limb passed right through.
“Wait!” I demanded. “Why don’t you just tell me what you mean?”
“Because I do not know the answer,” Seven-Shades said – and her voice was no longer fully my voice, but soft as the crackle of burning paper. The imitation face had taken on a jaundiced, fleshy sepia colour. “I can only pose questions. It is my nature. You should really settle in, for the rest of the play.”