nothing more impotent – 11.9

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“I know you’re watching me,” I said to my reflection.

My face stared back at me from inside the bathroom mirror. I waited for a change, for a smile I did not make, for the twitch of an eyebrow or a lash, or a silent question behind my own eyes. I watched my peripheral vision for a haze of aspirated bile, for a wind-stirred flurry of dead leaves, for scorching sunlight on new bones.

A full minute passed; I counted the seconds in my head, or at least made an attempt to do so, as my heart hammered inside the thin cage of my ribs and my mouth went dry and the stiff bruises throbbed in my sides and hips. I waited for a reply, in the bright cold of the bathroom in the middle of the night with all the lights on.

No reply came. Same as every other attempt we’d made over the last day and a half.

I let out an explosive sigh. “I’m alone, you … ” I puffed out a failed insult. “It took me a lot of courage to do this, don’t you respect that at all?”

My reflection stayed very much just me, plus a scowl.

“Fine,” I said. “Have it your way. Maybe you require more dignified surroundings than this old bathroom? Well, tough. You should have answered us when we were making a big fuss of you. Now you’re just being obstinate. I am not traipsing all the way downstairs in the dark to light candles and make offerings, you … you … high-maintenance old cow.”

Not a whisper.

“Or maybe you’re not watching at all. Or maybe you don’t care, and this is all a mad waste of time and I’m just talking to myself.”

Cursing myself for a fool, I ran the cold tap in the sink for a moment, letting the water swirl down the drain. I slurped a mouthful from my own cupped hand, and when I straightened up again, my reflection straighted with me.

To be fair to her, this bathroom was indeed not an appropriate venue for respectful supplication, but we’d left respect and humility behind hours ago. The claw-foot tub with the dust underneath, the peeling paint on the walls, the scuffed skirting board and the cracked tiles; at least the sink and toilet were clean, but this was still no place for a negotiation.

I glanced over my shoulder at the bathroom door, sensibly shut, the upstairs hallway and the night held beyond. I’d made certain I was not followed, that no eavesdropper would interrupt this. If Raine woke alone, she’d be calling for me. If Praem noticed anything amiss, she’d knock. Evelyn, well, Evee would probably approve of this unilateral plan. Maybe. I hoped.

A shadow of guilt passed across my heart, but this was the only way. We had to get back to Carcosa, the sooner the better.

I turned back to the mirror.

“It’s just me now,” I continued. “Come out, and talk to me like you did before. You and I, we need to make a truce. Though, I suppose we’re not at war. I didn’t practice this part. An agreement then, we need to make an agreement.”

Nothing.

“Please, Sevens. Can I call you that? Sevens? Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight is a bit of a mouthful. Please?”

Only the creak of the house and the distant whisper of wind down Sharrowford streets.

“Alright then. Either you can talk to me now or … if you interrupt us in Carcosa, I will attack you. If you start the next act of your play, or you try to take anybody away, I will stop it, I will run on stage, I will pry the actors off each other, I don’t care. If you interrupt us in a dangerous place, I will come at you with everything I have.” My expression frowned back at me from the mirror. “And I … I don’t want to have to do that, but that’s the only choice I can make to protect my friends with what we have to do.”

In one hand I twisted the the scrap of yellow cloth torn from her raiment.

“Please talk to me. I don’t want to fight you,” I hissed at my reflection. “ I … I want to be like you.”

Talking to myself in the mirror was no magical technique, but simply a psychological trick. I could have done this in the kitchen or the workshop, but seeing my own face was supposed to make this feel less absurd. Seven-Shades had worn me for a few minutes and told me unwelcome truths in my own voice, so the point was to imagine it was her in the mirror.

The technique was backfiring. I felt like a crazy person.

So, normal, for me.

We’d been trying to contact Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight for the last thirty-six hours, and this attempt was not only going no better than all the others, it also made me feel very silly.

She had declined to appear to us in the kitchen, not enticed by Evelyn’s huffing entreaties and Lozzie’s genuine excitement to make a new friend. She had not risen to Zheng’s growled offer of a physical duel – which I had vetoed anyway. She had left unanswered our formal requests later that day and this morning, spurned Evelyn’s arcane welcome mat, ignored our humble abode.

Evelyn had broken out certain magic circles which she described as “rolling out the red carpet.”

“Most circles I’ve built are for containment or repulsion, or for some kind of specific examination,” she’d grumbled at the chalked mess which filled half the workshop floor space. “But this? This thing is the equivalent of a five-star hotel room with a mirrored ceiling and a mini-fridge full of booze. And she still turns her nose up at it.”

“Maybe she’s the rustic type,” Raine had joked. “Prefers a B&B.”

With a level of passive-aggressive grumbling impressive even for her, Evelyn had turned to Kimberly’s particular area of expertize, when the poor woman had arrived home from work earlier today.

“But … b-but Wicca isn’t re-” Kimberly had stammered. “I-I mean, religion shouldn’t apply to-”

“Mechanically, no, but for the purposes of appealing to the sensibilities of a creature like this, it does apply,” Evelyn had sounded like she’d bitten into a rotten peach. “Just give me something to work with, something that doesn’t involve bathing in bull’s blood under the full moon, alright?”

“I could steal a goat, wizard,” Zheng had purred.

“I am not putting down a tarp so we can slit an animal’s throat in here. No. Simplify.”

At Kimberly’s suggestion we’d added rings of candles, turned the lights down low, and made an offering – of food, thankfully. We didn’t have to ask Zheng to poach livestock from the Sharrowford countryside, because the general consensus said a real sacrifice should be something we all valued, something we’d rather not give up.

So we’d offered Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight the most expensive curry we could order – something called a ‘Kerala Prawn Kaldeen’ from a curry house near the city centre with the wonderful name of Gulbadan’s Gunpowder – and a full bottle of vodka. Not Tesco value, either. “Proper Polish import,” Raine had called it. “None of that French nonsense made from old shoes.”

Seven-Shades had not the slightest interest in any of that.

We’d all felt extraordinarily silly, standing there in the dark at a respectful distance from a rapidly cooling takeaway curry which had cost over thirty quid. After fifteen minutes of shuffling and coughing, we’d given up, and Raine had begun sampling both curry and vodka. She pronounced both very good.

“Absolute Goddamn waste of time,” Evelyn had cursed, exhausted by the inherent absurdity of trying to attract the attention of an Outsider Godling Daughter with a penchant for lesbian drama. “Give me a spoon of that, Raine. Better be worth it.”

“Maybe she’s ghosted us,” Raine said around a mouthful of rice. “Lost interest.”

“I scared her off,” I sighed. “It’s my fault.”

“That’s a good thing, though,” said Raine. “Right?”

I shrugged. No, it wasn’t, but I couldn’t say that part out loud, not yet.

Evelyn made a face around her sample spoonful of curry. “Too spicy.”

“Weak, wizard,” Zheng purred.

“And no, it’s not a good thing,” Evelyn carried on. “We don’t know why this thing isn’t responding. She could have decided to simply wait for her opening. We take no unnecessary chances. We’ll try again in the morning, with … with … oh, sod it, I don’t know. I’m out of ideas.”

At least the full-on spooky occult offering routine was less loud than Lozzie’s plan of running from room to room trying to ‘catch’ Seven-Shades in hiding.

“What if we put on a play of our own?” Raine suggested, after downing a half-shot of vodka and smacking her lips. “We could do, I dunno, Animal Farm. Zheng can be Boxer.”

“Raine,” I sighed. “And Animal Farm is a novel.”

“How about you three fuck?” Evelyn shot back. “Maybe she’ll turn up to watch.”

“Evee, please,” I’d groaned, blushing.

Zheng grunted. In approval or not, I couldn’t tell.

“Ehhhhhh,” Raine pulled a face.

“No, I’m serious,” Evelyn said, anything but serious. She gestured between Raine and Zheng and I. “Go on. Get in a pile, make out a bit, see if it works. Try sticking your tongue down Zheng’s throat perhaps. Not a good idea? No? Thought not.” She cast me an exasperated glance. “I’ve had enough, I’m going to bed. If you come up with anything, wake me. Or don’t.”

I chose the latter.

Slipping out of bed in the middle of the night had not been easy. The first night after our confrontation with Seven-Shades in the Medieval Metaphysics room, I was worn down to a stub, had embraced unconsciousness long before Raine had guided me into bed. My bruises had woken me in the dim small hours of the early morning, a familiar stiffness in my flanks which blossomed into a slow, creaking ache as I shifted beneath the bedsheets. The pain was deeper this time, rooted in the tissue structures inside my torso where I’d anchored my tentacles. I’d found myself wrapped in Raine’s embrace, her legs tucked between mine. Somehow she’d carefully avoided putting pressure on my bruised flanks, even while asleep.

The idea had come to me as I’d lain in the dark on the edge of consciousness, dreaming of abyssal grace and Maisie’s voice.

But even if I’d had the willpower to pry myself out of bed and expose my bruises to the cold beyond Raine’s cuddle, I wouldn’t have been able to fully suppress the pain, and my fumbling would probably have woken her up. And I had to do this alone – that was the whole point.

So I’d endured a full day of failed experiments in calling up Outside’s most prolific lesbian playwright. Then, snuggled up in bed the night after the curry offering, once Raine’s breathing had grown soft and regular, I’d clawed my way back from the edge of sleep. Extracting myself from her embrace – with my sides stiff with bruises – took fifteen minutes of stop-start wriggling until I was free.

Secrets in the night. At least this time I wasn’t self-harming.

Before I’d worked up the courage to put my plan into action, I’d stood in front of the bathroom mirror, looking at my body. I was wearing lilac pajama bottoms and a pair of long-sleeved dark tshirts borrowed from Raine, a size too big for me and very warm. I’d lifted the shirts up and examined my bruises in the mirror, turned on the spot to watch the way my muscles bunched, ran a hand over the purple-and-black blotches in my flanks.

Zheng was right, in a way; the bruises were beautiful. They were proof I was in this body, that it’s mine, that I was here.

Was that enough? To be here, in this? Weak and scrawny, but real.

In the end, after my ultimatum and my pleading, the mirror yielded nothing. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was not going to respond. I sighed at my reflection, shaking my head and planning a sad retreat back to bed. Perhaps Evelyn was correct, perhaps if I snogged Zheng and then Raine together – how would that even work, I wondered? What were the physical logistics? – then perhaps Seven-Shades would deign to descend from her authorial throne to correct our technique.

“This is all so silly.” I tutted, and looked down at the scrap of yellow in my hands. “What was I expecting, a talking mirror? You are such an idiot, Heather.”

“Not an entirely unreasonable assumption, considering the sorts of things that happen in your life these days,” the mirror said.

Damn her, I did jump. I flinched like she’d crawled out of the sink plughole.

In the mirror, my face was tilted to one side, with a pained expression of preemptive apology. The sink, our toothbrushes, the bathtub, all of it was the same as in reality, even the pajamas on my body. All except the expression on my face.

“It’s you,” I said.

She – Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight wearing my face on the other side of a reflection – sighed and nodded with a sad sort of smile, in the exact same way I might do if confronted by one of my friends indulging in a bit of thoughtless emotional self harm.

“Yes, Heather. Despite everything,” she said gently. “It’s still you.”

“So you are willing to talk.”

“For a certain definition of ‘talk’,” she said with my voice, wincing in slow motion. “I cannot make a deal or a truce, not in the way that you and your friends want me to. That’s not what I am. That would be like asking rain to stay up, or wind to cease blowing.”

“Tch,” I tutted and rolled my eyes. “I can’t talk to the wind or the rain. You’re not a natural force, you’re a being. You can make decisions.” I almost closed my eyes to rub the bridge of my nose in exasperation, but stopped myself at the last moment. If I wasn’t looking at her, would she still exist? “And why are you talking to me from inside the mirror? This was just my psychological crutch, I didn’t expect you to really do it. I thought you’d appear behind me or something.”

Seven-Shades smiled one of my smiles, nervous but passionate.

“It just seemed like a bit of fun,” she admitted. “Spooky mirrors, voices in the night, dopplegangers. Raine would call it all very ‘Hammer Horror’, wouldn’t she?”

“I’m not a fan of random spooky things,” I told her.

“Then you’re in the wrong vocation.”

“It’s not a vocation. I didn’t choose any of this.”

Seven-Shades pulled a face that made me want to reach into the mirror and slap myself – a combination of half-squint, slightly pursed lips, and a sideways tilt of the head. Superior scepticism. Did I ever give Evelyn or Raine a look like that? I looked utterly insufferable.

“You sort of did, Heather,” she said. “You could always have kept taking your pills, or did what the doctors told you and abandoned any thought of your sister, or chosen not to push for this confrontation with the Great Eye. You could still do that, you know? You could still take the step back. You could go wake Raine right now, and have a tearful conversation about how you don’t think beating the Eye is ever possible, how you’re too afraid, you love her and your friends too much to risk them, so on and so on. And you know, deep down, that she’d accept it. She wouldn’t even think less of you, not in the long run. She’d get to keep you, alive and in one piece and not slipping off into the abyss.”

“How is any of that a choice?” I asked before I could stop myself, then winced and held up my free hand. “Wait, no, don’t answer that. You’re distracting me with … developmental personal philosophy. This is what you do. Don’t say a word.”

Seven-Shades leaned forward, as if trying to see her own feet in the mirror. Her eyebrows climbed my forehead. “Oh.”

“Oh?”

“Oh, as in ‘oh, why?’” She pulled a pained grimace and nodded down, at my other hand. “Is that a um, a piece of me you have there?”

I held up the scrap of yellow fabric from her robes. “Yes. Raine cut it off you, I’m … I don’t know if I should apologise for that or something.”

“It is a bit like collecting my toenail clippings.” She cleared her throat softly. “That is a … bit … weird, Heather.”

“Look, forget that for now. Will you talk to me about making a deal?” I asked.

“Only if you promise not to threaten to unravel me again,” she said with a hint of tutting schoolmarm. “I was quite shocked when you blossomed.”

“I do not make faces like that,” I said.

“I’m sorry? Oh!” she laughed a nervous little laugh. “Oh, Heather, but you do. I cannot go beyond your boundaries while I wear your role.”

I resisted the urge to prove her right, and instead counted to five inside my head before I spoke again. “Very well, I promise not to threaten to unravel you again, but this goes both ways. This is why I’m alone, this is why I didn’t want you to turn up with everyone else around. You can visit whatever horrors you want upon my mind, as long as you keep your hands off my friends. Away from Raine. Away from all of them.”

“I understand.” She nodded, very understanding indeed, very empathetic. Very me.

And obviously lying. She’d only said ‘I understand’, not promised to do what I asked. Did I manipulate others like that?

“Could I have actually hurt you, before, with my tentacles?” I asked.

She pulled my thinking face. “Perhaps?”

I sighed. Probably not. Perhaps her rapid retreat yesterday morning was just as scripted as everything else. Maybe even this conversation was all an act.

“Will you come out of the mirror, then?” I asked.

She froze, a doubtful frown betrayed in the turning down of her mouth. “Um. I think you may have made a tactical mistake there, Heather.”

“ … I’m sorry?”

“Why do you need me to come out of the mirror if you’re not going to try to hurt me? We can talk like this, can’t we? Remember, I’m in your role right now, I’m as cautious – some might say paranoid,” she winced, “as you are.”

My fingers tightened around the scrap of yellow cloth and my throat tightened around unsaid words. “I want to … to see you. Again. Physically. You … you know all my fears, don’t you? You must understand why.”

Seven-Shades did a miniature sigh of politely suppressed irritation. “I’m not omniscient. I’m not actually a God.”

“Oh, for … alright, fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” I steeled myself and took a deep breath. “You were beautiful. When I switched to abyssal senses, and I saw what you actually are, you were beautiful. I want to see that again.”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, puppeteering my body on the other side of the bathroom mirror, blushed red as a tomato.

The effect was deeply grotesque. I looked like a chinchilla in some kind of mating frenzy.

“Ugh,” I made an involuntary noise. “Is that me?”

“Well … I … uh … ” she struggled and stammered, couldn’t look me in the eye, didn’t know what to do with her hands, flapping them about. “That’s not how this is supposed to turn out at all. Oh, it’s the observer problem all over again, I have changed too much and-”

“Stop blushing,” I snapped, outraged and horrified, blushing right back at her. “You don’t feel embarrassment, you’re just simulating mine! Oh my goodness, don’t.”

“It’s not simulation! It’s you! Tch, fine!”

Seven-Shades rolled her eyes and huffed, a perfect impression of me in a fit of pique, and then climbed out of the mirror.

Despite explicitly asking for that exact thing, the sight of one’s own reflection climbing through a mirror like an open window was not a phenomenon for which the human brain is remotely prepared. For a moment I felt like sitting down all of a sudden as my head swam. The mirror-me on the other side mounted the sink with unsteady feet and uncertain hands and a rather worried look on her face, then stuck her head and shoulders through, grasped the edge of the mirror like the lip of a window, and slowly clambered down on this side, into the real bathroom, reaching for the floor with desperate toes. When she was down, her hands shook with nerves, just as mine would have if I’d tried to scale the bathroom fixtures.

“Oh, that is incredibly weird,” I said, wide-eyed.

“It’s, um, not as easy as I assumed.” Seven-Shades shot the mirror a disapproving look and wiped sweaty palms on her copied pajama bottoms.

Maisie would have loved this, I thought, like something out of a fairy tale.

And why did I think of Maisie at that moment, alone with an Outsider in the middle of the night? Because it was like standing next to her again, if only I wilfully ignored everything else about the situation.

“I don’t mean the mirror,” I said with a shuddering sigh. “You’re not really me, you’re not really in that body. If you’d fallen it wouldn’t have hurt you. I mean how you’re … you’re all me, this time.”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight blinked at me with my own face, innocent and lost. “I’m sorry?”

Yesterday morning in the Medieval Metaphysics room, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had manifested my head on a body of rippling sulphuric ocean; but now she imitated me from crown to heel, pajamas and skinny ribs and flat chest and all. She had my permanent eyebags, my indrawn shoulders, even the slight inward tilt of my feet in my two layers of socks. A true reflection stood before me.

The only thing missing was the scrap of torn yellow fabric in my hand, the piece of her real body.

A faint yellow miasma haloed her form, an after image of flowing robes rippling in unseen wind, as if over my copied pajamas she wore a memory of her real self, so translucent it was almost invisible, a ghost washed away by the bright light reflected off the bathroom walls. But unless I focused, her yellow mantle remained beyond sight.

“You know exactly what I mean.” I tried to make it harsh, but couldn’t quite get there. This really was like talking to Maisie, and that hurt.

Except for one difference, a dark and pessimistic part of myself whispered. Maisie almost certainly does not look this human anymore.

“Oh, yes, well.” Seven-Shades cleared her throat awkwardly. “I have been exploring your role in more detail. Not something I’ve done in a long time. You are a most fascinating person, Heather Morell.”

She gave me and awkward smile, the kind I must have given Raine when we’d first met.

“If you impersonate me in front of my friends,” I told her. “In front of Raine, if you use my face to do anything, I’ll-”

“My place is not to interfere.” Seven-Shades held up both hands in surrender, as if I had been about to attack her. “Really! Really. I have no interest in that. There’s no need to be jealous, I-I’m not going to steal your girlfriend, I-I can promise that.”

“ … well … quite. See that you don’t.”

She sighed. “The fact you would worry about such a thing in the first place is proof you still don’t understand what it is I do.”

I waited a heartbeat to see if she would continue. When she didn’t, I sighed. “And this is where I’m supposed to ask ‘And what is it that you do?’”

She smiled one of my smiles, fluttering and nervous. “Yes, oh, yes, well done. You do have a sense for dramatic flair, Heather, especially when you’re cornered.” She looked down at herself – at myself, her wearing a mirror of my body. “It’s been over seven decades since I stepped so fully into a role, since I had to feel out every possibility. You are a most tangled web.”

“Is that meant to be a compliment?” I asked. “It doesn’t feel like one.”

She winced with mortified embarrassment. “Oh- no, I didn’t mean- ah- um-”

“Never mind, it’s okay- … wait, no, it’s not okay.” I tutted, groping for a conversational handhold. I felt as if she kept yanking my feet out from under me, so I flipped the script. “Who was the last person you ‘stepped into’? What happened to them?”

Seven-Shades blinked at me several times, and then her face lit up with the kind of warm smile I usually reserved for talking about my favourite books.

“You … you really want to know?” she asked, in hushed tones of excited reverence.

Oh wow, I thought, I can finally see why Raine likes that part of me. I almost blushed. Did I really look like that when talking about my passions?

“I … uh. Yes. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want to know.”

“A soldier,” she said, then paused for effect and bit her bottom lip.

“A soldier.”

“Yes. She was no older than you, in fact. She was a member of a crew team for a … oh, I suppose a sort of gun, yes.” Seven-Shades flapped her hands. “On the outskirts of a great city. The city was about to be squeezed between the jaws of an equally great mechanical host. Many young men had died, too many men for the city to bear, so young women were called up to serve instead, filling their roles behind the lines of battle, and sometimes further forward. They were losing. Her culture, her people, all of it was being extinguished in fire and blood. In the darkness in some stinking billet, she reached out for comfort, and found a friend. And me.”

At first, as she began to speak, I assumed that Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was losing her grip on my role – because I never spoke like that, with wistful nostalgia for a past glory, a magnum opus seen in retrospect. Then I realised I simply didn’t have anything to feel that way about; the real me was too young. Perhaps I would sound like that one day. Eventually. If I didn’t die first.

“The friend she found – oh, ‘friend’, what am I saying, they ended as lovers – she handed my girl a book,” Seven-Shades carried on. “Not quite The King in Yellow, you understand, but something similar, another iteration. She came to Carcosa in her dreams, read books while artillery shells fell around her real self. She loved the woman next to her, but even in the face of certain death, neither of them could reach across the gap to join their hands.” Seven-Shades sighed, smiled, blissful in a way I never had cause to feel. “It was beautiful, two tiny lives in the centre of such vast geopolitical drama, cradled in a web of danger and starvation and bullet wounds.”

“ … are you talking about Earth? Our reality? Did this happen here?”

She demurred with an awkward smile. “Uh, maybe.”

I had to consciously harden my heart; she was so intensely joyous about her purpose, it felt infectious.

“So,” I said. “You made these two people’s lives the subject of voyeuristic drama. That’s what you do.”

Seven-Shades sighed and tutted, exactly like I would if somebody had insulted the very concept of literature. “But I brought them together, in a world that would have torn them apart. They both lived into their eighties, together, after the war was done. Their side won, though of course I didn’t have a hand in that,” she added that clause with an awkward ‘ahem’ at the end. “Is that outcome not worth a little voyeurism? Is love not worth intrusion?”

“ … maybe. I don’t know.”

“Imagine for a moment that I could guarantee you would get your sister back, that none of your friends would die in the attempt.” She held up a hand, expression creased with apology. “I can’t make that guarantee, but imagine I could. Would you accept my ‘voyeurism’ then?”

“Yes,” I said, without hesitation, a lump in my throat. “But what’s your success rate?”

She winced. Ah. “Define success?”

“Do I really have to?”

She tilted her head up slightly, the hint of a laugh on her lips, a flash of good-natured superiority in her eyes. I felt sick – was this an expression I made? It looked awful. Then I realised, she was about to quote. I did do that, I did look like that, and I looked like an infuriating little goblin.

“Do not give your attention to what others do or fail to do; give it to what you do, or fail to do,” she recited.

I sighed heavily. “So your track record is bad. Your interference mostly results in failures?”

She did this look-off-to-the-side huff and I felt like slapping her. No longer a vision of standing next to Maisie, this really was like standing next to me, and I was awful.

“Can’t you be somebody else while I talk to you?” I asked. “I feel so ugly.”

“You’re not!” she tutted. “Oh, Heather, you don’t like yourself very much, and that’s so unfair. You refuse to use what you’ve got.”

“We’re getting off track again, you’re doing it again,” I said.

“You’re the one who asked me the questions, Heather.”

“Alright, alright, let’s not … ” Deep breaths, count down to zero. “Let’s not lose focus. Let’s make a deal. You want us to win against the Eye, yes?”

“That’s correct.” She nodded. “I also want you to get with both of your beloved, but I know that’s hard, and-”

“Let’s not,” I repeated.

She closed her mouth, and set her face in a polite listening pose.

“We need to go back to Carcosa to get the books Evelyn needs,” I explained. “And we need you not to interrupt us. It’s already dangerous enough out there without you deciding it’s time for street improv. Come to think of it, why did you try to take Evelyn away, out there?”

“That was all for you.” She pulled a pained expression.

I frowned at her. “Well, you did manage to remind me how much I value her, and I don’t need to be reminded of that again. If you try to take her away in Carcosa again, I’ll kill you.”

Seven-Shades pulled an ‘oh-dear’ face. Not how I would have reacted to being threatened with lethal force, but the kind of face I might make if Raine threatened to tickle me.

“We need your assurance you won’t interrupt us again, not out there,” I finished.

“But what if the right conditions present themselves? This is like asking you not to feel curiosity when you see an unread book with a fascinating title.”

“If it was to achieve a higher aim – to rescue Maisie – I could resist any urge,” I told her. “You should understand that, playing my ‘role’. I already am.”

Seven-Shades sighed with indulgent compassion, the sort of noise I might make in the face of Evelyn trying to justify hurting herself.

“Heather, you are such an idiot. You have it upside down,” she told me with stinging kindness. “You don’t want to go back to the abyss at all.”

“Oh, poppets, we are getting rather off-theme here, aren’t we?” a third voice asked, from right behind me.

I almost jumped out of my skin. Phantom tentacles twitched in defence-reaction, and real muscles attempted to compensate for limbs I didn’t have, drawing deep throbs of pain from within my bruised flanks and up the inside of my spine. I wheezed and doubled up, vision blurring, staggering to turn around to see-

Saldis. Of course.

The mage from Carcosa was sat on the edge of the bathtub, noble chin resting in one hand, legs crossed under the skirts of her exquisite red-and-gold robes, wearing the most bored expression I had ever seen on a human face.

“You- what-” I wheezed, trying to straighten past the sudden pain.

“Don’t get me wrong, sweets, I’m all for collaborative work,” Saldis said. “But isn’t this part obvious by now?” She pulled a sour face. “Haven’t you looked at yourself in the mirror recently?”

“Sal-” I managed, hands wrapped around my sides, trying alternately to press my bruises and not touch them. “Again?”

“’Again’? Oh, I’m always watching, sweet.” Saldis winked at me.

“You are not supposed to be back here,” said Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, in the same tone I’d used to threaten Saldis back in the library of Carcosa.

Goodness, did I really sound like that? Ice and steel, from a miniature poodle.

Saldis’ perfectly plucked eyebrows shot up. “Oh. Ah. You have become aware of me.”

“You have neither paid for a ticket, nor joined the audience through the public entrance,” Seven-Shades said. “Who are you, magician? Or should I say thief?”

Saldis stood up very quickly, brushing her long skirt smooth over her hips and doing a very good impression of somebody who was just leaving anyway, no need to bother escorting her out, forget she’s even here, don’t want to cause a scene.

“I asked you a sensible question, magician,” Seven-Shades pressed. “Who are you?”

Saldis spread her hands. A mischievous smile played at the corners of her lips.

“Oh, I’m not really here,” she said.

And then she wasn’t.

“I hate it when … ” I finally got my breath back as the throbbing pain receded. “Hate it when she does that.”

“Tch. Gate-crashers,” Seven-Shades said, in the same tone I reserved for the words ‘modern suburban architecture.’

“Can I gate-crash too?” came a whisper from stage left.

That voice didn’t make me jump – it filled me with ice. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight reacted the same, a mirror of me. We both stared at the bathroom door with wide eyes like a pair of deer caught in the headlamps of an oncoming train.

We’d been too busy with Saldis’ unwelcome intrusion to notice. A certain light tread had crept along the upstairs hallway, little dexterous hands had eased the bathroom door handle down millimetre by millimetre, and a perceptive observer had peeked in through the slender gap.

A heavy-lidded blue eye floated in the slice of dark hallway beyond the bathroom.

“Oh, Lozzie,” I breathed.

Lozzie did not wait for an invitation. She opened the door wider and tiptoed over the threshold with all the skittish caution of a young cat investigating new territory. She slid the door shut behind her with a soft click, watching Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight with slow sleepy-eyed curiosity. She was dressed in a borrowed tshirt several times too large for her, and a pair of shorts, her bare legs goose-pimpled against the nocturnal cold.

“Wow,” Lozzie whispered, eyes glued to Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. “There’s two of you!”

“You are never gate-crashing, little one,” Seven-Shades told her, with all the same affection I used for Lozzie. “You go wherever you will. Though you did surprise me.”

Lozzie did this side-to-side head-bob, as if trying to examine Seven-Shades from different angles, then crept across the bathroom toward me.

“Lozzie, I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I know I shouldn’t be doing this alone, I- I needed to-”

“Shhh-shh-shh, s’fine fine fine fine,” Lozzie murmured back, without taking her eyes off my perfect imitation.

“ … how did she sneak up on you, anyway?” I hissed to Seven-Shades.

“Because she’s one of us.”

Lozzie came up to my side and linked her arm through mine, cuddling close. She ran her eyes up and down Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, with a kind of performative tight-lipped scepticism. Then she reached out, and before either of us could stop her, she pinched Seven-Shades’ cheek.

“Take this off, silly,” Lozzie said. “I can see you under there. You’re pretty without makeup!”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight used my face to blush bright red, which drew a giggle from Lozzie.

“Don’t encourage her!” I tutted.

“Me or her?” Lozzie giggled at me instead. “Us or we? Are you even the real Heather?” She closed one eye and then the other, peering at me alternately. “I think so!”

I sighed. Lozzie giggled again, bouncing on the balls of her bare feet.

“Lozzie, we were-” I tried, stumbled. “I was trying to negotiate a-”

“I heard!” Lozzie chirped, then fixed Seven-Shades with the most purse-lipped, squinty face of suspicion that she was capable of pulling, which was a bit like a hamster trying to imitate a bulldog. “And for the record, from me, which is the only record that matters, Heather is not an idiot.”

“She is”, Seven-Shades said gently.

“Oh, oh dear,” I cleared my throat. “You … heard that part then, Lozzie?”

“Mmhmm! You want to go swimming again! Next time, I’ll come too!”

“No she doesn’t,” Seven-Shades said with a sigh. “Heather, you-”

“Yes, exactly,” I said. “I don’t want to return to the abyss.”

They both blinked at me, blindsided. Lozzie looked like a startled bird, and Seven-Shades adopted a polite sort of blankness to conceal her lack of comprehension. I cleared my throat.

“What I actually want is to not want to return there,” I explained. “I want to be comfortable here, in this.” I gestured down at my own body, scrawny, weak, inadequate as it was. “I’ve tried to change myself, to … add things, and it’s slow. It hurts. It barely works. But when I looked at you, when I saw you through abyssal eyes, you were beautiful. Abyssal life, but … here … and I- I want to be-” I sniffed hard, pulled myself together before I fell apart completely. “You’re both. You get to be both at once. I want to be like you.”

“You already are,” Seven-Shades said.

I blinked at her. “What?”

Lozzie squeezed my hand.

“Oh, Heather,” Seven-Shades tutted. “You’re missing the wood for the trees. You focus on things that do not define what you are. You are no less you, no less what you are meant to be, because of the lack of tentacles to wave around.”

“It doesn’t feel that way,” I said, sagging into Lozzie’s support. “If only I could … be better, faster, I don’t know.”

“Just because you cannot climb up the inside of a stairwell by grasping the handrails with tentacles doesn’t make you any less what you already are. Nothing will change that. Not perception, not pain, not dysphoria. The last one, you must find coping methods, of course, but coping is different from being, and in being, you will find peace and power in equal measure.”

“She’s right about that bit,” Lozzie whispered to me, as if we were conspiring beyond Seven-Shades’ hearing. “But not that you’re an idiot.” She stuck her tongue out at Seven-Shades.

“The tentacles help. That’s why I do it,” I said. “I don’t risk ripping myself apart for fun.”

“Having flawed flesh is better than having no flesh at all,” she said.

“So what?” I felt tears prickle in my eyes. “You telling me to be happy with what I’ve got?”

“I’m telling you to look at yourself.”

“I am, remember?” I gestured at her, at her mirror-image of me. “Alright, fine, forget it, we still need to make a proper deal about going back to Carcosa.”

“And this is exactly why you need to sit still and watch the play,” Seven-Shades said. “But very well, now I will hold up a mirror for you.”

And as she spoke, she aged.

Watching a mirror image of myself gain fifteen years in a heartbeat was not what I’d expected to witness tonight, and I had been prepared for anything, or so I thought. Grey hairs silvered among the mousy brown, lines deepened around my reflected eyes and mouth, flesh sagged and skin roughened. Seven-Shades-of-Heather hunched, clutching herself about the shoulders, shuddering and shaking, a thin string of drool looping from her slack lips. A thousand-yard stare clouded her unfocused eyes. A version of me, wrecked on the rocks.

“You-” she slurred in my voice, blurred by pain and madness. “Want to end up like this?”

I sighed with exasperation. “I’ve seen worse. I’ve been worse. Is this supposed to distress me? You’re going to have to try harder than that.”

“Yeah!” Lozzie chorused with me. “Stupid! That’s stupid!”

Seven-Shades-as-Me nodded, twitching and flinching. “This is not your way. C-correct.”

My denial changed her again.

Seven-Shades straightened up. The wreckage reformed, older than me but not as old as the silly vision she’d first showed. She lost my habitual protective hunch. She crossed her arms over her chest, lifted her chin with an arch superiority, and her eyes grew somehow cold inside. No smile, not a hint, a closed expression. Nothing like me.

“Well?” she asked in my voice, cynical and distant.

For a moment I assumed I was looking at her, the real Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, the soul inside the mirrored flesh.

But then Lozzie said, “Heather won’t be like that! Stop it!”

“She might, Lauren,” Seven-Shades said, precise and contemptuous, and I shivered. “It’s not impossible. She will go this far, if she wraps herself in frustrated ambition and brutal calculation. If she continues to ignore what she is.”

“That’s … me, ten years from now?” I asked.

It was no more credible than the shaking wreck, but it was so much worse. She made me look how I imagined Evelyn’s mother must have looked. A cold maggoty inhuman thing wrapped in an artificial shell of plastic self-control, the truth showing through behind the eyes like parasitic worms.

“Is this who you wish to become?” she asked me.

I shook my head, going numb. “No. No, never, I- no-”

“Then observe the mirror.”

She changed a third time, into truth and beauty, which is the same thing by two different names.

Flesh of peach-leather and dove-down and void-dark, sleek and smooth and sharp. Muscles like oil and butter, tight and trimmed for grace and speed. Six tentacles, elegant and precise, weaving rainbow-strobe patterns in warm water. Clean sharp spines and a mouth of razor teeth and poison threat in every cell membrane. My eyes, in my euphoric face.

Homo abyssus.

And with a blink it was all gone, and Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight mirrored the real me again.

I felt tears running down my cheeks.

“Woooooo,” went Lozzie. “Goals!”

“That was beautiful,” I breathed, voice shaking.

“It is what I see when I look at you,” Seven-Shades told me.

I shook my head. “That’s … it’s a lie. I don’t feel like that. How … how can I? I … ”

“Look at yourself,” she said, and nodded at my body.

And I knew what she meant. I shook my head.

“Do it!” Lozzie chirped. “I’ll catch you!”

“N-no, I can’t, I’ll have another seizure. Lozzie, that is such a bad idea, I- no, I … ”

“If you look at yourself, Heather,” Seven-Shades said. “If you look down at your own flesh with your true senses, then I will agree to your deal. While you and yours visit my father’s library, I will … distract myself,” she sighed delicately. “If you look.”

“I should … sit down for this,” I said, lips numb. “Lozzie, cradle my head, don’t let me hit myself.”

“Mmhmm! I got it!” she chirped.

I sat down awkwardly, legs shaking. Lozzie got behind me and held me in a hug, my head nestled against her shoulder. For a moment I couldn’t bring myself to move, too numb, scared of what I might see.

Then, I looked down.

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21 thoughts on “nothing more impotent – 11.9

    • Heather about to turn away from the shadows on the wall and climb out of the cave. Actually that was Plato, I had to check, it’s been a long time since philosophy class.

  1. Arghh…seeing yourself on video, hearing your recorded voice, is excruciatingly jarring – Good lord, I really sound like that? Even worse having to confront a imitation of yourself in person, I imagine. I wonder what it would be like if a person with supreme acting skills did study and try to play me, to help me learn about myself, would I appreciate the effort or hate them?

    Or conversely, some might think, Finally, a sensible person to talk to!

    • I suspect the latter reaction might indicate something to worry about! But yes, such an excruciating experience, not only seeing all your own flaws in motion, but being forced to look at them.

    • beware, for when you gaze into the abyss, heater also gazes back at you.

      Lozzie remains the best, going for a midnight swim in the abyss, sure why not.

  2. Very cool chapter.
    If THAT is what Heather looks like to Seven, then no wonder she caught her attention.

    I love the glimpses at possible futures and Heather’s reactions to them. It shows well what Heather is and isn’t willing to sacrifice.

    I’m enjoying Seven’s impersonation, it gives us a fun outside perspective on Heather’s mannerisms.

    • Thank you!

      Seven-as-Heather was a lot of fun to write, indeed, seeing aspects of Heather’s character even I wasn’t fully aware of.

    • Fun fact: I didn’t even notice that I’d referenced that during the first draft, only when I edited this chapter. I noticed, and thought hey, may as well call attention to it.

      • Sevens has written several Undertale AUs and is responsible for some of those incredibly gorgeous animations on eldritch tube. That is my canon now, thanks chief o7

  3. “Your interference mostly results in failures?”

    Seven: *Excuse me*, I think you the term you are looking for is *tragedies*.

    • LMAO

      Exactly! A tragedy can still be written well, though I doubt one would want to be the protagonist of that particular production.

  4. “Just because you cannot climb up the inside of a stairwell by grasping the handrails with tentacles doesn’t make you any less what you already are. Nothing will change that. Not perception, not pain, not dysphoria. The last one, you must find coping methods, of course, but coping is different from being, and in being, you will find peace and power in equal measure.”

    That quote, aside from the tentacles and stairs, at least literally, is incredibly relatable to me with being trans. So thank you very much for that. And just in general, thank you for the wonderful story, some really interesting magic and horror stuff going on, but the characters and all their dynamics are just amazing.

    Going to keep binging now.

    • Thank you for reading it! I’m always delighted to hear from readers enjoying the story, and extra delighted whenever the themes I’m writing about affect somebody positively.

      Yes, the rather obvious themes that crash into the story post arc 7 are completely intentional, and I’ve gotten a lot of people noticing that, which I didn’t expect, but makes me very happy!

  5. Spellcheck-o-clock:
    1. “there was alway somebody with which to discuss the story” -> “always”
    2. “and can manipulate behaviour in the totally uninvolved” -> This wording feels slightly odd to me, but I’m not saying it needs to be changed. I do enjoy odd wording. Actually, scratch that, the more I read it the more normal it seems. I’ll leave this comment in anyway, just for conversation.
    3. “both of your beloved” -> “beloveds”, I think. I haven’t considered using “beloved” as a plural of itself, and google supports changing it, but it feels like the kind of thing that could be a regional usage.

    As for this chapter, I felt big time secondhand embarrassment for the whole group sitting through an incredibly awkward ritual of offerings and pleas into thin air. I do love Sevens, and the ‘rainbow’ name-pun reveal made me laugh hard. I’m not sure whether I would love or hate being able to talk to myself. Of course I want to know what I look and sound like from an outside perspective (Outside, hah), but I think the knowledge would just eat me alive. I’d be too focused on “correcting” my nuances, and I don’t want to bet on that obsession ending in a positive revelation where I put my vanity behind me. I know I’m not that kind of person, but I also know that I can resist the temptation to learn cursed knowledge in the first place.

    • Ooop! Thank you for spotting spelling errors! Some always slip through, no matter how many times I proofread. I really appreciate it!

      I think Heather really struggles with seeing herself reflected like that. She’s very self-critical of her mannerisms and tone when heard from outside.

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